Faith is a fantastic social cement. It's hard to think of anything better. Here's why:


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Join the conversation! There are now 21 comments on this chapter's page 125. Inventing God and Law: The Flip Side of Faith. What are your thoughts?
    • And the one aspect reinforces the other. The social cement creates a national identity…but the intolerant orthodoxy means that there’s only one way out, because being unwilling to stick with the team and share their sacrifice is a challenge to their identity that must be stoned.

      Or as George Orwell once put it, “The command of the old despotism was “Thou shalt not.” The command of the totalitarians was “Thou shalt.” Our command is “Thou art.”” I’d say that the second command at least came a long way before 1984.

  1. David says

    Can you recommend some additional reading on the history of the Hebrew scriptures and the Judeans. This has been fascinating.

    • There is a great deal of scholarship published in academic journals, as well as the occasional book, so you’ll find a lot just by going on Google Scholar and typing in keywords like monotheism, monolatry, post-exilic judaism, etc. It’s still an area of active research, so new things get published all the time. In fact, there’s so much new scholarship taking into account evidence from archaeology, linguistics, and other disciplines, that I’d be generally skeptical of anything written before the 1990s. One downside is that, being academic publications, they all tend to focus on one tiny, discrete part of the larger narrative. It’s like they’re all pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, and you have to read a lot just to get a hazy idea of the big picture. I’ve only seen one that tries to tell the whole story in one go, Mark Smith’s The Origins of Biblical Monotheism: Israel’s Polytheistic Background and the Ugaritic Texts, Oxford University Press, 2001. It’s pretty good, too, but there’s a lot more being said out there.

      Here are a few others which, though less broad in scope, might at least be good starting points for your research:

      On how Yahweh got to Jerusalem, one book is Robert D. Miller II’s Yahweh: Origins of a Desert God, Vandenhoek & Ruprecht, 2018. On Asherah, Judith Hadley’s The Cult of Asherah in Ancient Israel and Judah: Evidence for a Hebrew Goddess, Cambridge University Press, 2000, is a good starting point, and summarizes what the research looked like at the time. One article on the early Canaanite pantheon in general is Aaron Greener’s “Archaeology and Religion in Late Bronze Age Canaan,” Religions Vol. 10, No. 4 (2019) at 258. On the writing of scriptures and such, one interesting perspective is Karel van der Toorn’s Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible, Harvard University Press, 2007. Another is Ronald Hendel and Jan Joosten’s How Old Is the Hebrew Bible? A Linguistic, Textual, and Historical Study, Yale University Press, 2018.

      These are just a drop in the bucket, but I hope this is at least a little helpful.

  2. Elliot says

    Absolutely fascinating. Probably the most succint explanation I’ve ever seen of the creation of this religion and the other facets of society it ties back into. Fun read.

  3. Stephen Peter says

    Over the weekend, I was at a picnic and suddenly discovered myself in a political conversation with a Q-Anon conspiracy theorist. I did a lot of polite listening, but I felt embarrassed and uncertain how to respond in a way that expressed how I felt about the nonsense being said to me.

    Then this morning, I woke up and made the connection. So much of what Q-Anon (as well as ultra-conservative radicalism, for that matter) feels like its own brand of orthodoxy. Many of these individuals look like they’re ready to stone me for questioning their beliefs, even in the face of contradictory evidence. Anyone challenging their beliefs are viewed as “overlords” needing to be overthrown. There are times where I truly wonder what the ratio is of those actually believes the nonsense compared to those that just proclaim it for the sake of social cohesion.

    Is our nation birthing a new religion, and Trump will be their savior? More importantly, are there common ingredients in a society that give rise to the birth of a new religion?

    • I wouldn’t call it a religion. It’s an ideology.

      Conspiracy-theory ideologies are an excellent example (and an unfortunate side effect) of faith as a bonding mechanism. Take flat-earthers: Their ideology is objectively false, and it is trivial to demonstrate that it’s false. There’s that infamous documentary where they theymselves demonstrate that they’re wrong. What was their response? They doubled down on their faith.

