Over the past several years, the news stories and the statistics about thousands upon thousands of people being murdered in the name of this or that religion have proliferated. Yet, among the many things I’ve never quite grasped about various gods, or the various manifestations of the supreme being, if you prefer that terminology, is how such deities can be omnipotent, while at the same time so powerless that human beings have to conduct all the massacres of non-believers, former believers, “infidels” who mock the deity, or not-quite-fully-brain-washed believers who question some aspect of the faith or the deity, or others that the priesthoods, clerics, mullahs, and ayatollahs declare necessary to be disposed of to glorify the deity or to remove those who would question the deity’s existence or purpose, a purpose far beyond our mere mortal minds?

I mean, if a deity is supreme, why doesn’t the deity do its own dirty work?

Or are the endless killings and massacres necessary to prove true belief? But, if the deity is omnipotent, then the deity already knows who has the true belief and who doesn’t. So are all the killings and massacres to prove the power of the faith to other humans and confirm the power of the priests, mullahs, ayatollahs, and other humans who have either anointed themselves as keepers of the faith or been anointed by other human keepers of the faith? Again, an omnipotent deity could accomplish the same thing with a clear, scientifically observed great miracle of some sort, thereby confounding the scientists and rationalists, and also saving millions of lives and clearly demonstrating truly awesome power.

Funny thing, though. It hasn’t happened.

All of which suggests a possible absence of an omnipotent deity who cares in the slightest about human beings. That being so, what is the point of the “faithful” slaughtering unbelievers and heretics – except to bolster the temporal [not spiritual] power of those who lead the faithful? By definition, temporal power has no impact on the various kingdoms beyond those on our poor battered Earth. Yet the most prevalent faiths that postulate the existence of as deity seem in their postulates to be less than enthusiastic about the amassing of power and material goods, even as their believers and leaders in effect do just that.

So… are those human servants of the divine misinterpreting the rules? Or are they just being hypocritical? Well… why hasn’t, over the scores of centuries, the deity set them straight?

That hasn’t happened, either.

One doctrine, close to the faith in which I was raised, raises the spectre that the deity gave humans free will so that they could choose good or evil – good meaning following the deity and the deity’s ensuing commandments, revealed but to a select few, among which is the commandment not to kill.

Given how many millions have died in conflicts over faith, might not a compassionate deity want to set the record straight? Or does all that carnage in the name of the supreme somehow please a deity? If so, what does that say about the deity? If not, why do so many think it does?

Or does it suggest that the concept of a personally-involved deity of compassion and justice might just have a flaw or two?

13 thoughts on “Deities”

  1. Wine Guy says:

    Using logic (especially in the Socratic Method) will not shake a person who actually has faith. Faith is strongly tied to prayer and hope (or, Hope, if you prefer).

    “PRAY, v. To ask that the laws of the universe be annulled in behalf of a single petitioner confessedly unworthy.” – Ambrose Bierce

    or, perhaps more pointedly (and from a couple thousand years ago, to show that the lack of belief in any god is not a new concept despite what fundamentalists think):

    “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.
    Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.
    Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?
    Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?”

    Personally, I’m perfectly willing to believe in a god. Just not that it is involved in life on earth, cares about anything humans in particular do, or is anything less than capricious when it decides to intervene in some way.

    Atheist? Agnostic? Neither. Try Apathetic.

  2. wayne kernochan says:

    I really didn’t want to get into this but mathematics does have some things to say about this — not an answer to your question, but an indication of some limits on an “omnipotent and omniscient” being.

    First off, omnipotent means “can change anything about the universe” and “omniscient means “knows everything important that happens now.” However, if the deity makes two changes that contradict each other in one reality, the universe forks in two (which leads to everyone having their own private universe). So a deity who created one universe for a purpose would not do such a thing. Likewise, omniscient does not mean “can predict all outcomes into the indefinite future” — that is exponentially harder, the futher out one goes. So “omniscient deity” does not necessarily mean fully knowledgeable about the future — hence the notion of “free will” is not needed in these cases, as the deity has chosen a universe where men and other consciousnesses make choices without God’s approval or disapproval. The math behind this requires a whole chapter.

    Other mathematical limits exist as well. As long as the deity does not split universes, Arrow’s Theorem as I understand it applies. This theorem originally states that if several people rank their choices of political candidates (if this guy doesn’t win, I want this woman)voting cannot achieve a fair representation of most of the electorate’s desires. By the same token, if it is good that 6 people are the sole winner of a lottery, the deity can’t do it because only 1 can win.

