Modern skeptics often assume that because there are obviously no supernatural gods, theists must be borderline insane and their scriptures vacuous. Indeed, there are embarrassing delusions that sustain theism in modern societies. However, this line of criticism betrays a delusion on the skeptic’s part: that of scientism which in this case takes the form of literalistic narrow-mindedness, or what’s traditionally been called Philistinism. In short, skeptics treat theistic religion as a protoscience and so they read scriptures as being failed theories of the objective facts. These modern Philistines give short shrift to nonscientific questions and modes of inquiry. Again, there are, of course, no supernatural gods; however, there are natural ones, and both monotheistic and polytheistic scriptures have always been oblique, metaphorical references to the autocratic human rulers who identified themselves with the gods to gain their populations’ obedience.
To focus on the question of whether supernatural gods exist is to utterly miss the point of religion, which is to unite society with myths that rationalize the injustices endemic to the default organization of most social species, including ours. Indeed, being likely fans of science fiction, modern skeptics should appreciate how fictions like the religious scriptures work: they only pretend to refer to strange, distant times and places, whereas they actually speak to contemporary conditions. Note how we’re loathe to dismiss the characters from our favourite novels, plays, or movies as entirely unreal; we know they don’t exist as historical figures, because they’re more important than anything so ephemeral. They instantiate our archetypes and provide frameworks for how we interpret our experience.
Gods, Autocrats, and the Megamachine
If you’re looking for an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent creator of everything, look no further than the human king, emperor, pharaoh, sultan, kaiser, rajah, czar, or dictator. The human autocrat is all too real. Myths of gods were modeled largely on the Neolithic rulers in Egypt and Mesopotamia who actually controlled armies, so that they were thousands of times more powerful than any average person; who had spies and gang bosses in their chains of command to inform them of all that transpired within their land's borders; and who were effectively or symbolically present in the underlings who represented them and in the magnificent structures they had built. Autocrats don’t create the universe, but most religious people have had no modern conception of the outer cosmos because they’ve been preoccupied with their homeland.
Their local territory was indeed developed by what Lewis Mumford calls the megamachine, which was the human machine assembled by autocrats who used religious myths to galvanize the masses to create what we now call civilization. As Mumford writes in Technics and Human Development, civilization historically rests “in varying proportions” on a megamachine, comprised of “the centralization of political power, the separation of classes, the lifetime division of labor, the mechanization of production, the magnification of military power, the economic exploitation of the weak, and the universal introduction of slavery and forced labor for both industrial and military purposes” (186). The human machine is a social system in which people are forced to occupy dehumanizing roles so that they literally work as mechanical parts. Indeed, this megamachine is “composed of a multitude of uniform, specialized, interchangeable but functionally differentiated parts [i.e. human bodies], rigorously marshaled together and coordinated in a process centrally organized and centrally directed: each part behaving as a mechanical component of the mechanized whole” (196).
More precisely, the myths of supernatural gods are two-sided since they have two sources, the biological parent and the autocrat. The idea of the gods’ benevolence is drawn from the parent or guardian who is biologically compelled to care for his or her children, due to love hormones like oxytocin. There’s no such bond between sovereign and subject; instead, there’s the megamachine. Contrary to Mumford, though, the megamachine does have a biological origin, as opposed to being an invention based just on greed or bloodlust. The population that functions as a giant mechanism to build the rudiments of civilization works with the default social divisions, found in any dominance hierarchy, between roughly the alphas (leaders), betas (followers), and omegas (outsiders). Instincts of aggression are genetically tempered to maintain the integrity of the bodies that host the genes. Thus, instead of a chaotic war of all against all, we instinctively engage in symbolic competitions which establish our ranks in a pecking order. In addition, there’s the pragmatic Law of Oligarchy which operates at the level of rationality rather than instinct. To efficiently manage a larger and larger group, power must be centralized. Finally, there’s the psychological principle that power corrupts. (Note this study, "Does endorsement of hierarchy make you evil? SDO and psychopathy," which shows that a social dominance oriented personality, which is to say a politically conservative one, "is correlated with interpersonal dominance in the form of Machiavellianism," which in turn is strongly associated with psychopathy. Moreover, the correlation strengthens over time so that as you become more socially dominant, you become more psychopathic, and vice versa.) Combine those three factors and you have the essence of Mumford’s megamachine.
