We all know that the greatest determinant of which religion you will profess is where you are born. For example, if you wanted to find a Hindu, where would you look? India? That would be my first choice. How about finding a Hindu in the U.S.? New York and its environs is a good place to look, as well as San Jose, California and a county out in Colorado that has over 5% of its population comprised of Hindus. The rest of the country? Well, the odds are not good.
Is this a manifestation of “birds of a feather flock together”? Let’s look at this.
I have been reading the book Sapiens recently, which I recommend to you highly, and the author reminded me that gossip may have played a significant role in the development of human culture. The argument goes like this: Homo sapiens, aka modern humans, shared the planet by as many as five or even six other Homo species for tens of thousands of years, then about 70,000 years ago, Homo sapiens took off like a rocket and, well, see any other Homos around (no, not those homos!)?
The springboard for this rapid growth of human (sapiens, not just Homo) culture has been assumed to have been the development of language, but as this idea has been explored, it cannot have been just language that caused this cognitive explosion. Other hominids had language and modern apes and other animals do as well, so what was it? One idea worth exploring was that it was gossip (yes, that gossip). Small family groups are cohesive because all members of the troop interact frequently. All members are known to all other members and whether they do their fair share of the labor involved is also known. As groups grow and expand to numbers in the 50-100 range, it gets very much harder to keep track of all the members of the troop, especially with regard to trustworthiness, so when bands got to this size, they often split into smaller, more manageable groups. Then some sort of beneficial mutation in Homo sapiens allowed more sophisticated communication via language and gossip was born. Gossip is how a larger community keeps track of the trustworthiness of larger numbers of members.
Interesting, no? It turns out that there are limits to gossip fueling growth in group sizes, though, the common estimate of that limit being about 150 members in a group. Past that point, something else is needed, and that turned about to be fiction. We made up all kinds of ideas that were at best abstract, but were sufficient to keep people working together. Ideas like collective safety, gods, the superiority of the Green Bay Packers, American Exceptionalism, patriotism, etc. These are all at best pure fictions that people repeat to one another until they are accepted as “gospel.”
This is the role gods play in our societies and cultures. When people say they “believe in god,” they are not saying “I believe in a bunch of foolish nonsense” but are saying “I am a useful, moral member of my community.” When people, like me, go to someplace that is god infused like the Ozarks and say “I do not believe in god,” I am basically saying “I am dangerous and not to be trusted.”
This is why religious folk tend to be found clustered together. Their code for “I am to be trusted” doesn’t work if you are the sole Hindu in a Baptist community. The Hindu pass code only works with other Hindus and the Baptist’s code words only work with other Baptists. Actually most Christian sects will give you a pass if you are a Christian, but this has many, many exceptions. Being a Muslim gets you into almost any Muslim community around the globe, one of the strengths of that religion and, I think, a reason it is growing faster than other religions in numbers of adherents.
This “god pass” is a stage away from gossip. One has to live in a community and interact with a fair number of people before there is a body of gossip that indicates that you are a trustworthy member of the community. Even that is fallible, for example, every mass murderer had a neighbor who characterized him (why aren’t more women mass murders, feminists aren’t working hard enough, I guess), who characterize him as a “quiet boy, who seemed polite,” or some other similar characterization.
The “god pass” can get you into a community or keep you out of one. Look at how Muslims are looking for acceptance and often not finding it here in the U.S., even though they profess to worship the same god as most Americans (but apparently not in the right way).
In the absence of such “passes” most people are treated as “others,” that is with suspicion and caution which can expand into hatred and even violence.
The biggest problem with the “god pass” though, is that it has so much baggage with it. There are some here in the U.S. who seem to worship the Bible more than the god it describes and they have definite rules and ideas of how people should behave (that are often not supported by Bible texts, but that’s irrelevant in that their fiction is just supplanting a Bible fiction). If “I believe in god” were just a simple claim of basic trustworthiness and morality, we could find another fiction that could replace it (I believe in the American flag?) fairly easily, preferably one that doesn’t contradict reality so often. But because of the baggage and the links of extraneous things to that baggage, it will be quite difficult.
The only thing I could come up with is I could start selling identity cards that contain a statement that “The Bearer of this card doesn’t not believe in God (or Santa Claus, the tooth fairy, or any other supernatural being) but is basically a good person who wouldn’t hurt a fly unless attacked and just wants to get along with one and all so we can all live good lives.”
We could call it the Good Samaritan Card. Don’t leave home without your God Pass™!