The God Equivalence Conundrum

This observation is inspired by Cal Thomas’ latest column, and yes, using the words “inspired” and “Cal Thomas” in the same sentence is difficult. Still, the man raises an interesting point, although not the point I think he intended. The article intends to bash President Bush for his words with regard to assuring the Muslim world that Americans are not anti-Muslim. But in the process, he is adamant that the Muslim God and the Christian God are separate and distinct. Specifically he says:

The president can be commended for sincerely reaching out to Muslims, but he should not be commended for watering down his beliefs and the doctrines of his professed faith in order to do so. That’s universalism. There are “churches” that believe in universalism, his Methodist church does not. No Christian who believes the Bible believes in universalism. And no Muslim who believes the Koran does either.

President Bush is wrong, dangerously wrong, in proclaiming that all religions worship the same God.

Religious scholars all agree that Islam, Judaism, and Christianity all have a common root. It always seemed to me that they all worshiped the same god, they just did so differently. There was wide disagreement on what it meant to be faithful, what rituals and practices were appropriate, and so forth. In the end, I thought most non-universalist people believed that their faith, their attributions, their theology would be judged as true, and everyone else would be judged by God to have been wrong. To put it another way, Muslims, Jews, and Christians all worship the same god, they just disagree on what is the proper way to do it and what he ultimately expects of them.

However, Thomas is asserting that they worship different gods. He is not asserting they worship false gods, but different ones. And that distinction is enormous. This brings religion into a whole different light. The implication is that all these gods exist separately and independently. The very small extension of this argument is that there is no reason to stop with the Islamic, Jewish, and Christian gods. Why should there only be three? The whole pantheon of Hindi gods must also exist, the sky world people of Native American religions, Thor, Zeus, Ra, Osiris, and all the gods of all the mythologies must then also exist. Right?

But wait!! Don’t order yet. Given some of the deep divides among Islamic sects, would Sunnis have a different god than Kurds? What about the Orthodox Jewish god versus the Reformed Jewish god? For that matter, would Catholics have a different god than Protestants, and Mormons yet a third god? Are Baptists sufficiently removed from Episcopalians to have a separate god? There’s no obvious point at which to stop this.

If Thomas’ view of the supernatural world is correct, then we must envision a world with numerous gods all competing for worshipers. Clearly they cannot, or at least are not inclined to, destroy one another or they would have done so already. This would have lead us back to one true religion and everyone else worshiping false, or at least defeated, gods. So they must coexist in some fashion. Given that they coexist and compete peacefully, then all religions are true. The various gods may establish different rules and offer different rewards, but in the end, it’s a lot like choosing a credit card. They all get the job done, we just quibble about the rates and the incentives.

I think most theists would find this a patently silly view of the universe. Most mainstream theologies don’t provide for the existence of gods from unrelated theologies. Which means that most theologies assert (directly or indirectly) that other theologies are wrong and their gods are false ones.

So I believe what Thomas really meant was that the Muslim god is a false one, and that his Christian god is the one true god. But it would be politically indelicate to say that. Besides, that borders on the “infidel” label which we bristle at when Muslims hurl it at us.

Still, the false gods claim leaves open the question of where the line is drawn. If Muslims worship a false god, then surely Hindus, Druids, and ancient Greeks do. But what of Jews? That is a precursor religion to Christianity, one which Jesus himself practiced. So if Jews worship a false god then Jesus worshiped a false god. That seems an unlikely Christian position. And what about the varieties of Christian religions? Do Mormons worship a false god? Catholics? I suspect asserting that Catholics worship a false god would be outside the comfort zone of most Protestants. rather, their position would be that Catholics worship the same god, they just do it wrong. But ultimately that distinction is unhelpful.

If Catholics worship the right god but do it wrong, and Muslims worship the wrong god, isn’t the outcome the same? Won’t both be condemned in the afterlife? So where is the harm in Muslims worshiping the same god, but doing it badly? The assertion in both cases is that the group is profoundly theologically wrong. Does it really matter what they are wrong about? Aren’t they being condemned in either case?

Does Thomas’ distinction really amount to anything in the end? It would appear not. But he got a column out of it… and apparently so did I.

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