Enter God The Dominant Ape
If oxen and horses and lions had hands and were able to draw with their hands and do the same things as men, horses would draw the shapes of gods to look like horses and oxen to look like oxen, and each would have made the gods’ bodies to have the same shapes as they themselves had. —Xenophanes (ca. 570—ca. 478 BCE)
What is God? Many would say that God is love, or God is beauty. For others, God is an immaterial being, the creator of the universe. God has been described as compassionate and merciful, as the ultimate moral authority, or the ultimate source of goodness in the world. The pious draw from this vision of God a sense of awe, purpose, hope, and empathy. From this vision, masses of people around the world convene around a shared sense of wonder, appreciation, and unity, and they cultivate between one another an environment of kindness, generosity, and support. This vision of God is indisputable, insofar as it forms the phenomenology of the religious worship of God.
But there is another vision of God that is just as real. The majority of the world's believers worship a god that is fearsome and male, and his portrayal demands reckoning. Scripture depicts this god as one who rains fury upon his enemies and slaughters the unfaithful. It also shows him policing the sex lives of his subordinates and obsessing over sexual fidelity. Extremists, drunk on this vision, steer airplanes into buildings or obliterate themselves in crowded marketplaces. They foment sexual shame and engage in genital mutilation, acid attacks, and so-called honor killings. They start inquisitions and witch hunts, religious wars and religious conquests. They seize ideological control and breed superstition, ignorance, and prejudice. And they also seek to enforce a prohibition against questioning God, leaving such inhumanities unexamined, sometimes for fear of the treatments just described.
Critically, we now live in an age in which religions clash with women's rights as gender equality strains against its margins, in which theocratic regimes are gaining control of nuclear arms, and in which dangerous fundamentalism is increasingly taking hold around the world. This is a crucial moment for us to force the wedge of inquiry, if only to better understand the means by which religion may be used to encourage what is worst—rather than what is best—in human nature.
We may begin by questioning whether there is something common to the perpetrators of the kinds of violence and oppression listed above. The seemingly obvious answer is that these acts are almost exclusively committed by men. In the rare instances where they are committed by women or children, the acts are almost always influenced or coerced by men. This is an important starting point. Since another common root to these acts is purported religiosity, a second key question becomes, is there something common to the vision of God behind them? Here we arrive at the crux of the matter: the common vision is that of God as man.
I argue here that God was created in the image of man. This argument is not new. The epigraph of this chapter would suggest that thinkers have made this connection since at least the time of the ancient Greeks. However, there are good reasons not only to emphasize that God was created in the image of man, rather than the other way around, but also to study the dominance characteristics portrayed in God—most notably because men of power have historically conflated themselves with God in order to secure more power and have used this power to enact further violence and oppression. This pattern has emerged again and again across religious history as men have summoned divine legitimacy to justify their worst impulses. God himself is frequently portrayed as engaging in violent acts, thus serving to validate the destructive actions of the powerful.
This is most evident among the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), whose scriptures all too frequently depict a despotic male god. The Abrahamic god is the most widely worshipped man-based god, with followers comprising over 50 percent of the world's religious practitioners.1 And certainly a tyrannical God is not unique to the Abrahamic traditions; many (even polytheistic) religions around the world have dominant male gods who go around behaving like dominant male humans. I will thus occasionally reference male gods from other religions to illustrate how consistently male-typical patterns of dominance traverse traditions of faith. Even so, the Abrahamic god will remain my focus here, if only because He is by far the most globally dominant.
To understand such a god, we must first understand the minds of men, for it is these minds that think up ways to oppress and kill. Arguably the best way to understand the ultimate basis for male violence and oppression is through the evolutionary sciences. Such disciplines reveal the ancient underlying motivations for violence and oppression, molded as they were by the process of natural selection. The patterns of behavior such motivations were passed on by our primate ancestors and are easily evidenced in living nonhuman primates—our closest living relatives. Despite his upright stance, his clothes, and his sometimes-good table manners, man rarely surpasses his most primal impulses. Accordingly, men often seek out dominance in the manner of male apes, using violence to obtain evolutionary rewards such as food, territory, and sex. Humankind may have managed to create things like tools, weapons, and religions, but we remain one species of great ape that emigrated from Africa.
