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Influence of the Idea of God on Human Thought

Mohammad Akram Gill

The influence of the idea of God on human thought is so pervasive that hardly any sphere of man's intellectual activity is free from it. So much so that even the scientists who deal with physical facts, their observation and measurement, and correlation and interpretation are also directly or indirectly affected by it in spite of the fact that their profession, 'science', has little room for speculation about a super-natural entity. They are trained to think rationally, analyze the information in an unbiased manner and refrain from having a prepared mind and accepting ideas without critically evaluating them. Yet we read of great scientists whose lives were molded or greatly influenced by religion, and the centerpiece of most religions is the idea of God. We read of Kepler, Galileo, and Newton who were all believers in the Christian God and they found a complete harmony between their science and faith in God. Galileo's science was in conflict with the prevailing precepts of the Roman Catholic Church yet he himself did not believe that he had committed any heresy by believing in and supporting the heliocentric theory of planetary movements. Somehow the geocentric theory had become an article of Christian faith and the Roman church found it necessary to denounce Galileo and the heliocentric theory (originally postulated by Aristarchus, and later by Copernicus) to protect the religion against presumed heresy.

Even those scientists who are free thinkers, agnostics, or outright atheists have also been affected by the idea of God during most of their lifetime. Thinking about God and His attributes and arguing to themselves whether the God of religion could or did indeed exist as a matter of fact, took them to the stage of free thought or unbelief. Thus although they may not believe in the existence of God and not pay homage to Him or worship Him as the believers do, they nonetheless are deeply influenced by the idea of God. In this way, man, whether he believes in any God, (gods), or any kind of deity, or not, is overwhelmingly affected by the idea of God. A whole lot of his philosophy is about God. Consequently, man has created numerous intricate lines of philosophical thought while arguing for or against the existence of God. A classical example of such a fascinating argument is the so-called Ontological argument, which was originally postulated by St. Anslem (1033-1190) and later refuted by Gaunilo.[1] The philosophical content of this argument is such that the philosophers are still engaged in debating by ever finer and more forceful arguments in support or against it even though the original formulation was given in the eleventh century. In disputing the existence of God, man has also crafted some interesting and thought provoking paradoxes. For instance, can an Omnipotent God create a square-circle? Or can God create a stone so heavy that He cannot lift it? So one can say that life without any influence of the idea of God is unthinkable.


In the beginning, human beings created God who was the First Cause of all things and Ruler of heaven and earth. (Armstrong)
If one considers the history of homo-sapiens from primitive times, it becomes compellingly evident that God (or gods) is indeed a creation of human imagination. In Greek mythology, we encounter many gods and goddesses who had been created by man for diverse reasons and purposes. For instance, Alexander Murray, in Who's Who in Mythology (1874), suggests that since "the first phenomena that appealed to mind were those of the change of weather, of seasons, the revolving day and the revolving year... the earliest deities, as well as we can trace them, appear to be those who presided over the movements of the celestial sphere" (p. 8). With the passage of time, as man became more and more aware of his physical surroundings, many more newer aspects played upon his imagination that led him to create more deities to suit his needs and purposes. "In due time, the religion of the ancients became a polytheism on a very extensive scale; every phase of nature, sky, sea, and earth, every phase of human life, its habits, accidents, and impulses, being provided with a special guardian and controlling deity" according to Murray (p. 9). In [book=9781573927567]Western Atheism: A Short History[/book] (1999), James Thrower describes how "Prodicus of Ceos puts forward the view .. that the idea of the gods arose as an act of gratitude and adoration on man's part towards the beneficent powers of nature. Thus the earliest gods for Prodicus were such ones as Ceres, Liber, Demeter, and Dionysus" (p. 30). Thrower has also mentioned what he calls the ?policeman theory' of the gods according to which
They [the gods] were invented .. as moral authorities to end lawlessness. To fully appreciate this we need to be aware of the part which 'witnesses' played in the morality of the period. Laws ... were the creation of the arbitrary will of rulers and they controlled this with natural justice in which the will of the stronger prevailed. It was thus held by them that men would act differently in the absence of any possibility of detection, that is of witnesses. (p. 31)
And according to Euhemerism, "... the gods are simply glorified heroes from times long passed."