      Is it because they’re morons? Not at all. It’s because their shared faith is driving a sense of community, of shared identity, of “we’re in this together,” of “it’s us against the world.” By doubling down on their faith in the face of overwhelming challenges, they’re sacrificing hugely on behalf of their community. So far as the brain’s social emotion processing is concerned, they’re practically manning the walls to protect their family and village from attack, against overwhelming odds. Digging in their heels, demonstrative acts of virtue signaling, and remaining true to their shared faith generates amazing feelings of self worth and virtue.

      Conspiracy theories are an extreme example, but you see this same effect in all kinds of environments. Political extremists of all stripes fit here, of course—especially when identity gets tied to a sense of victimhood. But the same effect is also a big reason why people who believe in creationism and the literal truth of the Bible persist in those beliefs even when they’re clearly bright and well-educated.

      And because it’s happening at such a deep unconscious level, most of us aren’t even aware that this is what’s going on. All we know is it feels like we’re doing the right thing for the right reasons. We get a sense of belonging, and real satisfaction about our lives. That may be one reason why people who feel lost and aimless in their lives are so frequently drawn to conspiracies, cults, mystics, born-again Christianity, radical extremism, monasticism, the Marines… (I kid).

      It’s obviously an important concept that we’re going to return to again and again from here on. It’s going to drive important changes in conceptions of human government, and it’s going to be a major player in the deep divisions (schisms?) throughout American constitutional law, from the earliest days of the republic up through the latest hot-button Supreme Court decision.

      • I’m fairly sure that organizations like the Marines also profit from this sort of “brain mechanic”.

      • In many cultures, religion and ideology seem to be two sides of the same coin. Sure, you can say anti-abortion activists are pursuing an ideology, but if it’s their religion advocating for such pursuits, where do you draw the line?

        Maybe a fitting analogy to monotheism is that it’s a marble cake, with mysticism and ideology being your two colored batters. Sure, when you cut a slice, you can clearly see where one color ends and another begins. But try to pick it apart, and you find that it all just clings to each other and cannot be divided cleanly. In the end, it’s just all cake.

        So when leaders, whether Christ, Joseph Smith, or Donald Trump, use ideology to construct a culture that bonds, unites, and solidifies them, then if the leader dies a martyr for the cause, does that not create all the necessary ingredients to birth a religion?

        • It doesn’t help that Trump, for all his flaws, was dragged through the coals by the press, and now the legal system, while it appears that Obama and Biden, for all their flaws, have been largely sheltered from answering for theirs. Biden especially. This creates the victimhood mentality that “‘the system’ is against us”.

          There is a statement I’ve seen once or twice, that goes something like, if there are one hundred insurgents, and you kill all the insurgents, you don’t end up with zero insurgents, but rather two hundred insurgents.

          Both sides then pick some issue, and drive it to the hilt. I can see examples on both sides, of the sides tightening up on an issue, from being middle-of-the-road to it must be this far and anything less is treason/racism/murder/transphobic/etc. 23178.

          • With as much respect as I can manage to the guy drawing a parallel between Trump and Biden’s treatment by the press, the earth is flat, and it’s trivially easy to prove it, yet some people still believe. Trump tried to overturn an election, and it’s trivially easy to prove it, and try some people still defend him.

            It makes sense for the system to be against you. If you are doing things that the system was designed to stop. We have a democracy, and it was designed to stop someone from sensing power of contrary to the will of the people.

            Before that, most of the other criticism toward him was based on him doing other stuff that was inappropriate to our nation’s morality. He wasn’t critiqued because of arbitrary tribalism, but because he refused to put his assets into a blind trust upon assuming office, which was a violation of the Constitution. And because he tried to bar people from entering the country on the basis of religion, was a violation of the Constitution.

            And the Constitution is and admittedly imperfect and slow to be revised document that are society has collectively designed to represent how we want things to run.

            • I’m actually not a fan of Trump. His position on Eminent Domain, alone, would prohibit that, and he’s no friend of the 2nd Amendment. He’s just not as bad as the other guy.
              But to address your points. First of all, I didn’t say Trump was right. I said Trump was treated differently than was Biden and Obama. (I should have said Hillary).

