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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.

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24 responses to “Tribes and Cults

  1. Matthew September 9, 2012 at 18:22

    “They’re ersatz tribes.”

    I have a couple of commentaries on the Gospels by various Context Group scholars, and the term they use for such things is “fictive kinship groups”. The Way of Jesus being the foremost during the period studied, of course.

    • spandrell September 11, 2012 at 16:26

      Sorry, your comment got caught in the spam filter.

      Fictive kinship groups sounds accurate enough.Are they a good thing? Should we promote them?
      Perhaps we should, because the alternative is real kinship groups, and those cause other pathologies re: hbdchick theories on inbreeding and social trust.

      • Matthew September 13, 2012 at 07:12

        thechive.com is constructing a fictive kinship group, based upon the ownership of restricted-production t-shirts, veneration of Bill Murray, exhibitionism, and a contrastingly sane loathing for modern universalist corporate culture. I think this is the real version of what Moldbug divined from the entrails of hipster velocipede revival. Not that there’s anything long-lived in it.

  2. asdf September 9, 2012 at 23:07

    Exactly what question are you asking here?

    • spandrell September 10, 2012 at 01:40

      Just noting that religion is about tribalism more than anything else.

      • asdf September 10, 2012 at 02:56

        That’s a lot of words to get to “water is wet.”

        I’m not sure what difference various religious precepts have on how the tribe ends up behaving. For instance I think the fact that Mormons were a bunch of pioneer white people isolated in the rockies was probably more important then any of the cult stuff Joseph Smith came up with in shaping Mormon behavior today.

        • spandrell September 10, 2012 at 07:20

          Yes it wasn’t very articulate, that’s what happens when you write a post piece by piece during 2 weeks. Sorry for that.

          I don’t think it’s as obvious as “the water is wet” though. The guys at the Orthosphere are smart men still arguing about angels and the holy ghost.

          I am also skeptic on the power religious precepts. See my link to Hilaire Beloc’s piece, where he hilariously argues that Arianism would have produced an Islam-ish culture.
          The Quran is a mess, and Muslims weren’t always abstemious, but suddenly it became fashionable to be, and now it seems they always were.

          I do think it’s a stretch to argue that the law is meaningless, it has some power. But it can become very flexible if people want it enough. See liberal Christianity.

          • Simon September 10, 2012 at 13:08

            Ah hahahahaha hahahahahahahaha ha oh ee hee hee oh hee ha hah. And I thought my jokes were bad.

            I try not to say anything but you’re so wilfully dense. It’s infuriating. It is simply amazing the lengths people will go to to not even try to understand their lot.

            Yes, we should all be like spandrell, spinning webs no one but he and a handful of closeted autists give a fuck about. Not everyone is fulfilled by pathetic status-games, spandrell. By all means, continue your painfully adolescent dreams of a singularity, and whatever other inane and boring ideas of technological utopia you harbour in your mind. No one really gives a fuck.

            For the rest of us who understand the nature of truth, and what it entails, Christ will continue to be the lodestar. You can continue spinning on your head, I guess.

          • asdf September 10, 2012 at 23:24

            The second you start making the state of the world more important then your relationship with God your basically asking for trouble. Live well, let God sort out what may come.

          • Matthew September 13, 2012 at 07:14

            Why wouldn’t Arianism have produced a culture of Isaac Newtons?

          • bbtp September 13, 2012 at 17:18

            There’s no way to know if Belloc was right, but his argument wasn’t absurd.

            Islam was a victim of its own success; there really was an Islamic golden age due to trade-route cosmopolitanism, but once the internal logic of Islam was fully worked out, it resulted in a worldview (occasionalism) that was not fertile ground for science. There is no obvious reason that the miscellaneous illiterate barbarians inhabiting Europe in 400 A.D. had to evolve into today’s Europeans. If we accept the claim that Islamic philosophy caused Islamic stagnation, it stands to reason that European Islam would have eventually brought about stagnation in Europe also.

