↑ comment by Desrtopa ·
2013-01-14T16:02:40.117Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
As a member of this culture, however, I note that when the G is capitalized it's referring to the Supreme Being that the top ... four, I think? ... religions claim exists
Well, top two at least. Christianity and Islam take the top spots, followed by Hinduism, which has a Supreme Existence, but no tenets of it being benevolent (at least as far as I've been able to find, maybe some Hindus believe differently, as it's not a very homogeneous religion.) Here's a table of top religions by adherents. It's not clear how to count down from there since some of the items are aggregations of what might not fairly count as individual religions, but after Islam, the next religion down claiming a benevolent supreme being has close to two orders of magnitude fewer adherents.
Not that this affects the point of what our cultural understanding of "God" means, but it does give a bit of a sense of how much that idea is an outlier in human culture.
... wow. That sounds like a story worth telling in full.
I don't know if this is as interesting as you're hoping, but my father is an atheist offshoot of a very religious family, and my mother is an agnostic/deist who was once a member of the Transcendental Meditation movement. My paternal grandmother is a Born Again Christian, and she decided I was old enough to proselytize to around the age of three. One of my earliest memories is having her ask me "Do you know anything about God?" I told her "I know about a god named Zeus." Since I didn't know how to read that point, I can only guess how I picked up that information, but my best guess is that it was from my father, since he would occasionally tell me stories from mythology.
My family moved out of the Bible Belt very shortly after that, and I believe it had more than a little to do with getting away from my father's family, who my mother was always somewhat uncomfortable with. When I became a little bit older, I became very interested in mythology (my reading level exploded in first grade, and I remember passing long hours in class reading books of mythology when I was supposed to be doing something else.) At this time, I didn't know anyone who talked to me about an active belief in a living religion (except when my grandmother called.) My only exposure to living religion was basically killed before presenting it to me; we celebrated both Christmas and Hanukkah (my mother is from a Jewish family,) and I was told the stories behind the celebrations, as well as a couple of the major Jewish holidays we would sometimes visit my mother's family for, but they were presented as stories, not as something I ought to believe in. I was explicitly told that some people believed these things, but I interpreted this as "People like my grandma, who're kind of weird and make my parents a bit uncomfortable, but not the sort of people I know around here." I saw religious celebrations as part of a cultural heritage that people were taking the excuse to celebrate over, not a sign that the religions were still a force in the community.
Since my exposure to Christianity and Judaism as well as various dead religions came mostly from stories, rather than dogma (I learned about things like the story of Samson way before anyone tried to convince me that Jesus died for my sins,) my idea of religion was basically "huge collections of stories that people used to make up to explain the world and entertain each other. Some people still believe in them, but you'd have to be kind of weird to believe in those sorts of things today." If I saw someone wearing a cross or something, I assumed that they were using an observation of cultural heritage as an excuse to wear something pretty. I couldn't be surrounded by the sort of weird people who made my parents uncomfortable, or they'd be uncomfortable all the time, and people would be talking about God nonstop (I recognized that Hassidic Jews were religious, because they did make my mother uncomfortable, since she was raised in extremely reformed family, and was brought up thinking of them as the sort of people who made it hard for Jews to assimilate.)
Since nobody was trying to mold my religious beliefs for me, I experimented myself with various ideas of the divine, but I never got any sort of sign that they were real, so I always dropped them. I had a sense that somewhere out there there were things that worked by different rules than we were used to, but eventually (before I started getting accustomed to the idea of live religion) I realized that I was probably suffering from motivated cognition, and just because I wanted to discover something like that didn't mean it existed.
The idea of a single, absolute, benevolent god, was one that I experimented with, but it never had much traction with me because it was like one of those simple, elegant scientific hypotheses you hear fringe scientists expound now and then, which seem to perfectly explain everything they apply it to, only then you look around a bit more and find that there are a zillion experiments that completely fly in the face of its predictions, and the reason other scientists don't believe it is because it simply doesn't agree with the data. Polytheism was a bit less elegant, but a much better fit for the data. How does the supernatural produce a sort-of functional world like ours where some people are really happy an successful and some people are miserable, and there are huge accomplishments and major tragedies and love and war, and people can end up lucky or unlucky whether they're good or bad? By having a whole bunch of gods with goals at complete cross purposes, who sometimes get along and sometimes hate each other, who may cooperate, or may outright sabotage each others' efforts, but who've at least found that they're better off if they don't devolve into all-out war against each other. When I tried to get signs that these gods actually existed, I always turned up nada, so I figured they probably didn't really exist either, but I could see why most religious people, ever, would be polytheists.
