As I've argued elsewhere, we are all taught to reason meritocratically. That is, we all learn to embrace notions such as that our moral value depends on whether and how highly others value us and our actions (rather than simply on whether we value our own existence), and that the institutionalized oppression and exploitation of those below us -- or at the bottom -- are proper features of human society. And since we are also taught that there are (many) circumstances in which we may use violence to attain goals, the logical outcome is that at least some of us will feel free to disregard the equal needs of others wholesale, and murder, make war on, genocide, and systematically enslave others; thereby enacting the conviction that it's okay to treat others as property, a pest, relics, and so on.
Over time, people who think this way have managed to establish many forms of institutionalized oppression and exploitation. To name a few historical examples: people being turned into debt slaves, people being forced into becoming laborers by privatization, the invention of kingship and nobility, women being forced into the role of 'home- and babymakers', people being worked to death as plantation slaves, or in the mines, and so on. All of which was taught to be the 'proper order of things', or similar nonsense.
None of the above should sound particularly surprising. Almost everybody knows that human societies have long been organized hierarchically, and many sincerely believe that complex societies require this. However, there is a lot of archaeological and anthropological evidence that suggests that institutionalized hierarchy is a relative newcomer to human existence, and that it became the dominant mode only after a very long period in which women and men cooperated to maintain a rough (if violent) egalitarianism, with this cooperative egalitarianism having been instrumental in allowing us to evolve into the big-brained apes that we are today (and that neanderthals also were).
Given this evidence, one question that we might ask is why so many are so strongly convinced that hierarchy and oppression are intrinsic to human society. The 'short' answer to this is the one I hinted at in the opening paragraph. What I want to do in this post is show how this logic is reflected in how we are taught to think about gods and other superhumans, and how these stories affect how we think about human society in turn. But before I get into that, let me first make a few more general remarks about hierarchies and how to institutionalized them.
A few words on institutionalizing oppression and exploitation
To successfully institutionalize the oppression and exploitation of
the many by the few, I would argue that you need at least the following
five clusters of technologies. First, agriculture, as this allows for
the creation and storage of food and thus energy surpluses. Second,
record-keeping and writing. Third, and building on this: credit,
interest and taxation, which gave elites a way to force the many into debt (and later heritable) slavery. Fourth, technologies related to logistics and warfare, such as military training, animal domestication (food and pack animals (etc.),
the invention of the wheel and axle, (which allowed for easier
transport and theft of supplies). And fifth, narratives and
teachings to get people to accept institutionalized oppression and
exploitation as reasonable and worth supporting.
The 'technology' I want to discuss below relates to the fifth
To start, I would draw your attention to a few facts that
seem to me to strongly hint at the fact that institutionalized hierarchy goes back millennia, yet that the migratory wave that led to the spread of proto-indo-european across an area that stretches all the way from India to Ireland is likely what got this ball rolling. Now, as anyone who's interacted with a bureaucracy will know, institutions and organizations require roles and titles,
both to signify which people have which powers and privileges, and to
get people used to the idea that the institutions they run can persist
long after their founders die or are displaced. (This is captured well
by "the King is dead. Long live
the King!") If you combine this fact with what we know about how different 'western' languages are
related, it's quite telling that languages as geographically
distant as Gaelic, Roman, Greek, Old Norse and Sanskrit share words or
names not just for supernatural or divine being (dia, deus, Zeus Pater, Tyr, deva, devi), but also for king
(ri, rex, raj). Because what this suggests is, first of all, that these concepts (and the
attendant organizational forms) were in wide use by the time the
common ancestors of these peoples fanned out across that huge area, and that they brought these with them. And second, that the speakers of these languages
were able to force the peoples whose lands they migrated to (or
invaded) to adopt their words for it; which tends to happen either when the
newcomers dominate in the new society, or if the concept or 'technology' is
new to (most of) the area, so that it doesn't have to 'compete' with an existing word.