              “Trump tried to overturn an election”. During the 2016 election, the Democrats were the ones crying foul. But it was verboten to claim even the hint of impropriety over the 2020 election, which they secured, until very recently. The January 6 incident was a bunch of protestors who were whipped up into a mob, not by Trump, but by elements within the government. Presumably on the theory of if it was easy to do, then they must have been inclined to do so already. Yes, they trespassed. Yes, they interfered with the counting of the Electoral College votes. From what I’ve heard, Trump didn’t tell them to, and actually told them to be respectful of the law. Also, from what I’ve heard, Pelosi had a film crew ready to roll, and refused adequate help, because she wanted the photo-op.

              “Trump didn’t put his assets into a blind trust”. Yeah. Let’s look at Biden, for a moment, and his cokehead son. Intermingled finances, “10% for the big guy”, “I am sitting here with my father”. Granted, this was when he was vice-president.

              “Tried to bar people from entering the country on a basis of religion”. Kinda hard to prove that, but his stated reason, of wanting to restrict the sort of violent extremists that those locations had become hotbeds of, and who tended to spread into other areas, as “refugees”, spreading their flavor of intolerance while claiming to flee from it, is a valid enough reason, even if it might not have been his “real” reason.

              I’m not saying Trump was right. Far from it. Trump seems like the sort of person I’d never want to associate with, personally: A thin-skinned bully who will renege on an agreement, or a payment, the moment it becomes opportune to do so. I’m saying the handling has been uneven.
              That unevenness, that “unfairness”, provides the fuel that one side needs to band together even stronger, in the face of persecution. In the form of deplatforming, (Youtube, Twitter pre-Musk, Facebook). In the form of getting fired, denied a job, or driven from your job, based upon a political position, (Google). In the form of being harassed out of publicly open places, (Maxine Waters’s encouragement and statements. The impromptu speech at a showing of “Hamilton” to call-out a Trump cabinet member. Both during the Trump presidency.) 23190

  4. Madeleine says

    “It doesn’t help that Trump, for all his flaws, was dragged through the coals by the press, and now the legal system, while it appears that Obama and Biden, for all their flaws, have been largely sheltered from answering for theirs.”
    I see multiple issues with that statement.

    First problem is, ignoring that guy hasn’t helped either, back before he discovered his presidential ambitions. The only thing ignoring that sort of person does is making them crave more attention, and now he’s got it all, and he does all he can so he doesn’t lose it again. Unfortunately, he’s become very good at pressing all the “ATTENTION!” buttons, which includes bending and presumably breaking a law here and there. While he’s not the only person in the world with that sort of mindset, he’s one with enough financial and social backing, whatever the sources of that may be.

    Secondly, the press and the legal system should be considered differently: the press has the right to ignore someone or “drag them through the coals” as you say it, it is their choice. The legal system on the other hand *should* investigate what needs to be investigated (yes, I know, it often filters what it will and will not investigate) and potentially prosecuted. That has to include ex-presidents no matter how much they complain about it. Wait for Biden to be out of office and see what happens then.
    Thirdly, between Trump and Biden, there are more differences, as far as I can see from here, the other side of the Atlantic Ocean (so I may be missing details). One is behaving like a little child and claiming he did nothing wrong while accusing the world to be against him (okay, maybe not a little child but rather a teenager in deep puberty), while the other one cooperates as far as he’s permitted to, being the active president and all. Even comparing all their respective flaws seems to be comparing apples to oranges.

    • It doesn’t matter that the press, as private citizens, can go after whoever they want. That they have the right to do so. The point wasn’t about whether Trump was right or wrong. The point was whether the perceivable environment drives people together in solidarity, in the face of perceived hardship, and forges the sort of bonds that adversity engenders.

      Trump supporters can look at the environment and see an “us” and a “them”. The media is a BIG part of that. The uneven prosecution, or at least perceived uneven prosecution, is a smaller, but significant, part of that. Those who are socially aligned with Trump supporters, seeing more kinship with Trump supporters than Biden supporters, are likely to “convert”, or perhaps I should say “be baptized”, into becoming Trump supporters.

      I am NOT saying Trump was right. He has several glaring flaws that make him unpalatable to me. Most notably, his position on Eminent Domain. I do consider his presidency to be superior to Biden’s, thus far, but that’s like saying I prefer being lightly scorched to being badly burned. I’d rather not be burned at all. 23190

  5. Madeleine says

    Oops, reply fail. Should have been a response to SeanR.

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