Monday, March 10, 2008

Is Religious Identity the Enemy of Global Harmony?

An American generation under 45 has glimpsed an interconnected world beyond race and tribe. They know its attainment will be elusive but, after a bleak season, they feel summoned by what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.” And, speaking of experience, they know Lincoln came to the presidency with all of two years in Congress behind him, and a failed Senate campaign.

Those are the words of Roger Cohen in a NY Times Op-Ed piece today titled Tribalism Here and There. Cohen’s editorial, a sort of pro Obama piece that looks at the rise of tribalisms in the context of globalization, makes what I think are some very important points. Against those whose wide-eyed optimism links globalization with a safer, more connected world, Cohen notes:

Connection and fragmentation vie. The Internet opens worlds and minds, but also offers opinions to reinforce every prejudice. You’re never alone out there; some idiot will always back you. The online world doesn’t dissolve tribes. It gives them global reach.

What I found most interesting, however, was this remark:

The main forces in the world today are the modernizing, barrier-breaking sweep of globalization and the tribal reaction to it, which lies in the assertion of religious, national, linguistic, racial or ethnic identity against the unifying technological tide.

Only the worst sort of denial can fail to notice that tribalism, rooted in religious identity, has been the source of terrible intolerance and responsible for inflicting upon humanity scores of horrendous human atrocities. So familiar are we with religiously inspired violence that I see no need to parade before us the usual cast of examples.

However, I think it has become increasingly clear that evil and ugliness perpetrated against humanity is not the special inclination of those with religious identities. The killing fields, the Soviet pogrom, the rape of Nanking, the revolution in China and the world wars should all be sufficient to dispel the myth that somehow secularists are impervious to intolerance and evil. I think it was Anthony Appiah who once sagaciously noted that we human beings as such seem naturally impatient for harmony.

Though no doubt there are historical connections between religious identity and crimes against humanity, those connections are contingent, I would argue, and the solution to tribalism does not reside in ridding the world of religion or religious identity. Well, that's also what what I would argue. There have been and can be religious identities, i.e., communities with deep religious identity, without tribalism. Indeed if I had the time I would argue that the resources necessary for tolerance and a valuation of pluralism—e.g., an account of human beings as possessing inestimable and intrinsic worth, a recognition of human beings as thoroughly finite, frail and fallible, and an account of human beings as free—are actually to be found (perhaps surprisingly if you listen to the story told by the secularists) in theistic religions.

So, to Mr. Cohen I say this: while I agree that tribalism is no friend to universal harmony, ridding the world of religious identities would not a harmonious world make. And maybe, Mr. Cohen, just maybe, religion holds a key to the sort of universal harmony many of us—both secular and religious—long to see realized.


Peter B said...

Hey Kevin
Good thoughts... I agree that certain religions (i.e. Christianity... perhaps others though I am not a world religions scholar) have the raw material to develop the dynamic you speak of.. e.g. the ability to develop within its adherents tolerance and appreciation of pluralism. At the same time, I fear the PROBABILITY of such occurrence given how human beings are hardwired cognitively. From an cognitive psych perspective, it seems that our brains tend towards some type of tribalism, and I fear that any religion that posits a specific in group and out group with regards to crucial issues such as salvation is likely to facilitate and accentuate this tribalistic instinct. Whether this is the case with a religion more apt to demonstrate universalistic notions of salvation, I am not sure... though I tend to affirm that this might be better from a sociological standpoint -- e.g. how our communities interact with the outgroup.

Kevin Corcoran said...

Hi Peter,

Just back from China, having been up for 28 straight hours now. Let me make what I think is a fairly modest point about equal opportunity employment. If a tendency to tribalism is in fact hardwired into us, then it will not be ONLY theistic religions that posit in/out groups nor, I think, will it be only theistic religions/religionists that are especially prone to exacerbate that instinct. If it is, as you suggest, hardwired into us, then I should expect to find both in-grouping/out-grouping AND the tendency to exacerbate in-grouping/out-grouping distributed fairly evenly across the species. And, in fact, I think that's what we do find.

But, try this on: maybe theistic religions offer resources for re-wiring the brain in such a way that the natural, hardwired tendency to tribalisms can be overcome. For example, I'm inclined to think that the Christian practice of forgiveness functions in precisely this way. The natural tendency is to respond to offenses with wrath, vengence, anger or other attitudes that have the effect of construing the offender in less than benevolent terms. Forgiveness (or at least the cultivated disposition of forgiveness or the virtue of forgiveness), I would argue, overcomes this natural or hardwired tendency and replaces it with another tendency, the tendency to construe the offending other in ultimately benevolent terms.


Peter B said...

Hey Kevin
I agree. The idea of equal opportunity employment of human nature is one that both proponents of secularism and defenders of religious traditions often fail to acknowledge. Hence the reason why I agree with you that the diminishing of religion will not rid the world of violence.

Your second point is an interesting one. From a hard wiring standpoint (whatever that means), I wonder to what extent we are rewired with religion (at least at a cognitive neuropsych level). I think there are certain things that are difficult to overcome (perhaps our implicit reactions towards things), but religion can influence our processing at the conscious level of experience (e.g. some type of higher order processing). Thus, I may still have a tendency to react towards offense with anger or a desire for vengence... but at the higher level processing I am pushed towards seeing that person as Christ would see him or her (some type of control mechanism). Perhaps over time this cultivation of our forgiveness at the conscious level can also begin to shape the implicit reactions as well!