So God’s biography begins with humans attempting to provide a very basic and primitive explanation of creation. Some ancient societies imagined multiple gods and goddesses responsible for different natural phenomena—the sun, water, the seasons, nature’s bounty were all personified by human-like characters in our ancestors’ anthropomorphic stories. The Judeo-Christian tradition, at some point, went off on its own and insisted that there was only one creator. For our purposes, however, the belief in one or many gods is not relevant, because the human thought process that comes to bear on this next stage of God’s history is the same, whether we conceive of one God or a million gods.
Hunter-gatherer societies are completely dependent on nature and their own strengths for their survival. If nature is bountiful, if the herds are plentiful, if the wild berries and roots are in great supply, then the tribe or clan will thrive. And if the clan is close-knit and works together, they can ward off other tribes or threats to ensure their growth.
But what happens when nature doesn’t deliver? What happens when there is a draught or famine? Or another tribe comes and almost wipes the tribe out as they try to defend their food store? Alternatively, what happens when life is good, when food is abundant and the living is easy?
The answer is pretty simple. Because our ancestors conceived of God as having human qualities, because God was a character in their stories who looked and acted like a human, then it follows that they, and we, conceive of a God with the same emotions and feelings that we have. We love or hate the people that surround us. It goes without saying, then, that he loves some of us and hates others for the same reasons we do.
It’s all too simple. It’s all too primitive. It’s all too human.
But imagine this. It is early spring. Last year, the harvest was poor. The herds were thin, so thin that the tribe had to wander hundreds of miles to kill just a handful of beasts. The ensuing winter was brutal; many of the youngest and oldest members of the tribe starved to death. The survivors sit around a campfire one evening discussing these dreadful events, clearly wishing that there be no repeat this year. One person, one of the smarter members of the tribe, speaks up. (We may wonder about motives, about whether this person has the tribes’ or his or her own interests at heart, whether this is opportunism or altruism at work, but that is a whole different discussion.)
“We know that God has created everything, that God is the force behind life and death,” the person reminds the tribe. “The harvest was poor and the beasts scarce. This must have been God’s doing. Why? Because God is displeased with us for some reason. We have done something wrong in God’s eyes, and we are being punished. So, we have to make him happy; if we do that, he will restore the harvest and the hunt, and our tribe will survive and grow.”
The elders nod their heads in agreement; the person (who is now a shoo-in to become the tribal priest) speaks the truth. But exactly what should the tribe do? Whenever a member of the tribe has been wronged by another member in the past, it has been customary for the perpetrator to give the victim something of value to compensate for the victim’s suffering. So it stands to reason that if the tribe gives God something that they value (some berries, an animal, a virgin …), God will look upon them favorably and restore their fortunes.
Well, what do you know? The offering is performed and the following seasons are bountiful. Food is abundant, other tribes are thwarted and the tribe thrives. The following year, the tribe performs another ceremony of thanksgiving (figuring that they better keep God happy now that he likes them again). From this point on, the priest leads the tribe in these annual rites; we now have the beginnings of priests and ritual and religion.
Without the benefit of modern science, it is all too easy to believe in what Sir James George Frazer, in The Golden Bough, called “sympathetic magic”–the belief that we can actually influence the course of events or even the lives of people. We do something, some desired result happens, and being the egocentric creatures that we are, we believe that there is a correlation and, worse, that we made it happen. But this is what the tribe believed, despite the fact that there is no evidence whatsoever that the ritual has any more connection with the desired phenomenon than (again, to quote Douglas Adams) a tea leaf has with the history of the East India Company.
The advent of the priestly class and the belief in sympathetic magic only sought to strengthen the belief that God, too, was capable of influencing events here on earth. It is a belief that, for some, continues to this day. Some still believe that good things or bad things happen because of God’s interference in human existence—because if our ancestors personified God, if God is a character in our stories, then God must act just like us, right? He gets pissed off at us and punishes us, or he rewards us because we do something that pleases him, just as we do with others that we come into contact with.
But if we reject the notion that there is no such thing as sympathetic magic, that it is the invention of those who did not have the means or understanding of science, and that God is not made in our own image and does not think or act in recognizably human ways, then we are left with the inescapable conclusion that can be summed up in one simple phrase: shit happens. The Indonesian tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, the frigid winter we are enduring in central New York as I write this, are all things that just happen. People die, sometimes tragically, sometimes painfully, and it’s because things happen.
I find it impossible to conceive of a God that interferes in human events or, worse, that behaves like a petulant human. God, to me, has to be a force that has no more human characteristics than the wind or sunshine or grass. God doesn’t discriminate, play favorites or screw with people (and believe me, it would be easy for me to think that way after some of the things that happened to me over the last few years). God is a neutral, amoral force that exists in everything that lives.
It’s hard to conceptualize. Try starting your next prayer, if you are the praying sort, with the words “Our neutral, amoral force that exists in natural things but that has no form or substance that the human mind can comprehend, hallowed be thy name,” and see how far that gets you. It’s certainly a lot harder to understand than the stories our tribe has told. But if you want to believe in God, it’s the only thing that makes sense given what we know about the world at this vantage point in history.
So, God, if you’re listening, sorry about what my ancestors did to you, mate. The poor buggers didn’t have our science and our understanding of the universe. And sorry about what’s going to happen to you next.