It occurred to me recently that one somewhat glib way to define a religious believer is to say that he (or she) is a person who counts every other religion’s narrative as impossibly far-fetched, except his own. If one puts aside Unitarianism and a few other rather bland, intellectualized modern products (defined as any “religious” form in which ceremony has displaced ritual), it is striking how deep in the mythic consciousness (I mean “mythic consciousness” very specifically, tied to the understanding of Ernest Cassirer notably in the second volume of his The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms; but that is another story) are the stories at the base of religious belief—and not just of the Abrahamic religions and their offshoots, but of all religions, as far as I can tell. I used to think this was just a coincidence, or more likely, an atavism from a pre-scientific, magical-efficacy age in human development. Now I have come to understand, or at least to suspect, that there is something else going on here.
One of the several reasons that every civilization, even every culture short of the august status of a civilization, has something like a religion is that it defines the boundaries between who is in the group and who is outside of it. Nicholas Wade recently wrote a book about this which strikes me as in the main on target, even if it’s a little fuzzy on the chicken-and-egg question of what came first, social-cohesion producing ritual or religion: The Faith Instinct (Penguin, 2010). But Wade doesn’t speculate much as to the character of religious/mythological narratives. A belief in the very improbable may function as a kind of loyalty test to the group.
It is not that people do not really believe outlandish origins stories; they obviously do believe them much, if not most of the time—although it is worth thinking about what the verb “to believe” actually means in different phenomenological contexts. (In a magical efficacy suffused mythical culture, believing in the improbable depends on the definition of the improbable, and in such cultures that word obviously means something different than it does in the 21st century cultural West.) Rather, I am postulating that, as social animals, the coherence of the group and its capacity as a group to defend its interests trumps, in social-evolutionary terms, the truth value of what is believed. People will conform even to outlandish beliefs, as Solomon Asch proved, if the social dynamics are right. And part of the social dynamic involved in transmitting religious cosmologies concerns the authority of the elders who are handing the beliefs down to younger generations. If the younger generation wants the authority and status of leadership, the context is such that they need not only to believe privately, but be willing to preach publicly, belief in the improbable. The function of leadership, which acquires its power on the basis of inherited authority first before it is ratified by performance in office, is in part to articulate the improbable that can serve as the basis for group cohesion and high morale.
Indeed, if we take the insights of cognitive dissonance seriously, we may hypothesize further that the more outlandish the thing that people have to believe to be part of the group, the more loyal to the group they are liable to be once they manage to swallow and internalize those beliefs. We see this phenomenon illustrated in the famous book by Leon Festinger and his colleagues, When Prophecy Fails, about the 19th-century Millerites—the present-day Seventh Day Adventists. (Festinger, as you may know, coined the term “cognitive dissonance.”) If this is the case, then the improbability of religious narratives is not coincidental at all, but is instead essential to their social function.
This, of course, says nothing about the truth value of the beliefs. I can believe at the same time that the Cecil B. DeMille version of Charlton Heston parting the Red Sea was both necessary for the coherence of the Israelite tribes, and that it happens also to have been true. Or I can believe the former but think it is not literally true. What I think, however, has no social relevance unless I say it out loud in a crowd. Christians can “believe” in the immaculate conception, the resurrection, and transubstantiation as means to create social coherence across ethnic lines, especially at times of intense social flux and stress, and still believe that these things are true—or not. Logically, if not sociologically, the two need have nothing to do with one another.
I put this point in a private note to Peter Berger, a preeminent sociologist of religion and someone who happens to be an editorial board member of The American Interest, as well as one of our esteemed bloggers. Professor Berger has been one of my heroes ever since I read as a graduate student both The Sacred Canopy and his book, co-authored with Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality. I asked him simply if, in his vast reading in this field, he has ever come across this hypothesis of mine, or hints of it, and if so to point me to sources so that I could follow up and possibly refine it. I apologized for the presumption of using him as a kind of reference librarian, but I pleaded both that this is partly what friends are for and, more important, that if anybody knew the answer to my question, it was him. His answer truly delighted me.
Peter credited me with an original sociological point, but was immediately able to find those hints I suspected had to exist. The “core idea is not new”, he said, and directed me to the succinct remark of the early Latin church father Tertullian (c.160 – c.220): “Credo quia absurdum”, or, in English, “I believe because it is absurd.” There are several ways to parse what Tertullian meant. He might have meant that one has to “believe” such a thing, by which he in turn meant “take on faith”, because there is no other way to come to surety about it. He might also have been implying that the status of cosmic, or mystical, truth overrides than of empirical truth, a view that sees the material world as epiphenomenal and not the other way around. This latter notion is of course compatible with the former parsing and need not be seen as an alternative to it. But for our limited purposes here it doesn’t really matter.
In the sociology of religion, Peter noted that Durkheim implies a similar point in his classical work The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. There is a passage where he explains the (from his viewpoint “absurd”) beliefs and rituals of Australian Aboriginees as “having the sole empirical function of supporting collective solidarity.” But Durkheim does not elevate the observation into a general point or make it a part of his main theoretical apparatus.
Finally, Peter reminded me that his early interest in the sociology of religious sects led him to define a sect by the rigid cognitive boundaries it set up. “I asked myself from the beginning”, he wrote me, “How can people hold such obviously improbable beliefs?” It was in this context that he coined the phrase “plausibility structure”, which, in harmony with Asch and Festinger, suggests that given the right social context, a person will believe just about anything (and do just about anything as a consequence, as we all learned as late teens from reading William Golding’s Lord of the Flies). And then Peter concluded: “…and, I agree with you, the more absurd, the better for boundary maintenance.”
The upshot of all this is that I thought I independently came upon an interesting sociological observation, only to find that what seemed original was actually buried in my head on the basis of things I had read and thought about from a variety of sources going back 30 to 40 years. That does not mean that my synthesis is not in some way original; it does mean that in some ways it is not, however. Imagine, then, my ambivalence at being told by a master of the discipline that I have had an original observation, only to be shown in the very act of his bestowing the accolade that it is not so original as all that. Original or not, I think it is safe to say that this observation is at once dramatically underappreciated and powerful as a means for interpreting social reality all around us even today—certainly in the volcanic social soil of the Middle East and the Muslim-majority world beyond, but also, I think, in our own country at a time of “tea parties” and “occupations.”
To close, I am reminded of an old remark by Max Frankel, whose source I cannot locate. He once wrote: “In the competition of social ideas, simplemindedness is not a handicap.” He might have added that outlandishness is no handicap either, depending on context and circumstance. Note to self: Think about the relationship between simplemindedness and outlandishness. When I get stuck doing that, I suppose I might write a note or two to friends and colleagues asking for help––maybe to Charlie Hill, maybe to Joseph Epstein, maybe also to Lynne Truss in hopes of making her a friend. Isn’t that what friends, and would–be friends, are for?