Alpha God: The Psychology of Religious Violence and Oppression - Hector A. Garcia 2015
The Fearsome Reputations of Apes, Men, and Gods
“The blow of a whip raises a welt, but the blow of the tongue crushes the bones.” —Ecclesiasticus 28:17
THE ORIGINS OF REPUTATION
Chimpanzees can drag, kick, hit, or jump on their opponents, breaking bones or causing internal bleeding. They can also bite with teeth that can puncture meat, rip off faces, clip off digits, or tear off genitalia. Often, being of lower rank means being the recipient of the largest share of violence of these kinds. As we have seen, the privilege of male dominance imparts great reward, notably more females and more food. But it also means not suffering the pains of being dominated.
Thus, while achieving dominance comes with many advantages, losing dominance is a dreaded affair. When not killed outright, a deposed alpha male is frequently beaten down by all those he once subordinated and is sometimes forced to the lowest rank position in the entire hierarchy. Occasionally these former alphas are forced to live on the group periphery where they are more vulnerable to attacks by outsiders. These patterns, so conspicuous among nonhuman primates, are just as evident in reviewing the fate of dominant men who fall in rank. Deposed male leaders have been historically exiled, tortured, or publicly executed (sometimes along with their entire family). The following are a few familiar examples: Julius Caesar (Rome), Nicolae Ceauşescu (Romania), Saddam Hussein (Iraq), and Moammar Gadhafi (Libya). Given the high costs of being deposed and the significant rewards of the alpha position, alpha males often have the greatest incentive of all to maintain dominance.
In this endeavor, posturing is an important tool. Like other primates, alpha male chimpanzees posture in a manner designed to inspire awe—bristling hair, baring teeth, screaming, swinging through branches, hurling rocks, smashing sticks, drumming on roots, and even bashing clangorously on empty kerosene cans stolen from primatologists’ camps.1 These displays are by nature public, signifying dominance rank to the group at large and reminding subordinates of expected behaviors such as submission, appeasement, loyalty, and surrendering resources. If the alpha's displays are sufficiently intimidating, they may amplify the perceived cost of challenging him. In short, displays of dominance are strategies that serve to keep the power of the alpha fresh in the minds of his group members.
Here, the phenomenon in chimpanzees is described by two eminent primatologists, Richard Wrangham and Dale Peterson:
(Nervous alpha males get up early, and often wake others in their overeager charging displays.) And all these behaviors come not from a drive to be violent for its own sake, but from a set of emotions that, when people show them, are labeled “pride” or, more negatively, “arrogance.”2
The key insight here is that dominance displays include information related to an immense struggle for survival in a complex social environment. Being known for one's ferocity is a vital tool for maintaining dominance. Posturing, bristling, and thrashing kerosene cans are all behaviors employed to build a male's reputation and are therefore practiced with great intensity.
A reputation for dominance involves more than just posturing. It may also be maintained by random acts of unprovoked aggression. At other times, aggression is not random but reactionary. If an alpha perceives a challenge to his authority—or even a hint of challenge—he is likely to attack the offender and quickly put him in his place. Other group members, witnessing the violence, are reminded of the costs of insubordination. In cases where an alliance rises against the alpha, the allies of would-be usurpers will also be attacked as punishment.3 Such attacks not only set the precedent that insubordination will not be tolerated but also that allying against the alpha will be met with violent retribution. Once this perception is established, it sits in the memory of other group members, and the alpha wins a reputation as one that crushes not only insubordination but also any alliances formed against him. This is of particular importance because it is often coalitions that accomplish the violent dethroning of alphas.
