Ritual creates tribes…and tribalism

Connor Wood

Religious violence

In the bloody and confusing years following September 11th, 2001, a group of scientists and intellectuals led by biologist Richard Dawkins and philosopher Daniel Dennett began loudly calling for less tolerance of religion. Secular-minded popular intellectuals have been criticizing religion since the Roman atheist Lucretius wrote De Rerum Natura, but this was a new level of indignation. These writers, who were quickly dubbed the New Atheists, argued that religions’ nonsensical beliefs – immaterial beings, Heaven, answered prayer, and so forth – led far too easily to violence, intolerance, and bigotry. Therefore religious belief had to go! This may seem like a decent hypothesis, at least at first glance. But recently a trio of psychologists did some empirical work and came to a different conclusion: it’s not religious faith that drives violence and intolerance. It’s religious practice.

Jeremy Ginges, Ian Hansen, and Ara Norenzayan, psychologists at the New School for Social Research and the University of British Columbia, considered the New Atheists’ claims about religion to constitute an empirically testable hypothesis. Did beliefs in things like rewards in Paradise or eternal damnation for nonbelievers make religious people more likely to sanction violent acts against outsiders? Or, as an increasing body of research suggested, could it be that ritual practice and religious attendance made believers feel more tightly bonded to their religious groups…which in turn made them distrust outsiders?

This may sound like splitting hairs, but it’s an important difference. According to the New Atheist hypothesis, religious beliefs themselves are bad news. Dawkins and his followers sometimes describe them as “mind viruses:” dangerous, self-interested programs that colonize our cognitive hardware, using our minds jump from person to person and reproduce willy-nilly  over the face of the planet. To the New Atheists, this kind of parasitic model of religion is the only way to make sense of the apparently outrageous, nonempirical beliefs of religious people. Like any viruses, these beliefs also compete against each other – which impels their hosts (that’s us) to fight one another in a bloody contest to secure total control of the neural landscape.

So that’s Hypothesis One: religion is basically about beliefs, and those beliefs inspire people to act nasty towards folks with different beliefs. Got it? Okay.

Hypothesis Two – tested here by Ginges, Hansen, and Norenzayan – suggests something very different. It begins with the observation that humans are coalitional animals; that is, we appear to be “designed” by evolution to form coalitions, or groups, and to use those groups to further our own aims.* In fact, without strong groups humans are toast. We don’t have big fangs, sharp claws, or the ability to outrun a cheetah. We’re soft, pink, hairless upright apes who can’t see too well and have practically no sense of smell (compared to most of the critters who want to eat us, anyway). Strong social bonds and tight groups are our best – and only – realistic tools for survival. Without them, individual humans are goners. So evolution shaped us to form strong, resilient tribes.

But tribes don’t just happen. Like any complex system, they need input and specific processes to keep them going. An oak tree is an example. That oak in your yard is basically an organized, long-lasting arrangement of hydrogen, carbon, and a few other elements. This arrangement is stable over time only because energy flows into the system: the tree sucks in sunlight, transforms it into energy in its chloroplasts, and uses that energy to power its growth and biological processes. (Yes, this is a radically simplified version of the story.) So it’s not by sheer chance that oak trees are organized and stable. Some really important basic processes make it possible for them to be stable in this way. Cut all the leaves off the tree, and photosynthesis stops. Pretty soon the entire system – the whole pattern – will break down. In a few years (at least here on the East Coast, where summertime air humidity reaches approximately 57,564 percent) all that’ll be left will be wet sawdust on the forest floor, teeming with insects and laced with fungi.

So what is it that keeps human groups – complex arrangements of individuals, relationships, and economic artifacts like tools and houses – from metaphorically disintegrating into dust? The answer, according to a growing chorus of evolutionary researchers, anthropologists, and psychologists, is ritual. Ritual is the coordinated, stereotyped action of human bodies that demonstrates – and inspires – allegiance to a group. By participating in the ritual practices of a group, these researchers argue, you’re communicating that you accept the group’s basic moral framework, that you’re agreeing to behave according to its standards, and – perhaps most importantly – that you promise to be loyal to its members.

