Why Faith Endures

Jesus replied, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back
is fit for service in the kingdom of God.”

Luke 9: 62 NIV

I once told a leader of our campus Christian fellowship about doubts prompted by my religion major classes. “Get your Bible and read Luke 9: 62,” he said. I did, and can still see the hardness on his face when I looked up. Religions venerate those who long endure, honoring their moral steadfastness. My character and commitment were suspect. I declared a new major the following quarter.

Scarlet letterReligions punish doubt and dissidence through peer pressure, public censure, witch hunts, inquisitions, executions, jihads, war, genocide…. The year before, the dining halls had flown into an uproar the day the college newspaper reported that the fellowship had expelled a member for sleeping with her boyfriend.

Religions also have a curious way of tolerating their leaders’ nonconforming behavior — even as the leaders cry witch hunt.[1]

These things happen in all cultural institutions, not just religion. Neuroculture offers an explanation for all of them that emphasizes group dynamics over individual integrity. It goes like this:

  • When enough people believe something, a culture with a shared belief system emerges.
  • Individual doubt about the culture’s belief system introduces “cognitive dissonance” that makes individuals uneasy and threatens cultural cohesiveness.
  • Cohesiveness is essential to the group’s survival — doubt and nonconformity can’t be tolerated.
  • The culture therefore sanctifies belief and stifles doubt.
  • The culture sometimes bends its own rules to preserve its leadership power structure against larger threats.

This Article Won’t Change Your Mind,” The Atlantic (March 2017) illustrates this process:

“The theory of cognitive dissonance—the extreme discomfort of simultaneously holding two thoughts that are in conflict—was developed by the social psychologist Leon Festinger in the 1950s. In a famous study, Festinger and his colleagues embedded themselves with a doomsday prophet named Dorothy Martin and her cult of followers who believed that spacemen called the Guardians were coming to collect them in flying saucers, to save them from a coming flood. Needless to say, no spacemen (and no flood) ever came, but Martin just kept revising her predictions. Sure, the spacemen didn’t show up today, but they were sure to come tomorrow, and so on. The researchers watched with fascination as the believers kept on believing, despite all the evidence that they were wrong.

“‘A man with a conviction is a hard man to change,’ Festinger, Henry Riecken, and Stanley Schacter wrote in When Prophecy Failstheir 1957 book about this study. ‘Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point … Suppose that he is presented with evidence, unequivocal and undeniable evidence, that his belief is wrong: what will happen? The individual will frequently emerge, not only unshaken, but even more convinced of the truth of his beliefs than ever before.’

“This doubling down in the face of conflicting evidence is a way of reducing the discomfort of dissonance, and is part of a set of behaviors known in the psychology literature as ‘motivated reasoning.’ Motivated reasoning is how people convince themselves or remain convinced of what they want to believe—they seek out agreeable information and learn it more easily; and they avoid, ignore, devalue, forget, or argue against information that contradicts their beliefs.

“Though false beliefs are held by individuals, they are in many ways a social phenomenon. Dorothy Martin’s followers held onto their belief that the spacemen were coming … because those beliefs were tethered to a group they belonged to, a group that was deeply important to their lives and their sense of self.

“[A disciple who ignored mounting evidence of sexual abuse by his guru] describes the motivated reasoning that happens in these groups: ‘You’re in a position of defending your choices no matter what information is presented,’ he says, ‘because if you don’t, it means that you lose your membership in this group that’s become so important to you.’ Though cults are an intense example, … people act the same way with regard to their families or other groups that are important to them.”

Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds,The New Yorker (Feb. 27, 2017) explains why the process seems so perfectly reasonable:

“Humans’ biggest advantage over other species is our ability to coöperate. Coöperation is difficult to establish and almost as difficult to sustain.

“Reason developed not to enable us to solve abstract, logical problems or even to help us draw conclusions from unfamiliar data; rather, it developed to resolve the problems posed by living in collaborative groups.

“‘Reason is an adaptation to the hypersocial niche humans have evolved for themselves,’ [the authors of an seminal study] write. Habits of mind that seem weird or goofy or just plain dumb from an ‘intellectualist’ point of view prove shrewd when seen from a social ‘interactionist’ perspective.”

What does it take for individual dissent or cultural change to prevail in the face of these powerful dynamics? We’ll look at that next time.

