The concept of god is a solution to a then-current perceived problem that did not have an apparent resolution.
Let’s look at the course and development of the concept of god(s) from what we know as humanity travels through history.
Every day the sun would rise. It did not take a rocket scientist to figure out that the sun provided light to see by, warmth to live by and regularity by which to monitor time. Useful thing—the sun. But where did the sun come from? Why was it so regular? How is it that it provided light? It was that “why” question that started to trouble humans.
Worse, without the knowledge of the “why” we lose some sense of control. How do we know the sun will continue to rise day after day? Sure, we could put a blanket over us to avoid the light. Or go to shade to avoid the heat. But what accounted for it? Without that knowledge, we are powerless to either stop the sun if we desired, nor fix the sun if it was required. We were helpless.
And so, the concept of a god regarding the sun was born. For the Aztecs, it was a god that sacrificed himself, becoming the sun. In order to continue to cross the sky, however, the sun/god needed human sacrifice. For the Aztec belief in god, while the sun was necessary to survive, it was also a method of practicing belief through the observation of death. Unfortunately, this included human sacrifice.
For the Greeks, the sun was a chariot-drawn god, who oversaw all. It was a reminder that secrets may not stay hidden forever.
The concept of a god became a convenient tool. Humans watched the seasons turn from winter to spring to summer and back to winter. Why? A story of a god, mourning for a period of time is created. This provides a few benefits. First of all it answers that pesky question of “why”? Secondly it can return a measure of control back to the humans. If humans could be bribed by beads and food—why not a god? Allowing nature to run its course seems so…well…fatalistic.
By coming up with the concept of giving offerings to gods for a better harvest, a rainy spring, a warm summer, or a short winter, the human was able to re-gain authority over a situation they did not have before. If summer just happens—what could a human do about it? But if a god controlled summer, and could be persuaded by a human—bingo! Possibly the human could direct his or her destiny.
Unfortunately, this also gave rise to humans exerting control over other humans. We have always seen a variety of personalities in humans. Some are leaders; some follow. Some are bullies; some are encouragers. In every endeavor, from as minimal as a group choosing a restaurant, to as complicated as a government running a country, the various personalities come forth.
God-belief is no different. It does not take long for the leader personality to start informing others that they are not sacrificing correctly. Not that this is done out of meanness, or even necessarily a sense of domination. The leader could be quite a loving, kind person. They just want to make sure that others “get it right.” And, by virtue of their personality, they begin to lead others in “correct” god-belief.
Of course, there are also personalities that are selfish, or dominating. The selfish quickly realize that giving away such knowledge shouldn’t be free—giving it away is a full-time job! Is it not fair that they are provided for by a portion of the sacrifice? The dominating soon learn that humans are motivated by fear. By intoning that it is possible to sacrifice “incorrectly” and hinting they have the “correct” way of doing it, people became afraid of the wrong god-belief.
People started following different god-beliefs. And in competing groups.
And what is the surprise in that? We emulate our parents and our immediate society, in our mannerism, in our goals, in our actions, and equally we emulate them in our beliefs. If your parents were Native Americans, it is only natural that you, too, would believe in animal spirits. Encountering new people that believed differently than you would introduce new god-beliefs they received from their heritage. Those beliefs would compete.
We congregate with those that tend to believe the same as we do. When moving, a person looks for a new group with a similar religious belief. We look for those who hold to the god-belief most like our own.
Churches and formal religions are born.
A distinct advantage of a god, is that it is perpetually out of reach. Unobservable. Unverifiable. Undeterminable. This allows it to exist with qualities that do not make sense. How, exactly, does a supernatural being impact on a natural being? The “how” becomes unimportant, because it is covered by the broad concept of a god. Within the definition itself is the essential characteristic of the unknown. What was the chariot traveling on when crossing the sky? Only a god would know. How does a god impregnate a human? Only a god would know. Why is one sacrifice “better” than another? Only a god knows.
A solution to a problem shouldn’t provide more questions, while leaving the problem intact. That isn’t a solution at all! If you told me your car wouldn’t start, and I gave you the solution of “Gremlins invaded your engine” while technically qualifying as a “solution” (in the loosest terms) it doesn’t solve the problem. How are gremlins invading? What are the doing? How do we go about removing these terrible creatures?
Introducing a god as a solution to a problem, while initially may be satisfying, with a little unpacking, it becomes hopelessly tangled, and no real solution in sight.
Probably the most common solution for which god is utilized is creation. The “why” of the fact the universe exists. But simply saying “God made it” is one step on a long, long journey of troubling questions. What method did this god use? (i.e. out of nothing, theistic evolution, abiogenesis, etc.) Did god create evil? Is god bound by laws or logic or space or time within creation? How does supernatural cross over to natural? Do humans have souls?
And we hear a plethora of theists, each giving their own particular philosophical stance on the who, what, where, when and why of this god proposed to make creation. And what we see—what we KNOW—is that this god is completely unverifiable. Frankly, the theist hasn’t a clue as to what god is like.
