Some believe monotheism was a unifying force. Polytheism as it exited in Biblical times was very divisive. Not only were there separate gods for different places. There were separate gods for specific things such as natural objects and crafts. Over time the Jewish God began take on the different characteristics ascribed to different pagan gods such as fertility and justice.

The idea that there is one god also raises the idea that there is one set of beliefs and a moral code that all humanity is expected to ascribe by.

Polytheists have traditionally been looked down upon by practitioners of the great monotheistic religion which worship only a single god---Judaism, Christianity, Islam---as primitive and barbaric pagans. But some believe maybe they had the right idea.

Mary Leftowitz, a classics professor at Wellesley College, argues that a lot of world’s troubles today can be blamed in monotheism. In the Los Angeles Times she wrote, “The polytheistic Greeks didn’t advocate killing those who worshiped a different gods, and they did not pretend that their religion provided all the right answers. Their religion made the ancient Greeks aware of their ignorance and weakness, letting them recognize multiple points of view. ..It suggests that collective decisions often lead to better outcomes. Respect for a diversity of viewpoints informs the cooperative system the Athenians called democracy.”

“Unlike the monotheistic traditions Greco-Roman polytheism was multicultural...The world, as the Greek philosopher Thales wrote, is full of gods, and all deserve respect and honor. Such a generous understanding of nature called the ancient Greeks and Romans to accept and respect other people’s gods and to admire (rather than despise) other nations for their own notions of piety. If the Greeks were in close contact with a particular nation they gave their foreign gods names of their own gods: The Egyptian goddess Isis was Demeter; Horus was Apollo and so on.”

Websites and Resources: Bible and Biblical History: Bible Gateway and the New International Version (NIV) of The Bible biblegateway.com ; King James Version of the Bible gutenberg.org/ebooks ; Bible History Online bible-history.com ; Biblical Archaeology Society biblicalarchaeology.org ; Internet Jewish History Sourcebook sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Complete Works of Josephus at Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL) ccel.org ; Judaism Judaism101 jewfaq.org ; Aish.com aish.com ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; torah.org torah.org ; Chabad,org chabad.org/library/bible ; Religious Tolerance religioustolerance.org/judaism ; BBC - Religion: Judaism bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/judaism ; Encyclopædia Britannica, britannica.com/topic/Judaism; Jewish History: Jewish History Timeline jewishhistory.org.il/history ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Jewish History Resource Center dinur.org ; Center for Jewish History cjh.org ; Jewish History.org jewishhistory.org ; Christianity and Christians Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Christianity.com christianity.com ; BBC - Religion: Christianity bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity/ ; Christianity Today christianitytoday.com

Huston Smith and Religion

Polytheism: Mt. Olympus gods

The religious scholar Huston Smith, who was born to missionary parents in China and taught at MIT and Syracuse and other universities in his long career and life, is regarded as one the great thinkers of the 20th century on religion. Among his experiences has been defending the Dalai Lama, dropping acid with Timothy Leary, praying regularly to Mecca and doing yoga everyday for 50 years. His great contribution to religious study has been his book The World’s Religions (1958) in which he summarizes eight great religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and folk religions) with nice, lucid well-written chapters about 40 to 50 pages in length.

When asked if he thought all religions led to salvation he told Newsweek, “The shell is exoteric, its outside, visible. The kernel, its esotericism, invisible. Both are important. Esoterically, religions are identical. Exoterically they are different.” Some scholars sniff at this belief and even find it dangerous. Stephen Prothero, a religion professor at Boston University, told Newsweek, “Smith and others have led us down a rabbit hole of nonreality that we are now trying to climb back out of. Is Islam the same as Christianity” To con ourselves into thinking they’re the same is to believe in something that is false.” Pothero said this while recognizing The World’s Religions as “the most important book in religious studies ever.”

Global Religious Demography

Exact numbers for religious populations are impossible to obtain and estimates for the size of the larger faiths can vary by hundreds of millions. In 2012, Washington-based Pew Forum used 2,500 censuses, surveys and population registers to determine one of the most extensive surveys ver on religion Pew Forum demographer Conrad Hackett told Reuters:“It’s not the kind of data that’s available for every country. A census will typically ask what your religion is and you can identify a number of particular affiliations or no religion.” [Source: Tom Heneghan, Reuters, December 18, 2012 |*|]

The study estimated Christianity was the largest faith at 2.2 billion adherents or 31.5 percent of the world’s population. The Roman Catholic Church makes up 50 percent of that total, with Protestants — including Anglicans and non-denominational churches — at 37 percent and Orthodox at 12 percent. There are about 1.6 billion Muslims around the world, or 23 percent of the global population. “The overwhelming majority (87-90 percent) are Sunnis, about 10-13 percent are Shia Muslims,” the study said. |*|