    If one accepts that the deity cannot predict all of the future, another sort of limit applies. If the deity created the universe for a purpose, part of that purpose is likely to be learning things that the deity itself did not know — as in Stanislaw Lem’s story. In that case, intervening too much in the world contaminates the experiment: consciousnesses grow too dependent on the deity intervening, and do not take action on their own hook. So such a deity would be careful to intervene visibly only when it seems clear that a consciousness is headed up a “blind alley” that shuts off further ideas. It is reasonable to say that general “immoral” or self-deluded behavior based on one’s sole self-interest threatens both the survival of a consciousness and its ability to create new things that the deity has not thought of and that help the deity. This is the argument, I think, of Lew Wallace’s Ben-Hur.

    Finally, three other points. First, These limits do not begin to address the huge number of occasions where it seems as if the deity could intervene invisibly to lessen pain or early death and does not do so. Second, I have heard no convincing argument where an omniscient deity wants and needs praise. We are not the deity’s children in any sense of growing up to deity status — we haven’t the memory capacity for omniscience, even aided by computers (again, there’s math behind this). So our praise is effectively not important to the deity; our actions and thoughts may very well be (see above). Third, there are two marvelously funny prayers in Zelazny’s Creatures of Light and Darkness that I recommend to all.

  3. Ryan Jackson says:

    Your post kind of cements why I’ve always labled myself an agnostic pagan. Most of my personal faith and beliefs tend towards Cymru druidic type stances. But I’ve never once felt any of the Cymru deities are actual gods. I’ve always seen them as most likely near legendary or brilliant people that left such an impact that they’re used as a face on an ideal they’ve come to represent.

    Similar to how many characters in Recluce are seen. According to faith and legend Nylan was a mythical angel who could bend lightning and fire to create unstoppable weapons, etc, etc, etc. But we know from books at the time that Nylan was a human with magely abilities and a deep understanding of the science that underlies the world. So to do I see deities.

    When it comes to a creator figure or “True” god, I’m much more of a “Such a thing would be so far beyond our current comprehension that worrying about it is pointless.”

  4. Daze says:

    Though not a believer myself, I have a vivid memory of attending a Hiroshima Day memorial service in Sydney that was opened by a (female) Uniting Church priest saying: “my God loves you whether you believe in him or not”. Respect.

  5. Kristina says:

    You bring up some very interesting questions. And you point to one possible answer, which is free will. I believe that free will answers a lot of your questions. To your question about all the massacres and deaths done in the name of religion, I do not believe that God was behind those, either. To understand why God does not instantly intervene and stop bad things from happening requires an understanding of the purpose of life. Why are we here?

    I believe we are here to grow. Without difficult experiences to overcome, there is no growth. We are not left without guidance and comfort through the challenges of life, however. If God sent us on earth to learn and grow, He must have prepared a way for us to learn how to grow the way He wants us to grow. That is where religion enters the picture. There are many religions and many different ideas of how God wants us to be, but we are not left alone to navigate those confusing waters. We at our basic and most decent share many beliefs, such as no murder, no stealing etc. I believe we receive whispers of guidance from above. So we do our best to follow that light. And in the end we are each responsible for how we live our life.

  6. Tony says:

    I took your post as a rhetorical jest meant as catnip for the rational. Nevertheless, as many others have noted, a person arguing from a rational, scientific worldview will never convince someone relying on a pre-modern, mythological belief system that their supreme being is not real or not good or not all-powerful or not all-knowing. Furthermore, each of the great religious traditions (Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism) contains a violent, immoral core which most contemporary believers side-step. For example, in Christianity, its Bible describes atrocity after atrocity committed at its benevolent and merciful deity’s decree or by that deity’s own hand. This deity supposedly murdered virtually every living thing on earth in a vast flood (Genesis 6:11-13 &17, 7:11-13 &19-24), then ordered its followers to commit genocide against enemy tribes and rape pre-pubescent girls (Numbers 31:17-18), and later sent bears to eat forty-two children for making fun of a prophet’s bald-head (2 Kings 2:23-24), and has promised that it will eventually murder every living thing on earth in a vast fire (2 Peter 3:10) [presumably, because it wasn’t able to get the job done, either directly by its own hand or indirectly through surrogates, on numerous prior occasions]. As Carl Sagan wrote in the Demon-Haunted World, “The fact is that far more crime and child abuse has been committed by zealots in the name of God, Jesus and Mohammed than has ever been committed in the name of Satan. Many people don’t like that statement, but few can argue with it.”

    1. Joe says:

      What’s the immoral core of Buddhism?

