Social Evolution Forum
FIND sef:
My Spiritual Journey: Part 5
The American Colony, a 19th-century Swedish-American religious commune

Go here for parts one, two, three and four.

July 19 2015. Greetings from Dancing Rabbit, an Ecovillage located in the Missouri outback. How I got here from the “From Self-Care to Earth-Care” event in Denver needs some explaining.

The Denver event was a crazy quilt of wisdom traditions, science, and practical concerns. Benedictions were given by a Muslim Imam, a Hindu Elder, a Jewish Rabbi, and a Protestant minister. Karuna was on hand for yoga exercises and the event ended with a Native American dance. Ken Wilber and I added a double dose of science and secular spirituality. All of this was supposed to contribute to the solution of real-world problems such as the United Nations coming together on climate change, faith-based groups helping to protect coral reefs, and improving the lives of the rural poor. But how exactly was this going to happen, and what was the contribution of spirituality?

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Against this background, a presentation by a woman named Ma’ikwe Ludwig stood out. She began by reminding us that the average American consumes ten times more resources than can be sustained over the long term. Then she said that Dancing Rabbit, an Ecovillage in operation for 18 years, was living proof that Americans can have a high quality of life on a tenth of their average resource consumption—and proceeded to back up her claim with an eco-audit that the rabbits (as the eco-villagers call each other) had conducted. A tenth of the car use, water use, fossil fuel use, and non-recyclable waste. Most of the people at the Colorado event yearn for a lifestyle that combines self-care and earth-care. Ma’ikwe and the other rabbits had actually succeeded.

This was not the first time I had heard Ma’ikwe. In fact, I was responsible for her presence at the event. About a year ago, I started to collaborate with a Norwegian colleague named Bjorn Grinde and one of my graduate students named Ian MacDonald to study intentional communities. A Fellowship of Intentional Communities (FIC) includes over a thousand “ecovillages, cohousing units, residential land trusts, income-sharing communes, student co-ops, spiritual communities, and other projects where people live together on the basis of explicit common values,” as they are described on the FIC website. Bjorn, Ian, and I drooled over the possibilities of studying such a large number of social experiments with the help of the FIC. Laird Schaub, the FIC’s Executive Secretary and Development Coordinator, was very cooperative and, with his help, we obtained survey information on over 100 intentional communities. Now we could begin using the tools of science to answer a question such as “how do spiritual practices contribute to the success of an intentional community?”

Ma’ikwe is the director of Dancing Rabbit’s nonprofit wing and was also involved in the FIC. I arranged for her to visit my university on a speaking tour, where she was a big hit with the students. Then, Ian and I made arrangements with Ma’ikwe to visit Dancing Rabbit to get an up-close look at one of the intentional communities in our survey. By chance, the Colorado event was scheduled to take place a few days before my trip to Dancing Rabbit and Ma’ikwe was going to be in the vicinity, so she was added to the program and we made plans to travel together by rail from Denver to Ottumwa, Iowa, the closest rail station to Dancing Rabbit. Ian and his partner Bridgett would meet us at the station with a rental car. They had arrived at Dancing Rabbit several days earlier and were already experiencing what life is like in a 21st Century intentional community.

Intentional communities are not new. Thousands of them existed in the past and hundreds were started in America during the 19th century. The idea of studying intentional communities to discover the factors leading to their success and failure also isn’t new. An entire branch of scholarship is devoted to them. This kind of scholarly work occupies the right side of Ken Wilber’s Kosmos–but the left side is the object of their study.

