How Humans Made God

By Lloyd Geering

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From The Fourth R
Volume 30, Issue 6
November – December 2017
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This essay was delivered as the Michael King Memorial Lecture at the Auckland Readers and Writers Festival in 2013. It also appears in the author’s Reimagining God: The Faith Journey of a Modern Heretic (Polebridge, 2014).

The assertion that humans made God is one that, only a century ago, many people would have found somewhat blasphemous. Even today there are many who would regard it as absurd and perhaps offensive. And this in spite of the fact that, in 1966, an April edition of Time magazine splashed on its cover, ‘Is God dead?’ Their article brought to public notice the fact that a few theologians, Jewish as well as Christian, were at that time discussing the ‘The Death of God’. It is commonly thought that the first to use that term was Friedrich Nietzsche of the late nineteenth century, when he announced it in his famous Parable of the Madman.

Actually, the first theologian to speak of the ‘death of God’ was the German theologian, turned philosopher, Georg Hegel (1770–1831). Hegel is not a man one hears about much today, yet his thinking influenced the nineteenth century more than any other. Indeed the twentieth-century theologian, Paul Tillich, said, ‘Hegel was the centre and turning point of a world-historical movement which has directly or indirectly influenced our whole century.’ Why? Because Hegel introduced to the Western mind the notion of historical development and thus prepared the way for the spread of the idea of evolution.

How did he do this? Hegel developed a philosophical system of thought that attempted to integrate everything into a unity: mind, nature, history, science, and religion. Basic to his system was what he termed in German Geist, which means ‘mind’ or ‘spirit’.

Prominent among his ardent disciples were three nineteenth-century men whose thinking greatly shaped history thereafter. The first was Karl Marx, who came to interpret human history as an unfolding dialectical process moving steadily toward the goal of the classless society. The second was David Strauss, who revolutionized our understanding of the New Testament by seeing it to be a blend of history and myth. The third was Ludwig Feuerbach (1804–72), the first theologian to assert that we humans made God.

However, before these disciples of Hegel could develop their radically new approaches, Feuerbach had to turn Hegel’s system upside down or, as he put it, ‘the right way up’. Hegel understood reality to be a dynamic and ever-changing process in which the physical world and all it contains emanated out of Geist (that is, spirit or mind). In other words it reflected the biblical view that God (or spirit) made the earth and all physical matter. But the real truth, said Feuerbach, is that spirit or mind has emanated out of physical matter. The human mind developed out of a physical body and brain and ‘God’ is an idea in the human mind.

The human mind developed out of a physical body and brain and ‘God’ is an idea in the human mind.

Feuerbach stumbled upon this insight twenty years before Darwinism and nearly a century before the emergence of the science of psychology. His place in the understanding of the evolution of the human thought world may be compared with that of Copernicus in cosmology and that of Darwin in biology. As Copernicus revolutionized our understanding of the universe, and Darwin revolutionized our understanding of our origins, so Feuerbach revolutionized our understanding of religion by turning the world of religious thought upside down or, rather, inside out. He was only thirty-seven years of age when he published his epoch-defining work The Essence of Christianity (1841). The reason he gave it that title I shall explain below.

Nearly two hundred years later, with our current understanding of our evolutionary past, we are in a better position than Feuerbach to give an account of how humans created the idea of God. It is a long story but one that could not be told until after Hegel. Indeed, its earliest part still remains largely hidden from us and has to be pieced together as best as we can from scanty sources. What we can say with confidence is that the human creation of the idea of God was made possible by the evolution of human language.

Language: The Genesis of God

Language, much more than our DNA, differentiates us humans from the other great apes. From about 200,000 years ago our primitive human ancestors began slowly to evolve out of their chimpanzee-like existence by their invention of language. Language evolved, very slowly at first, as a means of communication; it supplemented the use of gestures, a practice we still use frequently.

The notion of God belongs to the human thought world, and this world evolved and expanded in tandem with the evolution of language.

