A program of the Center for Inquiry
The notion of God is a concept—a concept created by humans. No doubt it is meant to give expression to people’s awareness that there is something that transcends their understanding. It is also a way to address the sense of wonder that there is anything here at all: the world, the heavens, let alone sentient human beings. That awareness or sensibility is not what I find troubling, for it leads some people to ask questions and seek answers. It is the concept that troubles me, because once a label is put on that awareness, something else happens. The transformation and consolidation of the awareness into a concept, a proper noun that is then personalized as a being to whom we owe worship, makes it something people can grasp; but simultaneously it cuts off, rather than fosters, the awareness and sensibility.
I first became antagonistic toward organized religion when I was about seven or eight years old. I was in the third grade, attending a Catholic school not because our family was Catholic—we were not—but because it was the closest school to our home. Of course at the time, I didn’t know that God was a concept; I didn’t know what a “concept” was. In class, the nuns presented God as a real person, though divine, and taught that we owed him our obedience and worship. But when they told our class the Genesis story of how God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son, I was shocked. In a loud voice, I asked something to the effect of: “What kind of god would ask such a thing? What kind of father would be willing to do that? I hate that god.” Not surprising, this outburst shocked the nuns and my fellow students, and I was punished. An eraser was thrown at me, and I was told to write five hundred times, “I will love God my Father who is in heaven.” I can still see my ill-formed, childish handwriting filling the lines on several sheets of paper. The punishment was excruciating and had consequences opposite of what was intended. I became very suspicious not just of the stories but of religion in general, particularly of the way it is indoctrinated when we are children so that it becomes “just the way things are.” In other words, it forms our worldview.
Fortunately, children move on—and my family moved to another state. Although that episode was seemingly forgotten, it apparently left an indelible impression. Not until I had a child of my own did it resurface, and then with full force. I realized with renewed horror the implications of that biblical story. How could any parent be willing to sacrifice his or her child? Why would anyone believe that God had asked that such a thing be done? Why should that person be revered? And why is this story at the foundation of the three “Abrahamic” religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam? These questions called for answers, but it took years before I was able to delve into them. Later, I will discuss my research at Harvard Divinity School, but first, let me relay another, more recent, revelation.
In May and June of 2014, I hiked the more than five hundred miles on the Camino de Santiago in northern Spain. Although I was called a peregrino (a pilgrim), I did not go as a religious pilgrim. I went because I like long walks, wanted time to think, and wanted to get away from the confines, routines, and stresses of everyday life. Religious pilgrims were focused on getting to the destination, the cathedral in Santiago where St. James is supposedly buried. For me, as in life, it was the journey not the destination that mattered most.
The Camino is not a wilderness trail such as the Appalachian Trail or the Pacific Crest trail. It passes through medieval villages and famous cities such as Pamplona and Burgos. One meets people along the way, and most walkers sleep in albergues (hostels) rather than tents or hotels. It was a wonderful, unforgettable experience. However, at one communal dinner, a man got up to say grace: “Thank God for the food we are about to receive.” I had a gut reaction against this seemingly gracious prayer. Too often, people thank this otherworldly concept rather than the people right in front of them. Instead, I suggested that we thank the people whose labor went into our meal: first, the farmers who produced the food and the vintners who made the wonderful wines we drank for free; then the restaurateurs and hosteliers, many of whom are volunteers, who accommodate the pilgrims’ curfew by creating special three-course meals at low cost and much earlier than Spanish dinnertimes; next, those who cooked the food; and last but not least, those who served us. That would be a wonderful expression of gratitude. Instead, the simple prayer made them all invisible. Some of these pilgrims hardly noticed the staff or thought about the farmers and vintners. They walked through villages without much thought to the people who housed them and provided for their needs.
I went to the Divinity School at Harvard not to become a minister but to follow an academic path to delve further into the story of Abraham’s sacrifice. I studied its various interpretations but also the history and culture of the peoples who had been living in the areas related to the story.1 Abraham is referred to as the “father of faith” for his willingness to obey God’s command: “Take now thy son, thine only son, Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of” (Genesis 22:2).
Several things need to be noted at once. God communicated only with Abraham, not also his wife, Sarah, implying that the child belonged to Abraham in a way he did not belong to Sarah. Second, Isaac was not Abraham’s only son. His firstborn, Ismail, was conceived by Hagar, who was not his wife. Thus, marriage was the bond that legitimized a child. To me, however, every child is legitimate by virtue of being born.
But the most important assumption, though conspicuous, has been overlooked, and that is the word seed. This is not surprising because, as anthropologist A. I. Hallowell wrote long ago, “The most fundamental assumptions of any religious system are the least transparent,” even if in plain view.2 Because the word seed, inscribed in these sacred texts, has long been part of the discourse, few have thought to explore its meanings and ramifications.
Because of his obedience, God then said to Abraham: “Because thou hast done this thing, and hast not withheld thy son, thine only son. . . . I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea shore; and thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies” (Genesis 16–17; emphasis added).
