The Trouble with Tribalism

New Atheist authors like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins have declared that religion is the root of most global conflict. But tribalism is the true underlying factor behind these conflicts.
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New Atheist authors like Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins have declared that religion is the root of most global conflict. In our novel The Shroud, we explore the notion that tribalism is the true underlying factor behind these conflicts. It is part of our evolutionary heritage. Many physicists and other researchers believe that modern scientific developments resonate with spiritual pursuits and may lead to greater unity, allowing us to override some of our tribal and territorial impulses.

Quantum entanglement, or Einstein's "spooky action at a distance", demonstrates that the universe is interconnected down to the most essential level. And the discovery of "mirror neurons" in humans and other primates demonstrates that simply seeing something happen to another creature lights-up the same neurons as if it were happening to us. In a very real sense, we don't entirely distinguish between the self and others. And this is particularly true when witnessing suffering. A sense of compassion and empathy seem to be hard-wired in us.

From elementary particles to cellular systems to tribes, cities, countries and virtual communities over the Internet, science and our deepest intuition increasingly demonstrate that we are intrinsically interconnected. And this connectedness may even transcend the physical plane as we now know it. Research at the Institute of Noetic Sciences in California demonstrates that the interconnection once thought to exist only at the quantum level may scale all the way up to the macro level -- such that intention may somehow affect the physical world.

The challenge going forward will be to propagate these connections and thwart tribalism, using myth, memes and meditation.


Weaving myth into cultural narratives -- from literature to motion pictures to social movements -- can be a powerful transformative tool. Martin Luther King expertly used biblical narrative within the Civil Rights movement, describing parallels to the oppressed, enslaved and disenfranchised of biblical times and a visit to the mountaintop to see The Promised Land. This not only energized his followers, but also transformed the filter through which white America viewed the struggle. Dr. King also re-framed the movement to his own followers by describing their opponents as spiritually damaged, yet capable of being healed and made whole by the use of nonviolent civil disobedience. It was a brilliant example of myth, cultural narrative and political Judo -- inverting the power dynamic to one where the oppressed were instead seen as chosen people on a mission to heal those in need.


Charles Dickens had originally planned to write an editorial letter to a London newspaper, decrying the economic inequality and poverty of his time. Having actually spent several years in a workhouse as a child, Dickens knew of the conditions first-hand. But at the last minute, he decided instead to present his editorial points within a fictional story. And A Christmas Carol was born -- a work that profoundly altered the view of urban poverty of the time, and which is still being read and experienced on the stage and in film almost 170 years later. More recently, Avatar has injected pantheist and conservationist themes into the pop-culture sphere. These dramas inculcate values in a visceral way.


An overwhelming body of research demonstrates meditation's benefits in reducing stress and moderating mood. But meditation also dissolves our entrenched sense of self and serves to blunt hard-wired tendencies toward tribal identification.


The short animation below explores science, religion and tribalism, which are themes woven into our novel The Shroud.

Find out more about 'The Shroud' on Facebook and visit the website of the Institute of Noetic Sciences.

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