1 In the beginning…
Creating gods is something humans have probably always done. The human search for ‘God' began long before the invention of writing. We know this because archaeologists have recovered artefacts from Palaeolithic times – 35,000-10,000 BCE* – that resemble objects of later periods identified as sacred in surviving texts.
2 A question of sex…
The history of God begins, some experts claim, not with god at all – but with Goddess. The deity was first imagined as female for at least the first 200,000 years of human life on earth. To prove this, archaeologists cite the very common occurrence of what they call ‘Venuses' – female figures and cave paintings which emphasize breasts, the pregnant womb and the vagina, those parts of women most obviously associated with the production and nourishment of new life. In the early settlement of Catal Huyuk in present-day Turkey (6500-5500 BCE) only goddesses are shown in paintings and reliefs. It is thought that goddess-worshipping cultures were overtaken by patrilineal, semi-nomadic invaders from the steppes of Russia. These were militaristic and brought with them a religion based on male gods. A similar process occurred in India, when the Aryan invaders of the Indus Valley (from around 1500 BCE) introduced a masculine conception of deity.
3 Sacred nature
‘Walking with care’ is the Native American way of speaking of the sacred nature of the world. The Sioux addressed the earth as ‘Mother’: ‘Every step that we can take upon you should be done in sacred manner: each step should be as prayer.’ Hunting must be done with care and involve communication with the animal spirits.
Similar attitudes appear in indigenous cultures around the globe. Common fundamental themes include kinship with nature and the belief that the material and physical world contain the spiritual and are not separate from it.
Even in religions that now seem far removed from this kind of spirituality, prevalent symbols from the natural world – the tree, for example – have survived. And even if God is believed to be distinct from the natural order it is still common for nature to be perceived as a divine gift to be read as a revelation alongside scripture.
4 Gods galore
Most belief systems are polytheistic – containing more than one deity. New gods and goddesses can be added provided they do not threaten traditional deities and their cults. In polytheistic traditions such deities often have distinct characters and roles. Tara, the Tibetan Buddhist goddess, for example, is a protector, always willing to help the weakest. Yama, meanwhile, the god of death for both Buddhists and Hindus, is fierce and uncompromising (see right). The Greek Zeus was a libidinous god who did not draw the line at sex with humans and went for people of either sex. The Mexican god Quetzalcoatl was more preoccupied with bloodthirsty demands for human sacrifice (see far right).
Relying too much on gods already had early critics. The Buddha taught that to attain Nirvana – the state of bliss that was higher than any god – was a possibility to be achieved through human means such as meditation, not by appealing to any supreme power. Save yourselves, Buddha taught his disciples.
5 One God?
It’s often assumed that the religions derived from Abraham – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – were always based on a monotheistic belief in only one god. This was not the case: the deity known as ‘God’ has a complex ancestry. The people of the eastern shores of the Mediterranean at the beginning of the Iron Age had several gods – or Elohim (‘the gods’). According to pre-biblical Ugaritic texts, there was El, the son of a father god called El’eb, who was possibly the creator of the world. El lived with his wife, the goddess Asherah, alongside other Canaanite and Semitic gods such as Baal, the god of thunder and rains, and Yaam, god of floods and destruction. Asherah and Baal both make guest appearances in the Bible. It seems that, for some tribes, either Elohim became conflated into a single god, El, or that El emerged as the top god.
Moreover we can’t assume that the patriarchs of Israel – Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses – even worshipped the same god. While the god of Abraham was most probably El, the god of Moses was one called Yahweh – or ‘the god without a name’ – who had come with a second wave of Semitic immigration. Unlike the comparatively mild El, Yahweh was jealous, partial, brutal – and highly effective.
