The books Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny by Robert Wright and Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond show that, over the entire course of worldwide human history, the overall trend has consistently been towards people forming as large a political group as the current food production and communication technologies allow. Diamond says that one of the things which allowed the increase from bands of related people, to chiefdoms encompassing unrelated bands, was religion. (I may not have the right “group” names there – had to return it to the library – but hopefully the sense comes across.) Religion accomplished this by giving people a commonality which stopped them from immediately fighting to the death, as people had previously done upon meeting an unrelated individual. In other words, it provided a form of bonding social capital, as described by Robert Putnam in his book Better Together:
Bonding social capital is a kind of sociological Super Glue, whereas bridging social capital provides a sociological WD-40. If you get sick, the people who bring you chicken soup are likely to represent your bonding social capital. On the other hand, a society that has onlybonding social capital will look like Belfast or Bosnia – segregated into mutually hostile camps. So a pluralist democracy requires lots of bridging social capital, not just the bonding variety. (p. 2-3)
I think we need lots more bridging social capital around the whole world, not just in a pluralist democracy. Actually, you could say this entire blog is an attempt to answer the question, “how do we create more bridging social capital?”
Well, religion may have been good for creating bonding social capital, but it seems to be failing miserably at the bridging sort – in fact there are many instances where it has even created new chasms which are now in need of bridging, themselves. I have been wondering about why that is, and what could be done to overcome that lack. Here’s what I’ve come up with so far:
When you’re watching a game of sport, if you know the rules, you can easily tell who’s good at the game. If you don’t know the rules, it’s much harder to tell. You have to be willing to watch the game for a longer time, and figure out what the players are trying to accomplish. Then, if someone is very, very good at it, you can probably tell.
I think the reason it’s so difficult to bridge across religious lines is similar. Each religion has its own set of “rules”. Some of these rules are very similar across all religions: don’t murder, don’t steal, etc., and these generally are the ones that involve other people. Other rules are unique to each religion: receive communion, pray at five particular times of day, don’t mix dairy with meat, etc., and these seem to generally be things that you do just because “God wants you to”. These unique rules, it seems to me, serve as low-risk indicators to others as to whether it’s safe to assume that a person is going to also follow the generic rules instructing that person not to kill you or steal from you. It’s almost as if God is standing in as a guinea pig: I can watch to see how you treat God, and then extrapolate from that how you are likely to treat me, without putting myself at uncalculated risk of being murdered or stolen from.
So, for those who are of the same religion, it is easy to tell who’s “good”, i.e., who’s going to not hurt you, because you know what they are supposed to be doing and can see that they are doing it – or not. For a person who belongs to a different religion, whose rules you don’t know, there is a higher feeling of risk in determining whether that person can be trusted. We humans are not comfortable with risk – really, no animal that wants to live very long takes any higher risks than necessary – and that perceived difference in risk is (I think) the reason religion is so much better at building bonds than bridges.
So, it seems that it would help a lot if people would just learn each others’ religions’ specific rules. This has me thinking about putting together a “Religious Appreciation” course. Like the typical “Music Appreciation” course from which I took the title, it would give people a greater appreciation for other religions by teaching them what’s unique about each religion. It would be different from a comparative religion class, in that it focuses on just this one small aspect of each religion, and would be mainly informational rather than scholarly – in other words, no homework, and I am definitely not going to be assigning any research papers. The question is, in what venue would people be willing to host such a class?