“As a back-of-the-envelope calculation within an order-of-magnitude accuracy,” Skeptic magazine founder Michael Shermer writes in his new book, The Believing Brain, “we can safely say that over the past ten thousand years of history humans have created about ten thousand different religions and about one thousand gods.”
Humans have evolved, it seems, a tendency to look for patterns, and to attribute events to intentional action by other beings. We have selective perception that inverts the aphorism, “seeing is believing.”
What we see, Shermer writes, is what we want to believe, and what we want, most of us, are gods.
I think Shermer’s numbers are off by several orders of magnitude. Demographers estimate that the total number of people who have ever lived is between 100 and 115 billion. And something I’ve learned about people is that every one of us makes a god of himself.
The notion that we’ve only fashioned 1,000 gods between us seems to radically underestimate man’s creativity.
But, comes the objection, self-indulgence is one thing; the dreaming up of external gods is something else entirely. Yet every one of us carries about some notion of self beyond self, an idealized image of who we are, or might be. This is surely no less an external fabrication than any tribal or tree-stump god. And let’s not forget that one of the world’s major religions, Hinduism, considers every person a unique manifestation of God.
We can let all that go for now, and with good effect; my experience is that nothing enrages the rational, scientific atheist more than when you get rational and scientific with him.
If you want to make a Richard Dawkins aficionado more apoplectic than Dawkins gets when he contemplates children going to Sunday school, you need merely point out that for all his pretense to intellectual rigor, it’s just bad science to assume the supernatural doesn’t exist because senses attuned to the natural cannot detect it.
So let’s limit ourselves to what are not ourselves. I’ll wager Shermer is still wrong, and that mankind has come up with well over 1,000 gods in his time. Counting only the ones with a recorded history is to privilege literacy; surely pagans in the hills and forests of Europe alone came up with more than a thousand tree, bird, and thunder spirits to explain their world.
Further, if we are to take anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s explanation of religion as culture, and culture in turn as “a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which people communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and attitudes toward life,” then man has surely generated more than 10,000 religions in his tenure on the planet.
Get Americans started talking about the Nicene Creed, for example, and you’re likely to find more religions than you care to see hiding under the skirts of modern Christianity. And by the time you’ve finished reading this essay, odds are someone, somewhere has decided to start his own church, because the apostates running the one he’s in have gotten their views on the Rapture or head coverings or missions spending all wrong.
One religion per year, and one god per decade are just the right numbers, you see, to make the point Shermer wants to make, which is that man routinely invents gods to explain his world.
Except that man isn’t god-leaning, he’s god-obsessed.
We are god-obsessed and god-seeking and at least the intellectuals of earlier ages—even if they couldn’t bring themselves to belief—recognized this. So many of today’s intellectuals are so far removed from religion that they don’t know the half of how deeply it’s intertwined in the lives and hearts of the rest of us.
This is perhaps the chief reason why so much of modern film and fiction feels false, because its creators are downright unnatural in their self-enforced secularization. Only in modern American novels does no one go to church, or pray to Christ or Allah or Shiva when they get cancer, or worry over the souls of their children.
We are god-obsessed because we have lost God or we are running from God or we are hopelessly seeking Him, and maybe all of these at once.
We are god-obsessed the way a child snatched from his mother will always have his heart and flesh tuned to her, even after he forgets her face. Cover the earth with orphans and you will find grown men fashioning images of mothers and worshipping strong women and crafting myths about mothers who have left or were taken or whose spirits dwell in the trees.
And at the edges of their tribal fires will stand the anthropologist and the philosopher, reasoning that all this mother-talk is simply proof that men are prone to invent stories about mothers, which is itself proof that no single story about a mother could be true, which is proof that the brain just evolved to work that way.
It’s the only narrative that fits the facts while affirming the skeptic’s presupposition that all this mother business is just leftover hokum from the dark ages.
Except that in a century, when the most famous of the skeptics is long forgotten, broken men will still be telling stories about what we have lost, and what we pray is still out there, coming even now to set all things right.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.