Friday, January 28, 2005

Is your God in my in-group?

Religion seems to have a thousand and one uses. One of them is the equivalent of the old battle standard, which in these modern days of inhuman viciousness is known as an FOF (friend-or-foe) recognition system.

Take for example, the US insistence that their president must very publicly espouse a deep and enduring belief in leprechauns. No, strike that. Wrong rainbow. But that doesn’t matter so much, actually, as the thing about symbols of belonging to a group is that they must be arbitrary. As any evolutionary biologist will explain, if you have animal packs, you must have some way for them to recognise members of their group. What is more, these signals or symbols must have no inherent adaptive value in themselves as, if they do, then the most adaptive will most likely come to spread to the whole species thus undermining its value as a group recognition signal. Of course, things get more complicated with humans and social change but this is still evolution by other means and the same general rules apply – the stable states are the ones that are most likely going to be encountered. So, think about gang colours, post-modernist fads or military uniforms. All much of a muchness – and that is the point. Indeed, at one point in the nineteenth century one of the European armies came to have a unit which wore green uniforms instead of the blue or red that were de rigueur at that time. With these uniforms they were able employ very different tactics and to ambush their enemies. Very soon every military uniform was green and the general colour of the uniform was no longer enough to recognise whom one was supposed to hate.

The relevant thing for religion is its usefulness as a group recognition signal. Whom are we for? Catholics. Whom are we against? The Protestants. Easy. Well, of course, the signal has to be visible – the more dangerous the situation, the more visible it ought to be. On the other hand, it is only a symbol and needn’t be indicative of anything like actual beliefs or moral standards. Which brings us back to the US and the way Bush’s writers have been peppering his speeches with signal-words for the Rapture crowd. I wonder what they would make of the evolutionary explanation for their behaviour?


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