The Theistic Priming of Oligarchy

Why theocracy is inescapable

Image by Snapwire, from Pexels

Euhemerism and astrotheology are both strange hypotheses about the origin of our belief in gods. Both say that the gods are real, but that the gods aren’t what we presume they are.

The one idea is that the gods were originally just heroic or powerful humans and that their exploits were blown out of proportion in the retelling until their legends passed into myths. The other idea is that the gods were really extraterrestrials that landed on our planet and made contact with people, and again their deeds were misinterpreted over time.

The reason these explanations seem strange is that they take religious beliefs too seriously and startle us with the suggestion that such beliefs might be true in any concrete sense, since the theistic beliefs are treasured because they’re crazy.

There’s a third, more political and likely scenario, though, which is that the belief in supernatural gods is meant to prime our effective worship of godlike people, namely of the kings, dictators, and plutocrats that have been propped up as rulers of the world since the first civilizations.

The Mysterious Persistence of our Godlike Overlords

The call for such an explanation is the need to solve the mystery of why the multitudes typically endure the absurdity of such grotesque economic inequality, allowing the richest one percent to steal and horde the lion’s share of society’s wealth.

Just to clarify, in case you haven’t noticed, there’s almost always a godlike one percent in society. No matter how humanistic or enlightened the government or economy is supposed to be, the miracle of anti-natural intentions can’t hold back the flood of biological pressures for long. Thus, the default societal structure is pyramidal, as it were, which makes for vast inequality between the social classes. Compared to the lowly stations of the majority of citizens in a monarchy, an empire, a dictatorship, a democratic but capitalistic and therefore plutocratic republic, or a communist economy which collapses to make way for a kleptocratic oligarchy, the rulers will have obscene privileges and status.

The rulers and the richest one percent are typically corrupted by that ludicrous concentration of power, just as any normal person would succumb to the ensuing temptations. As a result, the rulers are able to act on their amoral fantasies, whereas the rest of us can only keep our shameful thoughts to ourselves. The corrupted ruler’s main impulse is to dominate others; thus, the target of the aristocratic fantasies is the bulk of the citizenry, which means the majority takes the brunt of upper-class decadence.

In short, the rulers experiment on society with power games, pretending to know what they’re doing, pretending they deserve their wealth and power, and pretending to care about the damages done by our bizarre, ubiquitous celebration of such flagrant psychopaths.

To be sure, the masses complain about the unfairness, satirize the inhumanity of the upper class, and may even revolt, as famously happened in France, Russia, and the United States. But mostly the rulers are left in place, which is strange given their monstrosity and the magnitude of their offenses. If a pharaoh or a plutocrat has five hundred times the wealth of the average citizen, that’s five hundred reasons to think that life is absurd, because the inequality indicates that the farce of history is being played out at the majority’s expense.

And what succeeds a political revolution is usually another insistence on collective masochism. The French Revolution replaced the aristocrats of the Ancien Régime with the Jacobins’ dictatorship and the Reign of Terror. The Bolshevik Revolution eliminated the monarchy but brought in Lenin, followed eventually by the tyrannical Stalin and the Great Purge. The American Revolution replaced the British monarchs with a cabal of slaveholders and eventually with banker plutocrats.

True, kings, emperors, and titans of industry may also benefit civilization and even the world with their wise decisions, such as their support of industry or their skill in handling military matters. But the benefits of imperialism and of the extreme concentration of power must be weighed against the damages. One such damage is the proof the rulers inadvertently furnish, that all cultural aspirations must be illusory or futile, considering the extent to which we can pretend to be advanced while acting systematically like clueless animals.

False Solutions to the Mystery

The mystery, therefore, is why we repeat this political cycle. Why do we defer to godlike tyrants, allowing them to corrupt themselves and wage their megalomaniacal war against the population’s relative innocence? Why do we only pretend to care about our freedom?

Most animal species are slaves to their genetically-sustained dominance hierarchy, because they don’t understand what’s happening and can’t see the puppet strings. We have no such excuse. We voluntarily recreate the pyramidal social structure even when we proclaim ourselves enlightened in the Age of Reason.

