What it Means to Kneel
At first sight it is surprising that religion has been so successful, but its extreme potency is simply a measure of the strength of our fundamental biological tendency, inherited directly from our monkey and ape ancestors, to submit ourselves to an all-powerful, dominant member of the group. —Desmond Morris, The Naked Ape
SIZE AND DOMINATION: WHAT IT MEANS TO BE BIG
Our primate ancestors passed on to us certain social protocols, and we have passed them on to God. In primate cliques, subordinates will often shrink down before the dominant male, thus accentuating his largeness and superiority. The god of the Abrahamic religions, in company with gods of other traditions, is often portrayed as a large male who requires that subordinates lower themselves before him. However, requirements like these violate central tenets of the Abrahamic god concept such as omnipotence (he should have no truly viable competitors), incorporeality (size should only matter to a being on the physical plane), and immortality (God does not need to reproduce, therefore subordinating other males holds no reproductive value). To understand this projection, we begin with the role of size in primate hierarchies.
Sex differences in size are attributable to sexual selection acting by way of male mate competition.1 Larger males are generally better at winning mate competitions, and they pass on their genes for larger size to subsequent generations of males. Humans evolved in social hierarchies where rank—particularly among males—was often contested with violence. Because of the high costs associated with physical confrontation, the ability to perceive the dominance rank of potential rivals is seen as having been an important selective pressure (i.e., not accurately detecting high rank can be deadly) that shaped the human brain.2 Indeed certain brain structures appear to be devoted to processing rank information.3 As such, humans process rank information unconsciously and with incredible speed.4 Understanding the relationship between size and the power to cause physical harm is a critical part of recognizing dominance.
Larger size often equates to dominance in many other species5 and plays an important role in the rank structures of men. As cognitive scientist and linguist Steven Pinker has pointed out, the big-men who ruled over hunter-gatherer societies were often literally big men.6 Even though size may have less significance in competitions among contemporary men in the industrialized societies of the world (where resources aren't necessarily won through physical means), size still bears psychological significance. One example comes from the workplace. Research has found that height plays an important role in labor markets; it is correlated with dominance, status, and higher earnings and can even affect whether one holds a blue collar or a white collar position. For instance, statistically sales managers are taller than salesmen, and bishops, taller than preachers.7 Height in men has also been linked with physical strength,8 fighting ability,9 social status,10 and even reproductive success.11 It is important not to confuse correlation with causation here, and there are certainly other variables influencing dominance among men, including intelligence, health, and charisma, to name a few. However, across the animal kingdom it usually pays to be larger. Most animals understand this and use size to make inferences about things such as power, dominance, and threat potential. Some will even feign greater size in the hopes of submitting a rival.
Big Heads, Big Hats
To appear larger, many animals possess adaptations that exaggerate their head size. We see this ancient strategy across species. For instance, frill-necked lizards have skin flaps on their heads for flaring open in the face of rival males (or predators). Male lions have fantastic manes for similar purposes. Elephants threaten by spreading their huge ears, making their large heads appear even larger.
Primate males also possess these adaptations. The male orangutan has a zygomatic bone that flares out from either side of its head around the upper jaws, large fatty cheek pads, and a long orange beard. These appurtenances are designed to convey dominance and make a mature male's head appear enormous compared to a female's or an adolescent male's. As with the orang, facial hair is used for intimidation displays in other primates. The howler monkey has a long hanging beard, baboons have great tufts around the sides of their heads, and marmosets have large ear tufts.
The relevance of such displays has not bypassed modern-day men. Paleobiologist R. Dale Guthrie has observed that beards in men appear to extend the edge of the chin and make the head seem bigger, which may serve similar purposes as in other primates.12 Indeed, research finds that subjects rate images of men with beards as more aggressive13 and as having higher social status14 than images of clean-shaven men. Like other sexually dimorphic traits, beard growth in men is stimulated by testosterone, a hormone associated with aggression.15 A look at the symbolic role beards play in dominance among men (particularly high-ranking or fighting men) further supports Guthrie's hypothesis. For instance: motorcycle gang members often sport beards to look threatening; knights of the Middle Ages sported beards, which were symbols of virility and honor—holding someone else's beard was considered an offense righted by a duel; and kings across history wore beards as symbols of dignity and honor, virtues that convey high status.