Eventually, however, language became much more than a means of communication. It enabled humans to construct what may be called a thought world, one they could pass on to generation after generation and hence evolve. Today we often refer to it, or at least part of it, as our culture. The notion of God belongs to the human thought world, and this world evolved and expanded in tandem with the evolution of language. I have written more fully about this in From the Big Bang to God, and have time here only to sketch the main stages.

“This is a giant of a book in terms of depth of understanding and execution from one of New Zealand’s greatest theological thinkers. It presents a clear analysis of the evolution of the universe, life and humanity.”
—Ashton Wylie book award, comments by convenor of judges Bob Ross

As languages developed and diversified, so also did the thought worlds associated with them. This took place roughly during the last 50,000 years, slowly at first and later accelerating. Language began with our primitive ancestors in much the same way as it still begins with us as toddlers, by the giving of names to familiar objects. By this means we transform an unknown world into a known world. Psychologically, language enables us to take possession, as it were, of the world. We make it our world.

In the early stages of the evolution of language our ancient ancestors gave names to everything they observed around them. But what could not be seen but only felt, such as wind and breath, remained more mysterious and could not be wholly possessed. For example, take our English word ‘spirit’, something still hard to define. This comes from the Latin spiritus which means ‘breath’. In many ancient languages the same word means ‘wind’, ‘breath’, or ‘spirit’ depending on the context. This shows us how our notion of spirit came to birth. The primitive human mind imagined itself surrounded by an invisible spiritual world of which wind and breath were the tangible proof.

To the ancients it seemed self-evident that all natural events like storms, spring growth, and earthquakes were caused by decisions made by a personal will similar to their own. So this invisible spiritual world was believed to be inhabited by particular spirits, into whom the ancients unconsciously projected their own personal experience. (Little children still do this with their toys and unexplained phenomena.) It was by giving personal names to the more significant spirits that the gods came into being.

In our oldest records of what humans thought, we find that the gods are all well established and humans felt themselves to be at their mercy. In ancient Mesopotamia, for example, some were Tiamat, Marduk, and Kingu. In Greece some were Zeus, Apollo, and Aphrodite. In Rome some were Jupiter, Venus, and Juno.

Although we have no way of knowing for certain, it is likely that they were known by their proper names long before the word ‘god’ was invented as a generic term to refer to the class of beings to which they belonged. As the ancients saw it, the gods belonged to a higher class than the mere human beings they treated as their servants.

When we moderns hear reference to gods, we too readily jump to the conclusion that they represent the beginnings of religion. But it is quite anachronistic and hence misleading to use such modern terms as ‘religion’ and ‘science’ in discussing a cultural age in which such terms were never used and to which they do not properly belong. Since the word ‘science’ etymologically means ‘knowledge’, and the gods played the most important role in the world of primitive knowledge, the ‘gods’ were just as much concepts of primitive science as they were of primitive religion.

The gods were created by human imagination to identify and explain natural phenomena. They played the same role in the ancient thought world as do the terms invented by scientists in today’s thought world, such as electron, neutron, quark, none of which we can ever see with the naked eye. In addition, however, they indicated the forces humans had to respect and obey if they hoped to survive.

From Polytheism to Henotheism to Monotheism

Each tribe or ethnic group had its own way of naming the gods and describing their distinctive portfolios, eventually covering every aspect of human experience: fertility, birth, death, war, peace, love, and so on. The cultural age of the gods lasted for a very long time and, in the more isolated areas of world, survived until modern times. We ourselves live so close to the age of the gods that we still name the days of the week after them, some of them Teutonic (Woden, Thor), some Roman (Saturn) to say nothing of the obvious Sunday and Moonday.

But a time arrived when the gods ceased to be the most convincing way of explaining the world. This time occurred in a relatively short period around 500 BCE, which is now called the Axial Period. This term was coined by the philosopher Karl Jaspers, who noticed that human culture seemed about that time to have taken a giant turn on its axis. Karen Armstrong has written a clear and full description of this period in her book The Great Transformation.

