Monday, March 07, 2011

When Did People First Start Knowing the One True God?

It's so easy to make fun of creationists and almost as easy to mock the so-called "theistic evolutionists" who have developed "sophisticated" ways of rationalizing Christianity and evolution. The accommodationists among us don't like to alienate the theistic evolutionists because their views are not in conflict with science—or so they say.

Let's take a look at the science behind theistic evolution. Here's an article from BioLogos that looks very interesting. It's written by Denis Alexander, Director of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion at St. Edmund’s College, Cambridge and it's billed as A Response to Coyne, MacDonald, Ruse, and Wilkinson, Pt 2. Jerry Coyne brought it to my attention1 [It feels so good when it stops].

Remember that Denis Alexander is at Cambridge University (UK) so he's presumably one of the top intellectuals in his field. He says,
First, it should, I hope, be clear by now that I don’t think there is any problem with using the language of “data” and “models” in this context, providing that we don’t start thinking that we’re using the terms as they’re generally used in everyday science. Since such terms are used, as we have seen, in a wide range of disciplines, there seems no particular reason not to use them here. If pressed, then I would say that their use in our present context is somewhat akin to the various models posited to provide evolutionary explanations for the origin of music.1 In other words, it is quite possible to generate plausible models for things which are consistent with various kinds of data and argument, including in this case a good deal of aesthetic insight, yet without any realistic hope of deciding between different models in the foreseeable future. If someone would prefer to label the Retelling Model and the Homo divinus Model, ‘informed speculations’, then I have no problem with that at all, except to say that in the end even speculation A may be more plausible than speculation B, so it comes to the same thing in the end. Carrying out thought experiments is the way that human knowledge expands.

Speaking of knowledge takes me to a second point, this one for the positivists. In many ways this particular discussion is one internal to the Christian community, a point that will become even more apparent below. Clearly models that discuss the possible ways in which humans first came to know God are not going to gain much traction in the minds of those who do not believe that God exists. So I wouldn’t blame atheists at all for thinking that even discussing such models is a bit of a waste of time. If I was trying to present arguments to atheists for belief in God, then this is certainly not where I would start! But my intention here is not to present arguments for belief in God, but instead to present some reflections for the world-wide community of around two billion Christians, who do as a matter of fact believe in God and, in their various ways, do believe that God can be known, and who, one presumes, do believe that theological knowledge counts as real knowledge.


Instead I start with a somewhat different set of questions when thinking about models such as the Retelling and Homo divinus models. Taking the corpus of Biblical literature as a whole, here we have a ‘grand narrative’ of creation, alienation from God due to human sin and disobedience, redemption through Christ, and a new heavens and a new earth. We have the possibility of fellowship with God through freely willed choice. Our nearest cousins, chimps and bonobos, to the best of our knowledge, do not. So the curious Christian is likely to ask at least some time during their lives, “Well, when did that possibility first begin? When did people first start knowing the one true God in such a way that they could pray, walk with God, and be responsible to God? When could they first be judged by God because they had sinned?” It is those kinds of questions that the Retelling and Homo divinus type of models are interested in addressing. Did all this happen rather slowly, as in the first model, or rather fast, as in the second? Notice that the questions raised are not to do with the origins of religion (however defined), which is another kind of discussion altogether, but with the origins of spiritual life, knowledge of God, the time when humans first became answerable to God for their actions. Notice also that the questions would still be there even if we had in our hands only the New Testament. It is not Genesis that poses the questions, though Genesis is clearly relevant, but rather the Christian theology of creation, sin and redemption. The themes of creation, sin and redemption keep replaying like a musical répétitif through the biblical symphony. The early chapters of Genesis is where the répétitif is first introduced, and so attracts our attention, but let us not forget the répétitif in the rest of the biblical texts.
Here's one of many possible charts showing our fossil ancestors.

So, what do you think, dear readers? When did our species first start knowing the "one true God"? Jerry Coyne is putting his money on Homo erectus but I'm thinking the correct answer is "not yet." It troubles me a bit that the majority of members of our species have never, ever, in their entire history believed in the Judeo-Christian God. That nasty little fact doesn't seem to trouble Denis Alexander. I guess that's because we rely on different ways of knowing. My way is scientific. David Alexander relies on "theological knowledge."

