Is a global community really possible?

Multicultural friends textingLast week, I wrote about Peter Beinart’s recent Atlantic article, in which he argued that a less-religious America might not actually mean the end of racism or tribalism. This time, I want to jump off from that topic to ask some bigger questions. Since the European Wars of Religion, educated people have often associated religion with tribalism and conflict. Conversely, secularism is thought to go along with global cosmopolitanism. So why is the global liberal order taking such a beating right now, after an unprecedented period of secularization across the West? And would it actually be possible to build a truly cosmopolitan, global community – one without tribalism?

Beinart’s article drives home just what a challenging time this is to be a committed secular globalist. Just as traditional religion seems to have lost its hold on people – even in America, long a religious holdout among developed nations – the forces of regression, nationalism, and toxic tribalism are making a violent comeback. The post-World War II dream of a global community of nations, where people would be be “citizens of the world,” seems, if anything, to have lost ground.

This wasn’t the way it was supposed to go down. As civilization advanced and religion waned, we were supposed to rise above our tribalistic tendencies, shake off irrationality, and set about building a peaceful international society. What happened?

I’ll tell you what happened: we forgot that we’re animals, that’s what.

Ritual: the Bricks and Mortar of Community

All animals are social. Even loner animals, such as tigers and humanities majors, have to meet up with others occasionally for mating. So forging social bonds is a crucial task in animal life. But animals can’t just will those bonds into existence. They have to do something to forge them. Namely, they use ritualized, physical behaviors to organize new patterns of interaction.

Dogs sniff each other in circles. Birds preen and strut. And humans dance, bow, pray together, or shake hands.

In other words, in the animal kingdom, ritual is the basic mechanism that creates, maintains, and severs social bonds. And no matter what bestselling transhumanists think, we humans are still very much a part of the animal kingdom. So we need ritual to navigate bonds and to create solidarity between individuals and groups.

Using ritual to forge social bonds is fairly easy when we’re talking about a small community, where everyone can see each other face-to-face. Hugs, handshakes, and shared dinners are concrete actions that create social connections between people who are physically close together. But when we try to create groups that are bigger than a small band, these concrete social rituals aren’t enough.

The evolutionary anthropologist Robin Dunbar has argued that human brains are hard-pressed to maintain more than around 150 social connections at once. Dunbar’s number may be the reason why so many human subgroups – from infantry companies to corporate subdivisions – cluster around this size. Other researchers have challenged the precise number, suggesting that it’s higher or lower, but the consensus is that the upper bound on the number of human social ties is somewhere south of 200. Above that number, we can’t interact face-to-face. So interpersonal ritual – like shaking hands or getting dinner together – stops functioning as a social glue.

But that doesn’t mean we give up. It means shift to different kinds of rituals.

Big-Group Rituals

If you grew up going to public schools in the United States, you probably remember saying the Pledge of Allegiance every morning. Everyone in the classroom stands up, faces the flag in the corner of the room, and slaps their right hands over their hearts* to recite the pledge in cadence. While some might call this daily rite creepy, it’s also a physical thing that we concretely do with our bodies that makes “America”  seem real to us.

We’re animals, remember? We need ritual to create social bonds. So these concrete little rites of loyalty or recognition – like the Pledge of Allegiance, or weekly Mass, or Friday night Shabbat services – are absolutely necessary to make communities larger than 150 or so people come alive in the minds of their members. After all, no American citizen ever meets even 0.1% of her countrymen. In a very real way, “America” is an imagined entity for its actual flesh-and-blood inhabitants. No one ever sees “America.” We just encounter Americans. So we need habitual, ritualized actions that can make the country seem real.

Imagined Communities

In fact, all countries and religious communities share this need. The historian Benedict Anderson argued that modern nation-states are imagined communities,

because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion…In fact, all communities larger than primordial villages of face-to-face contact (and perhaps even these) are imagined.

When the rituals of such an imagined community are working, people feel loyal and well-disposed toward the community. When the rituals aren’t working, people don’t feel much of anything at all toward it. It’s as if the community just doesn’t exist.

Hmmm…a large imagined community, with no effective rituals, that fails to inspire any loyalty or emotional recognition among actual people? Did someone just say European Union and the United Nations?

Just for the record, I’m very much in favor of the United Nations and the anti-war foundations of the European Union. But both of these organizations suffer tremendously from a simple lack of aliveness in the lives and daily habits of real people. Sure, the E.U. affects how Europeans shop, travel, and pay taxes. It has oodles of economic and practical consequences. But it doesn’t insinuate itself terribly well into the emotional lives of actual Europeans. Its employees’ paid holidays don’t coincide with much  on-the-ground ritual.