Similar developments took place in other civilizations also and led to individual mythologies that were different from one another because there were no direct connections among the people inhabiting different and distant lands. According to Murray, "... the oldest religion records we know of, the Vedas, speak of hosts of divine beings; while in the primitive religion of the American Indians the Great Spirit is surrounded by a crowd of lesser spirits" (op. cit., p. 9). Likewise, the Egyptian mythology is distinctly different from others and it also had a plurality of gods. The Pharaoh himself was regarded as a godhead. There was a god of fertility also, and phallus worship was part of the religious ritual both in the Hindu and Egyptian mythologies. Worship of the god of fertility was practised by the Greeks as well. According to R.C. Solomon and K.M. Higgins in [book=9780195101966]A Short History of Philosophy[/book] (1996), "The ancient Egyptians attributed godlike status to cats among other creatures. The Hindus recognize divinity in all kinds of local creatures, from the very familiar cow to the slightly more exotic monkeys" (p. 8).

In [book=9780345384560]A History of God[/book] (1993), speaking of the Babylonian mythology, Karen Armstrong described, "Like other people in the ancient world, the Babylonians attributed their cultural achievements to the gods, who had revealed their own life styles to their mythological ancestors. Thus Babylon itself was supposed to be an image of heaven, with each of its temples a replica of a celestial palace" (p. 3). Armstrong also described the mythical story of the creation of gods as described in Enuma Elish, the epic poem which celebrated the victory of gods over chaos. According to this story, "In the beginning the gods emerged two by two from a formless, watery waste ? a substance which itself was divine ? Before either the gods or human beings existed, this sacred raw material had existed from all eternity" (p. 6). Another story of creation in accordance with the vision of the Israelites in the eighth century BCE is also described by Armstrong as follows: "At the time when Yahweh God made earth and heaven, there was as yet no wild bush on the earth nor had any wild plant yet sprung up, for Yahweh God had not sent rain on the earth nor was there any man to till the soil. However, a flood was rising from the earth and watering all the surface of the soil. Yahweh God fashioned man (adam) of dust from the soil (adamah). Then he breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and thus man became a living being" (p. 7). Eight hundreds years later, the Biblical story of creation described in Genesis could be a natural outgrowth from the above story.

Thus the concept of God underwent evolutionary changes in time until theistic belief took a concrete shape. Monotheism became a universally accepted and glorified belief in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic religious culture. The concept of trinity may superficially appear as different from monotheism (and many probably believe so), the union of three Gods in one Omnipotent, Omniscient, and Omnipresent God is generally considered to be the essence of a triune God. However monotheism is not the only belief in the world; some forms of polytheism also still exist in many places, such as Hinduism. Some paganistic (not identified with any known religion of the world) beliefs are even now held in some parts of Africa.

Contemporaneous with practicing his diverse religious beliefs, man also began critically and rationally contemplating the nature of his beliefs, the kinds of gods that he worshipped and their attributes, in view of his practical experiences in day-to-day life. "Suppose that we simply 'made up' our gods and goddesses," complained Xenophanes (560 BCE-478 BCE), as reported on page 8 of R.C. Solomon and K.M. Higgins, [book=9780195101966]A Short History of Philosophy[/book] (1996). "In any case why should we worship beings who have such notoriously bad manners, such flabby morals, and such childish emotions?" (p. 9) Gradually, application of man's mental-analytical skills led to the development of rational philosophy, skepticism, and mathematical and physical sciences. Consequently, conflict between religious faith and rational thought became inevitable and is continuing up to the present time.


Rationalism may have led to the evolution of philosophy, logic, and physical sciences in other parts of the world also, but the development of these fields of knowledge was much more systematic and better documented in the Greek-dominated world than elsewhere. Anaxagoras is a typical example of the early rationalists (499 BCE ? 428 BCE). He postulated that the sun was a "red hot stone" and moon was made of earth and it received reflected light from the sun. He correctly understood the solar and lunar eclipses. He formulated the theory of Nous (Arabic nafs), i.e., mind, and believed that it not only created the world but was also the driving force in nature's day-to-day processes. For his belief in Nous, which according to him surpassed even the divinity of gods, and his views regarding the sun and the moon, he was accused and charged of impiety, i.e. atheism. His life was spared through the influence of a friend. Protagoras (480 BCE ? 411 BCE) was another great philosopher who was born at Abdera in Thrace. His most important works were Truth (Alethia) and On the Gods (Peritheon). He declared:

Of all things the measure is Man, of the things that are, that they are, and of the things that are not, that they are not....About the gods, I am not able to know whether they exist or do not exist, nor what they are like in form; for the factors preventing knowledge are many: the obscurity of the subject and the shortness of human life. [cf. Bertrand Russell, [book=9780671201586]A History of Western Philosophy[/book]]
The story is that he was accused of impiety on the charge of his unbelief in gods. He was impeached and banished, and died on his way to Sicily in a shipwreck.

Socrates (470 BCE-399 BCE) is probably the most prominent philosopher who was impeached for impiety, as well as corrupting the minds of the young. He was sentenced to death by poison at the age of seventy. His pupils tried to persuade him to flee the country to save his life but he refused--the world-renowned philosopher, Plato, was among them--and many of his friends remained with him in the prison till the last moments of his life. He was calm and collected, and drank the cup of hemlock without a qualm of discomfiture, discussing the philosophy of material body and immaterial soul. He preached that the material body was impediment to the acquisition of knowledge because of its innumerable physical needs. True knowledge can only be acquired after death, that is during the life after death when man would be freed of his material body and exist as soul. Describing the fate of Socrates, Will Durant, in [book=9780671739164]The Story of Philosophy[/book], wrote eloquently:

We are privileged to read for ourselves that simple and courageous (if not legendary) 'apology' or defense in which the first martyr of philosophy proclaimed the rights and necessity of free thought, upheld his values to the state, and refused to beg for mercy from the crowd whom he had always condemned. They had the power to pardon him; he disdained to make the appeal. It was a singular confirmation of his theories, that the judges should wish to let him go, while the angry crowd voted for his death. Had he not denied the gods? Woe to him who teaches men faster than they can learn.
Other Greek philosophers and physical scientists of renown include Pythagoras (569 BCE ? 475 BCE), Archimedes (287 BCE ? 212 BCE), Euclid (330 BCE-275 BCE), Appollonius (262 BCE ? 190 BCE), Democritus (460 BCE ? 370 BCE), Plato (427 BCE ? 347 BCE), and Aristotle (384 BCE-322 BCE). Democritus formulated the theory according to which the matter was divisible into ever smaller and smaller particles. This breaking-down process, however, could not be performed ad infinitum, and the smallest particle of matter was called atom, "indivisible." Although he was not the first to theorize about matter and its division into atoms, he surely was the first to synthesize the essential ingredients of theory of matter into a paradigm in the Kuhnian sense (cf. [book=9780226458083]The Structure of Scientific Revolutions[/book]). The philosophies of Plato and Aristotle have left a permanent and indelible imprint on, and continue to influence, modern philosophical thought. In fact the influence is so deep and far reaching that Whitehead ***GET ALL ABOVE, EXACT CITES FROM ORIGINAL(14) remarked that the entire Western philosophical tradition is but a foot note to Plato.


If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him. (Voltaire)

According to Durant (3), Voltaire ".. came to feel that God has little moral value unless accompanied by belief in an immortality of punishment and reward. Perhaps ?for the common people (la canaille) a rewarding and avenging God' is necessary". In answer to a question, if a society of atheists could subsist, Voltaire responded, "yes, if they are also philosophers. . But men are seldom philosophers". These views are consonant with the "policeman theory" described by Thrower as already mentioned in the foregoing. Similar views had been previously expressed by Averroes (Ibn Rushd) also. Describing Averroe's philosophical views, Hourani (6) says, "When the literal meanings of Quranic verses appear to contradict the truths to which philosophers arrived by the exercise of reason, those verses needed to be interpreted metaphorically. Most human beings, however, were incapable of philosophical reasoning or accepting the metaphysical interpretations of the Quran. It should not be communicated to them, but only to those who could accept it. Any one who is not a man of learning is obliged to take these passages in their apparent meaning, and allegorical interpretation of them is for him unbelief because it leads to unbelief.. Any one of the interpretative class who discloses such (an interpretation) to him is summoning him to unbelief..Therefore allegorical interpretations ought to be set down only in demonstrative books because if they are encountered by no one but men of the demonstrative class". It was thus believed that indulging in philosophical theorizing leads to unbelief which is not good, therefore the common people should not be taught philosophy because either they cannot comprehend it or else they would be led to unbelief. Addressing Holbach in his article on "God" in the Dictionary, Voltaire writes, "You yourself say that belief in God ? has kept some men from crime; this alone suffices me. When this belief prevents even ten assassinations, ten calumnies, I hold that all the world should embrace it". Thus belief in God is contrived and not a reality. What a hypocrisy.

