The gods must be crazy

By Brian Emmet

We think we don’t have “gods” any more, but we do. And we do worship them. And I did not put the word worship in quotes.

A god is perceived to be a figure of superhuman status, strength and perhaps virtue. Gods may well be projections of human hopes and desires, or fears. Red Mars, the bloody god of war; gorgeous Venus, goddess of love and fertility; Poseidon, god of the restless, unpredictable powers of the seas, and so on, just to use some examples from the fairly familiar Greek pantheon.
And the thing about a god or the gods? You can’t ever be sure where their interests and loyalties lie. They may in fact be absolutely uninterested and uninvolved, with you, your tribe, or even the whole world. Or they may be tribal, favoring the Greeks over the Trojans, or the Patriots over the Falcons. Or they may be bribe-able or in some way manipulate-able. If our offerings and sacrifices are better than the other guys’, we may be able to win their gods over to our side.

Because the gods are, well, gods, and therefore unpredictable, our worship of them must involve pleasing or placating sacrifices. Perhaps we can secure the fecundity of our farmlands by feeding some of our children to a god. Perhaps we can gain victory over our enemies by offering up some comely virgins.

Gods provide identity (“We name our city Athens because the goddess Athena is our patron goddess”). They are a source of power and security (if they are on our side), or a threat to be ameliorated, if somehow we have displeased them. Gods provide occasions to party, to feast and celebrate and generally cut loose (“Going to Saturday night’s bacchanalia at Lou’s place?”) God watch over and superintend various spheres of human activity: early artisan guilds were religious organizations, each with its divine patrons. Gods issue divine decrees, laws and ordinances, and keeping them is a good way to keep the gods pleasantly disposed towards us.

You can recognize the gods of a culture pretty easily: their temples and images are everywhere. Where do the crowds gather? What are they looking at as they gather, and what do they do once there? What kind of sacrifices are brought, and how are they offered? Are there priests and priestesses, mediating the transactions between god and human?

Cultures often adopt the gods of another culture, and just change the gods’ names. The ancient Romans so admired the even-ancienter Greeks, that they pretty much adopted the Greek pantheon as their own, just Roman-izing the Greek names.

We secular Westerners are surrounded by our gods. They have names like Zuckerberg, Bezos, Musk, Jobs, and Gates … or Beyonce, who is widely revered as Queen … or the star- or celebrity-du-jour (Madonna’s star may be fading but the Stones keep rolling). Their Temples are known as Google, Apple and Silicon Valley (which is actually a precinct of many temples). Our gods are revered as brilliant, creative, innovative, risk-taking geniuses. The oracles of someone bearing a title like Chief Scientist, Director of Creative Destruction, Social Innovator or Widely Regarded Expert are parsed with great care and attentiveness. “Tell us, our gods, the pathway to the good life! You know what’s best for us! We gratefully offer the sacrifices of our Master- and VISA card numbers, along with our personal information. Provide us with speed! With community! With meaning and purpose, or at least with games and cheap goods that are feely shipped!”

Let me stress that I know none of the specific people I have mentioned here personally, and am not attacking them or their character. I don’t think they didn’t set to to become gods (although you never know … and I imagine it can be pretty nice being treated like a god—I think I could get used to that); it is we who turn them into gods. Whatever the source of their god-ness, when we hear terms like The World’s Richest Man or The Smartest Guy on the Planet, or The Genius of Our Time, god-making is underway.

The thing about these gods? They don’t care. Since they are gods, they just do what they do; since they are gods, they are pretty well-protected from the effects of their decisions (other than fame and train cars of money).

So it’s not so much that the gods are crazy, although I expect that this will prove more true than any of us or them imagine. It’s we who are crazy for worshipping them, empowering them, and heedlessly offering our costly sacrifices to them.

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