I came across a blog called Exploring Egregores a while back. The linked introduction to the project is entitled “Who Worships an Evil God”. If that piques your interest, we can probably be friends. And the remaining contents of this essay may be up your alley.
The author explains the whole idea better than I can, so I’d encourage you to go read it now. If you’re anything like me, you’ll stay to read the whole contents of the blog, plus the linked articles to Scott Alexander’s Meditations on Moloch and Sarah Constantin’s explanation of Ra, if you haven’t come across them yet in your journeys. I’ll be referring to these essays along the way, so doing the homework will definitely help achieve the common ground necessary for efficient communication.
Anyhow, having dispensed with all the disclaimers and preamble, this blog I came across purports to explain various Lovecraftian Mythos gods as egregores, a term I’d gloss as “themed idea-complexes”. Idea-complexes with the power to change your life, if you’re willing to embrace them and follow them to their ultimate conclusion.
In this light, it doesn’t really matter if an egregore is physically real. For instance, it is said that Azathoth sits in a fortress at the center of the universe gnawing hungrily amidst his drums and flutes. But if you managed to send a space probe to the appropriate place and didn’t pick up any maddening music, that wouldn’t make the phenomenon he represents any less real or important.
These flowery personifications may mislead. But given the way people are wired, they’re likely to inspire a truer understanding of a large, complicated idea than a drier approach. I have certainly found this a valuable mental exercise, if nothing else.
Lovecraft’s odd materialism may be more conducive to crafting this lens, but this logic all maps quite readily onto any polytheistic cosmology. Take Greek mythology, for instance. Aphrodite is the goddess of Love, Apollo is the god of Light and Knowledge, Athena’s the goddess of Cunning and Strategy, and so on and so forth.
Each of these gods approves of different sorts of behavior and encourages different ways of thinking. But the important thing is that they all represent distinct, potent concepts. If you’re the sort to go all-in on any one of them, they are powerful enough to sweep you away. Set you alight. Even drive you mad, perhaps.
That’s pretty neat. But let’s take it one step further. What happens if we apply this analysis to the Big Kahuna himself: Yahweh, the God of Abraham? After all, the cults of the Greeks are dead and gone, while people riding under one or more of the various, mutually-contradictory banners of Yahweh have swept over the Earth. If you add together the total population of Jews, Christians, and Muslims today, you easily get a global majority.
Not bad for a God who started out watching over a backwater handful of tribes in the post-apocalyptic wasteland of the early Iron Age Near East. The history books are filled with the secular details of how and why this happened. But we are not concerned with these mere physical trivia here. We seek his essence. What is he all about?
This question is surprisingly hard to answer. One of the reasons why is similar to that the authors of the linked blog encountered when analyzing Cthulhu: we don’t have enough cultural distance to see him with clear eyes. The ironic image of sleeping, tentacled Cthulhu rising from the deeps to devour all mankind blinds people to what he’s really all about. Yahweh’s vast impact on world history is the same kind of thing, but to a much, much larger degree. It’s crucial to keep this point in mind as we continue.
The second issue is that the followers of Yahweh insist upon monotheism. Which is a real issue for our analysis here. If there is only one god, then it follows that he has to be the god of everything. And a god of everything is as interesting as a god of nothing. It’s too much; we need contrast in order to get purchase.
We can dispense with this by granting that the followers of Yahweh – and Yahweh himself – may deny the existence of any other gods. And he might even be right. But we’ve already seen that mere non-existence needn’t be an issue for an egregore. The idea of other gods is real enough for him to set himself against them, such that his first commandment is famously to have no other gods before him. So just because his followers say that he has dominion over everything doesn’t necessarily make him the null “egregore of everything”, in our terms.
The last issue is that Yahweh has been so successful that there are dozens of traditions out there that claim to be his true worshipers. They’re mutually contradictory on every possible point of doctrine you could imagine. And from the outside, they all seem to have reasonably good claims, so it’s not obvious how to go about picking one and reasoning from that portrayal. But then again, if you look at it from the right angle, all these contradictions could actually help us in our quest! Any detail that two or more groups of sincere Yahweh cultists strongly disagree on can’t actually be the core of the idea-complex we seek.
So here’s my best stab at it: Yahweh is the God of Winning at the Prisoner’s Dilemma.
