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The Evolution of God

The Origins of Our Beliefs

Robert Wright

Primitive people came up with the idea of a soul to explain dreams. The dreamer's ghost-soul is out having adventures while you sleep. Death is what happens when the soul checks out of the body for good.

We can get some idea of how rel evolved by looking at primitive groups such as hunter-gatherer societies. If they have a belief that is completely different from the beliefs of the groups which contacted them, and if you find similar beliefs in separate societies, then we can be reasonably sure that it is a common stage for all of us.

Try to explain why bad things happen. Primitive societies aim to figure out which god responsible. They actually do a better job than modern day theologians, in the sense that explanations less bedevilled by paradox. Theologians constrained by stiff premise - an all-knowing, all-powerful and good god, who is capable of curing disease or punishing evil-doers, yet stands back and allows innocent people to suffer.

Job was allowed to interrogate God himself about the injustice of it all, yet in the end was forced to settle for the 'answer': you wouldn't understand. Generations of theologians have wrestled with this problem, and have never come up with a better answer.

Native religions don't have a moral dimension. Social rules like no stealing or killing enforced by social methods, but the morals not incorporated into the religion in the way that modern societies do. No point, bc have to live by the Golden Rule. They envisage an afterlife, but not a hell and heaven where good or bad behaviour rewarded or punished, and no concept like Buddhist karma where your next life depends on how you act in this one.

HL Mencken on religion: "It's single function is to give man access to the powers which seem to control his destiny, and its single purpose is to induce those powers to be friendly towards him."

The God of Genesis starts out much like the gods of primitive societies - strikingly human, with supernatural powers, but not unlimited power. Adam and Eve hear God walking in the Garden of Eden, and they hide from him, so he has to say "Where are you?" - not yet omniscient.

And it's pretty clear that even to Israelites who worshipped Yahweh as their god, believed that there were lots of other gods. The Bible repeats mentions of a divine council of gods plural.(Psalm 82 and later)

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