With apologies and grateful thanks to the Buddha of Hollywood (the excellent "God Concepts" series) and William Cooney ("Living Without god")...
SCENE: A shop, the shelves are crammed with statues and figurines of gods. The door opens and in comes a customer.
ASSISTANT - Good Morning, sir. May I help you?
CUSTOMER - Er, yes. I'd like a god please.
ASSISTANT - Well, you've certainly come to the right place, what do you have in mind?
CUSTOMER - Er, well, I'm not sure, really. All my friends seem to have a god, so I just thought I should probably get one too.
ASSISTANT - I see. Well, we have gods to suit all tastes and pockets. How much do you plan to invest in your god?
CUSTOMER - Well, I don't have a lot of money...
ASSISTANT - Not to worry, sir. Although many of our gods require money, there are plenty that don't. This one over here, for example (indicates a fearsome-looking crocodile-headed god), requires nothing but an offering of flesh once a month.
CUSTOMER - Flesh? As in meat?
ASSISTANT - A heart, actually.
CUSTOMER - A heart? What sort of heart? Would an animal heart do?
ASSISTANT - Er, no. Anyway, moving on, this god here requires only regular offerings of food and drink.
CUSTOMER - That's not so bad, I could afford an extra meal once a month.
ASSISTANT - Once a day, actually.
CUSTOMER - Sounds messy. Do you have any gods that can get by on more, oh, I don't know, spiritual food?
ASSISTANT - Yes, indeed. This god here only requires that you acknowledge him as supreme deity, live by his laws, abide by his dietary rules and pray to him several times a day.
CUSTOMER - That sounds a bit more like it. I think I could do that. What are the laws like, anyway?
ASSISTANT - Well, they're quite, shall we say, strict and by today's standards rather old-fashioned. Punishment for violating them is quite severe, involving, but not limited to, amputation, stoning, beheading, that sort of thing.
CUSTOMER - Oooh, that seems a bit harsh. What about the dietary laws?
ASSISTANT - They're a fairly standard mix of dos and don'ts, most of which would only really make sense if you were a desert nomad without access to refrigeration. Some people find them a bit onerous these days, but they are a classic add-on for this type of god and still very popular.
CUSTOMER - Do I get an afterlife with this one?
ASSISTANT - Oh yes, if you're martyred in his name – very popular for some reason just now, that particular add-on.
CUSTOMER - Not sure I fancy that, myself. This god seems a bit too high-maintenance for me, what else do you have?
ASSISTANT - Well, if it's low-maintenance you're after, I've got a nice range of divine sources, great spirits, all-beings and life-forces. They just basically bring everything into being and then leave well alone. Very popular amongst the new-agers these are.
CUSTOMER - Hmm, sounds a bit impersonal. I think I'm looking for something I can relate to a bit, you know?
ASSISTANT - Yes, I understand. Over here, we have a large range of gods – each with different traits, I'm sure there's something here that would suit. We have gods of wisdom, nature, love, war, poetry, hunting, feasting, victory, medicine, the sea... You name it...
CUSTOMER - So I'd have to have something to do with whatever my chosen god is actually god of, wouldn't I? Sounds a bit limited to me. Also, would the god be interested in me as a person? Could I have a relationship of sorts with it?
ASSISTANT - I hear what you're saying, sir. These gods come with a rather unsophisticated interface, I'm afraid. Basically, you provide the worship and they provide the not smiting you with a thunderbolt or turning you into a beast for lack of piety.
CUSTOMER - Do people still go in for these?
ASSISTANT - Not so much these days, but they are relatively easy to operate and inexpensive to own. They're not a bad choice for the first time buyer.
CUSTOMER - They're a bit "single-purpose" for me. I'm looking for something a bit more, you know, universal.
ASSISTANT - OK, well, over here is one of our best-selling gods. He's personal, omnipresent, so you'll never have to worry that you've left him on the train, ha-ha. He's equipped with infinite knowledge – a kind of divine Wikipedia, if you will. He also comes with absolute power and a very sophisticated range of worship options.