[Photo Credit: This is a photo of one of our ancestors from One Million Years B.C. I don't know if she knew about the one true God.

1. I don't usually read the articles posted on The BioLogos Forum.


  1. I think he's asking a very interesting and important question.

    Theists often say 'every human being has a sense of the divine' or 'every culture has gods'. And this is somehow evidence there are gods.

    But the 'gods' worshipped in different places are completely different things - in some places its animal spirits, other places actual idols, other places revere ancestors.

    The number of religions that have one God that's anything like the Christian God are tiny - less than ten, in the whole history of the world, and you have to count Mormons, Protestants and Catholics as three separate religions.

    The countries with those religions had really good navies, though.

    This is why, whenever some Christian pretending to be a neutral scientist pushes his view, we have to call them on it.

    There is a *possibility* that there are gods. Thor might be in the Andromeda Galaxy right now. I seriously doubt it, I can't ever disprove it.

    Anyone asserting that *their* god exists, though, is making a much more explicit, falsifiable claim. If a scientist merely claimed 'science' was responsible for a particular state of affairs, it would be a meaningless statement. If they said it was 'genetics', it would still be vague. If they say it's a particular chromosome doing this particular thing ... well, OK, now we can test it.

    God can be held to the same standard. God guided human evolution? Good - point to where and how. Model it with and without God. Describe the mechanism.

    Or fuck off.

    'Explain how', or 'fuck off'. Those are the choices every scientist faces with every theory. Views of the world that attempt to incorporate religion should be held to the same standard.

  2. @Larry This is a photo of one of our ancestors from One Million Years B.C. I don't know if she knew about the one true God.

    She is a goddess.

    @Anonymous The number of religions that have one God that's anything like the Christian God are tiny

    It's a bit of a stretch to call any of the desert dogmas mono-theistic, one only has to wade through the tacked on by committee concept of the trinity and the veritable legions of angels, djinn, demons, succubi, cherubim, saints, yada yada, etc, etc, to realize that the so called mono theistic religions would put any honest poly theistic religion to shame for the sheer amount of supernatural baggage that they they cart around.

  3. One true god I don't know, but that picture shows the existence of one true goddess.

  4. I don't think it's difficult to imagine many ways that this could have come to be. We can trace in religion when they began, but the thoughts of only one all powerful god to beat all others was much older.

    How do we get to gods? Perhaps via mothers. A child asks what the sun is and mother explains that it is a protector flying across the sky bringing warmth and life to the planet. Perhaps a spirit of a great leader in the past. It takes only a little bit of that to plant it in the common memory of society. Once planted, it can be used to explain other things and eventually be used for acquiring power. To usurp that power takes a more powerful god that only you can talk with. On it goes till there is everyone claiming to talk to the one true god who is omnipotent and omniscient et al.

    A greed driven theological arms race. Importantly, if a few begin to ask this protector for support in an upcoming endeavor and they are successful, this 'god' seems to have real power.

    There are a great many things that have been called innate which turn out to be nurture based and thus derived from dear old mother often enough.

    One true god is the endgame of a theological arms race. The spread of Abrahamic faiths at the end of a sword give such a thought validity. The god with the strongest believers wins, and so must be true.

    People will not live in fear just because you are right in your thinking. You have to threaten them continuously, and do it with enough force that your power will never be doubted. Mubarak and others are finding out that when fear is gone, adherence is gone.

    Somewhere around the time of Zoroaster, the best fear ploy ever was invented. People will never doubt the power of something they are most afraid of. The one true god came equipped with hell fire.

  5. You know, if that were god I'd have to seriously consider converting.

  6. I think I could make a (tongue in cheek) case for God's creatures to be dinosaurs. They were around for many millions of years, and suffered several bouts of God's wrath through asteroid impacts.

    Yep, I'm afraid God was a Tyranosaurus Rex. Mammals are just the bits left over after the armageddon.

