Religion Gets Bad Rap

Indonesian police say a civil servant who posted “God does not exist” on Facebook faces a maximum penalty of five years behind bars for blasphemy. … He was attacked by a mob on his way to work. (more)

I’m an atheist, and dislike mistreatment of atheists. But I also have to admit religion often gets a bad rap. For example, I’ve been reading more science fiction than usual lately, some old and some new. I notice that they almost all include the trope of religious folks trying hard to hold back progress, often via terrorism. Perhaps this was once fair, but it doesn’t seem remotely so today. (And I don’t see it listed among other science fiction tropes.)

When religion helped turn foragers into farmers, it paid a lot of attention to sex. So religious folks still care a lot about sex, and have resisted sex-related techs, such as birth control, abortion, and IVF. But those techs are pretty old today, and only abortion remains strongly opposed. Yeah there are stem cell treatments, but that is a pretty tiny fraction of medicine.

A science fiction author from fifty years ago might have imagined strong religious oppositions to VCRs or the internet, because they aided porn. Or to cell phones with cameras because they allow sexting. Or to all sorts of “unnatural” medical techs. But overall, religious folks today seem just as pro-tech as others.

That doesn’t mean we don’t erect social barriers to new techs. But instead of being religious, most barriers today are regulatory and risk-based. As we have grown rich and eager to regulate each other, we have become more risk-averse and made it harder to introduce new disruptive techs. For example, computer-driven car tech is basically here and ready to go, but it will be a long time before we allow it. Same for automated flight and medical diagnosis,

Alas science fiction authors are reluctant to blame over-regulators as their anti-tech villain. Religion makes a safer target – most sf readers like regulation, but few are religious. Also, we tend to overestimate the importance of doctrine and dogma, relative to habits of behavior. Most religious dogma is silly and doesn’t meet our usual intellectual standards. But it also doesn’t much influence behavior. In fact, religious folks tend to have exemplary behavior overall. They work hard, are married and healthy, avoid crime, deal fair, help associates, etc. While it may seem plausible that people with crazy beliefs would do crazy harmful things, the opposite seems to apply in this case.

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  • Miley Cyrax

    Religion when associated with white people gets a bad rap, as whites are more politically acceptable targets for bigotry. Hence you will see people constantly excoriating “bible-thumping anti-evolutionary hicks,” but see the same people defending Muslim extremism. You will have people mocking and denigrating Tim Tebow for his religious beliefs, but a black NFL player would not face the same ridicule.

    Religion is another excuse for whites to signal superiority over the “wrong kinds” of whites.

    • Alan

      This is also an instance of “the soft bigotry of lowered expectations”. The people who excoriate white religious believers but not people of color simply have lower expectations for people of color.

  • http://lincoln.metacannon.net Lincoln Cannon

    Robin, here’s some support for your hypothesis that actively religious Americans use technology at similar rates to secular Americans: http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2011/Social-side-of-religious/Overview.aspx

  • Preferred Anonymous

    “Most religious dogma is silly and doesn’t meet our usually intellectual standards.” – Hanson

    Why don’t you try: “Most dogma is silly and doesn’t meet our usually intellectual standards.”

    Just pointing out Hanson’s biases.

    The real culprit (I would imagine) is most scifi readers that are also atheists, use scifi as a sort of power trip…its something rewarding, that makes them feel better about their own religious stance. So, yes, by all means, level the playing feild in sci-fi novels and have more evil regulators. (These exist, I would like to propose that there is very much likely such a thing as a sappy sci-fi novel, something some aetheists no doubt drink up. Such is the nature of 3rd-rate entertainment.)

    The truth is, there is nothing “silly” about religion, and religion has nothing to do with dogma. I should say, “religion”, is nothing more than a set of beliefs, beliefs in the absence of any possible proof. There is nothing bad about maintaining a belief in the absence of a possible proof. In fact, are not the very seedlings of science, simply beliefs? One hypothesizes where one does not know. A Hypothesis, then, is nothing more than religion. At least before it has been substantied and proved (if at all possible).

    Otherwise, wouldn’t the belief that there is no God simply be a silly, dogmatic relgious belief?

    • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

      Most physics dogma is actually pretty reasonable.

      • Preferred Anonymous

        Why don’t you define dogma then?

        Also see: “Most dogma is silly and doesn’t meet our usually intellectual standards.”

      • josh

        If you count any old ass’ ideas as physics, most physics is silly. Same with religion. On the other hand, classical theology is actually quite reasonable.

        Robin Hanson, you are *not* more reasonable than Thomas Aquinas! I’m not saying St. Thomas was right, but he was certainly reasonable and quite a bit more of a “bullet-biter” than you.

      • KPres

        “Most physics dogma is actually pretty reasonable.”

        Not the physics dogma that gets presented to the public. Many of the metaphors used are absurd like the Big Bang (what banged?).

        Of course, nobody would regard a layman’s cursory understanding of Quantum Mechanics as representative of the field. Yet the dumbest hick Bill Maher can find in western Georgia for his latest propaganda piece is so often taken as a definitive expert on religious philosophy.

