“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” – John 12:24
“The last enemy to be destroyed is death...Death is swallowed up in victory.” – 1 Corinthians 15:26, 54
"The greater the sin, the greater the mercy, the deeper the death and the brighter the rebirth.” - C. S. Lewis
"This story...has the very taste of primary truth." - J. R. R. Tolkien

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

God and Man: Which One Invented the Other?

It is a frequent objection of atheists that humans have invented God, making him in their own image. "God" is like man in every respect, except that he is bigger. We human beings think and learn and do things, so we invent a "supreme being" who is all-knowing and all-powerful. We are imaginative and creative and design things of our own (inventions, art, music, etc.), so we project this characteristic to a supposed Creator or Designer. We feel certain moral inclinations, which we project to this great being, supposing him to be the maker of this moral law. We love one another and desire to be loved, so we describe God as one who loves mankind and cares for us. Seeking to comfort ourselves with the idea that there is a purpose for our existence, we imagine that this being cares for us and works all things for good. It is in our nature to project our own human characteristics to this anthropomorphic "God," largely as a means of wish-fulfillment. God is not real, but merely an idea in our minds, constructed in our own image, as it were.

This is the scenario often set forth by the atheist, as I understand it (please correct me if this description is inadequate or incorrect). With their anthropomorphic account the atheists offer one possible explanation of the similarities between man and this idea of "God" which we seem to have conjured up.

The "God" we have imagined shares some similarities with human characteristics. Have we then invented God? Does he not actually exist? At first glance it may seem so, but correlation does not necessarily imply causation in either direction. That man has invented the idea of God simply does not follow from the fact that the God we imagine is in some ways like man.

There seems to be in some circles a dangerous tendency to "explain away" human perceptions, ideas, etc. as psychological phenomena. This way of explaining things can obviously be taken too far. It is one thing to say to a starving man in a desert that "your apparent perception of a table filled with food is a hallucination caused by your hunger," but quite another to say the same thing to a well-fed boy at a thanksgiving feast. The difference is that in the former case what seems to be an accurate perception or idea in the brain is a delusion caused by other factors, and in the latter it is an accurate perception of the external world (so it is of course misleading to say that this meal is only an event in the brain).

All perceptions result from events in the brain (it is through our brain that all our interaction with the world takes place) and can be described psychologically, but this does not mean that all perceptions can be "explained away" as nothing more than neurological events. Some perceptions, such as the hallucination of the starving man, may be no more than tricks of the brain, but in normal circumstances our perceptions are accurate reflections of the external world. The question at hand, then, is whether God is something real outside of our minds, or merely a "hallucination" as it were, conjured up for some reason other than his actual existence. It is true that ideas of God often have human-like characteristics, and this is a strength for the view that man has invented God - that is, that God is no more than a neurological phenomenon. But could this idea of God be just as well explained as an accurate perception of something real, external to our brains? That is the question we need to ask.

It is important to realize that the idea that God made man is not wholly mutually exclusive with the description of man making God in his image. Supposing that God exists and created us in his image, he would certainly make us capable of knowing him. And if he has made the physical world as we know it, one would expect him to build that capability into us as beings who grow and develop in that world. That is, if we are made in God's image, we have a natural ability to develop an idea of our Maker. The processes by which man develops his idea of God - evolution, development of human societies, etc. - which the atheist sees as completely naturalistic, can be viewed just as easily as a means by which God makes himself known to us (see "Evolution as God's Instrument"). This is a subtle but crucial point, and one that is often missed.

The atheist's account, then, need not be completely false. It is misleading, of course, to say that man made God in his image, but it is true that man's idea of God must develop such that it is shaped according to man's nature and experience (see "Dorothy Sayers on Describing God with Human Language"). And since God designed our experience to be what it is with the purpose of man knowing his Maker in mind, our idea of God will be meaningful, matching up in significant ways with what God is like in reality. Given our limitations this idea may well be inaccurate and will certainly be incomplete (hence the danger of incorrect anthropomorphic descriptions of God), but if God does indeed intend for us to know him, there will be some truth in it.

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