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Monday, April 12, 2010

The Evolution of God

How did we get to the concept of God that is currently held by evangelical Christianity?

Of course, they would say it came to us from revelation. God revealed himself to man and then inspired man to write down those revelations in documents which were subsequently identified and collated into a single book--the Bible.

Let's take another approach. We know today from neuroscience that human beings are born with a brain that seeks to identify patterns and purpose. This is sometimes called agency detection, (Pascal Boyer) which is the inclination to look for and attribute intentionality or mind or will to happenings (David Eller, Atheism Advanced, p. 93). Studies by Paul Bloom on infant reactions shows that humans, even very young humans, seem to attribute states of mind to things, including other humans and non-human objects. If there is the slightest bit of intelligible behavior, we tend to perceive intentional behavior, an act of mind or will (Eller, p. 92). It is a very small step to decide that the intentional component, which is not the same as the physical part, can exist separately from it and survive its destruction (Eller, p. 92). This is how the concept of the soul or spirit originated.

The oldest and most universal religious belief seems to be animism. Anthropologists have discovered this belief among primitive peoples the world over. Animism is the belief that many physical objects have an invisible and intelligent life force that animates them. These forces are usually called spirits and they cause certain events to take place. Primitives believed, for example, that when a volcano erupted, it was due to the spirit of the volcano that was agitated about something, usually human behavior. People also tended to believe that the life force or spirit of their ancestors survived death and perhaps hung around influencing affairs on earth. Man began to think it was necessary to try to please these spirits in order to facilitate their help or at least prevent their negative actions against them. This led to ancestor worship, offerings and sacrifices to various spirits, and so on.

As the evolution of belief continued, certain spirits or gods came to be associated with virtually every aspect of life. There were fertility gods, warrior gods, health gods,sea gods, weather gods , and so on. When one was going to take a journey on the sea, it was necessary to seek the favor of the sea god. In order to facilitate a good harvest, the fertility god must be placated. This belief in many gods is called polytheism.

As time went on, and stories were told about these gods, they took on many human characteristics (anthropomorphisms). They were seen as interacting with each other and sometimes fighting each other. There developed a hierarchy among these gods. Some were higher than others and one was usually seen as the most high." Another development was for each individual people group to have a tribal god--a god that was in some sense attached to their group. This was the beginning of monolatry or henotheism. This was the idea that only one god should be worshipped even though there were other gods. This idea seem evident in many passages in the OT. It appears that Moses was a henotheist. As the religion of the Hebrews continued to evolve, they adopted monotheism, the notion that there was really only one true God who was the creator and ruler of the whole earth and all other deities were not real. This one, true god continued to have many human characteristics, for example, emotions like love, anger, and jealousy and the ability to repent or change his mind. But this god also had characteristics and powers that were far above man's. He was immortal, very powerful (not necessarily all powerful), perfectly just or righteous and always faithful (Deut. 32:4). The god of the Hebrews also needed to be placated and thus sacrifices were offered to him.

As Christianity came on the scene and adapted many Hellenistic ideas into their concept of this one true god, he took on perfections--omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence, and omnibenevolence. While some of these characteristics are seen in the Hebrew scriptures, they tend to be expanded human capabilities not idealized perfections as in Greek thought. This brought us to the concept of god that has become standard in evangelical Christianity (as well as most versions of conservative Christianity). This concept is best defined by Richard Swinburne: There exists necessarily a person without a body (i.e. a spirit) who necessarily is eternal, perfectly free, omnipotent, omniscient , perfectly good, and the creator of all things. (The Existence of God, p. 7). In Christian theology, this god had been once and for all placated through the sacrifice of his own son. No longer was it necessary to offer sacrifices to this god. What was required now was for the follower to offer himself as a living sacrifice to the deity (Romans 12:1-2). Thus, the practice of monasticism with its correlate of celibacy originated.

The description of the Christian god continues to undergo modification because its Hellenized character is in many ways contradictory to the god described in the Hebrew-Christian scriptures as well as contradictory to human reason. For example, problems reconciling this concept of god with human free will and the existence of evil in the world has resulted in a new concept of god sometimes called open theism. Of course, evangelicals, for the most part, oppose any modifications to their description of god; but, nevertheless, it illustrates the continuing evolution of the idea of god.

