I began this series about religion and religious extremism with the post, Atheists Do Not Understand Religion
As I was thinking through the sequel to that post I came up with another application of the principles (essentialism, coalitional behaviour): Atheist Hostility to Jesus Mythicism … making sense of it
Let’s recap with the point with which I began:
As one researcher put it:
The very fact that people in a group share this religious ideology and perform important rituals together sharpens their perception that they are indeed a group with clearly marked boundaries. Worshiping the same gods creates a community and by implication gives that extra edge to the feeling that people with different gods or spirits really are potential enemies. Indeed, people who become deeply involved in religion, for whom it is a matter of vital importance that their doctrine is the only source of truth, will not hesitate to massacre the ones who seem not to acknowledge this obvious fact or whose commitment is too lukewarm. The most heinous crimes will be a celebration of the True Faith. This is how gods and spirits lead to group cohesion, which leads to xenophobia, which leads to fanatical hatred.
Does that sound about right?
The same researcher added
Practically everything in this scenario is misguided.
I will conclude this series with this post. To do so I will refer to both the essentialist perspectives and coalitional behaviours characterized by religious groups and those who see themselves as some sort of atheist community.
I will quote sections of Boyer’s Religion Explained and add comments attempting to explain how I think they can be applied to each group.
People describe themselves as “members” of this or that religious group, with important and often tragic consequences for their interaction with other groups. (p. 285)
Agreed. People do.
These groups are explicitly construed as based on natural qualities—the people in question are thought to be essentially different from the rest, by virtue of some inherited, internal quality. (p. 287)
The internal quality we had when I was part of one group in particular was the holy spirit. We were called by God and given his spirit. That was not a personally inherited quality, but the group was defined as being a kind of “biological”, certainly “spiritual body” that had been in existence since the original day of Pentecost.
One of the most solid and famous findings of social psychology is that it is trivially easy to create strong feelings of group membership and solidarity between arbitrarily chosen group members. All it takes is to divide a set of participants and assign them to, say, the Blue group and the Red group. Once membership is clearly established, get them to perform some trivial task (any task will do) with members of their team. In a very short time, people are better disposed toward members of their group than toward the others. They also begin to perceive a difference, naturally in their group’s favor, in terms of attractiveness, honesty or intelligence. They are far more willing to cheat or indeed inflict violence on members of the other group. Even when all participants are fully aware that the division is arbitrary, even when that is demonstrated to them, it seems difficult for them not to develop such feelings, together with the notion that there is some essential feature underlying group membership.13 (pp. 287f)
We all know that to be true.
Our naive view of social interaction around us is that we are often dealing with people with whom we share some essential features — lineage, tribe, religious practices and so on. But I think we can get a better sense of how such interaction is actually built if we realize that many of these groups are in fact coalitional arrangements in which a calculation of cost and benefit makes membership more desirable than defection, and which are therefore stable. (p. 288 — my emphasis in all quotations)
Ah yes. When about to join a fringe religion we are certainly required to first “count the cost”. There is less of a cost with other more mainstream religions and groups, very often.
Now, in some contexts, the social relations people build on the basis of these coalitional intuitions are made much easier by the fact that the groups are defined as essential. In the laboratory studies, people were given an arbitrary coalition to cooperate with, and as a result they started imagining essential differences between groups. But in real social life the opposite is very often the case. People are presented with social categories that seem essential — castes of blacksmiths or lineages — and use them for coalitional purposes. (p. 289)
An essence or essential feature of an atheist group, as perceived by its members, may be that they are more “intelligent” than others, “secular” in their presumptions, etc. With religious groups they may see themselves as essentially different by the “essences” of righteousness and knowledge of spiritual things.
Because they are extremely stable coalitions, these essence-based groups do not seem to be coalitions at all. That is, for all the members as well as outsiders, the alleged essence is what drives people’s behavior. But I would suspect that actual behavior is more directly driven by people’s coalitional intuitions. (p. 289)
People join groups that they see as “essentially” what they want to be part of because membership confers some benefit that outweighs costs (if any).
Here too there seems to be a discrepancy between explicit concepts of social groups and intuitions that guide behavior. Consider the explicit concepts first: That most members of minority groups are dangerous or unreliable is construed as an essential feature of these groups by racists and deplored as lamentably unfair stereotyping by nonracists. Both constituencies agree on one assumption: that attitudes toward these social groups are based on people’s essentializing these groups. In this view, all it would take to establish better relations would be to convince most dominant-group members that minority people are essentially similar to them. For instance, if children were trained to realize that people do not really behave like their stereotypes, they would perceive the moral ugliness of discrimination.
But then Sidanius and Pratto marshal an impressive amount of evidence to suggest that there is more to dominance than stereotyping, and that the latter is a consequence rather than a cause. In fact, they demonstrate that many dominant group behaviors not only represent a desire to stay with one’s group, to favor one’s clan, but also to favor one’s group in an insidious way that maintains the other group’s lower status. Racial stereotypes are among the representations that people create to interpret their own intuition that members of other groups represent a real danger and threaten their own coalitional advantages. Obviously, one possible reason for this blindness to coalitional structures is that they often conflict with our moral standards. This may well explain why many people prefer to consider racism a consequence of sadly misguided concepts rather than a consequence of highly efficient economic strategies.15 (p. 290)
Ouch. That about sums up much of my naive, all-you-need-is-education outlook to solve all the social ills of our world. There really are people out there who want to stomp on others just for satisfaction of feeling victorious and unchallengeable.
