Thursday, November 12, 2015

The Origin of the Ideas of Gods by WT Shepherd 1914

CONCERNING THE ORIGIN OF THE IDEAS OF GODS By W. T. SHEPHERD, M.A., M.S., Ph.D., Dean and Lecturer on the Psychology of Religion, Waynesburg College, 1914

See also The Religions of the World - 250 Books on DVDrom (Sikh, Buddhism, Hindu etc)

Two definitions of gods or of God are given by such authorities as Webster's international Dictionary. 1, A being conceived as possessing supernatural powers, who is to be propitiated by sacrifice and worship; a divinity. 2, The Supreme Being; the Eternal and Infinite Spirit; the Creator and Sovereign of the universe. Now the group of definitions under 1, though evidently intended to define only gods of the lower religions, really overlap definition 2. They are not, however, definite or complete definitions. We remark, also, that to liberal minds, definition 2 would include the Supreme Being as conceived in all the higher religions, from Ahura-Mazda to Allah. Max Muller defines religion as a "Mental faculty by which independent of, nay in spite of sense and reason, we apprehend the Infinite under different names and in varying guises," which results in a "love of God." This virtually, though not explicitly defines God. Reville, in defining religion as the recognition by our minds of a "Mysterious Mind" in the universe essentially, though vaguely, defines God. Tiele's definition of religion as having to do with the "Infinite, as unconsciously, partially perceived by us," in effect furnishes a definition, though very general, of God. The definitions of Muller, Reville and Tiele all come properly under the second definition given above.

The present article will be limited to a psychological consideration of the origin of ideas of gods of the first class herein defined, and in the sense of gods of the lower religions. We shall not deal with the origin of ideas of a God of the second class. That is not, the writer believes, within the province of the psychology of religion or of the history of religion with their present limitations and present results. Probably in large measure it never will be. As Du Bois Raymond expressed it in another connection, we must in this matter, inscribe ignoramus on our banner, and, considered as a subject for positive science to investigate, quite possibly ignoranimus.

We shall also observe a limitation in the matter of the factors involved in the genesis of god-ideas. Psychological investigation can deal only with the ordinary faculties and powers of mind included in the scope of that science; such as sensation, perception, memory, imagination, conception, judgment and reason, with the ordinary feelings and somewhat with the will. It cannot deal with such conceptions as the religious consciousness and similar religious concepts. Now that there is a Divine Power in the world nearly all of the countless millions of men in all ages have believed, felt as they have thought. Even the cold reasoning skeptical scientists have, in crises of their lives, perhaps, felt that such a power exists, or could have so felt, had they had such crises. The "plain man" would regard all this as strong evidence of the existence of such a Power. Again, nearly all men have felt that man has in his make-up, a divine spark, a religious consciousness, or some kind of a relationship with a Divine Being or Beings. It would perhaps even make the cold, skeptical, scientist angry if we should deny the presence of such a divine spark, or whatever it may be, in him. Now, if we must perforce believe in this divine spark in civilized man, we should also believe that primitive man possessed it. He was human, with mental and moral powers much like our own, though not so highly developed. Then, if the "plain man" is correct in the belief that all men, including primitive man, have had that divine spark, would not that divine spark be a factor in his conception of ideas of gods? Would it not impel him to seek for and to propitiate those powers? Though most men must feel that such is the case, positive psychology cannot deal with it. It is beyond the province of the science. We therefore waive the question of this element being a factor in the genesis of god-ideas, and seek to study only the mental faculties involved with which psychology can deal, as factors in such genesis.

With the two limitations noted, we shall, rather briefly, attempt to maintain the following propositions: 1, Ideas of gods of the first class defined above have arisen not from the contemplation of any one class of phenomena alone, as has been held by some writers, e.g., from the personification of natural objects and natural forces, as the Sun and the thunder; from the personification of abstractions; from totemism; from the deification of great men; from the deification of ancestors; from Great Makers; but in the different instances from all of these sources. 2, The principal factors in the genesis of these conceptions of gods which psychology reveals have been: imagination, primitive reason and primitive credulity. 3, There has been a progressive evolution of god-ideas. 4, There has not been a universal degeneration of these ideas. 5, There has been a centralization, unifying of god-ideas and of gods.

Personification Of Natural Objects And Natural Forces

As to the fact that such gods have been widely believed in, there can be no question. The Babylonians, the Egyptians, the Aryan peoples, the Greeks and other peoples worshipped the Sun, the Moon, etc. They sought to propitiate the thunder and other objects and forces. The only question is as to whether these personified natural phenomena were the sources of the ideas. The present writer fully believes that the psychology of the primitive mind supports the view that they were the sources. Now we can easily conceive that when primitive man looked out with awe upon the forky lightning and the deafening thunder, he with his childlike imagination, and employing a modieum of reason, would pronounce it a god. Primitive credulity would also be a contributing factor in his mental process.2 He would observe the beneficent heat and light of the Sun, and in a similar manner conceive it as a supernatural being, a god.

