The ancient revolutions of the earth have brought forth its first Gods, new revolutions would produce new ones, if the old ones should chance to be forgotten.
— Paul-Henri Thiry, Baron d’Holbach, The System of Nature, v.2, p. 120, 1770
Writing began some 5000 years ago; its invention was a revolutionary threshold which opened the door to collective learning, the recording of history and the sharing of ideas across geography, cultures and the ages. Writing is an enduring legacy that outlasts cities, nations and empires; it often outlasts the ideas that inspired the words written. Witness the Genesis tale of Noah, which was adapted from the earlier Babylonian story of Utnapashtim, which itself was taken from the even earlier Sumerian tale of King Ziusudra; this same story was simply re-purposed with different gods and different agendas for different audiences several times over two thousand years. This tale was demonstrably rebranded time and time again as far back as writing goes; the fact that most people associate it with a guy named Noah is not unlike the analogy that Nike didn’t invent the tennis shoe, they just branded it more successfully over the long term. Or that Band-Aid didn’t invent the bandage, they just happen to be the first noun thought of after an injury. The oldest elements of the Hebrew Bible are thought to have been penned during the 10th Century, BCE, about 3000 years ago, but were not probably formalized into current form of those first five books before the 6th Century, BCE.
But 3000 years ago — even 5000 years — is but a drop in the bucket of the history of our species. More than 98% of our history as a species is unrecorded, predating the written word. This leaves more than 200,000 years of Homo sapien religion/deities unaccounted for. Who knows how many gods we’ve worshiped and forgotten in the tens of thousands of years before the written word? To paraphrase cosmologist/astrophysicist Lawrence Krauss, as a species humanity has worshiped some 1000 gods in just these past 5000 years of documented global history. We may cringe at the thought of some of those deities now, but much like a long-ago picture on an acne-breakout day, it’s preserved forever in the documented record… 1000 different deities among countless societies and cultures over six continents.
Consider this: Of those 1000 gods in our collective past, to 999 of those gods we are all atheists today… that is to say, we no longer believe in 999 of them; we freely admit and chuckle over the fact that we were wrong 999 times in the past. What were we thinking with those Greek gods? Boy, those Egyptians had some pretty crazy ideas and an unhealthy fixation on cats! Oh, Canaanite deities Baal and Mot, where have you gone and are you still fighting one another? And let’s not forget Ashurism (oops, I guess we already have… but it probably hosted more than 1000 gods all by itself). So these 999 (or more) previous deities were clearly just silly infatuations of a fevered or primitive mind. Okay, now think about this: if you had a friend who had been wrong 999 times in a row, really, how much stock would you put in him/her insisting they were right the 1000th? Or if you knew someone who had broken off engagements 999 times before, could you really justify buying a plane ticket for wedding invitation number 1000? If you just dropped an object and 999 times it landed on the ground, why would you expect the 1000th to go any differently?
Consider the revolutionary idea the Ionians came up with 2500 years ago, finding themselves caught at the crossroads of two great societies — and the tug between two great gods:
What do you do when you’re faced with several different gods, each claiming the same territory? The Babylonian Marduk and the Greek Zeus were each considered King of the Gods, master of the sky. You might decide, since they otherwise had different attributes, that one of them was merely invented by the priests. But if one, why not both?
— Carl Sagan, Cosmos, Episode 7, PBS, 1980
Faced with two deities of equal weight and worth, the Ionian Enlightenment some 25 millennia ago found it just as easy to reject both and not believe in a god at all. In the words of Sagan, “Once you’re open to questioning rituals and time-honored practices you find that one question leads to another.” So, to return to our point above, if humanity’s belief in 999 previous gods was so ridiculous, what would make belief in the 1000th any less so? A capital “G”?
Here’s a simple yet sobering experiment… the next time you think of God, simply add a “the” in front of God, and tell me the whole idea is not laid bare as absurd.
The Ionian example above reminds me of the existential crisis into which I was plunged when one evening in 1977, while watching Family Feud on television I was left to infer that there was no Santa Claus (Damn you, host Richard Dawson! I’ll teach you to “Name a famous childhood myth!”). If there was no Santa, well then surely there was no Easter Bunny either (who in many ways was more fantastical). This forced me to pull on a thread I did not want to. I had already been liberated from belief in the tooth fairy, and now pairing that with this new information I was confronted with a conundrum whereby the entire pantheon of childhood beliefs was left to collapse. If the greatest of these entities wasn’t real, then what were the chances that any of the rest were?
It is only be hearsay (by word of mouth passed down from generation to generation) that whole peoples adore the God of their fathers and of their priests: authority, confidence, submission and custom with them take the place of conviction or of proofs: they prostrate themselves and pray because their fathers taught them to prostrate themselves and pray, but why did their fathers fall on their knees?
