People Created God
Updated: Jul 6, 2021
“Yet the universe that we have uncovered far outstrips our small effects upon it. It was not made for us, as theists presuppose. Nor did God create us in his image; rather we etched him in ours.”
- Paul Kurtz
Paul Kurtz was a philosophy professor at SUNY Buffalo in New York. He was a prolific author, a fan of humanism, and an ardent atheist. It was his contention that people invented God in their own image. If he’s correct, it would mean people came up with the idea of God and then gave the idea human attributes. Did we?
When you think of the possibilities, three emerge. Either people invented God, God revealed himself to people or people concluded God exists. Which is it?
Did people invent gods?
An idea especially popular in the late 1800s was that belief in God was the response of primitive people to their ignorance, fears and superstition. People either worshiped nature or things as gods. It’s tough to discern people’s intentions prior to written history. So, whether this is exclusively the case is speculation. However, it’s clear from written history that people actually have invented gods. The ancient Greeks and Romans did it frequently.
The ancient Greeks tended to honor their dead heroes as gods. For example, Saturn and Jupiter were reportedly real people who were said to have become gods. However, even people long ago realized that for someone to become a god would imply there was a Supreme God who could make them one.
The ancient Romans also invented gods. In the 1st century, they actually had a legal process for doing this – the Roman Senate had to approve them. Usually good emperors were “deified” after they died, though a few did claim to be gods while they were living. And, in the case of a bad emperor, godhood could be later revoked. (Now that would be embarrassing.) In total, 74 people were proclaimed to be gods by the Romans during 5 centuries.
So, yes, people did invent gods. However, the idea of God seems to have preceded their idea of gods.
Did God reveal Himself to people?
Ancient Israel didn’t invent gods, they actually rejected the idea of many gods. Instead, they insisted only one exists and that this one true God had revealed Himself to them. In their case, their historical experiences caused them to conclude that only one real God exists. If the narratives of the Old Testament (the Tanakh) are true, they didn’t create or invent God; God revealed himself to them.
Early Christians held to the same idea of one God who reveals himself to humanity. However, based upon their experiences, they said this same one true God appeared as a person within his own creation – Jesus of Nazareth.  They pointed to prophecy fulfilled, miracles performed, amazing morality and a resurrection from the dead as evidence to support their claims.
Do people conclude God exists?
Inventing gods isn’t the same as reaching a reasoned conclusion about God. The former is an imaginative process. The latter is based on evidence and reason. Do people only believe in God because of ignorant superstition? Could even ancient peoples not have reached a reasoned conclusion?
Antony Flew is a good example of a person who concluded God exists. Like Paul Kurtz, he was a philosophy professor and an ardent atheist. Yet he changed his mind, based only on scientific evidence, and decided God does exist. He then reasoned, from scientific evidence alone, what God must be like without arbitrarily ascribing God any human attributes. Antony Flew would have rejected any claim that he had invented a god in his own image.
Paul Kurtz and Antony Flew actually knew each other well. Kurtz was Flew’s publisher and Flew was on the publishing company’s editorial advisory board. They were probably good friends. Hopefully, they remained friends after Flew changed his mind. And, hopefully, Kurtz respected Flew enough as a fellow philosopher to acknowledge that he hadn’t invented God.
Edward Feser is another philosophy professor who was an atheist and changed his mind. In his case, the change of mind was based on a philosophical journey. First, through the writings of atheist philosophers – Gottlob Frege, Bertrand Russell, John Searle, Thomas Nagel and others. He then examined the writings of theistic philosophers and concluded many of the philosophical assumptions of atheism and naturalism are mistaken.
Feser says his rejection of atheism and conclusion that God exists was not the result of a religious experience or a personal crisis. He says his conclusion was purely “a matter of objective rational argument.” He did not “invent” God.
There others. An assertion that the idea of God is rooted in superstition is an interesting theory. However, we aren’t dependent on the ideas of primitive people for our perspectives. We are all able to look at evidence and use reason to make our own conclusions. That’s what many former atheists have done.
Philosophers Antony Flew and Edward Feser are not alone. The ranks of former atheists also include scientists:
- Francis Collins, MD and PhD in Chemistry
- Ian Hutchinson, PhD in Physics & MIT professor
- Alister McGrath, PhD in Molecular Biophysics
- Sarah Salviander, PhD in Astrophysics
- Allan Sandage, PhD in Astronomy
These are people who reached their own conclusions. If you’re majoring in science, you may be familiar with them.
Is Paul Kurtz correct?
What are we to conclude from this? Unfortunately, a statement that is only partially true can obscure the real truth. This seems to be the case with Paul Kurtz’s claim.
Kurtz is only partially correct in saying people invented God. Some people have invented gods. However, in the case of ancient Israel and early Christians, they explicitly rejected the idea of many gods. They claimed the one true God revealed himself to them and pointed to evidence to support their claim. A God revealed is not a God invented.
Still other people have concluded God exists. Evidence and reason alone brought them to this conclusion.
The idea that people who believe in God are embracing prehistoric superstition is passé. That’s a very 1800s thing to say.
About Paul Kurtz
Paul Kurtz was educated at New York University and Columbia and was a professor of philosophy at the University of Buffalo from 1965 to 1991. He was the editor of Humanist magazine and founder the Council for Secular Humanism. He also founded Prometheus Books, which specialized in publishing books advancing atheism. He died in 2012.
Copyright 2021 by Patrick Prill
 Paul Kurtz, Science and Religion: Are They Compatible?, (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2003), 356-357.  Ernst Haeckel, Riddle of the Universe (New York, NY: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1900), 302, 304.  Tertullian, Apology, Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 3 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1999), 26-27.  Tacitus, The Annals (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2008), 126-128, 191.  Henry Fairfield Burton, The Worship of the Roman Emperors, The Biblical World, vol. 40, No 2 (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1912), 83.  Genesis 12:7, 26:2, Exodus 6:3, etcetera.  John 1:1-14  Antony Flew, There is a God, (New York, NY: Harper Collins, 2007), 93.  Paul Kurtz founded and operated Prometheus Books, an atheist publishing house. It published several of Antony Flew’s books. Both men were also signors of the Humanist Manifesto 2000.  Edward Feser, The Last Superstition (South Bend, IN: St Augustine’s Press, 2008), 7.  Edward Feser, The Last Superstition, 7.   Francis Collins, The Language of God, (New York, NY: Free Press, 2007), 23, 30, 67, 71-75, 93.  Ian Hutchinson, Can A Scientist Believe in Miracles? (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2018), 5-6. Alister McGrath, Science Turned Me Away from Atheism, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-s7n9PYTtSM, 1-1-2018 and Alister McGrath, The Twilight of Atheism (Colorado Springs, CO: Waterbrook Press, 2004), 175-178, 259.  Sarah Salviander, My Testimony, SixDay Science, May 11, 2019, https://sixdayscience.com/2015/05/11/my-testimony/  Sharon Begley, Science Finds God (Newsweek, 1998), https://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/newsweek/science_of_god/scienceofgod.htm