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On gods and religion

I have just had a very pleasant meeting of the minds with Justin Barrett here in Oxford, who gave me some of his time. We agreed on a lot, and this has set me thinking that I should document some of the claims I intend to make in my research, or at least try to defend.

I believe that there is no such thing as a monotheism. No religion in existence lacks any nondivine or demonic entities other than the central or highest deity. If the saints and angels and demons of modern Catholicism or any other flavour of Christianity were represented in Greek mythology, we’d call them gods. So they are gods (a view that Justin argues in his book).

Much of the trouble lies in taking modern religions at their word – that they are somehow “typical” of religion or that their own account of supernatural beings is the one to adopt. But none of the world religions, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism, are typical of religions in general. They are all highly derived religions which have, in my opinion, both spread through the cosmopolitan civilisation of the modern imperial world because of their “preadaptedness”, so to speak, to the social ecology in which they found themselves, and also have evolved while this was happening to be more useful in those ecologies.

A social ecology, by the way, is the totality of all the social needs and pressures of the society in which religions exist; including economic and political pressures as well as ritual psychological needs, and community building roles. And just like in biological evolution, social “species” can construct an ecological niche for themselves. One way to do this is to set up a problematic which they and only they resolve (like Original Sin).

The reason why no religion is monotheistic, not even Islam (djinn, remember, and angels), is that we have a disposition towards dramatic narratives, and a god with no peers is largely going to be boring. This is why Buddhism, which in theory has no deity at all, nevertheless has scores of devas and demons in folk theology, and why the Buddha himself has been made divine. This is why the Christian god, who in theory is infinitely powerful, can be challenged by an angel of his own making. Even secular and supposedly non-supernatural “religions” like Confucianism and Stalinism have their divinities. In Confucianism, Kung FuTzu is not a divine figure, but all Confucianists practise ancestor worship and believe in various kinds of supernatural beings.

Stalin himself is the deity, and the reason I mark him out that way is that he was supposed to have attributes no physical person could have, such as knowledge of what would make things work when nobody thought anyone could know what was going on economically. Such super-stimulus properties are the mark of a deity. They transcend what we ordinarily think of as human capacities. Justin calls this the minimally counterintuitive (MCI) concept of gods, in which they are slightly, but not totally, unlike human beings in their capacities. Even the high and distant Christian god still has emotions, intentions and acts. This is an MCI deity.

There is an important distinction to make between “religion” as a group of largely heterogeneous ritual behaviours, as a set of modern institutions, and as a psychological disposition. These are not the same phenomena, and call for distinct explanations. Justin said that he and Pascal Boyer often wish they could give the phenomena they are discussing abstruse names like DFX43, because religion is so overloaded. This is part of a general problem of classification on which I have often discoursed on this blog, so you either know what I think about trashcan classification or don’t care. It’s very important, to avoid confusions of inference, to be sure that what you are explaining remains the same at the end of the explanation as it was when the explanation was called for. Sliding between senses causes no end of trouble.

I would index the phenomena – social religion, psychological experiential religion, and so forth. For instance, what I wish to explain is why all human societies have religious institutions, but not all human societies have the same kind of these institutions, so I wish to explain why hierarchical priestly religions exist in sedentary agrarian societies. I index that with the adjective binding religions. It implies that nothing much is to be gained by discussing so-called “religious rituals” in foraging societies, because the “religion” is of a piece with political and social organisation, economics and interaction with the nonsocial environment. One might as well call hunting behaviours religious in such societies (and before I am accused of exaggeration, such things are said).

One aspect of this debate that I was shocked by Justin’s comments on, is that the cultural anthropologists still insist on the tabula rasa (blank slate) view of social construction of religion. If you tried that in biology, you’d be laughed at. There is a thing in the philosophy of biology called an interactionist consensus, that genes, development and ecology all work together to generate the organism. Likewise, biology, social and nonsocial ecology, and human history all work together to generate society, and that includes religion. Thinking otherwise is, to put it mildly, blind.

