Some time last autumn, I was chatting with an acquaintance about toxic beliefs from childhood. He said he was surprised that many people avoid changing such beliefs, sometimes finding excuses, sometimes even reacting with hostility if they disagree with others’ opinions. I said (approximately): “It’s because we bond to our families with such beliefs, and on some level we feel that it helps our survival – it’s almost like religion sometimes.”
I blurted that last part out without too much thinking, but then it struck me – it is very much like religion. Religion serves the same purpose – group cohesion, mutual support, encouraging each other’s survival – on a wider scale than biological family. Family bonds are created naturally, automatically; weaker tribal bonds require something more in order to motivate people to invest extra effort into activities that benefit the tribe.
I’m quite aware that many anthropologists must have come to the same conclusion long before me, but it was still quite a revelation to me because of all the psychological conclusions that follow.
It makes sense, then, that most religions require suspension of disbelief and upholding certain traditions that don’t make much sense in modern times; it’s a way of testing people: “Are you with us, are you willing to follow our leaders – or are you unlikely to contribute to our tribe and therefore a liability?”
It makes sense that people often respond with such hostility when those beliefs are challenged – in some instinctive part of our minds, it’s not just a belief that is challenged – it’s our survival and sense of belonging.
A woman I worked with some years back, told me that when she was a child, her family wasn’t religious and wouldn’t join religious rituals – so their neighbors avoided and excluded them. This doesn’t make sense if you consider that most religions teach compassion and unselfishness – but it makes perfect sense if you consider tribal instincts. This is why most religions in the past fueled ethnic conflicts – and some extremist factions still use it for the same purpose.
On the level of tribal instinct, the idea is not, “Be kind to everyone”, the meta-message is more like, “Love and help thy neighbor – but other tribes are a competition and need to be fought or assimilated.” If there wasn’t for that kind of background, a meeting of different faiths would look more like “That’s what you believe? Cool! My folks believe that a giant fish came out of the ocean and grew legs and gave birth to first people! Let’s get together and share stories!” instead of “Is that what you believe? DIE!!!”
Realistically, if different strains of Christianity truly followed the New Testament, they would be more liberal than any liberal media; but because their essential purpose is group cohesion, they are usually focused on defining and enforcing rather rigid norms of behavior, while punishing those who differ from those norms. Tribal instincts are often stronger than reason or compassion.
Prosperity and religion
I also find it significant that in rich countries of Western Europe and Australia (perhaps Canada too, but I’m not so familiar with the situation in Canada yet, in terms of religion), people are much less likely to take religion seriously than anywhere else. In fact, you can observe the significance of religion increasing as standard of living decreases from country to country (often even from region to region within a country). It’s not just about better education – it’s more about the feeling that in a rich country, you don’t need a tribe anymore to ensure your survival. If a social security network works well, you might not need your family or neighbors’ help even when you are sick or old. In such circumstances, it makes sense to question authority and old beliefs.
You might say, “What about USA? Religion is still very important there!” I see several explanations for that.
First, USA is not as homogeneous as many countries in Europe (even with increased immigration into EU within last few decades). In USA, practically everybody is a minority in some way. There is so much diversity that the need to belong to a group and confirm a group identity grows stronger.
Second, social security system in America is much less supportive of an individual than in EU – especially in case of medical problems. There are many more homeless people in USA than Europe – and many more possibilities for an individual to become homeless on a very short notice. This might make people feel less safe and more likely to seek extra security by joining established communities.
Third, while European tribal territories were more or less established centuries ago (in spite of many local skirmishes and both world wars), American frontier wars only ended about 1890 or even later, according to Wikipedia. America, the way I see it, is still quite a military culture, with the military being glorified way more than in EU or Australia. To motivate people to go to war, with everything war implies, you need strong beliefs and strong sense of group identity – and religion is one of the things that fulfill that purpose.
Some religions are now global and include way more members than an individual can feel close to. I see that as a reason (or at least part of the reason) why there are so many factions (often hostile to each other) within those religions. Our brains just cannot handle too large a tribe. If a tribe becomes so large that the relationships become too impersonal, can you really count on those people’s help? Best to make it smaller. It’s not a conscious decision, but an instinctive urge.
I’m aware that questioning religious beliefs often makes people feel angry and offended. While trying to be as objective as possible, I have to take that risk. I hope that most readers will understand this as an invitation to think, rather than “whose worldview is better” contest. I also hope that, if some people become aware of these underlying currents in our human psyche, it might motivate them to abandon “kill the unbeliever” way to be religious in favor of “love and compassion” way to be religious. All the religions in the world include some great and uplifting ideas, as well as some that are toxic or pointless. Let’s finally put the emphasize at the former.