Group cohesion and cooperation were essential to the survival of prehistoric Homo sapiens. We have evolved to instinctively assign artificial positive qualities to “our” group and equally artificial negative qualities to outsiders. These assignments are not innocent mistakes, nor are they reality-based. They are a subconscious process which enables “our” group to compete and survive more successfully. This has been confirmed by numerous scientific studies. We see it all the time, from Facebook to Fox News to rooting for sports teams.
As one example from Western religious history, I suggest that much of the energy of Hebrew Law in the Torah initially provided standards by which the Hebrew “we” separated and declared themselves superior, to Mesopotamian, Canaanite, Egyptian, and later, Hellenistic “them.” Famously the root of the Hebrew word for holy itself, qedosh, means to be separate or apart.
For example, “cultured despisers of religion” like to point out the ludicrousness of the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.” After all, much of the Book of Genesis is a compendium of mass murder and genocide. Yet in the context of group dynamics, it makes perfect sense. The commandment not to kill holds within the ingroup, but not in relations with the outgroup. Yes, the Law states, we should be charitable to the stranger who dwells respectfully in our midst (which itself was quite enlightened by the standards of the day.) But that does not apply to competing cultures: “them.”
Some violence, even killing, was also acceptable within the ingroup against those who challenged the ingroup’s authority–embodied in the ingroup’s God and “His” divinely ordained minions–who set the practices by which the ingroup distinguished itself from everybody else.
I ran across a fascinating article in the August 28, 2015 issue of Science, the peer-reviewed journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The blurb on the magazine cover said it all: “Why it Pays to Believe in a Punitive God.”
After years of comprehensive research, a cross-disciplinary team of scientists have developed a theory: why so many varied cultures over such a broad time span–all came to worship what the article termed, “moralizing gods.” This “moralizing” god concept is diverse, ranging from theistic, as in early Judaism, in Christianity, or in Islam; to polytheistic, as in any number of ancient civilizations.
The article states: “By combining laboratory experiments, cross-cultural fieldwork, and analysis of the historical record, [the so-called ‘big gods’ team hypothesizes that] belief in those judgmental deities, or ‘big gods,’ was key to the cooperation needed to build and sustain. . . large complex society.”
In other words, belief in “moralizing gods” was the key to forming the large, complex ingroups needed as foundation for modern society. The big gods team acknowledges that more research needs to be done. They don’t specifically mention the role of group dynamics. But historically, religion in the west has strongly involved distinguishing “our” group in competition with “their” groups through the authority of our “moralizing god” and “His” representatives–who form an elite among us. To this day, the word handed down from a “moralizing God” is still the authority by which fundamentalist traditions maintain standards, practices, and membership.
Theologian Dorothee Solle asserts–and I agree–that sin is a kind of separation. In authoritarian religions, this plays out sociologically as separation from the ingroup. That is, the “sinner” sins by violating the authority projected onto the ingroup’s scripture and God–and the result is separation–exclusion–from the ingroup. Over the ages, we’ve seen this play out in Hebrew Law, Medieval Catholic excommunication, modern Mormon excommunication, Scientology’s “Repressive Person”hood, and fundamentalist damnation–to list as broad a range as possible.
Fast forward to an article in December, 2012 Scientific American magazine by psychologists Sarah Estes and Jesse Graham. They describe progress toward what they call religious “universalism.” They’re not talking about the Unitarian Universalist tradition at all. They’re using “universalism” as a secular term: specifically a religious outlook which reduces “authoritarianism, dominance, and ethnocentrism,” and turns “all of humanity” into our ingroup.
Personally, I love this amazing little article. It’s not just a wonderful way for an atheist like me to be a universalist–although it is that. It also captures the germ of liberal religion across the board: to abandon instinctive hierarchies, authoritarianism, and group dynamics, to seek compassion and relationship with all of humanity, even all of creation, as our ingroup! So that–in the religious sense–sin is no longer separation from the ingroup because you violated authority. It’s a lapse in relationship: a misguided separation from the cosmic ingroup of the world and our fellow human beings.
