George Walford: The Birth of the Gods

Studies in systematic ideology tend to centre around politics. There have been forays into wider fields, and Beyond Politics [1] justifies its title by an attempt at tracing the influence of ideology in society at large, but broad areas remain unexplored. Here we take up one feature of the ideology of religion, a subject hardly touched since Walsby’s chapter, “Development and Repression,” in his Domain of Ideologies. [2]

In the strongest sense of the term “religion” refers to the great institutions reckoning their supporters in the tens or hundreds of millions: Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, Islam and Hinduism. Each of these has been used by rulers to attain their ends and justify their actions, each has served the ruled as a vehicle for their aspirations, each has provided a field of action for some of the sharpest and strongest intellects. Religion as we know it today is an integral part of civilisation, influential, immensely complex and deeply enmeshed in social life. Political movements turn out on examination to form a significant series and one might have expected these religions to fall into a corresponding arrangement, but they do not. Historical connections can be found, Christianity having links with Judaism and Buddhism with Hinduism, but the five great religions cannot sensibly be interpreted as each the expression of a particular level in an underlying structure of ideologies. The main-sequence political movements appear, after analysis if not at first sight, in much the same relative strength all over the advanced world [2] a but the religions behave differently, being mainly Christian in Europe, mainly Judaic in Israel, and so on.

Various analyses of religion have been offered, most of them adding something to our understanding but none accounting for all its features, and it does not seem likely that any one explanation ever will succeed in accounting for everything covered by the term. Here we seek the origin of the belief in omnipotence. Although among the more striking features of the religious spectrum this attracts little attention from some of the explanations offered. Durkheim’s theory, for example, that religion symbolizes the strength and cohesiveness of society, hardly touches this issue, for no society, simple or sophisticated, provides any model for unlimited power; every society acts within limitations imposed either by the natural world or by other societies; usually, of course, by both.

One suggestion has the gods representing the sun and the goddesses the moon. Another would have us see them personifying a life-force causing plants, especially the food-plants, to grow anew each spring. These proposed explanations, and others attempting to trace the origins of the divinities in nature, do much to account for the pattern of rise, decline and renascent so common in religious myths, and for the emotion associated with religion. It is not hard to link the feelings of a sun-worshipper, watching his deity fall and rise again, with the Christian lines: When I survey the wondrous Cross On which the Prince of Glory died, My richest gains I count but loss, And pour contempt on all my pride.

But although sun, moon and stars undeniably play a part, they serve less to originate the religious impulse than to furnish it with a local habitation. Cows and cats also have provided shapes for divinity to occupy, but few propose to take any impression these creatures have made as the source of religious belief. There is more to religion than these explanations can explain, and – what concerns us here – they fall short of accounting for the omnipotence credited to the supreme deities.

Theologians may speak of the gods as they might discuss any other object of study, but the great numbers behave differently. To the mass of worshippers gods appear as objects of reverence, not to be analysed but loved, feared and obeyed. Devotees prostrate themselves as worthless sinners before faultless magnificence, and the aim of human effort becomes the greater glory of god. All the resources of art and language do not enable the religious people fully to express their sense of the splendour of divinity.

Long familiarity with the concept of omnipotence has caused the strangeness of it, and the difficulty of tracing its origin, to be largely lost sight of. Even freethinkers incline towards treating it matter-of-factly, questioning only its validity. But how does it arise? Novel ideas are common enough, but they develop out of former thinking; a hippogriff is made up of parts of known animals and aviation follows the example set by the birds. Omnipotence cannot be traced back in this way, for it is not merely great power but unlimited power; before omnipotence all the solid resistance offered by the universe collapses. What can possibly account for this conception?

It has been suggested that the child’s experience of its parents, and especially of the dominant father, provides the model on which the figure of deity comes to be constructed. The theory flatters parents so strongly as to provoke scepticism and indeed domination, always linked with at least the possibility of resistance, stands well apart from omnipotence. Not the father, not the life-force, not the sun, but God alone gets presented as all-powerful. To account for this feature we have to dig deeper, and the explanation to be offered can be summed up in a few words: it originates in universal experience. All of us, prehistoric, ancient, medieval and modern, have passed through a time when we would have been justified, had we only been capable of verbalising our condition, in claiming that we enjoyed not merely supernatural but total power.

