Religion and groupthink


First published in The Australian, December 24, 2012

FOR a disgruntled minority of Australian citizens, tomorrow’s Christian celebration is not an occasion for rejoicing, but for the wringing of hand and the torment of brow.

2013-04-24 04.49.50 amFor hard-core secularists, who prefer to think of December 25 as a holiday rather than a holyday, the very survival of religion in this scientific age is troubling. The piety of the faithful this week intrudes upon the faithless’s notion of modernity.

About 4.8 million Australians – a little over a fifth of the population – declared that they had no religion in the 2011 census. The proportion that is actively hostile to religion, those who are irreligious and not merely un-religious, can only be guessed.

Today’s tub-thumping evangelists of secularism gather at international conferences to denounce the foolishness of their fellow humans and their refusal, despite all the evidence of man’s ingenuity, to let go of notions of the divine. They find themselves particularly affronted by the intelligence of many of their opponents.

In the clash between the atheist Richard Dawkins and Catholic archbishop George Pell on the ABC’s Q&A this year, the Twitter bar was sneering and contemptuous, but few if any faithless tweeters were prepared to call the cardinal dim since he self-evidently is not.

Intellectual frustration at the survival of religion has ebbed and flowed. It was particularly strong at the start of the 20th century, at the dawn of self-conscious modernism. As the new human sciences of psychology and sociology provided new insights into human behaviour, intellectuals began contemplating religion’s demise.

Since religion could not actually be true, at least not in any literal sense of the word, they looked for the social, political, cultural and psychological explanations for its survival.

As we now know, their predictions of religion’s demise were premature. If anything, the horrible century that followed with its mechanical wars of mass destruction, totalitarian oppression and industrialised slaughter only served to strengthen the faith of mankind as a whole.

The Marxist explanation, that religion was an opiate dispensed by the ruling class to pacify the proletariat, appeared inconsistent with the evidence. Even under clinical conditions religion defied all attempts at eradication, confounding godless social engineers from East Germany’s Erich Hoennecker to Mao Tse Tung.

A century later, at the dawn of a new millennium, the intellectual purists were back where they started. Science had put a man on the moon but scientists appeared no closer to explaining the religious instinct, let alone how it spread or why it survived.

For some, the self-accredited science of memetics (the passing on of cultural ideas) promised a breakthrough. Popularised by Dawkins and other radical atheists, this new field of scientific inquiry suggested that religion was best understood as a virus that reproduced, spread and mutated.

Belgian cyberneticist Francis Heylighen and social media and e-learning wunderkind Klaas Chielens, two of the pioneers of memetics, claimed that cultural traits such as relation spread like an infection: “The carrier of a certain idea, behaviour or attitude directly or indirectly communicates this idea to another person, who now also becomes a carrier, ready to ‘infect’ further people.”

The re-classification of religion as an illness appealed to its opponents. “I don’t think it’s fair to call it a mental illness because so many people actually do it,” Dawkins declared on Q&A in 2010. “It’s just because so many of them believe it that we treat it as normal. But if you actually met somebody who said he believed that water could turn into wine, a man could walk on water, that a man could raise somebody else from the dead, you’d say, ‘Well, put him away’.”

Most of the psychological and political explanations for the survival of religion that excited rationalists in the late 19th and early 20th century now appear moribund, but sociologists have had much better luck. By thinking of religion as a social necessity, rather than a psychological prop or political instrument, its resilience ceases to be a problem. If religion is a natural human requirement, it seems reasonable to assume that it will survive, albeit in different forms, so long as mankind occupies the planet.

The sociological explanation was expounded in its most complete form exactly a century ago with the publication in Paris in 1912 of Emile Durkheim’s Les formes elementaires de la vie religieuse – The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. Durkheim, widely considered to be the father of modern sociology, never stepped foot in Australia, and yet he turned to Aboriginal totemic culture to find his explanation for religion.

For Durkheim, Aborigines practised religion in its purest, simplest form, uncomplicated by the supernatural. In so far as it sought to explain the natural world, it did so through natural objects: land, water, animals and plants. There was no divinity, at least none to which man owed any obligation.

Crucially, while Durkheim stuck with the adjective “primitive” to describe Aboriginal religion, he disagreed with contemporaries such as Lucien Levy-Bruhl, who saw mystical belief as a sign of lower intelligence. “There are no essential differences between primitive thought and the thought of civilised man,” he wrote. “All the essential mechanisms of judgment and rationality are imminent within even the most rudimentary civilisations.”

For Durkheim, religion was essentially groupthink, or as he described it in an earlier work, “collective consciousness”: a set of facts, principles and manners that was accepted without question by those in the group and required no empirical testing. It served two principal functions.

