Are you looking forward to the World Cup? Or thinking “enough already”? I enjoy watching games, though not the blanket coverage before and after. It’s fun being partisan when you’re normally a see-both-sides sort of person.

I like the way sport brings us together to cheer and/or mourn as a nation. That’s important in a Western culture which is better at celebrating individual rights and freedoms than at valuing the collective.

We’re not just selfish, we’re groupish

Groupishness, as Jonathan Haidt illustrates in The Righteous Mind, comes naturally to us. Sports fans are one example,  and think of the buzz of being one of the crowd at a music festival or marching in a demonstration. The way people love to gather in churches, clubs and networks.

chickenhordeDespite the “selfies” everywhere, we are social beings. We work with strangers for common goals. We sacrifice our interests for the sake of the group. Perhaps we should all be uploading photos of the groups we belong to – our families, communities or the organisations we’re part of? It’s a shame the word “groupies” is taken.

You will be assimilated

Of course it can all go wrong. Fascist dictators exploited and still exploit humanity’s groupish psychology, and people are rightly wary of attempts to impose uniform culture and thinking.

It’s no accident that so many fictional enemies are anonymous clones robbed of all individuality, like Tolkein’s orcs, zombie hordes, and – most scary to me – the Borg in Star Trek, assimilating everyone in their path.

“groupishness – despite all of the ugly and tribal things it makes us do – is one of the magic ingredients that made it possible for civilizations to burst forth and live ever more peacefully.” Jonathan Haidt

Haidt uses the language of bees and hives. A national-scale hive with a dictator and an army is usually disastrous, he says. But a nation with lots of small hives generates social capital, and has many advantages over a nation of individuals.

Religions bind and blind

At their best, churches and other religious communities encourage people to be good neighbours and citizens. Friendships and group activities regulate self-interest and promote co-operation. People are attracted to religion for groupish reasons, even when they’re sceptical of all the supernatural claims and beliefs.

Religious beliefs work with religious practices to create a religious community, says Haidt. Doing linked to believing linked to belonging. His key point is that we can’t understand why people think the way they do about morality, politics and religion unless we take groupishness into account.

Religious practices bind people together, but they also blind, by discouraging or banning any questioning of sacred texts and customs. Religions cause great harm when they demonise out-groups and establish powerful hierarchies which suppress dissent.

What if the opposition aren’t all bad?

As I’ve noted in previous posts, Haidt shows how we reach moral conclusions with the elephant of gut instinct in charge rather than the reasoning rider. But when we are part of an ideologically diverse religious group, those instinctive moral reactions get challenged by other people’s ideas and experience of God. We can learn to accept difference.

“God has other friends as well as me. I am one in billions. I am only a bit. I see only a bit.” John Fenton

Rubbishing the opposition is fun when it comes to football. A major challenge of The Righteous Mind is to be generous to good people who oppose us on religion and politics. It’s one I’m still grappling with.

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