To be omnipotent is to be without wants or limitations, enjoying full and effortless satisfaction, and this we experience at the very beginning of life, when the newly-conceived human being lives in complete unity with its surroundings. Not needing to eat or even to breathe, having every want satisfied before it can be felt, encountering nothing known to be apart from itself, the foetus suffers no limitations. It is completely at one with its universe, unbounded, unconditioned, unrestricted. It can hardly be said to know this, for knowledge entails distinction between knower and known, and this has yet to appear. If, however, we credit the foetus with mental activity at all (and the presence of the neural apparatus for perception virtually obliges us to do so) then the observation that it makes no effort carries the inference that it perceives no need for effort, experiences no resistance or limitation. In short, that it assumes itself omnipotent.

As yet even this preliminary outline of explanation is incomplete. We have to account not only for the assumption of omnipotence but for its ascription to deity, and in order to reach this we use the concepts of repression and projection. The psycho-analysts have established that material refused direct expression tends to make its appearance in unexpected forms and locations, Freud describing the process in Totem and Taboo. His analysis shows us all including in our psyches repressed hatred of our loved ones. After a bereavement this hostility, of which the survivors have kept themselves carefully ignorant, “is ejected from internal perception into the external world, and thus detached from them and pushed onto someone else.” This someone else often being the spirit of the dead, the transference accounts for the malevolence commonly ascribed to ghosts. The survivors are “relieved of pressure from within, but have only exchanged it for oppression from without.” [3]

The assumption of personal omnipotence receives similar treatment. Put under pressure by the impossibility of realising it in direct personal activity, yet so strongly impressed that it cannot be eliminated, it “is ejected from internal perception into the external world,” appearing first as an assortment of supernatural powers and later, as internal repression reaches completion, as one all-powerful deity.

We have before us the newly-conceived human creature effortlessly floating; fed, cleaned, warmed and supplied with oxygen without needing even to indicate a want, totally at one with its universe, with no call for exertion and no hint of any limitation on its powers. As the perceptive apparatus develops this flawless unity begins to weaken; movement and noise from outside start to intrude, and eventually the foetus gets turned out into the world. Even after birth, however, distinction between the newborn and its surroundings is at first by no means sharp. Those around do their best to maintain the earlier condition, and this goes far to confirm the original assumption; the outraged protest, when some failure of attention permits the baby to suffer discomfort, shows the continuing strength of the conviction that things against its will ought not be happening. An early psychoanalyst, Ferenczi, spoke of infantile omnipotence, and Jean Piaget’s more recent studies provide confirmation, showing that for the infant external world and self remain undissociated: “At birth, Piaget tells us, the baby and the universe are one, they form an undifferentiated whole in which the polarities of I and not I, the self and other, internal and external, and subject and object have no meaning.” [4a] Where there is nothing apart from the self there can be no limitations.

Piaget shows that as the growing infant becomes aware of objects it still, at first, assumes them to be coming into being, or ceasing to exist, as it sees them or not, and “may well consider the changes in his image of the world as being simultaneously real and constantly created by his own actions.” [5] Up to the age of about nine months the assumption of personal omnipotence is largely maintained, the child continuing to behave as though it alone were responsible for the existence of the world. After that age the presence of independent reality comes to be accepted, and in the process the child ceases to behave as if omnipotent.

We make, of course, no sudden jump from infancy to adulthood. As the child grows the mother partly ceases to attend to it spontaneously; she waits for it to make its wants known, and it comes to experience the limitations imposed by hunger and discomfort. If it ignores these they get worse; in order to get them dealt with it has to show itself aware of them, and by doing this it shows itself to be crediting these limitations with enough independent reality to be able to affect it; to that extent it represses its own monopoly of reality, its own omnipotence.

