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Monthly Archives: September 2012

Tribes and Cults

So Sunmyung Moon has died. No Moonies in the Old Continent, so I first knew of the Unification Church in Japan, where it has a sizable following and is quite famous for its ties with some rightist politicians. Only then I knew that for decades there were thousands of ‘Moonies’ in the US, and all that comedy about mass weddings. Amusingly there’s little else weird about the Moonies, except that Moon made a lot of money which he used to buy politicians in the US and North Korea. The Unification Church is the owner of both the Washington Times and Pyeonghwa motors. Moon was as comfortable with US congressmen and with Kim Il Sung. I don’t know if he’s the Messiah, but he proved the farce which is modern politics.

Europeans have a hard time thinking clearly about religion. We have a strong bias towards thinking that religion is about truth (if you like it) or about power (if you don’t). We used to have a Universal Church, which then splintered into state churches. Religion meant tradition, continuity, order. It was structured as pretty much part of the state bureaucracy. Most people seldom put much thought on the thing, and combined an utter disregard for moral precepts with an eager enthusiasm for the yearly rituals.

The conventional wisdom over here is that religion is dead because science has made us all rational and we don’t need blind faith. Of course that assumes that religion is about truth. But is it? Undoubtedly it was so for some people. There were always a few curious people who really wanted to know what the world is about, and where do moral precepts come from. In as much as religion is about truth, well then it is certainly dead. The same people that went in droves to medieval universities to debate about universals or angels dancing in pins, today are atheists teaching Marxism in the same universities. The average age of pastors and nuns all over Europe is over 65.

This is a nice narrative telling the story of how religion died when people realised the truth. But there’s the little detail that religion isn’t really dead. At the same time the state churches of Europe declined, Americans, Koreans and Japanese had the Moonies. And dozens of other different cults, each with its own palette of wacky articles of faith. If religion were really about truth, those cults wouldn’t have arised in the first place.

So it follows that religion is not about truth. It mind sound obvious to my American friends, but it wasn’t for me. Not until a while ago kind reader pointed me to this podcast in EconTalk where they interview Laurence Iannacconne, who is a scholar on the economics of religion. Which means that he treats a religion as a good, subject to the laws of demand and supply. A good traded rationally according to the utility given to its consumers. To a believer it’s the closest thing to sacrilege to be seen in an academic paper. But it got me hooked. In both good and bad ways.

The basis of his research is that there are two kinds of economic systems of religion. There are Command economies (Europe) and free markets (the US). Command economies tend to decide production according to political principles, and not consumer preferences. So once government power stops enforcing conformity, people stop giving a crap. Free markets on the other hand have to compete to attract consumers, to give people what they want.

Iannaconne, as a good American, loves to talk about the US as the free market of religion. And he goes out of his way to stress that cults or sects or religions (I’ll call them cults for convenience) attract people of any sort, that most have an above average education (although US averages are multiracial and thus not very accurate), and are totally functional in society. But that can’t be true. A sane person can’t possibly go and dress in orange robes to chant Hare Krishna in the public square. Or believe that John Smith was a prophet. Or that Mr. Moon is superior to Christ because he believes in marriage. Or whatever stupid made up piece of crap the cults sets up as ‘revealed truth’.

It makes little sense, until it does. Iannaconne points out that wacky believes and unreasonable behavioral restrictions aren’t a bug, but a feature. A feature whose purpose is to solve the free-rider problem. People join cults because, in the Prof’s words, there are some things that can only be achieved in groups. So people join cults to feel part of a group, groups where people work and do chores for each other. This is cool while everybody works, but there’s always free-riders. By making people forsake alcohol, or wear orange robes, or worship some sleazy old dude, you put a barrier against free-riders, which in a sense are the most rational people of them all. The wackier the cult’s beliefs, the higher the commitment of the people who agree with them. No pain no gain. A guy who is known in his hometown for singing Hare Krishna is creeping out most people outside his cult, so he’s likely to stay in the cult. He has nowhere else to go.

