“Protective, omnipotent, scary and very territorial. The monotheistic God is modelled on a harem-keeping alpha male.” So writes David P Parabash, an evolutionary biologist and professor of psychology at the University of Washington, in an article a few months back for Aeon, an online magazine of long form essays on culture and ideas.
Parabash points out that gorillas worship an alpha male who is stronger, more aggressive, and “wiser” than the rest of the group. In return for obedience and worship (of a kind) the alpha supplies nourishment and protection. The God of the Bible, the New Testament, and the Qu’ran, argues Parabash, is this silverback gorilla alpha male writ large, nothing more than an atavistic impulse, a vestigial tail of the mind.
This is a thesis which seems more clever than it is. In essence it is nothing more than the idea that humans have made God in their own image dressed up in the speculative (and reductionist) world of evolutionary psychology.
Neverthless, it is worth refuting the argument in detail, in the interest of of a fuller, more complex, and more respectful understanding of the heights and depths of our humanity than that which comes from comparing some of our most cherished spiritual ideals to elaborations of gorilla pack behaviour with, basically, nothing to learn from except in recognizing their stupidity.
Does God Want What An Alpha Male Wants?
I will focus on Parabash’s use of the Hebrew Bible, which is the religious text he relies on the most. Unfortunately Parabash’s reading of the Hebrew Bible is both selective and superficial. Such fragmentary, decontextualized readings of the Hebrew Bible are a fault common to new atheists and fundamentalists alike.
It is true that the God of the Hebrew Bible wants fidelity and obedience. Worship, although inherent to religious fidelity and obedience, is not his priority, a point made repeatedly (e.g. Hosea 6:6; 1 Samuel 5:22, Isaiah 58:6). Worship and praise are not God’s priority, but rather a primary human response to knowing him (e.g. Psalm 8:3-5). Israel’s God prioritises fidelity and obedience yes, and does promise benefits in return, as Parabash writes, but what do fidelity and obedience consist of?
According to the Hebrew Bible, fidelity consists in limiting obedience and worship to YHVH. Obedience means living according to his ethical commands, and it is these ethical commands that are the priorities of YHVH, a point made repeatedly throughout the Hebrew Bible, as in Jeremiah:
“Do you become a king because you are competing in cedar?
Did not your father eat and drink what was needed and then
do justice and righteousness?
Then it was well with him.
He pled the cause of the afflicted and needy;
Then it was well.
Is not that what it means to know Me?” declares the LORD.
“Know me” here means not just to understand who God is (and thus what He wants) but also suggests intimacy (Genesis 4:1, etc.). To pursue social justice is to be intimate with God.
The ethical commands of the Hebrew Bible include “loving your neighbour as yourself” (Lev 19:18), “loving the stranger” (Lev 19:34 et al.), “seeking justice” (Deuteronomy 16:20 et al.), “pursuing peace” (Psalms 34:14 et al.), caring for the vulnerable (literally “the widow and the orphan” and “the poor”, Exodus 22:22 and dozens of other places), what we would now call “creation care” (Genesis 2:15, Lev 19:23, Deuteronomy 20:19), and the rule of law as opposed to the rule of rulers (Deuteronomy 17:18).
The concrete forms that these ethical concerns take include laws demanding the redistribution of wealth and the limitation of debt and slavery; improving the lot of women; defending the rights of migrants; institutionalizing periodic rest for agricultural lands; avoiding cruelty to animals; forbidding unneeded ecological destruction; allowing petty theft and providing gleaning rights to the poor; making the King subservient to the law instead of vice versa; forbidding the King from stock-piling wealth or military might; calling for judicial impartiality; limiting the rights of blood avengers; restraining those who would oppress or impoverish their debtors; forbidding the return of runaway slaves, and more.
YHVH states many times that it is doing these things that means “knowing him” and “loving him” and that worship and sacrifice towards him without these things are “repugnant” to him (“I have asked for mercy not sacrifice”; “your festivals and holy gatherings are an abomination to me”“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?”).
The reason that YHVH is jealous is that he is the only God, and he has created humanity to have a relationship with him (love him) and and with each other (love your neighbour). In the ancient Jewish understanding, Israel is chosen to be a paradigmatic example of how people should live. Israel are to be his covenanted people, representing him on earth. For that reason he is jealous of their affections.
The ethical and practical details of how God’s ethical demands should be worked out are filtered through ancient middle eastern culture, and it is there we will find some vestigial tails in the form of social and judicial practices our moral conscience has evolved beyond (for discussion of one such vestigial tail see my article on homosexuality here). The different descendants of the Hebrew Bible have worked this out in different ways. Jewish law develops and reinterprets Biblical law; for Christians Jesus’ person and teachings do the same; in Islam hadith, sharia, and the teachings of sages evolve Qu’ranic statements. This is an evolving process not without its difficulties and failures to be sure.