            If this is true of Islam, why not of Arianism? Heresies aren’t just about academic questions. Religion is how premodern man formed his habitus and his social institutions. Before the Catholics strangled it in its cradle, Catharism had already begun to become something very “un-European” (based on our understanding of “European-ness”) and given time and space, I think it would have evolved to resemble a Buddhist theocracy like that of pre-conquest Tibet. But whatever it had become, it wouldn’t have become the ancien regime.

  3. RS September 16, 2012 at 03:57

    > For instance I think the fact that Mormons were a bunch of pioneer white people isolated in the rockies was probably more important then any of the cult stuff Joseph Smith came up with in shaping Mormon behavior today.

    I think what’s more important is differential migration/transition/selection into mormonism by personality. The theological nature of the cult mattered early on in determining who entered it, and the nature of its charismatic personalities probably mattered even more. I seem to recall that it grew largely by natural increase ; surely some people did transit into it later but they probably had substantial affinities of personality type with the relatively early members. Why are mormons marked by extreme ‘niceness’ and politeness today, which would verge on being pathetic if they did not also have a certain winningness of persona, and why might they have been like that from the first? — I don’t know, but I do think it a good guess they were probably like that, biologically, from the first.

    One might guess that they were relatively little self-assertive, hence below average in status, and this helped determine their will to transit into a new society. But I’m also gonna guess that Smith had a prominent easygoing niceness and a hearty, winning vibe. Whereas Jesus, although highly focused on niceness, mildness, and love, demonstrated a more passionate and suffering/desperate and craving nature, and as Nietzsche notes, seemed to sort of flip out when any person didn’t love him pretty wildly. He is far weirder and uncannier than mormons I have encountered, less healthy, shamanically ‘intense’, considerably saturnine.

  4. RS-prime September 20, 2012 at 09:36

    > once the internal logic of Islam was fully worked out, it resulted in a worldview (occasionalism) that was not fertile ground for science

    Sure, I’m in considerable sympathy with what you’re saying (and with the view that ancient Europe was half-ruined by Christianity). Only you go a little far in referring to fertile ground for science, since pretty much there have been a million awesome civilizations, Hellas, India, China, but none of them except modern Europe were really fertile ground for science.

    Also it seems like you can say at least say that high IQ is stable at high latitude in the civilized state. This makes it seem likely that Northern Europe would probably have become a great civilization over 700-1000 as in fact occurred. The barbaric usages of the Voelkerwanderung were probably likely to be transitory. Hellas had a dark age featuring such total illiteracy that it returned with a completely new script. This dark passed. Also the migration of military-civilizational leadership ever toward the NW is rather striking in West Eurasia. It all started in Iraq, then Egypt, then for a while Israel was the most interesting place, not militarily but culturally, then Greece, then Rome, then Northern Italy, then France, then England. Not to slight Persia (Hafiz is magnificent in the McCarthy translation, so’s Persepolis) or my personal cultural home which is Germany. Or mighty Slavland.

    But sure, Cathar land would have been a different world.

    • RS-prime September 20, 2012 at 16:17

      > Also the migration of military-civilizational leadership ever toward the NW is rather striking

      My point here was that while cultural acts can be determinative, so are other things and this northwestern-moving ‘wave’ is the kind of phenomenon that savors mostly of the latter. To the extent that the former and the latter can be separated.

  5. RS-prime September 20, 2012 at 11:05


    Best Answer – Chosen by Voters

    The biggest difference is to be found in the morals they convey.
    The heroes’ ethics in Homer’s works is summed up in the advice given to Achilles by his father “Always be first and best and superior to the others”. In Hesiod’s “Works and Days” we meet a different view. Hesiod puts the trust in the Justice of Zeus which guantees disaster for the man who commits crime but promises blessings for the man who lives with justice. So, in Homer we have the fierce heroic aspiration to excell, while Hesiod provides the counterpart warning against arrogance and excess.

  6. RS-prime September 20, 2012 at 20:18

    > The second you start making the state of the world more important then your relationship with God your basically asking for trouble. Live well, let God sort out what may come.

