Why do beliefs divide us?
This will sound like a joke, but it’s the truth:
Beliefs divide us because it’s part of their job.
We usually think of beliefs simply as being about facts:
- Two plus two equals four.
- Flowers are plants.
- The store is on Ditch Road, two miles north of where we are now.
Factual statements are true or false. Their main job is to guide our actions, so that we act successfully.
But beliefs do other things besides just stating facts. For example:
- “That there is one God, and Muhammad was his messenger.”
If you believe that (and do some other things), it marks you as a Muslim. If you don’t believe that, Muslims will not accept you as a member of their group.
In order to survive, human groups must be able to determine who is a member of the group and who isn’t a member. Beliefs are one way they do it.
It is unfortunate, but human beings are often suspicious and hostile toward members of other groups. That’s true even if the groups are artificial. As Harvard University biologist E.O. Wilson observed:
“Experiments conducted over many years by social psychologists have revealed how swiftly and decisively people divide into groups, and then discriminate in favor of the one to which they belong.
Even when the experimenters created the groups arbitrarily, then labeled them so the members could identify themselves, and even when the interactions prescribed were trivial … the participants always ranked the out-group below the in-group. They judged their ‘opponents’ to be less likable, less fair, less trustworthy, less competent.”
Worse still, another problem arises when factual beliefs conflict with beliefs that mark our group membership.
A recent example is that of David Shor, a data analyst for Democratic political candidates. He was a loyal Democrat. To support his group, he cited a Princeton University study that showed race riots hurt Democratic candidates but peaceful protest helps them.
You’d expect Democrats to want information like that. But no. Shor had crossed a line: he had denied a belief that marks membership in the group.
The fact that what he said was true didn’t matter. That Democrats would benefit from taking his advice didn’t matter. Shor had denied one of their sacred beliefs. Naturally, he was fired. His heresy marked him as disloyal.
Of course, beliefs aren’t the only way to show group membership.
Kneeling to rioters and criminals seems repulsive and immoral to most people. But to the “woke,” it shows their group membership, their submission to violence, and their remorse for their imagined sins. That’s why they do it. They want to be “saved” from their inborn evil. (Yes, it’s a perverse imitation of Christianity.) Unfortunately, it’s socially destructive and likely to cause more harm in the long run — to true believers and to everyone else.
Check out my book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”