Freethought Archives > G W Foote > Flowers of Freethought

GOD-MAKING.

"MAN is certainly stark mad; he cannot make a flea, and yet he will be making gods by dozens." So wrote honest Montaigne, the first great sceptic in modern history, who was so far in advance of his age that he surprised the world by venturing to doubt whether it was after all a just and sensible thing to burn a man alive for differing from his neighbors.

The history of that mental aberration which is called religion, and a survey of the present state of the world, from the fetish worshipper of central Africa to the super-subtle Theist of educated Europe, furnish us with countless illustrations of the truth of Montaigne's exclamation. God-making has always been a prevalent pastime, although it has less attraction for the modern than for the ancient mind. It was a recreation in which everyone could indulge, whether learned or illiterate, young or old, rich or poor. All the material needed to fashion gods of was ignorance, and there was always an unlimited stock of that article. The artificer was imagination, a glorious faculty, which is the highest dower of the creative artist and the scientific discoverer, and in their service is fruitful in usefulness and beauty, but which in the service of theology is a frightful curse, filling the mental world with fantastic monsters who waylay and devour.

Common people, however, who did the work of the world, were not able to do much god-making. Their leisure and ability were both limited. But they had a large capacity for admiring the productions of others, and their deficiencies were supplied by a special class of men, called priests, who were set apart for the manufacture of deities, and who devoted their time and their powers to the holy trade. This pious division of labor, this specialisation of function, still continues. Carpenters and tailors, grocers and butchers, who are immersed all the week in labor or business, have no opportunity for long excursions in the field of divinity; and therefore they take their religion at second hand from the priest on Sunday. It was not the multitude, but the sacred specialists, who built up the gigantic and elaborate edifice of theology, which is a purely arbitrary construction, deriving all its design and coherence from the instinctive logic of the human mind, that operates alike in a fairy tale and in a syllogism.

Primitive man used conveniently-shaped flints before he fashioned flint instruments; discovery always preceding invention. In like manner he found gods before he made them. A charm resides in some natural object, such as a fish's tooth, a queer-shaped pebble, or a jewel, and it is worn as an amulet to favor and protect. This is fetishism. By-and-bye counterfeits are made of animals and men, or amalgams of both, and the fetishistic sentiment is transferred to these. This is the beginning of polytheism. And how far it extends even into civilised periods, let the superstitions of Europe attest. The nun who tells her beads, and the lady who wears an ornamental crucifix, are to some extent fetishists; while the Catholic worship of saints is only polytheism in disguise.

Reading the Bible with clear eyes, we see that the ancient Jews worshipped gods of their own making, which were handed down as family relics. When Jacob made tracks after sucking his uncle dry, Rachel carried off the poor old fellow's teraphim, and left him without even a god to worship. Jahveh himself, who has since developed into God the Father, was originally nothing but an image in an ark. Micah, in the book of Judges, makes himself a houseful of gods, and hires a Levite as his domestic chaplain. How long the practice persisted we may judge from the royal scorn which Isaiah pours on the image-mongers, who hewed down cedars and cypresses, oaks and ashes, some for fuel and some for idols. Let us hear the great prophet: "He burneth part thereof in the fire; with part thereof he eateth flesh; he roasteth roast, and is satisfied: yea, he warmeth himself, and saith, Aha, I am warm, I have seen the fire: And the residue thereof he maketh a god, even his graven image: he falleth down unto it, and worshippeth it, and prayeth unto it, and saith, Deliver me, for thou art my god."

Twenty-six centuries have elapsed since Isaiah wrote that biting satire, yet image-worship still prevails over three-fourths of the world; and even in Christian countries, to use Browning's phrase, we "see God made and eaten every day." A wave of the hand and a muttered spell, change bread or wafer and port-wine into the body and blood of Christ, which are joyously consumed by his cannibal worshippers.

Not even the higher divinities of the greater faiths are exempt from the universal law. They are not creatures of man's hand, yet they are creatures of his brain. What are they but his own fancies, brooded on till they become facts of memory, and seem to possess an objective existence? The process is natural and easy. A figment of the imagination may become intensely real. Have we not a clearer idea of Hamlet and Othello than of half our closest acquaintances? Feuerbach went straight to the mark when he aimed to prove "that the powers before which man crouches are the creatures of his own limited, ignorant, uncultured and timorous mind, and that in especial the being whom man sets over against himself as a separate supernatural existence in his own being."

Yes, all theology is anthropomorphism -- the making of gods in man's image. What is the God of our own theology, as Matthew Arnold puts it, but a magnified man? We cannot transcend our own natures, even in imagination; we can only interpret the universe in the terms of our own consciousness, nor can we endow our gods with any other attributes than we possess ourselves. When we seek to penetrate the "mystery of the infinite," we see nothing but our own shadow and hear nothing but the echo of our own voice.

As we are so are our gods, and what man worships is what he himself would be. The placid Egyptian nature smiles on the face of the sphinx. The gods of India reflect the terror of its heat and its beasts and serpents, the fertility of its soil, and the exuberance of its people's imagination. The glorious Pantheon of Greece --
 

Praxitelean shapes, whose marble smiles
Fill the hushed air with everlasting love --

embodies the wise and graceful fancies of the noblest race that ever adorned the earth, compared with whose mythology the Christian system is a hideous nightmare. The Roman gods wear a sterner look, befitting their practical and imperial worshippers, and Jove himself is the ideal genius of the eternal city. The deities of the old Scandinavians, whose blood tinges our English veins, were fierce and warlike as themselves, with strong hands, supple wrists, mighty thews, lofty stature, grey-blue eyes and tawny hair. Thus has it ever been. So Man created god in his own image, in the image of Man created he him; male and female created he them.
 


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