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Superman, All-Powerful Gods, And What Sets Them Apart

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Superheroes mean many things to many people, especially at a time when superhero movies routinely dominate the box office. For some, they’re just gimmicks, fads, and marketing tools by big media companies. For others, they are akin to modern day mythology. It’s an apt comparison. Even contemporary heroes have a lot in common with the mythological legends of the past.

Some take it even further than that. Some will go so far as to claim that superheroes are filling the same roles as gods and deities. It’s not just the ones based on Norse or Greek mythology, either. In many respects, many iconic heroes fit many of the common traits ascribed to gods.

Superman is all-good.

Thanos wielding the Infinity Gauntlet is all-powerful.

Lex Luthor, Dr. Doom, and even Mr. Fantastic are so smart that they might as well be all-knowing to most people.

Such divine, god-like feats make for iconic stories that offer lessons and insights on everything from morality to justice to society, at large. While superheroes aren’t worshiped within organized institutions or granted tax-exempt status by governments, they utilize a similar structure to that of other holy texts.

The narrative surrounding superheroes revolves around good, evil, and the struggles that occur in between. Both the good and the evil in these stories takes the form of some grand, larger-than-life character who embodies these traits and implements them on a level that’s impossible for ordinary people to comprehend. That’s what helps make the message so powerful.

However, it’s the qualities that set superheroes apart from deities that offers the most insights. I would even argue those insights are more critical now than they were before Superman, Batman, or Iron Man ever showed up on a movie screen. At a time when organized religion continues to exert immense influence on society, we should be scrutinizing these discrepancies.

I hope it goes without saying that modern superheroes can only do so much to compare with the deities of organized religion. No matter how much money “Avengers Endgamemade at the box office, it will never exert the same influence that the three main Abrahamic faiths have imparted over the two millennia. For better or for worse, history, politics, and the entire species has been influenced by these religions.

The most notable and obvious difference between them and superheroes is that the deities of religion aren’t presented as entertaining fiction. To the believers of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and many other religions, the deities and the characters in their holy texts are real. They’re not myths or legends. They’re real people and real forces that have real effects.

Regardless of how true that is, and I know atheists will point out how none of those effects can be verified, this is the critical difference between superheroes and deities. Adherents don’t just believe that these characters are real. They place their trust and faith in them, believing that doing so will guide them in life and protect them in death.

I understood this difference as a kid. I was both a fan of superhero comics and surrounded by relatives who were devout believers. I knew they didn’t see their holy texts the same way I saw Superman comics. Superman was just another character. They knew who created him. They knew he was a licensed fictional character from DC Comics.

However, even back then, I found myself wondering whether those same relatives would see Superman differently if they didn’t know he was a comic book character. I imagine if there were old stories about him from centuries ago, written as though they actually happened, they might be less inclined to discount him as fiction. Some might actually be more inclined to place their faith in him over other deities.

It’s an interesting thought experiment, but it only scratches the surface of what sets superheroes apart from ancient lore. Aside from how real people think these characters are, and some take it much further than others, the standard superhero narrative reveals something striking about the standard religious narrative.

To illustrate, take a moment to contemplate how Superman goes about being a hero. As the gold standard of superheroes for the past 80 years, he sets the highest bar and embodies the highest ideals for a hero. On top of that, he has powers and abilities on par with many deities. At times, he has been shown as capable of destroying an entire solar system with a single sneeze.

Despite all this power, Superman seeks only to help humanity. He doesn’t ask for praise, worship, payment, or sacrifice. He simply does it because it’s the right thing to do. He’s the ultimate paragon, selfless and compassionate to the utmost. The people of Metropolis, and the world at large, don’t need to have faith in him. They just need to trust that he’ll keep doing the right thing.

Contrast that with the deities in holy texts. Many are every bit as powerful as Superman, but display qualities that aren’t exactly heroic. Certain versions of certain deities have been shown to be petty, jealous, and vindictive, sometimes to an extreme. A deity does often help or guide believers in a conflict like a superhero, but it’s rarely done out of pure altruism.

These deities, many of which are believed to have created humanity and the world, exercise a certain level of authority over people. It’s not always outright forced, but the nature of the story provides plenty of incentives and/or punishments to those who rebel or subvert that authority. Some become cautionary tales or outright villains.

Some villains are sexier than others.

