The Banners of the Tribe

Humans evolved living in small groups, and I suspect that a lot of our mental wiring is still optimized for this sort of thing. We live in groups, large and small, because that gives us an advantage over those who don’t have a group, and because we need the group for protection against other groups. Thus small groups of humans outcompeted solitary families, and once agriculture arrived, big groups outcompeted or exterminated most of the small groups. The invention of agriculture changed our way of living, but probably hasn’t had time to completely rewire us.

Small groups are typically bound together by ties of kinship, but beyond a critical size, that doesn’t really work. Thus large groups of humans (tribes, chiefdoms, nations) needed to invent other kinds of social glue, starting with identification as such a clan, tribes, and so on. The largest kind of grouping, the civilization, requires the strongest adhesive, and I suspect that religion evolved mainly to fulfill this role.

It’s pretty clear that the instinct to identify with a “tribe” is pretty well developed in the human race. High school, at least high school American style, is a good place to observe the phenomenon. Nearly every kid feels some pressure to identify with a group. If you can’t get into one of the prestige groups (jocks, popular kids, rich kids) you pick another one (brains, geeks, Goths, freaks, dopers, thugs, etc.)

Adults have more choices, but the same trends are there: occupation, economic status, neighborhood, religion, political party, sports team, musical preference, etc. I will loosely group all these together as “tribes.” Our affiliations are a big part of our identity, and we are programmed to defend them vigorously. We signal our affiliations by displaying and defending the banners of our tribe. This sort of instinct to defend is atavistic, but not purely so. Around the world Christians continue to slaughter Muslims, Hindus to slaughter Muslims, Muslims to slaughter Christians, Jews, Hindus and Other Muslims, etc. , all in the name of religion – not that the victims are any less dead when slaughtered in the name of more modern sounding causes.

This reality is the reason why I think that the fanatical atheists like Hitchens, the two Seans Carroll, and Dawkins – all writers I otherwise admire – are nuts when they think they can win some sort of crusade against religion by disrespecting its symbols – its tribal banners, if you will. Every ghetto kid understands that if you disrespect the gang – its members, its graffiti, its banners – you threaten it and every member. Disrespecting the banners of the tribe is easily construed as an act of war, especially when there are a whole bunch of wars already going on, and your tribe is the target of many.


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