Saturday, February 04, 2006

The Nature of God

Does God love everyone equally? Does God intend to punish Christians for meddling in the affairs of Muslims? What is the evidence that God is benevolent or vengeful, in general, or in some specific circumstance? While these are obviously theological questions, sociology can offer some insights into how a society can be shaped by the answers.

Sociology can also help us understand why people believe what they do about the nature of God. The social environment is the origin of most of our ideas about the nature of God. How does that work? We get ideas and information from church, peer groups (including church youth groups), books, magaziens, and television shows. The ideas and information paint a picture of what God is supposed to be like. Messages about fire and brimstone or about unconventional love become part of your mindset.

And, psychologists will telly you that we tend to favor evidence that supports our current viewpoints. Evidence that confirms our beliefs about impending divine punishment tends to be accepted without question. Ideas related to God's love and compassion tend to be ignored or rejected or minimized - God really only cares about fundamentalist Christians or Muslims or ultraorthodox Jews.

How does one view or another come to dominate a society like ours? The environment (natural and social) in which a society exists probably has some effect on the prevailing beliefs about God. In a society surrounded by enemies people may lean toward a view of a vengeful God who will help us overcome and destroy our enemies. If nature seems to be working against us, we may believe in an angry and vengeful God who serves up swift punishment for our sins.

Our ideas about the nature of God do not simply appear from nowhere and develop through some rational process. Ideas about the nature of God are added to and molded by whatever beliefs and attitudes already dominate a society. Maybe this is a partial explanation for Muslim terrorism. Their culutures share a long history of dealing with a hostile environment, both natural and social. A God who can and will destroy "infidels" and the unjust reflects the hard realities of their cultural history.


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