Mars, Ares, Tiw/Tyr, God, Allah

by Harry on June 15, 2021

I’m alarmed by how interesting I find this comment by J-D in the Christian thread.

Attempts to answer the question of whether the God of Christianity and the God of Islam are the same God confront some of the same difficulties that confront attempts to answer the question of whether Ares and Mars are the same god, or whether Mars and Tiw are the same god; or, for that matter, whether the creatures that Chinese people call dragons and unicorns are the same creatures as the ones that European people call dragons and unicorns.

There must be a vast literature about this in philosophy of language and philosophy of fiction, and those of you who know it will doubtless find what I have to say extremely naïve. If someone can point us to some interesting work and/or, even better, explain it to us, that would be great. But here goes with a naive blog post.

I’ve no idea whether the God of Christianity and the God of Islam are the same God, and some of the difficulties in assessing whether or not they are are indeed the same as those involved in assessing whether Mars, Ares and Tiw/Tyr are the same god. So I tried to think about which difficulties might be different.

Assume that there is, in fact, exactly one God, and at least one of the main strands of Christianity and Islam successfully refers to that God with the word God/Allah. If so, then I think that all of the main strands successfully refer to that same God with their term, even though they say quite different, and conflicting, things about him/her/it. I exist, and my neighbours and students successfully refer to me with the term “Harry”. One of my former neighbours told one of my students that I am grumpy, irascible, and unfriendly; my student told them that I am cheerful, good natured, funny, and generous. They wondered if they were talking about the same person: well, they were! (and they’re all wrong!). Admittedly, if my student had said “Oh, no, Harry is 3 metaphysically different people in 1” that would be very odd indeed, possibly revealing that her grasp on math isn’t great, but even in that case I still think that she’d be successfully referring to me, at least when using the word “Harry”.

Keep assuming there is exactly one God. What does it take to refer successfully to him/her/it with the term God/Allah. I really don’t know. Imagine for a moment that the one existing God is thoroughly evil. Maybe in that case the Christians/Muslims fail to refer to him/her/it. (But, maybe not: see the dispute between my former neighbours and student above.) I’m pretty sure that getting the sex/gender/race of the entity wrong does not suffice for failure to refer (I can’t see why God would have a sex, gender, or race, but what do I know?)

Turn, now to Mars/Ares/Tiw (Tyr). If there’s exactly one God, my hunch is that none of those terms refer to that God (its just a hunch), because it seems to be part of the identity conditions of each of those purported Gods that each exists in a polytheistic universe. For roughly the same reason, my hunch is that the success of any one of them to refer to the God does not imply the success of the others. So who knows? Assume, now, instead, that there are numerous Gods. Then, maybe the terms fail or succeed together? But I don’t see why they have to, because the mythological descriptions are different, and there are numerous possible referents for each term.

Ok, now assume, instead, and as I believe, that we inhabit a God-free universe. Then, whatever the words God/Allah/Mars etc mean, is not related to their referent because they have none. My first thought was that their meaning is closely related to the descriptions associated with them, in which case they mean considerably different things (and maybe even Christians mean different things from one another when they use the term God – some seem to regard God as kindly and beneficent, others as capricious and cruel – they mean different things). But, of course, Batman is Bruce Wayne, even though neither Batman or Bruce Wayne exist. My last encounter with the theory of fictional names was early in graduate school, so I am imagining that literature has developed some since then, and perhaps someone can fill us in. Regardless, it seems to me that if there are no Gods then, indeed, the issues about Allah/God and Mars/Ares/Tiw/Tyr are the same. But not if there is, in fact, at least one God.



Tm 06.15.21 at 1:26 pm

You need Russell’s insight into the logic of language to solve this:

When you formulate a statement such as “the present king of France is bald”, for the statement to have definite meaning and a definite truth value, you have to rephrase it like this:
(a) There exists something that is the present king of France.
(b) There is only one thing that is the present king of France.
(c) Anything that is the present king of France is bald.

I think you can easily do this exercise for dragons, unicorns, Mars and even God.


BJN 06.15.21 at 1:30 pm

It seems to me that linguistically at least, the God/Allah conundrum is different from Ares/Mars/Tyr/Tiw because the name God/Allah is identical the general word for a god (Arabic Allah just being al ileh, “the god”). English gets around this a little with capitalization rules, but Arabic doesn’t have capitalization, so God is just God. Or more specifically, Arabic speakers of any monotheistic faith, including Arab speaking Christians, refer to their sole deity as Allah.

I’m not up to speed on the philosophy behind all of this, but it seems to me that as you say, there’s a difference between monotheism and polytheism here. If there’s only one person named Harry in the world, then your neighbor and student can argue all day about the exact nature of him, but there’s no doubt that they are talking about THE Harry. In this fallen world we inhabit though, there are many, and your neighbor and student would probably just say “oh, I’m thinking of a different Harry. The Harry you know sounds like a hoot.”


Bill Benzon 06.15.21 at 1:30 pm

According to Brian Ogilvie, modern descriptive biology got started in the 15th-16th century when people began wondering whether or not the flora and fauna in the ancient texts were the same as the flora and fauna around them. That lead quickly enough to the question of the whether the flora and fauna in Florence were the same as those in, say, Paris. So they developed a descriptive method that allowed them to answer those questions. The method involved three things: 1) specification of distinguishing features, 2) drawings and diagrams, and 3) reference collections of specimens.

Brian Ogilvie, The Science of Describing: Natural History in Renaissance Europe, University of Chicago Press, 2006.

Somewhere in one of his essays, I forget which one, Thomas Kuhn points out that the modern concept of electricity involved figuring out that apparently different phenomena, such as ball lightening, static, and shocks from electric eels, were all examples of the same thing.


nastywoman 06.15.21 at 2:16 pm

‘but overnight, or so he said, he had second thoughts fearing he “might be blamed for contributing to the religious overtones in radio”.
His tapes contain the word “God” 27 times, and he wants them changed to “that higher Being Whom we revere” (jenes höhere Wesen, das wir verehren”), a phrase more consistent with his pre-conversion beliefs. Rather than have him re-record the talk, he asks that the technicians record the new words, then splice them in instead of “God”.[9]
The editing is complicated by the need to record different cases—ten nominatives, five accusatives (that is, fifteen “jenes höhere Wesens, das wir verehren”), five datives (“jenem höheren Wesen, das wir verehren”), seven genitives (“jenes höheren Wesens, das wir verehren”), and one vocative (“O du höheres Wesen, das wir verehren!”)


J, not that one 06.15.21 at 2:20 pm

I think if I interacted with someone on a daily basis, and they regularly referred their actions to their understanding of God, it might be possible for me to conclude that their understanding of God was different from mine. Under some circumstances, even that the world had space for two “gods”, which were different.

However, if three religions shared a scripture and a philosophical literature that referred to the same God using the same contexts over a period of centuries, it would seem polemical to insist that the beliefs they don’t share means they “don’t worship the same God.” This would be a new definition of “God,” one that is excluded by the scriptural understanding of “God.” It could only mean one or mor of the religions was a fake and didn’t worship anything real.