Today, some recent translations of the Bible have changed the word seed to progeny, but in so doing they have clearly misrepresented how that word lies at the core not only of the story but of the entire theology. Only men were thought to have seed; they were imagined as the procreators, doing on the human level what God had done on the divine. Women, in contrast, were assimilated to what God had created, namely the Earth. Women were imagined as either the fertile or barren soil in which the seed was planted. This process is still referred to as “insemination,” literally “to put the seed in,” thus unconsciously perpetuating this outmoded theory of procreation. In addition, of course, male children were desired because only they could pass on the line. The seed was imagined to hold the identity and soul; girls had souls, but they were bequeathed by the father. Abraham’s very name means something like “exalted father” or “the father is exalted”—in relation to whom, one wonders. In Judaism, perhaps it should not be surprising that the covenant between God and man (circumcision) was signed on the male procreative organ. Christianity furthered the idea of male procreativity. Not only is God called “father,” but medieval paintings show a fully formed baby Jesus descending on beams of light to enter the body of Mary—often through the ear. The mother is imagined as merely the receptacle, an immaculate one to be sure, but still a receptacle. Jesus is called the “Word of God.” I should not have been surprised, I guess, when I saw, engraved on the pulpit of the Basilica of the National Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., the words: “The Word is the Seed of God.”3
Islam continues the tradition of circumcision and the Qur’an records Allah’s directive to men: “Women are given to you as fields, go therein and sow as you wish” (Sura 2:223). Elsewhere, there are many references to seed. During my two years of anthropological fieldwork in a Turkish village, people said that children belong to the man because of his seed. Others used the following as proof: “If you plant wheat you get wheat, if you plant barley you get barley. It is the seed that determines the kind of plant that will grow.”4 The Turkish word for sperm (a word that, itself, means seed) is döl, and the word for womb is dölyatağı, meaning seedbed.
Language is extremely important, for it colors our thought and thus how we imagine things to be.
This tiny word, seed, is not something expendable or substitutable but absolutely central to the entire theology, as it also affects notions of gender and issues of marriage, divorce, contraception, abortion, and ordination (but why would any woman want to step into a totally patriarchal theology?).
The meanings of “father” and “mother” were established long before modern genetic theory was developed. As noted above, conception was imagined in terms of seed that developed in the fertile womb, though we now know that both male and female contribute the same kind of things to an embryo, namely genes. In addition, women undergo the labor of birth and provide the nurture of the growing fetus in the womb and often at the breast; yet nurture is the only thing that has defined “mother” for millennia, while “father” has been defined as the procreator, the one who generates. And this notion is transferred symbolically in such notions as a “seminal” thought, implying that creative ideas are masculine in character.
These notions of procreation are not only in the Bible and Qur’an but also in the works of Aristotle, Galen, and medieval philosophers. And they are still held by many today, if the statement expressed in 2014 by Senator Steve Martin of Virginia that “women are merely hosts” for the child, is representative.5 Although the mammalian “egg” was discovered in 1827 by Karl Ernst von Baer, the human ovum was not discovered until 1928, and even then it was thought to contain only nurturant, not creative, material. The modern genetic theory of procreation is relatively recent. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, Gregor Mendel worked on the genetics of pea plants; in the early twentieth century, others worked with fruit flies, but the genetics of human procreation did not become known until the 1940s and 1950s, and still it is neither known nor understood among certain segments of the world’s population. Indeed, I, as a woman born in 1940, was told the age-old theory: “the daddy plants the seed,” which, I confess made me very uncomfortable. Yet because this scenario is so deeply ingrained in our culture, I started to repeat it to my daughter (in 1968) when she asked the perennial question. In mid-sentence I stopped, shocked at the implications, and revised the explanation. That moment was the inspiration for all of my academic work.
Not only do many people not know the genetics of procreation, they are unaware that conception is a process. It begins when a sperm meets an ovum and they conjoin to form a zygote. A week or so later, as it develops—if it does (and much can go wrong at any point in the process)—it will become an embryo. Then it takes two months or so before it becomes a fetus. Thus, it is difficult to say when human life begins. People in the Turkish village told me that it begins at birth, after the baby takes its first breath.
Today gender and reproduction are relegated to “nature,” while religion is assumed to deal with the “spiritual.” Rarely are the two brought into the same semantic context. And that is the problem, though it goes unrecognized. Yet it is hard to deny that these religions, including the very concept of God, are in large part about gender. Our vocabulary has not caught up with our revised beliefs about “reproduction”—a word that, itself, devalues what women do by assimilating it to something akin to what a photocopier does rather than being the process where a sentient being is brought into the world. It also devalues what a human is. To me, every birth, not just that of Jesus as Christians believe, seems miraculous because each child is unique, surely not a copy. Maybe, if we recognized the absolute uniqueness of every person, we would not so easily kill them in the name of God.
Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are referred to as the “Abrahamic” religions because each traces its origin to the foundational story of Abraham, who proclaimed the one and only God. But to me, they seem like three brothers fighting over the patrimony. That is, they are fighting over who has the right interpretation of God’s will and who will inherit the promises. And, as we have seen in recent years, it is a fight to the death. We need to expose the problems with the very “conception” of these religious traditions that is, as I have suggested, related to ancient notions of conception.
So back to God. God is a concept, a reified concept—that is, the concept makes it seem as if it is something real. Yet, it was created by humans. Furthermore, the concept in the Abrahamic religions has always been referred to in the masculine gender. Perhaps it is worthwhile to consider that perhaps it is not God who created man in his own image but rather, at a particular time in the ancient Near East, a group of men acting on their new notions about procreation—and in a complete reversal of Mesopotamian culture where Inanna was Queen of Heaven and priestesses served in the temples—created God in their image, and thus launched the most powerful myth the world has ever seen.6 It is high time we changed this.
From the Author: The title of this paper is a take on God the Problem by Gordon Kaufman, one of my professors at Harvard with whom I had a number of conversations, even though our notion of what the problem is differed.
Carol Delaney is professor emerita of cultural and social anthropology at Stanford University. Her latest book is Columbus and the Quest for Jerusalem (Free Press, 2011).