Tom Heneghan of Reuters wrote: “An age breakdown showed Muslims had the lowest median age at 23 years, compared to 28 for the whole world population. The median age highlights the population bulge at the point where half the population is above and half below that number. Muslims are going to grow as a share of the world’s population and an important part of that is this young age structure,” Hackett said. By contrast,Judaism, which has 14 million adherents or 0.2 percent of the world population, has the highest median age at 36, meaning its growth prospects are weakest. Global Christianity’s median age is 30 and Hinduism’s 26. |*|

“The study said that 97 percent of the world’s Hindus, 87 percent of its Christians and 73 percent of its Muslims lived in countries where they were a large to overwhelming majority. Christians make up the majority in 157 countries and Muslims in 49, including 19 of the 20 states in the Middle East and North Africa, with the exception of Israel. By contrast,Hindus are in the majority only in India, Nepal and Mauritius. |*|

“The world’s Hindu population is concentrated mostly in India, Nepal and Bangladesh. Half of the world’s Buddhists live in China, followed far behind by Thailand at 13.2 percent of the world Buddhist population and Japan with 9.4 percent. |*|

“The study found that about 405 million people, or about 6 percent of the world population, followed folk religions such as those found in Africa and China or among Native American and Australian aboriginal peoples. Another 58 million, or nearly 1 percent of the world population, belonged to “other religions” including Baha’i, Taoism, Jainism, Shintoism, Sikhism, Tenrikyo, Wicca and Zoroastrianism. Most were in the Asia-Pacific region.” |*|

World's Newest Major Religion: No Religion

More and more people are identifying themselves as atheist, agnostic, or otherwise nonreligious. Gabe Bullard wrote in National Geographic, “The religiously unaffiliated, called "nones," are growing significantly. They’re the second largest religious group in North America and most of Europe. In the United States, nones make up almost a quarter of the population. In the past decade, U.S. nones have overtaken Catholics, mainline Protestants, and all followers of non-Christian faiths. A lack of religious affiliation has profound effects on how people think about death, how they teach their kids, and even how they vote. [Source: Gabe Bullard, National Geographic, April 22, 2016 ++]

“There have long been predictions that religion would fade from relevancy as the world modernizes, but all the recent surveys are finding that it’s happening startlingly fast. France will have a majority secular population soon. So will the Netherlands and New Zealand. The United Kingdom and Australia will soon lose Christian majorities. Religion is rapidly becoming less important than it’s ever been, even to people who live in countries where faith has affected everything from rulers to borders to architecture. ++

“But nones aren’t inheriting the Earth just yet. In many parts of the world—sub-Saharan Africa in particular—religion is growing so fast that nones’ share of the global population will actually shrink in 25 years as the world turns into what one researcher has described as “the secularizing West and the rapidly growing rest.” (The other highly secular part of the world is China, where the Cultural Revolution tamped down religion for decades, while in some former Communist countries, religion is on the increase.)” ++

Tom Heneghan of Reuters wrote: “People with no religious affiliation make up the third-largest global group in a new study of the size of the world’s faiths, placing after Christians and Muslims and just before Hindus. Overall, 84 percent of the world’s inhabitants, which it estimated at 6.9 billion, identify with a religion, according to the study entitled “The Global Religious Landscape” issued by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life on Tuesday. [Source: Tom Heneghan, Reuters, December 18, 2012 |*|]

“The “unaffiliated” category covers all those who profess no religion, from atheists and agnostics to people with spiritual beliefs but no link to any established faith. “Many of the religiously unaffiliated do hold religious or spiritual beliefs,” the study stressed. “Belief in God or a higher power is shared by 7 percent of unaffiliated Chinese adults, 30 percent of unaffiliated French adults and 68 percent of unaffiliated U.S. adults,” it said. |*|

“With a median age of 34, the growth prospects for religiously unaffiliated people are weak, the study showed. Among the 1.1 billion unaffiliated people around the world, over 700 million, or 62 percent of them, live in China alone, where they make up 52.2 percent of the Chinese population. Japan comes next with the second largest unaffiliated population in the world with 72 million, or 57 percent of the national population. After that comes the United States, 51 million people — 16.4 percent of all Americans — said they have no link to an established faith.” |*|

Religious Freedom Restrictions Increasing Globally

A Pew Research Center’s annual study released in 2017 found that though religious freedom restrictions were in a downward trend globally, 2015 showed an increase in religiously motivated violence especially in the Middle East and Europe. Emily McFarlan Miller of Religion News Service wrote: “A total of 40 percent of surveyed countries registered “high” or “very high” levels of restrictions, according to Pew Research Center’s annual study on global restrictions on religion, released Tuesday (April 10). That’s up from 34 percent in 2014, according to the data. The percentage had declined during the previous two years. [Source: Emily McFarlan Miller, Religion News Service, April 12, 2017 \^\]