In thus conceiving the Sun or the thunder as a god, the mind of primitive man operated in a like manner to the mind of a scientist, of a Newton. When Newton saw an apple fall from the tree, his creative, scientific imagination suggested to him the hypothesis that the fall of the apple from the tree was due to a universal attraction of gravitation. The mind of primitive man by his creative imagination formed his hypothesis that the conception of a god was a satisfactory explanation of the phenomenon of thunder. The chief difference between the hypotheses of primitive man and of the scientist is, that while the latter goes on to verify his hypothesis suggested by the creative imagination, primitive man, lacking the critical spirit of the scientist, did not in his primitive credulity, go on so to verify his hypothesis.

Personification Of Abstractions

The fact of the worship of such supposed deities as Fortune, Abundance, etc., is admitted. The Greeks, the Romans and many other peoples celebrated rites to them. Here again, the factors in the genesis of such god-ideas were imagination, perhaps a grain of reason, reinforced by primitive credulity. Primitive man observed such phenomena as abundance, fortune, etc., and in his childlike simplicity of mind pronounced them gods or goddesses to be propitiated. Here also, the creative imagination, like in the mental process of the scientific investigator, of a Newton, was employed. But the Newtonian testing of the hypothesis was not made.


Anthropology amply establishes the fact of the worship of animal and vegetable gods. A notable example is furnished by the religion of the Druids. The Druids venerated the spirit of the oak. Among the ancient Egyptians, the ancient Germans and among many other peoples totemism has prevailed. We may here again, as it seems to the writer, see that in imagination, including perhaps a trace of reason, with all the credulity of primitive man, we may account pretty fully for the origin of the idea. In the hunting stage, man would and did, as we may readily believe, elevate an animal to the rank of a deity. Quite possibly, the usefulness to his tribe of the particular animal deified, or some one of its striking characteristics was concerned in the mental process involved. In such instances again, as in the personification of natural objects and forces, and in the personification of abstractions we see creative imagination at work; but here also we note the lack of verification of the explanation.

Deified Men

No one will question the fact of belief in such a class of deities, demi-gods, or near-gods. Mythology and the history of religions furnish many examples of them. Among the Romans, in the deification of the Caesars, we see gods in the making. In many such cases the psychological process was probably something like the following: A great chief, or hero, who by his deeds had won especial renown died. The fame of his deeds in the course of time became progressively exaggerated, until finally, to the primitive credulity of the masses, the hero became a god. The important factors herein involved were imagination and credulity. Veneration for great men and for great deeds was also a factor in the process.


Ancestor worship was in many instances only reverence and worship of inferior spirits, those of dead ancestors. Yet among different peoples, ancestor spirits have been held to be gods; in some cases as Great, or Creator-Gods. The Mingoes, the Dog-Ribs, the Mandans of North America, the Zulus in South Africa and other tribes have each worshipped an ancestor as a god. Among the ancient Egyptians, the Chinese and the Japanese, though ancestor worship has prevailed, their gods have been so complicated with the different natural, totemistic and ancestor elements that the question as to whether ancestors have really been worshipped as gods is rather hazy. In the worship of ancestor-gods again, primitive imagination and primitive credulity appear to have been the principal factors in the genesis of the idea. Filial respect and love have also in these instances probably been factors in the process of conception.

Great Maker-gods

Belief in this class of gods has been of wide prevalence. "We find it even among the native tribes of Australia, Melanesia, among the Negritos of Africa, as well as among many, or most, more advanced peoples. Here primitive reason was probably the principal factor in the genesis of the idea. Primitive man has seen that the tools he uses had makers, that his house had a maker, etc. On a more general observation of the phenomena of the world around him, he would naturally infer that there must be a maker of the world. Imagination also, by representing the Great Maker to him in a particular form, was, we may see, a factor. In the latter phase of the mental process, primitive credulity would also necessarily have a share.

Man in the primitive state is intellectually only a child of larger growth. He does not possess either the knowledge or the scientific discipline which would enable him critically to examine and to explain the phenomena of the world. So, like the child, his imagination and untutored reason, by perfectly normal processes, explain satisfactorily the phenomena he observes to his childlike credulity.

