How Not To Do What We Always Do

By Donovan Schaefer

Alpha God: The Psychology of Religious Violence and Oppression by Hector A. Garcia, Psy.D. Prometheus Books, 2015

“I sometimes try to imagine what would have happened if we’d known the bonobo first and the chimpanzee only later or not at all. The discussion about human evolution might not revolve as much around violence, warfare, and male dominance, but rather around sexuality, empathy, caring, and co-operation. What a different intellectual landscape we would occupy!” – Frans de Waal, Our Inner Ape

A few years after its release, the cognitive scientist Armin W. Geertz published an essay on Daniel C. Dennett’s 2006 book Breaking the Spell. In the book, Dennett put forward some contemporary research in Geertz’s specific field of cognitive science of religion to make the case for a scientific approach to religion that he saw as amenable to atheism. Geertz’s response was entitled “How Not to Do the Cognitive Science of Religion Today.” He blasted Dennett not only for his careless treatment of religion—what he called “an inelegant, polemical attack”—but for his brittle depiction of brain-mind science, which he identified as “a catastrophe” and “a disservice to the entire neuroscientific community.”

Geertz’s essay was on my mind while I read Hector A. Garcia’s Alpha God. Some of Geertz’s criticisms might also apply to Garcia—though Garcia spends more time with evolutionary psychology of behavior (particularly the literature on sex and aggression) than he does with belief. Like Dennett, Garcia’s book tends to represent a fluctuating, contentious set of conversations—also known as science—as a settled body of fact. And like Dennett, he frequently presents religion in the form of a dismissive caricature. Though Garcia does not ultimately conclude that religion is inherently evil, he wants us to be “selective” in choosing which elements of religion we admit into civil discourse (like New Atheist Sam Harris, he is bullish on meditation). He insists that he is “skeptical” that so-called “Abrahamic faiths” can ever be separated from what he identifies as their sinister and destructive elements.

What are these destructive elements? Garcia argues that God is modeled on a particular figure from our evolutionary heritage: the alpha male who dominated our pre-human ancestors through tyranny, taking power, territory, and sexual access to females as his sole prerogative. For Garcia, this is the blueprint of every God and god across all the religions of the world. Moreover, we can see the effects of this mentality reverberating through all of the projects and creations of religion, from patriarchy and oppression to territorial war and terrorism. Much of the work of Garcia’s book lies in linking horror-movie vignettes from the history of human religion to evolutionary psychological accounts of the origins of certain unsavory behaviors. Rather than seeing religions as ideological constructs or antiquated explanations of reality (as other atheist critics of religion might), he sees them as a chrysalis that captures a figment of our evolutionary past and replays it again and again in the history of our species, to disastrous effect.

But more than the obvious overlap between Garcia’s and Dennett’s books in terms of topic and method, I was thinking about Geertz’s fierce response to Breaking the Spell in a more general way. Why is it that the genre of popular writing that applies scientific frameworks to humanistic topics—perhaps especially religion—has such a strong tendency to go shooting off the rails? Like Geertz, I am heavily invested in the notion that we need broad, durable platforms connecting science and the humanities. For exactly that reason, I share his frustration with books like Dennett’s and Garcia’s that undermine the credibility of this project by wheeling out iffy methods and overhasty conclusions. From the early attempts to graft Darwinism onto anthropology to the sociobiology debates of the 1970s and 1980s (of which this book is an echo), why does this project—which starts from the best intentions and attracts the best minds of academia (of which Garcia is no doubt one)—so often end in “catastrophe,” in Geertz’s word?

Maybe we can detect a clue in Garcia’s method. Early in Alpha God, Garcia notes that one of his data sets for the case he is making against religion is “world history.” In noting that religion has been spotted skulking around the scenes of the crimes of patriarchy, genocide, and imperialism, he turns to a dizzying and impressive range of historical and textual case studies, from the lust and violence of the Hebrew Bible, New Testament, and Qur’an to the sexual exploits of Pope John XII and the god Krishna to the bloody Spanish conquest of the Americas to the 30 Years War to the tit-for-tat Muslim-Hindu purges in Gujarat to Aztec penis modification.

