Tag Archives: Religion

The Riddle of Ritual

Since I love social puzzles, I was pleased to discover the book The Problem of Ritual Efficiency:

Ritual has come to be thought of in popular discourse as a kind of action that is ineffective, superficial, and/or purely formal, and this view is the unexamined premise behind much of ritual studies. This attitude explains why …we “know it when we see it” – and what we know to be rituals when we see them are acts that are apparently non rational, in which the means do not seem proportionate to the ends, the intended objects of human action are non empirical beings, or the theories of efficacy that ostensibly explain the ritual acts are inconsistent with modern, scientific paradigms. This reaction is similar to what an archaeologist does when he discovers a structure whose purpose is unclear – he calls it a temple. … The notion that ritual is ineffective is false. … Shamatic rituals heal, legal rituals ratify, political rituals unify, and religious rituals sanctify. Rituals transform sick persons into healthy ones, public spaces into prohibited sanctuary, citizens into presidents, princesses into queens … One of our most important tasks as scholars is to explain how rituals accomplish these things. (pp.6-7)

I bought and read that book, and have also been reading The Creation of Inequality, which emphasizes the centrality of rituals to foragers:

Cosmology, religion, and the arts were crucial to hunters and gatherers. … The lessons of myth were passed on audio visually. Performances combining art, music, and dance fixed in memory the myth and its moral lessons. … We doubt that art, music, and dance arose independently. More than likely the evolved as a package that committed sacred lore to memory more effectively than any lecture. … The archeological data suggest … that the use of the arts increased as larger social units appeared, because each moiety, clan, section, or subsection had its own body of sacred lore to commit to memory. … Dancing, drinking, and singing for days, as some tribes did, opened a window in the the spirit world and thereby confirmed it existence. (pp. 62-63)

Also, reading a BBS article on “ritual behavior”, I came across this comment by Bjorn Merker:

Literal duplication … lies at the very heart of ritual. The need to remember and reproduce essentially arbitrary details on an obligatory basis burdens behavior with a handicap, and the ability to sustain that burden is proof of capacity, and hence tends to impress. … There is reason to believe that humans by nature are carriers of ritual culture in the sense just defined. We, in contrast to chimpanzees – indeed, alone among all the primates but like many songbirds and the humpback whale – are in possession of a neural mechanism that allows us to duplicate with our voice that which we have heard with our ears. Most mammals, who excel at learning in other respects, are incapable of doing so; yet we humans do so with every song we know how to sing and with every word we know how to pronounce. … Such a perspective helps us understand why ritual form marks human culture not only in domains touched by precautionary concerns, but in well nigh every area of human pursuit. (p.624)

While much about ritual remains puzzling, one thing seems clear: the essential human difference, the one that has let us conquer the Earth, was an ability to accumulate useful innovations via culture. And this primarily required a good ritual sense, i.e., a good way to watch and copy procedures like starting a fire, shaping a knife, etc. Having language and big neighbor-friendly social groups helped, but were less essential.

The fact that language require good vocal ritual skills suggests better ritual abilities appeared before full recursive language. Since they were very social, pre-language but post-ritual humans probably filled much of their social lives with complex rituals, showing off their abilities to precisely execute complex procedures, and showing loyalty via doing their group’s procedures. Music, dance, and other such ritual habits continued after full language.

Language let us better express and enforce complex social norms, and helped us gain a more conscious and flexible understanding and control of our procedures. But we still have poor introspective access to our pre-language systems, and so still don’t know a lot about why we do which procedures when, and why they make us feel good or bad.

When humans believe in hidden spirits who take an interest in whether they follow social norms, hard-to-understand rituals offer a natural place to locate their connection to spirits. Humans can believe that spirits watch their rituals, and then respond by making them feel good or bad. This helps us understand why religions emphasize rituals.

Added: This poll has a majority favoring culture coming before language.

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BSG As Horror Tale

We wanted to take the time to examine what happens to people when their dreams are shattered, when everything they held as true turns out to be an illusion. After a blow like that, how do you pick yourself up from the floor and go on? Are you able to pick yourself up at all? This is perhaps the most universal theme you can explore. For the people of ragtag fleet, the dream was Earth. (more)

I recently rewatched the entire Battlestar Galactica (BSG) series, and now have a somewhat different take on it. Many spoilers below – you are warned. Continue reading "BSG As Horror Tale" »

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Stories Are Like Religion

Small children (age 4-6) who were exposed to a large number of children’s books and films had a significantly stronger ability to read the mental and emotional states of other people. … The more absorbed subjects were in the story, the more empathy they felt, and the more empathy they felt, the more likely the subjects were to help when the experimenter “accidentally” dropped a handful of pens… Reading narrative fiction … fosters empathic growth and prosocial behavior. …