[1]  This “bigger bully” theory was remarkably evident when Tony Perkins, leader of the Family Research Council, said evangelicals “kind of gave [Donald Trump] a mulligan” over Stormy Daniels, saying that evangelicals “were tired of being kicked around by Barack Obama and his leftists. And I think they are finally glad that there’s somebody on the playground that’s willing to punch the bully.”

How Cultural Icons Saved the Super Bowl From Colin Kaepernick

colin k

There were no players kneeling during the National Anthem at the Super Bowl this year. A super-sized iconic double team made sure of that. Here’s how.

First, you need to know that I like NFL football. It’s a standard in my household every fall. I got nothin’ against the game.

Just needed to say that….

As for the protests, they got squelched when a cultural icon was substituted for the issue under protest. The icon used was the American flag. Once the switch was made, the protests were over — to kneel was to desecrate one of the nation’s defining symbols — like the Hippies did in the 60’s.

flag burning

Football field-sized flags have been around awhile, especially since 9-11. By now their place in American culture is fully cemented — along with military honor guards, flyovers, and coaches wearing camo fatigues during the entire month of November, not just around Veteran’s Day.[1]

dallas-cowboys-american-flag

flyover

Remember that, for purposes of this blog, it’s ultimately not about football, flags, and flyovers. Here, we’re about cultural beliefs and institutions — how they’re created, and how they shape our perceptions and behavior. Here’s a quick summary of how that works[2]:

  • Culture is an inside job: it resides in neurological and biological wiring.
  • That wiring is shared from one individual to another by implicit agreements that yes, this is the way things are.
  • That shared wiring generates a shared belief system that promotes a common culture with its own characteristic view of reality and approach to life.
  • Through the principle of emergence, the culture takes on a life of its own — becomes a separate, dynamic entity, fully supported by its insitutions.
  • All of this satisfies the human need to get organized into groups for safety and identity, which in turn prevents life from being, as Thomas Hobbes said, ‘“solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”
  • Conformity to the cultural belief system promotes individual peace of mind and communal harmony.
  • Nonconformity creates conflict — internally in the brain, and externally in society.

When nonconformists like Kaepernick challenge cultural belief systems, the culture’s icons rise to their defence:

“Conflict between two groups, including war, may be defined as a battle between belief systems.

“Symbols emerge strongly in such conflicts: they may be revered objects as stones, writings, buildings, flags or badges; whatever they may be, they may symbolize the central core of belief system.

“When people become symbols, the real person may become obscured behind the projected symbolic image or person.” [3]

Belief systems at their highest level of development dehumanize and objectify conformists and nonconformists alike. They do so by turning the focus from the internal life of individuals to the external life of the culture, as maintained by its beliefs and institutions. Along the way, people and things become cultural  icons, which then become the issue, replacing the actual point of conflict. Thus Kaepernick became an iconic nonconformist, pitted against an ultimate cultural icon, the U.S. flag.

Cultural leaders in particular carry out this practice, since they are responsible for maintaining the culture’s iconography. As a result, the ultimate conflict is over who has the power to control cultural beliefs and institutions in the first place:

“[P]eople fight not because of differences in religion and other beliefs; they fight to control the opportunity to create external structures that fit with their internal structures, and to prevent others from filling their environment with structures and stimulation that conflict with their internal structures.”[4]

Say all you like about how it’s patriotic to protest, but that’s not going to fly in the face of entrenched cultural-neurology. Protest challenges status quo, and the alarm bells go off. Culture relies on conformity for its peace of mind. When it turns on the game, it wants football, not polarizing socio-political issues. The actual issues that gave rise to the Colin Kaepernick protests can persist if they like, just not on game days.

Of course, Colin Kaepernick wasn’t thinking about any of that when he took a knee. He was exercising his own social conscience during a period of disturbing and seemingly epidemic shootings and brutality of blacks by police officers. That was a big enough problem to tackle. But bring that issue to the NFL, which is a cultural icon in its own right, not to mention a multi-billion dollar growth industry,[5] and then have to face the double-team of the NFL and the Stars and Stripes?

He never had a chance. He picked way too big a fight.

[1] Armistice Day commemorated the end of World War I on November 11, 1918. President Dwight D. Eisenhower changed the name of the holiday from Armistice Day to Veterans Day in 1954.

[2] See the posts in this blog’s category “How Belief Creates Culture, and How Culture Creates Reality.”