Yet the God of the Bible is not mainly interested is obedience to his own power, an obedience which he rewards with food and protection. He is the unthreatened and undefeatable creator and ruler of all things who wishes human beings to abandon their idolatrous worship of themselves, their rulers, and the bogeymen of their own imagination, and to foster a world of peace and justice where all nations are equally chosen and will love God and neighbour together (Isaiah 19:23-24; 56:7).
If Parabash was more than glancingly literate in Biblical studies he would know this, but he I fear he is mislead into thinking that his knowledge and skill as an evolutionary psychologist gives him privileged access to all domains of human behaviour. If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
The God of The Bible is Not A Competitor
Going deeper into Parabash’s argument from analogy, we find another problem. Simply put, God is not a competitor with other Gods. In the Biblical imagination there are no other Gods. The only possible exception to this is in Psalm 82, where God chastises a “divine assembly” and warns them they will all die like men. What is instructive here, however, are two points: 1) the other Gods are identified as “sons of God”, i.e. they are born of God, not his peers, and 2) they are chastised not for competing with God but for failing to “defend the weak and the orphan”.
God has taken his place in the divine council
In the midst of the gods he holds judgement
“How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked?
Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and destitute.
Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.
The implication of this unusual Psalm, which surely departs from mainstream Jewish thought in its depiction of other (though lesser) gods, is that the gods of other peoples were created by God and entrusted with the task of upholding his values (justice and mercy) but they have failed, so he is revoking their authority and their lives (82:6-7).
The idea of a god as a true alpha male, i.e. as a competitor against other gods who he defeats with his greater might and cunning is manifestly not the storyline of the Bible (even if some vestiges of pre-Biblical thought may remain here and there) but rather of surrounding polytheistic cultures. Witness Zeus defeat the Titans, Shiva defeat Vishnu, or Marduk maintain his hold over the Babylonian divine assembly.
In fact monotheism is a relative rarity among different cultures- polytheism is much more common, and if we are singling out a religious development we claim to be a byproduct of common human evolutionary struggles, it seems more logical to point to the squabbling divine fraternities of Rome, China, or Egypt. It is ironic, and somewhat culturally myopic of Parabash to single out the religious development that departs from this alpha male warfare as the tradition that represents it.
All that said, there is no question that the way God is imagined in the Hebrew Bible is anthropomorphic, and is filtered through the lens of human social, political and psychological contructs in ways which reflect aspects of our humanity both good and bad. In the Hebrew Bible God is imagined as father, King, warrior, lover, husband, friend, and even mother (Isaiah 66:13 for instance). All of these are relational, since relationality- both to God and to human beings, is at the heart of Biblical spirituality, as Jesus, that Biblical son, famously pointed out in the Gospel of Matthew (22:37).
Jewish (and Christian and Islamic) traditions have pointed out for at least 2,000 years that although God is a person, he is neither corporeal nor male. The anthropomorphic personas that have been ascribed to God have been seen both as important for understanding him and as inadequate and potentially misleading.
Parabash, like many other atheists and critics of Biblical religion, doesn’t understand this well. Near the beginning of his article he says, “Sophisticated theologians typically emphasise that their deity lacks a physical body, somehow transcending physicality. More rarely, God might be conceived as non-gendered.” The “unsophisticated theologians” or “non-theologians” Parabash imagines thinking God has a body are largely a product of his imagination.
By Grade 1 of Jewish day school I understood that God had no body. I also knew he had no gender, even if the masculine language we used gave an admittedly male “tone” to my imagination of God’s personality. The personhood of God, Parabash goes on to insist, suggests most believers do conceive of him as a giant, powerful, male human, but this is simply not the case for any Jew I’ve met.
Even children like my 6 year old self think of God as another status of being- everywhere, all-knowing, all-good, etc., possessing will, emotion and consciousness but not a body or gender like us. This maybe less the case in some Christian circles which deploy a lot of imagery, like Catholics, but I’d bet it holds for Muslims as well. The idea that a genderless, bodyless God is the rare conception of “sophisticated theologians” is, in my experience, an ignorant claim.
For the religious, arguments like Parabash’s can still perform a useful service. They at once highlight how our biological and social experience might colour our understanding of God, and also illuminate in what ways God’s self revelation in the Hebrew Bible transcends such categories, making demands of us that stretch us beyond our gendered, tribal, and hierarchical hungers for power.