WATERTOWN — The novel coronavirus pandemic has compelled ministers to find innovative ways to serve their congregants.
Sometime toward the end of Lent, I drove past St. Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church in Watertown. A priest sat in a chair a short distance away from another individual — and both men were in the parking lot.
The priest wore vestments, so I presumed he was hearing the man’s confession. Social distancing rules forced this sacrament to be conducted outside. They lucked out at that moment by enjoying sunshine instead of enduring rain.
This health care crisis has taken numerous lives and made many others ill. Ministers normally help ease people’s anxieties through in-person visits.
But the threat of infection has rendered this practice unwise. Spiritual guidance must be offered in less-intimate settings.
This no doubt has proven challenging for men and women of the cloth. The divine messages they believe they’re imparting are often best delivered through as few filters as possible. Individuals distressed over the potential of developing COVID-19 want to feel their respective deities will look out for them, and interacting directly with these emissaries is comforting.
However, the need for clerical intervention throughout the history of religious belief remains puzzling. Why would supreme beings that actually exist require priests, rabbis, shamans, rectors, prophets, druids, elders and imams as intermediaries to communicate with the faithful? And is the truth being accurately conveyed by these interpreters of supernatural reality, or have liberties periodically been taken to fulfill other, less-godly objectives?
As I previously wrote, it’s obvious that virtually every religion has it all wrong. If we take them at their word that they speak on behalf of the “one true” god (whose teaching is, of course, exclusively authoritative), most of them must be false because there can be only a single “one true” god.
If you gather four “one true” gods and they all proclaim paths to righteousness (through their own clerics, of course), at least three of them are lying! If the only thing we can know for sure is that three of these numina are definitely bogus, we can reasonably presume that the fourth may be a figment of the imagination as well.
Evidence of this can be seen by comparing what many religious people believe about the roots of their faith and what has been shown to be true.
The Passover narrative is one of the epic stories of all time. God affirmed a covenant with the Israelites by delivering them from slavery in Egypt and leading them into the Promised Land. The Exodus presented the Israelites as God’s chosen people, a designation that has defined Jewish life ever since.
The problem is there is no archaeological evidence that this event occurred. The reign of Rameses II is very well documented, but there’s nothing there suggesting the Israelites were present in Egypt. There also are no signs that the Israelites spent any time — much less 40 years — in the surrounding areas making their way to the Promised Land.
What’s more intriguing is the historical background of the supreme being portrayed in Hebrew scriptures. The Israelites stood out among ancient cultures as a people devoted to monotheism. This contrasted with the numerous deities of the pagan world.
But there’s a hiccup with this story as well. It turns out the god of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob was actually two supreme beings: Yahweh, a Midianite god, and El, a Canaanite deity. Each has its own legends, which were eventually merged together to form the myths of the Judeo/Christian faith.
“Scholars have known for centuries that there were two distinct deities worshiped by the Israelites in the Bible, each with a different name, different origins and different traits,” according to “God: A Human History,” written by religious scholar Reza Aslan and published in 2017. “The Pentateuch — the first five books of the Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy) — is actually a composite work stitched together from various sources spanning a period of hundreds of years. Look closely and you can occasionally see the seams where two or more different traditions were sewn together.”
Aslan wrote that El “presided over a divine council of Canaanite gods that included Asherah, the mother goddess and El’s consort; Baal, the young storm god known as the Rider of the Clouds; Anat, the warrior deity; Astarte, also called Ishtar; and a host of other, lower deities. El was also unquestionably the original god of Israel. Indeed, the very word Israel means ‘El perseveres.’”
El served as the dominant god among the Israelites, although certainly not the only one. Aslan wrote that one passage of Hebrew scripture, the Song of Moses, presents El as superior to Yahweh:
“When Elyon gave the nations their inheritance, when he separated the sons of man, he fixed the borders of the people in accordance with the number of the gods; Yahweh’s own portion was his people.” (Deuteronomy 32:8-9)
A native of the Finger Lakes region of New York understood better than many people how belief in supernatural agents evolved over time. Robert Green Ingersoll, who was born in Dresden in 1833, came to be known as the Great Agnostic due to his insightful and very popular speeches and writings on religious faith.
Ingersoll nicely summarized the truth behind theism in his 1877 essay “The Gods: An Honest God is the Noblest Work of Man.” Here are a few passages:
“Each nation has created a god, and the god has always resembled his creators. He hated and loved what they hated and loved, and he was invariably found on the side of those in power. Each god was intensely patriotic and detested all nations but his own. All these gods demanded praise, flattery and worship.”
“To me, it seems easy to account for these ideas concerning gods and devils. They are a perfectly natural production. Man has created them all under the same circumstances would create them again. Man has not only created all these gods but he has created them out of the materials by which he has been surrounded. Generally, he has modeled them after himself and has given them hands, heads, feet, eyes, ears and organs of speech. Each nation made its gods and devils speak its language not only but put in their mouths the same mistakes in history, geography, astronomy and in all matters of fact generally made by the people. No god was ever in advance of the nation that created him.”
The supernatural world reflects not a divine realm that actually exists but our hopes of what is to come. When we talk about a god, we’re imagining ourselves — that’s what we aspire to be.
We’re frustrated by our limitations, so we conjure omnipotence. We fear death, so we dream up immortality. We’re infuriated that justice eludes those who engage in evil, so we concoct hell. We’ve had it with the drudgery of everyday life, so we invent a utopian world called heaven.
It’s remarkable we’ve developed a society that allows all these contradictory religions to carry on peacefully. That’s because our constitutional system separates church and state. Civility among all these faith traditions is a direct result of our secular government, which treats them all equally.
However, this also means that people such as Ingersoll can peer behind the curtain and expose the truth about religious belief. Many people seek out ancient wisdom from their preachers, and that’s their prerogative. But the reality of life for us humans must win the day during crises.
It’s solely up to us to confront our problems and resolve them as best we can. Regardless of what the clerics say, our only chance of progress is to put faith in each other rather than a divine eye in the sky.
Jerry Moore is the editorial page editor for the Watertown Daily Times. Readers may call him at 315-661-2369 or send emails to email@example.com.