Divine Agency and the Universe

Kirk Straughen

(Investigator 192, 2020 May)

Many people consider the Universe the product of some form of divine agency as exemplified by the creation stories of the world's religions.

All human societies, including our own, tell stories of how the world began. Such stories are almost infinitely varied in detail, but they tend to include some basic themes.

Many accounts begin with earth, or with earth retrieved from water. In some of them gods and people and animals emerge from the earth (just as plants still do). In others the process begins when a creature, such as a crab or tortoise, dives into a primeval ocean and brings up a small piece of earth from which the universe is created. Myths of these kinds are common among American Indians and aboriginal Australians (who place before the moment of creation a period called 'the time of dreaming').

Several mythologies, including one developed in China, begin with the splitting in two of a cosmic egg. In the Chinese version this is followed by the growth of a giant whose limbs eventually form the observable world. A dismembered giant features also in the Germanic (or Norse) account of creation.

The Germanic version begins with a magic emptiness, one of the most characteristic features of creation stories. The Hebrews imagined a first moment when all is void, with darkness on the face of the deep. In Greece the story begins with Chaos, meaning a gaping emptiness. In Egypt and Mesopotamia a boundless ocean sets the primal scene. (1)

In these mythologies a god or gods is portrayed as creating the world often after emerging from the preexisting chaos. In ancient Egypt, for example, the god Amen arises from Nun, the primal ocean. Archaeology and ethnology, however, offer a more likely answer to the origin of the idea of divinity, the first hint of which is the Venus statuettes found in the Upper Paleolithic Period (beginning about 40,000 years ago).

In some cases they [the statuettes] are very schematically formed, and it is often difficult or impossible to recognize female attributes. In other cases, however, they are naturalistic representations of corpulent women whose secondary sexual characteristics (their breasts and buttocks) were given special prominence, though their faces, feet, and arms were almost completely neglected. Such strong emphasis on the anatomical zones that are related to the bearing of children and nourishing them easily conveys to one the idea of female fertility. Nevertheless, it is not necessarily true of all these small figures.

Ethnological analogies with present-day primitive phenomena offer the equally plausible view that such figures were regarded as the representations of the abodes of spirits whose function was to help and protect, and especially during hunting. They also may have been conceived, among other things, as mothers or rulers of the animals, goddesses of the underworld, helpers during hunting and donators of game, and as sovereigns of the land and other regions and of natural forces, including that of fertility.

No known direct continuum connects these earlier Palaeolithic figures to similar ones of the early Neolithic [beginning about 12,000 years ago] and later periods. In settlements and shrines of these later periods are found large numbers of female figurines of widely differing types. They may have been representations of deities and symbols or, perhaps, votive offerings, somehow connected with female fertility. This can be safely assumed for figurines that show an obvious indication of fertility or are connected with children, and even more for shrines containing figures with sculptured pairs of breasts, and figures on the walls of women in childbirth. Not all female figures can, however, be understood merely as fertility symbols; rather, in many cases they are assumed to be house gods or representations of ancestors, and, especially when appearing in graves, as substitutes for the bodies of maids, wives, and concubines. An appearance of a large number of smaller figures suggests a votive or magical usage. (2)

The evidence suggests that belief in some form of divine being arose in the remote past, a time when Humanity was in its childhood, and very little was known about the true nature of the world with regard to its origin and the natural principles that underpin it.

Humans are naturally curious. We desire explanations for things. Why is it so? How did it come about? What is the meaning of it all? Neither modern science nor philosophy existed in prehistory. The people of 40,000 years ago and more had only their limited experiences and knowledge by which to formulate answers that were meaningful to them in the context of their culture.

Given that this was so they cannot be blamed for misconstruing reality. But why would they misconstrue reality in a way that led them to the idea that there is a god or gods? Part of the reason might be that such beliefs arise from our disposition to see agents and purpose operating in nature as a result of anthropomorphic thinking.