It wasn't until I was eleven or so that I started to find that significantly more of my peers professed to actually believe in things like a big man in the sky who rules over everything than I would have imagined, and at first I thought it was just because they were even more immature than I thought, and their parents were just making up stories they could handle that they'd just grow out of later, like Santa Claus. It was when I was twelve that I finally realized that no, lots of people really do still believe in religion, and not just the people you can tell right away that they're kind of weird or crazy.
Replies from: MugaSofer
↑ comment by MugaSofer ·
2013-01-14T17:13:51.909Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
I dunno, that's an interesting case study if nothing else.
Regarding monotheism ... it has emerged independently a few times, if nothing else:
In Greece and India, philosophers noticed that the gods didn't really seem worthy of worship / multiple omnipotent agents didn't make sense.
In both Egypt and Israel, individual cults grew into henotheistic religions which eventually blurred into monotheism - probably for at least partly political reasons, and Happy Death Spirals were probably also involved.
Interestingly, Christianity appears to have partly reverted to polytheism during the dark ages - and there are many syncretic minor religions/cults that are polytheistic while retaining a largely Christian framework.
It seems to me that polytheism is easier to grasp, and so tends to be popular by default, while monotheism is easier to defend, and so tends to emerge when it needs to be defended (whether from political opponents or your own knowledge about reality) - and the two most popular religions both started out monotheist (give or take a trinity.)
More ontopic, it's arguable whether using such a common term to mean such a specific concept is privileging the hypothesis, but it's pretty common these days, and most "converts" to atheism came from Christian backgrounds. 
Replies from: Desrtopa, ygert
↑ comment by Desrtopa ·
2013-01-14T17:40:29.851Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
It seems to me that polytheism is easier to grasp, and so tends to be popular by default, while monotheism is easier to defend, and so tends to emerge when it needs to be defended (whether from political opponents or your own knowledge about reality)
I'm not so sure about that. We have much more exposure to attempts to defend monotheism from polytheism or atheism, so it may appear easier, because there's a glut of arguments coming from that direction. That could just be a historical accident though. Maybe we could have ended up quite easily in a world where the most popular religions were offshoots of Chinese syncretism, and we'd be much more familiar with arguments defending polytheism.
Monotheism has sprung up in polytheistic cultures, but in some cases we've also reinterpreted the work of old philosophers through monotheistic lenses. A lot of classical Greek philosophers framed their arguments in terms of "the gods," who're now interpreted as talking about "god," and the idea of omnipotence wasn't really in popular circulation. The closest I know of any Greek philosopher coming to monotheism was Aristotle with his Prime Mover, but it was Aquinas who reinterpreted this as being about God. To Aristotle, the Prime Mover was more like a basic energy principle behind everything. The gods came from it, but it wasn't a being so much as The Stuff that Makes Stuff Happen.
Replies from: CCC, MugaSofer
↑ comment by CCC ·
2013-01-14T18:36:15.327Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
The Science of the Discworld II provides a substantiation for the claim that monotheism produces better science than polytheism; when a monotheist wants to know why thunderstorms happen, he has no trouble with the idea that there's a single, consistent set of rules to be applied, if he can but find out what they are (while the polytheist is still trying to work out which gods are having an argument).
Replies from: Desrtopa
↑ comment by Desrtopa ·
2013-01-14T19:00:49.456Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
I never found that argument very compelling. The Classical Greeks did a whole lot better than the Christians at developing scientific knowledge, before the Renaissance. Both monotheistic and polytheistic tradtions can foster either strong or weak scientific progress. Islam is a good example of a monotheistic tradition moving from high to low scientific productivity by the shifting of ideas within that tradition (see The Incoherence of the Philosophers.)
A polytheist can perfectly easily see the world as functioning according to a single, consistent set of rules, that all the various gods operate within, while a monotheist can just as well see the world as completely tied to the whims of an ontologically basic mental entity which is outside our conception of logic, such that the most basic reason we can ever explain anything with is "because that's what God wants" (which is the idea that essentially led to the atrophy of Islamic science.)
↑ comment by MugaSofer ·
2013-01-14T19:41:46.051Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
Well, I can hardly prove I'm not biased by overexposure to such arguments. Still, I think disproving Monoteism requires greater, well, skill than disproving polytheism.
↑ comment by ygert ·
2013-01-14T17:40:14.034Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
most "converts" to atheism came from Christian backgrounds.
Remember that ~33% of the world is Christian (which is more than any other religion), and so it is not all that surprising that many atheists come from Christian backgrounds, simply because the probability that an arbitrary person came from a Christian background is quite high to start with.
Replies from: MugaSofer
↑ comment by MugaSofer ·
2013-01-14T19:45:56.837Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
Well, yes. That would be why most converts to atheism came from Christian backgrounds. Along with greater concentrations of both in the western world and so on. Since most atheists (and most LWers) come from such a BG, it seems worth having terminology relating to it, was my point.