So, metaphorically, ritual is the photosynthesis of human groups, right? No. That would be a terrible metaphor. But it is, according to some researchers, one of the basic processes that makes it possible for groups to cohere over time. All complex systems depend on specific mechanisms to keep going, whether it’s a hurricane drawing on warm-air convection or a tree turning sunlight into energy. For human tribes, it’s ritual.†

So back to our original question: is it beliefs or practices that makes religious folks ready to do violence to outsiders? When Ginges, Hansen, and Norenzayan gave surveys to several hundred Palestinians and Jewish Israelis, they found that personal prayer didn’t predict support for suicide bombings against religious enemies. But for both Palestinians and Jews, attendance at religious services did.

For instance, Palestinians who prayed five times a day were no more likely than others to condone violent acts against Israelis. But those who attended mosque regularly gave a very different answer; daily attendees were between two and four more times likely to support violent bombing attacks against Israelis. The same pattern held true for Israelis: Israelis who attended synagogue more often were more supportive of a violent act against Muslims. Israelis who prayed regularly weren’t.

The researchers assumed that personal prayer was a good indicator of belief in the tenets of respondents’ religions. And in fact, those who prayed often were much more likely to report that religion was “very important” in their lives. Attendance at services, however, didn’t predict religious devotion independent of personal prayer. The conclusion? It’s clearly not beliefs, the authors claimed, that drive people to support violence against outsiders. It’s ritual.

Bolstering this conclusion, the authors found that the effect of religious attendance persisted even after controlling for which type of mosque or synagogue respondents attended:

The effect of mosque attendance cannot be attributed solely to propaganda by religious clerics or to recruitment efforts at mosques, as it held even when we controlled for identification with organization carrying out suicide attacks…(and) for support for political Islam.

In other words, young Palestinians weren’t just going to radical mosques, hearing anti-Israeli messages from fiery preachers, and then deciding to support jihad against Israel. It was just going to mosque, period, that had the polarizing effect.

Taking their research efforts further, the authors also examined the results from a massive worldwide study conducted on behalf of the BBC. The survey asked for religious identification, participation, and beliefs, and also asked respondents if they agreed with items such as “I blame people of other religions for much of the trouble in this world.” Participants included Indian Hindus, Russian Orthodox, Israeli Jews, Indonesian Muslims, British Protestants, and Mexican Catholics. As the researchers expected, religious beliefs (as measured implicitly by personal prayer) didn’t predict negative attitudes toward other religious in any of the groups. In fact, among some groups personal prayer negatively predicted outgroup hostility. But across the board, religious attendance strongly predicted mistrust of, and hostility toward, religious outsiders. The strongest effect was among the Orthodox in Russia, but other groups weren’t immune.

So: personal prayer and belief doesn’t seem to inspire mistrust of, or hostility toward, outgroups. But attendance at formal religious services does. The authors of the study think this finding supports their hypothesis that religion increases between-group tension because it’s an especially strong motivator of our innate tribal tendencies. In particular, ritual practice has been used for thousands of years to bond tribes together: singing, dancing, and praying in time with one another makes people feel bonded…but only with each other.

In a way, this study redeems parts of the New Atheists’ critique of religion. Even though it’s not the strange beliefs themselves that make religious groups mistrust one another, the fact remains that more committed religious practitioners seem to be more likely to be suspicious of, and supportive of violence toward, people from other traditions.

Does this mean that religion is as bad as the New Atheists claim after all? That’s a tough claim to back up. In fact, the very same features of religious life – ritual and group practice – are exactly what predict higher personal well-being, better family relationships, and lower suicide rates. Meanwhile, pure religious belief often doesn’t predict better well-being, and in fact spirituality without religiousness often predicts poor mental health.

In a lot of ways, then, religion is a Catch-22. It primes us to be strongly bonded to the people around us, which is one of the single biggest predictors of personal happiness, health, and life satisfaction. We’re evolved to be tribal animals, after all – it makes sense that living in a strong tribe would make us feel warm and fuzzy. But the stronger our tribes get, the more outsiders look like aliens, or like enemies. Ritual per se doesn’t produce this effect, but instead piggybacks on it and intensifies it. The result is that religious people the world over are a bit more likely to be parochial, local-minded, and suspicious of outsiders than their non-religious peers. In its extreme manifestations, this dynamic produces religious wars – such as the 30 Years War that helped kick off the European Enlightenment.

