London students say god is made up

Spoke last night at a debate organised at University College for a proposition that I had never debated before: ‘God is a human creation’ (and the motion was carried!). I don’t usually speak from notes but I wrote last night’s speech down and this is it:

‘There is no evidence for the existence of gods and that is why we are justified in believing that there are no gods. If there were evidence, faith would not be faith. Some people argue that there must be a god because the universe and earth seems designed, but we know that naturalistic explanations can account for these things. Some people suggest that there must be a god because they have had a personal experience of it, but we know that inner feelings are not a reliable indicator of objective truth.

Quite apart from the argument about whether there is or isn’t such a thing as a god, however, are arguments about specific gods and it is when we start thinking about them that we realise they are entirely a human creation.

First: they look suspiciously ike us

Two and a half thousand years ago, the philosopher Xenophanes said ‘If cattle and horses and lions had hands and could paint and make works of art with their hands just as people can, horses would depict the gods as horses and cattle would as cattle’

This is the first argument and good evidence for gods as a human creation. They look like us. It’s not just that they are very often in human form but that they are like us in every way. They have human emotions: the god of the old testament is angry and jealous, Zeus is lusty, Dionysus is drunk, the god of the new testament is jealous (still) but also loving and in human form, compassionate. The gods of desert countries are austere and severe, the gods of lusher lands with farming and the vine are more happy-go-lucky.

Even today, our gods reflect ourselves. The god of those physicists who believe in a god is a force or a principle, the god of philosophers a vague abstraction. Liberals believe in a liberal god and conservative people believe in a conservative god. I’ve never met a conservative who believes in a liberal god and I don’t expect I ever will. I don’t expect you have. Our gods reflect our prejudices and our environments.

Secondly: we have good evidence that gods originate to explain what we cannot understand

One of the earliest prayers we have in writing from ancient Greece says ‘Zeus, rain down’ – showing clearly how this god at least originated directly  as a personification of the weather. Now we know, of course, that rain is not a supernatural entity, capable of being prayed to, but we can see how it may seem that it may be. In the human world, effects have causes, actions have intentions, the association between the two is locked into our minds. So it makes sense that people would try to find the same rhyme and reason in the non-human world. Why does the sun rise, because the heavenly dung beetle rolls it up; why is there a rainbow? Because it is a magical being called Iris who blazes her trail across the sky, or perhaps the promise of god after a deluge of rain? How did the earth come to be? God made it, as man makes a vase, or a hut or a tool.

We can account for the origin of a considerable portion of original belief in gods through the explanation that they are human creations to explain natural events which were frightening and unpredictable and which felt less so with some purpose ascribed to them by human stories.

Third: we can trace the origins of gods in human culture and watch them change and influence each other

Gods do not exist in a vacuum distinct from each other. We can trace the influences of one myth on another and see how they change.

Do you know the name of a god who was killed and rose from the dead? Before Jesus there was Persephone; Augustus Caesar, and more.

Do you know the name of a god who was crucified or sacrificed himself and came back to power? Is it Mithras, Jesus, Odin?

A god whose birth was heralded by magi? Is it Zoroaster or Christ?

Religious stories feed off each other and change and evolve in the retelling because that is what they are – stories.

God is not in his heaven, Apollo and Aphrodite don’t frolic on Olympus, and there is no Thor in Asgard – no Asgard in fact. There is no Jupiter, no Eshu, Anansi, Brahma. We find gods today in the only place they have ever existed – the human imagination. Useful, perhaps; to some a source of comfort – but entirely a human creation.’