Why God?

Our knowledge of god(s) is at best based only on hearsay and anecdotal evidence. If God doesn’t exist, why do people continue to believe? Chris Jarvis goes hunting and gathering.

Hanging on a wall built from human bones is th...

The majority of the human population appear to profess a belief in a God or Gods. Why is this? What is the root of God in the human psyche?

Consider our ancestors and what makes humans different from all other animals, our brains. What evolutionary advantage does our brain give us?  It gives us the ability to determine cause and predict effect. It gives us the ability to create and manipulate symbolic language. Thus ‘Get up a tree there’s a Rhino charging!’ contains all the abstract symbolic information to potentially save the lives of a hunting party. Another example would be for a human to make a tool knowing that the sharp edge of a broken flint will cut skin and flesh.  We also have an imagination, the ability to create a fantasy and examine the unreal.  Along with these useful traits our brains come with some evolved deficiencies, autism, dreams and paranoia (the dark side of the imagination) to mention just three.

Consider ‘original’ belief systems, such as the animistic spiritual beliefs of isolated tribes throughout the world. Put yourself in their hut, at night, deep in a jungle where they were born. They dream and wake having no idea what a dream really is, they don’t know it’s an evolved ‘housekeeping’ process. All they know is there was a giant demon snake slithering after them. Why was a giant snake chasing them in their sleep? Original belief systems attribute causation to the unknown, spirits that control the unknown because all effects have causes; don’t they?

Cause and effect demand knowledge and understanding. Imagination underpins curiosity. Any of our ancestors that were not curious enough died of starvation, any of our ancestors that were too curious died of surprise. Consider some of our ancestors who have evolved abstract language and are self-aware, discussing one thing we all know; the sun rises.  However these ancestors did not understand why the sun rises. They have knowledge but not understanding. But in their experience all effects have a cause. So if the sun rises what causes it to rise? People don’t like not knowing why something happens, it’s almost psychologically painful to not know why something happens. It’s called cognitive dissonance.

Why did cognitive dissonance start the path to God? When faced with knowledge but not understanding the mind can get distracted and confused. A distracted mind is often dangerous, more dangerous on average than a confident mind. Inaction is more likely to lead to failure of some sort than action. Sitting doing nothing will lead to failure, getting up and doing something may lead to success or failure. Only the confident ‘do something’ option has a possibility of success.  Accordingly, if one person is distracted and reticent while the other is focused and confident the latter is slightly more likely to achieve a positive (survival/reproductive) outcome.

So we have an animist original belief system wrapped around a mind with knowledge but no understanding of the true nature of reality. We have an evolutionary advantage to do something rather than nothing. Thus it is reasonable, in the circumstances, and evolutionarily advantageous to place a ‘spirit’ in any gap in understanding. I think this is why superstition survives because ‘on average’ to be superstitious is evolutionarily advantageous.

A Godly Dance at the Taj

A Godly Dance at the Taj

Why move from a spirit or animist world view to a ‘concrete’ God based world view? I think the ‘alpha male syndrome’ and tribalism push belief towards monotheism. Obviously there are plenty of pantheistic belief systems still around but while they were once in the majority they are now in the minority and continuing to decline.  Thus Gods become God.

Now while the world was ‘large’ and ideas (memes) stayed apart and embedded in tribal folk law there were as many Gods as there were tribes/cultures.  Everybody had their own version of the first cause; the reason the sun came up every day.  Then written language arrived. This allowed the formalisation of ideas that could be consistently spread across the land and between generations. Superstitions became institutionalised into religions; concrete memes that existed beyond the tribe or any living individual. Memes persist through transmission between individuals. Children believe adults and in particular their parents. Families, and tribes, are entities that support meme transmission and reinforcement.

Humans respect authority; it’s a trait that natural selection has driven into us for generation after generation. Take two mothers, each with a child. One mother shouts at her child ‘Don’t eat that!’ and the child complies. The same happens between the other mother and child and the child eats any way, and dies. Thus children have evolved to be uncritical of what they are told by their parents and by extension adults in general and people perceived to be in authority. There is no such thing as a sceptical young child and some people don’t appear to ever get past the gullible stage.

7 Lucky Gods of japan

7 Lucky Gods of Japan

Hence we now have spirits in place of understanding, alpha male behaviour exacerbated by tribalism, an unwarranted respect for authority all mixed together and compounded by institutionalisation brought about by the written word. It is from this concoction that I contend the creation of the God meme was inevitable. The God meme flourishes because it is simple to understand, and thus easy to transmit, immensely emotionally satisfying (daddy is great and will always look after us) and common belief gives one a feeling of societal security. Once one has a God one has the potential to manipulate one’s circumstances through ritual worship or personal prayer.  One gains a modicum of perceived control over the unknown e.g. “if I sacrifice this person the rains will come!”

It’s no surprise to me that all religions hinge on a book. For some reason humans often attribute authority to something written down. It may be because we have become used to things being written down by intelligent people or people in authority or that our education systems are founded on books. Thus the book becomes the synthesis of the authority and in the case of the Koran this is absolute authority as the words are deemed to be those of Allah himself.

Consequently, humans created God out of ignorance and need.

Chris Jarvis 
The Happy Atheist Forum

7 thoughts on “Why God?

  1. What about people who have a spiritual experience? Something illogical and inexplicable that changes them instantly.

    • Well one would have to determine if the spiritual experience were supernatural in origin or delusional in origin. I tend to the later.

    • If spiritual experiences are deemed valid evidence, this would be in fact an argument for the existence of multiple deities, since each religion has devotees with “spiritual experiences”.

  2. “Consequently, humans created God out of ignorance and need.”

    I created Myself. I am the writer of this piece and the reader of this line. Guess that means I’m ignorant and needy. At least that’s what I keep telling Myself.

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