This can be difficult for many people to hear because as humans we have a tendency to think of ourselves as unique and to hold ourselves above other species. But we have DNA like all other life-forms—which ultimately shapes or brains and influences the manner in which we think—and we share as much as 99 percent of our DNA with nonhuman primates. And like other animals, we are organic beings that live, eat, reproduce, and die. As such, we require things like food, sex, and territory to fulfill our organismic destinies. None of this should be surprising.
However, it may be surprising to realize that while the god of the Abrahamic religions has powers that humans do not, He remains unnecessarily preoccupied with what are ultimately very human, and very ape-like, concerns. God is portrayed as being omnipotent (possessing infinite power), omniscient (having infinite knowledge), omnipresent (present everywhere), immaterial (without bodily form), and eternal, meaning that he never dies. This raises the question—Why should such a God concern himself with such pedestrian pursuits as food, sex, and territory? Why demand food as a sacrificial offering or order the conquest of biblical lands if he has no need of either to survive and can create worlds by simply speaking them into being?
The answer is that God is an alpha male, a dominant ape. In other words, depictions of the Abrahamic god, and of male gods from religions around the world, reflect the essential concerns of our primate evolutionary past—namely securing and maintaining power, and using that power to exercise control over material and reproductive resources. Understanding God therefore requires an understanding of man's evolved legacy within primate social hierarchies; and understanding religious violence and oppression requires taking a careful look at how thoroughly we have projected our own psychology onto our vision of the sacred.
This book examines how God has been drawn in human form, complete with an ancient repertoire of behaviors inherited from our primate male ancestors. It examines how male primates struggle for dominance within social groups, using a variety of strategies—fear and aggression among them—to acquire rank status. Rank, in turn, typically confers rewards, which for males includes preferential access to resources such as food, females, and territory. Dominant apes and men have a long history of securing such biological treasure by perpetrating violence and oppression on lower-ranking members of their societies. Once we observe that God, too, is portrayed as having great interest in these kinds of resources, and as securing them through similar means, it becomes increasingly clear that He has emerged as neither more nor less than the highest-ranking male of all.
Thus this book aims to illuminate patterns of dominance behaviors in God, tracing them back to their origins in men, and illustrating them in extant nonhuman male primates—all to show how humans have created gods that are intuitive to their evolved psychology, and with such devastating consequences. To accomplish this I call upon scientific research in the fields of evolutionary biology and psychology, clinical psychology, primatology, and world history, as well as theoretical formulations that have yet to be tested empirically. It is a matter of no mean importance that we come to better understand our gods, for only in doing so can we hope to understand the role they play in rationalizing human violence and brutality.
It is important to point out that I neither make, nor intend, any overarching attack on religion. Rather, I make the argument that our evolutionary drives have limited the reach for goodness in religions because they—like our religions—evolved in a savage world where survival was tenuous, and where aggression promoted survival. Human potential is so vast, but we may have limited ourselves by the gods we created.
For those who may take offense at the very premise of this book, it may also be worth mentioning that I am not claiming that your god really is a dominant ape. In fact, I am arguing that in reality there is no supernatural being, or any kind of superordinate consciousness, out there that resembles men or apes, in neither form nor behavior. My own opinion is that if there is a higher power (and I have yet to see evidence that there is) it certainly doesn't resemble any of the obvious, simplistic, and species-centric characterizations that have been widely proposed throughout the history of religion. Rather, as I will attempt to show, such characterizations arise from our evolved psychology, which is strongly dedicated toward navigating interactions with other humans, particularly those with power—an ancient task that remains critical for our present-day survival. If I am right, then the deviant sides of God really implicate our own conceptual limitations and have little to bear on that “higher power,” however defined.
