Can religion survive without bigotry? Is this the hominid genetic factor, our predilection for tribal order and the exclusion of “others,” that has imbued religion with such unnatural persistence?
First, before we dig into this one, a few words about words. In English we usually see two words used to describe an unjustified prejudice extended towards a group of people. One is “racism” and the other is “bigotry.”
Racism was born out of the belief1 that there were different types or classes of human on the planet. Sometimes they were distinguishable by their customs, by skin color, hair color, diet, or other physical characteristics (this is especially true in some tribal rivalries in Africa and SE Asia today, for example). There once was a whole “science” dedicated to differentiation of the human “subspecies” or races, and most people are still familiar with the old and now discredited tripartite “Caucasian-Mongoloid-Negroid” designation, although in academic analysis, these general categories were quickly broken into a number of other “races.”
We now know from DNA analysis and genetic sequencing that there are far fewer differences between any two humans than, for example, any two dogs, two cats, or two chimpanzees -- even when they are from the same tribal group, clan or pack. Although there are lots of companies willing to analyze your DNA and supposedly tell you from whence your ancestors came; it’s a very poor “science” at this point, and merely picks up some typical genetic patterns which are more likely to occur within some groups than others at certain times in history. The fact is, we are all of the same species or “race”, and are descended from the survivors of a severe genetic bottleneck which likely occurred about 50,000 years ago2.
So there are no different human “races” existing today, in the traditional sense of the word. There are only people of different ethnicities, and a rather small variety of physical differences, typified by skin and hair pigmentation, eye color, and minor notable differences in formations of nose and eyelid tissue. No one has pointed ears, protruding canine teeth, hooves, horns, or fur. Our focus on human faces as a means of individual identification has probably been one of the factors in our overestimation of the differences between ourselves. Notably, we focus on faces since body size and shape historically are so highly similar.
Therefore, I don’t like to use the term “racism;” but, for many readers, they may be more familiar with that term, which is usually considered to be representative of a harsher form of prejudice than mere bigotry.
Call it what you will, it’s an irrational hatred or condescension enacted towards another person or group of people for unjustifiable3 reasons. And it’s an apt way to characterize how many, perhaps most, believers feel about atheists. And, as I shall try to show, one reason for bigotry’s persistence is its potential link to evolved traits in all human beings. It is a fundamental response, which has been adapted to suit those who seek to protect and promote religious control or conformity over others. And it works very well, indeed.
Bigotry serves three primary functions when applied to the case of believers and atheists, and these are the same as apply in tribal societies, as I agree with the hypothesis that bigotry as an emotive response to certain conditions may have been selected as a positive trait in the course of human evolution. These cover tribal membership, tribal leadership, and tribal customs. What has happened is that religion, for the benefit and perpetuation of the religion itself, has co-opted bigotries which pre-existed in almost every human society. It’s like a bacterium, borrowing a useful gene to make itself stronger and more resilient. This is one of the major difficulties in any hope of religion dying out or fading away into pure mythology – it has tied itself to innate bigotries which appear to be inherent to a degree in almost all human beings.
1. Tribal Membership - Tribal bigotry applied to mating as a means of avoiding harmful mutations
First, in a world with many different species of proto-humans, a desire to maintain breeding lines which would be less likely to produce harmful genetic mutations would be useful. For most of our evolutionary development over the past 3,500,000 years, our ancestors lived in an environment with other similar species within the homo Genus. Even once the species of homo sapiens had become established, we now understand that modern humans (sometimes denominated as homo sapiens sapiens) and Neanderthals and possibly Denisovans interbred, and that some of us carry the genetic evidence of this. But generally, such cross-species breeding is more likely to produce harmful rather than beneficial mutations. So, it would be natural for there to be a preference for mating within the tribe, when there are other groups wandering around that look quite similar to you. We still see this today in a great many societies where there is a preference for marriage among cousins4 or within the same caste or tribe. In our evolutionary past, we (well, at least most of us) learned to marry relatives who were close, but not too close.
