I have a hypothesis that may possibly contribute to the growing study of the psychology of religion. That is, I may have determined how the “God concept” or “God meme” is formed in people’s minds and why it persists. I apologize for relying heavily on anecdotes—this is only an idea that may prove useful in this field.
By the “God meme” I do not mean a specific religion, but rather the defining figure of modern monotheism. It was clear to me from early childhood that the U.S.
culture of my birth had long since done away with polytheism and animism,
replacing them with the binary question: “Do you believe in God?”
Yet I must admit I was never quite clear on what the term actually meant. From a young age I noticed that people gave such various accounts of it that it seemed impossible to imagine they were talking about the same god. Everyone I knew claimed to have “personal experiences with God,” or a “personal relationship,” but those experiences varied widely—they alternately described someone infinitely loving and almost comically wrathful; aggressively male or perfectly genderless. God was the
architect of the universe, or he was the universe. He was everything beautiful in the world, or the judge of the world. It’s hard to relate the sort of conversations I had:
Fundamentalist Christian: “God is the King of Kings.”
Me: “But we don’t really have kings anymore. Is he then the President of Presidents?”
Moderate Christian: “God is everything!”
Me: “Then why not just call it ‘everything?’”
New Age Christian: “God is love.”
Me: “God is an emotion?”
Any Christian: “God is light.”
Me: “I don’t think you mean that God is emitted by the sun, fire, light bulbs, and televisions. There must be something else you’re not saying here.”
C.S. Lewis-style Christian: “God is the rising sun, God is a lion.”
Me: “Um…I assume that’s a metaphor? For what?”
Pascal’s Wager Christian: “God is infinitely incomprehensible. But we know that he wants you to believe in him. Or bad things will happen after your death.”
Me: “Wait…if he’s incomprehensible, how are you able to comprehend him enough to say what he wants and to know that he can’t be
Such disparate and conflicting statements left me wondering, even in my early teens, about Carl Jung’s concept of archetypes. What else, I wondered, could explain both the similarities and differences between the mutually incompatible “God claims” that nearly everyone seemed to make?
I won’t bore you with my personal story; suffice it to say that Carl Sagan’s book The Demon-Haunted World and Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion were wonderfully illuminating to me. Sagan provided an excellent introduction to science as a whole, and Dawkins took the idea of a god (single or multiple) and framed it in terms of a scientific
hypothesis; the hypothesis that a “supernatural, superhuman intelligence
created the universe and is currently involved with it.” He then went on to
examine this hypothesis, fearlessly and in detail.
Yet it was his examination of the origins of the “God concept” itself that fascinated me the most. Standing now outside of religion entirely, I find myself mystified by it and struggling to understand it as a natural, psychological phenomena.
My question has always been, what exactly are these people calling “God?” To make matters even more confusing, some people seemed to label their extreme emotions—overpowering love, awe, ecstasy, even fear—as proof of their God. Even a profound and beautiful connection with another person or the world around them was labeled “God.” I can certainly understand feeling an indescribable sense of awe and wonder in the presence of nature. Dawkins quotes an old teacher’s account of this
feeling, and that he interpreted it as a religious experience. Like some
Theists I have often thrown my arms to the sky in the presence of soaring
red-tailed hawks, brilliant tropical seascapes or ancient redwoods. I have been
skydiving, snorkeling, I’ve stood on the seashore in Hawaii and heard the deep
bellow of conch shells being blown as the sun lit up the clouds in a dozen
brilliant hues and disappeared below the horizon. Even if I did see these experiences as somehow supernatural, why should they lead me indoors to a church? If anything,
wouldn’t they lead me (and others) to worship nature itself?
Of course I understand that people use the term “God” to refer to a grand sort of supernatural being. And I understand that most people here in the U.S. will say their understanding of God comes from the Christian Bible, which I would be convinced of if their understanding of this book were more complete and their interpretations of this
book were consistent. Obviously, neither was the case.
Besides, what guided their interpretation of these odd passages? Why did they give their God one attribute and not another? What, if anything, ties the concept of a creative universe-designer with, say, a surrogate parent figure, and what ties either
one with experiencing powerful emotions? This was a nut I had to crack. I observed
how people used the “God term,” what it meant to them, and finally discovered
what all of these claims appear to have in common.
My hypothesis is twofold. First, the modern concept of God (capital G rather than lowercase) only makes sense as a mental category. By a mental category, I mean a folder or box into which the software of our mind (so to speak) puts ideas, emotions, and internal or external stimuli.
