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Learning from Religion about Social Cells
David Sloan Wilson
David Sloan Wilson
is the SUNY Distinguished Professor of Biology and Anthropology at Binghamton University and Arne Næss Chair in Global Justice and the Environment at the University of Oslo

Evolutionists who wish to understand the nature of human social groups have much to learn from religion.  We theorize about groups, but religious groups actually survive, reproduce, and mutate in the real world. How do they do it?

A new form of religious social organization called a cell ministry is especially fascinating. It was invented by a Korean evangelical pastor named Dr. David Yonggi Cho (he would say that it came from God), who was trying to grow his congregation and had come to the limits of his own time and effort. He decided to create “cells,” small groups that meet in people’s homes in addition to attending the large church services.  The result was so successful that his Yoido Full Gospel Church became the largest in the world with over 730,000 members organized into more than 25,000 cell groups. Dr. Cho has also proselytized for the concept of a cell group ministry, which has been adopted by other churches around the world. Cell groups are not just for Asians. They have also proven to be successful in Australia, Europe, and the United States.

I first learned about cell group ministries while writing Darwin’s Cathedral over a decade ago (see pp. 167-8). I recently had the opportunity to read Dr. Cho’s book Successful Home Cell Groups, which describes the concept in detail. One of my motives for reading the book was envy, pure and simple. I am also a proselytizer of sorts, trying to create new groups and improve the efficacy of existing groups based on insights from evolutionary theory. If I could be one tenth as successful as Dr. Cho, I would be thrilled.

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It is always an interesting experience for me to read something that was not written from an evolutionary perspective and to see the evolutionary themes leaping out at me. Dr. Cho is a creationist, but his book is full of biological words and metaphors – including the venerable Christian metaphor of the church as an organism, which meshes so well with the scientific concept of major evolutionary transitions.

Most important, Dr. Cho’s advice for forming cell groups dovetails nicely with what we know about human social behavior from an evolutionary perspective. Here is a translation manual:

  • The main power of cell groups is that they are small enough for members to know each other on a face-to-face basis. This is in contrast to even a moderately sized church congregation, which is too large for such personal interactions. Dr. Cho has decided that 15 families are an optimal size for a cell group. When a cell becomes larger than this, it is instructed to split.
  • Cell group members regard each other as family and provide the same kind of material benefits that friends and family members provide for each other, including help with the daily round of life and support during difficult times such as illness, marital problems, or losing one’s job. The benefits of forming a social support group are so great that some collaborative activities that interfere with the mission of the church must be prohibited.
  • Cell group members also provide important social and psychological benefits to each other. Dr. Cho identifies physical touching, recognition for the role that one plays, praise for exceptional contributions, and love as the most important ingredients that churches must provide and that cells are especially good at providing.
  • Cell groups are excellent for monitoring commitment to the group and conformance to agreed-upon behaviors. If someone doesn’t attend a large church service, nothing is done about it. If someone doesn’t attend a cell group meeting, there is an immediate effort to find out why and extend help if necessary.
  • Cell groups are excellent for recruiting new members. Dr. Cho is matter-of-fact about the need to evangelize. From a purely demographic perspective, groups need to bring in new members to persist, grow, and split. Cell groups can recruit new members from their immediate vicinity such as their neighborhoods, apartment buildings, and businesses, which is far more effective than revival meetings or knocking on doors. Some cell group leaders are so zealous that they ride up and down the elevators of their apartment complexes in an effort to recruit new members!

All of these benefits of cell groups make perfect sense from an evolutionary perspective given that we evolved in the context of small cooperative groups for most of our history as a species (see here and here for more). The benefits listed above can be understood in purely secular terms without any reference to religion. In principle, humanist and atheist movements could avail themselves of the cell group concept as well as religious movements.

Nevertheless, the way that Dr. Cho went about developing his cell group ministry was permeated with religion. The idea came to him after a protracted period of illness, which caused him to earnestly search for God’s plan for him. When he decided that women should become leaders of cells – a radical concept in male-dominated Korea – he found support from the history of the early Christian Church. Cell group meetings are centered on Bible study, and faith healing is listed as one of the most important benefits. The ability to speak in tongues is even emphasized as an important criterion of becoming a cell leader. These religious elements can be understood in evolutionary terms as mechanisms that create an extraordinary commitment to group causes (see here for more), but functional equivalents will need to be found for secular movements to employ the cell group concept as effectively as religious movements.

Dr. Cho’s success with his cell group ministry has a sad ending. He is currently serving a prison term for embezzling $12 million of church funds. All his praying and subordinating his self-will to God’s will didn’t prevent him from directing his church to buy stock in his son’s company at four times the market pric.

The rise and fall of Dr. Cho illustrates that morality is not the exclusive province of religion. Instead, morality in all human social groups can be understood in terms of a common set of factors.  If religious groups exhibit a higher degree of moral conduct than secular groups (a claim that must be tested empirically), then it is because they do a better job of implementing the common set of factors. I highly recommend the most recent book by the Dalai Lama, Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World, for more on this theme.

Dr. Cho’s astounding success with his cell ministry suggests that the small group is a fundamental unit of human social organization and that large-scale human societies can be built from smaller cells. The social sciences have been slow to recognize this possibility, and small groups play no role whatsoever in neoclassical economic thought. Evolutionary theory does recognize the importance of small groups in human evolution. The next step is to apply evolutionary theory to the design of real-world groups, as the Evolution Institute is attempting to do with  www.prosocial.world.Perhaps we can match and even surpass what religions have accomplished on the basis of experience.

 

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  1. Rory Short says:

    The idea of cell groups to grow TVOL makes 1000% sense to me and I believe it is something that we really need to do. That is why I would like the contact details, if any, of fellow South Africans who have already signed up to TVOL, they would surely provide good candidates with whom I could try to form a TVOL cell.