Friday, July 20, 2007

In Groups and Out Groups

Some dabate has been created by PZ Myers decision to post a map of religious adherents as a percentage of residents, and describe it as:

the concentration of ignorant, deluded, wicked, foolish, or oppressed victims of obsolete mythologies in the United States, with the lighter colors being the most enlightened and the dark reds being the most repressed and misinformed.

Myers himself later called it a "casual and flippant comment."

Yet, his use of terms have caused a bit of a stir, including some, such as Atheist Revolution saying that the claim is true.

In fact, the claim is not true. Instead, what we have here is a standard example of in-group favoratism and out-group hatred. The statement equates being a religious adherant with a number of traits that make the individual worthy of our hatred - somebody to be excluded from society - as 'out group' members. While, at the same time, it identifies those who would not give such an answer as 'ingroup' members.

It appeals to a psychological need to divide the world into tribes, to in-tribe loyalty and out-tribe hostility - which is perhaps the greatest source of misery and violence in the world today.

Some may want to say that religion itself is a major source of violence. Yet, religion only contributes to violence when it feeds this apparently innate desire for in-group loyalty and out-group hostility. Religions that do not feed this tendency are not causes of global conflict.

Yet, as Myers shows us, religion is not the only way to generate patterns of in-group loyalty and out-group hostility. Which is why it is foolish to think that we can reduce violence by reducing religion. We will simply replace religion with other ways of defining in-group versus out-group; nationality, skin color, membership in a gang, favorite sports teams. We have actually seen violence built around every one of these distinctions - every one of these classifications of in-groups and out-groups.

Myers is simply feeding another in-group vs. out-group distinction. One which, if we decide to live in denial of which dynamics are actually at play here, can lead to violence as easily as any of the other distinctions I have mentioned.

My policy . . . do not call a person wicked unless you have evidence that the person you are talking about, as an individual, is actually guilty of doing something evil. Do not call a person enlightened unless he actually holds a belief for good reason. Even a person who believes that no god exists does not necessarily hold that belief on the basis of good reason. In general, my policy is to judge individuals as individuals, and not as members of any 'in group' or 'out group'.

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