Religion As Standard

Systems often get locked into standards. For example, computer systems get locked into programming language and operating system standards. When people notice that existing standards have unsatisfactory features, they often try to create and promote alternate standards. Such attempts usually fail, however, due to the large costs of coordinating to switch to new standards, including the loss of complementary investments into old standards. In order to induce a switch, expected gains from a new better standard have be large enough to compensate for switching costs, and users need to coordinate their actions in order to switch.

Hopes for a libertarian revolution seem similar. Yes, there may be gains from transferring traditional government services (like schools, roads, fire protection) to private substitutes. But we have many complementary investments in an existing government-provision system that has many self-reinforcing elements. If most people see the potential gains from switching to be few and weak compared to the substantial cost of switching, it just won’t happen. So big change probably won’t happen until some new context where many folks expect private substitutes to work much better.

Strong atheist critiques of religion also seem similar. Religious people often say things that sound crazy, at least when interpreted as claims intended to say things similar to, and evaluated by the usual critical standards of, most other intellectual realms. Atheists want to apply relatively uniform standards of interpretation and evaluation across wide ranges of intellectual claims. Such uniform standards should allow intellectuals to draw more reliable inferences combining insights from many diverse topic areas.

Religion, however, is a complex system integrating emotions, behaviors, relationships, and things that sound and are treated somewhat like intellectual claims. We have made many expensive complementary investments into this religious system, investments that would be expensive to translate to a substitute system. Religious folks understand that treating their religious claims as crazy would detract from the many complex functions that these claims serve within the complex religious experience. So they would rather apply different intellectual standards to these claims. They’d rather say “Don’t take this so literally, don’t be so reductionist; this kind of talk is just different.”

Of course defenders of religion also don’t want to say that they are just making comforting noises that have no intellectual meaning; a sense that their words are somewhat like intellectual claims is part of what lets those noises be comforting. And they don’t want to clarify in much detail just what exactly they are saying, in the usual intellectual terms. They’d rather say “Haven’t you got other topics to go investigate? Why come to our area and mess with things you don’t understand? How can you be so sure of your intellectual standards and your preferred interpretations of our words, so as to put at risk all this useful religious practice?”

It seems to me that religion will handily win this contest for a long time to come. The social support that can be mustered by a few intellectuals hoping for more uniform standards of interpretation and evaluation across diverse topics seems quite weak compared to strong interests others have in the usual complex religious processes. Even if many broad-thinking intellectuals decide to pick a noisy fight over this, most of society will just shrug their shoulders and ignore it. Surely this fact is known to most atheists, so this can’t really be about inducing a social change to a new less objectionable religion substitute. So it is probably mostly about other things, such as status contests within the smaller world of intellectuals.

FYI, some relevant quotes from the atheism critic James Wood:

I can’t be the only reader who finds himself in broad agreement with the conclusions of the New Atheists, while disliking some of the ways they reach them. … [They have] a simplistic reading of how people actually hold those beliefs. … For millions of people, religious “belief” is not a matter of just totting up stable, creedal propositions (“I believe that Jesus is the son of God”, “I believe that I will go to heaven when I die”, and so on), but a matter of more unconscious, daily practice (“Now it is time to kneel down, face Mecca and pray”). This kind of defence of the deep embeddedness of religious practice has been influenced by Wittgenstein – for whom, say, kissing an icon was a bit like loving one’s mother; something that cannot be subjected to an outsider’s rational critique. … We know that plenty of people hold religious beliefs that are also propositions … Rather than simply declaring all religious belief to be non-propositional, which is manifestly untrue, it would be more interesting to examine what might be called the practice of propositional beliefs. We know that people believe all kinds of things, as propositions. But how do they believe them? In this area, the New Atheism has nothing very interesting to say, except to wish away all such beliefs. (more)

Modern Godless man, deprived of the old spirits and demons, and thrown into a world in which there is no one to appeal to outside his own mind, finds it hard to experience the spiritual “fullness” that his ancestors experienced. … Where are we left when evolutionary biology tries to reduce the strong evaluation we make about altruism by claiming that, like all animal behavior, it is just a contrivance that benefits our selfish genes? In Taylor’s terms, the question is whether an “upper language,” in which we describe altruism as noble and admirable, can be fully captured by a “lower language,” of instrumental and biological explanation, a language that scrupulously avoids the vocabulary of purpose, intentionality, design, teleology.