  7. Joe says:

    The history of Christian Europe should clear things up: in each country, the priests invoked holy war fighting another Christian nation. Unless God is seriously schizophrenic (and thus unlikely to be omnipotent), it’s unlikely that they represented Him. However it’s quite likely that they valued their own skins and were representing their own interests. By Ockham’s razor…

    And the same goes for “All of which suggests a possible absence of an omnipotent deity”. Without evidence, the only rational probability to assign to each of the infinite number of possibilities is 1 divided by infinity, which is zero. Not possible absence, but highly unlikely presence.

    There is however a valid basis for religion: the recognition that it is amazing and incredibly improbable that we live on a planet teaming with life… (so much so that we think nothing of destroying it). Although evolution is the most likely mechanism, it is still a wonder. I wish more fellow scientists would state this, but I suppose they fear to bolster creationists, even if only rhetorically not rationally.

  8. christoph says:

    Thank you Mr. Modesitt, and for the previous one. I enjoy reading your blog regularly, often both agreeing and disagreeing with your various well thought out opinions, but not surprisingly you rarely touch on subjects in which I ham truly fluent. As a self-styled “applied metaphysician” practicing in lineages of Vajrayana Buddhism (Buddhatantra), this has been right in my wheel house.

    As a prelude, I should mention that I am existentially agnostic. Practically speaking, this means I attempt to avoid falling into any of four “extreme beliefs”: phenomena exist, phenomena do not exist, phenomena both exist and do not exist, and phenomena neither exist nor do not exist. More on that later. At this point it is sufficient to note this means the following constructs are meant to be as accurately reflecting the human experience of appearance, rather than any supposed existential truths.

    I would like to start with the troubling lack of distinction I see in our culture between “God” and gods/goddesses. From my perspective, “God” is both a practical and theoretical impossibility, whereas gods and goddesses are apparent non-material beings who are most often stupid and violent, and are wont (through either outright malevolence or basic ignorance) to deceive and use humans in a variety of ways that end destructively for our species. These immaterial beings are not eternal, omnipotent, or any of the other things so many of them claim to be.

    From my perspective as an “applied metaphysician” (the following is not drawn from Buddhist sources), what we are confronted with as humans is two basic forms of perception: material perception and mental (or metaphysical, spiritual, etc.) perception. In comparison to the former, mental perception is problematic because the appearance of non-material phenomena is greatly effected by the views and/or beliefs of the individual who has an experience of such. Aside from removing mental phenomena from the realm of scientific investigation, this property facilitates both delusional perception and difficulty in communicating relevant aspects of such experiences.

    It is my opinion this is why Buddha advocated freedom from the four extreme beliefs listed above: without consciously adopting a point of view even more skeptical than that of science, metaphysical experience will inherently be of a delusional nature.

    And Tony, leaving aside the more recent misuses, I would challenge you to point to an actual violent “core” to Buddhism. Feel free to draw on the Tipitaka, the Jataka tales, or anything else from the first five centuries after the life of the historic Buddha around 500 B.C.E. Keep in mind the violence of Ashoka occurred before his conversion.

    1. D Archerd says:

      Re: Malevolent core of Buddhism. I’ll be the first to admit that my understanding of the Buddhist faith is pathetically limited, but if there is an underlying flaw I would say it is in self-centeredness and indifference, a possibly too-ready acceptance of evil in the world, leading to a focus on individual salvation through quelling of desire and a focus away from attempts to improve the world we actually live in. This is not to say that there are not Buddhists who devote their lives to charitable work, only that such work is not a major part of the religion such as it is in at least some branches of Islam or Christianity, for example.

      And of course, there are a few countries in the world where Buddhist monks have taken active roles in political causes, not all of them laudable (think of the ethnic persecution of minorities led by Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka or Myanmar).

      1. Joe says:

        From the Tibetan Buddhist perspective there are 2 main ways to approach Buddhism.

        The Hinayana teaches self-liberation: how one can stop one’s own suffering. It does so by observing and analyzing mental processes to such an extent that one stops believing in one’s own existence as an independent entity. One no longer believes one’s instinctual assumptions. However one still sees others as existing to some extent. This form of Buddhism appears quite self-centered and indifferent although it does have the benefit of not causing crusades or Jihad.

        The Mahayana refines this understanding further so one stops seeing others as solidly existing beings, and the world as as independent of oneself. Things still appear, but one’s conceptual framework about them becomes less black and white. This allows one to relate better to others without one’s own mental framework getting in the way, and can allow one to help others in profound ways. The basis of Mahayana methods is compassion. However because changing one’s perceptions and world-view is hard work, and is time consuming. That may be why charitable work may seem less emphasized among Buddhists. Another issue is that proselytizing is forbidden, which may be a secondary motivation behind Christian and Muslim charitable works.

