The Birth of God

y T. Mitchell

Note:  This work comes from Mitchell's Live Journal

1.1. Where did the concept of the Judeo-Christian god come from? Is the God meme just a projection and magnification of the human ideal? Is it biologically based? Or is it just a tool for people to make money? Such explanations are unconvincing. The following "good" explanations are somewhat more convincing...
1.2. "Good" explanations
1.2.1. I consider an explanation to be "good" when it meshes with all the other things I know about the given situation. The way I see it, there are a number of unstated, hidden premises that each of us has floating around in our brains somewhere. When a "good" explanation comes to light, it simply connects a bunch of seemingly random givens (that we already had) and reconstructs them in a new way. Such an explanation feels so amazing (and makes so much sense), that it's hard to let go of it when new [contradictory] information comes along--or when one of your old, floating "givens" is proved inadequate.
1.2.2. "Good" explanations need not be True--they may be true to us at the time, but that doesn't mean they are always True. For example, I remember when I was a kid I heard footsteps accompanied by bells on the roof of my house--and I wasn't scared by it. At the time, I had a "good" explanation for it--so good, in fact, that not only was I not scared, I was comforted and happy about hearing such things! At that time, I thought I heard Santa Claus. At that time, the fact that Santa "existed" was one of my unstated, hidden premises that I constructed theories with. I no longer think that premise is true, so now I need a new theory [if I ever care to research the origin of those ghastly sounds!]
1.2.3. Like the death of Santa Claus, the death of God opens up a new realm for those who care to pursue it. This essay will compare three attempts at an answer to the question: When was God born? Three attempts are needed, I think, because you can't have a "good" explanation if you don't first have a "bad" one to compare it to.

2.1. others were proved wrong
I originally held an evolutionary view of the gods. It made sense to me that gods were invoked to explain the unexplainable. Zeus was born to explain lightning, Yahweh was born to explain where things came from. Later, when humans realized a god was not needed to explain lightning, the Zeus-god was no longer needed, and he faded into disbelief. In a horribly broad and general sort of way this makes sense. But if you look at a few obvious details, it seems to fall apart. Belief in Zeus faded out long before Ben Franklin came along. But more so than that is the fact that people will believe in a certain deity (or holy book) no matter how proved wrong they are. Mormons believe in the Book of Mormon no matter what counter-evidence you show them; same goes for Christians; same goes for any group, religious or not! Thus, the idea that all the other religions "went away" because they were proved wrong (and the only religion that could still be alive today would be one that you can't prove wrong) ... still makes partial sense to me now, but it's far from being a complete explanation.
2.2. misinterpretation + anthropomorphism
My second attempt at God-demythifying combined human stupidity (from misinterpretations of natural phenomena) with anthropomorphism (seeing human qualities in non-human things). There are 3 key areas of life that can lead people into thinking another Reality exists. And once we believe in another Reality, we easily project a human face into it (because, think we, Somebody's gotta run it, by golly! ;). The nominees for another Reality include:
2.2.1. death
If you're with someone right when they die, it's easy to infer another Reality. Here is a person that was just with you, just talking to you, just alive not two seconds ago.... and then they're gone. The body is still there, but their "life force" or whatever is gone. {here comes the misinterpretation part} The next rational question for you to ask would be: "Where did they go?" They must have gone somewhere. Right? So there must be another Reality.
2.2.2. dreams
If you've ever had a fucked up dream, it's easy to infer another Reality. Here you see things (sometimes yourself) walking around in a completely different world. How would primitive man have understood this? We know the biblical answer (that dreams can predict the future). There must be some other Reality, then, right? How else can information from the future be given to us, if it doesn't come from "the beyond"?
2.2.3. drugs
If you've ever been in a drug-induced state, it's easy to infer another Reality. From American Indians and their peyote, to the hypnotic fumes found near the Oracle of Delphi, to mushroom consumption around the world (and yes, hallucinogenic mushrooms are indigenous to the island of Patmos!), drugs seem like a very natural way to confuse primitive man.
2.2.4. Pattern Matching (see contra #22 for more)
We find patterns and anthropomorphize all the time. We do this when we name our cats or our cars. We do this when we talk to our computer (or our cats or our cars). We do this when we see human faces in puffs of smoke, in craters on the moon, or in the conjunction of a semi-colon and parenthesis. We do this when we speak of our government as a nanny-government, a big-daddy government, Big Brother, or Uncle Sam. Our lives are littered with anthropomorphism. I expect primitive man's life would be littered more so. With our tendency to misinterpret and our tendency to find human qualities in things, the birth of the gods does not surprise me.
2.3. something's missing ...
Sure, random gods should appear from time to time--based on the circumstances of certain peoples. But why is the same kind of loving Creator God present in so many religions? To answer this, a new kind of theory is needed--a more universal, all-encompassing kind of theory--one with details specific to that type of god.
<< NOTE: I haven't yet personally studied all of the world's religions (or even most of them!), so I'm not inclined to think the concept of a "loving Creator God" is so widespread. But in light of the connections I've seen between Hinduism, Judaism, Islam, and Christianity (and ignoring the cases of Buddhism and Taoism), this critique seems justified, so I must entertain it.