Taylor is skeptical that it can; he worries about the undermining allure of such reduction, and not without cause. These days, one is continually running up against a crass evolutionary neuroscientific pragmatism that is loved by popular evolutionary psychologists and newspaper columnists (of the kind who argue that we are happiest living in suburbs and voting Republican because neuroscience has “proved” that a certain bit of our brain lights up upon seeing Chevy Chase or Greenwich; or that we all like novels because stories must have taught us, millennia ago, how to negotiate our confusing hunter-gatherer society—I exaggerate only a little). Taylor is right to claim that the popularity of this type of reduction is “one of the most burning intellectual issues in modern life.” (more)

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  • I think
    But one thing about religious communities is that they depend on absurd beliefs to maintain themselves (see Atran, Religion’s evolutionary landscape: Counterintuition, commitment, compassion, communion). The absurdity is a feature, not a bug, or rather, its part of what lets the community maintain itself.

    There have been many efforts to generate religious communities that subtract out the wild metaphysical beliefs (eg Unitarianism, Reconstructionist Judaism). It remains to be seen whether these can fuifill the functions of more ordinary religions.

  • Douglas Knight

    No, I don’t think you should be so sure that the futility is known to most atheists. Even those who have experienced the futility should probably be modeled as having partitioned knowledge and cognitive dissonance. But even before they experience futility, why would they think other people want to be corrected?

  • Evan

    The social support that can be mustered by a few intellectuals hoping for more uniform standards of interpretation and evaluation across diverse topics seems quite weak compared to strong interests others have in the usual complex religious processes. Even if many broad-thinking intellectuals decide to pick a noisy fight over this, most of society will just shrug their shoulders and ignore it. Surely this fact is known to most atheists, so this can’t really be about inducing a social change to a new less objectionable religion substitute. So it is probably mostly about other things, such as status contests within the smaller world of intellectuals.

    I think that most atheists have also focused heavily on more concrete things than the cognitive benefits of a unified intellectual standard. Many of the most prominent atheist writers today focus heavily on religiously-inspired hatred violence, and other pragmatic issues like that.

    • Thursday

      Many of the most prominent atheist writers today focus heavily on religiously-inspired hatred violence, and other pragmatic issues like that.

      This is true. The problem though is that the evidence for religion having an overall negative effect on people’s well being is weak.

      • Hedonic Treader

        It certainly does damage in issues such as right-to-die, realistic STD prevention or using biotech on humans (which might greatly improve their well-being if done right).

      • Thursday

        Right to die = problems on both sides
        STD prevention = the research says sex ed (of any kind) basically has no effect in Western countries, as for Aids in Africa:
        Biotech = that “if done right” is a big if

        As I said, the case against religion on utilitarian grounds is weak.

      • Hedonic Treader

        Thursday, your points are well-taken. Their validity, however, seems to depend on the details. An analysis of the net utility of religion is hard to do, and it probably differs with nuances between religions and the practical scope of their claims.

      • How about the resistance of many religions towards family planning?

        Here I suspect the Chinese Communist Party comes off a bit heroic and many religious leaders and organizations a bit destructive for humanity’s welfare.

  • Ely

    Surely this fact is known to most atheists, so this can’t really be about inducing a social change to a new less objectionable religion substitute. So it is probably mostly about other things, such as status contests within the smaller world of intellectuals.

    Any revolution must start somewhere. Even if the masses won’t suddenly adopt more rigorous intellectual standards or adopt more objective reasoning into social standards, some small set of people will be persuaded by rationalist thinking. However far into the future it is that we need to look before religion is but a minor influence of the past, we would have to look that much further if there weren’t grassroots level knowledge dissemination. It’s a snowball effect and I think there’s nothing irrational about present day atheists feeling that their efforts are worthwhile even if all they have to show for it is a small snowball effect over the course of the next few decades.

