Religion and Memes I

I am not here to convert you, hypothetical straw-man reader, to any belief system except perhaps nihilistic despair. But I would like to point out a problem with some of the memes you’ve been sharing about religion.

Specifically, I think you’re guilty of a kind of category error. But let’s look at some examples first so this argument will make more sense.

Now, I don’t know what you believe, but I bet I know something you believe. You probably think it’s wrong for the king to murder his subjects. We don’t have a king here, but you can substitute in “ruler” or “upper class person” instead. You’ve probably never thought about it before, but if your mayor ever opened fire on a crowd, I bet you’d want someone to stop him.

This sounds like an uncontroversial opinion, but many people have thought, explicitly or implicitly, that the king should be allowed to kill whoever he wants. Anaxarchus is one example, but throughout history many kings have maintained the right to kill people with impunity, with or without the formality of trial. You will not have a hard time thinking of twentieth-century dictators who also killed people at their whim. They thought they should be allowed to do it. Clearly at least some of their subjects thought they should be allowed to do it. But they are wrong and you are right.

Why do you believe the king should not be free to murder and rampage? The answer lies in another question: Do your parents believe kings should be allowed to murder and rampage? Do your friends believe kings should be allowed to murder and rampage?

If you answer yes, please note that you are an anomalous data point, messing up the graph. Almost no one who is reading this will believe, or will have been raised by people who believe, in absolute power of kings. Almost every ancient Egyptian, say, would disagree with us.

But we are right and they are wrong.

xxrel1

A meme!

You probably see where I’m going with this, but in case it’s not clear: You were enculturated to believe leaders should have restrictions on their power. This doesn’t mean, of course, that you don’t believe it very strongly, or that you wouldn’t fight and die to prevent the overturning of these restrictions. It just means that if you were born in North Korea, you wouldn’t magically come to the same conclusions you do as an educated first world nerd (I’m making assumptions about you).

Most people have a value system they have been enculturated in (and restrictions on rulers is just one tiny part of that value system). Many people also have a religion they have been enculturated in. When you say that there are 5000 gods being worshiped (as the meme says), you should also be aware that there are many more than 5000 different value systems in the world, many of them mutually incompatible. Is only yours right?

You may know people who are communists or objectivists. You may think their belief system is silly or easily refutable. Communists and objectivists do not have a religion, of course, pretty much by definition, but they have something in common with religions. They are what Ferris Bueller would term “an ism.” They have a defined set of beliefs, written down for all to read and critique. Probably you do not. I sure don’t. Most of us have a kludge of demographic signals and emotional nonce reactions that pass as a value system. No one can debunk our beliefs because they are all over the place! But don’t worry: only your kludged-together mishmash of opinions is right.

Do you see the problem? They dared to be refutable; we refused to take that dare; and now we pretend we are better than they are.

Let’s try another one. You believe slavery is wrong. No joke; you really believe it! If you lived three thousand years ago, would you believe slavery was wrong? Would you be one of the great supergeniuses in history who came up with a great new idea and explained to everyone in the whole world that they were wrong?

There were many slave revolts in the ancient world (Spartacus’ was the most famous, if not the most successful). All of these revolts had as a goal the manumission of slaves, and spartacus-movie-image-1.jpgnone of these revolts outlawed slavery; they just changed who was a slave. Even slaves didn’t think slavery was wrong! They just though the assignments had been bungled.

The problem is that all of your beliefs are like this. No one around you believes in slavery, and you yourself do not believe in slavery. It seems obvious to you, therefore, that slavery is wrong — but if it’s so obvious, why was slavery first condemned only in the third century BC (after existing for millennia)? Why did it take so many centuries to persuade Europe to eliminate or minimize slavery, and why did Europe then forget this lesson several centuries later? Why did it take a war to persuade half of America of a truth you hold to be self-evident? What magic sight do you have they they didn’t? (Don’t try to persuade me, of course; I already agree with you.)

You may be able to think of some beliefs where you shocked and vexed your parents by allying yourself with your peer group instead of them. You probably supported  gay marriage before they did. You probably put a banner on your facebook wall reading “I may 12510404_772297182876321_7076125910979733466_nlose some friends for this, but I support gay marriage. “Did you actually lose any friends over this? If you did, you tossed off a “bye, Felicia!” or “farewell, Phippe!,” depending on your fondness for archaism. Your real friends already agreed with you.