I do not know how those who accept this and are religious reconcile naturalism of religion with their beliefs. That’s really not my concern (it’s theirs). Justin holds to some sort of religious beliefs (he has C. S. Lewis and other religious writers on his shelves), and admits to it (in fact is rather proud of his religion) in the final chapter of his book. He seems to be a really well informed and intelligent, rational, person. My own view is this:

If you are for other reasons an atheist, the naturalisation of religion will give you comfort (although, as Justin observes in his book, atheism is an unstable and hard view that runs counter to the biological dispositions we all share). If you are for other reasons religious, it will make it clear to you that religion really is natural (and you might be inclined to use it as evidence of a god). If you are an agnostic like me, then it is an interesting fact about the nature of human beings. It has no metaphysical implications one way or the other.

Your mileage may vary…


  1. I do not know how those who accept this and are religious reconcile naturalism of religion with their beliefs.

    I’ll probably hit on an answer to this….about 5 seconds before I die.

  2. Lots of very interesting food for thought here, John. Thanks for posting this. I look forward to your further ruminations on this. I have an idea about monotheism, though: that it is a requirement for humans to be monotheistic before they see themselves as distinct from the natural world and with dominion over it.

  3. I think that is probably true, not in virtue of monotheism itself but in virtue of the actual monotheisms that have evolved being creator-myths. IOW, they get it from the Hellenistic Judaism of the period in which the tradition grew up. I do not think monotheism is, ipso facto, required to make this distinction.

  4. Hmmm. An interesting point. I was thinking of monotheism in general, which tend to have, as you say, Creation myths which justify Man’s estate in his own eyes as something distinct. Before that, people didn’t Make Things Happen In God’s Name. They were just like everything else, prey to the whims of supernatural forces of every kind and on every scale, from mighty sky gods, to the spirit of that pesky rock on which you stubbed your toe.

  5. This is true, to an extent, but it mustn’t be overstated. Under the henotheism of the pre-“monotheist” conception, one still acted in the deity’s name (which was eponymous for the tribe, since it was a tribal god). Even then, the god was unable to do some things:

    “And the LORD was with Judah; and he drave out the inhabitants of the mountain; but could not drive out the inhabitants of the valley, because they had chariots of iron.” Judges 1:19

    The distinction of the cosmos having a nature is down to the Milesians, especially Thales. Once you do that, it is possible to have a distinction between humans and nature, although note that the Greeks did not do this. Possibly it’s the interaction between Greek naturalism and Hebrew exceptionalism that causes this.

  6. jackd jackd

    Does it make sense to say that there are no monotheistic religions? If you’re saying that any system with multiple supernatural entities is by definition polytheism, doesn’t that surrender a useful distinction between systems with a clearly distinct Supreme Being and those with multiple Divine entities of the same nature?

    Barrett’s MCI sounds like an elaboration or a restatement of the idea of gods as abstractions of the Alpha Male.

    • Monotheism asserts one divine entity. But henotheism asserts one ruling divine entity, and many subordinate divine entities. We have a henotheism at best. The traditional henotheisms were tribally based, but they need not be.

      I raised the “alpha male” idea with Justin and he thought it workable. It’s not original to me, of course.

  7. Are there any monotheisms that aren’t Abrahamic? If there aren’t, then I guess your case is proven.

    • There was the supposed case of Ankhenaten, but I do not think that was a simple monotheism, as the king himself was divine.

    • Wes Wes

      Isn’t Zoroastrianism monotheistic, or something close to monotheistic?

      • No, it was a metaphysical dualism. Drama, you see. Ahura Mazda is opposed by Ahriman.

