God, Satan, and Our Moral Bias

Can science explain our moral bias toward God over Satan?

Posted Aug 02, 2015

"Ten Commandments - Civic Center Park - DSC01371" by Daderot--Wikimedia Commons
Source: "Ten Commandments - Civic Center Park - DSC01371" by Daderot--Wikimedia Commons

I recently watched a Fox News segment where Megyn Kelly interviewed Satanic Temple’s Lucien Greaves about his efforts to erect a statue of Baphomet—a goat- headed personification of Satan—on the Oklahoma state capitol grounds. Greaves stated that his intent was to provide a contrast to the Ten Commandments already erected there, and to protect the fact “that we live in a nation that respects plurality, a nation that refuses to allow a single viewpoint to co-opt the power and authority of government institutions.” In the segment, Kelly attempted to belittle Greaves and his beliefs, and argued for the legitimacy of the Ten Commandments over the statue of Baphomet, all while rolling her eyes, making faces, and drawing goat horn signs with her fingers.

Personally, I don’t expect much in the way of objectivity from Fox News, but I found the segment interesting because it demonstrates what a growing body of science is beginning to illuminate about our moral biases. One emergent idea is that we spent so much of our evolutionary history in small bands of hunter-gatherers that our brains remain predisposed to a certain tribalistic morality, or what researchers have termed parochial altruism—in other words, an ingrained, unconscious moral bias toward our in-group members (however insular that group may be), and against those we deem as outsiders.1,2 I have argued before that this moral blinder—this tendency to hold in-group members as inherently moral, good, or correct while holding out-group members as inherently immoral, evil, and mistaken—is among the most dangerous biases of humankind.  Not to mention incredibly hypocritical. Nonetheless, we consistently enact this bias and extend it to religion, considering our own religion to be righteous while another’s is blasphemous or worthy only of ridicule, and its adherents infidels or heretics.

The perfect illustration of this bias comes from the monument of contention itself—the Ten Commandments.  Take for example the seminal commandment, “Thou shalt not kill”. While intuitive and morally sensible as stated, this commandment really means Thou shall not kill members of the in-group, whereas members of the neighboring tribe are fair game.  Consider how many lives were taken during the Crusades or the Inquisition or any other of the religious wars fought over the centuries. More telling, the first thing Moses did when he descended from the mountain carrying those freshly inscribed tablets was to have three thousand people mercilessly slaughtered. Why? Because they were engaging in alternative religious practices—i.e., “sinning”. The same is true for Thou shalt not steal; the Bible spills over with references to raiding the neighboring tribes and appropriating all their material resources, typically while committing genocide in the process, all condoned by the Judeo-Christian god.

This is where moral bias in religion extends its reach. Among the pious, bias favoring the Judeo-Christian God over Satan (or Baphomet) is taken for granted. With God being the in-group’s headman among the vast tribe of believers, He is favored, and the male deity outside the in-group periphery is, well, demonized. However, some reflective distance should be applied here. Is this favoritism rational? Is it based on, say, a calculated history of behavior, weighted in the number of God’s deeds either for or against the interest of humankind? Or is it something more primal? Something reflexive that makes us turn inward to the tribe without thinking, as may well have benefitted the ancestors of a primeval past in which the greatest threat was the neighboring tribe?  

When the numbers are crunched the results are shocking. In his book Drunk with Blood: God’s Killing in the Bible3, Steve Wells adds up the killings attributed to God and those attributed to Satan: Through pestilence, plague, natural disasters, striking people down, et cetera, God is directly described as killing 2, 475, 636 people, often for capricious reasons such as burning incense or even questioning God’s killing. Satan, the goat-headed embodiment of all that is dark in the universe, is given credit for killing a paltry ten. When Wells estimates the likely size of towns or communities destroyed, it raises the number of God’s victims to more than 24 million, and bumps Satan to sixty.  Yet people like Kelly consider God unquestionably righteous and Satan the epitome of evil, with no apparent sense of the inherent hypocrisy.

To my mind, this is precisely why it is important to understand the deep evolutionary history of our moral biases; often it is only in studying our blind spots that we develop any sense that we have them.  And because they are so ancient, our biases tend not only to be tied to powerful, reactive emotions, but also resistant to corrective information. For these reasons, effortful focus is often required to push past the reflexive, insular identifications that are at the root of human conflict. In sheer practical terms, there should be no reason why human beings cannot cooperate on a global scale as one interconnected in-group that openly shares information, wealth, and technology, without bloodshed. The barrier is not a practical one; it is one that ties back to our evolved, tribalistic psychology and makes us quick to identify an enemy, too often spilling rivers of blood in the process.  

Adding to the fact that the Ten Commandments represent the quintessence of moral bias, the separation between Church and State is another important reason not to have religious monuments on public property. The “Founding Fathers” of America came from a part of the globe that had lived through centuries of religious violence and oppression (fueled by moral bias), and thus took great pains to erect the “wall” between Church and State.

Apart from all this, do we really want to erect a monument that forbids things like having a statue of the Buddha (false idols), or working on Sunday (keeping holy the Sabbath), or saying “Goddammit!” (taking the Lord’s name in vain)—all of which, according to the Bible, are punishable by death? 4 Surely if we were to follow these commandments as stated we would be forced to execute a large swath of the American populace.

Kelly’s mockery aside, Greaves’ efforts are commendable. Not because his “deity” has an exponentially better track record for non-violence, but because the Oklahoma legislature agreed to remove the statue of the Ten Commandments, which in turn satisfied Greaves enough to rescind his demands, all of which leaves us in a safer, more balanced position as a society than before.

It is interesting, if not even more commendable, that Greaves’ rescindment likely stems from the fact that the Satanic Temple is (at least partially) a farcical, atheistic organization aimed at using its goat-horned façade to counterbalance intrusions into government by the prevailing religious power structure. This is something that the producers at Fox were not apparently aware of at the time of the interview.   

1) J. Greene, Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them (New York: Penguin, 2013).

2) A.P. Fiske & T.S. Rai,   Virtuous Violence: Hurting and Killing to Create, Sustain, End,  and Honor Social Relationships (Cambridge: Cambridge, 2014).

3)  S. Wells, Drunk with Blood: God’s Killings in the Bible (SAB Books, 2010).

4) S. Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation (New York: Random House, 2006).