Because power and dominance are pervasive themes across religious traditions, it should come as no surprise that a primitive adaptation designed to intimidate rivals would have such a common place in religious culture, nor that it retains its primeval meaning. Saint Augustine, for instance, wrote that “the beard signifies the courageous.”16 Saint Clement of Alexandria said the beard lent the face “dignity and paternal terror”17 and wrote that God “adorned man, like the lions, with a beard, and endowed him, as an attribute of manhood, with shaggy beasts—a sign of strength and rule.”18 Given the symbolic power of beards, religious men have sported them widely. Virtually all sects of Islam encourage men to wear beards, and religious prescriptions for long beards are referenced in Hinduism, Rastafarianism, and Sikhism. Judaism is no exception—the Old Testament, for instance, orders that, “You shall not round off the side-growth of your heads nor harm the edges of your beard” (Lev. 19:27). Some Christian clergy, including the Orthodox, are required to wear long beards, as are the Amish. More directly linking beards to dominance competition, renegade groups of Amish men in Ohio have taken to assaulting their brethren and chopping off their long beards.19 Further exemplifying the connection to dominance, pharaohs of ancient Egypt wore postiches, exaggeratedly long false metal beards which were symbols of divine status and power. Finally, in American popular culture, God is sometimes referred to as the “the bearded old man,” which connotes a different level of dominance altogether from, say, a smooth-faced adolescent.
While most primates exaggerate head size using the parts nature supplied them (e.g., beards, fatty cheek pads), humans also create artificial head displays to signify dominance. Plains Indian warriors wore horned buffalo headpieces specifically to intimidate rivals in battle. Armed soldiers of Britain's Queen's Guard wear big hats—not made of felt or straw, but of black bearskin. Here we have armed men guarding a high-status woman wearing the skin of a fearsome predator on their heads. Kings across the ages wore spiked crowns of gold adorned with precious stones which convey status and wealth, a common proxy for status in humans. The despotic Kafa chiefs of Ethiopia wore soaring three-foot-tall conical headpieces adorned with the most blatant example of mate competition among men—three golden phalluses.20
On the flip side, removing one's hat is regarded as a sign of deference, submission, and respect. Across history, hats have been removed when addressing people of nobility or high status. In the twelfth century, after the Mongol hordes hacked Russia to pieces, Russian princes demonstrated submission by removing their hats, filling them with grain, and feeding the Mongol horses from them. Only after this show of humiliation did the Mongols halt their rapacious assaults on the Russian people. In Christianity it is considered disrespectful for men to wear hats in church; accordingly, before entering the house of God, men remove them. Women do not generally have the same obligation, as we would expect if the gesture were rooted in specifically male mate competition.
As with beards, religious men capitalize on the impact of big hats, which resonate with deep, evolved intuitions about status. The only men allowed to wear big hats in Christian churches are clergy, men high in the religious hierarchy. Buddhist lamas wear large headdresses—one type looks like a giant version of the helmets worn by the ancient Roman army. The Dalai Lama wears one. Even in spiritual philosophies founded on humility and egalitarianism there is rank, and the high-ranking cannot seem to escape the pull for large head displays. Kohen Gadol, orders of high priests of classical Judaism, wore “mitznefet”—large mushroom-shaped turbans topped with gold crowns. Lower-order priests wore much smaller, plainer cone-shaped hats that were clearly intended to contrast with those of their superiors. Highlighting how religious customs are rooted in male mate competition, the Bible describes how the big-hatted Kohen Gadol enjoyed the exclusive privilege of marrying virgins (Lev 21:13).
