The Protector God

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

The Protector God


The natural world writhes with giant snakes, crocodiles, lions, leopards, hyenas, and countless other fearsome predators. As such, death by predation was a pressure that shaped the evolution of our brains. One outcome is our enduring fear of “monsters.” As philosopher David Livingstone Smith argues, this fear is exemplified in modern-day Hollywood horror movies, which captivate viewers by stimulating the predator modules of their brains—within the confines of the movie theater, where they can safely experience an ancient charge of adrenaline.1 Smith cites environmental philosopher Paul Shepard:

Our fear of monsters in the night probably has its origins back far in the evolution of our primate ancestors, whose tribes were pruned by horrors whose shadows continue to elicit monkey screams in dark theaters. As surely as we hear the blood in our ears, the echoes of a million midnight shrieks of monkeys, whose last sight of the world was the eyes of a panther, have their traces in our nervous system.2

What both Smith and Shepard are ultimately getting at is that our capacity for fear is shaped by our evolutionary past, just as in other animals. As an example (cited by Smith), pronghorn antelope once ran for their lives from cheetah tailing them across American grasslands. Today, pronghorn are the fastest land animals in North America, capable of speeds over sixty miles per hour, while the cheetahs that once hunted them have long since disappeared. Noting their gratuitous speed, biologist John A. Byers said that the pronghorn are haunted by “the ghosts of predators past.”3 Charles Darwin speculated that human fears were shaped by similar forces. When he observed his two-year-old son showing intense fear of large animals at the zoo, he wondered, “Might we not suspect that the fears of children, which are quite independent of experience, are the inherited effects of real dangers…during savage times?”4

A good example of Darwin's insight comes from clinical psychology. While people can, and do, develop phobias of just about anything, snake phobias are highly overrepresented among pathological fears, reflecting the dangers of the primordial environments in which our brains evolved.5 This is true even in large, industrialized cities such as New York, London, or Tokyo, where the probability of being killed by snakes is practically zero—compared to, for example, New York City cab drivers, who are a real menace to public safety, although the rate of taxi phobias is also practically zero.

We might suspect that in addition to the impulse to move away from the dangers of our evolutionary past, we have also inherited the impulse to move toward that which provides protection. I argue that such impulses are disproportionately directed toward powerful male figures, a trend that reflects a legacy of male protectors in our evolutionary past that is reanimated with the male saviors of religious doctrine.

Evidence of this legacy can be seen in living primates—across species, protection from nature's killing machines is often the specialty of males. Males tend to be bigger than females and to have longer, sharper canine teeth, which make them good at security, a duty they often assume. For instance, when traveling to feeding grounds, male baboons patrol the periphery of the troop to ward off or attack predators, while females and infants travel in the protected center. More plainly, male patas monkeys have been directly observed attacking jackals, and male langur monkeys, attacking raptors, each in defense of infants.6 Male baboons7 and chimps8 will also ward off and kill leopards. Similarly, it is usually the men in hunter-gatherer societies who kill dangerous predators such as cheetahs, leopards, lions,9 and pythons10 that pose a threat to their communities.

Because the primeval social environments in which our brains evolved required us to seek protection from powerful males against dangerous predators, such a role in male gods is emotionally intuitive. The natural extension is that gods now protect us from predation.

The ancient Egyptian god Bes is one example. Bes's primary job was to protect women and children, and he was known for his ability to strangle lions, bears, and snakes with his bare hands.11 Protector male gods are seen in Greek mythology as well. Zeus, for instance, conquered Typhon, a serpent with one hundred dragon heads that had been destroying Greek cities. Likewise, Zeus's son Herakles fought with many dangerous creatures and, as a baby, saved his brother by strangling two snakes. Notably, during the famed “Twelve Labors,” Herakles killed a menagerie of monsters that had been tormenting the Greeks: the Nemean lion, the Lernaean hydra, the Stymphalian birds, and other mythic predators. For his acts of bravery, Heracles was regarded a hero and fabled to have made the world safe for humankind.12