One easy answer to this question is that our leaders are superior to everyone else and that they earn their wealth and dominance. Indeed, some people are superior to others in various respects, but no member of our species deserves godlike power over others. Even if a leader could work five hundred times as hard or as smartly as everyone else to earn five hundred times the income, most of that wealth would have to be returned to the population because of the intended and unintended harms inevitably done by the power asymmetry.

Giving the lie to the myth of our moral superiority to animals all by itself should cost the tyrants a third of their wealth. Think of that as an existential tax on their aggravation of life’s absurdity. Just reflect, for a moment, on how the animal barbarity of our default societal structure saps the strength of the more insightful masses who realize as a result that the flow of natural events is a cruel joke. Add to that the cost of the effects of the rulers’ monstrification, sadism and amorality, and they should lose their material capacity to act as overlords.

Another obvious solution to the mystery is that we fear rebellion. To get to the top one percent, you’d have to go through the police and the military which would entail civil war. However, this solution only pushes the problem back a step, since no police force or military could withstand the uprising of the country’s total population. The mystery is why that uprising practically never happens.

Perhaps the answer is that there’s no alternative to the top-down power structure. Perhaps we have no idea how society should be organized without subjecting ourselves to the whims of spoiled aristocrats or of their ilk. To concede this is to admit that nearly everything anyone’s ever said about our superiority to the animals has been a fraud. If we can’t live together without turning a minority into false gods, we have no reason to trust in cultural niceties since they’d be so many delusions stemming from fear and ignorance.

In any case, this last answer is dubious because of our evident intellectual and technological advances. Again, if this is the Anthropocene, we have no excuse for pretending we have to submit so egregiously to primitive forms of social organization.

The Fear in Hobbes’ Leviathan

Thomas Hobbes pulled back the curtain in Leviathan, when he argued that fear is indeed the mechanism that creates the gross inequality, fear of anarchy in the state of nature. That fear drives us to the desperate strategy of the social contract whereby we devise the fiction of an artificial person, the “leviathan,” that consists of the spirit or ideal of absolute sovereignty and the physical embodiment of that ideal, namely the king or an elected assembly which acts as the head of the population.

In effect, the masses treat the king or the political representatives as being as powerful as the country’s total population, to terrorize themselves into living peacefully and avoiding social collapse and a return to the animal’s “war of all against all,” where life is “nasty, brutish, and short.” The human sovereign is the lesser of two evils.

The spirit of this artificial person, this noble lie, isn’t just the concept of sovereignty or of a monopoly on the use of force in politics. We should think of religious myths, too, as part of that spirit. We live not just under the strength of the government that enforces its will by means of the police and the military, but under the stories that have been told for millennia about the gods who rule the world.

Thus, the complete mechanism of our subjugation includes (a) our fear of a loss of civilization, that is, our implicit disgust with animal life in the wild, (b) the social contract, meaning the concept of a concentration of political power in the hands of some minority, and the application of that concept in the creation of vastly-unequal social systems (monarchies, dictatorships, plutocracies, and so on), and (c) religious fictions that further rationalize and solidify the ruse.

Theocratic Fictions and the Christian Distortion

It’s that last point, (c), that I’d like to clarify here. Something like psychological priming seems to be pervasive in the relationship between religious myths and our willingness to debase ourselves under actual godlike figures.

This priming is when one stimulus partially activates the neural or linguistic representation of a second stimulus. For example, some words are associated with others so that when one appears, such as “dog,” the probability increases that the other will be used, such as “cat.” Sometimes priming is based on semantic connections between the representations (“dog” primes “wolf”) or the connection can be conceptual (“table” primes “chair”) or cultural (members of individualistic societies respond differently to pictures of their government buildings than do members of collectivist societies to pictures of their government buildings).

