Larger and larger tribes by
(11 Stories)

Prompted By Faith

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Faith can be either “complete trust or confidence in someone or something” or “strong belief in God or in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual apprehension rather than proof.” My own faith began as belief in the God of Catholicism. He, yes “He,” was the ultimate father, all knowing and all loving. With a Jesuit education, I understood that the Church was a man-made institution with arbitrary rules. In contrast, core Catholic theology did not require Mass on Sundays or abstaining from meat on Fridays. In 1965, when I saw the film Zorba the Greek, I thought that the sexual encounter between the English intellectual and the Greek widow was profoundly human and not at all sinful. During this same time, I was studying existentialism in college and was convinced of Marx’s comment that religion was “the opiate of the people.” is also comforting to believe that consciousness does not end with physical death.

I abandoned my religious faith and accepted that it is terrifying to recognize that a single person is not very powerful in the face of nature and that everyone dies. Any antidote to these chilling realities is welcome, and religious belief is such a salve. It is reassuring to a sole human being that there is an all powerful and all loving supreme being, made in the image of man. Having self consciousness, it is also comforting to believe that consciousness does not end with physical death. In The Future of an Illusion, Freud considers possible origins of belief in God (e.g., a residual of the infant’s experience of one with the mother [universe], a wish for the ideal father, or the experience of awe and the grandeur of existence itself). From anthropology and psychology it is clear that humans will always generate, cherish, and adhere to religious beliefs. It is also clear that prayer does not change anything, despite its superstitious appeal, and that religious people are not morally superior. Such believers are quite willing to misbehave, repent, and seek forgiveness.

Non believers are as ethical as believers. Doing good and doing evil are both characteristics of our species. We create and belong to tribes; we cooperate with tribal members, and defend against alien tribes. Religious belief helps bind members to a tribe and simultaneously can identify nonbelievers as enemies of one’s tribe. Tribes can be based on a common territory, trade relationships, or even appearances, and religious beliefs are often used as a defining identity of a tribe. The comfort of belonging is so precious that humans will always have tribes, and religious beliefs will continue to serve as balm for the individual and as badges of membership in a community.

In the world today, religious belief is dangerous, so dangerous as to threaten the survival of the planet itself. Religion fuels warriors. Suicide bombers would not exist without the conviction of religious beliefs. The only belief that can save us is belief, even without proof, of malevolent aliens from outer space, an enemy tribe that we can join in cooperation to defend against as inhabitants of Earth.

What is left to believe in, to have faith? E.O. Wilson recommends the tree of life itself. One can belief, also without convincing proof, that the species as a whole has sufficient desire for individual and mutual survival that we will do what is necessary to maintain our communities, hopefully of larger and larger tribes.

Profile photo of Lou Moffett Lou Moffett
I was born in 1946 and raised in the Bywater district of New Orleans.
I attended Jesuit High School and then Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, graduating in 1968 with a major in psychology and a minor in philosophy. In 1968-69, I did graduate study in personality at the University of California, Berkeley, I returned to LSU to pursue a Ph.D. in clinical psychology although my dissertation was on the psychology of sculpture. I completed my internship at the Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Palo Alto, California, and then became a staff psychologist there specializing in the treatment of men with severe substance use disorders. During those years I also taught at Stanford's School of Education and was a clinical educator in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences in the Medical School.
I also taught at Palo Alto University, and, in 2008 I retired from the VA and became a full-time professor at PAU and then retired from there in 2013.


  1. John Zussman says:

    Thanks Lou, you’ve given us abundant food for thought. One thing I like is your answer to those who say that without religious belief, why would people believe morally—as if all that prevents us from being murderers and thieves is a faith or a holy book. They ignore the calling we all feel to be kind and helpful, if only so that others might be kind and help us. As you say, non-believers are as ethical as believers.

  2. Susan Bennet says:

    Hello Lou,
    It would appear you are long gone from Retrospect, and I am a new participant in same. But I enjoyed your article, very much. One thing I have pondered is the importance of introducing children to some religious or spiritual introduction, whichever it may be, for the sake of that child’s development and psychological well being. My observations of children of disaffected parents are that the lack of membership in some tribe outside the nuclear family can leave children nihilistic, without hope, without a sense of structure. Even those of us who have left our particular religions might realize that we (hopefully) are functioning with a foundation of the best of that moral instruction. Some children of my acquaintance are angry and disparaging of others’ religions, and that is not positive for society. Everyone has the option to leave one’s faith and adopt another or have none, but I feel it’s best for young people to have the option. Just my opinion. Thank you for a thought-provoking piece.

    • Lou Moffett says:

      Hello Susan,
      I’m glad you enjoyed my article, but I no longer know which one you’re referring to. I’ll response to your comment in a somewhat terse and provocative manner:
      Belonging is key to human thriving, but membership need not be in a religious or spiritual tribe. Unfortunately, humans are primarily drawn to association with similar others, most often on the basis of outward appearance (e.g., age, gender, skin color, language). Fostering engagement with a wide variety of diverse humans is the best way to expand a person’s familiarity with a range of other people and join the tribe of humanity. Failure to promote such expanded identification with dissimilar others can lead to discrimination to the point of slavery and even genecide.
      The downside of religious tribal membership is the de-valuing of nonmembers to the point of annihilation: the Crusades, Islamic jihads, Sunni vs. Shite, Catholic vs Protestant, etc.
      Also, spiritual or religious moral education is redundant. Humans are genetically predisposed to the Golden Rule (empathy) and all its derivatives (e.g., compassion, altruism, honesty, fairness). (For example, you might enjoy some of the TV documentaries on toddler research in which kids value helping vs obstructing others without any speciic instruction.) Speculating on the causal chains of what leads a young person to become nihilistic and hopeless too often defaults to religion or spirituality. A more likely prime candidate is economic inequality. I don’t know that there’s any advantage to being indoctrinated into a faith with the option of opting out later. Personally, I prefer that children learn that religions are simple adult versions of Santa Clause fantasies. For the sake our society, it’s key that children learn the different between fact and fiction, evidence-based reality vs. dangerous superstitions, even if hopeful (e.g., “Not to worry, God will not allow the climate to warm so much as to destroy us all.”).

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