The Problem of Deity

By:  Wendell Krossa

Over history an interesting relationship has developed between humanity and deity. People have long taken human features and projected them out to define deity, to shape their understanding of greater reality. We see this in ancient mythology- gods that fight, punish, destroy, and often in the pettiest manner and over the pettiest things. Primitive gods that were very much like the primitive people that created them.  But as we have become more humane so we have updated our conceptions of deity, making gods more humane also. We see this early on in the Pharaoh-gods beginning to exhibit kindness and mercy. We find it later in the Hebrews presenting God as compassionate. Over history we humanize our gods as we become more humane and as we come to understand better the core features of authentic humanity.

This human/god relationship has also worked in a feedback loop manner.  People create their perceptions of gods and then use those gods to justify their own actions and existence. As anthropologists note, people have long appealed to the divine to validate their own lives and societies.  This can be seen in the Israelites believing that God gave them detailed instructions on how to build their first temple, how to arrange their camps around that temple, and a vast array of other detailed instructions on things like clothing, diet, care and consumption of animals, sexuality, and more.

There is a dark side to this appeal to deity, or ultimate authority, for validation.  Because the gods people created were often primitively violent, they were then employed to validate similar violence among people. We see this even today where people appeal to their God to validate the killing of outsiders/unbelievers.  People employ ultimate reality as an ultimate authority and then enslave themselves to replicate that ideal for good or evil.  This is why some have argued that the idea of God has been one of the most dangerous ideas ever conceived (Bob Brinsmead).  Deity has far too often embodied the very worst of primitive humanity- things like tribal exclusion and opposition, domination, and destruction of others.  In addition to this, far too often the engagement of deity has resulted in the abandonment of responsibility to improve the human condition here and now (i.e. time and resources wasted on appeasing and pleasing invisible reality).  Because of this dark and debilitating side to deity, many have argued that we need to get rid of the concept of deity entirely.  As one disgusted atheist blurted, “Let’s get rid of all this metaphysical bullshit”.

While I understand his concerns, that is not likely to ever happen.  Consciousness has made us aware that we belong to something greater, that we are part of some greater ultimate reality.   Our basic impulse for meaning and purpose pushes us to understand that reality more.  We have always been intensely curious to understand and explain the greater forces that give rise to our existence.  We want to explain our origins, our existence, and our destination in terms of a greater reality.  This has to do with our most fundamental desires, questions, and curiosities. We want to understand how we should live and why, and we seek answers in relation to ultimate reality, meaning, and purpose.  This is all foundational to being consciously human.

Because so much pathological inhumanity has already been projected onto deity, this needs to be countered properly with more humane alternatives.    You cannot just cede explanatory ground to philosophies like materialism with its belief in essential meaninglessness.  That definition of ultimate reality violates our most basic human impulses for meaning and purpose, and it answers none of our most basic questions and concerns.

There have been three general approaches to understanding ultimate realities.  A dominant one over the past few centuries has been philosophical materialism, and of course for millenia we have had the mythical/religious approach. But now we have another alternative- the still developing approach that seeks to combine the discoveries of science with a new understanding of spiritual reality . This may prove to be the most fruitful yet in our quest for ultimate understanding and explanation.

In one sense (tipping one’s hat just a bit to the materialists) we could all benefit from a good dose of atheism . I refer to the healthy atheism that Karen Armstrong spoke about, where over history people have always rejected gods that no longer work, for new ones more suited to the times- more humane gods.  And fortunately, the gods have become more humane over history as we have come to understand what authentic human existence is about.  This trend of developing humanity in our understanding of deity is part of the greater historical process of humanizing all things.  This is a core impulse of human consciousness. It includes our perceptions of ultimate realities.  This humanizing process culminates in the ultimate expression of authentic humanity- unconditional love.  This feature/ideal takes us to the heights of ultimate meaning and purpose. We have now discovered that unconditional is the pinnacle of what it means to be authentically human or humane. And we correctly understand all other things in light of this core theme (Schillebeekx, “God is more human/humane than any human being”).

I would clarify here that ultimate reality/deity has always been unconditional love but it has just taken humanity a long time to fully recognize this truth.  Unfortunately, while admirably humanizing our gods (our perceptions of deity), too many religious traditions still retain the features of the primitive deities and this results in a distortion of the new human features like unconditional love.  Unconditional love then becomes limited by the conditional beliefs of religion (i.e. required atonement, required rituals and lifestyle to please some conditionally oriented deity).  This is what Thomas Jefferson referred to as placing “diamonds in a dunghill”.

Further, in the process of humanizing our understanding of deity we need to recognize that there is no “Word from God” handed down from the heavens to tell us what deity is all about. That is the fallacy of Biblicism- the belief in some inspired holy book or Word of God that is an authority that tells us what to think/believe and how to live (i.e. inspired scriptures given to priestly elites to control the lives of others). Nonsense. We all know the divine as much as anyone else by understanding what is best in our own humanity. God is known primarily in all humanity and in all diverse human goodness. And each one of us holds the responsibility to know and explain ultimate reality according to the best features that we find in our humanity. We are all responsible for the greater humanizing project. There is no higher religious authority or mediating priesthood with superior insider knowledge of such things.

