Many people are overwhelmed by the sheer volume of religious options in the world today. Sometimes that plethora of choices is even offered as a challenge to God’s existence, because, it is said, a God who doesn’t make it easy can’t expect much of us. Though I don’t find an appeal to our desire to be lazy particularly compelling, and I do grant that there are an awful lot of religious options out there, I think nevertheless that by means of a few carefully thought through questions, we can narrow things down quite a bit.
So, let’s start with the first most fundamental religious question: does God exist? If he does, theism is true. If God does not exist, then atheism is true. That’s our first big question, whether theism is correct. Now sometimes people introduce another term into this context: agnosticism. Agnosticism is the view that we do not or cannot (“a”) know (“gnosis”) anything about God, including his existence. So, agnostics are people who don’t know that God exists or think that we cannot know. Agnosticism doesn’t concern whether God in fact exists or not. What is true and whether we know it are two different questions. So, for our purposes here we will leave agnosticism aside.
But what is curious is that it’s possible to believe both in a plurality of lesser “gods” and at the same time believe in God.
Second, supposing that theism is true, we move to our next big question: is God one or many? Monotheists say that God is one, while polytheists say that there are many gods. The old pagan religions of Rome and Greece were chock full of gods and goddesses, so these are our classic polytheist religions. You can find forms of polytheism even today in some ancestor worship religions and in Hinduism. But what is curious is that it’s possible to believe both in a plurality of lesser “gods” and at the same time believe in God. How?
Well, when we say that monotheism is true, we do not mean that there is exactly one weak deity somewhere. We mean much more, namely that a particular deity exists, the supreme being. We mean, in other words, that God exists, and by “God” we mean the infinitely powerful, infinitely knowing, and infinitely good creator of all that exists. Now, could God exist and at the same time a bunch of lesser “gods” also exist?
To answer this, let’s consider what a “god” is. God (supreme and infinite) is an infinite spirit, meaning that he is immaterial (no essential physicality). In our terms that means that he is (at least) an infinite mind. The old gods were also great minds (and thus spirits) but unlike God, they were all finite, meaning they had various limits in what they could know and do. So, is it possible that God exists (the infinite spirit) and also that many gods also exist (finite spirits)? Sure. In fact, we Christians have always believed that!
We Christians believe that God exists (infinite supreme being) and also that lots of lesser “gods” exist (the angels and the demons). We don’t tend to call them “gods” anymore, because another meaning of “god” is a being to be worshipped, and we definitely do not worship either angels or demons. But for all that, the ancient gods of pagan polytheism were either angels or demons.
You might be wondering how that can be possible. Well, do you remember the Annunciation? Who appeared to Mary and told her the news that God had chosen her to bring his Son into the world? The angel Gabriel, you will reply. Correct. Now ask yourself this: what is an angel? Angels are finite spirits, beings who lack any essential physicality (though they can appear physically now and then if they wish to do so). Angels are huge (but still finite) minds who have chosen to love God. Their negative counterparts we call demons, being who also have huge (but still finite) minds and have chosen to reject divine love. Since all the finite spirits made their choice for or against God long ago, all finite spirits are fully divided into the angels and the demons. So, we Christians believe that God exists (infinite supreme being) and also that lots of lesser “gods” exist (the angels and the demons). We don’t tend to call them “gods” anymore, because another meaning of “god” is a being to be worshipped, and we definitely do not worship either angels or demons. But for all that, the ancient gods of pagan polytheism were either angels or demons.
So, it is possible to believe in monotheism and at the same time admit that there are also a whole array of finite “gods.” So, let’s review. Our first question is whether God exists at all, the question of theism. Our second question is whether God is supreme, the question of monotheism (keep in mind that there can be only one supreme being). Our third question concerns God’s relationship to man. Once we know that God exists and is supreme, we will want to know if God interacts with man, or does he just leave us to our own devices. Deists say that God just wound up the system and lets it run without interference. Interactive theists, like we Catholics, say that God definitely interacts with his creation.
It can be daunting for people to consider religious questions when they imagine that there are so many choices of religion. But in reality, the choices fall into clear classes based on three questions.
Now, here’s what’s so interesting about this little three step taxonomy. It can be daunting for people to consider religious questions when they imagine that there are so many choices of religion. But in reality, the choices fall into clear classes based on these three questions. If God exists, then the theists are right. If the Supreme Deity exists, then the monotheists are right. If God interacts with his creation, then who is right? Well, what monotheist religions say that God interacts with his creation? Only three: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
That helps narrow things down, doesn’t it? You can even ask a fourth question to help clarify the positions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam: has God entered the world to save his people? Christians say, he sure has. Jews say no, he hasn’t yet, but will someday. And Muslims deny that this will ever happen.
So, if you are bewildered by the many religious choices out there, ask yourself these four questions, starting with whether you think God exists. If so, then you are a theist. Then ask yourself if you think God is infinite/supreme. If so, then you are a monotheist. Next ask yourself if you think God ever interacts with his creation. If so, then you are an interactive theist. And lastly, ask yourself whether God has already entered into the world, because if you think that he has, your best candidate for incarnation is Jesus. If you think he has not yet done so, then do you think God must or will enter into the world? If so, then you should opt for Judaism. And if you think that monotheism is right, but see no claim to divine intervention of the messianic sort, then Islam is probably your best bet.