On Myth, Religion and Innocence

As I've argued in other posts, we are raised inside structures that foster meritocratic reasoning, and encourage people to accept the idea that someone's moral value depends on whether and how others judge them, with the lives of some being worth more than others, who may count hardly at all (e.g. how we view the other animals). This logic informs our own thinking and behavior at every level from the personal to the institutional, due to how we create or change institutions to match our moral intuitions and vice versa. Marshall Rosenberg, Walter Wink, and Walter Kaufmann have in my opinion made compelling cases that meritocratic reasoning and related domination thinking do not come naturally to us, but have to be actively taught, so as to reinforce that specific human tendency. Besides their intellectual arguments, the archaeological and anthropological records also tell us that domination structures are a fairly recent development, after a long period of humans organizing themselves along egalitarian lines. Nevertheless, the past few thousand years of such oppression of the many by the few makes it abundantly clear that it's very hard to get rid of this world-view once it's taken root. 

The institutionalized oppression of humans by humans seems to me to rest on four main pillars. First, the invention of agriculture -- which allowed for the creation of storable food surpluses. Second, the development of complex language and writing -- which allows us to teach others to develop and internalize the necessary beliefs and organizational forms: mainly, that equal needs may be treated differently depending on how much others like them. Third, credit, interest and taxation -- which have allowed the few to force the many into (debt) slavery once they break a specific type of promise: the "contract". Fourth, the invention of a number of technologies related to with logistics and warfare, including the domestication of horses and mules as pack animals (etc.), and the invention of the wheel, which made it much easier to transport and steal stuff, including food.

By now, we've been thinking and organizing our societies along these lines for millennia. For instance, consider that proto-indo-european languages as geographically distant from one another as Gaelic, Roman, Greek and Sanskrit share words not just for supernatural being (dia, deus, theos, deva, devi), but also for king (ri, rex, raj). This suggests that these concepts (and the attendant organizational forms) were in wide use by the time their ancestors fanned out across that huge area. Similarly in north-eastern Africa, the existence of pyramids and mastabas -- the oldest of which was built over 5000 years ago -- attests to the fact that there too, kings were already around and able to lay claim to significant societal resources for the purpose of building monuments to themselves. That said, the advent of this institution seems to predate the invention of record-keeping.

With this post, I want to draw attention to one of the central ways in which domination thinking is normalized, reinforced and transmitted, but also to how, within that overall structure, people have once again tried to create more space for human autonomy and concerns, and to emancipate us. Namely, via the stories we are told, and tell, about how gods (and secondarily superhumans) behave, both towards each other, and towards humans and other -- supposedly (even) lower -- animals. And how those stories changed over time, in terms of who the focus was, and how the actors behaved, even though in nearly all cases, the authors and their patrons were (part of) local elite circles, and thus highly unlikely to be interested in emancipating their subjects.

I'll be discussing this development by briefly summarizing and then commenting on the relevant aspects of the traditions I'm most familiar with, namely Middle Eastern/Mediterranean ones from about 5000 years ago until the start of the European 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), and 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 institutional christian church very quickly moved away from and outright undermined this last message, it was a near-complete break with previous (meritocratic) conceptions of humanity as inferior and subservient, and of some humans as being less worthy than others, with only the innocent (a notion I'll return to below) having any hope of experiencing the eternal life of plenty that's presented / held out as the reward for the best or most superior -- including the god(s).

Before I turn to that discussion, however, I'd like to emphasize that goddess worship long predates the worship of the (male-dominated) sky gods associated with domination structures and warfare, and that societies that engaged in the former were much more egalitarian than those that followed. This tells us that telling stories about supernatural beings need not lead to, or go hand in hand with, domination and oppression, just like 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 other animals. That said, I know little about what the stories prehistoric humans told each other were about, although I do know (from what we know about more recent egalitarian societies as well as from archaeological finds) that physical violence, and treating other animals as food, were quite normal.