Besides linguistic evidence of a sea change in human organization around this time,
there's also architectural evidence that indicates that these
developments were novel or new, and happening roughly
simultaneously in multiple places. For instance, we also know that in a different language area (ancient Egypt), the first mastabas
were built over 5000 years ago. This suggests that
there too, kings
started to be able to lay claim to significant societal resources. And they could do so
not just in the course of organizing military campaigns, but also for building
funerary monuments dedicated to themselves. How exactly people were made
to contribute to the building is an open question, of course, but it's
likely that it had something to do with the imposition of force, and taxes.
On how words make possible religions and myths
But no matter how powerful individual kings may be as fighters, how compelling they are as orators, and how effective they are as commanders, the ability to threaten or inflict violence isn't enough to get people to accept their domination. They also need to come to understand this as natural or normal. And one of the sneakier ways of normalizing this arrangement is by telling everyone that there are supernatural beings to whom everyone is subservient -- or at least inferior --, and by whom everyone can be bossed around, or arbitrarily punished for supposedly not being sufficiently respectful and deferential, etc.. Which is where gods come in -- or, more precisely, stories about gods.
When we look at the world's religious and mythical traditions, we find a great many stories in which gods (and secondarily superhumans or divine animals) have capricious and violent interactions with other gods, humans and the other (lower) animals, as well as with the world as a whole. Which teaches us what to expect from superior beings, and encourages the thought that violence is normal or unavoidable, seeing how not even the gods are exempted from this.
With that in mind, I'd now like to analyze a bunch of the stories that have come down to us, both to see what they teach, and how these stories change with the circumstances, even as those who record them and their patrons remained part of elite circles, and therefore highly uninterested in contributing to the emancipation of their putative subjects and inferiors.
The examples I'll be discussing come from the traditions I'm most familiar with, namely Middle Eastern and Mediterranean ones, from about 5000 years ago until the start of the Western calendar. In this interval, in these storytelling traditions, humans go from being depicted as no more than pests or slaves who must worship and obey the gods while the latter do whatever they like; to beings who may petition the gods to send plagues after enemies or to grant them the strength to rob, conquer or kill non-followers (who are even more disposable because they don't worship the right god); to beings who have a chance at eternal (after)life; to beings who are encouraged to recognize that humans -- including unbelievers -- have inherent value (that 'all are worthy of god's love'). Leaving aside that the institutionalized Christianity very quickly moved away from and undermined this last message, it made for a near-complete break with previous (meritocratic) conceptions of humanity as inferior and subservient, and with the notions that you can legitimately treat some lives as only having instrumental value, and that only the innocent -- a notion I'll return to below -- should hope to experience the eternal life of plenty that's presented / held out as the reward for the best or most superior (including the gods).
But before I turn to that discussion, I'd like to emphasize that avatar worship long predates the worship of the (male-dominated) sky gods associated with domination structures and warfare, and that we know that societies that engaged in the former seem to have been more egalitarian than those that followed in pretty much every case. This tells us that telling stories about supernatural beings need not lead to, or go hand in hand with, domination and oppression, just as humans who tell themselves they are superior to other animals need not -- although sadly, most do -- tell themselves that it follows from their inferiority that it's okay to exploit and kill (and eat) other animals. That said, I know little about what the stories prehistoric humans told each other were about, so I won't comment on it further.