Rather than discussing the vast, book-length treatise on the nature of god, I ask a simple question: “Can god lie?” By placing this god beyond our observation, or ability to verify, we are unable to answer even this most basic, three-word question: “Can god lie?” A theist can discuss with me the immutable moral character of a triune being for pages on length, yet I realize they do not even have the ability to know what boundaries the god is working within when it comes to imparting truth. That kinda makes their dissertation on some vast property of god not very persuasive.
I don’t mind: “I don’t know.” Use it myself. There are plenty of things I do not have the knowledge of, either due to my lack of study of what other humans know, or my human limitation of observation. I don’t know if there are other habitable planets in the entire universe. Neither does any other human, due to our current technological limitations.
And, I can appreciate that a theist may also say, “I don’t know” when it comes to a god. But upon inspection, they don’t really know anything about a god. What I can’t fathom is how some minute characteristic of god is described and explained, yet when I ask about something more troubling, “god is mysterious” comes out. Well, if god is so mysterious, how did the theist know about the previous minute characteristic of god? Apparently god is not entirely mysterious—there are some things that can be known.
I am uncertain what method a theist can use to claim what can be “known” about god and what cannot. (Oh, and if I am told that we “know” things about god because of what this god told me, I go back to my three word question: “Can god lie?”)
This propensity to make positive assertions, with no ability to verify the same reminds me of my father and watermelons. As a parent is inclined to do, my father played a trick on us when we were young in order to entertain our insatiable curiosities.
He informed us that the insides of a watermelon are actually green.
“But all the watermelons we have ever seen are red!”
“Ahh. That is because when oxygen hits the inside part, it turns it red.”
He now had three boys focusing their normal destructive tendencies on resolving how to see the inside of a watermelon without oxygen touching it. No matter how fast we cut it, air reached it first. Drilling, x-rays, flashlights—everything we dreamed up we were stymied by the fact that in order to observe it, air must strike it first.
I get the same feeling. God, like the “green” inside of a watermelon, is placed out of our ability to observe. Yet the theist, like my father, makes a positive assertion as to the property of this god—“it is green.” Everything I try comes up with a red watermelon, so I finally begin to question how it is that oxygen causes something I can’t observe to become something I can. At which point the theist says, “I don’t know. God is mysterious.” And I suspect that they don’t know what color the inside of their watermelon is, either.
[A troubling side note. Many proponents of god recognize this inability to observe and introduce a concept of “faith.” A notion that one must believe despite the capability to confirm. In and of itself, faith is not bothersome. But by presenting it, the idea of “lack of faith” is also born. The idea that if you dare question the god, or question the person presenting the god, or question the idea behind god, you have “lack of faith” and therefore are barred by god.
Because people fear “lack of faith” they avoid even treading on any questions at all about their god. As if somehow their god could be offended and take away any reward by a mere human pausing to reflect on the reality presented by another human. It is then claimed that looking for god without the proper motivation will result in failure. A built-in safety switch to explain why God cannot be found by a skeptic. Clever.]
We watch gods change as humans gain knowledge and technology. Native Americans often believed the Great Spirit only made land newly discovered in the recent past. There was no reason for the Great Spirit to make more land than that—who was there to discover it? Humans thought god were responsible for earthquakes. Until plate tectonics was discovered. Humans thought god(s) revolved around the earth in the form of planets/stars and sun. Until we learned that the earth was not the center of the universe.
The printing press provided the opportunity for the god of Protestantism to break fully free from the god of Catholicism. 200 years ago, the Christian God supported slavery. Now, that would be aghast. 3000 years ago the Jewish God support polygamy.
We have watched creationism change from young-earth to old-earth to “intelligent design.” Why? Did the god provide new information? Nope—humans discovered it. Over the grand course of history, we watch as gods rise and then fall, as humans learn and advance and discover.
Because a god is a solution to a perceived problem. If that problem, such as how seasons form, or how the sun travels across the sky, or how sicknesses occur, or diseases are cured, or places are discovered or study produces interesting results, if that problem is resolved through other means—god becomes no longer necessary. It is discarded, or withdraw from consideration.
Now up until this point, any theist in the world would be standing next to me and nodding their head. “Yep, you got it right. Yep, there are plenty of other god beliefs that history has proven wrong. Yep, those other humans sure got god wrong.” Any theist in the world would agree I would be quite properly correct to vociferously say, “There is no such god” when reviewing these various other historical beliefs. They say it themselves!
Every theist in the world would be telling me that simply because some human says they have it right when it comes to god, it does not mean they are correct. The theist would concur with me that most human claims about god do not have it correct.
But wait. It is a human telling me to not trust humans as to what they say about god. It is a human telling me that other humans will be wrong about god. What makes the human standing next to me immune from the same concerns it is claiming about others? What gives this particular human the “inside scoop” as it were, to god?
