Smells Like Team Spirit

Here’s an item that should come as no surprise to anyone:

Religion Is a Potent Force for Cooperation and Conflict, Research Shows

The article discusses a paper by Scott Atran and Jeremy Ginges that describes religion as strongly fostering cooperation within human social groups, as a means of competing more successfully against other groups. We read:

Across history and cultures, religion increases trust within groups but also may increase conflict with other groups, according to an article in a special issue of Science.

“Moralizing gods, emerging over the last few millennia, have enabled large-scale cooperation and sociopolitical conquest even without war,” says University of Michigan anthropologist Scott Atran, lead author of the article with Jeremy Ginges of the New School for Social Research.
“Sacred values sustain intractable conflicts like those between the Israelis and the Palestinians that defy rational, business-like negotiation. But they also provide surprising opportunities for resolution.”

As evidence for their claim that religion increases trust within groups but may increase conflict with other groups, Atran and Ginges cite a number of studies among different populations. These include cross-cultural surveys and experiments in dozens of societies showing that people who participate most in collective religious rituals are more likely to cooperate with others, and that groups most intensely involved in conflict have the costliest and most physically demanding rituals to galvanize group solidarity in common defense and blind group members to exit strategies. Secular social contracts are more prone to defection, they argue. Their research also indicates that participation in collective religious ritual increases parochial altruism and, in relevant contexts, support for suicide attacks.

They also identify what they call the “backfire effect,” which dooms many efforts to broker peace. In many studies that Atran and Ginges carried out with colleagues in Palestine, Israel, Iran, India, Indonesia and Afghanistan, they found that offers of money or other material incentives to compromise sacred values increased anger and opposition to a deal.

… This dynamic is behind the paradoxical reality that the world finds itself in today: “Modern multiculturalism and global exposure to multifarious values is increasingly challenged by fundamentalist movements to revive primary group loyalties through greater ritual commitments to ideological purity.”

We’ve been making this point here for years: religion is a strongly adaptive feature of human social and cognitive architecture, an innate propensity for which is almost certainly the result of the action of group-level selection in our evolutionary history. As I’ve argued in these pages, I suspect (with sadness, given that I’m an unbeliever myself) that secularism is strongly maladaptive for human groups (see this post, and the comment thread here, for example).

The authors of the linked article nevertheless express hope that a better understanding of this dynamic may enable negotiators to work around it:

But Atran and Ginges also offer some insights that could help to solve conflicts fueled by religious conviction. Casting these conflicts as sacred initially blocks standard business-like negotiation tactics. But making strong symbolic gestures such as sincere apologies and demonstrations of respect for the other’s values generates surprising flexibility, even among militants and political leaders, and may enable subsequent material negotiations, they point out.

I doubt it. Have, for example, the West’s repeated prostrations before the global Ummah brought us anything but contempt? Have they brought us any closer to harmony in the Middle East? It hardly seems that way. Nor have well-intentioned pow-wows between the leaders of incompatible faiths ever achieved much of anything at all, so far as I can make out — as predicted by Pollack’s Law of Interfaith Dialogue (as first articulated back in May 2010):

To the extent that dialogue between any two religions is necessary, it is unproductive, and to the extent that it is productive, it is unnecessary.

I see no reason to imagine this principle will be superseded anytime soon.

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6 Comments

  1. Kevin Kim says

    But the erosion of hardened attitudes has to begin somewhere. Without the moderates and the dialogue partners, you’ve got an incarnated, reified version of the fallacy of the excluded middle. The middle path is the hardest to walk, but it’s also the path with the greatest constructive potential. Attacking extremism with extremism doesn’t strike me as the answer.

    There are two principal ways to end a cycle of violence:

    (1) Side A violently exterminates Side B — no more problems. This might be the called Heinleinian Solution (Starship Troopers: violence has solved more problems in history than any other means). There’s plenty of historical precedent for this.