I understand that the kinds of questions that I raise in this book can run the risk of being taken out of context and used, just as religion has been used, to justify out-group hatred, or violence, even worse; and this gives me pause. However, better understanding religious violence and oppression is so crucial to curbing the human suffering it causes, that the risk of asking provocative questions must be taken. To this end, we require a better understanding of what instinctive drives we, as creatures of biology, bring to religious belief and practice, for it is these drives that are ultimately behind every form of violence and oppression.
In order to take a more evolutionarily informed look at God, it is worth taking a bit of time to clarify a few terms and basic evolutionary ideas. First of all, what is dominance? And what does it mean to primates such as humans?
All great-ape species have male dominance hierarchies2 and there is a relative lack of female dominance hierarchies among the great apes.3 Males, with the notable exception of bonobos, typically dominate females.4 Dominance status is often associated with greater male violence; dominant chimpanzees, for example, show agonistic displays more often, start aggressive interactions more often, escalate aggression more often, and win aggressive interactions more often than their lower-ranking counterparts.5
Humans, like other primates, for the greater part live in hierarchical societies. While the degree to which human societies are rank-stratified varies across cultures, there is rank structure even in relatively more egalitarian hunter-gatherer societies.6 Rank has important implications for behavior.
Anthropologists Joseph Henrich and Francisco Gil-White emphasize that high status involves a system of rewards in which males receive “preferential reproductive access to females, food, and spaces, as well as a disproportionate amount of grooming from others” (privileges of high status that will be explored throughout this book).7 The authors also note an important characteristic of human hierarchies, which is that rank status may be maintained through either “dominance (force or force threat)” or through “prestige (freely conferred deference).”8 In dominance hierarchies, status is reinforced with aggression and fear, and the lower-ranking typically avert eye contact, yield space, groom their superiors, and make other submissive gestures. Prestige, as described by the authors, is characterized by the relative absence of fear and is maintained by high-ranking individuals demonstrating merit, skill, wisdom, or persuasiveness. Rather than averting eye contact and seeking greater distance, lower-ranking individuals seek eye contact and proximity with prestigious individuals—often in order to gain valued information. In illustrating the difference between dominance and prestige, the authors evocatively offer the great paraplegic physicist Stephen Hawking as the exemplar of pure prestige, and the high-school bully as the exemplar of pure dominance.
In this book I will focus on dominance. As noted by Henrich and Gil-White, individuals may use both dominance and prestige to achieve and maintain status. With this in mind, I will infrequently reference prestige in male status as it occurs in men and in God, with the understanding that dominant individuals may vary their techniques to achieve status goals.
Even so, the majority of the book will narrow in on dominance behaviors in male apes, men, and the Abrahamic god, because He typically follows patterns of dominance rather than prestige, as described by Henrich and Gil-White. One can argue that the Abrahamic god, and perhaps particularly the figure of Jesus Christ in the Christian New Testament, also makes use of prestige as a strategy for achieving status; however, the Abrahamic god's use of dominance is robust, and the use of fear to maintain rank is widely documented. Since it is this use of dominance rather than prestige that most influences violence within these traditions, dominance takes center stage here. In particular, I will focus on four main components:
1. Intimidation—Dominant males use dominance displays to intimate greater size, whereas lower-ranking members demonstrate submission by intimating smaller size (e.g., shrinking down), averting eyes, or communicating emotions such as fear and humility (as opposed to anger and pride).
2. Territorial acquisition—Dominant males often control territory, which I define not only as tracts of earth but also as the control of resources within specific geographic boundaries. These resources have key implications for males’ evolutionary fitness, most importantly food and females, both of which dominant males commandeer upon winning territory.
3. Sexual control—Following evolutionary drives, dominant males often monopolize sexual access to females. They will mate-guard and show great rage and sexual jealousy when their sexual claims are challenged. They often spend great energy attempting to stave off the sexual ambitions of their male rivals.
4. Violence—Dominant males will enact violence to establish and maintain rank status, and the resources associated with it. Sometimes this involves killing.