If you put it like that, it seems like a pretty small, boring, arcane domain to be a God of. Especially for somebody who likes to claim he’s the Lord of All Creation, the King of Kings, and so on and so forth. Compared to all the cool mythological creations in the Exploring Egregores blog or the capital-letter Concepts that inspired the ancient pagans, it’s thin gruel indeed.
But this obscure academic domain turns out to be the very most important possible thing! An idea-complex that causes its followers to solve this meta-problem would go on in turn to pave the way for solving virtually all the problems you could ever have. This is the Holy Grail. And we’ve been drinking from it for thousands of years. Crazy, huh?
It”s important to call out that Yahweh isn’t just an aspect of the goddess of victory in general. Nike flies around and bestows the laurels of victory on the winners of a competition. She’s a neutral party: the cosmic scorekeeper. When you sacrifice to Moloch for victory over your competitors, she’s the one who delivers the goods.
But Yahweh isn’t neutral in the least. From his earliest origins, we see that he consistently picks a side. He was the god of the Hebrews in exile, the power under whose sign Constantine conquered at the Milvian Bridge, the animating force behind the hosts of Muhammad as they swept out of the Arabian desert.
That’s because a key component of Yahweh’s strategy is the maintenance of a bright, hard line between ingroup and outgroup. On one side stand his people: the believers; the chosen; the elect. On the other are the infidels and heretics.
This is why belief in Yahweh is never considered to be merely a matter of internal contemplation. Unlike, say, enlightenment in the Buddhist tradition, or Ithaqua’s love of lonely self-improvement, following Yahweh imposes a social obligation. It is incumbent upon one who would follow Yahweh to openly declare his allegiances – to wear the colors, so to speak – so that all of Yahweh’s other followers can recognize him as one of their own and act accordingly.
Moreover, Yahweh invariably goes on to make this declaration costly. It is not enough to merely be born to the right parents, say the magic words, or to experience the proper internal mental state to enter the ingroup. He imposes dietary restrictions, shibboleths, tithes, and other such arbitrary ritual requirements. These may have their own justifications, but Yahweh loves them mostly because it makes people put their money where their mouth is.
This pattern goes all the way back to the very first patriarch. Abraham was ordered to sacrifice his firstborn son, Isaac, to Yahweh. And, as the story goes, Abraham went through with his part of the deal. He had raised up his knife to finish the job, fully committing to the deed, when Yahweh sent a messenger angel to stop him at the last possible moment. A substitute animal for the sacrifice was provided and the covenant fulfilled to everyone’s satisfaction.
This story illustrates one of the key differences between Yahweh and Moloch. Moloch is the engine that turns sacrifice into power. He hungers for sacrifices like this; he would never halt one out of mercy. But Yahweh didn’t want Abraham’s sacrifice itself; he wanted a demonstration of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice. Because that degree of commitment reflects an unforgeable loyalty toward the ingroup.
Along these lines, it’s no coincidence that many of his favorite cultists are the ones who died rather than renounce him. The Zealots at Masada or many of the various Christian martyrs come to mind as exemplars of the form. He needs this signal to be visible and reliable – even unto death – in order for the rest of his mojo to find purchase in the hearts of his followers.
In Prisoner’s Dilemma terms, it is pleasing to Yahweh when one defects against a member of the outgroup, as we see when Yahweh punishes his people in the Old Testament for being insufficiently brutal toward their rival tribes. It is a little shocking to modern sensibilities to imagine Yahweh smiling as he looks down on the proliferation of holy wars in his name, but it’s definitely in character.
Despite all the death he’s credited with, either by his own hand or by encouraging his followers to do the work for him, he’s not a bloodthirsty god. He’s not a god of Chaos, longing for skulls for his Skull Throne. Nor is he Ares, longing for the thrill and the brutality in the clash of arms. No, Yahweh smiles on the river of blood because cooperating only with others who are running the exact same strategy as oneself is an evolutionarily stable strategy in a multiplayer Prisoner’s Dilemma. And it outcompetes many of the other stable options in virtually every metagame environment. If winning means piling up the corpses like cordwood, so be it.
