The Ideology Is Not The Movement


Why is there such a strong Sunni/​Shia di­vide?

I know the Com­par­a­tive Reli­gion 101 an­swer. The early Mus­lims were de­bat­ing who was the right­ful cal­iph. Some of them said Abu Bakr, oth­ers said Ali, and the dis­pute has been go­ing on ever since. On the other hand, that was four­teen hun­dred years ago, both can­di­dates are long dead, and there’s no more cal­iphate. You’d think maybe they’d let the mat­ter rest.

Sure, the two groups have slightly differ­ent ha­dith and schools of ju­rispru­dence, but how many Mus­lims even know which school of ju­rispru­dence they’re sup­posed to be fol­low­ing? It seems like a pretty minor thing to have cen­turies of an­i­mus over.

And so we re­turn again to Rob­bers’ Cave:

The ex­per­i­men­tal sub­jects — ex­cuse me, “cam­pers” — were 22 boys be­tween 5th and 6th grade, se­lected from 22 differ­ent schools in Ok­la­homa City, of sta­ble mid­dle-class Protes­tant fam­i­lies, do­ing well in school, me­dian IQ 112. They were as well-ad­justed and as similar to each other as the re­searchers could man­age.

The ex­per­i­ment, con­ducted in the be­wil­dered af­ter­math of World War II, was meant to in­ves­ti­gate the causes—and pos­si­ble reme­dies—of in­ter­group con­flict. How would they spark an in­ter­group con­flict to in­ves­ti­gate? Well, the 22 boys were di­vided into two groups of 11 cam­pers, and —

— and that turned out to be quite suffi­cient.

The re­searchers’ origi­nal plans called for the ex­per­i­ment to be con­ducted in three stages. In Stage 1, each group of cam­pers would set­tle in, un­aware of the other group’s ex­is­tence. Toward the end of Stage 1, the groups would grad­u­ally be made aware of each other. In Stage 2, a set of con­tests and prize com­pe­ti­tions would set the two groups at odds.

They needn’t have both­ered with Stage 2. There was hos­tility al­most from the mo­ment each group be­came aware of the other group’s ex­is­tence: They were us­ing our camp­ground, our base­ball di­a­mond. On their first meet­ing, the two groups be­gan hurl­ing in­sults. They named them­selves the Rat­tlers and the Ea­gles (they hadn’t needed names when they were the only group on the camp­ground).

When the con­tests and prizes were an­nounced, in ac­cor­dance with pre-es­tab­lished ex­per­i­men­tal pro­ce­dure, the in­ter­group ri­valry rose to a fever pitch. Good sports­man­ship in the con­tests was ev­i­dent for the first two days but rapidly dis­in­te­grated.

The Ea­gles stole the Rat­tlers’ flag and burned it. Rat­tlers raided the Ea­gles’ cabin and stole the blue jeans of the group leader, which they painted or­ange and car­ried as a flag the next day, in­scribed with the leg­end “The Last of the Ea­gles”. The Ea­gles launched a re­tal­i­a­tory raid on the Rat­tlers, turn­ing over beds, scat­ter­ing dirt. Then they re­turned to their cabin where they en­trenched and pre­pared weapons (socks filled with rocks) in case of a re­turn raid. After the Ea­gles won the last con­test planned for Stage 2, the Rat­tlers raided their cabin and stole the prizes. This de­vel­oped into a fist­fight that the staff had to shut down for fear of in­jury. The Ea­gles, retel­ling the tale among them­selves, turned the whole af­fair into a mag­nifi­cent vic­tory—they’d chased the Rat­tlers “over halfway back to their cabin” (they hadn’t).

Each group de­vel­oped a nega­tive stereo­type of Them and a con­trast­ing pos­i­tive stereo­type of Us. The Rat­tlers swore heav­ily. The Ea­gles, af­ter win­ning one game, con­cluded that the Ea­gles had won be­cause of their prayers and the Rat­tlers had lost be­cause they used cuss-words all the time. The Ea­gles de­cided to stop us­ing cuss-words them­selves. They also con­cluded that since the Rat­tlers swore all the time, it would be wiser not to talk to them. The Ea­gles de­vel­oped an image of them­selves as proper-and-moral; the Rat­tlers de­vel­oped an image of them­selves as rough-and-tough.

If the re­searchers had de­cided that the real differ­ence be­tween the two groups was that the Ea­gles were ad­her­ents of Ea­gleism, which held cussing as ab­solutely taboo, and the Rat­tlers ad­her­ents of Rat­tlerism, which held it a holy duty to cuss five times a day – well, that strikes me as the best equiv­a­lent to say­ing that Sunni and Shia differ over the right­ful cal­iph.


Na­tions, re­li­gions, cults, gangs, sub­cul­tures, fra­ter­nal so­cieties, in­ter­net com­mu­ni­ties, poli­ti­cal par­ties, so­cial move­ments – these are all re­ally differ­ent, but they also have some deep similar­i­ties. They’re all groups of peo­ple. They all com­bine com­radery within the group with a ten­dency to dis­like other groups of the same type. They all tend to have a stated pur­pose, like elect­ing a can­di­date or wor­ship­ping a de­ity, but also serve a very im­por­tant role as im­promptu so­cial clubs whose mem­bers mostly in­ter­act with one an­other in­stead of out­siders. They all de­velop an in­ter­nal cul­ture such that mem­bers of the groups of­ten like the same foods, wear the same cloth­ing, play the same sports, and have the same philo­soph­i­cal be­liefs as other mem­bers of the group – even when there are only ten­u­ous links or no links at all to the stated pur­pose. They all tend to de­velop sort of leg­endary his­to­ries, where they cel­e­brate and ex­ag­ger­ate the deeds of the groups’ founders and past cham­pi­ons. And they all tend to in­spire some­thing like pa­tri­o­tism, where peo­ple are proud of their group mem­ber­ship and ex­press that pride through con­spicu­ous use of group sym­bols, group songs, et cetera. For bet­ter or worse, the stan­dard way to re­fer to this cat­e­gory of thing is “tribe”.

Trib­al­ism is po­ten­tially pre­sent in all groups, but lev­els differ a lot even in groups of nom­i­nally the same type. Modern Belgium seems like an un­usu­ally non-tribal na­tion; Im­pe­rial Ja­pan in World War II seems like an un­usu­ally tribal one. Ne­oliber­al­ism and mar­ket so­cial­ism seem like un­usu­ally non-tribal poli­ti­cal philoso­phies; com­mu­nism and liber­tar­i­anism seem like un­usu­ally tribal ones. Cor­po­ra­tions with names like Amalga­mated Prod­ucts Co prob­a­bly aren’t very tribal; charis­matic cor­po­ra­tions like Ap­ple that be­come iden­tities for their em­ploy­ees and cus­tomers are more so. Cults are maybe the most tribal groups that ex­ist in the mod­ern world, and those Cult Screen­ing Tools make good mea­sures for trib­al­ism as well.

