Magazine article The Humanist

Alpha God: The Psychology of Religious Violence and Oppression

Magazine article The Humanist

Alpha God: The Psychology of Religious Violence and Oppression

Article excerpt

ALPHA GOD: The Psychology of Religious Violence and Oppression

by Hector A. Garcia

Prometheus Press, 2015

249 pp. $19.00


Hector A. Garcia's new book, Alpha God: The Psychology of Religious Violence and Oppression, successfully draws parallels between violence in human evolution and in dominant religions. He effectively illustrates the salience of the connection with contemporary examples of religiously inspired violence around the world.

While Garcia concentrates on Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, his target is the legitimizing of violence by any religion. "History reveals in striking form how men have historically conflated themselves with God as a means to amplify power," he writes, "and how male gods rise to totalitarian rule in the manner of men--through violence and killing." Garcia deftly details analogies between specific religious rituals or doctrines and human cultural and evolutionary structures of dominance in primates, including tribal, territorial, physical, sexual, patriarchal, and social dominance structures.

To be clear, Garcia's sources for religious ritual and doctrine are principally present-day religious canons. He does not include what might be called the "human interpretations" of the canons, i.e., the rabbinic tradition, the encyclicals, the hadith, and so on. Garcia stays away from the question of what the real faith in any religion is. In that way, Alpha God develops only part of the picture. At the same time, some of his human examples unhelpfully fall into the category of nonreligious culture.

Nonetheless, social media are full of arguments even amongst humanists about whether Islam is inherently violent compared with, say, Judaism or Christianity. With respect to the canons of the religions, Garcia's analysis, properly publicized, would settle that debate. While he acknowledges the role of cooperation, he shows how the canons of all three Abrahamic religions are centrally designed around domination through violence. In that light, religionists who consider the Torah, the Bible, or the Koran to be the word of God have a crushing burden in proving their claim that their God is purely a loving, tender deity.

Of course, many followers of those religions do not consider the descriptions of violence and oppression in their religion's canon to reflect religious doctrine. Those religionists will consider Garcia's portrayal inaccurate as they cherry-pick the decent parts in arguing otherwise. What they're really talking about is their own personal religion, not the religious doctrines of the respective canons.

This aspect plays into current debates about whether violent individuals and groups claiming the mantle of Islam, Christianity, or Judaism are Islamic, Christian, or Jewish, respectively. The fact that the canons of these religions include violent and oppressive narratives are reason enough to reject them. When followers selectively create their own positive spin, it is better than sanctifying the whole canon, without a doubt. But the truth of the matter is that these followers are reinforcing the legitimacy of the violent and oppressive parts of those canons for those who would use them to justify violent, oppressive, and hegemonic acts of self-interest. Garcia aims to unlink the good from the bad: "Once the biological mechanisms underlying moral hypocrisy are recognized, it may make it easier to disallow sociopathic behavior, even when it occurs outside the boundaries of our immediate circle."

That leaves a key observation. Part of the discussion about violence in the name of religion is whether peaceful religionists have any special duty in the fight against violence in the name of their own religion. While peaceful religionists cannot be expected to root out terrorists themselves, they are in a unique position when it comes to Garcia's "disallowing." As insiders to their religion, they arguably are in a unique position to take a stand against harmful religious extremism. …

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