Adam Hammond 06.15.21 at 2:55 pm

All people, when using the name Harry, are referring to a concept in their own head. That is not some deep, meaningful statement. It is just the way perception, memory, and cognition necessarily works.

On the dumbest level, we are never referring to the same thing … until we have a conversation and agree that we are (updating our internal concept). When many people use a word, and they all believe that everybody else agrees with them about the referent, then we are headed for trouble. Especially when everyone’s personal concept of the referent has been imbued with moral authority!

It does not matter whether a particular God (or Harry) “actually” exists. I am affected deeply by concepts (Justice, the number 0) that don’t exist (at least not as tangibly as people named Harry). I suspect that more people agree with me about what the word ‘zero’ refers to, than about the word ‘justice.’

When thousands or millions of people raise their voices in the name of Allah or justice they feel called by something external to themselves, but they probably shouldn’t start trying to nail down (or enforce!) exactly what that external thing is if they want to get anything done.


nastywoman 06.15.21 at 3:42 pm

and if y’all really THAT interested in all the different ‘gods’ –
there will be ‘HEAVEN on EARTH’ on the 1 August -(the Swiss National Feiertag)
on the Swiss-German border trying to correct the misconception that ‘god’ is ‘Swiss’
(or a man)-

And y’all invited –
NOT to meet ‘god’ -(Jenes Höhere Wesen Dass Wir Alle Verehren) – in person
BUT y’all will be able to see a few of Gods Waiting Rooms AND what type of Interior Design and Art he prefers.

AND you will be able to speak to a very good friend of ‘god’ –
(and I will post the invitation here in plenty of time that y’all can book y’alls tickets
to the Lake Constance)


mkvf 06.15.21 at 4:22 pm

BJN is spot on. God and Allah aren’t names, they’re common nouns like lion or asad. They just happen to refer to a class of things that (in monotheism) can only have one member.

I think it helps to ignore the unanswerable question of whether there is a metaphysical thing they refer to that in some way exists outside of all the ways we normally consider a thing to exist. Instead, do they (like Sherlock Holmes or James Bond; or, leaving room for the idea that they are not entirely fictional, like King Arthur or Robin Hood) refer to a character in a set of stories by different authors? Looked at that way, the Abrahamic god is one, regardless of all the different ways it is worshipped, and all the reboots and retcons of that franchise; Ahura Mazda and the Aten, likely aren’t (and aren’t quite monotheistic gods anyway). But you could argue that maybe Moses really did exist, and maybe his understanding of a one god was in some way connected with Akhenaten’s?

The same could be said of Mars/Ares/Tyr. Are they part of a continuum of stories, stretching back to a bunch of charioteers somewhere in the steppes? Then they are different names for the same thing. But unless you hold that all the polytheisms actually have a shared root, rather than being examples of convergent evolution, of all city and farm societies having the same bunch of concerns and concepts they want to explain, then Huitzilopochtli is not the same as Mars.


M Caswell 06.15.21 at 4:30 pm

Aquinas may be illuminating here: he treats the term ‘God’ not a proper name (like ‘Harry’ or ‘Jesus’), but as a noun signifying an idea (like ‘man’).


Lawrence A Schuman 06.15.21 at 4:50 pm

The god of Abraham is worshipped by Jews, Christians, and Moslems. They each have different theology derived from different (sic) revelations. The more fundamentalist sects of each are putrid and evil in exactly the same ways. The only real difference being the mummery.


Tm 06.15.21 at 5:13 pm

Another try: it is meaningless to say that people do or do not worship the same god. It may however be meaningful to say that people share certain beliefs about a concept that they refer to as god (or as Allah or Mars).

It is still not straightforward to define concepts like belief and shared belief (a belief exists in a consciousness, how can several people share one?), but one can argue that for example the Nicean creed expresses beliefs shared by many Christians about the concept they refer to as God. Whether these beliefs correspond to anything in the outside world (okay, another disputed concept) is irrelevant (and also impossible to determine) for identifying shared beliefs.

It seems that people identifiying as Christians and people identifying as Muslims do have shared beliefs about the concept they both refer to as God (in their respective languages), for example they both, as well as Jewish people, refer to this God as “the God of Abraham”. It also seems that there are beliefs shared by many Christians about the concept they refer to as God, that most Muslims do not share, and vice versa.

Still another question is how to determine whether the expression of a belief, like the Nicean creed, indicates something that has real meaning to the person expressing it. In my experience, many people express beliefs about the concept they refer to as God that they do not actually hold in any meaningful sense, in the sense that it has any discernible impact on how they live their lives.
[a few corrections]


Tm 06.15.21 at 5:47 pm

There’s another problem. Suppose Harry exists and is uniquely defined. Then the statement „Alice and Bob both like Harry“ can be true, even if Alice and Bob hold different, even incompatible beliefs about Harry. I suppose there has to be some overlap in their beliefs but there can definitely be a lot of disjunction; and of course, each person’s beliefs don’t have to be logically coherent.

If we as outsiders don’t know Harry and don’t know whether Alice and Bob refer to the same Harry, or whether either Harry even exists or has ever existed, how could we determine any of this? … well I guess we haven’t made much progress here have we?


oldster 06.15.21 at 6:55 pm

TM — nope, Russell cannot help us with fictional names. He cannot explain why “Batman is Bruce Wayne” and “Clark Kent is Superman” are both true, but “Clark Kent is Batman” is false. On his analysis, there’s no discriminating among things what don’t exist.

But speaking of ineffectual logical Spitzfindigkeit, I have always thought that atheists should embrace the Shahada, which states that there is no god but God. Atheist-approved! After all, if there is no god, then a fortiori there is no god other than God. Look at all the non-Gods: clearly none of them are gods! That just follows from the fact that there are no gods at all. Of course, the atheist will deny that there is any God to begin with. But that’s okay, since the Shahada does not assert that there are any, it merely denies that a bunch of other things are gods, which atheists will heartily second.
Although this is just taking a new tack with taqiya, you may not want to market it in Mecca.


Kiwanda 06.15.21 at 7:03 pm

Well, I’m fascinated by these things, but all I know is what I read in wikipedia: Ares is probably the deification of the concept of destruction, while Mars is more likely a descendant of the proto-Indo-European weather deity Perkwunos. It seems unlikely to me that Tiw, Uru protector of mines, lakes and rivers, has anything to do with Mars. But the Yamnaya took Dhéǵhōm the Earth Mother, Dyēus the Sky Father, and his children the Divine Twins and Hausos the Dawn Goddess to a lot of places, where they got new names.