    What will be more interesting is whether or not religious movements spark neo-Luddite communities as the technological landscape changes more rapidly. I think a case can be made that thus far, the speed of technological change has not presented much of a challenge to religion’s efficacy. It’s not obvious to me that religion is infinitely versatile and can be quickly remolded on a time scale that matches up with the pace of technology. Most of religion’s dogma dies across generation gaps as well, and those gaps are become much more emphatic over much short time scales.

  • spindritf

    The problem with atheism is not just the cost of switching. Sure, “religious people often say things that sound crazy” but popular atheistic philosophies aren’t really any better. fe. I haven’t heard a compelling counterargument to Berkeley’s master argument.

    Even if someone is willing to abandon the comfort, history and tradition that come with popular religions, especially those ingrained in the local culture, intellectually satisfying flavours of atheism are not really less twisted and “crazy sounding” than established religions, so there is no benefit. Maybe except for a status signal in some circles (at the cost of mild penalty in other).

    • Ralph

      Are you serious

  • David

    It’s interesting to think that religion depends on a certain obscurantism regarding the content of their tenants. They believe those tenants, but “subtly” – not in the same literal way that they believe scientists. If a battle with literal-minded atheists makes this obscurantism impossible, could it be that the religious are themselves becoming more literal-minded and less subtle about their religion? Recent behavior of prominent Republicans provides some anecdotal evidence.

  • richard silliker

    Propositions open up the opportunity for a pissing match. No winners. Just a chance to have some fun and enjoy one of life’s simple pleasures in feeling superior to others.

    Religion provides continuity of purpose. That purpose is unknown to me.

    Each religion is subject to over interpretation by its followers and as a result ……….#$&&& breaks loose. Is it any small wonder that others want to find an alternative.

  • I’m all for higher standards being applied to religious opinions. So while we are at it, how about being consistent in the quality of falsifiable statements made by experts and atheists, and the practicality of falsifying claims from all directions? If a certain conception of God cannot be measured, well, what would Popper say? I suspect something slightly less religious than Dawkins.

    • Ely

      Do you have any evidence that Dawkins has promoted belief in something unfalsifiable, or do you merely disagree with the fervor with which Dawkins asserts his position? To my knowledge, Dawkins does not advocate belief in anything that is unfalsifiable (beyond the standard pedantic and fruitless arguments that “belief in science itself” is unfalsifiable, etc.) Many atheists (one of which Popper most definitely was) do not take as hard a line as Dawkins, but just because Dawkins is more assertive does not mean his arguments rest on nonsense like religion. I think his own quote, “I am against religion because it teaches us to be satisfied with not understanding the world,” says it quite well, and is something Popper would agree with.

      • I think Dawkins frequently makes falsifiable (and therefore, possibly scientific) statements, such as:

        Religion is about turning untested belief into unshakable truth through the power of institutions and the passage of time.

        He might engage in tautology, like when he says:

        The chicken is only an egg’s way for making another egg.

        But I find other claims less falsifiable, such as:

        There is something infantile in the presumption that somebody else has a responsibility to give your life meaning and point… The truly adult view, by contrast, is that our life is as meaningful, as full and as wonderful as we choose to make it.

        There have been some interesting studies on what infants get right and other studies on what adults get wrong, the latter which we are addressing here. So I think he is making moral and status judgments, which may be rendered false, but may also require more than science and math to do so.

        At times, Dawkins seems to drift completely into scientism with statements like:

        Faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence. Faith is the belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence.

        In this case, he is basically drawing equivalence between absence of evidence and evidence of absence, which is unscientific, and a fallacy for the naive. Just because we are not able to measure something does not make it false. That is the purview of superstition. Would he say hypothesis, conjecture and theory are cop outs, because they are unproven? I’m suspecting not.