Paleolithic and early Mesolithic hunters and gatherers were likely more egalitarian, because they were still learning to be people rather than animals and so they hadn’t yet hit upon extravagant ways of exacerbating or of making the best of natural inequalities. Likewise, social democracies may not be autocracies, although they do tend to degenerate into oligarchies which better reflect the disparities that make for the default social order. In any case, we modernists don’t need theocrats to enslave us, since we dehumanize ourselves to adapt to our increasingly artificial environments. We don’t need preposterous myths to persuade us to trust in the magical power of our godlike elites, since we can see for ourselves the high-tech machines that testify to our elites’ inhumanity. We want to respect and admire our leaders, but can we afford to do so, given how they likely perceive the rest of us? We want to believe that those with the most power and influence have our best interests at heart, but is that assumption hopelessly naïve? How do the default power dynamics play out in modern, so-called enlightened societies?
Sociopathy of the Power Elites
Whereas parents are genetically driven to care for their offspring, those with merely more power than others are biologically, pragmatically, and psychologically compelled to dehumanize themselves and to become monstrous tyrants, in the limit cases; in their more sustainable form, the elites are likely high-functioning psychopaths. Robert Hare, the psychopathologist who originated the Psychopathy Checklist, calls the latter “subcriminal psychopaths.” “These individuals,” he says in Without Conscience, “are every bit as egocentric, callous, and manipulative as the average criminal psychopath; however, their intelligence, family background, social skills, and circumstances permit them to construct a façade of normalcy and to get what they want with relative impunity” (113). Psychopathy is best thought of as an array of personality dimensions found throughout the general population, but which becomes psychopathic when the characteristics are aggravated in certain combinations. However, the term “psychopath” is nebulous because there are different theories as to which characteristics are central. We can speak, then, of different kinds of psychopaths, depending on which of the relevant characteristics dominate their personality.
According to the triarchic model, there are three characteristics which are observed to varying degrees in psychopaths: boldness (low fear and high self-confidence), disinhibition (low impulse control, demand for immediate gratification, thus minimal foresight resulting in antisociality), and meanness (low empathy, use of cruelty for the sake of empowerment, defiance of authority). Notice that boldness is praised in Western societies. Workers are often encouraged to be assertive and to show initiative, and heterosexual men are advised to be self-confident, above all, in their attempts to attract women. Disinhibition would make for a poor strategist, but most power elites would have delegated planning to experts and used religious myths to explain their recklessness as evidence of the gods’ mysterious intentions. (Remember that these elites were thought to have inherited their right to command from their association with some divine power.) Meanness has fallen out of favour in feminized, postmodern societies, but it’s still praised in the military and in Machiavellian circles. Fictions like House of Cards and Game of Thrones show that, regardless of their rosy public rhetoric, we suspect that our power elites behave in more or less reptilian ways when out of the spotlight. Certainly in premodern societies, meanness would have counted towards the autocrat’s masculine heroism.
In any case, it’s the combination of varying degrees of such characteristics that makes for a psychopathic character. Some combinations would produce ineffective power elites while others would be ideal. Unfortunately, the term “psychopath” connotes the out-of-control, criminal type, so instead of speaking of subcriminal psychopaths, I’ll refer to the latter as sociopaths. My point, then, is that if someone is an alpha in a dominance hierarchy, who has power heaped upon her so that she can efficiently manage some social system and who is inevitably corrupted by that power, that person will likely turn into a sociopath if not an outright monster. Some autocrats have in fact been monsters (Caligula, Nero, Vlad the Impaler, Hitler, Pol Pot, Stalin, Mao Zedong) and their inhuman deeds are the true inspirations for the myths of hell. Indeed, the monstrous tyrants are just those we’d think of as criminal psychopaths. But most power elites have been only sociopathic.
Alphas, mind you, are found not just in positions of political authority, since they become military or economic oligarchs or stars in any of the professional classes. Observe how the training for professional status as a soldier, doctor, lawyer, or businessperson, for example, rewards sociopaths. Soldiers are obviously taught to be fearless and mean, and while they must also respect authority, Hollywood’s jingoistic stereotypes of the antihero reveal the Western willingness to forgive soldiers or police who take matters into their own hands and disobey mere moralistic orders. Thus, we implicitly understand that those elites are bound to be sociopathic. Modern physicians are notorious for their narcissism and God complexes. After all, they’re entrusted with people’s lives and they have firsthand experience of the impersonal physiological mechanisms that sustain life. Those characteristics are consistent with boldness. Lawyers are trained to be hyperanalytical and to disregard social context as they follow the letter of the law. This is consistent with meanness. Businesspeople are taught the social Darwinian market logic which is explicitly egoistic and thus consistent with all three aspects of sociopathy.
