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Chapter One: Defining God

Section 4: The evolving God

Our concept of God has changed over millennia

pic: Aztec gods from Codex Laud

In the first and third sections of this chapter we saw that if God exists, his reality may be very different from our perception of him.

Our view of God today, as we saw in section two is that he is the transcendent, omniscient, omnipotent creator of the universe. But we we have not always considered God to be all-powerful or the creator of the world. Humanity's image of God - or, more often, the gods - has changed considerably over time.

Where did the idea of God come from? How and why has it changed?

1.4a Looking back

The notion of God is probably as old as human consciousness. As our brains evolved and our powers of reasoning developed, we began to understand the world around us. But much seemed inexplicable. Why did the sun rise? What made rain fall? Why did the earth suddenly shake?

Seeing how human activity made similar things happen on a smaller scale - carrying fire, pouring water, throwing stones - almost certainly suggested the idea that natural phenomena were caused by similar, but more powerful, beings. Different cultures developed different interpretations - spirits that inhabited rocks, trees and rivers and / or gods that flew through the air. Like humans, some were malign, others were benevolent depending on their character and mood. And in the same way that human beings moulded the environment in which they lived, it was natural to assume that some of these gods created the world and the people who lived in it.

With no other information to go on, this was a rational analysis of the world in which our

Chapter One: Defining God

Does God exist? Before we try to answer that question we need to have a clear idea of who or what God is. How do we describe God? What versions of God are on offer?

1.1: God, faith and religion
Do they need each other?

1.2: What is God?
God comes in several styles and models

1.3: Perception and reality
Is what we see what we get?

1.4: The evolving God
From prehistory to today

1.5: El, Yahweh et al
The Old Testament family of gods

1.6: Three's company
The Christian Trinity

1.7: Allah
Over to Islam

1.8: Majors and minors

1.9: The unknowable God
Is he there?

1.10: Your god or mine?
Made in our image

1.11: Summary

Finished this chapter? Move on to

Chapter Two
Problems with God

The real God – if such a thing exists – may be very different from the god portrayed by Jewish, Christian or Muslim scripture.

But whichever picture of God we look at - from the Bible and Koran to the images presented by other faiths and believers - we are confronted by problems. When examined closely, God's nature is so contradictory that it is unlikely, if not impossible, for him to exist.

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ancestors lived. And so for millennia, science - our study of the world about us - and religion were one and the same.

It was inevitable that the idea of gods would emerge as human beings developed imagination and the ability to reason. Imagination allows us to conceive of events that occur at a time or place where we are not present – in the past or the future, a mile or a continent away. The ability to reason encourages us to ask why events occur, whenever or wherever they take place, and to come up with possible explanations.

The problem arises because reason often forgets that imagination blurs the boundaries between real and unreal. Is God real? Or have we imagined him, using reason to explain his existence?

1.4b The function of the gods

These gods lasted had distinct characters and personalities. For the Greeks and Romans there were Zeus and Jupiter, the powerful ruler of the gods; Athena and Minerva, the goddess of wisdom; Ares & Mars, the god of war and many others. The Viking pantheon included Odin the king, Thor the thunder-god, Loki the malignant and Sif, goddess of the earth. Hinduism brought the world Ganesh, lord of the earth; Garuda the messenger, Kali, goddess of transformation and hundreds more. The Aztecs prayed to Patecatl the god of medicine, Huitilopochtli the sun god, Centeotl the maize god and many others.

These gods were human in that they loved and quarreled, fought and made peace with each other. They were also divine, in that they lived forever, but unlike today's monotheist God, they were neither all-powerful nor all-knowing.

Like today's God, these gods fulfilled several important functions in human society. They offered an explanation for the apparently inexplicable - natural disasters and unexpected death. They were a repository for hope - people could pray to them and make offerings to appeal for favours for themselves or others; they offered a better life to come and vengeance on one's oppressers and enemies. Often, the gods were a symbol of the community and a means of uniting people. And in some - but not every tradition - the gods were seen as the definers of good and evil and the source of morality.

1.4c Changing God

As time passed, however, it became to some people that natural phenomena such as the rising of the sun or changing of the seasons were the product of immutable laws and not the whims of deities. In Greece and elsewhere, philosophers began to doubt the existence of the familiar gods, although it did not yet seem reasonable that the world might exist without any god or creator. From about three thousand years ago, from the Eastern Mediterranean to Northern India, the concept of god / gods began to evolve.

One new approach was Buddhism, which, like its predecessor Hinduism, saw the universe as a mindless cycle of birth and reincarnation, a cyle in which the gods were irrelevant to human lives. Another view came from Zoroastrianism and its offshot Mithraism, which argued that human lives play out against an eternal struggle between good and evil. And as we shall see in the next section, the Jewish Yahweh began life as only one in a group of Canaanite gods.

1.4d God: Stages Two, Three - and Four?
pic: origin to be confirmed

Mithras slaughters a bull

We could refer to the polytheistic gods of ancient Greece, Viking Scandinavia and early India as Stage One gods, and the early monotheistic God worshipped by Jews as Stage Two. Stage One comes in a variety of models, but each model is a variation on the idea of human beings who happen to be immortal and more powerful than we are and who live close to us, in a temple, on a nearby mountain or under the land or sea. The Stage Two god comes in only one single model. All-knowing and all-powerful, he inhabits a more distant realm where he is often surrounded by the beings who resemble Stage One gods - angels and demons.

The Stage Two god is more remote than his predecessors, but he still has very human - particularly male - qualities. He’s prone to anger and violence and like all men who lack self-confidence, he is obsessed with sex and determined to control other people's sex behaviour, only allowing them to express their instincts when certain conditions are met. Yahweh is particularly strict, but his alter ego Allah is more generous to men, offering them multiple partners both now and in the afterlife.

As the Stage One gods evolved into Stage Two, the Stage Two god has evolved again. The Stage Three god, personified by Jesus, has lost the masculine, often immature anger that characterises his Old Testament antecedent; this god's primary characteristic is a more mature, offering love and compassion more than violence and hate.

Most believers today are split between Stages Two and Three Gods. Fundamentalists, irrespective of religion, insist on the former version; their God is angry, violent and misogynist and they are angry, violent and misogynist in his name. Moderates are inspired by the more recent incarnation, insisting that God's primary characteristic is love and forgiveness.

Some believers, who find these versions of God as deficient as Stage One, find faith in a God that we can call Stage Four. This God is so distant from our lives that he is either uninvolved in his creation, as in Deism, or so inconsequential that he has faded into nothingness, as in Buddhism. Atheists would argue that there is a Stage Five, the moment when all belief fades and the deity, like the dinosaurs before him, becomes extinct.

These Stages are, of course, a simplification, but they demonstrate the basic point - our concept of God has changed over millennia and will almost certainly continue to evolve.

Next: Chapter One: Section 5
El, Yahweh et al

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If God existed, he would...

admire the beauty of a universe that he did not create

recognize that eternity is meaningless

deny both heaven and hell

disown all men and women who speak in his name

denounce the harm caused by religious "morality"

help the human race to thrive without him

If God existed, he would be an atheist.

What is the difference between science and faith?

science is certain of nothing and requires proof of everything

faith is certain of everything and requires proof of nothing

Which do you trust?

"I know there is no God"
"I believe there is no God"

Check the answer

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