Alpha God: The Psychology of Religious Violence and Oppression

Alpha God: The Psychology of Religious Violence and Oppression

by Hector A. Garcia

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This book uses evolutionary psychology as a lens to explain religious violence and oppression. The author, a clinical psychologist, examines religious scriptures, rituals, and canon law, highlighting the many ways in which our evolutionary legacy has shaped the development of religion and continues to profoundly influence its expression. The book focuses on the image of God as the dominant male in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. This traditional God concept is seen as a reflection of the “dominant ape” paradigm so evident in the hierarchical social structures of primates, with whom we have a strong genetic connection.

The author describes the main features of male-dominated primate social hierarchies— specifically, the role of the alpha male as the protector of the group; his sexual dominance and use of violence and oppression to attain food, females, and territory; in-group altruism vs. out-group hostility (us vs. them); and displays of dominance and submission to establish roles within the social hierarchy. The parallels between these features of primate society and human religious rituals and concepts make it clear that religion, especially its oppressive and violent tendencies, is rooted in the deep evolutionary past.

This incisive analysis goes a long way toward explaining the historic and ongoing violence committed in the name of religion.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781633880214
Publisher: Prometheus Books
Publication date: 03/10/2015
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 287
Sales rank: 680,810
File size: 843 KB

About the Author

Hector A. Garcia, Psy.D., is an assistant professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio and a clinical psychologist at the Veterans Health Administration specializing in the treatment of combat-related posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He has published extensively on the treatment of PTSD in combat veterans. He has also published on the masculine identity in the aftermath of war, stress and rank in organizations, and the interplay between religious practice and psychopathology. 

Read an Excerpt

Alpha God

The Psychology of Religious Violence and Oppression

By Hector A. Garcia

Prometheus Books

Copyright © 2015 Prometheus Books
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-63388-021-4



If oxen and horses and lions had hands and were able to draw with their hands and do the same things as men, horses would draw the shapes of gods to look like horses and oxen to look like oxen, and each would have made the gods' bodies to have the same shapes as they themselves had.—Xenophanes (ca. 570–ca. 478 BCE)

What is God? Many would say that God is love, or God is beauty. For others, God is an immaterial being, the creator of the universe. God has been described as compassionate and merciful, as the ultimate moral authority, or the ultimate source of goodness in the world. The pious draw from this vision of God a sense of awe, purpose, hope, and empathy. From this vision, masses of people around the world convene around a shared sense of wonder, appreciation, and unity, and they cultivate between one another an environment of kindness, generosity, and support. This vision of God is indisputable, insofar as it forms the phenomenology of the religious worship of God.

But there is another vision of God that is just as real. The majority of the world's believers worship a god that is fearsome and male, and his portrayal demands reckoning. Scripture depicts this god as one who rains fury upon his enemies and slaughters the unfaithful. It also shows him policing the sex lives of his subordinates and obsessing over sexual fidelity. Extremists, drunk on this vision, steer airplanes into buildings or obliterate themselves in crowded marketplaces. They foment sexual shame and engage in genital mutilation, acid attacks, and so-called honor killings. They start inquisitions and witch hunts, religious wars and religious conquests. They seize ideological control and breed superstition, ignorance, and prejudice. And they also seek to enforce a prohibition against questioning God, leaving such inhumanities unexamined, sometimes for fear of the treatments just described.

Critically, we now live in an age in which religions clash with women's rights as gender equality strains against its margins, in which theocratic regimes are gaining control of nuclear arms, and in which dangerous fundamentalism is increasingly taking hold around the world. This is a crucial moment for us to force the wedge of inquiry, if only to better understand the means by which religion may be used to encourage what is worst—rather than what is best—in human nature.

We may begin by questioning whether there is something common to the perpetrators of the kinds of violence and oppression listed above. The seemingly obvious answer is that these acts are almost exclusively committed by men. In the rare instances where they are committed by women or children, the acts are almost always influenced or coerced by men. This is an important starting point. Since another common root to these acts is purported religiosity, a second key question becomes, is there something common to the vision of God behind them? Here we arrive at the crux of the matter: the common vision is that of God as man.

I argue here that God was created in the image of man. This argument is not new. The epigraph of this chapter would suggest that thinkers have made this connection since at least the time of the ancient Greeks. However, there are good reasons not only to emphasize that God was created in the image of man, rather than the other way around, but also to study the dominance characteristics portrayed in God—most notably because men of power have historically conflated themselves with God in order to secure more power and have used this power to enact further violence and oppression. This pattern has emerged again and again across religious history as men have summoned divine legitimacy to justify their worst impulses. God himself is frequently portrayed as engaging in violent acts, thus serving to validate the destructive actions of the powerful.

