One of the more remarkable facts about human beings (at least to me) is the fact of our almost universal belief in God or gods – in any case, some transcendent divine power (or powers) able and willing to confer benefits or inflict harms on us. No society, it seems, has ever been without these beliefs. It appears that such beliefs are innate in human beings, or, at any rate, a strong disposition to embrace such beliefs is innate in us. The newborn baby is not neutral or agnostic with respect to the existence and power of these divinities.
I’ll be reminded, of course, that belief in divinities, though widespread, is not universal. There are such persons as atheists in the world. While atheists may be more common today than they used to be, they have been around for thousands of years at a minimum. But atheism is (we may say) a sophisticated attitude while belief in divine powers is a naïve attitude. Disbelief is possible only because belief comes first.
If nature endows us with a disposition to believe in divinities, it is we ourselves, either collectively or individually, who have to decide on the specifics of that general belief. Are we to be animists or theists? Are we to be pantheists or theists? Are we to be polytheists or monotheists? Are we to combine monotheism with polytheism, believing in one supreme divinity and many inferior divinities?
Are we to believe in personal gods or impersonal? Are we to believe in gods who are good, gods who are evil, or gods who are a mixture of the two? Are we to believe (with the Manicheans) in a purely good God versus a purely evil God? Our innate disposition doesn’t answer any of these questions. That is up to us.
In saying this I don’t mean to deny that God may help us to answer these questions by providing us with revelations, such as those found in the Old and the New Testaments. Nor do I mean to deny that God may make revelations outside the boundaries of the two testaments. I myself am inclined to believe, for instance, that God – the same God who made revelations to the Old Testament prophets – may also have made revelations to Socrates. I may be mistaken in this, but I tend to look at The Apology (Plato’s account of the trial of Socrates) as something like quasi-Scripture. I read it with reverence.
I claimed above that this innate belief is a belief in a divine power that “confers benefits or inflicts harms.” Christians might object to this, saying that God, being purely good, does not and cannot inflict harms. True enough – provided we say that tornadoes, hurricanes, tsunamis, cancers, plagues, etc. plus eternal damnation to Hell are not harmful.
By means of a complex theodicy (like the one produced by Leibniz), we can argue that none of the world’s many apparent evils is a genuine evil when viewed (as perhaps only God Himself can view them) in a large enough metaphysical context. While many Christians (at least non-Calvinist Christians) will say that the evil of sin is not produced by God, they will have to admit that all other evils – or rather, apparent evils – are produced by God, and that sin, if not precisely produced by God, is tolerated by God when (it seems) God might have prevented it.
If I’m right in suggesting that we have a powerful innate tendency to believe in God or gods, what happens in the mind of an atheist who rejects all theistic or supernaturalistic beliefs? This is a question of some practical importance since in all probability the world has never contained as many atheists as it contains today. Can they effectually defeat an inborn tendency? Or do they believe in some kind of ungodly god? In other words, do they believe in an idol?
I think the latter is the case. The world has had enough experience of atheism in the last two or three hundred years for us to know that many atheists – I won’t say all – have found, or rather have invented, new, non-traditional gods to believe in.
For many, this has been a god named Progress. In their view, this quasi-divinity has been driving the world forward for millennia, making it a better and better place for human beings. Occasionally it has setbacks, a bad few centuries here, a bad few there. But on the whole, and when mapped on a big enough scale, it can be seen to be a forward march toward the earthly paradise. President Barack Obama seems to have believed in this god when he told us that same-sex marriage is “on the right side of history.”
The god of other atheists has been a political party or political movement – for instance, the Communist Party (an enormously important 20th-century god), or the Nazi Party (another great 20th-century god); or in America in recent times, the feminist movement (now rather over the hill) or the LGBTQ+ movement (still going strong).
Still others have turned certain individuals into gods. Many Germans did this with Hitler, many Russians (and non-Russians) with Stalin, many Chinese with Mao.
And – though I hate to say this (since I myself voted for Trump in 2020) – more than a few of his more fanatical fans have done this with Donald Trump, regarding him a minor divinity. You can, of course, be a Trump supporter without idolizing him. You might support him, for instance, because you approve of some or all of his policies.
I myself was pleased with him because he nominated judges committed to reading laws the way they were written. And I have judged that the risk was a price worth paying for the goods produced by Trump.
But we’ve passed beyond all that now. And the vacuum is being quickly filled with a neo-progressivism that regards nothing and no-one as beyond its reach. Did I mention that some idols are jealous – and bloodthirsty?
*Image: Saturn Devouring a Son by Peter Paul Rubens, c. 1636-38 [Museo del Prado, Madrid]