First, it explained the world around them in terms upon which everyone agreed without argument. Second, it was a badge of identity, an expression not just of what an individual believed but what sort of person they were. The beliefs of religious groups – or as Durkheim preferred to call them, moral communities – were represented by a totem. The totem to which you were attached signalled not just what group you belonged to, but what you believed, much like the coloured wrist bands some people wear today.

Durkheim relied on ethnographic literature, particularly the Australian studies of Walter Baldwin Spencer and Francis James Gillen, to develop his theory of totems.

Totemic societies were divided into two oppositional groups; the totem worked like Scottish clan tartan or a football jersey to tell people you encountered the group to which you belonged. Each group had opposite ideas of what should be considered sacred and what was regarded as profane.

The people of the snake totem, for example, were forbidden from eating snake but were permitted to gorge on lizard. The clan that adopted the lizard would be repulsed at eating the lizard, which was in a sense their friend. They had no concerns, however, about consuming snake.

Durkheim drew up charts of the cascading series of meanings that flowed from each totem, mapping the minds and cultural divisions between the two clans. The links between them seemed illogical to the outsider, frustrating the work of anthropologists. Those inside the clan, however, know instinctively not only what they believed, but what the opposing clan believed.

The amateur anthropologist D. S. Stewart encountered this problem in his 19th-century study of clans in Mount Gambier. He was satisfied that the Kumite clan adopted the fish-hawk, the pelican, the crow, the black cockatoo and the karato snake as their totems. The tea-tree, the murna root and the black crestless cockatoo, on the other hand, belonged to the Kroki. Beyond that, however, he struggled to discern a pattern in the classification of totems.

He wrote: “I have asked, ‘To what division does a bullock belong?’ After a pause, came the answer, ‘It eats grass: it is Boortwerio’. I then said, ‘A crayfish does not eat grass: why is it Boortwerio?’ Then came the standing reason for all puzzling questions: ‘That is what our fathers said it was’.”

By reducing religion to its basic social functions – the shared assumptions that make the company of our clan more agreeable and tells us what we find disagreeable in others – Durkheim’s theory can be applied way beyond the boundaries of what we normally think of as religious behaviour. At a symposium at Flinders University in September to mark the centenary of The Elementary Forms of Religion’s publication, speakers discussed group behaviour in contexts ranging from the European Union to the Australian Public Service.

Craig Matheson, of the Flinders Institute of Public Policy and Management, applied Durkheim’s theories to explain the difference in culture between Treasury and other public-service departments. Durkheim’s theories were used to explain modern phenomena such as Islamophobia and Twitter.

The notion of oppositional moral communities, each with their own totems, is easy to transfer to the modern political debate. Many commentators have noted the rise of so-called “identity politics”, where the adoption of a political platform becomes a statement of moral self-worth. We have become used to describing some political issues as totems without perhaps fully understanding what that means.

People aligned to the totem of compassion, for example, would see a vote for the Coalition as an act of profanity. Similarly, those who are attached to the great principle of choice would feel soiled by voting for Labor. By considering nuclear power as a totem that represents a non-negotiable set of beliefs, it becomes clear why many Greens supporters argue so passionately against it.

It makes sense that we should fall back on totems as a shortcut in determining to which clan we belong. Since traditional religion plays a lesser role in setting our frameworks of meaning, we look for other common paradigms to negotiate the moral maze of everyday life, project our personal identity and mark the boundaries of loyalty.

When former ABC chairman Maurice Newman compared climate change to religion in The Australian earlier this year, he received a hostile response, notably from the ABC’s science presenter, Robyn Williams, who criticised Newman’s theory on air as “drivel”. If, however, religion is not irrevocably tied to the supernatural, but is the natural lubricant of everyday social interaction, then it becomes less confronting to think of the shared assumptions of some climate scientists as akin for that matter.

Durkheim’s theory helps explain the paradox of Western individualism; it purports to reward free and independent thought, yet the complaint is frequently made that views and attitudes converge.

The driver of car with a bumper sticker opposing the Iraq war, for example, is likely to have predictable views on other cultural controversies. Durkheimian theory allows no place for individual belief since, according to Durkheim, “opinion is an eminently social thing”. Religion, then, may be impossible to abandon. It will simply reinvent itself in a form more palatable to the modern world.

“There is something eternal in religion that is destined to outlive the succession of particular symbols in which religious thought has clothed itself,” wrote Durkheim a hundred years ago. “If today we have some difficulty imagining what the feasts and ceremonies of the future will be, it is because we are going through a period of transition and moral mediocrity.

“In short, the former gods are growing old or dying, and others have not been born.”