On the nature of gods and inequality.

Sometimes one has an idea that blazes into one’s consciousness as a solution to one particular concern, which then starts to be something much bigger than just a solution to a problem. It becomes an interesting thing in itself and starts appearing as relevant to many different areas. The idea that humans will soon start constructing their own ‘minor gods’ has been such an idea for me in the last few years. When I say minor gods, I means gods of the Greek and Viking variety, not the Abrahamic ones: powerful and obsessed independent beings, but not omnipotent or indestructible.

The idea came to me in a piece for troppo over 2 years ago when I was thinking out loud whether humanity could escape the problem that our ability to destroy ourselves is increasing all the time, whilst in every era so far there has been some small probability of us actually using weapons of mass destruction on each other. The chance of disaster came mainly from mistakes and stupidity related to political posturing (think WWI or the Cuban missile crisis), not because some evil genius planned our destruction. Just with two elements – constantly increasing fire power coupled with political systems that reward high stakes posturing – the fear then was that it was inevitable that our civilisations would run out of luck eventually and destroy themselves. I expressed the hope in that piece that our religiosity might prevent such an apocalypse, ie that we’d become obsessed about making gods and that those gods would totally change the nature of politics, essentially because we would want them to take over.

In a recent piece for a UK magazine ‘The Mint’, an outlet for diverse economic thinking, this ‘minor god’ idea is developed into a quite different direction: the notion that the advent of actual gods would cut down the most powerful humans to size and make their populations less in awe of them, and thus less willing to put up with inequality. With actual gods running around, there would be less respect for (religious) human authority, engendering a leveling. Check out the article and the magazine!

One thing I pondered along the way and that is in neither articles linked to above, is the question of whether humans can become gods in some way. It is a wish in many cultures for humans to escape their mortality and somehow become gods. I have come to dismiss that idea as fundamentally misguided about the nature of humanity, as well as somewhat dishonest about what gods actually are to humans: whilst our imagery often depict gods as resembling us, gods are not truly like us at all. The key thing about the gods we humans come up with is that there is some aspect of them that is unchanging: they are the god of something, like the god of war or the spirit of the lake. There is something timeless and unchanging about our gods.

Yet, quintessential to all human perception and actions is constant change: thinking and doing anything changes us ever so slightly. That is because we are adaptation machines, ‘designed’ to locally optimise and ultimately ‘go with the flow’. Every thought we have subtly changes the wirings of our brains. Everything we eat and breathe out subtly changes the composition of our bodies. All our interactions subtly change our social and biome realities too. We are no more capable of remaining fixed than a tree is capable of walking away. The fixed nature of the gods we imagine is thus not how we ever are or how we could be, only what we can pretend to be.

Someone who wants to be like an imagined god essentially wants the death of what makes them human. Such people are to be pitied for their naiveté and we should not fear that their hopes become true. Jonathan Swift had it exactly right in Gulliver’s Travels when he depicted amortal humans as pitiable beings, destined to murmur in forgotten languages, going more and more mad, basically being they didn’t change enough to keep up with the times.

It was a huge relief to me to jettison the idea that we humans could ever be gods. It meant I needn’t fear billionaires wanting to be gods or people who want to live forever via clones. “Let them dream and try”, I now think. It also relieved me of seeing gods as something I should desire to be (not that I had that fantasy anyway, but you know what it is like with the fantasies of others: one wonders whether they are onto something). In effect, via constantly changing, each time we do anything our previous selves die a little and a new one grows. To many that is probably a scary thought, but I find it extremely liberating. It doesn’t mean my current self wants ‘me’ to die anytime soon, but it does mean the idea of death becomes much more mundane.

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8 Responses to On the nature of gods and inequality.

  1. Martin English says:

    I recommend “Small Gods” by Terry Pritchett.

  2. Nicholas Gruen says:

    I think that immersed in monotheism as we are, and that via the kind of monotheism which is the most preoccupied with religion in its propositional form – hence the focus on the credo – it’s hard for us to really understand what it was like in pagan times with multiple gods. I still find it hard to get my head around what the Athenians or Romans’ relationship with their gods. These gods have somewhat different manifestations in different places. It’s hard to imaging their being worshiped as a monotheistic god is worshipped. So how are they worshipped, if that’s even the right word?

    • paul frijters says:

      yes, our cultures are very monotheistic. It is amazing in how many places it shows up, such as the idea of a single truth, utilitarianism, or cost-benefit analysis.

      I do think our cultures still have remnants though of polytheistic thinking (which comes more naturally to humans, I now think: serious monotheism is too hard for us to keep up with). Think of saints, demons, angels, gargoyles, or even superheroes. In our stories and mythologies the ideas of polytheism live on a bit, including on how humans relate to such entities.

