Shopping Cart


And Man Created God in His Image...

Friday, 4 November 2011  | Robert Banks

Many of those who identify themselves as agnostics or atheists are content simply to raise objections to traditional views of God and to provide arguments for a more humanist approach to life. But if asked how belief in God arises in the first place, they tend not explore this in any significant way.

For example, though Richard Dawkins identifies “wish fulfilment” - what we would like rather than what is actually the case - as a basic feature of all religious systems, he does not explore this any further. Why should the wish that God be there take the particular forms that it does? How could so many people down through the centuries come to believe in someone who does not exist?

While many have accepted the existence of imaginary beings like fairies, ghosts and vampires, the majority generally quietly and gradually outgrow such beliefs.

One atheist who raises this issue briefly is Andre Comte Sponville. He asks what it is that people wish for more than anything else. Leaving aside our baser desires, he says what we wish for most is:

“... first, not to die, not completely, not irreversibly; second, to be united with the loved ones we have lost; third, for justice and peace to triumph; finally, and most important, to be loved. Now, what does religion tell us - and the Christian religion in particular? That we shall not die, or not really; that we shall rise from the dead and thus be reunited with the loved ones we have lost; that justice and peace will prevail in the end; and, finally, that we are already the object of infinite love. Who could ask for more? No one, of course! This is what makes religion so very suspicious, it is too good to be true!”

 But it is precisely the thought that Christianity’s ideas are too good to be true, he says, that makes it improbable and gives us every reason to suspect it springs from our own wishes.

Taking the next step, Christopher Hitchens suggests in passing that “God did not create man in his own image. Evidently it was the other way round.” But in his treatment he only gives this brief attention. More substantially Michael Onfray links this with earlier philosophical critiques of religion, arguing that God is a fictional product of our projections:

“Man creates God in their own inverted image. Mortal, finite, limited, suffering from all these constraints, haunted by the desire for completeness, human beings invent a power endowed with precisely the opposite characteristics ... at whose feet they kneel and finally prostrate themselves. I am mortal, but God is immortal. I am finite, but God is infinite. I am limited, but God knows no limits. I do not know everything, but God is omniscient. I cannot do everything, but God is omnipotent. I am not blessed with the gift of ubiquity, but God is omnipresent. I was created, but God is uncreated. I am weak, but God is the Almighty. I am on earth, but God is in heaven. I am imperfect, but God is perfect. I am nothing, but God is everything, and so on. Religion thus ... proposes the creation of an imaginary world falsely invested with truth.”

 We find a similar view reappearing today, with some new features, in the cultural anthropologist Stewart Elliott Guthrie’s picturesquely entitled work Faces in the Clouds. He builds his approach to religion on humanity’s need for a certain kind of understanding rather than for a certain kind of experience or meaning. With this he notes that a common feature of all religions is:

“communication with humanlike, yet nonhuman, beings through some form of symbolic action ... Humanlike models persist because they identify and account for the crucial component of the world: humans and their activities and effects.”

This means that anthropomorphic ways of describing and talking about the gods - describing their character and activities in terms drawn from human experience - is quite plausible and reasonable, even if on reflection it is mistaken.

Even though a majority of people today grow up with little exposure to religion, most still develop some idea of God. This happens whether their attitude towards God is negative, positive, or just indifferent.

As a result, when such people use the word “God” they often understand it in different, sometimes contradictory, ways. This is not only between adherents of different religions but even within the same one.

Think of disagreements between Catholics and Protestants, not only in their doctrines and practices but also in some respects their views of God. While both believe that God is loving and holy, merciful and righteous, forgiving and wrathful, the emphasis they place on these, the immediacy of their relationship to God, and the way these work out in people’s lives, varies.

Sometimes members of both traditions suggest that some of these differences derive from the intrusion of human ideas into understanding the divine. Consider the difference between what is described as progressive and traditional Christian views of God.

Adherents of the former view argue that traditional depictions of God are more fixated on his holiness and justice than on his love and mercy. This is due, they believe, to the legacy of ancient and medieval elements in Christianity that our modern understanding and sensibilities feel to be inadequate. The idea that God required satisfaction for offences committed against him sprang from less humane ideas than are acceptable today. It should be replaced by a stronger emphasis on his unconditional love and forgiveness.

