By Dr David Laing Dawson

In the history (and pre-history) of religions, monotheism is a relatively recent phenomenon, perhaps less than 3000 years old. Before (and after) this development, humans devised and invented many gods, deities, spirits, supernatural agents – all presumably in the service of explaining or organizing events and information. Angels, demons, fairies, gremlins, ghosts, spirits, and single-purpose Gods. All to satisfy cause and effect. Or rather, our brains search for a cause or agent to explain an effect, be it drought, lightning, illness, suffering, good fortune, or simply a noise in the dark.

Each fairy, gremlin, demon or god served as an explanation for specific events that were otherwise difficult to explain. This in turn would lead to the development of rituals and practices to please or appease each single-purpose rather capricious deity. Yahweh, before “he” became the one and only God, was just one of many, each with specific spheres of influence and power.

Why did the shift to a single God come about? How would that fit into evolution and survival of the species?

This is my hypothesis:

We humans (and our hominid predecessors) start as families, then extended families, and then tribes (mostly of the same gene pool), competing for resources, for watering holes, hunting grounds, arable lands, fishing grounds, gold, slaves….. To survive, these groups have to act in an organized and coordinated way, and this calls for a strict social structure. And at the top of this social structure we have, of course, the alpha male, followed by his brothers and sons, cousins, nephews……(which is not to discount an alpha female calling the shots in the background).

The alpha male rules and decides when to fight and when to move on. The larger and more cohesive the tribe the more powerful and successful it will be warring over an oasis, hunting ground, or arable land.

But how large can such a tribe grow? A tribe ruled by a single human or hominid older male? For to maintain power and authority all citizens must see and witness this alpha male, his power and magic, at least now and then. And with a life expectancy of about 52 years, succession would have to occur roughly every 10 or so years.

How big could such a tribe grow and retain a hierarchical structure, retain loyalty to a single alpha male, a warrior king, and maintain some cohesion?

I haven’t found the answer to that question. But I am sure the largest of such tribes would not be able to grow as rapidly or as large as a tribe governed by the lieutenants of an all powerful invisible alpha male in the sky. It was a brilliant idea, sustained through its evolutionary survival value. You won’t be able to see him. Nobody can see him. But we will tell you what he says and what he expects of you. We know of this single or dominant alpha male in the sky (perhaps the first was Yahweh) from “divine” texts and the messages and stories his lieutenants bring us. And we know he demands loyalty, worship, and obedience. And if you stray you will be punished, in this life and the next.

Now our tribe can grow enormously, not be disrupted by death and succession, and all the watering holes will be ours, (“from the river to the sea”) and the senior males, the lieutenants, of this tribe, the imams, rabbis, priests, can live in comfort, safety and splendor.

Our development of frontal lobes and abstract/symbolic thinking allowed this. Survival of the fittest fostered it. It serves the alpha males well.

Of course such monolithic monotheisms will splinter at times, as new alpha males emerge and claim to speak directly to and for the true alpha male in the sky, to have been given a divine connection to that invisible alpha male in the sky. (Joseph Smith was 17 when he received his call). And of course some would take that even further and claim to be the son of the invisible alpha male in the sky.

So the invention of God, a single God, did serve an evolutionary purpose. It allowed for dramatic growth in the size and cohesion of tribes, tribes that could now conquer and enslave others. The gene pool would be perpetuated. The alpha males would live well.

A host of symbols would be required to perpetuate the myth of an invisible alpha male in the sky, not least of which would be overwhelmingly impressive, symbolically powerful, churches, mosques, and synagogues. Symbols, rituals, punishments, tithes, origin stories, rules, and prescribed times of worship. All developed to support what was at first a natural evolutionary strategy to perpetuate a particular gene pool. Survival of the fittest and the largest.

And like many human proclivities that at one time supported our survival and our rise to the top of the food chain, this worship and fear of an all powerful, vengeful, punitive invisible alpha male in the sky no longer serves us well. Might not the people of Israel and the people of Palestine, if they were organized, educated, secular, democratic, socially responsible societies, who held no mystical beliefs in being the soldiers of an invisible alpha male in the sky – might they not find it easier to share that land of milk and honey?

When we compare the societies in the world that are doing well, by all measures (health, peace, women’s rights, equality, levels of violence, education…..), we find those with the highest percentage of non-believers are doing much better than those societies with the highest percentage of believers.

In fact, ascribing power to a supernatural agency, be it an explanation for violence, poverty, illness, war, or climate change, allows our species to avoid the obvious and momentous fact that we (we the people) are the only agency that can improve our lives and maybe save the planet.

Ascribing such power to a supernatural agency allows us to abrogate our own agency, apart from offering thoughts and prayers.


Thanks to everyone who read our missives this year and don’t forget to come back in 2024. Have a safe and enjoyable holiday season.

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