An Atheist’s Review of NatGeo’s Story of God, Episode Three: Who Is God?

Morgan Freeman claims to have a type of religious experience when listening to music. And while not claiming to personally connect to a god during these experiences, it gets him thinking about “all the ways people around the world connect to God.”

For instance: Moses apparently met God in a bush. Buddha experienced enlightenment under a tree. And Mohamed experienced Allah on a mountain.

But “is there some universal experience of God that all religions share? Or is God fundamentally different to people of different faiths?” In this episode, Morgan is “setting out to discover who God is — to find out how people around the world experience the divine.”

He begins in India where he learns that Hindus believe in millions of gods. They have erected shrines in every corner of their cities; there are male, female, part human, and part animal gods. Usually, each family chooses gods to worship, and in times of distress, an individual person may choose a particular god to appeal to.

For Hindus, “behind all the gods there is a single divine energy that they seek to tap into.” They “find gods that suit their own beliefs.”

Stonehenge, aerial view

Stonehenge, aerial view

But not everyone believes in multiple gods. So Morgan travels to Stonehenge — possibly the birthplace of worshiping a single God. Several stone structures at Stonehenge seem to be pointed toward the sun at a particular time of the year. It is thought this may show a shift in focus from worship of multiple gods present in the land, to a single god and the source of all life — the sun.

Next, Morgan travels to Egypt where he learns that one of the Pharaohs (in 1350 B.C.E.) shut down the temples of all the other gods and declared that the sun is a god and should be worshiped through him. This, for sure, is the first religion in recorded history with a single deity. But after this Pharaoh’s death, the old worship of many gods grew back, and the new leaders of Egypt tried to erase his name from history. Seems people don’t like being told which god to worship!

What is interesting is the fact that many Christians believe that their particular god has always been worshiped by humanity. But this claim is simply not supported by any of the evidence that we have about ancient religion and worship of gods. What we find is that earlier cultures started by worshiping many gods, and in only a few instances did they stop worshiping the many in preference of one. Clearly, “our ideas of who God is have evolved over the millennia.”

Though the first experiment in monotheism failed, the next, founded by Moses, spread around the world. Now almost 4 billion people (Muslims, Christians, and Jews) all worship the same God — the God of Abraham. The gods of the ancient world “represented anything a human being could want or need.” And you would have to do things for the gods in order to get what you want. Sometimes it was as simple as throwing a party, but other times the gods required a sacrifice.

According to legend, when Abraham almost sacrificed his son to God, he was surrounded by a culture that thought child-sacrifice was perfectly fine. But with Abraham and Judaism, child sacrifice ended. And also in Judaism, God becomes an invisible, single, non-physical God. For all three of the monotheistic faiths, God is always there with them, wherever they go, even if they can’t see him.

And to this, Morgan rightly wonders about “how you connect with a God that doesn’t have physical form. How do you know what is divine and what isn’t?” Good question!

Modern science has allowed us to study our brains during religious experiences and spiritual meditation. Praying and meditating on God literally changes the brain. What these studies show is that thinking about God increases the brain activity in the frontal lobe. Whether one is a nun praying to Jesus, or a Buddhist meditating, the changes in the frontal lobe are identical. But when atheists are scanned while thinking of God, their results are different. In short, one has to believe in a god on some level for the brain to change.

What is interesting about this type of study is that it shows the same changes in the brain across faiths. It doesn’t matter which God one believes in, religious experiences change the brain in the same ways, and change the way we see the world.

Photo Credit: Houston KTRK

Photo Credit: Houston KTRK

On his final leg of this episode, Morgan visits with Joel Osteen, Christian mega-church pastor, and self-help best-seller who wants to “make God personal.” He preaches that people can experience God at all times of their lives, and suggests that we talk to God throughout the day as if to our best friend. This is a “faith in the God in you.” Like the Hindu ideas of picking a personal god to fit one’s circumstances, this version of Christianity offers a personal relationship with God; the only difference being that Hindus have a physical manifestation of their gods (idols), whereas Christians worship an invisible god.

But who is God to Morgan? In his closing monologue he says that there is a “bit of the divine in all of us,” and “there is God in you and me, and the god in me is who I really am at my core, the god in me is the best version of me; the god in me is who I strive to be — who I was meant to be.” It seems like God, at least for Morgan, is his version of a conscience or the ideal for his best self, and nothing more. He doesn’t seem to believe in the all-powerful, all-seeing, and all-knowing God of the Abrahamic religions, and he doesn’t think there is one cosmic force that unites all things. I kind of like his definition of God. If only more people realized that the only “God” worth following was their own conscience, and the only moral truths are those whose ultimate concern is human well-being. If only…

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.