Human but real

Yes, religions are shaped by human imagination, but they point at something real

The German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach (1804- 1872) was struck by the fact that all nations in the world “make gods and goddesses in their own image”. In his view, human beings observe certain qualities in themselves such as Reason, Will and Love which seem to be absolutes. People objectify them in imaginary, outside powers.

This is the origin of religion, Feuerbach said. It is really human nature which is `divine’; the whole religious superstructure is an illusion, he said. Human beings need to be liberated from religion to find their true selves. He stated: “In religion man seeks contentment; religion is his highest good. But how could he find consolation and peace in God if God were an essentially different being?”

Feuerbach claims that there is nothing objective in religion. Religion is totally, utterly and exhaustively human. “I have reduced the supermundane, supernatural, and superhuman nature of God to the elements of human nature as its fundamental elements. The beginning, middle and end of religion is MAN.” See: L.FEUERBACH, The Essence of Christianity, Berlin 1845; transl. G. Eliot, New York 1957; here pp 45, 184.>

At first sight it looks as if Feuerbach is right. Consider, for instance, the ancient worship of the sun.

A god like us?

The sun in the sky has mystified, fascinated and terrified our ancestors from time immemorial. They relied on it for light, for warmth and for growing their crops. They could not understand how it could disappear in the west, and then rise again next morning in the east. They sensed it was linked to the mystery of life. They made it a god and created myths around it.

Listen to a story current among the Paiute Indians in California. The Sun is a divine chieftain who has the appearance of a giant lizard. The Moon is his wife and the stars are their children. The Sun is a cannibal who tries to eat his children the stars, so when he comes out of his den, they flee from him and disappear. He always catches some. Their fire inside him makes his belly shine and this is the glowing ball we see in the sky.

At nightfall the Sun creeps into his hole, which is a narrow tunnel leading to the centre of the earth. There he sleeps. Sometimes his wife is with him. Sometimes she escapes and spends the time with her children, the stars. Often she covers half her face in mourning, because of the children her husband has eaten. In the morning the Sun leaves his den through another tunnel that leads to the east.

Religions reflect the experience of the people who believe in them. Religious beliefs are always clothed in human concepts. A Paiute Sun god lives the kind of life the Paiute people can imagine.

In many ancient religions the Sun was worshipped as a god: as Shamash for the Assyrians, as Râ and Aton for the Egyptians, as Sûria for the Hindus, as Ametarasu for the Japanese and as Mithras for a Persian sect in the Roman empire, each time in images that reflected the ideas of the particular worshippers.

The Sun god was of particular importance to the Aztecs (who lived in Mexico from 1200 – 1600 AD). They were convinced that the world order depended on the well-being of the Sun. Four previous worlds had already been destroyed because of the untimely death of their own “Sun”. To ensure the continuation of the earth and society, the contemporary Sun had to be fed and protected.

When the earth had been plunged in darkness, after the collapse of the fourth world order, the Snake God Quetzalcóatl revived the human corpses by sprinkling them with his own blood. Another deity, weak and covered in ulcers, threw himself into a fire and became the new sun, called Nahui-ollin. He was so weak that he could not move until many other gods sacrificed themselves by offering their blood as food to him.

The Aztecs feared that the Sun might again collapse; in which case they would become an easy prey to the monsters of famine, the Tzitzimime, who would kill them mercilessly. Therefore they were anxious to sustain the Sun with gifts of blood. The blood came partly from acts of penance: piercing the tongue, ears and other organs, partly from human sacrifices. They even started wars for this purpose, to capture victims, and often hundreds of men and women would have their hearts taken out on a single day.

tombWe obviously have here an example of a religion gone wrong. Human behaviour and human weaknesses were projected onto the world of the gods, and atrocious practices were the result. The gratuitous bloodlettings and cruel killings hardly bear thinking about. It would be enough to put anyone off religion for good.

Moreover, even if other religions are more benign, could Feuerbach not be right in that not all of them suffer from the same basic problem: of being mere projections of human experiences onto an fictitious divine world?

The human eye of perception

Reducing the whole of religion to a pure world of fancy might seem tempting at first; especially when confronted with aberrations such as the Aztec sacrificial killings. Further reflection, however, shows that such a drastic rejection of religion cannot be correct.

It is wrong to jump from the inevitably human traits of religion to the conclusion that God and religion are no more than an illusion. First, I shall endeavour to show that the reality of God outside the mind and independent of the mind can be proved beyond doubt. But also, there lies an evident fallacy in denying the reality of God simply because we think of God in human terms.

The reason is simple. All our knowledge is human, by definition. There is nothing that we perceive that is not coloured by the humanness of our perception. Yet we know that reality exists and that we can attain reliable information about real things. In the same way, knowing God in a human way does not mean he is not real.

For instance, our eyes only see visible light, that is: photons with a wavelength between 4000 and 7000 angstroms (one angstrom is 0.00000001 cm). On our retina we have cones that fall within roughly three ranges of sensitivity: blue (from 4000 angstroms), yellow and red (to 7000 angstroms). From this we construct in our mind the colours of the rainbow and many intermediate hues. Now it is true that the colours we see are a mental reconstruction. Colour is the way we interpret waves of light, and most waves, those outside our range – such as gamma-rays, X rays, ultra-violet, infra-red and radio waves, we do not see at all.

But this does not mean that what we see does not correspond to a reality outside the brain. In that sense colours are real. And it is important they are, because we often have to base crucial decisions on their difference. In fact, the whole logic of evolution demands that our powers of perception reflect reality. Like many animals before us, we learnt to see colour contrast because this helps us to relate better to the real world.

In other words: the fact that a perception is human does not mean that it is an illusion. To relate this again to our example of the sun: our spiritual ancestors were awed by the `wonder’ of the sun. In that wonder they perceived, rightly, that there is a real mystery about existence. In this way the sun became part of their religious experience. The experience is valid, even if the form in which it was expressed is entirely human.

Religions concern the ultimate questions of life. They try to voice the unspeakable. They attempt to respond to unfathomable mysteries. It is natural that they do so in human images and concepts. But why exclude the intuition that, underneath layers of human notions, they touch something real?


The text in this chapter is from How to Make Sense of God by John Wijngaards, Sheed & Ward, Kansas City 1995. Tom Adcock designed the cartoons. The Catholic Press Association of the United States and Canada awarded the book a prize on 25 May 1996.

View the following film on the meaning of religion