Excerpts from an interview with Harvey Whitehouse, the director of the Institute of Cognitive & Evolutionary Anthropology at the University of Oxford. The focus was mainly on religious groups, but it is equally valid for any group that forms its identity around whatever it is that its members hold in common.
...The point of religion is not to produce a rational understanding of nature, according to Whitehouse. It is “more about building cohesion and cooperation in groups, among other things,” he recently told Nautilus. ... But the reason people “dig their heels in” against Dawkinsian criticism of their beliefs isn’t necessarily because they’re irrational—it’s because those beliefs help bond them with other religious people. “When you challenge those beliefs,” he said, “you’re not really getting into a debate about what’s true but are just offending people by attacking their identities.”
Is there evidence that identity fusion can explain extreme behavior, like suicide attacks?
We’ve got quite good evidence on which to base a whole theoretical framework that would explain how that can happen. It describes the causal chains that lead from emotionally intense collective experiences, via autobiographical memory and processes of reflection and self-transformation, to the belief that you share some kind of essence with the group, leading to fusion and family-like ties among group members. ... The process of fusion arising from such experiences does not require that people subscribe to an elaborated belief system that resembles a doctrine or religion.
But isn’t extreme ideology responsible for suicide attacks?
If you take all those people who have adopted extremist beliefs, only a very tiny minority actually engage in extreme behaviors like suicide bombing. If the vast majority of people who believe extreme things don’t engage in extreme behaviors, why would we think that extreme beliefs are the best things to tackle to stop extreme behaviors? It seems to me like the wrong place to look. But I could be wrong about that. We’re still in the early stages of empirically evaluating the relative contributions of fusion and ideology. Generally I share with the 19th-century social theorist Émile Durkheim the intuition that, when things take on a sacred quality for people, somehow at the core of it is a group. If I subscribe to an ideology that symbolises the group and I’m also fused with that group, then attacking my ideology might feel like you’re attacking my group and, in that case, it could be perceived as a severe threat leading to the fight and die response.
Don’t people hold doctrines dearly because they represent answers to deep questions about what is true?
If you’re a philosopher, or if you’re trying to pick apart what’s true. But I’m not sure that, in identity politics, what’s true matters very much to anyone. If you belong to a Creationist group in which a fundamentalist, literalist reading of the Bible is important to your group identity, then you’re going to argue with anybody who upholds the facts of evolution, not because the beliefs themselves matter particularly, or were arrived at through a process of reasoning, but because you and your group’s identity is wrapped up in it. I don’t think people can be reasoned out of those things, because they weren’t reasoned into them in the first place.
What do you make of current efforts to de-radicalize members of extremist religious groups?
It may well be the wrong approach to try to challenge head-on a set of beliefs because, if I’m right in what I’m saying, then that is basically challenging their identity. And once you do that, you just become part of the problem. ... It just makes groups that subscribe to those beliefs feel more embattled and more threatened. I would far prefer to see initiatives that question how genuinely shared some of these self-defining experiences are. To what extent can we unpick some of the foundations of their personal identities and the way that they aligned those with their group identities? From there we might get them to reassess the extent to which they believe their groups are actually threatened. Also, most people would be comfortable with sharing their life events that have shaped who they are, as long as there’s rapport and empathy between themselves and the social workers they’re talking to. Those topics are key to changing their fusion levels.