There is a narrow window of things it is permissible, in the society you grew up in, to disagree on; these are the fringes of the “Overton window,” where cluster topics like abortion or global warming. It may not be permissible within your peer group to disagree about these things, but it is permissible in society at large, and you can freely slide between peer groups to find the one you fit in best with. Along the way you may scandalize, but you will not actually outrage, the culture you grew up in.

Overton

From (perhaps not originally) an old Political Omnivore post

It is possible for you to adopt some fringe beliefs that are completely beyond the pale and outside the America’s (or your society’s) Overton window. (Another way of putting this is that you may disagree with some beliefs that are at the center of the Overton window.) But you probably never will. Your rebellions fall safely within the accepted spectrum of rebellions, just as mine do. You will probably never decide that the Holocaust was justified, or that Stalin was a hero—and with good reason! Those people are crazy! I’m with you here, me and all the other sane people, arguing about whether minimum wage should be hiked and not about whether poor people should be allowed to vote, because we learned the answer to one of those in the cradle.

Perhaps you think you created your value system from first principles, using only pure reason. If you did, you are probably either Ayn Rand or Arthur Schopenhauer, because almost no one else has araseven attempted such a feat. The fact that Rand and Schopenhauer could come to such very different conclusions from the same method should make you worry about its viability. Euclid came up with a system of geometry that worked perfectly for over 2000 years, and still works pretty well for most needs—why have no value systems been similarly robust and persuasive? I’m not saying it’s not possible, just that I know you, and I don’t think you are the one who’s going to do it. And no one else has.

I want to make it clear that the problem is not that there is no moral truth or that your moral system is necessarily wrong. Odds are we agree on 99% of questions; odds are I think you are right! I sure think I’m right, which is far from saying there’s no such thing is right. But if you think you came to your conclusions by anything except inheriting your beliefs as dogma, you are fooling yourself. They are such successful dogma, you do not even recognize them as dogma!

A religious person, therefore, is someone who says “I believe a bunch of arbitrary things because I believe an all-powerful being told me they are true.” An irreligious person similarly says, “I believe a bunch of arbitrary things even though no all-powerful being told me they are true”; or, “My arbitrary beliefs are better than yours because they are based on different, but equally arbitrary, arbitrary beliefs.”

Continued.

 

 

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18 comments

  1. Notington Tinfoilhatter · · Reply

    You flatter my preconceptions and introduce me to Overton’s window (should have been named that) in a single post. Thanks, Hal!

    (except, not accept)

    And — yes, modern folks rejecting religion, especially when they will at times commit the very sins they accuse religious folks of making (in some weird misguided faith in / misunderstanding of “Science”). I only ever pick at some small bit of what you write that is beside the point — this is probably annoying. I am probably annoying.

    A question, though. What do you make of liberal arts education? I had a number of beliefs I’d held prior to an exposure to literature and conversation change afterward. I mean, it’s not a large number, and I don’t know how much of my overall framework shifted (though if I don’t have one, and I only have a hodge podge then this is a meaningless distinction), but I think those that changed aren’t one’s I inherited.

    Were these were New Cool beliefs for the New Cool me that can hang with the New Cool kids and cast off my gross past that lives on inside my memory as an eternal source of shame? For some of them, sure. After moving to NYC and hanging around higher education for as long as I have, probably a lot more than a few, which is a frightening and shameful thought, but I digress. There were some that were controversial among the New Cool kids — I used to scream about poll tests a lot. (It was in Florida during the 2000 election, so there was cause to be passionate about dumb election minutia). This didn’t make me popular (but helped me feel superior while annoying others, which isn’t too far from hurting them), but maybe yelling vehemently about a stupid unimportant thing that you can’t change is just a new way of signaling that I picked up there?

    Okay — so most of the changes in belief can be explained through non-rational means, even if they’re not inherited. But a few, some beliefs about language, some beliefs about what is and isn’t permissible in politics, I think these were probably wrought from something like a rational process. This isn’t to say that they’re right or that I’m certain. No first principles here, everything subject to revision — but there are some working beliefs I have that I can’t find a way to explain away other than that they’re things I’ve reasoned myself into. I hate those beliefs. They make me unpopular (in many circles that i’d rather not be unpopular in because I have friends there) and less happy (because they’re anti-utopian and despairing about the world and our species). I don’t think I’d have these beliefs if anything but a rational process were involved just because I hate having to believe them so much.