The dan­gers of trib­al­ism are ob­vi­ous; for ex­am­ple, fas­cism is based around di­al­ing a coun­try’s trib­al­ism up to eleven, and it ends poorly. If I had writ­ten this es­say five years ago, it would be be ti­tled “Why Trib­al­ism Is Stupid And Needs To Be De­stroyed”. Since then, I’ve changed my mind. I’ve found that I en­joy be­ing in tribes as much as any­one else.

Part of this was re­solv­ing a ma­jor so­cial fal­lacy I’d had through­out high school and col­lege, which was that the cor­rect way to make friends was to pick the five most in­ter­est­ing peo­ple I knew and try to befriend them. This al­most never worked and I thought it meant I had ter­rible so­cial skills. Then I looked at what ev­ery­one else was do­ing, and I found that in­stead of iso­lated sur­gi­cal strikes of friend­ship, they were form­ing groups. The band peo­ple. The mock trial peo­ple. The foot­ball team peo­ple. The Three Pop­u­lar Girls Who Went Every­where To­gether. Once I tried “fal­ling in with” a group, friend­ship be­came much eas­ier and self-sus­tain­ing pre­cisely be­cause of all of the tribal de­vel­op­ment that hap­pens when a group of similar peo­ple all know each other and have a shared in­ter­est. Since then I’ve had good luck find­ing tribes I like and that ac­cept me – the ra­tio­nal­ists be­ing the most ob­vi­ous ex­am­ple, but even in­ter­act­ing with my cowork­ers on the same hos­pi­tal unit at work is bet­ter than try­ing to find and cul­ti­vate ran­dom peo­ple.

Some benefits of trib­al­ism are easy to ex­plain. Trib­al­ism in­ten­sifies all pos­i­tive and proso­cial feel­ings within the tribe. It in­creases trust within the tribe and al­lows oth­er­wise-im­pos­si­ble forms of co­op­er­a­tion – re­mem­ber Haidt on the Jewish di­a­mond mer­chants out­com­pet­ing their ri­vals be­cause their mu­tual Ju­daism gave them a se­ries of high-trust con­nec­tions that saved them costly ver­ifi­ca­tion pro­ce­dures? It gives peo­ple a sup­port net­work they can rely on when their luck is bad and they need help. It lets you “be your­self” with­out wor­ry­ing that this will be in­com­pre­hen­si­ble or offen­sive to some­body who thinks to­tally differ­ently from you. It cre­ates an in­stant densely-con­nected so­cial net­work of peo­ple who mostly get along with one an­other. It makes peo­ple feel like part of some­thing larger than them­selves, which makes them happy and can (prov­ably) im­proves their phys­i­cal and men­tal health.

Others are more com­pli­cated. I can just make mo­tions at a feel­ing that “what I do mat­ters”, in the sense that I will prob­a­bly never be a Beethoven or a Napoleon who is very im­por­tant to the his­tory of the world as a whole, but I can do things that are im­por­tant within the con­text of a cer­tain group of peo­ple. All of this is re­ally good for my hap­piness and men­tal health. When peo­ple talk about how mod­ern so­ciety is “at­om­ized” or “lacks com­mu­nity” or “doesn’t have mean­ing”, I think they’re talk­ing about a lack of trib­al­ism, which leaves peo­ple all alone in the face of a so­ciety much too big to un­der­stand or af­fect. The evolu­tion­ary psy­chol­ogy an­gle here is too ob­vi­ous to even be worth stat­ing.

And oth­ers are en­tirely philo­soph­i­cal. I think some peo­ple would say that want­ing to have a tribe is like want­ing to have a fam­ily – part of what it means to be hu­man – and de­mands to jus­tify ei­ther are equally wrong-headed.

Eliezer thinks ev­ery cause wants to be a cult. I would phrase this more neu­trally as “ev­ery cause wants to be a tribe”. I’ve seen a lot of ac­tivi­ties go through the fol­low­ing cy­cle:

1. Let’s get to­gether to do X
2. Let’s get to­gether to do X, and have drinks af­ter­wards
3. Let’s get to­gether to dis­cuss things from an X-in­formed per­spec­tive
4. Let’s get to­gether to dis­cuss the sorts of things that in­ter­est peo­ple who do X
5. Let’s get to­gether to dis­cuss how the sort of peo­ple who do X are much bet­ter than the sort of peo­ple who do Y.
6. Dat­ing site for the sort of peo­ple who do X
7. Oh god, it was so an­noy­ing, she spent the whole date talk­ing about X.
8. X? What X?

This can hap­pen over any­thing or noth­ing at all. De­spite the ar­tifi­cial na­ture of the Rob­bers’ Cove ex­per­i­ment, its groups are eas­ily rec­og­nized as tribes. In­deed, the rea­son this ex­per­i­ment is so in­ter­est­ing is that it shows tribes in their purest form; no ve­neer of re­ally be­ing about push­ing a so­cial change or sup­port­ing a cal­iph, just tribes for trib­al­ism’s sake.


Schol­ars call the pro­cess of cre­at­ing a new tribe “ethno­gen­e­sis” – Rob­bers’ Cave was ar­tifi­cially in­duc­ing ethno­gen­e­sis to see what would hap­pen. My model of ethno­gen­e­sis in­volves four stages: pre-ex­ist­ing differ­ences, a ral­ly­ing flag, de­vel­op­ment, and dis­solu­tion.

Pre-ex­ist­ing differ­ences are the raw ma­te­ri­als out of which tribes are made. A good tribe com­bines peo­ple who have similar in­ter­ests and styles of in­ter­ac­tion even be­fore the ethno­gen­e­sis event. Any de­scrip­tion of these differ­ences will nec­es­sar­ily in­volve stereo­types, but a lot of them should be hard to ar­gue. For ex­am­ple, athe­ists are of­ten pretty similar to one an­other even be­fore they de­con­vert from their re­li­gion and offi­cially be­come athe­ists. They’re usu­ally nerdy, skep­ti­cal, ra­tio­nal, not very big on com­mu­nity or to­geth­er­ness, sar­cas­tic, well-ed­u­cated. At the risk of go­ing into touch­ier ter­ri­tory, they’re pretty of­ten white and male. You take a sam­ple of a hun­dred equally re­li­gious church­go­ers and pick out the ones who are most like the sort of peo­ple who are athe­ists even if all of them are 100% be­liev­ers. But there’s also some­thing more than that. There are sub­tle habits of thought, not yet de­scribed by any word or sen­tence, which athe­ists are more likely to have than other peo­ple. It’s part of the rea­son why athe­ists need athe­ism as a ral­ly­ing flag in­stead of just start­ing the Skep­ti­cal Nerdy Male Club.

