Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, October 02, 2015

Most People Have Tribes, Not Beliefs

There's been one of those media dances in the last few days which would be hilarious were it not so very sad.

First there was the news that Kim Davis, the county clerk from Kentucky who was sent to was sent to jail for refusing to issue marriage licenses in the wake of the Supreme Court decision imposing same sex marriage on the country, had met briefly with Pope Francis. This provoked howls of rage from many on the secular and religious left, and accusations that the pope had betrayed them and erased all of the good words that he'd said on issues that they'd cared about, because apparently it's impossible to listen to a pope's words on helping the poor or some such issue if he's had the temerity to meet with someone you don't like for a few minutes.

Then the Vatican press office put out a statement that "The pope, the statement added, did not enter into the details of the situation of Davis, and his meeting with her should not be considered a form of support of her position in all of its particular and complex aspects." and social media erupted again, this time claiming that Davis and her supporters had lied, that the pope had been fooled into meeting with her, etc.

And as if to cap off the tower of silliness, CNN now trumpets an exclusive report that Pope Francis met with an old student of his from Argentina, who is an atheist in a same sex relationship.

Apparently, the pope is a trophy, and the big cultural contest is to figure out which team is holding the trophy.

Two things seem to be at play here.

One is that Pope Francis, while widely admired for his holiness, also seems to serve as a blank canvas onto which many people project their beliefs. Case in point, a recent survey found that 63% of Catholics who oppose same sex marriage believe that Pope Francis opposes it too, while only 36% of Catholics who support same sex marriage think that Pope Francis opposes it.  (The correct answer is that he opposes same sex marriage.)


The second is that for a lot of people, beliefs seem to matter a lot less than tribal identification. Good people are on your side, bad people are on the other side. Thus, the logic goes, if Pope Francis appears to be a good person, he must be on your side and share your believes, because THERE ARE NO GOOD PEOPLE ON THE OTHER SIDE!

My cynicism seems to be kicking into higher gear as I enter middle age. I used to be kind of inspired by how societies in Late Antiquity could be torn apart by Christological heresies, with mobs fighting in the street over issues like whether Christ had a single nature which was Divine, a single nature which was human, two natures, or one nature which was both human and divine. How wonderful it must have been to live in an age when people cared so much about theological truths!

Now, I find myself wondering if many people on the ground actually could have described the theological positions at stake, or were there a few theologians fighting about the actual issue while everyone else argued based on "this guy is on my side" types of tribal identification?


BenK said...

The question of whether theological truths matter is something more complex; if a society is, as a whole, blessed or cursed, then everything your neighbor does matters in detail. The story of Ai, or perhaps Jonah on the ship, the leaven in the loaf - these are all similar. What then of the iconodules and iconoclasts? They are similar; even if they don't know much about the details, each side is concerned about terrible practical realities. Tribalism - the Nika Riots - is something else.

Vitae Scrutator said...

I wonder if the structure of the tribalism isn't somewhat different. I've always thought the logic was more like this: "I believe P. The Pope appears to me to believe P [or, more often, I read the Pope's remarks as being consistent with P], therefore the Pope is a good person" or "I believe P, the Pope appears to me not to believe P [or, more often, I read the Pope's remarks as being inconsistent with P], therefore the Pope is a bad person/Christian". In other words, I think the tribalism is defined not so much by whom we regard as good people, but by what we antecedently believe about any given issue. The good people are then defined by how much like us they are in their attitudes and beliefs.

Michael said...

Much of the disparity of opinion about Pope Francis stems from the left/right split in mainstream news. If viewers already identify with the NPR or CNN tribe, they're going to hear certain sorts of things about the Holy Father, whereas Fox News tribesmen get another sort of coverage. Hence, two very different images of the Supreme Pontiff emerge.

Robert Kearney said...

That's how it's always been. Humans are communal beings and most just go along with the community they were either raised in or choose to identify themselves with. Rare indeed is the true individualist who will buck the tide of their tribe in order to take a stand for their beliefs. That's why we tend to signal out and honor those who do.

