Maladaptive Submission to The Godhead

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

Maladaptive Submission to The Godhead

While offering little consolation to those suffering the mental anguish of clinical depression, scholars of evolutionary psychiatry have pointed out how low motivation, pessimism, inactivity, and other depressive symptoms very likely aided the fitness of our ancestors, chiefly by smoothing the way to submission to more powerful, more dominant, or otherwise dangerous individuals.1 Depressive phenomena have implications for religious and political power structures, particularly for the men who claim to represent gods, whether they are god-kings, presidents, imams, popes, warlords, or millionaire evangelists, all of whom capitalize on the paralysis of depressive submission.


Research in evolutionary psychopathology suggests that depression may be an adaptation. As one point of evidence, scholars in this field cite epidemiology; worldwide depression is an unusually prevalent psychiatric illness. In America, it is the most common psychiatric condition, with a lifetime prevalence of nearly 17 percent—meaning that about one out of every five Americans will suffer from a major depressive episode at least once in their lifetime.2 We know that depression has a strong genetic component,3 but this rate of prevalence is far greater than we would expect by chance mutation. Psychiatrist and medical anthropologist Daniel Wilson puts it this way, “Simply stated, genes common enough to have evolved by means of natural selection can have done so only by advantages conferred to lineages which have carried such genes even if such genes now express a level of phenotypic disease.4

If it seems paradoxical to describe a recognized psychiatric disorder as adaptive, remember that nature “cares” little for how unpleasant a subjective experience may be so long as it promotes survival. The key to understanding how depression can provide a survival advantage lies in understanding the relevance to rank status. Evolutionary scientists have found that depression among social animals is linked to their respective positions in the pecking order. The term pecking order was first introduced in 1935 by a Norwegian zoologist, Thorleif Schjelderup-Ebbe, who used the term to describe how chickens maintain rank by the strategic use of aggression—that is, through pecking one another. He observed how a drop in rank among chickens was often followed by an apparent depressive condition:

Deeply depressed in spirit, humble, with drooping wings and head in the dust, it is—in any rate directly upon being vanquished—overcome with paralysis, even though one cannot detect any sign of physical injury.5

In 1967, evolutionary psychiatrist John Price observed similar patterns in subordinated long-tailed macaques and noted their similarities with depressed psychiatric patients.6 From these observations Price began developing a compelling evolutionary theory of depression. He proposed that depression is an ancient means of regulating rank and social competition between animals, including humans, and that it provides a temporary impetus to yield to more powerful individuals. According to Price, this social competition hypothesis of depression proposes that yielding has three functions:

(a) an executive function which prevents the individual from attempting to make a “comeback” by inhibiting aggressive behaviors to rivals and superiors,

(b) a communicative function which signals “no threat” to rivals, and;

(c) a facilitative function which puts the individual in a “giving up” state of mind which encourages acceptance of the outcome of competition and promotes behavior which expresses voluntary yielding.7

This theory is consistent with our knowledge of the evolutionary process. Getting into frays with stronger individuals is a quick way of getting removed from the gene pool. Similarly, communicating that you concede to lower rank and that you pose no challenge is an effective way of avoiding attack. The brain mediates these behaviors. In a violent world, it pays to have a brain programmed to selectively temper the motivation for behaviors with a high probability for injury or death. Humans, in contrast with macaques and chickens, may also experience depression in response to a perceived drop in status not precipitated by violent competition, such as losing employment, ending a marriage, or failing out of school.

There are biological processes at work here. Research shows that testosterone, for example, has implications for rank acquisition. High testosterone is associated with better mood,8 winning competitions,9 higher motivation to reengage after losing,10 and higher sex drive,11 whereas low testosterone is associated with depressed mood,12 withdrawal from competition,13 and low sex drive.14 That mood, sex drive, and motivation to engage in rank competition are regulated by the same endocrine would seem to validate Price's theory. On the flip side, serotonin levels (5-HT), which play an important role in determining positive mood, are found to be higher among the higher-ranking, and the high-ranking get a boost of 5-HT upon receiving submissive displays.15

Price's theory helps to set the stage for understanding why religious institutions might well prosper by encouraging behaviors that mimic depressive phenomena. Evolutionary theory may also help to explain why religion is so effective at doing so—chiefly because it builds upon preexisting patterns of submission.


A number of depressive symptoms appear to serve submission. Explaining this requires first considering the evolutionary basis for self-esteem. Evolutionary researchers have argued that self-esteem is a kind of “gauge” or “index” designed to inform adaptive goals.16 Such a gauge is critical in social hierarchies where individuals must understand their rank status and choose social behaviors according to their rank, particularly in regard to social competition—for example, not challenging a more dangerous, higher-ranking individual or submitting to a weaker, lower-ranking one. Self-esteem then, either low or high, acts as an emotional gauge to inform which strategy to use.

An important related concept is resource holding potential (RHP), a term coined by British biologist Geoffrey Parker to describe the probability of an animal to win in an all-out confrontation.17 Parker described how when presented with confrontation, individuals estimate their own RHP against those of rivals. This assessment has important fitness implications: wasting time and energy and risking injury by challenging more powerful individuals can be dangerous.18 On the other hand, using estimations of RHP to inform behavioral choices can help individuals to, as behavioral ecologists John Krebs and Nicholas Davies put it, “submit to those stronger [and] challenge those weaker.”19 Such comparisons require self-representations to weigh against representations of the opponent. These representations form the basis of self-esteem, which in turn serves important motivational functions—the experience of high self-esteem motivates dominance behaviors, while low self-esteem motivates submission.