In this way, we move from a theology built around atonement–the punishment for sin–to a theology of hope: aspiration toward the cosmic ingroup. I find that a beautiful concept. But that doesn’t make it easy.
Once you get past pie-in-the-sky song lyrics, group dynamics are instinctive and powerful. They never let up.
Religious educator, Angus MacLean, noted that “The method is the message.” Similarly, communications theorist Marshall McLuhan noted that “The medium is the message.” Both statements apply to religious groups and the struggle to move past group instinct, to compassion and enlightened religious conduct.
In my own childhood, I grew up in the Unity School, a moderate Christian expression. In 1962, when I was twelve years old, my family moved from Colorado to Salt Lake City, Utah, where there was no Unity Church. I found myself in a big-city middle school, unchurched, in a culture dominated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints: the Mormons.
Then, as now, the Mormon Church was doctrinally distinct and technologically very modern–but at the same time, culturally fundamentalist. They were–and still are–dominated by authority of their scriptures and their white, male hierarchy. Their youth did, and do, attend religious education and social events during the week as well as on Sundays. I submit that in Utah they were a classic ingroup, a culture formed around a typical “moralizing God.”
Their message was conditionally universalist: welcome, Christian charity, and Christian love for all. Driven by group dynamics, though, their practice, in my case embodied by the actions of their youth, was precisely the opposite. As a shy, chubby, bookish, non-Mormon adolescent in Salt Lake City, conspicuously absent from weekday morning youth functions, I stuck out as the most obvious kind of outsider. I found myself coolly tolerated at best and ruthlessly bullied–including sexually bullied–at worst.
No need for further details. Suffice to say, it was an introduction to the shadow side of religion and group dynamics that remains with me to this day. It had nothing to do with the Mormon Church’s message, which was welcoming and positive. It had everything to do with on-the-ground practice, driven by ingroup-versus-outgroup dynamics: a method and practice that conflicted with–drowned out–the avowedly positive message. “The method is the message.”
In various authoritarian expressions, we do see attempts toward more universalist attitudes. At the same time, we also see fierce opposition to those attempts and retrenchment and reassertion of authority among leaders. It may come from the highest echelons: the Church Office Building in Salt Lake City. Or it may take the form of opposition among the Curia against Pope Francis’ limited universalist experiments–or, say, the increasingly reactionary policies of the Southern Baptist Convention, or “lawyering up” among Scientology’s elite. But in all cases, this retrenchment is justified in the name of God and scripture (or the cosmic wisdom of L. Ron Hubbard, which is the same thing.) But it is really about maintaining the power and authority of the elite.
I am now a Unitarian Universalist minister. So what about us anti-authoritarian Unitarian Universalists? This is a complex human dynamic, which operates in many ways, from subtle to blatant, with different groups and subgroups.
Religiously liberal–sociologically universalist–though we claim to be, we Unitarian Universalists are no more immune from group dynamics than anybody else. It may play out differently. But our haphazardly evolved human brains still, spontaneously, form an ingroup–“us”–which still separates from and dismisses “them.” I’ve witnessed expressions of this during talkbacks, at Coffee Hour, in other conversations. It sneaks up on us. It can start as sincere social or political discussion only to phase into “bashing” Republicans, Trinitarians, the business community, the military–or non-academics–or even the poor if they actually show up at a service rather than where we’re comfortable dealing with them. Most heartbreaking for me, I’ve even seen it rear its head in our religious education departments.
I see one role of the minister as gently challenging group thinking in our Congregations–that moment when we move from sincere conscience and attempt to understand complex issues–to blanket dismissal of some “other” for more shadowy reasons–because they are not “us.”
We are as human as anyone else. Even with our anti-authoritarian leanings, even with our genuine good intentions, we are not immune from the shadow side of the human condition.
Technology changes. Theories and techniques change. Human psychology remains the same. It seems to me that matching our method–our practice and our relationships with one another–to our message, is a challenge that will always be with us. It will endure, however society in general–or our religious tradition in particular–may evolve. To steal an unnerving though from Scientific American columnist Michael Shermer, smart people will also do weird stuff. Because we’re smart about rationalizing opinions and actions we get into for not-smart reasons.