The ral­ly­ing flag is the ex­plicit pur­pose of the tribe. It’s usu­ally a be­lief, event, or ac­tivity that get peo­ple with that spe­cific pre-ex­ist­ing differ­ence to­gether and ex­cited. Often it brings pre­vi­ously la­tent differ­ences into sharp re­lief. Peo­ple meet around the ral­ly­ing flag, en­counter each other, and say “You seem like a kin­dred soul!” or “I thought I was the only one!” Usu­ally it sug­gests some course of ac­tion, which pro­vides the tribe with a pur­pose. For athe­ists, the ral­ly­ing flag is not be­liev­ing in God. Some­body says “Hey, I don’t be­lieve in God, if you also don’t be­lieve in God come over here and we’ll hang out to­gether and talk about how much re­li­gious peo­ple suck.” All the athe­ists go over by the ral­ly­ing flag and get very ex­cited about meet­ing each other. It starts with “Wow, you hate church too?”, moves on to “Really, you also like sci­ence fic­tion?”, and ends up at “Wow, you have the same un­defin­able habits of thought that I do!”

Devel­op­ment is all of the pro­cesses by which the fledgling tribe gains its own cul­ture and his­tory. It’s a turn­ing-in­ward and strength­en­ing-of-walls, which trans­forms it from ‘A Group Of Peo­ple Who Do Not Believe In God And Hap­pen To Be In The Same Place’ to ‘The Athe­ist Tribe’. For ex­am­ple, athe­ists have sym­bols like that ‘A’ in­side an atom. They have jokes and mas­cots like Rus­sell’s Teapot and the In­visi­ble Pink Uni­corn. They have their own set of heroes, both mythol­o­gized past heroes like Gal­ileo and con­tro­ver­sial-but-un­de­ni­ably-im­por­tant mod­ern heroes like Richard Dawk­ins and Daniel Den­nett. They have celebri­ties like P.Z. My­ers and He­mant Me­hta. They have uni­ver­sally-agreed-upon villains to be booed and hated, like tele­van­ge­lists or the West­boro Bap­tist Church. They have grievances, like all the times that athe­ists have been fired or picked on by re­li­gious peo­ple, and all the laws about pledg­ing alle­giance to one na­tion un­der God and so on. They have stereo­types about them­selves – in­tel­li­gent, helpful, pas­sion­ate – and stereo­types about their out­groups – de­luded, ig­no­rant, bi­goted.

Dis­solu­tion is op­tional. The point of the pre­vi­ous three steps is to build a “wall” be­tween the tribe and the out­side, a se­ries of sys­tem­atic differ­ences that let ev­ery­body know which side they’re on. If a tribe was never re­ally that differ­ent from the sur­round­ing pop­u­la­tion, stops car­ing that much about its ral­ly­ing flag, and doesn’t de­velop enough cul­ture, then the wall fails and the mem­bers dis­perse into the sur­round­ing pop­u­la­tion. The clas­sic ex­am­ple is the as­simila­tion of im­mi­grant groups like Ir­ish-Amer­i­cans, but his­tory is lit­tered with failed com­munes, cults, and poli­ti­cal move­ments. Athe­ism hasn’t quite dis­solved yet, but oc­ca­sion­ally you see hints of the pro­cess. A lot of the com­ments around “Athe­ism Plus” cen­tered around this idea of “Okay, talk­ing about how there’s no God all the time has got­ten bor­ing, plus no­body in­ter­est­ing be­lieves in God any­more any­way, so let’s be­come about so­cial jus­tice in­stead”. The parts of athe­ism who went along with that mes­sage mostly dis­solved into the broader so­cial jus­tice com­mu­nity – there are a host of nom­i­nally athe­ist blogs that haven’t talked about any­thing ex­cept so­cial jus­tice in months. Other frag­ments of the athe­ist com­mu­nity dis­solved into tran­shu­man­ism, or liber­tar­i­anism, or any of a num­ber of other things. Although there’s still an athe­ist com­mu­nity, it no longer seems quite as vibrant and co­he­sive as it used to be.

We can check this four-stage model by ap­ply­ing it to the Sunni and Shia and see­ing if it sticks.

I know very lit­tle about early Is­lam and am rely­ing on sources that might be bi­ased, so don’t de­clare a fatwa against me if I turn out to be wrong, but it looks like from the be­gin­ning there were big pre-ex­ist­ing differ­ences be­tween proto-Shia and proto-Sunni. A lot of Ali’s ear­liest sup­port­ers were origi­nal Mus­lims who had known Mo­hammed per­son­ally, and a lot of Abu Bakr’s ear­liest sup­port­ers were later Mus­lims high up in the Mec­can/​Me­d­i­nan poli­ti­cal es­tab­lish­ment who’d con­verted only af­ter it be­came con­ve­nient to do so. It’s re­ally easy to imag­ine cul­tural, so­cial, and per­son­al­ity differ­ences be­tween these two groups. Prob­a­bly mem­bers in each group already knew one an­other pretty well, and already had ill feel­ings to­wards mem­bers of the other, with­out nec­es­sar­ily be­ing able to draw the group bor­ders clearly or put their ex­act differ­ences into words. Maybe it was “those goody-good­ies who are always go­ing on about how close to Mo­hammed they were but have no prac­ti­cal gov­ern­ing abil­ity” ver­sus “those sel­l­outs who don’t re­ally be­lieve in Is­lam and just want to keep play­ing their poli­ti­cal games”.

