Thursday, 29 January 2015

Rites and Reason in Tribal Religion

E. O. Wilson: Religious faith is dragging us down - opinion - 27 January 2015 - New Scientist.

Rite reasons: Why your brain loves pointless rituals - life - 19 January 2015 - New Scientist.

A couple of articles in New Scientist this week help explain the attraction of organised religion and why so many people are seduced by them despite the absence of any evidence that any religion is based on anything more than myth and superstition, so no objective basis for choosing one over another or indeed for following any of them.

In the first, in an interview with Penny Sarchet, sociobiologist E.O.Wilson argues that religion is basically tribal in nature and that people adhere to the dogmas and rituals of particular religions because of a need to have a tribal identity. He also argues that putting this tribal identity above all else is dragging humanity down and causing us to ignore major problems and scientific warnings about Earth's future:

P.S: "Why does our species seem to ignore scientific warnings about Earth's future?"

E.O.W: "I think primarily it's our tribal structure. All the ideologies and religions have their own answers for the big questions, but these are usually bound as a dogma to some kind of tribe. Religions in particular feature supernatural elements that other tribes – other faiths – cannot accept. In the US, for example, if you're going to succeed in politics, it's a prerequisite to declare you have a faith, even if some of these faiths are rather bizarre. And what they're saying is "I have a tribe". And every tribe, no matter how generous, benign, loving and charitable, nonetheless looks down on all other tribes. What's dragging us down is religious faith."

The tribal nature of religions can be readily seen from any decent map of the major world religions.



This transcendent searching [for meaning and purpose in life] has been hijacked by the tribal religions. So I would say that for the sake of human progress, the best thing we could possibly do would be to diminish, to the point of eliminating, religious faiths. But certainly not eliminating the natural yearnings of our species or the asking of these great questions.
E. O. Wilson
It would take an extreme form of self-delusion to look at such a map and conclude that people generally make informed choices about their religion and base it on evidence. Clearly, religions are inherited and rest on the authority of parents, peers and authority figures in the culture into which you were born. In many cases religion is indistinguishable from ethnic and national identity.

An example of how this works can be seen in the history of European colonisation of America where English religious minorities who felt they didn't belong to the main tribe initially identified with an amorphous 'non-conformist' or 'puritan' Christianity but when they established their new tribal homelands in the New World, the differences became new tribal identities and, for example, in Maryland, Quakerism became a capital offence so the Quaker tribe left and set up their own tribal homeland in Pennsylvania. The fundamental religious beliefs were almost indistinguishable but the rituals were different.

Rituals provide a very visible means of identifying who is a group member and who isn't. They help define us as a group, reflect our group values, and demonstrate shared commitment to the group.

Cristine Legare, Developmental Psychologist, University of Texas at Austin. "
And part of tribal identity is vested in the tribal rituals, as the article by Dan Jones on otherwise pointless rituals explains.

Rituals play an essential role in binding a group together and tend to involve several discrete steps that follow a set script. It has been said that the real power of Islam stems from the requirement that all Muslims should face Mecca and perform the same prayer rituals, including preliminary symbolic ablutions, at the same times, five times a day, and take part in the annual period of daylight fasting called Ramadan. Catholicism likewise maintains a group identity with the Mass and the requirement to 'confess' at regular intervals, making magic hand movements and going through little prayer rituals set by a string of beads.

Another example of a religious ritual can be seen in the Anglican marriage ceremony with its prescribed order, even detailing the precise words the vicar uses. And of course, even though not spelled out in detail, the congregation stands for hymns, kneels for prayers which are said with eyes closed and hands clasped, and collectively answers some prayers spoken by the vicar with a prescribed response.

All ritual and serving no purpose whatsoever other than the give group identity and to provide the married couple with a status passage as their civil status is ceremonially changed - even though they have probably been living together for some time, have almost certainly been in a sexual relationship, and may even have children.

It could be said that, at least so far as the Abrahamic religions are concerned, the only significant difference is in the rituals. How absurd that people are prepared to kill and die over who is using the right rituals to try to impress a magic man for whom there is not a shred of evidence.

But of course, they aren't really killing over who has the right rituals but over which is the best tribe. The rituals are how you know who is in the 'right' tribe and who isn't.

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1 comment :

  1. Useful article here. I was recently reading a brief article on Gang Theory. What was interesting about it was that no one seems to be that clear on why gangs form. All they need to do is study some of the oldest and consistent gangs, those in religious orders. The similarities are striking.

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