“Of the 198 countries Pew surveyed, 25 percent reported “high” or “very high” levels of government restriction, up just slightly from 24 percent in 2014. And 27 percent reported “high” or “very high” numbers of acts of religious hostility by individuals, organizations or groups, a jump from 23 percent in 2014, according to the data. That happened in a year when European countries welcomed an increasing number of refugees, religion-related terror attacks rocked France, and people with albinism were targeted for rituals by witch doctors in sub-Saharan Africa, the report said. \^\

“Of the five regions surveyed by Pew, the Middle East-North Africa region had the highest percentage of countries registering government harassment or use of force against religious groups: 95 percent. But Europe saw the largest increase, with 53 percent of the countries in the region experiencing an uptick in government harassment or force between 2014 and 2015. It came in second to Middle East-North Africa with 89 countries experiencing harassment and force, according to Pew. \^\

“Some of those instances in Europe could be linked to the influx of refugees to the region, according to Pew. The number of people seeking asylum in Europe nearly doubled in 2015, reaching 1.3 million migrants. Of those, more than half were from Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq - where the majority of the populations are Muslim. Those instances included derogatory statements and discrimination, such as statements made by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who wrote in September 2015 that Europe should close its borders to Muslim immigrants in order to “keep Europe Christian.” They also included force, like the German police raid of the Islamic Cultural Center in Bremen, later ruled unlawful.” \^\

God and the Scriptures


“But how do Jews know this about God? According to the BBC: “They don't know it, they believe it, which is different. However, many religious people often talk about God in a way that sounds as if they know about God in the same way that they know what they had for breakfast. For instance, religious people often say they are quite certain about God - by which they mean that they have an inner certainty. And many people have experiences that they believe were times when they were in touch with The best evidence for what God is like comes from what the Bible says, and from particular individuals' experiences of God. [Source: BBC |::|]

“Quite early in his relationship with the Jews, God makes it clear that he will not let them encounter his real likeness in the way that they encounter each other. The result is that the Jews have work out what God is like from what he says and what he does. The story is in Exodus 33 and follows the story of the 10 commandments, and the Golden Calf. |::|

“Moses has spent much time talking with God, and the two of them are clearly quite close. The Lord would speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks with his friend. But after getting the 10 commandments Moses wants to see God, so that he can know what he is really like. God says no...you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live. Then the LORD said, There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock. When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen.” |::|

God’s Relationship with Man

Robert A. Burt of Yale University wrote in Washington Post:“Throughout the Bible, God repeatedly doubts humanity's worth. We see these misgivings in the book of Genesis, when God decides to kill nearly all of humanity in a great flood because of our evil proclivities. Or when He destroys Sodom and Gomorrah because of their residents' sinfulness. Or in Exodus, when God resolves to kill the Israelites, whom He has rescued from slavery in Egypt because of their idolatry of a golden calf, until Moses persuades Him otherwise. [Source: Robert A. Burt m Washington Post, April 6, 2012. Burt is a law professor at Yale University and the author of "In the Whirlwind: God and Humanity in Conflict" \=/]

“The biblical narratives also record doubts on humanity's side — doubts about the worth of obeying God and about his plans for us. By highlighting this aspect of humanity's relationship with God, the Bible reveals itself in an unexpected light: as a guidebook for confronting authority — secular political authority as well as religious authority. \=/

20120502-God Michelangelo_-_Earth_Water.GIF
Michelangelo's God Creating the Earth and Water
“Try reading the Bible as if you didn't know the endings to its stories. The book is filled with gripping accounts of people facing crises, with resolutions that are far from clear. When Abraham, in obedience to God's command, binds his son, Isaac, on an altar and raises his knife over him, neither knows that the killing will be interrupted. When Jesus's disciples learn of his death and are overwhelmed by grief and fear, they don't know that He will return to them. When Jesus himself utters his last words from the cross — "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?," according to the Gospels of Mark and Matthew — He doesn't know that God will welcome Him in Heaven. \=/

“Whether we approach the Bible as believers in its truth or solely with an appreciation of its literary qualities, we cannot accurately understand the text if we overlook the deep doubts and fears of the characters, including their doubts about God's wisdom. A close reading reveals many instances when human beings withhold allegiance from God — and seemingly with good reason. One obvious example is in the book of Job, in which God authorizes the infliction of suffering on an innocent man to prove to Satan that Job will be loyal to Him. Job responds, however, by cursing the day he was born and threatening suicide, which he imagines would somehow punish God for the injustice he is suffering. "Soon I'll be lying in the earth," Job says. "When you come looking for me, I'll be gone." \=/