The Judeo-Christian male god is also tasked with protection, described variously throughout the Bible as a shield, a rock, a stronghold, a fortress, a strong tower, and a hiding place. He, too, has assumed the ancient task of dispensing with dangerous animals:

But you, LORD, do not be far from me. You are my strength; come quickly to help me. Deliver me from the sword, my precious life from the power of the dogs. Rescue me from the mouth of the lions; save me from the horns of the wild oxen. (Ps. 22:19—21)

You will trample upon lions and cobras; you will crush fierce lions and serpents under your feet. (Ps. 91:13)

One predator described in the Bible is actually a composite of predators found on the African savanna, including a bear (an animal once native to Africa but now extinct from overhunting):

And I saw a beast coming out of the sea. It had ten horns and seven heads, with ten crowns on its horns, and on each head a blasphemous name. The beast I saw resembled a leopard, but had feet like those of a bear and a mouth like that of a lion. (Rev. 13:1—3)

This beast persecuted Christians until another powerful male, Jesus Christ, rode in on a white horse, vanquished it, and threw it into a lake of fire (Rev. 19:19—21).

Similarly, Satan (God's nemesis in the Christian tradition), has been associated with the serpent—that enduringly fearsome creature that tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden. He is described as a dragon in the book of Revelations: “The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan” (12:9). Revelations also has another powerful male religious figure, an angel, defeating this predator personified as Satan:

And I saw an angel coming down out of heaven, having the key to the Abyss and holding in his hand a great chain. He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil, or Satan, and bound him for a thousand years. He threw him into the Abyss, and locked and sealed it over him. (Rev. 20:1—3)

When Satan is portrayed in Christian iconography, it is often in the form of a humanoid with animal body parts such as large canine teeth, horns, cloven hooves, and bat-like wings, thus evoking the image of a dangerous animal. Conceivably, the mythic antagonist to a dominant male god could take a less animalistic form, such as a person or an abstract concept like sin or temptation or immorality. But dangerous animals resonate deeply with our evolved emotions, as do the powerful males to which we are drawn when faced with mortal danger. Psychological research demonstrates that this draw is for the greater part unconscious, which suggests its evolved design.

For instance, there is a body of scientific research based on terror management theory (TMT)—the idea that humans have erected psychological defenses against the terror of death. Humans appear to be uniquely self-aware, and their minds are capable of projecting far into the future. For this reason, we humans must sit with death, our impending nonexistence, from the moment we are able to conceive of it. This understanding can be a powerfully frightening experience, as Ernest Becker, an American anthropologist whose work formed the theoretical foundation for TMT research, describes:

Man is literally split in two: he has an awareness of his own splendid uniqueness in that he sticks out of nature with a towering majesty, and yet he goes back into the ground a few feet in order blindly and dumbly to rot and disappear forever. It is a terrifying dilemma to be in and to have to live with.13

Thus TMT researchers study the impulses and cognitions of subjects pressed with the fear of death, which they experimentally prime by a procedure called mortality salience induction. Subjects either read or write essays about death, usually their own death—in contrast to controls, who may be instructed to read or write relatively innocuous essays about things like television or food.

TMT research finds that when fears of death are primed, subjects more closely huddle around their political leaders, as we would expect from animals that evolved in hierarchical societies in which dominant individuals (typically males) functioned as protectors. One study conducted during the presidency of George W. Bush found that subjects significantly increased their support for the president and his antiterrorism policies when mortality salience was induced, relative to controls (who were asked questions about watching TV). A separate experiment in the same study found that reminders of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center had the same impact as mortality salience induction on support for Bush, irrespective of the subjects’ political orientation.14 The results suggest that the tendency to gravitate toward powerful leaders is independent of political affiliation, and thus potentially very ancient.