The scientific literature appears to support self-esteem as a gauge for estimating RHP and rank. For example, one study found that subjects who perceive themselves as lower-ranking were more likely to engage in submissive behaviors and to feel distress about behaving assertively.20 Other research found that depressed individuals are more likely to make upward comparisons to those who are better performers than they are21 and that depression is related to negative self-appraisals on dimensions of rank.22

Perhaps more informatively, patients with depression often view themselves as defeated, incapable, inferior, or worthless, self-perceptions compatible with submissive behavior. The current American Psychiatric Associations diagnostic manual, the DSM-5®, describes this symptom as “feelings of worthlessness or excessive or inappropriate guilt.”23 Now, like any emotion, humility—which includes feelings (or demonstrations) of lowliness, meekness, inferiority, and so forth—is experienced in gradations, with depressive worthlessness on the more extreme end. But the point here is its role in regulating social hierarchies. Human worth is almost always a relative value, established by comparison to other humans. Feelings of worthlessness in a context of social hierarchies therefore embody feeling less worth than someone with more worth, which typically translates to someone more dominant in some way or another. The feeling can occur after a defeat or simply as a defeat-prevention measure—after calculating RHP, which may prompt a weaker individual to choose submission rather than competition.

Nonhuman primates concede to lower RHP by shrinking down, averting eye gaze, and making other nonverbal submissive displays. As Price puts it, “The message of a submissive signal is ’You are more powerful than me’ which is probably as near to ’You are wonderful’ as an animal without language can get.”24 Humans make these displays as well, but they also use praiseful language to acknowledge higher rank. For example, with nobility we might use phrases like your excellency, your highness, your majesty, your grace, or your eminence. Conversely, self-abasements such as I am pitiful, weak, lowly, meek, or powerless are human means of communicating lower rank. Importantly, for humans these communiques also convey submissive states of mind—humility versus pride or low self-esteem versus high self-esteem—which tend to be good predictors of behavior (i.e., submission versus challenge).

When viewed with an evolutionary lens, the idea that humans should emphasize religious humility in relation to a superior being has great explanatory power, particularly if that being is male and fearsome. Competitions over rank are an integral part of primate social life—as we've seen, dominant males are submitted to across evolutionary history—and the familiarity of submission displays may make it emotionally easier for humans to be submissive to God. Indeed, humans exalt gods and self-abase before them to show submission just as they do with higher-ranking humans. For example, self-abasement can be shown linguistically, as we see in common refrains such as, “God is great, but we are small. God is without fault, but we are sinners.” It can also be shown nonverbally, “I rose from my self-abasement, with my tunic and cloak torn, and fell on my knees with my hands spread out to the Lord my God” (Ezra 9:5) or emotionally (italics mine), “Better to be lowly in spirit along with the oppressed than to share plunder with the proud” (Prov. 16:19).

If we can say that humility is an experience chiefly reserved for those lower in the hierarchy, then it is no wonder that humility is awarded tremendous value across many religions and is lauded as a sign of spiritual devotion. World religions are full of references to humility and many praise its value, for example (italics mine): “And the slaves of God are those who walk on the earth in humility and calmness” (Koran 25:63). Further, as we might expect from a god based on a dominant male primate, humility in scripture is described as a means to deflect aggression (italics mine): “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6); God says, “They have humbled themselves. I will not destroy them” (2 Chron. 12:7).

Arguably, the antithesis of low self-worth is pride, for having pride by definition requires a sense of self-worth. Tellingly, pride is considered one of the seven deadly sins, where sin amounts to an act that defies the rules set by a dominant male god. Pride, like the other deadly six, has important rank and fitness implications. While extreme humility is generally appreciated by the religious aristocracy, by statesmen, and purportedly by God (not to mention males of other primate species), pride is dangerous to those in high positions and therefore not tolerated—thus subordinates among men and apes are not allowed to make eye contact, be loud, or stand tall. But given that God is said to be all-powerful, it seems incongruous that he should share such pedestrian intolerance for pride, although scripture suggests he does: “The LORD detests all the proud of heart. Be sure of this: They will not go unpunished” (Prov. 16:5). And not unlike powerful men, God punishes the prideful among his subordinates with aggression:

I, the LORD, will punish the world for its evil and the wicked for their sin. I will crush the arrogance of the proud and humble the pride of the mighty. I will make people scarcer than gold—more rare than the fine gold of Ophir. (Isa. 13:11—12)

Here is an example of the severity of punishment reserved for the obstinately prideful:

And if in spite of this you will not hearken to me, then I will chastise you again sevenfold for your sins, and I will break the pride of your power, and I will make your heavens like iron and your earth like brass; and your strength shall be spent in vain, for your land shall not yield its increase, and the trees of the land shall not yield their fruit. Then if you walk contrary to me, and will not hearken to me, I will bring more plagues upon you, sevenfold as many as your sins. (Lev. 26:18—21).

God's displeasure with pride is a frequent theme in the Old Testament. King Herod was a particularly macabre case. Because he failed to submit to God, he was struck down by one of God's angels and consumed alive by worms (Acts 12:23).

The Koran takes a similar approach to pride: “I shall turn away from my revelations those who show pride in the world wrongfully” (Koran 7:146); “Certainly He does not love the proud ones” (Koran 16:23); “It shall be said: Enter the gates of hell to abide therein; so evil is the abode of the proud” (Koran 39:72). As a male leader, God is highly intolerant of emotional states that may result in his usurpation, and so hell is reserved for the prideful.

While showing pride invites God's wrath and showing humility may forestall it, humility can also be used as a means to solicit God's protection. We have discussed the importance of protection in landscapes swarming with dangerous predators. Often, however, protection is required not only against outside forces, but from the furies of the male god himself, which call for supplication. And so the devout may prostrate themselves before God, begging for his benevolence, as discussed in chapter 6.

