We humans believe in all sorts of different gods. It is a rare person who believes that all of these gods exist. Most people in modern society believe that only one particular God exists (Allah or Yahveh for example), or they believe that only a particular pantheon exists (The Father, Son, Holy Ghost, and angels for example). And a few of us believe that none of these gods exist.
Unless you happen to be one of the rare people who believe that all gods that anyone conceives of really exists, you can join me in exploring how people come to dream up the gods that do not exist (excluding, of course, your god or pantheon which really does exist). Here is one plausible account:
Memories of the dead
When a parent dies, there is very often the mistaken feeling that the parent is still somehow still with us after his or her death. We continue to “feel” the parent’s presence for several months. Our memories of the parent, emotional denial of his or her death, our habit of having the parent with us since birth, all make it difficult to realize the loss. In some societies, ancestor worship is the main religion. These feelings, that the parent is still present, has grown into a codified belief system where ancestors are always present and watching over their progeny.
When some ancestors become more powerful than others (the spirit of my great great granddad can protect me against the spirit of your great great granddad), that ancestor becomes a demigod. Each generation attributes more powers and abilities to their demigods. Over time, the demigods begin to look like what we would call gods.
Belief in the unseen
Most of the time, we (and other animals) can distinguish an agent from an inanimate object. We can tell for example that a lief blowing overhead in a stiff wind is inanimate, even though it is moving erratically. We can tell that a hawk gliding smoothly overhead is animate; the hawk is an “agent”. An agent can act, it has the ability to direct it’s movements. Inanimate objects can be acted upon but they don’t act of their own accord.
We are good at recognizing agency. Our ability to recognize agency is hardwired in us, it is essential for our survival. We can recognize pray, and more importantly, we can recognize predators. But because our ability to recognize agency isn’t perfect, we have evolved to err on the side of mistaking an inanimate object for an agent. This has some disadvantages. One disadvantage is that we might flee at the sound of a falling pine cone. However, this is far more preferable than erring in the other direction – it is far more preferable than mistaking an agent for an inanimate object. That is how you get eaten by a predator!
We’ve all heard a creak in the house that sounded a little like a footstep. Or we’ve seen a shadow that look a little like a person. Because we are hardwired to recognize agency, and if we can’t tell for sure, we’re hardwired to err on the side of recognizing agency when there is no agent. We interpret these “unseen agents” as spirits or ghosts. Spirits and ghosts are what we call agents that are invisible. Most of us have had the experience of “seeing a ghost” until we look close and discover we have seen a shadow.
As hominids become bipedal, children could no longer easily hang from the mother as she goes about her business of foraging and traveling. The child had to walk close by as soon as he became big enough to walk. As a result, physical gestures between mother and child became less effective since the child and mother were no longer in constant physical contact. Vocal utterances began to take on a primary role in mother child communication: “stay close by, beware of danger, eat this, stop that!”
Language takes on a more important role as toolmaking develops – it’s a way to pass on the skill to children and other tribesman. Finally, it becomes a way of facilitating cooperation. Language evolves from grunts and hoots and becomes symbolic.
Language can describe the unseen
As language becomes more sophisticated, it becomes adequate to describe a dead ancestor or tribesman to a child who has never seen him.
Conflation of real and imaginary
The child grows up with the understanding that there are unseen people who everyone believes to be real. The same child hears stories of mistaken (or intentionally invented) agents which are indistinguishable from stories of extinct agents. There is a conflation between an imagined agent who never existed with real extinct people who really did exist.
Memories of ancestors become distorted as more superhuman feats are attributed to them. Super ancestors are imagined to explain apparent agency that would not be possible actions of (normal) dead relatives: thunder, earthquakes, the sun tracking along the sky, floods, famine, epidemics.
Imagining a Creator
Logic develops and people begin to recognize that things have origins. What is the agent that created those things? The origin stories from different cultures give us examples of various Creators that we humans have imagined.