Have You Found Your “Tribe?”

If not, fear not—you might be better off.

Some years back, I moderated a Harvard extension school faith/atheism debate. We heard some provocative things from one of the most famous theologians of the twentieth century. The opposing speaker was a biologist, who gave us a fascinating argument from science, which he claimed destroyed any reasonable belief in a personal god. Students took their shots on both sides. The audience got involved. It was mean, smart, stupid, uncomfortable, enjoyable—a vibrant free-for-all.

But the point the atheist professor made that has stuck with me most was that the foundational trait of all living beings—his example was from moths—is tribalism. We identify who are “our people” (or, I guess, “our moths”). We defend them and go to war against everyone else. He argued that if religion is based on something real, it should overcome this most basic and most destructive biological trait. But it seems to do just the opposite: it makes tribalism more, not less profound.

I think about this whenever I hear a friend—usually someone under 40—talk with excitement about finding their “tribe.” (For my religious friends, “tribe” sometimes functions as a friendlier, hipper and more meaningful word than “denomination.”) This language evokes two influential books of the past dozen years, Seth Godin’s Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us and Ethan Watters’ Urban Tribes: A Generation Redefines Friendship, Family, and Commitment. Both books argue that the decline in the nuclear family has left young urbanites looking for belonging and family from like-minded groups of friends. “Finding my tribe” means “finding that group of people who really get me.” Watters writes about how the growth of these tribes fueled phenomena like Burning Man even as they mitigated the need for marriage and intimacy.

Having recently relocated my family three thousand miles, I’m on board with the tribes idea. Each friendship we’ve found has felt like a discrete triumph, and yet finding an actual group we can identify with has felt more elusive but just as important. Recently my wife and I tried gathering a regular group together, and we love it! Upon our return from a trip to our former home, the thing we were most looking forward to was seeing this group—all of a month old at the time—again.

Of course the biologist's argument was that, unchecked, this urge which feels so central to our thriving can become the most destructive force on earth.

I write this during a recent iteration of the Israel-Gaza conflict. (We’ve been collecting content for Horatio’s launch over a number of months.) Both the conflict itself and the comments about it on my Facebook feed—where partisans feel a need to speak up boisterously and shout down the other camp (note the great Slate piece: Please! Can we stop arguing about Gaza on Facebook now?)— demonstrate the professor's point.

And, per his larger point, on my Facebook feed, religious exchanges indeed customarily are the least charitable. For instance, I now have a small tally of friends who have been formally disowned by other friends because of different understandings of the few scriptures that address LGBTQ concerns. One of the disowners offered an explanation to my friend which was, in essence, “I love you and I’d stay friends with you, except that I can’t be disloyal to my tribe.”

So is religion, in fact, so unreflectively stupid about this most central point? I find myself, to take one example, thinking about the command at the beginning of the Bible for human beings to “fill the earth.” The prophets Isaiah and Habakkuk later comment that what we’re to fill the earth with is “the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” Evidently whenever people trying to follow this God of the Bible move out and leave their tribe, they spread the knowledge of God’s glory. In the Hebrew Bible, the main character is the whole nation of Israel, which is called to be “a light to the nations”—to bust out of their clan.

So at the very least this religious account of what it means to be human entirely agrees with the professor. It says that my instinct to fight for my own against those who aren’t like me isn’t an admirable quality (that we might call, say, “patriotism”), but is an example of the fall of humankind. The villains in the early part of the Bible definitively are the tribalists, are the people of Babel who band together to go to war against the God who wants to distribute them around the earth.

But that nonetheless can make me feel screwed. I desperately need connection and belonging—but both the Bible and biology agree that, alas, my tribal instincts will bring ruin to my life and the lives of those around me.

But perhaps there’s a light in the darkness.

While the Bible joins the professor in railing against tribalism's evils, it also seems to promise that, as we band together with God in tearing it down, we will meet actual, great friends. As if it’s possible to do that without becoming tribal. (Jesus reframes the Babel story with these instructions: when you leave your tribe—as you’ll be commanded to do!—by all means gratefully connect with anyone who welcomes you.)

I’m still learning all of this. But at the very least, it does heighten my awareness about my cheerfully naïve use of a certain word.

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