Unasked questions: Is God male or female or what?

Both men and women are made in God’s image, according to the Bible. The God of monotheism is usually thought of a man (well, usually an angry old man with a white beard). But if people (not just males) were created in his image, should it be “in her image”? “In its image”? Or what?

Hermaprodite lifts its nightie

Genesis 1: 27 “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.”

Some religious apologists say that this doesn’t refer to physical attributes, but to mental or spiritual attributes. Oh, right, like that makes more sense! Now you’re saying that humans are created omnipotent, omniscient, etc.

But let’s stay with the sex issue. Is God like that child of Hermes and Aphrodite, Hermaphroditus? Does God have two fully formed sets of sex organs, or one set that is an amalgam like some humans have? If the latter, does that make hermaphrodites more godlike than the rest of us?

And while we’re at it, does God have a belly button like the rest of us? And if so, why? Is God just a blueprint for creating humans? Is that what God’s sex organs are for? And the big white beard, too? Just so He would know what He was trying to create?

So, um, what race is He? What kind of hair does he have, what color skin? Is His DNA pure homo sapiens, like Africans, or is it 4% Neanderthal like all non-Africans?

In other words, give me a break! “God created man in his own image”? Seriously? It must have meant something thousands of years ago to illiterate herders in the desert. But we’ve moved on since then. Some of us.

Is this what God's sex organs look like?

Dissing various religions

Each of the major monotheistic religions appears to have had the intent of the founder overturned by his “followers”. Judaism began as a polytheistic religion, where Abraham allied himself with Yahweh against other gods like Baal, but it evolved into monotheism. Both Buddhism and Islam began with the founder attempting to prevent the worship of a human individual, but have ended with the founder himself being given quasi-divine status. Christianity began with Jesus preaching a rejection of the Roman occupation of Palestine and a restoration of Judaic monotheism, and developed into the rejection of Judaism and the embrace of Rome, and even the worship of Jesus as God.

Beware the wrath of god(s)/goddess(es)

More recent religions appear fraudulent from the beginning. Mormonism begins with a 14-year-old con artist writing a ludicrous (and completely impossible) account of the settling of North America by the Lost Tribes of Israel. Scientology was created by science fiction author L. Ron Hubbard some time after he wrote “If you want to make a little money, write a book. If you want to make a lot of money, create a religion.” Kwanzaa has been labeled “a hoax built around fake history and pseudohistorical delusions”, and its lack of historical roots lays it open to ridicule.

The polytheistic religions look cleaner: partly because their origins are lost in the mists of time, partly because their nature allows different worship for different gods and goddesses – whether Hinduism, Santeria, Roman cults or Norse paganism, you’re free to choose an appropriate deity for whatever you’re trying to get out of worshiping them. If you feel the need to discover or invent a new god, that’s not a problem in a polytheist tradition – and if it resonates with something deep in the human psyche it may well grow in popularity. If you want to do this, stay close to nature. Worship waterfalls and storms, for example, like these chimpanzees.

“Sacrifice” – “giving away” or “making sacred”

To sacrifice something is to give it away, often to prevent a larger evil or to achieve a greater benefit. In primitive cultures where the word originated, it means you make something sacred by dedicating it to the gods for their use alone. You do this typically by preventing it ever being used by anyone else, i.e. you kill it or destroy it. It may be a young child, or a prisoner, or a prized horse or farm animal, or a sword or jewelry. You invoke the gods, then kill or break the sacrifice, or throw it somewhere irretrievable like the sea or a volcano.

God said to Abraham, "Kill me a son."

Here’s a story out of rural India, reported in the Sydney Morning Herald:

A seven-year-old Indian girl was murdered in a tribal sacrifice and her liver offered to the gods to improve crop growth, police in the central state of Chhattisgarh said on Sunday.

The body of Lalita Tati was found in October a week after her family reported her missing.

“A seven-year-old girl was sacrificed by two persons superstitiously believing that the act would give a better harvest,” Narayan Das, the police chief of Bijapur district, told AFP by telephone.

So what words come to mind? “Murder… tribal… black magic… witch doctors…”? Yes, those all show up in the rest of the story as reported. But how about “Abraham… God… sacrifice…”?
Sacrifice is nothing more than an attempt to bribe the most powerful force you can conceive of, so that it will reward you instead of punishing you. It makes ‘love of God’ into a mere manifestation of the Stockholm Syndrome.
The Roman Empire, although hosting gladiatorial contests and public executions, found human sacrifice obnoxious “to the laws of gods and men”. That the three great monotheist religions trace their common ancestry to Abraham, and to his willingness to kill his son in order to appease the voices in his head, is not something that any Jew, Christian or Muslim should be proud of.