The pope of the Roman Catholic Church wears a giant, pointed hat called a mitre. In Church hierarchy, the mitre is directly tied to status, restricted to the pope, bishops, and other high-level clergy. Some of the popes’ mitres are made of gold and, like the crowns of kings, are dotted with precious jewels. Popes also wear the papal tiara, or the triple crown, another coronet of gold and sparkling gems. The stated meaning of the crown is significant—it is meant to indicate power and rulership and shows that as God's representative, the pope's power transcends civil authorities. Here is the traditional pronouncement of papal coronation:
Receive the tiara adorned with three crowns and know that thou art the father of princes and kings, ruler of the world, vicar of our savior Jesus Christ on earth, to whom is honor and glory in the ages of ages.21
While gods aren't typically depicted wearing hats, they are frequently shown in religious iconography with large circles of light surrounding their heads—known as halos, or glory. Not only do halos appear to extend the head size, but they have been linked to the prowess of male warriors in mate competition. In the Iliad, for example, Homer describes warriors in mortal combat having supernatural light surrounding their heads (recall that these males were, perhaps symbolically, fighting over the possession of a female, Helen of Troy). In Greek iconography, heroes (such as Perseus while slaying Medusa) are sometimes depicted with halos. The gods of Sumerian religions are described as having halos, as are Sumerian kings and legendary Sumerian male heroes. Angels, God's armed and fearsome warriors, are synonymous with halos. Not surprisingly, Greek and Roman gods, the Buddha, and Ra the Egyptian sun god are all depicted with halos, as are God's envoys Abraham, Muhammad, and Jesus Christ.
Meanwhile, big hats are also important symbols in spiritual warfare. In Revelations, Jesus rides in on a white horse and makes war on Satan, the False Prophet, and all the kings and generals of the earth. His robe is bloodied (some say from his vanquished enemies), and on his head he wears a stack of crowns: “His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns” (Rev. 19:12). After slaughtering his enemies, Christ becomes the absolute ruler of the earth (Rev. 19:11—17). Also in Revelations, when angels submit kings to the eternal power of God, the kings remove their big hats (italics mine): “They cast their crowns before the throne, saying, ’Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created’” (Rev. 4:9—11). It is safe to say that the kings of Revelations did not require, as a condition of their surrender, that God also remove his halo, or Christ, his stack of crowns.
To avoid costly physical confrontations, many species demonstrate their rank status through posturing—rising up and projecting greater size to convey dominance, or shrinking down and projecting smaller size to convey submission. Making oneself appear smaller may be a gesture designed to convey infantile qualities—most animals are programmed not to attack their young.22 Chimpanzees convey dominance by bristling their hair and standing upright like men. Likewise, when they wish to show submission they shrink down, faces planted to the ground. Frans de Waal offers a rich description based on his observations at Burgers’ Zoo in Arnhem:
Strictly speaking a “greeting” is no more than a sequence of short, panting grunts known as pant-grunting. While he utters such sounds the subordinate assumes a position whereby he looks up at the individual he is greeting. In most cases he makes a series of deep bows that are repeated so quickly one after the other that this action is known as bobbing. Sometimes “greeters” bring objects with them (a leaf, a stick), stretch out a hand to their superior or kiss his feet, neck, or chest. The dominant individual reacts to this greeting by stretching himself up to a greater height and making his hair stand on end. The result is a marked contrast between the two apes, even if they are in reality the same size. The one almost grovels in the dust, the other regally receives the greeting. Among adult males this giant/dwarf relationship can be accentuated further still by histrionics such as the dominant ape stepping or leaping over the “greeter.”…At the same time the submissive ape ducks and puts his arms up to protect his head. This kind of stuntwork is less common in relation to female greeters. The female usually presents her backside to the dominant ape to be inspected and sniffed.23
From de Waal's description we can draw many religious parallels. British zoologist Desmond Morris offers his own insights about religious submission, which have a striking concordance with the behaviors observed by de Waal (although made decades before de Waals's observations):
We are forced to the conclusion that, in a behavioral sense, religious activities consist of the coming together of large groups of people to perform repeated and prolonged submissive displays to appease a dominant individual…the submissive responses to it may consist of closing the eyes, lowering the head, clasping the hands together in a begging gesture, kneeling, kissing the ground, or extreme prostration, with the frequent accompaniment of wailing or chanting vocalizations. If these submissive actions are successful, the dominant individual is appeased. Because its powers are so great, the appeasement ceremonies have to be performed at regular and frequent intervals, to prevent its anger from rising up again.24
Not only are such submissive behaviors built into religious ritual, particularly when approaching God or his proxies, but the contrast of a higher being and lower supplicants is often built into the physical architecture of religious and political power. The thrones of kings, the pulpits of presidents, and the altars of priests are all raised high above the masses. Conceivably, religious men could sermonize in a pit, something like the floor of the Colosseum—everyone would still be able to see—but altars, like the soaring cathedrals across the globe in which they are housed, often tower in majesty, which is crucial for their psychological impact. The throne of God, at the foot of which kings relinquish their crowns, is a towering emblem: “I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up” (Isa. 6:1).