Enlightenment and humanistic values, in contrast, tend to look askance at strong ingroup bonds and ritual, and to preference universalistic values that shatter tribal boundaries. In fact, this post-tribal value system may the knotty root of the religion-science schism; just like religion piggybacks on our tribal tendencies, science historically has piggybacked on our anti-tribal instincts, valorizing a culture-free, objective picture of reality and making many scientists coolly suspicious of ritual, religion, and most tribal identifiers. (When was the last time you saw a famous scientist wearing Denver Broncos facepaint? Never, that’s when.) But this anti-tribal worldview comes with a price, too: secular countries have much higher suicide rates on average, and many of the ills of modern society – alienation, loneliness, frayed social fabric – are good candidates for symptoms of our rejection of small groups.

The solution to this Catch-22, I believe, is to learn as much as we possibly can about religion, ritual, and their place in human life. As our knowledge expands, we might conceivably learn how to use ritual to create strong groups without demonizing outsiders. There may be genuine techniques to make this happen, waiting for us to discover them. We might also learn how to banish chronic loneliness and disaffection from our modern, industrialized societies without retreating into atavistic parochialism or religious wars. Knowledge is power, folks. Let’s start learning.


* I put “designed” in quotes because, of course, evolution itself doesn’t design anything. Anything that looks like design, like the human eye or our tribal propensities, is the product of a long chain of complex but mechanical interactions. For you theistic evolutionists (most American believers in evolution), this doesn’t necessarily mean there’s no guiding influence on, or force  within, evolution – although most biologists don’t condone such speculations. It just means that you can’t look to the brute processes of natural selection alone for any such influence. Natural selection proper is mindless.

† If true, this theory – or more accurately, group of related theories – provides a handy explanation for the well-documented fact that conservative religious denominations in the U.S. are doing better than more liberal denominations. Liberal churches and synagogues tend to be light on ritual, and to let congregants themselves decide whether to participate in rituals like baptism, communion, and – as reported recently in the New York Times – even bar mitzvahs. Conservative denominations, on the other hand, tend to present members with a clear black-and-white choice: take part in the rituals, or go find another church. If ritual evolved in human biocultural history to help us forge strong, somatic, ingroup bonds, then it’s not surprising that the religions that demand more ritual are chugging along nicely while their laxer counterparts are creaking into obsolescence.

Religion surrounds us
The Nye-Ham debates, or why fundamentalism exists
How do we make meaning of evolution? By admitting its uncomfortable truths.
Want to understand religion? You’ve gotta have a body.
  • PSmith27

    Connor, I wanted to write a blog post responding to this but I just don’t have the time. A few things…

    1) Attending services =/= ritual participation. It can involve ritual participation but the “shared experience” of service attendance is not in an of itself ritual. In fact it may involve all kinds of aspects like shared narratives, shared exposure to certain ideologies, etc. I realize the researchers claimed that the effects were independent on the type of mosque or synagogue attended but these spaces still share aspects of worship that are not necessarily reduced to “ritual.”

    2) The comparison group that is supposed to represent religious belief is actually practicing ritual!!!! Prayer is ritual. I do not understand where they get “prayer = adherence to religious beliefs.” That’s a false equivalence…a seriously false equivalence. In fact people who attend services regularly are much more likely to believe in the basic tenants of their given tradition, and do so more completely. Praying might mean adhering to certain, specific beliefs…beliefs that justify prayer and it’s effectiveness, but those do not encompass the spectrum of beliefs within Judaism and Islam. And let me repeat this again. Prayer is ritual. It may not be group ritual (except when it is, in say Islam) but it’s ritual nonetheless. All shared experiences in a religious setting are not ritual…AND ritual is not only defined by shared experiences in a religious setting.

    3) The context of this study (Israel – Palestine) should matter immensely but why no discussion of it? We’re talking about a region where group identities are by their nature heightened and Othering occurs as a matter of daily life. I’m glad that the research shows that groups of similar people, within this type of disruptive social setting, would reinforce their group identities when they congregate. I have no doubt that ritual behavior might heighten this type of identity maintenance, but so most likely does storytelling, sharing ideological resources, and so on. To generalize about ritual specifically based on research like this seems like a very, very big stretch.

    4) The use of “tribe” and “tribalism” in this discussion is extremely unfortunate. The type of religious behavior that is being singled out as good is exactly the type of religious behavior practiced most by post-Reformation Westerners…exactly the groups of people who have historically enacted tremendous violence against “tribal” cultures over the past few centuries. So using “tribal” and “tribalism” evokes an unfortunate colonialist framing of the discussion…a framing I know that you did not intend and does not align with your thinking, but nonetheless it appears in print.

