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: Continue reading "Religion As Standard" »