We should expect, then, that the highest echelons of any of those disciplines will be occupied disproportionately by sociopaths. There will be exceptions, but the structural causes I referred to will make for what Nancy Cartwright calls a nomological machine, which is in fact nature’s prototype of Mumford’s megamachine. When conditions allow for emergent orders, nature develops complex systems that fall into patterns which we explain in terms of models, principles, and laws. One such pattern is the tendency for the monstrous strong to rule over the benevolent weak. Sociopaths have the ambition, the recklessness, and the lack of moral constraint to outcompete the humbler betas in most walks of life, and once they do succeed the worst in them will be brought out by their powerful positions so that perversely they’ll end up honing their vices. In fact, in so far as any civilization is defined by the above three principles, it’s a gigantic system for rewarding the unjust and punishing the just. This is because civilization originates from undead and thus inhumane evolutionary processes and from the conniving of ancient megalomaniacal rulers. Nice guys really do tend to finish last, and why would the meek want to inherit the ruins?
Domestication of the Beta Herds
As to how the power elites regard the rest of us, their public rhetoric overflows with kind words for the average, hard-working citizen. Even in the ancient world, kings publicly spoke of their subjects in glowing terms and held themselves to an altruistic standard, as if their power were more of a curse than a blessing since they had dreadful responsibilities rather than just the license to do whatever they pleased. But sociopaths are manipulative, so none of that rhetoric ought to be trusted—at least not if we’re interested in preserving our dignity. If we are, we ought to err on the side of caution and treat every single public statement made by anyone in a position of great power as self-serving if not as a shameless move in some sociopathic amusement. Psychopaths want to live as gods, and sociopaths (the high-functioning, subcriminal psychopaths) are just those who are best equipped to achieve that goal. How do gods live? Precisely as most of us live in relation to lower species: as predators. As we prey on animals (enslaving or slaughtering them as we see fit), sociopaths prey on the rest of us. Sociopaths are the most distinguished alphas, the highest dominators in our dominance hierarchies (in our “civilizations”). Thus, when I speak of “the rest of us” I’m referring to the followers and the outsiders.
To put the question more sharply, then, how do the distinguished alphas feel about the betas and omegas? The vast majority of people are betas, and betas and omegas may be further subdivided into gammas and deltas and so on, depending on the pecking order’s complexity. But all of those who aren’t leaders or outcasts in the evolutionary process which underlies our social interactions are effectively followers (betas, roughly speaking). Sociopathic alphas use the betas, then, as fodder in their schemes to aggrandize themselves. The power elites’ goals are selfish and hedonistic, and they're ruthless in pursuing them since they have no higher human feelings to project onto others; thus, they objectify people, using them indeed as tools they can manipulate. Slavery would be ideal, but highly regulated behaviour suffices if the regulations fall out of the power elites’ ideology, as they often do even in modern liberal societies that prohibit physical oppression. Betas, then, are the most useful servants, since they’re not sociopathic alphas themselves, who are repulsed by the prospect of submitting to anyone, and they’re not omegas who condemn the entire social enterprise. Betas follow either because they want eventually to lead as alphas or they’re content with their station and so they prefer not to upturn the system. These are the alphas’ cattle, the domesticated pets that support the power elites’ lofty projects and godlike lifestyles. From the sociopathic alpha’s viewpoint, betas are subhuman. Of course, from the genes’ “perspective,” we’re all members of the same species, since our sex organs are compatible, but sociobiologically, practically, and psychologically we’re divided into classes that alienate us from each other. And the alphas run civilization, largely because they control the beta herds by rewarding or punishing them in their official capacities.