3.1. I cannot do justice to Sagan's writing, so I will let him speak for himself. In the preface to a book about evolution entitled "Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors" [p5-6], Sagan says the following:
3.2. "We humans are like a newborn baby left on a doorstep, with no note explaining who it is, where it came from, what hereditary cargo of attributes and disabilities it might be carrying, or who it's antecedents might be. We long to see the orphan's file. Repeatedly, in many cultures, we invent reassuring fantasies about our parents--about how much they loved us, about how heroic and larger than life they were. As orphans do, we sometimes blamed ourselves for having been abandoned. It must have been our fault. We were too sinful, perhaps, or morally incorrigible. Insecure, we clung to these stories, imposing the strictest penalties on any who dared to doubt them. It was better than nothing, better than admitting our ignorance of our own origins, better than acknowledging that we had been left naked and helpless, a foundling on a doorstep. As the infant is said to feel it is the center of its Universe, so we were once sure, not just of our central position, but that the Universe was made for us. This old, comfortable conceit, this safe view of the world has been crumbling for 5 centuries. The more we understood of how the world is put together, the less we needed to invoke a God or gods, and the more remote in time and causality any divine intervention had to be. The cost of coming of age is giving up the security blanket. Adolescence is a roller coaster ride."
3.3. If Mankind is anything like an orphan (if we don't really know where we came from), then it makes sense that Mankind would act like an orphan (invent stories about how great our parents must have been, assume everything bad is our fault, assume the universe was created for us, and fight those who disagree with our fantastic stories). I'd also like to add the idea that oftentimes orphans feel that if they're "good enough," or if they do enough things right in their lifetime, then one day they might--just might--see their estranged parents again. And what a Heaven that would be.
3.4. I didn't think it was possible to generalize this "Orphan Theory" any more than it already is. Then I read Nietzsche.

