The Allegations Against Religion

The Enemy

How do we come to call people our enemy? We all assume many different identities in our lives, including those associated with our national, local, ethnic, religious or secular, sporting, gender and age circumstances (not to mention the brand of car we drive, the TV shows we watch, the music we listen to). This repertoire of traits constitutes a set of beliefs about oneself and the social groups one belongs to, and different individuals feel the influences of different identities to varying degrees. There are people, for instance, who are not interested in sports, and others for whom their sporting identity is paramount to how they view themselves.

Naturally, cognitive biases work on these identities as much as any other belief, and Henri Tajfel has demonstrated that it takes very little impetus for people to form a group identity. Even arbitrary assignment to a group results in a sense of membership in the "in-group", and a natural rivalry with an "out-group". When an out-group is perceived as physically or economically threatening, they become distrusted and cognitive dissonance pushes towards discrimination or persecution. They become enemies. And hostilities on one side inevitably escalate the equivalent response on the other.

Modern secular intellectuals are quick to point the finger at religion for these failings; they are sometimes slow to recognise that other institutions are just as guilty. Even science falls prey: the labels 'heretic' and 'pseudoscience' are born of the same psychological process. When anti-religious firebrands point the finger at religions for setting up in-groups and out-groups, they frequently seem to have missed the rather obvious point that they too are defining an out-group (religion) to be their hated enemy. Paradoxically, pushing against this tendency has been a key theme in all the major religions – the ethics of Buddha, Jesus, Mohammad and others have stressed compassion and the unity of mankind. That attempts to institutionalise such ideas have only intensified the problem is perhaps the cruellest irony in the history of religion.

Part 18 of 23 in the Pentenary series.


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Sadly, it's the tragedy of being a social species that we form social groups which our very natures makes us defend.

You're obviously not one of 'us', are you?

Chairman: Nothing says how small or large that social group has to be, though... Personally, I start with the planet and draw the line there. "Anything not from Earth, get off our planet now!" :)

Actually, I think I'd be quite open to most aliens too. Perhaps I'll just put Cthonians, Star Spawn, Hounds of Tindalos and other cosmic horrors into my "out group"... :D

"You're obviously not one of 'us', are you?"

Sometimes I wonder... :p

Hi, Chris:

May I recommend Marilynn B. Brewer, The Psychology of Prejudice: Ingroup Love or Outgroup Hate? in the Journal of Social Issues, Fall, 1999?

Allport (1954) recognized that attachment to one's in groups does not necessarily require hostility toward outgroups. Yet the prevailing approach to the study of ethnocentrism, in group bias, and prejudice presumes that in group love and outgroup hate are reciprocally related. Findings from both cross-cultural research and laboratory experiments support the alternative view that in group identification is independent of negative attitudes toward outgroups and that much in group bias and intergroup discrimination is motivated by preferential treatment of in group members rather than direct hostility toward outgroup members. Thus to understand the roots of prejudice and discrimination requires first of all a better understanding of the functions that in group formation and identification serve for human beings.
I believe there's not only a hint here of a non-antagonistic way of viewing differences that's of relevance to issues of war and peace (religious versions included) – but also of a non-agonistic approach to games (and hence something that might also relate to your critique of Roger Ebert).

Charles: Many thanks for this citation! I'm aware of Brewer's work but I didn't know she had presented something so directly related to where I stand on this issue. I've added the paper to my wishlist - sadly, my alma mater requires me to physically go into the library to get papers, so I only go about once a quarter. But rest assured, I will be picking this up!

Thanks again!

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