Are Your Political Beliefs Like a Religion?

Are Your Political Beliefs Like a Religion? November 14, 2018

Worldview with candlesIf you’ve gotten into a political argument on Facebook recently, you might be excused for feeling somewhat-less-than-blindingly optimistic about the state of things these days. Whether you’re debating a conservative uncle or liberal colleague, a devout or unbelieving friend, it seems that the gaps between our divergent worldviews are becoming insurmountable. One hypothesis suggests that, as the Western world has become less religious, people have begun falling back on politics for identity and meaning. In other words, our political tribes are becoming our new religions. But is there any truth to that claim? A new way of thinking about religion suggests that the answer is yes.

Recently, I wrote here about the academic field of secular religious studies. Sadly, a lot of religious studies scholars don’t accept or use scientific methods, because they don’t want to reduce their subject matter to (what they’re afraid would be) simplistic explanations. But Ann Taves, an expert in Catholicism and Mormonism at the University of California – Santa Barbara, is a bit of an exception. A former president of the American Academy of Religion, Taves is a humanities scholar who enthusiastically pursues scientific methods and theories in the hopes of better understanding the data of real-world religions. In a recent paper with colleagues Egil Asprem, a historian of religion of Stockholm University, and Elliot Ihm, a graduate student in psychology at UCSB, Taves argues that religions are best understood as subtypes of “worldviews,” which are the cultural systems by which we humans make meaning of the world.

When Taves and colleagues argue that worldview systems help people generate “meaning,” they don’t mean a wishy-washy, fuzzy sense of well-being. They have in mind a technical, cognitive definition of “meaning:” the ability to make sense of events and experiences, and to put them into a context that makes it possible to know what to do in concrete situations. For example, if you walk into a grocery store, you might locate the shopping carts, wind your way through the different aisles picking up tasty items, and then proceed to the checkout counter to fork over your hard-earned cash. Mission successful! You’ve been able to successfully navigate this complex, noisy, brightly lit environment in order to bring home food, because you know what kind of stuff that environment contains and how you’re supposed to relate to that stuff. That is, each element in the supermarket has a particular meaning for you – you know what to do with it, why it’s there, what its relationship is to all the other things around you.

But how do we get from (1) shopping in a grocery store while trying not to listen to the garbled pop music bleating tinnily from the speakers, to, say, (2) a Catholic mass, with all its incense, chanting, and supernatural creeds? 

The answer is that worldviews in general are schematizations of all the expectations we have for how things ought to work and how we’re supposed to interact with them. The model propounded by Taves and colleagues uses the framework of “predictive processing,” a popular theory of brain function that I’ve recently discussed on this blog. Under the framework of predictive processing, our minds essentially function like Bayesian algorithms, developing internal models of the world by constantly predicting what’s likely to happen and then updating those predictions based on what actually does happen. The first time you entered a grocery store as a child, you probably had no idea what was going on. There were boxes of cereal everywhere, and brightly-lit freezers, and cashiers wearing funny aprons. But as your parents continued to drag you along to the supermarket, you built up a predictive model of what all those different things meant. As you learned from experience how people generally interacted with shopping carts, frozen fish, credit cards, and paper shopping bags, you drew conclusions what people are supposed to do with those things.* Supermarkets became meaningful environments for you precisely because you had learned how to orient yourself behaviorally inside them, and what to expect from them.

Now, think about a more complicated social environment, like a school. There are a lot more components to a public high school than there are to a supermarket.** You have to learn how to interact with teachers, tests, lunch-counter servers, bullies, and SAT exams. But you also have to figure out how to behave during all the ceremonies and rituals: the daily Pledge of Allegiance, the graduations, pep rallies. Suddenly, you’re dealing with ceremonial and symbolic things. These seemingly impractical things have the effect of making the school seem more like a real entity – one that you can have loyalty to, feel identified with, and so on. 