  8. No religion in existence lacks any nondivine or demonic entities other than the central or highest deity.

    This double double negative — in which we are talking about how no religions do not have nondivine entities that are not the highest deity — is giving me headaches! I take it the claim is that every religion has divine entities other than the central or highest deity, where ‘divine’ indicates a minimally counterintuitive agent. I agree that sliding between senses causes no end of trouble, but it seems to me that you are causing yourself exactly this trouble here. When monotheists say “There is only one God” they obviously don’t mean “There is only one minimally counterintuitive agent,” even though God counts as a minimally counterintuitive agent. That is, the fact that a god is a minimally counterintuitive agent doesn’t imply that every minimally counterintuitive agent is a god; an artificially intelligent robot would be a minimally counterintuitive agent, because it would not perfectly fit the schemata we use for other agents in the way other humans do, but an atheist who believed there existed an artificially intelligent robot would still be an atheist.

    • Sorry for the double negatives. I am bound to do them under paragraph 8.1.1 of the Philosopher’s Contract.

      What monotheists assert as part of their advocacy for their own view is beside the point in this instance. The fact remains that they have entities that are MCI and which are able to contend with the main deity. That is very much like Homeric religion. That they do not call these “gods” (and they sometimes do if they take Psalm 82 seriously and literally) is not germane.

      • I’m not sure how this makes any sense; this makes your use of the term ‘monotheism’ nonstandard and, apparently, entirely arbitrary. By the same token a theist could say that by ‘divine’ he means ‘something of considerable importance’ and conclude that there are no atheists. The ‘advocacy’ of monotheists is irrelevant in both directions; the question is not why you are not taking the ‘advocacy’ of monotheists into account, but why you are assigning an arbitrary meaning to a term (‘monotheism’) that usually means something else, in a context in which its usual meaning has to be operative (since the ‘monotheists’ are people who consider themselves monotheists according to the usual sense of the term, not according to an MCI-based sense of the term). And as I said, you can have MCI agents that are obviously not deities in any reasonable sense of the term — artificial intelligences, for instance, or animals that are capable of problem-solving that folk biology would assume is purely human. It takes very little to make something MCI — all it has to do is violate schema expectations. Thus all deities are MCI, but we have to have a positive reason to think that all MCI entities are plausibly considered deities. The implication goes only one way — MCI is of use in cognitive science of religion because things that are MCI are memorable, and so recognizing that deities are MCI tells you something about their role in cognition. But MCI is a broader category, containing everything from black holes to platypuses to robots to Mickey Mouse. Of course, we could just say that we’re going to count every MCI agent as a deity, which is fine, but then ‘no religion is monotheistic’ just means that even setting aside God, no religion thinks all persons fit into our folk ontologies about persons. And I think it has to be admitted that this is not a very clear way of saying it.

        So I’m still very confused about what you are doing.

      • The problem lies in the nature of the MCI world as posited by adherents and authorities. Sure, theists assert that their god is the sole god; but that is undercut by the extensive minority gods they also posit, starting with Satan and Michael and on down (or up, as the case may be).

        I think you misunderstand the nature of Barrett’s MCI conception. This is not something that AIs could ordinarily be: they do nothing that is beyond ordinary causation as understood by the population (if HAL9000 were real, we’d all say, wow, what won’t they do with computers?). But even an angel can do miraculous (and a demon antimiraculous) things no ordinary entity could do.

        Maybe if we had the wrong intuitions, like a degraded civilisation being run by a self-repairing AI, then it would be MCI.

        You are correct that this is an equivalence of super-persons with gods. I fail to see how it could work any other way. If you think gods are God only, then you are (from a naturaliser of religion’s perspective) merely begging the question by fiat. To some extent this is the old problem of hermeneutics in social theory – do we accept the posits of those we study, and believe in Azande spirits, or stand apart and fail to appreciate their inner lives? I think we do both, but in different explanatory modes, so to speak.

        I am proposing a nonstandard taxonomy; yes. This is not your usual comparative religion fare. My reasons are that it avoids begging the question or adopting as “typical” the rather derived modern world religions.

