Wednesday, September 6, 2017

No, All Theists Do Not Worship the Same God

Despite the fact that there are many thousands of different religions and sects within those religions, each with their own unique take on what, exactly, “God” is and how He acts (or what, exactly, “gods” are and how they act, for the various polytheistic religions out there), time and again I keep seeing people claim that “it’s all the same God” or that “all theists worship the same God, even if they call Him by a different name.”

Now, growing up as a Christian (a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Ladder-day Saints) and being taught that the Bible was literally true, this claim was pretty much required in order for the religion as a whole to make any sort of sense. After all, the Bible clearly talks about one God who create the Earth and everything else, so there can’t possibly be any other gods out there. And, since the Biblical timeline is supposed to trace back to the beginning of human civilization, the only choice is to assume that every other ancient religion (Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Sumerian, etc.) was actually somehow a corruption of this original true faith in the one God of the Bible. Historical and archaeological evidence to the contrary be damned, that’s our story and we’re sticking with it, since to do otherwise would be to admit that other civilizations talked about completely different “gods” long before the events in the Old Testament (including the creation of the world) ever took place. OK, so while this view is not actually supportable by evidence, I can understand why people would cling to it.

A completely different claim, however, is often made that the three so-called “Abrahamic” religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) all worship the same God, despite the fact that most of the actual devout members of each of those three religions would probably not agree with this claim. All three religions, the argument goes, all have their roots in the Old Testament, each one building upon that basic concept of God and therefore all actually worshiping the same God when you get right down to it. In fact, it is often said, the word “Allah” in Arabic simply means “the God” and this is a reference to the God described in the Bible.

Except… this really doesn’t make much sense. Just because all three religions have a concept of God that can be traced to the same root, the interpretations and extra information added on by each religion is so great as to render the resulting concept of God wholly unrecognizable from one religion to the next. Yes, both Christians and Muslims claim to worship the God described in the Old Testament, but they have changed the core definition of that God so much as to produce an entirely different concept of God.

One big is example is the core Christian concept that Jesus Christ is divine (i.e., that Jesus is, in essense, an aspect of God). You can’t have Christianity without Christ, and the fact of Jesus’s atoning sacrifice is what evidences the divine mercy that is an essential part of God’s very nature. Jews, however, will absolutely not accept that Jesus was the literal son of God, let alone that he is actually an intrinsic part of God. The Jewish concept of God simply will not allow God to have a human component, and the idea of an atoning sacrifice to provide salvation to humanity is a foreign concept. As soon as Christians took the Jewish notion of God and added Jesus to that notion, it ceased to be the same God. Similarly, the fact that Muslims do not accept Jesus as divine (“just” another prophet) means that they do not actually worship the same concept or description of God, regardless if they claim that their belief derives from Biblical sources.

[Thought experiment: Take a 2010 Honda Civic coupe. Chop the frame and add some steel to lengthen it. Hack at the body and rework the pillars until you can fit two more doors so it’s now a sedan. Remove the 4-cylinder naturally aspirated gasoline engine and replace it a 6-cylnider supercharged diesel engine. Convert it to all-wheel drive. And then remove all the badges and replace them with ones that say “Smith Motors.” Now, take this car and put it side-by-side with a brand new 2017 Honda Civic Coupe and try to justify claiming that they are basically the same car. Sure, they can both trace their roots to the same original model and style of car, but are they really still the same?]

So, then, why do people keep insisting that all Abrahamic faiths do, in fact, worship the same God? Well, some of these folks are legitimate scholars of comparative religions and are merely pointing out the historical fact that each later religion claimed to be based on the previous ones. But that’s not really the same thing as “worshiping the same God,” though, is it? Or that each religion has the same understanding of God’s essential nature? As far as I can tell, the answer is no, and that’s because legitimate religious scholars (many of whom aren’t even religious themselves) often don’t have an agenda or an axe to grind.

In my experience, however, there is another group of people who make the claim that all Abrahamic faiths worship the same God, however. These are not serious, impartial religious scholars, but instead appear to be deeply religious individuals, usually of the Christian or Islamic persuasion. And their assertion that all Abrahamic faiths worship the same God seems to be a direct response to the issue raised time and again by atheists that, since there are so many different Gods worshiped by so many different religions, the likelihood of any one God being the true God is not very high. “It doesn’t matter that there are so many different religions,” they will claim, “since they all basically worship the same God.” And this appears to be nothing more than an attempt to perpetuate the false “theist vs. atheist” dichotomy I explored in a previous post:

As long as these believers can argue that all theists are somehow presenting a unified front when it comes to a belief in God, they can ignore the vast differences among the various religious beliefs and avoid needing to justify why their particular God concept is the only one worth talking about or needing to defend their beliefs against, not just atheists, but every other belief system that contradicts theirs.

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