This is a fascinating article on Slate Star Codex about tribalism, group identity and ideology. It is long, but well worth it, and will help you understand a lot of what I’m on about here. But here’s the basics of what he’s talking about:
Nations, religions, cults, gangs, subcultures, fraternal societies, internet communities, political parties, social movements – these are all really different, but they also have some deep similarities. They’re all groups of people. They all combine comradery within the group with a tendency to dislike other groups of the same type. They all tend to have a stated purpose, like electing a candidate or worshipping a deity, but also serve a very important role as impromptu social clubs whose members mostly interact with one another instead of outsiders. They all develop an internal culture such that members of the groups often like the same foods, wear the same clothing, play the same sports, and have the same philosophical beliefs as other members of the group – even when there are only tenuous links or no links at all to the stated purpose. They all tend to develop sort of legendary histories, where they celebrate and exaggerate the deeds of the groups’ founders and past champions. And they all tend to inspire something like patriotism, where people are proud of their group membership and express that pride through conspicuous use of group symbols, group songs, et cetera. For better or worse, the standard way to refer to this category of thing is “tribe”.
Tribalism is potentially present in all groups, but levels differ a lot even in groups of nominally the same type. Modern Belgium seems like an unusually non-tribal nation; Imperial Japan in World War II seems like an unusually tribal one. Neoliberalism and market socialism seem like unusually non-tribal political philosophies; communism and libertarianism seem like unusually tribal ones. Corporations with names like Amalgamated Products Co probably aren’t very tribal; charismatic corporations like Apple that become identities for their employees and customers are more so. Cults are maybe the most tribal groups that exist in the modern world, and those Cult Screening Tools make good measures for tribalism as well.
His large point is that a great deal of the ideologies people claim has not much to do with the actual content of the ideologies, and more to do with the groups of people they affiliate with, which happens for complex historical reasons. So, the ideology is not the movement. I think he’s very much right about the way people in general behave, including an awful lot of Christians. I don’t think it’s totally a coincidence that most people in Norway at a certain point were Lutherans or that most Spanish people were Catholics. I don’t think there was necessarily a genetic predisposition to those religions in those areas. I think that history happened, and history ended up with those different faiths becoming dominant for lots of historical reasons and then most people fell in line, because group identity and tribalism really is that powerful.
I think, however, Scott misses some really important things about Christianity in general, probably because he is not one. The fact of tribalism and how to think about it is hugely important to Christianity. It is one of the major issues. Tribalism is the way people are, and it’s not even necessarily a bad thing; I think that the Bible tells us that God wrote tribalism into our identity, at the Tower of Babel, to restrain the evil of man. Tribalism generates a lot of conflict, a lot of it artificial, as the “Robbers Cove” example that Scott refers to generates. I have often found the behavior of sports fans very puzzling, as the fans of a certain team would have an immediately bad opinion of people who liked some other town’s sports team, even though the members of both sports teams were not even from that town. But when you understand the way group identity works, then it makes sense. They want to have solidarity with their group, and painting the other group as evil and generating conflict with them is a great way to bind a group together. And from the story of the Tower of Babel we can understand that the inter-tribal conflict is a feature, not a bug, because it prevents people from working together on a large scale very much. Why is that a good thing? Because people are evil. When they work together, bad things happen. So God actually desires to hamper large-scale human cooperation, to the great irritation of people everywhere.
The Gospel will ultimately overcome the curse God put on man, including the curse at the Tower of Babel. So Paul can say, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, but all are one in Christ.” But notice, the Gospel does not do away with group identity. It changes it.
It does so in two important respects. First, it makes Christ the focal point of this new identity, rather than ethnic, economic or racial identity. It does not teach us to ignore or abandon those loyalties; we are still to be submissive to our nations, to be good citizens, to take care of family and the like. But our fundamental identity is now as believers in Christ. That is the new in-group, and the new out-group is unbelievers.
But secondly, and crucially (in terms of our interaction with human society), it changes the way we think of the outgroup. And this is where doctrine really does matter, contrary to what Scott Alexander thinks. Because of the doctrine of justification by faith alone, a cardinal doctrine of Biblical Christianity, the way we think of the outgroup is changed. We realize that we are where we are purely by grace, not because of any superiority over the unbeliever. This is hammered home constantly in the Bible, especially in the New Testament. So we are told to love our enemies, to pray for them that spitefully use us, to do good to all men (but especially those of the household of faith!).
This is a truth that changes the world.
Most people in Christian circles really are just part of their faiths for group identity reasons, not for any deep passionate commitment to the faith. Scott’s point about understanding why groups exist from a historical perspective is usually more important than the ideological perspective is right on, like understanding why Ireland is Catholic, for example, when becoming deeply Protestant like Scotland did seems like a more natural fit. It is true for historical reasons.
But the idea, which is still there in the heart of all real believers, is a powerful one, and as it spreads in the world transforms societies slowly. It’s why Christian countries have been the ones that attacked chattel slavery, racism, contempt for the poor and oppression of women. It hasn’t happened as quickly as any of us would like, but it hasn’t happened at all in the absence of Christian culture. Even the many who identify as Christians for tribal reasons still were affected by the idea, though not as much as others.
In the modern age, Rationalist Enlightenment thinkers have tried very hard to have a universalist perspective on humanity, and have attacked all tribalism as an impediment to progress. This includes attacking any idea that Christianity was some kind of unique religion, that it was just one expression of many of fundamental truths that everyone holds to. But this is not true. The other religions of the world like Hinduism and Islam very much reinforce these tribal identities and teach us to despise those outside of our identities. Hinduism’s caste system is fundamental and is all designed at dividing people into hierarchies and rigidly policing those hierarchies. Islam is all about hierarchy, and the social stability that arises from a rigid enforcement of that hierarchy. It in particular teaches contempt and hatred for those outside of Islam. Christianity explicitly rejects this.
As many gravitate toward secularism and various forms of atheism, they will attempt to maintain many of the values of Christianity. They attempt to preserve a twisted form of Christianity’s view of tribalism, by rejecting all in-group distinctions (something Christianity does not actually attempt to do, which is why this is a perversion). But a common love for one’s fellow man simply cannot survive outside of Christianity which gives rise to that motivation. Without Christianity, tribalism re-emerges.
Consider Europe’s refugee crisis. That crisis was brought on precisely because of this rejection of tribalism in the absence of Christianity which gives rise to that rejection. Europe’s leaders, and many of its people, believe apparently that we can just wish away the tribal divisions that plague us. They welcomed into their midst large numbers of people with fundamentally different cultural outlooks, and then were surprised when those people behaved according to the norms of their culture. Because Christianity has been so hamstrung in Europe, with most people simply living off the cultural residue of Christianity, the response will be tribalistic, and already is. The rise of aggressive nationalistic parties is well documented in Europe. If Europeans actually understood their Christian heritage instead of just acting on half-remembered distortions of it, they would have recognized that the full unity of the human race only happens in Christ and only in the eternal state. Christianity would have helped them to act compassionately toward the Syrian refugees while still being realistic about human nature. Instead they tried to wish away reality and they (and especially their women and girls) are paying the price. This will provoke a backlash, and a violent one. Europeans can be the most vicious people on earth when they have a mind to.
It is the doctrine of Christianity that gives rise to this attitude toward those outside our group. Christianity and the gospel of Jesus Christ is necessary to have that attitude. Many today try to have the attitude of love toward others and acceptance of others without Christianity, but it will not survive contact with reality, and as Christianity fades the old violent tribalism will rise again, and is already doing so in places where Christianity is only a faded memory.