Taken to extremes, religious promotion of humility can lead to self-injury, or religious mortification. For supplicants, mortification is another opportunity to demonstrate lower worth than their male gods (or their affiliates). For example, some Muslim Shi'ites annually flog themselves with chains and swords or cut themselves with knives to commemorate the martyrdom of Husayn ibn Ali (626—80), the grandson of Mohammed who sacrificed his life serving God in holy war. Like other submission displays, self-harm has been a means to preemptively avert divine rage. During the Middle Ages, flagellation movements spread across Europe, often as a means to curtail plagues or the prophesied apocalypse. Saint Dominic (1170—1221) whipped himself nightly with iron chains in atonement to God for the world's sinners.25 In the modern age, the Catholic Penitentes of New Mexico beat bloody furrows into their backs with leather whips or submit to crucifixion—emulating Jesus’ sacrifice—to appease God.

No doubt there is some exhilaration involved in such rituals, which resurrect ancient emotions from our evolutionary past. No doubt, too, these practices inundate the brain with powerful neurotransmitters, such as endorphins (chemically similar to morphine), which amplify the experience. But in a different context, such behaviors would rightfully result in forced admission to a psychiatric emergency room.

Carolyn Bynum, American historian of medieval religion, writes of extreme Catholic ascetic practices of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, practices so severe that religious authorities eventually had to call for their abolishment. Writes Bynum, “These calls for reasonableness and interiority were clearly in part a response to such alarming austerities as wearing iron plates, mutilating one's flesh and rubbing lice into the wounds, or even jumping into ovens or hanging oneself.”26 Drinking the pus of the sores of lepers was another favored form of ascetic devotion.27

Losing a fight for rank can involve great pain for the loser. By self-inflicting pain, one essentially saves a dominant male god the trouble of inflicting it himself and at the same time displays submission in a very poignant way. Self-abasement is even more understandable if you truly believe that God is ready to enforce the retaliations described in scripture.

Last, in major depression, suicide and low self-esteem often coincide. Religions often canonically proscribe suicide, and research overall finds there is less suicide among the devout.28 However, mortification of the flesh can be taken to this darkest extreme, and this ultimate act of abasement has been documented across religious history. The Circumcellions, an early fourth-century Christian sect in Romanized Africa, believed that suicide was a form of martyrdom. As such they threw themselves off cliffs or into roiling fires. They also paid other men to kill them or threatened to kill strangers if they did not agree to kill them. Often the suicides were self-punishment for sin.29 Recently, mass suicides were branded into historical infamy with cases like that of the Peoples Temple, which in 1978 saw 918 Americans drink cyanide in Guyana at the order of their dominant male leader Jim Jones. Another example is the Solar Temple, where 74 cult members committed suicide; some had donated over $1 million to their male leader, Joseph Di Mambro, prior to taking their lives. There was also Heaven's Gate, in which some male members voluntarily castrated themselves before committing suicide in order to board the UFO that was supposed to take them to a different dimension.30

I hold as self-evident that healthy people don't castrate themselves, drink the pus of lepers, rub lice in their wounds, jump into ovens, self-mutilate, or commit suicide. Even in a religious context, these behaviors seem clinically pathological and many are maladaptive in evolutionary terms—killing or castrating yourself removes you from the gene pool and the other self-harming behaviors risk your presence there. And yet for those who have been encouraged to believe they are worthless before God, or who live in fear of his judgment, such behaviors may be a way of showing pitiable submission before a fearsome and all-powerful ruler.


The next depressive symptom of particular relevance for the religious is anhedonia. Defined as the loss of ability to experience pleasure, anhedonia commonly affects the appetitive drives for sex and eating. Symptoms are evinced across species, often following social defeats,31 and serve as a motivation to surrender sex and food to more powerful individuals. Accordingly, the most basic of evolutionary drives toward sex and food are also featured among the deadly sins—as lust and gluttony. Establishing these drives as sin embeds in religious canon the primordial pattern of relinquishing resources to a powerful male.

Sex and the Sin of Lust

Clinical and evolutionary science researchers Paul Gilbert and Michael McGuire point out that animals influence each other's emotions and behaviors by sending and receiving signals.32 Regarding mate competition, these signals have important survival implications. Brimming with confidence in the pursuit of the same sexual resources as more dominant individuals can prove dangerous33—as we have seen, male macaques, chimpanzees, kings, warlords, and clergy are all prone to wreaking violence on their sexual competitors. On the other hand, showing sexual restraint (for instance, steering clear of the dominant male's females) may be a way to avert unnecessary or even mortal attacks.

One way to communicate sexual restraint to the higher-ranking is to demonstrate sexual shame (or guilt, considered a less public experience of shame). As it turns out, research finds that shame is related to depression, feelings of inferiority, and submissive behaviors.34 Hence displaying shame—averting the eyes, lowering the head, and hiding—is an appeasement display designed to communicate submission.35 Dominant members usually have more power to create feelings of shame in the lower-ranking than vice versa and use shaming to promote their own self-interests.36 These dynamics of shame, rank, power, and sexual repression are highly visible in depictions of God's interactions with his subordinates.

For example, in the book of Jeremiah, God (who demands exclusivity), berates Israel for her sexual indiscretions:

“If a man divorces his wife and she leaves him and marries another man, should he return to her again? Would not the land be completely defiled? But you have lived as a prostitute with many lovers—would you now return to me?” declares the LORD. “Look up to the barren heights and see. Is there any place where you have not been ravished? By the roadside you sat waiting for lovers, sat like a nomad in the desert. You have defiled the land with your prostitution and wickedness.” (Jer. 3:1—2)

For this act of whoring with foreign gods, God sends drought to Israel, “Therefore the showers have been withheld, and no spring rains have fallen. Yet you have the brazen look of a prostitute; you refuse to blush with shame” (Jer. 3:3). This passage seems to imply that shame is the expected response to cheating on God. Further, it shows that God enacts dangerous punishments for infidelity. Eventually God forgives Israel, but demands Israel's expressed guilt:

“I will not be angry forever. Only acknowledge your guilt—you have rebelled against the LORD your God, you have scattered your favors to foreign gods under every spreading tree, and have not obeyed me,” declares the LORD. (Jer. 3:12—13).

