Assumptions can be indistinguishable from facts. A scientist might seek them out, but most of us would not. It would be impossible to sort one’s general knowledge into facts and assumptions, and we treat them as if they were identical. Both are accepted as being correct until proven wrong, used as long as they are useful, then forgotten when their utility is spent.
This is what has happened to early man’s assumptions that gods exist. Gods were taken for granted from at least as early as 5,000 BC. Their behaviours were discussed, subtle differences noted and character variations identified. Each deity became distinct, recognizable, understandable, named and worshiped by a few or by many; some because they created a fear that had to be calmed, others because they were loved. Assumptions had become indistinguishable from beliefs.
This early belief in many gods is still visible in Hindu communities. Colourful images of gods are displayed all over India, beckoning as clearly today as they did thousands of years ago. These deities are venerated and consulted in much the same manner as monotheists behave toward their one god. Some modern Hindus state that the images seen should be considered reminders that the one true god exists in many forms; others do not feel the situation is this simple, preferring to believe in the existence of many deities, each possessing different powers. However, the nature of Hindu belief is not the issue here; the point to note is that most of humankind once believed in the existence of many gods. Our shift to predominantly believe in a single creator is a relatively recent happening.
The belief in several gods (several dozens of gods, in some societies) gave rise to complex theologies, with many stories chronicling the interactions of multifaceted god-personalities to be memorized and taught to the next generation. It would have been fairly obvious to anyone, anytime, that monotheism is a much simpler belief. One supreme god could replace much confusion. Over centuries past there must have been many intelligent visionaries who argued in favour of a single supreme being.
We know a lot about one such idealist—Amaenhotep IV, a family-oriented Pharaoh who was married to a powerful wife (Queen Nefertiti) and who ruled Egypt for seventeen years, 1300 years before Christ was born. Amaenhotep changed his name to Akhenatom in support of monotheism, and ordered all to worship the one sun-god, Atom. This practice didn’t last long however; shortly after his death it was stopped by traditionalist priests who persuaded his successor (the boy-king Tutankhamen) to revert to polytheism.
Judaism was the first religion of modern significance to successfully institutionalize the belief that there is only one god. Christianity and Islam later adopted this concept, and have since conveyed their message to billions. Furthered by numerous persuasive practices (crusades, conquests, missionaries, inquisitions, torture, trials and burnings, to name a few), this lengthy battle for simplification (and influence over the minds of people) affected many over the centuries. Over time it remodelled nations, as they changed their laws to accommodate changes in beliefs.
Today (as noted in Some Major Religions) the majority of the world’s population take for granted the existence of one god. Most prefer not to consider this just an assumption, first conceived to account for any number of seemingly mysterious events, then employed to explain how the universe and life began. The assumption remains in vogue because it is useful; it authenticates the purpose many refer to (see Moral Decisions) when making decisions about how to live their lives.
- See Noss, Man’s Religions
- Or “Pious to Atom” (see Noss, Man’s Religions, 44-45). Also known as Akhenaton and Akenaten (meaning the God Aten—or Light—is satisfied) see Naguib Mahfouz and Najib Mahfuz, Akhenaten: Dweller in Truth, translated by Tagreid Abu-Hassabo, (Doubleday and Company, 2000.)
- China and Japan as recently as the past century, but also Ancient Egypt and several other cultures long ago, further believed that members of the ruling family were Earthly representatives of their God. This, no doubt, added considerably to the family’s stature and power.
- The assumption or belief that a god created the universe does not, of itself, also mean that the universe (or anything within it) exists for a reason, or to meet some purpose.
It is entirely possible to believe that the initiating god lives or lived outside of time, or inhabits a universe completely detached from ours—thoughts not at all foreign to some of our religions, nor to some scientists. Such a creator could have fabricated our universe from either of these positions and long since forgotten that he (read He, She, It, or even a multi-faceted Entity for “he”) had done so. The originating god even may have decided long ago that he had nothing else to do, and ceased being.
Alternatively, he could have been acting whimsically at the time, and be quite unconcerned subsequently about what is happening within his creation. (This is one way to resolve the concern of some regarding how a benevolent god could permit the existence of evil, but an unacceptable explanation to many, particularly those who, for reasons of their own, want a judgmental god.) Or, he may be just sitting back, not interfering, observing how events in this universe play out, prior to deciding how to create an improved one. In other words, once we assume the existence of a god, with absolutely no factual knowledge about such an entity, we can attribute to it any properties we wish. Anything can be claimed to be god’s will (as demonstrated by the innumerable, often incongruous, religious declarations sometimes proclaimed on television or the radio), and any action can be justified (as evidenced through statements made by some religious terrorists following their appalling actions).
The whole idea of a god seem rather pointless when viewed in this manner; furthermore this perspective completely misses the concept’s major value: belief in a god-given purpose allows our minds to make moral decisions, and acting upon these decisions delivers meaning to our lives. Any other belief of equal or greater significance would do as much.