My Short History of Evolution, published by the American Humanist Association’s Humanist Press last year, included discussion of a singularly important milestone in the long march of our species toward civilization as we know it. That breakthrough occurred about nine or ten thousand years ago when some villages had already begun to cooperate for common goals, and the nature of the cooperation morphed from a loose ad hoc alliance to a more structured system of inter-village government. This involved the establishment of new hierarchies of individuals who actually governed the aggregate rather than simply consulting other village chiefs. But for that key transition to occur, a major problem had to be solved: the problem of trust.
Trust within any size group means that the individual is reasonably confident, first, that if he cheats he will be found out and punished, and second, that if anyone else in the group cheats, that transgression will become known to all and the transgressor will be similarly punished. But how will everyone else find out? What if the cheater does it on the sly? At the village level the problem solves itself, because everyone knows everyone else, or at least knows a large enough portion of the whole so that through the universal human tendency to gossip everybody shares a consensus about everybody else’s reputation. Reputation in such a group can form a firm and comfortable basis for trust within the group. It’s a rare scofflaw who can get away with cheating.
When people start to aggregate in groups larger than the village that kind of trust isn’t enough, because there are too many of them. How can someone in village A trust someone in village B when the villages lie at opposite ends of the kingdom? Gossip alone doesn’t cut it. So something has to happen that reinforces gossip and personal reputation. There is an emergent need here for some new basis for trust. How different societies have managed to meet that need is the stuff of history, and studying history from this perspective can let us see the actual civilizing process (also known as cultural evolution) in a new light.
Part of that need for a new basis for trust can be met by coercion. If the state instruments of enforcement are just and effective, most individuals will accept the maxim that crime doesn’t pay. But it helps if the individual behaves pro-socially not just because she has to, but because she wants to. There is still a need for behavioral guidelines that keep you doing good because you want to do good.
Religion provides one way of addressing the trust problem, with new features added to the preexisting palette as the need grows. If you believe in a god that instructs you to behave in ways that benefit the group, and you believe what that god tells you, you are powerfully motivated to conform. If enough people within that group subscribe to that belief system they come to constitute a group on their own, within which members can trust each other. If and when most people in the emerging geopolitical entity (call it a kingdom for the moment) subscribe to that religion, then a measure of trust is established for the larger entity.
It’s no accident that for several millennia after the first kingdoms emerged a wide variety of local gods appeared. The emergent need was for glue to hold a few villages together, so the gods that appeared to meet this need were kingdom-sized. And because social glue works best when there’s an enemy next door, they were jealous gods, generally hostile towards outsiders. It was an era marked by frequent warfare (think Old Testament).
Our curious, ingenious species kept on evolving. Warfare changed as mounted warriors invaded from the great Eurasian Steppes and attacked the ancient kingdoms in the cradles of civilization farther south. Smaller kingdoms went under; only large, multi-ethnic conglomerates were able to meet the challenge. One such civilization built China’s Great Wall; empires farther west found other solutions. But they all faced essentially the same hurdle, the problem of trust. Gods and simple hierarchies that sufficed for a small aggregation of villages sharing a common language and history had to be replaced, or at least supplemented. The new empires needed a social glue that appealed across ethnic and regional boundaries. Enter the Axial Age and the great monotheistic religions.
The great religions arose because they met an emergent need for trust that extended beyond in-groups defined by ethnicity, language, and region. We needed to band together, first in empires and more recently in nations, and for this we had to trust each other on a new and more expansive scale. How did this work?
The new religions usually promised rewards and punishments, expanded and generalized to suit the larger group, with a deity up there watching each and every one of us and keeping a kind of scorecard as to how well we observed his law. In other words, there was accountability followed by rewards or punishment and no escape for the cheaters. But how did you know that someone you didn’t know was going to follow the same rules that governed your own moral behavior? Well, if he or she subscribed to the ritual observances and other manifestations of your belief system, if he or she prayed or fasted or took communion or whatever in the prescribed manner, you were entitled to assume that until proven otherwise, that individual shared your belief that there was a system of rewards and punishments up there somewhere. As long as you shared this belief, that in itself constituted a basis for trust.
This helps account for the tenacity with which the orthodox Christian believer confronts atheism. According to polls, atheists rank down with pederasts and other outcasts in terms of acceptability for high public office. Since we openly do not believe in God, what do we believe in? What can we offer as assurance we can be trusted?
Fortunately, the true believers in our society no longer command the overwhelming majority they used to, and their numbers are shrinking, at least proportionally. However, I would submit that getting the public as a whole to trust us remains a major challenge. We need to understand where this mistrust is coming from if we are to meet this challenge intelligently and, yes, humanely.
If we want the general public to trust us perhaps we should be more explicit as well as open in defining what we do believe in. We tell the world that we believe in science and reason, but that hasn’t been specific enough. If we want humanism to become a mass movement we need to do a better job at identifying ourselves. Maybe people will trust us more if they have a clearer idea of who and what we are.
As a contribution to the ongoing argument, I have drafted a brief statement of humanism. I’m not Moses nor do I think I am, and I don’t think readers of this site are as credulous as Moses’s followers were. Plus, I realize there’s been a long trail of manifestos and similar efforts. Take my effort here as a fresh start, and kick it around.
A Belief System for Progressive Humanists
Everyone believes in something. You cannot build a structure without a foundation. Here are the foundations of my own belief system:
Earth is my home planet. Its biosphere is the matrix within which we exist. All life on Earth is related, and we cannot separate our own behavior and actions from the effects that they have on the planet as a whole.
I believe humanity is unique in our biosphere in that it has, without supernatural intervention, evolved unique capabilities to understand our home and act accordingly.
I believe in humanism as the existing world view most consistent with my own. I will support the big-tent approach and policies that embrace different interpretations arising out of the broad concept of humanism.
My goal is global governance that operates for all humanity and the greater good of life on our planet.