Is Religion Just a Product of Human Imagination?
by Stephen Ferguson | 01 March 2020 |
What legitimate role does imagination play in our spiritual lives? If imagination has any place in our belief system, does that mean it is all essentially fake?
Is religion like Lisa Simpson’s stupid rock, which she tells her father can keep bears and tigers away? Are our belief systems just the same, human constructs to give a crutch to the weak and a weapon of oppression to the strong? Karl Marx’s opium of the people? Are we fools for buying into any religious claptrap?
I am inclined to say God (or whatever word you want to use to describe Him/Her/It) is real and a necessary fact, but religion is made up by humans. That is, I do acknowledge religion is a mere product of our imaginations. Therefore, on some level my own faith probably shares some notable congruence with the approach of atheists and agnostics.
Nonetheless, my admission here requires some serious qualification. Even if a product of our imaginations, religion is still an exemplar of truth. Religion can be both fact and fiction at the very same time.
Confused? Let me provide some context to what I am trying to say here, by way of an example.
First contact with a “lost” Australian Aboriginal tribe
In 1964 a group of some 20 Aboriginal Australians from the Martu people came into contact with European Australians for the first time. These events are described in the book Cleared Out and the documentary Contact. I was reminded of this event recently, while having a detailed conversation with a very spiritual non-Adventist friend of mine, who is interested in both eastern mysticism and ancient tribal beliefs.
This Martu event involved “finding” one of the last “lost tribes” of the Australian continent. However, why this event was so important is it was also all captured on camera. I learnt about this event firsthand at University, as one of my Professors had been part of the government’s Native Welfare patrol group that had made first contact.
This event is told through the eyes of Yuwali, who was 17 years old at the time of first contact, but was 62 at the date of the documentary in 2009. Yuwali describes the event as follows:
“In the bush I heard a noise. Then I saw something. I moved around to get a better look. It was moving. Still moving. I said to the kids: ‘Have a look.’
“‘You know these big rocks we play on?’ ‘The rock has come alive.’ ‘Look it’s rolling around our camp.’
“Then I made out two men standing on the dune. They had dishes on their heads…
“Cannibals. Devil men. They had white skin.”
What had Yuwali seen? Was she correct in describing an alive rock rolling around her camp? No. She was seeing no rock – she was seeing a car!
And were the men wearing dishes? No. They were wearing hats.
So did this make Yuwali a liar? Is her account fiction? Of course not. What Yuwali saw was representative of a true factual event. She just didn’t have the words to express what she was seeing.
She had never seen a car before. Nor a hat. Yuwali used words and concepts that made sense to her, based on her own world view at that time.
That is not to suggest all words and concepts are equal. If Yuwali’s sister had described the car as a giant kangaroo, with these white men sitting in its pouch, I think we can agree that this descriptor would probably be less accurate than that of a rolling rock.
If, instead, Yuwali’s brother had described the vehicle as a large turtle, we might say it was equally good as Yuwali’s, albeit different. A car seems more like a turtle than a kangaroo, at least to me. Yet as desert people, perhaps the idea of a turtle was equally alien to the Martu lexicon.
Yuwali also calls these men cannibals, devil men and white skinned. I think we can agree out of these three descriptors, the first is the least accurate and the last the most so. As for the middle descriptor, White Europeans probably are “devils”, from a particular point of view, given what we have done to Australia’s indigenous population. But that would be to take the idea of “devil” as more rhetorical flourish, while Yuwali probably meant it literally as someone back from the dead.
Finally, the idea that Martu tribe were “lost” and needed to be “found” is itself a matter of perspective. Both true and untrue at the same time. Yuwali may well say she was never lost to begin with, as she was only living on her ancestral lands.
The cigar-shaped spaceship
It is easy to look at Yuwali, and scoff at her attempts to explain European people and Western technology with words and concepts derived from her own ancient hunter-gatherer world view. However, we should be slow to judge.
I note last year, 2019, some of our best astronomers were left dumbfounded about a mysterious cigar-shaped object called ‘Oumuamua, which was traveling through our solar system. One legitimate question that arose was whether the object was alien in origin.