Let me start with a brief discussion of ancient Egyptian society, which is a bit of an outlier, in that many of the ideas familiar to westerners are found in this "single" society (which spanned 3 millennia). About six thousand ago, Egypt already had a God-King at the center of both society and myth. That is, pharaohs were presented as successors to a god called Horus, who is the son of Isis and Osiris, who are two of the main gods in their panteon. In the creation myth of Osiris, we are introduced to multiple brother-sister pairs of gods marrying and competing with each other for dominance. Set (a chaotic trickster god) kills and dismembers his brother Osiris out of jealousy, after which Osiris's sister-wife Isis reassembles and reanimates him sufficiently to have a child with him. Osiris trains their son, Horus, as a fighter, with the latter becoming the sun god after he beats Set in combat. Meanwhile, Osiris becomes the god of the underworld and afterlife, which is to say that he and lots of other divine judges take on the role of moral accountant, who supposedly only accept applicants whose souls are 'lighter than an ostrich feather.' And seeing how both gods and pharaohs owned human beings, while being allowed into the afterlife, it follows that this myth served to reinforce the notion that slavery wasn't an evil. Besides that, this story obviously also normalizes the idea that acquaintances -- even siblings -- use (lethal) violence against each other in order to gain dominance, which is legitimated by their rule, and by this being presented as desirable.
Next, let's consider the Akkadian epic of Atra-Hasis. It features both a creation myth and a flood story (in which most of humanity is portrayed as being genocided because a superior being wants to, and their siblings are okay with it), and a somewhat superhuman protagonist who repeatedly tries to save humanity from various punishments the gods come up with and mete out. The oldest written account dates back to the 18th century BCE, although the pantheon that they are a part of was already well-established some 4500 years ago.
This epic tells us that before humans were created, the main deities used the lesser gods to perform manual labor for them (think tilling, digging irrigation canals, planting crops). However, when these gods rebelled, humans were created do this work (lesson: might makes right). To limit humanity's growth (to "prevent overpopulation"), the gods regularly cull humanity using droughts and famines, the effects of which the protagonist of the epic, Atra-Hasis (helped by god of wisdom and relative nice guy Enki) attempts to mitigate. After this has gone on for a while, the cruel god Enlil capriciously decides to kill not just some (...), but all humans, and convinces the other gods to go along. Enki doesn't like the idea of that at all, and even though he's supposedly sworn an oath to his siblings to not tell the humans, he chooses to adhere to the letter but not the spirit of that promise, getting word to Atra-Hasis to build an ark to save himself and his family. (Note that it's accepted that most humans will have to die, as Enki, much like the Abrahamic god, only warns one elected -- exceptional, deserving -- individual about the coming flood.) Atra-Hasis and his family survive, although once the flood dissipates, he is required to sacrifice other -- nonhuman -- sentient beings to the gods to regain their favor (implied lesson: when you are sufficiently powerful, genocide is okay, and the weak must ingratiate themselves to to the powerful to regain their favor, rather than perpetrators having to prove to the victims that they've reformed).
Then there is the Babylonian creation story, the Enûma Eliš. It tells of two primordial gods Tiamat and Apsu, whose divine children live inside their mother (who embodies the seas and depths), where they go about their lives. Their doing so keeps dad awake, however, and he gets annoyed enough that he decides to kill them. The kids find out about the plan, and beat him to it. (Implicit: if this is how gods act...?) Tiamat then vows revenge, and creates an army of monsters to do her bidding, with which she frightens most of her children into submission. That said, it doesn't faze the most powerful of her grandchildren -- Marduk -- who uses this crisis as an opportunity to extract a promise from the rest of the family to declare him their ruler if he kills grandma, which he proceeds to do when they agree, using her dead body as building material from which to create the world that we humans live in (lesson: violence is a fact of life, and it pays).
Lastly, there is the epic of Gilgamesh, in which we are told about the 'actions and adventures' of a superior human being who is two-thirds god (but not immortal, as his humanity makes him undeserving of that) called Gilgamesh, who engages in lots of combat, warfare, rape of women when they marry because they get married, and the killing of monsters (a convenient phrase used to demonize enemies). While the story presents most of these things aside from monster killing as at best being mixed blessings, and the story starts out with his subjects petitioning the gods to send a hero to protect their women, and to keep Gilgamesh from requisitioning all of the men whenever he feels like attacking other cities (lessons: might makes right, warfare is fine in moderation). One aspect of this story that doesn't really fit our idea of what ancient society was like is that it presents non-procreative sex as having a civilizing influence, although the story also reinforces sexism, as it has a section where Gilgamesh (of all people) calls out the goddess of erotic love for her mistreatment of her paramours once she's done with them; which leads to Ishtar sending a sacred bull after them to punish them for calling her out.