[3] “What Are Belief Systems?” Usó-Doménech and J. Nescolarde-Selva, Department of Applied Mathematics. University of Alicante. Alicante. Spain.

[4] Yale Medical School professor of psychiatry Bruce E. Wexler, in his landmark book Brain and Culture:  Neurobiology, Ideology, and Social Change.

[5] According to this analysis, NFL annual revenues rose from $4.28 Billion in 2001 to $13.68 Billion in 2017.

Emergence

 

murmuration

One fine afternoon autumn day I watched transfixed as a gigantic flock of migratory birds swarmed over the woods across the street. I was watching a “complex, self-organizing system” in action — specifically, a “murmuration” of birds, which is created by “swarm behavior,” which in turn falls in the category of emergence.

Emergence explains how the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. The term is widely used — in systems theory, philosophy. psychology, chemistry, biology, neurobiology, machine learning — and for purposes of this blog, it also applies to cultural belief systems and the social institutions they generate.

Consider any culture you like — a team, club, company, profession, investor group, religious gathering, political party…. As we’ve seen previously in this series, the group’s cultural sense of reality is patterned in each individual member’s neural wiring and cellular makeup. But no one member can hold it all, and different members have varying affinity for different aspects of the culture. As a result, each member takes what the others bring “on faith”:  the group believes in its communal beliefs. This faith facilitates the emergence of a cohesive, dynamic cultural body that takes on a life of its own, expressed through its institutions. .

That’s emergence.

To get a further sense of how this works, see this TED Talk that uses complex systems theory to look at how the structure of the financial industry (a transnational cultural body) helped to bring about the Great Recession of 2007-2008. Systems theorist James B. Glattfelder[1] lays out a couple key features of self-organizing systems:

“It turns out that what looks like complex behavior from the outside is actually the result of a few simple rules of interaction. This means you can forget about the equations and just start to understand the system by looking at the interactions.

“And it gets even better, because most complex systems have this amazing property called emergence. This means that the system as a whole suddenly starts to show a behavior which cannot be understood or predicted by looking at the components. The whole is literally more than the sum of its parts.”

In the end, he says, there’s an innate simplicity to it all — “an emergent property which depends on the rules of interaction in the system. We could easily reproduce [it] with a few simple rules.”[2] He compares this outcome to the inevitable polarized logjams we get from clashing cultural ideologies:

 “I really hope that this complexity perspective allows for some common ground to be found. It would be really great if it has the power to help end the gridlock created by conflicting ideas, which appears to be paralyzing our globalized world.  Ideas relating to finance, economics, politics, society, are very often tainted by people’s personal ideologies.  Reality is so complex, we need to move away from dogma.”

Trouble is, we seem to be predisposed toward ideological gridlock and dogma. Even if we’ve never heard of emergence, we have a kind of backdoor awareness of it — that there are meta-influences affecting our lives — but we’re inclined to locate their source “out there,” instead of in our bodily selves. “Out there” is where the Big Ideas live, formulated by transcendent realities and personalities — God, gods, Fate, Destiny, Natural Law, etc. — that sometimes enter our lesser existence to reveal their take on how things work. Trouble is, they have super-intelligence while we have only a lesser version, so once we receive their revelations, we codify them into vast bodies of collected wisdom and knowledge, which we then turn over to our sacred and secular  cultural institutions to administer. We and our cultures aren’t perfect like they are, but we do our best to live up to their high standards.

We do all this because, as biocentrism champion Robert Lanza has said, most of us have trouble wrapping our heads around the notion that

“Everything we see and experience is a whirl of information occurring in our head. We are not just objects embedded in some external matrix ticking away ‘out there.’”[3]

In our defense, the kind of systems analysis that James Glattfelder uses in his TED talk requires a lot of machine super-intelligence and brute data-crunching power that the human brain lacks. We’re analog and organic, not digital, and we use our limited outlook to perpetuate more polarization, ideological gridlock. and dogma. Culture may be emergent, but when it emerges, it walks right into a never-ending committee meeting  debating whether it has a place on the agenda..

Next time, we’ll look at what happens when emergent cultures clash.

[1] James B. Glattfelder holds a Ph.D. in complex systems from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. He began as a physicist, became a researcher at a Swiss hedge fund. and now does quantitative research at Olsen Ltd in Zurich, a foreign exchange investment manager.

[2] Here’s a YouTube explanation of the three simple rules that explain the murmuration I watched that day.

[3] From this article in Aeon Magazine.