Indeed, seeking assurance from a dominant male protector is something Bush himself engaged in. When asked whether he sought his father's advice about the war in Iraq, he replied, “You know, he is the wrong father to appeal to in terms of strength. There is a higher father that I appeal to.”15 Becker summarizes this psychological pull:

It is [fear] that makes people so willing to follow brash, strong-looking demagogues with tight jaws and loud voices: those who focus their measured words and their sharpened eyes in the intensity of hate, and so seem most capable of cleansing the world of the vague, the weak, the uncertain, the evil.16

This is not to make the argument that rallying behind male leaders is an evolutionary inevitability. It was a woman leader in the Philippines, Maria Corazon Cojuangco-Aquino, who led the People Power Revolution and toppled Ferdinand Marcos, which could not have happened without popular support. The country also suffered several natural disasters while under her tenure, including an earthquake, a volcanic eruption, and a typhoon, and the people rallied behind her. Sri Lanka also had a woman president during ten years of its civil war. Liberia elected Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in the wake of the Second Liberian War. Similarly, Nicaragua rallied behind President Violeta Chamorro in the wake of a devastating civil war.

Likely, the circumstances in which women rise to power also reflect our evolutionary psychology. While primate males have protected their offspring from dangerous animals, females have protected their offspring from dangerous males, and today such roles can also be intuitively powerful in politics and religion. Chamorro, for instance, was seen as a powerful, protective mother figure and a martyr who stepped in and unseated Daniel Ortega, a man who critics saw as power-hungry despot.17

Yet the relative rarity of these protector-female historical figures points to an ancient history of male protectors, played out on an African savanna where protection required size, strength, and aggressiveness. Research finds that people prefer taller leaders and those with masculine facial features—which are produced by testosterone, a hormone associated with aggression, size, and strength—and that this preference is pronounced in the context of war.18 Research has also found that the appeal of masculine leaders extends across cultures and that humans prefer masculine features in female leaders as well.19 However, because we see masculine traits most commonly and most pronounced in men, the prevalence of protector-male political figures may reflect both our lingering primeval concerns about outside dangers and our unconscious preference for those traits most likely to succeed in the fight for our safety. The same may be true for the prevalence of protector-male religious figures.

Understandably, TMT research finds that fear of mortality influences subjects to more strongly endorse belief in God (and report greater religiosity). In one study the experimenters asked subjects to write an essay about what they believe happens to them when they die (controls were asked to write about their favorite foods). When death fears were primed, subjects endorsed greater religiosity and believed more strongly in God.20 Numerous studies have found that mortality salience induction causes an increase in belief in God and the afterlife.21

While humans may have inherited their attraction to powerful male gods in times of danger from their primate ancestry, they appear unique in their ability to represent their evolutionary imperatives in the form of abstract concepts. The notion of an afterlife is one such concept and fits with TMT's supposition that humans build defenses against existential terror. What better way of assuaging fears of death than with the promise of eternal life? And as we might expect, it is a dominant male savior who provides not only protection from death by predation but protection from death itself. This is a fundamental dogma of Christianity, and references to a masculine savior and the afterlife are continual throughout the Bible:

When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Cor.15:54—55)

Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. For we believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. (1 Thess. 4:13—14)

After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the LORD in the air. And so we will be with the LORD forever. (1 Thess. 4:17)

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25—26)

He will swallow up death forever. The Sovereign LORD will wipe away the tears from all faces; he will remove the disgrace of his people from all the earth. The LORD has spoken. (Isa. 25:8)

There is even reference to Christ protecting against predation (from the devil) and in the process giving everlasting life and assuaging mortality fears all at once:

Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. (Heb. 2:14—15)

Notions of the afterlife are seen across religions and cultures. The ancient Egyptians had the fields of Aaru, and the ancient Greeks and Romans had the underworld. The Norse cultures had Valhalla, Hel, or Nifhel. The Hopi tribe has the land of the dead. Buddhists, Hindus, and Wiccans have reincarnation. Muslims have paradise. Catholics have heaven, hell, or purgatory. The Mormons even stake claim to the planets of distant galaxies. It follows that powerful males are overrepresented as rulers of these afterlife territories: Aaru is ruled by Osiris, the underworld by Hades, the land of the dead by Masau'u, Valhalla by Odin, heaven by God, paradise by Allah, and hell by Satan.