The pressure to establish dominance is not always a function of being male. In some instances female competition is also defined by violence. Female macaque monkeys, for example, are known for their aggression. They are also unique among primates in that they engage in line warfare with females from other groups. These wars are fought with exceeding ferocity and for a good reason. Dario Maestripieri discusses potential privileges and costs of warfare:
When individuals or groups meet and fight for the first time, they are fighting not for a single meal, but for power, and power is not about this or that meal, but potentially every other meal for the rest of their lives.4
The point I wish to emphasize here is that the outcome of status competition has a lasting impact on social animals that have a keen memory of where other members lie on the social hierarchy and of the implicit rules of their respective positions. In evolutionary terms, reputation can be operationalized as the memory of rank status. Maestripieri calls attention to the fact that the implications of competition are particularly enduring in societies in which dominance hierarchies are stable.5
Some human hierarchies are stable and last for many generations, while some are constantly shifting. Even so, the play for dominance is ubiquitous; to win or maintain dominance, humans posture and attack on playgrounds, in prisons, on sports fields, in urban neighborhoods, in the corporate world, in academia, in religion, and in nearly every other social venue imaginable. As in nonhuman primates, posturing is witnessed by other humans who respond either by showing deference or by challenging the aggressor for position.
But while human and nonhuman primates use physical displays of power to establish reputation, humans also use their evolved capacity6 for language. It follows then that humans devote a great deal of language to convey information about things like competition, rank status, and power. Language operates in a unique fashion because it allows the communication of social information to span time and geographic space, thus dispersing across larger networks in a more enduring way. The written word lengthens the reach of reputation even further still, extending its prerogatives and warnings into law and religious canon and into the minds of those who would abide by them. Because of its implications for survival and reproduction, humans find reputations immensely important, particularly as social animals whose survival is highly dependent on their relationships to others.
If humans are indeed the most dangerous animals, as philosopher David Livingston Smith suggests,7 then it is thanks to the behaviors of men. With intellect and weapons, men have taken violent competition to the most stunning extremes. The history of warfare reveals eons of killing, torturing, and psychologically terrorizing rivals in huge numbers, utilizing means so creatively horrific as to truly boggle the mind. If we ever wish to understand these horrors of war, our scrutiny must be brought to bear on the psychology of male reputation (variously represented as pride, honor, face, dignity, respect, reverence, veneration, etc.). Following their primate ancestors, the reputations of men often relate to fitness concerns such as rank, fighting ability, territory controlled, and mate competition.
Like chimpanzees, men give nonverbal displays to show dominance. Men in bars, for example, may wear muscle shirts, talk loudly, and make large gestures, all in an effort to send dominance signals to other men. But language opens up wider channels of conveying status. Perhaps the most unambiguous examples are found in the titles of dominant men. The names of powerful male conquerors who reigned across world history convey extensive information about dominance rank and fighting ability. Alexander the Great (king of Macedon), for instance, was given this name not because he was a great dancer but a great conqueror. Many other designations leave less to the imagination: Ivan the Terrible (czar of Russia), Ismail the Bloodthirsty (of Morocco), Vlad the Impaler (of Romania), Alfonso the Battler (King Alfonso I of Aragon), or Nicolas the Bloody (Czar Nicholas II of Russia). Many dominant male leaders have earned names like the Brave: Alfonso III and IV of Portugal, Selim I of the Ottoman Empire; or the Conqueror: Alfonso I of Portugal, James I of Aragon, William I of England, and the entire Spanish military in the campaigns of the “New World.” Names like these reflect violent reputations, and they perpetuate such reputations across time.
The titles of dominant men may also convey territorial dominion. The Romans started the precedent of awarding names (known as a victory titles) based on the territories a particular dominant male conquered. For instance the title of Scipio Africanus was awarded to the Roman general Scipio after he defeated Hannibal to gain control over Carthage. Other Roman victory titles include Numidicus (“the Numidian”), Isauricus (“the Isaurian”), Creticus (“the Cretan”), Gothicus (“the Goth”), Germanicus (“the German”) and Parthicus (“the Parthian”). Victory titles can also convey the domination of people within a territory; for example, the title awarded to Charlemagne, the king of the Franks, was Dominator Saxonorum (Dominator of the Saxons).
Importantly, earning violent reputations conveys fitness benefits. As one example, Ismail the Bloodthirsty is reported to have kept 500 concubines and sired 888 children. Now, because reputations have such great implications for survival and because natural selection has engineered males to engage in violent mate competition, imagine the penalty for walking up to Ismail and calling him a “pussy” in front of his subjects. His reputed thirst for blood would be quenched from the neck of your decapitated body for everyone to witness. Slights to a man's reputation for dominance tend to bring about violence, if, that is, the particular male in question has the power to maintain his reputation through violence.