      • Hi, John,

        Thanks, that was very helpful.

        MCI is a general cognitive science term, not exclusively found in discussions of religion. For instance, there is evidence that people (well, modern Americans at least) often reason about both computers and pets (currently, without any science-fictioning) as MCI agents: we have no stable folk categories for them, so we treat them as quasi-persons by blending two different categories (often inconsistently), one of which is our standard (human) person category. Anything handled in this way would count as MCI — aliens, robots, gods, angels, saints, ape-men, ghosts, the Geiko gecko, whatever. It wouldn’t follow that all of these things are reasonably seen as falling into a single category. The application to religion is simply one application of the general idea (and I think it is precisely this that makes it useful: you can take what you learn in general about MCI concepts and can therefore learn things about religion without begging questions in one’s analysis, as you say). Thus counterintuition is simply the violation of a common-sense schema. It doesn’t require miracles, because it is not an ontological term: it’s a term describing the manner in which we think about things, not (directly) the things themselves — I don’t see how it would be useful for anything in cognitive science if it were treated as directly describing an ontological feature like miracle-working (and such a use would be contrary to what seems to be the general use of the term). One of the reasons it gets interesting in religious cases is that gods as (officially) recognized by theologians and philosophers (and people acquainted with theology and philosophy) are usually not minimally counterintuitive: they are maximally counterintuitive, which means that they diverge from our commen-sense schemas along multiple lines. But even theologians usually break these down for practical purposes into MCI concepts, which only deviate from common-sense schemas on a point or two. Thus the attraction, from the point of view of a cog.sci. study of religion, of seeing how minimal counterintuition affects things like memory and reasoning.

        But my original point was that when monotheists are claiming to be monotheists, their meaning is entirely oblique to this term. One could argue that ‘monotheist’ is not a useful term for cognitive science purposes, which I think would make sense, since it is put forward as an ontological term rather than a term describing how human beings cognize what it describes. It would make sense not to use the term as an integral part of investigation of religious thought and practice. But it doesn’t follow that it’s useless or question-begging or mere advocacy for every other purpose. And indeed it is only if we don’t prejudge the matter in either direction that we are really avoiding question-begging.

      • Jeb Jeb

        M.C.I’s have a considerable potential for movement, the taxonomy of such creatures is interesting. Some of the things on youre list Bradon “aliens, robots, gods, angels, saints, ape-men, ghosts, the Geiko gecko,” can at times become quite entangled in quite a broad pattern of reinforcement.

      • Hi, Jeb,

        Yes, I think you’re right; there’s a lot of room for movement. Part of the reason is that MCI can play a role in our thinking even if our beliefs on reflection tend in a different direction (this is in fact very common with religious concepts: People will on reflection say that God is omniscient, omnipotent, etc., but will in reacting to stories, etc., respond as if God had omniscience but was in all other respects like a human being, or some such). Part of the reason is that MCI agents can be treated fictionally or realistically, without any known change in the way they affect recall, so our beliefs about what is actually possible are irrelevant to the question of whether they are MCI. If we suddenly discovered a human being floating in the air, that would be MCI even if it turned out later that there was an entirely adequate scientific explanation: it’s just not part of our folk schemas about human beings that they hover in the air. Pretty much everyone would find it memorable because unexpected, in the same way that they would find an octopus in a barnyard memorable even though (since it was there) its being there would have to be entirely explicable. And part is that there is always more going on than mere MCI — there are various sorts of complex inferences, social reinforcements, etc., even at the purely folk level (your example of Spring Heeled Jack is a good one). Research on MCI has shown that its effects can be significantly affected by context; and one possible reaction to MCI is to try to put it into a context that makes sense (I’m inclined to take John’s “Wow, what won’t they do with computers?” as exactly this sort of thing: the Wow would, in itself, indicate a schema-inconsistency of some sort, and possibly the folk-schema-inconsistency usually meant by talk of MCI — in this case an artifact with personal psychological characteristics; the question is just us trying to put that into a familiar context on further reflection, which is one of the things we do with MCI).