The values we place on the vertical dimension is conspicuously reflected in our language—“high priests,” “high and mighty,” “higher order,” “high heaven,” as opposed to “lowly heathens,” “lower rank,” “to occupy a low station in life.” In reality, space is a valueless and relative dimension, apart from our projections as animals that ascribe hierarchical status to stature. Yet God is high up in the heavens, whereas Lucifer is down in hell; as primates, we couldn't rightly have Lucifer sitting higher than God. When Lucifer rises up in an attempt to show dominance, God forces him down again, following the pattern established by the earth's competitive animals. Here is how it is described in the Bible (italics mine). When Lucifer proclaims:
I will ascend into heaven,
I will exalt my throne above the stars of God;
I will also sit on the mount of the congregation
On the farthest sides of the north;
I will ascend above the heights of the clouds,
I will be like the Most High.
Yet you shall be brought down to Sheol,
To the lowest depths of the Pit. (Isa. 14:13—15)
It seems illogical that God should need to be large to exert his dominance given that he is capable of creating the physical universe by simply speaking it into being—concerns about size reflect the realm of men, bound to the rules of the physical world. Nevertheless, the Bible illustrates his “highness,” a term that in addition to meaning majesty also alludes to largeness and height, features that are meaningful to primate rank and power. Here God towers over the earth and uses the whole planet on which to rest his feet:
That men know that you, whose name alone is JEHOVAH, are most high over all the earth. (Ps. 83:18)
However, the most High dwells not in temples made of hands: as said the prophet, “Heaven is my throne and the earth my footstool…” (Acts 7:48)
Exaggerating size differences also has a special place in Islam. Submission to Allah is demonstrated through prostration whereby the pious place their nose and forehead onto the ground and recite (italics mine), “Glory to my Lord, the Most High, the Most Praiseworthy” in succession. The centrality of submission among Muslims is understood with the very translation of the world Islam, which literally means submission.
As concerns prostration, bowing, and the like, there are too many references in the Bible to list comprehensively here, but the following is representative:
Come, let us bow down in worship,
let us kneel before the LORD our Maker;
for he is our God. (Ps.95:6—7)
Kneeling, as noted in this verse, offers yet another means of lowering oneself. Bowing and kneeling are behaviors practically synonymous with showing deference to dominant humans. Since ancient times, kneeled stances have been taken in the presence of dignitaries, kings, and others of high status and remain common in societies with large power or class differentials. Kneeling is also customary across many religions. The Catholic Church, for one, abounds with kneeling rituals. In church, when one crosses the altar's corridor, one is to kneel. In the presence of a bishop or pope, one is to kneel. Naturally, when one is addressing God in prayer, one is to kneel. Ritualistic submission has even etched its way into Christian interior design, where behind every pew is a narrow bench on which the devoted are expected to submit themselves by kneeling.