During the Axial Period, in five or six different places stretching from Greece to China but independently from each other, the gods were called into question, modified, or abandoned. It was chiefly in one of these locations, ancient Iraq, that the transition from the many gods to the One took place. The One unified source of power that superseded the many gods came to be referred to simply as God.

During the Axial Period … the gods were called into question, modified, or abandoned. [It was then] that the transition from the many gods to the One took place.

The transition is remarkably well documented in the Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament). As these books were either written or revised after the Axial Period they reflect the new age of God that had been entered. Before long, however, they came to be treated as inspired by that one God, so that for two millennia the Bible was regarded as the infallible Word of God. Only in the last two hundred years have scholars come to accept the Old Testament for what it really is, a collection of documents composed by human authors over a period of many centuries. When studied with the modern tools of historical and literary research, these writings have proved themselves to be an invaluable source for understanding how the belief in One God (monotheism) evolved out of the belief in many gods (polytheism).

The Old Testament writings further show that between these two belief systems there was an intervening stage now known as henotheism. This is the belief that each ethnic group should give exclusive allegiance to only one god, while still accepting the reality of the gods worshipped by other peoples. The chief exponents of henotheism were the Israelite prophets.

From the time of King David (about 1000 BCE) to the end of his dynasty 400 years later, the Israelite prophets fought a continual battle with the priests of the traditional gods of Canaan. They claimed that the people of Israel should give their allegiance only to the god they called Yahweh. (Yahweh, incidentally, may have originated as the storm god and was certainly associated with the sky.) The first of the well-known Ten Commandments enshrines a clear expression of this henotheism promoted by the prophets: ‘I am Yahweh, your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the place of enslavement. You shall have no other gods but me’ (Exod 20:2). By proclaiming henotheism (one people, one god), the prophets, without knowing it, were preparing the way for the emergence of monotheism (the belief that there is only one god).

We may call this event, when it arrived, ‘the birth of God’. Physical birth is preceded by a painful period known as the birth pangs, during which in the past many a mother lost her life. Similarly, the birth of God occurred during a period of great cultural crisis for the Jewish people. They and their tribal god Yahweh were in grave danger of going into oblivion forever. This crisis occurred when the expanding Babylonian Empire swept over the Holy Land, destroyed their holy city of Jerusalem, demolished their one and only temple, and carried off to captivity in Babylon the royal family, the priests, the aristocracy, and the educated elite.

The Babylonian Exile, as it was known, was naturally regarded at the time as a cultural catastrophe, yet quite unexpectedly it became the period of greatest Jewish cultural creativity. Babylon was one of the most culturally advanced cities in the world at that time. For example, the Babylonians were skilled mathematicians and astrologers. We still use their numbering system of base sixty on our watches and for dividing angles and separating latitudes on earth’s surface.

The Jewish exiles had barely had time to adjust to this highly sophisticated cultural milieu when Babylon was, in turn, conquered by Cyrus the Great of Persia. Under his more enlightened rule the innovative thinking of the Persian prophet Zarathustra entered the rapidly changing culture of Babylon. Zarathustra has sometimes been hailed as the first monotheist because he replaced Persian polytheism with the worship of the highly moral god whom he called Ahura Mazda, which means the ‘Lord of Wisdom’.

In this cultural maelstrom the Jews needed to sort out and reinterpret their own traditions to ensure their ethnic survival, and they had to do it in the light of all the new knowledge they were encountering. As a result, they put together what, to this day, they call the Torah or Books of Moses. These books now stand at the beginning of the Bible; they proved to be the first Holy Scripture and became a prototype for the Christian Bible and the Qur’an.

The Torah asserted that everything in existence is to be traced back to one source that it called God. Nothing could demonstrate more clearly how the Jews went into exile as henotheists and returned to their Holy Land as monotheists. The opening chapter of Genesis says it all. It makes no mention of the name of their national God Yahweh. It is here that the word ‘God’ assumed the status of a proper name and perhaps for the first time! Here we find the earliest expression of the notion that God is the creative source of all that exists, and hence the ultimate explanation of everything and the key to the meaning of human existence.