In this context, the religious narrative builds an over-arching theme that has little room for heroics. These deities and super-powered beings aren’t necessarily there to save the day. They’re there to maintain the order that they helped create. They function as the glue that holds the universe and humanity together. Anyone or anything that goes against it requires recourse from both adherents and divine forces.

We often see this manifest in the real world when religious people argue that things like homosexuality, which is often condemned in holy books, are this bigger threat to the world. That’s why you’ll hear plenty of dogmatic preachers claim that homosexuality won’t just give people distressing thoughts. They’ll say it will destroy society.

Religious dogma, by its nature, depends on a strict adherence to what is the status quo for a particular place, people, and time. Defending it isn’t just seen as an act of piety. It’s akin to a superhero saving the day from evil forces. Whether those evil forces are demons from the underworld or a gay couple who want to get married doesn’t matter. It’s all about preserving a system.

Conversely, superheroes like Superman don’t limit themselves to a status quo. They’re less driven about how things are and more focused on how things could be. Superman doesn’t just want to save the day and help people who need it. He seeks to give people an ideal for them to aspire towards. This is perfectly reflected in his father’s message to him, as read by the late Marlon Brando.

It is now time for you to rejoin your new world and to serve its collective humanity.
Live as one of them, Kal-El
Discover where you strength and your power are needed
Always hold in your heart the pride of your special heritage
They can be a great people, Kal-El, they wish to be
They only lack the light to show the way
For this reason above all, their capacity for good
I have sent them you, my only son

It’s in this defining message that the superhero narrative distinguishes itself from religious traditions. These superheroes, as powerful as they are, didn’t create us. They don’t hold any inherent dominion over us. They didn’t create the current situation, however flawed it might be. They still seek to help people, carrying out feats that others cannot. That’s what makes them heroes.

One fights to maintain what society is while the other fights for what society could be. These narratives can exist alongside one another and can carry greater meaning for certain people. There are critical lessons in both, but I believe the lessons of Superman are more relevant than anything offered by the stories of religion.

For much of human history, organized religion was part of that social glue that helped keep society stable. For a good deal of that history, society was only as stable as the conditions around it. People hoped and prayed that there wouldn’t be a famine, a storm, or some other catastrophe that they could not control. Survival, even among kings and emperors, was their primary concern.

Things are different now. At a time when food is abundant, poverty is in decline, and education is more widespread than ever, survival isn’t enough. For a planet of billions to thrive, people need to prosper. Doing so means aspiring to something greater than the status quo. That’s exactly what superheroes embody.

That’s not to say that the rise of superheroes is directly linked to the ongoing decline of religion, but the contrasting narratives reflect just how much priorities have changed. Superheroes don’t demand faith, sacrifice, and reverence, just to keep things as they are. They go out of their way to save a world that they believe is worth saving, hoping that it can better itself.

They can help, but they can’t do it for us. That’s another trait that Superman demonstrates, much to the chagrin of villains like Lex Luthor. Like deities of old, he doesn’t use his powers to achieve everything for humanity. He seeks to empower them to achieve those feats on their own. That process of aspiring to be greater than is often an affront to a religious narrative, but critical to the themes of superheroes.

Even if superhero movies stop making billions at the box office, the over-arching message will still be relevant. Faith in what is just isn’t as appealing as hope for what can be. The gods of religion offer comfort in familiar order, but superheroes can inspire hope in something better. Given the many flaws in this chaotic world, I believe that hope is more valuable than any ancient doctrine.

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The Lying God Paradox: An Inherent Flaw Of All-Powerful Deities

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In general, I believe that arguing with religious people is a waste of time. While I’ve made no secret of my distaste for organized religion, I prefer not to discuss it. As I’ve noted before, I have people in my family who are deeply religious. They are wonderful, loving people and they get genuine fulfillment from their religion.

There was even a time in my youth when I went out of my way to debate religion. At one point, I genuinely believed I could convince people of the absurdities of religious dogma. That was before I learned just how strong these beliefs can be and how far people will go to hold onto them.

I now accept that there’s no argument I can make or fact I can list that would ever convince someone that their religion is wrong. For the most part, people have to change their own minds. The most you can do is get them thinking about their dogma and let them make up their own mind.

For that reason, I still find it helpful to share my thoughts on certain aspects of religion. It’s not always possible to engage in meaningful discussions, but I think it’s worth pursuing. I find that the more you connect with people who don’t necessarily agree with you, the more you humanize them and vice versa.