And it is unconditional love that now takes us to the absolute height of what it means to be authentically human or humane. This is a human discovery and not a “divine revelation”. We see its gradual development over history from early compassion and kindness to the great ideal of human love and then the further development of our understanding of love as unconditional. This takes love beyond limited tribal perceptions (love family, hate enemies) to an authentic universalism. The unconditional treatment of all people is our greatest insight and ideal (i.e. unconditional forgiveness, unconditional inclusion, and unconditional generosity).

Related to this- we need to purge ourselves of any sense of subservience to higher authorities, of any felt need to appease or serve some greater reality. Contrary to the claim of the ancients, we were not “created to serve the gods”. We are not obligated to subject ourselves to any higher authority, whether political, religious, or other. We have ultimate authority (and ultimate freedom) in our own human consciousness and our personal awareness of what it means to be human.

So there is no divinely-inspired obligation to serve or please some invisible deity, to re-establish or have a relationship with some invisible entity up in the heavens or in the future. The felt obligation to “get right with God” has always been founded on the distorting myth of some cosmic separation of humanity from deity at some time in the past. That never happened. There was no “Fall” of humanity into sin. There was never any fall from something originally better into something worse. To the contrary, the endlessly improving trajectory that is human emergence and development has always been a trajectory from something originally worse and toward something ever better.

Also, we live in the here and now and ought to be focused on loving and serving one another in real time and real life, and not focused on serving some invisible reality. And consider this: a God of authentic love would not be concerned about being praised and served but would ignore Godself to serve the other. Such is the nature of true love. Genuine love frees the other. It does not manipulate and control others with guilt, threat, or fear of punishment. It does not demand dehumanizing subservience. Love and freedom are tightly pair-bonded realities. You cannot have one without the other.

So yes, I am one with the critics on this point- worshipping some God up above in the heavens or up ahead in some future afterlife has long brought out the worst in humans: subservience, guilt, shame, fear, and worse.

We know better now. With the discovery of unconditional love it is no longer plausible to project any sort of inhumanity onto deity or ultimate reality of any kind. Unconditional eliminates all such projects. Unconditional takes us to the ultimate in human conception, ideals, and meaning. And understanding ultimate reality in terms of unconditional love liberates from all concerns about appeasing and pleasing some greater reality. It liberates humanity to embrace life fully in the here and now. It liberates from fear of death and whatever might follow (Near-Death Experience research affirms this outcome). The result is that it liberates from ultimate fears, anxieties, or concerns and orients us to humanity, and to improving the human condition here and now. It orients us to serving humanity and not something above humanity (again, this focus on serving something other than humanity has always led to neglect or abuse of real people). Unconditional love gives us the safest way to conceive of and handle the great reality and ideal of deity. Unconditional alone can properly respond to our most fundamental impulses and concerns.

Reason for this page

This page arose out of my experience growing up in a religious environment, that of Evangelical Christianity, a fundamentalist form of religion. That religion never felt right to me at the time but I did not know exactly why. I struggled against it for much of my younger life, trying to distance myself from it. But under family pressure, during my late teens, I gave in and tried to fulfill the sense of obligation to that religion. I did not yet possess the mental tools to rethink it all properly. And then for a few years in my early twenties I became somewhat of a religious zealot. And that was perhaps the best thing that I could have done- I took my religion seriously for several years and felt personally just what religion was really all about.

During those years I graduated from an Evangelical Bible college, served overseas as a missionary successfully starting Evangelical churches in another culture and language (upland Manobo groups of Mindanao). I went to the heart of Christianity and experienced fully what it meant to be fundamentally religious. So yes, I get religion.

But while I was engaged in that religious phase I felt that something was not quite right. I felt intensely uncomfortable with being religious.
Gradually, I came to understand that Christianity, like most religion across the planet, embraces and propagates the most powerful ideas ever conceived by human minds- ideas like divine anger and threat, divine domination, tribal exclusion (believing insiders, unbelieving outsiders), judgment, guilt, shame, eternal punishment, and destruction, among others. These can be traumatizing in the extreme, especially when projected onto deity, and given ultimate expression in that form.

Then in my mid-twenties I began to rethink the core themes of Christianity and began a long, slow process of disentangling myself from my religion. In subsequent years, having left my religion and religion in general, I have tried to understand the social phenomenon of religion in general and especially its too often dehumanizing influence on societies- its divisiveness, and promotion of often violent tribalism (oppositional dualism between good and bad, between insiders and outsiders, believers and infidels). What is religion really all about? Why does religion so often violate our basic sense of humanity?

Now defenders/adherents of religion will claim that the bad outcomes of religion are not due in some way to the core religious beliefs but are just aberrations due to a few bad apples in the group (people who do not have “true faith”). After all, look at all the good that religion has done over history. Religious people have started hospitals, schools, charity organizations, and so on. And look at all the good things that religions teach about the great ideals of forgiveness, love, and generosity. And so many people find great comfort in their religious beliefs, it helps them to face the difficulties of life and the fear of death. It gives them hope. I grant all this, and more power to people if they can find such things in their religious traditions and still remain decently human at the same time.

