In the name of Truth, and of Justice, and the American Way. Amen.
“You’re no god.”
Such are the words of the so-called “Sun god from Smallville” to the similarly hailed “Sun god of Krypton” in Bryan Hitch’s Justice League of America #7. Such is surprisingly insightful on the part of the former. Despite the seemingly simplicity of the word and its ubiquitous usage in the parlance of the religious and irreligious alike, few ministers or theologians, let alone laymen, can accurately define the meaning of “god.”
Comic book writers and readers in particular often come off as quite confused by the question. A common answer is to treat godhood as a particular power-level or power-set, such as sky-father strength or immortality. Clearly neither is what Superman has in mind as he proclaims his atheism with regards to Rao. With respect to strength, the latter is to Superman as Superman is to man, and, as is explained in this issue and last, by leeching the life of his followers is effectively everlasting.
Another approach, metatextually and in-universe, is to define “gods” mythologically, attributing godhood to any individuals, whether fictitious or factual, who fill the same roles that ancient pantheons once had in the popular imagination of contemporary culture. The Justice League themselves have often been written as exactly such (Morrison was very explicit about doing so during his run on JLA). This too cannot constitute Superman’s usage, as stories regarding Rao had been passed down for hundreds of millenia. Surely, more Kryptonians shared stories of Rao than Earthlings myths of Zeus.
According to extensive anecdotal evidence, the most common current definition of “god” is any being that is the object of worship. The notion of supplication as the source of godhood has been an increasingly popular concept in culture, from Peter Moynaeux’s Black and White to the 2010 remake of Clash of the Titans. Again, Rao certainly qualifies as an object of worship with billions of disciples, even deriving his power through them. And yet, knowing such, still Superman states, “You’re no god.”
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