Similarly, in the book of Romans Paul writes how those who worshipped idols fell out of God's favor and in doing so were left to their shameful sexual acts: “So God abandoned them to do whatever shameful things their hearts desired. As a result, they did vile and degrading things with each other's bodies” (1:24). Failing to show appropriate shame, the sinners incurred God's wrath: “But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God's wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed. God will repay each person according to what they have done” (2:5—6).

With sex framed as a shameful infraction against God, it is no wonder that sexual shame and guilt seem to be amplified in religions. One large survey of more than 9,500 participants conducted among Americans found that the devoutly religious experienced more sexual guilt than atheists.37 In this study, Mormons rated highest on sexual guilt, followed closely by Jehovah's Witnesses, Pentecostals, Seventh-day Adventists, and Baptists, while agnostics and atheists were among the lowest. Further, of people raised in highly religious homes, 22.5 percent reported being shamed or ridiculed for masturbating, compared with only 5.5 percent of those brought up in the least religious homes. Some of the former reported being told as children that they would burn in hell for masturbating, while others were beaten for engaging in self-pleasure. A whopping 79.9 percent of respondents raised in highly religious homes reported feeling guilty about a specific sexual act or desire, compared to 26.3 percent of respondents raised in secular homes. Further, the study found that religious observers who later became atheists noted a drastic improvement in sexual satisfaction.38

Much of religion's sexual repression emerges from the notion that certain sexual behaviors displease God. He has been described in the Abrahamic faiths as having personal distaste for extramarital sex, homosexuality, prostitution, oral sex, anal sex, masturbation, revealing clothing, and even sexual thoughts. One tactic prescribed in Christian theology is to force forbidden thoughts from awareness. This tactic is based on the notion that merely thinking of a sexual act is the same as committing it, for example, “You have heard that it was said, ’You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt. 5:27—28).

In some sects, God proscribes all but the essential sexual behavior that propagates his devotees across the generations (which he can't afford to dispense with). The devout are expected to abandon sex as a sign of submission to God. Abandoning sex to appease dominant males is an arrangement familiar to primates.

In an evolutionary context, temporarily abandoning sex can be adaptive as an act of concession to a more powerful group member (i.e., live to have sex another day), while in a clinical sense it can be pathological. Like physical pain, we are programmed to steer clear of painful emotions such as shame and guilt, which we accomplish by avoiding behaviors that generate them. In this light I argue that these emotional states can be pathological simply because they impede the experience of pleasure. In a world with such a vast menu of possible anguishes to suffer (e.g., hunger, thirst, extreme temperatures, disease, physical injury, losing a loved one, and so on), giving up sexual pleasure, or adulterating it with guilt, is an act of asceticism destined to create a depressive reaction. Indeed not engaging in pleasurable activities can maintain or aggravate depression, and treatment for depression often involves the systematic performance of pleasurable activities (including sex), which works exceptionally well at treating the disorder.

Like other forms of religious abasement, displays of sexual renunciation can be taken to extremes. Genital mutilation has been used for millennia to show loyalty to God and lends itself easily to an evolutionary lens. In Genesis, chapter 17, we have Abraham's renowned covenant with God brokered by a powerful act of submission—Abraham circumcises himself. While Abraham's circumcision ends up being a hallowed, central credo of Judaism, it is equally an act of alliance-making that mirrors the alliances primates have always had with dominant males. Here we have a lesser male (Abraham) showing submission to a dominant male (God) through a display of sexual subservience (by harming his own genitalia). In exchange Abraham gains assistance in acquiring territory (the land of Canaan), high rank (“I will make kings come from you”), and measured reproductive success (Abraham's son Isaac). In another instance (Exod. 4:24—26) God intends to kill Moses, but his wife, Zipporah, saves him by circumcising their son with a flint knife and casting the bloody foreskin at Moses's feet. Satisfied with this act of acquiescence, God spares Moses's life. We have already heard how enraged primates dominate by attacking genitalia, which ends up being an effective way to eliminate sexual rivals. Here God is satisfied with a symbolic act of genital mutilation as a means to show Moses's concession to lower (sexual) rank. Conceivably God could have demanded Moses's earlobe or lip or hair, but predictably, he preferred the foreskin.

It is probably not incidental that circumcision results in less sexual sensitivity due to callousing of the nerve-ending-rich penile glans; circumcision, in effect, produces less sexual pleasure, something that one can easily imagine dominant males wishing on would-be sexual competitors. The foreskin itself probably served some evolutionary function rooted in mate competition. One researcher points out that among monogamous primates, males have no foreskin, but among promiscuous primates, males have foreskins and other “elaborations including spines, plungers, labile scoops, flexible ridges and other distal structures” designed to “increase the probability that a male's sperm will achieve fertilization and decrease this probability for rival sperm.”39 In short, if the foreskin is an evolutionary adaptation for increasing the ability to compete sexually with other males, cutting it off not only dulls sexual sensitivity but may also make one less sexually competitive.

