Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Religious Impulse


I stumbled across another academic paper, published in 2004, by the same authors, Richard Sosis and Bradley Ruffle, and based on their “100-shekel” field experiments. In “Ideology, Religion and The Evolution of Cooperation,” Sosis and Ruffle differentiate not just between kibbutzniks and city dwellers, but also between religious and non-religious kibbutzniks. “The emergence and stability of cooperation,” the authors write in the first line of their paper, “has been a central theoretical problem for those who study human social behaviour.” So, not Why can’t we get along? But rather, Why—given an apparent evolutionary impulse to look out for our own interests first—do we (or at least some of us) bother to cooperate at all?

Biologists have worked out explanations like “kin selection” to explain away cooperation within the me-first theory of natural selection. But Sosis and Ruffle focus on a variable unique to the human species: ideology. How does what we believe affect how we behave? And in the context of the Israeli kibbutz, does this effect vary between the secular kibbutzim that form the bulk of the movement and the smaller number of religion-minded communities? Did the deity make us do it?

What they discovered, based on who took out the fewest amount of shekels from the “common purse”, was that male kibbutzniks who regularly attended synagogue, where they perform public rituals, were most “cooperative”—or at least most committed to the sharing philosophy of the kibbutz. It makes sense. The cooperative communities that have endured the longest since the 19th century have been religious communes. But with religious kibbutzim (which tend not to be ultra-Orthodox), there isn’t the same pressure to stay on the community; you have the choice to leave if you want. It’s an interesting conclusion and poses challenges to secular communities who hope to cultivate the cooperative impulse in their members—and in future generations.

Even the many secular rituals of the non-religious kibbutzim—the shared Shabbat dinner, the public holiday celebrations and entertainments, the collective debates of the general assembly—don’t inspire the same sense of communal fraternity as sacred, supernatural, religious acts. As the authors write, “the bonds forged through a common secular ideological belief, even when supported by ritual activity, do not appear to create the long-term trust and commitment achieved within religious communities.”

I grew up Catholic, but shed most of those religious beliefs (thanks largely to biology class) by the time I reached university. And yet likely the most communal, cooperative activity I participated in (aside from the kibbutz) or at least witnessed was the volunteer work and church socializing my parents were involved in. I remain agnostic, borderline atheist—and too often disconnected from the community around me. Despite my secular beliefs, I can’t dismiss outright the religious impulse and even (despite its blood-soaked history of repression) the Catholic (or any other) church.

Ultimately, I hope that some other, less-toxic, less-supernatural, more-earthbound ideology might bind us together. (Perhaps the “eco-spirituality” that has pissed off the Vatican in James Cameron’s Avatar—and that is at the core of the eco-village movement, which has inspired several kibbutzim in Israel, too.) But Sosis and Ruffle’s research suggests that secular ideology—even wedded with Kumbaya-ish, treehugging, circle-dancing group-building rituals (been there, hugged that)—won’t lead us away from our own ingrained self-interest as much as a belief (or perhaps a fear) of a Higher Power keeping track of how many shekels we take from the collective envelope.


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