Friday, August 22, 2008

Playing Two-God Monte with Christian Apologists

There can be no doubt that the Christian God has anthropomorphic qualities. The Old Testament Jehovah was more of a human caricature in that he seemed less than omnipotent, prone to anger and revenge, an advocate of tribalism, and too much like some kind of ancient patriarchal potentate. The New Testament version had a much softer image, but he still behaves largely like a person. He has emotions, thoughts, and goals. He loves humans and orders them to behave in ways that benefit human relations. He takes an interest in sexual behavior, just as any human would, and he is moved by praise from humans and pity for their plight.

Christians have a problem with charges of anthropomorphism, because it makes their god look more like the cartoonish creation that some would argue characterized the pagan gods of ancient mythologies. Those gods were too obviously made up out of whole cloth by primitive people who needed to explain natural forces in terms of human-like agencies. We no longer tend to think of natural forces as the result of imaginary beings that we can influence with gifts of wealth and devotion. So God has been cleansed of many of the old anthropomorphic traits. A modern Christian might use a male pronoun for God, but most seem to reject the idea that he is anything like a male in the conventional sense. In more recent times, a picture of God has emerged in liberal theology that is more of an essence--a Ground of Being--than a person. So allegations of anthropomorphism by skeptics are quite often countered by descriptions of God's essential ineffability--his immanence in and transcendence of our physical reality. A kind of First Cause that is beyond our comprehension or understanding.

The stripping from God of all anthropomorphic traits leaves us with a God that cannot really be argued against. It is hard to argue with the abstraction of an essence that is alleged to permeate everything and whose behavior and motives are beyond our understanding. Do you believe in the existence of things that are beyond your awareness? I don't know. There are certainly things that I will never be aware of, but what could a "thing" be that is beyond comprehension? This is the Shield--the belief that cannot be denied.

But do any of the believers stop praying because God's motives are unfathomable? Do they abandon religious morality because God maybe didn't literally appear as a burning bush and hand some stone tablets to Moses? Not usually. They still attend church and sing along with the choir. They still pray for forgiveness and praise the Lord as if God were subject to human feelings. You can't love an abstraction, and religion isn't much use if it has nothing to offer. So God switches right back to the anthropomorphic entity that serves the needs of those who worship him. You don't worship a First Cause. You worship a being that can be influenced by worship.

This oscillation between anthropomorphic and non-anthropomorphic deities is something that I have experienced many times in my lifetime of debating with Christians and others of faith over the nature of religious belief. It is a pretty good defense mechanism for a largely untenable belief. The God-as-essence version is the shield that defends the more vulnerable God-as-person version. The former wraps around the latter when it comes under attack, but the latter emerges to serve the believer's real needs when the former has warded off the attackers.

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