        It’s absolutely a double standard and religion does get a bad rap. The worst part of it is all the intellectual pretension you tend to get from athiests who never want to confront a professional philosopher about religion, and from whom they’d find out that terms like athiest/thiest/agnostic are all gross oversimplifications dumbed down for the blunt-minded masses which unwittingly includes themselves.

      • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

        “what banged?” Everything we’ve ever seen and ever will see.

    • Chad

      This chain of reasoning is clearly flawed.

      >I should say, “religion”, is nothing more than a set of beliefs, beliefs in the absence of any possible proof.

      >One hypothesizes where one does not know.

      >A Hypothesis, then, is nothing more than religion.

      A valid hypothesis should be testable. Merely “not knowing” is not the same as “absence of any possible proof”.

      • Preferred Anonymous

        “A valid hypothesis should be testable.”

        You said it yourself.

        Nowhere in your “rebuttal” do I see a proof that all hypotheses are valid.

        Neither do I see any proof that all religion is untestable.

        If then, some aspect of religion becomes testable, is it not then a vad hypothesis? Which may perhaps not be practical testable, even if it is “theoretically” testable.

        Don’t make me dig up the semantics/definitions of hypotheses.

      • Chad

        Preferred Anonymous:

        There is no need to prove that all hypotheses are valid to show the flaw in your reasoning. You state that “A hypothesis is nothing more than religion”. To disprove this, one need merely demonstrate that some hypotheses are not religion — which you define as a set of beliefs in the absence of any possible proof. Any hypothesis that is testable should suffice.

    • http://omicron-theta.blogspot.com Ari T

      “The truth is, there is nothing “silly” about religion, and religion has nothing to do with dogma.”
      Yes there is. People who believe in magical unicorns do seem silly to most other people but religions do not. I don’t see any difference, although religion is to some extent harmless tradition which I can participate in.

      Sci-fi probably causes biases but that’s another story.

      • Preferred Anonymous

        *shakes head*

        Subjectively, you might find “magic unicorns” silly. Objectively, do they exist?

        I’ll let you get back to me on that one. :)

    • rosyatrandom

      The truth is, there is nothing “silly” about religion

      [Citation Needed]

      • Preferred Anonymous

        Ah. But its axiomatic.

  • http://www.uncrediblehallq.net/ Chris Hallquist

    >They work hard, stay married and healthy, avoid crime, deal fair, help associates, etc.

    The thing about “staying married” is false. In the US at least, conservative protestants have the highest divorce rates; atheists and agnostics have one of the lowest (though Catholics also have a low divorce rate). My guess is that this is because social pressure to marry = getting married too young.

    I haven’t seen much evidence either way on the behaviors, though prisons are full of people who are at least nominally religious.

    • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

      I changed “stay” to “are” to stay on the safe side.

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com Stephen R Diamond

        The safe side of what? Staying married has more to do with “morality” than getting married.

    • Someone from the other side

      Atheism and agnosticism likely also proxies for education (and hence likely g) which has been shown to drive down divorce rates somehow…

    • thesecond

      That survey on marriage rates was rather weak. First note, it only polled about 80 atheists. Regardless of the results it’s not a statistically strong result. Second, it polled atheists on whether they’d ever divorced. Since atheists cohabit at a much higher rate than marrying obviously less atheists divorce. They did another survey in 2004 where they only compared people who had been married. Atheists had divorced at a 37% rate, compared to about 35% in general for people.

      It’s all very well to moralize about the differences between two groups of people you see in statistics, but you should make sure your statistics are valid for your moralizing. The deeply antireligious and unacademic site religious tolerance is not a good source for reliable statistics.

    • http://fearfulfortress.blogspot.com/ (an atheist)

      There is a serious problem with this sort of argument against religion. The fraction of people who identify with the words “atheist” or “agnostic” are unrepresentative of non-religious people as a whole. Self-identified atheists are more intelligent, whereas there is a very large non religious population that doesn’t use words like “atheist” or “agnostic” but doesn’t subscribe to any religion or believe in deities, etc.

      This guy crunched the numbers, and he found that self identified atheists are underrepresented in prison, but “no religion” people are over-represented.

  • army1987

    Perhaps this was once fair, but it doesn’t seem remotely so today.

    You’ve never lived in Italy or Ireland, have you.

  • http://omicron-theta.blogspot.com Ari T

    I completely agree, and this a good post. It is sad our risk aversion is so high. We’d never have allowed the experimental planes today that revolutionized flight back in early 1900s. Automated cars could really make a lot of difference.

    • KPres

      The problem is that automated cars negate the only attractive advantage to public transportation, ie, that you don’t have to drive the vehicle, which makes the technology an enemy of the political Left, much like natural gas.

      • SD

        Public transit reduces congestion of roads, much more than automated vehicles could. And it could very well be quite a while before the cost of self-driving cars comes down enough to be widespread.

        Additionally, as a member of the ‘political left’ it seems to me there’s been a noticeable absence of railing against self-driving vehicles. Unless I’ve been subconsciously filtering them out – always possible.

  • MattC

    Alas science fiction authors are reluctant to blame over-regulators as their anti-tech villain.

