In a stinging critique of contemporary American Protestantism, theologian Stanley Hauerwas recently declared that for Americans, faith in God is indistinguishable from loyalty to their country. Christians in the U.S. “continue to maintain a stubborn belief in a god, but the god they believe in turns out to be the American god”. In Hauerwas’ view, Americans have fashioned god in their own image, and the result, ironically, is a kind of idolatry.
This tendency of humans to attribute to God characteristics that mostly reflect themselves plays into an old criticism that has gained renewed interest in recent years—that God didn’t make us, we created him.
This notion, championed most recently by a brigade of popular sceptics, is hardly new. It has a long history, and like any influential ideas it’s good to know where they came from as we test their validity.
Author and academic, Robert Banks is well placed to do this having wrestled with the question for a good part of his life. In his latest book And Man Created God – is God a human invention?, Banks handles a large and daunting topic in a manner that is concise, sophisticated and accessible. No small feat!
The question of whether God is in fact a human construction built on human fears, hopes and wishes may be ammunition for the most dismissive of sceptics, but it remains an important one to ask. Banks acknowledges this and wants his readers, both believers and non-believers to feel the weight of the question.
Banks has felt that weight himself, having experienced a crisis of faith as a young man when being confronted with the work of some of faith’s most formidable opponents. It is to these writers that he turns to examine the history and various permutations of the idea that God is, in turn, the product of human wishes (Ludwig Feuerbach), the substitute for oppressive conditions (Karl Marx), a projection of repressed desires (Sigmund Freud) and a symbol of human potential (Erich Fromm).
Banks notes that famous critics like Bertrand Russell and Andre Comte Sponville, along with the more recent crop—Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett, all ride to some extent on the shoulders of their predecessors mentioned above.
A novel and surprising aspect of Banks’ work is his claim that the first proponents of the idea of ‘gods as human constructs’ were in fact not the sceptics, but the Old Testament prophets, most notably Jeremiah, Ezekial and Isaiah. Ironic references in their writing to the ‘other gods’ of Israel’s neighbours, reveal that they are not gods at all. Greek and Roman authors developed the critique further, as did early Christian writers like Clement of Alexandria who saw the origins of ‘the gods’ in complex psychological, cognitive and imaginative factors. But it wasn’t until the Enlightenment when there was a radical shift from a rejection of false gods as human inventions to the rejection of the very God from whom the original critique was said to have come. (59) This represented a serious challenge for believers and one that Banks engages with most thoroughly here.
And the author has more than a little sympathy with his opponents and believes they have something valuable to contribute to the discussion even today. Believers tend to shape their ideas of God based on their upbringing, religious tradition, their politics and their gender. Each of us is vulnerable to making the mistake of projecting on to God things we would like to be true and things we would prefer were not. Banks shows how believers have a tendency to, even subconsciously edit out parts of the Bible that don’t fit with their ideas of who God is, and thereby turn notions of God into things that serve their interests.
Banks argues the same thing applies to non-believers though, who might be just as likely to allow their hopes and aspirations to cloud their judgement on the question of God’s existence.
But Marx not only fails to fully understand the God he criticises but doesn’t adequately account for human failings
Karl Marx’s influence may have diminished today, but his ideas on religion have been absorbed into other approaches. Marx saw religion as compensation for the symptoms of economic and social realities where one group has dominated another. Banks is comfortable to note that anyone with a sense of history will acknowledge that sometimes religion has sided with the rich and powerful against the poor and marginalised, while it’s also true that the disadvantaged have at times relied (and been encouraged to rely) on a future heavenly realm rather than seek to challenge unjust circumstances. And views of God have been partly influenced by social and political climate throughout the centuries.
But Marx not only fails to fully understand the God he criticises but doesn’t adequately account for human failings, according to Banks. Problems not only lie between human beings, but within them, and to not see this prevents Marx from seeing the possibility of God in the first place. Why look for assistance from God if the human condition is solvable by human invention?
Ludwig Feuerbach (1804 – 1872) produced the first comprehensive critique of God and Christianity as a humanly created illusion. “… in every wish we find concealed a god, but in or behind every god there lies concealed nothing but a wish,” he wrote. Sigmund Freud famously picked up this idea and ran with it, producing a psychological interpretation. Religious beliefs are not only an expression of people’s wishes and fears, but compensation for the pain of life, said Freud, and rather than just a projection of what people desire, within the religious impulse there also lies an imaginary extension of their deepest hopes.
This all sounds potentially devastating for the religious believer until one realises that there are plenty of things we would like to believe in that do in fact have a correlation with real life. Banks draws on the work of C.S. Lewis who argued that the general wishes of humans—such as an infant wanting food, a lover wanting sex, a person longing for knowledge, all have counterparts in the real world. Might it not also follow that the hopes through the centuries of the majority of people that there be a God, be just as much a sign that such a belief corresponds to the truth? (76). Freud is guilty of the genetic fallacy—the assumption that an explanation of what gives rise to an experience explains the experience itself. In fact the desire for something to be true ought not count against its validity.
In the end, while Banks can take the best of the work of the critics he engages with and apply it to his own faith, he comes to the conclusion that the picture of the human condition that they paint is too limited to account for all reality, and not radical enough to be persuasive. (10)
And Man Created God is certainly for those who are convinced there is a God, but also for anyone opposed to such an idea or perhaps unsure if the Christian story might have something to say to them. Banks approaches what is difficult terrain with skill and sobriety, and a sound grasp of historical currents and developments. He doesn’t claim too much. He acknowledges and highlights the strengths of his opponent’s arguments while not shirking a robust critique of them. This work is strengthened in that it conveys not only an intelligent grasp of ideas , but a wisdom born of experience and personal wrestling with the issues at hand.
In short, Banks models constructive and respectful debate with those he ultimately disagrees with. For those feeling jaded by the tone of the faithful versus the faithless debates, this book will make a refreshing change.
Simon Smart is a Director of the Centre for Public Christianity