Instead of dismissing this document as now outmoded in the light of modern science (as we have tended to do in the last hundred years), we should evaluate it in its original cultural context. When we do so, it turns out to be one of the most succinct and imaginative statements of the origin of everything ever to have been composed. We should even marvel at its comprehensive simplicity, for nothing else in the world of that time could match it.

Let me remind you how it unfolds in a very orderly and simple fashion, on six successive days and in an order of increasing complexity, the creation of the most important phenomena:

Day 1: Light
Day 2: Space (separating earth and sky)
Day 3: Dry land and vegetation of all kinds
Day 4: The heavenly bodies (sun, moon and stars)
Day 5: Birds and fish
Day 6: Animals, including humankind
Day 7: The sabbath or day of rest

All the earlier human attempts to explain how everything began had been expressed in the form of a story, as does the much older account of Adam and Eve which it came to displace. This new account of origins took the form of a thesis—or set of assertions. In those days before the rise of empirical science, a thesis did not need to be proved by supporting evidence, it simply had to make sense and be convincing. This thesis was eminently convincing and remained so right up until modern times.

In fact, never before had there been a description of origins to match it for simplicity and comprehensiveness. To use a phrase from modern science, this was, in its own time, a ‘Theory of Everything’. Further, this account of creation provided the clearest possible description of what came to be meant by the word ‘God’.

This has been a brief sketch of how the idea of the gods came to birth in the world of human thought and subsequently evolved into God. Just as language was the most important tool that the human species ever invented, so it may be said that ‘God’ was perhaps the most important concept that ever came to birth in the evolving world of human thought. In a metaphorical sense, God did create a world, for in the sphere of human thought it provided a centre, a focal point, to which everything else could be related. It is no surprise that this centralizing idea served as a foundation stone for what became in their day two great civilisations, Christian and Islamic.

Inspired by Paul Tillich’s suggestion that atheism is not the end of theology but is instead the beginning, and working this together with Derrida’s idea of the undeconstructible, Caputo explores the idea that the real interest of theology is not God, especially not God as supreme being, but the unconditional.

How and Why We Created God

During the many centuries in which these civilisations flourished, the idea of God exerted such a powerful role that to suggest that it was the creation of the human mind was quite unthinkable, and for some people it still is. It is only since about 1800 that we have been slowly coming to appreciate how we see and understand our environment through the lens of the particular thought world in which we live and which our forbears created and passed on to us. All the words and concepts used in our thought world, including the concept of God, were invented by us humans. Further, just as have been learning from the time of Darwin that the universe and all earthly life has evolved, so the human thought world and its many components have evolved and are still evolving.

But it has only been since the time of Hegel, followed by Darwin, that we have been able to appreciate that we live in a changing and evolving universe. We are much more aware today than even our grandparents were that language, ideas, knowledge, and even science are always changing. In addition, we are now in a better position than even Feuerbach was to understand how and why the human mind came to create the concept of God.

The capacity of the human mind to project itself on to something external to itself is now accepted by psychologists as a common psychological mechanism. The strong tendency of ancient human minds to project themselves on to the external world accounts for the personal nature of the gods, and later of God. (Incidentally, this also explains why today’s most fervent believers in a personal God so often claim that they know precisely what God is thinking and planning; it’s because they are unconsciously projecting on to God what they themselves inwardly think and aspire to.)

Thus there is a close correlation between a person’s thoughts and the way God is conceived. Feuerbach came to realise that we project onto ‘God’ all the values we hold dear, such as love, justice, and compassion. (Even the Bible says ‘God is love.’) Further, we project onto God all the abilities that we humans would like to possess, such as power, knowledge, ubiquity, durability, etc. They become the divine attributes of omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, and eternity. All this means, according to Feuerbach, that theology (the study of God) is really anthropology (the study of humankind). It is the study of our highest human values and of how we can make the most of our lives.

The study of God … is the study of our highest human values and of how we can make the most of our lives.

