Saturday, June 16, 2007

In-Group Loyalty and Out-Group Hostility

In a comment to yesterday's posting, against the fact that my criticism of leading atheists has always lead to a dramatic reduction in readership, at least for a few weeks, Hume's Ghost made the observation:

I never would have guessed that Hitchens was popular enough that a post critical of him would drive readers off. Those must be some really thin-skinned readers.

Actually, I do not attribute these observations to being "thin skinned".

Instead, I have been writing under the assumption that atheists are fully susceptible to the type of in-group morality and out-group hostility that has been an important part of human psychology throughout its history.

I have often made the point that the wrongs in the world are not properly laid on the doorstep of religion. Rather, the source of evil are aspects of human psychology that causes them to accept forms of behavior that then make their way into scripture. Scripture is not the cause of evil, it is merely a literary description of its symptoms.

The true cause of evil is the human psychological tendency towards in-group morality and out-group hostility. It rests in the tendency to form "tribes", where members of the tribe are seen as people who can do no evil, and those who do not belong to the tribe can do no good. Indeed, members of the tribe are devoted, above all else, to promoting and protecting the in-group, while fighting and suppressing non-members.

On this model, atheists afflicted with this condition of in-group loyalty and out-group hostility are going to see criticism of atheist leaders as disloyal. In the same sense that criticism of President Bush is branded disloyal when the nation is at war, criticism of atheist leaders is disloyal in today's contest for the hearts and minds of the American public.

These psychological states do not need to manifest themselves consciously to have an affect. The person affected by them will simply notice that, when he experiences instances of in-group loyalty, that he has feelings of affection and brotherhood for such a person. At the same time, when he encounters something critical of the in-group, that this is experienced as unpleasant and as something the agent would simply rather avoid. He will not be likely to put his finger on why he has these feelings. He will simply know that he has them.

This ingroup loyalty and out-group hostily does, indeed, explain much evil in human history, including evil attributed to religion. In fact, it explains religion. The dominant cultural message that we get from all of the dominant religions is one of in-group loyalty (we are the chosen people) and out-group hostility (they are the corrupters and those who invite God's wrath upon us) is the dominant moral theme.

However, this theme not only explains religious violence. It also explains race violence, national (patriotic) violence, gang violence, and even the violence that has been known to erupt between rival soccer teams. As an explanatory hypothesis, it is far more powerful than the "religion" hypothesis.

If this is true - if "in-group loyalty and out-group hostility" is the root of so much evil - we have to be on guard against the possibility that atheism might become the next "in group" promoting unjust hostility against the "out group". Currently, while atheists are weak and disorganized, this is not much of a threat. However, it remains not much of a threat only insofar as atheists are weak and disorganized. If atheists wish not to remain weak and disorganized, then atheists must be willing to take seriously the evils that will spring from in-group loyalty and out-group hostility, or become the purpetrators of the next great system of injustice.

The way to do this is to ask, with each outspoken atheist, "Are those propositions objectively and demonstrably true, or are they propositions that tend to generate pleasing psychological sensations because they appeal to a natural desire that one is a member of a superior 'in-group' against an inferior 'out-group'?"

1 comment:

Hume's Ghost said...

In my defense, I'd taken all this into account ... I did not think Hitchens was seen as a popular atheist spokesperson. Certainly not the type that would inspire in-group reflexive defense. Of course, my political writings have put me into contact with a demographic of people that detest Hitchens, period, so that might account for my surprise at the drop off.

Still, I do not believe my "thin-skinned" comment is at odds with what you've written about in-groups/out-groups. If there are people who have been reading your blog regularly, presumably enjoying the blog, and then quit reading because they felt you betrayed the in-group by writing something critical of a hero figure I would characterize that as thin-skinned.

Also, this is tangential, but I'd highly recommend you read Religion Explained by Pascal Boyer. Boyer makes the point that religion is parasitic upon intrinsic human characteristics, which is in line with your point about religion not being the root of all evil.

Here is a brief article outlining his thesis.