    A prominent counterexample: the harsh and unjustified government regulations on robots in Asimov. Protagonists are often bitter about the “Frankenstein complex” behind the over-regulation, and in the end it always turns out that the safeguards installed by the manufacturer, the Three Laws, are enough to ensure that the robots never hurt anyone.

  • Chad

    The previous post about living in a sim led me to wonder what the difference is between believing in an ominipotent deity and believing that we are in a sim controlled by some kind of superintelligence. Doesn’t seem like there is that significant a distinction…

    • http://www.uncrediblehallq.net/ Chris Hallquist

      This gave me a thought: argument from evil against the simulation hypothesis: if we’re living in a computer simulation, the people running the simulation would have to be total assholes. But while it’s possible that the future (i.e. the time when most people will be simulations) will be run by total assholes, this seems unlikely. This should cause us to lower our estimate of the probability that we are living in a simulation.

      • groo

        Ever read/inhaled David Hume?
        The basics should be settled by now. Right?

      • Finch

        It’s possible the simulation has nothing to do with us. In fact, it seems likely, assuming we’re in a simulation, that we are just a side effect and not the central purpose. It’s probably about the effect of changing unit charge or something like that.

      • Alan

        1. Simulation could be an immersive history lesson. We may have initiated the simulation.

        2. Simulation could be training or child-rearing. Those who created the simulation have god-like powers, and want to make sure that anyone they allow to be gods alongside of them have really good ethics.

        3. Not all persons need be equal. This could be a simulation for one, a dozen, or a million “players” – out of a population of over 7 billion. The suffering or deaths of others may be an illusion.

      • Mostly Anonymous

        Have you never played Sim City?

      • Konkvistador

        Are you invoking reliable moral progress?

  • groo

    science fiction … I notice that they almost all include the trope of religious folks trying hard to hold back progress, often via terrorism. …

    Avatar?
    The last SF I read was Stanislav Lem.
    Don’t know what Your filter is.

    …When religion helped turn foragers into farmers…

    is this a myth/projection?
    Where is the scientific proof? You cite Yourself as ‘proof’.

    …most barriers today are regulatory and risk-based…

    So what should be the conclusion?
    Encourage risk? What risk? Whose risk?
    Is regulation bad, risk good?

    …As we have grown rich and eager to regulate each other…

    ‘We’? Eager?
    I find this strange in the age of the 99%.

    …computer-driven car tech …´automated flight … medical diagnosis…

    So how to proceed?
    Behind that, it seems to me, is a conception of a frozen rationality in the form of technology.

    Here is a citation from a great engineer –Steve Ciarcia– just a couple of days ago:

    “…Being a good engineer has to include more. Medical schools teach the importance of bedside manner in creating great doctors. Perhaps a little engineering version of “bedside manner” needs to be taught to engineers so they can empathize better when it comes to using all this stuff. “

  • richard silliker

    “Half the people in the world think that the metaphors of their religious traditions, for example, are facts. And the other half contends that they are not facts at all. As a result we have people who consider themselves believers because they accept metaphors as facts, and we have others who classify themselves as atheists because they think religious metaphors are lies.”
    ― Joseph Campbell, Thou Art That: Transforming Religious Metaphor

    Interesting how this post went from religion to technology.

    “But instead of being religious, most barriers today are regulatory and risk-based.” So..“If you want to change the world, you have to change the metaphor.”
    ― Joseph Campbell

    Giving religion a bad rap is akin to giving someone a bad rap because of the colour of their skin. Religion as well as skin colour are not behaviours, rather they are constraints on the flow of mass.

    “All religions are true but none are literal.”
    ― Joseph Campbell

    Technology is the medium and therefore the message. How we deal with this will determine mankind’s future. What metaphors will we implement that evoke in us the flows necessary to have technology serve us as opposed to us having to serve the state.

    Life is personal. Live it.

  • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com Stephen R Diamond

    Hanson’s outlook is strangely dated; like it was formed before the economic meltdown, and Hanson refuses to integrate any subsequent developments. His views are like a fossil of predepression capitalist triumphalism.

    Point in question. How can anyone look at the hyper-religious crackers attending the Republican debates and conceive of these people as “moral”?

    And hasn’t anyone noticed the ultrareligious white trash. Stay married indeed!

    • http://omniorthogonal.blogspot.com mtraven

      Re Hanson’s anti-regulatory biases:

      “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”
      – Upton Sinclair

      • KPres

        Uh, by orders of magnitude the largest single contributor to Hansen’s salary is the US Government. I’d love to know who that influences his “anti-regulatory” bias. Instead it probably has to do with the fact that the US devotes about 18% of it’s yearly GDP to regulatory compliance costs.

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com Stephen R Diamond

        KPres,

        >Uh, by orders of magnitude the largest single contributor to Hansen’s salary is the US Government.

        Hardly the same thing, as the Government can’t be ideologically selective. A benefit isn’t an incentive unless it’s contingent. Some information on the Koch brothers and George Mason University:
        http://robertdfeinman.com/society/gmu.html

        >Instead it probably has to do with the fact that the US devotes about 18% of it’s yearly GDP to regulatory compliance costs.