Lee Arnold 06.15.21 at 7:21 pm

The only way to settle this dispute is by appeal to authority. There is none higher than Ibn Arabi (1165-1240 CE), who found that the statement in The Qur’an, 3:84 that the God of Abraham, Jesus and Islam are the same, was verified during his own ascent to transcendence. This assertion of the universality of the essence of all religions is rare among the classical Western mystics, and there is a detailed exegesis of this assertion in Ibn Arabi’s many writings in a remarkable recent scholarly work of comparative mysticism, Paths to Transcendence: According to Shankara, Ibn Arabi and Meister Eckhart, by Reza Shah-Kazemi (World Wisdom, 2006) pp. 118-129. Shah-Kazemi’s book should be at the top of the reading pile for “historians of religious ecstacy,” as James Joyce once put it. They will already be aware that around 1204 Ibn Arabi also wrote one of the best short handbooks of the mystical path in any tradition, Journey to the Lord of Power (Eng. trans. published by Inner Traditions, 1981).


notGoodenough 06.15.21 at 7:48 pm

oldster @ 13

It rather depends on the atheist, no?


Starry Gordon 06.15.21 at 8:17 pm

I am glad to see Meister Eckhart mentioned, for he is said to have said that people talked incessantly about God (this was the Middle Ages) without knowing what they were talking about. This does seem obvious. He more famously remarked that God saw him through the same eye that he saw God; that is, God was an experience rather than an object.

As for the Shahada, the second part of it, ‘[and I testify that] Muhammad is the prophet of God,” implies belief in a God for Muhammad to be the prophet of.


Gorgonzola Petrovna 06.15.21 at 8:34 pm

@Adam Hammond 6, “All people, when using the name Harry, are referring to a concept in their own head.”

That’s not exactly true, though: there’s probably little or no controversy about Harry’s basic physical characteristics. It’s his abstract characteristics that only exist in their heads. Characteristics that can’t be measured, weighted, quantified, expressed in units. They are simply a matter of opinion. Opinions are products of culture and ideology, and therefore, I’d suggest that Allah and God are not the same thing.


steven t johnson 06.15.21 at 9:40 pm

The distinction between negative and positive atheism is the difference is the difference between a person who declares they do not believe in magic but they can’t say there is no such thing, versus someone who declares they do not believe in magic because there is no such thing.

Oddly, negative atheism is considered to be both moderate and reasonable. I find it extreme, because it presupposes a radical epistemological skepticism, which I find extreme. (And reactionary to boot, though for others that may be a feature, not the bug I see.)

The argument from authority, that is, the believers, tells us that Tyr and Tiw were the same. Or that Woden and Mercury were the same. And that Allah and the Christian God are the same, which is why Islam was generally deemed a heresy. The Muslims returned the favor, seeing the Trinity as a form of heresy which sneaked in other gods beside God. (The way some Protestants saw Mary as a de facto goddess sneaked in beside the Christian God.)


Not Trampis 06.15.21 at 10:20 pm

Islam definitely does not recognise the trinity.
Jesus taking on all ours sins on the cross is unique to christianity. As is you can only enter Heaven via Jesus.


notGoodenough 06.16.21 at 1:01 am

steven t johnson @ 19

“I find it extreme, because it presupposes a radical epistemological scepticism”

Perhaps off topic (and perhaps better saved for a future twigs and branches), but I am intrigued by this – would you care to elabourate, particularly with respect to “a radical epistemological scepticism” (I am unsure if you are referring to the idea that certainty is never justified, or a more nuanced concept)?


John Quiggin 06.16.21 at 1:25 am

My impression has always been that Mars/Ares is more like God/Dieu, just the Greek and Latin names for the same being. When I was young, it was common to see books of Greek myths using the Roman names. The existence of a 1-1 correspondence between the two sets of gods seems to support this.

I’d imagine that originally, the Romans had some different myths about their gods, but this would also have been true among different Greek cities who used the same names.


heckblazer 06.16.21 at 2:46 am

Not Trampis @ 20:

Not all Christians are Trinitarians. Indeed, I’d so go so far as to say that either Christians and Muslims worship the same God, or else they worship different Gods because there is no singular God all Christians have in common. There’s quite a lot of difference between the conceptions of God of e.g. Catholics, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Nestorians, Christadelphians and Gnostics and I don’t think the gaps between them are less than the gap between Catholicism and orthodox Sunni Islam.


Peter T 06.16.21 at 4:02 am


Pedantic footnote:

Roman/Greek high culture assimilated gods into the existing pantheons (also adding them too), even where they were demonstrably different. The original Latin religion was quite different to the Greek – noting that Greek religious mythology was not at all uniform. Polytheisms tend not to place much importance on common doctrine – they are more about practice than belief.


Alison Page 06.16.21 at 5:59 am

If there is a sacred then our human concepts must be inadequate to represent it. And the difference between the atheist and the religionist is only about whether the sacred exists prior to our being, or is ‘only’ our response to the vast ineffable universe in which we are embedded. The names and concepts of gods give shape to something greater and stranger than any human can grasp. My hunch is the creative abyss of the sacred (and I don’t expect most people to agree with me) responds to humans reaching out to it. So the names of god are not entirely empty, nor entirely true. But if there is no creative field beyond us then the names of gods at least allow us to build the sacred onto nothingness.

I am reminded of Owen Glendower to Hotspur ‘I can call spirits from the vasty deep’, ‘But do they come when you do call to them?’

I think they do, for whatever reason.


Jim Buck 06.16.21 at 7:09 am

Lessing’s Parable of the Ring is hopeful in its emphasise on the roots, ruts, and a route out of tribal strife, as it pertains to the Abrahamic religions:


RichardM 06.16.21 at 8:45 am

The only way to settle this is experimentally. Swap two gods, and measure what that does to the rates of crop failure, disease and defeat in battle.

Gibbon’s thesis was famously that had been done to the Roman Empire ~400 CE. But poor historical records makes the result unclear at best, foundering on the question of ‘is the Emperor of the Byzantines also the Emperor of the Romans’?

So it would probably be worthwhile to repeat the exercise under more controlled conditions.


J-D 06.16.21 at 9:57 am

I’m alarmed by how interesting I find this comment by J-D in the Christian thread.

Flattery will get you nowhere.

I’d still be more interested in your responses to my other comments on that thread.

