A Matter of Temperament

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.

This is the Wheel of Emotions developed by Dr. Robert Plutchick in the early 1980’s and used to illustrate the relationships between the various emotions and how they all appear to interconnect.

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.

You want a dispassionate god who runs us through his little mazes until he is done with us? I give you Ridley Scott’s “Engineers” from Prometheus.

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.


Filed under Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, The Gods

3 responses to “A Matter of Temperament

  1. Good post, thanks. I think the concept that human emotions would be beaneath the all-knowing sky daddy god is likely from the same self-hating, “we are nothing” type of thinking that makes it neccesary for the theist to repent their every “impure” thought deed action and urge, beg forgiveness for the way their god made them and rely on the “gift” of “grace”.

  2. Wonderful, thought-provoking post.

    I’ve been reading some things on NPR recently about animals and emotions. Some scientists are suggesting certain animals (mammals, really) do express love and compassion. As a pet owner, I certainly see their personalities and emotions shine through… It’s really easy for humans to say animals don’t feel. It makes factory farming and ecological destruction all the more convenient…

    I also think it’s interesting when people claim that Gods are above a certain state or experience. It’s still so human-centric to say that… The best we can say is “I don’t really know” and get on with it. Still, it’s fun to discuss these things. Also… sometimes infuriating!

  3. g2-4ff5f14d39ff0e6cec744749122b0b67

    Wonderful post, as always.

    Being the atheist mentioned in the story, I wanted to add that while I don’t remember my specific words during our chitchat on this topic, I can certainly imagine that I would’ve made a few snide quips about deific emotion.

    However, my opinion runs much deeper than the common monotheistic view that gods are above having emotions; I think I fall in line closer to your opinions, surprisingly, in that if gods indeed exist, it would be a sad, terrifying shame were they to lack emotion.

    My snide comments—if I were to make any on the topic—would be less about the gods being capable of emotion, and more about how I’d hope and expect the gods to be more responsible with how they act out said emotions. If they are above us, existentially, I’d certainly hope they’d have emotions, and I’d absolutely hope that they utilize them more wisely than a lowly non-god. And I’d likely poke fun at them if they didn’t, because then they’re just like me but with superpowers (and I make fun of myself all the time, so it follows logically… hehe).

    If wise exercise of strong emotions can’t be expected from all or even most gods, I can understand that, actually; emotions are powerful, I get it.

    But that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t still be disappointing to me; I liken my feelings on that prospect to a child watching their parent fly into a rage. Understandable, but unbecoming all the same.

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