The value of reputation is equally evident in contemporary men. In North Korea, defaming the image or reputation of the cult leader Kim Jong Il has resulted in imprisonment or execution. Interestingly tied to inclusive fitness, in the North Korean system, punishment extends down genetic lines, meaning that children of prisoners inherit the prisoner status of their parents.8 Similarly, if someone slanders the king of Jordan, they can be imprisoned and forced to endure three years of hard labor. Recent arrests have been made for this offense.9 In Laura Betzig's study sample, Samoans who disrespected the king were tied up in front of an oven—symbolizing that the offenders were about to be roasted like pigs—and forced to eat human feces, ostensibly a habit of pigs (infrahumanization). These punishments were documented in court ledgers as recently as 1981.10 Regarding the reputations of everyday men, Canadian evolutionary psychologists Martin Daly and Margo Wilson have explained:
A seemingly minor affront is not merely a “stimulus” to action, isolated in time and space. It must be understood within a larger social context of reputations, face, social status, and enduring relationships. Men are known by their fellows as “the sort who can be pushed around” and “the sort who won't take any shit,” as people whose word means action and people who are full of hot air, as guys whose girlfriends you can chat up with impunity or guys you don't want to mess with. In most social milieus, a man's reputation depends in part upon the maintenance of a credible threat to violence.11
Revenge is one way that threats are kept credible. In many cultures, men are expected to seek revenge if wronged or threatened, and revenge itself is awarded with honor, prestige, and power. On the other hand, not seeking revenge may be viewed as disdainful inaction, something that creates shame, disgrace, and a reputation for weakness. And the consequences are not only in the judgments of others; having a reputation for weakness can serve as an invitation to attack—a rule that men and other male primates understand well. Because these punishments exist for not seeking revenge, males are often trapped in endless blood feuds, where one act of retaliation is recompensed with another. These phenomena have been studied extensively, particularly in so-called honor cultures, cultures that place considerable emphasis on a man's honor. Historically, the American South supported a culture in which duels were fought to the death by men in the defense of honor. Research finds that southern men to this day continue to endorse greater eagerness to use violence to redress injuries to honor than do control subjects from other regions.12
But the importance of reputation is not only restricted to a geographic region—it is notably tied to male status competition nearly everywhere men are found, from the very bottom to the very top of the socioeconomic strata. Steven Pinker points out that even famous American historical figures have engaged in deadly competitions for the sake of honor. Notably, Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton was killed in a pistol duel by Vice President Aaron Burr, and President Andrew Jackson won two such duels and attempted to start several others.13
There is also a rich literature on the honor cultures of inner-city gangs. Like the dominant leaders of history whose honor status and territories are captured by victory titles, gangs often bear the names of their gangland. Here sociologist Andrew Papachristos relays the words of “Melo,” one mid-ranking leader of the urban Two Six Nation gang of Chicago—“Two Six” refers to 26th Street, where the gang's territory originated:
This is our ’hood, see? We got no choice but to protect it. If we back down, we ain't shit. Everyone will think we ain't nothin’ but a bunch of punk ass bitches…. How can we call ourselves 2-6, if we don't got this corner? We always had this spot…. Without that, what do we got? Nothing. Might as well join the fucking Boy Scouts if you ain't got a spot.14
Melo's reference underscores an important quality of group affiliation—that groups operating on dominant-male ideologies assume rank among other groups in the manner of individual men among other men. Papachristos points out that as a result, “disputes often become intrinsically collective because the group regards an offense against a member as an offense against all, a sentiment that fosters in-group cohesion as a function of confronting external threats.”15
Writ large, what this essentially means is that we have gangs, tribes, states, and even nations operating on the geopolitical scene like individual men bent on protecting their reputation as badasses. Ideologies such as “national honor” easily arise from these male strategies, and behaviors within the global society of nations take on the same character as two men squaring off for violent competition. Nations, like individuals, may also become trapped by the potential consequences of backing down. German historian and political writer Heinrich von Treitschke (1843—1896) made this observation of nations using the idiom of male psychology: “When the name of the State is insulted, it is the duty of the State to demand satisfaction.” Without an immediate apology, which is one way to restore honor, war must follow, “no matter how trivial the occasion may appear, for the State must strain every nerve to preserve for itself the respect which it enjoys in the state system.”16
