Religion and Tribalism from an Evolutionary Perspective

Religious belief and adherence is a widely accepted—and often expected—component of many societies. Indeed, in countries such as America there seems to be a pervasive distrust and dislike for people who don’t believe in a god; and of those who don’t believe particularly zealously in one. For example, one study found that 54 percent of Americans surveyed held an unfavorable attitude regarding atheists (Zuckerman, 2009). Moreover, the same study found that 28 percent of respondents had an unfavorable opinion of non-religious people in general. Several countries have gone as far as making the government a facilitator of a national religion: Egypt, in 1980, changed their constitution to explicitly state Islamic sharia law as the primary inspiration for legislation; Iran experienced a religious revolution in 1979 that led to the constitutional affirmation of velayat-e faqih (the rule of the jurist), which asserted that political statutes and regulations were based on Islamic criteria; and some countries such as Saudi Arabia have ubiquitously accepted a system of governing based on religious dogma since its founding (Schank, 2014). Even so, most developed and industrialized countries don’t exhibit the degree of religious belief and fundamentalism exemplified by the aforementioned examples. Given this, several practical questions may be queried: Is such religiosity bad; what drives one to be religious; and how can we explain the social development of religion? These are serious questions, and they may be best answered from a psychological and evolutionary perspective.

Within evolutionary psychology, there exists the useful concept of tribalism. Tribalism addresses, for example, the human propensity to divide into in-groups and out-groups, with some individuals systematically excluding other individuals to create a selective group dynamic (Shermer, 2015). This clustering together of like individuals may have been very beneficial to early humans and human-like hominids. Being in the in-group likely afforded group members many benefits such as pooling resources, dividing up tasks of labor, and gaining protection from predators and potentially hostile out-group individuals (McDonald, Navarrete, & Van Vugt, 2012). These traits would have helped the prehistoric ancestors of modern humans protect themselves and survive in their harsh environment. Indeed, this tribalism may be one of the reasons humans have proven to be so successful as a species. Tribalism is present in many other animal species as well, especially primates. Chimpanzees, Gorillas, and especially Bonobos can exhibit almost eerie similarities to many of the idiosyncratic ways modern humans interact with each other. However, even despite their similarities with humans—and their seemingly tribal behaviors—human tribalism (and the tribalism of more recent human ancestors) evolved to become far more sophisticated than even that of our closest primate cousins (Workman & Reader, 2014).

Religion and tribalism seem to be very closely related. Most religions by nature seem to make it a point to distinguish members from non-members—sometimes to the extent of xenophobia. Particularly for the modern orthodox/fundamentalist religious (as opposed to Moderates and Liberal religious individuals), this exclusivity appears to epitomize many of the xenophobic tendencies of many sects. Even in the Old Testament of the Christian Bible, “love thy neighbor”—when taken in the full context that the Jews were by themselves in the desert, and thus had no neighbors but fellow Jews—applied only to other Jews. Indeed, “thou shalt not murder” evidently didn’t apply to the non-Jewish groups that Moses subsequently ordered his people to brutally massacre—including women and children. Today, many of the stricter adherents within religions still approach certain groups of people with distaste, distrust, and often malice. Predictably, religious fundamentalism has been shown to negatively correlate with tolerance for lesbians and gay men (Whitley, 2009). An example of this is readily observed by the backlash of fundamentalist venom after the US Supreme Court recently made a ruling that rendered gay marriage legal in all 50 US states (Obergefell v. Hodges, 2015). Among many other statements on the subject, Supreme Court justice Scalia said that court decisions (such as the repeal of DOMA and Don’t Ask Don’t Tell) undermine morality and US laws against bigamy, adult incest, fornication, and bestiality (Rains, 2015).

Similar to their measured predispositions on LGBT issues, highly religious people also tend to score much higher when measured for racially prejudiced beliefs (Hall, Matz, and Wood, 2010). Regarding religion and ethnic sorting, Hall et al. pointed out that in 1998 almost all American religious congregations consisted of only one racial group, and that merely 12% were comprised of even a moderate degree of racial diversity. There appears to be a general trend of intolerance from those who are exceedingly religious, particularly those who place a high value on orthodoxy. Indeed, throughout much of American history, the staunchly religious have typically been the last to accept the abolition of slavery in the 19th century, women’s rights and civil rights in the 20th century, and indeed, gay rights in the 21st century (Joy, 2013; Shermer, 2015). Not all religious congregations and denominations, however, display such exclusionary prejudice.

