Sunday, August 03, 2014

The power of religion

As Reed and Taleb note, something about "religion" (which they do not define analytically) is especially effective at establishing "interdicts," i.e. near-absolute prohibitions,* over multiple generations. But how? The authors are silent about this crucial point. Because this is a blog and not an academic paper, rather than trolling all their references, I will attempt a common-sense analysis.

Meaningful interdicts, that is, prohibitions against doing things people would otherwise do. We do not need any kind of social structure to interdict dropping a bowling ball on one's own foot.

In a purely secular world, we have three general methods of establishing social and legal norms: individualism, elitism, and democracy. Individualism obviously cannot establish any meaningful interdicts. Secular elitism can, of course, establish interdicts, but they are hard to maintain without an enormous, poverty-inducing project of coercive maintenance. Democracy requires less coercion, simply because norms generally have some basis in the majority, so dissenters are, by definition, (and unlike under secular elitism) always outnumbered. But democracy requires negotiation and compromise, which leads to moderation, which Reed and Taleb assert is inferior to interdiction. Given opinion on anything is statistically distributed, only the rare interdicts could be favored by anything other than a small minority.

So what accounts for this undefined religion's exceptional ability to enforce interdicts? Clearly, according to Reed and Taleb, it has something to do with God: "People can understand the notion of God, not unexplained rules, interdicts, and categorical heuristics." (222, quoting Taleb in Silent Risk). But what? Again, the common-sense answer seems to be that if people are convinced they will go to Hell if they violate an interdict, they won't do it. This social construction has the feature of overwhelming force without the need to actually exert that force. Even if people are not convinced a literal Hell, it's still a good idea to refrain from doing that which the creator of the universe, in His just and loving wisdom, wishes people to refrain from. Being convinced in this way, however, leads inescapably to the importance of the epistemic basis of religion.

Religion must be thought of as both true and known for it to have its effects. If I am not convinced we know that God exists and that we know God wants us never to do something, the specifically religious establishment and maintenance of interdicts collapses. In the opposite sense, I observe (at least overtly) legal regulations that are not to my taste precisely and only because I know the United States government exists, and I know how they want me to regulate my behavior.

We can quibble around the edges. It might not, for example, be coherent to say that God exists; "existence" is too narrow a concept to fit God. But that's a side issue. The crux of the biscuit is knowledge. We know that something God something, and we know that because something God something, we should not do X. And, of course, if we say know something, we necessarily believe it to be true.

Michael Robbins seems makes the connection. Robbins claims that the Enlightenment project fails to provide a "ground", i.e. coherent first principles, for a moral system; by opposing the Enlightenment to Christianity, he seems to implicitly claim that Christianity succeeds in providing a ground for its moral system. Even accepting arguendo this implicit claim as true, the claim itself begs us to investigating this ground. Robbins correctly says, "There is a real question of why anyone should agree with you" about morality, presumably a better reason than force. This real question applies to beliefs labeled as "religious" as much as they do those labeled as secular. But that's just what an epistemic basis is: a consistent method to come to agreement using reason. We cannot strip out the epistemic basis from religion and still call it religion, at least not if the word "religion" is to retain a nontrivial meaning. Religion is not just a set of practices, it is a set of practices with a specific kind of epistemic basis: a basis in knowledge about God.

Religion, i.e. claims of knowledge about God, is by definition private. Some human beings have special, privileged knowledge that is denied to most other people, regardless of their "intelligence" (broadly defined), diligence, or time commitment. Joseph Smith had his golden plates and seer stones. Christians have Jesus Christ, the son of God, and those who (supposedly) knew Him personally, Islam, of course, has Muhammed. All of these people claim knowledge that is completely inaccessible to me, regardless of my intelligence, diligence, or time. I cannot say anything about any religion except by starting from a foundation of private, privileged knowledge. Contrast religion with science: no scientist ever claims private knowledge. "Brilliance" in science consists of seeing the world in a new way, but once that way is found, everyone can see the world that way. Even the most recondite science requires only ordinary intelligence, diligent study, and hard work to independently confirm — or reject, if the science is wrong. Religion affords no such independent confirmation or rejection.

Robbins is correct on another point: "MacIntyre shows that Kant, Hume, Smith, and Diderot failed to provide justifications for their moral philosophy." (I disagree with the Robbins' opinion that their failure was "because of their historical backgrounds, grounded in Christian morality." I believe this interpretation is both false and misses MacIntyre's point.*) To his list we can add Bentham (who explicitly treats utilitarianism as self-evident) and Mill. It is important to understand that these moral philosophers fail on epistemic ground: there is no consistent, objective basis for us to know their first principles are true. However, religion not only fails on this basis, but explicitly fails. Religion says explicitly that I cannot know the truth of scripture (or authoritative interpretation). I cannot see the golden plates; I cannot know Jesus Christ personally; Allah does not talk to me the way he talked to Muhammad. Even if I were convinced that the authors of some scripture did have private knowledge (in the same way I can convince a colorblind person that I have "private" (to him) knowledge about color), I still do not know myself the actual truth of any scripture. Religion fails by definition, on its face, the test that Kant etc. fail "deeply." If we are to (justly) criticize these thinkers on deep examination, then religion must therefore fail on the most superficial examination.

*Yes, I've read After Virtue.

Atheist tend to criticize "superstitious" beliefs such as the literal flood, six-day creation, Adam and Eve, Muhammad's winged horse, etc. for two reasons. First, lots of people, tens or hundreds of millions, perhaps billions, of people really do believe these stories are literally and factually true, and their belief that these stories are literally true really does justify and explain their objectionable behavior. (If religious moderates believe these stories are not literally true, and belief in their literal truth really does cause objectionable "fundamentalist" behavior, then why would they criticize atheists for making an argument they agree with?) But, perhaps more importantly, we talk about these stories because of the long-standing maxim in law and morality, "false in part, false in whole." Once it has been shown that part of an account is false, the whole account can no longer be relied on as facially valid, veridical, or authoritative. (For example, because I myself have made mistakes, you should not take anything I say for granted; you should go out and see for yourself.) If we find a single error in a sacred text or authoritative interpretation, then the claim to private knowledge is completely and utterly destroyed. "Sacred texts" can still have value as what they really are, works of entirely human literature with no more private epistemic authority than Lord of the Rings, but the notion that they are a foundation of private knowledge is complete and utter nonsense.

I believe that moderates publicly criticize atheists (for agreeing with them!), and at least mute their public criticism of "fundamentalists" precisely because they wish to preserve scripture as a foundation for private knowledge about morality. At least the "fundamentalists," especially the inerrantists, are at least honest. They believe their scripture is absolutely true in every respect (or so they say, even though the most devoted literalist and inerrantist has to fudge a bit around the edges), and really is private knowlege. The moderates, I think (for they are emphatically not explicit on this point), believe that their scriptures really are private knowledge, even though they accept that some parts are not literally true. Their position is fatally flawed, and I think they know it at some level, so they simply say the epistemic basis of their moral philosophy is irrelevant, that it is naive and unsophisticated to even look at it, much less examine it critically. I think that most religious moderates are not intentionally being dishonest and hypocritical, but I think they really are being dishonest and hypocritical with themselves. And, as Feynman says, the easiest person to fool is yourself.


  1. Religious people should follow this guideline:

    “Always train your doubt most strongly on those ideas that you really want to be true.” Sean Carroll


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