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.