Von Treitschke's observations are recapitulated in the geopolitical arena. Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, for example, wrote in his memoirs, “No serious policymaker could allow himself to succumb to the fashionable debunking of ’prestige’ or ’honor’ or ’credibility,’”17 suggesting that honor was an important motivation for keeping the United States in the Vietnam War. Indeed, one week before sending hundreds of thousands of American troops to Vietnam, President Lyndon B. Johnson publicly announced, “Our national honor is at stake in Southeast Asia, and we are going to protect it.”18 The role of honor continues to be a focal concern in the politics of war-making. For example, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz pondered of the Iraq war, “I think that already…the magnitude of the crimes of that regime and those images of people pulling down a statue and celebrating the arrival of American troops is having a shaming effect throughout the region.”19
Recall that shame (as opposed to pride) has important implications for rank status. Insults to honor (which create shame) can incite violence, and military strategists value cultural knowledge for the map of potential social landmines it provides. But it should also be understood that although insults to male honor can theoretically take many forms, they almost invariably flow through existing Darwinian channels. For instance, historian Bertram Wyatt-Brown points out that the video made of Saddam Hussein after his capture showing his beard being checked for lice was a deliberate attempt to show him dishonored in a culture where even lightly touching a man's beard is considered a severe insult (something we have discussed).20 Surely the video incensed the Baʿathist, Sunni, and foreign Islamists who saw it and incited them to retaliate with violence. Further, Wyatt-Brown argues that when US Ambassador Paul Bremer dismantled the Iraqi Army and the Baʿathist bureaucracy, these actions had the effect of dishonoring the men of Iraq by removing their ability to protect their women:
On another level, Bremer had not only humiliated considerable numbers of men but also denied them the ability to shield their women from the possibility and infamy of assault and rape. Protection of women's honor, ird, inflames Iraqi males to near obsession. That is because in Middle Eastern cultures women are judged the very center of male ownership rights. Whether true or not, rumors that American soldiers take Iraqi women into their tanks and Humvees for lovemaking or rapes are pervasive in Baghdad. Whoever the rapist may be, to dishonor the woman in that fashion is to disgrace her and her kindred. In much of the region, to restore family honor, relatives feel required to kill the victim of rape, no matter what extenuating circumstances there might be.21
Wyatt-Brown further discusses how, two months before the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, Arab viewers faxed the Qatari television host al-Qassem the following opinion of Osama bin Laden: “In light of the terrible Arab surrender and self-abasement to America and Israel, many of the Arabs unite around this man, who pacifies their rage and restores some of their trampled honor, their lost political, economic, and cultural honor.”22 Wyatt-Brown also claims that when the United States withdrew from Islamic Somalia, it gave courage to terrorists (recall here the strategic risk of backing down). About this, bin Laden declared, “We found [the Americans] had no power worthy of mention…. America exited dragging its tails [sic] in failure, defeat, and ruin, caring for nothing.”23
President George W. Bush (who claimed that God told him to invade Iraq) called the Iraqi campaign a “crusade.” Recalling the bloodshed, rape, and tyranny of the actual Crusades, this was a slap in the face to many in the Islamic world. Bin Laden responded in turn by attacking honor (italic mine): “If the Americans refuse to listen to our advice…then be aware that you will lose this Crusade Bush began, just like the other previous Crusades in which you were humiliated by the hands of the Mujahideen, fleeing to your home in great silence and disgrace.”24
With minimal effort, we could extract a litany of similar allusions to shame and honor from the rhetoric of nations. However, it might better benefit our understanding to listen for the expressions of honor as reiterated across the canons of religion. Just as men recognize and value “national honor” and are willing to fight to defend it, men will also fight for the masculinized honor of their religions.