        According to who? Somebody on the Koch Foundation payroll?

        It’s notable that with all the biases discussed on Overcoming Bias and its sister, Less Wrong, (anyone know what the split issues were between Yudkowsky and Hanson?), biases including the self-serving variety in general, nothing is ever said about the biases based on class interest.

    • http://hertzlinger.blogspot.com Joseph Hertzlinger

      If you try to prevent the economic meltdown by sending advice to the past, what would it have sounded like if it were sent by chronophone?

      If you send advice to increase financial regulation to politicians of a mere decade ago via chronophone, what would it come out as? If you say “Make sure financial institutions only invest in the soundest securities,” it might come out as “Only invest in top-rated mortgage securities and European sovereign debt.” After all, the major worries of most of the naughties were that foreigners would compete with Americans and that a combination of wars and tax cuts would drive America bankrupt. (Clearly, we should only invest in industries that were immune to imports and off-shoring and only invest in sovereign debt from peaceful countries unafraid of taxes.)

      • http://omniorthogonal.blogspot.com mtraven

        WTF? Honestly, half the stuff around here sounds like it is written by aliens who have only a nodding acquaintance with life as it is actually lived here on Earth.

        It would be very easy to give advice to people ten years ago. For instance, you could tell themnot to pass the the CFMA in 2000 which explictly deregulate the derivatives market. That one act of deregulation bears a large responsibility for the current crisis. Or if that’s too many bits for the chronophone, tell them to put Bernie Sanders in charge of everything — yes, the socialist who was one of four house members with the sense to vote against this disaster.

        And nobody is suggesting that financial institutions be limited to investing in “the soundest securities”. There’s nothing wrong with risk given (a) transparency so risk is priced accurately and (b) size limits to avoid “too big to fail” problems, and (c) regulation to prevent fraud.

      • KPres

        @mtraven

        Oh please give that tire tripe a rest. How the hell does the CFMA, which wasn’t implemented until 2001, lead to a housing bubble which CLEARLY began in the mid-90s? http://goo.gl/TcIVw Did the “deregulation” (which it wasn’t) go back in time and change people’s behavior?

        The ONLY policy change that correlates with that date is Bill Clinton’s National Homeownership Strategy. You want to know what sparked the housing bubble and consequent financial crisis, look there.

        All the CFMA did was allow commercial/investment banks and insurance companies to merge, as they had always been able to in Europe, and which never created a massive housing bubble as a result.

        You people will say anything.

      • http://omniorthogonal.blogspot.com mtraven

        I’m hardly alone in assigning a large degree of blame to the CFMA and other failures of regulation; see here for instance, or here. Not that these two references are conclusive of course, but maybe they will suffice to show I’m not just making it up. Warren Buffett, no less, called the unregulated derivatives market a “weapon of financial mass destruction”, and maybe he knows what he’s talking about.

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com Stephen R Diamond

        KPres

        >Did the “deregulation” (which it wasn’t) go back in time and change people’s behavior?

        Only a member of the “Republican base” would try to offer his personal, uninformed analysis against the weight of professional opinion. Even Judge Richard Posner has had to admit that the bubble was the result of deregulation. The basic problem was in the underlying securities rather than the housing market per se.

        Those who worship the market worship it as the hand of God. Thus, the secular right praises religiosity, a small step removed.

        Were the religious nuts who screamed that people without medical insurance should be allowed to die “moral”? Doesn’t the popularity of Gingrich prove, on multiple levels, the immorality of religious thinking?

    • http://omicron-theta.blogspot.com Ari

      Honestly, I thought the commenters here would be wiser than this.

      Sorry, the world isn’t simple like linear scale between regulation and deregulation. Efficiency analysis can reveal very harmful regulation and very harmful deregulation. Financial crisis might be an example of the latter, but Robin is speaking about the former. The amount inefficiency the former can cause just makes me sad. Its practically impossible to quantify, but thanks to compound interest it could make use maybe hundreds of times poorer us in the long run (decades / century). Financial crisis is nothing compared to that, and signalling theory can probably explain why people get so obsessed about it on either side of the debate.

      If we actually had a prediction market about these questions your “expertise” about these questions would be quickly revealed. It is cheap to make blanket statements about biases and institutional corruption. If auto-auto revolution gets delayed for decades because of irrational risk aversion and harmful regulation, it is not like you are going to pay the cost. Well actually you are, like everyone else, but not in any real proportion to the damage caused.

      • http://omniorthogonal.blogspot.com mtraven

        Its practically impossible to quantify, but thanks to compound interest it could make use maybe hundreds of times poorer us in the long run (decades / century). Financial crisis is nothing compared to that

        “It’s practically impossible to quantify, yet I’m going to quantify it for you!”

        Yes it is possible to over-regulate, and it’s also possible to under-regulate (both relative to some difficult-to-describe optimum). No doubt both of these happen. But Hanson is a regular cheerleader for deregulation, and so is the Koch political machine that he takes money from. That seems at least worthy of comment in a blog devoted to “overcoming bias”.

