A Polytheist, a Monotheist and an Atheist walk into a bar…,
Okay, there wasn’t a bar involved; it just sounded more amusing that way.
Sometimes at work, when time and energy allow, we find ourselves debating the big (and even medium sized) questions which have long plagued mens souls. During one such recent late shift, a trio of us were knocking around that old standby: “What is the Meaning of Life?”.
The time spent on the actual topic was fairly short as both the Polytheist (yours truly) and the Atheist agreed that there really wasn’t a single (capital ‘M’) meaning to life. Along the way, however, we touched on a number of other topics and I began to notice a funny inconsistency in the beliefs of my fellows which, in retrospect, I should have seen long before.
People have some very contradictory beliefs about so called “Human Emotion”.
On the one hand, we like to see emotions, particularly the complex ones, as a handy line that separates us from what we choose to consider lesser creatures. Love, hate, compassion and grief are seen as the particular provence of human kind. These things show that we have big complicated brains capable of reasoning beyond our simple hungers for food, sex and shelter.
A swarm of bees may appear to be angered when a bear damages it’s hive in search of honey, but we assume that they do not HATE the bear. Likewise, the bear, while certainly drawn to the honey by it’s sweet taste, could not be experiencing anything like JOY while lapping it up from within a cloud of FRUSTRATED stinging insects.
We have been warned time and again, against anthropomorphizing the lesser beasts. Your cat does not LOVE you. Your dog is not FAITHFUL. They just want you to give them food and attention and shelter.
Animals, we have been told, are not like us. They do not experience complex emotions, they do not have language and they don’t make tools. These are things that only humans do.
In recent years the behavioral scientists have had to do a bit of backtracking in the areas of animal language and tool making. Silly old reality, getting in the way of academic hubris.
Ah well, at least they got one out of the three correct, right? You can, at the very least, rest assured that your dog does not love you and your cat did not piss on the bed because he was angry that you were gone all day. Humanity is still safely and securely above the station of the lesser beasts.
But what about deity?
During our debate my co-workers (the Monotheist and the Atheist) both expressed serious doubt when I suggested that the gods were capable of emotion. Both of them made the suggestion that crude human emotion was beneath the station of such advanced beings (should such beings “hypothetically” exist).
It was even suggested that God, as some all-encompassing force or intelligence, would be emotionless. Imagine an all powerful being of pure rationality but somehow incapable of either wrath or compassion. In all honesty, the idea made me shudder.
I realize now that I’ve heard this theme (in a few variations) repeated many times before.
Sometimes, like in this instance, the divine is said to be above lowly human emotions. I find it odd that the very thing that is said to show our superiority to the rest of the animal world should be, for some reason, lacking in that which is seen to be above our station?
Often, it’s just the so called “negative” emotions to which God is said to be superior. Typically, the catchphrase for these believers is: “God is Love”. I usually hear this argument from New Agers and from those Christians who choose to ignore the first 39 books in their Bible. I find the deity that these folks imagine far too saccharine for my tastes and an unlikely candidate for ultimate authority in our rather “rough and tumble” universe.
Most often, I hear human emotion trotted out as the reason the gods of myth are either unworthy of worship or were simply made up by men long ago. “In the stories,” I have been told, “the gods act just like people. They get angry or jealous or lustful with each other. They make war with each other and with mankind. The gods, if they were truly superior, would act better than we do. They wouldn’t be subject to love or sorrow or fear. They would be above those things.”
It’s an interesting theory. We mortals can hate and love because we are above the animals but the gods cannot hate and love because they are above us.
If it is the degree to which we are capable of feeling emotion that indicates our superiority, wouldn’t beings that were superior to us experience emotion to an even greater degree? Might not some of them exist as living personifications of those emotions – just like the mythology suggests?
I am forced to wonder if the gods are exempt from language skills and tool making as well. Questions for another day, I suppose.