        And, like the rest of us, Dawkins probably has some bias to overcome. When he says something like “Science flies you to the moon. Religion flies you into buildings.”, I wonder about the war dividend of scientific innovation. Wars are usually fueled by religious conflict (and I would include communism and facism–usually atheistic–as a religion), so without wars, science does not progress as quickly. Incentives matter. He might construct a tortured path to get us from how the Manhattan Project and Hiroshima was a religious thing, and not science, but I don’t think I could follow him on that entire journey. I think I’d probably follow Schelling’s road further on this one.

        Perhaps Dawkins should brush up on his Thomas Kuhn, another atheist who, like Popper, appears more scientific and less religious to me than Dawkins.

        I agree with Dawkins that religion often fillibusters adherents and surrounding culture from truth discovery. Yet it appears to me that Dawkins could be guilty of this, too.

    • Thursday

      Wars are usually fueled by religious conflict

      This is false.

      Vox Day went through a military encyclopedia looking up every war:

      1. Religion has only been involved in 7% of all wars throughout history.
      2. That is “involved in” not the “the primary cause of.”
      3. Half of those involved one particular religion: Islam.

      • Hence my choice of ‘fueled’ over ’caused. I think we are drowning in agreement here.

      • oops, my reply was not correct. I missed your distinction. We do not have a surplus of agreement. I will take a look at Vox Day. However, I contend–perhaps incorrectly to others–that religion can be classified differently by different people. I tend to take a broader view of religion, as informed by Kuhn, so that scientists and atheists can be as religious as muslims. So I would say that the western European theater in WWII pitted many worshipers of the God of the Bible against many worshipers of Hitler. I wouldn’t say that religion caused WWII as much as envy did. But I would say that it seems that many Lutherans seemed to discount their biblical beliefs relative to their belief in Hitler.

        But perhaps I am engaging in a non-constructive conflation here. What makes religious worship different from Hitler worship?

      • Thursday

        Religion at a minimum should have some sort of supernaturalism. The word you seem to be looking for is ideology.

      • I guess I find all ideologies–such as “Hope Change”, “Mein Kampf”, “Das Capital”–have supernatural attributions placed on their philosophical premises as well as their figurehead archetypes, so the lines are pretty blurry with Islam, or any other religion. So the problems may not simply arise from the leading proponents; they can rise with the followers, too. That voter telling us all in 2008 that President Obama would pay for her mortgage and gas sounded a bit supernaturalistic to me.

        I appreciate your corrective lens. Still squinting here, though.

  • mjgeddes

    The trouble with the rationalists: where are all the conspiracies and revolutions? Where are the evil geniuses? I tell you, you could learn from Slytherin, the only to displace a ‘locked in’ standard and win is to use dirty play.

    ‘The Virtues Of House Slytherin’

  • John

    Surely this fact is known to most atheists, so this can’t really be about inducing a social change to a new less objectionable religion substitute. So it is probably mostly about other things, such as status contests within the smaller world of intellectuals.

    Why do you always come back to status, and then stop there? Status is social currency, and any economist should know that currencies are minted for a reason.

    At a first guess, I’d say some successful academics stirred up an atheism-based status hierarchy, knowing that it would become self-perpetuating, toward the medium-term goal of making atheism a thing that people talk about and seriously consider. That, in turn, builds toward the long-term goal of making a societal switchover to atheism easy enough that the benefits can outweigh the costs, which then improves society as a whole. It’s not even irrationally altruistic of them: self-perpetuating status hierarchies aren’t all that hard to establish within an existing academic community, while the potential rewards of a saner society for the founders, if they live long enough, or their descendants in any case, are substantial.

  • Bóh urojony

    You don’t have to win discussions with religion, you just have to procreate more with a coherent plan for a new direction for the civilization.

    • Thursday
    • Breeding is +1, if you’re lucky.

      Conversion is at least +2 (-1 for them, +1 for us).