We see the same preference evidenced in most religions still today, where we are supposed to marry within the faith or caste. This is an incredibly strong and persistent requirement of most religions today. Keep the breeding pool free from outside contaminants. This form of bigotry appeals to people on a very fundamental level, and they will go to absurd lengths to try to justify it. These almost always involve some argument about the good of the children – which is, of course, the fundamental principle from which this particular bigotry is derived, though twisted now to benefit the survival of the religion.
On the positive side, we do see increased incidences of people marrying outside of their own ethnic group and religion when they have an opportunity to do so (they need personal contact with such outsiders, and a legal/customary environment which allows it – conditions which are not available in all countries or communities), but it’s still a smaller number than you would expect just looking at statistics. Minority groups would disappear in a few generations if there was statistically neutral intermarriage - i.e., there would no longer be a “Jewish” community in New York after 4 generations (Jews make up about 9% of New York State’s population, so statistically, only about 1 in 10 would marry another Jew each generation if marriage partners were not selected on the basis of being “Jewish”5). Marrying outside the “tribe” (and I have decades of personal experience with this6) is still fraught with additional stress and challenges that couples who are compliant with tribal custom do not face.
In the supposed “melting pot” of America (which doesn’t seem to melt you if you happen to be of African ethnicity, as well as some others7), people after a generation or so seem willing to give up their close ethnic tribes when deciding on a mate, but they still maintain strong religious tribal identities8 (e.g., a second generation Italian Roman Catholic might marry a non-Italian, but would probably still marry a Roman Catholic). While there are dating sites for “Greek Americans,” for example9, the larger more popular sites are for Christians of various denominations, rather than of various European ethnicities (the largest ethnic group in the United States is German Americans10, which many people, including Americans, usually find surprising).
When tribal groups are minorities, they seek to enforce marriage conformity by strict religious laws, sometimes even mandating death or banishment for failures to abide by this custom. We see this frequently in the Hebrew Bible, where foreign wives are cast out on more than one occasion11. Hindu practices often take violent exception to marriages outside of caste, although I am not aware of the same degree of hatred expressed towards marriages with people who are not Hindu. Most Muslims also take the stance, oddly only with women, that they cannot marry non-Muslims. Other groups require conversion of the spouse (joinder with the religious tribe). All these elements which perpetuate the existence of the religious tribe play into an innate human preference for tribal mating. Thus, it’s seen as a natural condition, and most people do not even consider questioning its rationale. No one ever seems to ask “why?” and certainly no one has a good answer to that question.
2. Tribal Leadership - Bigotry as a means of maintaining control and combating enemies
Human are pack animals, as are chimpanzees and bonobos and to a lesser extent our more distant cousins the gorillas. We are not solitary apes, like orangutans. As with chimps, we are patriarchies (with some notable though minor exceptions), with the males being the larger and more aggressive of the species. We have specialized roles, which are uniformly reflected in the majority of human cultures. Although there is evidence that early urban areas lacked palace or temple areas, thereby indicating a more egalitarian social order than what ultimately evolved, for all of recorded history we have been a species of leaders and followers, of producers and the idle, of a privileged few and the toiling masses. Of Alpha males, and the rest.
We indoctrinate children to respect authority from an early age. In America, where I grew up, small children played “follow the leader” and “Simon says”, both games where success is measured by the ability to obey commands – although today’s kids might just play “Angry Birds.” I don’t know.
Most religions adopt this same hierarchy at one level or another. While many religions are not as stratified and rigid as, say, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (colloquially known as Mormons) or the Roman Catholic Church, typically within each community there is a religious leader and this leader is expected to be able to act in the same capacity as a political leader. The leader is responsible for demanding obedience to the religion’s rules or doctrine and is capable of dispensing largess, albeit typically in the form of future after-death rewards and bounty. They contribute no unique measurable tangible material benefit to the society, and yet are often accorded substantial material benefits from the community. They do provide considerable emotional support to the community, however, largely comforting them over fears that the religion itself has created (like sin and hell).