“There are other notable occasions. After Abraham is held back at the last moment from fulfilling God's command to kill Isaac, he and God never speak again. Genesis does not proclaim this fact; it simply gives no record of any further communication between them, in contrast to the constant interactions between God and Abraham before this climactic event. There is also no record of any further conversation between Abraham and Isaac. The implications are tantalizing: Isaac has lost faith in his father's paternal benevolence, and in parallel, Abraham has lost faith in God's beneficence toward him after being subjected to this horrific test. \=/

“Similarly, in the Christian Bible, Jesus's disciples abandon Him as He faces death. Peter denies knowing Jesus when challenged in the high priest's courtyard, while other disciples flee after his arrest. Their actions might have been motivated by fear and self-preservation. But it is also plausible from the narrative that the disciples broke off their relationship with Jesus because they felt abandoned by his refusal to use his powers to resist his crucifixion. These stories — and many others involving Cain, Noah, Jacob and Moses — underscore a question that quietly pervades the Hebrew and Christian Bibles: Does God deserve humanity's obedience, its love?” \=/

God’s Power Over Humanity

Robert A. Burt of Yale University wrote in Washington Post: “God has overwhelming power that He can use to destroy us. This may be a reason for believers to fear Him, but it hardly establishes legitimate authority or provides a reason to love Him. Is God worthy of humanity's allegiance because He created us? Abusive or neglectful human parents don't deserve their injured children's loyalty. Is there not good reason to expect more from God — to expect nurturing and protection? [Source: Robert A. Burt m Washington Post, April 6, 2012 \=/]

“But would accepting some standard of justice — for example, that He keep his promises to humanity — limit God? In the biblical narratives, this possibility is raised but never resolved. When God appears to Job in the whirlwind, He seems to mock Job for daring to see any limitation on his power. But later, God seems to acknowledge the truth of Job's claim by restoring his previous fortune twice over. God thus paid double indemnity, in effect, pleading guilty in Job's lawsuit against Him for wrongful conduct. \=/

Adam and Eve banished from the Garden of Eden

“There is, however, another style of divine authority that can be seen in the Hebrew and Christian Bibles. It is bilateral rather than unilateral, based on mutual recognition and soliciting consent rather than commanding obedience. This style can be seen with particular clarity when God offers a special covenant to the children of Israel in the Sinai desert after rescuing them from Egyptian slavery. He does not command the Israelites to accept a special relationship with Him. He does not threaten punishment if they do not consent. \=/

“These two forms of divine authority — unilateral and bilateral — recur throughout the biblical texts. But both sides clearly seem to prefer the bilateral relationship, one based on mutual regard and good faith. Whenever God veers toward a command approach, humanity pushes back: Abraham's withdrawal from God, Job's protests, Moses's reminder to God of his past promises to Abraham, Isaac and Israel that their descendants would be a great nation. Of course, no one has effective coercive authority over God. But in the biblical texts, God is continually reminded — by Abraham, Moses, Job and Jesus — that coercion cannot pry loose what He truly wants from us: not just obedience but loyalty, allegiance and love.” \=/

Science and Religion: God Didn't Make Man; Man Made Gods

J. Anderson Thomson and Clare Aukofer wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “In recent years scientists specializing in the mind have begun to unravel religion's "DNA." They have produced robust theories, backed by empirical evidence (including "imaging" studies of the brain at work), that support the conclusion that it was humans who created God, not the other way around. And the better we understand the science, the closer we can come to "no heaven … no hell … and no religion too." Like our physiological DNA, the psychological mechanisms behind faith evolved over the eons through natural selection. They helped our ancestors work effectively in small groups and survive and reproduce, traits developed long before recorded history, from foundations deep in our mammalian, primate and African hunter-gatherer past. [Source: J. Anderson Thomson and Clare Aukofer, Los Angeles Times, July 18, 2011 >>>]

“For example, we are born with a powerful need for attachment, identified as long ago as the 1940s by psychiatrist John Bowlby and expanded on by psychologist Mary Ainsworth. Individual survival was enhanced by protectors, beginning with our mothers. Attachment is reinforced physiologically through brain chemistry, and we evolved and retain neural networks completely dedicated to it. We easily expand that inborn need for protectors to authority figures of any sort, including religious leaders and, more saliently, gods. God becomes a super parent, able to protect us and care for us even when our more corporeal support systems disappear, through death or distance. >>>

“Scientists have so far identified about 20 hard-wired, evolved "adaptations" as the building blocks of religion. Like attachment, they are mechanisms that underlie human interactions: Brain-imaging studies at the National Institutes of Health showed that when test subjects were read statements about religion and asked to agree or disagree, the same brain networks that process human social behavior — our ability to negotiate relationships with others — were engaged. >>>

