Religion is turbo-charged tribalism

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Not long ago, many “new atheists” openly wondered whether, on the net, religion has brought humankind more harm than good. This is a fair question. Much innocent blood has been shed in the name of God and religion. The only question is why. The debate between the theists and the atheists has generated so much interest that Karen Armstrong, an ex-Roman Catholic nun decided to write a book about that. The book is titled “Fields of Blood.” Essentially, she defended religion. According to Armstrong, the reason why so much violence is tied up with religion is because religious conflicts are intrinsically intertwined with political power struggle. Thus, political players use the name of religion to facilitate justify their power grab.

I read Karen Armstrong’s book a few years ago. Her answer is not satisfactory to me. It seems to cover up the really deep-seated problem of religion. I have no problem recognizing that religion has both a bright side and a dark side. But religious differences do have a tendency to incite violence for a very simple reason — religion is, in its essence, a kind of tribalism. People of different religious beliefs are effectively of different tribes. If you are within the same tribe, then you can enjoy the social support network your religion offers. Up to quite recently, the church has been the center of community activities in a small town. It is the hub where you find friends, spiritual guidance, entertainment and fellowship. It also offers social assistance should you need it. In a very real and practical way, the church satisfies your daily needs. Christianity, for example, is a very popular religion in many Asian countries for this exact reason. While Christianity has some problems penetrating the Japanese society, it has found great success in South Korea. The church provides the Korean people a great social network. Such social network is very crucial if you are an entrepreneur or someone looking for a mate. The social function of religion is indisputable.

Thus, religion serves the purpose of social cohesion. The word root of the word “religion” gives us a hint of that. According to Lexico, “religion” comes from Latin religio(n-), indicating ‘obligation, bond, reverence’. It may also be related to the Latin word “religare,” which means ‘to bind’. Clearly, a key role of religion is to bring people together and facilitate social bonds. Within a religion, there is solidarity and community. One finds one’s brothers and sisters within the religious institutions. On the flip side of this solidarity, however, is animosity. Different tribes sometimes fight each other. If you are of the same tribe, you are friends. If you are outside the tribe, then you are the potential enemy. As such, you may become fair game for attacks. Thus, both friendship and animosity are generated by the formulation of tribes.

Note that not only do the tribes have external enemies. They also have internal enemies. Historically, the religious tribes have never been tolerant of members who disagree with the doctrines or question the authorities. Tribes rely on conformity and blind obedience in order to maintain solidarity. It is for this reason that heretics, dissenters and apostates are anathema and thus are often severely punished. Before the modern age, these internal enemies were often burned at stake. This is so despite what the religion teaches. A religion may proclaim love and compassion. Yet, its treatment of its enemies, external or internal, may totally violate its teaching of kindness.

From this perspective, it is clear that the upside of religion is also its downside. On the bright side, you get protection and assistance from religion. Yet, on the down side, you have to give up your individuality and follow the herd. Or else, you face severe punishment from your own brothers and sisters. This is the unspoken cost of believing in a religion. You have to become sheep.

To me, the downside of religion far outweighs its upside. Religion perhaps served a practical purpose of survival in the pre-modern days. In the modern age, however, there are signs that religion has outlived its social usefulness, since government-run social services have replaced many church-run ones. This is another reason why the mainline churches are emptying out. It is perhaps time to put religious tribalism where it belongs — in the dustbin of history. As the world becomes more and more a global village, we need a more heightened sense of universal brotherhood, not more tribalism.

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