The idea that we invented God rather than God inventing us is often regarded as a modern one. While it only came to full expression in the last two centuries, its roots actually lie almost three millennia back.
Those who are aware of its earlier origins generally trace it back to several ancient Greek thinkers in the sixth century BC. But closer investigation points to another group altogether – one whose identity comes as something of a surprise.
The first to broach the idea of human beings having created gods were a number of Old Testament Jewish prophets from the eighth century BC onwards. Why has their role here been overlooked? Perhaps it is because it was assumed that a serious critique of religion could only arise from outside a religious perspective.
However, some of the most fundamental challenges to religion down through the centuries have come from radical believers who criticized its distortion and co-option from within.
Israel’s religion differed from that of its neighbours in its commitment to one God. Although there was a short-lived experiment with the sole worship of the sun god Amun-Re in fourteenth-century BC Egypt, it was only in Israel that a fully fledged monotheistic belief took hold. While at the popular level some did not always hold to this, from the time of Moses (around the twelfth century BC onwards) monotheism became the official belief.
The few references in the Old Testament that seem to acknowledge the reality of other gods, such as the Canaanite deity Baal, mainly recognize the existence of foreign religions or mention them in an ironical or rhetorical way.
What begins to surface in the writings of eighth-century BC prophets – such as Amos, Micah, Nahum, and Isaiah – is the claim that these gods were manufactured by human creators. Humankind physically makes representations of the gods and then regards what is actually lifeless and unfeeling as real.
This attitude to images leads others to start to place their trust in them. This critique may equate too simply the work of religious craftsmen and the gods they seek to portray. But perhaps this sprang from observing the behaviour of such people and of the adherents of such deities.
While these prophets continued to believe in their own God, what they have introduced here is a quite extraordinary historical development in attitudes towards religion. It is the first time we come across a declaration that other nations create their own gods and that consequently these are “not gods” at all.
It was the major prophets of the sixth century BC who articulated this critique most fully. Since their country had been conquered and most of its populace exiled, they were confronted more directly with foreign religions. As a result they came to have a more profound grasp of the man-made character of these gods. This was particularly the case with the following three prophets.
Jeremiah adds some vivid descriptive and comic touches. Since the Israelites’ gods cannot speak or act they are worthless, deceitful, and of human rather than divine origin. Instead of basing his views on descriptions of how they are made, Jeremiah throws out a range of highly satirical questions and analogies. This springs, he says, from a loss of memory of the real God’s character and uniqueness.
He is also the first to suggest that by engaging in worship of these man-made creations their followers run the risk of losing their sanity and humanity.
Ezekiel underlines the irony in people making these gods out of the real God’s own “most beautiful of jewels” of gold and silver, and then sacrificing their own sons to them. He argues that this false religious behaviour stems from blurring the distinction between creature and creator. This drains their worshippers of any vital spiritual life and divides them from their real selves.
The author of Isaiah 40-66, who lived among the exiles in Babylonia, ridicules foreign gods more than any other Old Testament writer. Despite the apparent victory of foreign deities over Israel, he laughs their makers and worshippers to scorn. He also notes how rivalries between these made-up gods divide people’s religious allegiance.
His final judgment is that “they are all a delusion” and “their deeds amount to nothing.” They are merely a projection of people’s own blindness.
The importance of this breakthrough in religious insight is highly significant. Here, for the first time, the possibility of humans creating gods comes to expression. Even if the emphasis is more on physically manufacturing rather than mentally constructing gods, it implies the latter.
Some of the ideas that appear in related modern critiques also begin to be hinted at. For example, how worshipping these gods unconsciously deflects what is essentially human onto what is imaginarily divine; how it leads to less rather than more genuine life and spirituality; how it results in loss of sanity and humanity. For these prophets, this is the very opposite of what belief in the real God should do.
The first Greek critics of religion began to express their views shortly after the writings of the major Jewish prophets mentioned above. During the sixth and fifth centuries BC, the traditional Olympian religion began to lose its hold on some aristocratic Athenian citizens. A small number of poets and philosophers began to question popular views of the gods.
Several of these were subjected to investigation, accused of heresy, and occasionally even brought to trial. Though this pantheon occupied the central place in public worship, the average person tended to rely more on one of the minor deities or fertility gods for help because of their greater emotional appeal and practical value.
Only the mystery religions of Dionysius and Eleusis, partly drawn into the official cult, contained some of the same attraction. The traditional gods also began to come under attack for their intellectual inadequacies.