        The Vajrayana which Christoph was referencing is a form of Mahayana that uses different methods to attain the same result.

        Since so much commitment is needed to follow the Buddhist path, many people born in Buddhist communities are Buddhist in the sense that they believe some of the stories, and perform some of the rituals, which they hope will result in a better rebirth, but do not work to transcend their belief in an ego… somewhat like run of the mill Christians who can be convinced to kill some enemy for God and Country, even though Jesus’ message was ultimately simply to be kind.

  9. christoph says:

    Thank you for your well thought out response, D. While the more serious among us do not consider Buddhism a faith, but a systematic methodology of practices, it certainly can be used as such and it is a great source of comfort to me that there is a fundamentally non-theistic path open to those who feel the need for faith and worship. I will try to be as brief as possible.

    First on the politics. I agree that it is very unfortunate whenever monks get involved in politics, as it runs entirely contrary to the historic Buddha’s teachings. Needless to say, this does not always make me popular in some of the circles that surround my teachers from the Himalayan regions. Re Sri Lanka, a difficult situation from any standpoint. Given that Tamil and Muslim peoples living on the island are a more recent development, and that Buddhists are more likely to practice responsible procreation, it is hard for me to see how to deal with the situation without violating the core of Buddhism. That said, I find it very refreshing that the people of Sri Lanka kicked their “war hero” president out and are embracing a path to reconciliation, now that rebel forces have been soundly defeated. Thankfully, none of the politicians in that case have been actual monks. Re the Rohingya, I would be careful about assuming too much in that situation. Our evidence for supposed atrocities is the eye witness accounts of the victims, and given that lying to non-Muslims is a full on sacrament in Islam I tend to take such with a grain of salt. Admittedly, more than 1,000 years of brutal destruction of Buddhist societies at the hands of Islamic invaders has colored my judgement here, but I cannot help but notice the complete lack of mainstream media coverage of recent Indian military forays into western Myanmar to deal with Islamic militants who have been using the area as a base from which to attack Indian soil.

    On the charity end of things, I agree that Buddhism could do more, but the aftermath of the recent earthquake in Nepal has been a shining example of how this sort of thing is already growing. I would like to point out that from the outset, the compassionate gift of Buddhism to humans in general has been the teachings themselves. When Brahmans accused Buddha of teaching self-centeredness in comparison to their sacrifical rites (a strange accusation given his teachings are the only I know of that fully deny the existence of separate selves, and that he was advocating the discontinuation of killing as spiritual practice), he replied that spreading the teachings that allow others to attain the same results is the most compassionate approach possible.

    I realize that a lot of this seems merely philosophical, but I can assure you that it is highly practical. Regardless of what material steps we take, we cannot free beings from suffering illness, old age, and death. Buddha reacted to this fact in a twofold manner: by pointing out that since all suffer all deserve compassion, and by laying out a progressive path of mental refinement that is supposed to lead to the end of experiencing even those three unfortunate realities as suffering. The latter may seem difficult to believe, but Buddha advocated testing his teachings in meditation rather than believing blindly in them, so it is more an individual matter of deciding (or not) to put the teachings to the test than any matter of faith.

    I will add that history seems to back up the notion of larger results growing out of the presence of many individuals practicing the often solitary techniques of Buddhist mental development. One of the first things that attracted me to the teachings, from a ridiculously skeptical point of view, was research in which I could not find a stretch of peaceful, multicultural coexistence anywhere in human history that comes close matching the conditions at the height of Buddhist activity in South and Central Asia (until around the 8th century of the Common Era, for some reason). While I have no proof, I cannot help but think that access to a non-theistic approach to human spiritual development had more than a little to do with relative stability and wealth of the era.

  10. David says:

    You are exactly correct. The ‘concept has a flaw or two’. Mankind, for the most part, creates god in his or her own image. The concept of God, or of aspects such as omnipotence, are much, much larger and more powerful than most people understand. So people limit their god. We are limited creatures, our intelligence is limited. We cannot completely understand an omnipotent being completely.
    Expecting science to discover proof of God is unreasonable, because most scientists are dedicated to proving the opposite, and reject evidence to the contrary.
    Finally, due to our mortality, we assume that all problems must be solved by God in this realm, in this universe, and in this timeline. What if the story continues after death and this is only ‘Primary School?’

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