There is a minority of denominations in Christianity—and to a slightly lesser extent Islam—that are highly inclusive and supportive of human and civil rights. This may be attributed to a much more broad sense of Inclusive Fitness (Hamilton, 1964). The interesting thing about the human mind is that it seems to be able to take mechanisms that originally evolved for another purpose, and adapt them for other tasks that are more adaptive in a modern society. For example, with Inclusive Fitness, some people may broaden their perspective of “relatives” to the point where they consider most or all humans family, which—since humans share a considerably large percent of their DNA—isn’t all that hard to imagine (Shermer, 2015). With this interpretation, they have an interest in securing a future for everyone’s offspring and not exclusively theirs. It is still somewhat uncertain exactly what is responsible for this difference between fundamentalist and liberal religious sects, but, like many behavioral traits, it is likely a combination of biological predispositions and environment.

One trait that seems to be very prevalent among the tribal religious fundamentalists is Right-Wing Authoritarianism (RWA). Indeed, RWA itself has shown a highly significant correlation with religiosity (Mavor, 2011). Right-wing authoritarians tend to be especially willing to submit to authorities that they have identified as orthodox or legitimate. Moreover, they adhere relatively strictly to societal conventions and norms, and are inclined to be hostile and punitive in their attitudes towards people who fail to conform. RWA itself seems to bear a very close resemblance to tribalism. Tribes often have hierarchies that work best when the largest groups (those close to the bottom) submit to the authority figures. This can be observed in the highly structured hierarchy in the Catholic Church: The Pope is at the top, next are the cardinals, then the archbishops, then the bishops, the priests, and so on. Historically, one would be severely reprimanded for challenging the church’s authority on any issue. For example, Galileo was placed on indefinite house arrest for endorsing the heretical belief of heliocentric instead of geocentrism; Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake for the same crime in addition to accusations that he was a pantheist.

Orthodoxy—a characteristic of RWA—has also been a central component to the development religion. This history of tribalism and orthodoxy (correct belief) has played out precisely as one would have predicted with the original formation of the Christian religion. In the beginning there were many tribes of Christians with radically differing beliefs: Some Christians believed in a fully human Jesus who was adopted by God at his baptism and died fully human at his crucifixion; some believed Jesus was fully divine and only appeared to be flesh and blood; some believed Jesus was a mortal who was possessed by the Christ at his baptism, and who was abandoned by the Christ at his crucifixion (hence the passage in most Bibles of him saying “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me”); and some believed that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine (Ehrman, 2009).

One may be inclined to make an analogous comparison between RWA exclusive religious sects versus the Inclusive sects, and the evolution of sexually versus asexually reproducing organisms. Asexual organisms tend to proliferate quite well when their environment is highly stable and doesn’t change very much. For example, a small still pond with minimal contamination that maintains a reasonable temperature for long periods of time would provide a perfect incubator for asexually reproducing organisms. It is not necessary for the organisms to adapt significantly, only reproduce. The downside is, however, when the environment changes, their lack of genetic variation may lead to an inability to adapt and ultimately to their extinction. Sexually reproducing organisms on the other hand, due to their genetic variation, are able to change with and adapt to more unstable environments (Workman, & Reader,2014). The pro/con dynamic is similar with religion. RWA tribal religious sects would do quite well when they do not exchange ideas, information, or otherwise assimilate with other tribes. This is likely due to the stability and organization of their hierarchal structure. The problem occurs when the social environment is more dynamic, and there are cultural and ideological exchanges between tribes. In these circumstances, inclusive tribes are able to adapt and change to accommodate new ideas from other cultures. On the basic level, this comparative model can help one understand the evolutions of tribes and religions.

As previously stated, members of some religious sects, like tribes, often treat outsiders as less than human, and thus not entitled to ethical treatment. Historically, most of the nations that exist today (including America) were the result of imperialist conquering and expansionism by various countries acting as large tribes. One example of this is the treatment of Native Americans in the United States. The European conquest of North America involves both tribalism, and religion. As the Europeans saw it, the Native Americans were savages and an obstacle to be overcome in their conquest. One of the faults that the Europeans saw in the Native Americans was their lack of belief in what the Europeans believed to be the correct religion. As an arguably very RWA tribe, the European society valued orthodoxy and “correct belief” extremely highly, and they certainly saw the Native Americans in violation of this. Because of this immediate determination that the natives were inferior on the grounds of religion, Europeans appeared to have no problem exercising any means of conquest, including the genocide of the natives. These conquerors saw themselves as privileged by their direct access to their god, and thus exercised their privilege to the point that natives were excluded from any meaningful human rights (Jacobs, 2010). They believed that they were divinely given the right to conquer all of the lands from the East coast to the West coast; Manifest Destiny.