        I do not know what the regulatory optimum for self-driving cars is. But as a software professional familiar with system failure, I am quite certain that it is not zero.

      • KPres

        “But Hanson is a regular cheerleader for deregulation, and so is the Koch political machine that he takes money from.”

        LOL, right. GMU receives maybe 0.1% of it’s operating budget in donations from Koch industries and you’re telling me that makes Robert Hanson biased?

        Good God.

      • http://omicron-theta.blogspot.com Ari

        I should have added word accurately. Let me elaborate.

        Suppose nanotechnology were prohibited. In 20 years time, maybe it could be just plain infeasible and the damage done would be fairly small, but there’s also possibility that it might revolutionize something and would be highly useful. And thanks to compound interest, it stacks up, to possibly stellar degree. The probability spread is just quite massive.

        However difference in growth rates like 4% (HK average iirc) instead of 1% makes almost around 20x difference in size of economy over a century. That is roughly the difference between Senegal and UK. It is probably a bit exaggerated (technology can stagnate for example) but explains the argument very well.

        Static costs from government excess, inefficient taxes etc. are easier to quantify.

        “both relative to some difficult-to-describe optimum”
        It is called economic efficiency, also Robin. Economists are most of the experts on that. Their average opinion is a good bet. Thanks to biases and dispersion of knowledge though, prediction market could beat even them.

        The regulation criticism sure isn’t Koch invention. It is more of a meme that a lot of people use when they don’t want to attack the direct arguments. Criticism of regulation on efficiency basis existed long before Koch’s even existed (start from Smith or Bastiat) and is done by many people and institutions completely unattached from them.

      • http://libertardian.posterous.com mtraven

        @Ari said

        Suppose nanotechnology were prohibited. In 20 years time, maybe it could be just plain infeasible and the damage done would be fairly small, but there’s also possibility that it might revolutionize something and would be highly useful.

        I hope you can see the biased way you are framing this — the downside is small, but the upside is huge. If that were so, then there would be no problem with having minimal regulation.

        But in fact, the possible downside from self-driving cars is significant, and that from possible downside from nanotech may be infinite.

        All regulations are put in place because of perceived potential harm (well, the good ones — there are certainly cases of corruption and rent-seeking). We don’t always get it right, partly because risk is hard to estimate. But the ideology on display here seems to say that we should ignore the downside because of the spectacular upsides that have gripped our imagination. That is bad economics and bad policy, no matter who it emanates from.

      • mjgeddes

        Libertarian ideology (pro-deregulation etc.) gained popularity via Ayn Rand novels, who was actullay shitting everyone. Listen to this extract:

        “To Whom It May Concern:

        I gave my lawyer instructions to release this message after my death. A joke I concocted when I was a kid has gone way, way too far. The most important thing you should know is this: Nothing I have ever written was meant to be taken seriously. You really don’t want to build some kind of philosophy around Atlas Shrugged, okay?”

        “Back in the early 1940s I was living in Tenafly, New Jersey with a guy named Ronnie Hubbard. He was hiding out in his brother’s basement so he could avoid the draft, and I was working at a rendering plant. Most nights we’d lie on this cot he’d found on a curb and drink, fuck like weasels, and smoke opium. I’ll be honest: We smoked a shit-ton of opium.”

        “What’s the worst prank you could possibly pull?” he wanted to know.”

        “The worst thing you could do would be to somehow take the most terrible people in the world, and make them even greater douches than they already are. Find a way to zero in on all of their ugliest faults and vices, and just… just amp them up beyond belief. That would be something.”

        “I’m going to convince actors they have super powers.”

        “Rich white college kids. I’m going to convince them… that they’re just too nice.”

        “We laughed for twenty minutes. I was tearing up, and Ronnie was wheezing like he was going to stroke out. I didn’t even know where I was going with this idea. But it felt just so fucking wrong. In a good way. In a great way.”

        “Of course we never thought we could do any of this. You figure even the most entitled, morally backward people kind of know they’re being dicks. No one is going to believe that being selfish and irresponsible is actually a good thing. Right?”

        “Next thing I know Ronnie’s goaded me into writing this wooden, transparently stupid novel. And it sells, like, a bajillion copies. I kept waiting for someone to figure out it was all a joke. But the reporters kept asking serious, thoughtful questions, and the goddamn college kids kept joining those clubs.”

        I Was Shitting You People – A Message from Ayn Rand

      • Ari T

        “I hope you can see the biased way you are framing this — the downside is small, but the upside is huge. If that were so, then there would be no problem with having minimal regulation.”
        Well this depends on your knowledge how people actually can solve coordination problems without explicit government regulation. I recommend reading some of David Friedman’s books to get some opposite ideas to yours.

        To give you an example. Internet is a great place of people solving coordination problems organically. I order stuff from foreign countries quite a bit, and I’ve never got shafted even though lawsuits would probably either be prohibitively expensive or just plain impossible. Amazon seller ratings, credit card companies etc. have all incentives to please many customers, and have developed regulation keep their customers happy. I’ve ordered stuff from countries who probably don’t even have anything like Consumer Product Safety Commission.