    Relating this to Overton’s window — I honestly have no idea where what I consider to be my rationally grounded beliefs fall. I’ve been a part of some strange groups over the years that focus on strange things and assert strange beliefs. I think different sub-groups have different windows? I mean, put a gaggle of my friends in with some neo-nazi’s (I know, cheap example, says stuff about me and what is and is not in the box) and you’ll find broken Overton’s glass everywhere. America’s big, so saying we’re a pluralist society isn’t quite as meaningful as it might seem. Sure, there are other groups — but they’re far away and I never see them. Hell, NYC is big and I’m sure there are plenty of groups who hold unthinkable (to me) beliefs here and I never see them. We stratify things in our pluralist society such that we don’t experience that pluralism in any meaningful way. Because of this, I’m not always clear about where the limits of the uberalles Overton’s window in America is. I mean — what can’t be said on broadcast television? Is that it?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for the typo catch!

    I certainly think that opinions can shift, although generally they shift within certain “permitted” bounds. Changing a society’s opinions is a long, slow, advertising campaign, but it obviously can be done. The changes in attitudes towards homosexuality in the recent past are an obvious example (although I think the “Oh no! Attractive wealthy white people are being oppressed” aspect underlying the change is a unique one that contributed to the rapid shift).

    Trump has certainly changed a lot of coastal urban pundits’ (and my) understanding of where the Overton window say for most Americans, and what it is acceptable for a “mainstream” candidate to say.

    You’ve probably hit the nail on the head with broadcast television — and the pickle we’re in now may be because of the collapse of television as a monitor/enforcer of the monoculture?

    The fact that you said “flatters my preconceptions,” something I say all the time, is totally going to make people think that you’re my sock puppet. I assure you, world, this reader is real!

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  3. Luigi Novi · · Reply

    Hal, why do you believe that the beliefs of non-religious people, by definition, are arbitrary and authority-driven? You can’t conceive of people whose beliefs are neither of these things?

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    1. Well, I listed Schopenhauer and Rand as possibilities…

      I certainly think that beliefs in things like science, or how to get to the store, are not necessarily arbitrary or authority driven. But no ethical system that is not authority driven has ever been persuasive enough to catch on widely.

      If you know of a non-dogmatic way to ground ethical values, please let me know!

      Like

      1. Luigi Novi · ·

        Okay, maybe it’s just the way I’m reading you, but you seem to be talking about two different things here: Whether such systems exist, or whether they’ve caught on. Beliefs derived through evidence and reason are not necessarily arbitrary, and moral **behavior** (that is, the naturally-occurring behavior that we call morality, or more precisely, ethics, because we can make intellectual assessments about it, and which in other animals, we call pre-moral behavior) evolved within us for reasons that are logically causal (natural selection), and therefore are not arbitrary, even if in the case of other animals, they are not “beliefs” per se. As to whether they’ve caught on, well, that’s a separate question. What also makes this a fuzzy point is whether a person who holds a particular belief does so themselves for dogmatic reasons or empirical ones. What if, out of two people who hold the exact same belief, one of them can articulate why they hold the belief with an empirical approach as I have alluded to here, whereas the other one cannot? Is the one held for a non-arbitary, empirical reason and the other held for a dogmatic reason, even if they’re the same belief? Much moral behavior manifests itself in a **feeling** as to what is right. Those feelings evolved within us, just like the instinct of a mother to nurse its young or a member of a herd to care for an injured in-group member. They cannot articulate why they behave or feel the way they do, but does that make it dogmatic? Or arbitrary?

        Liked by 1 person

    2. I’m not sure I agree that morals are instinctual (as they’d have to be if they evolved); clearly some emotional bonds are, and perhaps even an emotional bond that attaches us to “the tribe”, or close genetic matches. But isn’t the lesson of much of current ethics that we should be attached to mankind in general, and not just our clan (or our “race” — an ethic most people I know would call evil)?

      I suppose someone could say “only instinctual morals are genuine and everything else is a falling away from this pure state,” but I doubt that’s something either of us agree with.

      I’m not trying to strawman your argument, I’m just not sure if tracing things to evolution gets us something close to what we would call morality. Please correct me if I’m wrong!

      When I harp on what catches on, I just mean that if one value system is “correct” it should do better at displacing rival systems. Without romanticizing science too much, in science, the truth is persuasive. We tend to believe that aliens will have discovered the same laws of physics we have, even if they apply them in different ways. Do we also think that aliens will have developed a morality we recognize? (The scientist in The Thing from Another World, thought so, and look how that ended up!)

      I think that (and I argue briefly in the sequel piece) believing a “correct” belief because of dogma is just believing the correct thing by chance, and is not any better that believing the wrong belief.