God is portrayed as having concern for his fearsome reputation and that concern follows the pattern of male primates. Violence committed in defense of God's reputation (variously expressed as his name, honor, respect, reverence, veneration, etc.) often follows primate patterns of revenge, sexual control, and rank-maintenance—although an omnipotent, everlasting being should logically show no personal interest in any of these fitness-related concerns. Further, just as powerful men have dictated that any criticism against them shall be punished, religions have created proscriptions against criticizing God, and such rules have been enforced with savage violence.
One means of ensuring the legitimacy of God's position of power has been to forbid the questioning of religious doctrines that support it. Because our brains evolved in social environments that necessitated acquiescing to dominant males, often the fear and respect that motivate not questioning are experienced so automatically that understanding why requires making the natural seem strange. For example, Richard Dawkins has argued:
A widespread assumption, which nearly everybody in our society accepts—the non-religious included—is that religious faith is especially vulnerable to offence and should be protected by an abnormally thick wall of respect, in a different class from the respect that any human being should pay to any other.25
This is a brilliant point. Often respect for religion means never questioning its tenets, but there are good reasons to subject religion to the same scrutiny as any other human enterprise. Given the propensity of religions to engender violence, not only is there no rational reason why we shouldn't discuss religion, but such discussions are our moral obligation. I would add, however, that there is indeed a class of respect similar to that paid religion, and that is the respect paid to powerful men, around whom there are Dawkins's “abnormally thick walls.” Apart from the fact that exploring religion threatens to expose certain unpleasant existential realities, it also touches upon our evolved psychology in which fear of and respect for powerful males are deeply embedded. And fear, respect, and caution have much to do with upholding the reputation of God, much as they do the reputations of men.
Like men, God shows concern that his reputation for violence is spread across his land, and he builds his reputation for greatness in the manner of dominant men such as Peter the Great, or Alexander the Great, or any of the others—through killing:
For I will at this time send all my plagues upon thine heart, and upon thy servants, and upon thy people; that thou mayest know that there is none like me in all the earth. For now I will stretch out my hand, that I may smite thee and thy people with pestilence; and thou shalt be cut off from the earth. And in very deed for this cause have I raised thee up, for to shew in thee my power; and that my name may be declared throughout all the earth. (Exod. 9:14—16)
Like men, God is exceedingly intolerant of threats to his reputation, most seminally in the third commandment: “Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain; for the LORD will not hold him guiltless that taketh His name in vain.” (Exod. 20:7). Words spoken against God (or disrespecting, slighting, or otherwise not showing proper reverence) are thereafter forbidden and considered a crime known as blasphemy. This crime is also punishable by death. One biblical passage recounts a fight between two men in which one of them blasphemes, “And the Israelitish woman's son blasphemed the name of the Lord, and cursed” (Lev. 24:11). The blasphemer was brought to Moses, whose task it was to reveal to the people what God wished them to do about the transgression. God commanded Moses to have the people of the camp bash the blasphemer's head in with stones:
The Lord spake unto Moses, saying bring for him that hath cursed without the camp; and let all that heard him lay their hands upon his head, and let all the congregation stone him…he that blasphemeth the name of the Lord, he shall surely be put to death. (Lev. 24:13—16).
