Why preaching “love thy neighbor” usually fails

Originally posted on Fri, 05/10/2013

Every social animal has a mechanism for distinguishing an in-group (friends, family, tribe) from the out-group (everyone else.) Ants use pheromones. Primates are more sophisticated: tribes may not be blood relatives, and individuals can switch affiliations. Humans collect numerous in-group affiliations: race, country, religion, schooling, professions, clubs, hobbies, sports teams, and on and on. Virtually every way in which we describe ourselves is also an affiliation with an in-group. That’s why matchmakers and salespeople try to build affinity by comparing even the most random similarities.

As complex as people are, this in-group/out-group distinction is deeply rooted in our primate neurochemistry. I suspect that it’s related to oxytocin, a hormone famously released into a mother’s bloodstream during breastfeeding, and also found in abundance in romantic lovers–thus the nickname “the love hormone.” It is best known for increasing trust. However, more recent studies discovered that it also heightens envy and gloating.

If you just imagine a mother cradling a baby, you are increasing the oxytocin in your bloodstream. You feel more trusting, more compassionate, and more nurturing. But you are also more fearful of danger– and of strangers. Your sense of in-group versus out-group is heightened.

I would argue that any trust building exercise, from boot camp to “male bonding” to discovering similarities with a neighbor, does not simply nurture an in-group affiliation, but heightens the sense of in-group vs. out-group. If this is so, many things we do to build community and esprit de corps also builds distrust of the out-group.

Which brings us to preaching universal love. I don’t know about other denominations, but Unitarian Universalists pride themselves on open mindedness–particularly in matters of theology–yet often have a hard time practicing open mindedness when it comes to Christian denominations. Part of it may be that many people come to UUism after a bad experience with a different church. But even I am susceptible to distrust of other denominations, and I was raised UU.

The paradox is that, in order to promote spiritual deepening, you need to promote a safe, trusting, intimate environment. Soul-searching is all about opening yourself to vulnerability which leads to greater self-understanding. But this sense of intimacy and trust inherently heightens not just in-group affiliation, but out-group awareness as well. To make people receptive to a message of universal love, you heighten the opposite.

If congregants are susceptible to out-group distrust, just imagine the ministers. On top of all the ambient trust-building exercises, they have their own grueling boot-camp-like experience which creates an intense esprit de corps among the ministry. Graduate school, intense self-reflection, hospital chaplain internship, and a grueling final examination don’t just weed out lesser would-be ministers. They also make ordained ministers feel elite. Mind you, elitism is a good thing– when the exceptionalism matches the task at hand. But human emotions aren’t so precise. I once had a Harvard Divinity student tell me that she feared graduation, as she would have to find a job away from the Boston area– and how lonely every other place on Earth would be, without a large and vibrant community of ministers.

This isn’t unique to ministry. Every educated profession suffers from arrogance when they stray from their specific field of expertise. In my own field, you can find countless technologists (Bill Joy and Ray Kurzweil for example) who seem incapable of understanding that biology isn’t just engineering with nano-gears. But ministry has an odd double standard: everyone should practice it, and yet there is a need for highly trained experts.

So which is it? Is ministry for everyone, or for the elite trained professionals? The elite training of UU ministers helps to ensure that people who would be in a position to sully the reputation of Unitarian Universalism are either weeded out or trained to act professionally. It guarantees that they have the skills to handle the most sensitive of situations: a highly public off-the-cuff prayer, or the delicate handling of a bereaved family. But ministers need to fight their education in order to listen deeply to the ministry of laypeople. All their training in deep listening, after all, is counter-balanced by subliminal training about the value of the training itself. Could that Harvard Divinity student truly not have a deep, meaningful discussion with a group of highly educated non-ministers? Or with a highly trained graduate of the school of hard knocks? In-group vs. out-group. (I know. I’ve been there. When I was deep in a German immersion program, I felt like I’d never relate to anyone who wasn’t bilingual.)

So how can one learn universal love without falling in the in-group/out-group trap? We know it can be done. People who live in cosmopolitan areas learn coping strategies. It’s not as simple as “drawing a bigger circle,” as some would suggest. It’s a matter of collecting enough in-groups to include whomever you might meet. I’m white and suburban, but you’re a black stranger dressed like a gangsta? Well, we’re both Minnesotans. Or Americans. Or I’ll imagine that you your mother, and that she’s a lot like my mother– at least in some important way. This isn’t easy. We can’t unlearn racism and other biases, as we discover if we take an Implicit Association Test. But we can be aware of our biases, and change our behaviors or trick our minds accordingly.