How Our Brains Outwit Cruel Gods

God as portrayed by Michelangelo in "Crea...

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Consistent across the big three Western monotheisms is a theme notable only for its inconsistency: God is love, except for when he’s a belligerent tyrant with an unquenchable bloodlust.

Ask most people in the big three if their God condones cruelty, and you’ll get a definitive “no!” But anyone can flip through the sacred texts and find line after line that illustrates exactly the opposite.  Ask believers if theirs is a God of war and you’ll probably get another “no,” though passages aplenty make clear that the God(s) of Western religions are wholly committed to war as a means to get what they want, or what they want their chosen people to have.

What explains this disconnect?  If you ask a Christian if his/her God condones sexual violence, and the response is a likely “no”—you might ask for an explanation of a passage like this one:

When you go out to war against your enemies and the LORD, your God, delivers them into your hand, so that you take captives, if you see a comely woman among the captives and become so enamored of her that you wish to have her as wife, you may take her home to your house.  But before she may live there, she must shave her head and pare her nails and lay aside her captive’s garb.  After she has mourned her father and mother for a full month, you may have relations with her, and you shall be her husband and she shall be your wife.  However, if later on you lose your liking for her, you shall give her her freedom, if she wishes it; but you shall not sell her or enslave her, since she was married to you under compulsion.    (Deuteronomy 21:10-14)

Or you could allude to God’s cavalier attitude toward rape with a passage like this one:

If a man is caught in the act of raping a young woman who is not engaged, he must pay fifty pieces of silver to her father.  Then he must marry the young woman because he violated her, and he will never be allowed to divorce her.   (Deuteronomy 22:28-29)

Or his general attitude toward women as mere spoils of war with a passage like this one:

They must be dividing the spoils they took: there must be a damsel or two for each man. (Judges 5:30)

My point here is less about exegesis of sacred texts, and more about why people choose to focus on that which supports their positions and ignore, or rationalize, that which doesn’t.  We know this tendency by its psychological moniker: confirmation bias. And we also know this bias’ partner in crime that fuels the mental myopia: selective perception.

But I think there’s something else going on here as well.  One of the chief tenets of Western religion is that God made humans in his image.  If you read the sacred texts and take to heart the passages above and the many like them, then you’re left with an uncomfortable conclusion about who you are.

Try, for example, to imagine yourself as someone who would applaud this sort of unequivocal declaration of horrific violence against children (and more sexual violence as well):

Anyone who is captured will be run through with a sword.  Their little children will be dashed to death right before their eyes.  Their homes will be sacked and their wives raped by the attacking hordes. For I will stir up the Medes against Babylon, and no amount of silver or gold will buy them off.  The attacking armies will shoot down the young people with arrows.  They will have no mercy on helpless babies and will show no compassion for the children. (Isaiah 13:15-18)

Hard to do, isn’t it?  And yet, if we’re created in God’s image, then are we not manifestations of this same cruel nature–of the “For I will” nature underlined above?

So to undermine that conclusion, we have to mentally shelve those illustrations—the ones that make any reasonable person cringe—and focus on those that don’t short circuit our brain’s need for comfort and stability. We don’t believe in God and participate in the social support network of any given church or temple because we want to become even more stressed and confused than we are in our day-to-day lives. Much the opposite. We’re there to reign in the blood cortisol levels that drive us to the brink at work, in traffic and all too often at home.

If all we did in church was talk about God’s penchant for violence, that wouldn’t make for a very psychologically reassuring atmosphere. If we are going to talk about it, then we need to clarify that all of that rage and sexual cruelty is directed against God’s enemies.  That feels much better, because if we’re believers, then God’s enemies are also our enemies. Babies, whatever—they had it coming.

This balancing act, I’d argue, is what allows sane, intelligent people (note that I am not talking about unbalanced militants here) to focus on that which edifies and push from immediate view that which alarms.  Around that which edifies, we build a public-facing persona of tolerance and love. We can then build into that persona all of the attributes we deeply value. The rest—those dark, awful corridors of our belief—we avoid, or venture into only when we need to show our enemies what the dark side of our God looks like, or remind ourselves what could happen to us if we wander.

Another way of saying this is that to fully embrace the notion that God created us in his image is actually a very frightening thing to do.  But our brains are exceptionally clever and know how to work around discomfort to preserve stability. Gods of war and conquest, no matter how explicitly cruel, are simply no match for our powers of cognitive navigation.

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12 thoughts on “How Our Brains Outwit Cruel Gods

  1. “Hard to do, isn’t it? And yet, if we’re created in God’s image, then are we not manifestations of this same cruel nature?”