    How could you disprove this fanciful notion?

  7. First of all, let me say that Raquel Welch is a worthy goddess, one that I would worship appropriately if she had given me the chance back then.

    Second, monotheism is a very late development. Despite the standard story of back-interpretation in the Jewish and Christian traditions, full exclusivistic monotheism may be as late as the 2nd century BCE; prior to that the semitic tradition was henotheistic. I think that Ankhenaten was political and ultimately henotheistic.

    Third, religion in the modern sense did not arise before agriculture anywhere in the world. Shamanism and animisms are not religions in the sense of separable aspects of culture from political and economic activities.

    Fourth, no religion that claims to be monotheistic is actually monotheistic, apart from some technical unitarianisms. They have other deities that are simply not called deities, like saints, devils, angels, devas, heroes and avatars. Rigid monotheism is undramatic and boring. If Satan can't actually challenge God, then what's the point of faith? So Satan is, in the objective sense, an actual deity, just like Ahriman in Zoroastrianism.

    So the answer, depending on what you mean, is either "in Homo sapiens sometime after 15,000 BCE" or "no species".

  8. @John,

    Are you suggesting that a sophisticated Cambridge intellectual theologian might be ... dare I say it .... wrong?

  9. Hmmmm... the first two paragraphs seem to be a load of puffery. Then there's the summary of the story in the bible that completely ignores the entire Old Testament except for an extremely abbreviated Cliff's notes version of Genesis I&II. He then goes on to ignore most of the New Testament also except for the brief bit about redemption. He mentions that free will thing which I've often thought was rather like taxes - you can refuse to pay them but you'll be punished (if you're caught.)

    I thought BioLogos was about reconciling science with religion. I see him asking an awful lot of scientists, such as demanding that we ignore the central assumption of his claim. I don't see him asking anything of the religious. Doesn't seem to be much reconciling going on here.

    ...and then there's that bit about atheists not getting to play in his little game. Given the remark about 2 billion Christians, I'm thinking that Muslims, Hindus and Buddhist don't get to play either. "One true God?" Arrogant doesn't even begin to cover this.

  10. As I pointed out at Jerry's place, perhaps the larger set of walking trails at Laetoli are God's footprints. They're 3.2 million years old. I offered that as a time line for Alexander's question.

  11. I, too, have "theological knowledge", viz: theology is bullshit. (Heinlein said it better than I ever will: "Theology is never any help; it is searching in a dark cellar at midnight for a black cat that isn't there").

  12. I'll chime in.

    This is a photo of one of our ancestors from One Million Years B.C. I don't know if she knew about the one true God.

    No, but her boyfriend got the occasional glimpse of Heaven.

  13. Over a dozen responses and I am the first to remark that a post on boobies was followed by a post featuring Raquel Welch?


  14. Dr. Wilkins:
    "Second, monotheism is a very late development[200 BC]"
    But most polytheistic religions have really strong monotheistic tendencies, Brahma as the all god, Vishnu as the all god, Zeus Otiose, etc. Even Zoroastrianism, I mean yeah its 'duality' but people weren't worshipping the Dark, it was more of a foil than a Lord.

    "prior to that the semitic tradition was henotheistic."
    It also seems like most really 'primitive' religions were ancestor worship based, that was the important part, even if the ancestor was a totem animal or somesuch, so all religion probably started out as henotheistic, which is pretty close to monotheistic in a lot of ways. I mean, those 'other gods', you don't get much out of praying to them.

    My point is that monotheism seems like the normal trajectory of religion, for whatever that's worth.

    "They have other deities that are simply not called deities, like saints, devils, angels, devas, heroes and avatars."
    Even the Druze, who take offense at that name and insist on being called Monotheists, also conviently highly revere their founder prophet and his teachers and students.

    Loren Amacher:
    "As I pointed out at Jerry's place, perhaps the larger set of walking trails at Laetoli are God's footprints."
    Wait, isn't there only supposed to be one set of footprints? "Where were you" "Who do you think walked over that pyroclastic debris flow, I carried you!"
    Makes walking on water so much less impressive.