“Among the psychological adaptations related to religion are our need for reciprocity, our tendency to attribute unknown events to human agency, our capacity for romantic love, our fierce "out-group" hatreds and just as fierce loyalties to the in groups of kin and allies. Religion hijacks these traits. The rivalry between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, for example, or the doctrinal battles between Protestant and Catholic reflect our "groupish" tendencies. In addition to these adaptations, humans have developed the remarkable ability to think about what goes on in other people's minds and create and rehearse complex interactions with an unseen other. In our minds we can de-couple cognition from time, place and circumstance. We consider what someone else might do in our place; we project future scenarios; we replay past events. It's an easy jump to say, conversing with the dead or to conjuring gods and praying to them. >>>

“Morality, which some see as imposed by gods or religion on savage humans, science sees as yet another adaptive strategy handed down to us by natural selection. Yale psychology professor Paul Bloom notes that "it is often beneficial for humans to work together … which means it would have been adaptive to evaluate the niceness and nastiness of other individuals." In groundbreaking research, he and his team found that infants in their first year of life demonstrate aspects of an innate sense of right and wrong, good and bad, even fair and unfair. When shown a puppet climbing a mountain, either helped or hindered by a second puppet, the babies oriented toward the helpful puppet. They were able to make an evaluative social judgment, in a sense a moral response. Michael Tomasello, a developmental psychologist who co-directs the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, has also done work related to morality and very young children. He and his colleagues have produced a wealth of research that demonstrates children's capacities for altruism. He argues that we are born altruists who then have to learn strategic self-interest.” >>>

Stephen Hawking: God Not Needed to Create the Universe

Stephen Hawking

The famed Cambridge physicist and mathematician Stephen Hawking said the The Big Bang was the result of the laws of physics and did not need the help of God to set the Universe in motion. In his book, “The Grand Design,”he said: “Because there is a law such as gravity, the Universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the Universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the Universe going.” [Source: Laura Roberts, The Telegraph, September 2, 2010]

Laura Roberts wrote in The Telegraph, “”In A Brief History of Time,” Prof Hawking's most famous work, he did not dismiss the possibility that God had a hand in the creation of the world. He wrote in the 1988 book: "If we discover a complete theory, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason — for then we should know the mind of God. In his new book he rejects Sir Isaac Newton's theory that the Universe did not spontaneously begin to form but was set in motion by God.

In June 2010, Prof Hawking told a Channel 4 series that he didn't believe that a "personal" God existed. He told Genius of Britain: "The question is: is the way the universe began chosen by God for reasons we can't understand, or was it determined by a law of science? I believe the second. If you like, you can call the laws of science 'God', but it wouldn't be a personal God that you could meet, and ask questions."

Jennifer Quinn wrote in the Seattle Times, “The Grand Design,” challenges Isaac Newton’s theory God must have been involved in creation because our solar system couldn’t have come out of chaos simply through nature. But Hawking says it isn’t that simple. To understand the universe, it’s necessary to know both how and why it behaves the way it does, calling the pursuit “the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything.” Hawking, who is renowned for his work on black holes, said the 1992 discovery of another planet orbiting a star other than the sun makes “the coincidences of our planetary conditions … far less remarkable and far less compelling as evidence that the Earth was carefully designed just to please us human beings.” Hawking retired in 2009 as the Lucasian Chair of Mathematics at Cambridge University after 30 years in the position. The position was once held by Newton. [Source: Jennifer Quinn, Seattle Times, September 2, 2010]

Are Humans Programmed to Believe in God?

Human beings are predisposed to believe in God and the afterlife, according to a University of $3-million Oxford study. The findings suggest that there is an inbuilt predisposition in the mind towards seeing the world in religious or spiritual terms and public life will always have a strong religious dimension. Roger Trigg, a philosophy professor and co-director of the project from the Ian Ramsey Centre in the Theology Faculty at Oxford, said: “It means you cannot separate religion and public life. The mind is open to supernatural agency. There are lots of explanations. It is certainly linked to basic cognitive architecture, in other words, the way we think.” [Source: Ruth Gledhill, The Times, Tuesday, 17 May 2011 /+/]

Ruth Gledhill wrote in The Times: Professor Trigg said that it was too simplistic to talk in terms of being “hard-wired” or “programmed” to believe in God, however. Environmental factors also applied, and humans were not naturally monotheistic. The supernatural instinct could manifest in polytheism or other belief systems as well. The research has raised philosophical questions, such as why it is that if God does exist, he makes it so difficult for humans to believe in him or her. “It is not obvious,” Professor Trigg said. “Others might say it would be an encroachment on human freedom if we were too forced to believe in God.” /+/

“One study by Emily Reed Burdett and Dr Barrett at Oxford suggested that children below the age of five found it easier to believe in some superhuman properties than to understand similar human limitations. Children were asked whether their mother would know the contents of a box into which she could not see. Those aged three believed that their mother and God would always know the contents, but by the age of four many started to understand that their mothers were not all-seeing and all-knowing while continuing to believe in an all-seeing, all-knowing supernatural agent such as God. /+/