The similarity between the gods that figure in religious myths and the wealthy human rulers is plain. The heavenly freedoms and luxuries indulged in by celebrities, billionaires, and kings make the travails of a peasant or wage slave seem like the fires of hell. There is, then, no accident in the prevalence both of those myths and of the pyramidal social divisions.

Indeed, before we forgot what we were doing, when we became entranced by the pseudo-revolutions of the Axial Age and by the rise of science and secular humanism, we used to identify the human oligarchs with the gods. There once was no mystery here. The pharaoh was imagined literally to be an incarnation of Osiris; as it was in Heaven, so it had to be on Earth. And it was the same with kings all around the world: they tended to have the divine right to rule, because they were identified with a chief god.

Christianity obscured that relationship with its paradoxical rendition of the Son of God mytheme. The man Jesus was the only begotten incarnation of God, but he was a lowly carpenter, not a king. The mystical hope of Christians was that we have no need for political hierarchies as long as we learn to live directly under God’s rule, which will make us fit for a heavenly kingdom.

But Christianity vindicates the cynicism of Hobbes by positing that Jesus will return from death as a messianic sovereign who will usher in a new age by force. In Hobbesian terms, the leviathan is worthless without the concrete manifestation to terrify the masses. The “soul” or meaning of the political fiction must be realized or embodied, because the peace of civilization is achieved not with love but with fear.

Jesus’s mystical vision was of a social order powered by everyone’s equal love of everyone else under God. What Jesus evidently didn’t realize was that the idea of God is a political fiction that’s meant to puff up the actual, human sovereign. If God is unreal and we’re animals made in no God’s image, is it so obvious we deserve love more than fear? I think not. As Dostoevsky explains in his “Grand Inquisitor” parable, the Church quickly corrected for Jesus’s naivety and ruled by terror and force rather than love.

The Theistic Priming of Oligarchy

What I’m suggesting, then, is that every political system is effectively theocratic, because the average society implicitly justifies its crude inequality by resorting to at least the memory of theistic rationales. This isn’t to say that religious belief has always been purely political; rather, the point is that one effect of theistic religion is its support for political tyranny and other gross social inequalities by the priming mechanism.

Take for example the putatively secular system of the American democratic republic. Due to the constitutional separation of church and state, only the flaccid civic religion is supposed to lend dignity to the American political rituals such as the voting process and the swearing-in of the newly-elected president. Certainly, no one identifies the president as a god in the ancient, polytheistic manner, although Evangelicals like to rationalize their Machiavellianism and speak of the ungodly president as a divine instrument.

But this is an arbitrary restriction on the religious myths that can be brought to bear on American politics. Americans are awash in theistic narratives; they’re swimming in the idea of gods, angels, and ghosts. That supernaturalism may culturally prime them to respect authority figures, especially those who might as well be actually divine, namely the richest one percent who are in fact vastly unequal to the rest in material (but not moral) terms.

Even an atheistic society such as the Soviet Union, the People’s Republic of China, or a European social democracy can’t escape the backlog of religious propaganda that’s been built up all around the world for thousands of years. If you know anything of history or of the wider world beyond your atheistic bastion, you’ve encountered the theistic narratives and concepts.

To the extent that atheistic populations give no credence to religious myths, we should expect from them either intolerance of egregious economic inequality and of dominance hierarchies, as in the egalitarian Scandinavian democracies. Genuine atheism or post-theism would have to be distinguished from the sublimated godlessness of communist societies that worship the state instead of a supernatural deity. That secular reification of the collective might likewise prime for the lingering social animality of a “communist” dictatorship.

Indeed, in so far as we consider ourselves people rather than animals, we’ve already imported a vestige of theism into our self-image, since we thereby think of ourselves as having godlike control over our body with reason and freewill.

The influence of religious myths is everywhere. Regardless of whether we believe they’re true or important, these myths seem to prime us, psychologically and culturally, to defer to human rulers, to consent to their godlike privileges, and to forgive their demonic abuses.

Knowledge condemns. Art redeems. I learned that as an artistic writer who did a doctorate in philosophy. We should try to see the dark comedy in all things.

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