That being said, I have a feeling that this latest thought is not going to win me many friends from the religious crowd. I know this because I’m about to make a statement about gods, all-powerful deities, and an inherent flaw that comes with incorporating them into any theology. That would encompass the three major Abrahamic faiths, as well as most other monotheistic religions.

This statement is a simple explanation for why there are so many different religions, each of which can have many denominations and sects. It also assumes there is an all-powerful deity with the ability to effect human affairs. While I know that’s a lofty assumption, especially for the non-believing crowd, it still exposes an important flaw in the theology and dogma behind religion. It can be summed up in two simple words.

God lied.

I know that idea may make many believers recoil in disgust, but I urge those people to take a moment to contemplate the implications. We’re not talking about a miracle or some divine act that breaks the laws of physics. This is something that ordinary people do every day without the need for immense power. If simple mortals like us can do it, then why can’t an all-powerful deity?

An all-powerful being can literally do anything. Lying would be one of the easiest, least strenuous ways to effect change, especially among a species like ours that is prone to believing lies. On top of that, when you take a step back and look at how religion has manifested over the centuries, a lying deity makes more sense than any other deity.

It explains why there has never been a single, unified religion.

It explains why there has never been a concept of divinity that every human society shares.

It explains why there are so many different religious texts that vary considerably in terms of theology, morality, and practices.

Simply put, God lied to everyone. Whether by prophecy, revelation, or divine inspiration, it was all a lie. It wouldn’t even have to be an elaborate lie. An all-powerful deity could just present the ideas to a few select people in history and let them do the rest. If the goal of the deity was to create a wide variety of religious dogma, then that’s working smart rather than hard.

The fact that it helps make sense of all the disagreements and discords within religion also creates a paradox, of sorts. Religion, by its nature, is built around belief. Peoples entire understanding of gods, spirits, and the supernatural are contingent on how ardently they believe in a particular theology. However, if that understanding is built on lies, then the entire religion is a product of an inherent untruth.

It’s a distressing thought, the notion that such a powerful being could or would willingly lie. That’s why most believers of any faith usually scoff at the notion. They’ll often claim their deity cannot lie because their deity is all-good on top of being all-powerful. Even if their holy text contains some objectively terrible atrocities that a deity committed or condoned, they’ll still make the claim that their deity is inherently good.

However, that only exchanges one paradox for another. If a deity is all-powerful, then that means the deity can do anything by definition, regardless of whether it’s good or evil. If a deity is all good, then that means it is incapable of doing anything evil. As such, it cannot be all-powerful. A deity that can only do good simply cannot be all-powerful, by default.

A lying deity resolves both paradoxes. The ability to lie, whether it’s for good or for evil, is perfectly within the capabilities of an all-powerful being. Even if that deity is all-good, then perhaps it can still lie, but only for good reasons, which do exist. That deity just can’t be all-powerful.

Even with these paradoxes, I doubt adherents of a particular faith would accept the possibility that their deity ever lied to them, their ancestors, or their fellow believers. They may accept that lesser or evil deities lie to others who don’t share their beliefs. However, those same people could make the same claim about them and there would be no difference, in terms of merit.

Non-believers will often cite the vast diversity of religious beliefs, both today and throughout history. They all can’t be right, but they all can be wrong. That’s perfectly in line with the law of non-contradiction.

That won’t stop believers from arguing passionately that they have the right answer to these profound questions. Even if they don’t have a way of verifying that belief, they’ll still believe in what they see is divine truth. However, the paradox of a lying god further complicates that idea.

Even if there is an all-powerful deity that has interacted in human affairs, how does anyone know whether said deity lied? Being all-powerful, the deity wouldn’t even need a reason. Lying would just be another exercise of that power. In that case, a lying deity is indistinguishable from a non-existent one. Logistically, there’s no way to verify either.

I know making this claim isn’t going to win many arguments with the devoutly religious. I don’t doubt that even suggesting that their god is liar has offended some people. I understand that. At the same time, I think it’s an idea worth scrutinizing. Just contemplating the possibility that a deity has lied adds what I believe is a necessary wrinkle to religious dogma.

Religion is such a powerful force in peoples’ lives. For better or for worse, it guides society, politics, and culture all over the world. People believe what they believe with great passion and piety. Nobody wants to entertain the notion that such a big part of their life is based on a lie. For something this powerful, though, I believe it’s worth thinking about.

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