The biggest problem with all these is what exactly do people get from joining this cults. “Some things that can only be achieved in groups”? Like what? The prof doesn’t specify. He can’t really. When pressed to answer he inevitably rambles in abstract terms: a sense of community, love and affection. But he never goes further, but he defends the American cultish culture, and you can here in his tone of voice how he passionately thinks that the religious free market is superior. How it makes people happier. How people, when allowed to choose, will always flock to cults.

Then it struck me. Cults aren’t “groups”. They’re ersatz tribes. People evolved in tribal groups. Tribes are where people are comfortable. That’s why when left to their own devices, humans will always try to coalesce intro tribes. It doesn’t matter what makes the tribe stick together, what matters is that there’s some mechanism to make a group of 20-100 people join regularly and live in community. And everybody does that. See how the Econtalk host Russ Roberts openly says he belongs to some cult and is also a sports fanatic. Modern sports are the most stupid and irrational waste of time since Justinian. But he isn’t ashamed of it. Because it’s his tribe. Or one of them.

Robin Hanson this week had an awesome post describing more concrete benefits of religious belief. But watch also how he notes that his family is also religious. If genes mean anything, Hanson’s family must be very smart, so that’s all for the idea of religion being comfort for weak minds. It’s goes deeper than that.
American academics have this funny thing to them, in which they are the only people on earth to are able to accurately analise their own culture, but 90% of the time the conclusion is that America is superior. That’s how Iannaconne is able to conclude that religion isn’t about God or salvation or transcendent truth. Religion is about building tribes and the psychological comfort they give. And that’s a good thing! But is it? One of the biggest reasons for my abandoning libertarianism was the irritating idea economists have that demand is always morally good. The Free Market gives people what they want, and people getting what they want is a good thing, so the Free Market is the closest thing to Paradise. That’s like saying that obesity is cool because people want ice cream and cupcakes, and hipergamy is awesome because women demand alpha badboys. See when Iannaconne touts the superiority of American religion because it allows people to form tribes without (not much) government interference.

But forming tribes is not a good thing. It’s devolving into the state of nature. It’s breaking the history of order building by organised states since the dawn of civilisation. Europe didn’t evolve national churches for nothing. It was the only way of asserting government authority, of breaking up clans and produce a cooperative culture where large-scale endeavors could be possible. Tribes produce tribal countries. Over time, they produce Afghanistan. That is not a good thing. Go by hbdchick’s to check out how tribes are formed and destroyed. It’s not pretty.

Of course the US is not Afghanistan, and cults aren’t real tribes. They are ersatz tribes. Except when they aren’t. The Mormons are a real tribe by any working definition of the term. An ersatz tribe becomes a real tribe when it enforces endogamy, and Mormons do. The US government understood that Mormons were a tribe (and such an enemy of federal authority) and consequently war ensued. Going back to the start, the Moonies made themselves famous for their mass weddings, but there’s little else about their cult. They don’t wear orange robes nor have any especial article of faith besides the worship of Mr Moon. But of course mass weddings are sufficient to make a tribe. Endogamy from the start. The fastest and most efficient way of ethnogenesis.

Religion has two basic components: a set of rules and rituals, and the metaphysics that justify them. The metaphysics, the faith, is only of interest to a small subset of smart people interested in ‘truth’. But most people don’t really understand nor really give a shit about theology. What’s really important is the ostensibly unintented consequences of the theology and the ruleset: the group. The tribe. What people really care about is belonging to the tribe. And they will only follow the rules as much as necessary to maintain their membership. Because people crave tribes.

Now the demand curve for tribal association depends on many factors. Many new cult members are young people who really need the group support that the tribe provides. Jobs, contacts, companionship. Many join just to find a spouse, a demand that Moon exploited with great savvy. I myself am on the record for saying that we need a new religion. That was based on theology-centric model of religion, which is clearly flawed. Not that the Antiversity followers couldn’t use a committed tribe for group support, but let’s face it, most of us aren’t here for the sense of companionship. We care about truth. But there’s not much of a market for that.