Divine Invention

by Stephen McAndrew

Man Created GodThe idea of the divine or God is, if you think clearly about it, a very strange concept.  To many contemporary scientifically minded people it is childish and even laughable to believe in God.  They contend that the physical material world is all there is.  So why invent ghost stories?  For example, the prominent atheist polemicist Christopher Hitchens contends that as a child it was obvious to him that God did not exist and that the concept of the divine was inherently ridiculous.

We are sensual creatures.  We live be taste, touch, sight and sound but religion demands belief in something that does not come into contact with our physical senses – something we cannot prove.  Since we cannot prove the existence of the spiritual realm, anyone who claims to believe in one may just as well be suffering from a delusion.  Yet throughout history many people have claimed to believe the same things about an unprovable God.  Were they all suffering from a collective delusion?

Well yes and no we would like to answer.  We respond that early primitive humans who believed in the supernatural were just doing their best with their paltry knowledge of the universe.  On the other hand, modern humans blessed with the depth of contemporary scientific knowledge should know better.
We assume that our less sophisticated ancestors were susceptible to religious beliefs because of their scientific ignorance.  Now we have left these primitive beliefs behind and moved on.  However, there are a couple of problems with this theory.  First, religious belief, perhaps not in the orthodox forms of previous generations, but belief in some sort of spirituality – something more than the physical – is stubbornly persistent even in so-called advanced post-modern societies.  Second, when examined in detail, the foundations of the assumption that ancient humans were inevitably drawn to belief in the supernatural are not as certain as some might like to think.

The common materialist (by materialist I mean the theory that there is nothing more than the physical world – no spiritual realm) explanation for the advent of belief in the divine proceeds as follows.  Primitive humans found themselves in a big bad world surrounded by things they did not understand – things that could kill them.  They were afraid.  They were taught that everything they could not understand about the physical world was due to the existence of a spiritual realm that intervened in their everyday material world.  As time moved on, gods became more sophisticated and some of their writings were "discovered".  Early primitive polytheism became monotheism.  So far so good, right?  But does this explanation make sense when we look at it more closely?

Did ancient humans who shared our reliance on the physical senses have a spiritual sense that helped them divine the existence of the supernatural?  The materialist must of course respond to this question in the negative.  To admit that ancient humans had some sort of spiritual sense would lead to questions about what happened to this sense and whether we still have it today.  So, the materialist must fall back on the theory that some human or humans invented the divine, but in doing so he or she must be consistent.  That is, he or she cannot maintain  that modern humans are born rational materialist skeptics but that ancient humans were born irrational spiritual mystics.  So, the materialist must wrestle with the following question: why would those who were just as dependent on "I’ll believe it when I see it" be so willing to structure their entire lives around the unseen and the untouchable?

Two assumptions underlie the theory that man invented God.  First, some human or humans were born into a world without the concept of the supernatural.  Second, some early human looked at the physical world (he or she must have been brilliant – a genius even) and came up with the theory that there was an unseen world higher than ours that exercised control over the physical world in some fashion.

This discovery or invention of the supernatural resulted from one of two motives.  The first potential motive was the desire to explain the unknown in the light of unsophisticated scientific knowledge – the Einsteinian motive.  If the inventor of the divine was driven but the Einsteinian motive, his or her goal was to help other humans understand the physical world better.  The second potential motive was to invent God to gain control and power over others – the Machiavellian motive.  If the inventor of the divine was animated by the Machiavellian motive he or she determined that if he or she told everyone there was a God in the sky who will punish them if they do wrong things he or she could control behavior and gain immense power.  These are assumptions because of course we cannot travel back in time and find "believer zero" – the first human to invent the divine.

But the invention of the supernatural was a huge paradigm shift.  Why didn’t the first person that heard the God explanation laugh and call the inventor a fool?  If the divine was invented by some ancient genius whose name has been lost (of course the inventor would want to keep the fact that the supernatural was a human invention quiet) then others around him or her had no concept of the divine.  Is it not more likely than not in such a scenario that people the inventor told about the divine, who were just as sense dependent as we are today, would have found the concept of non-physical beings ridiculous and wondered whether the inventor was delusional?

If you object that it wasn’t the invention of one particular person at a particular time because it was an idea common to all humans, the materialist explanation is in troubleā€¦


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The Poached Egg

Recommended Resources:   Is God Just a Human Invention? And Other Questions Raised by the New Atheists   /  Beyond Opinion: Living the Faith We Defend