Living in a dominance hierarchy requires that members have the cognitive ability to understand the status of those around them and to anticipate their behavior and emotional state.25 Primates are particularly adept at these cognitive tasks and their brains have evolved to infer this information from eye contact. Studies of nonhuman primates have found neurons specifically designed to detect eyes gazing toward the viewer.26 Humans also possess these adaptations, and research suggests they are related to emotions central to navigating rank status. For instance, research in humans has found that the amygdala, the fear and anger center of the brain, is a critical region for monitoring gaze direction.27 Gaze direction is complex and can be related to things like affiliation, securing support, or outside danger. However, in many species, including human and nonhuman primates, a direct stare is often meant to indicate a threat, whereas averting the eyes is meant to indicate submission.28
Humans exhibit rules for eye contact that vary by rank status, perhaps most notably in highly stratified societies. In the presence of the despotic chiefs of the south Pacific island of Tikopia, for example, the eyes of subordinates were to be averted. As cited by anthropologist Laura Betzig, ethnographer Raymond Firth notes what would happen if a subordinate made eye contact with a dominant Tikopian chief: “If a chief catches sight of an upturned face as he strides onto the marae, he calls out to the offender ’Who is the person who looks onto the fono of the gods?’” The offender is overcome with disgrace and shame, and then commences the “histrionics,” to borrow from de Waal—he paddles out to sea in his canoe (a symbolic act of suicide), then returns to his own gardens, packs the canoe with food (offerings), and returns to the chief where he begins kissing the chief's feet and making submissive hooting noises. Then, “wailing in his humility, he crawls to the chief over floor mats, presses his nose to the chief's feet and knee and follows this by the chanting of a dirge.”29 In the Fur society of Sudan it was also forbidden to look despotic leaders in the face. In fact, it was customary for the king to come out with his face half veiled. In Fur culture, even the king's topmost men were not allowed to gaze upon him.30
Averting the eyes is a common, almost unconscious ritual in religious practice. When communicating with God through prayer, eyes are lowered to the ground, heads are kept down. This simple act ties strongly to the rules governing the interactions of male primates. To look a powerful male in the eye when addressing him can have dangerous implications. When Moses encounters God in the burning bush, it is said that “quaking with fear Moses did not dare gaze” (Acts 7:32). Similarly, God himself forbids his followers from looking directly on him, on the threat of death:
The LORD descended to the top of Mount Sinai and called Moses to the top of the mountain. So Moses went up and the LORD said to him, “Go down and warn the people so they do not force their way through to see the LORD and many of them perish. Even the priests, who approach the LORD, must consecrate themselves, or the LORD will break out against them.” (Exod. 19:20)
God repeats the threat again, even more directly: “you may not look directly at my face, for no one may see me and live” (Exod. 33:20). Similarly, in Luke, a tax collector shows submission to God by averting his eyes, hitting himself, and begging for mercy: “He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ’God, have mercy on me, a sinner’” (Luke 18:13).
With religion's emphasis on dominance rank and power, direct eye contact is seen as a challenge, and averting it, a show of submission. Bowing the head is another means to avert the eyes and make oneself smaller at the same time. Across the world today, this gesture is a common form of addressing aristocracy or other high-ranking members of society. It is also common in religious ritual, particularly while addressing high-ranking religious men, or God.
Hand and Foot Kissing
Lip smacking—the nonhuman primate equivalent of kissing—is a common appeasement display in monkeys and apes and may be intended to emulate infant suckling noises. It is understandable how sounds associated with nurturing might appease aggression. As with other infantile behaviors, this gesture may also communicate, “Like an infant, I pose no threat.”
Like eye contact, the human kiss has numerous meanings and functions, and humans similarly use kissing as a means to show submission. Throughout the Godfather film series, kissing the don's hand was used to signify acknowledgment of his rank status. Whether real dons get their hands kissed, I don't know, but the gesture was perfectly intuitive to viewers. Hand kissing is a customary way of showing submission to a king, typically while bowing one's head or kneeling down. Often the custom was—and is, in the remaining monarchies of the world—to kiss the king's signet ring. This custom remains strong in the Catholic Church, a monarchic hierarchy in which the pious kneel before the pope and kiss his ring. Other Church customs would suggest that this gesture is rooted in ancient primate displays intended to connote infanthood—for instance, the pope is referred to as father, and his flock are considered his children. In many Christian Orthodox churches it is still custom for laity to bow their heads profoundly and say, “Father bless” (to a priest) or “Master bless” (to a cardinal) while outstretching their right hand. The clergyman then performs the sign of the cross and grabs the supplicant's hand, allowing the opportunity for his own to be kissed. Likewise, in letters to clergy one is to open with “Father Bless” and close with “Kissing your right hand.” With their remarkable skills at abstract thinking, humans have carried ancient submission displays forward to written language.
