“The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”
–Alfred North Whitehead

Where did the idea of “God” come from?

My response to this comment about “God” being a childish idea from a more primitive age.

Kev @ 45,

Maybe. But I understand the evolution of human consciousness a bit differently. Your theory (that God was invented in our species’ infancy by childish minds who wanted an explanation for things) seems to me to inappropriately project our modern scientific attitude back in time. We should not be so quick to assume that human perception and cognition operate today in a way identical to how they operated thousands of years ago. I don’t think our species became religious because it wanted an explanation for things, but because primal people actually perceived nature in a way that has become completely foreign to we technologically inundated city dwellers. The world around them was perceived to be full of meaning and significance. This was their immediate experience, not a conceptual projection onto experience based on the desire to explain things. Ancient people developed a relationship with spiritual realities because these realities were immediately apparent to them. We still live amidst the daily miracles of the natural world, but our sense of their numinosity has been dulled both by a nearly complete re-making of the earth in our own image (so that we live within and amongst various machines and are to a large extent cut off from the natural world) and by the dominance of abstract intellectuality that obscures or paints over the overwhelming mystery of every moment of our existence. We have a scientific explanation (or at least a hypothesis) for everything these days, and in our anxious modern rush to cover over the non-rational aspects of life with such explanations, we have become blind to the spiritual realities that once cosmically situated and gave ultimate meaning to our ancestors. God is not (or at least was not originally) a (bad) scientific hypothesis meant to explain some natural phenomenon, but a symbol of the human psyche’s need for and experience of transcendence. God is a word which today might be said to represent the object of the ecstatic experience of a few mystics, but which originally was the common experience of all primal peoples.







6 responses to “Where did the idea of “God” come from?”

  1. James Avatar

    It is totally right to say of the ancients that ‘The world around them was perceived to be full of meaning and significance. This was their immediate experience, not a conceptual projection onto experience based on the desire to explain things. Ancient people developed a relationship with spiritual realities because these realities were immediately apparent to them.’ But does this explain where the notion of a monotheistic ‘god’ came from? partly.

    The problem is, and why the abrahamic religions get a particularly harsh bashing, is not because god as a single actual entity was and is used to explain the world ‘what is’, but because he was and is used to arbitrate and impose social and ethical order on the world ‘what should be’, the first of which is a metaphysical and defensible position, the second clearly a psycho-political one, and worthy of a bashing.

    In the second of these senses there is certainly room for an infintile, Freudian or nietzschian account of the genisis of a monothestic god, but this would have nothing to do with the primordial intuition of the divine that you have eloquently described.

    1. sumday Avatar

      Why do peoples always assume that ancient people were less intelligent than us? Exactly what makes us more smarter/advanced than the people 5Kyrs ago? Yes we have access to technology but that does not make us smarter or more advanced thinkers. How many even understand the technology they use today? Although a computer is a powerful tool does the computer itself make me smarter? Could any of you fix, design, or build the computers you use? Do any of you know exactly how your smart phone works and operates? The fact is if you took away all of our technology (radios, phones, computers, ect) how many people would still be considered intelligent? What I’m trying to get at is these ancient people probably had the same questions and thoughts that we have today about religion. We act like these ancient were child minded, but I think they were every bit as smart as us (Neanderthals had 1/3 bigger brains than us) perhaps even smarter since we have all come to rely on technology instead of our brains. I just reject the idea that early people believed/came up with G-d bc they were less smarter than us today or had a child like understand. They understood algebra in the building of the pyramids and if they could understand that than certainly they must have been able to ask and think about the same questions we ask and think about religion today.

      1. Matthew David Segall Avatar


        I don’t think James or myself were arguing that primordial peoples were less intelligent than modern peoples. I assume you are responding to the sentiments expressed by Kev?


  2. Matthew David Segall Avatar

    Thanks, James! I appreciate your distinction between the metaphysician’s god and the moralist’s. It seems that ultimately, though, every human being is both a thinker of eternal ideas and an actor in historical events, both a philosopher in the court of heaven and a citizen in a polis.

    We need a God of what is and of what will be.

    I think to be capable of bashing the Abrahamic religious institutions for the way they have exercised social power, we must have already internalized the uniquely Hebraic form of conscience and messianism that underlies these same institutions. So I would join you in bashing institutions like the Vatican, but I don’t think we can escape the cultural influence of these traditions. It turns out most of my values are also Christian values, at least if Christ’s love has as little to do with a Pope’s power as I think it does.

  3. Beatrix Murrell Avatar

    The late Jungian analyst–Edward Edinger–has some insightful books when it comes to “god imagery.” It would seem the thought of God might be “wired” into our brain; i.e., see NeuroTheology. I also somteimes consider what some call the “God Meme.”

  4. meg Avatar

    i think people believed that once the really famous of their time died people believed that they came bck to life and were looking over them. making sure they lived their life right.

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