The Trouble with Gods

Ophelia Benson

It could have been a good idea, the invention of gods. It could have been a way of solidifying thoughts about how humans could be better than they are. It’s an impressive and touching thing about us that we realize we’re not good enough. Gods (or God) could have been a helpful or even inspiring way to conceptualize The Better.

But there’s a flaw at the heart of the idea: humans are the ones conceptualizing the gods, so their ideas of what is better are the products of flawed humans, not those of a perfect being. We can’t lift ourselves up by yanking on our own feet.

Humans are competitive, territorial-aggressive, possessive primates who conceive of the good the way other such animals do. Gods can be models for self-improvement, but they can also be models of various brands of thug: monarchs, dictators, tyrants, crime bosses, warlords. They can never be securely free from the potential for thug-dom. One of the perfections of “God” is power: God is omnipotent. Once God is conceptualized that way, it becomes impossible to separate its higher, better, transcendent qualities from its ability to push humans around.

It may be that competitive, aggressive, possessive primates can’t invent gods or a god that don’t become dictators because it’s just not in us to do without hierarchy and the principle of subordination. A cursory glance at our history seems to suggest that. If that’s the case, then a god is a disastrous thing for us to invent because it has supernatural total power with no accountability. Even if we conceive of that god as perfectly good, the good in question is still our all-too-human idea of “good,” and we can’t be trusted with it.

The idea seems aspirational and inspirational, but it also reinforces the idea of a hierarchy or a Great Chain of Being. We would probably have the idea of hierarchy anyway, but a perfect being at the summit gives it a sanctified prestige that shields it from skepticism and rebellion. The hierarchy becomes holy, sacred, divine; egalitarianism becomes blasphemy.

The fact that the perfect being is conceptualized rather than experienced works to entrench this notion because it means that God’s rules can’t be updated and that they are delivered through intermediaries. In one way, the flimsiness of this is obvious, as if a neighborhood bully should tell us, “I have a secret invisible boss who says you have to give me 10 percent of your property.” In that form we would at least recognize what was afoot. But in another way, the flimsiness is just what keeps the racket going. If God were physically there, able to receive delegations and deliver annual sermons in the manner of the pope, it would be possible to petition or just plain revolt. Since God is not there, we can’t petition. We can’t deal with the monarch/dictator directly but only with the dictator’s self-declared representatives, the priests and mullahs and rabbis. The representatives are all that we have ever dealt with, all the way back through history.

Christianity claims that God has appeared, though only for one thirty-three-year sliver of time, twenty centuries ago, which is not noticeably different from being secret/invisible now. The priesthood naturally doesn’t admit this: the pope underlined the “one appearance is a great favor” interpretation in his 2011 Christmas Eve homily:

The reading from Saint Paul’s Letter to Titus that we have just heard begins solemnly with the word “apparuit,” which then comes back again in the reading at the Dawn Mass: apparuit: “there has appeared.” This is a programmatic word, by which the Church seeks to express synthetically the essence of Christmas. Formerly, people had spoken of God and formed human images of him in all sorts of different ways. God himself had spoken in many and various ways to mankind (cf. Heb 1:1 Mass during the Day). But now something new has happened: he has appeared. He has revealed himself. He has emerged from the inaccessible light in which he dwells. He himself has come into our midst. This was the great joy of Christmas for the early Church: God has appeared. No longer is he merely an idea, no longer do we have to form a picture of him on the basis of mere words. He has “appeared.”

God has appeared, according to the pope and his colleagues, but that was then and this is now; now we just have to take the clerics’ word for it that they are speaking for him. To fail to do so is to lack faith, and to lack faith is a crime against this god who isn’t about to appear again. Centuries of repetition have worked to immunize this claim from skepticism, but it is indistinguishable from a fraud set up by a dynasty of tyrants, which makes it impossible to see it as genuinely “good.”

A good (benevolent, loving, helpful) deity simply wouldn’t arrange things this way. A good deity would not consider obedience to an all-powerful absent dictator a virtue—or if it would, if that is what such a deity means by “good,” then it’s better to be bad.

We have to judge the good according to our own terms because we don’t have access to any others. It’s no use saying “God is mysterious and we don’t understand so we must obey the priests and mullahs on faith,” because that simply negates the only faculty we have for evaluating morality, which is our shared cumulative interactive judgment.

It seems to me that “God” has a stark choice. If it wants to be an authoritative or even just a helpful guide, it has to stay in contact—real contact, not pretend contact through other humans who simply say they know what God wants. Or, if it wants to stay hidden, it has to give up the authoritative role. It can’t do both and still claim to be supremely good. An out-of-contact boss god just hands us over to arbitrary human power; it’s the sanctification of human thuggery.

It’s long past time for human beings to recognize that.

Ophelia Benson

Ophelia Benson edits the Butterflies and Wheels website. She was formerly associate editor of Philosopher’s Magazine and has coauthored several books, including The Dictionary of Fashionable Nonsense (Souvenir Press, 2004), Why Truth Matters (Continuum Books, 2006), and Does God Hate Women? (Bloomsbury Academic, 2009).

It could have been a good idea, the invention of gods. It could have been a way of solidifying thoughts about how humans could be better than they are. It’s an impressive and touching thing about us that we realize we’re not good enough. Gods (or God) could have been a helpful or even inspiring …

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