Although no longer enjoying unlimited power, the baby can still exercise what we may perhaps call conditional omnipotence. It can get a wet, cold, dirty nappy exchanged for a dry, warm, clean one by crying, and similarly with its other wants; it can replace the discomfort of hunger by the pleasure of being fed, get itself picked up or put down, get its rattle or bring mother’s smiling face above it, by making the right noises and gestures. These effects have been produced by its own voice and movements; it commands these things and – hey presto! – they are done. Early in life, while still learning things easily and learning them never to be forgotten, we all learn that we will get what we want if we go through a certain sequence of sounds and actions. As we become aware of a world distinct from ourselves, a world now credited with part of the power we formerly monopolised and thereby enabled to resist us, so we learn to use ritual to maintain conditional control of it.

Crying and arm-waving do not themselves produce the effects required. They work by influencing those around, and looking at this from the baby’s side we see figures out there, figures now possessing the greater part of the power and reality that formerly belonged to itself alone but still figures that it can control by making the correct sounds and gestures. We all learn, while still infants, that in this way we can influence, and to some extent control, powers greater than our own, and the persistence of this assumption provides an explanation for magic, taboo, totemism, animism and animatism, all the practices implying a conception of the world as moved by supernatural powers which human beings can act upon by following formalised procedures. The peoples who dance to bring rain, or recite spells to weaken their enemies, are using techniques they found to be effective in early childhood. When we ask how they ever came to believe that these methods could be useful the answer is that there was a time when they worked.

Practices implying belief in the supernatural arose early. Votary figures seem have been made even before the start of the Neolithic ten thousand years ago and the cave paintings, enigmatic as they are, also suggest an appeal to occult forces. Burial rites can be traced back farther still, even for 60,000 years [4], and these already point to a belief in power that survives bodily death, an indication growing stronger when we find weapons, tools, beads and pottery interred with the corpse. The externalisation of personal omnipotence to create powers superior to natural or human ones may well be as old as humanity.

The first people lived, even more than we do, in a world that went its own way. Able to exercise little constructive control, they had to take things pretty much as they found them, living nomadic lives in pursuit of food, restricting their numbers to what the country could support and, generally, submitting to circumstance. At least, that is what their life looks like from where we stand. But when we set out to deduce from what is known of their behaviour (and that of peoples who followed the same way of life in more recent times) the way they were thinking, a different picture appears. They did not act like weak creatures struggling to survive. On the contrary; their easy-going ways show them to have been as relaxed, happy and confident as only those can be who feel themselves comfortably in control. In a few places where supplies were highly seasonal, as among the fishing tribes of the Northwest Coast of North America, they laid in stocks to cover the lean times, but wherever it was possible to do so they lived carelessly for the moment, worrying less about food for tomorrow than many a modern family wit a supermarket round the corner.

Young people ceremoniously admitted to full membership of the community did not join a few ignorant savages living miserably on the edge of extinction, they entered a group disposing of greater powers than science has yet claimed to wield. By performing the proper rites these peoples could bring rain, cause the sun to return each morning, ensure good hunting, render themselves immune to weapons and weaken or even slay their enemies. Or so they believed; in the absence of records and sophisticated critical thinking the efficacy of ritual is hard to disprove.

Sir James Frazer, collating reports from missionaries and colonists, came to describe early thinking as animistic, implying by the term a conception of material objects, trees and animals as animated by indwelling spirits, and the theory brought out a major feature of the thinking found in these communities: recognising the spiritual to be not simply the same as the natural, material and human, they yet did not set it firmly apart. Principled distinction had yet to appear. Another attempt to formulate a theory covering some of the early spiritual concepts appeared as totemism, linking a particular species or object or place, in a way that was spiritual but hard to define more precisely, with each clan.

To the extent that religious thinking takes specific shape at this stage of development it displays an absence of firm differentiation between the spiritual on the one hand and the natural, material and human world on the other. The spiritual has not been put away into a remote heaven, and the people experience no difficulty in maintaining contact with it. No alienation appears here, no dark night of the soul and no moan of despair at being forsaken by God. Unlike adherents of the great religions the foragers need make no effort to bring the divine into their ordinary lives; the only spirituality that concerns them forms part of the places, things, animals and people they deal with every day. Totemists, for instance, sometimes report having held quite ordinary conversations with their totem animal, and in the tales it is not just the spirits of the crow, raven and bear that appear but Crow, Raven and Bear themselves.