For the sake of reputation, the God of the Old Testament has also been known to kill children. Here, his concern over reputation is richly embedded within several other evolutionary scripts. As the story goes, David killed Uriah in order to win sexual access to Uriah's wife. This was a greedy move of which God, being a dominant male, did not approve. In response he kills the child David had with Uriah's widow. It is noteworthy that God didn't seem to have a problem with David killing Uriah so much as David taking Uriah's wife and reproducing with her. Dominant males often work to contain the sexual ambitions of their subordinates. It is telling that, when the prophet Nathan goes to tell David what God will do to him for threatening his reputation, he says:
[B]ecause by this deed you have given occasion to the enemies of the LORD to blaspheme, the child also that is born to you shall surely die. So Nathan went to his house. Then the LORD struck the child that Uriah's widow bore to David, so that he was very sick. David therefore inquired of God for the child; and David fasted and went and lay all night on the ground…. Then it happened on the seventh day that the child died. (2 Sam. 12:14—18)
Notably, David's first impulse was to demonstrate subordination by surrendering food resources to God. In the end, God kills David's child with sickness, thus punishing David for reproducing with his stolen female. This shows what we have discussed about how dominant males will commit infanticide against the offspring of rival males. But also of great concern is the fact that God took such a brutal step lest David's actions cause his name to be blasphemed by his enemies. Apes and men both turn aggressive when aid is given to rivals, and men become violent when aid takes the form of defamation. Here God does as well and in effect kills a child to protect his fearsome reputation. All this killing boils down to the fact that this concept of blasphemy, in the end, reflects that enduring male primate concern over dominance reputation, projected onto a dominant male god.
Christ was also mindful of male reputation. For example, he is purported to have returned sight to a blind man, after which the Pharisees began to challenge his reputation, claiming that his healing was conducted using the power of Beelzebub, the ruler of demons. Christ responded with a threat in turn:
Therefore I say to you, any sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven men, but blasphemy against the Spirit shall not be forgiven. And whoever shall speak a word against the Son of Man, it shall be forgiven him; but whoever shall speak against the Holy Spirit, it shall not be forgiven him, either in this age, or in the age to come (Matt.12:31—32).
The Pharisees were challenging the very legitimacy of Christ's ministry by accusing his work of being the design of Satan, a charge that could not be forgiven. Given the future described in the book of Revelations, one can only suppose that “the age to come” is a world ablaze with retaliatory fury. Whether or not Christ (or legends of Christ) meant these things will be forever left to speculation. What is certain is that the man portrayed as giving these admonishments knew the importance of reputation and was ready to defend it.
Among dominant kings and their servants there is disproportionate value placed on the honor of those possessing high rank—thus Kim Jong Il was not executed for slander, the Samoan kings were not required to eat feces, etc. This disparity is also conspicuously described in religious doctrine. For instance, inspired by the passage above from Matthew, Thomas Aquinas took the liberty of projecting the concerns of man onto God by declaring that a verbal slight against God is a more grievous crime than murdering another human. He argues, “It is clear that blasphemy, which is a sin committed directly against God, is graver than murder, which is a sin against one's neighbor.”26 God's immaterial reputation takes on a value greater than human life.
Although the notion of divine retribution has been a reliable Christian fallback over time, with Judgment Day an ever-present threat to those who might ignore the demands of faith, Christians of certain eras did not abstain from taking punishment for blasphemy into their own hands. The Spanish Inquisition was infamous for torturing blasphemers with an expansive toolset of sadistic devices. It was not unheard of to cut out the tongue of blasphemers or to pierce the tongue with a steel rod. Often blasphemers were exiled or jailed. Scourging, a practice of publicly beating blasphemers with a multi-thong whip, was common. Some Jews who dared to blaspheme were forced to wear bridles,27 something akin to the punishment of the Samoans, except that blaspheming Jews were made figurative beasts of burden rather than pigs. A long history of execution for blasphemy is also recorded across Christendom. Britain's last such execution took place in 1697, when twenty-year-old Thomas Aikenhead was killed for denying the truth of the Old Testament and questioning Christ's miracles.28
Once again, the manner in which we view God as experiencing pride, craving respect, or being jealous of respect paid to others rests on our evolved psychology and is based on competitions among men. This may explain why religions have created rival figureheads to represent rivaling ideologies (e.g., God and Satan)—so that people can understand abstract religious ideals using psychology already designed to understand rivalling men. Such ideals without archetypal figures to represent them are difficult to understand and do not evoke the same emotional resonance—amorphous concepts require being congealed into human form. Yahweh, like a headman of a Judaic tribe, was known to have numerous male rivals, such as Baal, Chemosh, Astarte, Milcom, and many of the gods of Egypt. In establishing God's supremacy some have claimed that these figures are only “empty idols,” rather than gods. However they are defined clearly as other gods throughout the Bible, and as gods they are rivals, as threatening to God, and possibly also God's people, as the endless succession of male threats across human evolutionary history. Yahweh therefore defends his reputation against these archetypal enemies, and in the manner of men, he goes to great lengths to assure no other gods receive respect, honor, worship, or recognition from his subordinates.
