Need a god? There are plenty to choose from.
IN the film Contact, near the end, there is scene in which astronomer Dr Eleanor Arroway (played by Jodie Foster) is being interviewed by a US Senate committee; it is assessing her suitability as the first human to be sent to contact an alien civilisation. Ultimately, she is asked if she believes in God. This is an expression of a sub-plot in which science and religion are contrasted and compared and of course there is an implication that only the religious are good enough for important tasks.
Arroway prevaricates, wanting to say “no”, but realising than this would prejudice the committee against her. In fact, even her failure to give a direct “yes” lost her the place, although she later gained it after the selected candidate was killed in an accident. Although this is fiction, in the religious climate in the USA, it could just as easily be fact.
Perhaps the director of the film did not want to get distracted by a theological dispute, but had it been a real inquisition, Arroway lost an opportunity to strike a blow for reason. She could have replied “Which god?”!
No doubt the committee member who asked the question would then have replied “Surely there’s only one God”. Arroway could then have pointed out that she knew of very many and listed Yahweh, Allah. Jesus, Brahma, Vishnu, Sira, Krishna. Ahuru Mazda, but almost certainly she would have been stopped before she got to the numerous gods of the ancient world. Her questioner is likely to have asked:
Surely, all these are the same God.
If she knew Genesis, Arroway could then have pointed out that, in his ten commandments, the god of the Israelites (Yahweh) is alleged to have instructed them to “have no other gods before me”. So if even Yahweh acknowledged the existence of other gods, there could not be only one god. If God knows of other gods, who are we to disagree?
At this point, I would expect general uproar and abandonment of further questions. The committee’s questions were predicated on an acceptance of monotheism: the belief that there is only one God and that he/she/it has different names in different religions. This is a persistent myth for which there is absolutely no evidence.
It is clear that not only is God made in man’s image, different gods are made in the image of different cultures. As for the name of this universal “God”, he/she/it seems not to have one. The Hebrew name “Yahweh” may just mean “he who exists” and Islam appears to have a god with no name (“Allah” just means “the god”). If the Christian god is that of Jesus, then it is Yahweh, although most Christians would not be aware of this. Indeed, most Christians would not be able to name their God.
So next time you are asked if you believe in God, just say “Which god?”
Editor’s note: Jodie Foster is, in fact, an atheist who found great empathy with the character Eleanor Arroway in the 1997 film based on Carl Sagan’s novel.
Sagan, an agnostic, died in 1997. In the film, Foster’s character says:
What is more likely? That an all-powerful mysterious God created the Universe and then decided not to give any proof of His existence, or that He simply does not exist at all?
In an interview she gave after the film’s release, Foster said:
I absolutely believe what Ellie believes – that there is no direct evidence, so how could you ask me to believe in God when there’s absolutely no evidence that I can see? I do believe in the beauty and the awe-inspiring mystery of the science that’s out there that we haven’t discovered yet, that there are scientific explanations for phenomena that we call mystical because we don’t know any better.
Asked in another interview if she ever prayed, Foster replied:
No absolutely never.
Last Year, at the Golden Globes award ceremony, Jodie Foster came out as gay.
• This updated piece first appeared in the November, 2005, edition of the Freethinker.