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The Domestication of God

Max Cohen

The existence of god as a discrete entity remains unproved, but the concept of god now present in the minds of people is undeniable, that is, the idea of God exists. It is this concept that was domesticated millennia ago after the example of animal and plant domestication had proved enormously successful. During the Neolithic Era (12,000 to 3,000 BC) a simple method of animal and plant domestication altered the course of human existence by enabling the accumulation of wealth. Human population and that of animals and edible plants grew exponentially. The special attributes of people, dogs, cats, cattle, horses, pigs, goats, camels, donkeys, chickens, geese, ducks, etc., became blended into a mutually beneficial society. However, the tale of domestication did not end there. It remains as a complex, ongoing process under the urging of a segment of population calling themselves "the servants of God." Their objective is the domestication of humanity.

Since animals and plants are perceivable, their nature could be studied objectively so that methods of care and cultivation improved over time and became standardized—this without significant rancor among the many communities. Gods, however, are only conceivable, and therefore cannot be studied objectively. God is experienced only within the human mind, which is subject to persuasion or intimidation by groups whose power stems from religion. Thought itself is also warped by various stressful emotions. Therefore, the technical relationship of a people and their gods (their religion) never achieved the certainty of standardization common to animal domestication. The conceptual nature of religion also lies behind the reason why the several contemporary religions came into existence consecutively rather than simultaneously—a fact that indicates a human rather than a divine origin for all religions.

If an animal was not vicious and tolerated group living, then observant and enterprising people could accomplish domestication easily enough. Giving an animal protection from predators and the elements, together with supplying suitable nourishment, was sufficient to create at least a calm relationship. (A much closer and complex bond existed, for example, between canines and humans.) Beginning late in the Neolithic Era after settled living had produced surplus wealth, new kinds of opportunities were perceived by canny, but possibly less-energetic individuals. The tale of religion to be offered here requires familiarity with a now old philosophical observation. It is that "Man is as lazy as he dares to be." (The operative principle is known in physics as "Energy Conservation.") It was this principle that inspired humanity to keep food animals on hand rather then chasing them about, and the same principle bears upon the domestication of gods.

The earliest form of religion was animism. This was the concept that many natural spirits were believed to be spread among all living creatures and even to energize mountains, rivers, trees, etc. After sufficient numbers of people in early settlements had acquired wealth in excess of their immediate needs, a new entrepreneurial class began to emerge. These were the shamans who wandered among the settlements selling cures and curses. Their offerings were based on the belief that they had influence among certain spirits having magical powers. Shamans were the precursors of a "lazier" generation, which conceived of domiciling these spirits within a temple, and thus became the first of the high priests (although early temples may have been nothing more elaborate than a cave). Localizing spirits conserved the energy of priests and worshippers just as domestication of animals had conserved the energy of hunters and prey. The people of the settlement could now congregate easily and regularly in a temple in order to promote a more intimate relationship with their magical and now local god. It is likely also that the human impulse to socialize would have contributed to the popularity of this arrangement. Obviously, it was far less arduous, more comfortable and entertaining, then had been the shaman's occasional house calls.

The concept of divinity stimulated some human minds into probing unexplored dimensions that lay beyond experience. It enticed some people to cultivate their powers of imagination to populate this dimension with gods of a thousand functions. Every new implement that appeared among them was credited to a god who then ruled its usage. However, just as there had to be a chief to bring order to a settlement, imaginative priests soon recognized the need for a chief of gods both to discipline the lesser gods and to coordinate divine interaction with the natural world. By this artifice, the priesthood soon established its own hierarchy and set out to order the affairs of humanity by introducing a code of laws, which they ascribed to the chief God. It is noteworthy that previous to any divine code there already existed several secular codes such as that of Urikagina, king of Lagash, and Hammurabi, king of Babylon. In the minds of mystics a code of laws ascribed to God would be far more compelling than any secular code. The progression of domestication then that began with entrepreneurial hegemony over mammals and fowl was adapted by lazier, mystically inclined charismatics to exploit the popular belief in gods. Finally, through the artifice of a newly conceived code from a chief God, newly designated to be omnipotent, humanity was to be domesticated by a priestly class referring to themselves as the aforementioned "servants of God."

Since the concept of divine law was not based upon perceivable phenomena, open-endedness has dogged all efforts to represent God's will in holy writ. (By open-endedness, I mean that God's will is subject to natural selection.) If the followers of a religion languish either through warfare, disease or some other catastrophe, then a new religion emerges bearing a revised rendition of the will of God. The procession of religions through history, each bringing a unique code, underscores religion's inability to resolve differences in what God requires of humanity. It also stymies belief that the several codes originate from one God, unless one assumes that there were errors in transmission.