Our minds create mental categories out of evolutionary necessity, and this is not unique to humans. We laugh at animals when their categories fail them—there is a popular photo on the Internet of a male moose attempting to mate with a bronze moose statue. But how could it be otherwise, when out of necessity he probably categorizes anything of the same approximate size and shape of another moose, which holds still during mating season, as a mate? We are amused when cats chase a feather toy or a laser pointer, but what else could we expect when natural selection has favored felines who interpret anything smaller than them, that moves quickly, as prey? Any cat is bound to encounter prey he doesn’t recognize, and this “categorical rule” has no doubt served him and his ancestors well in the past.
We should examine our mental categories briefly here. Obviously the concept of love makes perfect sense as either an emotion or a category of emotions that all relate to a deep and powerful interpersonal connection. Psychologists have further refined this with the Triangular Theory of Love. It makes sense to put all of our feelings of powerful connection into a single mental folder.
What, then, do we put in the “God category?” One thing consistent about the concept of any god is that it is anthropomorphic. Whatever a believer attempts to define this being as, it is a being. It is not a force of nature like gravity or electromagnetism. It is not an inanimate object.
Yet though it is considered a being just as you or I are, it remains consistently nebulous. It is neither an earthly creature of impressive but vastly different intelligence from us humans (as a dolphin is, most likely) or an extraterrestrial who has mastered the
secrets of hopping across vast distances of space with the wave of an
eight-tentacled hand. No, this is a supernatural thing, yet one that speaks in human words and touches human emotions. Yet it is certainly not a more clear-cut supernatural thing such as a ghost. At the same time most Christians will insist that it is not Yaweh
either, and define it in increasingly divergent ways. This is because in every
measurable sense, the “God meme” is a personification.
Let us consider these three main “–isms:” animism, polytheism, and monotheism. One is assumed to progress into the next, yet this is understandable only when we see it as a gradual shift in how we, as humans, personify the world around us. The animist sees a spirit or mind in every stream and mountain, a mind possessing intentions or plans as much as he does himself—as does the lion in the bushes and the gazelle on the plains. Thinking that a rock wants to fall just as a lion wants to eat you
is what Dawkins calls the “intentional stance.” This is a perspective, for obvious reasons, favored by natural selection. We clearly still do this today without even considering it. When you’re moving a couch with a friend, never mind trying to tell him that its weight is unevenly distributed and it’s much more likely to tip to the left. Who wouldn’t say, “It wants to fall to the left”?
If we look at animism as a person’s tendency to personify the world around them, then the “personified environment meme” must adapt to the dawn of civilization—cities, agriculture, and increasingly centralized authority. Not to mention, as our minds become more able to grasp larger, more abstract concepts, it becomes natural to personify them as well, and thus we have polytheism—the god of war is the concept of war personified, the goddess of love is the concept of love personified, and so on.
But what, then, is modern monotheism? What exactly is being personified? I propose that monotheists of every stripe will chant “God is great” throughout their lives, generation upon generation, without ever thinking to turn the phrase around. Greatness
is their God.
Our modern concept of “God” is not the personification of a physical thing, no tiny dryad of our favorite waterfall. It is not the larger personification of something we’ve observed—the god of the wind, the goddess of love, the god of death. It varies so much
because it personifies something incredibly vague and subjective. It personifies greatness.
Of course we take it for granted that any god would be great and powerful in some aspect, even if he or she was also capricious or merciless as many of the Greek gods were. But they were, first and foremost, personifications of natural or psychological forces rather than the person’s own subjective model of the greatest person they could imagine. Perhaps I can illustrate one meme with another: http://home.comcast.net/~owenkl/Lions/Cartoons/LionMirror.jpg
Now imagine that the cat doesn’t understand what a mirror is, and thinks that an actual but incorporeal lion stares back at him.
If a gecko were looking into this metaphorical mirror, he might see a dinosaur. If a sparrow were looking into it, he might see an eagle. Likewise with people—someone with an authoritarian personality might see the Ultimate Authority, a person who values love might see Infinite Love Personified. Someone who places a high priority on evaluating others or themselves might see an Ultimate Judge. In reality this mirror is not
an external one. It is completely a mental concept, a mental folder in which
everything they label greatest is metaphorically filed.
It is only in this light that the disparate, subjective, and highly personal nature of the “God claims” make any sense. Of course our background and experiences influence what we perceive as great, but this is still highly subjective. Only this, the idea of greatness being perceived and then personified and labeled God, connects such experiences as awe in the presence of nature, experiencing great love, hope, fear or courage and joy, and the idea of a parental figure or universe-creator…because what could be greater than an All-Powerful Father, and what task could be greater than making a universe? Perhaps the “God meme,” its core exposed, could be called the PG (Personified Greatness) meme for simplicity’s sake.