        I don’t think Internet would such awesome place it is if it were regulated with heavy hand of government like almost everything else is.

        “All regulations are put in place because of perceived potential harm (well, the good ones — there are certainly cases of corruption and rent-seeking).”
        First of all, this depends on the definition of rent-seeking. Secondly, this would be a decent conclusion if democracy was efficient. Evidence suggests it is not. First of all, voters are in no way responsible to the damage they can do, moral hazard on epic scale. In stock market, you’ll get punished for bad picks. In voting, the losses are socialized.

        In fact many people who like regulation, don’t want to give an inch for the state to regulate the Internet. It is rather random what we choose to regulate and what not. Robin thinks we put a lot of excess regulation because of status reasons also work-hour regulation. I think that makes a lot of sense.

        “But the ideology on display here seems to say that we should ignore the downside because of the spectacular upsides that have gripped our imagination. That is bad economics and bad policy, no matter who it emanates from.”
        All regulation rises prices because the producers have to produce higher quality products. This makes lower quality products unavailable to those who want them. This is usually consumer surplus loss, and many find ways like ordering from abroad in Internet to get around such paternalism. It also has externalities that affect the whole economy.

        I don’t think it is mostly spectacular upsides like auto-autos. I think most small regulations adds up to a lot of deadweight loss over time. Like Einstein said, there’s no force as powerful as compound interest. For example, read this article. I don’t think the writer is libertarian, or even know anything about it, but it explains a lot of problems with the extreme risk aversion that grips many minds.

        “But in fact, the possible downside from self-driving cars is significant”
        If so, then they’d pay higher insurance premiums.

        Fundamentally I think the problem is that neither you or me are accountable for our beliefs. If I support deregulation that has devastating consequences, I don’t pay the cost. If you support regulation that has devastating consequences you don’t pay the cost. We need better institutions to aggregate information like futarchy. Honestly, I think the information how to solve these coordination problems exists at least on efficiency-basis but it is just not used because of biases and status games.

        I don’t have much respect for Ayn Rand. Fiction is bad description of reality. A lot of people and institutions are probably responsible for popularity of libertarianism but I’m only interested in logical arguments.

      • http://omniorthogonal.blogspot.com mtraven

        @Ari,

        Sorry son, you have no idea what you are talking about. Where do you think the Internet came from? Hint: it wasn’t a corporation, or a collection of them, that got together and decided to adopt open protocols and an open network.

        I don’t think Internet would such awesome place it is if it were regulated with heavy hand of government like almost everything else is.

        The internet wouldn’t exist without the government, and as it takes over more and more of everyday life it will end up being regulated by the government, for better (eg, efforts to enforce net neutrality, and the efforts to control worms and other malware) or worse (SOPA, which is a so-so example of rent-seeking, although the Research Works Act is just as bad and closer to the mark). That the Internet has remained open as long as it has is an aftereffect of its origins as a government project.

        I dealt with Caplan’s lousy book here, see also other entries at that site and at the link off my name. I’ve been arguing with libertarians on the net for 30 years, and it’s always the same bullshit. Come up with something new, why don’t you?

      • http://omicron-theta.blogspot.com Ari T

        “Sorry son, you have no idea what you are talking about. Where do you think the Internet came from? Hint: it wasn’t a corporation, or a collection of them, that got together and decided to adopt open protocols and an open network.”
        What does public research have to do with regulation? Does it matter who invented light bulb to our discussion of environmental regulation?

        Secondly, inventing the protocol stack is one thing, but you needed years of efficient production to bring the cost, speed and quality of networking software and hardware available to everyone which was done mostly by private entities. They have Internet in North Korea too.

        I believe there are public goods, depending on economist you get a different list of them. Just because government implements something doesn’t mean it couldn’t have been implemented by non-profit or profit organizations or people. There’s always an opportunity cost for the resources used. We need better instruments, like prediction markets to see what public goods need to be provided by the government and what are best left for spontaneous invention. Although like with aesthetics, there’re difficult quantification problems.

        Yes we might need regulation to keep Internet open. I don’t deny that but our current decision system just makes systematically wrong decisions. I heard Nicolas Sarkozy saying recently that Internet ought to be government by the state, an entity which is very jealous of power. I don’t think those were very wise words.

        “the efforts to control worms and other malware”
        War Against Worms? I’m waiting for the government to tell which firewall and antivirus software we have to run. Sure, there’re coordination problems on global scale that might not be fixed organically but the tools of government to fix the security problems in Internet are rather limited.

        I read your review of the said book and I wasn’t convinced. I could go more into detail but I’ll say this: voter rationality is studied by scientific field called public choice. The problems of voting are not tied to government. You could have same problems in private company or non-profit organization too if decisions were done by popular vote. You could socialize losses and profits from stock market and check back next year what kind of production structure you end up. Incentives matter.

        Also I don’t think economists can have the final say in every question but in my opinion a lot of these political questions are about efficiency: macroeconomics, labour market etc. Economists are experts about it just like climate scientists know the most about climate. Some political groups don’t like their results, and that is understandable as it attacks their values or beliefs but fighting against the reality is not very useful.

