Our fundamental “groupishness”

In his significant book “Not in God’s Name”, Jonathan Sacks reverses a popular trope. It is not our religion that makes us violent, he says. Instead, it is our penchant for violence that gives rise to our religious impulse. People are born with two sets of primal instincts, he notes: altruism toward those in our own group and aggression toward others. In daily life, this dynamic shows up in everything from football rivalry and political affiliation to racial division and armed combat.

Since most of us need to feel good about ourselves while we are acting aggressively toward others, we develop psychological mechanisms such as splitting, projection, and scapegoating, which allow us to assign goodness to our group and badness to the other group. This not only relieves us of having to deal with the goodness and badness inside our own group; it also frees us to believe that our violence against the other group is essentially altruistic. We bond best with our group when we confront an external enemy.

Sacks exposes another illusion when he points out that historical substitutes for religion have done greater harm than religion. These include the nationalism that sparked two world wars, the ideological system that gave Mao and Stalin license to murder millions of their own people, and the racism that fueled the Holocaust. “After that,” Sacks writes, “no one who argues that abolishing religion will lead to peace can be taken seriously.” It is neither our secularism nor our religion that fuels our violence, he concludes, but our fundamental “groupishness.”

– from “Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others” by Barbara Brown Taylor – HarperOne