The Evolution of God

Is God a figment of human imagination?


The Evolution of God
by varjavand

There once was a TV commercial which showed an elegant young lady, Sandy Duncan, in the middle of a corn field. She suddenly asked in an inquiring voice “What is a little girl like me doing in the middle of a big field like this?” She then answered her own question. To prove a point, likewise, you may ask what is an economist doing writing an article about the unbounded topic of God? The answer is to remind ourselves of a very important mission that we, especially those in academia, should embark upon particularly in this country in which freedom of expression is safeguarded and allows for genuine inquiry about crucial topics without apprehension and disconcertion. Also, as one gets older it becomes almost impossible to resist the temptation to ponder life’s vicissitudes. In any case, I hope my identity as a layman does not diminish the validity of the arguments I am about to present.

At times you may come across good books that present an intellectually rich examination of vital issues such as religious beliefs and human perceptions of God. The Evolution of God is certainly one of these books. It is a masterpiece worthy of becoming a classic. The book focuses on the evolution of religious ideas about God from the time of prehistoric hunter-gatherer societies all the way to modern time. The author, Professor Robert Wright, believes that modern views of God, including “Abrahamic monotheism, grew out of the ‘primitive’ by a process more evolutionary then revolutionary.” These primitive religious ideas were based merely on savagery and not the result of deep thought and morality. They were rooted in plain superstition and fear of nature. The persistent theme of this book is that religion is mainly the product of environment and culture that it is transferred across generations through cultural evolution.

When it comes to the inception of a new religion, we cannot shed the vestige of the past. It is almost impossible to find a religion that came into existence out of nowhere. A plethora of historical and anthropological evidence points to the fact that religions are intertwined. In other words, new religions are the outgrowth of older religions. The continuity of ancient religions, especially Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, provides historical veracity; however, our beliefs and our perceptions of God continue to be revised and move forward. Gods are given different characters over time depending on the prevailing situations of a particular time. Evidently, the new gods inherit some of the characteristics of the previous gods but also are ascribed some new attributes and elevated grandeur. This is because, according to Dr. Robert Wright, “gods are products of cultural evolution not biological evolution. In biological evolution, lines of decent are neat [and limited] . . . In cultural evolution, in contrast, endless cross-fertilization is possible [and] in cultural evolution competition can [even] spur convergence.” This is also true in our modern age. For instance, “The reason operating systems made by Microsoft and Apple are so similar is that the two companies borrow (that’s the polite term) features pioneered by the other when they prove popular.” Likewise, newer religions borrow the popular aspects of preceding religions and other features are added to seemingly upgrade the old religions. Anything that previous gods could do, the new gods can do better. For example, “the early scriptures offer a hands-on anthropomorphic god” who was confined to physical attributes very similar to those of human beings. “In new scriptures, we see less of God in the flesh, and even start to see a god with no flesh at all.” According to the author, such evolution in the perception of God did not happen smoothly and rapidly. The development towards modern abstract monotheism has taken several thousand years.

Our prehistoric ancestors tried to make sense out of the world they lived in, especially when confronted with occasional natural disasters. Unable to understand them, they concocted strange ways of explaining and dealing with such natural adversities. This led them to create religious rituals mainly based on “the notion that the forces of nature are animated by minds or spirits that you can influence through negotiation.” In other words, they believed that there is a god in charge of each and every natural phenomenon like rain, wind, tornado, lightening, etc. who is willing to negotiate and to make a deal with the people. That is how primitive religions first emerged from the human mind. Primordial people offered ritualized reverence to their gods mainly because they feared them. What was absent from prehistoric religions was social concern and moral components. This was because of the primitive nature of the societies and the sphere of kinder and closed friendship. “Social order could be preserved without deploying the power of religion or reward and punishment scheme. Religious rituals were only needed to deal with nature” so as to be able to avoid natural catastrophes.

