as if / Philosophy / Politics / Religion

About antropomorphism

The deities that people believe in in different religions are constructed. I am not talking about the question here if god or gods really exist or not, I just note that the goods the different religions are “having” are constructed. People do not have direct experience of any god or gods (although many will interpret certain experiences or feelings they are having as such), but even if we assume that a certain deity actually exists, what we think or believe about it is our construction, our imagination, our conceptualization. What I mean by this is: religions are as-if-constructions, no matter if the deities people believe in are real or not. You never have the “real god”, even if it might exist, you only have a constructed conception of it.

The way the deities are imagined and conceptualized in many religions tends to be more or less anthropomorphic. With this I don’t only mean that in many, especially ancient, religions, they often appear in the shape of humans (sometimes modified or mixed with animals etc.). But they also appear human like in the mental properties ascribed to them. The mere act of ascribing mental properties to a deity is anthropomorphism. So concepts from the conceptual domain of human psychology and human society are used here and are assembled into a conception of a deity. This is also the case in more abstract conceptions of gods like those in the Mosaic religious traditions. Although here the deity is no longer imagined as a human-shaped being, it has an anthropomorphic psychology: God is imagined as conscious, having a self. He knows something, wants something, i.e. has a will and a plan. People talk about the love of god and the wrath of god. People imagine that god sees and hears and talks and that they can communicate with him. People imagine that god rests or does something. All of these concepts come from the domain of human psychology and are projected into the deity. Should any god really exist, these projections would seem quite ridiculous to me, like an ant trying to understand human psychology in terms of its own. However, the question if any deity or deities exists is not the topic here.

The deities conceptualized by most religions, however, have a property that most people do not even seem to notice: they are constructed according to the concepts of rule and power. Rule and power are a phenomenon found in many human societies (although not in all), and many religions think of their god as a ruler, a king of the universe. We talk about “the Lord” or, connecting the deity to a patriarchal model of the family, “the (heavenly) Father”.

For many people, the idea that there is a relationship of rule or power between god and man seems to go without saying. They don’t even see the possibility that a religion could be different. They don’t notice that this “god as the lord” is also a projection of human concepts and that completely different ideas of a deity may be possible. E.g., one could imagine a god as a “source of the good”, or whatever. I am not proposing to do so; I just want to hint at the fact that the common way of constructing a conceptualization of a deity as a powerful ruler, an authoritarian god, is arbitrary and not necessary.

The conception of a deity as a ruler seems to contain a certain tension because power has a tendency to turn evil. Personally, I think that power is generally an evil and wicked phenomenon. From that angle, the connection of the concept of rule and power to the concept of god seems very odd.

These concepts of gods as rulers seem to arise in human history together with the emergence of power systems. In cultures that do not have systems of rule and power, lord-like gods are missing, e.g. in ancient Australian cultures or ancient Khoi-San-Cultures that have other types of religions. The !Kung, for example, seem to have believed in a non-personal kind of all-permeating energy that you can connect with through trance dance to (re-)create a balance in the human being, the society and the world. There is no concept of power in the society and consequently no god-the-ruler.

The god of the Christian religion, in contrast, is conceptualized as a ruler. This fits well with its emergence as a god of a people with a king (see the Old Testament), a god who later became the god of the Roman Empire (when it was no longer a republic) and of the Europe of the Middle Ages and the early modern age, which was dominated by autocratic systems of social organization justifying their power by this religion.

One problem of modern societies, especially of the Christian-dominated USA, seems to be that, although the society has become a republic, the religion still reflects a society with a monarchic rule. God is thought of as a king-like ruler. I see here a strong tension in the American society between a democratic constitution on one side and a dominant religion that reflects the autocratic political structures and patriarchic family structures of ancient Europe. The result of this tension seems to be a style of politics that appears to be strangely conservative and right-wing, even extremist and often very irrational, at least from my European perspective. I have the impression that the American democracy, “trusting in god” – and that is in a god who is a “Lord” – right from the beginning, is severely impaired and crippled by this.

8 thoughts on “About antropomorphism

  1. Even as a child attending sunday school I was put off by the authoritarian christian god and the hierarchic structure of organised religions.

    Of course, at that early age, I hadn’t the means to clearly express those feelings and ideas since I didn’t yet really understand them myself. The result was my resistance to going to church and sunday school, which often resulted in scolding or mild disciplinary actions.

    I later came to understand religion for what it is; a means of population control and a source of great power for the priesthood. Like all male dominated hierarchies, religion, for the most part, is just another means of subjugation.

    • I think the problem is more severe in the US. People from many fundamentalist sects left Europe and immigrated into the US, so you have got them there a lot, while here they are small minorities. We have a large percentage of atheists here in Germany (I think about half of the population here are atheists or diagnostics of some kind while in the US, the theists are probably 90 percent or more). In Germany, if you refer to Christ as a politician, people will become suspicious and think you are a fundamentalist extremist. In the US, if you don’t do that, you have a problem instead. Something like the Tea Party is absolutely unthinkable here. However, of course, the problem is not gone, and there are others.

    • Hi Ricari, I will enjoy a discussion with you about such topics, but I don’t have much time at the moment. Stay tuned, the opportunity may come after I come back.


  2. Nannus, this is great post. There is no denying that deities are us, created by us and some are as cruel and despondent as men often are, and some are easy as loving as women sometimes are. The deities reflect those who created them.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s