Then came the ral­ly­ing flag: a poli­ti­cal dis­agree­ment over the suc­ces­sion. One group called them­selves “the party of Ali”, whose Ara­bic trans­la­tion “Shi­atu Ali” even­tu­ally ended up as just “Shia”. The other group won and called it­self “the tra­di­tional or­tho­dox group”, in Ara­bic “Sunni”. In­stead of a vague sense of “I won­der whether that guy there is one of those goody-good­ies always talk­ing about Mo­hammed, or whether he’s a prac­ti­cal type in­ter­ested in good gov­er­nance”, peo­ple could just ask “Are you for Abu Bakr or Ali?” and later “Are you Sunni or Shia?” Also at some point, I’m not ex­actly sure how, most of the Sunni ended up in Ara­bia and most of the Shia ended up in Iraq and Iran, af­ter which I think some pre-ex­ist­ing Iraqi/​Ira­nian vs. Arab cul­tural differ­ences got ab­sorbed into the Sunni/​Shia mix too.

Then came de­vel­op­ment. Both groups de­vel­oped elab­o­rate mytholo­gies li­oniz­ing their founders. The Sunni got the his­tory of the “rightly-guided cal­iphs”, the Shia ex­ag­ger­ated the first few imams to leg­endary pro­por­tions. They de­vel­oped grievances against each other; ac­cord­ing to Shia his­tory, the Sun­nis kil­led eleven of their twelve lead­ers, with the twelfth es­cap­ing only when God di­rectly plucked him out of the world to serve as a fu­ture Mes­siah. They de­vel­oped differ­ent schools of ha­dith in­ter­pre­ta­tion and ju­rispru­dence and de­bated the differ­ences ad nau­seum with each other for hun­dreds of years. A lot of Shia the­ol­ogy is in Farsi; Sunni the­ol­ogy is en­tirely in Ara­bic. Sunni clergy usu­ally dress in white; Shia clergy usu­ally dress in black and green. Not all of these were de­liber­ately done in op­po­si­tion to one an­other; most were just a con­se­quence of the two camps be­ing walled off from one an­other and so al­lowed to de­velop cul­tures in­de­pen­dently.

Ob­vi­ously the split hasn’t dis­solved yet, but it’s worth look­ing at similar splits that have. Catholi­cism vs. Protes­tantism is still a go­ing con­cern in a few places like Ire­land, but it’s nowhere near the to­tal wars of the 17th cen­tury or even the Know-Noth­ing-Par­ties of the 19th. Con­sider that Marco Ru­bio is Catholic, but no­body ex­cept Salon par­tic­u­larly wor­ries about that or says that it will make him un­suit­able to lead a party rep­re­sent­ing the in­ter­ests of very evan­gel­i­cal Protes­tants. Heck, the same party was happy to nom­i­nate Mitt Rom­ney, a Mor­mon, and praise him for his “Chris­tian faith”. Part of it is the sub­sump­tion of those differ­ences into a larger con­flict – most Chris­ti­ans ac­knowl­edge Chris­ti­an­ity vs. athe­ism to be a big­ger deal than in­ter­de­nom­i­na­tional dis­putes these days – and part of it is that ev­ery­one of ev­ery re­li­gion is so in­fluenced by sec­u­lar Amer­i­can cul­ture that the re­li­gions have been re­duced to their ral­ly­ing flags alone rather than be­ing fully de­vel­oped tribes at this point. Amer­i­can Sunni and Shia seem to be well on their way to dis­solv­ing into each other too.


I want to dis­cuss a cou­ple of is­sues that I think make more sense once you un­der­stand the con­cept of tribes and ral­ly­ing flags:

1. Dis­abil­ity: I used to be very con­fused by dis­abled peo­ple who in­sist on not want­ing a “cure” for their con­di­tion. Deaf peo­ple and autis­tic peo­ple are the two clas­sic ex­am­ples, and sure enough we find ar­ti­cles like Not All Deaf Peo­ple Want To Be Cured and They Don’t Want An Autism Cure. Autis­tic peo­ple can at least ar­gue their minds work differ­ently rather than worse, but be­ing deaf seems to be a straight-out dis­ad­van­tage: the hear­ing can do any­thing the deaf can, and can hear also. A hear­ing per­son can be­come deaf at any time just by wear­ing earplugs, but a deaf per­son can’t be­come hear­ing, at least not with­out very com­pli­cated high-tech surg­eries.

When I asked some deaf friends about this, they ex­plained that they had a re­ally close-knit and sup­port­ive deaf cul­ture, and that most of their friends, so­cial events, and ways of re­lat­ing to other peo­ple and the world were through this cul­ture. This made sense, but I always won­dered: if you were able to hear, couldn’t you form some other cul­ture? If worst came to worst and no­body else wanted to talk to you, couldn’t you at least have the Ex-Deaf Peo­ple’s Club?

I don’t think so. Deaf­ness acts as a ral­ly­ing flag that con­nects peo­ple, gives them a shared foun­da­tion to build cul­ture off of, and walls the group off from other peo­ple. If all deaf peo­ple mag­i­cally be­came able to hear, their cul­ture would even­tu­ally drift apart, and they’d be stuck with­out an in­group to call their own.

Part of this is rea­son­able cost-benefit calcu­la­tion – our so­ciety is so vast and at­om­ized, and form­ing real co­he­sive tribes is so hard, that they might rea­son­ably ex­pect it would be a lot of trou­ble to find an­other group they liked as much as the deaf com­mu­nity. But an­other part of this seems to be about an urge to cul­tural self-preser­va­tion.

2. Geno­cide: This term is kind of overused these days. I always thought of it as mean­ing liter­ally kil­ling ev­ery mem­ber of a cer­tain group – the Holo­caust, for ex­am­ple – but the new us­age in­cludes “cul­tural geno­cide”. For ex­am­ple, autism rights ad­vo­cates some­times say that any­body who cured autism would be com­mit­ting geno­cide – this is of course soundly mocked, but it makes sense if you think of autis­tic peo­ple as a tribe that would be dis­solved ab­sent its ral­ly­ing flag. The tribe would be elimi­nated – thus “cul­tural geno­cide” is a rea­son­able albeit polem­i­cal de­scrip­tion.

It seems to me that peo­ple have an urge to­ward cul­tural self-preser­va­tion which is as strong or stronger as the urge to in­di­vi­d­ual self-preser­va­tion. Part of this is ra­tio­nal cost-benefit calcu­la­tion – if some­one loses their only tribe and ends up alone in the vast and at­om­ized sea of mod­ern so­ciety, it might take years be­fore they can find an­other tribe and re­ally be at home there. But a lot of it seems to be be­yond that, an emo­tional cer­tainty that los­ing one’s cul­ture and hav­ing it re­placed with an­other is not okay, any more than be­ing kil­led at the same time some­one else has a baby is okay. Nor do I think this is nec­es­sar­ily ir­ra­tional; lo­cat­ing the thing whose sur­vival you care about in the self rather than the com­mu­nity is an as­sump­tion, and peo­ple can make differ­ent as­sump­tions with­out be­ing ob­vi­ously wrong.