Another example of religious genital mutilation is described among the ancient Aztecs, who pierced their penises with cactus thorns or stingray barbs to honor their male gods. If a young man fainted during the ritual, it was seen as proof that he failed to keep his virginity.40 The Mayans had a similar ritual in which men let blood from their penises to honor their male god Tohil.41

Castration remains perhaps the most extreme example of this kind. Castration for God, needless to say, is the permanent ceding of reproductive capacity. The ancient Zapotecs (rivals of the Aztecs) castrated their elite children to prepare them to serve their gods as neophyte priests.42 Some early Christian sects advocated castration as a means to sacrifice one's will to God. Initially, the physical act of castration was a nagging problem for the Church, as the extreme nature of the sacrifice made Christianity less appealing to potential male converts. The Church formally outlawed this behavior at the First Council of Nicaea in 325 CE.43

A later example comes from the Skoptsy, a Christian sect in Imperial Russia whose members believed that Adam and Eve grafted pieces of fruit from the tree of knowledge to their bodies to form breasts and testicles. To counter this “original sin,” they performed mastectomies and castrations. There were two kinds of castrations, known as minor and royalseals.” While the minor seals only removed testicles, the royal seals also removed the penis. Initially the Skoptsy pressed red hot irons into the scrotum, thus destroying the testicles in a process known as “fiery baptism.” Other techniques involved knives and razors (while chanting “Christ is risen”), or twisting the testicle until the seminal vesicles were destroyed, causing the testes to fall inside the scrotum and eventually atrophy.44

Female genital mutilation is another religious practice in which we can see the designs of male sexual control. Skoptsy women had their nipples or entire breasts removed and sometimes the labia majora, the labia minora, and the clitoris. The Dogon tribe of Mali offers another example. The Dogon believed that their male god Amma created the earth with a lump of clay. With it he made a female body with a sex organ in the shape of an ant mound and a protrusion in the form of a termite hill (the clitoris). When he tried to lie down and copulate with the earth, the symbolic clitoris got in the way so he excised it.45 Today, Dogon girls have their clitorises and labia ritually excised by the resident blacksmith. Regardless of the surrounding mythology, removing the clitoris deadens female sexual pleasure. This severe act of female sexual control has reached epidemic proportions. The World Health Organization estimates that some 140,000,000 women and girls worldwide are suffering the effects of female genital mutilation.46

Female genital mutilation is practiced in several Islamic cultures. While some Islamic sects have issued fatwas against the practice, others have supported it as a means to ensure chastity and ultimately sexual loyalty to Muslim husbands. However, as is typical, the wishes of men and their male gods are often blurred and so the capricious female lust so threatening to men's reproductive fitness achieves a certain parallel with the male lust considered so treacherous to a dominant god. Recently Iranian Ayatollah Kazem Sedighi warned his followers that when women dress inappropriately (eschewing traditional Islamic drapery) this causes extramarital affairs, which in turn cause earthquakes.47 One can only assume that the earthquakes are considered an expression of God's displeasure.

Food and the Sin of Gluttony

“And put a knife to thy throat, if thou be a man given to appetite.” —Proverbs 23:2

In addition to a loss of appetite for sex, depression can also involve a loss of appetite for food. As a means of encouraging the surrender of food to more powerful individuals, this symptom is consistent with the social-competition hypothesis of depression. Surrendering food has its roots in biological evolution, but continues to be played out in religious ritual.

Food is the primary focus of resource competition in the biologic world. Utilization of every other resource requires food. Skulking and hunch-shouldered, subordinates across the animal kingdom will surrender food claimed by a dominant, satisfying themselves with whatever scraps remain. High-ranking mammals, such as lions, wolves, and hyenas, are often seen displacing lower-ranking members from a kill. Similarly, higher-ranking primates often displace lower-ranking individuals from key feeding sites. For instance, higher-ranking male chimpanzees often feed higher in the canopy of trees where fruit is more abundant and sugar content is higher. When confrontations arise, lower-ranking members withdraw, either by descending to less desired parts of the tree or by leaving the tree altogether.48 High-ranking chimpanzees also steal meat more often and are given meat more often by lower-ranking males.49 When presented with an unwinnable confrontation over food, a sensible response is to relinquish that resource rather than risking injury or death.

To put this in religious context, let us recall again the Genesis story, a story central to Judeo-Christian mythology in which God banishes Adam from the Garden of Eden for eating fruit from the tree of life. The conventional symbolism for the forbidden fruit is knowledge, a topic to which we will shortly return. However, the significance of this story in evolutionary terms is so obvious that it becomes almost painfully simplistic: the tale describes a dominant male (God) expelling a subordinate (Adam) from his territory (the Garden of Eden) for daring to intrude on his forbidden food resource (fruit of the tree of knowledge). Tertullian (160—225 CE), an important early Christian writer who has been called the “the founder of Western theology,” labeled this first sin as gluttony (a deadly sin).50 Carolyn Bynum cites another influential early fifth-century Christian writer, Saint Nilus the Elder, who reasoned: “It was the desire for food that spawned disobedience; it was pleasure of taste that drove us from Paradise. Luxury in food delights the gullet, but it breeds the worm of license that sleepeth not.”51 According to many Christian denominations, this original sin set in motion an everlasting cascade of pain for every succeeding generation of human and nonhuman animal. The sin even made eternal life impossible without the intervention of God. As described in the Bible, God comes down hard on Adam and Eve, as we would expect from a dominant male:

To the woman he said, “I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with painful labor you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.”

To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, ’You must not eat from it,’ Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.” (Gen. 3:16—19).

In this most primeval biblical landscape, God enacts the most primal conflict—violent competition over food. When his control of the food source is challenged, he displaces his challengers. He then forces women into pain and subservience and men into a lifetime of toil. In returning them to dust he gives to exquisitely self-aware humankind the annihilation of self it so desperately fears and forces humans to rely on him for protection against death. The story as told would suggest that food is immensely important to God, as is surrendering it to him. This is despite the fact that God is described as an everlasting, omnipotent being—one that should be indifferent to food, not needing it for survival.

Yet religious practice often emphasizes surrendering food resources; the ritual sacrifice of food to gods is common across world religions. Often such sacrifices are made to secure the favor of gods or to receive their blessings. As demanded in the Old Testament:

Make an altar of earth for me and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and fellowship offerings, your sheep and goats and your cattle. Wherever I cause my name to be honored, I will come to you and bless you. (Exod. 20:24)

Knowing that this dominant male god doesn't physically require the surrendered food of humans, one might question the purpose of such sacrifices. And yet his hunger is large, requiring an extravagant menu. The biblical god is banqueted a vast array of foods: bulls, rams, lambs, grain offerings, and drink (Ezra 7:17); doves and pigeons (Luke 2:24); sheep, goats, and cattle (2 Chron. 7:5); prized internal organs and fat (Lev. 3:3); oxen (Num. 7:17); and olive oil (Lev. 9:4). It is ironic how much Christians have criticized the indulgences of the Roman aristocracy in the era of Christ, given the luxuriant appetites of their God.