  9. EMJ EMJ

    I would agree with Henry on this. The Abrahamic religious traditions are the most anthropocentric/naturaphobic religions that have ever existed. The Greek gods were capricious and you could attempt to appease one of them, but then another would interfere. This was their explanation for unpredictability and seems to have grown out of animism (the Greeks also had multiple nature spirits as well). Monotheism makes a central claim that a single deity is at the helm. If nature doesn’t follow your desires, the problem is that you weren’t properly reverential. You identify with the helsman and the course is set, nature is merely in the details. This worldview, I think, firmly entrenched a “man against nature” dichotomy that only partially existed in the Greek system and other polytheistic views.

  10. Hi John, I expect you’re not too interested in this, but I wonder what exactly you’re trying to show here: that organized religions by and large are dramas with plots and multiple characters (surely true) or that religion is essentially polytheistic.

    I only ask because some people spring to mind (some enlightenment deists, Spinoza) who rejected this model of religion and held that god really was the only divine or “supernatural” entity.

    Does this matter for your research, or are you just studying major world religions in their most popular forms?

    • I am, when studying “religion”, concerned with religions as they occur as social traditions and institutions, so the “god of the philosophers” is irrelevant. I think it highly unstable that any religion would ever be a Spinozan religion; human minds do not think like that. It takes a real effort to be a Spinozan, and it is no accident that those who have been have been rather intellectual individuals like Einstein and the nineteenth century deists.

      Cognitively, humans love drama. We are all to a greater or lesser extent “heterists” as Baron-Cohen calls them – other-regarding gossips. God have to be like this (but MCI) for us to engage with them. Distant and uncocnerned gods like those of Epicurus are atheisms to most of us.

      • If this is true, what does it suggest for the embrace of science? If we crave drama, would we prefer myths in our scientific understanding to dispassionate facts? It seems to me if you cab have hope for one, you can have hope for the other.

      • John,

        This sounds sensible. I just wanted to get a handle on your scope, here.

        I would not go so far as to say that a Spinozistic religion is “impossible”… humans are surprisingly malleable creatures. However, all you need to say is that mass Spinozism hasn’t already taken hold, because your project aims to naturalistically explain the occurrence of actual religions.

  11. Mal Adapted Mal Adapted

    I call myself a soft atheist: it’s not that I’m convinced there is no god, it’s that I see no compelling evidence for the existence of god(s), and think the phenomenon of theistic belief is better explained naturalistically, as you describe above. Is that the same as your “agnosticism?”

    • Wrong thread, but no. Naturalising religion only partially debunks some religion. It doesn’t leave us able to exclude all religious beliefs.

  12. ckc (not kc) ckc (not kc)

    …who rejected this model of religion and held that god really was the only divine or “supernatural” entity.

    I would suggest that it would clarify the discussion to distinguish between models of religion and religion (as practiced).

  13. bob koepp bob koepp

    I think Spinoza’s god does pose a problem for John’s taxonomy, but I shudder to characterize Nature as a supernatural entity.

  14. The reason why no religion is monotheistic, not even Islam (djinn, remember, and angels), is that we have a disposition towards dramatic narratives, and a god with no peers is largely going to be boring.

    I'm not sure I completely agree with this claim. I think you are using an overly narrow definition of monotheism. But aside from the rhetoric the point that systems with a single divine entity are unstable is a very interesting one that I had not thought about before.

  15. There is an important distinction to make between “religion” as a group of largely heterogeneous ritual behaviours, as a set of modern institutions, and as a psychological disposition. These are not the same phenomena, and call for distinct explanations.

    Hear, hear! I get rather tired of simplistic rhetoric from my side which treats religion as a monolith (usually using the doctrinal content as a proxy for the whole thing). It ain’t: it’s a diverse and multi-dimensional complex of beliefs, behaviours, attitudes and what-not.