We readily accept this stratification at many levels within all human societies today, with religion itself serving as one of the prominent social Alpha males, as it were. As humans, we ascribe an allegiance to this institution, a loyalty and subservience that in other apes is a condition only accorded to the leading individual in a community (who normally gets priority in feeding and mating/breeding rights). The fact that we can take this instinct of submission, and apply it so readily to institutions, like nation states, sports teams, or religions, is a fascinating feature in itself. But what it does is create a bigotry against anyone who fails to acknowledge the same leadership structure. Anyone who does not bow down before the “leader,” whether it be a person or an institution, is deemed aberrant or abhorrent, or both. This is the “if you are not with us, you’re against us” mentality, that we still see as a virtue (e.g., patriotism). Think about British football fans idiotically brawling with fans from competing teams. Or think of several American Presidents….
Again, in evolutionary terms, clans or tribes that searched for and exploited resources or defended themselves from rival tribes or predators under a single leader’s instructions might have been more successful than disparate individuals or groups that lacked central coordination. Since we share this trait with Chimps, it’s likely that this feature took root in our common ancestor with Chimps more than 12 million years ago12. We have evolved to follow a leader, to act collectively, to march into battle and face (and indeed embrace) certain death for a “cause” utterly unrelated to our personal needs for food, shelter and sex, while the leader reclines in luxury far from danger. We despise the enemy, the outsider, those who do not acknowledge the superiority of our preferred football club, flag, nationality, god, etc. Those who follow a different leader are the enemy, if not in actuality then always in potentiality. Religion benefits from this instinctive bigotry, where our religious leaders confirm to us that outsiders are always considered as different and perhaps dangerous. When was the last time you heard the Pope say “maybe you should try Hinduism, if confession and mass attendance is not giving you a satisfied life.”
3. Tribal Customs - Bigotry as a means of controlling ideas
This one is rather more controversial, and goes far back into the evolutionary history of animals. It relates to the willingness of humans to change from patterns they know. When we look down our own timeline of homo sapiens sapiens, perhaps 200-350,000 years long, we see amazing little change. Yes, we’ve had a lot of technological advances in the last few thousand years, but even in our modern age, just look at the things we fail to abandon. We still have kings, destructive warfare for no reason which justifies the carnage, huge unjustifiable wealth and privilege inequalities in societies which profess to consider each person as the equal of every other, men still have buttons on the sleeves of their suit jackets – with no button holes, etc. In your daily life, a high percentage of your actions are based on repetition and conformity to customs which were constructed ages ago for reasons which are now lost or obsolete. Why do I wear a tie13? But we are creatures of custom.
It’s easy to see where this evolutionary bias comes from. In a hostile world, if you take a risk and eat something new, and you don’t get sick or die, then it’s in your interest to keep eating it, and avoid things that might make you sick. And if you’re starving, you will try things that you wouldn’t otherwise attempt. Likewise, if you remember getting water in one place during the dry season, it’s very important to remember that, and to be able to pass along the knowledge. And you may never look for another site, as why take the risk, so long as the site you know can provide the water you need.
Animals of all types show the same characteristics. It’s a natural aversion to risk14, and especially shows up when analyzing humans’ economic activities and choices. “Go with what you know”, “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush,” “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” “home is where the heart is,” and so many other homilies are basically dismissive of choice or an experience of risky new things. Risk is entertainment, as in buying a lottery ticket, and not when it comes to selecting a mate, deciding in what neighborhood to reside, and even selecting a religion.
Precious few people change religions from those of their parents. If you are in a society that restricts access to other faiths, how do you know you have a different option? This is why the indoctrination of children is so important. When they know there are viable alternatives, they start to question and see that there is more than one watering hole15. Stick to what works, stick to what you know, follow in the steps of your father. Don’t stray from the path that is well trodden. No need to know of other paths, no need to question the herd leader.
Most people go along with this, whether it’s book banning, censorship, or just social ostracism. Keep the tribe safe, there is no need for any new ideas, as long as the old ones still work. And if you can modify the old ones (like the Mormons getting a revelation that Africans were no longer evil16), then all the better. After all, the “religion” is not what’s important; just look at modern Judaism which bears no resemblance whatsoever to the sacrificial religion described in detail in the Hebrew Bible17. And how many Roman Catholic ceremonies, sacred rites, or even their cosmology complete with purgatory, come from their Holy Bible?