3. Ra­tion­al­ists: The ra­tio­nal­ist com­mu­nity is a group of peo­ple (of which I’m a part) who met read­ing the site Less Wrong and who tend to hang out to­gether on­line, some­times hang out to­gether in real life, and tend to befriend each other, work with each other, date each other, and gen­er­ally move in the same so­cial cir­cles. Some peo­ple call it a cult, but that’s more a sign of some peo­ple hav­ing lost vo­cab­u­lary for any­thing be­tween “to­tally at­om­ized in­di­vi­d­u­als” and “out­right cult” than any par­tic­u­lar cultish­ness.

But peo­ple keep ask­ing me what ex­actly the ra­tio­nal­ist com­mu­nity is. Like, what is the thing they be­lieve that makes them ra­tio­nal­ists? It can’t just be about be­ing ra­tio­nal, be­cause loads of peo­ple are in­ter­ested in that and most of them aren’t part of the com­mu­nity. And it can’t just be about tran­shu­man­ism be­cause there are a lot of tran­shu­man­ists who aren’t ra­tio­nal­ists, and lots of ra­tio­nal­ists who aren’t tran­shu­man­ists. And it can’t just be about Bayesi­anism, be­cause pretty much ev­ery­one, ra­tio­nal­ist or oth­er­wise, agrees that is a kind of statis­tics that is use­ful for some things but not oth­ers. So what, ex­actly, is it?

This ques­tion has always both­ered me, but now af­ter think­ing about it a lot I fi­nally have a clear an­swer: ra­tio­nal­ism is the be­lief that Eliezer Yud­kowsky is the right­ful cal­iph.

No! Sorry! I think “the ra­tio­nal­ist com­mu­nity” is a tribe much like the Sunni or Shia that started off with some pre-ex­ist­ing differ­ences, found a ral­ly­ing flag, and then de­vel­oped a cul­ture.

The pre-ex­ist­ing differ­ences range from the ob­vi­ous to the sub­tle. A lot of ra­tio­nal­ists are math­e­mat­i­ci­ans, pro­gram­mers, or com­puter sci­en­tists. The av­er­age IQ is in the 130s. White men are over­rep­re­sented, but so are LGBT and es­pe­cially trans­gen­der peo­ple. But there’s more. No­body likes the My­ers-Briggs test, but I con­tinue to find it re­ally in­ter­est­ing that ra­tio­nal­ists have some My­ers-Briggs types (INTJ/​INTP) at ten times the or­di­nary rate, and other types (ISFJ/​ESFP) at only one one-hun­dredth the or­di­nary rate. My­ers-Briggs doesn’t cleave re­al­ity at its joints, but if it mea­sures any­thing at all about oth­er­wise hard-to-ex­plain differ­ences in think­ing styles, the ra­tio­nal­ist com­mu­nity heav­ily se­lects for those same differ­ences. Sure enough, I am con­stantly run­ning into peo­ple who say “This is the only place where I’ve ever found peo­ple who think like me” or “I fi­nally feel un­der­stood”.

The ral­ly­ing flag was the Less Wrong Se­quences. Eliezer Yud­kowsky started a blog (ac­tu­ally, bor­rowed Robin Han­son’s) about cog­ni­tive bi­ases and how to think through them. Whether or not you agreed with him or found him en­light­en­ing loaded heav­ily on those pre-ex­ist­ing differ­ences, so the peo­ple who showed up in the com­ment sec­tion got along and started meet­ing up with each other. “Do you like Eliezer Yud­kowsky’s blog?” be­came a use­ful proxy for all sorts of things, even­tu­ally some­body coined the word “ra­tio­nal­ist” to re­fer to peo­ple who did, and then you had a group with nice clear bound­aries.

The de­vel­op­ment is ev­ery­thing else. Ob­vi­ously a lot of jar­gon sprung up in the form of terms from the blog it­self. The com­mu­nity got heroes like Gw­ern and Anna Sala­mon who were no­table for be­ing able to ap­proach difficult ques­tions in­sight­fully. It doesn’t have much of an out­group yet – maybe just bioethi­cists and evil robots. It has its own foods – MealSquares, that one kind of choco­late ev­ery­one in Berkeley started eat­ing around the same time – and its own games. It definitely has its own in­side jokes. I think its most im­por­tant as­pect, though, is a set of shared mores – ev­ery­thing from “un­der­stand the differ­ence be­tween ask and guess cul­ture and don’t get caught up in it” to “cud­dling is okay” to “don’t mis­gen­der trans peo­ple” – and a set of shared philo­soph­i­cal as­sump­tions like util­i­tar­i­anism and re­duc­tion­ism.

I’m stress­ing this be­cause I keep hear­ing peo­ple ask “What is the ra­tio­nal­ist com­mu­nity?” or “It’s re­ally weird that I seem to be in­volved in the ra­tio­nal­ist com­mu­nity even though I don’t share be­lief X” as if there’s some sort of nec­es­sary-and-suffi­cient feather­less-biped-style ide­olog­i­cal crite­rion for mem­ber­ship. This is why peo­ple are say­ing “Lots of you aren’t even sin­gu­lar­i­tar­i­ans, and ev­ery­one agrees Bayesian meth­ods are use­ful in some places and not so use­ful in oth­ers, so what is your com­mu­nity even about?” But once again, it’s about Eliezer Yud­kowsky be­ing the right­ful cal­iph it’s not nec­es­sar­ily about any­thing.

If you take only one thing from this es­say, it’s that com­mu­ni­ties are best un­der­stood not log­i­cally but his­tor­i­cally. If you want to un­der­stand the Shia, don’t re­flect upon the true mean­ing of Ali be­ing the right­ful cal­iph, un­der­stand that a dis­pute in­volv­ing Ali ini­ti­ated ethno­gen­e­sis, the re­sult­ing cul­ture picked up a bunch of fea­tures and be­came use­ful to var­i­ous peo­ple, and now here we are. If you want to un­der­stand the ra­tio­nal­ist com­mu­nity, don’t ask ex­actly how near you have to think the sin­gu­lar­ity has to be be­fore you qual­ify for mem­ber­ship, fo­cus on the fact that some stuff Eliezer Yud­kowsky wrote led to cer­tain peo­ple iden­ti­fy­ing them­selves as “ra­tio­nal­ists” and for var­i­ous rea­sons I en­joy din­ner par­ties with those peo­ple about 10000% more in­ter­est­ing than din­ner par­ties with ran­domly se­lected in­di­vi­d­u­als.

nos­talge­braist ac­tu­ally summed this up re­ally well: “Maybe the real ra­tio­nal­ism was the friends we made along the way.” Maybe that’s the real Shia Is­lam too, and the real Demo­cratic Party, and so on.

