From the Mind of an 8-year-old: ‘Who Made Up God?’

By Wendy Thomas Russell | February 18, 2014 | 11 comments

Rope SwingMy daughter is on her rope swing, looking out into the blue sky just beyond the fence line of our front yard. She is thinking quietly. And deeply, as it turns out.

“Who made up God?” she asks.

“What?” I say. Because I am inside and can barely hear her.

“Who made up God?” she asks again. I walk to the open door, pondering the question. It sounds as though she might expect me to name someone — an actual person responsible for the creation of this great character that she’s heard so much about.

“Quentin Tarantino,” I think about saying, but don’t.

I go back to my old reliable: Some people believe... It’s imprinted in my brain by now.

“Well, you know,” I say, “some people believe God is not made up at all—”

“—yeah yeah yeah, I know,” she says, totally interrupting me.

She is 8, see, and 8-year-olds do not need to be told things they’ve been told before. Because 8-year-olds have brains like steel traps. They remember everything. Except, you know, where they last left their backpack. And their lunch box. And their homework and shoes and every hand-held electronic they own. But, like, everything else.

“I mean,” she continues, “who was the first person to have the idea of God?”

“Okay, that’s a really great question,” I say, because it is, isn’t it? Incidentally, I do not know how to answer this particular question, but I do know precisely where she last left her backpack, lunch box, homework, shoes and Kindle.

This is 40.

Anyway, I say something about how the idea of God and gods has been around for many thousands of years. No one knows who the first believers were, but the idea might even go back to the first humans. Probably, I tell her, it wasn’t just one person but a bunch of people who started believing around the same time.

“Why?” she asks.

Another great question. “People believe in God or gods for all sorts of reasons,” I say. “It makes them feel good to not be alone. It makes them feel good to believe that something larger is out there, watching over them. And it makes some people feel good to believe that they’ll live on after they die.”

The answer satisfies her — she moves on to something else — but it doesn’t satisfy me. I start wondering: How far back does belief go? What exactly were those early believers lacking or longing for? What is it that led them to spirituality?

So I did some Googling.

unesco5Here’s what I found out:

1. There’s no telling for sure when belief in the supernatural first took root. What we do know is based on archeological finds that point to ritual behaviors. Rituals = supernatural beliefs, or at least that’s the idea.

2. Evidence of rituals dates back at least 130,000 years; that’s when we know homo sapiens intentionally buried their dead — suggesting that they may have believed in some sort of an afterlife. (Burials actually go back to the Neanderthal period, some 300,000 years ago, but we don’t know whether those burials were intentional.)

3. These early rituals didn’t involve gods, per se. (This was 125,000 years before Zeus even entered the picture.) According to scholars, the beliefs of these early humans probably resembled totemism or animism, both of which are practiced today and emphasize the spiritual essence of all living things. In totemism plants and animals are thought to possess supernatural powers, and totems are thought to “interact” with individual peoples or tribes, thus serving as their emblem or symbol. (Not unlike school mascots.) You can read more about totemism here and here. I plan to. It’s fascinating stuff.

I still can’t answer Maxine’s questions about the when and the why of religious belief, but next time she asks, at least I’ll be a little more prepared about the what.


11 comments

  1. Abe says:

    Peter Bogossian has some great stuff on the origins of belief.

  2. Janet says:

    I wonder about the logic of equating death rituals, or ritual of any kind, with belief in the supernatural. After all, plenty of modern non-believers participate in funeral rites. You don’t need to believe in God to mourn the loss of a loved one, or to employ ritual in the grieving process.

    A yearly pilgrimage to Mecca, weekly attendance at Mass, or an evening ritual of prayer, probably implies a belief in God. We understand this from the context. But fireworks every 4th of July, a weekly hike in the hills, and watching the sunrise every morning, perhaps no. Yet all of these actions could be associated with religion in other contexts.

    I’ve heard of many non-human species of animals that will regularly bury their dead, including elephants, chimps, rats, and ants. Are they expressing belief in an afterlife, mourning a painful loss, or answering a deeper instinct? As outsiders, how would we know?

    • I had the same question, Janet! I do think there’s more to it than what I’ve written in this blog, though, and suspect that the burial rituals were more involved than simply hiding the body or showing respect for the life that once inhabited the body. This whole thing has made me want to find out more about the anthropology of religion…

      • Janet says:

        Been thinking a bit more. Whenever I’ve had to bury a pet such as a dog or a cat, I have often used their favorite blanket as the burial shroud, and put a favorite toy in the box with them. I do not believe these objects followed them to the afterlife, but I felt the gesture appropriate nonetheless. I think about how I carefully braided my old mare’s mane one last time on the morning I had to put her down after a years-long struggle with degenerative joint disease. It didn’t have much to do with God, it was just a comforting ritual that she and I had shared together before every performance and competition, and seemed a fitting way to honor her and to say goodbye. It is rare to find religion without ritual, but ritual without religion is surprisingly common.

  3. Dan says:

    I have thought that the belief in god has an evolutionary component. If belief and rituals have a physical impact on stress levels, thus our health. Its not a stretch to think that those who tended toward belief in a powerful guardian would have an evolutionary advantage.
    (Its a bit half baked I know…)
    Love your posts btw.

  4. Neil Namoro says:

    i have always imagined that people began creating the idea of gods because of back then there are so much man could not explain; probably why people back then almost have a god of/for something.

    btw, i am going to be a father soon, my wife and i are expecting our first baby on July. exciting times! :D

  5. Brandon says:

    it makes some people feel good to believe that they’ll live on after they die.” I always enjoy your articles.probably a little Off subject of article…. I’m a 38 & father of a 6 year old beautiful little princes. My daughter has ask me what happens when I die. She doesn’t want to loose me, understandable. It just concerns me she thinking about losing me, anyways.. Don’t known if I’ve handle it the right way, but I tried to keep it light in my explanation. I told my her. I think it’s like before we born. I ask if she remembered anything before she was born? To which she replied… no daddy! of course not .. then I just placed the importance on us enjoying this life …..

    • Sounds to me like you’re doing it just right, Brandon. Also, if you’re interested, you can check homepage for other blog posts I’ve done about death. Happy reading! Haha.

      • Brandon says:

        Thank you. I appreciate your kind words. I live just outside Atlanta (Stone Mountain) and myself being an atheist in the south, my wife is more Agnostic she’s from South America having no family he.So my family and I can feel a little alienated at times.

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Due out in March 2015, Relax, It's Just God: How and Why to Talk to Your Kids About Religion When You're Not Religious offers a well-researched look at a timely subject: secular parenting. With chapters on avoiding indoctrination, talking about death, vaccinating kids against intolerance, dealing with religious baggage, and getting along with religious relatives, the book offers a refreshingly compassionate approach to raising religiously literate, highly tolerant and critically thinking children capable of making up their own minds about what to believe. The book may be pre-ordered by visiting Brown Paper Press.
 

      Natural Wonderers is a new blog hosted by Wendy Thomas Russell and published by the Patheos faith network. An extension of Russell's previous blog — Relax, It's Just God — Natural Wonderers offers stories and advice on raising curious, compassionate children in secular families.
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