By Louis Gifford
Over the past several thousand years of human civilization, religion has changed immensely. The focus has gone from present, tangible forms to transcendent, intangible spirit; from primordial, cosmic battles to blissful nirvana or worldwide brotherly love; from a preoccupation with rules, rites, purity, and holiness distinctions to very libertine, egalitarian worship arrangements.
Extreme transitions in religious views took place during two times in history. First, during the “Axial Age” between the 9th and 3rd Centuries BCE, when Eastern Mysticism and Greek Philosophy flourished and when much of the Hebrew Bible was written. The second is happening now, and has been ongoing for about the last three centuries, which some scholars are calling a second Axial Age. It would be misleading to label these religious transitions simply as human progress. They frequently involve a breakdown of clearcut worship traditions and world views into ambiguity and skepticism. And even among religions which retain the same canon and beliefs, there is a different mood and mindset that simply cannot be explained by more wisdom and sophistication.
Roy Barzilai in The Testosterone Hypothesis has argued that the reason for these transitions is not spiritual, or even intellectual, but hormonal. He posits that the Axial Age, with our modern age, is greatly affected by a universal drop in testosterone. We may hear the word and think of only its bad effects, teenage boy delinquents or muscle-bound hotheads, but testosterone has its beneficial properties. Testosterone does not promote aggression so much as status-seeking and self-interest, and the means to actualize these goals. Testosterone in the endocrine system promotes dopamine and serotonin, “happy chemicals” that drive goal-seeking, optimism, and logical rationalizing in people. High-T people may have less will to cooperation, but a better tuned sense of justice and familial protection; more logical, pragmatic reasoning but less patience with ambiguity or metaphysics; more drive and less passivity, but an “irrational exuberance” that can lead to bad decision-making.
If being High-T isn’t wholly detrimental or hostile, being Low-T isn’t wholly beneficial or peaceful. A Low-T brain will be influenced by cortisol and oxytocin. Cortisol is associated with stress and “fight or flight” response. Oxytocin is a hormone known for promoting bonding and empathy among groups of people, but Barzilai cites research showing that oxytocin has a sinister side in promoting exclusivity and racism. Oxytocin can make you love your group, but loath outsiders. Barzilai argues these hormones together, unmitigated without testosterone, affect groups adversely, promoting excessive collectivism, passivity, pessimism, and mysticism. “A combination of high stress in the mammalian brain inducing cortisol and oxytocin will produce a fascist, militaristic human culture that venerates violence and the conquest and subjugation of other societies in order to eliminate perceived threats and enemies in order to achieve the Gnostic ideal of unification of humanity as one spiritual entity.” Barzilai argues that, contrary to stereotype, fascistic societies like Imperial Rome or Nazi Germany were actually Low-T societies.
This Pro/Con tradeoff between being High-T or Low-T accounts for why one end of the Bible sounds so different than the other end. Barzilai writes: “The God of the Hebrews is an aggressive, masculine, high testosterone personality, busy with creation and order and justice among his people and in the universe at large. In the New Testament, however, the ideal becomes more feminine, elevating qualities of empathy, love of all people without judgment, and denial of the self and this world, which are associated with temptation and the devil. Only in the afterlife in heaven is humanity united as one, who spiritual purity.” Any close reading of “Deuteronomistic” Tanach literature will show a very macho God, talking to Israel they way kings do to their vassals. The law laid out is clear-cut and non-negotiable. There are generous rewards for obedience and loyalty, but lawbreaking and “adultery” with other gods bring grave punishment. This God seems different than a Jesus who teaches mutual forgiveness and mercy, who longed to gather the children of Jerusalem together as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings.
Why the difference? One observation I would add is that the Pentateuch describes a young world of fruitfulness, settlement, exodus, liberation, and conquest, but the New Testament was written by Jews under the tyranny of Rome, coping with subjugation that would culminate in the destruction of life as they knew it. Some Jews, namely the zealots, tried to apply High-T aggressiveness against the might of Rome. The result was tragedy to the Jews still felt today. But a coming age is prophesied when, to paraphrase, “the Low-T will inherit the Earth,” and the universe will again be renewed and fruitful. It is in that age to come when the more appropriate instruction may come from a rational, optimistic, just, and strong command of a God exuding authority.