Let me start by saying a little about ancient Egyptian society. By the late fourth millennium BCE, Egypt already had a God-King at the center of both society and myth. Pharaohs were conceived as successors to the god Horus, son of Isis and Osiris. In the Egyptian creation myth of Osiris, we are told about multiple brother-sister pairs of gods marrying and competing with each other. Set (a chaotic trickster god) kills and mutilates his brother Osiris out of jealousy, after which Osiris is reassembled and reanimated to a sufficient extent by his sister-wife Isis that they can have a child. Their son Horus then is trained as a fighter by Osiris, and becomes the sun god after beating Set. Osiris becomes the god of the underworld and afterlife, where he plus lots of other divine judges get to play moral accountant or meritocrat, only allowing in applicants whose souls are 'lighter than an ostrich feather.' Given that both gods and pharaohs owned slaves, and they were allowed into this afterlife, it follows from this that slavery wasn't seen as an evil, which suggests that they believed very strongly that some were superior (or inferior) to others by birth/right. That said, while there are a lot of 'firsts' in Egyptian religious culture (e.g., beneficent creation myth, henotheism, afterlife), presumably due to the society being both so stable and affluent, I don't know the chronology well enough to talk about them properly, so I'll leave it at this, and move on.


Up next, the Akkadian epic of Atra-Hasis. This features both a creation myth and a flood story (in which most of humanity is portrayed as being genocided because a superior being feels justified in doing so), and it has a somewhat superhuman protagonist repeatedly trying to save humanity from various punishments the gods come up with and mete out. The oldest written version of this story we have dates back to the 18th century BCE, although we know the gods that feature in the story (led by Anu, Enlil, Enki) were already well-established by the middle of the third millennium. The epic tells us how before humans were created, the chief deities used lesser gods to perform manual labor for them (tilling, digging irrigation canals, planting crops), and that once they've rebelled, the gods decide to create humans to serve as their slaves (lesson: might makes right). To limit humanity's expansion (to "prevent overpopulation"), the gods regularly cull humanity using droughts and famines, the effects of which Atra-Hasis, aided by Enki, tries to mitigate. After this has gone on for a while, the cruel god Enlil capriciously decides to kill not just some (which would've been fine), but all humans. Enki doesn't like the idea of that, and advises 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 -- 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 (lesson: if 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).

Similarly, in the Babylonian creation story the Enûma Eliš, two primordial gods have children, who live inside their mother Tiamat, and who turn out to be fairly noisy as they go about their lives. The father, Apsu, decides to kill them because this gives him trouble sleeping. The kids find out about his plan, and decide to return the favor and kill him. Tiamat then vows revenge, and creates an army of beings to do her bidding. The most powerful of her grandchildren, Marduk, then extracts a promise from the rest of the family to declare him their ruler if he kills grandma, which he then proceeds to do, using her dead body to create the world in which humans live (lesson: ...).

And in the epic of Gilgamesh, we are told about the 'actions and adventures' of a superior human being who is two-thirds god (but not immortal) called Gilgamesh, who engages in lots of combat, warfare, kingly bridal rape and the killing of 'monsters' (a convenient phrase used to demonize enemies). While most of these things except 'monster' killing are presented as at best being mixed blessings, and the story starts out with his subjects petitioning the gods to send a hero to protect them from Gilgamesh raping women who get married, and to provide a distraction for him so he won't constantly requisition all of the men when he feels like attacking other cities (lessons: might makes right, warfare is fine in moderation). One interesting aspect of this story is that non-procreative sex is presented as a way to civilize someone, although the story also reinforces sexism, as it has a section where Gilgamesh (of all people) calls out Ishtar, the goddess of erotic love, for her not treating her paramours particularly well 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

The Greek (and Roman) origin stories in many ways mirror the Sumerian ones. They start out with Ouranos -- son-husband of Gaia, who is a daughter of Chaos -- having a bunch of children with Gaia, with dad kicking the kids out of heaven out of jealousy. His son Khronos and Gaia object, and Ouranos is castrated by Khronos, after which the latter becomes the chief god. Khronos then has a dozen children with his sister Rhea, but he swallows them all because he fears being ousted in turn. This pisses off Rhea, who tricks him into thinking he'd swallowed his (twelfth) son Zeus by feeding him a stone. Zeus indeed does beat his dad once he grows up, and forces Khronos to release all of his siblings before being imprisoned in hell alongside all of his siblings and ancestors. After these first bouts of generational violence, the new Olympian gods get to 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 portrayed to be fickle (or 'playful') beings who treat humans like most humans see the other animals: while we may be entertaining or useful to the gods, and while they may enjoy interacting with us 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 each other, they're quite willing to otherwise harm and try to dominate.