But most religious traditions have created what Thomas Jefferson called a “diamonds in the dunghill” situation. They contain sublime moral teaching but in a larger context that horrifically distorts and even buries the more humane themes. Christianity is notable here for maintaining the core teaching of Jesus on non-retaliation but almost burying that teaching in a larger retaliation context (this was the very situation Jefferson was referring to with his diamonds in a dunghill comment). The Christian gospels contain great human ideals that have been lodged in a larger context that profoundly contradicts those ideals. This page deals extensively with this great contradiction between Jesus and Christianity.

So let me disagree with the Christian defense of their core beliefs as generally benign or good. To the contrary, those beliefs embody some of the most inhumane themes of primitive thought.

Fortunately, many religious people have learned to ignore the darker themes of their religions and focus more exclusively on the more humane themes. But unfortunately, the larger context of most religious belief does often still overwhelm the diamonds making it hard for many religious devotees to understand clearly the humane parts.

Other religious people will respond that their religion provides them with hope, the hope of redemption which we all desire and need. Yes, but at what cost in terms of unnecessary guilt, shame, and fear? And what about the burdensome cost of the felt obligation to adopt and fulfill some elaborate salvation scheme. I would counter that we need to question if we ever needed redemption in the first place or if it was all a great fraud and lie from the very beginning. It is legitimate to question if there ever was any threat of anger from the gods, or any threat of punishment and damnation. We need to go back to the very roots of all this religious Salvationism and challenge the original threats to see if they ever actually existed as any sort of credible reality. And when you look carefully at the ancient logic that started the human appeasement movement that we know as religion, then you can see the horrific error that most religion has been founded on (i.e. the error that there is some great threatening and punishing reality behind life).

And what about the fact that most religion has to do with fear as the foundational motivation. John Pfeiffer in his excellent book Explosion: An Inquiry into the Origins of Art and Religion notes that the earliest religious practice was grounded in fear (i.e. shaman scaring early people with frightening myths of the invisible). And religious fear has always extended beyond the normal fears of life. It embraces the element of fear that extends beyond life and death into ultimate realms and realities. Ernst Becker in Denial of Death rightly argues that the fear of death is the primary human motivation that influences all of our thinking and acting in life. Then how much more powerful a motivation is religiously-inspired fear, fear of such things as eternal punishment and destruction. This may explain the damaging influence of religion on human behavior over history, shaping it too often into the most grotesque expressions of inhumanity. We see this even today in religious zealots claiming they must kill others (outsiders, infidels) in order to please their threatening God, to obey their vengeful God. There is a striking linkage between fear and violence, noted in psychology, and this deserves more research and exploration.

But even after confronting the above relationships between religious belief and human behavior, let me add that I hold no anger or bitterness toward religious people. I understand the human struggle with fundamental religious themes- the long-held desire to understand some greater reality, the human impulse for meaning and purpose, the desire for some better existence, the struggle with guilt, shame, and fear, and the longing for some ultimate redemption and perfection. However, I do not believe that religion over history has dealt properly or successfully with such basic human feelings and desires. In fact, religion has often only exacerbated and distorted such things in the most horrific manner.

In my own experience of leaving religion I have found it helpful to take a good look at how the core themes of religion have developed over history (see for instance, the research of Joseph Campbell, Mircea Eliade, and other mythologists). This history exposes the base human origins of these themes. Since the beginning people have endlessly projected the basest features onto greater realities/gods. And yes, admittedly, religious traditions have also adopted more humane elements over time but they have maintained the larger belief contexts that continue to distort and bury the more humane features they have added along the way. The context is everything.

For myself, I had to leave it all, entirely. Reforming my religion was not an option. I came to see that my religion was just too inhumane at core and I needed entirely new wineskins for the new wine of unconditional reality. I needed to start afresh from scratch. Rebuilding an entirely new approach to understanding and to life. My journey has subsequently been an endeavor to find authentic liberation at the deepest levels of thought, subconscious, and spirit. This is why I urge people to look carefully at the core themes of their worldviews, whether religious or secular, to detect and rethink the core themes of their grand narratives. It is surprising how much primitive mythology still resides at the core of many so-called secularized and materialist worldviews.

I would also add that the highest human ideals contained within religious traditions are common human ideals and not religious in origin or nature. And as I have argued repeatedly above and elsewhere, religious contexts too often distort and bury these human ideals.

Such ideals as forgiveness, inclusion, love and generosity are common to all human consciousness or the common human spirit. They are ideals that do not originate with religion but with all common humanity. And remember that religion is most essentially about conditions (how to appease and please the gods). This then contradicts entirely the highest human ideal of unconditional love which is the core definition of authentic humanity. Religion distorts our highest ideals with conditional limitations. Love then becomes a tribal and excluding reality, limited to insiders, something judgmental and highly conditional. A religious context thus undermines a proper understanding of authentic humanity.

So I understand much better now why my religion never felt right. It violated my basic sense of humanity as unconditional, by defining all things with dehumanizing conditions.