Though religion would have us deny our bestial natures—particularly the Abrahamic faiths, which claim human distinction from all other life forms—religion is as good a place as any to observe the continuing legacy of our primate ancestry, which has infused scripture, religious practice, and, importantly, our notions of God. As I explain in my forthcoming book, Alpha God, our evolutionary history can be traced through male proto-humans, to powerful men, to man-based gods. In the end we have God, particularly in the Abrahamic religions, behaving like a dominant male primate. Considering this point has great utility in understanding the religious oppression of women. We can start simply with comparative zoology.

Many male apes and monkeys will go to great lengths to stake their sexual claim to as many females as possible, and to police them from other males—as a male reproductive strategy, this has its advantages. But they also tend to attack females as punishment for sexual “infidelity,” or for even flirting with other males, such as by grooming them. Dominant chimpanzees will bypass the male of a tangoing pair and thrash the philandering female. Male apes chasing, restraining, biting, hitting, or dragging females all have been widely documented.

Men follow similar patterns of behavior. Research world-wide reveals that sexual jealousy is the primary driver behind domestic abuse and spousal homicide, which is almost always committed by men against women. Because men have historically been the makers of law, they have often coded law to favor male evolutionary strategies. For instance, until staggeringly recently (1974), it was legal in Texas to kill your wife if you caught her horizonalizing with a rival male.

No big surprise—men have also overwhelmingly been the makers of religious dicta, and its more chilling content often reflects distinctively male evolutionary concerns:  “If a man happens to meet in a town a virgin pledged to be married and he sleeps with her…stone them to death—the young woman because she was in a town and did not scream for help” (Deut: 22:23–24). Men, in other words, have projected their inherited reproductive worries onto God. In the Old Testament God turns out to be particularly obsessed with infidelity as when he erupts against his wives Samaria and Jerusalem:

And I will direct my jealousy against you, that they may deal with you in fury. They shall cut off your nose and your ears, and your survivors shall fall by the sword…They shall also strip you of your clothes and take away your beautiful jewels…Your lewdness and promiscuity have brought this on you, because you lusted after the nations and defiled yourself with their idols. (Ezek. 23: 25–30)

There are many more passages such as this, which beg the question: Why would an omnipotent being who can crush any potential rival, or, as the purported Creator, even prevent them from ever existing, have a need to punish the infidelity of his females? Why does God so persistently seem to have woman trouble? And why is he so uptight about other people’s sexual behavior? A God who is everlasting and immortal, and who therefore never needs to reproduce himself into the future, needn’t to be so concerned with who inserts what into whom.

But across human history, religious men have claimed alliance with the most dominant male in the Universe, and used the authority of this evolutionarily intuitive male figure to justify a nasty menu of inhumanities against women, inevitably as a means to control their sexuality, not to exclude acid attacks, burning, death by stoning, or even cutting off noses and gouging out the eyes. We might expect this kind of abject brutality from the Dark Ages, but this is simply a description of what goes on today. One offshoot of this behavior is so-called “honor” killing, which today is concentrated in Muslim countries. But the Quran is certainly not unique among the Abrahamic scriptures in containing passages like this one:

Men have authority over women because God has made the one superior to the other…Good women are obedient. They guard their unseen parts because God has guarded them. As for those from whom you fear disobedience, admonish them and send them to beds apart and beat them…Surely God is high, supreme. (Quran, 4:34)

One might argue that scripture is one thing – a written relic of an earlier age. But such scriptures retain cultural and judicial power in many parts of the world, as we see when Islamic courts go especially easy on men who perpetrate killings in the name of God and honor.

An understanding of primary evolutionary history also helps to explain God’s obsession with virginity. God seems highly concerned about cuckoldry. But then, before paternity tests, men could never be certain that their child is theirs, and thus risked investing precious time and resources raising their rival’s offspring. Thus men across history have been obsessed with virginity. Virgin brides have historically been highly prized, and access to them related to social dominance. Theoretically, however, an omniscient god should already know if a child is his, and it is hard to imagine why omnipotent, everlasting god should really care. But He has the same fascination with virginity, and not only as embodied by the Virgin Mary. Even God’s incarnation Jesus Christ is thought to prefer virgins, at least by Paul in his letter to the Corinthians: “For I have espoused you to one husband that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ” (Paul: 11:2). Forward to the Book of Mormon, God himself expresses love for (female) chastity, an analogue of virginity, and hate for (female) sexual freedom: “For I the Lord God, delight in the chastity of women. And whoredoms are an abomination before me; thus saith the Lord of Hosts” (Jacob 2:28).

