The Origin of Gods

Chapman Cohen

HOW many books have been written to prove the existence of God? It is not possible to say, but a good word in reply would be “prodigious” And how many sermons and lectures to prove the existence of God have been delivered? The reply here is “incalculable.” The believer in God is apt to take this unending production of arguments to prove that God exists as evidence of man’s unceasing need for God. Actually it proves the growing fact that man, if let alone, would gradually get rid of all the gods. It is also proof that no demonstration of the reality of the existence of God has ever been made. A soap manufacturer of a world-wide fame, and certainly of nation-wide advertising, decided some years ago that the name of the firm was so well established that the advertising expense might be cut considerably. ft was done with the result that sales declined and the old scale of advertising had to be resumed. Of course, this did not mean that less soap had been used; only that patronage had been distributed over a wider area. In the case of the belief in God the advertising has actually got less, and the consumption, so to speak, has declined. There is a still further difference in the two situations. Humanity did not begin by using soap, and then in spite of advertising, used it less and less. That occurs with the belief in God. There is a stage in human evolution where everyone believes in gods. They are taken for granted, something that can be reckoned as certainly as the rise of the sun. At that stage men do not discuss whether gods exist. They are more certain of them than they are of anything. The phenomena of the phases of the moon, and the nightly loss of the sun, breed in the primitive mind the possibility of the destruction of both. Primitive minds do not discuss whether gods exist, that is taken for granted; a basis for thought and action. One may summarize the situation by saying that gods are things that mankind believes in during its infancy, and of which a growing number rid themselves in maturity. The very existence of the output of books to prove that gods exist is, in itself, a demonstration that doubt is there and grows, down that it was my duty to prove either that God did not exist, or that there was not enough evidence to justify belief in his existence. I retorted that my duty was nothing of the kind. What I intended to prove was that God was irrelevant. It had no greater relevance to objective facts than witches, devils or fairies. The world has gone on for the past century learning more and more about the origin of religious ideas—the customary polite way of saying the origin of the gods—without many having the courage or the wit to apply that knowledge, logically, thoroughly, scientifically to the belief in God. People go on arguing as to whether there is enough evidence to prove God exists, without in the least realizing that we might as reasonably argue that while there is another explanation of an electric light or insanity, the real explanation is that the movement of a switch marks the entrance of a little demon into the bulb, and that the real cause of insanity is the presence of a demon in the body.

Where is a saying that familiarity breeds contempt? It is accepted as true by many, but it is only true in relation to those who cannot command respect in virtue of their own quality. It belongs to a society in which status counts for more than character and intelligence, and where stiffness and ceremony is needful to establish a sense of superiority. But if familiarity need not breed contempt, it is certain that familiarity with certain words establishes a hold on the general mind, and hides the fact that changes in life often rob these — semi-magical—words of all real significance.

The very word “God” is an illustration of this. What is meant by it? Those who use it do so as though it carried as definite a meaning as gravitation. The truth is that not only the meanings attached to “God” are almost as various as those who use it, but no one appears to know what the word originally meant, or if they do, the original sense of it is carefully hidden by godites lest it should expose the very basis of religion. A standard dictionary says that the origin of the word is unknown, but that it is probably an Aryan word meaning that to which sacrifice is made; one of a class of powerful spirits regarded as controlling a department of nature or of human activity. Now I am strongly inclined to believe that this definition was intended to hide—to the godite —a very unpleasant truth. It does not quite Is God Irrelevant? I remember a debate many years which I had to champion Atheism Theism. My opponent, a clergyman, ago in against laid it.

(‘Reproduced from the Freethinker)