  • http://joannevalentinesimson.wordpress.com/ ValPas

    Another good one! Thought provoking. I was not raised in a religious family, but I did attend, for awhile, get-togethers of the Ecumenical Institute (later the Institute for Cultural Affairs), an interdenominational organization that included a lot of ritual in the meetings. I always came away from those gatherings fired up and feeling committed and creative. I also had a bit of discomfort with the feeling, as though my brain was being used, like something was encroaching on my autonomy.

  • connorwood

    Thanks for sharing. I think it’s fascinating that you had the feeling of being “used,” or that you were somehow uncomfortable with what was otherwise an amazing experience of what Durkheim called “collective effervescence.” And I completely identify with your reaction. My sense is that many progressives and secular-minded people share this gut feeling that group-bonding ritual is somehow not to be trusted, even if it FEELS great – because you never know when simple groupishness is going to turn bad, and lead to Gestapo marching in the street. And of course it does suppress individual autonomy – it’s part of the ecstasy of it. You lose your ego to something greater, more coherent. Religious conservatives understand the value of this process very well, while liberals comprehend its dangers all too well.

    Of course, I try to understand both.

  • connorwood

    Per, this comment WAS a blog post. :)

    I think your critiques are largely valid, but you may be missing the forest for the trees a bit. The point isn’t whether we call church or mosque attendance “ritual” or “practice” or “Bob.” The point is that group practice of a religion is far more closely correlated with outgroup xenophobia than private or individualized practice is. This is not surprising to me, because nearly all the salient social and and psychological effects of religious adherence – from lowered divorce and suicide rates to better cardiovascular health, and from greater ingroup identification to lower tolerance of competing theologies – is pretty reliably correlated across studies with group practice, not with private behavior, beliefs, or self-identification as religious. Example: in the US, people who say they’re religious have divorce rates that are just as high as among the general populace. But people who actually go to church regularly have significantly lower divorce rates.

    The upshot is that we can certainly quibble about the definitions of ritual; I’d agree, for instance, that prayer counts as ritual (and so would Roy Rappaport, whose work influenced a lot of this essay). But I would not agree that private religious practice is just as influential over behavior and social attitudes as public or corporate practice. The data overwhelmingly suggest that it’s public practice that creates strong coalitional identity, as well as all the positive and negative effects that flow from having strong coalitions.

    As for the tribal language, I’m not sure which religion you meant that I was singling out as “good.” In my mind, I was articulating a case that innate human groupishness a:) is magnified by public religious practice, and b:) has multitudinous good and bad effects. And we should learn about them. If you meant that I was valorizing “objective,” non-tribal science, I clearly didn’t express clearly enough that I do not believe in any such thing. I think the Enlightenment’s trust in pure objectivity is cute, but based on fundamentally unexamined and flimsy philosophical and epistemological premises. So, yes, science can be colonialist, particularly in the way that science advocates can unreflectively claim they’re somehow above all distortions of culture. Although I value and practice science, and I think the QUEST for objectivity is a valuable one, I don’t advocate the “culture-free science” triumphalist baloney. I’ll try to make that clearer in future posts (although that will get me a whole lot of people bellowing at me in the comments).

  • kalimsaki

    What is the purpose of life?

    Said Nursi gives answer to this question in his books
    (Risalei Nur Collection):

    Here an example:

    Man stands in need of most of the varieties of beings in the
    universe and is connected to them. His needs spread through every part of the
    world, and his desires extend to eternity. As he wants a flower, so he wants
    the spring. As he desires a garden, so does he also desire everlasting
    Paradise. As he longs to see a friend, so does he long to see the All-Beauteous
    One of Glory. Just as in order to visit one he loves who lives somewhere else,
    he is in need for his beloved’s door to be opened to him, so too in order to
    visit the ninety-nine per cent of his friends who have travelled to the
    intermediate realm and so be saved from eternal separation, he needs to seek
    refuge at the court of an Absolutely Powerful One. For it is He Who will close
    the door of this huge world and open the door of the hereafter, which is an
    exhibition of wonders, remove this world and establish the hereafter in its

    Thus for man in this position the only True Object of
    Worship will be One in Whose hand are the reins of all things, with Whom are
    the treasuries of all things. Who sees all things, and is present everywhere,
    Who is beyond space, exempt from impotence, free of fault, and far above all
    defect; an All-Powerful One of Glory, an All-Compassionate One of Beauty, an
    All-Wise One of Perfection.


