Alpha God

Human society in microcosm

(Image from First People)

John Wilkins over at Evolving Thoughts has an interesting article called “Explaining religion 4 – Wolves and gods”. It looks at wolf behavior and uses it to try to gain insight into human behavior.

We all know that wolf packs resolve themselves into hierarchies, with an alpha wolf on top. Human societies do this too, but it is a much more complex interaction. It’s not a simple hierarchy with us. Wilkins goes into that briefly. I was more interested in his comments on how social status explains religion:

Gods are basically higher status humans. Submission to a deity serves to place one in a social dominance hierarchy (within which, like dogs in a human family, we can mutually compete for status). Having a shared alpha male or female means that we are now part of a large-scale pack, and can compete for the resources and mutual aid of that pack. And if wolves and humans are similar in their social organisation, then that effectively means that a god is the alpha wolf, too.

That’s why the dyslexic motto of the United States is “In Dog We Trust”. We should get around to fixing that one of these days. Just because some early court clerk reversed a couple of letters, we’ve been stuck with the wrong motto. It’s time to put the letters in the correct order. At least dogs are real.

An icon from another era.

(Image by Ken Brown)

Wilkins continues:

Now social dominance is, I believe, the crucial coordinating factor of human social organisation…. And moreover, it is, I believe, the crucial explanation of religious behaviour.

Societies have always structured themselves in a hierarchy. Sometimes the structure is more obvious than at other times, but there is always a structure. Religion was one way of accomplishing this. The god is the alpha wolf. Everyone else falls into some sort of hierarchy below that. The king claimed to rule by divine right, so he’s second in command. When the king died:

But how to bolster the king’s heir’s claims to high status? One way is to use the gods. Either the dead king is now a god…, in which case the oversight of the father supports the son, or the son (and dead father) are descendants of other gods.

That’s a great lie, if you can make it stick. In superstitious societies, that was very easy.

A recent study has shown that religious belief correlates with social conformity and prosocial behaviour (Sharif and Norenzayan 2007); in short, if god is watching you, or you think god is watching you, you will tend not to defect in social interactions. This will also play into social dominance. If you think the dead king or his ancestors are watching you constantly, you are less likely to defect from alliances with the king’s deputies. In short, religion explains how cross-ethnicity and cross-class social structures can arise.

The fear of divine wrath is quite powerful, so that force probably explains how societies managed to become as large as they did.

Wilkins concludes with:

So gods are high status individuals that we pay allegiance to indirectly, by way of those who are themselves subordinate to a god or gods. This acts to maintain social order and simplify the age-old question posed by the Mikado, to whom should we defer?

It also explains, as I’ve said before, why we have a national prayer that schoolchildren are compelled to recite every day:

I pledge allegiance to … one nation under God….

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