— Percy Shelley, The Necessity of Atheism, 1811
I’ve often joked that rumors are how religions begin, and I suppose the analogy is apt: Religion is like a rumor still being circulated long after other facts have come to light. Every other aspect of human society (education, the sciences, math, economy, the arts — and really, our entire worldwide civilization) has built upon an ever-expanding base of collective learning — that is to say, knowledge accrued and built upon the experience of generation after generation. In many ways religion represents the opposite — generation after generation of a static allegiance to fables and fairy tales from an otherwise long-forgotten neolithic culture that lacked an understanding of where the sun went at night (Yes, reality check — this is when/where the wisdom of the Monotheistic religions came from). Our ancestors blamed or credited gods with rain, eclipses and illnesses; a god governed every day of their lives because they understood nothing of weather patterns, planetary orbits or bacteria. It is sensible to argue that if the authors of any holy book would be left speechless by a t.v. remote or factory-perforated toilet paper, why on earth would anyone place any faith in their understanding of the universe? This was an age steeped largely in ignorance and superstition; these people did not know more than you do. If you find it suspicious that “God” has not been seen by any sane person since the Bronze Age, this might suggest why.
Arthur C. Clarke once remarked that he did not believe in God, but he found Him interesting nonetheless. It reminds me of when Pierre-Simon Laplace, asked by Napoleon why his book on astronomy never mentioned God, reportedly retorted that he had no need for such a hypothesis. So is the god who intervenes on your part to find the parking space you were pleading for or who answers your prayers to let your favorite team win the same god that doesn’t grant the prayers of children with bone cancer? Or are we dealing with different departments? Certainly, a god who is all too generous at granting parking spaces seems suspiciously stingy when it comes to matters of pain, sickness and death.
If I might be allowed to opine for a moment — and for the record, I’m not a militant atheist but tend more towards an objective agnosticism — it just seems to me the very height of narcissism and ego-centric thinking to believe that there is one all-powerful, all-knowing God whose perpetual concern — despite the scale and scope of the universe — is us and every little thing we do and think on a daily basis. I suspect this notion says more about us and our inherent need to feel special than it does about any supreme being. On the other hand… if true, such a god would certainly meet any legal criteria for the definition of a stalker. After all, He sees you when you’re sleeping, He knows when you’re awake. He knows if you’ve been bad or good… listen, we don’t buy this notion anymore in a Santa, so why in a god?
I’ve long said that God is just the Santa Claus that adults continue to believe in. The two certainly share similarities… both are good, apparently eternal, omniscient entities with flowing white beards. One lives in the sky, one lives at the North Pole, but they both live, you know, “up there.” You make deals and offer bargains — you ask Him for what you want, and if you’re really good all year He might grant your wish, but if He doesn’t, in the case of Santa, it’s: “Well, maybe next year,” or in the case of the god: “He works in mysterious ways.” We continue to find excuses to justify and perpetuate a notion that should have gone the way of every other fairy tale and childhood notion by the age of 10. Percy Shelley and Baron d’Holbach called this out more than two centuries ago… the belief in a god stems not from education or reason, but in spite of these things. Indeed, an unerring faith mandates the absence of critical thought. A child believes in a god because he/she is instructed to believe… in adulthood one is confronted with a choice to either cherry-pick cues and seek various confirmation biases or to finally dismiss as fantasy a long-held belief in eight or possibly nine (sources vary) flying reindeer.
The pertinacity with which [a man] clings to blind opinions imbibed in his infancy, which interweave themselves with his existence, the consequent prejudice that warps his mind, that prevents its expansion, that renders him the slave of fiction, appears to doom him to continual error.
— Paul-Henri Thiry, Baron d’Holbach, The System of Nature Preface, 1770
To be clear, I still like to believe in Santa Claus every Christmastime; I find it fun and comforting. In fact, it’s ironic that Santa lives, while game show host Richard Dawson is long dead. But as anyone will agree, the larger that chocolate Santa you hold in your hands, the more likely it is to prove hollow. The chocolate company works in mysterious ways.
Sam Harris made that great analogy. He said, ‘If someone was talking into their hair dryer and claiming that they were speaking to God, they would call Bellevue. But, take away the hair dryer, it’s just praying.’
— Bill Maher
Hairdryer — crazy. No hairdryer — perfectly normal. When the distinction between religion and insanity is reduced to a household appliance, that’s illustrative.
To close with another good analogy offered by Bill Maher:
I’ve come today to the village of Cerne Abbas in Southern England to show you something completely different. It’s in the shape of a giant naked man with a sizable erection….
Some people think that this means that there is a giant actually buried under that hill. Others think it has something to do with crop circles or ancient space visitors or Druids, but nobody really knows.
And that’s what I find fascinating about this, is that it doesn’t really mean anything. The locals have been maintaining it for centuries, and they don’t really know why. They just do it because they’ve always done it, and isn’t that religion for you?
Sometimes you kneel, sometimes you fast and sometimes you go up on the hill and you cut the grass around the giant space penis.
— Bill Maher at the Rude Man of Cerne, Religulous, 2008