In the example of the European conquest of America, it is demonstrated that many things which would normally be considered immoral when done to the in-group are not considered immoral when done to the out-group. In an article on morality, Rozin, Lowery, Imada, & Haidt (1999) indicate three specific spheres of morality: Morals of autonomy, morals of community, and morals of divinity. Two of these three spheres of morality appear to be especially related to tribalism, with Morals of divinity being most explicitly tied to religion. Morals of community address things such as social norm violations, disrespect to in-group members, violations of social hierarchies, and violations of the group orthodoxy. Morals of divinity refer to violations against things that people value as sacred or holy. These two conceptual spheres of morality may encompass a great deal of overlap between the traits of RWA, religion, and tribalism. This is to say, people who are high in RWA also tend to react to transgressions against Morals of Divinity and certain aspects of Morals of Community particularly harshly relative to people who are low in RWA. It is also likely that Morals of Divinity exhibit somewhat more over overlap with RWA than Morals of Community does.

Regarding transgressions in the realm of morals of divinity, a derogatory gesture made at a religious symbol may be considered sacrilegious, and punished with anything from social exclusion, to the death penalty. In many Islamic countries, such as Saudi Arabia, victimless crimes such as homosexuality or apostasy are seen as abominations to their religious dogma, and are punishable by beheading, hanging, or stoning to death (Yuill, 2014). Similarly barbaric practices are proscribed in the Christian Bible, though usually not adhered to in most modern predominately Christian countries. For example, in Leviticus 18:22 and Leviticus 20:13, homosexual behavior is stated as strictly forbidden, and death is proscribed as the punishment for engaging in same-sex sexual behavior. In Deuteronomy 22:20-21, it says that if a woman does not show the evidence of her virginity on the sheets after her new husband takes her to bed, she is to be taken to the door of her father’s house and stoned to death. According to both Exodus 31:14 and Numbers 15:32-36, the punishment for doing work on the Sabbath (the symbolic 7th day that the Bible says God finished “creation”) is death, usually via stoning. It appears that many of the laws that are set forth in the Bible may have originally been Morals of Divinity that later were given divine backing to make more certain that they were followed.

Both Islam and Christianity base a great deal of their doctrine on the inspiration of martyrs. Workman & Reader (2014) state that martyrs are seen an inspiration by members of the in-group. Martyrs garner this reverence because they are willing to die as a vindication of the beliefs of the in-group. The Biblical mythology is based around one primary martyr (Jesus), and Catholicism includes many less prominent ones such as St. Stephen and St. Peter. It is believed that these Martyrs died defending the beliefs of their in-group, what were considered the correct or orthodox beliefs and interpretations regarding Jesus and the God of the Jews.

While Islam doesn’t seem quite as affixed to ancient martyrs, there are several modern extremist sects of Islam that consider suicide bombing an act of martyrdom. These sub-groups of Islam believe that martyrs will be rewarded by Allah in the afterlife with preferential treatment, and access to virgin wives. A Palestinian bomber who failed to complete his attempt at being a martyr said that he did not do it for revenge, but that he did if for “the love of martyrdom” (Harris, 2004). Of course most Muslims do not attempt to exterminate non-Muslims. The example is mentioned because it is relevant to illustrate the extreme tribal loyalty that religion can inspire in its adherents.

It seems that from an evolutionary psychology perspective, Morals of Divinity may develop in order to increase social adherence to already existing Morals of Community. Because of this apparently intentional behavior of making adherence to certain tribal norms more strictly mandated, one may intuitively suggest the connection to the aspects of RWA such as the marked emphasis on correct belief, orthodoxy, strict cultural norms, and draconian punishment for those who violate these standards. There are many conceivable evolutionary benefits for such rigid social norms and hierarchies: A tribe may be able to react more quickly and effectively to direct short-term threats. Strict expectancies of reciprocal altruism among tribe members would also invariably lead to a relatively reasonable living standard compared to individuals and tribes that were more indifferent to others, and thus less likely to return a favor. However, given some of these benefits, it is yet to be seen if these formerly adaptable features of human social evolution and development are still beneficial to modern society. Indeed they may in fact be maladaptive and possibly holding humanity back from further societal and evolutionary progress.


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