For those unfamiliar with the interpretatio Graeca, interpretatio Romana, and interpretatio Germanica, brief primers can be found here:


Lee Arnold 06.16.21 at 11:41 am

It could be that “god” is the ancient name of the full consciousness that also occurs with the fully-lit brain shown in brain scans of subjects experiencing the breakthrough on psychedelic drugs. This suggests several avenues of research. The fact that afterwards, this higher state of consciousness can be reattained without drugs by practicing a traditional mystical path, and the fact that the phenomenological descriptions of the two experiences are apparently basically the same, underneath the variations from setting and culture, also suggests some philosophical reappraisals. Let’s suppose there is only the brain: let’s suppose there is no God and let’s suppose, to put it in a more physical way, that the brain is not a tranceiver to another dimension. (I don’t really stake either claim, as a thoroughgoing agnostic due to the inherent limitations in rational thought, but just let’s suppose.) Then we must acknowledge that science now shows that a fully-lit brain has oceanic feelings of oneness with the universe, cosmic love, the noetic (all-knowledge) feeling, can read or mirror other minds to an enhanced degree, enjoys better mental and physical health, etc.: the whole panoply of the responses on the standard transcendence questionnaires with the addition of the concomitants in biochemistry. Note that our everyday lesser consciousness (i.e. control by the “default mode network”) has an epistemological stance towards fully-lit consciousness, whether we have experienced it or not: this stance includes feelings of sacredness, the rightness of morals, awareness of sin, and responses to teachings. Insofar as good morals must be practiced to attain the highest state of consciousness, it might be claimed that there are “objective, real, moral, or ethical, standards.”


roger gathmann 06.16.21 at 12:01 pm

And no mention of the Hebrew belief that the name of God is hidden, and not to be pronounced? I imagine there are other cultures where this is the case as well. I do know that Moses, upon asking the burning bush who was that knocking at his door, was answered with: “I am who I am.” Put that in Russel’s pipe and smoke it.


Jake Gibson 06.16.21 at 12:27 pm

Interesting that there are different concepts on Non-Theism. I suspect that a lot of it is how aggressively oppositional we are to Theists.
I am pretty oppositional to authoritarian Theists.
To be honest, toward organized religion in general.
Just in case, I do have a daily prayer.
“Good morning, Creator. Thank you for making the Universe in all its strangeness and wonder. Now, go back to sleep”.
I think we are all better of when the Creator is not trying to fix its mistakes.


J, not that one 06.16.21 at 1:38 pm

It occurs to me that Christianity includes a large number of positive beliefs about the false gods, or false conceptions of gods, presumed to be worshipped by other religions (notably Judaism and Islam). I wonder if that’s unique. Judaism and Islam of course object to the idea of the material existence of G-d/Allah in a human body, but generally believe this is a false doctrine about the true God, and not an especially important one for purposes of morality and so on. Christianity in theory believes the same, but many Christians don’t (and are not in the least shy about saying so). Does Hinduism have an internal theory about Islam or Christianity? Does Taoism have one about Buddhism?


Scott P. 06.16.21 at 1:59 pm

If historical reasoning has any place in this discussion, it is worth nothing that a) As far as we can determine, Mohammed’s first community of believers contained both Christians and Jews. b) Nothing in the Qur’an or early Islamic history indicates that Mohammed or his followers felt they were starting a ‘new’ religion, but rather following a worship pattern that predated them by millennia. c) Among the various early historical writers who note the rise of Islam, very few of them make any reference to Muslims as following a faith different from Christianity, although a few do.


Peter Erwin 06.16.21 at 4:48 pm

As several people (e.g., Tm and Scott P.) have pointed out, there are in fact opinions held by some believers as to whether or not e.g. God and Allah are the same.

Muslims have generally held that both Jews and Christians are worshipping the same god that Muslims do, even if the former have some confused and erroneous ideas about Him (e.g., the Christian Trinity and the idea that Jesus was somehow God instead of being an ordinary human prophet). Christians have almost always held that Jews are talking about the same God as they are, even if the Jews foolishly ignored the coming of the Son.

Of course, there are interesting (if sometimes very obscure) exceptions, like those Gnostic Christians who argued that the God of the Old Testament who created the bodies of Adam and Eve and forbade them to eat from the Tree of Knowledge was a boastful, inferior being who merely created the physical world (the “Demiurge”), distinct from the true, supreme God. From their point of view, what the Jews and most Christians called “God” was not the same as the true God of the Gnostics.


Kenny Easwaran 06.16.21 at 4:54 pm

Like Kiwanda, I recently spent a while reading Wikipedia’s pages about proto-Indo-European religion. I was surprised to learn that Greek mythology is assumed to have more intrusions from other sources (often Middle Eastern or Semitic) than Norse, Roman, and Vedic mythology. I hadn’t seen that Ares was from a local source, while Mars is from Perkwnos (I had assumed Neptune would have been from Perkwnos, if Jupiter hadn’t been a merger of Dyeus Pater and Perkwnos!)

But on the underlying philosophy of language, I like a version of Kripke’s idea. The meaning of a name is the historical tradition of name use that it taps into. The name has a reference iff the historical tradition has its origin in an ostension or description that succeeded in referring to something. This leads to some surprising conclusions, like the claim that if there were in fact no animals that the word “unicorn” historically referred to, then whatever creatures existed in alternate universes that look a lot like horses with horns on their heads wouldn’t have been unicorns, but would have just been a very similar looking species. (

The problem with Kripke’s view is that he leaves unspecified the difficult part, about how a historic tradition of name use can switch from one reference to another. He raises this problem with terms like “Madagascar” (which supposedly descends from a name that once referred to a part of the mainland) and “Santa Claus” (which descends from a name from a historic bishop in Anatolia, but now definitively attempts to refer to a different person, who never existed). Figuring out how much change in the community of use can change the referential and meaning facts of a name is exactly what we need to figure out whether the Roman/Norse/Vedic gods are in fact the same as each other, and whether the Muslim, Christian, and Jewish gods are in fact the same as each other.

But one thing we can say pretty definitively, is that despite the “interpretatio graeca” that J-D mentions above, Ares is not the same god as Mars.

(I guess maybe even this isn’t definitive – if the two communities merge long enough and start using the names interchangeably, then maybe they can in fact come to have the same meaning, just as “Saint Nick” now sometimes refers to the non-existent Santa Claus rather than the Anatolian bishop.)


Kiwanda 06.16.21 at 5:26 pm

As is you can only enter Heaven via Jesus.

I understand that those who die with the Nembutsu on their lips, with faith in Amitabha Buddha, will surely attain birth in the Pure Land.


oldster 06.16.21 at 6:20 pm

Richard M–
“The only way to settle this is experimentally. Swap two gods, and measure what that does to the rates of crop failure, disease and defeat in battle.”

A story told to me by an archaeologist. The Greeks tended to associate Helios and Apollo, making Apollo the sun-god. One famous German archaeologist wrote extensively in opposition to their conflation, arguing that Apollo was not the sun-god. While on an archaeological dig in a temple of Apollo, he died of sun-stroke.

Case closed, I’d say.


bad Jim 06.16.21 at 6:26 pm

On more than one occasion George Washington offered the opinion that Christians, Jews, Muslims and Hindus all worship the same god. It’s likely he didn’t know much about Hinduism.


Trader Joe 06.16.21 at 7:03 pm

I find many of the comments conflate the existence (or not) of a God(s) with the existence of a related religion. These are decidedly different constructs.

It could be there are many religions and no Gods. Its could be there are many religions and many Gods. There could be more Gods than existing religions. There could be fewer Gods than existing religions. In the aggregate one of these is true, none are inherently provable.

Humans construct religions for any number of purposes. There are those who take the Green Bay Packers as a religion, worshiping the team, paying tribute, honoring colors and traditions etc. but yet (as far as I am aware) there is no God(s) associated with that team. As far as I’m aware being key – because in fact there could be one who has just not made him/her/itself known.

