Long, long ago the first animal ate the second animal. Then the first animal became food for the third animal. All animals hungered, hunted, ate, and became food for other animals. The world was an epic food orgy—a bone-crushing, blood-drinking drama unburdened with self-consciousness or guilt.

Over eons and eons animals evolved into primates, then into primal humans, then into the Old Ones who hunted animals for food.

Centuries and centuries passed. The Old Ones became self-aware. They didn’t want to die. When they killed, they felt joy because they had been spared. They ritually thanked the animals for giving their lives to become food for Old Ones and their children.

To overcome the paralyzing fear of death the Old Ones searched for meaning, a larger purpose, by using rituals. By means of ceremonies and celebrations they hoped to produce the opposite of death.

All social organizations and processes emerged from the performance of rituals, a means of transcending self and death.

The Old Ones used rituals to help the seasons change. Rituals assisted light in its victory over darkness and kept the Old Ones in tune with nature. They generated an immortality account, a hedge against drought, disease and death.

Old Societies were relatively egalitarian and non-competitive. Individuals blended into tribes. Distinct selves were a liability.

The Old Ones built up their immortality account by taking life in ritual sacrifices. By taking a life ritually, they could give life symbolically. They could feed their spiritual hunger, thereby transcending death. They could draw power from the invisible world and use it in the visible world.

Ritual required an audience so the Old Ones performed for gods, the ultimate audience. This differentiation between gods and persons created the first class distinctions, the first hierarchy. The gods are over there; the people are down here.

Humans replicated these distinctions in their social life. Gods were sacred because they created Old Ones. Gods couldn’t be questioned. Class distinctions were beyond criticism.

In Old Societies shamans were technicians of the sacred. They could move between the visible and invisible worlds. They could travel between life and death. Since they controlled secret ritual knowledge, they had an edge on power. Shamanism was not hierarchically organized, centralized or bureaucratized.


With the invention of agriculture and the consolidation of populations into cities, the old hunting-gathering societies disappeared.

From the tribe emerged the Middle Ones who lived in ancient cities ruled by a divine king,  a visible god. From the divine king emerged the patriarchal family—male self-perpetuation by way of sons.

Ritual became centralized in states, families, clans. Sacred power was no longer available whenever people dreamed, imagined, ritualized.

Shamans evolved into high priests who served divine kings.

In city-states, if rituals were performed properly by priests, kingdoms flourished.

Ritual power—a form of transcendence over death—had to be gathered or generated in a central place before it could be dispersed to the people and the land.

With the rise of cities surrounded by agriculture, societies transitioned from being an economy of simple sharing to one of centralized, hierarchical redistribution of physical and spiritual goods.

No longer a partner of the gods, the divine king was a Big Boss, a darling among the gods. Divine kings and gods participated in each other’s lives and power.

Divine kings handled political problems of inequality and lack of social justice by distracting their subjects, by creating enemies. In this way the Middle Ones were able to fetishize evil, locate it in a person, group, place or animal they could manipulate. This is the origin of scapegoating. Scapegoating required mystification—hiding of the true sources of power.

Heroes embodied the collective wisdom as they engaged in battle with enemies of the divine city-kingdom.


Christianity entered the world of divine kingship by proclaiming a great democratization that put spiritual power into the hands of individuals and in one blow wiped away the inequalities of the dispossessed.

This was the intention of Christians. But Christianity failed to change the massive structure of domination and exploitation represented by the state.

Thus, Christianity became just another immortality project, a denial of death, a religion of conquest.

Christianity introduced the notion of sin, the idea that the whole of life, not just specific acts, were sinful. As a result, one could no longer kill joyfully. Killing incurred guilt, which, in turn, required expiation, ritual cleansing, which required sacrificial killing.

As Christians tell the story, God sacrificed his only son, beginning a perpetual cycle. God sacrificed his son, so humans must sacrifice their children. They did so unconsciously and unwittingly in wars, by abandonment, by abuse, by drug-use.


The Christian empire gave way to the Renaissance, Protestant Reformation, Enlightenment, and Industrial Revolution.

The result was the rise of science and the decline of unifying rituals.

However, money (capital—invested money) replaced ritual symbols.

Gold, originally a symbol of the sun god, became a deity, an ultimate concern.

The first banks were temples.

The first bankers were priests.

Monetary power, like all power, is the power to build, but also the power to kill. Even though individuals die, they can leave their wealth behind as an inheritance that transcends their own deaths.

Money is the new eternity.


Since the Enlightenment New Ones have become secular. Their work no longer matters to the gods. They eat animals but no longer sacrifice them or ritually thank them.

New Ones say they aren’t afraid of death. They deny that buildings, money, and civilizations are immortality projects. In so doing, they engage in repression—the unconscious hiding of their fears from themselves. They deny their own shadows, dark human desires, and then project them onto scapegoats: Others, Them, Those Across Borders, Those With Other Skin Colors, Those Who Follow Other Religions.

The New Ones are now making the world an even more eager graveyard than it once was in the old days.

Consciously, the New Ones no longer indulge in human sacrifice, but unconsciously, they pursue a collective ritual of human sacrifice: war.

War is a holy cause and sacred duty. War is a ritual that cultivates the emergence of heroes.

Like ancient kings, modern nation-states generate religious horror—dramas based on the principle of heroic victory over evil.

Idealistic leaders elicit transference—unearned love and mindless devotion transferred unconsciously from their primary objects: parents, ancestors, gods.

In all societies, individuals give up their freedom to serve the collective (tribe, class, state, religious institution, company, movement, cult) as a way of perpetuating their lives beyond their own deaths.

This sacrifice is true not only of states but of lovers who give themselves to each other as a way of trying to cheat death.


The moral of this story—and of all human history—is that every form of social organization, every civilization, is an immortality project, the aim of which is to cheat death.

Every society is a lie, a mystification. Consequently, the study of societies becomes a revelation of the Big Lie. Contemporary cultures are styles of heroic death-denial.

The paradox is that evil comes from our urge to achieve a heroic victory over evil.

What can we do? To whom should we turn? Science and psychoanalysis can help to criticize idolatrous rituals, myths and symbols. But once they do, there is the perpetual temptation to divinize these methods.

The hope for nondestructive rituals, myths and rituals is an illusion. We cannot escape illusion.

The only possible antidote to the mystification of power is the free flow of criticism.

Critique is the New God of the New People.


I take some storyteller’s liberties in retelling Ernst Becker’s theory as a story. I believe it’s implied by his Escape from Evil, The Denial of Death and other writings.

Becker died just before finishing Escape from Evil. Marie Becker and Robert Wallace completed Ernst Becker’s heroic attempt and published his book despite his request that it remain unpublished.

They followed Becker’s own example. He had immortalized himself by writing books that students were forced to read in university classes—to write critiques, comments, evaluations and marginalia as if they were producing commentary on sacred texts.

Becker’s books, student critiques, and my retelling qualify St. Ernie for the status of hero-saint in the Church of Holy Criticism.