Tribalism: The Good, The Bad, and The Future

Tribalism: The Good, The Bad, and The Future September 16, 2013

The issues of race and racism are being debated vigorously (though not always skillfully) on the Pagan internet.  As part of that debate, Morpheus Ravenna has been kicked off PaganSquare because she refused to back down from calling racism what it is.  Sam Webster has a good recap of the situation, and Morpheus’ follow-up is on her Shieldmaiden Blog.  As I said in my last post on this subject, this is a complicated issue that does not have easy answers.

Today I want to address a small part of this large issue:  who can practice a religion that is rooted in the experiences of a specific group of people?  And I want to use the answer to that question to suggest an approach to dealing with an uncertain future.

Who Can Practice A Religion?

This is a difficult question for most Westerners, who live in a society where Christian concepts still dominate.  Christians want everyone to be part of their religion and joining some Christian denominations is incredibly easy.

This “open to all” idea can also be found in Paganism.  For all its English origins and the overwhelming whiteness of its practitioners, Wicca makes no claims to an ethnic heritage.  Druidry was revived largely as a celebration of Celtic culture, but as it’s practiced today it’s far more Nature-based than ethnic-based.  The Egyptian gods were worshipped in Europe in antiquity and the vast majority of contemporary Egyptians are Muslims who have no connection to them (at least not in public).

This can give those of us who live in this environment the idea that joining any religion is – or should be – just as easy as signing the book at a UU church or entering a dedicant program in a Wiccan coven.

But it’s not always that simple.

For most people in most places throughout most of history, religion wasn’t about what you believed.  Religion was – and is – about who you are, whose you are, and how you live your life.  If you want to join some religions, it isn’t enough to say “I worship these gods and I participate in these ceremonies.” For some religions, membership is inseparably intertwined with shared culture and shared experiences.  If you don’t have those experiences, you can’t fully appreciate the stories and rituals.  It is at best naïve and frequently insulting to think someone with no real knowledge of a cultural tradition can walk into an existing group expect to be accepted with open arms.

What prerequisites are legitimate?  There are some Pagan groups – not many, but some – who claim that in order to belong, in order to worship their gods and participate in their traditions, you must come from a certain racial bloodline.  They say if you don’t have (fairly recent) ancestors who worshipped these gods – and if the color of your skin doesn’t match the predominant skin color of the tradition – then you can’t worship these gods or participate in these traditions.  They claim spirituality is somehow tied to DNA, and without the proper genetic similarities, their religion just won’t work for people who don’t look like them.

There simply is no basis for this in biology.  Go back far enough and we’re all related.  Migration and immigration have mixed bloodlines for millennia – a phenomenon that’s especially true here in the New World.  Humans are humans are humans.

There is also no basis for racial exclusion in religion.  I’ve met white Hindus, black Druids, brown Wiccans, and just about every other color-religion combination you can imagine.  Those who took it seriously and did the work were skilled in their traditions – those who didn’t, weren’t.  Beyond that, we have the experience of billions of Christians, Muslims and Buddhists who look nothing like Jesus, Muhammad or Buddha but are knowledgeable and powerful practitioners and leaders in their traditions.

So if anybody can’t be anything but exclusion on the basis of race is at best a mistake and more commonly a display of racism, how do we draw boundaries of membership?

Tribalism – the Good

Russell Erwin sent me a link to this article called “Racism in Asatru” by Wayland Skallagrimsson.  It’s a long piece that does a good job of addressing the problems in the Asatru community.  Skallagrimsson calls his middle way “tribalism” and explains it like this:

The answer the Tribalists have to the question of “Who can practice Asatru?” is: “Anyone who makes a sufficient effort to understand and adopt the culture of the ancient heathens.” This gives Asatru rigorous enough standards to make sure our practice is like that of the ancients, and is well understood, for to fully adopt another culture requires MUCH study … It also keeps us from the untenable argument that “other races” are somehow so intellectually inferior to the Norse and Germanic that they cannot attain this understanding.

This has been the practice of the Jews for centuries.  Judaism accepts converts, but conversion is a long and difficult process designed to insure the convert doesn’t just adopt Jewish beliefs and practices but truly becomes a Jew.  The practice has helped maintain Jewish religious and cultural identity in the face of near-constant oppression for 2500 years.

