As part of the exciting but probably fruitless attempt to discover the general laws underlying historical events, the Oxford anthropologist Harvey Whitehouse puts forward the thesis that for political violence to occur ‘individuals must begin to identify strongly with a political group. One powerful way for groups to cement that identification is through rituals’
According to Whitehouse, it is the shared experience of the ritual, most especially if it is a painful one, that makes people prepared to die for the group. Conversely the creation of a group creates the outgroup, the outsiders – those who are emblematically not a part of the shared experience. And they easily morph into the enemy, the target of hatred and violence.
Rituals are essential to creating and reinforcing the group. They are emotion-inducing events involving the spectators/participants in a collective enterprise which reaches beyond each individual. Theatre, after all, arises out of ritual, as Nietzsche famously analyses in The Birth of Tragedy. Religious rituals are probably the most effective at group-making, which is why religion has always been such an ineradicable part of every society and continues to be such a useful tool for political elites.
It’s indicative that many members of the Free Syrian Army have joined Al Qaida not out of belief but because its soldiers are so much better organised. “Religion is the best way to impose discipline. Even if the fighter is not religious he can’t disobey a religious order in battle.” an Al Qaida commander and former officer in the Free Syrian Army is quoted as saying.
It is easy, then, to go from the fact that religion and its rituals are so effective at creating a community to attacking religions on the grounds that they create hatred and violence. But even if this is the trajectory of so many religions, one should not forget two things.
First, that we humans are group-creating creatures and if it’s not religion, it will be the Olympics, the monarchy, the football team which inspires that frenzy of ‘us-ness’. Therefore the secular dream of Ditchkins is not realistic – or even attractive. The disappearance of religion will not make ‘the other’ disappear.
Secondly, we should not forget that if religions eventually create the heretic that will be burned at the stake, and the suicide bomber, at least in their early stages they fulfill an essential integrating, difference-eradicating function. Christianity, for instance, at its origins fulfilled the needs for thousands of people undergoing the traumas of the first phase of globalization. It created a new community for the countless migrants leaving their villages, their tribes and traditions behind them and pouring into the booming chaotic cities. The expanding merchant ‘class’, despised throughout the ancient world by the old aristocratic elites found a place for themselves in Christianity, and Buddhism.
And from the rulers’ point of view, religion was also a means for solving problems thrown up by the disruptive consequences of trade.
Far from promoting violence these universalizing religions were an alternative to violence – a form of conquest by peaceful means. When Augustus began consolidating rather than expanding his empire, and could therefore, no longer bribe his subjects with protection and loot, he relied heavily on emperor worship to get the loyalty of his subjects.
The US empire tried to do the same in Iraq. After shock and awe, the battle started for hearts and minds – cheaper and much more effective, if it works. Washington should not, however, forget that the Augustus cult lost out to the initially suspect, viral spread of St Paul’s version of the Messiah cult. As that cult is finally losing out, at least in the West, to the individualism that it fostered.