Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Religion is ridiculous, but then again so are sports and everything else

Sports are ruining the forward progress of our country. Too often, sports fanatics get together and do various things like roast meat from the backs of their cars. There is often bloodshed in the name of sports teams, often occurring between impassioned sports fans. Then there is also the sacrifice made by athletes themselves, many of whom suffer permanent physical injury from repeated concussions and ligament damage. Never mind that recreational sports provide a framework for exercise and the building of community; the fact that Sports have manifested itself in such an ugly way shows that it is a waste of anyone's time. As a result, we should make fun of athletes and sports fans as much as possible with the assurance that we are better than That.

This line of reasoning is not so different from the attacks on religion. While I am unabashedly atheist, I think projects like Bill Maher's Religulous (which I have not personally seen) miss the point. While religion has lent itself to excessive fanaticism and fundamentalism, the Bible Belt's Christianity and the Taliban's Islam reflect perversions of religious ideology rather than the negative effects of religion. When analyzing the problems of a society, considering the reasons for the perversion and the ways in which religious philosophy have been perturbed is a much more productive use of time than bemoaning religion for causing such evil. The fact that people do ugly things in the name of religion is not evidence of the corrupting power of religious ideology but a symptom of greater societal problems. In particular, examining religious fundamentalism in the United States reveals not the "evils of religion" but that the United States has areas that are so backwards and uneducated as to have people susceptible to such superstition.

By "religion," first consider not the loaded word it has become but the essence of belief--the Platonic form of what is embodied in the holy text. This is the pure thing separate from the associated religious institution and from the manifestion of religion in past/present/future society. In general, pure religious ideology provides a theological/metaphorical framework for living. If you go back to the texts of the Bible, the Koran, and the Bhagavad-Gita, they provide ideas to think with and concepts to believe in. Engaging with these texts abstractly on the level of metaphor and metonymy provides great insight into how to live. There is nothing in the texts themselves proposing any sort of fundamentalism or closed-mindedness*. The Old Testament teaches justice; the New Testament teaches love; the Bhagavad-Gita teaches selfless service. None of these are bad concepts; perhaps the cocky libertarians who go around denouncing religion without knowing very much can learn something from religion.

Abstract consideration of religious texts is not that far off from what we can expect from religion in present times. If you look outside of the United States, there is evidence that people are able to engage with religion in a rational way. The same monotheistic, "enclosing" (to quote on criticism of Christianity) religions that cause all sorts of bad things in America are causing people to do just fine in Europe. I have heard the Anglican Church described as something of a "social club," and one friend even reported viewing a baptism being performed in a pool. (The validity of this report is questionable.) In Italy, home to the Vatican, people seem to take what the Pope says much less seriously than people do around here. People are able to handle a much less serious form of (the same!) religion and engage with it on a much more intellectual level. (And don't forget the Far Eastern religions: who has heard of people starting wars in the name of Buddhism?) In very few developed, first-world countries is religion one of the reasons why it is still a question whether women should be allowed control over their own bodies.

I hope this leads you to conclude that "religion" is not the root of the problem. Religious fundamentalism derives not from the principles of religion but from people needing simple frameworks to fill a void. This void comes from the lack of education. Religion provides a simple, closed way to explain the world; it provides easy answers for people who do not have access to more complex answers. To believe that people are not better than the narrow mindsets they have when only exposed to religion is to have too little faith in humanity (or too much faith in one's own genetic superiority). Lack of exposure to many ideas causes general fear and suspicion of new ideas; it is this fear that leads to the superstition and fundamentalism that characterizes too much of the religious belief in the United States.

To conclude, saying "religion is preventing the forward process of our country" is a useless statement. Appreciating religious texts and deriving moral and spiritual wisdom from them is one thing; deriving a closed-minded way of living from religion is a totally different thing. Blaming religion for the problems in America today draws attention away from the real issues at hand: the inequality of education and wealth that causes religious fanaticism to prevail in parts of the United States*.

* There are parts of the Bible saying to kill all people worshiping another God, but we must perform an amortized analysis, since most of the Bible does not say things like this.
** This is one reason libertarians are goons. The same people who go around saying that what you get is what you deserve also enjoy going around making fun of people for reasons that stem from lack of education, which ultimately come from inequality and things like lower taxes (and thus less funding for education).

Fun fact: There is nothing in Judaism that says you can't get buried in a Jewish cemetary if you get a piercing or tattoo. (The New York Times says so.) Be careful about conflacting religious doctrine with rules of the religious institutions and religion in practice.


Adam said...

Dear Jxyz,

I have several comments in the wrong order. I'm trying to disagree with the claim that religion is not the problem because causality flows in one direction as ignorance --> fundamentalism --> bad policies, attitudes, etc.

I think monotheistic religion might lend itself to fundamentalism.

Certain ideologies can lend themselves more easily than others to specific forms of corruption. A Communist, for example, might argue that Communism didn't work out in China or the former USSR because it was never really truly tried, but, rather, Stalin and Mao became autocrats. The historical pattern, however, is that Communist regimes devolve into autocracy.

There's nothing in Marx, to my knowledge, that advocates autocratic rule, but it is still the case that Communism tends toward that form of abuse, in contrast with constitutional republics, which generally don't.

My only point is that it is possible that bad thing b can develop much more easily from ideology a than from ideology c, even if b is not an inherent part of either a or c. If ideology c does not lend itself to bad thing b, this is an argument for implementing c over a in public institutions. It is not a sound counterargument to point out that the foundational texts of a do not advocate b, or that you define a to be the subset of a that doesn't lead to b.

