Monthly Archives: June 2015

An Evolutionary Perspective on Religious Violence.

Kenneth W. Krause is a contributing editor and “Science Watch” columnist for the Skeptical Inquirer.  Formerly a contributing editor and books columnist for the Humanist, Kenneth contributes regularly to Skeptic as well.  He may be contacted at

Following several recent episodes of well-publicized Islamic violence, I’m reminded of an old and, for many, uncomfortable question.  Among ideologies, is monotheism—its Abrahamic forms in particular—especially or even uniquely capable of inspiring hostility?   Was Sigmund Freud, for example, justified in 1939 to insist that “religious intolerance was inevitably born with the belief in one God” (Freud 1967)?  And was his Jungian counterpart, James Hillman, correct to later suggest that “because a monotheistic psychology must be dedicated to unity, its psychopathology is intolerance of difference” (Hillman 2005)?

Anthropologist David Eller characterizes monotheism as a dualistic, good versus evil attitude that not only “builds conflict into the very fabric of the cosmic system” by crafting two “irrevocably antagonistic” domains “with the ever-present potential for actual conflict and violence,” but also “breeds and demands a fervor of belief that makes persecution seem necessary and valuable” (Eller 2010).  Rodney Stark, co-director at Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion, agrees.  Committed to a “doctrine of exclusive religious truth,” he argues, particularistic traditions “always contain the potential for dangerous conflicts because theological disagreements seem inevitable.”  Innovative heresy naturally arises from the religious person’s desire to comprehend scripture thought to be inspired by the all-powerful and “one true god.”  As such, Stark finds, “the decisive factor governing religious hatred and conflict is whether, and to what degree, religious disagreement—pluralism, if you will—is tolerated” (Stark 2014).

Those who judge these commentators correct might wonder as well how deeply monotheism and its violent tendencies are rooted in the human psyche.  Can the relationship between man, the Abrahamic religions, and conflict be explained, or at least more fully illuminated, by evolutionary science?  Author and psychiatrist Hector Garcia seems to think so.

The God of Abraham was created not only in the image of man, says Garcia, but far more revealingly in the images of alpha-male humans and their non-human primate forebears.  It is no accident, he continues, that the majority of all religionists worship a god who is “fearsome and male,” who “demands reckoning” and “rains fury upon His enemies and slaughters the unfaithful,” and who is portrayed in the holy texts as “policing the sex lives of His subordinates and obsessing over sexual infidelity” (Garcia 2015).

No more an accident than the evolutionary processes of natural selection and differential reproduction.  Why would an eternal, non-material, and all-powerful divinity like Yahweh, Allah, or Christ, Garcia asks, preoccupy himself with “what are ultimately very human, and very apelike” concerns?  That such a god would ever need to assert and maintain dominance by threat or physical aggression, for example, or to use violence “to obtain evolutionary rewards such as food, territory, and sex,” seems incomprehensible.

That is, until one recognizes the Abrahamic gods as the highest-ranking alpha-male apes of all time.  In that light, these divinities “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.”  In other words, to help them cope during a particularly brutal era, the male authors of the Abrahamic texts fashioned a god “intuitive to their evolved psychology,” and, as history tends to demonstrate, “with devastating consequences.”

Rules of reciprocity govern the social lives of non-human primates (which scientists routinely study as surrogates for the ancestors of modern humans).  When fights break out among chimpanzees, for instance, those who have previously received help from the victim are much more likely than others to answer his calls.  And apes that are called but fail to respond are far more likely to be ignored or even attacked rather than helped if and when they plead for assistance during future altercations.  Dominant males also rely on alliances to maintain rank and will punish subordinates that so much as groom or share food with their rivals.  In fact, many researchers calculate that the most common intra-society cause of ape aggression is the perceived infraction of social rules—many of which administer reciprocity and maintain alliances.

Similar to their primate ancestors, men have long sought alliances with their dominant alpha-gods.  Extreme examples abound in our sacred texts.  In Genesis 22:1-19, Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac, his own son, demonstrates his unflinching submissiveness to God, who “reciprocates in decidedly evolutionary terms,” according to Garcia, by offering Abraham and his descendants the ultimate ally in war.  Similarly, In Judges 11:30-56, Jephthah sacrifices his daughter as “burnt offering” to Yahweh for help in battle against the Ammonites.

But gods have rivals too; and strangely—except from an evolutionary perspective—so do supposedly omnipotent gods.  Created by dominant men, these divinities are expressly jealous.  And like their primate forebears, such gods build and enforce alliances with their followers against all divine rivals.  As Exodus 22.20 warns, “He who sacrifices to any god, except to the LORD only, he shall be utterly destroyed.”  But as an earthly extension of loyalty, God requires more practical action as well.  Muslims, for example, are expected to “fight those of the unbelievers who are near to you and let them find in you hardness.” (Sura 9:123).

Thus, monotheism not only establishes in- and out-groups with evolutionary efficiency, it also intensifies and legitimizes them.  The foundational texts are capable of removing all compassion from the equation (“thine eye shall have no pity on them” [Deut. 7:16]), thus leaving all manner of brutality permissible (“strike off their heads and strike off every fingertip of them” [Sura 8:12]).  The first Crusade illustrates one bloody case in point.  Accounts of the Christian attack on Jerusalem in 1099 document the slaughter of nearly 70,000 Muslims.  The faithful reportedly burned the Jews, raped the women, and dashing their babies’ wailing heads against posts.  As a campaign waged against a religiously-defined “other,” this assault was then considered unequivocally righteous.