Similarly, the United Nations doesn’t really make itself felt in the affective, personal lives of real people. There’s not much in the way of ceremony or rite that makes the UN come alive for everyday residents of its member states. It’s not an imagined community – it’s an imaginary one.**

Animal Behavior and the United Nations

I’m not the first person to point out that the big, global institutions are remarkably short on ritual. The evolutionary biologist Julian Huxley – grandson of Darwin-booster T.H. Huxley and brother of novelist Aldous Huxley – was one of the first researchers to examine ritual from the perspective of ethology, or animal behavior. He realized that, from ritualized courtship displays in shore birds to the marriage rites of high-church Anglicans, repetitive, stereotyped, and exaggerated actions are how individuals and communities communicate in the animal kingdom. In 1966, Huxley wrote that

as regards the world situation, the U.N. and its supra-national activities have been very poorly ritualized. Even its flag is a feeble symbol-stimulus compared with almost all national flags…proper ritualization of it and all other bodies concerned with inter- and supra-national service would be of great advantage, in enhancing their prestige and giving an added sense of significance to their members.

Writing around the same time, the sociologist and historian of religion Robert Bellah made a similar observation: in order for the United Nations to become meaningful to people, the national rituals of individual nations – their civic holidays, founding myths, and so forth – might need to incorporate references to an international identity:

Attainment of some kind of viable and coherent world order… would precipitate a major new set of symbolic forms. So far the flickering flame of the United Nations burns too low to be the focus of a cult, but the emergence of a genuine transnational sovereignty would certainly change this. It would necessitate the incorporation of vital international symbolism into our civil religion, or perhaps a better way of putting it, it would result in American civil religion becoming simply one part of a new civil religion of the world.

But that’s not how it happened. Rather than uniting our American rituals with new rituals for the global community, we’ve just continued to muddle along, sending money and troops to the UN, but not doing any real work to make the United Nations seem like a living, relevant entity to us. It’s no wonder that the UN and EU don’t inspire much loyalty. At the level of daily life, there’s not much there to be loyal to.

Keeping the Cosmopolitan Dream Alive

In my post last week, I described the paradoxical damage that declining religiosity may be inflicting on American civil society. Part of the reason why I take this threat seriously is because Abrahamic and other world religions do create larger “imagined communities” using ritual. If you take Catholic Communion in San Diego, you’re joining in an act that’s been repeated by millions of other people around the world, from New York to Buenos Aires, from Calcutta to Rome, in the past 24 hours.

The Catholic Church is nearly as widespread, globally, as the UN. But unlike the UN, it’s lasted for nearly 2000 years. And, unless the UN learns to use ritual as effectively as Catholics or other world religions, I’d bet money that Roman church will outlast it handily.

The cosmopolitan dream is of a borderless world, where local ties and tribal allegiances give way to ecumenism, global tolerance, and rationality. It’s an inspiring vision – we wouldn’t have Star Trek without it, and I love Star Trek – but everything we know about how humans work from psychology, cognitive science, and history says that it’s not realistic. At least not the way we’re going about it. If we want a cosmopolitan world, we need to make the “global community” seem real. In order to make it seem real, we have to ritualize it. We need, in other words, to turn the global community into an in-group.

I’m not sure if that’s possible. In-groups usually need out-groups, and the global community won’t have one of those until aliens invade.*** But I’m absolutely positive that the current approach to creating transnational communities is a dead end. It refuses, almost by principle, to use the basic tools – ritual and myth – that human animals have always used to weave together credible imagined communities.

World religions like Catholicism or Islam are usually thought of as the opposite of cosmopolitan globalism, but in fact they’re the original cosmopolitans. Before world religions, ritual and religion were synonymous with the tribe. World religions showed us how we could expand beyond our narrow identities and create communities that spanned nations. The way they did this was through ritual. They asked people to do things, regularly, repetitively, with their bodies and minds. These repetitive rituals slowly forged a new sense of identity. After the 18th century, nation-states did the same thing with national anthems, holidays, and pledges – which is why so much patriotism reminds us of religion. They use the same toolbox. If we truly want a global world, we’re going to have to open that box again.


* Actually, anatomically speaking most people put their hands a little too far to the left, but it would be pedantic to point that out.

** Did you know that October 24th is United Nations Day worldwide? I had no idea until I looked it up for this article. I’m a fairly well-informed, educated guy. I’ve traveled. If someone like me can go a whole lifetime without even hearing about UN Day, that may be a problem with my education, but it’s mostly a problem for the UN.

*** And, if we’re lucky, take Jeff Goldblum with them