The Last Idols of God

June 28th, 2012   by   Andrew

Part of the conclusion to the series God: From Magic to Motivation

I want to use two illustrations in this post that I believe offer a way for God-centred religions to get unstuck and survive the current change in aesthetics, away from a language of magic to a language of personal responsibility. These two stories talk about what I call The Last Idols of God. They are both very old stories.

[Note: this is a fun rant and a personal working-out of ideas. Treat it as such.]

1. Authority

There is Muslim story about a man that found he could not believe in God. He confided in a religious teacher. The religious teacher was not troubled at all by what this man said. Instead, he asked the man about what personally motivated him.

“What is most important to you in this world? What is it that you live for?”

“My nephew!” said the man quickly. “He is so bright and curious. I want nothing evil to happen to him. I want to make sure he has the best life has to offer!”

“Go then and treat your nephew as you would your God,” said the teacher. “Do everything in your power to raise the child well. Be an example to him, and make the world a place that will give him everything he needs to live properly.”

The man went away feeling much better, adopting a new attitude towards his life.

This is my retelling. I have lost the original story (or any supposed ‘authoritative’ one). However, the religious teacher in the story was not in any way bothered by the man’s unbelief. It isn’t a threat to the teacher or to the teacher’s religion. It isn’t really a problem at all.

The religious teacher addresses what motivates the man instead of promoting some kind of magic to believe in. He asks the man to identify and explain the embodiment of his motivations. What he finds is that the man’s personal god, the embodiment of what has implications for his behaviour and attitude, is in someone other than himself, something that requires no magic or complicated belief!

At no point does the religious teacher say to treat the child as authoritative. It isn’t a matter of giving the child what the child wants. Instead, it’s a matter of accepting a responsibility.

Gods need no magic and need no authority.

Our personal motivations can still be important to us, but it is time that we stripped them of all authority over our behaviour. Instead of simply confirming our motivations, or letting them rule, we can be honest with ourselves by openly admitting to them and accepting responsibility for how they make us behave.

2. Agency

The boys are brought up to be in fear of the masks the men wear in their rituals. These are the gods. These are the personifications, the powers, that structure the society. The boy, when he gets to be more than his mother can handle, the men come in with their masks, or whatever their costume is, and they grab the kid. He thinks he’s being taken by the gods. Taken out to the men’s new ground, and he’s beaten up and everything else.

But in New Guinea, there is a wonderful event where the poor kid has to stand up and fight a man with a mask. He’s fighting the god. The man let’s the kid win, takes the mask off, puts it on the kid.

Now the mask is not there defeated, and simply said, “This is just myth.” The mask represents the power that is shaping the society and has shaped you, and now you are a representative of that power.

You’ve broken past the image as fact, and understand the image as metaphor. And you are to represent what the metaphor stands for. ~ Joseph Campbell

This ritual reveals how God (the mask) is a construction. It is not a thing that creates but instead a thing created by us. This does not mean it is not real. It does have implications for behaviour (the boys react two ways after all – with fear and with fight). However, it is not the mask that has agency.

This is a very emotional experience for the child, and a brilliant example of how to incorporate disillusionment into the regular culture of a community. Disillusionment is becoming a common and life-defining experience shared by individuals today. Instead of focusing on ‘confirmations‘, god-centred religions need to celebrate these moments of disillusionment. Otherwise, they will continue to lose followers because of the destruction of trust and attachment involved in these emotional experiences. Kids are going away in fear, fight, flight and disinterest. They are walking away from community involvement in apathy or angst.

From time to time, I’d imagine, the masks that were passed from generation to generation would have to be fixed, altered, or remade. The masks, being constructions and having no magical agency in today’s language, are not immune to revision. They need constant maintenance and updating. I think we’ve reached a point where the masks must either be completely transparent or remade by each generation. This means we must remove agency from the make-up the mask. Our motivations are powerful enough already; the last thing we need to give them is their own power to act.

The mask in the New Guinea ritual does not win, after all. It is the child that wrestles and overcomes fear that wins.