No, the “tribal religion” has a life of its own, and it’s not bound by dogma or doctrine, its purpose is to survive, and perpetuate itself, and it will mutate as necessary to ensure its survival. Religions which fail to do so die out, and lose the evolutionary race18.
The most successful tools religions have found for themselves are those which tap into the deepest motivations, and instincts perhaps, of human beings. They are intimately tied into our primal instincts, our survival skills for a hostile environment, which is probably why they have survived so many challenges from rational thought over the millennia. Religion survives because of human motivations which evolved for another purpose, but which are being used by religions to maintain their existence. Now, that is one hard virus to kill.
1 An interesting look at this issue from the Western perspective comes in “The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity” by Benjamin Isaac (2004), but its weak on bigotry arising from religious reasons.
2 For a complete analysis of this, see Heng Li and Richard Durbin, “Inference of human population history from individual whole-genome sequences” Nature, 475 (http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v475/n7357/full/nature10231.html).
3 The reason why I distinguish between justifiable and unjustifiable is twofold. First, there are instances where certain groups of people act in such a way as to actually endanger the lives, property, or society of others. For the opposed people to hate their oppressors would, for me, not amount to bigotry. The citizens of Nanking, following its capture by Japan in 1937 would not be considered to be bigoted towards the Japanese, nor would today’s Palestinians’ feelings towards Israelis amount to bigotry.
4 This has been a prominent bias or preference in a wide range of cultures worldwide. For an interesting look at the issue, see “Cousin Marriages: Between Tradition, Genetic Risk and Cultural Change” by Alison Shaw (Editor) and Aviad E. Raz (Editor) (2015).
5 Of course, this begs the question of conversions, as some Jewish sects, as well as Roman Catholics, and Muslims will allow conversion into the religion as a condition of marriage. Others, like some Orthodox Jews, Hindus, some Mormons, certain Amish, Zoroastrians, and others will ostracize anyone who marries outside the faith, and does not allow the option of conversion. Also, any religion that allows conversion cannot claim to be an ethnicity, despite the fact than many do, most notably Judaism.
6 Like many Americans, my first marriage was outside of my parent’s ethnic and religious background (I was atheist, but had a Greek Orthodox wedding as the Priest was cool with it so long as I had been baptized). Second marriage was in Asia.
7 See http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/06/12/interracial-marriage-who... for a good analysis “racial” intermarriage, i.e., based on skin color. But there are many problems with this approach, as people don’t always self-identify the same way as society would identify you, and of course an objective perspective would be even more different. With popularized DNA testing, many people are finding that they have African or Asian heritage that was unknown to them, and which is not apparent from their appearance.
8 See http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/06/02/interfaith-marriage/. This report under-counts religious conformity, as it only looks at the faith of the spouse at the time of the marriage, and not whether they converted or had agreed to raise the children in one specific faith. This would drop the levels even further below 6%. The unaffiliated category is hopeful, but it also may be unavoidable due to the growth of this segment of people in the marriage market. As a friend of mine once remarked, “If you live in Korea, and want to marry a tall blonde, you’re going to learn to compromise….”
9 See http://eligiblegreeks.com/greek-american-singles. If I wanted a Bohemian mate, I’d have to look for one from the home country, as I couldn’t find a Czech-American dating site.
13 I live in the tropics, and many days I wonder why I even wear clothes. But then I think about sunburn….
14 The human propensity to gamble is of course in opposition to this. Which may be one reason why many cultures have tried to outlaw it, regulate it, or limit it. Humans are not very good at gambling, however, because if they were then the casino companies (other than the ones owned by President Trump) would be economically unviable.
15 I always thought it would be interesting to see if children raised in schools and communities with a diversity of religion would be more likely to change from the religion of their parents than would children who were raised without such diversity. If anyone knows of a study like this, I would greatly appreciate a reference.
16 Well, not exactly “evil” but they weren’t very welcome: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/19/opinion/sunday/racism-and-the-mormon-c...
17 See I. M. Gafni “Beginnings of Judaism” a lecture series by The Teaching Company (2008).