The rules of natural selection come into play in the business of protection, which we can trace from apes to men to god. Because organisms are programmed by selfish genes to engage in kin altruism, a good means of assuring the support of a powerful individual is to be that individual's offspring. For males, giving support often means providing protection from danger. This can easily be observed in nonhuman primates. Wild savanna baboons, for example, will selectively support their offspring in agonistic encounters, which serves as protection from stress and injury and aids in rank acquisition.22 Other male primates will selectively protect their offspring from infanticidal males.23 Conversely, not being the offspring of a powerful male can increase the risk of infanticide; for fitness reasons, discussed more thoroughly in the next chapter, many male primates (including humans) will kill the offspring of rival males. In short, the many dangers of the natural world can make paternal affiliation a matter of life and death.

Given an evolutionary history in which affiliation with males brought protection from danger, and in which males preferentially support their offspring, it is understandable that people would create dominant male gods and seek to establish filiation with them. This tendency is strong in the Judeo-Christian creed, and many Bible passages assert God's paternity: “Ye are the children of the LORD your God” (Deut. 14:1); “All of you are children of the most High” (Ps. 82:6); “Ye are the sons of the living God” (Hosea 1:10); “We are the offspring of God” (Acts 17:29). Further, this relationship is tinted with human emotion; just as primate fathers experience love for their offspring, God is said to feel paternal love, notably in recognition of his followers’ filiation: “See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God!” (1 John 3:1).

Like male primates, God—the Father—intervenes in conflicts between his offspring and their competitors, which impacts his offspring's rank status: “For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again” (Rom. 8:14—15). God supporting his offspring in conflict, particularly in battle (a topic I expand upon in later chapters), is a frequently recurring theme. For example, when God's descendant Joshua sets out to conquer Jericho, God confirms his support, “Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go.” (Josh. 1:9). He provides similar support to the “sons of Israel” (here the Reubenite, the Gadite and the Manasseh tribes), “They cried out to God during the battle, and he answered their prayer because they trusted in him. So the Hagrites and all their allies were defeated” (1 Chron. 5:20). In Christianity, the father-child relationship is concerned with care and protection; as Pope Benedict XVI explains, “The fatherhood of God, then, is infinite love, a tenderness that leans over us, weak children, in need of everything…. It is our smallness, our weak human nature, our frailty that becomes an appeal to the mercy of the Lord so that He manifest the greatness and tenderness of a Father helping us, forgives us [sic] and saving us.”24

Paternal love may have its benefits for primates and primate-based gods, but it requires paternal certainty. A primate mother will always know that the child she gives birth to is hers. However, because ovulation and insemination are concealed in human females (and in many other primates), a male cannot always be sure that a child is his. For males, paternal certainty has implications for evolutionary fitness, for if a male is cuckolded, he risks spending a great deal of time and energy supporting another male's offspring. One means of establishing paternal certainty is by physical resemblance, and research shows that even nonhuman primates use visual cues to recognize kin.25

Resemblance ends up having important fitness implications in humans. For instance, research has found that men, more than women, are willing to invest more in hypothetical children (i.e., in pictures) whose faces are digitally composited with their own faces.26 One study found that men (again, more than women) viewed children with faces that were digitally remixed with their own to be the most attractive; these were also the children they would be most likely to adopt, spend the most time with, spend money on, and have the least resentment about paying child support for.27

Facial resemblance also predicts actual fitness. A study of families in rural Senegal found that children's facial resemblance to the father predicted paternal investment and that this resemblance was related to better growth and nutritional status for the children, suggesting differences in resource provision.28 The same study found that a child's odor similarity to the father also predicted the father's investment in that child, a behavior also seen in nonhuman primates who detect their kin by smell.29

Given that in our evolutionary history males selectively protected and supported their offspring and that paternal resemblance remains an important predictor of support among modern-day men, it should come as no surprise to find efforts to establish physical resemblance to God in scripture, based as he is on the dominate-male archetypes of our species. In Judeo-Christian creed, this effort is captured best in the doctrine of imago Dei, which holds that God created humans specifically in his own image. The book of Genesis establishes this resemblance: “When God created mankind, He made them in the likeness of God” (Gen. 5:1). The theologian Saint Augustine (354—430 BCE) of Hippo (present-day Algeria) was a highly influential religious thinker who has made his mark on Western thought, the stuff of contemporary college courses in philosophy. He offers a corporeal take on imago Dei (here, as cited by Saint Thomas Aquinas):