Jesus and the Ultra-Orthodox Jew

In the news today, Israeli President Shimon Peres is calling on Israelis “to save the majority from the hands of a small minority”. Ultra-Orthodox Jews (who are exempt from military service and, rather than working, collect a government subsidy for religious studies) are increasingly resisting the secular nature of the Jewish state and trying to enforce ancient religious practices.

"Segregate women", the sign says. But surely the men are free to segregate themselves? At home? And veil themselves when they go out?

The Ultra-Orthodox demand strict gender segregation and “modest” dress for women. Recent incidents have seen schoolgirls harassed and spat at,  and women ordered to sit at the back of local buses or get off, despite court rulings that women can sit anywhere on a bus.

This issue resonates interestingly with the position of Muslim hardliners in other countries, and with the Jewish resistance to Roman rule 2,000 years ago.

Fanatics everywhere thrive on polarization. Ultra-Orthodox Jews and Al Qaeda are brothers with a common view of the universe, a view that their God, through His Infallible Book, has given them the divine duty to order the lives of entire 21st century nations in accordance with a subsistence-economy tribal past. They disagree as to which set of Semitic writings is the True Word of God, but they all loathe the Western tolerance of casual secular behavior. (Their leaders also understand that their power is increased by turning the Middle East into a religious battleground.)

When Rome ruled Palestine, the same dynamics were in play. Rome wanted a live-and-let-live religious environment where anyone could worship any god, and temples to all of them were scattered about. The more secular of the Jews were happy with this – they enjoyed the peace and improved travel and trade that the Empire brought. But the more religious of the Jews wanted to cleanse Israel of the beardless, pig-eating, polytheist idolators, and they wanted all Jews to repent and return to the Law of Moses. To them, all Jews were one family and everyone else should be evicted from the Promised Land.

Jesus was only one of a stream of would-be Messiahs who, over a 200 year period, led uprising after failed uprising against the Westerners and got crucified for their pains. Osama Bin Laden was of that mindset and he too has been executed. Secularism is gradually replacing religion around the world in a several-generations process now speeded by mass media, mass travel and the Internet. But the Ultra-Orthodox may well have a decade or two of success ahead of them.

The same things are still happening, that have been going on for 2,000 years. The Westernization of Israel is still in question.

Best resources – Christmas, Mithras, and Paul

Merry Christmas! And the question is, if Jesus was born sometime in the spring (when the shepherds were in the fields with the sheep, and the animals’ area with the manger under the house kataluma wasn’t being used), why did Christians create a winter solstice celebration for him instead?

Paul has an epileptic seizure on the road to Damascus

The answer is that Paul caused it. Paul’s intent was to create a Judaism-based religion that would be universally acceptable; he was a Roman citizen, not just a member of a conquered nation, and he wanted his religion to be Roman as well as Jewish. Reputedly epileptic, his seizures gave rise to religious visions, the most famous being of Jesus (who he never met) guiding him along a syncretist path. Paul took popular elements of Roman, Egyptian and Persian religions, and expressed the message of his religion in whatever form was most acceptable to the Empire as a whole.

The most popular religion with the Roman military was Mithraism. It was exclusively male, a mystery cult with seven levels of initiation, and a clear-cut view of the world as the battle-ground between good and evil. It promised eternal life to its believers, and its god was Mithras, the Unconquerable Sun.

For an extensive review of the whole issue, I refer you to Ben Best’s enormous review of the roots of Christmas, from which I quote:

“Mithras was a divine being borne of a human virgin on December 25th (the Winter Solstice by the Roman Julian calendar), his birth watched and worshiped by shepherds. As an adult, Mithras healed the sick, made the lame walk, gave sight to the blind and raised the dead. Before returning to heaven at the Spring Equinox Mithras had a last supper with 12 disciples (representing the 12 signs of the Zodiac). Mithraism included Zoroastrian beliefs in the struggle between good & evil, symbolized as light & darkness. This militaristic black-and-white morality (including a final judgment affecting an afterlife of heaven or hell) probably accounted for the popularity of Mithraism among Roman soldiers. Mithraism was like an ancient fraternity: a mystery cult open only to men which had seven degrees of initiation — including the ritual of baptism and a sacred meal of bread & wine representing the body & blood of Mithras.”

The original December 25th Virgin Birth

The purple-robed priests, candles, incense, circular wafers and Queen of Heaven motifs were ideas that were familiar and attractive to Egyptians. The winter solstice greeting cards and presents, the greenery of trees and branches and garlands, the pantheon of saints to pray to – those customs were comfortable among Greeks and Romans. But the December 25th Virgin Birth (along with much else) was what would make Paul’s Christianity completely familiar and acceptable to the Roman Legions.