That said, relative to some of the other traditions I've discussed, there is a large body of stories in which gods and humans interact, 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 caring about the fate of their followers. This was also how human society worked, as roman society revolved around patronage, with human clients constantly vying for the attention and favor of their (patrician) patrons, who certainly benefited from this model.

All of the traditions discussed up to now portray violence, meritocracy, and domination of the weak by the powerful as normal and natural, and as being the norm even among the gods. Rightful rulers are the ones who are most powerful and successful. Conquest and domination are normal or even praise-worthy, besides being beneficial to those who engage in it.

Judaism and its discontents

The origin stories found in the Hebrew bible differ from the Sumerian ones mentioned above in a number of relevant 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 god walks among them, and has chats with Adam (though not with Eve), at first 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 the apple).

That said, most of the rest of the stories teach the (by now) more familiar lessons, while even the innovative ones contain inconsistent elements. In this vein it's worth noting 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 it holds up veganism and nonviolence as its ideal. And later on in the book of Genesis, Abraham has to convince god not to genocide people who don't keep the law, by pointing out that at least some of the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah will be innocents who don't deserve to be killed. Lastly, there's the story of Job, in which we are told about how god 'tests' a supposedly innocent man's faith by deliberately inflicting harms on him, and even killing Job's children -- whose intrinsic value is thereby completely denied -- simply to cause Job pain. Moreover, when Job then asks why this is happening, god is shown to become indignant because Job -- a mere human -- dares ask them to explain their actions; and their answer implies that they feel 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 Jewish cultural practices, were critiqued by Jesus of Nazareth, a reformer who very obviously did not belong to the priestly or ruling classes, and who would become one of the first commoners whose thoughts would be committed to paper and transmitted to us, given that most earlier reformers who pushed these narratives could simply be ignored or 'forgotten'. As Walter Wink has argued, Jesus's critique was founded on radical egalitarianism and nonviolence, and it was wide-ranging, as he tried to show his contemporaries how to combine religiosity with egalitarianism and principled nonviolent rejection of unjust institutions. To name a few: he called for debt forgiveness,* and criticized institutions like the sacrificial-money-lending/changing industry that existed around the temple. He tried to undermine patriarchal and other oppressive structures that particularly affected marginalized groups such as women, non-Jews and the "unclean" and diseased. And lastly, he propagated the idea that 'god is love', which is best understood as an attempt to undermine the notion of god as a moral accountant in favor of the idea that everyone deserves god's love -- i.e., 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. And all of this became hidden in plain sight, the heart of yet another meritocratic institutionalized religion that would become the biggest in the world thanks to the imperialist practices of its adherents in name only.

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. And regardless of whether you're religious (I'm a complete agnostic), I hope the above clarifies the importance of coming up with new stories that don't reinforce the legitimacy of using violence to create and maintain inequality, or the hierarchical/meritocratic reasoning that accompanies it.

On Innocence

Let me end by saying a few words about the concept of "innocence." Bluntly put, if you accept the notion that sentient beings have intrinsic value, you need to stop invoking this word, for the same reason you need to stop using the word "deserve". This because it's central to just about every domination-based religion and secular form of morality, and therefore ever-present. Now, there is little wrong with the observation that in the context of this or that action or event, person X or Y is not responsible for some harm, and thus "not guilty" slash "innocent". But because we've learned to turn this into a character trait or permanent classification, and because 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, the suggestion that someone "isn't innocent" is very dangerous. This upbringing makes it very easy to invoke such words 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 "had it coming".

For examples, 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 this point, 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".

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