[T]he body of man alone among terrestrial animals is not inclined prone to the ground, but is adapted to look upward to heaven, for this reason we may rightly say that it is made to God's image and likeness, rather than the bodies of other animals.30

The paternal resemblance of Jesus to God is also emphasized in the Bible, lest his filiation to God be uncertain (italics mine):

The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. (Col. 1:15)

The Son is the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. (Heb. 1:3)

The concept of imago Dei, a central dogma of the Judeo-Christian faiths, places humans in a different category from all other life, elevated as the intended product of God's creation itself. Imago Dei begets the doctrine of man's dominion—the idea that man, largely because he was created in the image of God, possesses the divinely conferred privilege of dominating all other life on earth (including women):

Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” (Gen. 1:26—28)

Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth. (Gen. 1:28)

God, in other words, has left men in charge. Saint Augustine explains why, linking our godliness to the soul:

Man's excellence consists in the fact that God made him to His own image by giving him an intellectual soul, which raises him above the beasts of the field.31

As a result of imago Dei, God raises mankind above all other animals in the world as his special, protected progeny. This arrangement brings particular comfort and satisfaction to animals that evolved in dangerous environments, fearing the monsters crouched in the shadows. In the following quote, God places humans at the top of the food chain and reverses the order of fear and dread. Now, with his help, all animals of the world fear humans:

The fear and dread of you will fall on all the beasts of the earth, and on all the birds in the sky, on every creature that moves along the ground, and on all the fish in the sea; they are given into your hands. (Gen. 9:2)

God's favoritism is based on primate sociality; dominant primates favor their offspring, and favoritism helps in rank acquisition. In nonhuman primates, inherited maternal rank (often with the help of mothers intervening in conflicts) is far better documented than inherited paternal rank,32 while in humans, sons gaining the status and power of their fathers is more pronounced. Two recent examples of this power and status transfer in world politics—George W. Bush from George H. W. Bush, and Kim Jong Un from Kim Jong Il—add to a long history of sons (over daughters) inheriting the thrones of kings. Therefore it seems logical that if we see ourselves closely related to the most powerful being in the universe, we should inherit some power by filiation. If God were not modeled after a genetically programmed human, then we would not expect him to show favoritism based on selfish genes—but man's dominion claims immense power bestowed upon man by his father God, effectively imputing kin altruism onto God.

While being God's offspring has its benefits, particularly for sons, not being recognized can be a dangerous affair, much as it is in primate societies. In the wild, dominant male primates have been observed to systematically kill offspring that are not theirs.33 Primatologists have been able to experimentally induce this behavior by removing the alpha male, at which time all infants are predictably killed by unrelated males, often those assuming the dominance role.34 Similarly, the lack of facial resemblance is related to infanticide in humans; men who have committed infanticide often cite the lack of resemblance of the murdered child.35 There are parallels for this, too, in the Christian tradition.

Christian theologians have interpreted the fall from grace—when Adam and Even disobeyed God's interdict against eating from the tree of knowledge—as the point at which mankind lost imago Dei36 (which for Christians is restored by Christ). After Adam and Eve were no longer recognized as God's likeness, God caused them both immense pain and in effect killed them both by making them mortal, actions we might expect of a dominant male. Thus humans have created religious dogma that strives to establish paternal resemblance to God, fully consistent with an evolutionary history in which powerful males killed offspring not recognized as their own.

However, not all useful associations with dominant male primates are between father and offspring. Nonfilial relations between adult males have important fitness implications as well. Chimpanzees, for example, establish affiliation through grooming. Research shows that not only do adult males trade grooming for support in conflict37 but that grooming is often directed up the hierarchical chain.38 Higher-ranking males are generally more powerful and better able to assist in conflict; therefore, selectively seeking their alliance can produce greater fitness benefits for lower-ranking members.