The fundamental assumption for the aforementioned recommendation is that belief is necessarily good and moral while, on the other hand, unbelief is evil and immoral. It will be argued herein later that this suggestion is altogether baseless and without any substance. On the other hand, it appears that religion was created, in the beginning, for the ordinary people so that the rulers and the privileged classes could perpetuate controlling, subjugating, and exploiting the masses without trouble. This control, in due time, was entrenched into the hands of the Church in the Christendom, of the Brahmans in India and similarly into the hands of the clergy and the ruling classes in other societies and civilizations. Voltaire attributes such exploitation to theology and not to religion. Without organized religion however, there would be no theology. According to Durant (3), "However, it is not religion itself which he (Voltaire) attributes to the priests, but theology. It is slight differences in theology that have caused so many bitter disputes and religious wars. It is not the ordinary people .. who have raised the ridiculous and fatal quarrels, the sources of so many horrors ? Men fed by your labors in a comfortable idleness, enriched by your sweat and your misery, struggles for partisans and slaves; they inspired you with a destructive fanaticism, that they might be your masters; they made you superstitious not that you might fear God but that you might fear them".

It is a fact that most of the evil and criminal acts are committed by those who believe in a religion. So commission of evils has nothing to do with belief or unbelief. Discussing the irrelevance of belief and unbelief to the issue of happiness, Smith (12) says, "I am not recommending atheism as the key to happiness, nor am I suggesting that atheists are necessarily happier than theists. It would be fortunate if attainment of happiness were that simple, but it is not. Abandoning the belief in god may have very little influence on a person's life one way or the other, and it is clear that atheists are just as capable of moral atrocities as theists". It is erroneously believed that fear of divine retribution can deter people from committing evils. Evil people have not been deterred by the Government laws, the enforcement and application of which is much more immediate and real than any divine punishment. Deliberating on the issue of evil and immorality, Cahn (2) remarks, "It is sometimes assumed that those who reject a super-naturalist God are necessarily immoral, for their denial of the existence of such a God leaves them free to act without fear of Divine punishment. This assumption, however, is seriously in error. The refutation of the view that morality must rest upon belief in a super-natural God was provided more than two thousand years ago by Socrates in Plato's Euthyphro dialogue. Socrates asked the following question: Are actions right because God says they are right, or does God say actions are right because they are right?? To act morally is not to act out of fear of punishment; it is not to act as no one is commanded to act. Rather, it is to act as one ought to act. And how one ought to act is not dependent upon any one's power, even if the power be Divine".


God is dead. (Nietzsche)

God, whether dead or not, has largely become redundant from a mechanistic point of view. The onslaughts of science in its confrontation with religion have continued eroding the foundations of religion ever since the first dispute between science and the Roman Catholic Church blazed on the world scene in the seventeenth century. Although Galileo was forced to recant his belief in the Copernican heliocentric theory, his humiliation (n.3) proved ironically fatalistic for the Roman Church and as such for the world of religion. According to Russell, "The Inquisition was successful in putting an end to science in Italy, which did not revive there for centuries. But it failed to prevent men of science from adopting the heliocentric theory, and did considerable damage to the church by its stupidity? The reign of law had established its hold on man's imagination, making such things as magic and sorcery incredible. In 1700 the mental outlook of educated men was completely modern; in 1600, except among a very few, it was still largely medieval". Newton's theory of gravitation and his laws of motion ushered in a scientific revolution whose impact on traditional Christian beliefs was devastating. Newton's theory was able to calculate the motion of the planets in their orbits and explain many cosmological facts which had heretofore been erroneously described in the Scriptures. One scientific explanation after the other pushed the religious faith every time further back. According to Russell (10), "The solar system at any rate, was kept going by its own momentum and its own laws; no outside interference was needed. There might still seem to be need of God to set the mechanism working; the planets, according to Newton, were originally hurled by the hand of God. But when He had done this, and decreed the law of gravitation, every thing went on by itself without any further need of divine intervention. When Laplace suggested that the same forces which are now operative might have caused the planets to grow out of the sun, God's share in the course of nature was pushed still further back". Henceforth there was no need of the hypothesis of God in Laplace's Celeste Mecanique. The power of scientific theory and mathematical calculation had also been eloquently emphasized by Galileo (4) when he said, "Philosophy is written in that vast book which stands for ever open before our eyes. I mean the Universe; but it cannot be read until we have learned the language and become familiar with the characters in which it is written. It is written in mathematical language, and the letters are triangles, circles, and other geometrical figures without which means it is humanly impossible to comprehend a single word".

