Religion and Community

Another provocative, insightful essay by Connor Wood, expanding on the theme of the earlier essay I linked, this one keying off the conclusion of a study done by three psychologists.

The study concludes it’s not religious belief, per se, that drives violence and intolerance of others — it’s religious *practice*, the rituals that reinforce belonging to a tribe, and a concomitant distrust of other tribes.

Wood concludes with a contrast between worldviews similar to the one in the previous essay:

In a lot of ways, then, religion is a Catch-22. It primes us to be strongly bonded to the people around us, which is one of the single biggest predictors of personal happiness, health, and life satisfaction. We’re evolved to be tribal animals, after all – it makes sense that living in a strong tribe would make us feel warm and fuzzy. But the stronger our tribes get, the more outsiders look like aliens, or like enemies. Ritual per se doesn’t produce this effect, but instead piggybacks on it and intensifies it. The result is that religious people the world over are a bit more likely to be parochial, local-minded, and suspicious of outsiders than their non-religious peers. In its extreme manifestations, this dynamic produces religious wars – such as the 30 Years War that helped kick off the European Enlightenment.

Enlightenment and humanistic values, in contrast, tend to look askance at strong ingroup bonds and ritual, and to preference universalistic values that shatter tribal boundaries. In fact, this post-tribal value system may the knotty root of the religion-science schism; just like religion piggybacks on our tribal tendencies, science historically has piggybacked on our anti-tribal instincts, valorizing a culture-free, objective picture of reality and making many scientists coolly suspicious of ritual, religion, and most tribal identifiers. (When was the last time you saw a famous scientist wearing Denver Broncos facepaint? Never, that’s when.)

This makes sense to me; religion is largely about tribalism — or to use less loaded terms, community; culture. The corollary, is that, ironically, the exact nature of religious beliefs isn’t that important. It’s that everyone in the tribe (group, community) shares them.

This explains the paradox [which I’ve never entirely understood] of why it apparently doesn’t bother most religious people that people of other religions have diametrically, contradictory, different beliefs. They have *some* beliefs, and thus can be respected, in a sense, as members of different tribes.

Whereas atheists! This analysis also explains why atheists are the least trusted of any social, religious, or ethnic group. They’re loose cannons; you don’t know what they’re thinking; you can’t assign them to a tribe; you can’t trust them to conform to some pre-assigned set of beliefs and values.

One can one do with this insight? Just as being aware of the mind’s inherent biases can enable one to *try* to overcome them, would knowledge of this tribalistic connection to religious ritual help a religious person to understand that it’s not about the content — that, you know, all those things about gods and miracles, angels and demons, don’t have to be literally true?

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