But there is a serious liability in this approach. In mobilizing such a massive data set, we can tell any story we want, precisely because religion is a background figure almost everywhere in human history. A case for religion’s involvement in oppression is as plausible as a conspiracy theory that notices that every human society with a monetary system eventually goes to war: it takes two broadly identifiable features of human societies (religion + oppression; currency + aggressive expansion) and assumes that they must have a causal relationship. And it arranges the data in such a way that historical moments that don’t share those features recede into the dark. Hence the long history of religious concern with the welfare of members of other groups, such as the abolitionist movement, the civil rights movement, religious alliances with workers, and the recent surge in environmental activism on the part of religious believers, are almost invisible in Alpha God. These categories of religious activity aggressively contradict the alpha god thesis—even to the point of overruling the claim that religious morality is usually in-group directed at the expense of the out-group. In bringing every dimension of human history and culture into its purview, Alpha God has enough material to justify any accusation, even after carefully paring away the innumerable data that don’t fit its narrative.

One could say the same about Garcia’s treatment of evolutionary biology as he attempts to produce an interdisciplinary account of human religious and political behavior. Evolutionary biology taps the entire animal domain as its material to think with. But Garcia does not present us with the productive and interesting debates taking place among researchers in evolutionary theory about, say, comparative behavior across species lines, or the relative power of natural selection (compared to other forms of selection, such as sexual selection) to shape human and animal minds, or the divergence between gene-centric and multi-level models of evolutionary analysis, or the ongoing mapping of the multi-dimensional continuum linking “nature” and “nurture” in human and animal behavior. Instead, Garcia hunkers down in the massively reductive early version of Richard Dawkins’s model of gene selfishness, trotting out the usual examples of gorilla harems and infanticide to insist on a one-track account of human behavior: that the male priority will always be, whether overtly or covertly, to seize power, sex, and territory and maximize his offspring, and that women will always be subtly hypnotized by these shenanigans. This is the core of Garcia’s alpha god theory.

However, as critics of the gene selfishness model such as Stephen Jay Gould (who calls it “Ultra-Darwinism”), Niles Eldredge, Steven Rose, Evelyn Fox Keller, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, and Frans de Waal have pointed out, these examples make up only one facet of the massively complex story of sex, reproduction, and child-rearing among animals. The gene-selfishness approach replicates the flaw in Garcia’s approach to religion: by putting every species on earth at his disposal, Garcia can tell any story he chooses about sex, violence, and power among animals—in this case, the classic “males pursue quantity and females pursue quality” myth. Animal species in which males exercise more selective mate choice or take on child-rearing responsibilities—not to mention species in which male and female roles and desires are simply not so clear-cut (see, for instance, Joan Roughgarden’s Evolution’s Rainbow for a massive catalog of the sexual diversity of animal species)—are unmentioned. As de Waal has noted, we have been led astray by allowing our conversational agenda to be set by chimpanzees rather than, say, bonobos, which are far more focused on sex (in various queer, frequently non-generative configurations) than the acquisition of power. Nor does the observation that primate species tend to stratify into dominance hierarchies shed any special light on our own political and religious dynamics. Gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos, and baboons—our closest living primate relatives—create societies, form families, and have sex in very different ways. The practices of one species have no necessary programmatic force for other species, even in the same genus.

As Geertz notes in his complaint against Dennett’s characterization of the cognitive science of religion, “[c]ognition is not just about the brain. It is more precisely and more correctly about interacting brains. It is about brains that cannot even use their highly evolved capacities without supportive cultural symbolic systems—language for one thing, but also the myriads of other symbolic systems, among them religious symbolic systems.” To identify a tendency in a population is a far cry from locating an essence: it shows only that some brains, under some circumstances, tend toward certain behaviors. Data points such as these are interesting, and Alpha God is full of them. But to make meaningful analysis out of them requires judicious consideration of what they can and can’t do.

Throughout Alpha God, Garcia suggests that we need to raise the correlation between religion and our ancestral impulses to the surface so that we can move beyond our “primate motivations for violence.” This reflects another flaw in the selfish gene paradigm, going back to Dawkins’s 1976 book: it talks as if the way to build better societies is to cease to be animal. But as de Waal writes, “[s]ocial animals relate to each other at a level far more basic than scientists previously suspected. We are hardwired to connect with those around us and to resonate with them, also emotionally. It’s a fully automated process.” We need to recognize that this “rational” departure from animality is itself deeply inscribed within our animal blueprints. At the same time as we note that primate (and other animal) societies are marked by moments of domination and violence, we must give other primates ample credit for their ability to form complex societies in which social goods like nurturance, altruism, care, and affection form the structuring bonds. If our selfish genes really predispose us to optimum reproductive strategies like murdering the children of our rivals, why do only a slim minority of species present this behavior? Far more often we see social animals aiding, nurturing, cooperating, and accompanying each other. Our efforts to steer our societies away from war and oppression are not a renunciation of our animality, but an amplification of certain aspects of our animality. The values that we use to guide these processes are themselves eminently animal. Religion raises them up no less than it spotlights the aggressive and the domineering facets of our animal being.