Association with higher-ranking males also aids fitness in other ways. For example, dominant male chimpanzees will form coalitions, share mating, and block other males from their shared sexual claims.39 Accordingly, reproductive success is often correlated to rank status, or hierarchical proximity to the dominant male.40 Powerful men engage in similar behaviors with their number of wives often correlating to their proximity to the headman or king atop the social hierarachy.41


In later chapters I will elaborate on the fitness advantages gained by men who ally themselves with a dominant male god. Here, however, I wish to explain the problems inherent to this particular affiliation. First, in the eyes of science, the existence of God is an untestable hypothesis yet (and very unlikely ever) to be empirically demonstrated. Likewise, in the words of religious dogma, God is untouchable, existing as he does in a different dimension. Therefore, all the tangible fitness advantages of making male alliances with God are exclusively enjoyed by mortal men. However, men—being male primates—will often use their purported association with God to serve their own evolutionary interests, often through tyranny and despotism, causing immense human suffering in the process. Doctrines such as imago Dei serve to give divine legitimacy to the autocratic decrees of powerful men. And because of our evolutionary fear of dominant males, such legitimacy is often protected from scrutiny, allowing men use to their acquired immunity to speak directly for God (or directly as a god).

Men have historically clamored for this position, motivated by its immense rewards of power. Walter Burkert, a German scholar of Greek mythology, gives a nicely detailed list of powerful men throughout European history who attributed divine authorization to their reign: Greek kings proclaimed that their authority came from Zeus; Alexander the Great claimed to have been the son of a god—Zeus Ammon; in Christian Rome, rulers were installed by Dei gratia, or “by the grace of God”; and the golden mosaic at Palermo depicts Christ placing the crown on King Roger's head. As Burkert points out, “The gods stand behind those who exercise worldly power; conversely the monarch is ’the head, immersed in prayer.’”42 Because there is no tangible being with which to share power, there are some traditions in which men (and women) have simply become gods themselves. For example, the pharaohs of ancient Egypt were considered walking gods on earth, as were the rulers of the ancient Mayan, Aztec, and Incan dynasties.

The pope is another example of a veritable god on earth with the power—across long stretches of history—to force kings to grovel at his feet or to simply remove kings from power. He is considered the Vicar of Christ, or the earthly representation of Christ and God. This claim deserves further reflection, particularly given the sheer scope of power embodied by stations such as the papacy. Among religions, the Catholic Church stands out among the biggest economic and military juggernauts in religious history. The pope is at the helm of this staggering powerhouse. And popes are men who not only serve as deputies of the most powerful dominant male in the universe but who claim to speak directly for God.

One might argue that the enthusiasm with which men have assumed this position has been religiously motivated. However, a peek behind the gold-threaded papal robes reveals the hirsute forms of our primate male ancestors competing for positions of power in the ways of old, enflamed by violence and sexuality. One example comes from the tenth century, when Pope John XII was reputed to have turned the papal palace into a personal brothel. He was a notorious womanizer and was charged by King Otto I of Germany with committing adultery with his father's concubine along with several other sexual indiscretions. John was also charged with castrating his cardinal subdeacon—a behavior, as we will discuss, that apes and powerful men perform to take their competitors out of mate competition. King Otto came to Rome, deposed John, and appointed Pope Leo VIII in his stead; but when Otto returned to Germany, John slaughtered the leaders of the Imperial Party in Rome and repositioned himself in the papacy.43 Falling victim to the same mate-competition ethos that compelled him to castrate and murder men and to monopolize women (behaviors we would expect from a dominant male primate), John was reportedly killed by a jealous husband while having sex with the man's wife.44

Also in the tenth century, Roman nobleman Bonifacio Francone strangled Pope Benedict VI and made himself pope. Soon after, he absconded to Constantinople, his pockets stuffed with the papal treasury. But Francone's alpha-ambitions didn't stop there; after a time, he returned to kill Pope John XIV and assumed the papal throne again, which he held until he died in 985.45