Today we can go further than Feuerbach could. With the assistance of psychologists of the subconscious, such as Carl Jung, we can throw some light on why the transition from polytheism to monotheism took place. There appears to be a psychological reason why monotheism replaced polytheism. As the human mind evolved over many millennia, and as this process is recapitulated in each of us during our lifetime, it has displayed a strong tendency towards unification. The evolving rational mind comes to abhor contradictions, inconsistencies, and disconnectedness. We start life as infants with our minds receiving a jumble of sense impressions. By mid-life, under normal conditions we have unified them and have developed into an integrated self, a process that Carl Jung termed individuation. We come to value mental and moral integrity and we despise hypocrisy.

In a parallel way, the ancient mind, aware of the diverse conflicting natural forces it encountered, was motivated to find an underlying unity. Thus it was that polytheism (gods of nature) evolved, first into henotheism and then from henotheism into monotheism (one Creator God).

We too readily forget that the really important new element in monotheism was not the theism, for that had long been present in polytheism and henotheism. What was strikingly new was the mono, and this was acknowledged from the beginning in the Jewish Creed known as the Shema: ‘The Lord our God is ONE.’ It is to be further noted that wherever the spreading monotheism encountered polytheism it had little difficulty in replacing it, while the reverse procedure is rarely if ever found.

Further, it is the theism in monotheism that is now dying. The so-called ‘death of God’ marks the end of theism. As Bishop John Robinson, the author of the landmark Honest to God, declared in 1963, ‘our image of God as a personal being must go!’ Thus, monotheism is now evolving yet further, this time into a simple monism. The theologian Gordon Kaufman pointed out that the concept of God, apart from the now-outmoded images, has long served us as a unifying point to which we can orient everything else and so make sense of the world and of our place in it.

Monotheism is now evolving yet further, this time into a simple monism.

That is why some scientists occasionally surprise us by using the word. On hearing about the strange phenomena in quantum physics, Einstein exclaimed, ‘God does not play at dice!’ In recent years some scientists have published books entitled God and the New Physics and Unravelling the Mind of God. Why? This is because the idea of God remains a symbol that expresses the unity of the universe.

That is also why I believe some recent bestselling authors who have vigorously trashed the idea of God altogether have failed to appreciate how and why it evolved in the human thought world. Richard Dawkins, for example, wrote The God Delusion and Christopher Hitchens wrote god is not Great. I agree with a great deal of what they say and have no hesitation in agreeing that much that is still believed and practised by Jews, Christians, and Muslims should today be judged superstition. By superstition I mean any belief or practice that has survived from the now-outmoded cultural context where it was once appropriate.

The idea that the universe was created by a personal supernatural being who continues to watch over it with justice and loving concern has now become outmoded. However, for a very long time in our cultural past, this idea was not only entirely appropriate, it played a very positive role in leading us to the modern world, as I shall now explain.

The “death of God” movement famously declared that belief in the God of Christian tradition is meaningless in the modern world. Does this herald the death of theology, too? No, suggests Galston. At its best, theology is the place where tradition pushes itself to the limits of its own thought.

God and the Genesis of Science

We may compare the evolution of the human thought world with its counterpart in biological evolution. The bodily organ we call our appendix has now become redundant and serves no useful purpose, occasionally even endangering our life. But far back in time it did serve a purpose and helped our species to survive. Similarly, in cultural evolution the traditional idea of God long played a very important role. Often we fail to appreciate sufficiently what power can reside in ideas. Of all the ideas that have come to birth in the world of human thought, the concept of God has been the most powerful. The idea of God is great. It enabled people, in the long run, to believe they lived in a uni-verse and not in a multi-verse of conflicting forces. The idea of ‘God’ came to serve as a symbol affirming the unity of the universe. If one lives in a universe one can expect to find in it some constancy and integrity.