A few philosophers had already shifted their interest away from the role of gods in mythical stories, supernatural events, and everyday life and instead towards the search for a single rational principle at the heart of the universe.
These talked more about divinity than deities, physical causes rather than the divine interventions, invisible forces rather than tangible images. As Jaeger argues, this ultimately led “to a consciousness of the problem of religion itself – the problem of accounting for the universal dispersion of the idea of God and of discovering its sources.”
A forerunner of these critics was Xenophanes (570-478 BC), a poet-philosopher from Ionia. In surviving fragments of his writings, he queries whether natural causes lie behind extraordinary divine phenomena and denounces the immoral and excessive behaviour of the gods. He also remarks on variations in the way gods were popularly depicted:
“Ethiopians make their gods snub-nosed and black; the Thracians make theirs blue-eyed and red-haired … Mortals imagine that the gods are begotten, and that the gods wear clothes like their own and have language and form like the voice and form of mortals. But if oxen or lions had hands and could draw and do the work with their hands that men do, horses would have drawn the form of gods like horses and oxen gods like oxen and they would represent the bodies of the gods just like their own forms.”
Though these remarks sound sceptical about any idea of gods, Xenophanes still believed in the divine. He did this distinguishing between the firm knowledge of the unchanging, refined divine nature and unreliable opinions about changeable conceptions of the gods.
Plato probably had something similar in mind when he complained about those of his predecessors who advocated that
“the gods are human contrivances, they do not exist in nature but only by custom and law, which moreover differ from place to place according to the agreement made by each group when they laid down their laws.”
A century later the philosopher Democritus (c. 460-370 BC) arose during a period when Athens was coming to terms with the wider cultural life of Greece. As a result, earlier beliefs and practices came under greater scrutiny.
Like Xenophanes, he distinguished between what he termed genuine knowledge and conventional knowledge. He placed “images” of the gods in the latter category, and identified a psychological motive in their formation.
It was as men of old experienced fear of extraordinary phenomena that “perceiving these images, [they] imagined that each was a god, although God in reality is only that which has imperishable nature.”
While they were mistaken in doing this, he believed that the gods were more than the products of human imagination, for an imperishable emanation of the divine still existed within them.
Another philosopher, Prodicus (c. 470-400 BC), also identified that a psychological motive was at work, but for him this was gratitude rather than fear. Though he was included in a list of “atheists,” other indications suggest he too probably believed there was a genuine religious dimension to the gods.
Around the same time the Athenian playwright-poet Critias (c. 460-403) has the leading character in his play Sisyphus, promoting a related idea. Rather than men in general,
“… a man of shrewd and subtle mind invented for men the fear of the gods, so that there might be something to frighten the wicked even if they acted, spoke or thought in secret. From this motive he introduced the notion of divinity. There is, he said, a spirit enjoying endless life, hearing and seeing with his mind, exceeding wise and all-observing, bearer of a divine nature. He will hear everything spoken among men and can see everything that is done.”
For this speaker, religion is a man-made illusion to maintain social and political control. If his words express more than a hypothetical point of view, this would be the first unmistakably atheist statement that we have. But as the speech occurs in a class of poetry that was allowed considerable dramatic liberty, and on the lips of a character who was a legendary type of criminal, we need to be cautious.
One other approach to religion from around this time requires mention. This argued that the gods were not imaginary creations of human beings but actual people whom they deified. Euhemerus (c. 340-260 BC) wrote a piece of travel fiction about an imaginary voyage to an unmapped island in the Indian Ocean.
On the island a sacred inscription was discovered that recounted the history of the gods. The Olympian deities were identified as men who were venerated as gods because of their strength, intelligence, and achievements.
Over the next two millennia this “euhemeristic” account, as it was generally known, became one of the standard views of the origins of religion.
I have been arguing that the idea that many gods were manmade was first put forward 2500 years ago by two groups of thinkers. Jewish prophets said this about all foreign gods whose images were worshipped by the nations around them; Greek philosophers said it about popular gods who were worshipped in many local communities.
The former made this criticism in the name of one universal God and the latter on the basis of an impersonal conception of the divine. There were continuing, at times merging, echoes of these views during the following centuries among several Roman thinkers.
After that it was Christian writers, mainly building on a Jewish foundation but partly influenced by Greek and Roman ideas, who further developed this critique.
Robert Banks is an Associate of the Centre for the History of Christian Thought and Experience at Macquarie University. This is an edited excerpt from his new book, And Man Created God: Is God a Human Invention? (Lion Hudson, 2011).