Foot kissing, a behavior observed widely in primatology, is another way submissive monkeys and apes demonstrate acquiescence to dominant members of their societies.31 This behavior carries forward to human societies that are highly rank structured, such as monarchies. For instance, kissing the king's feet has always been synonymous with supplicant behavior—for example, showing him extreme deference, begging for his mercy, or even recognizing that he represents God.
Christ—who is sometimes referred to as Christ the King—is also greeted with foot kissing, as are his proxies. At the Basilica in Rome stands a large bronze statue of Saint Paul, built in the fifth century. Though this statue has stood stalwart now for fifteen centuries, its feet have been worn thin by the lips of pilgrims. There was even a custom in the Catholic Church of kissing the feet of the pope. The custom was actually made into law by Pope Gregory VII in his Dictatus Papae (Dictates of the Pope). In this document, the connection between foot kissing and rank are made perfectly transparent, lest we confuse the gesture as something more affectionate. Two of the dictates were:
9. That of the pope alone all princes shall kiss the feet.
12. That it may be permitted to him to depose emperors.
These statements reflect an ageless hierarchical arrangement in which the Church sought to wield power even above kings (princes, emperors, etc.). To wit, Christ is also known as the King of Kings. Further, with God's backing, even the lowly pious may be treated as kings of kings, in the manner of dominants and their affiliates. The prophet Isaiah describes below how kings submitting to God demonstrate their submission by kissing (or licking, as it were) the feet of God's followers:
Kings…shall bow down to thee with their face toward the earth, and lick up the dust of thy feet. (Isa. 49:23)
Lastly, foot-kissing occurs in one of the best-known stories of the Bible in which Jesus is invited to dinner by Simon, one of the Pharisees. A sinful servant woman begins to attend to him:
As she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them. (Luke 7:38)
When Jesus's host Simon—perhaps more cognizant of the power implications of such behaviors—refuses to make the same gesture, Jesus becomes indignant.
Then he turned toward the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet…. Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven. (Luke 7:44—47)
It is worth reiterating that such displays are fundamentally submissive in nature, intended to secure the favor of a more powerful being. As if to hammer the point home, Jesus reminds the woman, in front of the Pharisee, of the eternal punishment she averted with her submission display: “Your faith has saved you; go in peace” (Luke 7:48).
From the rank displays of the biblical dinner party, we move to those occurring in the fields of combat, where male-on-male competition is at its most brutal. We start with Odysseus, who cast aside his spear and shield in surrender, removed his hat, and kissed the knees of the enemy king.32 Similarly, a Hadith (text recounting the deeds and sayings of Muhammad) tells how Muhammad's cousin who fought against him in battle kisses Muhammad's feet to show acquiescence:
“O Prophet of Allah, this is your cousin, Abu Sufyaan, please be happy with him.” Prophet accepted the intercession of Abbas and said, “I am pleased with him. May Allah forgive all the enmity he showed against us.” Thereafter, Prophet turned to Abbas and said, “Verily he is our brother.” Abbas said “I kissed his [Prophet's] blessed foot while he was seated on his camel.”33
Another example of foot kissing in Islam is recounted when the Prophet becomes annoyed with his follower Umar, who kisses his feet to avert his wrath (while repeatedly begging his forgiveness):
Then Umar stood up and kissed the blessed feet of the Prophet and said: O Messenger of Allah, we are pleased with Allah being Sustainer, you being the Prophet, Islam being the Deen and the Holy Quran being the Guide. Forgive us. Allah would further be pleased with you. So Umar kept on saying it till the Prophet became pleased.34
SUBMISSION BY IDEOLOGICAL SURRENDER
Thus far we have seen how apes, men, and gods share nonverbal forms of communicating dominance and submission. With their genius for abstract thought, humans also devise ideologies to reinforce hierarchy, such as those expressed in religious dogma. However sublime such ideologies may appear on the surface, they serve the primitive dominance strivings of men. As such, men may enforce their ideologies with the credible threat of violence.
