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About God

Part 1: How concepts of God have developed:
Origins. Human problems. Animism.

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The range of beliefs about origins:

According to David Barrett et al, editors of the "World Christian Encyclopedia: A comparative survey of churches and religions - AD 30 to 2200," there are 19 major world religions which are subdivided into a total of 270 large faith groups, and many smaller ones. 1 Most of these faith groups have a written or oral tradition that describes how the universe came to be. Consider Judaism, for example. Jews have historically based much of their teachings on origins on the Book of Genesis in the Hebrew Scriptures. The creation stories in this book have traditionally been interpreted as  describing how God created the world, sun, moon, stars, land, sea, plants, fish, and other species of life less than 10,000 years ago. Other stories in Genesis describe the effects of a worldwide flood and the origins of language diversity. Other books in the Hebrew Scriptures describe the origins of the Jewish religion and civil code.

There are probably on the order of 500 other, conflicting stories about origins of the universe, religion, moral and legal codes, etc. among the thousands of faith groups around the world. It is beyond the scope of this essay to deal with such a range of beliefs. Rather, we will describe a single belief system developed by some religious historians. Their beliefs have few points of similarity with teachings of Judaism, Christianity, Islam or other religions.

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The early development of humans:

The beginnings of religion may have preceded the the first member of our species -- Homo Sapiens. Neanderthals reverently buried their dead with a ritual that seems to show that they anticipated life after death, in some form. They oriented the bodies in a specific direction. They planted tools with the body that might be of use in a future life. Neanderthals might have had based this belief on some concept of the supernatural.

Many scientists believe (but many creation scientists reject) the concept that our Homo Sapiens ancestors went through a number of changes in their transition from being pre-human to fully human. This separated our distant ancestors from all other animal species in the world. At some point, humans:

bullet Attained a fully developed self-consciousness.

bullet Developed a moral sense.

bullet Developed a spirit of community that was much more advanced than any other species.

bullet Developed methods of precise communication -- again much more highly developed than other species had attained.

bullet Became aware of the finite nature of their personal life span, and of their own impending death.

bullet Developed an enlarged brain with a very different internal structure. This facilitated abstract thinking. Unfortunately, the size of the brain made childbirth much more difficult and hazardous for both woman and fetus.

According to most paleontologists and anthropologists, fully developed humans with these abilities and knowledge emerged, perhaps fifty thousand to one hundred thousand years ago.

On the other hand, many North Americans reject the theory of evolution, and believe in creation science, based on Genesis -- the first book in the Torah and the Bible. They believe that the world and its animal species were created by God, fully formed, between the years 4000 and 8000 BCE. It is worth observing that supporters of both the theory of evolution and of creation science share common beliefs in some of the developmental stages of humans -- namely:

bullet The development of a moral sense.

bullet An awareness of their personal death.

bullet Painful and hazardous childbirth.

The first few chapters of the Book of Genesis, describe how God created Adam from mud. He appears to have not been fully differentiated from the animal kingdom at his point. In fact, in one of the strangest passages in the Bible, God tried unsuccessfully to find a mate for him from among the other existing animal species. As a result of the search failure, God created Eve. Both can be described as proto-human. They had no moral sense: no knowledge of good and evil. They were thus missing certain qualities that everyone who is not a sociopath or psychopath possesses today.

God apparently wanted the couple to stay in this pre-human, innocent, partly developed condition. In Genesis 2:17, he ordered Adam and Eve to not eat the fruit of the "tree of the knowledge of good and evil." They ate the fruit anyway, and presumably became fully human at that point:

bullet Capable of recognizing the difference between good and evil.

bullet Capable of developing an ethical sense.

bullet Being aware of their own impending personal death.

God cursed the couple, telling Eve that "in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children." He cursed the ground itself so that it would bring forth "thorns ... and thistles." made Adam's task of growing plants much more difficult.

