In a very famous essay, “Graveyard of the gods,” H. L. Mencken made a huge list of deities that are no longer worshiped, including Osiris, Diana, Cronos, Elim, Astarte, Huitzilopochtli, and so on. It’s a very short piece and well worth reading since it’s often cited. Mencken was an atheist, so his point was obvious:
All these were gods of the highest eminence. Many of them are mentioned with fear and trembling in the Old Testament. They ranked, five or six thousand years ago, with Yahweh Himself; the worst of them stood far higher than Thor. Yet they have all gone down the chute. . . ask the rector to lend you any good book on comparative religion; you will find them all listed. They were gods of the highest dignity—gods of civilized peoples—worshipped and believed in by millions. All were omnipotent, omniscient and immortal.
And all are dead.
This is a problem for theologians, for what if this graveyard is to be the fate of Jesus, Yahweh, and Allah? And of course, the existence of thousands of different deities in currently active religions is also a problem—that is, if you’re one of those modern and “sophisticated” theologians unwilling to claim that your god and religion are right and everyone else’s is wrong.
We’ve dealt with this before, though only with John Hick’s insane speculations about how he thinks that all non-Christians—Muslims, Azetcs, Hindus, and the like—will ultimately get a chance to become Christian. But many sophisticated theologians won’t even go that far, and are unwilling to assert that, in the end, their faith is right, even though it’s the one they’ve chosen to practice.
John Haught is one of the really sophisticated ones (don’t worry, I’m nearly done with him)—a Catholic who refuses to say that non-Catholics were wrong, much less bound for Hell. So how does he justify not only the disparity among faiths in their gods and beliefs, but also the huge graveyard of dead gods? This way, in his book Deeper than Darwin (pp. 136-141):
If God does exist, it would not be surprising that the divine depth would insinuate itself into human consciousness by a kind of informational feedback. . .
. . . In addition to all the genetic and evolutionary causes that Darwinians are conditioned to look for, religions are simultaneously information systems attempting to adjust to the negative feedback emanating from the inexhaustible depth toward which they are oriented, but to the bottom of which they can never conclusively arrive. Because of its own boundlessness, an infinite depth could never be adequately represented by any particular set of symbolic portrayals. There would always and forever be a distance between the ultimate depth of the universe on the one hand, and the finite religious systems that seek to model and codify it on the other. . .
. . . the eventual death of various gods, then, is not inevitably a signal of religion’s silliness but perhaps an indication of the inexhaustible depth to which religions seek to adapt—without ever completely succeeding. Religions, understood as evolutionary information systems striving to adapt (always inconclusively) to an infinite depth, would possess, by virtue of a kind of negative feedback, an iconoclastic impulse that at least occasionally urges us to discard all our god-images as inappropriate. . .
. . . The evolutionary information systems perspective, however, allows us to conclude that the births and deaths of gods recounted by Mencken are just what we should expect if the universe is grounded in the inexhaustible dimension of depth that religions refer to by the name “God” or by countless other designations of ultimacy.
In other words, religion is like a thermostat that never gets the temperature right. Isn’t it convenient, once again, that what we see is precisely what we expect? And what exactly is the “negative feedback” we get from the Inexhaustible Depths that tells us that the Abrahamic gods are better than the Greek ones?
Try telling the exponents of those other faiths, Dr. Haught, that their beliefs are merely an erroneous stab at the truth, and that belief in Jesus may not bring salvation. After all, he’s just one of those “inadequate symbolic portrayals” that will eventually go down the tubes.
I can’t believe that smart people get paid real money to crank out stuff like this.