This is most evident among the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), whose scriptures all too frequently depict a despotic male god. The Abrahamic god is the most widely worshipped man-based god, with followers comprising over 50 percent of the world's religious practitioners. And certainly a tyrannical God is not unique to the Abrahamic traditions; many (even polytheistic) religions around the world have dominant male gods who go around behaving like dominant male humans. I will thus occasionally reference male gods from other religions to illustrate how consistently male-typical patterns of dominance traverse traditions of faith. Even so, the Abrahamic god will remain my focus here, if only because He is by far the most globally dominant.

To understand such a god, we must first understand the minds of men, for it is these minds that think up ways to oppress and kill. Arguably the best way to understand the ultimate basis for male violence and oppression is through the evolutionary sciences. Such disciplines reveal the ancient underlying motivations for violence and oppression, molded as they were by the process of natural selection. The patterns of behavior such motivations were passed on by our primate ancestors and are easily evidenced in living nonhuman primates—our closest living relatives. Despite his upright stance, his clothes, and his sometimes-good table manners, man rarely surpasses his most primal impulses. Accordingly, men often seek out dominance in the manner of male apes, using violence to obtain evolutionary rewards such as food, territory, and sex. Humankind may have managed to create things like tools, weapons, and religions, but we remain one species of great ape that emigrated from Africa.

This can be difficult for many people to hear because as humans we have a tendency to think of ourselves as unique and to hold ourselves above other species. But we have DNA like all other life-forms—which ultimately shapes or brains and influences the manner in which we think—and we share as much as 99 percent of our DNA with nonhuman primates. And like other animals, we are organic beings that live, eat, reproduce, and die. As such, we require things like food, sex, and territory to fulfill our organismic destinies. None of this should be surprising.

However, it may be surprising to realize that while the god of the Abrahamic religions has powers that humans do not, He remains unnecessarily preoccupied with what are ultimately very human, and very ape-like, concerns. God is portrayed as being omnipotent (possessing infinite power), omniscient (having infinite knowledge), omnipresent (present everywhere), immaterial (without bodily form), and eternal, meaning that he never dies. This raises the question—Why should such a God concern himself with such pedestrian pursuits as food, sex, and territory? Why demand food as a sacrificial offering or order the conquest of biblical lands if he has no need of either to survive and can create worlds by simply speaking them into being?

The answer is that God is an alpha male, a dominant ape. In other words, depictions of the Abrahamic god, and of male gods from religions around the world, reflect the essential concerns of our primate evolutionary past—namely securing and maintaining power, and using that power to exercise control over material and reproductive resources. Understanding God therefore requires an understanding of man's evolved legacy within primate social hierarchies; and understanding religious violence and oppression requires taking a careful look at how thoroughly we have projected our own psychology onto our vision of the sacred.

This book examines how God has been drawn in human form, complete with an ancient repertoire of behaviors inherited from our primate male ancestors. It examines how male primates struggle for dominance within social groups, using a variety of strategies—fear and aggression among them—to acquire rank status. Rank, in turn, typically confers rewards, which for males includes preferential access to resources such as food, females, and territory. Dominant apes and men have a long history of securing such biological treasure by perpetrating violence and oppression on lower-ranking members of their societies. Once we observe that God, too, is portrayed as having great interest in these kinds of resources, and as securing them through similar means, it becomes increasingly clear that He has emerged as neither more nor less than the highest-ranking male of all.

Thus this book aims to illuminate patterns of dominance behaviors in God, tracing them back to their origins in men, and illustrating them in extant nonhuman male primates—all to show how humans have created gods that are intuitive to their evolved psychology, and with such devastating consequences. To accomplish this I call upon scientific research in the fields of evolutionary biology and psychology, clinical psychology, primatology, and world history, as well as theoretical formulations that have yet to be tested empirically. It is a matter of no mean importance that we come to better understand our gods, for only in doing so can we hope to understand the role they play in rationalizing human violence and brutality.

It is important to point out that I neither make, nor intend, any overarching attack on religion. Rather, I make the argument that our evolutionary drives have limited the reach for goodness in religions because they—like our religions—evolved in a savage world where survival was tenuous, and where aggression promoted survival. Human potential is so vast, but we may have limited ourselves by the gods we created.

For those who may take offense at the very premise of this book, it may also be worth mentioning that I am not claiming that your god really is a dominant ape. In fact, I am arguing that in reality there is no supernatural being, or any kind of superordinate consciousness, out there that resembles men or apes, in neither form nor behavior. My own opinion is that if there is a higher power (and I have yet to see evidence that there is) it certainly doesn't resemble any of the obvious, simplistic, and species-centric characterizations that have been widely proposed throughout the history of religion. Rather, as I will attempt to show, such characterizations arise from our evolved psychology, which is strongly dedicated toward navigating interactions with other humans, particularly those with power—an ancient task that remains critical for our present-day survival. If I am right, then the deviant sides of God really implicate our own conceptual limitations and have little to bear on that "higher power," however defined.

