Enlarging our Hives

If you read one book this year read, Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind I hope you read more, but if you don’t  read this one. Really, it’s that good. This is the third of three posts on this book ( part one and part two), but we have merely touched on the ideas he covers.

This week we’ll look at part III “Morality Binds and Blinds”. In this section, Haidt explores the idea that,

[H]uman beings are 90 percent chimp and 10 percent bee. Human nature was produced by natural selection working at two levels simultaneously. Individuals compete within every group, and we are the descendants of primates who excelled at that competition… We are indeed selfish hypocrites so skilled at putting on a show of virtue that we fool even ourselves…

But human nature was also shaped as groups competed with other groups. As Darwin said long ago, the most cohesive and cooperative groups generally beat the groups of selfish individualists. .. We’re not always selfish hypocrites. We also have the ability, under special circumstances, to shut down our petty selves and become like cells in a larger body, or like bees in a hive, working for the good of the group. These experiences are often among the most cherished of our lives, although our hivishness can blind us to other moral concerns. Our bee-like nature facilitates altruism, heroism, war and genocide. (xv)

Our “groupish” behavior affects religion but is also found  in politics, clubs, teams, and the workplace. Haidt says there are four things that make us groupish;

– the need to defend a shared” nest” and food (humans and other animals do this)  (202-203)

-shared intentionality (the ability to work together and share mental representations of tasks and the ability to conform to group norms) Quoting a researcher on chimpanzee behavior Haidt writes “It is inconceivable that you would ever see two chimpanzees carry a log together”. (204-205)

-genes and culture co- evolve (cultural innovations can affect genetic evolution. For example,we select friends based on their ability to fit into our (shared) moral matrix. (211).

– these changes- of genetics and culture – can happen “quickly”evolutionarily speaking.  (212).

There are things that we, as a society, do which help us become part of the group and help us develop a sense of being part of something larger than ourselves. Rituals are an important part of this. Ritual, in this use of the word, means any expected and repeated behaviors. For example, football games are full of ritual- special clothes, foods, chants, half time, etc.  Music and dancing are other ways we become part of a group. Think of the way dances, especially in times past, helped shape communities and cultures. Think of the power of a music concert. And there are many other things we do which help us feel a sense on belonging. Holidays, pep rallies, uniforms…

When Haidt discusses religion and politics, he is thinking about them as they function, what people do and what they are trying to achieve. He wants to examine the binding practices, what brings and keeps a religious group or a political group together. For this discussion the question is not “is it true?” but “how does it function?”.

One practice that keeps groups ( and not just religious groups) together is the sacralization of something. Something becomes sacred it has become un touchable to the group. It could be family, country, taxes, the Bible, God, or any other of a number of things. Groups that last have something sacred which holds them together.

The grimmer side of groupish behavior is that the same things that bind us together, blind us. If we privilege our group we run the danger of  trivializing, dismissing, or demonizing other groups.

Haidt has quite a bit more, all of it fascinating, to say about groups, but this is enough I think to start reflecting on groupishness and religion.

It seems to me, one of the things we see in groups, especially perhaps religious groups, is the tendency for them to become rigid, to create more rules, to become more exclusive. Sometimes in religious discussions people make a distinction between dogma ( what we must believe, things central and essential) doctrine ( beliefs where there are legitimate differences of opinion) and ideas ( things that are open to discussion and speculation). What tends to happen over time is that ideas slip into doctrine, and doctrines become dogmas. Before you know it, you have people thinking that one’s ideas about evolution or the role of women in the church affect one’s salvation, rather than recalling the dogma that we are saved by grace and Christ alone.

It takes some serious and vigilant awareness to keep our groups focused yet open.  If we are not groupish enough, the group can’t last, there is nothing to hold us together, If we are too groupish, we won’t let anyone else in- or we are stringently particular about who we let in. Theologians sometimes speak of ‘bounded openness’ as they try to describe the balance the church needs.

So here is Christianity’s “hard problem” How do we include all sorts of people from all sorts of cultures and backgrounds and ideas and yet still be a group? Anytime someone new joins a group, the group is changed. The mere action of joining changes the group and if the person becomes active and engaged in the group, the group will change even more. How do we keep from building unnecessary walls between us, walls over worship style, the version of the Bible we read, church structure, and so on. How do we know what is essential to the faith? How long a list is that? Can we add to it and if so who decides? How do we keep ideas from sliding into doctrines and doctrine to dogmas? How do we keep from, often unwittingly, building a wall to keep “others” out?

How can there be a group where absolutely everyone is welcome?

I’d like to know, what do you think?

3 thoughts on “Enlarging our Hives

  1. I like your ideas and line of thinking. You have grasped the problem well. Do I have a solution? well I would have to say no. How can you take people with a life time of conditioned beliefs and get them to all conform to a specific standard. That standard would have to be so broad, for it to be able to accommodate everyone, that it would be to unwieldy. You can not be all things to all people. Love might be the only thing you could get people to agree on. Even then, they could only agree what it feels like to “receive it,” but not what qualifies as love, when they have to extend it to others. Sorry I can’t provide your answer, but keep up the good work.

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