Somewhere around 9,000 years ago, give or take a few thousand years, humans began to abandon their hunter-gatherer cultures. They started to domesticate livestock and cultivate crops, which meant that they could stop wandering the land and start to build settlements. Fertile flood plains—the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in modern-day Iraq, the Nile River in Egypt, the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers in China, the Indus Valley in India, and the coastal valleys of Norte Chico in Peru—became the ideal places for clans and tribes to settle, providing, as they did, predictable, cyclical seasons for planting and harvesting.
This was good news for humankind, but bad news for our, by now, poor, misunderstood Supreme Being for a number of reasons. First, as different tribes came together in these geographic regions, the problem of whose god is the one, true god, reared its ugly head for the first time.
And it wouldn’t be the last.
For, again, we are human beings, and we find it hard to accept that someone other than ourselves has the truth. The Old Testament, for example, is full of stories of the Hebrew god triumphing in various feats of divine strength over Ba’al, a name for many different gods that were worshiped throughout the Middle East at the time. It was a childish game of “my god’s better than your god,” which, then and now, led to persecution, wars and people flying planes into skyscrapers.
Eventually, clans and tribes assimilated with other clans and tribes, but this led to another problem for our beleaguered Deity. Because once people from different cultural backgrounds begin to live together like this, the kinship ties that created stability in a tribe or clan no longer exist. If you are a relative of mine, I’m a lot less likely to steal your goat or bonk your wife than I will be if you are a complete stranger and one of “those” people. Rules and laws needed to be created and, more important, enforced.
So off toddles Moses up a mountain to bring back the Ten Commandments. Most of them are eminently sensible, aimed at trying to create stability in a fledgling civilization made up of disparate people—thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not bonk other people’s spouses and so on. But they are all laws that function under one overarching law: that God is going to be really pissed if you break one of them.
In the last part of this biography, I talked about our ambitious priest who realized that he could wield a huge amount of influence in the tribe. Once civilization began, the priest was handed an enormous amount of power. Because if you want to keep people on the straight and narrow, and if you have a direct hotline to God (remember, the priest is the guy that figured out how to persuade God to feed the tribe years before, so he must have the Omniscient One on speed dial), then all you have to do is to invent some very simple concepts—sin, heaven, hell—and, damn, have you got everyone’s attention. Small wonder that, in some civilizations, the king was also the head of the state religion, while in others, the head priest and the king worked side-by-side, keeping everyone in line.
Sadly, we still live in the shadow of this mindset. What started as a primitive attempt at explaining the mysteries of the universe became a tool for suppression, both of individuals and of other cultures. Now, wherever there are fundamentalists of any denomination; wherever there are leaders who proclaim that they, and only they, have the answer; wherever there are followers who do not periodically question their beliefs and who believe that faith never changes regardless of personal or historical circumstances, there will be science deniers, suicide bombers and the Westboro Baptist Church.
It would be enough to make any self-respecting middle-aged god give up and head straight for the Jehovah’s Home for Retired Deities. But our favorite Supreme Being’s midlife crisis didn’t end here. A little something called the Enlightenment was about to send the old bugger onto life support.