  16. jude gatsby armstrong jude gatsby armstrong

    it is not the Ritualsbehaviors. boredom is a greater challenge than persecution. my religion is a constant attempt {Practise} to relink myself with my source / my destiny.
    i don’t have any proof for the existence of my destiny or for my ultimate source. the non believer has no proof that god does not exist. Athism is a faith in non existance – just as is theism the existance of GOD.

  17. Jeb Jeb

    Its certainly diverse, multi-dimensional and complex. The classification of MCI’s is an example. They often hold an ambigious uncertain position in narrative, which seems intentional and are often contested.

  18. jeb jeb

    i.e Joyclyn of Furness refuting the concept of a virgin birth for St Kentigern at the start of his introduction to the Saints life.

    He has to press his point quite hard using some intresting examples in his search for a coomon sense explanation; his discription of Letargion, is rather nice.

  19. John,

    I’m very interested in seeing how your work on this subject develops. I’m curious in particular about how you will handle the genetic fallacy as it relates to the evolutionary study of religion. It seems to me writers like Boyer (and those who build upon their work, like Dennett and Dawkins) want to erect a firewall so that the scientific impulse isn’t subject to the same Darwinian logic. That is, we can write off religion once we see it as a symptom of HADD, but we do not treat the sciences quite so dismissively, even though they must originally derive from something equally atavistic.

    • John Wilkins John Wilkins

      As it happens, Paul Griffiths and I are working on a paper (and it will be a talk at Notre Dame) on whether or not the evolutionary debunking argument (EDA) for religion applies to science in a tu quoque. We hold that it does not – given that our epistemic faculties evolved to track truth, while our cognitive faculties involved in religion did not. Hence the EDA for religion gives no encouragement to (but does not falsify) religion, but leaves confidence in science relatively untouched. Paul and I hold that common sense is roughly the Umwelt of primates, and that it would not have evolved if it did not reliably identify aspects of the world.

      Is this wall building? I do not think so, because apart from anything else it raises issues of scientific realism and the usual problems of evolutionary epistemology.

      • Please post this online when it’s finished! I’d love to see how you deal with some (no doubt) familiar arguments I’ve seen against this kind of position: that you can’t use a science to defend science as a whole, that there is no connection between our ordinary epistemic practices and truth (because our senses and minds did not evolve to give us truths, they evolved to help us survive and reproduce, and those are two different things).

      • Sorry to see you slip over to the dark side, John 😉

        Actually, I’m with Nick; can’t wait to read more. I hope it’s clear my intention was not to “debunk” science, simply to point out that what we call religion may have more an enduring value (even if the major portion of that value exists in the future), than what EDA purports to falsify.

      • Paul and I are putting this together as a paper in response to some claims by Alvin Plantinga. When it’s ready we’ll no doubt put it on PhilPapers or one of those repositories. I’ll put a note up when that happens.

  20. You talk about the need for drama in religion, which reminds me of a suspicion that I’ve had for a long time about Aristotle. It seems to me that the master of those who know was pretty schizophrenic about what really constitutes the fundamental category by which everything can be explained. In the logical, physical, and metaphysical works, the fundamental category is substance, but in the Poetics, it is action. Character, which in a sense is the substance of the figures in a play, is a function of what the players do just as it is for Sartre. Now the central entity in a metaphysical theology can be a substance, an unmoved mover or mere being; but the Gods anybody worships have to be characters and are defined by their actions, which implies, among many other things, intentionality.