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The problems of being fully human:

Paul Tillich, one of the most remarkable theologians of the 20th century called this realization of impending death "the shock of nonbeing."  Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis called it "the trauma of self-consciousness." 2 Once we started to anticipate our personal death, humanity was never the same. By picking up awareness and knowledge, we lost ignorance and a sense of innocence. Bishop John Selby Spong wrote:

"It is that human capacity to be fully self-conscious that marks Homo sapiens as different from any other form of life in the natural world. That separating difference is what fills human beings with a sense of dread.  Anxiety, says Paul Tillich, is born in the human recognition of finitude. It is therefore as omnipresent as humanity itself. To be human is to experience self-consciousness, to know separation, to be made aware of limits and to contemplate ends. One cannot be human, therefore, without being filled with chronic anxiety. It sounds depressing, but surely it is true." 3

Self-consciousness was a remarkable development. All earlier animals lacked this ability. They were born with a set of instinctive responses that enabled them to function independently at an early age. They matured, met their needs for food and water, mated, struggled against the elements, and eventually died -- often violently. Bishop Spong continues that they:

"had no conscious awareness of who they were or what they were doing....when the time came to die, they did so without anticipatory fear or grief. Having no conscious sense that they actually existed or 'were,' and thus lacking a conscious memory of the past or anticipation of the future, they had no sense that they were destined 'not to be.' " 4

But humans became different. They were born with advanced reasoning abilities and few instincts. They remained helpless for many years as their parents taught them the accumulated knowledge of the tribe. Each generation was able to build upon their parent's knowledge base to generate new techniques of coping, planning methods, tools, more cooperative social structures, etc. We advanced as a species by leaps and bounds. But our distant ancestors suffered great anxiety, because they felt helpless, insignificant, and insecure in the face of natural forces and their own finite life span. People do not like chronic anxiety. Some coping mechanism had to be developed.

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Many theologians and anthropologists feel that our first fully human ancestors initially developed primitive concepts of God in order to lessen their anxiety about the future. Thus began the first religion, Animism. This was, and still is, typically found in hunter-gatherer societies.

Having developed self-consciousness in themselves, they may have assumed that the rest of the world was equally self-conscious. The began to believe that the rocks, mountains, rivers, sun, moon, trees, land animals, birds, etc. all contained vital powers, each animated by a spirit. Bishop Spong suggests that:

"Those animating spirits might be benevolent or demonic, but in either case they were assumed to be personal, to have selfhood, to be in charge of their particular area of life, to be capable of responding to human need and to be in possession of supernatural power." 5

Village chiefs, shamans and native healers played leadership roles in this religion. Human anxiety dissipated somewhat as our distant ancestors felt more in control of nature. Religion gave them assurance, confidence, and peace of mind.

It is important to realize that no consensus exists of the source of this first religion:

bullet Animists are often told a set of ancient stories by the elders that describes the origin of their group and their religious beliefs.

bullet Others regard these stories as myths. They feel it is obvious that Animists' beliefs were invented by humans in response to a societal need. Their God did not create humans. Rather, humans created the concept of spirits, including perhaps a great spirit God.

Since Animists are now greatly outnumbered by monotheists, polytheists and other later-developing religions, there is a near consensus that Animists' ancestors created their God, spirits, and myths; God did not reveal them to the tribes.

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This topic continues with information on Fertility religions, monotheism, polytheism, etc.

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. David Barrett et al, "World Christian Encyclopedia: A comparative survey of churches and religions - AD 30 to 2200," Oxford University Press, (2001). Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store
  2. J.S. Spong, "A New Christianity for a New World: Why Traditional Faith is Dying & How a New Faith is Being Born," HarperSanFrancisco, (2001), Pages 37 & 38. Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store
  3. Ibid, Page 38.
  4. Ibid, Page 40 & 41.
  5. Ibid, Page 45.

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Copyright 2001 to 2011 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2001-OCT-7
Latest update: 2011-OCT-17
Author: B.A. Robinson

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