Three fundamental identities challenge each other in a person’s life. These are the beliefs of the parents, the beliefs of society (peers), and the beliefs individually held by the self. The three identities create three conflicts, all of which occur in adolescence. 

            Very young children take the information from, and actions of, their parents as ultimate truth. They depend on their parents to interpret the world for them. They identify with their all-knowing parents and seem to assume that when they, themselves, become adults, they will have this certainty also. (As all of you reading this know, that isn’t the case.) 

            As they grow older, children start to separate their beliefs and understandings about the world from those of their parents. This is the first conflict. In many cases children disagree just to be different. Their understanding and self-confidence are limited, so they are often illogical, defensive, and angry. There is a strong drive to establish this individual identity. The growing child senses that his or her personal view of the world is what defines the self. But a third identity intervenes, and the second conflict arises. 

            In the struggle to escape the parents’ belief system, the influence of peer beliefs takes over. The young person’s lack of self-confidence makes adopting peer beliefs essentially unavoidable in creating the separation from parental beliefs. Parents see this happening, usually object to it, and the conflict between parental beliefs and peer beliefs establishes itself with the child in the middle. 

            This sets the stage for the third conflict, which I believe defines the self for the rest of life. Since the goal of the drive for separation is to establish the individual self, peer beliefs are not a satisfactory end. There must still be individual decisions and beliefs adopted that are not from the peer beliefs.  

            This begins a tension between the individual identity and the social identity. The adolescent, acutely feeling the pull from all three identities, which vary in influence in a highly volatile way, is a mess. As years pass, the mature adult sensibility emerges (hopefully). I see this not as arriving at certainty, but as coming to terms with constantly managing the conflict between individual and social identities, with parental influence fading into the background. This lasts a lifetime. 

            The social identity I refer to as tribalism. A tribe is whatever group the self identifies with in a particular aspect of life. One attraction of the tribe is that authority is either shared (“Everyone agrees”), vaguely defined (“It’s always been that way”), or external (“[?] says so”).  External authority can be God, a sage, a king, a set of rules, etc. 

            By far the most prevalent and powerful external authority is God. The invoking of the supernatural as the authority has many benefits for the self. No one (not even the priests) have to justify beliefs or rules of behavior. Kings, priests, elders, etc, can exercise a lot of power if they align their desired actions and beliefs with the authority of God.  

            But all tribal authorities provide uncomplicated psychological processing. We don’t have to defend or explain our decisions or behaviors or beliefs, if we can cite the tribal authority. Not even to conflicting tribes. Though each tribe will have different beliefs and different, sometimes violently conflicting, behaviors, they each tacitly accept the principle of tribalism, so it’s simply a competitive matter (“My God is better than your God” or “I know what God wants, you’re wrong about it”) not a fundamental difference in ways of thinking about the world. 

            The desire to belong is a powerful force. Few individuals regularly break with tribal beliefs on serious issues. Even fewer of them are functional. Most of us move on to other tribes as we mature. 

            While religion is the most prevalent, it’s far from the only significant form of tribalism in the world. Others are nations, states, cities, societies (secret, like masons; or not secret, like boy scouts and scientists), political parties or factions, gangs, and families—the original tribes. Each has its draw, and many can coexist in an individual because they address different parts of the self. A person can be a gang member, an American, and a Christian. 

            My main point is that the conflict of tribe vs. self defines us. We will never resolve it. We need our tribes, and we need our selves. We must balance them. The problems from over dependence on tribal identities are a danger of tribalism itself, not just of some other tribe that is currently giving our tribe trouble. 

            Too many of the arguments against religion miss this point. There is an idea that if we could “cure” the religious, we would end most of the problems of the world. The attraction is deeper than that. We will never cure tribalism. These needs will be met one way or another because, well, we need them. We are social beings. Though we keep some parts of ourselves individually, we will always depend on social connections to sustain us. We will all belong always to tribes. 

            What we can and must do is manage our tribalism. We can encourage healthy individualism, respectfully question all tribal authorities, and learn to recognize inter-tribal conflicts quickly and resolve them peacefully (or at least locally), so that we reap the benefits without creating non-adaptive global behaviors that threaten humanity as a whole, e.g. worldwide war, famines, epidemics, or damage to the biosphere. 

            Our tribes must evolve with the times.

Hugh Moffatt


May 18, 2009