Fasting is another means of surrendering food resources, and the Bible abounds with examples of this gesture of appeasement. Now, numerous other reasons for fasting exist. Today people fast to diet, to self-cleanse, to prepare for medical procedures, or to make political statements. However, examples of fasting in the Bible are almost always meant to show submission, the dutiful fast to avert God's wrath or to plead for his favor or protection.

For instance, the prophet Joel calls for a fast to appease God's wrath, which on this occasion was a plague of locusts sent to torment Joel's people, “That is why the LORD says, ’Turn to me now, while there is time. Give me your hearts. Come with fasting, weeping, and mourning.’…Who knows? Perhaps He will give you a reprieve, sending you a blessing instead of this curse” (Joel 2:12, 14). This passage explicitly makes the connection between depressive states (e.g., weeping and mourning), submission, and surrendering food. When God threatened to destroy the city of Nineveh for worshipping idols, the people fasted and wore sackcloth as self-punishment. To appease God the people went so far as to force their animals to fast and wear sackcloth as well. God responded by sparing the city (Jon. 3:6—10). Fasting is also undertaken as a means to appease God's wrath for disloyalty, “Then Ezra withdrew from before the house of God and went to the room of Jehohanan son of Eliashib. While he was there, he ate no food and drank no water, because he continued to mourn over the unfaithfulness of the exiles” (Ezra 10:6). This occurs again in Deuteronomy, and the gesture appears effective, “Then once again I fell prostrate before the LORD for forty days and forty nights; I ate no bread and drank no water, because of all the sin you had committed, doing what was evil in the LORD's sight and so arousing his anger. I feared the anger and wrath of the LORD, for he was angry enough with you to destroy you. But again the LORD listened to me” (Deut. 9:18—19).

The pious also give up food to ensure God's protection:

·  In exchange for safety from bandits: “There, by the Ahava Canal, I proclaimed a fast, so that we might humble ourselves before our God and ask him for a safe journey for us and our children, with all our possessions.” (Ezra 8:21).

·  To curtail the destruction of Jerusalem: “I, Daniel, understood from the Scriptures, according to the word of the LORD given to Jeremiah the prophet, that the desolation of Jerusalem would last seventy years. So I turned to the Lord God and pleaded with him in prayer and petition, in fasting, and in sackcloth and ashes. (Dan. 9:2—3)

·  For protection against illness: “Yet when they were ill, I put on sackcloth and humbled myself with fasting.” (Ps. 35:13)

·  And for victory in the dangerous business of warfare: Then all the Israelites, the whole army, went up to Bethel, and there they sat weeping before the LORD. They fasted that day until evening and presented burnt offerings and fellowship offerings to the LORD. And the Israelites inquired of the LORD…. They asked, “Shall we go up again to fight against the Benjamites, our fellow Israelites, or not?” The LORD responded, “Go, for tomorrow I will give them into your hands.” (Judg. 20:26—28)

Virtually every Abrahamic sect observes fasting rituals, many involving penance for sins. Fasting during the widely practiced traditions of Jewish Yom Kippur, Christian Lent, and Islamic Ramadan is based on penitence and submission across the three great Abrahamic faiths.

Given its relationship to depression, it is understandable that submissive fasting can manifest in self-hatred and self-harm. During the European Middle Ages, a period stirring with asceticism, forms of fasting were widely practiced among Christians, often in extreme forms. The devout fasted as penitence for Adam's original sin. Saint Francis of Assisi wrote that, “I have no greater enemy than my body,” and taught, “We should feel hatred towards our body for its vices and sinning!”52 For Saint Francis this belief involved starving the body as a means of atonement—along with self-flagellation and referring to his body as “brother donkey.”53 Expanding on the beast of burden metaphor, Saint Francis of Bonaventure wrote that the body (italics mine) “should be weighed down by hard work, often scourged with the whip, and nourished with poor fodder.”54 Saint Catherine of Siena (1347—1380) and Saint Teresa of Avila (1515—1582), the two great female doctors of the Church forced themselves to vomit, reportedly by sliding plant stems and branches down their throats. According to legend many ascetics were able to live entirely without food in their efforts to atone to God, including Benevenuta of Bojanis, Elsbeth Achlerin, Saint Lidwina of Schiedam, and the Swiss national saint, Nicholas of Flüe.55 Needless to say, scores of ascetics died desperately trying to slide closer to God's side by surrendering food.

While death by self-starvation hit a frenzied peak in the Middle Ages, it is known to occur in the modern age as well. Just as self-mutilating for God can be considered pathological, so can starving oneself to death. The behavior speaks to complete diminution of self-worth in order to appease a more powerful being. The Christian Church has elaborated upon the practices of fasting and celibacy and raised them to the heights of religious ecstasy. But surrendering food or sex to soothe the rages of a dominant being are behaviors that reach back to the primordial savannah.


