A Corrupting Meme

Bertrand Russell in the famous essay in which he introduced the celestial teapot makes what is, given that this essay was written in the mid twentieth century, a very startling claim. He alleges that Christian theologians could only have acquired their ideas of Omnipotence from the despotisms of Asia.  Given that he was writing soon after the fall of Hitler, and therefore must have known that we Europeans were quite capable of producing our own despotisms, this is a breathtakingly dogmatic allegation.

The whole conception of an omnipotent God whom it is impious to criticize, could only have arisen under oriental despotisms where sovereigns, in spite of capricious cruelties, continued to enjoy the adulation of their slaves. It is the psychology appropriate to this outmoded political system which belatedly survives in orthodox theology.

Bertrand Russell Is there a God? Commissioned, but not published by Illustrated Magazine in 1952

I have heard similar remarks made by Christians from other parts of the British Isles, regarding the type of Christianity we Northern Irish practise.

“Your God is too Old Testament.”

Or in other words:

Who do you blame for the Northern Ireland troubles?   The Ancient Hebrews

This is at the very least a latently anti-Semitic remark.  If you believe that the evil done by Christians is a consequence of inappropriately transferred Jewish belief, what does this say about your attitude to Jews?

The  Omnipotent, Omniscient, and morally perfect God that Bertrand Russell critiqued in  “Is there a God?” was not the Jewish God. It was the god of the ontological argument, a god that arose without reference to either scripture or empirical reality, like a celestial teapot from the mind of  Anselm ( c. 1033 – 21 April 1109)  the first of the  scholastic philosophers.

Anselm’s ontological argument is frequently understood as an attempt to prove the existence of God, something that might make sense in the modern context, but at a time when virtually everyone did believe that there was a Creator would have been  fairly pointless. Anselm’s motive as described by himself was not to prove God’s existence,  but to understand the nature of God.

“For I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand.” The Proslogion  Anselm 1077-1078

Starting with the following premise he went on to formulate his ontological proof for the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient and morally perfect being.

And indeed, we believe that you are a being than which nothing greater can be conceived. Or is there no such nature, since the fool has said in his heart, there is no God? (Psalms xiv. 1). But, at any rate, this very fool, when he hears of this being of which I speak –a being than which nothing greater can be conceived –understands what be hears, and what he understands is in his understanding; although he does not understand it to exist.

The Proslogion  Anselm 1077-1078

  • God is that than which nothing greater can be conceived  by the godless fool, among others. .
  • A being that exists in reality is greater than one which only exists in the mind.
  • Therefore God exists.

And so as far as Anselm was concerned the godless fool and the philosopher monk, when they imagined that which nothing greater can be conceived, both imagined the same thing – an omnipotent, omniscient and morally perfect being.

I am not going to discuss whether or not this argument is valid or sound, and I am going to concede that the words omnipotent and omniscient are meaningful concepts , what concerns me here is the meaning of morally perfect.  This is a concept that allows for considerable difference of opinion between individuals and cultures.

As far as Anselm  was concerned the greatest being that could be conceived was an omnipotent being whose moral characteristics were based on those of a medieval monarch.   This was a god who like a medieval monarch could not just forgive insults to his honour, but could only “forgive” those who had failed in their duty to him when the debt had been paid fully and with interest.  This was not the God of either  the Old or New Testament,   This is a god who required more from his creation than that they should go and sin no more, John 8:11, and who makes  the Lord’s Prayer nonsense.

 And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. Matthew 6:12 King James Bible.

Worse than that this was a god who was incapable of showing compassion. For Anselm passion was a sign of weakness, and an occasion for sin, therefore his imagined perfect god, must be passionless and so incapable of compassion.

How he is compassionate and passionless. God is compassionate, in terms of our experience, because we experience the effect of compassion. God is not compassionate, in terms of his own being, because he does not experience the feeling (affectus) of compassion.

The Proslogion  Anselm 1077-1078

The medieval church promoted to top place in the godhead a being who was to be respected because of his vast power, who demanded full repayment of debts with interest, before he would show his mercy by ‘forgiving’ us his debtors, and who was incapable of compassion or empathy.

This was the being whose moral values the inquisition emulated, and with whom the reformers renegotiated (metaphorically speaking) terms with, before sending up to heaven the sweet savour of burning screaming human flesh.

This being was not God of  the Old Testament.  The Old Testament God had some strong things to say about imagining your own gods and then worshipping them. Exodus 20:3-6

This is the god of earthly power, a god that does not need to be anthropomorphised before it can be worshipped. This is the areligious god of the belief system which in fiction is held by evil masterminds bent on world domination. The ones who say things like:

“Your weakness, Mr Bond, is that you care about  people, that’s why you will lose.”

Sadly this belief system is not confined to fiction.

Given that the Jews have been killed in their millions, by  European worshippers of the spirit of this world, the god of earthly power; to identify this god with the Abrahamic God, is to add insult to extreme injury.

The god of this world, the god of earthly power, is one that is attractive to the human mind, and can infect and corrupt any belief system. Christians who promote this vile meme as God the Father, are dishonouring the Father, and demeaning Christ; by making him a quisling bowing down to the prince of this world.


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