      The Greeks had many conversations about the kind of direction our technology is now leading: machine gods, hybrid humans, humans-turned-god. Their stories about them have a very modern feel, except for the fact that they too had this in-baked error towards humanity. I now find the Greek depiction of gods as very human essentially false: they have gods capable of learning and empathizing like humans, running around for centuries without changing their interests or desires or basic personalities. Yet, one cannot think like a human and yet not change in those dimensions. A human who would become immortal and more powerful would not become that way.

  3. conrad says:

    “All our interactions subtly change our social and biome realities too”

    Not just subtly — at the level of the individual, small and unpredictable events change the entire course of people’s lives. Think of what you studied (and if you’d chosen something else), what your first job did to you, how you met your partner etc. . Lots of pretty random events that cause big changes.

  4. Nicholas Gruen says:

    I remember wandering around the Greek acropolis. That Parthenon is one heavy building. Most magnificent thing I’ve ever seen. But I kept thinking. “I know why the medieval Europeans built Cathedrals. They were temples to the One True God. The one shot in the metaphysical locker for everyone who built them. And also compelled by a hierarchical social system which was close to maximally extractive.

    But ancient Athens is so different. Yet it lavished a similar proportion of its surplus on the Parthenon. Some substantial share of Athens’ silver hoard. Does it make sense to say they ‘worshipped’ Athena in the way the follower of one of the Abrahamic monotheistic religions worships God? I can understand the psychology of monotheism. Ineffability and all that. The ‘God-shaped hole’ in the middle of life, knowledge, one’s aspirations and so on.

    The way they write about their gods doesn’t capture any of that. They write about their gods as capricious and you’d definitely want to appease them. But is the Parthenon built to appease? Is it a monument to love? Why do I see so little in the texts from this period that helps me get inside this?

    • paul frijters says:

      what you describe for the Abrahamic religions is a very monastic and scholastic type of worship. That’s not how your average worshiper involved in building the cathedrals, who could not read or write, would have related to god.
      Indeed, it is not how the vikings related or wrote about their gods. They wrote about their gods as if they were powerful humans with a couple of extra abilities whom you could bargain with and who demanded worship. The end result (subjugation towards the gods) was pretty similar as with the Abrahamic variety, but trained intellectuals do insist on putting in lots of theoretical layers. The Greeks and Vikings did not have that monastic tradition so kept it simpler (and thus also a bit more honest and human: relatable to the vast majority of people). Christianity managed to out-compete them partly because the monastic tradition gave them a manpower platform with which to keep sending missionaries to the pagans and thus convert. Yet the basic point of worship is submission. To paraphrase the Tora, “the rest is commentary”.

      I truly do think though that polytheistic religion is more natural for people than monotheism. People can then over time change which god they relate to more depending on their life circumstances. They then are not told to feel they should be a fixed image that pleases a single fixed god. Being a fixed image is very unnatural to people. Takes a huge amount of effort.

  5. ianl says:

    … the idea of death becomes much more mundane.

    [from PF’s opening monologue]

    Oh dear.

    It’s not being dead that’s scary, PF, but the actual dying. Oh, you know – strokes that leave one paralysed but cogent for a period while contemplating “no way out”, the agony of unstoppable cancerous growths, progressive dementia with occasional lapses into vaguely remembering who you were, the creeping terror of motor neurone degeneracy … mundane, this is not. The aftermath, lining the inside of the urn as ash, may well be.

    The availability of Nembutal on personal request is my preferred option. Contemplation of the motives for construction of the Acropolis, medieval cathedrals and other feats of Ozymandias (all of which I too have observed first hand) may then be undertaken with some equanimity, perhaps.

  6. KT2 says:

    PF said “I truly do think though that polytheistic religion is more natural for people than monotheism”.

    7.5Bn gods?**

    Don’t forget this mono / dual / poly mob…

    “Hinduism is an Indian religion and dharma, or way of life. It is the world’s third-largest religion, with over 1.25 billion followers, or 15–16% of the global population, known as Hindus.”… “Hinduism is the second fastest-growing religion in the world, after Islam with a growth of 17%” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hinduism

    “Number of deities in Hinduism
    “…The Hindu scriptures claimed that there were 3 KOTI or 30 Million gods**, koti meaning in Sanskrit crore … Crore also translates to 10,000,000 or 10 million.

    “One theory is that the number 30 million (3 crore) gods refers to the total count of all living beings in nature signifying that god exists in every living being.”

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