The peoples sometimes called primitive are neither mad nor stupid. They know perfectly well whether it is raining or not, whether the caribou herds have arrived or not, whether the enemy cursed has died or not, and they have seldom relied entirely upon ritual; having performed the buffalo dance they still went out and physically hunted the buffalo. The world of food, animals and hunger, of life and death, is not the same as the ritual world, but neither are the two clearly distinguished. It is the student, rather than the forager, who thinks of spirits apart from animals and people.

We shall shortly be going on to discuss orthodox religion, and in doing so it will be important to remember that this magical or superstitious approach survives, and retains much of its power, even in the advanced societies today. As the great religions developed they took over the old mode of thought together with many of the earlier practices and beliefs, the old supernatural powers becoming saints, demons or minor deities; the priest, like the shaman, uses a special costume and special forms of words. Superstitions connected with walking under ladders, Friday the thirteenth, black cats, throwing salt over your shoulder, touching wood and so on may have dwindled to become hardly more than mild jokes, but gambling is serious business and it rests on the appeal to luck, a supernatural power. People commonly grumble that “they” ought to do something about drugs, traffic-jams or whatever, and “they – powerful, ubiquitous and faceless – stand as modern equivalents of the spirits that once inhabited the woods. For great numbers in Lo don, New York and Moscow, as for the foragers of the Arctic, the Kalahari and the Australian desert, the supernatural (which is to say their own displaced infantile omnipotence) is not far away.

Ritual does not always bring the expected result, and although failure can be explained away another response is also possible; about ten thousand years ago some people began to exhibit it. They surrendered the last remnants of direct personal omnipotence, foregoing attempts to influence the supernatural powers by the use of ritual and placing themselves in willing helplessness in the care of a Being divinely good upon whom the primal assumption of omnipotence, now fully repressed internally, was fully projected. At this point in development the true gods and goddesses first appear, together with the posture of worship. A major difference between magic (in the sense of pre-religious practices) and institutional religion is that the magician tries to exercise power while the faithful abase themselves before the deity: “Weak as I am, without one plea / But that thy blood was shed for me.”

Foregoing all direct power, handing it over to be exercised on their behalf, the worshippers took the position of powerless dependents and the outside force – now a deity – attained omnipotence. Although this entailed recognition of personal helplessness yet it opened a dual route towards re-establishment of the original assumption. First: the natural and material world, relieved of the unpredictable spirituality formerly believed to inhabit it, could now be studied rationally; when no greater irregularity has to be expected than that introduced by the occasional miracle, science can develop and, with it, direct control. Second: by placing oneself on the side of the all- powerful, omnipotence can be enjoyed by proxy, without the nasty shocks sometimes incurred by the early attempts to exercise it directly.

Study of the simplest societies known, together with the archaeological record, suggests that there has been no human community without some apprehension of a reality other than the human or natural, but between these first stirrings of spiritual life, and any reasonably close approximation to the great religions, there intervenes a long course of development. Anthropologists sometimes obscure this by the use of terms suggesting that communities without government or agriculture possess sophisticated religion; one can get the impression that some colleague of Jehovah or Zeus hovers above the forest track and the waterhole. But religion in the sense that Buddhism, Christianity and similar institutions carry the title, religion with a priestly hierarchy, a distinct congregation, temples, creeds, doctrines, scriptures and, above all, an attitude of worship and submission to the omnipotent, belongs to a syndrome comprising also government, agriculture and sedentary society and reaching maturity only with the cities.