In The Gospel According to the Romans, the Roman military are Mithraists while Jesus and his followers are Jews. There weren’t any Christians yet, of course.

Jesus, Mary and Afghanistan – the death sentence for being raped

Would Mary, the mother of Jesus, have been sentenced to death if her pregnancy was caused by rape or by other sex outside marriage?

Afghan woman in a buqa, Herat, 2010

Consider the case currently unfolding in Afghanistan, whose sharia law is based on the same male-dominated monotheist tribalism as religious Judaism: An Afghan woman, Gulnaz, complained of being raped by a relative. We have good news and bad news:

  • Good news: she wasn’t sentenced to death for adultery
  • Bad news: she was given three years in jail, and after she gave birth to a daughter in jail she was given a second trial, and the sentence was increased to twelve years.

We have more good news and bad news:

  • Good news: in the second trial, the judge told the convict that she could be released…
  • Bad news: … if she married the rapist (regardless of her feelings toward him – or of his toward her, which would likely result in further abuse and quite likely death).

Stay tuned for further developments in the exciting world of 21st century religious jurisprudence. In the meantime, consider what Mary would have faced if she had been raped by a Roman soldier, or had had an affair at 14 – and got pregnant – if she hadn’t married Joseph before he knew she was pregnant, back in the late 1st century BC… Best bet: death by stoning.

The Promised Land, 3 – do Jews really believe that?

The land promised to Abraham by his god (in exchange for exclusivity of worship) was “from the river of Egypt to the Euphrates”. In modern terms this includes not just Israel/Palestine, but Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Kuwait, half of Iraq, a large part of Egypt, and an undefined part of Saudi Arabia. (You could even argue that it includes the entire Arabian peninsula, as falling within the coast between the Euphrates and Egypt.)

Map of the Promised Land as defined in Deuteronomy

If you don’t think that fundamentalist Jews and Messianic Christians believe in such a massive expansion of Israel, look at this map on this website.

If you don’t think that the Arabs are aware of the fundamentalist Jewish vision, then look at this blog. This blog includes references to Jews claiming the full territory in the writings of Theodore Herzl and in 1947 testimony to the UN.

And notice that they are using the same map (misspelling ‘Caspian’, and showing Israel as including both Lebanon and the Sinai peninsula). How nice that they can agree about something.

Of course, only a very few Jews and Christians make these preposterous claims to own the whole “Promised Land”. Similarly, only a very few Muslims want to eradicate the state of Israel. Most people on both sides, as most people everywhere, simply want a better life for themselves and their children, and to feel that they are living in a fair and just world. As the bumper sticker says, “If you want peace, work for justice.”

It would be nice for Palestinian constitutions to renounce the idea of the eradication of Israel. Israel could show the way by renouncing, in its constitution, the idea of the Promised Land “from the river of Egypt to the Euphrates”.

The Promised Land, 1 – The Covenant

The Covenant with Abraham is the basis for the world’s three major monotheist religions, as well as for the conflicts between them. It dates back to the time of polytheism, and appears to have been taken originally as a powerplay by one local god, Yahweh, to ally himself with a tribe of humans for their mutual expansion. Abraham was to give sole worship and complete obedience to this god. What the god, now to be GOD, promised in exchange is found scattered through Genesis chapters 12 to 17:

  • to make of Abraham a great nation and to multiply his seed exceedingly
  • to make him father of a great many nations
  • to bless Abraham and make him great
  • to make Abraham a blessing to all the families of the earth
  • to bless those who bless him and to curse those who curse him
  • to give Abraham and his seed forever all the land which he could see
  • to give him a sign of the covenant (circumcision).

And specifically, Genesis 15:18-21 describes what is referred to in Jewish tradition as Gevulot Ha-aretz (“Borders of the Land”) and regarded as the full extent of the land God promised to Abraham:

"From the river of Egypt to the Euphrates"

On that day, God made a covenant with Abram, saying: “To your descendants I have given this land, from the river of Egypt as far as the great river the Euphrates. The land of the Kenites, Kenizites, Kadmonites; the Chitties, Perizites, Refaim; the Emorites, Canaanites, Gigashites and Yevusites.”

But Arabs also lay claim to legitimate descent from Abraham through his son Ishmael. As Amir Ali has written, ‘The Bible declares, “So, after Abram had dwelt ten years in the land of Canaan, Sar’ai, Abram’s wife, took Hager the Egyptian, her maid, and gave her to Abram her husband as a wife” (Gen 16:3). Note that the adjective wife has been used twice, once associated with Sar’ai and second time associated with Hager indicating no superiority of one wife over the other. This shows, according to the Bible, the original Arabs were equally descendants of Abraham as were the original Bani Israel. Christian and Jewish apologetics may have some irrational rationalization to exclude children of Ishmael from God’s covenant to Abraham.’ (End of quote.)

