A human-invented religion should look radically different from the worship of a real god because human longing for the divine will cobble together a poor imitation of the real thing. Let’s see if Christianity looks like the other manmade religions or looks unique.
We will warm up by first looking at a parallel example in the domain of languages. Imagine you’re a linguist, and you’re creating a tree of world languages. Each language is nearer in the tree to languages that are similar and farther from those that are dissimilar. For example, Spanish and Portuguese are near each other on the tree; add French, Italian, and others and call that group the Romance Languages; collect other language groups like Germanic, Celtic, and Indic and you create the Indo-European family of languages; and so on.
Suppose you’re almost finished with the tree and have just two more languages to fit in. First, find the spot for English. It’s easy to see, based on geography, history, vocabulary, and language structure, that it fits into the Germanic group. Now, find the spot for the language of an alien people from another planet. This won’t fit in the tree at all because it would be unlike every human language. It couldn’t have borrowed sounds, words, or syntax from Earth languages and would be tuned to the aliens, not us.
Now imagine creating another kind of tree, a tree of all world religions, past and present. Here again, history, geography, and similarities between religions tell us how to put the tree together. You’re almost finished and have one final challenge, to find the place for Yahweh worship of 1000 BCE. This was the proto-Judaism of the Israelites at about the time of King David. Using our language tree example as a precedent, this could go one of two ways. Is an obvious place easy to find, as was the case when finding a spot for English? Or is this religion radically unlike all of earth’s manmade religions, like the alien language compared to earth’s languages?
If Christianity were the organized worship of the actual god—the only god—it wouldn’t fit in, like the alien language. It couldn’t have copied anything from any other religion, and it would be tuned to the god’s intellect, not ours. The instructions for living, morality, purpose, and worship from the actual creator of the universe should look dramatically different from religions invented by Iron Age tribespeople in Canaan.
However, historians of religion tell us Yahweh looks like other Canaanite deities of the time. There were other tribes in Canaan, and the Bible mentions these—for example, Ammon, Midian, and Edom, as well as Israel—and each had its own god. This I’ve-got-my-big-brother-and-you-have-yours approach is henotheism, halfway between polytheism (lots of gods, and each affects our world) and monotheism (just one god—any others are imposters). With henotheism, each tribe assigned itself its own god. They acknowledged the existence of the other tribes’ gods but worshipped only one. Moloch was the god of the Ammonites, Chemosh was the god of the Midianites, and Yahweh was the god of the Israelites.
Yahweh looks like nothing but one more invented god.
Image credit: Basile Morin (CC BY-SA 4.0) via Wikimedia
Henotheism: the worship of one god while acknowledging the existence of others.
a tree of all world religions, past and present: for example, http://www.the40foundation.org/world-religions-tree.html.
the roughly two million Israelites: the Bible says that 600,000 men left Egypt in the Exodus, which suggests about two million in the entire company (Exodus 12:37).