Jews and Christians are not alone in creating honor cultures for God. With Islam's Judaic origins, it follows that we also witness feverish efforts to protect God's reputation in its religious doctrine. However, in the Koran there is no specific prescription for humans to punish blasphemers. Allah is described as punishing blasphemy himself:
But indeed they uttered blasphemy…. If they repent, it will be best for them; but if they turn back (to their evil ways), Allah will punish them with a grievous penalty in this life and in the Hereafter. (Koran 9:74)
It is important to note, however, that tolerance of dissenting perspectives is actually advised in the Koran in a manner that contrasts sharply with the reactionary behaviors of some of the more extremist Muslims of the world today:
Bear, then, with patience, all that they say, and celebrate the praises of thy Lord, before the rising of the sun and before (its) setting. (Koran 50:39)
Sharia law—a set of precepts inspired by the Koran (about which there are many diverging interpretations across Islam)—is another story; it awards Muslims the authority to flog, amputate, behead, or hang blasphemers. Armed with Sharia law, certain Islamist zealots go about acting as though their God's reputation requires as fearful of a defense as that of a mortal man vulnerable to physical attack. They defend Allah's reputation by killing those they interpret as disrespecting him. In the year this book was written, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and other countries continue to allow the killing of blasphemers, some under Sharia law and some, like Pakistan, following actual penal codes based on Sharia law. The manner in which blasphemy is interpreted in modern Islam has come to resemble the witch hunts of Christian medieval Europe. There are numerous examples that astound the rational mind.
In 2007, for example, a British schoolteacher in Sudan, Gillian Gibbons, was imprisoned for the infamous teddy bear blasphemy case. Her crime was allegedly to allow her class to name a teddy bear “Muhammad,” which incensed Islamic zealots in Sudan. A hoard of angry protestors ten thousand strong flooded the streets of Khartoum, many of them brandishing swords and machetes, demanding Gibbon's execution.29 Lucky for her, the protestors didn't have their way and Gibbons got away with a brief jail sentence before getting deported. Unfortunately, there have been countless lives taken throughout the Islamic world for allegedly insulting God. Many of the charges turn out to be false—for example, it was later discovered that the teddy was actually named after a student in Gibbon's class rather than the prophet Muhammad.
Often, rampaging mobs indeed get their way. When the zealot Florida pastor Terry Jones taunted Muslims by burning a copy of the Koran, a mob attacked a United Nations compound in Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan, killing seven UN employees. Violent protests followed in Kandahar, leaving nine dead and over eighty others injured.30 The pointless murder of the UN employees who had nothing to do with this largely insignificant Florida man illustrates the darkly irrational side of religious belief. Further, like the God described by Thomas Aquinas, Allah's reputation is also measured in human lives.
In February 2012, several copies of the Koran were accidentally incinerated by NATO officials at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. Incensed Muslims soon began rioting, burning, and killing, and in the end, thirty Afghanis and four American soldiers lay dead.31 One protestor outside the gate of the air base told reporters, “They have burned our Holy Korans…. This means they burned our faith, our honor and our lives.”32 One month later a US Soldier wandered off base into a village in Kandahar and murdered sixteen innocent civilians in cold blood, including nine children. By comparison, the national response to this senseless mass killing was tepid at best. Mullah Khaliq Dad, a member of the council in charge of the investigation, was asked why Afghan streets were not ablaze with fires and revenge killings as they were when the Korans were burnt one month prior. Seemingly incredulous he responded, “How can you compare the dishonoring of the Holy Koran with the martyrdom of innocent civilians? The whole goal of our life is religion.”33 Reactions to the name of a dominant male (as in the teddy bear incident) and his edicts (as in the Koran) strongly suggest religions are honor cultures, much like in the streets of Chicago, the American South, or the rainforests of Gombe.