4. Evan­gel­i­cal And Pro­gres­sive Reli­gion: There seems to be a gen­er­a­tional pro­cess, sort of like Harold Lee’s the­ory of im­mi­grant as­simila­tion, by which re­li­gions dis­solve. The first gen­er­a­tion be­lieves ev­ery­thing liter­ally. The sec­ond gen­er­a­tion be­lieves that the re­li­gion might not be liter­ally true, but it’s an im­por­tant ex­pres­sion of uni­ver­sal val­ues and they still want to fol­low the old ways and par­ti­ci­pate in the church/​tem­ple/​mosque/​mandir com­mu­nity. The third gen­er­a­tion is com­pletely sec­u­larized.

This was cer­tainly my fam­ily’s re­la­tion­ship with Ju­daism. My great-great-grand­father was so Jewish that he left Amer­ica and re­turned to Eastern Europe be­cause he was up­set at Amer­i­can Jews for not be­ing re­li­gious enough. My great-grand­father stayed be­hind in Amer­ica but re­mained a very re­li­gious Jew. My grand­par­ents at­tend syn­a­gogue when they can re­mem­ber, speak a lit­tle Yid­dish, and iden­tify with the tra­di­tions. My par­ents went to a re­ally liberal syn­a­gogue where the rabbi didn’t be­lieve in God and ev­ery­one just agreed they were go­ing through the mo­tions. I got Bar Mitz­va­hed when I was a kid but haven’t been to syn­a­gogue in years. My chil­dren prob­a­bly won’t even have that much.

So imag­ine you’re an evan­gel­i­cal Chris­tian. All the peo­ple you like are also evan­gel­i­cal Chris­ti­ans. Most of your so­cial life hap­pens at church. Most of your good mem­o­ries in­volve things like Sun­day school and Easter cel­e­bra­tions, and even your bit­ter­sweet mem­o­ries are things like your pas­tor speak­ing at your par­ents’ funeral. Most of your hopes and dreams in­volve mar­ry­ing some­one and hav­ing kids and then shar­ing similarly good times with them. When you try to hang out with peo­ple who aren’t evan­gel­i­cal Chris­ti­ans, they seem to think re­ally differ­ently than you do, and not at all in a good way. A lot of your hap­piest in­tel­lec­tual ex­pe­riences in­volve geek­ing out over differ­ent Bible verses and the minu­tiae of differ­ent Chris­tian de­nom­i­na­tions.

Then some­body points out to you that God prob­a­bly doesn’t ex­ist. And even if He does, it’s prob­a­bly in some vague and com­pli­cated way, and not the way that means that the Thrice-Re­formed Meta-Bap­tist Church and only the Thrice-Re­formed Meta-Bap­tist Church has the cor­rect in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the Bible and ev­ery­one else is wrong.

On the one hand, their ar­gu­ment might be con­vinc­ing. On the other, you are pretty sure that if ev­ery­one agreed on this, your cul­ture would be de­stroyed. Sure, your kids could be Christ­mas-and-Easter-Chris­ti­ans who still en­joy the cul­tural as­pects and de­rive per­sonal mean­ing from the Bible. But you’re pretty sure that within a cou­ple of gen­er­a­tions your de­scen­dents would be ex­actly as sec­u­lar as any­one else. Ab­sent the be­lief that serves as your cul­ture’s wall against the out­side world, it would dis­solve with­out a trace into the greater ho­mo­gene­ity of Western liberal so­ciety. So, do you keep be­liev­ing a false thing? Or do you give up on ev­ery­thing you love and en­joy and dis­solve into a cul­ture that mostly hates and mocks peo­ple like you? There’s no good choice. This is why it sucks that things like re­li­gion and poli­tics are both ral­ly­ing flags for tribes, and ac­tual things that there may be a cor­rect po­si­tion on.

5. Reli­gious Liter­al­ism: One com­ment com­plaint I heard dur­ing the height of the Athe­ist-Theist On­line Wars was that athe­ists were a lot like fun­da­men­tal­ists. Both wanted to in­ter­pret the re­li­gious texts in the most literal pos­si­ble way.

Be­ing on the athe­ist side of these wars, I always wanted to know: well, why wouldn’t you? Given that the New Tes­ta­ment clearly says you have to give all your money to the poor, and the Old Tes­ta­ment doesn’t say any­thing about mix­ing meat and milk, maybe re­li­gious Chris­ti­ans should start giv­ing ev­ery­thing to the poor and re­li­gious Jews should stop wor­ry­ing so much about which dishes to use when?

But I think this is the same mis­take as treat­ing the Sunni as an or­ga­ni­za­tion ded­i­cated to pro­mot­ing an Abu Bakr cal­iphate. The holy book is the ral­ly­ing flag for a re­li­gion, but the re­li­gion is not it­self about the holy book. The ral­ly­ing flag cre­ated a walled-off space where peo­ple could un­dergo the de­vel­op­ment pro­cess and cre­ate an in­de­pen­dent cul­ture. That in­de­pen­dent cul­ture may di­verge sig­nifi­cantly from the holy book.

I think that very neu­rotyp­i­cal peo­ple nat­u­rally think in terms of tribes, and the idea that they have to re­tool their perfectly func­tional tribe to con­form to the ex­act writ­ten text of its holy book or con­sti­tu­tion or stated poli­ti­cal ide­ol­ogy or some­thing seems silly to them. I think that less neu­rotyp­i­cal peo­ple – a group in­clud­ing many athe­ists – think less nat­u­rally in terms of tribes and so tend to take claims like “Chris­ti­an­ity is about fol­low­ing the Bible” at face value. But Chris­ti­an­ity is about be­ing part of the Chris­tian tribe, and al­though that tribe started around the Bible, main­tains its co­her­ence be­cause of the Bible, and is of course nat­u­rally in­fluenced by it, if it hap­pens to con­tra­dict the Bible in some cases that’s not nec­es­sar­ily sur­pris­ing or catas­trophic.