With a tribal approach, religious groups can set their own obligations of membership and anyone who wants to take them on is free to do so.  High barriers to membership are a good predictor of retention – they weed out those who aren’t serious or who are unwilling or unable to do the work.  If you want to be part of the tribe, then take on the whole tribal culture, not just the parts you find interesting.

Tribalism – the Bad

In this sense, tribalism is a good thing.  But tribalism can also be a bad thing.  Strong affinity towards one’s tribe can and frequently does lead to suspicion and hostility toward other tribes – particularly when tribes are competing over limited resources.  Evolution has equipped us to be binary thinkers, and if “us” is good then “them” must be bad.  Perhaps we can all just get along when times are good, but when things get rough, “them” are the first people to get blamed.  Read the comments section of any political article and you’ll find conservatives blaming liberals for all our problems and liberals blaming conservatives.  Here in Texas any problem that can’t be blamed on Obama is blamed on “illegal immigrants.”  In Greece, where the economy is in ruins, the unfortunately-named Golden Dawn is blaming “world Zionism” and offering free food to “Greeks only.”

I’ve long argued we’d all be better off if we’d stop thinking in terms of “us” and “them.”  Ultimately humans are one species and we share one planet with all other species – we are related to all other living things.  There is enough for all of us and if we focused our attention on making sure everyone has enough instead of on how we can grab as much as we can for ourselves, we’d all be better off.

I still think that’s the ideal situation.  The older I get, though, the less convinced I am that humanity is mature enough as a species to ever make it a reality.

Our Need For Strong Tribes

I’m a strong proponent of non-violent conflict resolution.  But I’m not a pacifist.  Threaten me and mine and I’ll respond as violently as necessary (to date, “as necessary” has been “not very” – I pray that continues).  I respect those who are committed to die rather than do violence themselves, but I’m not one of them.

Likewise, while I’d prefer our expressions of tribalism be limited to cultural diversity with no us/them conflict involved, humans have always needed strong tribes to stand against rivals.  I do not see this need going away any time soon.  For every Bill Gates or Warren Buffett who gives away billions and calls for higher taxes on themselves, there are dozens if not hundreds obsessed with putting every last dollar in their own pockets and insuring it stays within their own tribes.  In times of plenty and growth, this isn’t particularly important.  But this is not the future we ordered.

As much as I’d like to see a tidal wave of progressive candidates and measures, I’m not counting on it.  Call me cynical, but if such a movement began to manifest I suspect the Tribe of the Rich and Powerful would simply co-opt it.  Almost two years ago I wrote a series on the Occupy Wall Street movement (the first one is here).  In my final post, I recommended two political reforms, but suggested that real change will come only when human hearts and minds change first.

I’m not interested in taking down the Tribe of the Rich and Powerful.  I’m interested in making them irrelevant.

We frequently talk about “tribes” when what we really mean are interest groups.  But in order to be successful, tribes must create bonds that inspire individuals to put the good of the tribe ahead of their own desires.  What can create such bonds in our modern hyper-individualistic society?  Football fans display some of the strongest us/them behavior in the world, but it’s hard to see a Packers fan making a serious sacrifice for another cheesehead (I’m sure that happens occasionally, but I’d be shocked if it was a regular occurrence).

Creating strong bonds at a tribal level requires religion.  Not the religion of belief and doctrine, but the religion of myth and ritual, of shared stories and common practices.  Religion presents constant opportunities to demonstrate commitment to the tribe, which creates confidence that if I help you now, you’ll help someone later, and someone else will help me when I’m in need.  This is particularly true for religions for which hospitality and reciprocity are core values, as they are for many modern Pagan religions.

Good religion also teaches values that can make the Tribe of the Rich and Powerful irrelevant, to our smaller tribes if not to the general public.  Values like the sacredness of the Earth, honoring our ancestors and committing to becoming good ancestors ourselves, honoring the gods and embodying their virtues, and perhaps most importantly, understanding the meaning of “enough.”

Good religion can also keep preaching the interrelatedness of all life and help our tribes focus on taking care of our own instead of on attacking “the other.”

If our weak and slow ancestors hadn’t banded together in tribes, lions and tigers and bears would have wiped them out and we wouldn’t be here.  But they did, and so we are.  This era of decline will not be easy for any of us, and it will be nearly impossible for those who insist on going it alone.  With strong tribes we can not only survive, we can succeed.

