What are gods?
In some ways, the question is more important for atheists than for theists. If I’m a theist, after all, I don’t need to understand what it takes to be a ‘god’ in general; I just need to know that my pick of the litter is a bona fide god. It’s the atheists who must speak in broad strokes of all gods, in order for their chosen self-label to even be contentful. These six criteria do the job of pinpointing gods quite well:
1. They are people, capable of thought and action.
2. As a rule, they are (or normally appear) roughly human-shaped and human-sized.
3. They can sometimes be weakened or killed, but by nature they are significantly more powerful and long-lived than a human.
4. As a rule, they are associated with some domain they have dominion or strong influence over, be it a place, a natural phenomenon, or an abstract category.
5. They are natural objects of worship.
6. They are in some way ‘magical‘ or ‘supernatural’.
Within a religion, the gods often form a natural grouping. So, as an added complication, otherwise similar beings may be construed as non-divine if they lack a certain ability or lineage that unifies a tradition’s paradigmatic deities.
Borrowing from E.B. Taylor’s 1871 Primitive Culture, many anthropologists have distinguished ‘god’ worship (theolatry) from ‘spirit’ worship (animism). However, this division, predicated on the theory that cultures naturally ‘evolve’ from animism to polytheism to monotheism, has increasingly fallen out of favor. Cultures have often been labeled ‘animistic’ more because they were seen as ‘primitive’ than because they unambiguously saw everything as intelligent or alive. And even world-views with myriad all-pervading minds can easily blend into world-views with a single all-pervading super-mind. (Compare brahman in India.)
If we do wish to distinguish lesser spirits and monsters from gods, it will need to be because the former are weaker, or less authoritative, or lack human form, or just have a different lineage and name. However, none of these is sufficient on its own. The classification we use will always be arbitrary to some extent, and will depend on the structure of the overall belief system.
Gods interact with humans, and with each other, leading to myths and communicative or transactional rituals. Gods can become human, and humans can become gods, so the human/god distinction can become just as fraught as spirit/god one.
The requirement that gods be ‘natural objects of worship’ distinguishes them from magical beings that lack the power, authority, or virtue true reverence demands. For instance, powerful daemonic spirits may fail to be gods if they cannot or ought not be worshiped, but exist instead to be opposed, manipulated, or befriended. However, some traditions recognize evil gods, and most traditions fail to clearly distinguish religious worship from magical manipulation, so the line between the divine and the demonic is again fuzzy.
Linguistic and conceptual divides mean that lots of interpretive work is required to find a common classification for legendary beings across religious traditions. To see how this works in practice, I’ll present four examples, which I encourage you to treat with some skepticism.
Abrahamism: Early Judaism was henotheistic, believing in many gods but worshiping only one, Yahweh. It shifted from polytheism to monotheism as it came to see rival magical beings as increasingly unworthy even of foreign worship, identifying gods with evil spirits. At the same time, Yahweh’s heavenly court of gods became identified with Yahweh or with his angelic messengers. And the angels themselves, initially treated as manifestations or incarnations of Yahweh, lost their divine status and became lesser spirits. In Christianity, this process worked both ways, as Jesus acquired a status similar to the original angels’.
Buddhism: Buddhas — particularly in their ‘truth body’ (dharmakāya) — are often ascribed attributes similar to the modern Abrahamist God, whereas devas resemble the gods of Greek mythology. (Following the Hindu Paranas, a distinct group of gods, the asuras, were seen as lesser wicked spirits.) However, the word ‘god’ is restricted to the devas so as to highlight buddhas’ unusual features. Upper case ‘God’ is generally reserved for a creator deity like Brahmā or Īshvar. Since Buddhists believe the world has no beginning, it can be said that they deny ‘God’ (issara) but accept ‘gods’ (devas).
Zoroastrianism: Here, the Indian progression is reversed. The supreme god is an asura (Ahura Mazda), while the daēvas are wicked lesser gods, eventually downgraded to demons and ogres. Such developments are often unpredictable or historically contingent; in Germanic religions, asuras again became the ruling gods, the æsir.
Raëlism: This UFO religion, founded in 1974, has no creator gods, spirits, magic, or souls. It is physicalistic, atheistic, and emphasizes science over the supernatural. The existence of such religions suggests that skeptical and antireligious movements shouldn’t narrowly focus on ‘atheism’. However, Raëlians do believe that we were intelligently designed by a powerful, benevolent alien race, the ‘Elohim’.
Simulation hypotheses posit even more extraordinary creators than Raëlism does. They suggest that we are in a Matrix-like virtual reality, meaning that our entire universe is the product of a transcendent designer. Yet we do not ordinarily think of powerful aliens or computer programmers as ‘gods’. What sets them apart will ultimately rest on the most important criterion I haven’t talked about here, the ‘magical’ or ‘supernatural’ element. Defining the ‘natural’ is a very difficult and messy task, far more problematic than any of the issues I’ve raised above. That story will have to wait for another post.