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About God

Part 2: How concepts of God have developed:
Fertililty religions, monotheism,
polytheism, etc.

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See also an earlier essay about concepts of God,
involving human origins and problems and Animism.

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Fertility religions:

When hunting and gathering was replaced by agriculture and the raising of domesticated animals, a major change occurred in religious life. Fertility of the crops, domesticated animals, and the tribe itself became of paramount importance. Fertility was seen as clearly feminine in nature, since only female humans and other animals can produce offspring. The group's religion tended to be centered on a matriarchal Goddess, who was referred to as the Earth Mother, Great Goddess or Great Mother.

In Europe, archaeologists have found remains of an "old European" culture. Although the interpretation of archaeological evidence is controversial, many scientists believe that the society worshipped a female fertility goddess, sometimes with a male consort. This culture lasted for tens of thousands of years. The groups generally lived in peace; they had few defensive fortifications. Males and females were treated equally, at least during burial rituals.

Neopagans form the fifth or sixth largest religious group in the U.S. They base their beliefs and practices partly on ancient Pagan concepts. Wiccans, for example, have derived their deities, seasonal days of celebration, and some theological beliefs from the ancient Celtic people. They follow many aspects of early fertility religions.

It is important to realize that no consensus exists about the origin of fertility religions:

bullet Some Wiccans believe that their beliefs were passed down from the Celts to themselves in a continuous line for over two millennia. Others believe that Wicca is a recent development, initially created in the 1940's from a variety of sources.

bullet Most people disagree. They are quite confident that the beliefs of fertility religions were invented by humans in response to a societal need: the guarantee of high fertility rates among their crops, animals and tribal members. They conclude that the fertility Goddess did not create humans. Rather, humans created the concept of the fertility goddess;

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Monotheism, polytheism, henotheism and other assorted "isms":

  • Monotheism: Belief in the existence, and worship, of only a single god within the entire universe.
  • Polytheism: Belief in the existence, and worship, of multiple gods, generally with specific activities of interest, such as weather and war.
  • Henotheism: Belief in the existence of multiple gods, in which one is regarded as superior to all of the others.

A few thousand years BCE, Indo-Europeans invaded Europe from the east. They brought with them some of the "refinements" of modern civilization: the horse, war, belief in male Gods, exploitation of nature, knowledge of the male role in procreation, etc. Goddess worship was gradually combined with worship of male Gods. The rain was seen as a male entity, falling on and fertilizing Mother Earth. The sun was also viewed as a source of male energy, encouraging the crops to grow. The moon, with its soft, gentle light, was seen to be feminine.

A variety of Pagan polytheistic religions featuring Gods and Goddesses developed among the Greeks, Romans, Celts, etc. In some areas, belief in monotheism -- a single male deity -- emerged. Initially, this God was viewed as ruling over a single geographical area. When a person migrated from one country to another, they were expected to switch their allegiance to the new country's local tribal God. We see this in the biblical book of Ruth (1:16):

"And Ruth said...whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God." (KJV).

In time, God's area of control would expand beyond tribal borders; belief in a universal monotheism began. "The theistic god in these various traditions was:

bulletAlways other, always external to the self who was defining the God-figure,

bulletAlways supernatural, and,

bulletAt least in the West, usually personal in the sense that individuals could know and communicate with this deity.

Bishop Spong comments:

"The theistic God was also presumed to be the explanation for that which was beyond rational understanding, a being capable of miraculous power who therefore needed to be supplicated, praised, obeyed and pleased." 1

The major religions which have survived to the present day are mostly monotheistic or henotheistic. They include (in alphabetic order):

bulletBaha'i Faith: This religion teaches that there is only one transcendent and unknowable God who is the source of all creation. He has sent ten Great Manifestations of God -- inspired prophets -- to humanity: Adam, Abraham, Moses, Krishna, Zoroaster, Buddha, Jesus Christ, Mohammed, The Bab and Baha'u'llah.

bullet Christianity: Most Christians, at least since the late fourth century CE, generally recognize God as composed of a Trinity, which is in turn composed of a Father (Jehovah), Son (Jesus Christ) and Holy Spirit. The Trinity includes three personalities within a single deity. Christians generally refer to ther beliefs as monotheistic; Muslims generally refer to the Trinity as polytheistic.

bullet Hinduism: Hinduism is composed of many religious traditions. Many recognize a single supreme God: Brahma who is simultaneously visualized as a triad: Brahma the Creator, Vishnu (Krishna) the Preserver and Siva the destroyer. Most traditions in Hinduism are henotheistic; they recognize other gods and goddesses in addition to the one supreme God.

bullet Islam: Muslims recognize Allah as the only indivisible deity, and Muhammad as his prophet. The Shahadah, which is recited at least daily by most Muslims reflects this: "There is no God but God and Muhammad is his Prophet").

bulletJudaism: Jews recognize Jehovah as the sole deity, who has selected them to be his chosen people.

bulletSikhism: Sikhs believe in a single, formless God, with many names, who can be known through meditation.
 
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It is important to realize that no consensus exists about the origins or present validity of these religions. Followers of these faith traditions generally  consider their own faith very differently from all the rest:

bulletJews, Christians, and Muslims revere the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament). Thus Jews view G-d, the Christians view the Father (one part of the Trinity) and Muslims view Allah somewhat similarly. But the Christian Trinity is a very different deity construct than can fit into the strictly monotheism of Judaism and Islam. And Jews view their G-d very differently than the Muslims view Allah; they have different qualities, attributes, expectations, etc.

bullet Many Christians, Hindus, Muslims, Jews and Sikhs regard their own religion as the only true religion; other religions are partly or completely false. Some fundamentalist Christian denominations go further and regard other religions as forms of Satanism, led by Satan or his demons. They also refuse to recognize many denominations that consider themselves to be Christian as part of Christianity.

bullet Religions hold beliefs about their God that are often quite different from the gods and goddesses of other religions. They generally regard their own beliefs to be accurate, and the beliefs of other religions to be partly or completely false.

bullet Followers of most religions see their own God as creating the world, its life forms and the rest of the universe; they see their own God as having revealed himself or herself to her/his followers. The message is conveyed either through a verbal tradition or in written form. But they see founders of other religions as having created their own Gods from their own imaginations. They view religions other than their own as simple human creations. Most believers see their own religious texts as accurate documentaries; they view the holy books of other religions as novels -- as works of fiction -- or as a collection of myths.

There is a near complete lack of consensus among followers of the main monotheistic and henotheistic religions on many factors. Some are:

bullet They view their own religious texts as true and inspired by God. The texts of all other religions are seen as partly or wholly false; they arose from people's imagination.

bulletThey see their own view of God as true; he was the creator of mankind and the rest of the universe. They see the Gods of other religions as false; those Gods were created by humans.

bullet They see their own religion as the only religion revealed to humanity by God; we call this a "top-down" faith. They view all other religions as "bottom up" faiths; they were created by humans.

In any other area of human life, such beliefs would be considered psychotic -- totally divorced from reality. However, in the field of religion, it is the norm.

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See also a following essay about concepts of God:
God's shrinking role. God's survival. Conclusions.

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References used:

The following information source was used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlink is not necessarily still active today.

  1. J.S. Spong, "A New Christianity for a New World: Why Traditional Faith is Dying & How a New Faith is Being Born," HarperSanFrancisco, (2001), Pages 49. Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store

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Copyright © 2001 to 2011 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2001-OCT-7
Latest update: 2011-OCT-17
Author: B.A. Robinson

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