    I’m not sure how to break this to you, but God–at least in the written-down sense–is a human construct. God’s personality, values, etc. will therefore grow and change just as they grow and change in the people who give God voice and form. There’s no mystery.

    People and values change greatly over time, generally (but not always) for the better. As an historical document, the Bible certainly demonstrates as much. Most Christians see that document as an historical one and seek to understand it in that context. I’ve given up trying to figure out why pop atheists are incapable of same.

    • Um, I think you’re a little confused, Savio. It is the atheists who view the Bible, and all supposed “scripture”, as mere historical/mytholgical writing.

      It’s the religious who believe that their scriptures are communications from divine entities. Here’s how you can tell the difference and resolve your confusion – it’s the atheists who are the ones who don’t believe in God. I know you get that mixed-up sometimes.

      • Yeah, I know. In our past “debates,” I tried in vain to point out that not all believers are fundamentlist retards. Whereas you just KNOW they are and refuse to hear anything different.

        I’ll leave you to your certitude.

      • I tried in vain to point out that not all believers are fundamentlist retards.

        I don’t recall ever saying that they were.

        But moderate religious belief is just as wrong as fundamentalist belief, it’s every bit as verifiably wrong, and its dangerous in so far as it gives cover to fundamentalism.

  2. The problem, of course, is the same one IT professionals know about – obscurity is not the same as security.

    Sure, it works to simply push from your mind all the bad parts of your scriptures in favor of your nebulous God of Love – but what do you do when someone holds the Bible open in front of you and shows you all the passages you didn’t know were in there?

    Intelligent, sane people who prize consistency can respond only in one of two ways: they can either “fundamentalize”, since only the fundamentalist reading of the Bible is consistent with its text, or they can become atheists, which our society equates with immorality.

    And it gets easier to get people to move over to fundamentalism if the verses you challenge them with aren’t that bad – for instance, showing someone the passage of the Bible that explains how you can make a woman your sex slave is liable to get them to reject the Bible, but showing them 1 Timothy 2:12 (“I do not allow a woman to teach or have authority over men; she must remain silent”) might make a “sane, intelligent” person say “hrm, here’s someone who knows the Bible a lot better than I do – after all, I didn’t know what 1 Timothy 2:12 said – they’re a godly and good person, maybe they’re right about social equality of women not being God’s plan for them. Maybe it’s not oppression of women if that’s what God intended for them.”

    So-called “moderate” religion is just the breeding ground for fundamentalism, just as soon as someone shows them what their scriptures actually say and tells them that’s how their religion should really be practiced. And they’re right – religion is supposed to make you fundamentalist about it.

  3. “This balancing act, I’d argue, is what allows sane, intelligent people (note that I am not talking about unbalanced militants here) to focus on that which edifies and push from immediate view that which alarms….Another way of saying this is that to fully embrace the notion that God created us in his image is actually a very frightening thing to do. But our brains are exceptionally clever and know how to work around discomfort to preserve stability. Gods of war and conquest, no matter how explicitly cruel, are simply no match for our powers of cognitive navigation”.

    This is inanae. You destroy a really great post with your own rationalized opinion.

  4. This is something I’ve been telling people for a long time.

    What the Bible actually says versus what they think it says is amazing. My father, who has a Masters in Theology and was a preacher for a long time (he’s now agnostic), did not believe me when I told him there are two distinct and different versions of The Creation in Genesis.

    I would also like to point out the plight of the much maligned angel Lucifer. Unless I missed a footnote somewhere, The Cloven Hoofed One never actually kills anyone…ever…in the Bible. God is the one who wipes out the entire planet after he “regrets” making man (which is odd for something that is supposed to be completely perfect and without error). God is the one who told Abraham to kill his son and then said, “Naw, dawg, I was just kiddin’.” God is the one who utterly destroyed the life of one of his greatest worshipers, Job, on nothing more than an ego bet with The Great Satan. The list goes on and on.

    I firmly believe that Satan, if he existed, is nothing more than a patsy framed by a cruel and devious god with a better P.R. firm representing him.

  5. Once upon a time in a galaxy far, far away I was a ‘born-again christian’ but gave it up for lent the year my pastor said God sent my retarded (truly) son to teach ME something — he didn’t know what God was trying to teach me, nor did God have anything for the people in that church to learn even tho my son was born while I attended that church. What I learned from that experience was that trusting the Goddess is a much smarter, loving way to go as those who insult my intelligence now get poppets cursed in their name! 🙂

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