Just a quick follow up to yesteday's post. One reader (I have readers! Yaaay!) wrote in to say that he thought I was being overly cynical in portraying God as power hungry.
I don't think so. At some level, the very idea of belief being necessary is one that rests on the idea of God wanting, or rather, needing power. If there really is a God (an idea I'm far from convinced of btw - how's that for being cynical!), then why does it matter to him* whether people believe in him or not. If you were an all powerful, all-seeing being would you sit sullenly sulking in a corner, saying "I'll help you, but first you have to say that you believe in me"? If God were truly compassionate, then he would logically help everyone equally, independent of whether they believed in him or not.
Understand I'm not saying that God should be good to everyone (since at some level good is relative anyway) - I'm only saying that people should be judged (if they are judged at all) on their actions rather than on whether or not they happen to believe in one particular deity. So, take for instance, the issue of the death of unbaptised infants. How self-centred and small minded would you have to be to deny these little ones a place in heaven (always assuming there is such a place) just because their parents happened to be too busy planting paddy or getting their taxes done or attending their pilates sessions to get around to having some water poured over their child's head? Or alternatively, consider Dante's Inferno**, where the first circle of Hell is reserved for pagans who died without knowing Christ. This is a circle peopled by such great men as Virgil, Horace and Ovid (and presumably by Homer, Sophocles, Socrates, Aristotle, Plato, etc.) - who belong in Hell only because they were never baptised and never accepted Christ. The fact that Christ hadn't been born when these men lived is clearly not relevant.
Who would deny such men a place in Heaven? Who would be so churlish, such a bully? Only someone who was incredibly insecure - someone who was afraid that he would cease to exist if people stopped believing in him, that he would somehow lose his supremacy if the majority of people did not constantly worship him. The difference between such a God and a truly compassionate being is the difference between a pop star and a true artist - this is a God who is more concerned with TRPs than with human suffering. The God of the Old Testament, we are told, is a Jealous God, but jealousy implies a desire to covet, a hunger - and what can God hunger for except for power (and maybe the occassional pizza. Think what Christ could do with anchovies - one small fish and you have toppings for everyone.)?
You could argue, of course, that God needs belief to survive and therefore his desire for it is justified. There are two problems with this - one, if God truly had faith in his own abilities, then surely he would be confident that he had only to help people as best as he could and they would believe in him. The true artist does not need to pander to the crowd - he plays what his heart tells him and the people listen and are moved. The second problem is that even if God really needed belief to survive, how can you call a being compassionate when he prioritises his own survival over the welfare of his charges. If everything God (presumably) does is paid for by our belief in him, then he is surely little better than a service provider, a self-interested and rational economic actor (and presumably, soon to be outsourced to a call centre in Gurgaon).
Therefore, I don't think it's cynical to see God as power hungry - the fact that he demands belief makes him so. In fact, if you believe that he is all powerful to start with, then it makes him worse - it makes him a psychotic megalomaniac. Consider, for instance, the story of Rahab from the book of Joshua. When the Isrealites attack her city, Rahab is the only one whose life is spared, because she is the one who gives shelter to the spies of Israel and helps them destroy the very city she has been calling her home. This is treason; but in the eyes of the Old Testament God it is excusable because it is treason done in his name! (As a matter of fact, the entire book of Joshua is practically a creed for terrorists - the basic idea being that if you believe in the true God then you can go around slaughtering all your enemies and committing all sorts of henious acts, and as long as you're doing this in the name of religion, your God won't just let you get away with it, he'll actually help!!). For all the fuss made over (and scorn heaped on) Vidkun Quisling - there's actually biblical precedent for what he did!
One final point: understand that I'm not necessarily arguing that there's anything wrong with being power hungry (though you have to worry a little bit if the being hungry for power is supposed to be all-powerful to begin with); in some ways, to recognise that God is power hungry is to be able to establish a cleaner relationship with him (which I guess is the point of monotheism anyway). Think of it as any other career decision - would you want to work for a boss who was incredibly driven, highly ambitious, and would do pretty much anything (like murder his son, for instance) in order to get ahead (following the Christian God is almost like joining the Mob - I personally have always thought of God as being a sort of Don Corleone, only on a slightly larger scale - and don't even get me started on the significance of the twelve families all coming from the same place)? For some people, the answer to that question may well be yes - in which case this is the right God for them. Just as long as we're not kidding ourselves with the notion of some gentle, benign presence who watches over us with compassion and mercy. That's just the stuff they tell you before they shake you down for protection money.
* Throughout this post I refer to God as him - this is just a matter of convention. I see no reason why God could not be a woman (it might even explain why Mary was still a Virgin afterwards) - in fact, on the whole, I'd be happier if She was. (my biggest fear about heaven is that I'll make it there and it'll be a place where everyone sits around in front of this giant TV screen drinking beer and watching baseball; and there won't even be coasters)
** Of course, Dante is not exactly scripture, even though IMHO he's far more worthy of worship. Still, I don't seem to remember any Church strenously objecting to his interpretation of Hell.