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We’re Better Together and Other Secrets of the Hive Mind

Written by: on May 25, 2018

I was the kind of strange kid that, while I was never a fan of homework, particularly concerned with grades or a ‘teacher’s pet’, I might actually pay attention when my 9th grade English teacher talked in serious tones about how important Ayn Rand is and how essential Atlas Shrugged and especially The Fountainhead were to understanding, not just American literature, but our lives and ourselves.
So I read both books, surely not understanding all of what Rand was trying to communicate, but even as a 9th grade boy, while I enjoyed reading them (especially The Fountainhead) there was this underlying cognitive dissonance with the larger points that Rand was trying to communicate and that undergirded her stories and her thinking.

I had some sympathy with how she saw the world – as it was – but I could not come to agreement with how she thought the world should be.  My favorite, and perhaps the best, synopsis of her view of the way the world should be is The Simpsons episode in which the youngest Simpson, Maggie, is sent to the ‘Ayn Rand School for Tots’…..the school is decorated with posters that say things like ‘helping is futile’ and the students are taught/encouraged to find the ‘bottle within’ as they aren’t really cared for, mostly left to fend for themselves, but are strictly forbidden to have pacifiers.

As I said, I found Rand’s writing to be engaging in a way, but I was always sort of uneasy with it.  Something didn’t sit right with me.  Her view of of the world, I would learn as I moved beyond her fiction writings, was simply incompatible with  mine.  She  subscribed to a total reliance on self as both a virtue and a real necessity and my disposition as well as my faith has always led my to a much more connectional and relational understanding of how the world should be and how we best operate as leaders and people.  The above quote illustrates well just how extreme her view was about the centrality of the individual – even in groups that work together, she suggests it is really no more than an illusion at worst and a ‘compromise’ at best.

In contrast, in her wonderful book, Braving the Wilderness, gives a much different view of who we are and how we are called to be together.  As I read our assigned book for this week, The Righteous Mind: How Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt, especially the ‘10% bee’ and the ‘hive switch’ portions, I kept thinking about how this resonated so clearly with the questions Rand and Brown are asking, and the very different answers they give.

Brown paints a picture of what it means to belong and the critical importance of being part of a group that speaks directly to what Haidt is asserting and, I think what we as Christians know about the power of relationship and connection.  She says:

While there’s deep alignment between what I’ve found in my research and what Cacioppo (ed. note: Cacioppo, was until his death in March a professor at the U of Chicago, whose work on loneliness and it effects are widely influential….he also was a pioneer in the field of what he called ‘social neuroscience’)   has found, it wasn’t until I processed his work that I fully understood the important role loneliness plays in our lives.
He explains that as members of a social species, we don’t derive strength from our
rugged individualism, but rather from our collective ability to plan, communicate, and work together. Our neural, hormonal, and genetic makeup support interdependence over independence.
He explains, “To grow to adulthood as a social species, including humans, is not to become autonomous and solitary, it’s to become the one on whom others can depend. Whether we know it or not, our brain and biology have been shaped to favor this outcome.” Of course we’re a social species. That’s why connection matters. It’s
why shame is so painful and debilitating. It’s why we’re wired for belonging.  (Brown, 53)

This is, I think, exactly what Haidt is talking about when he says this:

My hypothesis in this chapter is that human beings are conditional hive creatures . We have the ability ( under special conditions ) to transcend self – interest and lose ourselves ( temporarily and ecstatically ) in something larger than ourselves . That ability is what I’m calling the hive switch . The hive switch , I propose , is a group – related adaptation that can only be explained “ by a theory of between – group selection , ” as Williams said.  It cannot be explained by selection at the individual level. ( How would this strange ability help a person to outcompete his neighbors in the same group?) The hive switch is an adaptation for making groups more cohesive, and therefore more successful in competition with other groups.  If the hive hypothesis is true, then it has enormous implications for how we should design organizations, study religion, and search for meaning and joy in our lives. (Haidt, p. 258)

Another way of saying what Brown and Haidt are observing is that we are wired – that is we are created – to be in relationship with each other.  And more than that, we are actually designed to only fully realize our own potential and our truest selves in the midst of community and relationship, first with God , but importantly also with others.  (It might be said that a real weakness of the American Christian landscape is it’s Randian nature, with an over emphasis on self and individualism ‘me and my God’ and a loss of the location of faith in the context of a community of believers – p.s. If it isn’t already a thing, I am definitely coining the term Randian Christianity)

Undergirding Haidt’s thought here is the work of Emile Durkheim, who I first encountered in my undergraduate study of the sociology of religion.  I was a big fan then and I am now as well.  Durkheim, Haidt points out, argued that humans exist on two levels: the individual and as part of a higher society.  (Haidt, p. 260)

Haidt says:

The most important of these Durkheimian higher – level sentiments is “ collective effervescence, ” which describes the passion and ecstasy that group rituals can generate. As Durkheim put it: The very act of congregating is an exceptionally powerful stimulant. Once the individuals are gathered together, a sort of electricity is generated from their closeness and quickly launches them to an extraordinary height of exaltation.  (Haidt, 262)

Don’t we as the church know this, that ‘the very act of congregation is an exceptionally powerful stimulant.’  We are designed this way, because we are supposed to be in relationship together.  While my faith is my own (but really only mine with the help of the Holy Spirit), it can only be nurtured, practiced and lived out in community.