Christian religion received another setback when the geological investigations indicated that the earth was far older than what was commonly believed on the basis of calculations from the Bible. The Biblical age of approximately six thousand years is in stark contrast with five billion years which is the age of the earth estimated from geological and other scientific methods, e.g., carbon dating, etc. Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection which is in conformity with the estimated age of the old earth, drove a mortal nail in the coffin of the Genesis story of the creation of the world. According to this story, God created the whole universe in six days and rested on the seventh. Science has now retired God forever; He can rest eternally. According to Ilya Prigogine (9), "God is reduced to a mere archivist turning the pages of a book already written".


The inception of God's influence on human thought is probably as old as the human beings themselves. The idea of God has completely dominated the history of humankind. It appears though that God Himself is the creation of human imagination. The rational people have been trying to understand the nature and essence of the elusive conceptual God for thousands of years. Many paid with their lives the price for rejecting the superstitious beliefs about God and giving reasons for man to rethink the creation of his own imagination.

The more we understand of God and the universe, the farther we keep on putting God beyond our reach and comprehension. In the beginning, man believed that the abode of God was up in the heavens because heavens seemed so remote and far away then. When the heavens came near enough within the reach of man, God was pushed out of space and out of time; He was made transcendental and eternal because man is incapable of comprehending what is beyond space and time. According to Armstrong (1), "When one conception of God has ceased to have meaning, it has been quietly discarded and replaced by a new theology,? it is far more important for a particular idea to work than for it to be logically and scientifically sound. As soon as it ceases to be effective it will be changed ? sometimes for something radically different".

In the remote past, God communicated with man through his prophets and apostles on a regular day-to-day basis. Whenever there was a need for man to seek guidance from God, he would simply invoke Him and He would be there like a good and helpful neighbor. The enquiring and critical mind of man has now banished Him out of space but He is well and alive in spite of Nietzsche's declaration that He is dead. It appears that God fills a certain essential spiritual void in man's makeup. He would perhaps continue lurking on the invisible and imperceptible horizon of mankind.

Will God ever disappear from man's world? It appears very unlikely. Ideas never die; they can be abandoned and replaced by other ideas. Any other idea that can replace the idea of God has not yet taken a concrete shape of a paradigm. Tipler (16) has recently suggested that his Omega Point Boundary Condition has the traits of Omnipotent and Omniscient God. He (16) argues "..that life near the Omega Point is omnipotent. As the Omega point is approached, survival dictates that life collectively gain control of all matter and energy sources available near the Final State, with the control becoming total at the Omega point. We can say that life becomes omnipotent at the instant Omega Point is reached. Since by hypothesis the information stored becomes infinite at the Omega Point, it is reasonable to say that the Omega Point is omniscient; it knows whatever is possible to know about the physical universe (and hence about Itself)". This idea needs to be tested and further developed before its maturation into an acceptable paradigm or a full- blown idea, which may replace the existing concept of God.


  1. According to Murray (8):
"From being conceived as the cause of growth in the grain, Demeter ..came to be looked on as having first introduced the art of agriculture, and as being the source of the wealth and blessings which attended the diligent practice of that art" (pp.65-66).

