God is an alpha male.
You see the same traits in Him that you find in male-dominated cultures: He’s a protector, sexually powerful, violent, oppressive, a conqueror… you get the idea.
Dr. Hector A. Garcia, an assistant professor of Psychiatry at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, just released a new book exploring these parallels — and what it says about “historic and ongoing violence committed in the name of religion” in his new book Alpha God (Prometheus Books, 2015).
In the excerpt below, Garcia explores some of the attributes we usually give to God:
SIZE AND DOMINATION: WHAT IT MEANS TO BE BIG
Our primate ancestors passed onto us certain social protocols, and we have passed them onto God. In primate cliques subordinates will often shrink down before the dominant male, thus accentuating his largeness and superiority. The god of the Abrahamic religions, in company with gods of other traditions, is often portrayed as a large male who requires that subordinates lower themselves before Him. However, requirements such as this violate central tenets of the Abrahamic God-concept, such as omnipotence (He should have no truly viable competitors), incorporeality (Size should only matter to a being on the physical plane), and immortality (God does not need to reproduce, therefore subordinating other males holds no reproductive value). To understand this projection, we begin with the role of size in primate hierarchies.
Sex differences in size are attributable to sexual selection acting by way of male mate-competition. Larger males are generally better at winning mate-competitions, and they pass on their genes for larger size to subsequent generations of males. Humans evolved in social hierarchies where rank — particularly among males — was often contested with violence. Because of the high costs associated with physical confrontation, the ability to perceive the dominance rank of potential rivals is seen as having been an important selective pressure (i.e., not accurately detecting high rank can be deadly) that shaped the human brain. Indeed certain brain structures appear to be devoted to processing rank information. As such, humans process rank information unconsciously and with incredible speed. Understanding the relationship between size and the power to cause physical harm is a critical part of recognizing dominance.
Larger size often equates to dominance in many other species, and plays an important role in the rank structures of men. As cognitive scientist and linguist Steven Pinker has pointed out, the “Big-men” who ruled over hunter-gatherer societies were often literally big men. Even though size may have less significance in competitions among contemporary men in the industrialized societies of the world (where resources aren’t necessarily won through physical means), size still bears psychological significance. One example comes from the workplace. Research has found that in labor markets height is correlated with dominance, measured by higher earnings, white collar versus blue collar positions, and status within professions — for instance, sales managers are statistically taller than salesmen, and bishops taller than preachers. Height in men has been correlated with physical strength, fighting ability, social status, and even reproductive success. It is important not to confuse correlation with causation here, and there are certainly other variables influencing dominance among men, including intelligence, health, and charisma, etc. However, across the animal kingdom it usually pays to be larger. Most animals understand this and use size to make inferences about things such as power, dominance, and threat-potential. Some will feign greater size in the hopes of submitting a rival.
HAND AND FOOT KISSING
Lip smacking — the nonhuman primate equivalent of kissing — is a common appeasement display in monkeys and apes, and may be intended to emulate infant suckling noises. It is understandable how sounds associated with nurturing might appease aggression. Like other infantile behaviors, this gesture may also communicate, “Like an infant, I pose no threat.”
Although as with eye contact, the human kiss has numerous meanings and functions, humans similarly use kissing as a means to show submission. Throughout the Godfather film series, kissing the don’s hand was used to signify acknowledgment of his rank status. Whether real dons get their hands kissed, I don’t know, but the gesture was perfectly intuitive to viewers. Hand kissing is a customary way of showing submission to a king, typically while bowing one’s head or kneeling down. Often the custom was — and is, in the remaining monarchies of the world — to kiss the king’s signet ring. This custom remains strong in the Catholic Church, a monarchic hierarchy in which the pious kneel before the pope and kiss his ring. Other Church customs would suggest that this gesture is rooted in ancient primate displays intended to connote infanthood — for instance, the pope is referred to as father, and his flock are considered his children. In many Christian Orthodox Churches it is still custom for laity to bow their heads profoundly and say, “Father bless” (to a priest) or “Master bless” (to a cardinal) while outstretching the right hand. The clergyman then performs the sign of the cross and grabs the supplicant’s hand, allowing the opportunity for his own to be kissed. Likewise in letters to clergy one is to open with “Father Bless,” and close with “Kissing your right hand.” With their remarkable skills at abstract thinking, humans have carried ancient submission displays forward to written language.