Accordingly Judaism, Christianity, Islam, etc. are factually all religions to which you, in your beliefs may choose to subscribe (or not). Whatever one does there are three outcomes.

There may not be a God
There may be a God(s) but its not the one you’ve aligned with or
You have aligned with an existing God.

The choices are readily available for all to see – free will and faith together will determine what choice you make and you may choose to judge the consequences of the choice as intrinsic to the choice. Only the choice is with certainty within your control.

Accordingly, in my opinion, it matters not if Mars or Ares, Allah or God are one, more than one or none. Your belief (or not) alone is all that matters and there is no one who can fully discredit your choice whatever it is.


Not Trampis 06.16.21 at 10:32 pm


If you do not believe in the trinity you maybe a lot of things but a Christian you are not by definition.


J-D 06.16.21 at 11:14 pm

I am reminded of Owen Glendower to Hotspur ‘I can call spirits from the vasty deep’, ‘But do they come when you do call to them?’

I think they do, for whatever reason.

There’s no good reason to believe that spirits came to Owen Glendower when he called them from the vasty deep, but if they did they were evidently of no use to him.


David J. Littleboy 06.17.21 at 2:35 am

“Whatever one does there are three outcomes.

There may not be a God
There may be a God(s) but its not the one you’ve aligned with or
You have aligned with an existing God.”

You left out another option: there are zillions of gods and you pissed off all of them.

(To a certain extent I’m joking here, but the linguistics and demography are correct.)

The idea that there’s only one god is, I believe, an artifact of a syntactic peculiarity of the languages most of us happen to speak. English requires that one specify a syntactic marker on noun groups (and verbs, too, sheesh), that specifies that one is talking about a single object or zero or two or more objects. (It turns out that explicating the rules for getting these syntactic markers correct (rules that pretty much all speakers internalize really really well) relative to the reality we’re trying to talk about is a real bear; it’s a completely illogical mess. Yet we’re all good at it.)

So as native English speakers, we have this strong gut feeling that there’s something special about unity. And thus feel that there’s something special about a unique unitary god. But there’s no logical necessity or reason for this feeling.

This explains why Christianity has such a hard time in Japan, where (according to wiki) somewhere between 1 and 1.5% of the population buys into said religion: Japanese doesn’t require specifying a syntactic number on noun groups*. So when in English we say “god” and we have to work to say “multiple different gods”, the Japanese “kami” covers all those sins. Which means that whereas in English, the whole “there’s one and only one god” schtick gets emphasized at every occurrence of the word “god”, Japanese doesn’t do that work for you for free. I have great sympathy for the proselytizers who can’t figure out why what they’re saying is making no sense.

So in Japan, you get Buddhism (zero gods) and Shinto (many gods). But the singular god of the west gets no traction. (Well, almost no traction. The literary world here is extremely fond of French literature and as a result there’s more Catholicism amongst the literati than the rest of the population.)

*: Japanese, of course, has methods for specifying how many objects are of concern, but it’s amazing (to this native English speaker) how seldom they are used or needed in actual writing.


J-D 06.17.21 at 5:34 am

If you do not believe in the trinity you maybe a lot of things but a Christian you are not by definition.

That’s less clear than you think.

The largest nontrinitarian Christian denominations are The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Oneness Pentecostals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, La Luz del Mundo and the Iglesia ni Cristo, though there are a number of other smaller groups, including Christadelphians, Church of the Blessed Hope, Christian Scientists, Dawn Bible Students, Living Church of God, Assemblies of Yahweh, Israelite Church of God in Jesus Christ, Members Church of God International, Unitarian Christians, Unitarian Universalist Christians, The Way International, The Church of God International, and the United Church of God.


roger gathmann 06.17.21 at 10:34 am

40 – no. When I was a Southern Baptist kid, the church member’s feeling was that Catholics, who worshiped saints and the Pope in Rome, aka the Whore of Babylon, weren’t Christians. Catholics might have had the reverse experience. If you are a Socinian or a Unitarian and you call yourself a Christian, the argument that you don’t believe the Nicene creed makes you a non-Christian doesn’t cut it. Similarly Tolstoy, who believed that, as Jesus said, the Kingdom of God is within you and tossed out the sayings about whoso believes in me as lesser moment in the Christ’s epos claimed that not only was he a Christian, but he took the Gospel much more seriously than the church denominations (which have long explained away the fact that it is harder to a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle – try imposing that as your rule for the chosen). I am always surprised when people overlook whole massive passages in the Gospels (for instance, the passage about who stands on the right hand of God, qualification for which does not involve believing Jesus is God’s only son) to come out with “definitions”of Christianity that Jesus himself would have not understood.


MFB 06.17.21 at 12:17 pm

We have the problem that if there is a vast number of gods, how would we tell them from an alien civilisation more advanced than ours? In other words, how do you tell a god from a sufficiently advanced technology? (Remember Michael Frayn’s comment on YHWH: “Small-time Stalinm with some of Castro’s showmanship”.) Only the idea of a god which rules the whole bang-shoot of the cosmos makes much sense as distinguishable from something which could have evolved from a technological civilisation.

Unfortunately, if that is the case and there can be only one, then it is fairly evident that the one cannot be simultaneously YHWH, Jehovah and Allah, no matter what the linguistics of the situation are. You can’t realistically be a god which tells three different groups of people that they alone are your chosen people and everyone else is dispensable.

Much more probably, however, we don’t know anything about the god of the universe yet because it has never manifested itself to us.


Jake Gibson 06.17.21 at 12:52 pm

I find this discussion a little disappointing in that it is a comparative theology rather than metaphysics. To me the more interesting questions are about the possible existence of a Creator and of its possible nature.
Theology tells us some things about humans, but nothing about “God”.
The only thing that might give us any ideas about its nature is the Universe it created.


Peter Erwin 06.17.21 at 12:58 pm

David J. Littleboy @ 42
This explains why Christianity has such a hard time in Japan, where (according to wiki) somewhere between 1 and 1.5% of the population buys into said religion: Japanese doesn’t require specifying a syntactic number on noun groups…

I very much doubt that. You are, for one thing, ignoring all the other (non-English) languages spoken by Christians and all the languages spoken by Muslims (who have the same “there is only one God” belief), all over the world. This probably amounts to hundreds of different languages, from dozens of different language families; it’s extraordinarily unlikely they all share this one peculiarity of syntax that so impresses you.

I would suggest that “Christianity has such a hard time in Japan” mostly because Japan has never been conquered and ruled by Christians — and because Christianity was explicitly outlawed in Japan for two and a half centuries, from the early 1600s until the Meiji Restoration.


Quiop 06.17.21 at 4:03 pm

@47 — Quite right. The absence of obligatory plural-marking in Japanese didn’t prevent Christianity from establishing quite a strong foothold in Japan during the sixteenth century.


