In my post last week on the Bible and of the Quran I argued that since creation itself reveals God’s “eternal power and deity,” as St. Paul writes in Romans 1, it is possible to have meaningful knowledge of God simply as the eternal, all-powerful cause of everything that exists. By the same token, to speak of the eternal, all-powerful cause of everything that exists is necessarily to speak of the true God, not a false god, no matter what inadequate or false ideas about God one may attach to one’s picture of God.
Even a false god, a pagan god, is understood to have some sort of foundational or explanatory role in the cosmos or the world around us. A god is not simply a powerful and mysterious being, but a figure from an unseen realm — the realm of the divine — that impinges on our world, upon which our world depends. The pagan Greeks honored Demeter not just because she was thought to be much older and more powerful than men, but that she was thought to be responsible for the harvest. If extraterrestrial beings with no relationship to ourselves or our world suddenly appeared on Earth from a distant planet, their advanced technology might make them seem like gods, but they wouldn’t be gods; they would have nothing to do with us.
Pagan gods were believed to have roles and areas of responsibility that were limited and relative. It is when we turn from limited, partial explanations for various phenomena to a total divine explanation for everything that exists (an eternal being with no cause himself who is the cause for everything else that exists) that one turns from false gods to God himself — again, regardless what false or even blasphemous ideas one attaches to the idea of God.
To take an extreme example: An satiric atheist polemic against religion has facetiously proposed that the universe was created by a “Flying Spaghetti Monster.” Some atheists seem to think of the Flying Spaghetti Monster simply as an absurdly gratuitous object of (pretended) belief, highlighting the alleged arbitrariness of belief in God. In effect, they think of the Flying Spaghetti Monster as a more elaborate version of Bertrand Russell’s imaginary teapot in space (said to be orbiting the Sun between Earth and Mars).
But Russell’s teapot is simply gratuitous; it has no proposed explanatory significance of any kind. Nothing hinges on it one way or the other. The Flying Spaghetti Monster is different. It is (facetiously) proposed as an ultimate explanation of the cosmos. In that sense, while its proposed attributes (resembling spaghetti and meatballs, having “noodly appendages,” and so forth) are obviously gratuitous and absurd, as an ultimate explanation for the universe it is not so much an arbitrary alternative to God as an arbitrary and absurd specification of what God is like.
We may even call it blasphemous — but that very fact goes to show that it’s a satire of God himself, not just an arbitrary alternative belief. (Russell’s teapot may be silly, but no one would think it was blasphemous.)
If the point about blasphemy isn’t clear, consider two stories: one about Hephaestus, the Greek god of metalworking, and one about the Flying Spaghetti Monster. In Greek mythology, Hephaestus took revenge on his mother Hera for rejecting him by creating a magical throne that held her fast, and he refused to release her until Dionysus got him drunk. In the Flying Spaghetti Monster creation story, the Flying Spaghetti Monster also gets drunk—while creating the world, which is why the world is imperfect.
No one today believes either of these stories. Still, one of these stories blasphemes God, and the other doesn’t. To worship gods like Hephaestus would be idolatry, but there is no blasphemy against God in the story of Hephaestus getting drunk. But to say that the eternal being who created the universe was drunk, and this is why the universe is as flawed as it is, is blasphemous. Why? Because one cannot talk, however satirically or unseriously, about an eternal being creating the universe without invoking God.
More to come.