Rational Religion

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Why Does My Brother Need a Keeper?


I don't care much for fraternal organizations...


I have never been a member of one, so the following is all from external observation and second-hand experience.


Humans are social animals; some of us to a much greater degree than others.  Most of us, it seems, feel the need to associate in groups with people of similar definitions of the Universe.  The only thing wrong with this is that it tends to limit our understanding of persons whose definitions are different.  But as long as we stay pretty much within our own group this need not concern us very much; or them.


The difficulty, of course, stems from how hard it is to successfully isolate - and insulate - ourselves.   Unless we live on an "undiscovered" island, we are bound sooner or later to rub up against some of those other people with the funny ideas.


And that can lead to all sorts of trouble.


Ideas are like viruses.  They can spread from their source with alarming rapidity and they tend to infect, especially, the young, who have not built up an immunity to such foreign influences. 


There is a strong temptation to try to quarantine our more impressionable members; or to eradicate the source of infection.


This obtains even if the offending differences are so slight that an objective outsider might have trouble even seeing them. 


North America, by the Fourteenth Century, was home to literally hundreds of different clans and tribes of people.  Most of the ones who lived within walking distance of one another were all rather closely related and even quite similar in religion and social structure. 


Our modern archaeologists have discovered that they traded with each other over wide geographic distances.  Still, they seem to have been pretty tribally parochial.  And they were, more often than not, seriously; mortally; at odds with people in other tribes.


European settlers called them all "Indians," and differentiated between them pretty much only in terms of how dangerous they were to live near.  (As a predictable irony, the more tolerant and less militant tribes were among the first to be eradicated; and most completely.  Europeans were every bit as in-group specific as the native clans: they had better weapons and more efficient diseases.)


   The truth, however, is that all those different tribes of "Indians" (and all those different groups of European colonists) had legitimate, defensible reasons for acting with what an unsophisticated visitor from another planet would probably see as irrational aggressiveness.


History and experience.


Hundreds, even thousands of years of history, burdening the various societies that these people had been born into, created cultures which shaped them into the exploitive, unattractive creatures they were.


I do not pretend to excuse the all-too-human trait of being nasty to the neighbors, but I present the reasons for it.  We are inevitably the creatures of the cultures into which we appear.  Even the "best" of us are trapped in this slough.  Although some of the very best of us manage to slog our way out of it, most of us remain.  It takes a great deal of education or unusual objectivity  (or both) to escape our "heritage."


With all this baggage weighing down upon us, from the inescapable history of our "tribe," why the hell should I look favorably upon any mechanism which further fragments us and creates even more shibboleths and hurdles for our fellow-creatures to negotiate before being granted full membership in humanity? (Parochial definition.)


Certainly it is the right of everyone to associate with whomever one chooses; or should be. 


Fraternal organizations, from the Masons to the college Greek letter societies, provide - at least theoretically - emotional havens for their members; places where they can  "just be themselves."


In practice, of course, they are as politics-ridden as any other collective human activity, with constant jockeying for power and favor and all the attendant anxieties thereof.  But the internal strife is beside the point.


It's the in-group mindset which is the problem; the temptation to feel that "The worst of Us are better than the best of Them."


When "Them" is a lot of other people who are otherwise socio-economically indistinguishable from "Us,” as in the Masons vs. the Odd Fellows.... or the Sigma Nu vs. the Kappa Alpha... there may be very little harm in the mutual exclusivity between the two groups


But there are always hierarchies of exclusivity.  The Masons and the Odd Fellows tend to look down (if only ever so slightly) upon the totally un-clubbed; as the Sigma Nu and the Kappa Alpha unite in denigrating the "Independents" who aren't in any Greek Letter society at all. 


We Sigma Nu are better than the KA's, but god knows the KA's have it all over the "barbs" (Short for "barbarians" of course; in my college days, anybody who wasn't Greek.)


Whatever their high purposes as stated in their various constitutions and articles of incorporation, fraternal organizations become not only havens of "fellowship" but bastions of exclusivity as well; while deigning to let certain persons "in"  - contriving to keep other persons "out:" And many more of the latter, of course, than of the former.


With the persons already "in" choosing who shall be admitted; and setting up an often-rigorous schedule of tests and trials which the chosen neophytes must negotiate in order to become full-fledged "members".... small wonder that your average fraternal organization (or at very least its local chapter) tends to be rather homogeneous. 


A lot of people who are very much alike associate principally with one another, reinforcing each other's prejudices, and failing to learn very much about anyone unlike themselves.


Even if their outside associations; their jobs; their wives' families; their altruistic community service; bring them into contact with people very much unlike themselves, they can always flee back to the Brotherhood to be reassured that Their Way is the Best Way.   


All those other people are just varying degrees of out of it.    


The Masons and the Knights of Columbus (at odds, immediately, on religious grounds) will scarcely admit it, but the worst of their clubby behavior (their best can be socially admirable) is very much in the vein of the adolescent youth gangs which blight our ghettoes and have even spread into many of our rural hamlets. 


The militant exclusivity; the arduous initiation processes; the jealously guarded secret signs and handshakes; the childish hierarchies based on economic or personal power; they are all very much the same in the halls of the clubhouse or in the ghetto alley.    An alien anthropologist would probably distinguish between them only on the grounds of propensity to violence; or economic clout. 


The world is fragmented enough without people choosing arbitrarily to fragment it further, with no real justification for doing so except to belong.


I know!  Many, if not most of the adult (post-college-fraternity) brotherhoods do a great deal of objective social good; from supporting hospitals to subsidizing education and the arts.   Many among the brothers belong to their groups specifically to further those altruistic aims.


Still, there is always the temptation for a certain “in-group” smugness, and too often a tendency to help or support mostly individuals and causes who at least do not threaten the group’s core dogmas.


It is, in the final analysis, a deeply “conservative” influence organized in the preservation of whatever status quo may obtain in the society at a given present moment in history.


The present is always past in the next moment, so the status quo is reactionary.    And its arbitrary social divisions are an impediment to communication with and understanding of others than ourselves.


It may be extremely human, but it is not the best of humanity.


It is not something I have ever aspired to.