! The Small And Stupid Gods - Notes

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The Small And Stupid Gods - Notes

Commentary on Small and Stupid Gods

I have supposed that it was obvious that the small and stupid gods are genes and that much of the essay (which is cast in the form of a parable) is a recapitulation of current thought about the evolution of human beings with an emphasis on evolutionary psychology.

As far as I know, the metaphor of genes as small and stupid gods is original with me although it is implicit in Dawkins' treatment in The Selfish Gene. In any event the point is that, under the reading of evolutionary psychology, the genetic constitution plays much the same role as that attributed to gods.

The main thrust, though, is the origin of moral systems considered from an atheistic, evolutionary viewpoint. If gods (and God) are invented social constructs one asks why they were invented and why they were given the attributes that they were given.

One can look at traditional religious stories from this viewpoint. Thus, for example, one can consider the Job story by accepting that God, as portrayed in the story, is capricious and unkindly, and then asking, "Why was it necessary to invent a God like this?"

The essay sketches an answer: Gods were created as an anthroporphic extension to explain the world. The world is both nurturing and harsh; so must God be. The world is capricious; so must God be. The world demands of one one's best effort and it may not be enough; so also does God. Above all the world is larger and greater than we are; our pride is often humbled by it.

This is not spelled out explicitly but it is hinted at clearly; there is also the inevitable reference to Freud's Father figure.

The essay also accepts Quinn's debatable thesis that hunter/gatherer cultures had animistic religions sans gods; that gods as such are a product of civilization. It goes on to postulate that the creation of god-centered religions occurred in a definite historical period. It is euro-centric (more properly judeao/christian/islamic centric) in that it emphasizes the culmination in a single god; however it concedes that in some cultures this did not happen. The rise of non-deistic religions is not alluded to; this can be considered a fault.

In any case, there is much to be said for the thesis that the creation of gods was a definite stage in the course of civilization.

The labels "God Maker" and "God Slayer" are romantic. The term, God Slayer, I took from Eddings' 12 volume saga. It is one of Belgarion's titles. (Eddings explains in an end note to each volume that he used the series to develop some philosophic concepts. As far as I can tell the philosphic concepts developed therein would fit compactly into a rather small chapbook.)

The concept of a God Slayer is interesting. A God Slayer is a creature of pure mythos, the hero incarnate. Eddings tried to make his God Slayer human and did so at the price of trivializing the mythic element. To wear the mantle of the God Slayer, one must be a Beowulf or some other creature out of Campbell.

The world arranges itself rather differently from myth. There was no God Slayer; instead there were God slayers, a host of them. If they weren't quite anonymous, still they might as well have been. We have names given us by the conventional hagiography of the enlightenment; however the power of their thought lies in the endless repetition of their words, elaborately redecorated over time. As it with the slayers, so it is with the makers, but more so. There we do not even have names save conventional figures of myth.

All of which bears on the origins and justification of morality. Our morality, our sense of right and wrong, is the product of two demons in a bottle, each clutching the other's throat, one named genetics and one named culture. For uncounted millenia this sufficed and no grand explanation was needed. Then came gods and the making of gods and to them was given the decision as to what is and what ought to be. This did not change morality save for the accomodations that culture made to these new inventions. People became very comfortable with this accountability of God.

Nietzsche proclaimed, more precisely pointed out the Death of God. He was, perhaps, premature. In The Death of Fiction the mythical Bull Morris is cited as follows::

It is true, he says, that the cultural traces of God within institutions and circles of thought can decay and "stink". It is, he says, an error to argue from such evidences that God is Dead. They speak to men falling away from God, something that always happens, and is always transient and ephemeral for when denials end and men fall silent, God is still there.

Perhaps it is so. Yet for many God is long dead and His role as purveyor of Truth goes unfulfilled. Nietzsche raised the ancient cry "Nothing is true; all is permitted" and asked how may we deal with it. The cry contains a falsehood; all is not permitted; we are still bound by the twin demons just as we always were. The death of God gives us an unwanted freedom. Before we could act in obedience to the demons without question. Now we have the prospect of mastering the demons, of reshaping culture and even, prospectively, of altering the imperatives of the small and stupid gods themselves. There is a paradox here, not a true paradox, but none-the-less the elements of one. Any such reshaping can only be done in the context of the existing morality.

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This page was last updated March 29, 1998.
Copyright © 1998 by Richard Harter