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  • Do you see a way to build a tribe as a solitary?

    I think that Teo Bishop and, more recently, Kristin McFarland have done some pretty amazing work with respect to ceremonial liturgy with the Solitary Druid Fellowship, but as someone who is not really a part of any specific tradition, I’m often left feeling tribe-less. To be honest, I’m left feeling religion-less more often than not.

    • There are virtual communities and they’re helpful. I think of my OBOD family as a tribe – I see most of them once a year. I can share joys and sorrows with them, I can discuss philosophy and religion with them, I can support their work, and I can interact with them almost as well as I can with my local friends.

      But I can’t take them to a doctor’s appointment. I can’t cook dinner for them. I can’t help them find a job. And they can’t do that for me.

      There is a place for virtual tribes, and long-distance networking within and between tribes will remain important. But there is no substitute for people you can actually touch.

  • David Pollard

    So where does cultural appropriation of Native American tribal rituals fall into this discussion?

    • That falls under the category of “If you don’t have those experiences [of the entire culture], you can’t fully appreciate the stories and rituals.”

      Beyond that, I like a quote from Sam Webster: “tech is transferable, culture is not.” Stealing tech is an ancient and noble tradition – humans have been doing it ever since the first time someone visited the tribe down the river.

      But presenting culture implies that you understand that culture. If you’ve appropriated it, if you’ve taken the bits that look interesting to you, if you’ve taken the glory and ignored the suffering, then you don’t understand what you’re doing. It’s inaccurate and inauthentic.

      That argument completely ignores the insults such appropriations are to the people the culture is stolen from. But I’ve found that the people who appropriate improperly either don’t understand that inauthentic mimicry is not “honoring” the source culture, or they simply don’t care.

  • tomblair

    You are basically a universalist – struggling to find a way to make it acceptable to polytheists.

    • I’m not trying to make anything acceptable to anyone. I’m giving my take on a complex and sensitive issue.

    • Christopher Scott Thompson

      There is no contradiction between universalism and polytheism in the first place, unless you believe that your gods are real and all others are false.

      • tomblair

        There’s no contradiction unless you believe that there are Truths higher than your gods. In that case you put all gods subordinate to a higher truth. Unitarians do this. In that case you can have a silly argument over the name of God – but that’s about all – there is only one god in your paradigm. Unitarians acknowledge lots of names for god – but really only one Good, Evil, Truth, Beauty – and of course when you call yourself an “ordained priest” you know the one Good, Evil, Truth, Beauty and all else is heresy.

        • Christopher Scott Thompson

          That’s a pretty distorted view of universalist theologies.

          • tomblair

            Too you. But not to me. And absent a universal standard – all views are equal.

          • Christopher Scott Thompson

            No. All views that can be logically defended are equal. The idea that all “ordained priests” see “all else as heresy” is simply counterfactual, therefore not logically defensible, therefore not equal or even worth debating any further.

          • tomblair

            Logic is the application of deductive reasoning based on universally agreed upon premises. Absent universally agreed upon premises – all things or no things can be deduced. I’d like to suggest we compromise by agreeing that truth can be mutually perceived by the senses – but even then all we would know mutually agreed upon observations – not the universals behind them.
            Maybe this is why my Dad told me there’s no point arguing religion.
            Nevertheless I have no problem with your religion – so long as you have no problem with mine. And – absent a universal God – how could you?

          • Christopher Scott Thompson

            Like I said, it’s not worth discussing further. When statements that are simply fictional are the basis of your argument, there’s nothing to debate.

  • Adrian Moran

    Thanks for this. You start with some of the themes that I was writing about and you take them farther.

  • Greetings from a MacLochlainn, descended from Inishowen.

    horse blood bath p.7

  • Griffin

    OBOD is exceptional.

    My issue with Heathenism, for example, isn’t the exclusion of non-Heathen concepts…but rather that historically, it was not an academic religion. Imagine telling a farmer of viking he can’t be Heathen, because he hasn’t studied?

    I realize we have to study because the culture is foreign, but I think a different view is that those people putting themselves up as leaders should be identifying, developing, or promoting Heathen concepts that can be embraced rather than trying to turn it into an academics first religion. Maybe they aren’t because they can’t, or they don’t want to. All I know is they get defensive if you ask them. 😉

    Good article. Fair opinions well stated.