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Association of Polytheist Traditions

When is a God not a God?

Copyright © by A. Æ. Hunt-Anschütz 2004

In these days of multiculturalism, when academics and politicians alike make every effort to be 'inclusive' of a variety of beliefs and traditions, I'm sometimes amazed at the religious prejudices that linger on. The modern Western worldview is so centred on the monotheistic Christian concept of 'God' that the understanding of deities which was widespread in ancient Europe is either ignored or forgotten by people whom one would assume have the educational background to know better.

The latest reminder of this prejudice I've come across is an on-line 'game' called Do-It-Yourself Deity found at The Philosophers Magazine on the Internet. The test purports to be 'an attempt to resolve any disagreement surrounding the meaning of the word "God"'. It provides a list of possible attributes of 'God' and invites the reader to select those attributes they believe God must have. The activity is designed to test whether the reader's conception of God is consistent with itself and consistent with the universe we live in. The attributes one can choose from are: Omnipotent, Omnibenevolent, Omniscient, The Creator, The Sustainer, Perfectly Free, Eternally Existing, and A Personal God.

I am a Germanic reconstructionist pagan (or heathen for short). I have a personal relationship with many of the heathen gods which were honoured by the Germanic peoples (Scandinavians, Germans, Dutch, Anglo-Saxons, etc.) up until about a thousand years ago. Some of these gods are widely known from Norse mythology, including Odin, Thor, Frey, Freya, Frigg and Loki. The only one of the attributes listed on the 'Do-It-Yourself Deity' website that applies to any heathen god is 'A Personal God', further defined on the website as 'a being with whom one can have a personal relationship'.

Germanic gods make no claim to be omnipotent, omnibenevolent, or omniscient. None claims to have created the universe or the earth (though in the mythology they help to transform pre-existing entities). None claims to sustain the universe. In fact, according to the Ragnarok prophecy in the Eddic poem Voluspa, many of the gods will cease to exist, but a new cycle of life will begin. The Germanic gods are not perfectly free. Their actions and their power to affect the outcomes of the actions of others are constrained by wyrd, 'what is', the force that connects everything in the universe throughout space and time. Germanic gods are not eternal or immortal. The myth of Baldr being killed by a sprig of mistletoe is the most well known example of the death of a Norse god, but he's not the only one who dies in the mythology and, according to prophecy, many will die at Ragnarok.

Heathen gods do have personal relationships with humans, however. There are several examples in the Icelandic Sagas of gods interfering directly in the lives of humans, for better or worse. Germanic pagan religion, like other pre-Christian European religions was centred on forming and maintaining mutually beneficial relationships with gods, spirits, and ancestors. Humans would make sacrifices to gods in exchange for favours the gods would provide. Gods were seen as more powerful and more knowledgeable than humans, but not as omnipotent or omniscient. They were metaphorically equated with human kings who were expected to protect and provide for their subjects in exchange for services rendered. Hence the title 'lord' which the Anglo-Saxons applied to the new Christ god and which remains in common usage.

From the list of attributes of 'God' on the 'Do-It-Yourself Deity' test, I checked only one: 'A Personal God'. And then clicked on 'submit'. Here is the response I received:

'The metaphysical engineers are happy to report that, to the best of their knowledge, the God you conceive is internally consistent and could exist in our universe. But they are less sure that what you have described deserves the name of God. She is not, for example, all-powerful. A God which knows everything or is totally benign may be a wonderful ideal, but is she really a God unless she has ultimate power?'

When the attribute 'Omnipotent' is selected from the list, the test responds by pointing out that 'no being can ever do what is logically impossible. It is not just beyond the wit of humanity to make 2 + 2 = 5, such a thing is a contradiction in terms.' So, on one hand, no being could possibly be omnipotent and on the other hand, a being cannot be a god unless he or she is omnipotent. Thus the existence of a god is ruled out by definition.

Whence the assumption that a god must have 'ultimate power'? The word 'god' itself is of Germanic origin and originally referred to any being who was worshipped. It was applied to Yahweh/Christ by Christian missionaries, and, as Christians believe there is only one god, it became used as a proper name for that god. But the word 'god' continues to be used in English to describe pagan deities with limited power as well. It is also currently employed by Western anthropologists and other social scientists to describe non-omnipotent beings worshipped in tribal cultures throughout the world.

One of the main purposes of the 'Do-It-Yourself Deity' test seems to be educating naive Christians about that old philosophical football 'the problem of suffering'. A god who is omnipotent and omniscient could prevent all suffering, and a god who is omnibenevolent would prevent all suffering, so if such a god exists, why is there so much suffering in the world? This problem never existed before Christianity created it by attributing these mutually exclusive characteristics to a being who was originally a vengeful, jealous tribal war god with no hint of benevolence about him. The irony is that although the 'Do-It-Yourself Deity' test points out the implausibility of the Christian conception of God, it bases its very definition of 'a God' on the Christian 'God Almighty'.

As the test responses make clear, the mainstream Christian conception of God is not consistent with itself or with the universe we live in. Thus a logical person would have to conclude that such a god cannot exist. However, many people, having got so far with logic, go on to commit the inductive fallacy of generalising from a sample of one that no god exists. The monotheistic Christian concept of 'God' has become so entrenched in Western culture that, confronted with the inherent inconsistencies of His attributes, otherwise intelligent and sceptical people will turn to atheism rather than explore alternative concepts of deity.

Modern polytheists, like their ancient pagan ancestors, acknowledge gods who are far from perfect. From a practical human perspective, all that matters is that a god has the wisdom and power to help solve our problems and the willingness to do so in exchange for prayers, rituals or offerings. And not every god need be equally good at solving every problem, or equally willing to help every human. Every pagan culture in ancient Europe recognised a wide variety of gods with different specialisations. There is no reason a god needs to be Eternal, All-Powerful, All-Knowing and All-loving in order to be worthy of worship. And there is no reason a being needs to have ultimate power to be considered a god - unless of course 'ultimate power' is inherent in one's definition of the word.