Religion’s overactive testosterone

How religion came to be about who has the biggest kahunas

BY DAVID RICKEY – We’ve always gotten it wrong. The “religio” in religion means “to connect.” That’s what religion has always meant, but we’re connecting to the wrong things.

Early humans first came up with religion as a way of trying to understand the world and their place in it, and trying to control two things: survival and death. Humans had evolved enough to realize that existence was complex. We intuited meaning and systems such as cause and effect. The problem was that we had also developed an ego, and tended to interpret our intuitions in images that reflected that ego. So we developed the idea of a personal God, and attributed to it many of our own emerging attitudes: anger, jealousy, possessiveness and the need for power – all aspects of ego.

Another problem arose as civilizations evolved: man’s testosterone.

Already present in earlier forms of life, it started to influence the evolving Ego and subsequently, male dominance. So we not only attributed manly power to this God but interpreted “revelation” (intuiting wisdom) as supporting our own masculine tendencies. Religion ended up serving our need to conquer, acquire, dominate and exploit.

In man’s image

Although both Mohammed and Jesus had women followers who were apparently quite influential in their lives, later expressions of their teachings were very anti-woman. Just look at the Catholic attitude toward ordination of women, and the way conservative Islam’s treats women.

The masculine ego had other subtle but more disturbing effects on religion. Throughout the world, religion became entwined with the acquisition of wealth and power.

The early Israelites conquered the land of Canaan – occupied by Canaanites – claiming that God had given it to them. Christians had the Crusades, which were more motivated more by economic and territorial concern than by saving souls.

In more recent time, Colonialism went hand in hand with trying to spread the Gospel. More accurately, “spreading the Gospel” was an excuse to take control of land and resources throughout the world, in all continents except Antarctica.

From the beginning, the spread of Islam seems more motivated by commercial and territorial interests than the desire to advance the egalitarian community, Ummah. Even Buddhists have a long history of warfare for territorial expansion and political power.

I would submit that the real conflict between Islam and Christianity as well as Judaism is an expression of this “religionizing” of the masculine ego’s need for power and possessions. In so-called religious wars, the rhetoric is rarely about the value of a particular faith tradition. Instead the religion serves as an excuse or justification for fighting and dominating.

Soul savers

One particularly interesting aspect of “religious” conflict is the apparent concern for the salvation of a person’s soul. In the present world, the Abrahamic faiths are the primary combatants. And what distinguishes them from many other faith traditions is their emphasis on heaven and hell (less so in Judaism). Christians have marched across continents, claiming heaven and hell for themselves and preaching “Accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior” as the entrance fee to a pleasant afterlife. Muslims have used the reward of salvation to motivate Jihadists to commit suicidal bombings.

Whereas religion began as an attempt to learn to live together in a seemingly hostile world, it has become the foundation of hostility and division. Our ego sense of separation resulted in great difficulty learning how to live in harmony. Every one of us has become addicted to self-preservation.

In my own religion, Christianity, the “good news” seems to be that Jesus died for us, and we can avoid punishment and ultimate damnation by accepting that fact. Clearly, the appeal of this good news is its being the antidote to our fear of death, which is really the ego’s fear of annihilation. As I work on my Ego I fear death less because, as Stephen Levine has pointed out, “Who Dies?”

If only we could advance human consciousness to recognize that the ego is of little significance, except to define this particular temporal incarnation of Spirit. We would go a long way to solving many of the world’s conflicts. Meanwhile, perhaps we need to find a way to tone down human male testosterone. Women do seem to be, on average, less aggressive, acquisitive (except perhaps at Macy’s) and certainly less domineering than men.

I am cautiously hopeful that emerging spiritual teachings are inching us forward. I believe that acknowledging the effects ego and testosterone have had on religion might help us develop a better religion – one that truly reconnects us to the Spirit that is our source, and one that actively, through practice, disconnects us from the power of these rampant (and manly) forces. Personally I am thankful that religion is in severe decline and hope that spirituality is on the rise. As a civilization, this is our only hope.

David Rickey is an Episcopal priest, Soul’s Code co-founder and counselor in San Francisco who does a weekly ministry at a residence for the elderly in northern California. Follow David on Twitter.

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4 Responses to “Religion’s overactive testosterone”

  1. I think that looking at differing gender behaviors through the lense of the affect of the chemicals that flow through our bodies to be a dangerous idea. Women can be as aggressive and domineering as men, and some have historically…and some men have been incredible peace keepers (Martin Luther King, Ghandi, etc.)

    How did they overcome their genetic makeup to do so?

  2. It’s the same problem as “Masculine” versus “Feminine” as a way of describing certain behavioral traits. Obviously, the hormones aren’t the only factor. I used the word “Testosterone” partly because that was the way the idea came to me. Clearly, Religion doesn’t have hormones.

  3. David, I fear this is very ovesimplified and for myself the last thing we need is yet aother “estrogen/good testosterone/bad jeremiad. Amazing we even survived all that evil patriarchy. But thanks anyway.

  4. David,

    Thanks for your insightful message. I can’t help but agree with what you have to say. I have felt for a longtime now that man was not made in God’s image but rather man creates a god or religion in man’s image to serve his unconscious animal appetites. Most beliefs are postulated from egoic needs. And yes, testosterone has created many Gods. If one wife isn’t enough, in the name of religion God will conveniently bless you to have four. Considering that, I could imagine that there is all sorts of subtle deceptive doctrines that man accepts in order to oppress women. Women can’t vote or even drive a car in Saudi Arabia in the name of religion. Why is that? Why is there a history of man oppressing women in the name of religion?

    You might think living in the United States that God must be an American. If you live in Israel God is a Jew serving Israel. If you live in an Arab nation, God is then an Arab serving their needs. I once talked to a man that had an old Nazi belt buckle that had ‘God is with us” inscribed on it.

    Oversimplified? I think not. What you are touching on is not a simple minded message.