To begin to understand how such appetite-driven tactics might have become associated with our notion of the divine, it helps to understand how combative much of human history has been. Perhaps nowhere is that history more poignant than in the Middle East during the biblical age, when the turbulent forces of humanity were forging the identity of the Abrahamic god that we have today. In the history outlined below we may also begin to understand what the meteoric spread of a dominant male god owes to his intuitive appeal, particularly for primates whose minds, by way of biological evolution, come predisposed to fear, to submit to, and to follow dominant males.
HISTORY: HOW A DOMINANT MALE GOD RISES TO POWER
History reveals in striking form how men have historically conflated themselves with God as a means to amplify power, and how male gods rise to totalitarian rule in the manner of men—through violence and killing. With a critical read of history, we are also able to account for the Abrahamic god's domineering temperament, which he appears to have inherited from effective warlords of the biblical age.
A number of scholars,9 perhaps most notably Robert Wright,10 have traced the evolution of god concepts and religious practices as humans moved from hunter-gather societies to chiefdoms and eventually to nation-states. They illuminate an intriguing history, within which flows a rather-complex confluence of cultural, political, militaristic, and psychological forces, all shaping the countenance of God (or gods). While my main focus is on the evolutionary angle, I am obliged to give some attention to this history, for it illustrates the thunderous path toward monotheism in the Middle East that brought us the Abrahamic religions and does much to shed light on the evolving need for dominant male gods. In doing so, I favor the structure and interpretation of this history as told by Robert Wright.
Wright begins his account by outlining five categories of supernatural beings seen consistently across groups of hunter-gatherers, designed largely to explain the natural world:
1. elemental spirits (e.g., inanimate phenomena, such as wind, moon, stars, with personality and soul);
2. natural phenomena controlled by supernatural beings (e.g., a personified deity who controls the wind);
3. organic spirits (e.g., coyote spirits, tree spirits);
4. ancestral spirits; and, importantly,
5. high gods (which Wright describes as “a god that is in some vague sense more important than other supernatural beings and is often a creator god”).11
All of these classes involve human projections. Now, because we evolved in ranked societies, the natural extension is that our projections are ranked socially. Even in early religions we can observe male dominance behaviors in conceptions of god, particularly “high gods.” For example, the Native American Klamath tribe's sun god, Kmukamtch, was jealous of his son, Aishish, and spent a great deal of energy trying to seduce Aishish's wives.12 Gaona, the dominant god of the !Kung San of Africa, raped his son's wife and ate two of his brothers-in-law.13 Both sexual acquisitiveness and mate competition are dominance behaviors common among male primates, which we will explore in later chapters.
Historical scholars, including Wright, argue that as people moved from nomadic bands of hunter-gatherers into larger agrarian societies, their religious needs changed to reflect a new lifestyle.14 With larger populations, the roles of gods began to reflect social concerns rather than the forces of nature. Notably, gods began to more actively regulate social interactions and punish breeches of morality and cooperation. Wright argues that hunter-gatherers, who lived in small, close-knit societies, had little need for gods to oversee in-group processes; these societies were small and transparent enough to be regulated from within. As societies grew into larger chiefdoms, gods became “the guardians of political power, supervisors of economic performance, and supporters of social norms that let unprecedentedly large numbers of people live together.”15 For example, the Tongan gods of Polynesia were said to punish theft with shark attacks.16 In chiefdoms, dominant men often possessed divine authority, or were walking gods on earth. Breaking the chief's laws became the same as breaking the laws of God.
As populations grew to state levels, the power of the gods grew commensurately with the power needed to regulate greater masses of people. Similarly, the tasks of the gods became more specialized, reflecting the growing complexity of social order and greater division of labor. As states began to subsume ethnically diverse bands of people, there was a need not only for regulating in-group behavior but also for regulating interactions between states. As diverse peoples and their gods came into contact, political leaders began to create rules reflecting international law, steeped always in religious belief—in this era, religion, law, and politics were inextricable. In order to foster trade and commerce, and simply through sustained contact, many states either incorporated the gods of their trading partners or at the very least tolerated them. Thus many early religions in the Middle East remained polytheistic. But even here, under relatively peaceable coexistence with other gods, dominant male gods set to the male-typical business of establishing territory.