4.1. the oldest thought
Nietzsche (in "The Genealogy of Morals", p63 and 70ish) started with the most primitive form of social interaction he could find (the origin of a Popular God must be found among the populous--therefore, start with the earliest social interactions). The most basic form of social interaction, says Nietzsche, is "trade." You give me this, I'll give you that. Tit for tat. Eye for eye. Quid pro quo. Trading and bartering are obviously evolutionarily advantageous (when you get help from others, you live longer). This idea of the Equal-Sign between social interactions has thus been ingrained in everyone. Everyone knows that the man who doesn't hold up his side of the bargain (whatever the bargain may be) is not going to live very long in a violent society. Every child comprehends the concept of "debt"--even if they lack the words to describe it. "There are certain things we simply have to do."
4.2. debt + anthropomorphism
4.2.1. The greatest philosophy professor I've ever seen, the recently retired RIT-professor Jamie Campbell, once told me a story about debt and anthropomorphism. I used this same story in my old contradiction pages (#22), and never realized how it could be applied to God's birth. Before I go on, I'd like to paraphrase the story again:
4.2.2. the Mytho-Poetic Mind (from contra #22) Picture yourself walking through a heavily wooded forest. As you pass by a rather ordinary looking tree, a tree-branch brakes off and falls near you--almost killing you. Anyone would react to this with fear. But it's what you do after the fear passes that marks what kind of person you are. Do you simply run away? Do you laugh off your brush with death? Or do you try to investigate why the branch fell? The investigators among us might examine the branch and find that the tree was rotted. Others might infer that the strong winds bellowing through the forest helped cause the branch to fall. Can we modern men even conceive of another reaction to the fallen branch? What if we weren't modern? Picture a man overwhelmed by anthropomorphism. Picture a man who sees every interaction in his life as an interaction between man and man (even when the interaction is between man and Nature!). This man would see the fallen tree branch as a sign that the Tree has tried to hurt him. The Tree is angry at him. He must have wronged the Tree. He must have offended the spirit of the Tree in some unknown or unknowable way. The eternal Equal-Sign between himself and the Tree is now complete. He hurt the Tree, the Tree hurt him. To stop this infernal warring and set things straight again, he must offer the Tree some sign of peace, some kind of gift / offering / sacrifice--maybe even sacrifice a bit of himself for the good of the tree--and then maybe the war will end and the Tree won't be mad at him any more.
4.2.3. bad things -> it's my fault -> i owe "someone" "something"
Whenever something bad happens in our lives, we immediately assume it's our fault. This, too, looks evolutionarily advantageous (the men who can get along best with the group, live). And this is even true for us today. If you all-of-a-sudden stop talking to one of your close friends for a few days, sooner or later they'll come up to you and ask "Did I do something to piss you off?" We always assume "bad things" are our fault. And we always try to "make it up" to someone.
4.2.4. brief tangent on ancient cultures
People who have more "bad things" in their lives are going to look down on themselves more so than others. The ancient Greeks had things fairly well. They were poets and philosophers and athletes and artisans. They lived in a warm happy-go-lucky climate. They had things fairly well. The ancient Israelites, on the other hand, were not so lucky. The Israelites were enslaved and conquered by the Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Persians, and the Romans. They did not have their own Colossus, Hanging Gardens, or Coliseum.. They lived in the deadly environment of a desert. They had many "bad things" in their lives. They must have felt they owed "somebody" "something great." They must have seen themselves as eternal sinners.
4.3. 2 forms of debt
4.3.1. good things -> i owe "someone" "something"
The above mentioned debt forms from feeling bad about your life. But it seems like the reverse kind of debt can also form... If man finds himself exuberantly grateful for his life and all he has, he is going to want to thank "someone." This is the problem that many atheists face today (when you're thankful and you've no one to thank). From the atheists I've talked to, they resolve this problem by thanking their friends and family and sometimes their government! Who would primitive man thank?
4.3.2. friends and family
Primitive man could easily thank his parents. They did give him life and all ... And he'd also want to thank his parent's parents--for giving his parents life. And his parent's parent's parents--and so on. Well, if you go back far enough, eventually you're going to get to "the first man" or "the creator" of the first man--as the person you want to thank.
<< NOTE: ancestor worship is still common in China
4.3.3. founding fathers
People also want to thank the founders of their community--for we're all in a great debt to the founders of our community. And the greater the civilization, the greater the debt! The higher you revere your country, the more you feel you owe its founders.
4.3.4. to quote Nietzsche's fulfillment of this
"If one imagines this rude kind of logic carried to its end, then the ancestors of the most powerful tribes are bound eventually to grow to monstrous dimensions through the imagination of growing fear and to recede into the darkness of the divinely uncanny and unimaginable: in the end the ancestor must necessarily be transfigured into a god. Perhaps this is even the origin of gods, an origin therefore out of fear!" -- On the Genealogy of Morals, p89
4.3.5. "out of fear"
Either way you arrive at it (through good things or bad), people are going to feel indebted to someone (or something). And when you're indebted to someone greater than yourself, you'll pay back your debt "out of fear." Fear--perhaps the strongest of all human emotions--is at the root of Nietzsche's demythification.
4.4. still makes sense today
I've long wondered why Americans respect their Founding Fathers so damn much. We deify them today to the point of nausea. Our history textbooks are filled with all the good things about them--we don't like to talk about their mishaps. George Washington owned slaves. Thomas Jefferson didn't believe in Jesus. Woodrow Wilson was a white supremacist. Hellen Keller was a socialist. These are easily verifiable facts, but try finding them in an American High School history textbook! We don't like to admit certain things about our ancestors. We don't like to talk about that. We owe them too much to make them look 'human.' And our civilization is only 200 years old! And we know its founders by name! Imagine a culture many centuries older who didn't know the names of its founders. Wouldn't such a culture have to be "founded" by a God?