    Now if Aristotle was alone in having a problem with all this, it wouldn’t much matter; but it seems to me that the same paralogism infests theological thinking. I don’t buy the ontological argument, for example, but even if I did–and I’m not sure enough of my intuitions about modal logic to bet the house on the issue–it would make much difference to my status as an infidel since necessary being is not a character. One has no reason to worship it and, by definition, it doesn’t need any thing or anybody. It doesn’t care and can hardly serve as the hero of a tragedy or even a comedy. Indeed, to the extent that Heidegger was right about care and Dasein, such a god might be, but he can’t exist, at least unless he is retroactively brought into existence via his incarnation, a theme that one finds in Hegel.

    In my youth I took a series of courses about phenomenology in which the prof, a Benedictine monk, endlessly drew S arrow O diagrams on the board. In revery, I find myself imagining that the arrows really depicted flatworms since I can’t make sense of intentionality outside of the context of animal life. Not that the doings of planaria count as drama, but maybe they are the preconditions of drama and the myths they stage. Which, I guess, is an extremely complicated way of agreeing with you.

    • John Wilkins John Wilkins

      That’s a deep mine of material for later discussion, Jim. I have Views on character (all character is a facade erected in the social context, IMO), but I am not well enough informed on Aristotle’s ethical and political works to really discuss them.

  21. This is the most interesting post – and comment thread – I have read anywhere, in ages. Keep it up, chaps. Perhaps tangentially, I went into Crox Minor’s school today to be a fly-on-the-wall in her favourite class of the week, which is called ‘philosophy’, and is what we’d have called ‘divinity’. (Crox Minor is 11). Basically, it’s comparative religion in its broadest sense, including atheism, ethics, environmental ethics and so on. It was very impressive, and the standard of debate among the students – their knowledge, and spirit of enquiry – was hearteningly high. A hopeful sign. I should say that Crox Minor’s school is a state comprehensive whose headline achievements in terms of grades at exam time are, to be charitable, extremely modest. What do they know, huh?

    • Children are always able to argue these things with verve and interest until they are corrupted by us philosophers, and educators, and other authority figures.

      But it can’t hurt for kids to know there even are other religions. I have met Protestants in their 50s who thought that the other religion was Catholicism, and a few mad arabs who were Muslims.

  22. Aaron Armitage Aaron Armitage

    A follower of an Abrahamic religion believes in a God who is omnipotent and the cause of everything else that exists. There can be no more than one such being, and there would seem as great an ontological gulf between Him and other supernatural beings as there is between Him and us. The Greek myths had it that their gods could be physically injured (eaten! castrated!); Greek popular religion had gods but not God.

    John writes, “I am, when studying “religion”, concerned with religions as they occur as social traditions and institutions, so the “god of the philosophers” is irrelevant.”

    But this “God of the philosophers” is part of the social tradition. It’s not as if the official theology is always sealed off from popular religion. In particular, I would cite evangelicalism. We don’t have anything like the Catholic concept of “sainthood” (we follow New Testament usage in counting all believers as saints, and don’t consider dead saints as able to act as intermediaries, much less act on their own), and don’t generally have or desire any dealings with angels. The religion as experienced only has one object, and as thought puts the most important distinction where there is only one being on the other side from us. In what meaningful way is that not monotheism?

    • jackd jackd

      The Greek myths had it that their gods could be physically injured

      And Christianity has it that the Incarnation was killed.

      In what meaningful way is [Christian evangelicalism] not monotheism?

      Most evangelical denominations are still Trinitarian, which, despite the insistence of its adherents of the unity of the Trinity, looks from the outside to be a significant departure from monotheism.

  23. Jeb Jeb

    I always thought the concept of angels and demons was still very much a part of the evangelical experiance for many. “Stronger and more powerfull” than mere humans certainly.

    “Bold and arrogant, these men are not afraid to slander celestial beings; yet even angels, although they are stronger and more powerful, do not bring slanderous accusations against such beings in the presence of the Lord. But these men blaspheme in matters they do not understand. They are like brute beasts, creatures of instinct, born only to be caught and destroyed, and like beasts they too will perish.”

  24. Mal Adapted Mal Adapted

    But this “God of the philosophers” is part of the social tradition.