International-relations theorist Adam Watson writes, for example, that in third millennium BCE Mesopotamia, “Enlil, the king of all the lands and the father of all the gods, marked out a boundary for the god of Lagash and the god of Umma by his decree. The king of Kish measured it out in accordance with the word of the god of legal settlements, and erected a stone boundary marker there.”17 The territoriality of male gods began to take on greater proportions, following the evolutionary dictates of the powerful men who represented them, a line that was often intentionally obfuscated. For example, when the king of Umma violated Enlil's decree, he was “punished by the army of Lagash (or as the historical record has it, by the god of Lagash through the army of Lagash).”18 And so the needs of gods began to transform to include transnational territories and codes of behavior for larger and larger masses of people.
Gods moved toward monotheism alongside high-ranking men who were increasingly able to consolidate entire populations under autocratic rule. One example comes from Babylon, an important enemy of ancient Israel, where the Abrahamic god was born. Hammurabi, a Babylonian king in the early second millennium, championed the god Marduk and utilized Marduk's image to materialize his own political ambitions. Hammurabi, credited with creating one of the first legal codes, was sure to emphasize that his law-making capacities were divinely authorized by the gods Anu and Enlil. The two gods, according to Hammurabi's code, then promoted Marduk to supremacy and assigned him “dominion over earthly man.”19 Marduk's image was steeped in references to mate-competition—he was a glorious, sexually potent, dominant male god (described as having the heart of a kettle drum and the penis of a snake that produced golden sperm, for example).20 With the lines blurred between god and man, more specifically between Hammurabi and Marduk's supremacy, the way was greased for Hammurabi's dominion of all Mesopotamia. Though Hammurabi died before this was realized, Babylon ultimately managed to defeat Mesopotamia, and Marduk became the head of the pantheon of gods across the subsumed territories, either by subordinating the resident gods of the conquered or by sequestering their functions. For instance, Adad, who was once the god of rain, became the “Marduk of rain.” Nabu, who was once the god of accounting, changed into “Marduk of accounting.”21 But still, this was an example of monolatry, rather than monotheism—meaning that one god ruled over other gods in the pantheon, rather than that one god was the only god in all existence. Like a pantheon of bureaucrats, there were many other gods during this period of ancient Babylon, each performing different functions; in the ninth century BCE, a census turned up around sixty-five thousand gods.22
With the identities of male leaders and male gods so intertwined, one could understand the motivation to consolidate divine identities—doing so could prove a fast-track to consolidating power, whereas leaving a host of other gods in position had the potential to confuse (and ultimately dilute) the king's power structure. But again, it should be recognized that dominant male gods are the creations of men (rather than women) specifically. The bellicose ancient cradle of civilization was not a cradle of gender equality. Powerful men wrote the doctrine, designed the laws, and set the special relationships with their gods. The historical uses for these gods were the male-typical pursuits of territory and power, following an ancient legacy of male primate behavior. The meshing of gods and kings may have also dissuaded rebellion, or as historian Will Durant remarked, “All the glamor of the supernatural hedged about the throne, and made rebellion a colossal impiety which risked not only the neck but the soul.”23
Other gods have assumed monolatristic, if not virtual monotheistic, positions. One example comes from Egypt, another important enemy of ancient Israel. The Egyptian god Amun came to dominate the pantheon of Egyptian gods, a position gained by a series of successful Egyptian military campaigns that Amun symbolically spearheaded. Amun became known as the “king of gods,” the “prince of princes.” He became an ultimate god, the greatest of transcendent deities of Egyptian religious history, and his priests amassed great political and economic power from riches won in military campaigns. As Wright tells it, when Pharaoh Amenhotep IV inherited the throne upon the death of his father, he may have had good reasons to feel threatened by a god with such power.24 It wasn't long before Amenhotep deposed Amun and put Aten (a sun god) in his place, and then declared himself Aten's son. Aten eventually became the creator of the world. In the story of Amenhotep and Aten we can see not only human power and territoriality exercised through the gods, but also human jealousy. Under Amenhotep, any person named Amun was forced to change his or her name. Similarly, any depiction of Amun was erased from existence, from wherever it appeared. Though Aten symbolically embodied both the masculine and feminine, this level of possessiveness is traceable to the behaviors of despotic men. Joseph Stalin, for example, used similar tactics when he assumed control of Russia and had the images of men fallen from favor erased from history books, currency, and political sculptures; he had most of these men exterminated altogether. It is worth noting that this business of marking over the territorial markers of one's rivals is known to primates and proliferated among the gods of the biblical age.
The ancient Israelites, too, were at first polytheistic. Yahweh was a god that emerged from a pantheon of other gods and was initially neither monotheistic nor possessing of many of the transcendent qualities he later came to embody. There are many references to other gods in the Bible, and in the history of Israel, before monotheism took hold.
It is important to understand the geopolitical environment of the ancient Middle East when the first Abrahamic religion, Judaism, and its monotheistic god, Yahweh, were gestating. Conquest involving the slaughter of entire cities was not uncommon. This was violence conducted up close and personal, where you made eye contact with your attacker before he physically hacked you to pieces (with dull bronze and later iron weapons), killed your entire family, and burned your city to the ground. Unless you possessed great power, or allied yourself with someone who did, you were subject to raids or conquests of these kinds. Lesser states often paid tribute to more powerful kingdoms for protection lest they be annihilated. Powerful men appointed male gods as their generals, and success in battle (or in genocide) was often attributed to the gods. Of course, this is not the only epoch of human history in which agonies of this kind occurred, but as great populations began to emerge in the cradle of civilization, there was a corresponding growth of the scale of warfare.25
It is not difficult to understand how, in environments marred by warfare and existential uncertainty, the religions of a people would reflect a need for a fearsome, protector male god. Likely these gods reflected the warlord kings of those epochs, who performed the same function for their people—men who rose up and took arms against invading enemies, or who invaded enemies for their resources. Further, ancient Israel was at a distinct disadvantage because it was situated between two superpowers of its time, Assyria and Egypt, and was often subject to slavery and slaughter between the two. Forming alliances with one or the other was not much of an option, as Wright describes it, because for “a small state wedged between two great powers, ’alliance’ often amounts to vassalage.”26
Moreover, kings in this region were not only taxed with aggressive encounters from outside groups—they were also required to maintain a stable in-group hierarchy, which often necessitated aggression. Sectarian groups within a nation's borders could weaken the entire state, rendering it less effective at coordinating common goals such as defense. More often than not, these fissions were headed by their own dominant male leaders (and their godheads), who could handicap the force of a nation with petty squabbling. But fiercely dominant male leaders had the power to punish factionalism and to cement alliances. Israel's strategic and size disadvantages made the need for in-group cohesion all the more urgent. As always, the men who shouldered the task of fusing in-group schisms did so at the level of humans and gods simultaneously.
Within a history of blood-loss and slavery, a series of powerful kings in Israel began addressing the need for a more powerful god. In around 640 BCE, King Josiah assumed the throne of Israel and began to consolidate power under Yahweh, simultaneously removing traces of other gods. Deities of the region—for example, Astarte, Chemosh, Milcom, and Baal—mostly syncretic gods formed from centuries of cultural merging, were deemed abominations.27 All altars, idols, and other religious accoutrements of the gods were destroyed, along with their temple priests. According to the Bible, Josiah “slaughtered on the altars all the priests of the high places who were there, and burned bones on them” (2 Kings 23:20). Scripture began to police dissent as means to ensure consolidation. Of Josiah, the Bible reads, “Anyone who does not heed the words that the prophet shall speak in my name, I myself will hold accountable. But any prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, or presumes to speak in my name a word that I have not yet commanded that prophet to speak, that prophet shall die” (Deut. 18:19—20). Similarly, if anyone dared to suggest worshipping other gods, that person should be killed, “even if it is your brother, your father's son, your own son or daughter, or the wife you embrace, or your most intimate friend” (Deut. 13:6—9). And if you came across an Israeli town worshipping other gods, “you must certainly put to the sword all who live in that town. Destroy it completely, both its people and its livestock. Gather all the plunder of the town into the middle of the public square and completely burn the town and all its plunder as a whole burnt offering to the LORD your God. It is to remain a ruin forever, never to be rebuilt” (Deut. 13:15—16).
This strategy of intolerance was a design of Josiah's ambitions to expand the Israeli empire, first by uniting southern and northern Israel under one god. Though Josiah's prescriptions for nonbelievers were brutal, such was the tenor of this merciless age. For instance, later when King Zedekiah of Judah rebelled against the Babylonians, King Nebuchadnezzar captured Jerusalem, burned it to the ground, and killed Zedekiah's son in front of him, gouged out Zedekiah's eyes, and took the greater part of the city into Babylon as slaves. Knowing the importance of the godhead (perhaps even believing it), Nebuchadnezzar was sure to destroy Yahweh's temple.
Israel, like other states of the region (for instance, when Israel subjugated the Moabites), also suffered through many years of conquest and slavery—it served, for example, King Cushan-Rishathaim of Aram-Naharaim for eight years, and King Eglon of Moab for eighteen years. The Israelites were also exiled and held in captivity for nearly fifty years after being conquered by the Babylonians during the fifth century BCE (a conquest the Babylonians saw as evidence of the supremacy of their god Marduk). Wright goes so far as to argue that this stint in exile was the most profound in Judaic history and an important catalyst in the development of monotheism—for just as national religion can unite a people, so can national trauma.28 From their trials and humiliations, the Israelites began transforming God to a redeemer, and eventually solidified Yahweh's singular divinity. The concept began evolving from roughly, “You shall have no other gods before me” to “There are no other gods.”
The Israelites began developing what has been described as retribution theology. From this age of suffering comes a litany of redresses that Yahweh begins to extract from the oppressors of Israel, in the fashion of dominant human lords of the ancient Middle East. Yahweh proclaims in the book of Isaiah, “I will make your oppressors eat their own flesh, and they shall be drunk with their own blood as with wine. Then all flesh shall know that I am the LORD your Savior, and your Redeemer, the Mighty One of Jacob” (49:26). For Israel's enemies, Yahweh promises fearsome retribution:
Because you have clapped your hands and stamped your feet, rejoicing with all the malice of your heart against the land of Israel, therefore I will stretch out my hand against you and give you as plunder to the nations. I will cut you off from the nations and exterminate you from the countries. I will destroy you, and you will know that I am the LORD. (Ezek. 25:6—7)
The list of retributive threatening goes on and exemplifies the need for a warrior god to protect and avenge His people against their subjugators. In a political environment run by strongmen, one needs a god based on strongman psychology, one equipped for maneuvering within the dominance hierarchies of men. My intention in reviewing this history is to show the context in which the three great monotheistic religions arose. Notably they arose from an explosion of population density in the Middle East, where merciless slaughter at the hands of men encouraged the people to turn to strong, warlike leaders (to protect against the other men of a similar bent), and to gods who were similarly fearsome.
Many of the patterns outlined in this history have occurred before, repeating for millions of years across the savage, primeval landscapes of our primate ancestors. As in ancient Mesopotamia, the savannas and rainforests of Africa have witnessed dominant males leading bloody incursions, capturing territories, killing in-group males, and protecting against outsider males assembled ominously at the border. Humans are unique in having created supernatural agents that perform these functions alongside their mortal counterparts. The religio-cultural contexts in which dominant male gods arise are rooted in our biological heritage. In the next chapter we come to understand how natural selection shaped the human mind, influenced the litany of dominance behaviors described in the history above, and engendered the cross-cultural tendency to create supernatural agents who demand our allegiance and watch over us while we sleep.