“As every sociologist, or psychologist with an ounce of sociocultural awareness, will tell you, there's simply no way of identifying some 'instinctive' understanding of the world that precedes involvement in a social world of shared ideas and values. Even 'children under five' - especially those with the ability to understand and answer a researcher's questions - have acquired language, which comes imprinted with a mass of cultural assumptions./+/

“This study begs as many questions as it answers. Where, we might ask, did these children derive their concept of 'God' as an 'all-seeing, all-knowing supernatural agent'? Are we supposed to believe that's 'inbuilt' too? One of the researchers involved in this particular study continued: “This project does not set out to prove God or gods exist. Just because we find it easier to think in a particular way does not mean that it is true in fact. If we look at why religious beliefs and practices persist in societies across the world, we conclude that individuals bound by religious ties might be more likely to co-operate as societies. Interestingly, we found that religion is less likely to thrive in populations living in cities in developed nations where there is already a strong social support network.” /+/

Atheist Christopher Hitchens and Rabbi Debate the Existence of God

Christopher Hitchens

David Wolpe is the rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and the author of "Why Faith Matters." He engaged in several public debates on the existence of God with Christopher Hitchens, a well-known journalist and critic, professed atheist and author the best-selling "God Is Not Great". Hitchens, who was stunned to discover in his 30s that he was Jewish and had a Passover seder at his house ever year, died in 2011 of cancer.

Describing an exchange with Hitchens, Wolpe wrote in the Washington Post: “As we climbed the podium, I mentioned that his book title, "God Is Not Great," (which, on the book's cover, has a pugnaciously lowercase "god") was exactly correct. Maimonides said in the 12th century that any affirmative statement about God must be incorrect because it's inherently limiting. You can say "God is not bad," and that leaves an infinite number of things for God to be. But, strictly speaking, to say "God is great" might be taken to mean not very great, or not transcendent. So you see, I told him, we agree. "Good," he answered. "Why don't we begin with that?" [Source: By David Wolpe, Washington Post, July 4, 2010 +++]

“I wasn't so naive as to begin a debate in front of 2,000 people by acceding to my opponent's book title, but having viewed his previous performances, I was prepared to hit a few tender spots. When he maintained that religion is stupid because it presumes that humans possessed no morality until God told them what to do, I answered that the Bible condemns Cain's murder of Abel long before any laws were handed down at Sinai. The Bible knows that we know murder is wrong. The function of the "Thou shall not kill" commandment, I said, is to reinforce that the prohibition is not simply a societal rule but a mandate from God to all people. "And if you think that mandate doesn't matter," I concluded, "all I can say is you haven't paid much attention to the 20th century." +++

“I felt good about that exchange -- the way boxers, staggering up from the canvas, think back to that one jab they landed. We then sparred over some old terrain: I insisted that if we are products of evolution and genetics alone then we have no certain ground for morality. For if morals do not originate beyond ourselves, why not disobey whenever we feel it will benefit us? He countered that morality was a strange plea coming from religion, a source of so much suffering. I said Nazism and communism (secular ideologies both) speak poorly for societies without religion. He countered with religion's oppression of women. And besides, he said, isn't circumcision really mutilation, if we're honest about it? +++

“When Hitchens told the audience that night that religion is "a wish to be loved more than you probably deserve," I countered that such a theme is always adopted by those deriding religion: I am a nonbeliever because I am reasonable, they say, and you are a believer because you need a crutch. Beware, I told the group, of people who explain their own beliefs by reason and others' beliefs by psychology. Hitchens insisted he was being accurate, not comprehensive; there are many other reasons to distrust religion apart from its spurious comfort. When a person does something good in religion's name, Hitchens dismisses religion as the cause, but when people do evil, it is religion's fault. I reply that people don't need religion to make them do bad things. Rather, they need religion to lift them above the bad things they would otherwise instinctively do. +++

“What I cannot counter is Hitchens's experience of reporting in virtually every war-torn region in the world, and in places where religion has too often taken a benighted stand against medicine. And he has a delicious store of foolish religious teachings at his fingertips: "Thomas Aquinas believed himself capable of levitating," he says, and apparently took a tour of Notre Dame -- from above. +++

“Despite our shtick, there are real principles at stake each time. That is Hitchens's gift: a dance between mockery and erudition. In his world, God is a fabrication and a cudgel. In mine, God is a solace and a guide. I was reminded of this distinction when I heard the sad news last week that Hitchens is about to undergo treatment for cancer. I have no doubt that he will face it with the same stoic courage with which he has met other challenges. There is no reason to suppose it will change his convictions; I have undergone neurosurgery and chemotherapy with my faith unshaken -- why assume he could not emerge with his unbelief unchanged as well?... In the meantime, on we battle; Hitchens challenges me with how much evil happens in a good God's world. I talk about religion's contributions, its spur to altruism, and point to the mystery of consciousness and the wide testimony of religious experience. I claim that he has no warrant for free will if everything is a product of genetics and environment. He compares God to the dictator of North Korea -- except with a dictator, "at least you are released from his grip at death." Later we sign copies of our books for the audience. Five or 10 kindly souls stand in my line. His stretches out as long as the eye can see. He looks up at me and winks. The smart money, he seems to be saying, is in heresy.”