        To say that average Joe can have equal say about macroeconomics as highly experienced economist when he has nothing on the line strikes to me as a bit funny. Yes I think economists ought to have something on the line when it comes to deciding things as it would filter out lots of bias, but we still don’t have to resort to DIY science.

        I’d appreciate if you would stick to substance instead of leveling down to personal level. Staying civil makes the discourse much more comfortable. And by the way, I never said I’m libertarian. I believe efficiency is much more important in most cases but I do agree with libertarians in many cases because libertarian solutions tend to be efficient.

  • Riley J.

    Catholic opposition to birth control in overpopulated areas strikes me as a serious harm. The fact that virtually all national politicians must profess some sort of obsession with religion seems to filter out more reasonable or honest people.

    • Jeffrey Soreff

      Agreed. Also, it isn’t just damaging because of statistical averages in
      overpopulated areas, it is damaging to any couple which is persuaded
      to reproduce when they can’t afford it, and consequently ruin their lives.

      There is a lot of variation amongst religions, from reasonably harmless
      ones like secular Buddhism to Wahhabist Islam, which flies planes into
      buildings (which I do count as a “crazy, harmful thing”).

      Prof Hanson seems to be mostly concentrating on religion’s effect or
      lack thereof on technology. Technology is certainly important, but it
      is not the only important place to look. Hanson does mention
      religion’s effect on sex. Actually, for a fairly wide variety of religions,
      religion doesn’t change sexual practise, but it does
      damage sexual satisfaction
      (again, this varies a lot – Mormonism
      is quite toxic, Unitarianism fairly benign. This isn’t a minor effect – sex
      is a substantial chunk of most people’s pleasure in life.

      As a somewhat
      related effect, in the US, a subset of Christian conservatives have
      put “abstinence-only” sex “education” in place in a substantial fraction
      of the country, basically damaging the education of the children
      attending public schools i those areas – regardless of those children’s
      beliefs.

      Then there are religious wars…

      How does one want to count religiously motivated executions by
      stoning? As far as I am aware, this is the only openly practiced
      legal torture killings still performed, and it is done in the name of
      Islam.

      • KPres

        “This isn’t a minor effect – sex is a substantial chunk of most people’s pleasure in life.”

        Yeah, but of course, one of the major principles behind religious approach is that the pursuit of petty short-term pleasures like sex leads to a larger overriding dissatisfaction with life in general. This is an idea that’s found in every religion and quite a few secular philosophies as well, so it’s not like it’s unheard of or outlandish. My major point is that it isn’t really fair to criticize religions for something they readily both admit and advertise as part of the approach.

        And as far as things like religious wars, well, athiestic philosophies don’t exactly have an exemplar record in that area either (see Communism). It seems that ideological attachment (something religions preach against – it’s the entire thrust of Jesus’s condemnation of the Pharisees) is the real culprit here.

  • http://larrysiegel.org Larry Siegel

    I think that religious people get a bad rap. Paraphrasing Buckley, I would rather be governed by people selected at random from a church membership list in the suburbs of one of our Sunbelt cities than by the Harvard faculty.

    But religion does not get a bad rap. It deserves its rap. It consists of Bronze Age fairy tales, makes propositions that cannot be tested, and asks for uncritical belief.

    There’s a big difference between religion and religious people.

    • richard silliker

      “There’s a big difference between religion and religious people.”

      Do you know the difference enough to explain it?

  • Doug S.

    One problem with religion is that it’s very, very hard to change. In theory, over-regulation can be dealt with by changing the laws – but only God can change the Word of God!

  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

    Robin, most measures that show better behavior among the godly are based on church attendance. Attending church indicates some degree of having your life together and community connectedness. If you go by belief (the GSS includes a question on certainty of the existence of God, and whether the Bible is word of God) the religious look more like the dimmer underclass they are often depicted as.

    Jeffrey Soreff, that sounds contrary to some data I’ve read elsewhere.

    • Jeffrey Soreff

      TGGP – interesting link! More orgasms with deities, but less guilt without
      them? That is very odd… Both studies seem to have used reasonable
      evidence…

      KPres – “petty short-term pleasures”???? A large chunk of the total
      pleasure in our lives! Look, orgasms are real, deities are, as
      Larry Siegel well put it, “Bronze Age fairy tales”. Yes, it is fair
      to criticize religions even for the things they do openly, when those
      actions do a lot of damage. TGGP’s point, however, is important –
      perhaps the damage is less than the evidence that I saw indicated,
      or there may be several orthogonal effects in play here.

  • Albert Ling

    What about theocracies practicing sharia law, is their “bad rap” overblown?

    We may well get to a future tech that sparks the ire of even moderate religious folk, just think of the public reactions to the first genetically modified babies, first successful cryonics defrost, human-level A.I., human clones, brain emulations, trans-humanism in general, etc…

    The fact is: All religions are wrong, most religions are harmless, and some religions are terrible… but on the whole, I still think it’s in every rationalists self interest to slowly but surely undermine the undeserved respect that religion still manages to get.

    • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

      Religious folk vary, as do non religious folk. Some future tech may be especially objectionable to religious folk, but such techs are also likely to be especially objectionable to non-religious folk. It doesn’t seem to be that being pro-religion is the main factor causing folks to be anti such tech.

    • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com Stephen R Diamond

      >most religions are harmless

      “Harmless” to what? Certainly not harmless to the truth. To assess the human cost of systematic falsehood would require a greater grasp of history than I’ve seen anyone in this forum demonstrate.

  • groo

    I’m strongly with some folks here..
    What about this Richard Fink in the Department of Economics of GMU?

    I’m German, sorry, but would like to ask:

    What is the role of this Richard Fink here?
    ….executive vice president of Koch Industries…
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_H._Fink

    And what exactly is his influence on the thinking of the economic faculty there?

    At some other place I was already furious about GMU being the new Chicago.
    No answer, ofcourse.

    The interesting aspect is: How does this all fit together?
    For me it is quite consistent.
    Hansonian ‘thinking’ perfectly well fits all the way down from plain old suprematism up to singularitarianism of the supreme beings, deserving to live basically forever.
    This must be sponsored, ofcourse, because it perfectly fits into the thinking of these individuals..

    So the circle closes.

    RH is especially eloquent to figment this all together.
    From the ancient foragers up to the singularitarians.

    Perfect.

    If I were a Koch Brother, I would have a hard time to find a better apologist of my case.

    Amen.

  • http://shfhs.org Thomas Eliot

    I’m quite surprised you don’t consider the Catholic position on condom use to be “strong oppos[ition]” to form of birth control

  • Pensans

    It’s striking to me how many science fiction writers are not atheists simpliciter, but former Christian atheists. They focus on religion because it is essential to their formation and character, whose strengths they embody ironically in their attacks. They attack so strongly because they are so influenced and feel the need to respond to a formation that they have abandoned.

    Science fiction involves a transmogrification of many of the elements of former Christian beliefs — technological advancement takings the place of eschatology and natural/alien catastrophes taking the place of the final things. Born-and-raised atheists contribute very little to the genre, but approach religion with a much less Oedipean sensibility and much more sympathy.

    Christians believe that the knowledge of God is universal and nearly universally sublimated into various energetic forms of idolatry. In a world of unprofitable follies, Christians receive the super-scorn of self-deceiving atheists as a confirmation of a knowledge that atheists are very interested in hiding from themselves.

    I certainly enjoy this blog’s careful cataloguing of the difficulties of rational self-knowledge. Anyone who has read it and presumed that any man has a clear sense of what he does for foundationally groundable rational reasons is the fool. We may a little progress in one direction only to find that we have losts our way further in a dozen others.

    As Europe has become more secular, does anyone think that it has become more rational? Have the great atheists “republics,” Russia or China, been models of rationality?

    • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com Stephen R Diamond

      >As Europe has become more secular, does anyone think that it has become more rational? Have the great atheists “republics,” Russia or China, been models of rationality?

      You ask the right questions, but your answers err. To the first, obviously so; Europe is a hell of a lot more rational today than it was in the Middle Ages. If you think the Enlightenment wasn’t at all enlightening, you must acknowledge your view is at least odd.

      To the second but with hyperbole omitted, yes again–to the real question of whether the downfall of religion was correlated with increased rationality in the society; but some historical sense is required. Put it this way: Lysenko was hardly a “rationalist”; but he was a hell of a lot more rational than Rasputin.

  • Michael Stonnell

    God exists because we have made him up. However Indonesian police are zealots for wanting to punish this person for a philosophical error.

  • David

    “Alas science fiction authors are reluctant to blame over-regulators as their anti-tech villain.”

    Unless they’re Heinlein.

  • Pensans

    Mr. Diamond, the Enlightenment is a perfect example of Christianity transposed into rationalistic garb by former Christian atheists: the Light of the Enlightenment is human reason rather then God, but the claims made that human reason could perfect personal and social life far exceeded the irrationality of medieval millenarianism. Your rational Enlightenment produced Robespierre, Napoleon, and its Revolutions provided the models for both Hitler and Stalin. That’s the fruit — eat it if you care for the taste, but you won’t convince me that the age was one of increased self-understanding. Now I grant you that the scientific revolution was enlightening, but it was not anti-Christian and was driven by Christians and Christian culture, e.g. Newton and Leibniz.

    As to Europe today, it is incapable of even the basic rational act of self-preservation. Having learned from the Enlightenment that family, Christianity, tradition and nation are irrational, it has become a collection of self-indulgent individualists, barren of children and character in equal parts. At least, Europeans propogated themselves in the Middle Ages. Modern Europeans for all their atheism and secularism lack the reason to survive. Who would Darwin say is more rational?

    • http://profiles.google.com/externalmonologue Matthew Fuller

      nvmnd

      • http://profiles.google.com/externalmonologue Matthew Fuller

        blah blah blah nvmdn.

  • Phil Goetz

    “I notice that they almost all include the trope of religious folks trying hard to hold back progress, often via terrorism. Perhaps this was once fair, but it doesn’t seem remotely so today.”

    Wait, what? How would you explain the middle east today without reference to religious terrorism?