I’ve been re-reading Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, thanks in large part to the new TV series on Starz based on the novel. Gaiman’s works always disappoint me in the end. Not because they’re bad, (I can never put them down), but because I prefer two types of endings: fell-good cheesy ones and depressing I-hope-you-learned-your-lesson ones. Gaiman’s endings always make me think, and I don’t necessarily like that in my fiction.
Behavioral economists will tell me that I’m not actually disappointed in Gaiman’s work because I always come back for more, but I insist they’re wrong.
At any rate, American Gods got me thinking about, well, God. The God I grew up with was the Mormon God (I’m a reluctant atheist now). The Mormon God is a loving god. It’s a man, with a wife, who views human beings as his children. Jesus Christ is his oldest son, and Lucifer is the 2nd oldest.Prior to human life on earth, a war erupted in Heaven between two factions, one led by Jesus and the other by Lucifer. (I highlight the word “war” because this is how Mormons describe what is essentially a philosophical argument. No blood was shed. It is a culture war. Mormons view themselves as God’s warriors. Because they view their God as a loving one, they smile and are nice to everybody, but they do so because they are at war.)
Jesus argued that everybody should have free choice in what they do on earth. All of his brothers and sisters (i.e. God’s children) should be free to make mistakes and sin. Jesus offered himself up as a sacrificial lamb for everybody. He would die on earth so that his brothers and sisters would get a chance to repent for their mistakes and sins.
Lucifer argued that everybody should have an outline of what to do in order to get back to Heaven. His brothers and sisters would already have their lives planned out for them when they were born, and there would be no room to make mistakes. Thus nobody would have to worry about making mistakes, so nobody would not make it back to Heaven.
At the end of their great debate, the people of Heaven, God’s children, the future inhabitants of earth, held a vote and decided to go with Jesus’ plan. Lucifer was butthurt, and left Heaven to found his own society, based on his plan, in Hell. According to the founders of the Mormon Church, about 1/3 of Heaven went with Lucifer. They didn’t have the courage to be tested through free agency. They wanted every aspect of their lives to be planned for them.
This portrait gives you a view, I hope, of a distinctly American God, born as he was in the early 19th century: democratic, freedom-loving, and generous. There is a lot to chew on here, I know. There’s lots of questions, too, such as “why did we have to leave Heaven in the first place?” The answer I received to most of my questions was “faith.”
The Mormon God, though, was also a mass murderer. He killed lots of people (or had people killed) to make his point, more than once. How can a loving God commit (or support) such atrocities? Nothing adds up. It didn’t add up when I was 10, or 16, or 25.
I think the bad math explains polytheistic logic pretty well. Instead of an omnipotent god who loves you immensely and also slaughters human life in anger or jealousy, there is a god responsible for love, and one for war, one for greed, etc. You can simply worship as you please. This polytheistic framework leads directly to questions about self-discipline, though: If you have many gods for many motives, wouldn’t this make it easier to murder people without feeling guilty about it? To swindle people? Just ignore the gods of love or forgiveness or justice and pray to the gods of anger or expedience.
Reality doesn’t conform to this rough logic, though. India’s Hindu population is no less violent than, say, Muslim Albania or Christian Serbia (or secular Los Angeles). India’s merchant class is no less devout than the West’s or Islam’s. Religion can shape a person’s life, indeed a whole culture, but it has less of an effect on good and bad than we like to think.