So, man created God in his own image; in the image of man, he created Him. That is my recasting of the famous verse from Genesis—a rewording with which many atheists can agree. One such atheist is Azim Shariff, a psychology professor at the University of British Colombia. However, Shariff approaches the concept of God from a psychological perspective and with a different emphasis than most debunkers of God.
Shariff points out that up until about 12,000 years ago, humankind lived in groups of 50 to 150 people. It was possible for one person to know everyone else in the group and to have a clear idea as to everyone’s trustworthiness as the group struggled to survive. However, once the group numbered thousands of people as in Ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt, freeloaders could sneak into the group—people who did not do their part in the cooperative enterprise.
That, according to Shariff, was the likely origin of religion. If an unknown man or woman worshipped the same god or gods, the commonality of worship was a guarantee (not absolute, of course) that the stranger could be trusted. Moreover, the best guarantee came from a punitive deity. If an irreligious act meant destruction in this life and eternal torment in the next, fear could be relied upon to keep the stranger honest.
Shariff has performed experiments which seem to support this notion. For example, he had students perform a math test in which they were given the opportunity to cheat. Once the “cheaters” and “non-cheaters” were identified, their views of God were analyzed. (Everyone in the experiment had previously chosen adjectives to describe “God.”) The more honest subjects had more punitive conceptions of deity and had described their God as “angry” or “vengeful” or some other negative descriptor. The less honest subjects were more likely to think of God as being “kind” or “loving.” Hence, they subconsciously thought they could get by with more dishonesty without upsetting God. This, explains Shariff, is why the largest, most successful religions have emphasized the idea of supernatural punishment.
Shariff also applies evolutionary psychology to religion. As the secular rule of law has become stronger in modern societies, the justice system can set legal guardrails against uncooperative, deceptive behavior. With such systems in place, there’s less of a need for punitive religion; and—in fact—contemporary religions tend to envision a kinder, more loving deity than ancestral forms of those same religions. Naturally, there is a mixture in modern times. Some religious groups still hew to a traditional “fire and brimstone” philosophy while others have evolved toward the merciful end of the spectrum.
Speaking for myself, I agree that humans create their God but only because God has inspired them to that creation. In short, I think it’s possible to agree with Azim Shariff’s basic ideas and still believe in the real existence of God and of a spiritual dimension to life.
For a more detailed exposition of Shariff’s perspective, listen to THIS EPISODE of the Hidden Brain podcast.
~ Richard Russell
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