Another depressive symptom described in the DSM-5® is the “diminished ability to think or concentrate, or indecisiveness.”56 While deficits of this kind are very often maladaptive, they too may serve an inhibitory function that in specific (temporary) circumstances may have survival advantages. While indecisive, for example, one may be less likely to suddenly act on potentially harmful impulses such as challenging more powerful or higher-ranking group individuals. Supporting the link between indecision, inhibition, and rank, research on depression in humans demonstrates that cognitive deficits are strongly predicted by psychomotor retardation (diminished ability to move or act),57 and animal research finds that social defeats cause both cognitive impairment and depression.58

Evolutionary biologists Paul Watson and Paul Andrews point out that the varied cognitive deficits seen in depression are generally abstract and nonsocial, but that depressed persons tend to be hyper-focused on social information and actually better at some socially oriented cognitive tasks.59 They argue that this differential performance may have provided a fitness advantage—chiefly by allowing the depressed individual to focus on social problems, while reducing distraction by other kinds of mental tasks. Also, in calculating RHP, accuracy is important; a gross overestimation of one's own fighting ability compared to another's could be prove deadly. The authors draw attention to the fact that those who are depressed tend to be more realistic about their capabilities than those who are not depressed, which can be a valuable asset in social decision-making around conflict. Nonetheless, it remains largely unclear to what extent the cognitive limitations seen in depression may have served an adaptive purpose—related to inhibition, social rank, or diverting attention to socially oriented mental tasks—and to what extent they represent more of the “system failure” of a true pathology. More research is needed on this subject.

However, here I suggest that cognitive impairment works well as a metaphor for a more mundane lack of knowledge. Insofar as both a sharp mind and knowledge can be used to question the legitimacy of power or to plan actions against the powerful, the metaphor seems fitting. Ignorance, in other words, may function as effectively as impairment in keeping one out of unwinnable conflicts.

It is interesting to remember that, according to the Judeo-Christian story, it was eating the apple of the tree of knowledge that doomed humankind to penury and pain, forced us to struggle for food to survive, and made us mortal. The apple was literally a piece of food, and common interpretations suggest it may also represent sexuality, but the tree of knowledge from which it was plucked gave to humankind a level of understanding reserved only for god(s):

Then the LORD God said, “Look, the human beings have become like us, knowing both good and evil. What if they reach out, take fruit from the tree of life, and eat it? Then they will live forever!” So the LORD God banished them from the Garden of Eden. (Gen. 3:22—23)

We are left with a dominant male banishing from his territory those subordinates who have acquired knowledge with the potential to threaten his status (here as an immortal). Knowledge as threat is recapitulated across the ages among Christian thinkers. In John Milton's epic poem Paradise Lost—considered one of the greatest works of the English literature—he tells of the fall of humanity from grace. He writes of the threat of knowledge:

But Knowledge is as food, and needs no less Her Temperance over Appetite, to know In measure what the mind may well contain, Oppresses else with Surfeit, and soon turns Wisdom to Folly, as Nourishment to Wind.60

Christian thinkers have long been wary of knowledge. Thomas Aquinas is reported to have said, “I am a man of one book [the Bible],” seeming to imply that all others might be suspect. The great reformer Martin Luther assailed reason in a fervor:

Reason is the Devil's greatest whore; by nature and manner of being she is a noxious whore; she is a prostitute, the Devil's appointed whore; whore eaten by scab and leprosy who ought to be trodden under foot and destroyed, she and her wisdom…. Throw dung in her face to make her ugly. She is and she ought to be drowned in baptism…. She would deserve, the wretch, to be banished to the filthiest place in the house, to the closets.61

Non-Christian knowledge was long considered sinful for Christians. This notion of sinful knowledge pervades even contemporary Christian thought, where the term worldliness is seen as akin to sinful knowledge rather than being a quality to admire. The fear is, as ever, that knowledge will lead to unbelief, and so Holy Scripture must take priority over other sources of information.

Just as cognitive impairment may prevent a depressed individual from acting against more powerful competitors, religion may impair the masses, effectively preventing them from acting against the prevailing power structure. One of the most effective ways to create cognitive impairment is to simply strangle the flow of information. Unwanted books may be put to flame, censored, or banned outright. In 1559, the Catholic Church issued the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, an index of prohibited books that blocked from the mind of the populace certain scientific texts, as well as books considered immoral or translations of the Bible into the “common tongue” (as noted in chapter 6, outside religious texts and laypersons reading the Bible are both considered dangerous). There have been numerous iterations of the index over the centuries, although it was finally abolished in 1966 by Pope Paul VI. Nevertheless, Canon Law still reserves the right to censor certain books or to grant imprimatur, or “let it be printed.”

The absence of religious knowledge endures among Christians, which is not surprising considering the tradition of prohibition and censorship in Christianity, including of the Bible. The Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion and Public Life conducted a large survey of 3,412 Americans and found that atheists and agnostics scored highest on a measure of religious knowledge, surpassing Jews, Mormons, Catholics, and various Protestant sects (including Evangelicals).62 These results raise many important questions. One is: If the dutifully religious had more knowledge of religion, would they so readily engage in religious submission?

While Christians have achieved legendary acts of censorship, some contemporary Islamist groups have taken up the charge in medieval form. One example is the case of Theodoor van Gogh, a Dutch filmmaker and writer who was killed in 2004 by an extremist Dutch-Moroccan Muslim for producing a controversial film about the treatment of women in Islam.63 The assassination suggests that ideas about equal rights for women produce strong, evolved threat signals in cultures focused on female sexual control.

Another example of Islamic censorship was the controversy prompted by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten when the paper published editorials depicting the prophet Mohammed in cartoon form. The newspaper stated that the publication was an attempt to stimulate discussion about self-censorship in Islam, where depictions of Mohammed are considered heretical. Violent Islamist protests ignited across the Muslim world. The Danish embassy in Pakistan was bombed and Danish embassies in Syria, Iran, and Lebanon were set on fire. Hundreds of deaths around the globe resulted from reactions to the cartoon.64

According to watchdog organizations concerned with journalistic freedom and free speech, Islamic nations today predominate among the top ten most censored countries in the world.65 Many Islamic countries show rigid religious intolerance and censor any line of thinking antithetical to the tenets of the Koran or Islamic culture. Some have kept their populace absolutely ignorant of the outside world. But Islam wasn't always like this. It once was the world's most potent advocate for intellectual freedom, a wellspring of poetry, art, music, medicine, philosophy, mathematics, and technology, at a time when Christian Europe was fumbling through the Dark Ages. Many historians argue that Islamic peoples, having saved and then reintroduced the classics of Greek antiquity, were instrumental to the European Renaissance. There were huge centers of learning across the Islamic world that welcomed all knowledge, such as the House of Knowledge in Baghdad, which translated manuscripts from the far corners of the globe and was considered the richest center for intellectual growth in the world. In this age, religious tolerance was the mark of Islam. Islamist leaders, instead of spending their time censoring knowledge, amassed vast personal libraries. Al-Ma'mun, a Caliph of Baghdad, arranged for foreign rulers to pay tribute in the form of books from their libraries66 and is said to have paid its weight in gold for the translation of any book yet to grace his vast collection. But more recently, driven by religious fervor, many Islamic societies have followed the lead of their Christian predecessors, punishing intellectual curiosity with human slaughter.