    This is unwise IMO, and doesn’t even reflect your own nature and practices, which don’t sound very quietest. I realize your words are only committing a semi-quietism, but I still think you are going too far. This is our world, dedicated by god or by we know not (how to understand) what. As Meisters Spinoza, Stirner, and Nietzsche advise, the impulse to devalue it (and separate it from god), even relatively, even relative to god, is nothing holy, but is instead most wisely viewed primarily with a phronetic eye: as just an expression of frustration, which obviously we all have. Leave the world to god? What I would rather abandon to him is the great questions about himself ; most of all, let him figure out whether he is immanent, transcendent, immanotranscendent or transcendoimmanent (or something 500 times less expressible yet) — if he even can. /I’ll/ simply take him /almost/ purely as (at least under present conditions) immanent, spinozan, pending further clarification, because it’s my wisdom to do so. I have a feeling the true, complete answer might be just a little over my head, but I am wise enough to hold to whatever fragmentary wisdom I can arrest, as I have the good taste to follow the law of gravity anytime I find myself in a powerful gravitational field. And god’s own situation, though possibly billions of times more profound, may not be /entirely/ different from that, for all I know. I am certainly not identical with god, that much is manifestly clear, so accordingly I need a little wisdom of my own, to contain as my private property. Consider Job on this, or, certain of the riddles of Eckhart.

    Therefore I leave little, very little to some transcendent divine aspect. I leave the transcendent to god, let it go forth and transcend things. (“I ask god to rid me of god” — though I don’t think that was /all/ that Eckhart asked.) I don’t do that so much, transcend stuff. Not much. When I do, it’s an amateurism, a side experiment, it’s not my responsibility or my property. I consider that god may conversely wish to leave something to me and other humans. Not his entire immanence in kosmos, but maybe the lion’s share of property in this earth. The world swerves away from becoming hell, or just dead, when responsible men sack up big, train their spirit hard, and take responsibility for it. Experiences like wu-wei or god or the possibility of god are extremely important, but when we look at some of the finest men under Zen discipline, they reached the conclusion that supreme effortlessness and supreme effortfulness were needed at once. Of course, too many of our wise-asses and wiseacres, from Job to Heraclitus and onward and backward, have answered too many of the great questions with such dualities and paradoxes, for instance The wise is one alone, willing and unwilling to be known by the name of Zeus. Then there’s Heidegger with his use of strikethru words, which is comparable. It gets a little stale, but in their defense, not one of these boys ever claimed that words alone, even at their very best, are anywhere near perfectly availing.

    Perhaps I, perhaps Spinoza, is just making a lot of ultra-sophisticated agnosto-atheist noise. And maybe I don’t even care that much whether I am or not, maybe that’s precisely where I personally like to stash my wu-wei or even faith. You can decide for yourself and I guess you probably will. Anyway I haven’t actually read any of Spinoza’s own text yet so I guess I will go give that a shot since here I am prating and gossiping about his mind.

  7. baduin September 29, 2012 at 20:44

    What you write is quite obviously true, and therefore it cannot be new. It is the way the Magian civilisation of Spengler works – in other words, the Judea-Arabian civilisation of the Middle East. In fact, Mormons are in many aspects very similar to the nation-churches of the Middle East. Even their “temple garment” resembles the holy shirt and cord of Parsis.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Temple_garment
    http://www.the-south-asian.com/april2001/Parsis-Ritual,Customs%20&%20Manners.htm

    A good explanation of the Middle-Eastern nation-church phenomenon can be found in Catholic Encyclopedia in the article on Eastern Churches:

    http://home.newadvent.org/cathen/05230a.htm
    “Characteristics of the Schismatical Eastern Churches

    Although these Churches have no communion among themselves, and although many of them are bitterly opposed to the others, there are certain broad lines in which they may be classed together and contrasted with the West.
    National feeling

