Evolution of God
Many believe that God is an eternal and unchanging entity. To the contrary, God has grown, matured, changed and evolved along with human society for millennia.
Beginnings of supernatural belief
It is generally believed that animism and animatism were the earliest forms of supernatural belief. Animism, first identified by EB Tylor, is the belief in the supernatural power or significance of plants, animals and inanimate objects. Animatism, a term coined by Tylor's contemporary Robert Marett, is a kind of physical supernaturalism. To the animatist believer, the material and the immaterial are not inherently distinct. The soul is not separate from the body.
Personification of nature and polytheism
As people sought to better understand the forces and objects of nature, they projected human qualities onto them. The idea of supernatural "people" controlling nature aided tremendously in understanding the world, and it opened the possibility that the world could be somewhat influenced by humans. Sacrifices could be made, ceremonies performed, and even day-to-day personal behavior could be adjusted, all in an effort to appease the "people" controlling the world.
Polytheistic belief and practice was born. The idea of a controller for different aspects of nature was an extremely powerful shift in human thinking. Although nature was still essentially beyond our control, now we could at least communicate with the people who controlled it, have a conversation with them, influence them or negotiate with them. Just the notion of a consciousness behind nature was an extraordinary concept that changed the world.
Odysseus angers Poseidon
Reducing the number of gods and the birth of monotheism
A “pantheon” of gods developed in many cultures, and an organized belief system and mythology around it. Often the idea arose of a “king” of the gods. One god in particular was either more important and more powerful than the others, or occupied a leadership role of some kind.
Then, if one god ruled over all the others, perhaps this god was the only one people should focus on. More time and effort should be spent on him, and only minor attention to the lesser gods. Hence monolatry--the belief that while other gods may exist, only a particular god was worthy of worship.
The idea of one major god gave way to simply one “God,” and none other than him. The lesser gods evolved into angels, saints, spirits, ghosts and other supernatural characters.
Evolution of monotheism
At its most developed, monotheism sees God as the only supernatural force in existence. There are no other spirits or ghosts or lesser deities. This idea is most developed in Islam, while Christianity and Judaism include traditions that do identify such forces.
God has evolved and matured during his life. The earliest incarnations of God were violent, bellicose, xenophobic and vengeful—just like the cultures that believed in him. As societies grew more enlightened and tolerant, God followed suit. Today, for instance, after centuries of refinement, the Christian God is a very loving, tolerant, forgiving and reasonable character. For the most part, first world Christians prefer to ignore, rationalize or renounce altogether his nastier qualities, which were ascendant during the Middle Ages.
In Islam, practiced mostly in places with less knowledge of science and greater tolerance for violence, God explains much larger segments of human experience, while constituting a presence to be feared at least as often as one to be loved.
Decline of monotheism
Many atheists like to say that humans have, through history, been getting closer and closer to the real number of gods. Today there is a rise of pre-monotheistic or non-monotheistic traditions such as pantheism and animism.
Many people, rejecting the traditional idea of God, prefer to think in terms of an unconscious force or forces that, while understandable and accessible by humans, do not have personalities, goals or desires for us. Many others reject the supernatural altogether, affirming that it cannot be verified or understood rationally, even if it did exist, and that it is not needed to explain the world, in light of modern science and reason.
God, like all creatures, will continue to evolve to match the demands and constraints of his environment. He is likely to become smaller, more distant and less conscious. He may become relevant only on an occasional, freelance basis, rather than a full-time employee of human culture. But God will be around for a long time to come.
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