This is also why I’m not re­ally a fan of de­bates over whether Is­lam is re­ally “a re­li­gion of peace” or “a re­li­gion of vi­o­lence”, es­pe­cially if those de­bates in­volve min­ing the Qu­ran for pas­sages that sup­port one’s preferred view­point. It’s not just be­cause the Qu­ran is a mess of con­tra­dic­tions with enough in­ter­pre­tive de­grees of free­dom to prove any­thing at all. It’s not even be­cause Is­lam is a host of sep­a­rate cul­tures as differ­ent from one an­other as Uni­tar­i­anism is from the Knights Tem­plar. It’s be­cause the Qu­ran just cre­ated the space in which the Is­lamic cul­ture could evolve, but had only limited im­pact on that evolu­tion. As well try to pre­dict the war­like or peace­ful na­ture of the United King­dom by look­ing at a to­po­graph­i­cal map of Great Bri­tain.

6. Cul­tural Ap­pro­pri­a­tion: Thanks to some peo­ple who fi­nally ex­plained this to me in a way that made sense. When an item or art­form be­comes the ral­ly­ing flag for a tribe, it can threaten the tribe if other peo­ple just want to use it as a nor­mal item or art­form.

Sup­pose that rap­pers start with pre-ex­ist­ing differ­ences from ev­ery­one else. Poor, male, non-white minor­ity, lots of ex­pe­rience liv­ing in vi­o­lent places, maybe a cer­tain philo­soph­i­cal out­look to­wards their con­di­tion. Then they get a ral­ly­ing flag: rap mu­sic. They meet one an­other, like one an­other. The cul­ture un­der­goes fur­ther de­vel­op­ment: the li­oniza­tion of fa­mous rap­pers, the de­vel­op­ment of a vo­cab­u­lary of shared refer­ences. They get all of the benefits of be­ing in a tribe like in­creased trust, so­cial net­work­ing, and a sense of pride and iden­tity.

Now sup­pose some rich white peo­ple get into rap. Maybe they get into rap for in­nocu­ous rea­sons: rap is cool, they like the sound of it. Fine. But they don’t share the pre-ex­ist­ing differ­ences, and they can’t be eas­ily as­similated into the tribe. Maybe they de­velop differ­ent con­ven­tions, and start say­ing that in­stead of be­ing about the strug­gles of liv­ing in se­vere poverty, rap should be about Found­ing Fathers. Maybe they start say­ing the origi­nal rap­pers are bad, and they should stop talk­ing about vi­o­lence and bitches be­cause that ru­ins rap’s rep­u­ta­tion. Since rich white peo­ple tend to be be good at gain­ing power and in­fluence, maybe their opinions are over­rep­re­sented at the An­nual Rap Awards, and all of a sud­den you can’t win a rap award un­less your rap is about the Found­ing Fathers and doesn’t men­tion vi­o­lence (ex­cept Found­ing-Father-re­lated du­els). All of a sud­den if you try to start some kind of im­promptu street rap-off, you’re no longer go­ing to find a lot of peo­ple like you whom you in­stantly get along with and can form a high-trust com­mu­nity. You’re go­ing to find half peo­ple like that, and half rich white peo­ple who strike you as an­noy­ing and are always com­plain­ing that your raps don’t fea­ture any Found­ing Fathers at all. The ral­ly­ing flag fails and the tribe is lost as a co­he­sive en­tity.

7. Fake Gamer Girls: A more con­tro­ver­sial ex­am­ple of the same. Video gam­ing isn’t just a fun way to pass the time. It also brings to­gether a group of peo­ple with some pre-ex­ist­ing com­mon char­ac­ter­is­tics: male, nerdy, of­ten abra­sive, not very suc­cess­ful, in­ter­ested in spec­u­la­tion, high-sys­tem­atiz­ing. It gives them a ral­ly­ing flag and cre­ates a cul­ture which then de­vel­ops its own norms, shared refer­ence points, in­ter­net memes, we­b­comics, heroes, shared gripes, even some unique liter­a­ture. Then other peo­ple with very differ­ent char­ac­ter­is­tics and no par­tic­u­lar knowl­edge of the cul­ture start en­joy­ing video games just be­cause video games are fun. Since the Gamer Tribe has no des­ig­nated cul­tural spaces ex­cept video games fo­rums and mag­a­z­ines, they view this as an in­cur­sion into their cul­tural spaces and a threat to their ex­is­tence as a tribe.

Stereo­typ­i­cally this is ex­pressed as them get­ting an­gry when girls start play­ing video games. One can ar­gue that it’s un­fair to in­fer tribe mem­ber­ship based on su­perfi­cial char­ac­ter­is­tics like gen­der – in the same way it might be un­fair for the Na­tive Amer­i­cans to as­sume some­one with blonde hair and blue eyes prob­a­bly doesn’t fol­low the Old Ways – but from the tribe’s per­spec­tive it’s a rea­son­able first guess.

I’ve found gamers to get along pretty well with women who share their cul­ture, and poorly with men who don’t – but ad­mit that the one of­ten starts from an as­sump­tion of for­eign­ness and the other from an as­sump­tion of mem­ber­ship. More im­por­tant, I’ve found the idea of the re­jec­tion of the ‘fake gamer girl’, real or not, raised more as a li­bel by peo­ple who gen­uinely do want to de­stroy gamer cul­ture, in the sense of cleans­ing video-game-re­lated spaces of a cer­tain type of per­son/​cul­ture and mak­ing them en­tirely con­trol­led by a differ­ent type of per­son/​cul­ture, in much the same way that a rich white per­son who says any rap­per who uses vi­o­lent lyrics needs to be black­listed from the rap world has a clear cul­ture-change pro­ject go­ing on.

Th­ese cul­tural change pro­jects tend to be framed in terms of which cul­ture has the bet­ter val­ues, which I think is a limited per­spec­tive. I think Amer­ica has bet­ter val­ues than Pak­istan does, but that doesn’t mean I want us in­vad­ing them, let alone raz­ing their cul­ture to the ground and re­plac­ing it with our own.

8. Sub­cul­tures And Posers: Obli­ga­tory David Chap­man link. A poser is some­body who uses the ral­ly­ing flag but doesn’t have the pre-ex­ist­ing differ­ences that cre­ate tribal mem­ber­ship and so never re­ally fits into the tribe.