The North(east)ern Mediterranean
Let's shift about a millennium, to two other ethnic groups who happen to engage in imperialist warfare. The Greek and Roman origin stories in many ways mirror the Mesopotamian ones. They start out with Ouranos -- son-husband of Gaia, who is a daughter of Chaos -- having a bunch of children with her, with him kicking the kids out of heaven out of jealousy. Gaia and his son Khronos Gaia object to this, however, which leads to Khronos castrating and thereby replacing Ouranos as chief god (thereby firmly linking patriarchy and rule). Khronos then has eleven children with his sister Rhea, but he swallows them because he fears being ousted in turn. This pisses off Rhea, who tricks him into thinking he'd swallowed his (twelfth) child, Zeus, by feeding him a wrapped stone. Once Zeus grows up, he indeed does beat his dad, and he forces Khronos to release all of his siblings before he imprisons him in hell alongside all of his siblings and ancestors.
With these first bouts of generational violence behind them, the Olympian gods then settle in for the long haul. Zeus marries his sister Hera, and has a number of children with her and other women who he either seduces or outright rapes after 'being hit by Eros's arrows'. And this generalizes, as all of the gods are presented as fickle -- or 'playful' -- beings, who treat humans like most humans treat the other ('lower') animals: while humans may be entertaining or useful to the gods, and while the gods may enjoy interacting with or helping us, we are just playthings to them, whose lives they may interfere with in any way they feel like, including by killing us. And although the Olympian gods are portrayed as never killing one another, they're quite willing to otherwise harm and try to dominate each other.
That said, relative to some of the other traditions I've discussed, there is a large body of stories of gods and humans interacting, with the former being pretty willing to entertain requests, and to do favors. And if you look at the Roman tradition in particular, people were strongly encouraged to consider the state gods as well as familial or local gods as their patrons, with all of the gods being said to care about the fate of their followers. Unsurprisingly, you found the same pattern in human society, which revolved around patronage, with human clients constantly vying for the attention and favor of their (patrician) patrons.
* * *
All of the traditions discussed so far present constant violence, the meritocratic notion that some lives are worth more than others, and oppression and domination as normal and natural, and as part and parcel of divine behavior and relationships. Rightful rulers are the ones who are most powerful and successful at whatever it is they feel like doing. Conquest and domination result in praise for the victor, on top of the material benefits they bring. Patriarchy informs all behavior, and rape and abduction are portrayed as something men (such as Zeus, Gilgamesh and Poseidon) can engage in whenever they feel like it (the wrongs inflicted on Demeter, for instance, who is raped by both of her brothers, are never even acknowledged, the implicit suggestion being it is simply the lot of women, as 'prey', to be used by 'predators' as the latter see fit, though it may result in sadness or mourning), while eternal life or an afterlife is held out as the reward for those humans who aer declared deserving by divine judges like Osiris. In sum, these traditions rest on a dreary mess of reactionary sentiments, sold as 'this is what the gods are like'.
Judaism and its discontents
The origin stories found in the Hebrew bible differ from the Mesopotamian ones discussed above in a number of ways. It has a single god creating the universe and all life in it, simply because they enjoy the act of creation, and without this requiring violence. Humans and the other animals are given a paradise to inhabit, where predators and herbivores live together in peace, while humans are also told that they should stick to eating plant foods. Food is abundant, and its growth requires no planting, tilling, or other kind of work, or slavery. And it has god walking among them, and having chats with Adam (though not with Eve), without requiring them to sacrifice or pay tribute. In sum, life is portrayed as being made very comfortable, while the relationship between humans and god is pretty amicable and innocent until the humans become moral agents (by eating from a tree that god had declared off-limits).