Moreover, the power elites may assume that they’re doing God’s work, as Lloyd Blankfein, CEO of Goldman Sachs said, quite revealingly. This hearkens back to the ancient presumed partnership between human and divine (fictional) autocracies: earthly rulers used religious fictions in their scheme to dehumanize the masses, literally turning them into cogs in a megamachine. But the deeper logic here is the same as that of most con artists, as depicted in the movie Matchstick Men. In that movie, the con artist character, played by Nicholas Cage, explains to his daughter that he doesn’t steal from anyone since he convinces them to voluntarily give him what he wants. Likewise, Wall Street only led the middleclass into temptation, arranging for the punishment of those greedy beta materialists who bought houses they couldn’t afford. The arcane world of finance has been created by distinguished American sociopaths; more specifically, that world was designed by the mathematicians and computer engineers who have replaced the astrologers and theologians in the modern autocrats’ court, but those experts merely filled a niche opened up by the demands and the resources of the infamous one percent. When you enter that shadow world you’re at the predators’ mercy. The Western financial system is rigged by the Ponzi-like schemes with which the plutocrats reinforce their domination of the conned masses. But the point is that it’s arguable that the masses deserve to be crushed and the too-big-to-fail alphas deserve to get off scot free. The alpha occupies the satanic role of our tempter. Recall that in Job, before Satan was demonized he was God’s partner as he helped to settle their wager. Likewise, the American plutocrats are able to live with themselves not just because they’ve been trained to subdue their conscience, but because they glorify their shenanigans, interpreting the cons as just deserts for the selfish, xenophobic, bigoted, gullible, clueless American peasantry.
The Vocational Objectivity of Alienated Losers
Clearly, these power elites are undeserving of respect on moral grounds. The angel that tempted Job was ennobled by his association with God. There is no God, however, so the power elites have no such excuse. The appeal to the divine right of kings, even when made by a postindustrial plutocrat like Blankfein, is just part of the old con to reinstitute the default social order of our species that should, and perhaps once did, know better. As stunningly constructive as the megamachine is, the deification of sociopaths and the brutalization of the scrupulous lower classes are grotesqueries made possible, indeed, by God’s absence. Those grotesqueries would only be perfected were the beta masses logically prevented from rebelling and compelled instead to submit and even to welcome their abuse. And that’s just what happens, of course, because, by definition, betas want to play the alphas’ game. To protest is to remove yourself from contention and to expose yourself as an omega. Again, betas can’t afford to condemn the alphas because they want to climb the dominance hierarchy or else they don’t want to lose their present status. Condemning the civilized social order would be instrumentally irrational for betas.
Thus, it falls to the omegas to speak truth to power, and that’s how it’s always been. The prophets, philosophers, introverts, artists, bohemians, alienated outsiders, outcasts, fools, misfits, and madmen who choose not to remove themselves entirely from the game, through suicide, are forced to take up the view from nowhere, to look squarely at the world as it really is, without deferring to conventional wisdom or falling prey to the prevailing cons. These omegas include the cursed skeptics and radicals who perceive society as all the more absurd because they’re not part of it. Everything seems strange or frivolous when viewed with cold detachment, since emotional bias and the imagination are needed to provide the metaphors that contextualize the phenomenon and make us comfortable with it (typically, by personifying what we observe). Of course, many omegas are bitter because they’ve failed to succeed in the sociopath’s megamachine. Perhaps even every radical social critique is due, in the first place, to sour grapes. However, to dismiss the critique on that basis is to commit the genetic fallacy. Failing in civilized terms is plausibly the means by which you acquire the social scientist’s objectivity—by way of discovering your vocation rather than your profession. Some scientists and philosophers may be omegas, but there’s a difference between being professionally objective, only to play the social games after hours when you can ignore what you’ve learned from dissecting those games, and being almost permanently detached and thus alienated from the mainstream competitions and pastimes.
Omegas are paradoxical in that they’re both the lowliest among us and the most heroic. Conventionally speaking, they’re miserable weaklings and losers. Again, it’s just that sort of person who would become vocationally objective, a professional outsider, as it were. But omegas are also existentially authentic. Being well-adjusted and normal in conventional terms is the mark of an animal, not a person. If you’re a happy individual, above all, you’ve actually betrayed your humanity to live as an animal; for example, you might be a domesticated beta, playing your part in the sociopath’s megamachine. Animals are content with their limitations because they don’t comprehend what’s happening all around them. They react effectively to their environment, because they’re biomachines with traits honed over ages of evolution, but their knowledge is mostly subjective. By contrast, all people should be running for the exits and screaming for salvation from the curse of objective awareness. You know you’re dealing with an authentic person and not just with a bovine functionary occupying a human body, when that individual demonstrates some appreciation of the tragic aspect of human life. Omegas are all-too familiar with that tragedy. They live as failures and so they’re forced to the margins to observe society without the emotional varnish. They’re left to know that society is absurd, that we tend to be ruled by sociopaths who are more or less monstrous and who exploit us as herds of cattle so that they can live as the gods that most of us unknowingly worship via theistic fictions. There is little functional difference, for example, between the medieval peasantry and the modern mass of consumers.