So, I think the evangelical Christian concept of god can be understood as a natural evolution arising from man's need to ascribe pattern and purpose in nature. Beginning with animism, moving through ancestor worship and the attributing of human characteristics to deities all the way to a single perfect deity.


  1. It's also a projection of their own psyches - which, in their case, is particularly broken. They're the most self-hating people going, and they've constructed a god in their own image. They think they're born deserving eternal damnation; that's some pretty toxic self-esteem.

  2. A speculation surfaced while reading your post. Why sacrifice developed has puzzled me for a long time (I am approaching 70). The thought, for what its worth, is that since the deity is spiritual, and since people and things have a spiritual component, sacrificing the physical person or thing sent that spiritual part to the deity as an item bartered the deity's favor. This is probably in somebody's book, so I apologize to whomever I might be echoing.

  3. Fent,

    Thanks for the question--its an excellent one. I think much more research needs to be done on this topic but I would recommend the following book: Animal Sacrifice in Ancient Greek Religion, Judaism, and Christianity.

    I think the simple answer is that people figured that they needed to offer to their deity something valuable or precious and by necessity this had to be something material.

  4. I think the summary of the concepts of the evolution of God is helpful and probably largely valid, given its starting point.

    However.... the starting point, as used almost universally in academia, is probably waaay to late in the process to give us a more complete picture. My view is that conventional history, archeology and anthropology are stuck in an old paradigm, heavily influenced by Western Christianity. It starts with a sort of "dark ages" of a few thousand years ago... the period that Babylonian and Hebrew mythology seem to take as a starting point, with only small hints of something different earlier. HOWEVER, Egyptian records, mainly in momuments and stone, help us see earlier (See Hancock, West, Henry, and several others). Similarly, so do, apparently, many ancient Sumerian manuscripts (see Sitchen, particularly).

    Before a possible period of regression and falling to more basic, primitive beliefs AND technologies, what was going on? It seems a whole lot, and for a long, long time. (See my post #50 at Scot McKnight's Jesus Creed on Beliefnet, under part 2 of "The Soul-Sort Narrative".)

    Let's keep exploring and talking!

    Howard Pepper

  5. I don't have much to say, because this was just an excellent and very thorough post (and man, you really got on that Boyer book fast!). But the title reminded me of Daniel Dennett's lecture at least year's AAI, and he mentioned a Christian book called "The Evolution of God". He was talking about the distinction between a concept and an actual thing, and that the book would have been more appropriately titled "The Evolution of the Concept of God". Aaaand you nicely made that distinction yourself toward the end there. Not that I'd expect any less. :)

  6. You were doing fine until you came to the Hebrews. You should have said "As christianity came on the scene and" killed off the competition.

    There's a huge leap from Henotheism to some god-of-a-book, and it was never made in other parts of the world that fell outside the political orbit of the Abrahamic cults. Even today that would include all of Asia and much of Africa. It seems clear that, barring military adventures, the natural evolution of god leads to some sort of polytheistic paganism.

  7. Mike,

    You are correct and Eller makes a big point in his book about how we should not use the Christian jargon in our writing. In other words, he says never to capitalize god, always refer to the "concept" of "god", the "concept" of "soul," the concept of "sin," and etc. because these are all terms that only have meaning within Christian assumptions. There really is no identifiable thing as the soul, there is only the Christian concept of the soul.
    Eller says if we allow Christians to use these terms without defining them and admitting that they only know about them from their holy book, then we are at a distinct disadvantage.

  8. Mike and Ken,

    I haven't read Eller, but have some of Dennett some time ago. Also, I think it is Robert Wright who has a pretty new book out titled, "The Evolution of God." I perused it and read about the last chapter or so... was a very good conclusion to what appeared an excellent overall book. Another author good on the same topic is Gregory J. Riley, especially "The River of God."

    As to use of "soul," I agree it is a concept rather than an "identifiable thing," but I don't think that Christians invented the concept... doesn't it go back at least to Classical Greek times? Perhaps Zoroastrianism? (I'm sketchy on both). Then, the very ancient beliefs re. reincarnation would at least imply a soul, or a continuation of consciousness that some would probably label a "soul." Ken... feel free to do some word study and enlighten us in more depth! But I do think our "soul" comes from Greek, "psyche" (I don't have greek type handy).