How has this happened? Some scholars have pointed to economic privation, while others have pointed to lack of education—both hypotheses are not without holes. For instance, many suicide bombers, it turns out, emerge from the wealthy and educated classes.67 We turn then to the Koran and the multitude of verses that threaten unbelievers. For example: “They [unbelievers] shall be held up to shame in this world and sternly punished in the hereafter” (Koran 2:114); “Those who deny Our revelation We will burn in fire” (Koran 4:56).

But violence may ultimately be a less effective strategy than simply choking off the flow of information. An interesting comparison has been made between Arabia and Spain (a territory once dominated by Islamic rulers): the number of books that the whole Arabic world has translated into Arabic since the ninth century equals the number of books Spain translates into Spanish in one year.68 This deprivation has occurred while the uneducated Islamic masses are being funneled into the “fundamentalist machinery of the madrassas,” to borrow from neuroscientist and secular advocate Sam Harris.69 Suffice it to say, the flow of information to these schools is asthmatically narrow. Notably missing are the writings of the great free-thinkers of world history. In such an environment, where is one to turn for alternate perspectives?

Whether by interdiction or violence, it requires effort to limit the flow of knowledge and control the ideological landscape. But the potential benefits are immense, particularly in terms of controlling material resources. Following the patterns of dominant apes, men in positions of religious power have used the threat of a dominant male god (represented as the punishments of purgatory or hell) to trigger submissive responses and collect surrendered resources from a subordinate populace. For instance, lasting well into the sixteenth century, the Roman Catholic Church sold indulgences, payments made in exchange for remittance of sin, which were often paid to avoid hell or to lessen time in purgatory. This trade was by nature a corrupt enterprise, often serving personal gain or financing special projects such as the Crusades or the construction of lavish cathedrals. Perhaps the most extravagant of these was the Vatican, a gilded, frescoed castle that rivals the palaces of kings and sultans across the ages—built while pious Catholics around the globe lived in poverty.

Heavenly inducements have long been an established strategy of the Catholic Church for amassing power. Lands and riches have been historically ceded to the Church by those eager to secure a place in Heaven. Will Durant writes of how during the Middle Ages, secular landowners were required to pay tithes, a tenth of their income (or produce) to the local Church. These tithes were collected by priests whose job it was to “curse for his tithes,” or, to excommunicate anyone fabricating or evading his returns.70 Landowners were forced to will the Church money upon their death, and the drawing of all wills was decreed to be overseen by priests. Of the draw for such behaviors Durant writes, “Gifts or legacies to the Church were held to be the most dependable means of telescoping the pains of purgatory.”71 As a result of bartering with the souls of the populace, the clergy became fat, gorging on rich foods and drinking good wines. They also amassed property, and serfs—a kind of modified slave bound to serve the lord of the manor in his fields, forests, and mines. A single Cathedral, monastery, or nunnery might own thousands of manors. Durant describes the scope of wealth acquired by these means:

The bishop of Langres owned the whole county; the abbey of St. Martin of Tours ruled over 20,000 serfs; the Bishop of Bologna held 2000 manors; so did the abbey of Lorsch; the abbey of Las Huelgas, in Spain, held sixty-four townships.72

Thus the Catholic Church succeeded in manipulating fears of damnation to amass power and wealth around the globe at the expense of large masses of subordinated Church followers. I see the susceptibility to scams such as these to be evidence of cognitive impairment among the laity, with the cause being a canon that uses one evolved mechanism—submission—to circumvent another—cheater detection.

One would think that chicanery of this kind could only be successful among a populace of uninformed medieval minds. But today, American television teems with millionaire televangelists using high-pressure sales tactics to acquire profane fortunes, which they use to influence politicians and build multimillion-dollar churches on expansive compounds—churches that in America are not required to pay taxes. Using the direct exchange strategies of their medieval predecessors—money for good fortune, for health, for salvation—these men (and occasional women) coerce viewers into emptying their bank accounts with unabashed refrains like, “Jesus wants you to send in your money,” in the hope of bigger and better blessings to come. They stage healings where convulsing, babbling actors are cured instantly with the thrust of a hand. Many of these televangelists have amassed stunning fortunes—mansions with private air strips, expensive cars, wives bedecked with huge diamonds—off the grocery money of mesmerized grandmothers hoping for an easier life in the afterworld.

So it is that when religious submission is disassembled, its similarities to depressive symptomology are incontrovertible, with clear implications for impaired functioning, personal suffering, and danger to self—the marks of clinical pathology. But religions mask over the symptoms of depressive submission, in some cases purporting to exchange the resulting suffering for ecstatic union with God. This experience, touching as it does on our evolved desire to affiliate with dominant males, has a strong pull, and even the most extreme cases of abasement and self-injury can spread to pandemic proportions, such as with the ascetic practices of the Middle Ages. However, with knowledge now at our disposal to explain the evolutionary patterns in which our religious cultures are embedded, we can generate enough reflective distance to make healthier decisions about behaviors that generate self-harm or that serve despotic power structures, both recognizable consequences of religious submission.