"In Italy a festival founded on the Eleusinian Mysteries and conducted in the Greek manner was held in honour of Bacchus and Ceres, or Liber and Libera as they were called?. We find Romans who had visited Greece, and like Cicero, been initiated to Eleusis, returning with a strong desire to see the Eleusinian ceremonies transplanted to Rome. Altogether it is probable that the Roman Ceres was but a weak counterpart of the Greek Demeter" (p.69).

Dionysis was the "God of many names, of these the most familiar being, Bromios, Lyaeos, Dithyrambos, and Bakchos". He had the "double character of god of the vintage and its gay accompaniments, and god of the ecstatic and mystic ceremonies?" (p.117)


2. According to Kuhn, "To be accepted as a paradigm, a theory must seem better than its competitors, but it need not, and in fact never does, explain all the facts with which it can be confronted".

3. I, Galileo, son of the late Vincenzio Galilei, Florentine, aged 70 years, arraigned before this tribunal, and kneeling before You, Most Eminent and Reverend Lord Cardinals, Inquisitors-General?.I have been judged vehemently suspected of heresy, that is, of having held and believed that the Sun is the center of the world and immovable, and that the Earth is not the center and moves?. Therefore, wishing to remove from the minds of your Eminences and of all faithful Christians this vehement suspicion justly conceived against me, I abjure with a sincere heart unfeigned faith, I curse and detest the said errors and heresies, and generally all and every error and sect contrary to the Holy Catholic Church (13).


[1] Gaunilo, "Critique of Anselm's Argument" in "Philosophy of Religion ? Selected Readings", ed. Michael Peterson, William Hasker, Bruce Reichenbach, and David Bassinger, Oxford University Press, New York, Oxford, 1996, pp. 147-50.

Thrower, J., "Western Atheism ? A Short History," Prometheus Books, New York, 2000, pp.30, 31, 31, 42.

  1. Armstrong, K., "A History of God", Ballantine, New York, 1993, pp. 3,6,7,13,xx,xxi
  2. Cahn, S.M., "Religion Reconsidered" in "Reason At Work", ed. Solomon Cahn and Harcourt Brace Jovonovich, Publishers, San Diego, 1984, pp. 608-09.
  3. Durant, W., "The Story of Philosophy", Pocket Books, New York, 1974, pp.9,241, 242, 239.
  4. Galileo, G., "The Assayer", quoted in "After Thoughts: The Computer Challenge To Human Intelligence", James Bailey, Basic Books, A Division of Harper Collins Publishers, 1996, p. 23.
  5. Gaunilo, 'Critique of Anselm's Argument' in 'Philosophy of Religion ' Selected Readings', ed. Michael Peterson, William Hasker, Bruce Reichenbach, and David Bassinger, Oxford University Press, New York, Oxford, 1996, pp. 147-50.
  6. Hourani, A., "A History of the Arab Peoples", Warner Books, A Time Warner Company, 1992, p. 175.
  7. Kuhn, T., "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions", The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 3rd edition, 1996, pp. 17-18.
  8. Murray, A., 'Who's Who in Mythology', Bonanza Books, pp. 8,9,9.
  9. Prigogine, I., "Rediscovery of Time" in "Science and Complexity", ed. Sarah Nash, Science Reviews Limited, London, 1985, p. 23.
  10. Russell, B., "A History of western Philosophy", Simon and Schuster, New York, 1972, pp. 77, 536-37.
  11. Saint Anselm, "The Classical Ontological Argument" in "Philosophy of Religion ? Selected Readings", ed. Michael Peterson, William Hasker, Bruce Reichenbach, and David Bassinger, Oxford University Press, New York, Oxford, 1996, pp. 145-47.
  12. Smith, G.H., "Atheism: The Case Against God", Prometheus Books, Amherst, New York, 1989, pp. 276-77.
  13. Sobel, D., "Galileo's Daughter", Walker and Company, New York, 1999, pp. 275-76.
  14. Solomon, R.C. and Higgins, K.M., "A Short History of Philosophy", Oxford University Press, New York, 1996, pp. 8,9,67.
  15. Thrower, J., 'Western Atheism ' A Short History', Prometheus Books, New York, 2000, pp.30,31,31,42.
  16. Tipler, F.J., "The Physics of Immortality", Doubleday, New York, 1994, p. 154.


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