That said, most of the rest of the bible teaches the (by now) more familiar lessons. For instance, consider how even the creation story has god declaring that mankind should rule over the other animals, and master the earth, i.e., displaying the same domination attitude that undergirds contemporary capitalism and Lockean liberalism, even as the book of genesis presents veganism and nonviolence as a requirement for life in paradise. Furthermore, later on in the book of Genesis we find Abraham having to convince god not to genocide people who don't keep his law, by reminding him that at least some of the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah will be innocents who don't deserve to be arbitrarily killed. Lastly, consider the story of Job, counted among the 'wisdom literature', which has god 'testing' a supposedly innocent man's faith by deliberately inflicting harms on him, and killing Job's children -- whose intrinsic value is thereby completely denied -- simply to cause Job pain. Moreover, when Job asks why this is happening, god is shown to become indignant because a mere human dares ask for an explanation; god's response clearly communicating the conviction that superior beings 'whose plans are too complex for lesser beings to understand' are free to treat humans pretty much any way they like. Needless to say, none of this is particularly egalitarian or nonviolent, although the fact that the stories focus on the plight and concerns of the Jewish people inside the religious tradition makes for an interesting change from earlier stories.
This tradition, as well as contemporary cultural practices, is critiqued by Jesus of Nazareth, a Jewish reformer who very obviously did not belong or aspire to membership of the priestly or ruling classes. He became one of the first commoners whose teachings would be written down and transmitted to us, as earlier reformers who pushed such narratives could simply be ignored or 'forgotten' by the elites and their scribes. Now, while Jesus's teachings are still inconsistently egalitarian, a very strong egalitarian and nonviolent strain can be found in them. As such, while Jesus seems to have accepted notions such as that one has a "station" in life, and although he encouraged people to see him as a conduit, and faith in god as a requirement for admission into an afterlife, he also attempts to convince his contemporaries to combine religiosity with egalitarianism and a principled, nonviolent rejection of unjust institutions. To name a few of the things he did: he advocated debt forgiveness (a 'jubilee year'),* while criticizing the sacrificial-money-lending/changing industry that existed around the temple. He attempted to undermine patriarchal and other oppressive structures that particularly affected marginalized groups such as women, non-Jews and the "unclean" and diseased. And he propagated the idea that 'god is love', which seems to me best understood as an attempt to undermine the notion of god as a moral accountant, in favor of the idea that everyone [who believes] deserves god's love. That is, that life has intrinsic value, and that someone's worth as a person doesn't depend on how (much) their actions or presence are valued by others.
Arguably the most widely known, if poorly understood, of Jesus's actions was his attempt to undermine the ideas that the divine thrives on sacrificial violence, and that one can "pay" for bad behavior (or bad faith) by inflicting harm on another being; and the notion that one needs to do "penance" in order to deserve love; while also exposing the establishment as corrupt. This he attempted to communicate in word as well as in deed, by showing his fellow Jews that religious leaders prefer killing moral reformers over engaging with them, while also showing them that even when you are crucified by people who hate what you stand for, you should not ask those who care about you (including god) to avenge you, but call on them to be forgiven (a notion that hasn't caught on yet either, even though the story literally has the son of god saying that even when he gets killed, this is no reason to kill others). In this and other ways, Jesus established a pretty firm foundation for an egalitarian faith in which god, while still superior, actively encourages people to treat everyone as moral equals.
The above was quickly hidden in plain sight, however, as it was encapsulated in yet another meritocratic institutionalized religion -- 'Catholicism' and its more pro-capitalist offshoots -- that would become the biggest first in the Roman Empire, and later on in the world, thanks to the imperialist practices of its adherents, who successfully hijacked the church and its message in all the usual ways.
