A cultural subset that defines a large-scale tribe

Tuesday, September 5th, 2017

Arnold Kling sees politics as religion, defining religion as a cultural subset that defines a large-scale tribe:

A broad set of norms, symbols, beliefs and practices constitutes culture. Narrow that down to a subset of norms, symbols, beliefs and practices that clearly define who is or is not a member of the tribe. Focus on that subset. For example, Jews eat gefilte fish, observe Yom Kippur, and don’t pray to Jesus. But only a subset of those (observing Yom Kippur and not praying to Jesus) are tribally definitive. The rabbis won’t question your Jewish identity if you turn down gefilte fish.

No tribe is perfectly defined by a precise list of cultural characteristics. But bear with me and think in terms of tribally defining cultural subsets.

A tribally defining cultural subset will (a) tend to empower adherents to obey, enforce, and regularly re-affirm tribal norms, and (b) lead its members to fear and despise people who are not members of the tribe.

Further comments:

1. Cosmopolitans (including progressives, libertarians, and conservative intellectuals) would say that, yes, historically, “fear and despise” was part of religion, but that is a bug, not a feature. Ironically, cosmopolitans start to look like a tribe that fears and despises people who espouse traditional religions. And yes, there does seem to be a fourth axis here: cosmopolitan vs. populist, or Bobo vs. anti-Bobo.

2. The role of a transcendent being is to help motivate members to obey tribal norms, for fear of being punished by the transcendent being (See Ara Norenzayan’s Big Gods). However, belief in a transcendent being is not necessary to have a modern large-scale tribe. But it does seem necessary to have an out-group that you fear and despise.

3. Historically, major religions have usually fit my notion of a cultural subset that defines a large-scale tribe.

4. Usually, modern nation-states have fit this notion. There are those who say that nation-states were a better tribal bonding technology (so to speak) than belief in a transcendent being, and hence they made religion relatively unnecessary.

5. Finally, to the commenter’s point, I think that some political ideologies have come to fit my notion of a cultural subset that defines a large-scale tribe. The current progressive ideology seems to me to fit the notion particularly well. But the three-axis model suggests that conservatives and libertarians are tribal, also. Again, the emergence of the Bobo vs. anti-Bobo conflict has scrambled things quite a bit.


  1. Graham says:

    I’m already troubled by the evidence that Kling may have the standard progressive operating system installed.

    His use of ‘fear and despise’ implies that love of one’s tribe or ingroup and desire to see it preserved in its current form requires one to fear and despise the outgroup, rather than just wish it well on its own path.

    Historically, both options have been widely exercised. Usually only 1 or 2 outgroups are feared and despised, among many known. Trad enemies, usually.

    And even then, the degree of fear and despising can vary widely. The English and French managed to war for centuries without reaching the levels of hate one could find in the 20th century.

  2. Jim says:

    Some observations-

    It’s true that having an enemy is not necessary for a strong common identity. Icelanders for example have a strong common identity without much concern about a common enemy.

    Group conflict between different human groups is not inevitable but it is highly probable. Modern nations have had only a limited success in suppressing traditional identities as shown for example in the conflict in Spain between Basque, Catalans and Spanish and of course WW II involved highly violent ethnic conflict. Certainly a nation such as Yugoslavia turned out to be very ephemeral compared with much deeper ethnic identities.

    Religions have been more successful than nations in transcending older tribal identities but nevertheless for example Kurds, Arabs and Turks don’t get along so well just because they share religious beliefs.

    A distinction between in-group-outgroup is fundamental to human morality.

    In multi-cultural democracies politics is certainly likely to be organized on ethnic/tribal lines. Because of a high degree of internal conflict multicultural democracies are unstable and tend either to disintegrate or evolve into authoritarian structures like the Ottoman Empire.

    It’s also of course true that the degree of hostility between different groups can vary a lot in intensity. And groups in conflict at one time may eventually get along fairly well. However generally speaking ethnic/tribal conflict tends to be highly persistent. Perhaps thousands of years from now Jews and Arabs in the Levant will get along fairly well but certainly not in the foreseeable future.

  3. Lucklucky says:

    Yes, journalists are today priests and proselytizers of Politics:

    The most evident sign of totalitarian democracy is the fact that “it treats all human thought and action as having social significance, and therefore as falling within the orbit of political action.” So the space for personal decisions is continuously narrowed and politics (i.e. political men) reigns supreme. Politics becomes the new religion and it could very well be seen as the new “opium of the people.



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