Yahweh doesn’t care all that much about the outgroup, though. It suffices as long as the walls are up and parasitism is minimized. His primary focus is always on his chosen people and how they interrelate. After all, the real magic happens when he spins gossamer threads of valuable cooperation out of the chaotic Molochian defect-defect misery that serves as the background noise of history.
Not only does he continually call upon his followers to cooperate with each other beyond all reason, he is said to reciprocate the cooperation himself. He signs covenants with his people and follows through. And it is said that Yahweh engages personally with each follower, hearing and responding to prayers, albeit in his own way. That personal aspect is key, as it makes him a fully-fledged member of each follower’s ingroup.
At this point, it’s worth making the distinction between Yahweh and the other egregore Alexander mentions in his linked article. Elua is posited as the god of humanity and free love and niceness and liberalism, who is somehow mysteriously powerful despite renouncing armies of demons and the like. He loves art, philosophy, love, and all the other seemingly useless things for their own sake: all the things that Moloch would bid you sacrifice in exchange for victory over your rivals in the race to the bottom.
Unlike Elua, Yahweh doesn’t love art for its own sake. And yet, strangely, his devoted cultists have produced most of the truly moving and lovely art that has ever come into existence. Nor does he love learning in and of itself. But, again, we find a surprising number of the finest scientific and philosophical minds in the historical record among his cult. Odd, isn’t it?
The reason Yahweh looks upon these useless things with favor is because they work. Not just because they have a tendency to cause practical spinoffs. That’s nice and all. But Yahweh calls his people to build cathedrals and philosophize and the like because they give the ingroup something of transcendental value to rally around and defend.
Pagans like Cthulhu’s fish people would fight for their coastal strip of land because it has always been theirs. A tribe devoted to Shub-Niggurath would join the battle for bestial reasons: exhilaration; resources; sex. These motivations are grounded in empirical reality. They make sense at both the individual and group level. But Yahweh exhorts his followers to take up their swords to do crazy things like preserve beauty and enforce cosmic justice. And it turns out that these madcap, irrational, might-as-well-be-made-up reasons prove to be far more powerful than the merely real.
Along these lines, it’s worth mentioning that Yahweh promises his followers some manner of eternal reward for a life well lived. What, exactly, heaven consists of is a matter of some dispute. But all of them seem to agree that it’s a highly desirable state in and of itself – and not just because it’s the absence of eternal punishment. It is true that other gods make similar promises. But what about Yahweh would make him weight this one so heavily?
The best answer to that question I can see comes from the Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma. Unlike the standard game, where there’s only one match that can end in one of four possible ways based on the 2×2 matrix (Cooperate/Defect per player), an iterated game is played for many rounds in a row. The fact that the game has a history enables a player to punish a defector for previous perfidy, and it turns out that the best known strategy (called Tit-for-Tat) makes use of this to help establish long chains of mutually-profitable cooperation.
The trick comes when the game has a mutually known end date. If both players know that there are only, say, twenty turns left, then both players can predict that on the last turn, there will be no incentive not to defect. Given that, it follows that there’s no reason not to defect on the second-to-last turn, since both players will be defecting anyway on the last turn. And, by induction, there’s no reason not to start defecting immediately. The logic holds no matter how far away the end is. As long as it’s known for certain, the basis for cooperation breaks down.
And it greatly displeases Yahweh when his people stop cooperating for any reason. So, then, it follows that Yahweh offers the promise of heaven primarily because it ensures that there’s never an end-date to any of these iterated games played within the ingroup. And as long as the reward is potentially big enough, the logic behind Pascal’s Wager kicks in and holds true.
The most important thing about Yahweh is that, like Moloch and unlike Elua (or many of the other elder gods), he represents a process that serves as a self-perpetuating engine. At each historical juncture, it changes the world-state to be more Yahweh-like, while Azathoth/Gnon/Moloch/The Gods of the Copybook Headings dissolve anything that is not into its base components.
This process is why, contra Alexander, I do not believe that we are living in a historically fortuitous Hansonian dreamtime between unconstrained Molochian epochs. We are not spared Alexander’s visions of Molochian horror because of some lucky burst of resources that has temporarily blunted the inevitable competition. No, the resource accumulation he notes has happened precisely because of the mounting victories of Yahweh’s forces in the crucible of twenty-five hundred years of maximally-intense inter-group competition.