Lee Arnold 06.17.21 at 5:59 pm

Seems to me the concept of god moved from the external to the internal, and monotheism was the crux. It went from a prescientific explanation for the movements and forces in the external environment, to the description of an individual psychological change which may occur after the following of certain precepts and practices. It began with primitive animism – spirits inside of everything, the plants and animals, the wind and rain. Then, totemism – one or another specific animal provided the model for the life of your clan or your tribe. Developed into polytheism – certain gods rule certain things, the war, the harvest; you applied with offerings to their specific temples around the city, for specific propitiations and expiations. The Jews and the Hindus perhaps independently brought forward the concept of one major god who pervades all, and who, very importantly, can see inside you: “…the Jews believed in a purely spiritual God who can read human hearts, but the pagans believed in gods composed of bodies and minds who were incapable of this.” Vico, New Science (1725), 350. The idea that god can see inside us strikes me as a key invention, and given its comportment with the reality of inner psychological transformation, it still gnaws at us. Judaism opposed the other gods; the omniscience and clairvoyance of the one god was mapped onto the reality of inner psychological transformation and was expressed as the visions of prophets, written into the Old Testament. Hinduism kept the lesser pantheon with its separate temples; inner transformation was explained as the recognition of brahman’s reflection into atman and achieved by holy ones who could help you do the same by practicing devotion in their own cults. Next, both traditions got a major revision or renewal, with much closer emphasis on unifying the method of inner transformation: the Buddha, the Christ. Gautama discarded theism and gave a detailed psychological prescription for inner change (the four noble truths and the eightfold path) and became a personification of it. Jesus’ instructions for mystical practice are strewn disjointedly throughout the Gospels; he called higher consciousness the father, of which he was a son; and this was adjusted by his followers into his deification as the only son. Christianity kept a strong tradition of inner transformation alongside its exoteric devotional practices until the rise of science and industrial commerce watered it all down into the bourgeois virtues, and mysticism was sidelined and forgotten by the mainstream churches. Things took a crucial turn with the discovery, or rediscovery, of psychedelic drugs in the mid-20th Century, and now many people have experienced full-blown religious transformations without any application to god or theology. Subsequently there has been a lot of kooky theories and what we need is a proper book of postpsychedelic mysticism combining techniques of intentionality with neuroscience and biochemistry. So we may be on the verge of a very different new era. There was a question above about what it all means for metaphysics; I’m not sure we have progressed beyond the categories of Aristotle and Kant. But at present, it is pretty clear that our proper epistemology is dual: toward scientific knowledge, and toward expanded consciousness. They are not the same thing, and you need both.


Lee Arnold 06.17.21 at 6:00 pm

Sorry for the duplication


Alison Page 06.17.21 at 6:46 pm

Only the idea of a god which rules the whole bang-shoot of the cosmos makes much sense as distinguishable from something which could have evolved from a technological civilisation.

Here’s another view. Which is the better metaphor? To represent the holy as a single king-like being (who ‘rules’) or as a collective of diverse beings? Or perhaps as a void or field from which forms emerge and sink back?


XW 06.17.21 at 7:52 pm

I believe in grand scheme for the universe. I believe soul exists. I believe universe is not just physical. These reasons make me believe in God


MisterMr 06.17.21 at 10:32 pm

On the linguistic part of the argument: natural languages are fuzzy by nature, so for example it is difficult to give a strict definition of “christian”: I personally would say that someone who doesn’t believe in the Trinity is not a christian, but as other pointed out above there are comunities of believers that don’t believe in the Trinity but call themselves christians.
Who is right? I think we are just using different meanings of the word “christian”: I mean someone who believes in the divinity of Jesus, whereas they mean someone who believe in the gospels, two different definitions.

If Ares and Mars exist only in the mind of their believers, they are different entities only as long as their believers believe they are different; once the Greek and the Romans start to believe they are the same entity they become the same entity (as they are purely cultural constructs). The same goes for the christian and muslim god (though I’ve never heard christians or muslims say that those are two different gods, only that it is the same God but the other side worships Him the wrong way).

If there is some entity that more or less corresponds to the concept of God, can we say that all religions more or less point to the same entity? Well it depends on how similar this entity is to what said religions say of God.
Also I don’t think God could be defined as an entity in the logical structure of the scholastic theology, which is a problem: I think most of our philosophy of language descends from theological arguments about this stuff from the middle ages, which came about precisely because of this kind of logical conundrums, that appear much more important when you have a vaguely platonic idea of the world and think that these problems refer to the world whereas they are problems of our logic.


Not Trampis 06.17.21 at 10:42 pm

Simply claiming to be Christian does not make you a Christian. Few would believe Mormons are Christians for example. The trinity is there in the bible. If you contradict it you aint a Christian


David J. Littleboy 06.18.21 at 5:36 am

Re: 47

If you want to find languages that don’t do a singular/plural distinction and whose speakers go in for Christianity (or some other monotheism), you’ll find such places few and far between. Simply because pretty much all the usual suspect languages/language groups have the s/p distinction (or a singular/dual/plural distinction). Indo-European, Semitic, Swahili, Arabic. The best counterexample would be South (but not North) Korea, where Christianity is popular and the s/p distinction isn’t. (China is said to be about 5% Christian, Taiwan probably more so.)

Also, FWIW, Christianity hasn’t been outlawed in Japan since 1873, almost 150 years. If anything, Meiji policy encouraged Christianity. It’s widely respected here; just not believed.


Jim Buck 06.18.21 at 6:43 am

MFB @45 “You can’t realistically be a god which tells three different groups of people that they alone are your chosen people and everyone else is dispensable.’

Lessing retold an ancient story:


J-D 06.18.21 at 11:46 am

Simply claiming to be Christian does not make you a Christian.

What I wrote was not that claiming to be a Christian makes you a Christian; what I wrote is that it’s not as clear as you think. I cited the Wikipedia reference not as establishing clearly what is or is not involved in being a Christian but as illustrating the unclarity.

Few would believe Mormons are Christians for example.

I don’t know how you’d test that, but even supposing it’s true, the truth of a statement is not determined simply by how few or how many people believe it to be true.

The trinity is there in the bible.

That, too, is not as clear as you think. I can’t find the Trinity in the Bible.

If you contradict it you aint a Christian

The Bible contradicts itself. If contradicting the Bible makes you not Christian, then the Bible itself isn’t Christian.


J-D 06.18.21 at 11:55 am

If you want to find languages that don’t do a singular/plural distinction and whose speakers go in for Christianity (or some other monotheism), you’ll find such places few and far between.

What about Indonesian and Malay?


Jake Gibson 06.18.21 at 11:55 am

I would ask XW if they believe that or want to believe it. I do find William Blake’s mystical universalist Christianity intriguing. Particularly the rejection of an authoritarian patriarchal deity (nobodaddy). Though I find believing in The Divine challenging.
Our Biblical literalist friend, Not Trampas, would say that it was not Christianity, however.
One general issue with the Abrahamic Faiths is their view of a monotheistic creator is filtered through the preconceptions of the authoritarian Patriarch of a tribe of migrant sheep herders.
Clearly if it is correct that in the beginning God created Man in his own image and Man returned the courtesy, we are stuck with God in the image of Father Abraham.