II. PG’s Explanatory Value
I’ve always been mystified by Christians asking me where I get my morality from; how I could be moral without a God dictating behavioral standards. They could just as easily ask me how I could possibly be evil or immoral, since in their origin tale Adam was childlike and incapable of good or evil until he ate the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. Presumably I should be neither one, but wide-eyed and uncomprehending like a child myself. Yet implicit in this question is the idea that to have a concept
of goodness requires a supernatural explanation, while evil does not. Shouldn’t
the question be how I can exercise free will, at least? Would intelligence also
require a supernatural explanation, while ignorance would not? This only makes
sense if you take into account their unconscious filing of good into the mental
folder of greatness, and personifying it to form their God Concept.
A Theist forms the “Irreducible Complexity” argument without thinking that any omnipotent god could have created people’s eyes or bacterial flagellums out of rubber or table salt if he wanted to, and they could function perfectly without the need for complexity. Of course this god could also choose to make organisms complex for some reason, so the issue tells us nothing. What if people are simply awed by complexity, associate it with greatness, and exposure to the PG meme causes them to place it in the “God folder” of their minds? The same could be said about the “God of the Gaps;” it is simply the personification of the Great Unknown.
Few people seem to be wholly immune to this meme. The Deist God of the physicists is the Greatest Physicist, a mathematician to end all others who set up every law and constant of the universe as we know it and then set them all in motion and retreated from the scene, his project complete. The Deist God of the Enlightenment thinkers was similarly distant and yet himself enlightened, as Thomas Jefferson wrote in his letter to Peter Carr,
Shake off all the fears of servile prejudices, under which weak minds are servilely crouched. Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call on her tribunal for every
fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a God;
because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason than
that of blindfolded fear.
As beautiful as the sentiment is, why did Jefferson think God “must approve?” How would he know that? The God of Enlightenment thinkers approved of their reason rather than fear and ignorance. The God of monarchies before them was propped up as the one who granted the “divine right of kings” to rule over peasantry and not only induced but rewarded blindfolded fear. The God of Martin Luther was the opposite of
Faith must trample underfoot all reason, sense and understanding, and whatever it sees it must put out of sight, and wish to know nothing but the word of God.
Naturally these are extreme examples; opposing claims by opposite people in widely divergent periods in history. Yet at their heart, what else could they be but each person having a mental image of what Greatness Personified must think, want, and do?
The Kalam Cosmological argument inadvertently betrays itself with its first premise—that “God is, by definition, the greatest thing that can be imagined.”
It goes on to further stumble over itself by implying that greatness is a quantitative term rather than a qualitative one; that cookies are the greatest dessert and infinity is the greatest number…therefore I must have an infinite number of cookies in my mouth because if cookies were only an idea in my head and not an actual thing, they wouldn’t be as great. It relies on a nebulous definition of the term “existence” and conflates greatness as a value judgment with greatness as a comparative term…but I won’t venture down the road into that nonsense.
If the Kalam Cosmological argument were true, then humans would be creating a polytheistic plethora that would be shocking even to the ancient Egyptians. For if “God is the greatest thing you can imagine,” and this thing you can imagine
must also exist or it wouldn’t be as great, then you would imagine and thus
would exist a being with whatever traits you considered greatest—a being wholly different from my own concept of greatness or your neighbor’s. Everyone in a room
would inevitably be imagining different and ultimately incompatible “Mr.
Greatnesses—“ one a being of the greatest possible might, another the most
invasively judgmental, a third the kindest possible paternal figure, another
some vague anthropomorphic concept of the universe itself. And this is modern
III. What Was That? Ghost, God or Ghoul?
From this perspective we should also look at the argument from personal experience. To be frank, I have had a huge variety of personal experiences both wonderful and frightening that I labeled supernatural at one time. It may well be impossible to relate how relieved I was to find out that they had evidence-based
explanations besides the single word “insanity” that is so readily thrown about
in conversation. The implicit assumption is often that you’re either insane, or
that what you perceived actually happened. In fact most people experience some form of cognitive distortion at some point—sleep deprivation, head injuries, emotional distress, and a long list of other things can cause auditory hallucinations. Out-of-body
sensations can actually be a well-documented state of sleep paralysis. Even
panic attacks can generate discordant images which we may interpret as
memories. The same mental mechanism by which we have a “conversation in our
head” with our mother before we meet her for lunch is the mechanism by which we
engage with a god or other figure in prayer. In fact, we are interacting with
an idea in our heads.
Yet even this is not a complete explanation. One young man told me that he heard a deep, thundering voice saying the words, “You will learn to fear me.” I can understand why someone, hearing that, would think either that someone actually said it or that they were crazy—and tend towards the first answer, since the second one is so
frightening. Besides, he could reason, he was obviously a high-functioning
adult and not some iconic madman muttering to himself on a street corner.