Fiction’s happy endings seem to warp our sense of reality. They make us believe in a lie: that the world is more just than it actually is. But believing that lie has important effects for society — and it may even help explain why humans tell stories in the first place. (more)

People who mainly watched drama and comedy on TV — as opposed to heavy viewers of news programs and documentaries — had substantially stronger “just-world” beliefs. … Fiction, by constantly exposing us to the theme of poetic justice, may be partly responsible for the sense that the world is, on the whole, a just place. (more)

Psychologists have found that people who watch less TV are actually more accurate judges of life’s risks and rewards than those who subject themselves to the tales of crime, tragedy, and death that appear night after night on the ten o’clock news. That’s because these people are less likely to see sensationalized or one-sided sources of information, and thus see reality more clearly. (more)

Imagine that all you know about someone is that they have zero interest in stories. Not movies, not novels, not nothing. They prefer instead to stay focused on the real world. The only “stories” they want are accurate histories of representative people. What do you think of this person?

You might want to hire this person. But would you trust them to be loyal? Would you date them? Marry them? Most people feel a little wary of such story-less people, just as they are wary of atheists. People fear that atheists will violate social norms because they do not fear punishment from gods and spirits. Similarly, people fear that story-less people have not internalized social norms well – they may be too aware of how easy it would be to get away with violations, and feel too little shame from trying.

Thus in equilibrium, people are encouraged to consume stories, and to deludedly believe in a more just world, in order to be liked more by others. This is similar to how people have long been encouraged to be religious, so that they could similarly be liked more by others.

A few days ago I asked why not become religious, if it will give you a better life, even if the evidence for religious beliefs is weak? Commenters eagerly declared their love of truth. Today I’ll ask: if you give up the benefits of religion, because you love far truth, why not also give up stories, to gain even more far truth? Alas, I expect that few who claim to give up religion because they love truth will also give up stories for the same reason. Why?

One obvious explanation: many of you live in subcultures where being religious is low status, but loving stories is high status. Maybe you care a lot less about far truth than you do about status.

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Far Truth Is For Extremes

To answer the question posed in my last post, here are some situations where it makes sense to forgo the large benefits of things like religion, to care about far truth:

  1. You are stuck in your ways, like a smoking addict. You admit it would have been better for you had you become more religious early on, but alas you fell in with the wrong crowd, and now the costs of change for you outweigh religion’s gains. If you are nice, you’ll warn young folks to avoid your downfall.
  2. Contrarian far claims with big personal consequences are true. If choosing cryonics would gain you five or more expected years of life (over its costs), and you are one of the rare people who would actually do something so contrarian after being intellectually convinced of its advantages, and if you can reliably discern when a majority is wrong, then you’ll need to think accurately about far topics to find such opportunities. For non-contrarian far claims with personal consequences, you could just follow the crowd without thinking.
  3. You have a good chance of being respected as a far topic expert, by a community that evaluates claims in truth-correlated ways. If you could be a famous cosmologist, you might try to create cosmology claims that will look good when evaluated by the tests cosmologists will apply. The gains from becoming a famous cosmologist could outweigh the risk that by becoming more truth oriented you will forgo religion’s gains. Beware, however, that truth-correlated is not the same as true – most communities say their far claim tests are more truth-correlated than they actually are.

So assuming you actually have a viable choice, the situations where it makes sense to reject religion in favor of far truth are extreme – either there are big personally-useful far contrarian claims to learn, or you have a good shot at being a rare far expert, respected by a community with truth-correlated standards. So if such extremes seem unlikely to you, far truth probably isn’t worth its costs to you. Go away, and sin no more.

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What Use Far Truth?

Consider two facts:

  1. People with religious beliefs, and associated behavior, consistently tend to have better lives. It seems that religious folks tend to be happier, live longer, smoke less, exercise more, earn more, get and stay married more, commit less crime, use less illegal drugs, have more social connections, donate and volunteer more, and have more kids. Yes, the correlation between religion and these good things is in part because good people tend to become more religious, but it is probably also in part because religions people tend to become better. So if you want to become good in these ways, an obvious strategy is to become more religious, which is helped by having more religious beliefs.
  2. Your far beliefs, such as on religion and politics, can’t effect your life much except via how they effect your behavior, and your associates’ opinions of you. When you think about cosmology, ancient Rome, the nature of world government, or starving folks in Africa, it might feel like those things matter to you. But in terms of the kinds of things that evolution could plausibly have built you to actually care about (vs. pretend to care about), those far things just can’t directly matter much to your life. While your beliefs about far things might influence how you act, and what other people think of you, their effects on your quality of life, via such channels of influence, don’t depend much on whether these beliefs are true.