Foot kissing, a behavior observed widely in primatology, is another way submissive monkeys and apes demonstrate acquiescence to dominant members of their societies. This behavior carries forward to human societies that are highly rank structured, such as monarchies. For instance, kissing the king’s foot has always been synonymous with supplicant behavior — e.g., showing him extreme deference, begging for his mercy, or even recognizing that he represents God.
Christ — who is sometimes referred to as Christ the King — is also greeted with foot-kissing, as are his proxies. At the Basilica in Rome stands a large bronze statue of St. Paul, built in the fifth century. Though the statue has stood stalwart now for fifteen centuries its feet have been worn thin by the lips of pilgrims. There was even a custom in the Catholic Church of kissing the feet of the pope. The custom was actually made into law by Pope Gregory V. II in his Dictatus Papae (Dictates of the Pope). In this document, the connection between foot kissing and rank are made perfectly transparent, lest we confuse the gesture as some¬thing more affectionate. Two of the dictates were:
9. That of the pope alone all princes shall kiss the feet.
12. That it may be permitted to him to depose emperors.
These statements reflect an ageless hierarchical arrangement in which the Church sought to wield power even above kings (princes, emperors, etc). To wit Christ is also known as the King of Kings. Further, with God’s backing, even the lowly pious may be treated as kings of kings, in the manner of dominants and their affiliates. The prophet Isaiah describes below how kings submitting to God demonstrate their submission by kissing (or licking, as it were) the feet of God’s followers:
Kings… shall bow down to thee with their face toward the earth, and lick up the dust of thy feet. (Isa. 49:23)
Lastly, foot-kissing occurs in one of the best-known stories of the Bible, in which Jesus is invited to dinner by one of the pharisees. A sinful servant woman begins to attend to him:
As she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them. (Luke 7:38)
When Jesus’ host Simon — perhaps more cognizant of the power implications of such behaviors — refuses to make the same gesture, Jesus becomes indignant.
Then he turned toward the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. … Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven…. (Luke 7: 44–47)
It is worth reiterating that such displays are fundamentally submissive in nature, intended to secure the favor of a more powerful being. As if to hammer the point home, in front of the pharisee Jesus reminds the woman of the eternal punishment she averted with her submission display: “Your faith has saved you; go in peace” (Luke 7:48).
From the rank displays of the dinner table, we move to those occur¬ring in the fields of combat, where male on male competition is at its most brutal. In surrender, Odysseus cast aside his spear and shield, removed his hat, and kissed the knees of the enemy king. Similarly, a Hadith (text recounting the deeds and sayings of Muhammed) tells how Muhammed’s cousin who fought against him in battle kisses Muhammed’s feet to show acquiescence:
“O’Prophet of Allah, this is your cousin, Abu Sufyaan, please be happy with him.” Prophet accepted the intercession of Abbas and said, “I am pleased with him. May Allah forgive all the enmity he showed against us.” Thereafter, Prophet turned to Abbas and said, “Verily he is our brother.” Abbas said “I kissed his [Prophet’s] blessed foot while he was seated on his camel.”
Another example of foot-kissing in Islam is recounted when the Prophet becomes annoyed with his follower Umar, who kisses his feet to avert his wrath (while repeatedly begging his forgiveness):
Then Umar stood up and kissed the blessed feet of the Prophet and said: O’Messenger of Allah, we are pleased with Allah being Sustainer, you being the Prophet, Islam being the Deen and the Holy Quran being the Guide. Forgive us. Allah would further be pleased with you. So Umar kept on saying it till the Prophet became pleased.
Alpha God is now available in bookstores and online.
Excerpted from Alpha God: The Psychology of Religious Violence and Oppression by Hector A. Garcia with Permission from the Publisher, Prometheus Books.