If you think back on high school, you’ll probably remember that the people who were most enthusiastic about the impractical aspects of school, like the pep rallies, sports teams, and letter jackets, were also the most loyal to and identified with the school at large. They’re the ones who bought class rings, actually wore those letter jackets, and still go to class reunions. So these rituals do what they’re intended to do.

But one of the key components of the theory Taves and her colleagues put forward is that meaning-making is intrinsically practical – it’s about figuring out how to interact with environments, learning how to behave in ways that make sense, moving around in the world skillfully. The more we know what things mean, the more we can make sense of our environments. So how do things like graduation ceremonies and pep rallies increase our practical understanding of the world? 

Well, the thing about being human is that the vast majority of our world is composed of other humans. We’re not, say, mountain goats. Mountain goats live in a world that’s 95% rocks, grass, bad weather, and gravity. In order for them to make sense of their world, they have to know all about those physical things – what ecological psychologists call their affordances, or the opportunities for action that they provide. For goats, rocks afford climbing, grass affords eating, and other goats afford mating or fighting. 

But humans don’t like in a world that’s mostly hard physical facts. Our world is substantially made of interactions with other people. Even in a grocery store, we have to learn how shopping carts are conventionally used, how to behave toward cashiers, and so forth. So for us human beings, learning to get around in the world is largely about learning how to deal with conventions, norms, rules, other people, and social roles. 

Like the importance of good car maintenance, this principle becomes a lot clearer when things breaks down. Imagine the social role of a doctor – how doctors are supposed to behave, what we can expect them to act like when we’re sitting in their office wearing paper gowns. Now, imagine that your doctor walks in the door, sits down next to you, and acts instead like a close friend, complaining to you about his date last night rather than taking your pulse. You’ll probably be confused and irritated. He’s breaking the social system.

We depend on understanding other people’s roles in order to make accurate predictions about how they’re likely to behave. When their behavior doesn’t match those role predictions, we lose our own ability to know how to respond. For many people, this is a distressing and profoundly irksome experience.

So, back to rituals: partaking in school ceremonies or rallies helps students and faculty to build up mental models of who’s on the same team, more or less, with similar loyalties and values. Graduations help clarify the social fact that certain people have received the rights and duties associated with holding a diploma, while being sent to detention clarifies that a rule has been broken. In other words, rituals help clarify the social environment within a very complex institution. They provide a template for understanding what roles other people inhabit, where their loyalties are, and – therefore – how they’re likely to behave. In a deep way, rituals are about enhancing the predictability of social life.

Now, it’s not too much of a leap from the ceremonies and rituals of a school to the more complex, arcane rituals of religions. What Taves and her colleagues are arguing (among other things) is that these are actually the same kind of fundamental thing. Alma maters, patriotic nationalism, and religions each provide a sense of identity and meaning that enhances clarity and makes it easier to predict others’ behavior within a delimited social set. Religions often include supernatural beings, but then patriotic nationalism often reveres long-dead founding fathers or national ancestors, and – at least cognitively speaking – it’s not clear how different gods and national ancestors really are from each other. 

It may be true, then, that our political identities and ideologies are taking the place once reserved for religion in our culture. But if so, they’re not actually doing anything radically new, at least in a cognitive or social sense. Whether a person reveres the God of Israel, the ideology of unlimited human progress and freedom, or an über-nationalistic vision of America, she’s probably working to make sense of her social world in a way that enhances her ability to know how to act in it. Our values definitely aren’t all the same. Arguments are going to continue (especially on Facebook). But the way we come to hold our worldviews is often strikingly similar, whether we’re religious believers, liberal progressives, or reactionary flag-wavers. At least we’ve got that in common.


* This process is not always completely successful. I still have no idea what to do about the music in supermarkets, for example. Run away screaming? Unobtrusively slip mix tape CDs of decent music to the cashiers, hoping their managers will catch on? Learn how to hunt?

** Even a really complicated supermarket like a Wal-Mart Supercenter, which covers more land area than an aircraft carrier, probably uses the same amount of fossil fuel, and could almost certainly be used to store a similar number of aircraft.

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