RALL: Ancient Deities in a Brave New World

Until recently, God it had it all -- omnipotence, ubiquity and benevolence. As the leading beneficiary of the current global trend towards monotheism, the guy who made everything and ran it all didn't have to do much to attract popular support. Then, in 1993, God's pollsters came to him with some bad news: his numbers were slipping."I was down to 43 points, and falling fast," God recalled at a recent interview. "In New Jersey it was like they'd never even heard of me. I had to do something fast."Polls revealed that many people felt that God was out of touch with their concerns. "I prayed for my boss to be slowly gummed to death by sea cucumbers," said one respondent, "but he's still here, counting how long I take to go to the restroom. So much for the power of prayer." Furthermore, God's existence had in the past been justified by the existence of causality, design and purpose in the universe-an assumption that recent advances in chaos theory have rendered obsolete.Advisors to the central deity of Christianity, Judaism, Islam and those other faiths told him that the only way to recover was to take a page from his chief opponent's book. "You can move towards evil without actually becoming evil," his head speechwriter said. Within days, God announced his transformation to a "New God."At the time, many religious observers were skeptical that a deity could abandon over 5,000 years of straightforward love for mankind in favor of a more pragmatic approach that asked people to be responsible for themselves. Now, three years later, it's clear that God has adapted with incredible ease to his new image.First he decided to give up positions that many had seen as overly judgmental. "Take sin," he explained during one of his weekly radio addresses. "Who's to say what's sinful and what's not? Sure, a murderer who carves up his best friend with a butcher knife might seem bad. But the guy must have had his reasons, right?"But strategists also determined that others considered God to be too soft on mankind in general. Many missed the 17th century Calvinist view of humanity as a loathsome spider dangling from a tiny thread above a flame, averting disaster by the Almighty's whim. To address this nostalgic yearning for a fiercer, more vengeful Supreme Being, God caused an increased number of airplane crashes, bursting dams and a variety of new diseases-all in order to make the interplay between behavior and destiny appear more fickle.In addition, God has finally managed to shed the "M" word -- merciful. "I'm tired of being tarred with the brush of being called 'kind and merciful,'" God recently told a group of Rotarians. "Mercy implies wimpiness. And the other side doesn't have a monopoly on fire and brimstone." Since late 1994 he has ignored 85 percent of prayers from the poor and sick. He has also smitten a half-dozen cities entirely without provocation.To be sure, devout worshipers of God -- his traditional core base -- are not pleased with the New God. Some suspect that the new image resulted more from budgetary than ideological considerations; concern for mankind was much easier thousands of years ago when there were only a few million people.Reached at her hospice in Calcutta, Mother Teresa asked: "What's the point of obeying God if he acts more and more like the devil? At that rate you might as well go for the real thing." Still, the world's most famous nun emphasized, she was sticking with God for the time being.Others, fearing divine retribution, spoke only on condition of anonymity. In Tehran, a leading imam said: "Look, we all understand that it's a new world out there. So maybe we pray twice instead of four times a day, okay, I can see that. But he's been advertising for souls on the World Wide Web!"Indeed, Satan is bitter about the New God, claiming that God has taken over many issues that were once the Dark One's own. "In the old days, good was good and evil was evil. You didn't need a program to tell the players. But now it's all mixed up! Everyone's moving to the center, but by giving up our core identities I fear that we're all losing our souls."Satan, too, has attempted to broaden his base by appealing to people who were traditionally considered good, by curing certain obscure venereal diseases and opening a soup kitchen in Mexico City. He has even reached out to the MTV generation with bumper stickers reading "Beelzebub is cool," but the Prince of Darkness still seems unable to overcome the perception that he doesn't care about the environment.Meanwhile, God's remarkable progress, which has earned him the moniker the "Comeback Creator," continues as his popularity rating leads Lucifer's by nearly 20 percentage points. As this year's holiday season looms, even the malcontents seem likely to stick with the "New God." "Where else can those goody-two-shoes go?" God scoffed recently at a press conference during which he announced the end of morality as we know it. "It's not like they're gonna go to the devil."

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