Then the shamans emerged, the people who, like the modern day stock market gurus, claimed to have exclusive right to spiritual greatness. They claimed to be representatives of a divine source and “have contact with an otherwise hidden world that shapes human destiny.” Shamans played the key role in the development of organized religion, defined by the author as “a distinct body of beliefs and practice kept in shape by an authoritative institution.” Remarkably, people seemed to be attracted to, and mostly be fooled by, the chicanery of shamans who had been able to keep their claim to supernatural connection credible despite the fact that they could neither produce any evidence of the divine source they claimed they were connected to nor any proof of their representation. However, they could protect their profession by resorting to “philosophical loopholes” or blaming the witch forces (Satanic forces) for their failure. Why do people continue believing in shamanistic claims even to this day? Evolutionary psychologists have provided an answer to this question. The author writes, according to evolutionary psychology, that the “very origin of religious beliefs is the residue of built-in distortions of perception and cognition; natural selection did not design us to believe only true things, so we’re susceptible to certain kinds of falsehood.” (For additional information on this point, please review the following article posted previously [Why does religion persist].

As social organization became more multifaceted, so did religious ideas. Human beings had always observed the correlation, for example, between stars and changes in weather, wind, and rain. However, they did not understand why and how these changes happened. Science was not advanced enough to help our early ancestors find answers to such questions. Helplessly, they resorted to the supernatural. The fact that people needed answers to natural phenomena and other of life’s indispensable questions, created an urgent demand for religious beliefs, and as economists would say, whatever is demanded is supplied. Shamans claimed to have answers to all these questions.

From its early emergence to the present time, religions for the most part have had three things in common: first, the claim of having a monopolized connection to some kind of divine power; second, manipulating and taking advantage of the uncertainty and fear of ordinary people so as to press their agenda and hold on to power; and finally, a quest to control earthly events. “People who believed that the divine controls the earthly will sometimes be compelled, by change at the earthly level, to revise their ideas about what is going on at the divine level, It is a kind of law of unintended asymmetry.’ This law has greatly influenced the evolution of gods since the age of chiefdoms.” In cases of conflict and inadequacy, loopholes came to the rescue. The divine and mundane always have been like a two-way relationship. However, because of indisputable scientific discoveries and the unraveling of worldly events through time, religions had to modify their beliefs, often apologetically, to appear compatible with science and with conventional wisdom.

The principal motifs of modern religions are similar—to spread the message of hope and security, and one’s ability to secure a healthy comfortable life without dependency on others materially and otherwise. However, as time passes, worldly desires will expand and the basic needs of human beings will be fulfilled, especially in wealthy counties. As financial and other kinds of safety are provided by government and social establishments, individuals will no longer be dependent on divine sources for safety and security. In the meantime, the progress of human knowledge has unlocked the mystery of natural phenomena previously unknown to human beings. Ancient human beings, for example, could see the relationship between wind and impending rain; however, they attributed that to the anger the god in charge. Bizarrely, an Islamic Iranian cleric recently proclaimed that an earthquake is caused by the immodest dress of women which triggers God’s vengeance. Science, however, discovered the reasons for natural disasters and even enabled us to forecast them hence impugning the religious beliefs concerning them. Religions will lose credibility and common appeal if they do not seek congruity with science. “For many people, the coming of modern science has undermined the idea of gods and threatened the whole prospect of religion.”

Likewise, the evolution of the structure of societies has forced religion to change. In primitive hunter- gatherer societies, for example, people were highly dependent on one another. It was imperative for individuals in such communities to respect and follow social norms. Nonconforming individuals could simply be cast away and deprived of food, companionship, and other basic necessities, making survival impossible. There was no need for a system of reward and punishment administered by religious rulers. Over time, hunter-gatherer religions developed increasingly complex rules, built more elaborate places for worship, and their perceptions of gods evolved accordingly. In hunter-gatherer societies, gods were like humans; they possessed all the attributes of human beings, including love and hate dispositions. The reason gods were depicted as human beings was because human beings were the only intelligent creature known to them. The ideal god was portrayed as an ideal human being. According to Xenophanes, an ancient Greek philosopher: "If horses had Gods, they would look like horses!"