      (Or course, most people believe even scientific truths by dogma. I sure do! I’m not a scientist.)

      Like

      1. Luigi Novi · ·

        Moral behavior DID evolve, which is why moral feelings are indeed instinctual. But moral ASSESSMENTS, however, are those things that we homo sapiens, unlike other animals can form because of our brains. So we employ reasoning and evidence to argue morality, but the behavior begins in the brain, which evolved. All behavior originates in the brain, after all.

        As for what’s “correct” that depends on what criteria you prescribe. A 21st century, post-Enlightenment, Westernized atheist prescribes different criteria than a devout Muslim fundamentalist who prescribes the Koran as the basis of all important decisions in life obviously has a different one. You have prescribed displacement of other systems as your criterion. I’m not sure how displacement makes a system “correct”. In a vast world like ours, in which you have 200 different nation states whose moral systems form a spectrum on which some nations are on opposite sides, I’m not sure how one can be said to “displace” another. The moral systems of Iran, Vatican City and China have not displaced one another, and all exist simultaneously. Which one is correct? (Or am I misunderstanding you?)

        I do not know that most people believe scientific truths dogmatically. My understanding is that those who genuinely understand how the Scientific Method and the scientific process works (which are a minority) accept scientific ideas because they understand the methodology by which matters of fact can be explored and learned, and my assumption (and I could be wrong here) is that others who accept scientific ideas do so because they understand that there is some process at work by which this knowledge was attained.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I guess where you’re losing me is I don’t see how we evolved or reasoned out some things that I believe very strongly, such as that we should not screw over strangers to help ourselves (or our pals).

        My favorite argument fr this is Peirce’s, who argues that if we don’t believe this then statistics, as a mathematical discipline, falls apart. But it’s not a very persuasive argument.

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      3. Luigi Novi · ·

        I didn’t say that we evolved the notion that we should not screw over strangers to help ourselves or our pals. I believe I spoke only in generalities, and not specific moral beliefs. The notion that we should not screw over strangers is a fairly recent moral development in human history (the Old Testament’s emphasis on loving the members of one’s in-group while killing members of an out-group being a strong clue to this), which means that it likely did NOT evolve, but is a post-evolutionary intellectual/philosophical development.

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      4. I realize it’s unfair of me to demand you present an entire evolutionary/philosophical groundwork in the comments of a blog post…I mean this less as “go do it” and more as “this is where I think we differ.”

        Nevertheless, if you wanted to write an essay on this topic, I would be excited to read it!

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      5. Luigi Novi · ·

        I recommend Michael Shermer’s “Belief” trilogy, in particular “The Science of Good and Evil”. It covers the topic better than I can, as is largely where I got my current understanding of the origin of morality from.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I know all this… but Huck Finn, tho’…!

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    1. Senator, you’re no Huck Finn…I say every real human being.

      Turns out he was just a fictional character all along.

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  5. Glad to see you started a blog. Now, a counter-agrument

    Morals are just ideas about what is and is not acceptable for a society to do or tolerate. The proper question to ask when discussing morals is not are these value systems good or evil, but do they work. There are and have been different societies built around different moral systems and it is survival of the fittest for them out there. We may not be able to objectively say a society built around liberal democracy and free market capitalism is morally superior to one built around the divine right of kings, but we can say that it is better able to survive, not just in the sense that it is a belief system that is still popular while the divine right of kings has fallen out of fashion, but also in that an absolute monarchy generally doesn’t produce as much wealth and can’t handle disasters as well and is less likely to have as good an understanding of the world or adapt to new situations as well. That’s not to say our society’s current morals are the best possible or that future moral systems won’t be better (although they could also be worse), just that value systems can be judged.

    Some caveats:

    – This sort of reasoning produces far weaker moral statements than most people actually believe. People say murder and slavery are wrong, they don’t say “Societies that tolerate murder tend to do less well than ones that don’t therefore we should discourage murder” or “Slavery in post-industrial societies is not efficient.”

    – You can only really judge belief systems that actually have had societies based around them, single individuals believing them isn’t enough. A single Jeffersonian democrat living as a feudal serf would probably not do very well and one should not make inferences about how effective his ideal social organization would be from that.

    -One could presumably say a similar thing about religions, that religions could be judged by how strong the cultures they produce are. However religions have a lot of room for interpretation. Does a Muslim society look like modern day Iran, modern day Malaysia or 7th century Mecca? Also religions have moral guidelines but they are not moral guidelines. Saying Christianity produces a better society than other religions is probably not enough for most Christians, who presumably not only believe their value system is superior, but also believe in God.

