For the last post in this series, I want to look at the way god has been characterized through history.
It is a popular belief, especially among Christians, that humans have been created in god’s image. Actually, it is the other way around. Humans create god to meet their needs, and as their needs change, then so does their image of god.
Robert Wright has published a new book called The Evolution of God (2009) that I look forward to reading that traces the origins of monotheistic religions. In an interview, he discusses the main ideas. Basically, he sees the Bible and other religious books originating as political documents meant to serve immediate political needs, which explains why god seems so moody, casually committing genocide one day and calling for love and forgiveness the next.
My basic premise is that when a religious group sees itself as having something to gain through peaceful interaction with another group of people, including a different religion, it will find a basis for tolerance in its scriptures and religion. When groups see each other as being in a non-zero sum relationship — there’s a possibility of a win-win outcome if they play their cards right, or a lose-lose outcome if they don’t — then they tend to warm up to one another. By contrast, if people see themselves in a zero-sum relationship with another group of people — they can only win if the other group loses — that brings out the intolerance and the dark side of religion.
The western monotheistic tradition began in Judaism but not the way the Bible says. In fact, there is almost no evidence for all the stories about Abraham, the captivity in Egypt, Moses, the exodus, the ten commandments, Kind David, King Solomon, etc. The Jews began as a polytheistic indigenous grouping, just like all the other polytheistic indigenous groupings that occupied the land that we now call the Middle East.
The events in the Bible only start to resemble real history around 650 BCE. In 722 BCE, we know that the polytheistic indigenous people living the northern region known as Israel were captured by the Assyrians. The ruler of the southern region of Judah, King Josiah (649-609 BCE), used the demise of the northern kingdom for his own propaganda purposes against his political rivals, arguing that Israel’s capture was due to their infidelity to god. Using the time-honored tradition of assigning supernatural agency to natural or political phenomena. King Josiah created monotheism as a political act, saying that his god was the true god and that people should appease the true god by killing off those who worshipped rival gods, and by killing off their leaders as well. He was thus able to consolidate power over his rivals, and in the process monotheism came into being.
As part of this process, it was during this time that one of Josiah’s priests conveniently ‘discovered’ in the temple some hitherto unknown ‘holy’ books. And surprise, surprise, this book provided support for all of Josiah’s claims to his god’s exclusivity and forbade people from worshipping rival gods.
This document, now considered to be that which makes up the bulk of the book Deuteronomy, was then added to over the next 300 years to become the religious book of the Jews called the Torah, the core of the Old Testament, containing the Abraham and Moses stories which are, of course, almost entirely fiction. Thus began the creation of a single narrative that sought to retroactively create a past, justify the present, and to lay the groundwork for a new social order in the future. That is how Judaism really came about.
A possible reason why the advent of monotheism led to the current Bible is given by Daniel Lazare in his March 2002 Harper’s magazine article False Testament: “A single, all-powerful god required a single set of sacred texts, and the process of composition and codification that led to what we now know as the Bible began under King Josiah and continued well into the Christian era.” (See part 5 of my series on The Bible as History. The whole series describes the fictional origins of what many religious people believe to be history.)
There can be no question that the top religious leaders and theologians and other religious scholars know all this, though lower level priests and rabbis and imams may not. Ordinary religious people are carefully shielded from the true knowledge of how their holy books came about, because the religious authorities risk losing their sinecures if people realized that even the commonly accepted ages of the books, let alone their claims to divine origin, are false, as are their favorite stories about their religious heroes. So religious leaders suppress the truth and perpetuate fiction about how the books came about in order to give divine credibility to what are essentially political tracts.
Priests know that people will hold on to religious beliefs unless they find themselves in an intellectually untenable position. And since in our society religion is a protected belief system, priests know that ordinary believers will rarely encounter views that force them to confront the contradictions inherent in believing in a god.
This is why the ‘new atheist’ campaign (of which I am proud to be a part) to publicly voice critiques of religion is to be welcomed and why we resist calls for us to not disparage religious beliefs or religious books because we might upset ‘good’ religious moderates. The true history of religions and their holy books must be brought out into the light if we are ever going to get rid of the pernicious effects of religion.
POST SCRIPT: Betty Bowers on prayer