God and Judaism

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Kabbalistic creator
In the West, the Jewish God is known as Jehovah. Jehovah is English for the Hebrew word Yahweh, which is more properly known as YHWH. The pronunciation of YHWH has been lost. It word is believed to mean "he who causes things to be" and in Biblical times was so holy that no one was allowed to say it except for the highest-level priests in important ceremonies.

The Jews did not attempt to pronounce YHWH. It was too holy. Instead they said HaShem , the “name.” The famous rabbi Haninina ben Teradion was reportedly tortured to death for uttering the "unutterable." The use of the word Lord to describe God came into usage in part so believers didn’t have to use the word God. The name Jehovah, coined in the Middle Ages, was not used in the Hebrew Bible.

The source of our information about God is the Old Testament, which is largely ascribed to Moses. In the early passages of the Old Testament, God is referred to by several names including El Shaddai, which some scholars say signifies a storm god or god of power, and El 'Elyon. In Exodus 3:14 he reveals his true name to be Yahweh (YHVH, Jehovah). El Shaddai means "God of the Mountain." El 'Elyon means "God Most High."

In classical texts God was regarded as unknowable: “Thou can not See My Face.” Until the Kabbalists came along Jews accepted that description and did not dwell much on the matter.

Geoffrey Parrinder wrote in World Religions , "The dilemma of the Hebrew is not the question whether God exists, or why he exists, but rather how he acts in the world, and what he requires of people. The natural world is a manifestation of God's glory...The God of the Bible is both a remote transcendent being, imposing his awe upon the universe, demanding absolute obedience...and also a loving and compassionate father, who has a close personal relationship with those who revere him." [ World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder, Facts on File Publications, New York]

Book: God: A Biography by Jack Miles.

Websites and Resources: Judaism101 jewfaq.org ; Judaism and Jewish Resources shamash.org/trb/judaism ; Aish.com aish.com ;Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; torah?org torah.org ; Chabad,org chabad.org/library/bible ; Religious Tolerance religioustolerance.org/judaism ; Judaism.com judaism.com ; ; Jewish History: Jewish History Timeline jewishhistory.org.il/history ; Wikipedia article on Wikipedia ; Jewish History Resource Center dinur.org ; Origin of Judaism adath-shalom.ca ;Center for Jewish History cjh.org ; Jewish Culture and History Resources ddickerson.igc.org/judaica ;

Books: A Short History of Judaism by I. And D. Cohn-Sherlok (1994); The Gift of the Jews by Thomas Cahill; Ancient Biblical History Books: Egypt, Canaan and Israel in Ancient Times by Donald Redford; Oxford Companion to the Bible ; Palestine Bible as History by Werner Keller; The Bible Unearthed by I. Finkelstein & N. Asher Silberman ; Historical Atlas of the Holy Lands by K. Farrington

God Early in the Torah and the Bible

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At the beginning of the Hebrew Bible, after the Creation, God resembles a local pagan deity. The poet Stephen Mitchell described him as a "jealous, bungling, punitive god, not the god we can love with all our hearts and soul." In the Old Testament, God often displayed extreme bouts of anger whenever humanity disappointed him, especially by sinning with sex. In addition to wiping out entire nations of sinners, God also killed a lot of animals who had done nothing wrong. Many scenes involving God's anger have been edited out of the children's versions of the stories.

In his unorthodox introduction to the Bible, the bestselling British author Louis de Bernieres wrote: "There are many episodes in the Bible that show God in a very bad light...and one cannot but conclude from them either that God is a mad, bloodthirsty and capricious despot, or that all this time we have inadvertently worshipped the Devil."

Much of God’s anger is directed at people who continue to worship other Gods. After God sees the Israelites with the golden calf which they began worshipping while Moses was on Mt. Sinai, God says: "Now let me be, that my anger may blaze forth against them and I may destroy them, and make you a great nation."

Over the course of the early Bible, God changes from a being that urges his followers to dash the heads of their enemies’ babies on rocks to the god in Isaiah that tells them to love their enemies. In the beginning of the Old Testament, God is quite busy and present. He shows up at the Garden of Eden, speaks to Abraham and Moses and even wrestles around with Jacob. As the Bible progresses he appears and speaks less and less until he virtually disappears.