Call to Change

The religious have been duped by bad arguments about what makes a God, or a motivation, worthy of worship. To be worthy of worship, a God does not need to exist at all, in some material sense or rational argument. Existence alone could actually make it unworthy.

Only within the bounds of the human imagination, collectively and individually, can we actually construct a God (a cultural embodiment of the motivations that should rule over us) that is worthy and inspirational. There may still be problems with inconsistency or incoherence, but that is the nature of story. That is part of dealing with the flux of new information available. Life resides in the very act of addressing new information.

Only an unknown, unreal and fictitious god (or gods) can now fit this role. No other god can survive the common experience of disillusionment which god-centred religions must address.

I don’t think this is a terrible or disrespectful way to look at religious commitment. People have dedicated themselves towards making the world a better place through adopting many kinds of stories. Instead of fixating on the inaccuracies of sacred texts, the incoherence of magical aesthetics or the probabilities grounding someone’s beliefs, we can instead focus on the consequences of the beliefs. How does a person’s beliefs, how does a person’s motivations, or how does a person’s God even, make them behave?

The last things we should give to our personal motivations is either some kind of sacred agency or some kind of supreme authority over how we collectively behave. These are the last idols of God (for now…).

The world itself wears no masks. We are the makers of masks. We are the ones that wear the masks.

God-dominated religions, if they wish to survive the continued rationalization and technologization of culture, need to abandon their last idols of God, particularly authority and agency.

What do you think?


18 Responses to “The Last Idols of God”

  1. Alan says:

    O. E. Wilson has suggested that peoples around the world lacking security are the ones holding closest to religion. If so, spreading war and famine would similarly spread religion.
    Karl Marx suggested that religion was as an opiate, and such would suggest curtailing the sales of chemical analgesics would increase belief. Perhaps if you could get hospitals to prescribe prayer in lieu of acetaminophen? This may as well help win Republicans over to Obamacare.

  2. Andrew says:

    Hi again Alan!

    I do like some of Wilson’s work. I think I read something by him because of Nicholas Wade. And Ursula Goodenough seemed to really grab ahold of the “epic of evolution” idea.

    I think I’d agree that religion flourishes where security is lacking. I think we’ve talked a little about this before, and how some of Africa’s development could benefit from a more structured and stabilizing religious identity.

    The point of this post was maybe more theological. We can have community-shared motivations that are not taken as authority and do not have a kind of supernatural agency to them. Along with the Epic of Evolution, I think there is a story of personal responsibility we can share, and the heroic task of facing up to things like disillusionment and what we don’t know.

    My Dad gave me a book a while ago by two doctors – “How God Changes Your Brain”. They kind of mix prayer, meditation, optimism and persistence together as a kind of new prescription for healthcare.

    As an outsider, the Republican Party fascinates me. How can they feel so entitled and victimized at the same time? Prescribing prayer might win them over, but anything with Obama’s name seems to cause allergic reactions (regardless of evaluating the merit of his ideas…).

  3. Alan says:

    Hi to you too, Andrew. Was just on a random drive-by rant. It is your perspective and method I question, not your goals or motivations. Religion, like the Republicans, follow a Darwinian model: Try all kinds of things but hang onto and repeat whatever seems to work best. Entitlement and victimization are the lingua-franca of late 20th century, early 21st century politics – it’s just what everyone is doing these days. It really seems to resonate with the public – for now (To every thing, there is a season . . .). One comment in your piece: ‘The religious have been duped by bad arguments about what makes a God’. It’s not about ‘duping’, it’s about resonating with the public, and with much of the world, that argument still resonates. I really do like your prescription of a new vision, a new rhetoric for God, but I suspect that it will only resonate with an audience that is not facing an (annual?) struggle to survive. The old gods presided over the early Neolithic through the Iron Age when death lurked behind any tree or storm cloud, were typically angry and demanded blood sacrifices (powerful, dramatic displays of authority). Under the peace, prosperity and security of the Roman Empire, Judaism had a significant reformation, Christianity was born, the angry gods faded (along with the sacrificial alter) and a new vision of a kindly god was introduced. There was still much uncertainty from disease, war and the occasional crazed emperor, but not the constant, daily threats of yore. Visions of angry god/gods return in times of war and extreme strife, it seems. Authority and agency will likely always resonate with people living in uncertain, threatening times. The reformation you suggest would be appropriate where modern science and the politics of peace change the nature of rhetoric which resonates with the public.