Or consider the difference between more mystically and rationally theologically oriented believers. The former reject a too rigidly defined view of God in favour of a more intimately experiential or transcendent one. The ex-nun Karen Armstrong, author of the best-selling book A History of God, is a representative of this view. The Jewish God, who began as one of several deities worshipped by the Israelites, was originally a savage, partisan god of war. It was only as a result of some profound national experiences that he evolved into the unique, almighty transcendent being proclaimed by the prophets. This God met the new psychological needs of the people of Israel and in this the Jewish faith was no different from any other. Indeed, Armstrong goes as far as to say that:

“when they attributed their own human feelings and experiences to Yahweh, the prophets were in an important sense creating God in their own image ... As long as this projection does not become an end in itself, it can be useful and beneficial.”

To avoid becoming obsolete, Armstrong says, all religions change and develop, and each generation has to create its image of God. For her, the strength of this personal idea of God, as of subsequent Christian and Islamic developments, is the way it establishes the dignity of the individual and also a more humane society. Its weakness is that it can too easily become an idolatrous projection of humanity’s hopes and fears.

We are prone to picture God in terms that are too purely personal at the expense of his cosmic character. It is only a more contemplative approach to the divine that can escape this dilemma, and it is no accident that this developed in all three monotheistic religions, as the Jewish Kabbalah, Christian Mystics, and Sufi movement within Islam testify.

Ordinary believers are also likely to add to or take away from whatever understanding of God they inherit from their upbringing, denomination, politics, or even gender. All are susceptible to adding something of their individual impressions or understanding of God to these. All are vulnerable to viewing God in ways they would prefer him to be like. They might do this because they would like God to respond to particular hopes they have, benefits they desire, or consequences they want to avoid.

Interestingly, our tendency to foist our own ideas onto God now appears to have scientific support. An Australian-American survey entitled “Creating God in One’s Own Image,” recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, sought to discover how believers determine the will of God on important topics. Using surveys, psychological manipulation, and brain imaging, they conducted seven studies. Four of these surveyed participants’ views on such controversial issues as abortion and the death penalty. They were also asked about what some famous people and God himself believed. The psychologists then altered participants’ views slightly with various techniques, such as writing and delivering a speech on a topic from a particular viewpoint in front of a video camera.

The final study involved taking brain images of believers as they thought about their own beliefs versus those of God or another person. The team found that many of the same brain regions became active when people thought about their own views and God’s views, but that different areas lit up when contemplating the views of other people.

From their research the team concluded that people subconsciously projected their own attitudes to controversial issues onto God. When their views changed slightly, they thought that God’s views had shifted too. Thus:

“Manipulating people’s own beliefs affected their estimates of God’s beliefs more than it affected estimates of other people’s beliefs.”

Though participants believed that God wanted them to act as if they were a kind of living moral compass, unlike an actual compass inferences about God’s beliefs may instead have pointed people further in whatever direction they were already facing.

However, although people’s perceptions of God’s attitudes on an issue could be “nudged” slightly, there did seem to be limits as to how radically people would change their views.

Is there any way out of our tendency to impose, however unconsciously, our all-too-human ideas onto our view of God? The main answer given to this is that human beings should acknowledge the need for God to reveal himself to them rather than develop their own understanding of God.

But I think this does not absolutely escape the problem, for the simple reason that those who take their stand based on the Scripture do not all agree on what it says about God’s nature and activity. Those who take the Bible seriously can still differ on the scope of God’s grace, the role of God’s influence on human freewill, and how to view God’s power in everyday affairs. In other words, their images of God differ. So, by itself, an appeal to divine authority of this kind does not answer all the questions.

The upshot of all this is that the question of whether God created us or whether we created God, does not equate with a neat division between those who acknowledge God and those who do not. Both, whether as a basis for unbelief or one of faith, are vulnerable to picturing God in human terms. The issue remains one that both have to grapple with.

To buy Robert Banks's new book, click here for some suggested retailers.  

Got something to add?

  • Your Comment


Online Resources

subscribe to engage.mail

follow us

Latest Articles