The origins of ‘God’: experience and explanation In what follows, I’ll refer to the idea of God and the concept of God interchangeably. I mean the same thing by idea and concept here. I refer to the concept/idea as GOD (all capital letters).
The idea of God is innate
Descartes argues that the concept GOD is one that we have innately. His argument is considered separately in the handout called ‘The Trademark argument’.
The syllabus is misleading in suggesting that the only alternative to GOD being innate is that we invented it. There is the possibility that, like so many other concepts we have – such as apple, yellow, and pain – we acquired the concept through experience, in this case, through experience of God. We will only look at this briefly, since the syllabus concentrates more on the theories that say we invented the concept GOD.
There is a standard philosophical account of how experience can be the origin of concepts. If we have experiences of God, then this could be an explanation of where the concept GOD comes from. However, we immediately run into a problem: are experiences of God sense experiences? Do we have any good reason to think anyone has literally seen or heard God? If God has no body, so has no physical parts with which to reflect light or generate sound waves, then the answer is no. Of course, God could directly create an experience in someone’s mind of seeing or hearing – but because this experience doesn’t come from the sense organs, then it isn’t literally seeing or hearing. It is more like hallucinating: an experience just like a sense experience, but not caused by the sense organs responding to something in the real world.
Things in hallucinations do not exist. So for us to explain GOD as deriving from experience, experiences of God need to be like sense experiences, like perception, rather than hallucinations. If experiences of God were hallucinations, then the concept GOD would derive from imagination rather than experience.
But are experiences of God like sense perception at all? Some philosophers have argued that (at least some) experiences of God are importantly similar to perception, an immediate awareness of something other than oneself that is real; instead of physical objects, the ‘something other’ is God. They are quite unlike trying to think about God or imagine God.
But to this we can object that sense experience is much richer in detail than experiences of God – think how long it would take to describe a view of a garden, but people find it difficult to say much at all about experiences of God. So perhaps they are not like sense perception.
Another objection to the claim that GOD is derived from experience is that we all have the concept GOD, but religious experiences are very uncommon. But we can reply that many concepts originate with the experiences of only a few people, e.g. ‘electron’. They then explain it to others, and so on, until it becomes common.
We can also object that concepts of God differ greatly from one religion and time to another, which again suggests the concept GOD doesn’t come from just one type of experience. One reply here is that the concept GOD originates with religious experience, but people add much more to that concept. Differences in beliefs about God come from an elaboration of the concept, but the concept still originates in religious experiences.