Never let it be said that I’m afraid of tackling the tough stuff. Any one who writes about god in Texas better be a preacher or a converted sinner. I am neither.
I’m not taking a secular nor a religious approach to the topic. I’m going to try to deal with the subject as my old history teacher and wide receiver coach, Wally L., would have. Only the facts…names and dates in particular. This is not the place for, nor am I inclined to evangelize a point of view. I’ll let you decide for yourself if any of this makes sense.
For source material I’ve relied on the research of cadres of academics who never tire of writing about god(s) as well as the King James Version of The Good Book. I’ve not spent much time on the Torah or the Quran as they are but other versions of the Abrahamic tradition and tend to deal with the dogma and laws of their respective brands of religion. As far as I can tell, and according to the people who really study this stuff, they all give allegiance to the same god, abeit in sharply different ways. Oddly, none of the great bodies of religious writings deal with the origin of god. Let me give you but one example. In Genesis, the first verse of the first chapter says, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Nary a word about when or from whence god came. I guess the implication is that he was just always there…in the beginning, whenever that was. I know. You and I were taught in whatever version of Sunday school we attended that Moses wrote Genesis, and he had a direct pipeline to the man. Remember Moses did the burning bush thing with god and actually spoke (or communicated somehow) to him about a whole range of things, or at least ten of them. The problem is that all the smart guys pooh pooh this idea. Moses died about 1441 BCE and all the other scholarly evidence points to Genesis being written between 600 and 500 BCE. The actual authorship of Genesis is variously ascribed to one of several sources. The one embraced by most current biblical scholars is referred to as Yahwist or Jahwist who gathered the stories told around campfires in the desert and merged these stories with bits and pieces of legend from the Babylonians and other ancient peoples. In these passages, the Hebrew letters YHWH, also Yahweh or Jehovah, were used to designate god. Yes, I know, it’s really confusing. And this only deals with the god of Abraham. So now we have one version of god, the presence of which is described only in a book (Genesis) who no one is really sure who wrote or when it was written. To add further to the confusion, Genesis, as well as the rest of the bible wasn’t even the official word of god until Emperor Constantine gathered up a bunch of bishops of the church and had them vote on which books were in or out at the Council of Nicea in 325 CE. As word has it, this august group also voted in Jesus as well…just to make it official I guess.
This god of Abraham now is accepted and venerated by roughly 50% of the peeps in the world. Yep. That’s right. 2.1 billion Christians, 1.5 billion Muslims (although at the rate they keep killing one another, this number may go down), and 14 million Jews out of a total world population of 7.2 billion. Hmm. That means in about four thousand years, there’s still not a clear majority opinion on the matter. Remember I said in the beginning, I only deal in facts.
This next bit may be a bit controversial, but I believe it to be backed up by the science. The god of Abraham wasn’t the first monotheistic god. Yes, that’s what I said. There were other supreme (gods) before Abraham’s version. I’m not making this stuff up. A word on monotheism. It is, as you know, the belief in one all powerful god. Omnipotent and omniscient. The record, as it is currently understood by man, can point to no evidence of monotheism before 1750 BCE. None, nada. Yes, there were all kinds of gods, but none of the sort that most of us have come to believe is the god of Abraham. Now the question for you is does the fact that there is no historical evidence of a single, all powerful god prior to that date mean that one did not exist, that man had just not discovered him yet, or that he was merely in hiding waiting for a more propitious moment to reveal himself to man. Another of the many tough questions for you to answer.
As I suggested above, at or about the same time in other regions of the ancient world, civilizations were morphing from polytheism to their own brand of a monotheistic god. So at about the same time (give or take a few hundred years) polytheistic gods began to go out of favor and began to be replaced by other, more powerful and dynastic supreme beings. That fact that there was then and continues today to be more than one version of these supreme beings is more than a little problematic from a logic point of view, i.e. how can there be more than one supreme anything? That means of course, if you follow this line of reasoning, that either one is right and the others are wrong, or that all of them are wrong. I have my suspicions, but I’m leaving it to you, dear reader, to figure it out for yourself.