    (2) Side A’s memes exterminate Side B’s memes. There’s also plenty of historical precedent for this. Christianity’s most violent tendencies have been gentled with time, thanks to the influence of Enlightenment values, scientific skepticism, the free exchange of ideas in democratic societies, etc.

    I think that you and I might agree that containment isn’t a practical answer: Islamism isn’t something one can simply cordon off or ghettoize. At the same time, what are the alternatives? Exterminate all Muslims? If one can stomach genocide, then hey: have fun! Personally, I find dialogue more constructive in the spirit of “speak softly, but carry a big stick.” There’s always going to be a need for a background threat of violence to keep dialogue going, but I have more faith in the long-term efficacy of approach (2), above, than in approach (1).

    Do you have a non-genocidal solution in mind that doesn’t involve either dialogue or containment? What’s the Malcolmian Doctrine?

    Posted May 21, 2012 at 3:48 pm | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Kevin:

    I think that you and I might agree that containment isn’t a practical answer: Islamism isn’t something one can simply cordon off or ghettoize.

    No? It isn’t as if the West has bothered to try. I make no brief for ghettoization, which does nobody any good at all — but whatever the opposite of “cordoning off” is, that’s what we’ve been doing. The problem is that any attempt at effective containment would involve discrimination, which of course is considered by Western elites to be completely beyond the pale — far worse than cultural surrender and collapse. (“As horrific as this tragedy was, if our diversity becomes a casualty, I think that’s worse.”)

    Personally, I find dialogue more constructive in the spirit of “speak softly, but carry a big stick.” There’s always going to be a need for a background threat of violence to keep dialogue going, but I have more faith in the long-term efficacy of approach (2), above, than in approach (1).

    I agree with you of course that approach 1) is unpalatable, but I must point out in passing that in the long term it can be very efficacious indeed. (Been bothered by any Carthaginians lately?)

    I agree with you also that any dialogue with one’s foes is helped along by carrying a big stick, and by encouraging your interlocutor to believe that you are willing to use it.

    Approach 2) is obviously preferable — destroy the opponent’s memes with your own — but that is precisely the advantage of highly developed religious memeplexes: they have have impressive, often impervious defenses, and furthermore they create exactly the sort of group confidence and cohesion that gives them the edge over self-doubting, morally relativistic secular societies. (Not to mention the differential effect of modern, secular, Westernized meme-inculcation on fertility rates.)

    So in answer to your question “Do you have a non-genocidal solution in mind that doesn’t involve either dialogue or containment?” I’ll have to say that no, I don’t. (And I’ll repeat that I am certainly NOT advocating violent disaggregation here, though history shows that that’s usually what you get when peaceful approaches fail to pry apart incompatible human groups.) But dialogue doesn’t seem to accomplish anything at all — it merely creates the illusion of purposeful activity, while providing useful cover for the more determined side.

    Posted May 21, 2012 at 4:49 pm | Permalink
  3. Malcolm says

    The real difference between us here, I think, is that you’re rather more hopeful about all of this than I am.

    Posted May 21, 2012 at 5:10 pm | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says

    Here’s another thing: You describe approach 2) as “Side A’s memes exterminate Side B’s memes”.

    I only see two ways that can happen: either you exterminate the brains that holds Side B’s memes (which is really just approach 1), or Side A’s memes replace the memes in Side B’s brains.

    But if brains are hardware, and memes are software, it may not be the case that all software runs equally well on all hardware.

    Posted May 21, 2012 at 8:32 pm | Permalink
  5. Kevin Kim says

    “But if brains are hardware, and memes are software, it may not be the case that all software runs equally well on all hardware.”

    We’re heading into Matrix territory.

    Posted May 21, 2012 at 10:01 pm | Permalink
  6. Malcolm says

    You mean where people live in a comforting, imaginary world, and are unable to see reality unless somebody comes along and painfully jolts them out of their hallucinatory sleep?

    We’re already there. Which pill would you like?

    Posted May 21, 2012 at 10:12 pm | Permalink

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