Us and them

Social group of elephantsIt seems that for many believers part of the appeal of their religion is the community and sense of belonging that it offers. Although this is rarely cited as a reason for sticking with their beliefs, I suspect it has a strong subconscious effect. The desire to belong is natural for humans as it is for all social mammals. Communal living may even have affected the way our brains evolved. When the group offers sharing of food, protection from predators and the opportunity to mate, survival may depend on staying in the group and avoiding social rejection.

The problem is that this kind of thinking leads people to consider some people to be insiders and others outsiders. That makes sense in a tribal society, but in the modern world we have a responsibility to treat everyone with respect. In the view of ethics advanced by Peter Singer, people decide who to treat morally based on whether that person falls within their moral circle. In a modern world we should be looking to expand that circle to include all of humanity (Singer also argues persuasively that we should also include animals in our moral circle).

I think religion can often get in the way of this. I’m not trying to characterise religious people as misanthropes when it comes to outsiders, many are very friendly. I’m sure many believers would also tell you that their religion itself encourages them to be friendly to all people. However, there’s plenty of behaviour common to religious groups which is anything but friendly to outsiders.

Diane Wilson made it clear in her book that the Jehovah’s Witnesses certainly separate people into those within the society and those outside it. This usually involves certain tactics. Although these things are more common in cult-like religions, they can be found in watered-down versions in almost any faith.

Firstly, the stigmatisation of outsiders. This, along with a strong discouragement to associate with them, allows unfair stereotypes to go unchallenged. Those outside the religious group are often said to be unfortunates or that they will suffer some terrible fate, such as a literal hell.

Secondly, conformity. Certain patterns of speech and behaviour are encouraged, through shared rituals or varying degrees of social pressure. Unusual and unnecessary rules also help to define correct behaviour and separate the “ins” from the “outs”. In some cases membership of the religious organisation is considered more important than any aspect of the individual. This was a popular theme amongst the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ , as Diane Wilson reports from a JW sermon:

Bucket of waterThrust your fist into a bucket of water, then pull your fist out. Look into the bucket. The size of the hole that is left in the water is what you’re worth.

To moderate believers this sounds extreme, but there are few religions which celebrate individuality and all have rules of behaviour that define those who are members and those who are not.

I suspect in the case of cults and some newer religions, this is a conscious effort to keep members under the influence of the religion and its leaders. Perhaps in smaller religious groups which differ from the surrounding culture, this is necessary to maintain group cohesion.

Going off on a bit of a tangent, it struck me today that a similar thing can occur with fans of football (soccer) teams, or indeed any sports team fans. Certainly they seem to treat fans of rival teams differently to those of their own team. Similarities have already been drawn between football and religion.

Polish football fans

So what else do religions and football teams have in common? My pet theory concerns the way people choose them. By which I mean they don’t. Well, not consciously. Not like you might choose a new car or house. There’s no weighing up of a team’s odds at being promoted to the next division, no examination of their track record, or the scruples (or not) of the manager.

So in an argument with another fan over which team is more deserving of support, there’s no objective basis on which to justify their decision. No team has a perfect track record, the vast majority are not at the top of division one and in any case, such arguments are after-the-fact justifications – that wasn’t how they chose the team in the first place.

Fans are most likely to choose a team based on which team is supported by those around them – their family, friends, community. Or perhaps the team belonging to the town in which they grew up, which may amount to the same thing in many cases.

Sound familiar?

I think it’s very similar with religion. It seems the reason religious debates ultimately boil down to “Faith”, “Personal experience” or “Agreeing to disagree” is because there is no rational objective basis on which to chose one over another. Interestingly, Swiss theologian Karl Barth said something similar:

“Belief cannot argue with unbelief, it can only preach to it.”

I’d go further and suggest that a religious belief cannot even argue with another religious belief. At least no more than one football fan can tell another they’ve chosen to support the wrong team.

One thought on “Us and them

  1. I think it has to do with what the belief is ultimately based on – reason or emotional attachment.

    Most people pick their football teams through the latter – inheriting them via their family or peer group, and it’s often the same with religion. While rational arguments can be gather later, the bedrock of that belief remains purely emotional in nature and so any criticisms of it cut that much deeper. If I support Arsenal because my dad supported Arsenal then any criticism of my belief is also criticism of his, etc.