Peter Erwin 06.18.21 at 4:50 pm

Re 55 and 58:
This page from the the World Atlas of Language Structures Online lists 291 languages classified on the basis of “Occurrence of Nominal Plurality”. The most extreme classification is “no nominal plural”; the next most extreme is “only human nouns, optional”, which is where Japanese and Mandarin sit.

Among the more populous and widely spoken languages are:
1. Oromo (same class as Japanese), one of the main languages of Ethiopia. Per Wikipedia, 85-90% of Oromo people are either Muslim or Christian.
2. Guarani (same class as Japanese), the majority language of Paraguay. Paraguay, of course, is overwhelmingly Christian.
3. Acehnese (“no nominal plural”), the main language of Aceh province in Indonesia. Aceh is overwhelmingly Muslim; indeed, it’s probably the strictest and most intolerant form of Islam in Indonesia (Shariah law imposed at the provincial level; mob and government demolition of churches; etc.).

Really, the whole “their language means Japanese people are baffled by singularity, while English-speakers can only comprehend oneness” argument is rather silly. (I mean, if plural-marking languages make the concept of a singular god so overwhelmingly seductive, why were so many of their speakers polytheistic for so long? Why are so many speakers of Indian languages — Indo-European or Dravidian — not strict monotheists today?)


Peter Erwin 06.18.21 at 4:57 pm

Jake Gibson @ 59
One general issue with the Abrahamic Faiths is their view of a monotheistic creator is filtered through the preconceptions of the authoritarian Patriarch of a tribe of migrant sheep herders.

The tribal leaders of pastoralists tend, I think, to not be as authoritarian as you might imagine, often having to lead by consensus-building. It’s just as likely that the Abrahamic faiths were strongly influenced by the contemporary ideals of supreme/divine kingship in Near Eastern urban societies (e.g., Egypt, Syria, Mesopotamia).


Peter Erwin 06.18.21 at 5:13 pm

Not Trampis @ 54
Few would believe Mormons are Christians for example.

Really? A 2007 Pew Research poll asked American “Are Mormons Christian?”. 31% said “No”, while a slight majority (52%) said “Yes” (17% were “unsure”).


Charlie W 06.18.21 at 5:15 pm

Wondering about this:

“I exist, and my neighbours and students successfully refer to me with the term “Harry”.

The ones you’ve met, perhaps. But you have another neighbour, whom you’ve never met, but who has heard about you. One day, this neighbour sees a person who looks vaguely like an academic sort walking down the street. This neighbour decides to start referring to this person as ‘Harry’ because, after all, he seems like he ought to be the Harry he’s heard about. In a subsequent conversation with your other neighbours, this neighbour even says ‘why not ask Harry?’, gesturing to a man present and known to everyone else as Winston, since in fact the man is not you, but Winston.

That Hesperus is identical with Phosphorus is true – necessarily true if you accept the Kripkean account of rigid designation – but at the same time it was discovered to be so.


Lee Arnold 06.18.21 at 5:56 pm

A tribe migrating in hard desert conditions. An angry and jealous god


Daniel Keys 06.19.21 at 2:46 am

How dare you deny the Great God Tyr. You’ll be hearing from the Faerunian pantheon!


John Quiggin 06.19.21 at 5:49 am

“That Hesperus is identical with Phosphorus is true – necessarily true if you accept the Kripkean account of rigid designation – but at the same time it was discovered to be so.”

Whoever discovered this was very smart.


John Quiggin 06.19.21 at 5:51 am

Is it time to invoke Sapir-Whorf?


Johnathan 06.19.21 at 8:54 am

Why not call IT Ralph instead!
Prepare ye the way of Ralph.
It is just Ralph. All of this is Ralph, and that is it. It is just a Ralphing. You are being Ralphed. You are Ralph. You do Ralph. You believe in Ralph. You hate Ralph and resist Ralph. You are troubled by Ralph. You fear Ralph. And you are going to die by Ralph sooner or later. You breathe Ralph. You think Ralph. You are in charge of Ralph. Ralph is in charge of you.
It is all nonsense, you see.
Real life, true existence, all comes down to a non-conceptual Reality, the Reality of Non-separateness. You have no ultimate explanation for It, and no way to differentiate yourself from It or get control over IT. You must give yourself up to “Ralph”, the un-known and un-knowable, That Which Is Beyond yourself.


J-D 06.19.21 at 10:13 am

“That Hesperus is identical with Phosphorus is true – necessarily true if you accept the Kripkean account of rigid designation – but at the same time it was discovered to be so.”

Whoever discovered this was very smart.

The same discovery was made independently in more than one part of the world (although probably only once by people who were using specifically the names Hesperus and Phosphorus), but it is unlikely that the identity of any of the discoverers can be established with certainty.


Charlie W 06.19.21 at 11:53 am

69: I saw Pythagoras credited, once I thought to check.

The idea being that evidence looks to be available that help can set a community of name-users straight. Similarly with the hypothetical neighbours: they can correct each other’s usage of someone’s name. By contrast, it’s hard to see how this gets to be done with the god of some part of the Bible, or what have you.


Seekonk 06.19.21 at 4:44 pm

Here are the question and answer to the final exam in Religious Studies 101:

Q: Osama bin Laden answered the Lord’s call to blow up the World Trade Center. So hats off to the devout brother. Right or wrong?

A: Wrong!!!


J-D 06.19.21 at 11:59 pm

I saw Pythagoras credited, once I thought to check.

So did I, but the attribution can’t be established with certainty.


David J. Littleboy 06.20.21 at 8:00 am

“Is it time to invoke Sapir-Whorf?”

Sapir-Whorf gets a bad rap in the linguistics world, largely for good reasons. As stated, at least with the examples usually given, it’s problematic. Similarly, I find myself distrustful of linguistic arguments based on “there’s this aboriginal language Y that does X”, where no one can check up on whether or not language Y really does that. The old anthropology joke “I’ve found this language that uses the same word for everything!!! Uh, have you figured out what the word for finger is yet?” is apropos, nasty, and spot on.

But if you learn Japanese as a second language, you’ll find you need to deal with it on it’s own terms. It really is a very different beast. And the Japanese don’t seem to find Christianity anywhere near as compelling as a lot of other places do. Maybe it’s just coincidence (e.g. by the time the government stopped suppressing it, other forms of religious expression/belief were well enough developed that there was simply no need for it.). But that the language doesn’t give you an emphasis on the singularity of concepts for free strikes me as significant in Christianity’s failure to capture the Japanese imagination.