    "Sin" is another interesting study... its usage has become so common and broad in English, at least, that there seems to be a generally understood meaning that is NOT particularly attached to Christian theology... merely the sense of doing something "wrong," unacceptable, etc.

    Howard Pepper

  9. The word 'soul' comes via Old Saxon seola from Proto-Germanic saiwalo , all with the same meaning.
    Romance languages such as Spanish alma derive their words directly from the Sanskrit atman,"soul", which is written about extensively in Hindu texts from at least 2000 B.C.

  10. There is something lost in translation from the Hebrew to English and from the Greek to English and from the Hebrew to Greek. The Hebrew words for sin, soul, righteousness, salvation, God, Lord, commandment, sacrifice are very different in definition than we automatically understand them if we have a Christian background. No wonder people are confused.

    I'm not saying any of it is true, but it made more sense to me when I understood the Hebrew. It would be impossible for me now to have a conversation with a Christian without setting out the Hebrew definitions. It's like living on parallel universes - the two will never meet.

    Sin - chait - is an excellent example. Christians like to take about man's sin nature, and needing blood sacrifices to atone for sin...but the word chait is an archery term and it means to miss the target. That doesn't sound all that sinister. If you were just learning archery, the first time you tried to shoot an arrow toward a target, you would most likely miss completely and be short of the target. You aren't used to the equiptment. The next time you would pull the bow back a little further, and maybe you would get closer to the target. Each time you would adjust a little more and eventually you would hit the target. A chait is a miss. It only becomes a problem if you don't try to improve.

    The first time a word is used in the Torah, that is it's definition. Genesis 4:6-7 And the Almighty said to Cain, "Why are you annoyed, and why has your countenance fallen? Surely if you improve yourself , you will be forgiven. But if you do not improve yourself, sin rests at the door. Its desire is towrd you, yet you can conquer it. Judaica Press OnLine

    So, improvement leads to forgiveness, and sin is obviously something that you can overcome. How it got turned into man being completely depraved and unable to do anything by himself is diametrically opposed to the Hebrew definition of chait.

    I don't see the Christian definition of soul in the NT writings. They certainly don't understand it from the Hebrew. There are sublime definitions of soul, nefesh - soul, and neshamah - soul. It is a fascinating study, but you need to understand Hebrew to get to it.

    Again, I'm not saying it is true. I'm just pointing out the differences between the Hebrew writings and the Greek writings.

    I like your idea of saying the concept of soul, or the concept of sin. Wouldn't it even be better to ask - "What do you mean by soul?"

  11. Emet,

    The point is that sin, soul, god, and etc. are all theological words (whether Christian theology or Jewish theology). They have meaning within those contexts but a non-believer should not use the terms without identifying that they are theological terms whose meaning has been defined by theologians.

  12. I agree with you completely.

    My approach is to show that the NT is not the sequel to the OT. Then you can debunk Judaism. Trying to do both at the same time seems impossible because there are so many differences in the documents and concepts. I want Christian theologians to commit to the definitions of their concepts. That is something you can disprove. Otherwise you get rambling arguments that always wind up leading back to "faith". But before it gets down to faith, Christians go off on tangents, often jumping from one subject to another, and one quote taken out of context to support another quote taken out of context. It is maddening.

    I’ve had much better success with my approach.

    As for Judaism, certainly there is a blog something like, Why I De-Converted from Judaism. Dr. Jason Long's book is a good beginning. Although with Judaism, I think it's like The Hotel California - you can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave.

  13. The accepted definition for centuries has been that a Jew is someone born of a Jewish mother. Some of the ultra-Orthodox get very angry toward unobservant Jews, and those who get involved with other faiths traditions (especially Christianity and the Messianic belief system), and claim they're no longer Jews, but most authorities abide by the standing definition.

    So, yes, Emet is right. They never let you out.

  14. Emet,

    Good point. The problem is that as Eller argues in the book, Christian's themselves don't know what these terms mean. Since they are abstract, people just sort of invent their own meaning for them.