Having the God Talk — An Appeal to Educate the Public

“God is dead! And we have killed him,” cried Nietzsche’s madman. This proclamation was a warning to modern society regarding the implications for morality if God-as-supreme-law-giver was abandoned. Without God, thought Nietzsche, the moral ideals of mercy, love, self-sacrifice, and privileging neighbor over oneself did not have a solid foundation. Society needed to realize the consequences of trying to create a moral system without appealing to an all-powerful divine being who could be the basis for such  system. A god-as-supreme-law-giver makes morality, in a certain sense, easy, simple, and not too hard to figure out. Humans don’t have to think; simply look to the god for guidance. Nietzsche did not think, however, that we should hold onto God simply to make morals easier. We are free to abandon/kill God; but Nietzsche’s warning is that we must realize that we are left alone to do morals together, with no aid from above. The consequence of killing God is that we (humans) are the sole arbiters of what is right and wrong, good and evil. We have been grappling with this responsibility ever since.  

Whether or not God is actually dead in our society is an important sociological question; but ultimately I think there is a more important question we should be asking and talking about. This is the question of “Where do gods come from in the first place”? LeRon Shults answers this question by saying that “The gods are born — and we have borne them.” In his work, Shults has pointed out that anthropologists, historians, etc, have known for a long time now where gods come from. In short, we (humans) created them. In our distant ancestral past, we did not know how to explain complex and ambiguous phenomena in nature. So as a survival mechanism, we evolved what is called an “Agency Detection Device.” What this means is that we are constantly scanning our environment for intentional agents who are at work. In answering the question, “Why does it rain?” our ancestors posited the existence of supernatural agents who were the cause. This birthing of gods was a natural outworking of our need to attribute agency to ambiguous phenomena. If a bush were to rustle on the savannah, it provided a survival advantage to attribute agency to the rustling (maybe a tiger is in the bush) rather than to assume that no agent was there. Gods, then, are simply a product of evolution — they were born in the minds of our ancestors.

who-would-win-in-a-fight.pngSimply inventing gods aided survival, but there is a negative side to this coin. After we birthed the gods in our minds, we began to bear them against one another. As Feuerbach said, “God did not, as the Bible says, make man in His image; on the contrary man made God in his image.” Our nature as human beings is to behave like animals. We want to survive and thrive, and anyone or anything that gets in the way of those goals is seen as a threat to be eliminated. When we gave birth to the gods we projected our image onto them. Gods not only became  personal law-givers and causes behind ambiguous events, but we began to enlist them as weapons against our enemies; we began to use their commands as justification for every kind of atrocity imaginable. People don’t burn other people at the stake unless they think that’s what their god has commanded them to do. People simply don’t fly jetliners into buildings unless they actually believe they will receive an eternal reward upon their death. Gods have gone from being supernatural agents who were used to explain ambiguous phenomena in our species’ past, to weapons we wield against one another. They have gone from being useful tools for survival to something akin to Blake’s  “mind forged manacles.”  In our increasingly interconnected and pluralistic society, this wielding of the god weapon has got to stop. So what to do? Where to go next?

On this point I find LeRon Shults particularly instructive. He says that we need to “have the god talk” with each other. Like the “sex talk,” we need to have frank conversations with our kids about how gods are born and what the consequences of bearing them are. Instead of cowering to the Religious Right and their wrongheaded ideas about sex education, we’ve pushed forward with common-sense education in our schools and in the public domain. We need to do something like this with gods. We need a multi-front public awareness campaign designed to promote open and honest dialogue about the facts surrounding the birth and consequences of bearing gods in society. If we do this, we will be one step closer to eliminating the religiously-motivated violence we see around the world almost every day. Gods may have been useful once-upon-a-time, but in our modern society we simply cannot afford to continue bearing them anymore. So, let’s have the god talk.   

About Matt Young

Matt grew up in a conservative, evangelical, Christian home. After high school, he served in the U.S. Army, got married, and is now father of two toddlers (both boys). He is completing a B.A. in Philosophy from Houghton College, and plans to do graduate work in the field. Though he was raised as a Christian, he no longer believes in any gods, and self-identifies as atheist and secular humanist.

You can find more from him on his personal blog, www.TheHumanGadfly.com and connect via Twitter and Facebook.