So to get back to Sapir-Whorf, I suspect that there’s room for a more sensible/more sophisticated hypothesis. Languages really are different, but many of those differences may end up merely resulting in differences in what sorts of things are convenient/easy to talk about.


oldster 06.20.21 at 12:28 pm

The attribution of pretty much anything to Pythagoras is uncertain.
The Babylonians were careful empirical astronomers who assembled massive databases of observations detailing where celestial objects appeared each night. I do not know whether they identified the morning star with the evening star, but they had the method that would allow them to do it. Reams of data plus a three-year old’s grasp of object-persistence will suffice — to invoke the name of Occam is superfluous, a posit praeter necessitatem.


reason 06.20.21 at 2:50 pm

Jake Gibson “The only thing that might give us any ideas about its nature is the Universe it created.”

I find this an odd statement. One of the principles of complexity theory is that you really can’t do such reverse engineering. And I see no reason even if there are creator(s), to believe that they have any continuing relationship to their creation(s). All this seems like projection starting from a particular narrative.


steven t johnson 06.20.21 at 2:52 pm

MisterMr@53 touches on the difficulty of defining “God” logically, but I think the social definition by groups, usage so to speak, trumps prescription by theologians and logicians. The Mormons are not trinitarian but they are highly respected as Christian, therefore there Jesus etc. is the same Jesus. Unitarians aren’t trinitiarian but they are social liberals, and worse, committed theological liberals, therefore they are highly suspect as Christian. (I was once highly amused to read an exercise in self-pity by a Christian lamenting terror attacks on Christians in the US—there were indeed arguable instances of violence—only to omit a gunman’s attack on a Unitarian congregation! Plainly for this Christian, they weren’t.)

As to how this relates to Allah/God? The reason for thinking Allah is simply Arabic for the same God is simple enough: The God of Abraham is the God of Hagar and Ishmael. There are today Christians who will simply ignore the Bible (this is standard Christianity, as all unpleasant parts are rejected at will, as in the “Why I am not exactly a Christian” post.) Some will claim Allah is a demon, etc.. We can believe that the racial identification of Muslims as Arabs (a gross error, but ineradicable it seems,) plays the key role, not theology or logic.

There is an Old Testament motif of the second son being the true heir. This may reflect the old custom of sacrifice of the first born, found in some middle eastern cultures. Carthage is the most notorious historical example. (It may also relate to the custom of women ritually prostituting themselves before marriage, the implication being the first-born is not really one of the family but the stranger’s child.)

Thus, in this, Abraham/Abram sired a child on Hagar as a predestined sacrifice to his God. The story was first modified to Abraham driving Hagar and the infant Ishmael into the wilderness. But then, if Ishmael was not to be deemed a true son, then Isaac should have been sacrificed? But later that was embarrassing, hence the lamb in the thicket. At any rate, like all characters miraculously saved from/returned from death, Isaac’s later biography is fairly empty of incident.

The point in highlighting these oddities is that interpretations in religion are not constrained by any logic, but by custom. Like deciding true Christianity is being nice and superstitious bigotry isn’t really Christian is perfectly typical. The conclusion that being a real Christian (nice or whatever) means solidarity with fellow self-professed Christians in opposition to assholes who deconstruct religious text seems to me a non-sequitur, though.


MisterMr 06.20.21 at 4:14 pm

When I was in university I had to study an exam of semiotics, and the example of the morning star was on the textbook (Eco’s “Semiotics”, an extremely boring book differently from other stuff written by Eco).

Now I don’t remember what the book said about Hesperus and Phosporus, but I remember the distinction between “intensional” and “extensional” meaning: intensional means something like “fishes are all the animals who have fins and live in water”, so in this definition if an animal lives in water and has fins, like a dolphin, it counts as a fish, whereas extensional means “this, that, and that other animals are fishes”, from which we can ceck the three animals and see what properties they have in common.

Problem is that as natural languages are fuzzy, we constantly switch from intensional and extensional uses of words. This is not a bug but a feature: we now know that dolphins are not fishes, but it took many centuries of scientific developement to discover this; if we hat to wait until scientific biology before using the word “fish” in the intensional way we would never had developed language in the first place, and neither biology; on the other hand a purely extensional use of language would make any generalisation impossible and therefore again we could have no language.

So when we deal with concepts used in natural languages, we have to accept that a purely intensional or extensional conception of meanings or thruth value doesn’t cut it.

A general idea though is that when we use concepts like fishes Christianity or Mars we postulate the existence of a referent (even if that referent doesn’t exist or is fuzzy).

So in this sense if the Greeks postulated the existence of Ares, the Romans of Mars, and then they got together and postulated that the two are the same, or that Osiris is the same of Dyonisos, then the postulated extensional referent is the same and thus the extensional meaning is the same, even if the divine dude in question dosn’t actually exist.

Another way to put the same concept is that when we speak we postulate a discoursive world, and check it either against reality or against another discoursive world.

If we check our discoursive world against extralinguistic reality, as science is supposed to do, we get empirical thruth, so the question whether Harry has red moustache can have an empirical thruth value but the question whether Bruce and Batman are the same person doesn’t have a thruth value; if we check against a discoursive world like the DC universe the question whether Batman and Bruce are the same person has an extensional thruth value, but this thruth value is limited to the discoursive world of DC and is not the same of an empirical thruth value, otherwise we enter in the logical problems of the ontological proof of the existence of God: suppose that I postulate a turtle whose main a intensional property is that of existing, then that turtle exists, but only in my discoursive world not in reality.

Going back to Mars and Ares, in the discoursive world of the Greek and the Romans after a certain point they were one an the same, also extensionally, but this is independent from the existence in the real world.


Tim Worstall 06.21.21 at 3:06 pm

If the Mormons aren’t Christians then they’re acting in incredibly strange ways. Well, OK, that could be true anyway. But by far the easiest (OK, cheapest, without having to steal from a motel room) way to get a decent copy of the King James is to ask the Mormons to send you one.

Non-Christian proselyting by sending out the Christian book does seem odd.


Jim Buck 06.22.21 at 11:17 am

“Non-Christian proselyting by sending out the Christian book does seem odd”

An old Joke:

A Rabbi asked a Priest about career prospects in the Catholic Church.

Priest: Pretty good! I start out as a priest then there’s bishop to go for, and then– if I make cardinal–I could even become Pope.

Rabbi: Pope? That’s the highest it goes?

Priest: Well, there’s God of course, but a man can never become God.

Rabbi: Why not? According to you, one of our boys made it!

Mormons believe that all human beings have the potential to become God in their own universe. So they are happy to distribute the Christian version of the book. For Mormons, it’s a handbook.


J, not that one 06.22.21 at 4:36 pm

I’ve had this lyric running through my head:

I believe in God
And I believe that God believes in Claude
That’s me

Possibly the canonical God does not believe in Claude, or Claude has a false belief about what that entails. Probably Claude believes he’s referring to the canonical God. Possibly Claude has had an authentic religious experience, regardless of the literal meaning of his words (which IIRC he utters under the influence). Possibly “belief in God” entails correct doctrinal assertions, correct varieties of religious experience, etc., or possibly it doesn’t.

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