About the Author

mm

Chip Stapleton

Follower of Jesus Christ. Husband to Traci. Dad to Charlie, Jack, Ian and Henry. Preacher of Sermons, eater of ice cream, supporter of Arsenal. I love to talk about what God is doing in the world & in and through us & create space and opportunity for others to use their gifts to serve God and God's people.

9 responses to “We’re Better Together and Other Secrets of the Hive Mind”

  1. Lynda Gittens says:

    Great Post Chip
    your statement “Don’t we as the church know this, that ‘the very act of congregation is an exceptionally powerful stimulant.’ We are designed this way because we are supposed to be in a relationship together. ” We are powerful because God would be in the midst when there are three are more of us together seeking him.

    Imagine when congregations for different churches gather together? We would make a major impact on this world. What are your thoughts on church partnerships for the common good?

  2. Mary Walker says:

    I read one of Rand’s books years ago and it left me feeling empty. I agree that we are meant for community. The trick is learning how to observe the “one another’s” so each individual is respected and loved. I am thankful to have a church, but I also know that they won’t answer for me when I face God at my death. Another both/and!

  3. mm Katy Drage Lines says:

    Chip, you’ve synthesized well the hive mind with Brown’s writings, our longing for community, and the deep essence of the church. Thankfully(?) I have yet to submit my academic essay from last semester, but I’ll be going back to edit in a mention of Randian Christianity. Seriously, I think you’re on to something there. The challenge (for progressives, especially), is that desire for community, coupled with a hesitancy for membership/commitment.

  4. Christal Jenkins Tanks says:

    yes Chip! we were created to be in community. What we learn and discern should be done cooperatively with the Holy Spirit but also in fellowship with each other. We are His conduit and can learn a great deal from each other. Great post Chip!

  5. Stu Cocanougher says:

    “Don’t we as the church know this, that ‘the very act of congregation is an exceptionally powerful stimulant.’”

    As a youth minister for 20 years, I thought about this a lot. Teenagers are relational atomic bombs. From age 12 to 18 they move from being primarily relating to their parents to almost exclusively looking to their peers for affirmation. Movie like “Mean Girls” and “The Breakfast Club” capitalize on this dynamic. Youth ministers want to create experiences that are both “authentic” while moving teens in a certain direction (faith in Christ). There is always a tension between these two values.

    For example, I remember a youth group that asked me to leave the room for a few minutes so that they could talk together without me. I was suspicious, but I left just to see what would happen. About 20 minutes later they came and got me. They told me that being asked to invite friends to the youth group meeting was not what they needed. They needed the group to stay exactly like it was so they could “go deeper” with one another. Inviting newcomers messed up the experience for them.

    I think “The Sevens” know me well enough to guess that I did not comply with their wishes. Whether a group if 15 year olds or 65 year olds, a church group that become a exclusive club gets dysfunctional quickly.

    My point? In church leadership, we want to focus on authenticity and meeting needs, yet “leadership” is also about leading people to placed that they have never been.

    • Stu – very interesting that your comment mentions The Breakfast Club. I almost talked about it and movies like it, as it relates to Heidt’s discussion of various cultures and their ceremony for passing into adulthood.
      When he talks about how drugs were often involved, it made me think of similar scenes in so many movies slightly differently….. I never ‘got’ those scenes and they always annoyed me. But according to Heidt, some of them might have been hitting on something real, right? (still: don’t do drugs, kids)

  6. mm Jennifer Dean-Hill says:

    Yes, Chip, so true but sometimes not so easy to accomplish: “We are designed this way because we are supposed to be in relationship together.” When you throw in differences, relationships and community become challenging to create. Differences in ethnicity, gender, age, and class make developing connections especially challenging. With an increase of disorganized attachment too, this is providing an additional challenge in this next generation. Ephesians 4 comes to mind when it talks about operating as one body through shared faith. How would you suggest people close these difference gaps and come together to create community in the church and build oneness through faith? Answer this question, and you just might have the solution for the century! I’m waiting with bated breath to hear your profound response.

  7. Kristin Hamilton says:

    Durkheim YES, Rand NO!
    You said, “While my faith is my own (but really only mine with the help of the Holy Spirit), it can only be nurtured, practiced and lived out in community.” I think this is an absolute key to where we have broken down as the Body of Christ, Chip. Our Randian Christianity tells us that individual salvation is all that matters, while I believe our biblical Christianity tells us there is no such thing possible in the long term.
    Since you are familiar with Durkheim, I’m certain you are aware of the theory of anomie, where there is no longer a normal and we don’t seem to have expectations of socially acceptable behavior. Haidt’s book got me to thinking that we are living in this sort of “half anomie” state where some people are clinging to behaviors that don’t really matter as much anymore, while others are throwing out every social norm. I believe this happens when we are betrayed over and over again by authority. Eventually all that is left is revolution. What will that look like in America and, more specifically, the American Church?

  8. Jim Sabella says:

    Chip, great post. “We are actually designed to only fully realize our own potential and our truest selves in the midst of community and relationship, first with God, but importantly also with others.” This is an excellent point. Our culture tells us otherwise—lone person pulling themselves up the latter of life on their own, with no help from anyone. I remember early in ministry there was one man who used to say to me, I don’t need to come to church to worship God; I can worship God on the hill alone. I responded one Sunday, “That’s true, which shows that you don’t have a God problem you have a people problem and that’s a problem for all of us, including God!” Shouldn’t have said it, but it felt good! Thanks Chip.

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