Alpha God tries to unwrap one of the puzzles of our time—the link between religion and violence—using productive scientific tools. It’s important to keep Garcia’s background as a psychiatrist specializing in trauma—especially combat PTSD—in the foreground here. One cannot doubt that Garcia’s work healing combat veterans and other PTSD patients motivates his effort to try to root out the sources of war.

At its heart, Alpha God puts forward a worthy argument that we need to see the features of religious belief and practice as meaningfully connected to our evolutionary history. In this, Garcia is absolutely correct and is mounting an important defense against popular and scholarly claims that religion is somehow transcendent of our bodies. Even our brains are, distinctly, artifacts of evolution that are tuned to resonate with any number of stories in the phylogenetic history of our species. There are—without question—moments where divine beings and religious people exhibit characteristics of some alpha males in some other species. Inasmuch as insisting on the link between religion and our evolved bodies is the spine of Garcia’s book, his point is well-taken. A lean reading of Dennett’s book shows that it makes the same case: the “spell” of Dennett’s title is not religion per se, but the notion that religion is somehow beyond the remit of scientific exploration.

That said, in making a bolder argument about the specific cast of God’s temperament, this book ultimately overlooks the extravagant complexity of its subject matter. The question with popular academic books always comes down to whether the necessary flattening of a subject that takes place when it is treated for depiction to non-specialists—especially if the work draws on an interdisciplinary spectrum of source material—justifies dropping the usual academic modesty. I think it does. But the example of Alpha God is instructive in the way that an argument that is built on a broad base of worthy scholarship (which is about the accumulation of perspectives, not the accumulation of facts per se, let alone the accumulation of truth) can ultimately ramify, at the macro level, into a massive betrayal of its subject matter. It overlooks the extraordinary complexity of religion—a category that is not only world-encompassingly broad, but that has been constituted in many different ways at many different times (see The Territories of Science and Religion by Peter Harrison) —and also undermines the dynamism and rigor of evolutionary science.

To Dennett’s argument that religion carries with it the side effects of war, oppression, and obscurantism, Geertz rightly points out that these are, in fact, “the time-proven side effects of being human.” Garcia’s error is the same. Even more than Breaking the Spell, Alpha God takes the entire data set of human history and pulls out a narrative that makes religion the perpetrator of a long list of horrors and atrocities. And he’s right—religion happens to be in the vicinity of all of those crimes. The problem is that religion is in the background of almost everything we do and have done, bad and good. To blame the evil acts of our history on religion is as absurd as blaming them on politics, sex, food, or any other constant of the chronicle of our species. And it’s as absurd as the claim by wide-eyed champions of religion that we can award religion exclusive credit for morality, science, art, or civilization. We could splice together a Zapruder-film narrative that shows religion lurking in the crowd by the grassy knoll for any of these, too. Fundamentally, the semi-scientific criticism of religion creates a reed-thin account of religious history, correlating religion only to its searingly negative aspects and ignoring everything else that what-gets-called-religion has going on, from the admirable and the glorious to the banal, the boring, and the irrelevant.



de Waal, Frans. Our Inner Ape: A Leading Primatologist Explains Why We Are Who We Are. New York: Riverhead Books, 2005.

Geertz, Armin W. “How Not to Do the Cognitive Science of Religion Today.” Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 20 (2008): 7-21.

Gould, Stephen Jay. “Darwinian Fundamentalism.” The New York Review of Books. June 12, 1997.

Harrison, Peter. The Territories of Science and Religion. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2015.

Roughgarden, Joan. Evolution’s Rainbow: Diversity, Gender, and Sexuality in Nature and People. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 2004.

Donovan O. Schaefer is Departmental Lecturer in Science and Religion at the University of Oxford.

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