    And isn’t the God of the philosophers the product of naturalistic processes, just as much as the God of popular tradition?

  25. Mal Adapted Mal Adapted

    To clarify my last post: philosophy itself is a product of naturalistic processes, since a philosopher’s brain came about like everyone else’s.

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      As I understand you are asking whether or not the more rarefied traditions aren’t part of the thing I am trying to explain, and that is correct, they are. But they are not a deeply or widely held part of those traditions and excising them from the explanandum doesn’t materially affect the problem. In another sense we can say that once we have explained the mass of religion, the rarefied versions can be dealt with as a subsidiary problem. Another way to express that is that the existence of philosophers is a separate concern to the existence of religious adherents.

      • Do philosophers really exist?

  26. Aaron Armitage Aaron Armitage


    Your refusal to attend to the content of Christian theology does not cause that theology to simplify itself into a strawman for you.

    Greek popular religion had it that the gods were injured in their own native forms, something quite impossible for the God of an Abrahamic religion. The Incarnation, of course, means the addition of something else, other than divinity, which means something beside the point in this specific connection. It doesn’t really matter how Trinitarianism looks to you; “monotheism” is not synonymous with either unitarianism or tawhid.


    Certainly no evangelical worships demons, even apotropaically. But more fundamentally, most evangelicals aren’t into “spiritual warfare” at all. Therefore the argument still fails.

    Mal Adapted;

    Eh, so? That’s irrelevant to the point I was making, even if true.

    • jeb jeb

      “As our Religione obleidges us not, to make a peremptory & curious search into these abstrusenesses; so the Histories of all Ages give us many plain exemples of extrodinary occurances as make modest inquiry not contemptible. How much is written of pigme’s, faries, Nymphs, Syrens, Apperitions, which thou not the tenth part true, yet could not spring out of nothing?”

      Robert Kirk “The Secret CommonWealth or a Treatise Displaying the Chief Curiosities Among the people of Scotland As They Are in Use to This Day”

      • jeb jeb

        Aaron in the late 17th century when the new sciences were causing some concern to the faithfull an examination of such species as pigmies, faries, nymphs, syrens and subjects like second sight and prophecy were substantives that would demonstrate something else.

        Using the new sciences an investigation of such subjects was bound to yeild empirical proof of the supernatural realm.

        “Some things (tho nothing Demonstrative) perswade me still to suspect that the Qualities of the eyes and air in these places, May contribute much to this sight, for as to the emission of species especially from moving bodies, Beings are to be little doupted But that the species should flow from things before they existed whilst they are only potentiall… Requyrs a new system of phillosophy for explcating it.

        Lord Reay letter to S Pepys 1699

        Its a tangled web that constricts and conspires to lead thought to the centre of the network and the home of a somewhat singular creature.

  27. I put things in an overly complicated fashion before. Here’s the thing: a God without company is just a thing, a substance, not a subject.

    When God says, “Let there be light!” who is he talking to?

  28. Shane Shane

    I look at it like this, if there was only one deity and no bad guys, who is he going to save us from? if its from ourselves doesn’t that sort of point to the fact that he/she didn’t do such a good job in the first place?

  29. llewelly llewelly

    When God says, “Let there be light!” who is he talking to?

    The entity that created God, obviously.

  30. Aaron Armitage Aaron Armitage

    Jim Harrison;

    Which is a very good point to make, but not at all the same thing as saying there’s no such thing as monotheism unless you’re entitled to decide for others what they mean by “god”. You aren’t.

  31. Aaron,

    I’m not telling anybody what they ought to mean by the word “god.” I’m just pointing out that a radically solitary god is rather like a naked light bulb in an infinite basement.

    The characteristics that an entity needs to possess to be a person that can make, do, care, suffer, feel, think, know, judge, or demonstrate any other form of intentionality seem to require something like membership in a community simply to make sense, let alone to constitute a marketable protagonist.

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