The vaguely Promised Land…

Monotheism and polytheism – desert and forest

Studies have pointed out that there are interesting correlations between the geographic extremes of Forest and Desert on the one hand, and a whole range of cultural predispositions on the other.

The basic claimed comparison is the table below, and the highlight is that Forests = polytheism, and Deserts = monotheism

FOREST

DESERT

Dispute resolution Non-violent Tendency to warfare
Social structure Egalitarian Stratified
Sexuality Tolerant Taboos punishable by death
Women’s rights Substantial Male-dominated
Religion Polytheism Monotheism

This is simplistic. For example, we now equate the Sahara-Asian deserts with Islam, but historically the Arabian peninsula was overwhelmingly polytheistic, right up until Muhammad began trying to change it in 610 AD. (For an extensive critique of these ideas, and of the groups that disseminate them, see Steven Dutch’s page at the University of Wisconsin – Green Bay.)

However there are two lines of thought that can support the ideas of polytheism seeming more natural in a Forest environment, and of monotheism finding an easier reception in a Desert.

  1. A Forest has abundant resources; a resource dispute can be solved by one party moving away. But the limited resources of a Desert will favor the party that uses violence to control the resources, and the need for violence will favor male power and stratified decision-making. A society dominated by a single powerful male will be more receptive to the idea of the Universe being under the control of a single powerful God.
  2. In a Forest, nature has many aspects: trees, rivers, delicious fruits, poisonous fruits, animals you can eat, animals that will eat you, patches of sun, frequent rain, and so on. Nature is diverse, and its gods are diverse. In a Desert, nature is dominated by the sun – omnipresent, all-seeing, harsh, unforgiving, and an easy symbol for the domination of life by a single God.

    The sun - the inspiration for monotheism?

So a more complete comparison might be:

FOREST

DESERT

Environment Complex Sparse
The sun Elusive, welcome Constant, unforgiving
Basic resources Abundant Limited
Dispute resolution Distraction, relocation Retribution, clan warfare
Social structure Egalitarian Stratified
Sexuality Tolerant Taboos punishable by death
Women’s rights Substantial Male-dominated
Religion Polytheism Monotheism

Does this mean that the Celts and Anglo-Saxons and Vikings coming out of the northern forests were non-violent? Hardly! But they were definitely more egalitarian, sexually tolerant and polytheist than the Latin cultures which subsequently dominated them.

You are unlikely to see Scandinavians stoning anyone to death for sexual promiscuity, or for pregnancy outside marriage.

Monotheism and Polytheism – pros and cons

Monotheism is authoritarian – if there is only one god, and only one correct way to understand his will, then there is only one correct way to act regarding the things god finds important. If there are rival suggestions of the correct way to act in these areas, both sides will feel a religious duty to force the other side to change their behavior, and preferably their opinions. This leads to religious police, religious inquisitions, religious wars.

Only One God - bearded dude up in the sky with a whole bunch of what look like lesser gods

Monotheism results in a very focused society, with absolute values and unquestioning support – until a flaw appears, opposition appears, and war breaks out. Monotheism is inherently hostile to democracy and free choice.

It is easier to manage a theocracy for a population that is ethnically and culturally homogenous. The wider it grows, the more allowances have to be made, and the faster the monotheism erodes. The most effective monotheisms are cults operating in isolated compounds.

Polytheism allows the possibility of behaving in different ways, each way being appropriate for a different god. Those who want to worship Venus are not forced to live by the standards of those who worship Mars.

Lots of gods - bearded dude up in the sky with a whole bunch of lesser gods

This advantage allows a political structure that is not limited by a single religious practice to spread across unrelated cultures, adopting their gods into the pantheon of the rulers. This was part of what allowed the Roman Empire to spread so successfully, bringing the worship of Isis in to Rome as well as the worship of Jupiter out to conquered provinces. The decline and fall of the Roman Empire is connected to the replacement of polytheism by monotheism, as Gibbon pointed out.

Polytheism is not all peace and love, however. Where there is no consensus on correct social norms, war cults will want to act in a warlike fashion. Male-only cults will make life hard for women. Patrician cults will formalize aristocracy and slavery.

Mono- or poly-, it’s the theism that is the problem. Matthew, in The Gospel According to the Romans, is an interested but skeptical observer of the religions swirling around the Roman Empire.