As a more sexually-oriented demonstration of the alpha-God parable, Garcia offers Catholic Spain’s late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century conquest of the Pueblo Indians in New Mexico.  Here, the incursion didn’t end with the violent acquisition of territory.  In striking resemblance to the belligerent behaviors of dominant male non-human primates, Christian occupiers emasculated their native male rivals, cloistered their women, and appropriated their mating opportunities.

The Spaniards began, of course, by claiming the natives’ territory in the name of Christ and God.  They destroyed their prisoners’ religious buildings and icons and, as many male animals do, marked their newly usurped grounds.  Catholic iconography was erected while the most powerful “medicine men” were persecuted and killed.  Conquistador and governor of the New Mexico province, Juan de Onate, neutralized all capable men over the age of twenty-five by hacking away one of their feet (Guitierrez 1991).

Meanwhile, the Franciscan friars were tasked with their captives’ spiritual conquest.  To install themselves as earthly dominant males, the friars undermined the existing male rank structure through public humiliation.  Native sons were forced to watch helplessly as the Franciscans literally seized, twisted, and in some cases tore away their fathers’ penises and testicles, rendering them both socially submissive and sexually impotent.  “Indian men were to sexually acquiesce to Christ, the dominant male archetype,” says Garcia, “and the Franciscans exercised extreme brutality to accomplish such subservience, to include attacking genitalia in the style of male apes and monkeys.”

The friars hoarded the native women into cloisters, thus acquiring exclusive sexual access—which was sometimes but not always voluntary.  Inquisitorial court logs documented numerous incidences of violence which were seldom if ever prosecuted.  One example involved Fray Nicolas Hidalgo of the Taos Pueblo who fathered a native woman’s child after strangling her husband and violating her.  Another friar, Luis Martinez, was accused of raping a native girl, cutting her throat, and burying her body under his cell.  In these brutal but, to primatologists, eerily familiar cases, Garcia writes, “we can easily spy male evolutionary paradigms grinding their way across the Conquista—the sexual domination of men, the sexual acquisition of females, and differential reproduction among despotic men—all strongly within a religious context.”

But the most unnerving evolutionary strategy among male animals—especially apes and monkeys, is infanticide.  Typically, only males attempt it, and often after toppling other males from power.  The reproductive advantage is unmistakable.  Killing another male’s offspring eliminates the killer’s (and his male progeny’s) future competition for females.  In many species, the practice also sends the offended mother immediately into estrus, providing the killer with additional reproductive access.  Perhaps counterintuitively, the mothers may also have something to gain by mating with their infants’ slayers, because infanticidal males are somewhat more likely to produce infanticidal, and thus more evolutionarily fit, offspring.

Unfortunately, this disturbing pattern is replicated in modern humans.  As Garcia notes, the number of child homicides committed by stepfathers and boyfriends is substantially higher—in some instances, up to one-hundred times higher—than those committed by biological fathers.  And we suspect that genetics are involved because the pattern occurs across cultures and geographic regions, including the United States, Canada, and Great Britain.

Perhaps unsurprisingly at this point, the evolutionary strategy of infanticide is also reflected in religion.  In the Bible, for example, God orders his followers to “kill every male among the little ones” along with “every woman who has known man lying with him.” (Numbers 31:17-18)  The virgins, of course, are to be enslaved for sexual amusement.  Also, in his prophesy against Babylon, God declares that the doomed city’s “infants will be dashed to pieces” as their parents look on. (Isaiah 13-16)  This time, the hapless infants’ mothers will be “violated” as well.

It is no mere coincidence, Garcia argues, that mostly men have claimed to know what God wants.  Dominant human males have inherited their most basic desires from our primate ancestors.  Interestingly, their omnipotent and immortal gods are frequently portrayed as possessing identical earthly cravings.  The monotheistic God demands territory and access to women, for example.  And from an objective perspective, this God’s desires serve only to justify the ambitions of the most powerful men.

As natural history would predict, human males have relentlessly pursued—and continue to pursue—the monopolization of territorial and sexual resources through “fear, submission, and unquestioning obeisance.”  Garcia’s alpha-God expects and accepts no less.  Most regrettably, however, “men have claimed this dominant male God’s backing while perpetrating unspeakable cruelties—including rape, homicide, infanticide, and even genocide.”

Can natural history help explain monotheism’s extraordinary record of belligerence?  Perhaps only in a generalized and highly speculative way.  But one might reasonably contend that the documented persistence and ferocity of religious violence seems almost unimaginable absent devotion to an allegedly all-powerful, ultra-dominant god.



Eller, Jack David. 2010. Cruel Creeds, Virtuous Violence: Religious Violence across Culture and History. NY: Prometheus.

Freud, S. 1967. Moses and Monotheism. NY: Vintage.

Garcia, H. 2015. Alpha God: The Psychology of Religious Violence and Oppression. Amherst, NY: Prometheus.

Guitierrez, R. 1991. When Jesus Came the Corn Mothers Went Away: Marriage, Sexuality and Power in Mexico, 1500-1846. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Hillman, J. 2005. A Terrible Love of War. NY: Penguin.

Stark, R. and K. Corcoran. 2014. Religious Hostility: A Global Assessment of Hatred and Terror. Waco, TX: ISR Books.