The result is that humans also show submission by unquestioningly adhering to ideology and show dominance by creating or enforcing ideology. For the largest religious institutions, ideological control adds to an already immense base of power, allowing them to consolidate armies, territory, and economic might spanning nations. Men at the helm of this profusion of power encode ideological control into law, in effect legislating mind control over the masses.
One example of ideological domination is the “divine right of kings,” which attests that the king can do no wrong because his earthly power is granted by God. Thus any challenge to the king's policy, his political ideology, or even his behavior is considered sacrilege, sanctioned as it is by the most dominant male in the universe. Proponents of the divine right of kings have often cited scripture as justification, for example: “By me kings reign, and princes decree justice. By me princes rule, and nobles, even all the judges of the earth” (Prov. 8:15—16); and “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation” (Rom. 13:1—2).
Similarly, Christianity has a long history of codified ideological control, with one example among Catholics being the dogma of papal infallibility. This dogma was promulgated by the Catholic Church at the First Vatican Council of 1870 and states that any dogmatic teaching that the pope conceives of is infallible. Such teachings are considered to be imparted directly from God and are therefore uncontestable.35 This is the closest thing to godlike power a human being can have. As recounted above, the decrees of popes have commanded that kings drop to the floor and kiss the papal feet.
The notion of heresy, related to infallibility, has been another long-standing instrument used to maintain religious hierarchy. Heresy can be defined as an opposing belief or position, or a challenge to dogma—where dogma is an established religious doctrine not to be disputed or diverged from. In effect, heresy reflects the proscription against disputing papal infallibility or the divine right of kings. In the grand spectacle of religious history, efforts to forbid heresy, with its mutinous challenge to the dominance of kings and religious leaders, were often coded into law and enforced by execution.
The first Christian to be convicted of heresy was Priscillian, a bishop of Ávila who was executed in 385 by Roman officials for heresy (or, as the civil charges read, for practicing magic); religious dogma of the in-group has always been the true religion, whereas the out-group practices “magic.” Priscillian was condemned for practices such as allowing women to join with men during prayer and fasting on the Sabbath.36 Fifteen hundred years later, in 1876, Cayetano Ripoll suffered the last known execution for heresy conducted by the Roman Catholic Church. Ripoll was a Spanish school teacher whose mistake was to teach his students about deism—a religious philosophy that typically rejects reliance on religious authorities and revealed religion, the notion that religious dictates are divinely revealed to men like popes and kings. Deism was in many ways a direct threat to the idea of vicarship and Church dominance over the subordinated masses.37 Beginning in the twelfth century, the Inquisition, or Inquisitio Haereticae Pravitatis (inquiry on heretical perversity), was an organized mass effort aimed at combating heresy conducted by the judicial authorities of the Catholic Church. During this centuries-long marathon of intolerance, the Church murdered, mutilated, and tortured hundreds of thousands of people suspected of heresy.
Catholics weren't the only ones to persecute and kill on the basis of heresy. Protestants were also known for executing heretics, most of whom were, naturally, Catholics. Similarly, Orthodox Jews have historically regarded those who stray from the Jewish principles of faith as heretical. Accusations of heresy have also been lodged between rival Islamic sects, most famously between members of the Sunni and Shi'a traditions who regard each other's beliefs as heretical and have been willing to prove it by blowing each other to pieces.
Another means of enforcing mental submission is by prohibiting the reading of religious texts. There is a long history of the Catholic Church prohibiting the masses from reading the Bible. For instance, Pope Innocent III wrote in 1199:
The mysteries of the faith are not to be explained rashly to anyone. Usually in fact, they cannot be understood by everyone but only by those who are qualified to understand them with informed intelligence. The depth of the divine Scriptures is such that not only the illiterate and uninitiated have difficulty understanding them, but also the educated and the gifted.38
Note the strong reluctance to relinquish power at the heart of the pope's words, which have the effect of forcing the pious to rely on papal interpretation. The practice of prohibiting God's lambs from reading the word of the Lord carried over to the Spanish conquest of the Americas, where indigenous people were not allowed to read scripture. This allowed the Church to practice selective proselytization, thus more easily submitting the natives to ideological control and to kneeling before high (Christian) altars. Masses were often conducted in Latin, an arcane language even for Spanish colonists, which cemented reliance on the priests and furthered their necessary mystique as the translators of God's directives. Thus rank was used to control access to scripture, ultimately to preserve status.