It was cultural evolution that lifted human beings toward enlightenment and not religion which remained a hurdle. As societies flourished, the survival of religion necessitated the incorporation of a moral dimension. Religion without moral elements could not accommodate modern societies. Burgeoning trade among various cities entailed respect and protection for all gods. Religious tolerance played a key role in the flourishing regional trade which was considered mutually beneficial for all parties. Trading gradually extended to exotic goods, luxury expense items that could easily be transported and that catered to wealthy households. Consequently, the affluent elite became separated from the masses of poor. Ambivalent about foreign intrusion, the poor resisted the infiltration of foreign influences as well as foreign goods. Agonized and defiant, they were exploited by clerics and turned into fundamentalists, a growing phenomenon which is resurging and is not unique to Islam. It also exists in Christianity as well as Judaism.

As societies became more structured, they had some differences. But one thing remained the same, their reliance on the supernatural and the rulers who were privileged with special access to the divine source and who supposedly took their mandate from that divine source. During the era of chiefdoms, for example, the chief had the authority to punish people physically for violating rules. People did not protest these punishments because of their “belief that the laws being broken were God’s commands not just chiefs’ whims.” It was the function of the ruler (government) to administer punishment not the people. For every religion to survive vicissitudes, it has to have some loopholes. These loopholes are used to justify the failures of the ordained leaders. If a chief failed repeatedly, that signified the limit of his touch of divine power. Accordingly, “there was a limit on the amount of exploitation the chief can get away with” argued Dr. Wright.

According to the author, “Whereas religion in hunter-gatherer societies didn’t have much of a moral dimension, religion in subsequent Polynesian society did discourage the behaviors considered antisocial.” In primitive societies, the key human concerns were material security, staying alive and healthy, and protection from tragic events, especially death. Consoling their followers and providing comfort were, and still are, the venerated ways for every religion to endure and flourish. With the evolution of society to a higher echelon, namely the state society ruled by government, things changed and became more elaborate but one thing still remained the same; religions still encompassed private life. Dr. Wright scholarly explains how religion has changed with the evolution of social organization. The more elaborate the social organization, the more elaborate its religious rituals. With increasing interconnectedness and vanishing differences among nations, gods have migrated from previous societies to the succeeding societies attracting additional devoted disciples. As maintained by the author, in the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt “there would appear theological themes that perhaps, not coincidentally, would later reappear in the religion of ancient Israel,” the birthplace of monotheism and the Abrahamic religions. The gods of various civilizations were like their predecessors except that different people attached additional attributes to their gods, depending on the salient features of their culture as well as current situations. For example, “the gods of early Mesopotamia civilization were much like their ancestors, the gods of chiefdom and hunter-gatherer societies: basically human—for better or worse—except with supernatural powers.”

With the constant evolution of human culture, societies were eventually guided toward moral enlightenment; hence, concern for improvement in morality, ethics, justice, and human dignity grew. “By this time, the new familiar profile of Western religion had appeared: belief in only one god, a fundamentally good god, who focuses on the moral improvement of human beings not the gratification of his own desires, and who cares about all people everywhere. That is: a monotheism that has an ethical core and is universalist.”

Part 2 will be posted here soon.


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Niloufar Parsi

my pavlovian response

by Niloufar Parsi on

to your warm greetings would have been 'alhamdellah.  eid-e shoma mobarak'! but that just looks so wrong on this page :)

we live in confusing times. your approach is extremely timely. reading your article, one appreciates the complexity of the challenge. the article veers into what feels slightly uncomfortable territory for me towards the end when it almost sounds triumphalist. so i am quite intrigued about the second part.


Thank you

by varjavand on

Thanks Niloufar, long time no see, hope things are going well


Niloufar Parsi

varjavand khan

by Niloufar Parsi on

great read! you have really covered the topic beautifully.

i look forward to the next part :)



Re: "Is God a figment of human imagination?"

by John on