      • Thursday

        1. Propensity towards religious belief is based on certain psychological traits.
        2. Those traits are heritable.
        3. Once you convert someone to secularism they tend to stop breeding.

        Which means that the people who continue to breed tend to be those who have the strongest psychological resistance to secularism. They will pass that resistance on to their descendants.

      • And yet, secularism grows. Heritability of religiosity is far from complete.

        We owe it to religious people to try to rescue them. Imagine if you had been born into a religious family!

      • Thursday

        And yet, secularism grows.

        Look at Kaufmann’s book before you talk about these things. The only place secularism seems to be growing by conversion is the United States, which seems to have had an artificially high level of religiosity relative to otherwise very similar societies in Western Europe.

  • David E

    You left out that most religious people realize that atheist are just as irrational as religious people, although perhaps on different issues. Actually a better way to say it is that atheists just have religious beliefs concerning non religious ideas, e.g. environmentalism, communism, various political beliefs, etc.

  • JS Allen

    Modern science, medicine, and politics/economics have supplanted a large portion of what religion traditionally did. But you’re right that the remaining functions of religion will be difficult to supplant, and religion comes roaring back to fill the gap whenever society breaks down to the point that secular alternatives are overpressured.

  • Not futile but long term. It has been taking decades, and there is progress.

  • Nate F

    Memetic evolution faces the same problem that genetic evolution faces: A blind process cannot take on temporary setbacks with future rewards in sight, because a blind process has no foresight. A blind man won’t walk over coals to get to a Perfect Paradise on the other side. He will take one step onto the coals, feel the pain, and go back.

    Human beings, individually, have some foresight. If we truly believe that developing a belief system without the supernatural will ultimately make us happier, we can tolerate the painful adjustments needed to get there. Of course, therein lies the problem: generally speaking, people whose belief systems rely on supernatural explanations do NOT think that a different belief system will be better.

    It is people like me, who accidentally fell out of a supernatural belief system into a natural one, who are screaming, “It’s so much better over here!” and are only retrospectively glad that we went through the temporary, painful adjustment period.

    While any given individual is capable of enduring temporary setbacks with future rewards in sight, human super-organisms have far less foresight, and tend to move with the blind advancement of Natural Selection.

    That said, religion HAS ALWAYS been receding, as small concessions are made every time the payoff of acknowledging natural explanations is bigger than the cost of giving up the old supernatural explanations. Every passing generation attributes less and less to supernatural phenomenon. But the changes do not happen as abruptly as they do in individual humans.

  • “It seems to me that religion will handily win this contest for a long time to come.”

    Religion is losing that contest, i.e., the contest of the dialectic. (The religious are deconverted at a higher rate the irreligious converted.) The contest religion is winning is the contest of reproductivity. So the barrier to a secular transformation isn’t transaction costs but breeding dynamics.

  • Several points

    1) The ability of religion to perpetuate itself depends on it’s continued relevance to people’s lives. Given the inherent conservativity of established religions I wonder if they will be able to make the necessery adaptations to stay relevant during the coming radical cultural and social shifts brought on by computers and telecommunications.

    2) Yes, obviously religious beliefs aren’t really the same sort of beliefs as ‘the loan shark will break my legs in a year if I can’t pay him back’ as demonstrated by our much weaker response to the punishment of hell. Of course there are always some true believers but they are a small minority.

    However, it’s unfair to critisize the atheist for speaking as if religious beliefs were no different than any other kind of belief since this is how religious people insist they mean it. Atheists are unpopular enough as it is if they told people they don’t really believe what they say so should stop using the misleading terminology they would only generate more anger.

    3) I’m quite skeptical that early man had some deeply more satisfying religious experience as the quotes suggest.

    In particular I suspect that religious belief, pushed by the need to have respectful views of contradictory faiths, will simply become less and less propositional over time and more openly symbolic/metaphorical. In another 200 years I wouldn’t be surprised if religious belief was more a kind of cultural identification mixed with simple superstition (if I pray/whatever I will have a good day) than anything resembling a belief system.

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