12 Oct 2014

God and the Group – The secret of religion

Posted by jofr

Sorry for the long delay, I haven’t posted for a year. One reason is my mother has died last year in November after a long battle against cancer, which was not very pleasant for the whole family, as you can imagine. There are some posts and ideas which I have holding back for some time. Among the things I have found out is the secret of religion. This is a post I have holding back because I didn’t want to destroy the faith of people near to me, among them my mother. I was raised in a religious family, my parents met each other in the church, and their parents were very pious, too. My name “Fromm” means pious in German. So maybe it is my destiny to write about religion. I am not sure. Religion is a delicate topic. Seneca said “religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful”.

Some people murder in the name of religion, others sacrifice their life to help others. I think what people have believed for 2000 years can not be completely false. During my time in Kassel, I spent a lot of time in the university libraries in Kassel und Göttingen, reading all I could about history, psychology, sociology, systems theory and philosophy. One book I found was from Randall Collins named “Sociological Insight”. It opened my eyes. There it was, the secret of religion. I was not looking for it, but I thought this is it, why has nobody thought of this before? I read more about the connection between sociology, psychology, evolution and religion, and the more I read, the more I was convinced that I stumbled upon something very fundamental. Something which could uncover how religions work. Could evolution be the very explanation?

The church hates evolution more than anything else. Why is that so? I thought if Richard Dawkins and the pope would meet each other, then maybe something fundamental would happen, like a particle-antiparticle collision where both particles are destroyed in a violent reaction and something new is created. Both have active Twitter accounts. So I mentioned both in a tweet on January 2013. Shortly afterwards, Pope Benedict steppped back in February 2013. It was the first time this happend for centuries (I don’t think there is a real coincidence, but if there is I am sorry. The real trigger may probably have been a TV broadcast on German television – RTL – which criticized the catholic church).

Anyway, the pope stepped back, but the secret is still not disclosed. So what is it? There is a saying that everything that is alive has a soul. If the soul doesn’t exist, why did the concept of its existence become so universal? If God doesn’t exist, why did the concept of his existence become almost universal? A good question even Stephen Hawking can hardly answer. The concept of a god can be found in all early cultures and civilizations. Unlike science, society was not built on rational reasoning in the first place. It was built on irrational beliefs and religions. Religion a culture of belief, science a culture of doubt. Religion was built on irrational beliefs in divine authorities. Because in a sociological sense..

God simply means Group

Religions originally were not only an aspect of society, they enabled a society and higher civilization in the first place.  Today religion has become insignificant, in the beginning it was the single most significant part of a culture. The evolution of religions is apparently associated with the evolution of culture. Religions tell people what they should believe and how they should act as a part of a larger group, by providing explanations how the world works (scientific function), and giving instructions how to behave correctly (political and legal function). The scientific explanation has disappeared. As Neil DeGrasse Tyson says, the scientific significance of religion has vanished:  “God is an ever-receding pocket of scientific ignorance that’s getting smaller and smaller and smaller as time moves on.”  Yet religions are still the glue which keeps societies together by shared beliefs and common social rituals.


Religion is the marketing of a single idea, the idea of god, and god means just group in a sociological sense. Matthew 18:20 says: “For where two or three gather together as my followers, I am there among them.”  God is the name people give to the group of followers. It is a placeholder for the effects of the collective, for the group, the society, and in a larger context for the cumulative effects of evolution or nature. The group is stronger, bigger and much more powerful than the individual. The collective action of a group is fascinating: a flock of birds, a pack of wolves, or a shoal of fish is always fascinating to watch. The illusion of a supernatural entity can emerge from the coordinated collective action of the group, and a group often seems to have a mind of its own, even if it is just a collective of individuals.

A group becomes a single unified entity during church service, when the group performs social rituals: if the group acts together in form of dancing or singing, or if the group perceives something together (during listening to the church sermon). The  common basis of all religions are the beliefs, rites and rituals that the believers collectively perform. Social rituals create and maintain a group or a society.

Religion is fundamentally social

Social rituals always require a group which performs common actions. Churches and church service always a group of people, too. Religion is fundamentally social. The founders of sociology knew this, Emile Durkheim says in “The Elementary Forms of Religious Life” (1912) that the idea of society is the soul of religion: “if religion has given birth to all that is essential in society, it is because the idea of society is the soul of religion”. He argues that

Religion is something eminently social. Religious representations are collective representations which express collective realities; the rites are a manner of acting which take rise in the midst of assembled groups and which are destined to excite, maintain, or recreate certain mental states in these groups. So if the categories are of religious origin, they ought to participate in this nature common to all religious facts; they should be social affairs and the product of collective thought.

The “trinity” concept is social, too. It comes from the division between group, individual, and the intersection between both. If god is the group, and the prophet (for example Jesus) the role model for the individual, then the holy ghost is the group spirit at the intersection between group and individual.

The concepts of Jihad and Christian mission are social, too, they are organized efforts for the propagation of the corresponding beliefs. Successful mission means extension, regeneration and rejuvenation of the group of followers.

A group which attracts followers

The idea of god is a kind of pattern, structure or organizational form which we find in a social system again and again. It is a social attractor. A group of followers is maybe the most fundamental social attractor at all. As Raima Larter noticed, a group of followers or a swarm can be considered as an attractor, a basic social attractor: “It is created by the behavior of that system and, yet, paradoxically, governs the system’s behavior”. God is like a group or a swarm which can be considered as an attractor of followers. An emergent collective form which is created by the followers, and yet, paradoxically, governs them. A unified group can appear in many forms, as a crowd, flock of birds, schoal of fish, herd of land animals, etc. Emergences and swarm intelligence happen with all kinds of living things that live in groups.

All the basic religious terms are related to group terms

As Randall Collins has noticed in Chapter 2 “The Sociology of God” of his book “Sociological Insight”, all the basic religious terms are related to group terms. Religion has evolved to structure the behavior of human groups. Hell on earth, that is being expelled out of group or being excluded by a group (forever). Heaven is the opposite, being included and supported by a group (forever).

  • sin: breaking the rules of a group
  • blessing: wish to be included in the group
  • curse: wish to be excluded from the group
  • prophet: founder of the group, creates or invents rules 
  • priest: maintainer of the group, teaches rules 
  • holy book/sacred text: history and blueprint of the group, often the history of the group or founder
  • word of god: laws of the group
  • salvation: to be saved by the group from punishment and annihilation
  • damnation: to be condemned to permanent exclusion from the group
  • good: positive for the group (i.e. help a member)
  • evil: negative for the group (i.e. hurt a member)
  • profane: belongs to the individual
  • divine/sacred: belongs to the group
  • jihadmission: extension and rejuvenation of the group

Religions are a set of consistent metaphors we live by

It is problematic to take metaphors literally. The founder of a religion is only the starter of a movement, the sacred book which contains the metaphorical content is often written by close followers. It contains usually the collective wisdom of the whole follower group. Intelligence also comes in multiple forms, for example emotional intelligence.

If you look at the basic metaphors of religion which all involve the abstract idea of god, nearly none of them makes sense literally: son of god, word of god, house of god, kingdom of god, servant of god, .. But if we take the corresponding physical items and try to understand them metaphorically, then suddenly it all makes sense, if we consider a prophet as a son of god, a sacred book as the word of god, a temple as a house of god, a church as a kingdom of god, a church member as servant of god.

Since George Lakoff book “Metaphors we live by” we know we can understand abstract items only by metaphors. In principle, the founders of religions have done nothing else but inventing a set of consistent metaphors we “live by” (which structure our common life in the group). In this sense they have done the same as some of their biggest enemies, scientists like Charles Darwin who invented the metaphor of “Natural Selection” or Richard Dawkins who invented the metaphor of the “Selfish Gene”. Isn’t it ironic?

Moreover, religious groups are adaptive units subject to evolution as David Sloan Wilson noticed. This means Darwin and Dawkins are able to explain the very essence of religions, and yet Dawkins does not seem to like religions very much.. Another irony of history.

Religious groups are adaptive units

In his book “Darwin’s cathedral”, David Sloan Wilson argues that religion and evolution are related. If his thesis is correct, then religious groups are adaptive units, sects and churches are “religious species”, and new sects are speciation events. Political and economic systems can be considered as evolutionary systems as well. Maybe a “branch” in the phylogenetic tree is easier to define than a “species”? In his book, he gives the example of Calvinism, a branch of protestantism. The protestant work ethic described by Max Weber is certainly well adapted to a world of an emerging economy. Luther, Melanchthon, Zwingli and Calvin founded their own schools and branches of protestantism. Protestantism itself is one of the three major branches within Christianity: Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and Protestantism. Each branch represents a certain species.

  • sect – religious species
  • sacred or holy book – “religious memes” or “cultural genes”
  • church service – cultural gene expression
  • church – group built by common “thought proteins” (i.e. shared beliefs)

Church service is the expression of cultural genes

Church service can be considered as the expression of “cultural genes” or religious memes. It happens regularly to guarantee that everything which occurs in the system is in agreement with the information stored in the (cultural) genes. During gene expression, the information from genes is read and translated into the language of the cell. During church service, the information from the sacred book is read and translated into the language of the ordinary people. The genes from the holy book are turned into beliefs, the proteins that make up group behavior. The priest fulfills the role of RNA polymerase (and reads the genetic information), so that the believers can fulfill the role of the Ribosome when they translate the information into behavior. A bit ironic that the church has fought against Darwin so much although it is itself an adaptive unit subject to evolution..

The secret ingredient which makes it all work are the cultural genes or religious. They contain the code and the instructions to create a social entity, the group. They are made possible by language, writing systems, and a suitable medium to record language, for instance papyrus or parchment scrolls. Every scroll or book that contains consistent rules for group behaviors can be considered as a blueprint of a group. Often these sacred books contain the history of the group or its founder though.

And this is it, the secret of religion, and the secret of the church. Church service is the expression of cultural genes, which are turned into shared beliefs, the building blocks of groups and movements. Why has it been neglected for so long? Hard to say. Maybe one reason is because subjective experience and shared beliefs are not easy accessible by science. Religion has been with us so long that it must have a fundamental (social) function. And this function is basically to keep groups together, to make society work. And to give our life a meaning.

[1] Émile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, 1912
[2] Randall Collins, “Sociological Insight”, Oxford University Press, 1992
[3] David Sloan Wilson, “Darwin’s cathedral”, University Of Chicago Press, 2003

Robert N. Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age, Harvard University Press 2011

The picture is from Wikipedia and shows the Cathedral of Amiens in France

Tags: , ,

Subscribe to Comments

2 Responses to “God and the Group – The secret of religion”

  1. I’m having trouble with this. Trying to boil down why I don’t believe it has been difficult, however. I suppose there are 2 main sticking points:
    1) Anything human can be attributed to or justified by groups, making the attribution/justification of religion to/by groups relatively useless.
    2) It’s not very difficult to magine a solitary human believing in god(s) and engaging in religious rites and practices.

    I think the reason these 2 points refute the argument lies in the idea that religion is related to knowledge of the external world (or at least a desire for such external knowledge). Religious belief hinges on some access to the external world. It is fundamentally related to science in that sense.

    Now, to the extent that this knowledge is social, it hooks nicely with your argument. But if we imagine a solitary researcher/seeker, we can imagine them developing, solely with their own mind and body, revelatory “facts” about the world. Perhaps this is related to the less social, more personal religious rites like meditation, vision quests, fasting, or mindfulness … even private prayer?

    Regarding (2), even if we claim that a human grown in an isolation tank would have no religion (some would say couldn’t even think), and hence we have to say that even a hermit’s purely isolated religious thoughts/behaviors were rooted in the social context of their childhood, we’d still be forced to separate out a kind of “theism” — where the external knowledge was active/engaged — versus “deism” — where the external knowledge was largely irrelevant to the evolution of the individual. So, it’s not enough to merely say that the secret to religion is it’s groupness. We also have to say something about the timeline of that groupness in order to avoid criticism (2).


    Glen Ropella

  2. Good points. Well, I think humans can exist in isolation, but they need other humans to grow up and to become humans in the first place. Humans are fundamentally social (except programmers perhaps). We need acceptance and feedback of other people. And language is social, too. It would make no sense without other people. It is fundamentally social because it has the purpose of communication between humans in social groups. But it is also grounded in the physical world by the objects and actions which it references. As a child we learn it from other people. Mankind as a whole has learned it from each other. It was developed by the whole group. If god is the group, then we have learned it from god, so to speak.

    The basic process which happens in a church, a mosque or synagogue is social, too. A group assembles and listens to a speech. During this speech, the genes of the holy books are translated and expressed, which results in altered beliefs. Beliefs are like thought proteins. They are the building blocks of our behavior. In this sense the ten commandments in the bible are really like ten religious genes, which shape group behavior. The content of the holy books can be read in isolation of cause, but the whole power unfolds only in the group.



Leave a Reply