I understand that the kinds of questions that I raise in this book can run the risk of being taken out of context and used, just as religion has been used, to justify out-group hatred, or violence, even worse; and this gives me pause. However, better understanding religious violence and oppression is so crucial to curbing the human suffering it causes, that the risk of asking provocative questions must be taken. To this end, we require a better understanding of what instinctive drives we, as creatures of biology, bring to religious belief and practice, for it is these drives that are ultimately behind every form of violence and oppression.


In order to take a more evolutionarily informed look at God, it is worth taking a bit of time to clarify a few terms and basic evolutionary ideas. First of all, what is dominance? And what does it mean to primates such as humans?

All great-ape species have male dominance hierarchies and there is a relative lack of female dominance hierarchies among the great apes. Males, with the notable exception of bonobos, typically dominate females. Dominance status is often associated with greater male violence; dominant chimpanzees, for example, show agonistic displays more often, start aggressive interactions more often, escalate aggression more often, and win aggressive interactions more often than their lower-ranking counterparts.

Humans, like other primates, for the greater part live in hierarchical societies. While the degree to which human societies are rank-stratified varies across cultures, there is rank structure even in relatively more egalitarian hunter-gatherer societies. Rank has important implications for behavior.

Anthropologists Joseph Henrich and Francisco Gil-White emphasize that high status involves a system of rewards in which males receive "preferential reproductive access to females, food, and spaces, as well as a disproportionate amount of grooming from others" (privileges of high status that will be explored throughout this book). The authors also note an important characteristic of human hierarchies, which is that rank status may be maintained through either "dominance (force or force threat)" or through "prestige (freely conferred deference)." In dominance hierarchies, status is reinforced with aggression and fear, and the lower-ranking typically avert eye contact, yield space, groom their superiors, and make other submissive gestures. Prestige, as described by the authors, is characterized by the relative absence of fear and is maintained by high-ranking individuals demonstrating merit, skill, wisdom, or persuasiveness. Rather than averting eye contact and seeking greater distance, lower-ranking individuals seek eye contact and proximity with prestigious individuals—often in order to gain valued information. In illustrating the difference between dominance and prestige, the authors evocatively offer the great paraplegic physicist Stephen Hawking as the exemplar of pure prestige, and the high-school bully as the exemplar of pure dominance.

In this book I will focus on dominance. As noted by Henrich and Gil-White, individuals may use both dominance and prestige to achieve and maintain status. With this in mind, I will infrequently reference prestige in male status as it occurs in men and in God, with the understanding that dominant individuals may vary their techniques to achieve status goals.

Even so, the majority of the book will narrow in on dominance behaviors in male apes, men, and the Abrahamic god, because He typically follows patterns of dominance rather than prestige, as described by Henrich and Gil-White. One can argue that the Abrahamic god, and perhaps particularly the figure of Jesus Christ in the Christian New Testament, also makes use of prestige as a strategy for achieving status; however, the Abrahamic god's use of dominance is robust, and the use of fear to maintain rank is widely documented. Since it is this use of dominance rather than prestige that most influences violence within these traditions, dominance takes center stage here. In particular, I will focus on four main components:

1. Intimidation—Dominant males use dominance displays to intimate greater size, whereas lower-ranking members demonstrate submission by intimating smaller size (e.g., shrinking down), averting eyes, or communicating emotions such as fear and humility (as opposed to anger and pride).

2. Territorial acquisition—Dominant males often control territory, which I define not only as tracts of earth but also as the control of resources within specific geographic boundaries. These resources have key implications for males' evolutionary fitness, most importantly food and females, both of which dominant males commandeer upon winning territory.

3. Sexual control—Following evolutionary drives, dominant males often monopolize sexual access to females. They will mate-guard and show great rage and sexual jealousy when their sexual claims are challenged. They often spend great energy attempting to stave off the sexual ambitions of their male rivals.

4. Violence—Dominant males will enact violence to establish and maintain rank status, and the resources associated with it. Sometimes this involves killing.

To begin to understand how such appetite-driven tactics might have become associated with our notion of the divine, it helps to understand how combative much of human history has been. Perhaps nowhere is that history more poignant than in the Middle East during the biblical age, when the turbulent forces of humanity were forging the identity of the Abrahamic god that we have today. In the history outlined below we may also begin to understand what the meteoric spread of a dominant male god owes to his intuitive appeal, particularly for primates whose minds, by way of biological evolution, come predisposed to fear, to submit to, and to follow dominant males.


History reveals in striking form how men have historically conflated themselves with God as a means to amplify power, and how male gods rise to totalitarian rule in the manner of men—through violence and killing. With a critical read of history, we are also able to account for the Abrahamic god's domineering temperament, which he appears to have inherited from effective warlords of the biblical age.


Excerpted from Alpha God by Hector A. Garcia. Copyright © 2015 Prometheus Books. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


NOTES, 253,
INDEX, 283,

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