We might ask why the scientists didn’t simply use science to investigate the matter. They did, but our own scientists rightly questioned whether our approach to science was flawed or limited, being built upon an inherent world view that presupposed what an alien object was meant to be. Just look up the “Fermi Paradox”.
The importance of imagination and myth to understanding religion
So where does this all leave the question of religion? To some extent this is all the well-worn trodden path of philosophers and theologians throughout the ages. I am not really saying anything new.
As Christians, none of this should be particularly frightening. The Apostle Paul said, “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no heart has imagined, what God has prepared for those who love Him” (1 Cor. 2:9).
Yet John said heaven will be paved with streets of pure gold (Rev. 21:21). I have often wondered if heaven will have literal streets of gold, or if instead this is John’s way of trying to explain how glorious it must be, with words and concepts we would understand. Who knows? Maybe John is no different from Yuwali on that.
As Adventists, we also know the well-worn adage that God’s prophets were His penmen, not God’s actual pen:
The Bible is written by inspired men, but it is not God’s mode of thought and expression. It is that of humanity. God, as a writer, is not represented. Men will often say such an expression is not like God. But God has not put Himself in words, in logic, in rhetoric, on trial in the Bible. The writers of the Bible were God’s penmen, not His pen. Look at the different writers. It is not the words of the Bible that are inspired, but the men that were inspired. Inspiration acts not on the man’s words or his expressions but on the man himself, who, under the influence of the Holy Ghost, is imbued with thoughts. But the words and thoughts receive the impress of the individual mind. The divine mind is diffused.1
So is the Bible true?
Given this is a well-worn subject, I am continually perplexed then how often Christians seem to overlook this foundational idea. For example, they get worried that the Bible suggests Jonah was swallowed by fish when we moderns think it was probably a whale. As if we can take no account for an ancient near eastern understandings, or lack thereof, of marine biology.
Endless debates about the “days” of earth’s creation, the extent of the “world” subject to Noah’s flood, or prophetic questions about “days, weeks and years” all seem to fall into this category. I am not saying I believe or disbelieve anything, but I do question any approach that is akin to mistaking Yuwali’s rock for a car.
I am equally perplexed by the modern trendy tendency to mock all religious thought, especially biblical Christianity, as effectively fiction. As if the fact Matthew’s Gospel describes a centurion approaching Jesus personally about his sick servant (Matt. 8:5), while in Luke the centurion sends some Jewish elders on his behalf to make the request (Luke 7:3), somehow suggests the whole story must be wrong. This seems to be the main game of many modern celebrity atheists, such as Richard Dawkins.
If I could say one thing about religion, it is not that the religions of the world are different, inconsistent or even made up to some degree. It is rather how often they say similar things, albeit with different words, concepts and stories.
This is especially the case when it comes to the Bible, a book that is remarkably coherent given its multiple authors, contexts and periods of authorship. The Bible is not amazing for its inconsistency but for its consistency.
Like human cuisine, there are many dishes, but it is surprising just how many of them use the same handful of basic ingredients. When you think about it, human food is dominated by only about five basic types of grain and five types of meat. That is it. Just combined in a hundred million different ways. In a sense, all religions end up in the same place.
To avoid all doubt and risk repeating the point for emphasis, that is not to suggest every religion is equal to another. I do think pasta is better than noodles, although they are kind of the same thing when you think about it. I respect the fact you might disagree.
I am a Seventh-day Adventist because I do, in all honestly, believe we possess a better description of truth. But this truth is present truth – not absolute truth – another Adventist distinction we may have forgotten along the way.
Religion is clearly made up. It clearly is a product of our imaginations. But that doesn’t make it false. As Yuwali demonstrated, often what we imagine is true, in a manner of speaking.
1Ellen White, Selected Messages, Book 1, p. 21.
Stephen Ferguson is a lawyer from Perth, Western Australia, with expertise in planning, environment, immigration and administrative-government law. He is married to Amy and has two children, William and Eloise. Stephen is a member of the Livingston Adventist Church.