Earlier in the tenth century, Pope Sergius III ordered the murders of his predecessors Pope Christopher and Pope Leo V, which cleared the way to his papacy. He was also known to have a host of mistresses. Moreover, as God's favored son, Sergius’ own (illegitimate) son eventually become Pope John XI.46 Pope Alexander VI (reining from 1492-1503) was known for his fondness for orgies and had eight children from three or four mistresses. Although most of his sexual indiscretions took place before he assumed the papacy at the late age of 61, once there, he was keen on waging war on his political rivals and amassing a profane fortune in the process.47 The list goes on, and although the similarities are somewhat obscured by religious dogma and perhaps the shimmering of papal jewels, one could just as easily place these machinations in the rainforests of Gombe.

Backed as it were by God, this astounding power of the papal office (variously used to take women, wealth, and the lives of male rivals), was no doubt inspired by Christ's own vicarship—that is, Christ's claim to be the sole representative of God. The inestimable rank of Christ is well established in the Bible:

How can you say, “Show us the Father”? Don't you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me. (John 14:9—11)

Not unlike the pharaohs, Christ goes further and conveys his direct connection to God by saying, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30). In addition, Christ makes it clear that his followers will not jump the chain of command, “No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). He also asserts that those who fail to love him, to recognize him as the embodiment of God, and to agree with his words, relinquish their filiation with God to become sons of Satan:

“We are not illegitimate children,” [the Jews] protested. The only Father we have is God himself.” If God were your Father, you would love me, for I have come here from God. I have not come on my own; God sent me. Why is my language not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what I say. You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father's desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him…. Whoever belongs to God hears what God says. The reason you do not hear is that you do not belong to God. (John 8:42—47)

Of note, however, popes and other men who share alliances with man-based gods have not used such associations solely for small-scale, personal fitness gains as seen in the examples above; they have also martialed armies to slaughter their way across human history. Napoleon Bonaparte once said that “to honor the Emperor is to honor God Himself…. if they should fail in their duties to the Emperor…they would be resisting the order established by God…and would make themselves deserving of eternal damnation.”48 It is estimated that five to seven million people (mostly civilians) were killed during the Napoleonic wars.49

From the tradition of god-kings (and the occasional god-queen) to the modern-day American evangelicals who reign over megachurches, affiliative power is enduring. Evangelical John Hagee, for example, held weekly meetings with George W. Bush during his presidency. Bush in turn commanded the most powerful military force in human history, guided by his religious beliefs. As president, he led that force into war, what he called a “crusade against terror,” reigniting a centuries-old religious conflict between Islam and Christianity. There have been numerous reports that in private meetings with statesmen or religious leaders, Bush claimed that his decisions as commander in chief were directed by God and that God spoke through him.50 Furthering Bush's purported alliance with God, Lieutenant General William Boykin, a man central to the war against terror, asked while addressing Christian groups, “Why is this man in the White House? The majority of Americans did not vote for him. He's in the White House because God put him there for a time such as this.”51

However, critical thinking must be employed in situations where powerful men claim to be speaking for God or acting as God's proxies on earth. We must understand that while claiming to be following divine mandates, men actually follow biological ones, which influence them to kill rivals in warfare. Further, men who claim divine inspiration for commanding armies to war also pronounce their roles as protectors, thus playing on evolved mechanisms geared to elicit ancient and powerful emotions in their subordinates. Such roles are also conflated with God's. For instance, General Boykin also proclaimed that the war on terror led by Bush was in fact a war on Satan, the animalistic predator embodying those “ghosts” of our ancestors’ pasts. Similarly, Muslim extremists who commit acts of terror against the United States often portray America as the “Great Satan.”

The power of evolutionary knowledge is that it unveils the designs of dominant men and allows us to rend apart those conflations with God that create enmity and bloodshed. It allows us to see that divine justification for destructive human behaviors by necessity exploits ancient fears, compelling us to huddle around men and man-based gods, often while in the process of starting wars. Perhaps with this knowledge we might make more rational political decisions, including whether we rally in support of political leaders in conflict, thus differentiating real, contemporary dangers from those feared by our ancestors.