Why Is God a Dominant Male?
We project our evolved minds onto the divine.
Posted Mar 08, 2015
The god of the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), along with gods of many other traditions, is described as possessing an array of humanly impossible powers. He is omnipotent, or all powerful. He is eternal, meaning that he never dies. He is immaterial, having no bodily form. And he is omniscient, all-knowing. And yet, despite all these powers, this god is described as a jealous god, one who demands obedience and submission from his subordinates, who fights rivals to his throne, and who shows an immense interest in territory.
Such concerns reconcile well with the evolutionary concerns of men, who, as primates bound to their biology, require territory for food, engage in war to secure territory, and compete for mates with other males so that they may launch their genes into future generations. But they do not reconcile well with an all-powerful, eternal being that needs neither food nor territory to survive. These irreconcilabilities demand some kind of explanation, and the greatest explanatory power may lie in the evolutionary psychology of humans.
Could it be that we have projected our own, evolved understanding of human hierarchies onto the divine? Other animals see the world through the rules of their own hierarchies. Cesar Millan, the world-renowned dog trainer, has achieved fame by capitalizing on this tendency in canines—he assumes the dominant position in the canine hierarchy in a manner that dog’s brains are wired to instinctively recognize. The behavior of chimpanzees, our closest relatives, also provides some revealing insights here. During tropical thunderstorms the sky emits deafening, fearsome crashes that send terrified chimpanzees scrambling for cover. In the midst of the barrage the dominant male may rush out and make dominance displays to the sky—hair on end, screaming, thrashing branches—as he does when striving to intimidate a rival male. Like chimpanzees, we have anthropomorphized thunder as a powerful male being in many of our religions. Zeus, for instance, was the dominant male god of thunder, and he used thunder, and great bolts of lightning, to terrorize and defeat his rivals.
The tendency to look into the ether and see ourselves has been carried forward to the god of the Abrahamic faiths, and so we have come to address this god by the ancient rules of the primate hierarchy, which linger largely unconsciously in our evolved minds. We lower ourselves to this god by kneeling or prostrating—which primates, including humans, do in submission displays to appear smaller and less threatening. We surrender sex to this god—through abstinence, pledges of virginity, and other rituals—as primates do for the dominant males of their hierarchies. We surrender food by making food offerings, or through fasting rituals—dominant individuals of many species require subordinates to surrender food. And we claim that this god spearheads military campaigns to establish new territories—powerful males often lead territorial conquests among humans and non-human primates alike.
But why make ourselves look smaller to show deference when size would be irrelevant to a being without physical form? Similarly, why would a god require food if he is not made of flesh and blood? Why God’s obsession with sex among his subordinates when an eternal god does not need to reproduce himself into the future? Why would God be concerned with territory when immaterial being wouldn’t require it to fulfill his destiny as men do? More basically, an eternal god wouldn’t need to pass on DNA in order to achieve immortality, and so gender for him would be irrelevant. God’s maleness, however, is taken for granted.
Most important among all of these behaviors, we see this god as a man of war—plainly, “The Lord is a man of war” (Exod. 15:3). In turn we seek to ally with him in battle - claiming acts of violence to be God’s work, that they are divinely ordered or inspired, or will win us a place next to him in heaven—and in the process we perpetuate great human suffering. For this reason alone, isn’t it time we start questioning the role of our evolved minds in our religions? To do so, we must first be honest about who we are and where we came from. Perhaps only then we may begin to devise a more humane set of spiritual ethics, and cease to inject the worst, most primitive parts of our evolved humanity into religion.
Hector Garcia’s forthcoming book, Alpha God: The Psychology of Religion Violence and Oppression, will be published March 10.