But many people who think that there is a God also share belief in other spirits of various forms—angels, ghosts, Satan and so on. If it was only a voice, one must ask how he knew it was God? Demanding fear in such terms would make some people think of Satan, others of God. In any case, a voice saying anything or a presence in the room
is sometimes attributed to a religious figure and other times to the person’s deceased parent or grandparent. How does someone determine which it is? Even if the timbre of the voice is familiar or the voice identifies itself as God directly, how does the person determine if it is being truthful and is not some sort of deceitful spirit?
Of course this is just an example, but the point is that the person makes this distinction based on the subjective greatness value that they attach to the voice or words. How comforting, how awe-inspiring, how majestic is it? Do they consider a loving voice to be greater than a threatening one, or the other way around? Not only are these
values likely to influence what they see or hear under stress or other conditions, but how they interpret what they see or hear. If the experience aligns with their concept of Personified Greatness, it will automatically and unconsciously be placed in their mental “God folder.” If not, it is likely to be attributed to something else—a memory, a ghost, a trick of the senses, etc.
IV. Meme Survival
Why does one meme survive and spread and another fail to thrive? Why personify greatness? The PG meme latches onto the mind because it’s both pleasurable and slippery. It is almost instinctive to personify; our brains have “anthropomorphic” as the default setting. Personifying anything makes it easy to relate to. Can you imagine a
children’s cartoon where nothing is anthropomorphized and given a face? No
talking trains, dancing numbers, smiling flowers? At our hearts we are social creatures, in some ways seeing each other in everything.
To use a somewhat silly analogy, you could compare it to humans evolving screwdrivers for right hands and screw heads for left hands; fitting and interlocking with other people perfectly. And just as an elephant uses its massive ears to cool itself, we would also use our right screwdriver-hand to push through tall grass or open doors. Our key to survival and reproduction as humans has always been each other; everything else
is useful but secondary.
Given this tendency, it’s difficult to imagine an idea more enjoyable to personify—more pleasurable to even think about—than our own private concept of what is greatest. Like a drug, this meme stimulates the reward center of our brains when we contemplate it or converse about it.
This meme also survives because it is so vague and therefore difficult to debunk. Personifying the wind and lightening enabled our ancestors to relate to them, but we know now that the wind god is not puffing out his cheeks and sending a breath across the sea. A God of Greatness, however, has the advantage of vagueness. My own observation has been that apologetics thrives on ambiguity—when you question an apologist about the self-contradicting nature of omnipotence, they typically redefine
omnipotence until it basically means nothing at all. Most apologetic claims are
similarly vague, but I won’t waste any more time on them.
V. Meme Antidotes
In terms of what may work to counteract this meme, I can only guess. Perhaps our minds “short-circuit” in the presence of greatness and struggle to comprehend it. Yet not everyone deals with this by personifying it.
The difference between science with its questioning of nature and seeking formulae and evidence versus religion with its flat-out declarations and un-testable revelations has been stated before by better speakers than myself. Yet I also wonder if the difference might run deeper than that; a difference between how a science-focused mind and a religious mind process information.
This is, of course, a generalization. But it seems to me that when a religious person stands in awe—hiking in the woods and overcome by the beauty of nature, for example—of something that is great to him, he personifies it and calls it God. A scientist’s awe is equally powerful yet he seeks to understand the thing he
sees; what it is and how it works. I have heard many who study nature say
something similar to “Yes, maybe a god did create this. But what would it matter? That doesn’t explain anything.”
Given the very small number of scientists who profess belief in a “personal
God,” one could almost say that the GE meme, Greatness Explained, offers nearly
full immunity to the PG meme.
There is a persistent cultural myth that explaining anything lessens its greatness, that rainbows cannot be enjoyed if one understands light refraction. I add my small voice to Carl Sagan’s in saying that the opposite is true; that my appreciation of the universe or even a tree is exponentially increased by understanding it rather than decreased. GE may be the antidote to PG, and ultimately more ecstatic.
A technique used by mystics in general and Buddhists in particular could be called Atemporal Greatness, or AG—rather than experiencing profound emotions or glorious surroundings and personifying them, they sometimes seek to detach such moments from all sense of time or causation and simply “merge” with them in a timeless state. No thoughts of past or future are allowed to intrude; ideally one learns to lose oneself in a transcendent moment. Since some branches of Buddhism contain gods or godlike figures and others do not, the AG meme could facetiously be said to offer
In the PG meme I think I have found the core of the “God Concept,” or in the very least the single thread connecting disparate and contradictory “God Claims.” I hope that this bit of information may prove useful, and look forward to hearing from you in regards to it. Thank you for your time.