Thursday, February 09, 2006

InG we T - Big Brother

In Gods We Trust
Commitment 2.6 - Big Brother

According to Jared Diamond, who relates a form of the "religion is oppression" argument: "Bands and tribes already had supernatural beliefs, just as do modern established religions. But the supernatural beliefs of bands and tribes did not serve to justify central authority, justify transfer of wealth, or maintain peace between unrelated individuals". True "religion" arose only when a central authority, or what Diamond calls a "kleptocrat," co-opted preexisting supernatural beliefs to set up a pyramid scam. In this game of social deception wealth flows up the social hierarchy from plebes to patrcians on its way to the gods. Of course, the plebes never see wealth get past the patricians, but they believe it does. The kleptocrat's trick is not entirely a con. He gets people to cooperate with one another under the belief that Bid Brother is always lurking about in search of defectors. The plebes hope to emulate Big Brother by spying on an policing one another, which helps maintain personal security through public order. It also gives people a motive to sacrifice themselves for nonkin

In large societies stability depends on the strength of the central authority. Whether this authority is fascist or democratic doesn't change the requirement that diversity must be balanced by organization. The more diverse a population, the more unifying elements are needed. It seems as if there are several current attempts to supply things around which our increasingly diverse population can unify.

Human rights and social progressiveness seems to be one tenet that seemed to gain notoriety in the 90's. The growth of feminist movements, queer studies, and various other minority voice issues seem to have an underlying theme that the embrace of diversity can function as a social glue. Not being a sociologist I will refrain from citing self referential studies, and merely conclude that, in practice, an embrace of diversity seems to often be a one sided affair that seems to self justify exceptions. Thus it rarely has the enforceable tendencies that would allow it to survive as a tenable rallying point.

Natural religion seems quite capable of providing a rallying point for civilization. According to Atran so far, it seems like an abstractly created Big Brother is a fairly universal human tendency. For it to function as a unifying force, however, one would assume there has to be some continuity in the social norms (memes) that it enforces. This explains why many people are concerned about the unraveling of social values that is occurring today. Despite what may be broadcase, individual points themselves may not have much intrinsic value. However, the diverging paradigms that are manifest and created as a result of these challenges may undermine our sense of internal policing. If we truly believe that the other side is out to lunch, unable to act rationally (from our frame of reference), and likely to push their agenda over our own values, there is little chance that their naturally evolved Big Brother will police them in a way that is mutually favorable.

Religion seems to overcome this by the display of commitment. Throughout this 5th chapter Atran points out that natural religions require commitment displays that are hard to fake. These displays must be costly, enforceable, somewhat prescribed, and hence limiting, and easily interpreted. This tendency to allow others to judge commitment, makes fooling the system more difficult. In this sense then, the creation of organized religion follows from the facilitation of such acts. Chances are you wouldn't put someone who skipped out every other Sunday as a teacher in charge of a whole ward. Neither would you trust a patriarch who never seemed to think about the scriptures or the gospel.

Perhaps some of this is what we feel is missing in politics. We expect historic displays of commitment, but, due to our diversity, must reject the narrow mindedness that such seems to entail. Being committed to generalities never seems to inspire much trust, though it certainly is superficially successful in our PR world.

A final quote from the summary of chapter 5:

All religions require their members to sacrifice immediate self-interest is displays of moral commitment to a particular way of community life whose rightness and truth is God give. For these displays to work their magic, however, they must be convincing. In the statistical long run, and on the average, displays of commitment are convincing only if people are sincerely committed to live up to their promises no matter the cost. To be convincing, then, displays of commitment must be uncontrollable and unreasonable enough to be hard to fake. They must be emotionally expressed and passionately held.


Clark Goble said...

The political parallel is a good one. Especially since, to me, the biggest problem in politics is that it embraces this religious model of Atran. That is public demonstration of commitment is more important than effective service. The problem common in both religion and politics is the role of inquiry as opposed to the role of dogma and commitment demonstrations.

chris g said...

I think the problem common to both is the effictiveness of PR. Both require support: religion for a broad entry point, politics for as a way to gain power. While it would be nice to say people can look beyond the superficial, I certainly think this denies the reality of what can ever happen. I think we are stuck finding ways to accomodate herd mentality.

Clark Goble said...

Herd mentality. Immediately brings to mind Nietzsche's criticisms of religion.