Today's post, The Amazing Virgin Pregnancy was originally published on 24 December 2007. A summary (taken from the LW wiki):


A story in which Mary tells Joseph that God made her pregnant so Joseph won't realize she's been cheating on him with the village rabbi.

Discuss the post here (rather than in the comments to the original post).

This post is part of the Rerunning the Sequences series, where we'll be going through Eliezer Yudkowsky's old posts in order so that people who are interested can (re-)read and discuss them. The previous post was Zen and the Art of Rationality, and you can use the sequence_reruns tag or rss feed to follow the rest of the series.

Sequence reruns are a community-driven effort. You can participate by re-reading the sequence post, discussing it here, posting the next day's sequence reruns post, or summarizing forthcoming articles on the wiki. Go here for more details, or to have meta discussions about the Rerunning the Sequences series.

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27 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 8:46 PM

From the original post:

People who grow up believing certain things,
even if they later stop believing them,
may not quite realize how the beliefs sound to outsiders...

I dare say, the real horror of this realization is unknown to you unless you have had it about some belief that is seen in your culture as so fundamental to common sense and moral propriety that only lunatics and utter monsters could ever believe otherwise.

And no, in Western societies traditional religion doesn't qualify here, unless perhaps you come from some very extreme and isolated fringe religious group.

Did you have such an experience? Please tell me about it.

Did you have such an experience? Please tell me about it.

Any such example would of necessity be highly controversial.

I recommend starting with this essay by Paul Graham.

Possibly followed by this comment by Quirinus_Quirrell if you want some specific examples.

I'm not sure about how I feel about Eliezer's approach on religion in the sequences. On the one hand, I like using sarcasm; on the other, that doesn't seem to work for more deeply-rooted beliefs, like religion. I think he should've left religion out of his sequences on rationality and criticized it later. The way he did it, it may scare off people who still have a somewhat deep link to religion, before they can learn enough to be able to break free.

On the third hand, I think I may be biased towards avoiding conflicts.

On the specific point illustrated by the story, as expressed in the quote at the beginning of the post, I do agree. I try to induce that same feeling of "shock from how stupid people can be" when I notice a mistake I've done, as some kind of mini-"Crisis of Faith".

Eliezer makes the same point at If Many-Worlds Had Come First.

I don't think he should have left religion out entirely. It's both the elephant in the room for many topics, and also an interesting example.

This post specifically, on the other hand, was pretty bad.

What makes this one in particular "really bad" is that if "Mary was a lying adulterer" was the most likely explanation for the story of the virgin birth, this could be justified on the grounds of pointing out an uncomfortable truth. But, given the timeline of accounts, the actual most likely explanation is that the whole virgin birth story was made up several decades after the supposed date of the Crucifixion as a soldier argument for "Jesus was special", and nobody on the "Jesus was special" side was willing to attack it.

So, instead of a powerful example of how "arguments are soldiers" turned a ridiculous idea into a dogma of both Christianity and Islam, we got a minor rewrite of the story of the Toledot Yeshu, with a rabbi replacing a Roman soldier as the lying Mary's adulterous lover. Because the original Toledot Yeshu was apparently such a breakthrough in rationality-promotion.

More or less my thoughts.

I think the Master Plan is to mostly leave religion out of the books he's writing instead, or at least out of one of them. Anyone else remember reading something along these lines?


Note also that I have a general policy of keeping anything related to religion out of the rationality book - that there be no mention of it whatsoever.

What exactly is this supposed to be teaching us? It seems like it's just making fun of Christians.

Eliezer said in the comments that the intent was to show how absurd religious beliefs would seem to someone who is a true outsider, and that even many atheists take Christian beliefs seriously (or at least don't see them as strange).

I'm not sure of the extent to which he succeeded, of course, but he's fairly upfront about the intended lesson.

Eliezer said in the comments that the intent was to show how absurd religious beliefs would seem to someone who is a true outsider

But everything seems absurd to an outsider. Eliezer believes he can create God with a computer program, for example. Something being absurd doesn't make it false.

See also absurdity bias and Yvain's "Talking Snakes: A Cautionary Tale".

Which is to say: you're right. I have updated in the direction of "this post was useless."

Also Raising the Sanity Waterline

If you can't fight religion directly, what do you teach that raises the general waterline of sanity to the point that religion goes underwater? ...

Some things should sound absurd (because they aren't true), and some shouldn't. Absurdity bias is where this judgment fails, but if you see absurdly wrong things as non-absurd, that would be the opposite, non-absurdity bias, also a problem.

So, I agree with your main point, but at the risk of being pedantic: absurdity bias is the tendency of a system to judge absurd-sounding statements as false.

Judging as false an absurd statement that turns out to also be false might not be a case where "the judgment fails," but it's just as good an example of absurdity bias as judging as false an absurd statement that turns out to be true.

I learned a lot from the comments. Mockery of Mormonism is widely agreed to be hilarious because it is "obviously" absurd. For example, it is "obvious" that Joseph Smith is a con artist. When a similar treatment is aimed at mainstream Christianity, exposing the "obvious" lies, it seems tacky and offensive because these lies are widely believed.

That said, I can't tell if the original post was designed to troll people who would be offended by its style, or designed to amuse people who already agree with its message.

Shouldn't the fact that so many smart people believe in God cause EY to give non-trivial weight to the possibility that his brain and those of his fellow atheists have a flaw which blinds then from seeing the truth of religion?

Let's say a massive number of really smart people have thought a huge amount about proposition X and have concluded that it is true. Regardless of your evaluation of X and your evaluation of how other people evaluate X doesn't a rationalist still have to believe that the chance of X being true is non-trivially greater than zero?

I think the fact that the Mind Projection Fallacy is a really strong bias in humans significantly decreases the weight of that possibility. Smart people think it may be true because that sounds like the easiest explanation, for a human, not because they actually thought a lot about it from a strictly rational point-of-view.

That's some kind of general counter-argument against "trust the majority", I think. When you learn that the majority has some kind of bias that supports its belief, you should decrease the strength you assign to the evidence "the majority thinks it's true". P(A|B)/P(A|!B) is small.

doesn't a rationalist still have to believe that the chance of X being true is non-trivially greater than zero?

Be less ready to disagree with a supermajority than a mere majority; be less ready to disagree outside than inside your expertise; always pay close attention to the object-level arguments; never let the debate become about tribal status.