I think I’m headed in the direction of becoming a very disagreeable old man. I think that might happen to me because I have a number of pet peeves. Peeves that are meaningful only to me — but which I increasingly lack the wisdom to keep to myself. And one of those pet peeves became inflamed tonight.
I have for years held the opinion — rabidly held the opinion — that E. B. Tylor was mistaken. Tylor, who was born in 1832, was the anthropologist who coined the notion the gods were invented to explain things.
I don’t think Tylor had any real evidence for his notion the gods were invented to explain things. I agree with those folks who say he was speculating. Yet, his notion can seem plausible. And I suppose that’s why his notion has caught on. So far as I can see, Tylor’s notion is the single most popular explanation for the invention of deities.
Basically, his notion goes like this: Primitive humans did not have the science to know what caused thunder, so they invented a god that caused thunder. In that way, their natural curiosity was satisfied. Again, primitive humans did not know what caused love, so they invented a god that caused love. And so forth.
Tylor’s views spawned the notion the gods would sooner or later go away because science would sooner or later replace them as an explanation for things. Of course that hasn’t happened.
A number of scientists have come up with much more interesting theories about the origins of deity than Tylor came up with. But those theories haven’t had the time to catch on as widely as Tylor’s. Nevertheless, the gist of the current thinking is that our brains are somewhat predisposed to belief in supernatural things — from ghosts to gods. I have posted about those new notions here and here, but for a more comprehensive look at the new notions, see the recommended readings at the end of this post.
Andrew Newberg and Eugene D’Aquili, Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief.
Scott Atran, In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion.