Righting Ourselves

Alpha God: The Psychology of Religious Violence and Oppression - Hector A. Garcia 2015

Righting Ourselves

“Envy thou not the oppressor, and choose none of his ways.” —Proverbs 3:31

The great nineteenth-century women's rights movement leader Susan B. Anthony once said, “I distrust those people who know so well what God wants them to do because I notice it always coincides with their own desires.”1 We have seen that historically it has been mostly men claiming to know what God wants and that they inherited their desires from our male primate forebears. God, an omnipotent, immortal being, has been curiously portrayed as having those same desires—demanding access to females and territory—which serve to legitimize the pursuits of powerful men. Meanwhile, men vigorously pursue the social conditions (such as fear, submission, and unquestioning obeisance) that are required for monopolizing such resources. God follows in turn, and his believers are expected to kneel, show fear, obey, and surrender the right to question. Most importantly, men have claimed this dominant male god's backing while perpetrating unspeakable cruelties—including rape, homicide, infanticide, and genocide.

Borrowing from William James, throughout this book I have emphasized the importance of making the “natural seem strange”—of forcing insight into a process that is so natural, so automatized, that it is enacted mostly without conscious awareness. It is precisely because the alpha god paradigm is so intuitive to the primate brain, and so reflexively applied to the hierarchies of religion, that the need for such a book as this exists. While there are potential remedies to the problems engendered by this alpha god, his image is so deeply rooted in our evolved psychology that it is uncertain to what extent solutions can gain traction on a global scale. Boldly unveiling the male primate puppeteers of God will be a necessary first step. Such a move, made introspective and honest by the evolutionary sciences, may help us to develop a more just and compassionate set of religious and secular ethics.


So far we have covered two different kinds of religious violence—that which dominant males use on their subordinates to secure evolutionary rewards and that which in-group members use against religious out-groups. Perhaps the biggest challenge to restraining ourselves from the latter is that it is embedded in our evolved psychology of the other, which is among the most deeply rooted and reflexive of all social impulses. For most of human evolution, we evolved in small bands of hunter-gatherers competing for resources with outside bands. Those who were able to cooperate with members of their tribe, in part by forming shared biases against outsiders, had a distinct survival advantage over those who did not. There is even a good case to be made that distorted perceptions of moral fairness (i.e., favoring the in-group) may have been selected for. A growing science of moral cognition is beginning to bring light to these reflexive intergroup biases, making clear that this tribalistic psychology has not gone away. On the contrary, it pervades our moral philosophies, our national politics, and our religions and creates unconscious, irrational biases culminating in hostility against outsiders. Its reflexivity is an indication of just how old that psychology is.

It is so old, in fact, that we share this ancient legacy with contemporary primate species. Jane Goodall observed in her classic Chimpanzees of Gombe that “as a result of a unique combination of strong affiliative bonds between adult males on the one hand and an unusually hostile and violently aggressive attitude toward nongroup individuals on the other,” the chimpanzee “has clearly reached a stage where he stands at the very threshold of human achievement in destruction, cruelty, and planned intergroup conflict.”2 As for humans, Plato argued that in warfare, Greeks should not enslave other Greeks, burn down their houses, or ravage their fields—these acts should only be performed against non-Greeks.3 Religions often call upon these same instincts to create scriptures that promote in-group—out-group biases. Religion may have even evolved to facilitate in-group cooperation,4 to include cooperative hostility.

Even so, there are many positive benefits of religion, such as a sense of belonging, existential purpose, and emotional well-being. The Abrahamic scriptures give voice to the best qualities of humanity, such as compassion, justice, honesty, and personal integrity. Below is a brief summary of a far more extensive list:

The Old Testament (Exodus):

·  “Honor thy father and thy mother.” (20:12)

·  “Thou shalt not kill.” (20:13)

·  “Thou shalt not steal.” (20:15)

·  “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.” (20:16)

·  “Though shalt neither vex a stranger, nor oppress him: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (22:21)

·  “Ye shall not afflict any widow or fatherless child.” (22:22)

·  “Do not deny justice to your poor people in their lawsuits.” (23:6)

New Testament (1 Peter):

·  “Therefore, rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind.” (2:1)

·  “…all of you should be of one mind. Sympathize with each other. Love each other as brothers and sisters. Be tenderhearted, and keep a humble attitude.” (3:8)

·  “Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing.” (3:9)

·  “Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling.” (4:9)

·  “If you suffer, however, it must not be for murder, stealing, making trouble, or prying into other people's affairs.” (4:15)

Koran's Suras:

·  “…do good. Allah loveth the beneficent.” (2:195)

·  “Be good to parents and kindred and to orphans and the needy, and speak kindly to mankind.” (2:83)

·  “Kill not one another.” (4:29)

·  “There is no good…save in him who enjoy almsgiving and kindness and peace-making among the people.” (4:114)

·  “Be ye staunch in justice, witnesses for Allah, even though it be against yourselves or (your) parents or (your) kindred, whether (the case be of) a rich man or poor man.” (4:135)

·  “Oh ye who believe! Be steadfast witnesses for Allah in equity, and let not hatred of any people seduce you that ye deal not justly.” (5:8)

These suggestions, rules, and laws are simple, compassionate, and morally sensible. Across the globe such edicts have allowed vast groups of people to cooperate and form group identities and a sense of shared moral obligation. But once again, it is an important point to note that such obligations apply almost exclusively to the in-group. Values like kindness, compassion, charity, fairness, and so on tend to drop away at the periphery of many human social groups, and those formed around religion are no exception. Again, on this subject, religious doctrine is clear:

“O my Lord! For that Thou hast bestowed Thy Grace on me, never shall I be a help to those who sin!” (Koran 28:17)

“O you who believe! fight those of the unbelievers who are near to you and let them find in you hardness.” (Koran 9:123)

“My son, fear the Lord and the king, and do not join with those who do otherwise.” (Prov. 24:21)

“Whoever will not obey the law of your God and the law of the king, let judgment be strictly executed on him, whether for death or for banishment or for confiscation of his goods or for imprisonment.” (Ezra 7:26)

It remains an enormous challenge to extend religious compassion beyond in-group borders. Great thinkers have argued for the value of this vision. Among them, Charles Darwin imagined that:

As man advances in civilization, and small tribes are united into larger communities, the simplest reason would tell each individual that he ought to extend his social instincts and sympathies to all members of the same nation, though personally unknown to him. That point being reached, there is only an artificial barrier to prevent his sympathies to all men of all nations and all races.5

While some exceptional individuals, upon great introspection, rise above the kinds of insular identifications that make out-group hatred both easy and taken for granted, achieving such insight on a collective level is another matter. We most commonly see these insights expressed by select philosophers, scientists, and meditators, people who spend an extraordinary amount of time in self-reflection and in questioning the basis of human knowledge. In short, it often takes a great deal of focused effort and practice to pull away from the influence of our instincts.

But can metacognition on this scale be realized by the world's mass of religious practitioners? If so, is religious dictum the path forward? Hinduism has voiced this ideal in its teachings, that a wise man “sees himself in all and all in him.”6 But among the major religions of the world such sentiments are rare. And Hindu hands, too, have been stained with the blood of religious violence and oppression. Surely, if the goal is to value all people, the illogical nature of certain religious beliefs may present unique dangers, for example, “God will grant me entrance into heaven if I kill Muslims,” or “If I blow myself up (and kill unbelievers in the process) God will give me virgins in paradise.”

However, to reiterate, bias against outsiders would exist even without religion. Human beings, like other animals, do not require religion to establish in-group boundaries nor to invade those of other groups. Humans have been known to divide on the basis of race, political ideology, national identity, language, world geography, city-street, and even sports teams. Humans also have a reputation for killing those outside their borders. And religion is not required for one's in-group to be viewed as morally superior. Such biases reflect a long evolutionary history of zero-sum competitions—where one's win is the other's loss—as when two tribes fight for a finite resource. Those competitions are sure to have been a driving force in differential selection, which really means that we are very likely biologically predisposed to have these kinds of biases because on some level doing so provided a survival advantage to our ancestors. Understanding this, then, puts the ultimate blame for religious violence not on religion but on evolution, with religion being just another marker of difference along with politics, street gangs, and sports teams.

Yet religious violence can often seem uniquely glorious. Religion has the capacity to enshroud violence with mystical, sometimes even spiritually ecstatic, experiences whose intensity and intuitiveness ultimately serve to further justify out-group hatred. If you have ever had the misfortune of watching one of the snuff videos released by al-Qaeda in which radical Islamists behead American “infidels” in front of the camera while jubilantly screaming “God is great!,” then you know that the sense of glory is revoltingly palpable. What evolutionary theory can do is help us understand why such experiences can feel intuitive and why they are so emotionally powerful. One reason is that when the alpha god paradigm is activated, it engages ancient centers of the brain designed to light up when allying with a more powerful male as we are enthralled with the awe of his power. Further, when a god is portrayed as a dominant male primate, his followers have an instinctively resonant figure to follow into conflict. Alongside this powerful male, believers feel more confident in battle, just as their primate ancestors must have felt for millions of years out on the savage African savannas.

But neither is this to argue that all enmity between human groups requires a dominant male. I see the reach and limitations of the dominant male's influence as open questions for which more research is needed. Nevertheless, the impact of dominant males bears reckoning. Any history book can serve as a testament to the mammoth sway that powerful males have held over groups of people. Frequently such men use their influence to enflame their subjects’ natural out-group biases, serving to both hasten and intensify out-group violence. Again, these men often stand to benefit greatly from conflict with outside groups, winning outsized shares of territory, sex, and other evolutionary rewards. Men who are better at controlling information, political rhetoric, or religious ideology are more effective in achieving suspicion and hatred of the other tribe, even ensuring that killing the supporters of rival males and their gods becomes seen as proof of in-group commitment, for example: “And slay the Pagans wherever you find them” (Koran 9:5); “We shall cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieve because they ascribe unto Allah partners, for which no warrant hath been revealed. Their habitation is the Fire” (Koran 3:151).

Dominant men concerned with maintaining their prominence can make questioning the god that has been so instrumental in their rise to power tantamount to treason, an in-group infraction deserving harm or even death. “Lo! those who disbelieve in Allah and His messengers, and seek to make distinction between Allah and His messengers, and say: We believe in some and disbelieve in others, and seek to choose a way in between; Such are disbelievers in truth; and for disbelievers we prepare a shameful doom” (Koran 4:150—51). Power can be won and maintained without the support of a mystical ally, but creating a supremely powerful primate male to appoint the ascendancy of men can help cement the deal—it is an ancient ghost of our past that we humans come psychologically predisposed not to challenge or question.

There are scriptures, allegedly inspired by a dominant male god, that prescribe a sense of personal agency against the momentum of the in-group, for instance: “You must not follow the crowd in doing wrong. When you are called to testify in a dispute, do not be swayed by the crowd to twist justice” (Exod. 23:2). But these passages are few and are engulfed in a roiling sea of edicts urging hatred toward outsiders (or nonbelievers, nonconformers, etc.), and countless other passages in which a dominant male God sets a violent example—as with the god of the Old Testament committing mass infanticide on the Egyptian people (Exodus). In the end, removing the psychology of the other from the Bible and the Koran would leave these books in shreds.

The psychology of the other is far-reaching in its potential to destroy. With our large brains, not only do we humans possess unsurpassed ability to kill one another, but we have created weapons with the power to fatally eradicate all life in the worldwide biosphere in the process. Collateral damage of this magnitude is historically unrivaled. But this is not the only threat to the natural world. Doctrines based on selfish genes, such as imago Dei and man's dominion, deny that we share common origins with the millions of other life-forms on this wondrous blue planet, nurturing a false sense of separation between humans and other beings—in short, forcing all life into a (falsely unrelated) out-group. These doctrines give exclusive privilege to humans in their worldly pursuits, including our preferential right (or duty, as some scriptures) to reproduce. Today the world's fastest growing populations are in the most religious countries.7 And yet unchecked reproduction, ecological ruin, and violence form a vicious cycle. Population density is related to an increase in male antisocial behaviors, which are often violent.8 Further, as population swells and resources dwindle, our tribalistic instincts begin to kick in, and we too often revert to making war on our neighbors to survive, much as we have done for all of human history. Edicts that promote a view of the natural world as out-group and that foster unrestrained population growth unwittingly set the conditions for escalating violence.

Despite the destructive power of this man's dominion, the Bible eloquently voices an environmentalist sentiment that is as humble as it is biologically honest:

That which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; even one thing befalleth them: as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they have all one breath; so that a man hath no preeminence above a beast: for all is vanity. (Eccles. 3:19)

But much more stridence and consistency in propagating this message would be required to divert us from our current path to ecological ruin and the human volatility that comes with overpopulation. How then do we right ourselves and create a less destructive path forward?

The most obvious suggestion might be to outlaw religion, but even if this were indisputably ethical, which it is not, it is unlikely to ever be successful. The need for religion appears to reflect the evolved design of our brains, and the emotional reward of religious experience may be just too powerful. How about adopting nonviolent religions?


Buddhism has been considered an alternative to the more warlike religious divinities. Its more secular forms have even drawn unbelievers, attracted not only by its nonviolent ethical principles but by its acknowledgment of the interconnectivity of all life-forms and perhaps also by the comfort of ritual. Scholars like Robert Wright toy with the idea that the Buddhist practice of mindfulness meditation, with its focus on self-awareness, can serve as a means to transcend the self-centered, emotion-based biases that appear to be at the heart of so much human conflict.9 Self-awareness and liberation from the sway of irrational emotions are certainly at the root of Buddhist philosophy. And among all major religions, Buddhist philosophy is perhaps the one most grounded in nonviolence and nonkilling. Another overarching Buddhist theme is to keep one's mind filled with pacifistic and benevolent thoughts, to be mindful of the well-being and interdependence of all beings, large and small, human and nonhuman. Some monks, for example, refrain from walking outside after a rain to avoid stepping on the sentient beings that gather, such as snails or insects.10 While such a strategy isn't practical for everyone, when properly put into meditative practice, ideologies focused on our intrinsic interconnectivity would seem to counter not only human-on-human conflict, but also that between humans and the entire biosphere.

However, driven by primate ambitions, men will pervert and corrupt any doctrine, and those of Buddhism are no exception. For instance, armed revolts erupted across China for hundreds of years during the middle of the first millennium CE. These wars were driven by ambitious Buddhist monks. Like men from other religious traditions, these monks rose to dominance and martialed large armies to war by making themselves “sons of gods” or the incarnation of the Maitreya, a future (male) Buddha.11 Warrior monks littered this period in China and made use of the same patterned methods of manipulation that we have been discussing. One monk by the name of Faqing led an uprising of fifty thousand men using the reliable strategy of jihad, or crusades—when a soldier killed a man he gained the stage of the first bodhisattva (roughly, enlightened being), when he killed two, the second, and so on, and the more he killed, the closer he got to sainthood.12

Like other traditions describing the dominance competitions of gods, certain sutras claim that in one of the Buddha's past lives he slaughtered the Brahmans for heresy.13 Thus in the Buddha's concern for heresy we also find the role of male-dominance reputation within Buddhism, just as in the Abrahamic faiths. We also find self-serving moral reasoning. As the story goes, those heretical Brahmans were put to death out of pity for their sins of slandering Buddhism; certain Buddhist doctrines allow for killing if it prevents another from sinning, a kind of compassionate martyrdom, only one that involves killing rather than dying. In other words, “If in killing this man, I go to hell, so be it. This being must not be doomed to hell.”14 Similarly, certain sutras tell how if a king kills in battle, so long as behind the killing are “compassionate intentions” (e.g., saving a greater number of sentient beings, his children, etc.) he has not accumulated bad karma; the same is said for torture.15 Thus we can find the blindness of in-group—out-group psychology even in a religion founded on the idea that all sentient beings of the world are part of one universal, inter-related in-group.

As for the dominant ape's compulsion to compete for mates, Buddhist history offers many examples. The Tibetan ruler Songtsan Gampo, for instance, was a warlord king who founded the Tibetan Empire and brought Buddhism to Tibet. Like so many men of the biblical age, he rose to supremacy not only by the sword but by religious mythos rooted in sexual conquest. Legend has it that he subdued Srinmo, the resident earth goddess (or demoness, depending) that spanned Tibetan territory by nailing her to the ground at twelve points on her body. Across Tibet the ambitious king erected stupas—large phallic-shaped, holy structures—which symbolized nails (and other things) penetrating Srinmo. At the center is the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa, the most holy site in Tibetan Buddhism, which is said to represent the “nail” driven into Srinmo's vagina. More to the point, another myth has the male Buddhist god Hayagriva sodomize the male Hindu god Rudra in an act of sexual domination.16 And so yet again we see territorial acquisition fused with images of sexual conquest and enfolded into the dominant-male-primate machinations of gods—even in Buddhism, arguably the most pacifistic of the great world religions.

That said, it is humans who both create and distort the doctrines of compassion and pacifism, and there is probably much to be learned from the set of moral precepts on which Buddhism is grounded. One could fill many pages with maxims that would seem to counter both the psychology of the other and also the greed of the alpha god paradigm: “Because we all share this small planet earth, we have to learn to live in harmony and peace with each other and with nature. That is not just a dream, but a necessity”17; “Life is dear for all. Seeing others as being like yourself, do not kill or cause others to kill”18; “If, desiring happiness, you do not use violence to harm living beings who desire happiness, you will find happiness…”19 I do think that certain religious doctrines are more or less pernicious, or more or less humanitarian than others, with one measure being the overall volume of dogmas in one direction or the other. Certainly, most of Buddhist doctrine is explicitly pacifistic, which does not lend itself so easily to co-option by despotic men. Moreover, practices such as mindfulness meditation can be used without adopting any kind of dogma.

Similarly, there is much to be learned from moral precepts drawn from Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. So the question is whether another solution—less drastic than forswearing religion or adopting only those that are explicitly nonviolent—might be to selectively adopt the prosocial edicts within the three great monotheistic religions. But one would have to be pretty selective to avoid also ingesting those passages that serve to sanctify the most heinous of human cruelties. The problem is that the god-kings of the world never want their followers to be selective—they prefer to retain that privilege for themselves. Powerful men throughout history have asserted their own interpretations of religious texts and ensured those interpretations are either accepted in full or rejected at some risk to self. Consider when Jesus reportedly took on what can be interpreted as the whole of Old Testament law:

For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matt. 5:18—20)

If we consider the Ten Commandments, Sam Harris reminds us that commandments one through four forbid the “practice of any non-Judeo-Christian faith (like Hinduism), most religious art, utterances like ’God damn it!,’ and all ordinary work on the Sabbath—all under the penalty of death.”20 Thus to keep the baby, you must actually drink the bathwater—and say it tastes good. Surely, if we were to accept these dogmas as prescribed, most of America would have to be executed.

The Buddha may have recognized the dangers of accepting a dogma totally and unquestioningly. One Buddhist proverb reads: “The holy man is beyond time, he does not depend on any view nor subscribe to any sect; all current theories he understands, but he remains unattached to any of them.”21 Thus not slavishly following a particular ideology, religious or secular, may also be critical for a compassionate spiritual (or secular) ethics. But being selective, at least for the subordinates, is not always easy. It is especially hard under regimes, like those of the Inquisition or Taliban, when armed men stand ready to call any unorthodox lay interpretation an act of heresy.

Thomas Jefferson, one of the architects of the separation of church and state in America, clearly also understood the dangers of dogmatism. In an effort to extract a more rational and ethical set of religious edicts from the Bible, he literally cut and pasted excerpts from Jesus's moral teachings, stripping away any reference to miracles and the supernatural. He describes his intentions in a letter to John Adams dated October 13, 1813, which bears repeating at length:

In extracting the pure principles which he taught, we should have to strip off the artificial vestments in which they have been muffled by priests, who have travestied them into various forms, as instruments of riches and power to themselves…. We must reduce our volume to the simple evangelists, select, even from them, the very words only of Jesus, paring off the amphibologisms into which they have been led, by forgetting often, or not understanding, what had fallen from him, by giving their own misconceptions as his dicta, and expressing unintelligibly for others what they had not understood themselves. There will be found remaining the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man. I have performed this operation for my own use, by cutting verse by verse out of the printed book, and arranging the matter which is evidently his, and which is as easily distinguishable as diamonds in a dunghill.22

From this passage we see that Jefferson understood how religious teachings could be twisted by men to serve their own dominance pursuits and to more easily serve political ends. It is clear that from all religions we can both extract diamonds and get mired in the dunghills—the latter commonly when dominant-male psychology enters the picture. It is sorting out the difference that can prove most challenging. If we could ever manage to be selective, it would seem a waste to toss aside the positive aspects of religious morality. There are morals and values already in place that if selectively cultivated may help with what Robert Wright has described as “nourishing the seeds of enlightenment indigenous to the world's [moral] tribes.”23 Instead of dispensing with religion, a more feasible solution may be to develop a set of religious ethics that emphasizes the prosocial, the inclusive, and the compassionate and is therefore more reflective of the world in which we currently live, arguably more interdependent, ever-changing, and vulnerable than ever before.

However, another important question is, if a more inclusive religion is feasible, can its ideologies be selectively extracted from the world's extant religions? Admittedly, I am skeptical about this possibility within the Abrahamic faiths, for their books come with built-in proscriptions against selectivity and freethinking, and their god's rule, overall, has the most distinct flavor of totalitarianism. And there is the matter of the beliefs that, while completely illogical, may prove difficult to fling away—talking serpents, virgin birth, resurrection, God-appointed men, rewards in the afterlife for killing, and so on. Certainly Jefferson's version has not gained wide notoriety, despite his stature and visibility.

Some scholars have suggested an overarching morality informed by science and theoretically adoptable by all the world—what philosopher Joshua Greene calls a metamorality.24 But it is not my goal here to attempt to define what this forward-looking spiritual or secular ethos should look like. We are simply not there yet. Kind ideology alone will not prevent ambitious men, backed by millions of years of evolution, from attempting to make subordinates of those around them or from rallying their subordinates to war.

Before any productive discourse can take place, those dominant-male tendencies must be brought to heel, and the right to debate and reimagine must be protected. The most basic of conditions needed for this are freedom of information and separation of church and state. A final support for this kind of dialogue can be gained from teaching the principles of evolution and using the resulting insights to better understand our primate motivations for violence. The right to do this must also be protected, for only in understanding our evolved mind will we be able to create a set of ethics not only adapted for a life on the savanna or among the warrior kings of the biblical age, but for an ever-growing and interdependent community of nations.


Choosing what to think is a right that dominant men prefer to keep to themselves. Thus one of the most effective means of keeping a populace empowered and protecting it from falling victim to the will of dictators, religious or otherwise, is to ensure the free flow of information in and out of the minds of its members. Freedom of information is essential to keeping governments, and the men who lead them, transparent and accountable. It also enables a populace to expose corruption. Freedom of expression can help to ensure that rules of governance are debated openly and in the best interests of the populace.

Conversely, if we learn anything from history, it should be that censorship is enormously dangerous. Censorship stops truths or ideas from emerging, particularly those that draw attention to inequities of power or wealth, or to abuses by those in positions of authority. Most importantly, censorship keeps a population ignorant, which holds great appeal to dictators. Adolf Hitler, a man responsible for the deaths of an estimated eleven million people, executed a massive book-burning campaign in which science books (by Albert Einstein among them) were widely destroyed across Germany. Moreover, scientists who were Jewish or deemed a threat to Nazi ideology were forbidden to work or publish. They, along with many poets, novelists, and artists, were purged from German society by revoking their citizenship or sending them to their deaths in concentration camps. History is riddled with examples. Joseph Stalin, who was responsible for exterminating some twenty million people, imposed total censorship of all forms of media in the Soviet Union. Mindful of the importance of a dominant-male reputation, he forbade any literature that described defeat of the Soviet Army or fear among its ranks. Given what we have learned, it becomes evident that censorship is really another form of male domination—one unique to our species, whose most important adaptation is the capacity of the mind to process information.

But while leaders need not be religious to rely upon censorship as a tool for domination, neither have religious leaders shied away from this tactic. Popes, inquisitors, imams, and evangelicals have denied freedom of information by burning or forbidding books, and by controlling which books are printed, allowing only one book, or by claiming the exclusive right to interpret books. Freedom of expression has suffered similar injuries. We have seen how words spoken against scripture, gods, or the men who represent gods have too often been answered by censure, rejection, or worse, by torture or killing.

At their most shrewd, religious leaders have also applied tremendous emotional leverage to this kind of intellectual control—by making silence a virtue (calling it faith) and by making questioning a sin (calling it blasphemy). Knowledge itself can be seen as sinful, as is suggested in the central narrative of Adam and Eve and the tree of knowledge. A parallel of knowledge, reason, can become the “devil's greatest whore,” to borrow from Martin Luther. What religious despots and secular dictators have in common is the understanding that knowledge leads to a sense of empowerment. It is perhaps for this reason that ambitious men have made such an effort to promulgate the central Abrahamic narrative of a terrifying, temperamental god who abhors knowledge and does not suffer questions, particularly those concerning the prevailing power structure. Such men have the advantage of our evolutionary history working in their favor.

This brings us back to one of the most important protections against religious tyranny: the separation of church and state. Thomas Jefferson articulates the point:

Religious institutions that use government power in support of themselves and force their views on persons of other faiths, or of no faith, undermine all our civil rights. Moreover, state support of an established religion tends to make the clergy unresponsive to their own people, and leads to corruption within religion itself. Erecting the “wall of separation between church and state,” therefore, is absolutely essential in a free society.25

In 1777, Jefferson drafted the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which was a precursor to the First Amendment. He and other proponents of the separation fully recognized how religious mind control can lead to the abuse of power. Jefferson goes into greater detail:

Whereas, Almighty God hath created the mind free; That all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burthens, or by civil incapacitations tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and therefore are a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, who being Lord, both of body and mind yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as was in his Almighty power to do, That the impious presumption of legislators and rulers, civil as well as ecclesiastical, who, being themselves but fallible and uninspired men have assumed dominion over the faith of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible, and as such endeavouring to impose them on others, hath established and maintained false religions over the greatest part of the world and through all time; That to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves is sinful and tyrannical.26

Now, there is a certain notable irony in the fact that Jefferson argues that God chose not to impose religious coercion despite his power to do so, once again illustrating how powerful men may summon a particular image of God to reinforce their own desires. Similarly, it is fair to say that most of the founding fathers were atheist, or at very least agnostic, and that their views on religious tolerance were to a great extent a practical concern.27 Jefferson's choice of words was likely intended to engage believers in his efforts to avert religious tyranny. At the heart of these ideas was the prevention of the kinds of religious violence and oppression that had borne such bloody fruit for Europe in the centuries leading up to the revolutionary era.

Rather than outlawing religion outright (as, for example, was attempted in the former Soviet Union), or forcing conformity of religious perspective, Jefferson and his coauthors went on to ground the separation of church and state in America in a more tolerant approach—namely, on the notion that freedom of religious thought and practice and government impartiality in religious matters go hand in hand. Jefferson's corevolutionary, James Madison, addressed this view directly when he wrote that:

Torrents of blood have been spilt in the old world, by vain attempts of the secular arm, to extinguish Religious discord, by proscribing all difference in Religious opinion. Time has at length revealed the true remedy. Every relaxation of narrow and rigorous policy, wherever it has been tried, has been found to assuage the disease.28

Two hundred years later, questions remain about this American experiment. Richard Dawkins points out that, “Precisely because America is legally secular, religion has become free enterprise” and illustrates how American churches compete for wealth and congregants in the spiritual marketplace.29 Some scholars have gone so far as to propose that free-enterprising religions have created unusually high religiosity in America, and while the research on these claims is in dispute,30 the level of economic power achieved by churches operating in the free market warrants some scrutiny. Churches, and the religious men (and the occasional woman) who run them, have accumulated staggering wealth in America. A surprising number of American evangelists earn million-dollar salaries and own multimillion-dollar mansions and jet airplanes. And to be sure they are a lobbying force to be reckoned with. According to the Pew Research Center, religious advocacy groups, most of which enjoy tax-exempt status, spend hundreds of millions of dollars annually in an effort to influence US public policy.31 The result is that in America, the wall of separation between church and state that Jefferson described is under constant threat of being breached. Freethinking, freedom of information, and even the freedom to understand the evolutionary designs of our own minds are threatened when the lines between church and state are muddled.

The Texas State Board of Education offers a case study that would be perversely hilarious if it were not such a dangerous example of censorship, which is here entwined with insufficient separation of church and state (as is often the case). For years, the board, which is comprised mostly of members who endorse conservative Christianity, has exuberantly attempted to force creationist teachings into public-school textbooks, censoring evolutionary science and injecting false uncertainty about the veracity of natural selection. Despite the fact that Thomas Jefferson was arguably the most influential political philosopher in American history, credited with writing the Declaration of Independence, the board has attempted to erase him from the history books (perhaps because he is also known for coining the phrase “separation between church and state”). While removing Jefferson from the list of other Enlightenment philosophers—John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, Voltaire, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and Charles de Montesquieu—they added John Calvin,32 a theologian who, in addition to supporting the murder of heretics, once said, “There is no worse screen to block out the Spirit than confidence in our own intelligence.”33 After much criticism, the board reinstated Jefferson, but removed the term “Enlightenment” from the curriculum.

The board has also attacked the separation of church and state more directly. When one Democratic board member proposed a standard that would have allowed students to “examine the reasons the Founding Fathers protected religious freedom in America by barring government from promoting or disfavoring any particular religion over all others,” a Republican member argued that the “founders didn't intend for separation of church and state in America,” exclaiming that the statement was “not historically accurate.” The board voted down the standard.34 The fact that these kinds of assaults on freethinking can occur in contemporary America—where both freedom of speech and separation between church and state have legal protection—is a testament to just how insidious religious censorship can be.

In responding to such an assault on truth in education, I am reminded that science remains one of the best means to gather unbiased information. It allows us to test ideas that seem accurate, but that may not be, and to move on from faulty assumptions. Moreover, it allows us to be skeptical of our own beliefs. It thus provides an indispensable service to humanity, particularly in light of all the myriad of assumptions that we humans may make based on what feels emotionally intuitive to us. Science allows us to see and acknowledge the evolved design of our brains and to understand how this very design—stunning as it is—leaves our emotions, thoughts, and behaviors so prone to bias.

Despite vilification by an impressively large and economically powerful group of conservative Christians in America, evolutionary science is particularly useful because it can provide unique insight into the ultimate causes of human behavior—especially that which generates human suffering, like religiously motivated violence. At times, evolutionary science may seem off-putting for precisely this reason—because it forces us to acknowledge that we are under certain circumstances predisposed to do terrible things to one another. Some may fear that such an admission diminishes their freedom of choice. But we are not bound to our evolutionary designs; we have the capacity to outsmart them. Our use of contraception is an example often cited by evolutionary scholars, a case in which we have severed the link between our evolved design (to reproduce) and our own desires (to have sex). Wearing eyeglasses or using sunscreen are other examples of our refusal to abide by the genes Mother Nature has dealt us.35

The beauty of evolutionary science is that it has the potential to help expand our existing freedoms. When we begin to understand our unconscious evolutionary predispositions, we may begin make more rational and humane choices, such as not responding to our destructive impulses, including those imbedded in religious dogma—for instance, scriptures that paint outsiders as inherently immoral, dangerous, or evil. In an environment where evolutionary science is censored by religious powers, the ability for evolutionary knowledge to contribute to a more reflective, more compassionate social dialogue is cut off at the knees. But it can support the nurturance of a more adaptable, humane set of beliefs if allowed a voice in the conversation about who we are. The more we understand about how and why we humans have the tendency to behave the way we do, the greater our potential will be for moving beyond our current limitations.

Strong (and protected) scientific education is not as widely accessible as it should be, nor is training in analytic and critical thinking encouraged in many education systems around the world. And yet it is precisely this kind of critical thinking—this urge to question everything, including why the sky is blue and why God is typically an omnipotent man whose will must be appeased—that will support our continued spiritual and social evolution.

The first principle of education should be to question one's own knowledge and understanding and to strive for impartiality. Here, religious ethics can learn much from scientific ethics. Because science is an impartial tool, scientists (if practicing correctly) strive to follow the dictates of impartiality as closely as possible so as not to contaminate the scientific process with personal bias. It should go without saying that humans can import bias into any endeavor, which scientists acknowledge by their very practice of science; but science has more methods to resist being coopted than most ways of knowing. Conversely, religions are generally very poor at impartiality, owing largely to the fact that dominant men have created gods in their own image and in doing so have made them infallible. By now we should appreciate the danger that such stances pose. To abide by doctrines that cannot be questioned, against which opposing evidence cannot be posed, is to make oneself exquisitely vulnerable to despotic behavior. But science rests on the notion of falsifiability—making assertions that, if false, can be revealed to be false by a particular observation or experiment—in essence, requiring the ability to question. Falsifiability, then, presents great contrast to infallibility. And while still susceptible to the weaknesses of the people who practice it, science starts off with a modicum of humility purposefully built in.

Further, science is adaptable whereas the adaptability of religious doctrine is greatly suspect. When there exists a theory in science about which contrary evidence has been collected through unfettered scientific inquiry, and when enough evidence has been collected to reasonably assume the theory is false, then that theory is abandoned. Thus science is by design open to incoming information. Infallible gods, men, religions, and scriptures, on the other hand, explicitly and intentionally disallow corrective information. They rest on an arrogant sort of self-certainty about the nature of the universe and of the right way to conduct human affairs. Religions have a great deal to say about humility, but as with the rank structures of apes and humans, humility is apportioned unequally according to rank and flows only upwards—humility toward God or dominant religious men is compulsory, but no such modest respect is due to subordinates.

Thus, I suggest that a final principle for fostering spiritual dialogue should be the extension of humility toward knowledge, learning, and other beings. Such humility might follow the basic tenets of science or those rare religious edicts that are based on curiosity about the world and openness to learning new information with the notion that we don't already know all there is to know. Great philosophers across history have taken this approach. Socrates, for instance, who was arguably among the most brilliant of his era, was eager to acknowledge the limits of his understanding—for example, “I know that I have no wisdom, small or great.”36 There have been many other philosophers, scientists, historians, and, even the rare religious leader, who I deem warriors of the greatest spirit, who have taken great personal risk to battle human ignorance and prejudice with rational understanding in an effort to create a more reasoned and compassionate world.


In keeping with scientific humility, I acknowledge that there is much that we do not yet understand about the science of religious belief and practice. There are many remaining questions. To start with, if religious experience activates reward centers of the brain, then can those experiences be separately stimulated somehow in a manner that doesn't require submission to a more powerful being? Or did our capacity for religion evolve so entwined within the dominance hierarchies of primates that religious ecstasy and “powerful-being worship” are inseparable? If not, could this be done pharmacologically or through genetic engineering or by certain kinds of “spiritual” practice? Meditation may be a way, although it is not clear that can it ever be as emotionally rewarding as the sense of awe that a primate experiences in the presence of a powerful (hypothetical) being. Could such a meditative experience ever be powerful enough to supplant religions based on conquest? Can education push people toward positive religious selectivity from doctrines advocating both compassion and cruelty? Or do such collections of scriptures in themselves leave an open door for the dominant males of our primate societies to barrel through and enact their evolutionary imperatives, leaving bodies and grief in their wake? I have many questions—and many hypotheses—but more understanding garnered through objective scientific research is crucially needed.

Another question, for which answers are beginning to emerge, is whether secularization results in improving the human condition above and beyond the freedom from oppression or violence at the hands of dominant males. Conservative religious interests often argue that societal health depends on belief in God to maintain moral order, social discipline, and just actions. However, it may be useful to look at more secular societies and see how they fare.

Citing research by sociologist Phil Zuckerman, Sam Harris points out that the most secularized nations in the world (such as Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and Holland) fare far better than the most religious countries on a wide array of societal health indices including “life expectancy, infant mortality, crime, literacy, GDP [gross domestic product], child welfare, economic equality, economic competitiveness, gender equality, health care, investments in education, rates of university enrollment, internet access, environmental protection, lack of corruption, political stability, and charity to poorer nations.”37 Other research reaches similar conclusions, showing that more religiosity (including rejecting Darwinian principles) is associated with poorer results on measures of societal health, which leads researchers to conclude that the socioeconomic or existential insecurity that comes with living in less prosperous countries may influence people to glom on to religious belief as a means of coping.38 In other words, where survival feels less secure, the comfort of religion may have added appeal, but it does not appear to result in creating better conditions of life.

This explanation is compatible both with the research evidence and with a vision of God as the alpha symbol that provides resources and protects against death. But the issue is complex, and a better understanding of the role of dominant-male psychology in religious belief may prove useful here. In the secularized nations on which the research in this area is based, many of the features that make them healthy—such as high gender equality, economic equality, literacy, university enrollment, media access, and environmental protection—would seem to be at odds with dominant-male ambitions. Dominant primate males prefer to monopolize and sexually control females, which in human terms results in poorer gender equality. Among societies run by the most despotic males, socioeconomic equality is only a dream—most attempt to monopolize any indicators of socioeconomic wealth, whether measured in money, the fruits of production, or desired fruits on a Gombean tree. Dominant males have also historically been threatened by knowledge, to which literacy, college enrollment, and media access all lead.

Environmental protections often run into opposition from an economic ideology based on growth-at-all-costs, urged on by the hungry engines of the male reproduction strategy. Thus, while it may be that religiosity per se is counterproductive to societal health, we also cannot discount the influence of the specific religions that predominate in these nations—primarily the Abrahamic faiths with their dominant male god decreeing the rights to oppress women, accumulate wealth, control minds, and destroy the environment to the dominant men that represent him. Lower crime rates may also be traceable to the psychology of dominance. Research indicates that it is not poverty that creates crime, but resource inequality.39 Unequal resources are almost the invariable result when dominate males begin to monopolize their hierarchical rewards.

Once again the issue is complex and the relationships, understudied, and important questions remain. Is it that dominant men in secularized countries are less able to exert totalitarian rule without the backing of a dominant male god? Does greater secularization empower citizens to shuck off the tenets of religions based on dominance and submission, thus leaving them less vulnerable to ambitious men who would puppeteer God? Does it nourish education or critical thinking skills that help people to meet religion with thoughtful questions? There is a case to be made that people feel less beholden to religious authorities in nations that provide expansive social welfare programs, which once were the domain of the church. Churches were long responsible for welfare, education, health care, orphanages, and so on, but eventually lost their monopolies when universities became the bastions of knowledge and secular state-run social welfare programs began to develop.40 The least religious and socially healthiest countries also happen to have the best state-run social welfare programs.

In all this research, America emerges as an outlier on many variables. Research has consistently found less religiosity in more economically prosperous countries, with the notable exception of America. However, though exceptionally wealthy, America is also characterized by the greatest economic inequality. It should come as no surprise, then, that in America, religiosity tends to drop away with increasing wealth. Returning to evolutionary psychiatrist John Price and his discussion of the possible adaptations of temporary submission, this raises the question of whether religion in America is used as a strategy to put the subordinate classes in a “giving up state of mind.” If so, how much is scripture a factor? There are pervasive ideas in Christianity that would seem to encourage giving up for the possibility of later reward—that Christ will ride down to earth and reverse the fortune of kings in favor of the pious (while razing the entire planet), that the meek shall inherit the earth if they would just wait, and so on. Does this kind of scripture make people more accepting of economic disparity? Does it inhibit their reaction? In mostly atheistic Sweden, the ratio of salaries of CEO's and the general population is 13:1. By contrast, in America, where 80 percent of the citizenry believes in Judgment Day, it's 475:1.41

Racism also tends to be associated with religiosity in America.42 Does having a religion based on a god with a chosen tribe, who espouses genocide against outsiders, play a role in this? Certainly American settlers have a long history of using the Christian religion to dominate the outside races—namely, the African slaves and Native Americans who were made to kneel before Europeans and their dominant male god. What role, if any, do the scriptures of racial domination have on contemporary racism? Consider what advice the Bible offers to slaves:

Slaves, be obedient to those who are your earthly masters, with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as to Christ. (Eph. 6:5)

Let all who are under the yoke of slavery regard their masters as worthy of all honor so that the name of God and the teaching may not be defamed. (1 Tim. 6:1)

The healthiest countries described above are characterized by great economic equality and all-inclusive social welfare, including paid maternity leave for women, comprehensive medical care, social security, and pensions. America, on the other hand, with its strong cultural emphasis on personal responsibility and entrepreneurship, tends to limit public services and welfare.43 Freelance researcher Gregory Paul argues that conservative religious political forces in America have supported deregulated and reduced taxation for the rich and notes the irony of how “the religious right that is the main opponent to Darwinian science has become a leading proponent of what has been labeled socioeconomic Darwinism.”44 He goes on to point out that the same forces vigorously promote faith-based charities in place of government-run social services, even though the empirical evidence suggests that faith-based charities are no more effective.45

What advantages do the religious conservative forces in America have in keeping the populace reliant on faith-based charities? This, too, is an open question, but there is a cultural history of religious dominance in America in which religious charity was used as a tool for keeping subordinated classes in their social place. For example, African slaves and Native Americans were forced from their former means of self-sufficiency—in the former by taking them from their native lands and in the latter by eradicating the animals on which they subsisted and appropriating the land on which they dwelled. In return they were yoked by the forced charity of the churches and missions that administered both their food and their indoctrination into the Christian religion, much through selectively proselytizing the doctrines of submission noted above. This strategy is not new to America. Napoleon once said that:

Society cannot exist without the inequality of fortunes, and inequality of fortune cannot exist without religion. When one man is dying of hunger by the side of another who is overfed, it is impossible for him to submit to this difference unless there is an authority which says to him: “God wills it thus: there must be rich and poor in the world, but afterwards and for all eternity matters, will be otherwise arranged.”46

How much, if any, do the doctrines of submission in Christianity relate to the vast inequities of wealth in America? And why is it that the wealthy in America are less likely to be religious? Does having power make you less vulnerable to doctrines of submission? If so by what means?

Finally, in constricting the room for powerful males to corrupt the societal health of nations, there may be a corresponding value to empowering women. While women tend to be attracted to dominant traits in males and reward dominant men with sex (likely the most powerful of all motivators for males to dominate), the extent to which women's own needs are subjugated depends on their economic independence from men. For instance, the societies that least emphasize chastity (a form of female sexual control)—again, seen most in Scandinavia—are the ones that provide the best social services for women, such as paid childcare, extended paid maternity leave, and other material benefits. As David Buss explains, “Where women control their economic fate, do not require so much of men's investment, and hence need to compete less, women are freer to disregard men's preferences…. Men everywhere might value chastity if they could get it, but in some cultures they simply cannot demand it from their brides.”47

The extent to which religious dogma influences public policy around female sexuality and economic power is another open question. But consider the potential power of messages in the Bible, such as in Deuteronomy, in which a man who discovers his bride is not a virgin is allowed to have her stoned to death at her father's doorstep (Deut. 22:13—21). Here there is (or should be) obvious ethical value to returning to women the control of their sexuality and support for such a move through public policy.

However, the take-home message from this line of research is that less religion is associated with better societal health, which is precisely contrary to the argument made by conservative Christians in America and suggests once more the potential ills of relying too heavily on an ethics based on appeasing the whims of an alpha god.


I am not among those who think that science can ever replace religion, at least not on a global scale. Moreover, I have a deep appreciation for the sense of meaning that acknowledging being a part of something greater than ourselves can provide. But I reject the idea that that something is a supernatural dominant male and that we are made in his image, connected to him by lineal descent or as subordinates in the hierarchy. Such characterizations reflect our limitations as animals with brains designed to navigate social hierarchies, far too much to bear up under close scrutiny. I also understand how frightening it can be to admit that we are not special, protected beings with hope of eternal life and to view ourselves as animals, related to apes, ultimately doomed to the same impermanence as all other beings. Nevertheless, I, like many other scientists, find a sense of awe and wonder in the fact that we are far more interconnected with the other life-forms on this planet than we once thought, which is indeed something greater than our individual selves. And truly, this realization indicates that we are not quite what we seem.

We are not beings anchored in time as we imagine ourselves to be. We are part of a continuous flow through rivers of space and time—vast streams of ancestors and of the genes flowing within them, each of us but one moment in the current. Science reveals to us a picture in which our bodies and brains are shaped by our genetic programming, our sense of self is a product of our brain's activity, and our brains are built incrementally upon not only our own experiences but also the culmination of all the brains that have thought before us. As a result we see through the eyes of our ancestors. Each of us does things, loves things, abhors things, thinks things, and aspires to things as amalgams of all the life that has preceded our own existence, stretching our very experience of being across the generations. To my mind, recognizing that we come from apes is a part of this, which is something extraordinary. My sense of awe comes not merely from our relationship to apes but to all other life-forms on this planet, and also from the understanding that each human is a virtual universe of networking life-forms unto herself. There are innumerable ways in which the natural world can elicit awe and mystery, rendering questionable the need for a supernatural one; this wonder only increases when we understand and accept our place within it.