  • Grotoff

    Come on, Episcopalians are light on ritual?

    Color me skeptical of this whole “tribal” hypothesis. Did they interview religious Jains? To be an extremist Jain is to embrace extremist non-violence. I don’t think it’s likely that religiously practicing Jains would begin to condone violence toward out-groups.

    Personal prayer is NOT a good measure for belief in specific doctrine. According to all the studies I’ve seen, there are even atheists who “pray”. What to and for, I have no idea. If the authors really wanted to know if doctrine matches up to support for violence or not, then they should have ASKED. Ideas matter.

    What a sad and silly study.

  • Thursday1

    Thing is though, you probably need a certain minimum of personal belief to actually get you to attend services.

  • connorwood

    That’s one hypothesis. Another hypothesis would be that participation in religious rituals cumulatively gives rise to the sociological and psychological conditions that allow for personal belief. And another hypothesis is that belief and praxis are mutually reinforcing, as in a feedback loop.

    The first hypothesis is generally a very Protestant one: belief (faith) comes before everything. The second hypothesis is often argued for by Jewish thinkers, who are more fluent with a worldview that emphasizes ritual. Do the ritual, and you will come to believe what it stands for or evokes. The third hypothesis is the one that I advocate, because it fits the data best; you can start with no belief at all, start going to services, and eventually have your worldview shifted to the point where belief seems natural. Or you can believe all along, and find that ritual simply reinforces it. But the hypothesis that faith has to come first is, as far as I and every sociologist of religion out there are concerned, almost certainly refuted. Thanks for reading!

  • Thursday1

    The problem with the third hypothesis is how the whole thing gets started in the first place, which is why I’d say you need to have at least a few people, a seed group, that actually do believe in something supernatural. This doesn’t need to be any sort of specific creedal belief, more like a few intuitive notions, though it can be creedal, and often is in more complex cultures. But you probably do need a certain amount of it to get those religious rituals and community started.

    I’d agree that, once things get started, there is a feedback loop.

  • connorwood

    > I’d say you need to have at least a few people, a seed group, that actually do believe in something supernatural.

    You’ve got Max Weber in your corner on this. I think you and Weber are probably correct. Even so, modern American perspectives generally seriously overestimate the importance of a priori faith in most people’s religious lives, which is what leads me to critique characterizations of religion that over-emphasize (to my eyes) belief.

  • ppatt

    Fromm observes that work has a self regulating effect and reins in the anxiety that
    would otherwise prevail if we were faced with more freedom and the accountability for choices made in place of work which leaves few choices for most people. He also notes a primary human need for some “object of devotion” which can assume a variety of forms. Sadly, devotion to a group requires giving up aspects of individuality and freedom. Though some religion holds devotion to humankind and the reduction of human suffering above all else, something much different is derived from devotion of small groups to less concrete, more abstract notions. When we can pick and choose the attributes of a personal object of devotion that object, oddly enough, morphs into the one we see in the mirror. Narcissism and selfless work compete are in endless competition. Narcissism as self-love can only be curbed by love of real things beyond ourselves but fear of the unfamiliar inhibits this. We are trapped by our fear and need for the familiar.

  • ppatt

    Canetti’s seminal work on mass psychology, “Crowds and Power”, for which he won a Nobel, takes an objective look at why people form groups. He notes that groups develop a language of their own in an attempt to sublimate fear. This leads to collusion and a manner of communication that hides truths which is uncomfortable to acknowledge. That is what one gets for the price of admission. The purposes that leave participants idle or free to manipulate some object of devotion into some narrow definition most often end badly. This is both tragic and predictable.

  • Moshe

    This is a huge issue. How do we create new kinds of healthy tribalism(s) in a pluralistic society?

  • Collin237

    It should’ve been obvious from the start that saying religion is a virus is not really different from saying God is a virus. And that if you believe, however indirectly, that God is anything, you’re not really an atheist. Unfortunately, the so-called “new atheists” refuse to accept this.

    The theory you explain here may be wrong, but at least it’s actually a theory, not a myth like Dawkins’s explanation.

    However, there is one puzzling thing about this study: How can someone who believes everyone who doesn’t join his group will be punished for eternity not, at least inadvertently, show disrespect to outsiders?

  • Matt Davis

    That’s false. It’s easy to believe that religion is a virus while still believing that god doesn’t exist. Religion exists and causes verifiable harm; god doesn’t.