It is an indisputable fact that empirical science came to birth in the Christian West. Was this accidental or is there an essential connection between the two? In 1959, the German physicist and philosopher Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker, in his Gifford lectures on The Relevance of Science, pointed out that the concept of God as a single divine creator had supplied the essential basis for the emergence of modern science. It was the oneness of God (the mono in monotheism) that provided the essential axiom and foundation for the rise of modern science.

One of its pioneers was the Franciscan friar, Roger Bacon (c. 1214–92) who set out to enquire into what he called ‘the ways of God’. He became an experimentalist, assembled a primitive telescope, and invented the thermometer. He believed that by observing the succession of events in nature, he could propose a general law to account for those events and then proceed to test the validity of that law. This procedure he called a ‘universal experimental principle’. It was through his writings that the term ‘experimental science’ became widespread in the West. He strove to create a universal wisdom embracing all the sciences and organized by theologians.

Admittedly, Roger Bacon was an erratic genius who can appear to us to have been also incredibly naive, so that by later standards his work left much to be desired. It needed the later Francis Bacon (1561– 1626) to lay the philosophical foundations for empirical science, which he did in his Advancement of Learning. For this reason he has justifiably been called the Father of empirical science.

The basic axiom of all scientific inquiry is that natural phenomena operate in a rational and comprehensible way. This arose from the prior conviction that the whole world had been created by the one super intelligence called God. It is ironic that, while it is not true that God personally inspired the first scientists, it is true that the very idea of God led humans to develop the scientific method. For Roger Bacon onwards to the many clergymen who filled the ranks of the Royal Society when it was founded four hundred years later, it was the desire to understand the ways of God that motivated them to carry on their research. The idea of God thus played a very important role as the motivator for the emergence of the modern scientific world. So, before the traditional idea of God died, it bequeathed to us, as its legacy, the whole enterprise of empirical science.

Our Responsibility

Where does this leave us? In this time of the ‘death of God’ we humans find we are on our own on a tiny planet in a cold, unfeeling universe that has no interest in us whatsoever. Equipped only with the tools of science and technology we must now shoulder responsibilities for our future that we once used to attribute to God. We now have to play the role of God in ways we have never had to do before. Whether we are up to the task is yet to be seen.

Let us return to Feuerbach, for he was very aware of the open-ended future into which he was leading his readers. Nearly 200 years ago Feuerbach argued that the dissolution of theism had been the goal of Christianity from the beginning. That is why he called his book The Essence of Christianity. For too long, he said, humankind had bewailed its sinfulness and impotence, when in truth this state of affairs had arisen because it had become divorced from its highest human values by projecting them on to an imagined being in the heavens. Feuerbach regarded the essence of Christianity to be its doctrine of the incarnation. This asserts that God came down to earth and became incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth. This doctrine affirmed, argued Feuerbach, that the heavenly ‘God’, into whom humans had projected their highest values, had come down to earth and become enfleshed once again in the human condition, first in Jesus of Nazareth and subsequently in all humankind. Christianity is good news because it opens the way for humankind to live life to the full by learning how to embody its own highest values. The central Christian symbol— the cross—symbolized the death of God. This was the death that left the heavenly divine throne empty.

A few years later, in his Heidelberg lectures, Feuerbach called on his hearers to embrace what he called ‘the religion of man’, saying,

We must replace the love of God by the love of man as the only true religion … the belief in God by the belief in man. The fate of mankind depends not on a being outside it and above it but on mankind itself … My wish is to transform friends of God into friends of man, believers into thinkers, devotees of prayer into devotees of work, candidates for the hereafter into students of this world.

To which I add, ‘In the evolving world of human thought, the idea of God has now done its work and a great work it was. It is up to us, as humanity comes of age, to shoulder responsibilities we once expected the heavenly parent to do for us’.

Copyright © 2017 Westar Institute. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

Photo of Lloyd Geering

Lloyd Geering (D.D., University of Otago) was Professor of Religious Studies at Victoria University, Wellington until his retirement in 1984. A public figure of considerable renown in New Zealand where he has been honored as Knight Grand Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit, he is the author of many books, including From the Big Bang to God (2013) and Reimagining God (2014).

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