Perhaps, like me, you find religious beliefs about Gods, spirits, etc. to be insufficiently supported by evidence, coherence, or simplicity to be a likely approximation to the truth. Even so, ask yourself: why care so much about truth? Yes, you probably think you care about believing truth – but isn’t it more plausible that you mainly care about thinking you like truth? Doesn’t that have a more plausible evolutionary origin than actually caring about far truth?

Yes, there are near practical areas of your life where truth can matter a lot. But most religious people manage to partition their beliefs, so their religious beliefs don’t much pollute their practical beliefs. And this doesn’t even seem to require much effort on their part. Why not expect that you could do similarly?

Yes, it might seem hard to get yourself to believe things that seem implausible to you at the moment, but we humans have lots of well-used ways to get ourselves to believe things we want to believe. Are you willing to start trying those techniques on this topic?

Now, a few unusual people might have an unusually large influence on far topics, and to those people truth about far topics might plausibly matter more to their personal lives, and to things that evolution might plausibly have wanted them to directly care about. For example, if you were king of the world, maybe you’d reasonably care more about what happens to the world as a whole.

But really, what are the chances that you are actually such a person? And if not, why not try to be more religious?

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Analysis Is Far Skeptical

People famously tend to disagree more about politics, religion, and romance, Which makes sense – I’ve argued that disagreement is due to by a near-far bias, and that politics, religion, and love are far topics. It should be especially clear that religion is a far topic, dealing with fundamental values and big grand things like Gods over vast space and time scales.

Since creative metaphor is far, and analysis is near, it shouldn’t be surprising to hear that inducing an analytical frame of mind tends to induce “religious disbelief”, i.e., disbelief in gods, devils, and angels:

Individual differences in the tendency to analytically override initially flawed intuitions in reasoning were associated with increased religious disbelief. Four additional experiments provided evidence of causation, as subtle manipulations known to trigger analytic processing also encouraged religious disbelief. (more)

You could point to this as evidence against religious beliefs, but the same analysis primes probably also induce more skepticism on common political and romantic beliefs. They might even induce more skepticism on the mulitverse, string theory, or the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, all of which have big grand aspects.

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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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Atheists Distrusted

Most folks distrust athiests, because atheists don’t fear punishment from God:

Recent polls indicate that atheists are among the least liked people in areas with religious majorities (i.e., in most of the world). The sociofunctional approach to prejudice, combined with a cultural evolutionary theory of religion’s effects on cooperation, suggest that anti-atheist prejudice is particularly motivated by distrust. Consistent with this theoretical framework, a broad sample of American adults revealed that distrust characterized anti-atheist prejudice but not anti-gay prejudice. … A description of a criminally untrustworthy individual was seen as comparably representative of atheists and rapists but not representative of Christians, Muslims, Jewish people, feminists, or homosexuals. … Results were consistent with the hypothesis that the relationship between belief in God and atheist distrust was fully mediated by the belief that people behave better if they feel that God is watching them. … Atheists were systematically socially excluded only in high-trust domains; belief in God, but not authoritarianism, predicted this discriminatory decision-making against atheists in high trust domains. (more)

So are atheists actually less trustworthy?  I’d guess that they are, but that the difference is less than people think. Believing that atheists are untrustworthy, like believing in God, helps signal your trustworthiness to others.

I suspect a similar effect applies to human law enforcement. Most people probably also signal their trustworthiness by over-estimating their chances of getting caught and punished if they commit a crime.

Added 1p: Here are experiments on religion and trustworthiness: Continue reading "Atheists Distrusted" »

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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: Continue reading "Religion As Standard" »

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Hyper-Rational Harry

As long as we on the subject of magic, let me heartily recommend my ex-co-blogger’s fanfic novel:

Eliezer Yudkowsky is writing a Harry Potter fanfic, Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, starring a rationalist Harry Potter with ambitions to transform the world by bringing the rationalist/scientific method to magic. (more)

I am enjoying it more than all but the first Harry Potter novels. Modern science fiction has shied away from the hard-headed rational scientist as moral hero, and it feels quite refreshing to see that genre back in a full and updated force. The book does a good job of giving basic rationality “lessons” in the context of an engaging-enough story, though the story gets a bit less engaging over time.

My main discomfort with Eliezer’s new scientist-hero genre is his beyond-Enders-Game-level over-competent hero, exceptionally moral and vastly smarter than anyone else around. This young teen hero has already mostly assimilated the wisdom of his elders and ancestors and must now mostly single-handedly solve the great mysteries of his world and fight the great evil of his age, while politely ignoring the mostly useless opinions of others. I fear that giving readers more license to imagine they are such a person mostly undoes the rationality lessons they learned. After all, much of real rationality is learning how to learn from others. But it is still a fun read.

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