Backed by religion, men too often prefer to cloister their women, smother them in drapery, and drown them in sexual shame, claiming it is the will of God and for their “protection”. In reality, these behaviors guard against the lustful ambitions of competitor males, an ancient task of our male ancestry— evidenced in extant primates that mate-guard, herd away, or otherwise attempt to isolate their prospects from male rivals.

As one species of great ape that emigrated from Africa, men have carried forward the imperatives of their ancestors, and woven them into the tapestries of their religions. If we are ever to curb religious violence and oppression of women, the alleged preferences of an almighty being must be identified for what they are. Perhaps then we can leave them where they belong—on the savannas of our ancestors past.

Published On: January 12, 2015

Hector Garcia

Hector Garcia

Hector A. Garcia, Psy.D., is an assistant professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio and a clinical psychologist at the Veterans Health Administration specializing in the treatment of combat-related posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He has published extensively on the treatment of PTSD in combat veterans. He has also published on the masculine identity in the aftermath of war, stress and rank in organizations, and the interplay between religious practice and psychopathology. His forthcoming book Alpha God: The Psychology of Religious Violence and Oppression will be published in March 2015.


  • Mark Sloan says:

    Hector, thanks for pointing out the role of mate guarding in religion’s suppression of women’s sexuality; it all fits together nicely. But is mate guarding what is primarily responsible for religious norms requiring women to be submissive to men? I can see that such submissiveness would aid mate guarding. But a moral requirement for women to be submissive could also be maintained just as a means for an in-group, men, to exploit an out-group, women.

    What is the respective importance of these two separate, but reinforcing, cultural “selection forces” regarding submissiveness to men? If morally required suppression of women’s sexuality and submissiveness were found to be always linked, that would support the mate guarding hypothesis as being primary for both. But suppose cultures exist or have existed where women’s submissiveness to men was morally required but suppression of their sexuality was not. (I don’t know if such cultures have ever existed.) If they have existed, that would support the adequacy of the in-group exploiting an out-group selection force for the submissiveness to men moral requirement.

    Of course, both the “mate guarding” and the “in-group exploiting an out-group” hypotheses about women’s required submissiveness make men look like pretty bad actors morally – at least by modern morality standards.

  • David Sloan Wilson says:

    I have issues with Hector Garcia’s thesis that I can only briefly describe here. It ignores the egalitarian nature of small-scale human social dynamics described by Christopher Boehm and the role of moral high gods in enforcing cooperation at larger scales described by Ara Norenzayan. Early Christianity offered a good deal to women, as described by Rodney Stark. Extreme inequality is primarily a result of power asymmetries in both religious and non-religious cultures. Don’t blame religion–blame power asymmetries.

    • Lynn O'Connor says:

      Thank you David Wilson. As well as a proclivity to cooperation, in some hunter gatherer groups male supremacy was not the going mode of organization; they were far closer to the social style of our cousins the Bonobos.

  • Hector A Garcia says:

    I won’t deny that there is emotional appeal to believing that we, by nature, are an egalitarian or even peaceable species. But the idealistic picture of the hunter-gather does not hold up well. Research on hunter-gatherer societies has found mate hoarding, unequal resource distribution, and alarmingly high murder rates. In all of this, mate competition is a driving force. For example, Yanomamo men who have killed other men tend to have more wives. And head men in this tribe receive food tributes from their lower ranking tribesmen, which they use to support more wives and children. The relative equality that can be found is held together by strong taboos created specifically to contain the evolved impulses of men to violently rise above other men, amass power, and ultimately to enact the ancient male “numbers” reproductive strategy.

    So far as “blaming” power differences rather than religion – I prefer the term “explain” here, but the point is that tracing religious dicta back to the evolutionary imperatives that they represent really places the ultimate “blame” on the evolved psychology of men, particularly that concerning male mate-competition. However, we encounter a serious problem when the psychology of male dominance seeps its way into scripture. For one, the power differences it creates become exceedingly difficult to challenge or change. How difficult is it for the believer to question inequality if the most powerful, fearsome male being in the universe decrees it so? For example: “Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as it is fit in the Lord.” (Col. 3:18); “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have any authority over a man; she must be quiet” (1Timothy 2). At its worst, ceding divine privilege to male reproductive strategy serves to justify the most macabre inhumanities, such as when Moses, commanded by God, orders his men to commit mass infanticide and wartime rape against the Midianites: “Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man, but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man.” (Num. 31:17–18). And so when men claim their religions to be beyond reproach, it is often to conceal a hemorrhage of damning evidence.

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