And even this human will inform me that much of their information they received about god came from another human. Oh, they may claim some internal revelation, but again, that is out of reach of observation. The fact of the matter is that they heard it from another human. Or read something written by another human. Which another human informed them was from god.
To the theist—imagine standing on a stage. In your hands is a rope. Looking up, that rope is held by another person. The person who provided you your immediate information about god. On the rope is the word “legacy.” It is where you get your particular theistic belief from. And above that person is where s/he got their information from, with yet another rope. Looking back from person to person, you can trace the steps through various people, along pieces of rope, back to the very first recorded instance of your god.
If you are a Protestant that rope would travel through the likes of Martin Luther, Eusebius, Paul, Jesus, David, Moses—right back to the person who wrote Genesis. You have a long legacy leading directly from god to your belief.
But standing next to your right, on this stage, is a female with very, very similar beliefs about god such as yours. Perhaps the two of you only disagree about a minor point on predestination, or a small passage of scripture. And she is also holding a rope. Because the two of you have such similar beliefs, her rope would fairly quickly be joined by some person in your line and then travel together.
Standing next to her is another female with slightly different beliefs than hers, and a little greater difference than yours. She too, holds a rope. Hers, as well, goes to a person and so on, eventually merging with your line.
If you are within the Christian god worldview, as you look down the line, there are 15,000 people to your right. Look the other way, there are 15,000 more. All with lines. All looking at you and pointing straight up as to how their legacy also has a direct line to god. Sure, the farther away they are, the higher up until those lines converge.
It gets worse. The development of the god belief is not a straight line. As you look up, there are places people holding 100’s of ropes for where the beliefs differed off after them. Some are only holding one rope. Some people are taking 3 or 4 ropes from people above them, and holding 3 or 4 ropes for people below them. It is not 30,000 sets of straight ropes, but a tangled, interwoven weave of ropes criss-crossing as beliefs develop over time.
Further, it is not a clean, straight line. As you look now, you are in the middle of a crowd. There are people who believe slightly different on one point with you, but agree on everything else. Others that disagree on another point, but everything else is in agreement. All holding ropes. Some holding a number of ropes, having received the legacy from a variety of beliefs.
And that is just Christianity. Add Muslims, Mormons, Jews and we see more and more entangled ropes and beliefs.
As you look, you see where ropes end, as a belief ends. Or a large segment that trails off into nothingness over the course of history.
Add in the other 100,000 varieties of gods, and their various nuances, some “borrowing” from others. Even Judaism borrowed from Babylonian beliefs. Christianity borrowed from cynic philosophers.
As I step back, I see a huge clump of people and ropes, with long legacies, and intertwined connections, and see, frankly, a mess.
As history continues, you will pass your legacy on. So will others. The ropes will continue, some will end, and some will blossom into whole new sections. You, your ropes and your line are a miniscule portion of the entire picture.
And every theist on there is telling me two things:
1) They are right
2) The people not in their direct line of ropes are wrong.
It is a cacophony of voices clamoring, “I am right. They are wrong. I am right. They are wrong.”
And so I am left asking another simple question; “By what method do I determine which ropes among that mess have the divine thread of truth? How do I tell which ropes are human, and which are divine? What system do I develop by which I can say, ‘This rope is correct and that is not?’ Is there something more than cries of ‘Believe me. Believe me.’?”
I have yet to see such a consistent method. A method that is more than just a person pointing to their own rope and claiming it is correct. A method that makes a person’s legacy stand out on its own.
Why do I say there is no god? Standing next to me are numerous people. While they believe in a god, they point to your god and say, “That is not correct.” And, for 99% of the time, you stand next to me, and in agreement with all those others, you point to another person’s god and say “That is not correct.”
Think of all the people that say your god is not correct. No matter what you believe, over the course of the entire human history, your god-belief is in the vast, vast minority. If there have been only 100,000 god-beliefs, 99.999% of the beliefs have said your particular version was wrong.
It does not mean you are wrong, of course, but it does mean for your position to be persuasive as to its reality, you need to really, REALLY show some evidence. If we filled a college football stadium, you would be the sole person claiming the reality of your god, whereas the other 99,999 occupants would shout out a resounding, “NO!” Best have something outstandingly convincing!
After watching all the theists pointing their fingers at each other, proclaiming, “There is no god such as yours” I step out of the ring, see the tangled ropes and the pointing fingers and say, “There is no god.”
It makes sense.
Online Reading List
- An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish by Bertrand Russell (1943)
- Bible Teaching and Religious Practice by Mark Twain
- God is Imaginary
- Is there an Artificial God? by Douglas Adams (1998)
- Skeptics Annotated Bible
- The Age of Reason by Thomas Paine (1795)
- Which Way? by Robert Ingersoll (1884).
- Why I Am Not A Christian by Bertrand Russell (1927)