Jewish Beliefs About God

Jews believe that there is a single God who not only created the universe, but with whom every Jew can have an individual and personal relationship. They believe that God continues to work in the world, affecting everything that people do. The Jewish relationship with God is a covenant relationship. In exchange for the many good deeds that God has done and continues to do for the Jewish People. The Jews keep God's laws. The Jews seek to bring holiness into every aspect of their lives. [Source: BBC |::|]

A summary of what Jews believe about God: 1) God exists; 2) There is only one God; 3) There are no other gods; 4) God can't be subdivided into different persons (unlike the Christian view of God); 5) Jews should worship only the one God; 6) God is Transcendent: God is above and beyond all earthly things; 7) God doesn't have a body; 8) Which means that God is neither female nor male; 9) God created the universe without help; 10) God is omnipresent; 11) God is everywhere, all the time; 12) God is omnipotent; 13) God can do anything at all; 14) God is beyond time; 15) God has always existed; 16) God will always exist; 17) God is just, but God is also merciful; 18) God punishes the bad; 19) God rewards the good; 20) God is forgiving towards those who mess things up; 21) God is personal and accessible; 22) God is interested in each individual; 23) God listens to each individual; 24 ) God sometimes speaks to individuals, but in unexpected ways. |::|

According to the BBC: “The Jews brought new ideas about God. The Jewish idea of God is particularly important to the world because it was the Jews who developed two new ideas about God: 1)There is only one God; and 2) God chooses to behave in a way that is both just and fair. Before Judaism, people believed in lots of gods, and those gods behaved no better than human beings with supernatural powers. The Jews found themselves with a God who was ethical and good. |::|

“Jews combine two different sounding ideas of God in their beliefs: 1) God is an all-powerful being who is quite beyond human ability to understand or imagine. 2) God is right here with us, caring about each individual as a parent does their child. A great deal of Jewish study deals with the creative power of two apparently incompatible ideas of God.” |::|

Judaism and Satan

Satan is a religious figure found in Judaism, Christianity and Islam and similar to figures found in Hinduism, Buddhism and other religions. He is generally depicted as an evil adversary of God. Although the word Satan is derived from the Hebrew word for "Accuser," Satan is not given as high a profile in Judaism as he is in Christianity.

Often depicted with little horns, cloven hooves and a goatee, Satan is known by a number of different names, including the Devil, the Prince of Darkness, Diablo, the Father of Lies, Lucifer (meaning ‘light bearer’), Mephistopheles, Beelzebub, Belial, Mastema, and the Lord of Lies. In the Bible he is referred to as the Evil One and the Prince of the World. Muslims know him as Iblis or Shaytan. Among the various spirits that have been summoned by his commands are demons, gods, idols, demigods, angels, sprites, ghosts, goblins, imps, fairies, fauns, jinns, nymphs, and poltergeists.

Satan is generally characterized as being powerful but not nearly as powerful as God, which begs the question, ‘Why doesn’t God just destroy him?” and “Why was he created in the first place?” The answer for this some scholars say is more of a literary question than a theological one: He is a convenient literary devise for personifying evil.

The concept of the devil seems to have originated with Zoroastrianism, which originated in Persia. The Jews were under Persian rule for two centuries beginning in 539 B.C. No doubt they were exposed to the Zoroastrian devil Ahriman. See Zoroastrianism, under Animism, Shamanism and Ancient Religions

Book: The Origin of Satan by Elaine Pagels (Random House).

Satan in the Torah and Old Testament

Jacob Wrestles with the Angel
There is little mention of the devil in the early books of the Old Testament. The serpent in the Garden of Eden was later identified with the devil, but as he is written in Genesis he is only a snake. When he appears in the later books he takes on different names. In the Book of Job, he is a member of God’s angels who roamed around the world testing the faith of the chosen people. In Samuel he “incited David.” For the most part he is a minor figure.

Around 200 B.C. Satan began to emerge as a major figure in his own right among some Jewish sects. It was during this period that he developed into God's major opponent and was identified with the serpent that tempted Eve and the "Son of the morning" ("Lucifer") described by the prophet Isaiah.

Early Jews believed that when the Messiah arrived he would vanquish Satan and usher in a new era for God and his faithful followers.


Angels are messengers between God in heaven and humankind on earth. Angels often appear at key events in the Bible. They delivered messages to Abraham in the Old Testament and Mary in the New Testament as well as to Mohammed in the Koran. “Angel” is derived from the Greek word for “ambassador” or “messenger.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia, Commons except maps and surveys, Pew Research Center

Text Sources: Internet Jewish History Sourcebook sourcebooks.fordham.edu “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); “Old Testament Life and Literature” by Gerald A. Larue, King James Version of the Bible, gutenberg.org, New International Version (NIV) of The Bible, biblegateway.com Complete Works of Josephus at Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL), translated by William Whiston, ccel.org , Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures” edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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