Of the five great modern religions Judaism, Islam and Christianity present omnipotent deities. Hinduism with its pullulating pantheon [5a] does not fall readily into place, but it stands closer to the monotheistic religions than at first appears; each of these, in its popular in not in its official version, recognises a multiplicity of saints, angels, demons, djinns, afreets, golems and the like (we noted earlier that magic and superstition do not vanish at the advent of religion). The discrepancy diminishes still further when we find that Hinduism recognises one Supreme Being, a Creator who remains “quite unchanged by the changes which are necessary to bring about the universe.” [6]

Buddhism, believed in the West to put forward no deity, seems to present greater difficulties for our thesis, yet these also lose much of their weight when we look – as we need to do when taking it as one of the great religions – at the practice of the mass of adherents rather than the theory and aspirations of the few. Many Buddhists pray, Tibetans famously using prayer-wheels, and prayer implies deity. “For the Eastern Buddhist Gautama was an avatar of the Buddha-who-is-God, and for the South Indian Buddhist Gautama attained ‘superdeity.'” [7]

Our theory ascribes the great religions to the ideology of principle and domination; at this stage in ideological development the primal omnipotence, repressed internally, reappears in the form of an external hierarchy with a supreme head, in social affairs a Leader or King, in the religious context an omnipotent deity. When we find the belief of the mass of Buddhist worshippers going against the teachings of their Founder to comply with the pattern set by the ideology this provides strong support. We can add that something similar has happened with organised Christianity; here, also, the institution complies rather with the requirements of this ideology than with the teachings of the Founder. A god expected to support the armies against their opponents stands a long way from the New Testament.

With the appearance of the great religions the distinction between the natural, worldly and human on the one hand, and the spiritual on the other becomes, in principle, complete. God, Heaven, Nirvana, Paradise, the Holy Scriptures and the Noble Eightfold Path constitute a sphere of being set apart from ordinary life. Believers overcome the former vagueness about the distinction between natural and supernatural. Rendering Caesar his due and dealing objectively with the natural and physical world, they direct worship towards God. At this stage the assumption of personal omnipotence has been completely repressed and, accordingly, completely projected. It gets thrown onto the heavens, where it appears as the majesty and glory, the radiance and universal love, ascribed to omnipotent deity.

Ideological development goes on beyond this point, and in its religious expression it transcends the concept of a deity apart from the subject to re-achieve the primal undivided unity, although this time with awareness. In the tradition of Zen Buddhism deriving from Hui Neng, the 7th Century Sixth Patriarch, the object of study and meditation is to reach: “not self-realization, but realization pure and simple, beyond subject and object. In such realization, evidently, ’emptiness’ is no longer opposed to ‘fullness,’ but emptiness and fullness are One. Zero equals infinity.” [8]

Individual thinkers in other religious communities reached a similar position, the 15th Century Nicholas of Cusa, for example, recognising the infinite as “the ineffable coincidence of the maximum and the minimum,” “the absolute and perfect coincidence of contraries.” [9] Where contraries coincide and zero equals infinity, powerless foetus and omnipotent deity are one and the same. But those who come to think on this level of sophistication leave behind the numbers that make up the great religious institutions.

1. Walford G. 1991 Beyond Politics, an Outline of Systematic Ideology. London: Calabria Press.
2. Walsby H. 1947 The Domain of Ideologies, a Study of the Origin, Structure and Development of Ideologies Glasgow: Wm. McLellan in Collaboration with the Social Science Association.
2a. Walford 14-37.
3. Freud S. 1965 Totem and Taboo London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 62,63.
4. Pfeiffer J.E. 1978 The Emergence of Man NY: Harper & Row 99 4a. Rotman B., 1977. Jean Piaget: Psychologist of the real. Hassocks, Sussex: Harvester, 176.
5. Piaget J. 1955 The Child’s Construction of Reality London: Routledge & Kegan Paul 7.
5a. C. J. Fuller speaks of Hinduism’s “efflorescent polytheism.” ” Hinduism and Hierarchy,” in MAN, Journal of the RAI Vol 26 No.3 Sept 91 551.
6. Kumarrapa B. 1934 The Hindu Conception of the Deity London: Luzac & Co.
7. Davids Mrs.Rhys 1932 A Manual of Buddhism for Advanced Students London: Sheldon Press.
8. Merton T. 1976 On Zen London: Sheldon Press, 18.
9. Gilson E. n.d. History of Christian Philosophy in the Middle Ages London: Sheed & Ward 537, 536.

 from Ideological Commentary 53, Autumn 1991.