In part because honor is tightly interwoven with religious sentiment, fighting jihad has a strong pull for many Muslim youth. Indeed, many Islamist leaders teach that jihad is the only way to achieve honor and dignity. There have been obvious parallels in Christian history, times when killing or dying in the name of Christ brought high honor, particularly in the age of the Crusades. But modern-day Islam stands apart from the other Abrahamic faiths for remaining so apparently beholden to medieval ideologies of this kind. With honor killings snuffing out the lives of women for the sake of their offended husbands, brothers, or fathers, with raging mobs willing to kill over stuffed animals, and with suicide bombers praised for returning honor to their Muslim survivors, we are left to conclude that male dignity among many Muslims is exquisitely fragile, as is the projected male dignity of Islam.
But extremist sentiment also emerges from contemporary Christian mouths, many of whom also appear to give voice to the most primitive of urges. The American attorney and political commentator Ann Coulter infamously wrote in response to 9/11:
We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity. We weren't punctilious about locating and punishing only Hitler and his top officers. We carpet-bombed German cities; we killed civilians. That's war. And this is war.34
Ann Coulter's response mirrors that of many other Christian thinkers, and illustrates that at times women can adopt male-typical strategies of revenge—after all, such strategies work for female macaques. The only problem is that, in the long term, reputational arms races tend to escalate rapidly and end slowly. As one example, the contest over honor has kept Islam and Christianity at odds with one another for centuries, and has written a long history of despotic behaviors between them.
It would be an oversimplification, however, to ignore the fact that beyond needing violent reputations, dominant males are also required to build reputations for trustworthiness and cooperation if they are to retain power over time. This is seen among nonhuman primates—alpha male chimpanzees, for instance, may be punished en masse by their subordinates for using too much violence.35 Even despotic men may develop reputations for cooperation, and in addition to earning names like the Bloodthirsty and the Impaler, men have also won names like the Fair (e.g., Charles IV of France, Donald III of Scotland, Ivan II of Russia) or the Just (e.g., James II of Aragon, Louis VIII of France). Whether or not these men deserved their titles is another matter.
We seem to have a similar investment in seeing God as a trustworthy cooperator. God is described as having the qualities humans most desire in an ally:
The Rock, his work is perfect, for all his ways are justice. A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and upright is he. (Deut. 32:4)
Islam takes a similar approach. God is described in the Koran as “oft-forgiving, most merciful, most gracious” innumerable times, and often these descriptors accompany his spoken name. Viewing God as just, fair, and righteous is a perspective taken across religious traditions that speaks to the rules of reciprocal altruism projected onto God.
Nevertheless, the pattern of violence surrounding God's reputation persists, and its human designs must be delineated. Not only are man's rules projected onto God, but powerful men have secured power by conflating God's reported concern with reputation with their own. For instance, “You shall not revile God, nor curse a ruler of your people” (Exod. 22:28). Men have engineered these conflations to address Darwinian imperatives such as dominance rank:
Let as many servants as are under the yoke count their own masters worthy of all honour, that the name of God and his doctrine be not blasphemed. (1 Tim. 6:1)
And sexual control:
Teach the young women to be…obedient to their own husbands, that the word of God be not blasphemed. (Titus 2:4—5)
And lest it be forgotten, all the killings committed to defend God's name were conducted by men in the manner of men defending their own reputations. One can be sure that such killings reinforced the power and rank positions of men, along with their own fearsome reputations, and secured for them other evolutionary interests.
Often the religious and nonreligious alike are shocked at the atrocities committed in defense of God's name, and the shock is riddled with befuddlement at how capricious, senseless, and anachronistic such acts of violence are in the modern age. Through evolutionary science we can gain an understanding of God's overzealous concern with reputation and how it is based on an ancient legacy of primate-male mate competition. We can also begin to grasp the minds of men who are ready to kill to defend his honor and who proscribe blasphemy upon pain of death. In order to curb religious violence committed in defense of God's name, we must not grovel to male dominance, but question its place in our religions and thoughtfully dictate its boundaries.