My project with Ian and Bjorn is informed by the work of Richard Sosis, one of the foremost authorities on religion from an evolutionary perspective. Drawing upon scholarly compilations of 19th century communal societies, Sosis was able to compare the longevity of those that were guided by religious beliefs and those that were guided by secular beliefs.1 The average religious commune lasted over three times longer (average duration=25.3 years) than the average secular commune (average duration= 6.4 years). Secular communes that attempted to implement the ideas of 19th century social theorists such as Robert Owen and Charles Fourier were especially weak, lasting an average of only 2.1 and 3.2 years. Here is solid proof that something associated with religion and spirituality does increase the capacity of a human community to survive in a practical sense, or at least did against the cultural background of 19th century America. But what exactly were the active ingredients that gave religious communes their three-fold advantage?ccr figures

In a follow-up study,2 Sosis and his colleague Eric R. Bressler drew upon a theory that has been developed in evolutionary religious studies called Costly Signaling Theory. The theory begins by noting that all cooperative efforts are confronted by problems of trust and commitment. How do you know that other members of your social group are going to hold up their end of the bargain? What will prevent them from free-riding on your efforts, actively exploiting you, or leaving the group whenever it is convenient for them to do so? The theory continues by noting that costly commitments to the group can help to insure trustworthy behavior. As an example, imagine a group that requires a painful initiation ceremony to become a member. No one would endure such an experience if they weren’t intending to remain a member of the group over the long term. Costly commitments to a group weed out uncommitted members.

Notice that Costly Commitment Theory says nothing about religion per se. The theory predicts that if the average religious commune survives longer than the average secular commune, it is because the average religious commune demands more costly commitments. Likewise, if religious and secular communes vary in the commitments that they demand, then variation within each category can be explained in the same way as the difference between the two categories.

Through painstaking scholarly research, Sosis and Bressler were able to measure the degree of costly commitment required by 30 religious communes and 80 secular communes during the 19th century. Costly commitments included restrictions on diet, private ownership, physical appearance, sex, child ownership, and communication with the outside world. The results were fascinating. When the analysis was restricted to the religious communes, then the predictions of costly commitment theory were strongly supported– the communes that lasted the longest were those that imposed the most costly commitments. When the analysis was restricted to secular communes, then the predications of costly commitment theory were not supported– the longevity of secular communes was unrelated to the commitments that they demanded on the part of group members. Something other than Costly Commitment Theory is needed to explain the difference in longevity between religious and secular 19th century communes.

These two studies are part of the scholarly and scientific foundation that Bjorn, Ian and I hope to build upon with our study of 21st century intentional communities. In addition to their specific insights, they illustrate what it means for evolution to operate in all four quadrants of Ken Wilber’s Kosmos. We are such a cultural species that every human—without exception—has a rich interior of concepts and symbols (left half) that is manifested both individually (top half) and collectively (bottom half). Every configuration of concepts and symbols results in people acting a certain way (right half), which is also manifested both individually (top half) and collectively (bottom half). Some configurations of concepts and symbols lead to more sustainable actions than others. There is a process of selection among configurations of concepts and symbols, as surely as selection among genes. The right half of Ken Wilber’s Kosmos acts as a crucible for the evolution of the left half.

The results of this cultural evolutionary process are difficult to second guess. Secular and scientific beliefs that attempt to describe the world as it really is can fail at keeping communities alive in the real world. Otherworldly religious beliefs can result in the creation of durable communities in the real world—but only if they extract commitment from their members. A religious worldview that fails to extract commitment fails as badly as a secular worldview.

I worry that the kind of religion and spirituality expressed at the Colorado event is of the low commitment variety. I don’t doubt the sincerity of those who attended, but what is going to make them walk the walk, rather than just talking the talk?

The rabbits are walking the walk and their Ecovillage is in its 18th year, three times the average for a 19th century secular commune. They are doing something right and I am about to observe for myself what it might be.

To be continued.

1. Sosis, R. (2000). Religion and Intragroup Cooperation: Preliminary results of a comparative analysis of utopian communities. Cross-Cultural Research, 34, 70–87.

2. Sosis, R., & Bressler, E. R. (2003). Cooperation and Commune Longevity : A Test of the Costly Signaling Theory of Religion, 37(2), 211–239.




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