To argue that Christianity is a, I should show that there are elements that lead to fundamentalism or ignorance. There are elements of the Bible promoting fundamentalism. Any goon can cherry-pick bible quotes, but I think it's relevant against a "there are no..." claim. 2 John 1:10 says not to associate with non-Christians or bring them into your house. See also Deuteronomy 17 2:7 here, which, being old, might not apply to Christians, but commands believers to stone nonbelievers to death.

Does most of the Old Testament teach Justice? I don't think that Christianity is about stoning people, but to my knowledge Buddhist scriptures don't have this stuff at all. I suspect that there are reasons why there exist Christian and Muslim but not Buddhist wars.

That said, causation doesn't flow in only one direction. People are fundamentalist because of ignorance, but fundamentalism also causes ignorance. E.g. in the U.S., it forces people to make arguments against evidence in evolution, carbon dating, etc., doing which cripples their ability to reason with evidence. Having a certain ideology can create resistance to becoming educated.

(Here Richard Dawkins might analogize that a cowpox infection can inoculate you against smallpox. It's a good rhetorical trick to make logical analogies with dick connotations (i.e. your religion is a virus.))

Just as fundamentalism can cause as well as result from fundamentalism, monotheism is an especially well-suited framework for fundamentalism. It takes some intellectual work to see the religions of the book abstractly "on the level of metaphor and metonymy."

Jean said...

1. Different schools of thought lend themselves to different forms of perversion. You don't hear of Buddhist wars that often, but you do have Buddhist fundamentalists becoming monks and leading ascetic lifestyles and doing nothing productive for society. While this may not be as bad as starting a war, this is no doubt a perversion of the Buddhist eight-fold path.

2. It is a good point that fundamentalism begets more ignorance. The way to break the cycle is to fight the fundamentalism with education rather than with scorn.

Jesse A. Tov said...

Don't you think it's a bad thing for people to believe something that is false? It would strike me as fairly condescending to say, well, I don't believe in that religion stuff, but moderate religion is a good thing because it teaches those other people to be nice.

Regarding your fun fact, the text of a holy book is rarely the whole of a religion. It is more accurate to consider the religion as adherents would define it. Judaism, for example, isn't just the written Torah, but the oral Torah and other culture accumulated over millennia. There are many prohibitions in traditional Judaism that you won't find in the Bible per se, but are still just as much a part of the religion as believers understand it. Similarly, while fundamentalist Protestants may claim that the Christian Bible and their religion are identical, they too have traditions and a culture of interpretation — If given the Bible and asked to reconstruct fundamentalist Protestantism from it, with no knowledge of actual practice, one would surely fail.

I did not mean for this to go on so long.

Jean said...

I am not saying we should let people believe in what is false. I don't know what is true, so why can't people believe that they want?

Jesse A. Tov said...

I am not saying "we" should stop them. I am just saying it is probably bad to believe false things, *even if* the effect seems positive.

I don't know what is true, but some things I know are false.

Jean said...

I have an (anonymous) friend who prefers not to acknowledge the scientific explanations for consciousness because she prefers to construct [his/her] own idea of why [his/her] reality exists. I don't see this as causing harm to anyone; in fact, it may be much more harmful for [him/her] to be forced to accept a harsher "truth" that messes with [his/her] sense of well-being.

Jesse A. Tov said...

I've yet to see any satisfactory "scientific explanation[] for consciousness."

I'm not saying that it is your responsibility to attempt to alter your friend's belief, but neither is it your responsibility to preserve it — that's the potentially condescending part.

False beliefs are harmful because, unless they are vacuous[1], they likely lead to taking ineffective action on the basis of those beliefs. If I believe in the efficacy of prayer, for example, I may spend some my time praying rather than taking more effective action to improve the situation. If I were a dualist and believed by consciousness comprised some extra-physical material beyond my physical brain, I might be less diligent about preserving the physical integrity of my brain.

[1] Vacuous, as in making no predictions about the world.

Adam said...

I don't really buy this argument about the badness of false beliefs. You need a certain amount of false beliefs to function. Having an accurate self-image is called depression.

Jesse A. Tov said...

ajkl: Believing that having an accurate self-image is called depression is called pessimism. I'll agree that a small amount of positive delusions seems to be healthy, but I still think in general delusion leads to ineffective action.

Suppose you're playing poker. Generally you don't know the other players cards, so you pursue a realistic probabilistic strategy. If you have more information about their cards, you can do better. But if they can get you to believe false things about the state of the game, you'll lose.

That's a simple example, but the same principle applies any time you act based on your knowledge in order to reach some goal. If your knowledge is faulty, your act is less likely to accomplish what you intend.

Adam said...

I think this assumes too much of a first-best world. Given that we have bad decision rules, it might be better to have certain false beliefs than true ones. In poker, I agree with the post above, but in most parts of life I don't pursue a realistic probabilistic strategy because it's way too hard. We have a bunch of heuristics, and sometimes they're not well-suited to the conditions we live in.

the near-orthogonality of political campaigning to what the candidate would actually do provides a good example of our heuristics' being lousy. Maybe if I'm actually voting on who's folksier and better to have a beer with I ought to also have a false belief.

Jesse A. Tov said...

I don't really see how two false are more likely to add up to something true rather than something even more false.

Anonymous said...

To add some fun to the mix, Chomsky denounces sports, calling them nothing but the development of irrational jingoism.

I like that phrase "irrational jingoism."

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