CUSTOMER - Sounds interesting, can you tell me about them?
ASSISTANT - Sure. Options range from the hatch-match-and-despatch rental option for people who want a god but only for special occasions. like weddings, funerals and so on. Then there's the only-on-a-Sunday interface for the slightly more committed believer – very traditional, that one is. Finally we have a range of full-immersion packages for that truly two-way 24/7 relationship experience. I should point out though that customers opting for one of these should be sure that that's what they want – it's more of a lifestyle than anything else.
CUSTOMER - That sounds interesting. So is this god actually interested in me?
ASSISTANT - Oh, yes, sir, that's one of his biggest selling-points. You can actually talk to him and get something back.
CUSTOMER - So I could make my very own unique relationship with him?
ASSISTANT - Yes, provided that it's within the parameters of one of the many pre-set configurations that are supplied.
CUSTOMER - So I can't do my own thing?
ASSISTANT - We-e-e-e-ll, not really, no. But there are so very many established worship configurations, you'd be bound to find one you fitted into and, besides, creating your own worship configuration tends to be frowned upon by users of the standard setups. It's a Mac vs PC-type of thing, you know?
CUSTOMER - They'd be that bothered?
ASSISTANT - You'd hardly believe this, but wars have been fought over it.
CUSTOMER - No way!
ASSISTANT - (Shakes his head sadly) It's true.
CUSTOMER - And this god lets that kind of thing happen?
ASSISTANT - Well, if you look in the user guide (hands over a huge leather-bound book), you'll see that in places it seems to be encouraged, whilst in others, forbidden. If I'm honest, that's one of the drawbacks with this model...
CUSTOMER - What is?
ASSISTANT - The instructions are more ambiguous than the ones you get with a cheap Korean video-recorder. Mind you, some users like that as it they feel it gives them flexibility – so long as they stay within one of the factory pre-sets, of course.
CUSTOMER - Does this one come with an afterlife?
ASSISTANT - Oh, yes. There are two options here: an eternity of bliss and the other one.
CUSTOMER - The other one?
ASSISTANT - Yes. You might get the other one.
CUSTOMER - What's that one like? Is it nice?
ASSISTANT - Er, no. It's pretty hellish actually.
CUSTOMER - But no-one would choose that, surely?
ASSISTANT - Actually, it's the god who chooses - absolute power, remember?
CUSTOMER - So how do you make sure you don't get "the other" afterlife then?
ASSISTANT - (Smiles) It's all set out in the user guide.
CUSTOMER - I think I'd prefer something a bit more straightforward than that – it is my first time after all.
ASSISTANT - Hmm, well, you've seen pretty much everything we have, sir. Are you sure a god is the thing you need? What were you planning to use it for, anyway?
CUSTOMER - Well, I was hoping it would help me make sense of things and give me a purpose, plus I want to feel that I matter, somehow.
ASSISTANT - I see. Well, there is just one more thing I can show you. We've just taken delivery of some very nice Moral Principles. They're simple to grasp but provide years of rewarding effort to master, they cost nothing and will give you all those things you just talked about.
CUSTOMER - But they're not gods, are they?
ASSISTANT - True, but gods are not guaranteed to give you what you want either – just look around you. (Lowers his voice to a conspiritorial whisper) Between you and me, if these things really worked, there'd be no unhappiness, poverty, sickness, crime or evil of any kind in the world, would there?
CUSTOMER - I suppose not. So what's this Moral Principle thing then?
ASSISTANT - Well, basically, you live by a simple rule: wherever you can, work for the betterment of the world.
CUSTOMER - That's it?
ASSISTANT - Yes. As I said, it's simple to understand, but it'll take a whole lifetime of effort. A very rewarding lifetime, a very meaningful lifetime. It's a purpose and an action-plan all rolled into one. Plus, it's completely configurable by you the user.
CUSTOMER - OK, I'll try it.