  4. Hugh Piros says:

    Excellent resource. I do a lot of reading in classical philosophy, but I have been branching out farther into more contemporary philosophy. Thanks for the posts.

    note: just noticed this. I’m going to check out the site and see if Hugh is Hugh, or if Hugh is spam. If Hugh is Hugh, then welcome to the conversation. ~ Andrew

  5. Andrew says:

    When I first read “It is your perspective and method I question”, my first reaction was defence. :-) I’m working on calming my reactions.

    In terms of Darwin, I feel these idols don’t work when a society reaches a certain state of development and abundance. They don’t repeat, but instead initiate a decline rather than inspire a change to grow. If I’m wrong on this, and worried about the sky falling or something, please let me know. I’m trying to look at things differently, I admit, but if it doesn’t work, then I have to be willing to face change myself.

    Apologies also for my delayed response. I have several new, demanding gods at the moment.

    Your point about resonating with the public is well taken. (Not to be too defensive,) This was targeted to an audience that is well past the survival situation, and in fact living in abundance. At such a point in development, I think, gods, and some motivations, need to be edited. But I was hoping to hit some irony too in that we could take god-construction lessons towards that end from hunter-gatherers (New Guinea) and other religions in ‘less’ developed parts of the world (Muslim).

    And to clarify – the “duped” comment was about arguments that make a god or motivation worthy of worship, and not just what makes a god.

    (Aside, but I really should have posted my William Lane Craig piece earlier, where I comment on his arguments for his god’s existence. It might have better tied in the duped comment and the distinction, but alas, it’s still in draft form. Mea culpa.)

    Maybe I’m jumping too far ahead then, but I think parts of the world are either in, or approaching that time you describe at the end – “where modern science and the politics of peace change the nature of rhetoric which resonates with the public.”

    To use religious language, maybe a heavy sacrifice is in order from those living in abundance. Otherwise, they may be sacrificed by those with more authoritative gods.

    And, maybe some of our idols of god would be a good start to the sacrifices.

  6. TWF says:

    Nice conclusion(?) to the series, Andrew. I see it as a real challenge to get to where you are suggesting from where we are now, though. It’s as though we need to be in a post-God-centric-religion status, starting from a roughly clean slate, in order to get that going.

    On the other hand, I think that some of what you prescribe is embodied in certain forms of patriotism. The idealized traits of the citizens of a nation are collectively deified, in a manner of speaking.

    Good luck in the new job!

  7. Alan says:

    Let me work around your closing comment for this argument: ‘To use religious language, maybe a heavy sacrifice is in order from those living in abundance. Otherwise, they may be sacrificed by those with more authoritative gods. And, maybe some of our idols of god would be a good start to the sacrifices.’

    It is a convenient liberal fiction to recognize that we live better (peaceful and with abundance) than all those ‘others’, and that should we share our abundance, those ‘others’ would by that same action, share in our peace. Such is running with the cart far ahead of the horse. Humans are far the most dangerous and hardest to control beasts on this planet. It took the ‘west’ thousands of years of hard work, training, massive good luck, two very bloody World Wars and Hiroshima before we could accept that we really would be better off cooperating than fighting. We quite literally had to recognize and internalize the clearly demonstrated fact that we faced destroying the world before realizing and accepting that killing our neighbors for a bit of profit was no longer a viable strategy. That is a very difficult lesson that needs to be taught from birth to be effective, and most cultures are not yet teaching that to their babies or children. And peace only works when everybody practices – it may take two to hold a war, but it only takes one warrior to conquer any number of non-combatants.
    I suggest we try working with what works, and not ‘sacrifice our idols’ before developing more effective techniques – just as Thomas More counseled in ‘A Man for all Seasons’: If you cut down the law to attack the devil, who then could stand in the winds that would then blow?
    I fully concur that a new Reformation is in order (if religion is to survive peace and prosperity), but not tearing down the structures that have allowed us the progress we have made. This current move away from religion was a reaction to the peace that Hiroshima brought, not a cause of it, and only is affecting those who learned peace from that experience.