9. Na­tion­al­ism, Pa­tri­o­tism, and Racism: Na­tion­al­ism and pa­tri­o­tism use na­tional iden­tity as the ral­ly­ing flag for a strong tribe. In many cases, na­tion­al­ism be­comes ethno-na­tion­al­ism, which builds tribal iden­tity off of a com­bi­na­tion of her­i­tage, lan­guage, re­li­gion, and cul­ture. It has to be ad­mit­ted that this can make for some in­cred­ibly strong tribes. The ral­ly­ing flag is built into an­ces­try, and so the walls are near im­pos­si­ble to obliter­ate. The sym­bol­ism and jar­gon and cul­tural iden­tity can be in­stil­led from birth on­ward. Prob­a­bly the best ex­am­ple of this is the Jews, who com­bine eth­nic­ity, re­li­gion, and lan­guage into a bun­dle deal and have re­sisted as­simila­tion for mil­len­nia.

Some­times this can de­volve into racism. I’m not sure ex­actly what the differ­ence be­tween ethno-na­tion­al­ism and racism is, or whether there even is a differ­ence, ex­cept that “race” is a much more com­pli­cated con­cept than eth­nic­ity and it’s prob­a­bly not a co­in­ci­dence that it has be­come most pop­u­lar in a coun­try like Amer­ica whose eth­nic­i­ties are hope­lessly con­fused. The Nazis cer­tainly needed a lot of work to trans­form con­cern about the Ger­man na­tion into con­cern about the Aryan race. But it’s fair to say all of this is some­what re­lated or at least po­ten­tially re­lated.

On the other hand, in coun­tries that have non-eth­nic no­tions of her­i­tage, pa­tri­o­tism has an op­por­tu­nity to sub­stite for racism. Think about the power of the civil rights mes­sage that, whether black or white, we are all Amer­i­cans.

This is maybe most ob­vi­ous in sub-na­tional groups. De­spite peo­ple pay­ing a lot of at­ten­tion to the sup­posed racism of Repub­li­cans, the rare black Repub­li­cans do shock­ingly well within their party. Both Ben Car­son and Her­man Cain briefly topped the Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial pri­mary polls dur­ing their re­spec­tive elec­tion sea­sons, and their failures seem to have had much more to do with their own per­sonal qual­ities than with some sort of generic Repub­li­can racism. I see the same with Thomas Sow­ell, with His­panic Repub­li­cans like Ted Cruz, and Asian Repub­li­cans like Bobby Jin­dal.

Maybe an even stronger ex­am­ple is the hu­man bio­di­ver­sity move­ment, which many peo­ple un­der­stand­ably ac­cuse of be­ing en­tirely about racism. Nev­er­the­less, some of its most lead­ing figures are black – JayMan and Chanda Chisala (who is ad­ja­cent to the move­ment but gets lots of re­spect within it) – and they seem to get equal treat­ment and re­spect to their white coun­ter­parts. Their mem­ber­ship in a strong and close-knit tribe screens off ev­ery­thing else about them.

I worry that at­tempts to un­der­mine na­tion­al­ism/​pa­tri­o­tism in or­der to fight racism risk back­firing. The weaker the “Amer­i­can” tribe be­comes, the more peo­ple em­pha­size their other tribes – which can be ei­ther overtly racial or else heav­ily di­vided along racial lines (eg poli­ti­cal par­ties). It con­tinues to worry me that peo­ple who would never dis­play an Amer­i­can flag on their lawn be­cause “na­tions are just a club for hat­ing for­eign­ers” now have a cam­paign sign on their lawn, five bumper stick­ers on their car, and are iden­ti­fy­ing more and more strongly with poli­ti­cal po­si­tions – ie clubs for hat­ing their fel­low cit­i­zens.

Is there such a thing as con­ser­va­tion of trib­al­ism? Get rid of one tribal iden­tity and peo­ple just end up seiz­ing on an­other? I’m not sure. And any­way, no­body can agree on ex­actly what the Amer­i­can iden­tity or Amer­i­can tribe is any­way, so any con­ceiv­able such iden­tity would prob­a­bly risk alienat­ing a bunch of peo­ple. I guess that makes it a moot point. But I still think that de­liber­ately try­ing to erad­i­cate pa­tri­o­tism is not as good an idea as is gen­er­ally be­lieved.


I think tribes are in­ter­est­ing and un­der­dis­cussed. And in a lot of cases when they are dis­cussed, it’s within pre­ex­ist­ing frame­works that tilt the play­ing field to­wards rec­og­niz­ing some tribes as fun­da­men­tally good, oth­ers as fun­da­men­tally bad, and ig­nor­ing the com­mon­al­ities be­tween all of them.

But in or­der to talk about tribes co­her­ently, we need to talk about ral­ly­ing flags. And that in­volves ad­mit­ting that a lot of ral­ly­ing flags are based on ide­olo­gies (which are some­times wrong), holy books (which are always wrong), na­tion­al­ity (which we can’t define), race (which is racist), and works of art (which some peo­ple in­con­ve­niently want to en­joy just as nor­mal art with­out any con­no­ta­tions).

My ti­tle for this post is also my preferred sum­mary: the ide­ol­ogy is not the move­ment. Or, more jar­gonishly – the ral­ly­ing flag is not the tribe. Peo­ple are just try­ing to find a tribe for them­selves and keep it in­tact. This of­ten in­volves defend­ing an ide­ol­ogy they might not be tempted to defend for any other rea­son. This doesn’t make them bad, and it may not even nec­es­sar­ily mean their tribe de­serves to go ex­tinct. I’m re­luc­tant to say for sure whether I think it’s okay to main­tain a tribe based on a faulty ide­ol­ogy, but I think it’s at least im­por­tant to un­der­stand that these peo­ple are in a crappy situ­a­tion with no good choices, and they de­serve some pity.

Some vi­tal as­pects of mod­ern so­ciety – free­dom of speech, free­dom of crit­i­cism, ac­cess to mul­ti­ple view­points, the ex­is­tence of en­try­ist tribes with ex­plicit goals of in­vad­ing and de­stroy­ing com­pet­ing tribes as prob­le­matic, and the over­whelming pres­sure to dis­solve into the Generic Iden­tity Of Modern Sec­u­lar Con­sumerism – make main­tain­ing tribal iden­tities re­ally hard these days. I think some of the most in­ter­est­ing so­ciolog­i­cal ques­tions re­volve around whether there are any ways around the prac­ti­cal and moral difficul­ties with trib­al­ism, what so­cial phe­nom­ena are ex­pli­ca­ble as the strug­gle of tribes to main­tain them­selves in the face of pres­sure, and whether trib­al­ism con­tinues to be a worth­while or even a pos­si­ble pro­ject at all.

EDIT: I’ve been in­formed of a very similar Melt­ing Asphalt post, Reli­gion Is Not About Beliefs. Every­one has pre-stolen my best ideas 🙁