Tribalism is not just a New Atheist (or religious) problem

Tribalism is not just a New Atheist (or religious) problem March 25, 2015

Photo: David Shankbone / Wiki Commons
Photo: David Shankbone / Wiki Commons

I have been questioning how I classify myself, lately, because of things like the “New Atheists are toxic” idea (or at least their Reddit page is) according to the study I talked about yesterday. Among those who talked about it, and the CNN special that aired last night about atheism, the idea of “tribalism” among New Atheists also surfaced.

Peter Mosely talked about an article, by another atheist, that used the term, and a Free Thought Blog entry by Jason Thibeault also discussed this idea. So, the question arises, what is the deal with tribalism?

Honestly, this feels like the 2008 elections and the use of “socialist” to demean Barack Obama. Not a lot of people really seem to understand the concept and, so long as it remains that way, it appears to have a negative stigma.

Tribalism is, in so many words, a means of organizing like-minded peoples into a group; social or otherwise. This happens on macrocosmic, and microcosmic, levels; people consider themselves members of a community, a religion (or lack thereof), town, city, state, political group, country, and hemisphere. We are a social species, which means we need contact with others to help us make it through life. Though the numbers may vary (150 according to Dunbar’s number [which also dictates that groups of social circles determines brain size], to almost 300 according to other studies), the idea is that we require contact with other members of our species. This permits us opportunities to have help obtaining food, attending to the sick, and offering support and protection during times of crisis.

Now each social group has leaders, or looked-to figures; the New Atheism movement has Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, among others. These people are called, in Malcom Gladwell’s book the Tipping Point, “Connectors”. What this means is that there are individuals who have connections in different social settings that are able to bring people together; to connect them through common interests and goals. Like those who want to have the appearance of scholarship, but do none of the work, let alone fact checking, have Ray Comfort, Ken Ham, and Reza Aslan.

Being involved in a “tribe”, or specific social group, benefits us greatly. Because of the kinship and empathy we show the LGBTQ community, marriage equality has become a very real thing. We also are seeing fights against religiously backed legislation that would deny women the ability to control what happens to their bodies. As I had pointed out in the article I posted yesterday, the more antagonistic parts, or individuals, of atheism often are aggressive because of being in a social setting where their rights, or the rights of the social group they identify with, are infringed upon.

Tribalism is not a bad thing, in fact it was, and is still, a very necessary part of being part of the social species that is humanity. It provides people with the ability to empathize, to be altruistic, offer kin-selection to share resources, and to help defend their community against outside threats. Why not drop the “Sarah Palin” antagonizing of groups and think of a better way to critique movements you have problems with? Unless you have books to sell.

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