Does the author also think that the people in past times who fought in the streets of Christological heresies actually were all deeply believing Christains or were they just moved to support some cause because it was then trendy to do so?

Agnes said...

The problem is somewhat more complex; and while I'm sure there is a great deal of truth in your statement about tribalism, the reason the Pope is such a "trophy" is not his holiness, but being His Holiness - in other words, not because he is a good person but because he sits on the Cathedra Petri, his statements are interpreted as that of the Catholic Church. And, well, his meeting with people is a statement in itself,even if the statement he makes is that he WILL meet people regardless of whether they agree with either his personal beliefs or that of the Catholic Church. But this is a very difficult message to get through. Most people can't deal well with ambiguity (even though it is really a mark of maturity). If the Pope is on my side, he can't be also on those others' side (or even, he has to condemn them) - because they are The Bad Others. Many peoplein my country, even Christians, believe that since homosexuality is wrong, and LGBT activists fight with unfair methods against Christian opinion, it is not wrong to hate them, despise them, call them names etc. It is also a difficult question whether the Pope can have a private opinion that is not in concordance with the Catholic Church's teaching on a subject, and whether a Catholic person can disagree with the Pope on any issue. Or, the question I frequently think about, whether the Pope can afford not to make a clear statement on a debated issue like acceptance of homosexuality.

Agnes said...

On the subject of caring for an issue vs going to fight over them on streets, I'm afraid I don't share your nostalgia for the latter. I do want some degree of tolerance (the true tolerance, not the one which is intolerant of the traditional Christian opinion), although it ought not to stem from indifference.

August said...

I think, initially, most theological arguments came about as a byproduct of power struggles between elites in Christendom. Finally it disintegrated. We completely lost the nobility, including in the Church, leaving us with mere bureaucrats everywhere, and this general idea that the average lunatic can just read the bible and interpret it correctly despite it being incredibly obvious most people cannot.

Darwin said...


To be clear: I don't actually think it was a good thing that there was street fighting over theological disputes back in the late Roman period. Obviously, resorting to violence over such disputes is wrong. But I did have a certain "at least people cared" reaction reading about it -- especially in contrast to the religion classes I tended to get at our parish as a child, where the teachers tended to brush off the Protestant Reformation by saying, "Back then people argued about a lot of questions like why people were saved and what the sacraments are; but we don't worry about that now because we're all just God's children."

I think it's an important tension you bring up, about the challenge of both not ignoring Church teaching on issues such as homosexual activity, and yet also treating individual people, regardless of their sins, as people in human dignity and worth. Catholics in different parts of the world end up facing opposite problems on this -- from parts of Africa where there are proposals to impose the death penalty for homosexual behavior, to here in the US where many people claim it is a positive good.

Darwin said...


Good point. Aside from a few issues on which people fight hard to get the weight of the culture behind their moral stances (such as the efforts to drum out of public life those who don't support gay marriage), we no longer really have the powerful trying to impose their creed on the masses. Quite the opposite of the Wars of Religion where local nobility tried to require that those on their land to share their type of Christianity.

August said...

Now it is a war of the mediocre on anyone or anything that might be 'better', 'sacred', or worthy of following.

Agnes said...

I understood your point about everyday people caring about eternal truths. However, I recently discussed the Reformation and the conflicts between Protestants and Catholics in my country's history with my 12-years old son (thank God, today there is mostly harmony between us in Hungary at least), and also there is the problem of the migrants from Islamic origin who likely won't show basic tolerance in Europe (and who come from places where street fights and religious conflicts are present) which is part of everyday discourse in my country right now.
I am reading a book by Pope Benedict XVI (the translation of the Hungarian title is Faith, Truth and Tolerance) exactly about the problem of tolerance vs giving up the position of "orthodoxy" so no, I did not mean tolerance as in obscuring the differences and making light of things like the Eucharist or apostolic succession.