Child psychology furnishes analogical evidence along this line. We are informed that Helen Keller, when about ten years old, inquired "Who made the land and the seas?" Students of child psychology tell us that children from five to ten years of age begin to inquire for a maker of the world, i.e., to reason about the matter. We also know how wide is the scope which the child imagination takes; we know how unbounded is child credulity. The mind of primitive man operated in quite a similar manner.

Evolution Of Conceptions Of Gods

We may safely say that there has been some degree of progressive development of god-ideas. With the increasing intelligence and with elevation of the moral ideas of a people, their conceptions of their gods would necessarily be developed, elevated. No one now doubts that there has been a process of evolution in the animal and in the vegetable worlds; in the sociological and other fields. Though not yet so much investigated or so well established, it would be unreasonable for the scientific mind to deny that there has been some corresponding evolution of religious conceptions, including ideas of gods. On such a view as the latter, the law of continuity would be broken. This is unthinkable. Ideas of deities in a people, as in an individual depend, in great measure, upon their degree of culture.

The religions of the world have been composed of two principal elements. 1, Of a philosophy of the phenomena of the world. 2, Of a system of ethical regulations and taboos. Now we know that with increasing knowledge of the physical laws of the world and with the increasing of the critical spirit in man, the former would necessarily develop, evolve. We know that such has been the case. We also know that there has been an evolution of the latter, or ethical element. As an unquestionable example of moral evolution; savage peoples believe in revenge and torture of captives, and practice torture of their victims; civilized peoples do not. This is clearly a matter of evolution. Here is evolution of the ideas of morals and of religion. It naturally involves evolution of ideas of gods, which are the central factors of religion. Many more conclusive examples of such evolution could be given.

Degeneration Of God-ideas

This view of Andrew Lang, not to touch upon that deducible from the tenet of an original revelation, is inconsistent with that of an intellectual and moral evolution in the race, and so cannot be regarded as a correct one. It is, moreover, repugnant to reason and to common sense, to the scientific attitude, to the latest results of researches in anthropology. We cannot admit that man, when probably just emerged from animaldom, could possess or conceive higher ideas of gods, or of any other objects, than can peoples with culture and some degree of science. Nor is it necessary to suppose that there was an original, universal idea of a Great-Maker among all the people of the world, as such a view would imply. This class of gods, for which Lang contends, as such, have had their rise among different peoples simply by similar mental processes. Each people and each man have had similar mental powers of reason and imagination, have perceived similar phenomena in the world, and so have naturally inferred similarly from it; similar mental reactions have resulted in their minds. That is the reasonable explanation of the matter. Such would nearly as certainly result as that similar chemical reactions should result from the employment of like reagents in a like manner. However, there has probably been a measure of degeneration of ideas of deities as they have been understood by the masses of men, from the original conceptions of those deities by religious geniuses and prophets. This is more or less true of all religions.

We may also understand in another way how there could be, and doubtless has been, in some instances, a degeneration of god-ideas. If a nation of a low order of culture, and so with a low religion, conquered a nation of a higher order of culture, and so with higher religious conceptions, we can see that the former could impose their religion on the latter; and so, in the course of time, cause a degeneration of the religion of the latter, and thereby of their ideas of gods. But a theory of universal degeneration, for the foregoing reasons, would seem inademissable.

Centralization Of God-ideas And Of Gods

In the Babylonian religion, when Hammurabi placed Marduk at the head of their pantheon, we see an example of such centralization. Ammon Ra, made the supreme god of the Egyptians by Amenophis IV, the expansionist of that country, is another instance. Many other examples could be cited. We could expect, we could expect nothing else, but that with national or kingly expansion of dominion, partly as a matter of statecraft, such centralization of religion, and of religious objects, at least in some instances, should take place. No fact or result in history would seem more natural. The annals of different countries and of different peoples abundantly furnish such facts.

To sum up this paper, all too brief in dealing with a subject not very susceptible of exact scientific treatment, or scientific statement, we conclude: 1, That ideas of gods of the class herein considered were of several origins, namely; from (a) personified natural objects and forces, (b) from personification of abstractions, (c) of totemistic origin, (d) from heroes deified, (e) from deification of ancestors, (f) as Great-Makers. 2, The principal factors in the genesis of these ideas, so far as an empirical psychology can analyse them were, imagination, primitive reason and primitive credulity. 3, That the mind of primitive man is much like that of the child; that the child conceives such phenomena by the foregoing mental processes, and so did primitive man. 4, There has been a progressive evolution of god-ideas. 5, There has not been, therefore, a universal degeneration of such ideas. 6, There can be noted a centralization, fusion of gods and of god-ideas.

For a list of all of my disks, with links, click here

No comments:

Post a Comment