. . . . . religion must be conducive to love and unity among mankind; for if it be the cause of enmity and strife, the absence of religion is preferable.
( ‘Abdu’l-Bahá: Promulgation of Universal Peace page 128)
In the previous post, focusing on the role of religion in society, I tried to convey some of Jonathan Haidt‘s key points, from his penetrating overview of the area – The Righteous Mind. He contends amongst other things that the sense of belonging religion brings is an essential foundation stone for more general human cooperation. He tested this idea against the evidence and found it rang true. He then moves on to look at other evidence that provides a test from a different angle.
Long-Term Social Glue
What was really interesting to me was that he finds that religions are better than other ideologies at binding communities together long-term. He quotes evidence of where communes were compared (page 256):
Communes can survive only to the extent that they can bind a group together, suppress self-interest, and solve the free rider problem. . . . Which kind of commune survived longer? Sosis found that the difference was stark: just 6 percent of the secular communes were still functioning twenty years after their founding, compared to 39 percent of the religious communes.
He looks at the analysis of the key ingredient of this superiority (ibid.):
What was the secret ingredient that gave the religious communes a longer shelf life? . . . . He found one master variable: the number of costly sacrifices that each commune demanded from its members. . . . . . For religious communes, the effect was perfectly linear: the more sacrifice a commune demanded, the longer it lasted.
This did not work for secular communes even though such sacrifices are necessary for longevity (ibid.): for them, ‘demands for sacrifice did not help.’
The inescapable conclusion seems to be, as Sosis argues, that (ibid.):
. . . rituals, laws, and other constraints work best when they are sacralized. . . . In other words, the very ritual practices that the New Atheists dismiss as costly, inefficient, and irrational turn out to be a solution to one of the hardest problems humans face: cooperation without kinship.
As we have already seen, Haidt is very aware that there is a sting in the tail of this position that absolutely needs to be acknowledged (pages 265-266).
So religions do what they are supposed to do. As Wilson put it, they help people “to achieve together what they cannot achieve on their own.” But that job description applies equally well to the Mafia.
This is where Haidt’s close analysis of the kind of community a religion helps develop kicks in (pages 266-267):
Whether you believe in hell, whether you pray daily, whether you are a Catholic, Protestant, Jew, or Mormon … none of these things correlated with generosity. The only thing that was reliably and powerfully associated with the moral benefits of religion was how enmeshed people were in relationships with their co-religionists. It’s the friendships and group activities, carried out within a moral matrix that emphasizes selflessness. That’s what brings out the best in people. . . . “It is religious belongingness that matters for neighborliness, not religious believing.”
The Downside not Unique to Religion
As we have already seen, he looks closely at the old and thorny problem. You certainly can’t accuse him of ducking it (page 268).
Anything that binds people together into a moral matrix that glorifies the in-group while at the same time demonising another group can lead to moralistic killing, and many religions are well suited for that task. Religion is therefore often an accessory to atrocity, rather than the driving force of the atrocity.
The subtle point he makes, which should be obvious to anyone who looks dispassionately at the history of atheist regimes such as those under Stalin, Mao or Pol Pot, is that the problem is not religion per se, but the loss of a compassionate perspective that can come from identifying strongly with a group of any kind rather than with humanity as a whole.
This is the potential cost of the tool that can bring huge collective benefits in its wake that help everyone. However, to focus simply on the costs of religion without also weighing in the same scale the costs of secularism is hardly fair and certainly not objective. Haidt makes it very clear that even in terms of evolutionary success, i.e. reproductive superiority, secularism isn’t doing very well, let alone in terms of more subjective measures such as happiness and well-being (ibid.).
We evolved to live, trade, and trust within shared moral matrices. When societies lose their grip on individuals, allowing all to do as they please, the result is often a decrease in happiness and an increase in suicide, as Durkheim showed more than a hundred years ago. . . . the first atheistic societies have only emerged in Europe in the last few decades. They are the least efficient societies ever known at turning resources (of which they have a lot) into offspring (of which they have few).
He accepts that it is still early days in the history of such societies but feels that extreme caution is warranted before we can conclude that societies without a God can function any better on average than those with one, and he suspects that in the end they might come out worse for the comparison.
The Seed of Universal Fellow Feeling?
So, in spite of the well-attested dark side of belonging to a group, Haidt still feels that the potential is basically benign. He sees groups, which are demonised as the source of division and prejudice, also as the seedbed of fellow feeling (page 307):
We need groups, we love groups, and we develop our virtues in groups, even though those groups necessarily exclude nonmembers. If you destroy all groups and dissolve all internal structure, you destroy your moral capital. . . . . To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country, and to mankind.
It helps if we factor in what Robert Wright has written in his book The Evolution of God. One of his key ideas could also apply with equal force to any ideology (page 439):
Any religion whose prerequisites for individual salvation don’t conduce to the salvation of the whole world is a religion whose time has passed.
His ultimate contention builds on what Haidt is saying here (page 428-429):
The expansion of the moral imagination forces us to see the interior of more and more other people for what the interior of other people is – namely remarkably like our own interior.
In Haidt’s words (page 307):
Anything that binds people together into dense networks of trust makes people less selfish.
Neither of these authors is complacent. They are very aware of the pitfalls that lie in wait. Haidt finds evidence, for example, that proximity to other groups does not necessarily breed tolerance and understanding (pages 307-308):
Putnam examined the level of social capital in hundreds of American communities and discovered that high levels of immigration and ethnic diversity seem to cause a reduction in social capital. . . . . . Putnam’s survey was able to distinguish two different kinds of social capital: bridging capital refers to trust between groups, between people who have different values and identities, while bonding capital refers to trust within groups. Putnam found that diversity reduced both kinds of social capital. . . . . people living in ethnically diverse settings appear to “hunker down”—that is, to pull in like a turtle.
Another Complicating Factor
Jeremy Rifkin, in his searching book, The Empathic Civilisation, highlights the contradiction that might still sink us even if we learn to love all our neighbours. It is true that he is convinced of the positive power of such a kind of empathy (page 16):
Much of our daily interaction with our fellow human beings is empathic because that is the core of our nature. Empathy is the very means by which we create social life and advance civilisation.
But he’s also aware of the entropy such wide connections bring in their train. As wider empathy creates bigger civilisations we need to consume more resources to sustain them, until what we need becomes unsustainable. One of the starkest statements of that principle comes early in his book (page 44):
The tragic flaw of history is that our increased empathic concern and sensitivity grows in direct proportion to the wreaking of greater entropic damage to the world we all cohabit and rely on for our existence and perpetuation.
Even so, even though all these writers understand the risks, there is tremendous hope in their more optimistic analysis of human potential and the value of religion at its best to bring that out. And if religion can help us extend our effective empathy beyond even our fellow human beings to include future generations, all life on the planet and even the planet itself, we might have some hope of long-term survival. Of course there are powerful forces that militate against this. We are all aware of them. But there are powerfully constructive forces within our nature upon which we can draw to effectively oppose them:
The faculties needed to construct a more just and sustainable social order—moderation, justice, love, reason, sacrifice and service to the common good—have too often been dismissed as naïve ideals. Yet, it is these, and related, qualities that must be harnessed to overcome the traits of ego, greed, apathy and violence, which are often rewarded by the market and political forces driving current patterns of unsustainable consumption and production.
(From a statement by the Bahá’í International Community.)
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