Let me ask you this, if there is god, what does this god look like? Hmmm. The only place I was able to find some certainty on this question was in classical greek and roman history. They had pretty fixed ideas about what their god(s) looked like. If you care to look, you can find paintings and sculptures of Zeus, Jupiter, Mars and all the rest, and they look like, well, er, you and I. Of course, I know they generally were wrapped in robes and carried lightening bolts or tridents or other paraphernalia, but they pretty much looked like us humans. In case you are interested this phenomenum is called anthropomorphism…which is the assignment of human characteristics to non-humans. Practitioners of the christian faith, by and large, hang their vision of their god on Genesis 1:26-27 wherein is says in part…”and god created humankind in his image…”. Clearly whoever read this part of Genesis took some liberties when they started putting oil on canvas. You will remember that most god pictures in churches and museums depicts a 40’ish male with wavy long brown hair, a beard that would make your average hippie proud, and a robe with a rope sash. I will admit that I haven’t done extensive research on this, but I’m pretty sure that the KJV says naught about rope sashes and beards. Oddly, the other two religions of the Abrahamic tradition think it is verboten to paint a picture or build a statue of what god looks like. And if you are of the Islamic faith, you cold get in really deep water by doing so.
So here it is in a nut shell. An abbreviated Cliff notes version of the god(s) time line. In short, it is the history of god.
Sometime during the stone age, most likely in the middle paleolithic era (200,000-45,000 BCE), evidence emerged that early man (homo neanderthalensis) practiced totem and animal worship. Whether these early rituals should be counted as the earliest evidence of gods is a mystery to me, but it sure gets a lot of attention from folks inside the ivy covered walls. More importantly, and more certainly, during the upper paleolithic age (50,000 BCE-10,000BCE, archeologists have discovered anthropomorphic images in burial sites. These images and other burial evidence are strongly suggestive of belief in a “greater power” and some form of life beyond death. If these don’t count as gods, they certainly seem to have god-like characteristics.
Evidence of wide spread polytheism emerged in the civilizations of the neolithic age which spanned the period from 10,000 to 2,000 BCE. In fact, the evidence I’ve seen suggests that this period was the absolute hay day for gods. In the Tigris and Euphrates river valley the Sumarians and and Mesopotanians had a surfeit of cranky and demanding gods and goddesses.. In Egypt, one king had the clever idea of naming himself as a god, but also embraced Horus, the Falcon god, Osiris, the Nile god, and Ra, the sun god as well as many others. In the Indus river valley the gods (too many and confusing to name) were emerging as the foundation of the Hindu religion. The Agean civilizations, ancient Greece, Rome, Minoa, and Mycea not only had their gods, they gave human characteristics to them and assigned them functional responsibilities. Zeus, Jupiter, Apollo, Aphrodite, Athena, et al reigned over certain of natural phenomena.
For reasons that their is little agreement on, the god tide turned about 2000 BCE. Polytheism began to falter and monotheism, and single all powerful gods began to emerge. Chief among this new class of gods was the aforementioned god of Abraham. He/she/it appeared, as described in Genesis, with the Covenant of Abraham when god called on him to abandon his home and move lock, stock and barrel to the promised land called Canaan. As far as I can tell, there is no earlier reference to this god before the Covenant…well, there is the reference in Genesis I cited earlier about” …in the beginning…”.
Perhaps you will be surprised to know that there are still other monotheistic gods at work today. The Zoroastrians have their Ahura Mastra, the Baha’i have their own god who they call interchangeably allah or god, and those followers of the Sikh faith have Waheguru. I’m sure there are others that I’ve missed.
So you say, “what’s the point of all of this. Well, I dunno except that I find it interesting that about 85% of the population of the planet claim allegiance to some god or other. The other 15% are either outright disbelievers or don’t much give a flip one way or the other. One thing is for sure and that is that the idea of god in various forms has been around for a long, long time. Which leads me to where I come out on the issue (now I’m moving from historical fact to opinion, so you are entitled to stop reading here). The fact of a single, omnipotent, omniscient supernatural power does not appeal to me on the face of it and does not seem to be supported by empirical evidence. Likewise, having a whole boatload of gods for various purposes doesn’t pass my sniff test either. What I do believe is supported by evidence gathered over the millennia is that the idea of god(s) is a powerful notion which has enjoyed staying power through the ages. I suspect that there is no evidence or lack thereof that would persuade those who are inclined to believe in either the fact or idea of god to abandon that belief. It may be that belief in some god is in the very nature of man. Don’t worry, I’m not going to let this devolve into a “did god create man or did man create god” philosophical squabble.
Some time ago I had the joy of a hike around our farm with one of my grandchildren. During the course of our walk we talked. Well, mostly he asked questions, and I tried to answer. “Pops”, he asked, “where does dirt come from?”. You know the kind of questions I’m talking about. And finally, he asked what I will call the G question. “Pops, do you believe in god?” I had long anticipated the time when one of my grandchildren would ask, and I thought I had prepared well for it. I had not. My answer was dissembling and confusing, and wasn’t really an answer. I mumbled something about nature and the nature of man. “Well”, he said, “what I really meant is that if there is a god and god is good, why wouldn’t a lot of gods be better?”. I had no answer then and I have none now.