God or the Devil: It’s a Group Thing

Lynne McTaggart

Today on the BBC’s much beloved Radio 4, which offers a morning slot called Thought for the Day, some short topic about the state of the world explored by a local vicar about the state of the world, some reverend was chewing over the idea that evil is mostly a group dynamic.

Today on the BBC’s much beloved Radio 4, which offers a morning slot called Thought for the Day, some short topic about the state of the world explored by a local vicar about the state of the world, some reverend was chewing over the idea that evil is mostly a group dynamic.

He was commenting on recent conviction of a gang of nine men in Manchester in the UK,  who’d been recently arrested for ‘grooming’ a sex ring of  47 young girls.  Although the men were respectable citizens individually, as a group they’d managed to create their own moral universe, where it was okay to rape, drug and exploit young teenagers.

The reverend, who also worked in a Youth Club in a rough area, often observed the quiet ones being extremely well behaved and spoken on their own, but only to turn bully boy, even the most enthusiastic of participants in a gang beating or harassment of an, just to be accepted by the group.  

The point, to his mind, was that most people start out being moral on their own, but easily turn to savagery if that is the will of the ‘group mind’.  

A seeking to belong
For a number of years I have been studying this dynamic and its cause. This tendency to be influenced by the group has to do with a fundamental human impulse: our constant need to move away from the atomization of the self and toward connection with the whole.

One of our most primitive urges, in every social relation, whether individual or collective, is to agree with each other.  No matter how obstreperous our nature, we constantly seek physical and psychic equilibrium with everyone with whom we are in contact.  This need manifests in a constant and automatic impulse to synchronize, physically, psychologically and emotionally — to place ourselves in the same exact state as that of whomever we encounter.

Our deep need to agree does not rest on any moral stance; the rapid rise of Nazism in Germany is an example of the contagion of a belief system, and the willingness of a good percentage of the population to suspend normal human values in order to conform to it.  

It also stems from the powerful need to belong. In his book, Talking to the Enemy, anthropologist Scott Atran convincingly argues that suicide bombers kill themselves out of a deep-seated need to be accepted by their group, not for religious reasons per se.  They take on the “commitment cost” of acceptance; their entry depends on the enormity of the sacrifice they are prepared to make. “People don’t simply kill and die for a cause,” writes Atran.  “They kill and die for each other.”

Thwarted need to belong
The same holds true for gangs, which are simply a manifestation of a thwarted need to belong.  According to Nelsa Libertad Curbelo Cora, a peace worker with young ganger members in Guayaguil, Ecuador, ‘They have an instinct toward oneness, which is why they form gangs.’  Often times a gang members needs an enemy just to feel that he belongs to something special.

What Cora is saying is that evil comes not from some moral vacuum, but from a need to connect so desperate and profound that it overrides and ultimately suspends any individual pang of conscience. We will do anything, even drug and rape 13 year olds, in order to feel part of a greater whole.

From what I have observed in the many groups with which I have worked, the opposite also holds true.  The most powerful good comes out of the group dynamic, too.  

The God Moment
This desire to transcend – to be the best that we can be – stems from what I’ve begun to call ‘the God Moment’ – that exquisite moment, where we lose our sense of separation and individuality, which is always painful and alienating, and experience a sense of unity, which makes us feel whole once more.

I witness the power of this moment repeatedly in my work with the ‘Power of Eight®’: small healing Intention Circles. I experience firsthand how small groups transform into a ‘superorganism’ of instant closeness and potent healing.  During my many workshops, I have witnessed powerful stories of emotional or physical healing among both the senders and receivers and a powerful effect that continues on for many months, altering the individual’s attitude toward strangers, loved ones – even the planet.
The feeling of oneness reported by the members of the workshops and the Intention Experiment community is an example of the Bond – the resonance effect of pure connection. The simple act of belonging and spontaneously giving within a small group of strangers is so powerful and so satisfies our deepest longing that it heals both the healer and the recipient.

So what is the X Factor, that harnesses this power for evill, not good?  

Simple: a sense of scarcity. People indeed are fully capable of turning cruel and bullying toward each other if they are placed in opposing groups and forced to compete over scarce resources.  But when we are given a common goal and purpose – larger than ourselves and their group – we readily put aside our differences to work together cooperatively as a superorganism.

Engaging in sharing and teamwork tends to transcend differences, because it emphasizes the very heart of humanity — we are all in this together.  And if we are all in this together we are no longer competing for scarce resources.

Economists have traditionally claimed that we do best for society by looking out for number 1. But the latest science clearly demonstrates that we all do better by choosing what is best not simply for ourselves but also all the people around us. Every success story for resolving conflict shares one thing in common:  an ability to harness the fundamental human need to connect, or Bond, and to move past ‘every man for himself’ to ‘we’re all in this together.’

So the key, to my mind, is a simple new paradigm: a moral framework that chooses any action that is not only good for the individual or even for the group, but good for everyone around us.

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Lynne McTaggart

Lynne McTaggart is an award-winning journalist and the author of seven books, including the worldwide international bestsellers The Power of Eight, The Field, The Intention Experiment and The Bond, all considered seminal books of the New Science and now translated into some 30 languages.

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