3000 Gods

This article looks at the multitude of gods and religions that humans have devoted themselves to, most of them considered false by adherents of the others, and the unlikeliness that the god and religion that anyone chooses will be the right one.

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Pascal's Wager

Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) was a frequently-sick French mathematician (most famous for Pascal's Triangle) and philosopher. Like most Europeans at the time, he was also a Christian. His work Pensees, included Pascal's wager, the essence of which is this:

The Christian life isn't everyone's cup of tea, but it's bearable and only lasts a few years. Hell is unbearably bad and lasts for ever. So even if the chance of the Christian story being right and hell being real is just 1%, it is better to play it safe and spend 70 years being a Christian than to take a 1% chance on an infinite number of years in hell. Thus any rational person would be a Christian.

The problem with this, of course, is that there are around 3000 gods and 30 000 religions which are or have been taken seriously. The followers of most of these say that the others aren't real and won't help you. So if you pick a god and a religion, the chances are you'll get the wrong one and go to hell anyway. Picking a god and a religion certainly doesn't amount to playing it safe. The probability of ending up in hell is maybe reduced from 1% to 0.99%, but that seems hardly worth changing one's life for.

And secondly, even if the bible is right, it says that we are saved by faith (Ephesians 2:8) and that faith is 'being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see' (Hebrews 11:1). 1% hardly counts as 'certain' and probably wouldn't cut it anyway.

The Multitude of Gods

The 3000 gods are, of course, just those for which there is historical record. Some of the better known gods are: Yahweh/Jehovah/the Lord, Allah, Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, Ahura Mazda, Baal, El, Asherah, Moloch, Marduk, Enlil, Osiris, Horus, Ra, Anubis, Zeus, Poseidon, Athena, Aphrodite, Apollo, Bacchus, Jupiter, Mercury, Caesar, Freyja, Odin, Thor, the Rainbow Serpent, Bunyip and Quetzalcoatl. Wikipedia has a much more complete list here.

Odin

Odin, the Allfather in Norse mythology, sitting on his throne in Asgard.

The Flying Spagetti Monster is quite well known, though probably wouldn't make the list of 3000 on the basis that it's not taken seriously by too many people.

Of course, many religions have multiple gods and the same god can feature in many religions. The 30 000 religions include many thousands of variations on the Christian faith. Some of these variations consider other variants to be misguided and ineffective in eliciting divine favour. For instance many charismatics consider most non-charismatic Christian denominations to be of the devil (Mystery Babylon). Adherents of other denominations consider some different denominations to be almost as good as they are, their theologies differing only in minor details, and still offering salvation. For instance, most Presbyterians consider Baptists to be destined for heaven rather than hell. (Though they're not so sure about the Catholics and are very dubious about the Mormons.)

Most people manage to not believe in nearly all the 3000 gods, though fewer make a clean sweep of it. Which gods they do believe in of course depends on which ones the people around them believe in, and consequently is more dependent on which part of the world they were brought up in than on which gods (if any) are actually real.

Motivation for Religion

In animistic and polytheistic religions, the motivation for being religious is that the gods can affect one's day-to-day life for better or for worse, so staying on the right side of them by performing the specified rituals and sacrifices is important.

The more common religions of modern times, however, rely more on rewards and punishment in an afterlife to encourage proper behaviour. Chinese folk religion, taken seriously by many in nominally atheistic China, includes the idea of Diyu, the Chinese version of hell. Unlike in Christianity and Islam, everyone who dies goes to Diyu where they are tortured for anything from a few hundred years to many thousands of years (depending on their sins) before being reborn and going through the whole process again - ad infinitum.

Diyu has various levels with different kinds of torture including: tongue ripping, knives, boiling sand, boiling faeces, the pit of fire, skinning, grinding, pounding, the mountain of ice, dismemberment, disembowelment, sawing, molten copper and maggots.

The hell of Christianity involves being burnt for ever in a lake of fire. Islam has a very similar hell except that, in their hell, one's skin gets burnt off and has to keep being replaced to ensure that the experience maintains the maximum painfulness. Either way, it is awful and there is never a moment's relief or relaxation. Apart from the never-ending intense pain, one would be desperately exhausted after just the first hundred years without sleep.

The Requirement of Faith

In many religions, one's fate after death depends on whether or not one is nice to people in this life. With most varieties of Christianity, however, that is not the case: one's fate depend solely on what one believes. This is fairly much the case in Islam too.

Doxastic voluntarism is the belief that we can can believe whatever we decide we should believe - and be certain about it. Some religious people are doxastic voluntarists and believe that anyone can fulfil the Christian requirement for faith (Ephesians 2:8, Hebrews 11:1). Other people hold that what we believe is totally determined by our makeup and our past experiences and is therefore beyond voluntary control. If asked to believe (truly believe and be certain, not just say they believe) that their mother grew up on Venus, even a doxastic voluntarist might have trouble.

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Image Acknowledgements

Odin: Gratis Graphics