Not only has knowledge, and the questioning it might lead to, been punished, but its spread has often been cannily averted. Book burning has been one reliable means for this; once a popular pastime during medieval Christianity, it has been practiced with great enthusiasm by the modern-day Taliban in Afghanistan. The Koran, one of the few books that incite people to murder when it is burned, provides an extensive recitation of admonitions against freethinking. The most draconian wrath is reserved for unbelievers, those who would question God's word (as written by powerful men). Below is but a minute sampling:
But the infidels who die unbelievers shall incur the curse of God, the angels, and all men. Under it they shall remain forever; their punishment shall not be lightened, nor shall they be reprieved. (Koran 2:162)
The unbelievers are like beasts [note the infrahumanization] which, call out to them as one may, can hear nothing but a shout and a cry. Deaf, dumb, and blind, they understand nothing. (Koran 2:171)
How steadfastly they seek the Fire! That is because God has revealed the Book with truth; those that disagree are in extreme schism. (Koran 2:175-176)
As for unbelievers, neither their riches nor their children will in the least save them from God's judgment. They shall become fuel for the fire. (Koran 3:10)
Believers, if you yield to the infidels they will drag you back to unbelief and you will return headlong to perdition…. We will put terror into the hearts of the unbelievers…. The Fire shall be their home. (Koran 3:149—51)
Built into the canon are punishments for freethinking that would make virtually anyone hesitant to hold, much less voice, a dissenting opinion. This is even truer for those who believe in divine punishment. The same can be seen in the New and Old Testaments. While Jesus was a man who preached compassion, love, charity, and other humanistic principles, he was also a man who understood the power of fear to motivate men. As such he was not above making threats to dissuade ideological challenge:
He who rejects me and does not receive my sayings has a judge; the word I have spoken will be his judge on the last day. (John 12:48)
If a man does not abide in me, he is cast forth as a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire and burned. (John 15:6)
Moreover, Christ's ideological power as a dominant male extended to his representatives. Per Luke, if Christ's disciples—who were charged with spreading his word—were not accepted by the communities in which they proselytized, there would be consequences: “It shall be more tolerable on that day for Sodom than for that town” (Luke 10:12); recall that God killed every person in Sodom by raining down burning sulfur upon the city (Gen. 19:24—25).
The wrath of God's armies was reserved for sinners, or those who failed to abide by the moral precepts that he devised: “The Son of man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and throw them into the furnace of fire; there men will weep and gnash their teeth,” whereas the righteous “will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (Matt.13:40—43). Now, suffice it to say that Christ never committed despotic acts such as this during his lifetime—burning heretics alive was something taken up centuries later by his followers, particularly during the Inquisition. However, Christ (or legends of Christ) did not forget to voice the threat of violence and pain in encouraging others to embrace his ideology, thus promulgating his dominance. Big hats, rising up, and making direct eye contact are all nonverbal cues that functionally communicate the same threat with the same intended outcome—submission.
As we deconstruct God's projected size and dominance behaviors, we place them within an ancient registry of human and protohuman psychology. In this way we may begin to more deeply understand the reasons why men engage in religious violence and intellectual subjugation, particularly among religions that are commanded by a dominant male god. Our primate ancestors evolved adaptations that impelled them to avoid challenging the dominance of larger, more powerful males. Human beings have inherited these tendencies and have woven primate rules for dominance and submission into the fabric of their religious cultures. Despotic men have coopted evolutionary fear structures in their alliances with dominant male gods and have used these directives to rain intimidation and suffering down on religious subordinates (or outsiders). Perhaps with evolutionary science we can better understand our complicity in unjust power arrangements and refrain from our seeming compulsion to respond to size and power with submission, particularly when such submission causes pain and injustice.