  8. Alan says:

    Putting this another way, calling for the removal of (this or that specific feature of) religion is like a doctor believing he can cure tuberculosis if he could just get everyone to stop coughing. A lot of very old cultural practices must be outgrown, then the antiquated features of religious practice will be abandoned. (The symptom leaves the patient after the disease is cured). Not all problems will be solved by that advance, and for religion to remain relevant it must reinvent itself to focus on the remaining issues, moving away from the old issues. New techniques of persuasion and motivation are required. You cannot simply strip away the old, you have to train and motivate people to grow themselves.
    You gave up your old beliefs when you were ready – you cannot just force that on people.

  9. Andrew says:

    Thanks TWF! And I will be getting back to your sites. I really do want to get back to that history of the devil.

    Your patriotism angle is intriguing. A while ago I was looking at some old Rotary Club literature, and of all things, the first noble trait it talked about was patriotism. They very quickly distinguished it from nationalism and something else (jingoism maybe? I forget now, and the book is packed away somewhere still.)

    “The idealized traits of the citizens of a nation are collectively deified.” – Yes, that’s very well put! And then when someone adopts the story as their own, they want to play out the part, be the hero of that nation’s story.

    Patriotism does build community trust and can certainly motivate. Whether that motivation is worthy of worship might be a case by case evaluation. Not that I’m the best qualified or confident judge to make those evaluations…

  10. Andrew says:


    In reading through your comments, I realized that I had in fact ignored one of my other recent posts, .

    I should have taken my own advice, and instead of removing bricks from the pyramid, offered to build a more impressive one overtop the last.

    I really like how you put it, “peace only works if everybody practices.” And surviving peace and prosperity might be our biggest challenge yet, (not just religions’). It’s true, peace is not the shared goal of everyone involved. It has taken a lot to put together something where peace and profit can be the motivation, rather than profit by any whim and means.

    Has media had a hand in this too? This might be an example of confusing the symptom with the diagnosis, but let me play with this for a moment.

    Every day we come face to face with these ‘others’. And they come face to face with us. I think the media has proven that it works, by bringing the stories of the other right into people’s living rooms. It creates envy, which is a motivator, and it creates empathy, which is a motivator. We have stories that tell us which of these are worthy of worship.

    St. Clement, or some such person, said, “When you look at the face of your brother, you see your God.”

    My brother doesn’t need anything magical or authoritative about him to be my brother. All that’s needed is for me to call him my brother. In a sense, adopting responsibility for him.

    I think the sharing of abundance is still a viable strategy, but instead of thinking in terms of just redistribution/theft (depending on whose language you want to use), it’s more of an invitation – Come and participate in this bigger hierarchy, this bigger family.

    This is what the middle class has been trying to convince the poverty class to do for some time now, isn’t it? (according to the middle class, that is)

    “New techniques of persuasion and motivation are required. You cannot simply strip away the old, you have to train and motivate people to grow themselves.”

    I agree with this, and I think you describe what’s happening to those in abundance. Yoga and Buddhism for example have been adopted, westernized, commercialized for consumption by the abundant classes. And really, they are training programs that motivate people to grow themselves. The west has imported this stuff for many reasons, but there is a group that it resonated with. And it’s growing, because it works for that group.

    If Buddhism can be reformatted to have less magic, then certainly god-centred religions can have less magic and yet still motivate.

    So then can this not be done by recreating our stories, putting aside the authority and agency, and somehow still making them compelling? Or in the case of Harry Potter, we can completely accept that they are just fictions we want to participate in.

    This is long again. Sorry, but like I said in the post, it’s a working out of ideas. I think we are close in terms of desires, even if my consistency and aim is out of whack. Maybe it’s time to look at these new forms of persuasion and motivation, build the next story?

