By Charles L. Rulon
Emeritus, Life & Health Sciences
Long Beach City College ([email protected])
Active imaginations; many gods
Over the millennia, humans have created thousands of supernatural belief systems and have worshipped everything from the Egyptian scarab beetle to the Hindu elephant; from the Sun god to gods of the seasons, to mother Earth; from sex gods and goddesses to spirit trees, to scary mythical creatures, to everything being god. In fact, the idea of monotheism, one god, was a relatively recent invention in a very long history.
A Few Supreme Gods
Akditi: Mother of gods, India
Aten: God of the Sun – Egypt
Brahma: Creator and Absolute –India
Coyote: God of creation – Crow Indian
Gamab: Supreme god – Africa
Inti: Supreme god – Inca
Jar-Sub: God of universe – Turkey
Kumani: Virgin goddess – India
Marduk: Supreme god – Babylon
I’m sometimes asked, aren’t all these different gods really just aspects of the one true God? But then why have all these different gods (speaking through their prophets, gurus, shamans, ayatollahs, mullahs, clerics, swamis, channelers, priests, ministers, rabbis, holy books, etc.) told their followers quite different things regarding birth control—abortion—gay rights—souls —women’s rights —slavery —reincarnation —hell —human sacrifice —prophecies—purgatory —limbo—idolatry —heaven —omens —devils—demons —angels —voodoo —ghosts —salvation —witches—incubi—dancing—virgin births —exorcisms —incarnations —petting —drinking —smoking —judgment day —the origin of evil —whom to kill —faith healings —and just about everything else?
The origin of monotheism
Around 3,300 years ago Amenhotop IV, the pharaoh of Egypt, chose Aton, a little known Sun god, as the one and only god of Egypt, thus introducing the idea of monotheism. After Amenhotop died, the Egyptians went back to worshiping several gods. However, the worship of one divinity lingered among the Hebrews in Egypt. Some scholars believe that this is why the one god concept became an important part of the Hebrew religion. The Hebrews were also influenced by the Greeks who, unlike the Egyptians, made their gods in their own image.
Religious beliefs persist in spite of scientific advances
By the late 19th century it was believed by some leading intellectuals that with increased education and improved standards of health and economic well being, our classical religious orthodoxies would be replaced by a humanistic civilization based on compassion, reason and science. Yet, even though the scientific revolution has invaded our lives at almost every level and has discredited many sacred dogmas and religious myths, religions still flourished. Religious loyalties still persist.
Why should we be surprised? After all, humans still fear pain and loneliness. Most still find it hard to accept death as a finality. We still look for some ultimate divine purpose to our lives; we want all our suffering to have some higher meaning. We also marvel at how this universe and life came into being. And, of course, many of us want to believe what we really want to be true. Logic and scientific evidence are seldom enough to dislodge personal beliefs and prejudices, particularly if these beliefs offer great comfort and even joy. Our mind’s capacity for self-delusion is enormous!
Many of religions have accepted the findings of science up to a point. Others have totally rejected all findings that go against their specific sacred teachings. Still others have distorted science to support every conceivable pseudoscientific and paranormal belief. Many have been taught that to hold onto beliefs that have been disproved by science represents the highest of virtues, one to be rewarded by God on the final judgment day. Examples include a literal belief in biblical creation stories, Noah’s ark, the Resurrection and other religious miracles.
Yet science has so often proved to be superior to gut feelings that when our intuitive experiences contradict scientific evidence, we would do well to look closely at our own reasoning to see if, once again, we’ve been deceived.
So today we live in a world that, in spite of scientific appearances, is still very religious—a world ranging from countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia where Islam remains the dominant social force, to South America which is predominantly Catholic, to the industrialized West where religion has become fragmented and diversified.
One estimate is that there are currently over 7000 different religious sects worldwide. The history of Christianity, alone, is a history of doctrinal schisms and fragmentation, resulting today by one count in 23,000 separate and distinct Christian denominations around the world. In fact, just the conservative Christian movement in the U.S. has been described as a quarrelsome conglomeration of fundamentalist and evangelical groups whose differences are every bit as great as those setting apart Catholics and Methodists.
In very recent history, the United States also has seen the appearance of Mormonism, Christian Science, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists and the Church of Religious Science, to name just a few. We now have more than 1,500 different religious bodies and sects, including 300 different Christian denominations, a number of deeply divided Jewish traditions and a growing but divided Muslim constituency.
We have hundreds of various faith expressions, including millions of Buddhists, a million Hindus and hundreds of thousands each of Sikhs, Zoroastrians, Bahai, Jains, Confucians, Pagans and Shintoists. We have over 360,000 churches, mosques and synagogues. We have 10,000 Bible clubs on public school campuses across our country. Everywhere we find evidence testifying to the continual persuasiveness of faith and dogma in our so-called rational and scientific society.
Furthermore, the chances are that our children will come to believe that their parents’ religion is the true one. In one study of university students, over 95% who said they were Catholic were raised in Catholicism. The same was true for Jews and Protestants.
Most of us are raised atheists when it comes to someone else’s religion. Christians reject the Hindu gods, Hindus don’t worship Allah. Those born in Israel or in Saudi Arabia would likely be raised Jewish or Muslim. Either way they would not believe in the resurrection of Jesus or in his divinity.
Christian believer: But isn’t God telling us that Christianity, by its awesome transformation power, is His one true religion?
A. It’s true that the personal experience of “knowing Jesus” is very powerful for untold millions. But as many, if not more believers in the Koran (the sacred text of Islam) have also experience religious transformation. Yet Islam holds Muhammad to be the one true prophet and doesn’t recognize Jesus as the Son of God. So who’s right and who’s being deceived?
The thousands of quite different religions throughout the world and throughout history proves to the skeptic that equally sincere people who are “transformed” are not all seeing or hearing the same thing. Catholics see visions of the Virgin Mary and are transformed. Protestants, on the other hand, see Jesus but rarely the Virgin Mary because the worship of Mary is often denigrated. Or the Indian brave, after days of cold and hunger in the forest, finally sees the expected vision of a bear or eagle and is “transformed.” Our minds really want to believe.
The power of the human mind to be deceived is absolutely enormous. Our evolved brain easily hallucinates (hears voices, sees visions, has out-of-body experiences, and feels possessed). This can happen through starvation, extreme solitude, drugs, fear, epilepsy, migraines, pain and oxygen depravation. Yet we are rarely educated in such areas as the psychology of self-deception.
“Man prefers to believe what he prefers to be true.”