But regardless of whether Jesus was indeed trying to explain to people that domination culture is illegitimate, I hope the preceding discussion makes it clear why I think it's important for us to come up with stories that undermine the conviction that we may use violence to create and maintain inequality, as well as the meritocratic reasoning that accompanies it.
Let me end by saying a little bit about "innocence," as it plays a rather nasty role in all of this. Briefly put, if you recognize that sentient beings have intrinsic value, you should stop using it, for the same reason you'll want to stop using the word "deserve". I realize this may seem like a strange suggestion, but please bear with me. Now, there is little wrong with the observation that relative to this or that action or event, person X or Y is not responsible for some harm, and thus "not guilty" slash "innocent". And if that were how we meant it, it would be fine to use it. But given that we've learned to turn this into a character trait or permanent classification, and given that we've all been raised to use judgments like "guilty" and "no innocent" as blank checks that justify the use of violence, as well as the marginalization of "guilty" parties, being used to think in terms of (lack of) "innocence" is very dangerous. Because it makes it very easy to either to shut people up ("who are you to judge me?") or to justify "redemptive" violence or "retributive justice", by pointing to the fact that those you intend to harm weren't innocent, and that they therefore "have it coming". Let me illustrate this with a few examples..
For starters, consider how we currently treat convicted criminals. Do we feel we may use them as involuntary organ donors? Probably not. But their use as forced labor is legal at least in the US, while protestants the world over have long punished people for "vagrancy" in very comparable ways -- pressing them into service in the army, the various colonial ventures, or as manual laborers. Similarly, when someone does sex work, many of us find it very easy to shrug off violence inflicted on them as "part of the job" or "to be expected". What is such disinterest based on, if not a conviction that some people don't really count because they "aren't innocent"? And to take a more obvious example, consider how those who invaded and colonized the "New World" reasoned: "because (some) natives engaged in ritualized cannibalism, we may destroy their culture and society (and by extension, the people), take their land, rule them, and use them as slaves (while the colonists and conquerors who perpetrated those actions were apparently never disqualified 'our' side for behaving that way.) As a last example, note how we reflexively only talk about "women and children" as the "undeserving victims" of wars, while boys and men (and defenders) are never mentioned as victims, implicitly assumed to be "guilty" or "deserving" of any violence inflicted, what with their being (potential) "fighters," or their having taken up arms in defense.
In any case, I hope this makes clear that having the notion of "innocence" available to you makes it very easy for people with violence or conquest in mind to dismiss violence towards others as okay because "no innocents here" or "they had it coming", or other forms of victim-blaming. So the question we should ask is: given how problematic this notion is, and how it's tied up with notions of karma (which is a different way of selling moral accounting to people), entry to heaven or hell, and punishment as a way to "teach" people lessons, does it have a place in an egalitarian world? My conclusion obviously is no, but much more important than answering questions, is asking them, and learning to ignore the many distractions we have been taught to take seriously (very much including the notion of divinity).
Lastly, just to be clear: the point of the above discussion was in no way to suggest that "people who are religious are stupid", or anything of the sort. As I hope the above has made clear, humans tell other humans these stories in order to normalize violence, and to inculcate and normalize meritocratic / domination thinking; which is something that mainly benefits those at the top, and which mainly has material and status benefits, the attainment of which being the underlying reason why this thinking is encouraged. As such, I'd suggest we need to start telling different stories. And one powerful way of reminding yourself of the importance of rejecting the double whammy that some are superior to others, and that inferiority allows or justifies violence, is to embrace veganism, as our own domination of the animals we consider ours to use is just as problematic as the notion that some humans or states are superior to others; or the notion that gods may judge and discard humans as they see fit, because of their imputed superiority.
* For more on this, see Michael Hudson's ...and forgive them their debts: Lending, Foreclosure and Redemption from Bronze Age Finance to the Jubilee Year, ch.2, which is a book I'd highly recommend people to read in full, as it explains how Christianity and Jesus's message were "spiritualized".