Ordinary social cognitions seem to play a significant role in anthropomorphic thinking. For example, by the age of five, children from every culture develop the understanding that other humans have thoughts, feelings, and beliefs that are different from their own. Humans may perceive the mental states of nonhumans using this same cognitive process. In this respect, anthropomorphism is a natural phenomenon that piggybacks on other social cognitions.

Some anthropologists and evolutionary psychologists have argued that humans have evolved to beware of a camouflaged predator in the bush, to identify human forms and faces, or to perceive the intentions of potential friends or foe. These self-protective adaptations may cause us to be over-vigilant in our detection of agency. Thus, in a better-safe-than-sorry strategy, humans often and easily attribute intentionality or causality to invisible agents (Boyer, 2001). (3)

The idea of a creator god may have arisen due to the above — a projection of human nature onto the fabric of reality. In addition humans make things — spears, huts, cooking pots. We are agents of creation. By analogy, in the minds of many humans, the world is also in need of an artificer — a larger more powerful version of us. The gods worshipped in Asia look like Asians, the gods worshipped in Africa look like Africans and the gods worshipped in India look like Indians. The gods are reflections of us.

As society develops from tribal groups into larger agricultural communities we begin to see the emergence of departmental gods that reflect this increasing complexity and specialization. In the ancient Mesopotamian pantheon, for example, Nabu was the god of scribes and writing. (4)

Our idea of God is shaped by changes in society. Monotheism appears to have arisen from polytheism. This can occur when one god is raised above all others and the lesser gods are seen as attributes of the supreme deity.

Especially noteworthy is a phenomenon that sometimes occurs in polytheism, namely, that during worship the god is treated as if he or she were unlimited and supreme, and given epithets that properly belong to other members of the pantheon. (This occurred at certain stages of Vedic polytheism, for example). More generally, the religious attitudes bound up with theistic worship (whether monotheistic or polytheistic) appear to have a certain inner logic, tending to lead the devotee to magnify the object of her devotion by denying limitations and adding perfections. The logical limit of this tendency is the ascription of such properties as universal sovereignty and unlimited power. The very same attitudes also tend to lead her to unreservedly commit herself to, and centre her life on, the god to whom she is devoted. It is therefore no accident that polytheistic systems often end up elevating one god or principle to the supreme position, and reinterpreting the others as its agents or manifestations; they become, in other words, essentially monotheistic. This occurred, for example, both in late Paganism and in Hinduism. (5)

Once monotheism is established the gods of different cultural groups are often either dismissed as nonexistent or relegated to the status of devils, for to even contemplate that other gods could be real now threatens the orthodox position and lessens the status of the group's deity.

Today we have a far better understanding of the Universe and its origin than our ancestors. Science has shown that the emergence of the cosmos, life and humanity is the result of the operation of natural laws. But from where come these natural laws? Science can only go so far. At the moment this question appears to be unanswerable.

There is a tendency for people to insert God into the gaps in our knowledge. If we can't explain something by reference to nature then is a supernatural explanation a viable alternative? People who claim that it is may reason along the following lines: The laws governing nature are too complex to have arisen by chance. There must be a designer, an intelligent mind who formulated the laws that give order to a universe such as ours.

But if a complex system can only arise by design then God, who must be far more complex than the creation, would also need a designer. Are we to then have an infinite regress of deities each one creating the other?

In my opinion, although we may never know the ultimate origin of the Universe we can, I think, rule out its creation by a supernatural being. An examination of the world's religions reveals that the gods are made in the image of the society that worships them. Asian gods look like Asians, African gods look like Africans and Hindu gods look like Indians. They are simply projections of human nature onto the fabric of the cosmos, having the same virtues and vices as mortals, and exemplifying the lack of knowledge of the age in which they were conceived.




The Corsini Encyclopedia of Psychology, Volume 1:

(4) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List of Mesopotamian deities