So the notion that blacksmiths or undertakers are naturally different is particularly relevant when it explains why nonblacksmiths and nonundertakers maintain a high solidarity that excludes these craftsmen, but a notion like that is not the cause of such divisions; the interests of the groups, seen through human coalitional thinking, are the main cause. In this domain of social interaction as in others, people create powerful notions of what groups are, to some extent because these provide a plausible and relevant interpretation of their own intuitions. (p. 291)
All those people who have wronged me really are going to go to hell because God says they really have been evil. Or maybe they will repent and see how evil they have been in God’s eyes (not to mention my eyes, too) and then worship weeping at my feet. How glorious!
Flat-earthers? Young earth creationists? How superior we are to those who cannot accept established respectable institutions of higher learning. What kooks they are.
I have tried to show that there is nothing special about gods and spirits when it comes to creating communities or establishing efficient levels of trust. But we cannot stop there, for then we would have no explanation for the extreme enthusiasm with which members of some religious groups offer selfless cooperation to other affiliates and see members of other faiths as dangerous, disgusting or distinctly subhuman. The solution lies in human capacities for coalition building and in the flexibility of these capacities. The mental systems involved are not specially geared to religious concepts, but the latter can in some circumstances become fairly good indicators of where coalitional solidarity is to be expected.
This may be why many religious guilds try to emphasize affiliation as a radical choice, not open to further negotiation. . . . . (p. 291)
Oh, yes. To join a certain cult I was not able to just phone up and ask to be baptized and gain instant membership. I had to prove myself first to the gatekeepers. I had to demonstrate that I was so committed that I would indeed burn all my bridges behind me, my family even, my job and financial security, even prospects of finding a marriage partner.
The choice was certainly radical, not open to further negotiation.
But the point is that in each case, you can vary the extent to which you want to declare this identity and make it a source of coalitional commitment and coalitional benefits. Some people have a low-commitment strategy whereby they accept to be members, pay the various taxes and perform the various services demanded of members, but that is more or less it. Others choose a more involved strategy whereby they go further in declaring their allegiance, often volunteer for extraordinary actions on behalf of the faith, and get in return some goods, power, prestige and a guarantee of solidarity from other members of the corporation. Others take a still riskier path and are prepared to kill or to give their lives for the group. (p. 291)
Notice that. That is why anthropologists like Scott Atran have, as a result of the research undertaken by themselves and their peers, said that a more reliable predictor of who will become a suicide bomber might be the teams the person plays football with rather than his Muslim faith. His friends and their personal psychological commitments, their personal sense of fulfillment and meaning in life (and death), are better indicators of a propensity for terrorist action than the faith to which he and millions of others subscribe.
Think about atheist groups, too, for a moment, including, by contrast, all those atheists who never bother to join atheist forums or meetings and don’t even see themselves as “a group”.
First, note that many fundamentalist groups are predominantly concerned with control of public behavior — how people dress, whether they go to religious meetings, etc. — even though their doctrine often is primarily concerned with personal faith or commitment, and in some cases explicitly condemns the temptation to establish oneself as judge of others’ behavior (this is particularly salient in fundamentalist Christianity and Islam).
We see this is true with many of the notes left by suicide bombers and the public proclamations of groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda.
Would certain atheists care one whit about mythicism if it were a view that were confined to private household or bar-room discussions and never found its way into social or mass media?
Second, some fundamentalist groups have shown a great propensity to make the punishment of what they see as immoral behavior much more public and spectacular than it would have been in their respective traditions. At first sight, there is no clear rational explanation for the public denunciation of named individuals, for violent demonstrations in front of Planned Parenthood clinics or for the public stoning of adulterers. This emphasis on public and spectacular punishment makes sense if it is in fact directed at potential defectors, to make it all the more obvious how costly defection can be.
No need for further comment re religious groups.
Atheists: it pales in comparison with certain terrorist acts but we nonetheless have some very colorful very public denunciations of the wayward who appear to contravene the fundamental “essences” of the respective groups.
Third, a good part of fundamentalist violence is directed not at the external world but at other members of the same cultural, religious communities. The most imperious domination is exerted inside the community: by leaders over mere members, by dedicated followers over noncommitted people, and above all by men over women. If the movement is purely ethnic-religious, it will concentrate its attacks on outsiders. Again, however, coalitional dynamics would predict that whatever outsiders do is of little concern to fundamentalists. What matters is what other members of the group are likely to do. (p. 295)
Of course. With the atheist community (referencing those atheists who see themselves as a “community” of some sort) there is little to no cost in defection. Costs must be introduced to stave off defection. Costs include public disgrace, insults, etc.
Fourth, the main target of many fundamentalist movements is often a local form of modernized religion. This is quite obvious in American fundamentalism—both Christian and to some degree Jewish— which obviously cannot be a reaction to colonial or foreign influence but is very much directed against liberal versions of these creeds. But we can observe the same phenomenon in other places. The mass media’s depiction of fundamentalist Islam or Hindu violence in India would suggest that we are dealing here with a simple conflict between external modernity on the one hand and internal tradition on the other. But that is not the case. Both in Islam and in Hinduism for over a century there have been many popular movements that adapted religious norms to modern conditions. These movements were particularly popular with educated, urban middle classes and therefore represented a real political danger for those whose authority is purely grounded in religious hierarchies.
This is important to understand and accept. Too many continue to erroneously think that it is the religious doctrines and heritage that are themselves the problem. But the balance of numbers who remain peaceful against those who turn to violence proves otherwise. And Boyer epitomizes the findings of research into cognitive explanations for human beliefs and behaviour that there is a psychological universal at work here, not a particular religious heritage.
To sum up, then, fundamentalism is neither religion in excess nor politics in disguise. It is an attempt to preserve a particular kind of hierarchy based on coalition, when this is threatened by the perception of cheap and therefore likely defection. (p. 296)
Boyer, Pascal. 2002. Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought. Reprint edition. New York: Basic Books.
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