  11. Alan says:

    I think the media has proven better at taunting us with new things to want than in teaching us how to attain them. As the Arab’s in spring – who won freedom but do not know how to form or run a government.
    Like your pyramid analogy, I think new stories should be added and that the old stories help us remember who we are and how we got here. We should not try and forget just how dangerous people can be nor how hard to control.
    Remember also that worship was always for our benefit and a technique for motivation and persuasion.
    That old Confucius allegory ‘teach a man . . .’ addresses the greatest opportunity for wealth sharing. We have more because we have learned to build and manage more.
    In my study of religion from the perspective of persuasion and motivation, I suspect that the most significant contribution to community, by far, was trained leaders in the priests. These were not the kings or nobles who carried the weapons and led in the wars, but the local leaders and motivators. I think that is still what we most need to maintain our advance. Well trained local leaders.

  12. Andrew says:

    “Remember also that worship was always for our benefit and a technique for motivation and persuasion.”

    This is a tough thing to get the more adamant atheists (and theists, for that matter) to think about. In my experience at least. Their talk seems to get into a holding pattern of proving god real or unreal, rather than examining what makes people change their behaviour. And what their behaviour changes into. Great point, Alan.

    New media has definitely done well in exposing and motivating, but not always in teaching or providing depth of knowledge, as you suggest.

    Your insight into leadership can be taken further, I think, in terms of examining what’s ‘worthy of worship.’ I recently got a lesson on the history of motivational speakers. My ‘teacher’ was trying to draw attention to how the language and goals have changed even over the last 200 years or so.

    In published works, the goal used to be “How to be a man of character,” or “What it means to be ruled by virtue”. That changed to “How to make friends and influence people.” And more recently, it has become “How to ask the universe for things” or “How to live happy” or “How to practise the effective habits of successful people.”

    Sight tangent, but your idea of the trained leaders, or the local priesthood, could I think dovetail into some of my ideas for using Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. After all, everyone that has watched movies for the last 40 years or so has actually been indoctrinated into a new religion. It’s not formal or authoritative (yet), but there certainly is a new temple built on all of the older stories and beliefs.

    A very different kind of magic – fictional enchantment – and a more subtle authority – encourage and inspire over absolutes, unquestioning ‘faith’.

    I do want to say thank you also, for sticking with me on this. My thinking is certainly not clean and tidy. And maybe a little too much scattershot. But I think we are both pointing at local (decentralized?) leaders, heroes, teachers.

  13. Alan says:

    Hmm. . . I never think about heroes. I don’t think we need them as teachers or scholars, but as humans we seem to need them. They can be very motivational.
    George Orwell had a story about an English soldier (I think himself) in a colonial village with a destructive elephant. The soldier wanted to run the elephant out of town to stop the damage, but wound up killing it because that was the expectation of the villagers.
    There is a two pronged phenomenon here. Cities and villages have a significant influence simply by expectation on the national leadership. Also, a well run city is a happy and prosperous city which can send tax revenue up the chain. Good local leadership can make national leadership really easy!

  14. Andrew says:

    I love the elephant story! On some levels, it seems so out of nowhere, and yet it’s really quite “illustrative”.

    Heroes fascinate me, although I don’t really think I’ve ever had a hero that I’ve come to worship. Maybe a few fictional ones.

    Are you sure you don’t want to take up blogging? Or contribute a post? ;-)

  15. Sam Kensington says:

    I would like to offer my take on
    The Power of Prayer
    as displayed, at YouTube, be this most courageous comedian

    Best Wishes,
    Sammy K.

  16. Andrew says:

    Wow, Sammy!

    Was there some SubGenius influence in there?

    Although this particular post isn’t about the power of prayer, I appreciate the attempt at humour.

    Any religion that takes itself too seriously, at this point, is doomed, in my opinion.


  17. I always dig a good think piece. This is the type of stuff I’m aiming to write on my blog. Good work.

  18. Andrew says:

    Thanks, ECB.

    Checked out your site. Heavy stuff. Interestingly enough though, my studies into religions and so on has made me more and more curious about world economics. I know where to go now for my next economics lessons!