The Tribal Trap

I’ve been commenting a lot lately on Julian Baggini’s Heathen’s Progress series on the Guardian web site. Baggini has completed this series, so I will conclude with posts about his last few entries.

On March 22, reviewing several months of reader comments, Julian found it “dispiriting to see how tribal so many people seem to be.” Although his readers often posted thoughtful remarks, “many more” seemed happy to find a “pretext to get in the familiar old digs against whoever the other tribe happens to be.” And whenever Julian criticized his fellow atheists, people thought this showed he was “on a certain ‘side’, as though … we only agree with friends and those we disagree with are enemies.”

Indeed. While reading responses to Heathen’s Progress, I was appalled to see childish schoolyard taunts disguised as intelligent theological discourse. In my January 17 post I noted that comments marked “recommend” by large numbers of readers often contained language that was hostile and demeaning. One very effective way to be loved by some is to be hateful to others.

Our whole world is trapped in tribalism. So how can we get out?

On March 15 Baggini talked about finding common ground between theists and atheists. “It’s just not good to have families, streets, neighbourhoods or nations divided by faith, or lack of it.” He then suggested that we can find common ground in our common flaws. Every person has prejudices, blind spots, and intellectual weaknesses, and “no matter how sure we are, we could be mistaken.”

I emphasized the same idea in Bridging the God Gap. And I agree with Julian that the difference between theism and atheism is less important than the difference “between those who show the virtues of reasonableness and those who do not.”

To get out of the tribal trap, we must face our own limitations.

We must also learn to communicate across ideological divides, especially about political issues. Whenever people who follow a particular philosophy of life advocate some public policy, they need to justify that policy in terms that people with other world-views can understand and accept. As Julian stated on February 16, this “is simply the minimum requirement for fruitful, peaceful co-operation between people with different world views.”

If we want to promote cooperation among people of all faiths and philosophies, pluralism is the only practical path. Those who do not agree with this goal want to impose their lifestance on others, by force or by guile. That is an excellent game plan, if you want to cause endless warfare all over the world. But if we want to build peace, we must first break out of the tribal trap.

For Julian’s series see


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5 thoughts on “The Tribal Trap

  1. “One very effective way to be loved by some is to be hateful to others.” Research in social psychology shows that ingroup favouritism does not always lead to derogation of the outgroup. (See e.g. Ingroup identification and intergroup conflict: When does ingroup love become outgroup hate? by Marilyn Brewer in Social Identity Intergroup Conflict and Conflict Reduction (2001) Volume: 3, Publisher: Oxford University Press, Pages: 17-41.) It is true that we define ourselves in terms of a variety of group identities, and that when a particular group identity becomes salient we tend to compare our group with other groups that are comparable on dimensions that are valuable to us. So if we see ourselves as intelligent and rational, as well as atheist, we will compare ourselves to non-atheists on the dimensions of intelligence and reason, rather than on e.g. empathy, aesthetics, emotional intelligence, social action, etc that might be more important to the (non-fundamentalist) non-atheists. Hence the social comparison process that occurs serves to enhance your sense of group self-esteem (one of the primary reasons for belonging to the group in the first place) but also involves derogation of the outgroup. It is thought that derogation of the outgroup, however, is not an automatic consequence of enhancing the ingroup, ie that it is quite possible to do one without the other. Relations with the outgroup can vary on a continuum from being perceived as irrelevant, to being avoided, to ingroup favouritism, to negative evaluations of the outgroup, to discrimination against the outgroup, to direct hostility and aggression even when it has no benefit to the ingroup. Being an atheist often seems to be defined purely in terms of what one does not believe or how one is different from believers, which makes it more difficult for atheists to avoid outgroup derogation. Religous believers similarly are often defined in terms of how they are separate from non-believers, and how they must try to convert them. So the challenge to the tribes of atheists and non-atheists is:

    1. To see oneself as a member of multiple ingroups, some of which one will share with the outgroup on the belief category.
    2. To value the belief outgroup on dimensions other than those which seem most salient/enhance the ingroup.
    3. To resist the temptation to succumb to the outgroup homogeneity effect, in which we see all members of the outgroup as more similar than they actually are, by e.g. getting to know outgroup members better and allowing our emotions to become involved and reducing depersonalization processes. Research shows that friendship is the best way to reduce prejudice (cognitive, behavioural and affective), and increase empathy and trust.
    4. To resist the temptation to succumb to the accentuation principle, in which we exaggerate the similarities within our ingroup and the differences between ingroup and outgroup.
    5. To be humble, relaxed and not defensive about our current beliefs: to make the boundaries of our group more permeable and allow overlap between ingroup and outgroup.
    6. To resist the temptation to make beliefs a test of loyalty or a “marker” to our group membership.
    7. To ensure our self-esteem is not dependent on this one group membership.

    I expect there are more, but this is a start!

    • I’d like to post your reply, starting with “Being an atheist often seems to be defined …”, with proper attribution. Even though it’s on my site, more people will read it if I post it as a separate entry, and it’s a good list. It may stimulate others to add more items, too. So is that OK?

  2. I appreciated Lois’ article, and I would add more emphasis on the highly individual paths taken by many atheists (and quite a few theists too) — there are sub-cultures and there are also sub-sub-sub-sub [etc. etc.] -cultures.

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