Have you ever woken up in the middle of the night to fetch yourself some water or to go to the toilet and suddenly, for a brief moment, felt as if somebody was following you? When I was younger I would often imagine a ghost or a zombie behind me but as I grew older I resorted to a more rational explanation of the house creaking or a draft of wind. But still, every time it happens the first feeling is always that of being followed by somebody before reason kicks in to explain it. Cognitive science, I discovered, has an explanation for it: Hypersensitive Agency Detection Device (HADD). This is a biological process in our brain that leads us to detect human agency and human cause behind any unexplained event. The reason my first instinct to imagine this follower as some weird human form is also because of a cognitive process called the Theory of Mind. It is an executive function of our brain that essentially makes us view and interpret everything (even nonhumans) in human terms. Our humanness is our only lens to see and capture the world in our consciousness. What’s more, it’s also the reason children treat some of their toys as their friends who are alive and have certain personalities despite knowing consciously that they are not alive. Isn’t this fascinating?
Considering these biological processes, it is not a surprise then that much of our understanding of God stems from our understanding of ourselves. Reza Aslan therefore aptly titles his book God as “a human history”.
“Think about the way believers so often describe God as good or loving, cruel or jealous, forgiving or kind. These are, of course, human attributes. Yet this insistence on using human emotions to describe something that is – whatever else it is – utterly nonhuman only further demonstrates our existential need to project our humanity onto God, to bestow upon God not just all this is worthy in human nature [… ] but all that is vile in it […]”.
Drawing upon the work done in cognitive science and developmental psychology [note] the book provides extensive notes for those wanting to delve deeper into this study [/note]Aslan makes a convincing case of religious impulse as neurological phenomena before moving onto even more interesting archeological findings giving deep insight into how “we not only humanize the world; we humanize the gods we think created it”.
Commenting on what is recognized to be the remains of the earliest religious temple ever constructed, Göbekli Tepe, near the ancient city of Urfa, Aslan lays the groundwork for explaining the evolution of organized religion:
“The more we think of gods in human terms, the more we will project our human attributes on them. Our values become god’s values, our traits will become god’s traits. Eventually, we will make the heavenly realm a mirror reflecting the earth so that the gods who take on our personalities will also take on our politics, even our bureaucracies. To get to know the gods better, we will construct entire spiritual systems based on the only thing we can truly know: ourselves. The gods need food, because we need food; and so we will offer them sacrifices. The god needs shelter because we need shelter so we will build them temples. The gods need names, so we will name them. They need personalities so we will give them ours. They need mythic histories to ground them in our reality, formalized rituals so they can be experienced in our world, servants and attendants who can fulfill their wishes (which are nothing more than our wishes),rules and regulations to keep them happy , prayers and petitions to ward off their anger. What they need, in short, are religions. And so we will invent them.”
What is even more interesting about the archeological findings at Göbekli Tepe is that it was the birthplace of agriculture and what led our hunting foraging ancestors to settle down and alter the earth to our advantage. By learning to dominate and domesticate nature we put ourselves at the center of the universe and thus evolved a new conception of humanity as gods over the earth. From the earliest, most advanced civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt to Europe and Greece, Iran, India, and China, Aslan traces the evolution of human race hand in hand with its religions from polytheism, monolatry, and monotheism.
Aslan’s analysis offers a much needed insight in our search for meaning (regardless of one’s religious beliefs) and is highly relevant for getting the complete picture of modern day conflicts and politics of both individuals and nations based on race, identity, and belief systems.
For the more curious minds, here’s an excellent piece on causality and the supernatural.