    I’m offering a metric to use for judging different moral systems and am saying if things can be ranked, they probably aren’t just arbitrary. How would you go about judging the relative merits of different religions? (not a rhetorical question) By their nature, they aren’t falsifiable. Most religious people seem to believe whatever religion they were born or alternatively made a choice that I do not understand. Most secular people seem to judge religions by how well they gel with modern secular values and while that sounds pretty agreeable to me, I don’t have any illusions about correct it actually is. Your thoughts?

    And FWIW, while I don’t think I would have been opposed to slavery were I born three thousand years ago (I’d have died as an infant if I was born three thousand years ago.) I do have a quite a few ideas that are well outside of the Overton window and think that people who don’t should be more wary when judging the past.

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  6. Glad to see you started a blog. Now, a counterargument

    Morals are just ideas about what is and is not acceptable for a society to do or tolerate. The proper question to ask when discussing morals is not are these value systems good or evil, but do they work. There are and have been different societies built around different moral systems and it is survival of the fittest for them out there. We may not be able to objectively say a society built around liberal democracy and free market capitalism is morally superior to one built around the divine right of kings, but we can say that it is better able to survive, not just in the sense that it is a belief system that is still popular while the divine right of kings has fallen out of fashion, but also in that an absolute monarchy generally doesn’t produce as much wealth and can’t handle disasters as well and is less likely to have as good an understanding of the world or adapt to new situations as well. That’s not to say our society’s current morals are the best possible or that future moral systems won’t be better (although they could also be worse), just that value systems can be judged.

    Some caveats:

    – This sort of reasoning produces far weaker moral statements than most people actually believe. People say murder and slavery are wrong, they don’t say “Societies that tolerate murder tend to do less well than ones that don’t therefore we should discourage murder” or “Slavery in post-industrial societies is not efficient.”

    – You can only really judge belief systems that actually have had societies based around them, single individuals believing them isn’t enough. A single Jeffersonian democrat living as a feudal serf would probably not do very well and one should not make inferences about how effective his ideal social organization would be from that.

    -One could presumably say a similar thing about religions, that religions could be judged by how strong the cultures they produce are. However religions have a lot of room for interpretation. Does a Muslim society look like modern day Iran, modern day Malaysia or 7th century Mecca? Also religions have moral guidelines but they are not moral guidelines. Saying Christianity produces a better society than other religions is probably not enough for most Christians, who presumably not only believe their value system is superior, but also believe in God.

    I’m offering a metric to use for judging different moral systems and am saying if things can be ranked, they probably aren’t just arbitrary. How would you go about judging the relative merits of different religions? (not a rhetorical question) By their nature, they aren’t falsifiable. Most religious people seem to believe whatever religion they were born or alternatively made a choice that I do not understand. Most secular people seem to judge religions by how well they gel with modern secular values and while that sounds pretty agreeable to me, I don’t have any illusions about correct it actually is.

    And FWIW, while I don’t think I would have been opposed to slavery were I born three thousand years ago (I’d have died as an infant if I was born three thousand years ago.) I do have a quite a few ideas that are well outside of the Overton window and think that people who don’t should be more wary when judging the past.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You are certainly an Overton exception.

      I think you’re right that ethical systems can be ranked on how “fit” the society that embraces them is. We must be careful not to let this become circular — looking at a society that values “tolerance” and giving it points for being “tolerant” won’t fly.

      Your first caveat is important, though. This is not what most people mean when they say they have a moral system.

      It’s possible that “moral system” is a synonym for “trick that fools citizens into behaving in a way than benefits the group.”

      Is valuing “survival” arbitrary?

      Like

  7. Is valuing survival arbitrary? In the sense that one can imagine or name groups of people that placed some divine commandment or treasured value above not only their own survival, but the survival of their belief system, yes. (off the top of my head, the Shakers keeping a prohibition on sex after adoption laws were changed probably qualifies as an example of this)

    However whether or not something can survive is the metric that is used by reality, so it seems like a pretty good one to me.

    >It’s possible that “moral system” is a synonym for “trick that fools citizens into behaving in a way than benefits the group.”

    It seems difficult for me to come up with an alternative definition that isn’t just behaviors that someone arbitrarily believes should be compulsory or forbidden.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Another group that may not have prioritized survival: http://oddculture.com/tale-of-the-russian-skoptsy/

      (Though they may have lasted for over a century, which isn’t bad.)

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