As for how alphas and omegas interact, the paradigm is provided by the Gnostic, omega figure of Jesus Christ. Jesus probably didn’t exist in history, but that’s irrelevant. In the Christian story, Jesus was ignored or ridiculed by the power elites of his day. Then he was crushed by them. But the throngs of former betas whom he converted into fellow radical omegas rose up and moralized the Roman megamachine. Rome converted to Christianity and centuries later the Americas are still predominantly Christian. If we look closer, though, we see that Jesus’s religion has been coopted by the sociopathic elites, so that the Church’s representatives have given Jesus’s blessing to every form of mass monstrosity, including war and capitalistic exploitation. In the New Testament, Jesus says to give God and Caesar what they’re respectively due. In Jewish circles, that would have been interpreted as a bold preference for moral and spiritual obligations over matters of political expedience. Unfortunately, the Gospels were written after the destruction of the Jewish Temple in 70 CE, when the early Christians were dissociating from Judaism and trying to ingratiate themselves with Rome. Thus, the Roman interpretation would have prevailed, which was that God and Caesar are one. The esoteric reading is thus the sociopathic autocrat’s, which is similar to the omega’s: theism is a fiction that rationalizes the godlike autocrat’s enslavement of the beta rabble, so we should pay our taxes and respect the secular authorities because they’re the creators of the divine ones. Indeed, the Roman elites were involved in the selection of Christian scriptures and in hammering out official Christian doctrines.
The lesson is that even when omegas rise up against the horrors perpetrated by the alphas in charge, the omegas’ radicalism is coopted for the conning of the beta herds. There is no underestimation of how blind the betas can be in their submission to the power elites, since even when God is identified with an omega male, as God is in Christianity, the betas still suspend their disbelief as the power elites use Jesus as their ventriloquist’s dummy. The alpha and the omega are equally objective in their thoughts about society, since the alpha lacks emotional attachments to others, owing to his innate or learned sociopathy, while the omega is driven to objectivity as the penalty for her comprehensive failures. Both, then, are alienated outsiders, but there’s an obvious difference: the alpha reigns at the apex of the dominance hierarchy, while the omega is banished to the wilderness. That difference in environment produces a crucial difference in character: the sociopath is trained to be monstrous, to perfect his vices in a Machiavellian play with slaves, subordinates, or other automated betas, while the omega stews in angst, becoming an authentic member of Homo sapiens, one destined to emerge from the decadent civilizations produced by the ancients’ pragmatic wisdom.
Our ancestors were wise compared to the animals, because they could learn how to exploit natural mechanisms for their survival. Their wisdom was instrumental, not spiritual. (The mythopoeic mindset was a hangover from our prehuman ancestors’ animalistic naivety.) But as that mechanistic knowledge produced civilization, thanks largely to the mechanization of humans in the megamachine (the massive theocratic dominance hierarchies), old knowledge was taken for granted as it was embodied by our self-regulating artificial environments. That left us with time to philosophize as well as to push scientific objectivity to the limit. In the prehistoric world, omegas were merely the slowest in the hunt or perhaps hobbled by some disease which led to their being ostracized. But postmodern omegas are afflicted with hyper-awareness. We late modernists don’t have the same practical knowledge of how to survive in the wild, since our survival has been guaranteed by our modern microcosms which have replaced the wilderness. Instead, we know what it means to exist as a human being. Betas ignore the existential questions in their pursuit of material success in a dominance hierarchy, climbing the ladder to reach the pinnacle of sociopathic evil. Alphas and omegas equally well know the naturalistic answers to those questions, but whereas omegas are horrified by them, because their conscience is intact, the most distinguished, monstrous alphas view those answers as so many opportunities to prey on the unenlightened herd. For these reasons, civilization is a tragicomedy.