The great psychologist and lecturer, William James, noted that there is a significant difference between knowing and believing. Knowing requires an objective act while believing is subjective. James wrote, "Belief is the mental state or function of cognizing reality." By this, James meant that each of us can create a personal reality by choosing to believe that one's personal concepts exist independent of the mind. A religious institution, then, begins with a congregation of people who share confidence in the external existence of their commonly held conception of God. Each religion then establishes its bona fides by offering a unique code of human behavior and demeanor, as alleged to the then current conception of God. In return, God, it was said, would preserve, protect and defend the faithful.

According to tradition, God employed several methods to convey His will: by the prophet Moses in the form of the Covenant; by Jesus, His Son, in the Sermon on the Mount; and by the angel, Michael, who dictated the Koran to Muhammad. All of these codes have similar demands of loyalty and obedience to the priesthood and sacrificial contributions to the religious infrastructure. Thus, by code, the welfare of the priesthood is maintained along with the religion.

There does not seem to be any religion, however, that has succeeded in bringing a divine code with which all humanity can identify. The genesis of this problem is that each code originates in the minds of its mystics, who not only believe their concept of God is real, but who also believe that they have access to God's mind. However, since the mind of God is a concept of their own making, mystics fall into error. They seek to domesticate the human flock by claiming divine knowledge of human nature through the mind of God. In order to accomplish this, mystics look subjectively inward rather than outward thus informing themselves only of the nature of like-minded mystics. (It is noteworthy that while this method of learning conserves energy, it was not the choice of the entrepreneurs who succeeded in farming and the domestication of animals.) The greatest error of mystics is in concluding that humanity requires God to fulfill their wishes. However, by a great expenditure of their energies, humans set about building cities and a worldwide complex of commerce to meet their needs. In so doing humans declared their willingness and ability to fend for themselves. So offensive was this to mystic sensibilities that they sought to punish humanity:

The Lord came down to look at the city and the tower that man had built, and the Lord said, "If as one people with one language for all, this is how they have begun to act, then nothing that they propose to do well will be out of their reach. Let us then go down and confound their speech there, so they will not understand one another's speech." Thus the Lord scattered them from there over the face of the whole earth, and they stopped building the city. (Genesis 11: 5 – 8)

The open-endedness of religious codes has some practical value in that revision is possible should catastrophic events weaken confidence in the existing divine contract. After the Assyrian destruction of the Kingdom of Israel, the prophet Isaiah, for example, wrote many thunderous verses blaming normal acts of prosperous people for causing the Lord to ordain the Assyrian invasion. Isaiah has the Lord berating the Kingdom of Israel because "... the men are haughty, and women carry their heads high and wear jewelry." Isaiah also proclaims that the Lord was especially angry with "... those who save money in order to become wealthy and race about in chariots drawn by multiple horses." These are typical of complaints that Isaiah shouts through verses he puts in the mouth of the Lord. They are intended to justify the awful carnage and devastation in the eyes of surviving Yahwists. This despite previous words of the Lord in Genesis commanding Israel to be "fruitful and multiply," thus implying approval of prosperity.

The fact that prophets of the Old Testament freely put their own words into the mouth of God demonstrates their conviction that God was their personal concept (just as playwrights might think of a character in a play of their own). Isaiah, and the earlier prophet Amos, were prototypical socialists, and therefore they portrayed the Lord upon a soapbox declaiming socialist rhetoric. In fairness to the Hebrew prophets, it was common practice for the priesthood of that time (8th century BC) to shift blame for a catastrophe from their God to the people.

The lack of perceptual proof of divine authorization to enforce moral codes drove the priesthood to seek alliance with the state, preferably with a long-lived, imperial dynasty. This would not have been necessary had the populace welcomed the proposal, advanced by the priesthood that, as "servants of God," they had to be obeyed. Most likely there never was a time in history when skepticism was absent concerning the priesthood's right to wield social power.

In order to be universally accepted, a concept must present proofs that are traceable to perceptual phenomena available to all. We are not so foolhardy as to wish to gamble with the destiny of our progeny and our species based on the revelations of mystics, whose subjective feelings of divine presence cannot be shared. Where then is humanity to look for a code of behavior to serve the entire species—a code that produces no stigmata that separates peoples. Skepticism of subjective religious codes is the first step towards spurring a scientific study of the interactive tendencies that stem from basic human nature. Hopefully, scientists will discover facts that have eluded the inward gaze of mystics, and then formulate a code to compete in the free market of ideas. Knowing the will of God has not inspired institutionalized religions to formulate a peaceful or an ethical world. Instead, religions focused their power, as some still do, upon controlling human thought in order to prevent secular challenges to that power. At the outset of the Nuclear Age, it is fortunate that freedom to explore the human mind as the potential source of just laws is at least constitutional if not, according to holy writ, wholly respectable. It would seem that a species designating itself as sapient might welcome the concept of a provable source of its moral absolutes.


  History of Religion

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