    The first of these is their national feeling. In all these groups the Church is the nation; the vehement and often intolerant ardour of what seems to be their religious conviction is always really national pride and national loyalty under the guise of theology. This strong national feeling is the natural result of their political circumstances. For centuries, since the first ages, various nations have lived side by side and have carried on bitter opposition against each other in the Levant. Syria, Egypt, Mesopotamia, and the Balkans have never had one homogeneous population speaking one language. From the beginning, nationality in these parts has been a question not of the soil, but of a community held together by its language, striving for supremacy with other communities. The Roman contest accentuated this. Rome and then Constantinople was always a foreign tyranny to Syrians and Egyptians. And already in the fourth century of the Christian Era they began to accentuate their own nationalism, crushed in politics, by taking up an anti-imperial form of religion, by which they could express their hatred for the Government. Such an attitude has characterized these nations ever since. Under the Turk, too, the only possible separate organization was and is an ecclesiastical one. The Turk even increased the confusion. He found a simple and convenient way of organizing the subject Christians by taking their religion as a basis. So the Porte recognizes each sect as an artificial nation (millet). The Orthodox Church became the “Roman nation” (Rum millet), inheriting the name of the old Empire. Then there were the “Armenian nation” (Ermeni millet), the “Coptic nation”, and so on. Blood has nothing to do with it. Any subject of the Porte who joins the Orthodox Church becomes a Roman and is submitted politically to the ecumenical patriarch; a Jew who is converted by Armenians becomes an Armenian. True, the latest development of Turkish politics has modified this artificial system, and there have been during the nineteenthcentury repeated attempts to set up one great Ottoman nation. But the effect of centuries is too deeply rooted, and the opposition between Islam and Christianity too great, to make this possible. A Moslem in Turkey — whether Turk, Arab, or negro — is simply a Moslem, and a Christian is a Roman, or Armenian, or Maronite, etc. Our Western idea of separating politics from religion, of being on the one hand loyal citizens of our country and on the other, as a quite distinct thing, members of some Church, is unknown in the East. The millet is what matters; and the millet is a religious body. So obvious does this identification seem to them that till quite lately they applied it to us. A Catholic was (and still is to the more remote and ignorant people) a “French Christian”, a Protestant an “English Christian”; in speaking French or Italian, Levantines constantly use the word nation for religion. Hence it is, also, that there are practically no conversions from one religion to another. Theology, dogma, or any kind of religious conviction counts for little or nothing. A man keeps to his millet and hotly defends it, as we do to our fatherlands; for a Jacobite to turn Orthodox would be like a Frenchman turning German.

    We have noted that religious conviction counts for little. It is hard to say how much say of these bodies (Nestorian or Monophysite) are now even conscious of what was once the cardinal issue of their schism. The bishops and more educated clergy have no doubt a general and hazy idea of the question — Nestorians think that everyone else denies Christ’s real manhood, Monophysites that all their opponents “divide Christ”. But what stirs their enthusiasm is not the metaphysical problem; it is the conviction that what they believe is the faith of their fathers, the heroes of their “nation” who were persecuted by the other millets, as they are day-to-day (for there everyone thinks that everyone else persecutes his religion). Opposed to all these little milal (plural of millet) there looms, each decade mightier and more dangerous, the West, Europe Frengistan (of which the United States, of course, forms part to them). Their lands are overrun with Frengis; Frengi schools tempt their young men, and Frengi churches, with eloquent sermons and attractive services, their women. They frequent the schools assiduously; for the Levantine has discovered that arithmetic, French, and physical science are useful helps to earning a good living. But to accept the Frengi religion means treason to their nation. It is a matter of course to them that we are Catholics or Protestants, those are our milal; but an Armenian, a Copt, a Nestorian does not become a Frengi. Against this barrier argument, quotation of Scripture, texts of Fathers, accounts of Church history, break in vain. Your opponent listens, is perhaps even mildly interested, and then goes about his business as before. Frengis are very clever and learned; but of course he is an Armenia, or whatever it may be. Sometimes whole bodies move (as Nestorian dioceses have lately begun to coquet with Russian Orthodoxy), and then every member moves too. One cleaves to one’s millet whatever it does. Certainly, if the heads of any body can be persuaded to accept reunion with Rome, the rank and file will make no difficulty, unless there be another party strong enough to proclaim that those heads have deserted the nation. “

    • spandrell September 30, 2012 at 14:43

      Thanks for the link. This reminds me how good the Catholic Encyclopedia often is. It has this non-bullshit realpolitik almost scientific approach to many issues.

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