6 Yahweh alone
It was Yahweh who made a covenant with Moses demanding that the Israelites ignore all other deities and worship him alone. The worship of a single deity was almost unprecedented: the Egyptian pharaoh Aknaten had attempted it but his policies were immediately reversed by his successor. It seems that El and Yahweh co-existed for a time, perhaps as gods of different Hebrew tribes. But between the 8th and 5th centuries BCE the tribes coalesced into the nation of Israel. Facing external and internal attacks, the Israelites attempted to bring their different traditions into a single narrative. The new story (that related in Genesis and Exodus) tells us that although Abraham called his god El, this was only because he did not know the name of Yahweh (Jehovah in English and ‘The LORD’ in the Bible). The two gods, readers are assured, are really one. ‘With a piece of early scriptural spin-doctoring,’ as David Boulton puts it, the writers of the Bible cunningly wove the El and Yahweh traditions into a new myth of one God for a chosen people.
7 Multiple identities
Theologian Alexander Waugh calls God ‘the most perplexing and yet most compelling figure in human history, revealed by a myriad of diverse sources to be mighty, jealous, rude, babyish, deluded, omniscient, vicious, ratty, benign, merciful, duplicitous, mysterious, wise, ignorant, grand, humorous, cruel, loud, racist, just, unjust, both mutable and immutable, visible and invisible, oafish, fragrant, anarchic..’
The idea of God or El/Yahweh as the creator only emerges around the 9th century BCE. He is still also a destroyer, ordering the Israelites to commit genocide against the Hittites and other peoples living in the holy land.
By the 7th century BCE, however, God is presented as a civilizing force, a law giver, dispensing moral guidance on how to live. He starts to become a god of compassion, a defender of the underdog, a father, and even, some say, the erotic lover of the Song of Songs. By 20 BCE, Philo of Alexandria is arguing that this is not just the god of the Jews, but the god of all people.
The idea that god becomes man, in the form of Jesus of Nazareth, only emerges many years after the death of Jesus – who himself never made such a claim. According to religious historian Karen Armstrong the development of the Christian belief in Jesus as ‘God the Son’ was not fully finalized until the 4th century, the Trinity later still. Whatever the details, the figure of Jesus, God the Son, compassionate, suffering, and with a main message of ‘Love thy neighbour’ is a far cry from the Yahweh Moses knew.
8 Of 99 names
Like many Arabs living in and around what is now Saudi Arabia, Muhammad believed the main god he worshipped (called the ‘high god’ or Al-Lah) was basically the same as that of the Jews and Christians. Sadly though, this Allah/God had never sent the Arabs a prophet of their own – until Muhammad started having revelations. For the first three years of his mission, his followers carried on worshipping their traditional deities as well. When he condemned these ancient cults as idolatrous, Muhammad lost most of his followers overnight.
The early moral message of the Qur’an was simple: don’t be greedy and share the riches of the community fairly by giving a regular proportion to the poor. The god of Muhammad was seen as the ‘god of signs’ – and the most important sign was the Qur’an. In the holy book, Al-Lah is given 99 names or attributes indicating that he is the source of all positive qualities that we find in the universe.
9 God's death?
‘The death of God is not unusual,’ writes John Bowker. ‘It occurs in every generation everywhere in the world.’ Back in the 2nd century CE the Greek Diagoras chopped up a sacred statue (in order to boil his turnips) and declared that God did not exist.
In 1923 the US atheist HL Meneken held his own memorial service for the Gods, listing over 100 who had ‘gone down the chute’ after reigning supreme over generations of worshipful believers.
The 19th and 20th centuries saw: Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution undermining the creation story; Sigmund Freud’s dismissal of belief in god as a childish illusion; Karl Marx’s dubbing of it as the opium of the people; and Friedrich Neitzsche declaring God ‘pitiable’, ‘absurd’ and ‘dead’. Humanism developed a non-religious ethic and it was considered only a matter of time before faith faded away. The past few decades, however, have proved predictions of the inevitable demise of gods and religions to be wrong – or at any rate embarrassingly premature.
*Note: BCE (Before Common Era) and CE (Common Era) are used instead of the specifically Christian BC and AD.
Sources: Karen Armstrong, A History of God, Vintage, 1993. John Bowker, God: A Brief History, Dorling Kindersly, 2002. David Boulton, The Trouble with God, John Hunt Publishing, 2002.