Why so many gods?

Why so many gods? March 3, 2021

By James A. Haught

“Man is certainly stark mad; he cannot make a worm, yet he will make gods by the dozen.” — Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592), creator of the essay.

But Montaigne spoke too modestly. Instead of dozens, the human imagination has created innumerable gods.

Hinduism’s ancient Vedas declared that 33 gods exist. But later the number somewhat inexplicably ballooned to 330 million. Names are known for only a few hundred of these deities.

Scholar Gerald Larue listed more than 100 gods of ancient Sumer, Mesopotamia, Phoenicia, Assyria, Greece, Rome and other early cultures. He also said Egypt had 80 different deities. Norse gods likewise were numerous. All of them vanished.

The Aztecs, Incas and Mayans in the Americas a millennium ago had a stunning array of invisible gods, including a magical feathered serpent, to whom thousands of people were sacrificed. Various Celtic gods also required human sacrifice.

The number of gods who are worshiped, or were, is too vast to count. Library Journal comments: “The gods of Haiti, for example, are described as being in excess of 10,000, and there are at least as many Japanese and Chinese gods.”

Even the bible expresses bafflement about god-making. II Kings 17:29 asks: “Howbeit every nation made gods of their own?”

Clearly, when humans evolved large brains, they acquired an ability to imagine a huge array of unseen spirits.

In pretty much every prehistoric culture, a priest class arose, seizing enormous power by claiming to appease and invoke invisible gods. Priests gained privileged status and lived in luxury, lording it over common serfs. One report on Ancient Egypt says: “Thirty-two centuries ago, during the reign of Ramses III, Egypt’s great temple of the supreme god Amun-Re — supposed creator of the world and father of the pharaoh — owned 420,000 head of livestock, 65 villages, 83 ships, 433 orchards, vast farmland, and 81,000 workers, all obeying the ruler priests.”

Was deliberate chicanery involved? Voltaire stated: “The first divine was the first rogue who met the first fool.” But nobody can prove hidden motives.

Counting the number of gods is difficult. Christianity supposedly has three — father, son and Holy Ghost — but what about Satan? Is he a god? What about the Virgin Mary? If she hovers over humanity, miraculously appearing to the faithful, doesn’t that make her a supernatural spirit? What about angels and demons and the “heavenly host”? Are they godlets? What about saints, to whom believers pray? If they exist and receive prayers, they must be supernatural personages.

The Catholic Church reveres around 11,000 saints, all canonized upon alleged evidence of miracles. If all 11,000 remain today in the spirit world answering prayers, are they 11,000 semi-gods?

If you’re mentally honest, you might see a simple answer: The number of gods and invisible spirits is zero. They’re all figments of the imagination.

In The Blood of the Lamb, novelist Peter De Vries describes a cynical Jew being confronted by a gushy Christian woman who praises Jews for reducing polytheism to monotheism.

He replies: “Which is just a step from the truth.”


FFRF Member James A. Haught, syndicated by PeaceVoice, was the longtime editor at the Charleston Gazette and has been the editor emeritus since 2015. He has won two dozen national newswriting awards and is author of 12 books and 150 magazine essays. He also is a senior editor of Free Inquiry magazine and was writer-in-residence for the United Coalition of Reason. 

This article is adapted from a piece that originally appeared in the January 2018
United Coalition of Reason newsletter.

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