I reject out of hand the idea that she should deconvert in the closet and systematically lie to everyone she knows.

I had to do this until I was able to sever myself from parental support at age 20. It certainly wasn't pleasant and sometimes I still have nightmares about being discovered breaking the Sabbath (though I've told my parents long since). But if you ask me whether I would have rather remained religious,


Is it really essential that, as a community, we exclude or dismiss or reflexively criticize theists who are good at partitioning, who like and are good at rational reasoning in every other sphere - and who just have higher priorities than being right?

If Wednesday can partition, that puts an upper bound on her ability as a rationalist; it means she doesn't get on a deep level why the rules are what they are. She doesn't get, say, that the laws regarding evidence are not social customs that can be different from one place to another, but, rather, manifestations of the principle that you have to walk through a city in order to draw an accurate map of it. She can't understand the causality behind the rules, or she would simply know beyond all attempts at partitioning; she would no more be able to convince herself that faith works than convince herself that 2 + 2 = 3; it's a simple rule, and once you see it, it's obvious in one step.

In an absolute sense, God is no more plausible than Santa Claus or fairies. If you can believe in God, you can believe in anything. If Wednesday is amateur-level rational in other domains, then she may be able to contribute interesting comments to Less Wrong. But people, like chains, tend to break at their weakest link, not their strongest; and so being semi-rational in the domain of e.g. biochemistry may do her less good than you think.

if you can believe in God, you can believe in anything.

The trouble with that is that I believe in some pretty weird things. I believe in a universe with a hundred billion galaxies, each of a hundred billion stars, of the Earth being a globe rushing round the sun when it appears to be still, with the sun going round it. I believe these things not because I have worked them out for myself, but because I understand that Academe believes them, more or less, and people with whom I associate believe them.

0MendelSchmiedekamp11yThere are rationally beneficial forms of partitioning using that same skill - such as the application of estimated beliefs in appropriate contexts. That suggests that partitioning is not anathema to rationality. To my mind what is much more problematic is giving a free pass to particularly enshrined beliefs may have a contagion effect on other beliefs preventing you from properly evaluating them. In which case our partitioned theist may even have an advantage. At least Wednesday knows for sure some of her irrational beliefs. How many of us can say the same?
2Alicorn11yI don't know your parents, but I know the people who will be Wednesday's. Nothing terrible will happen to Wednesday if she deconverts: she would make her parents a little sad, and they would probably try to argue her around, but they would not do her harm or kick her out of the house or otherwise mistreat her in any way, shape, or form. I do not object to deception in self-defense (or defense of others in Jews-in-the-attic-in-Nazi-Germany situations), but Wednesday will not require deceptive self-defense.

Theism, Wednesday, and Not Being Adopted

by Alicorn 2 min read27th Apr 2009341 comments


(Disclaimer: This post is sympathetic to a certain subset of theists.  I am not myself a theist, nor have I ever been one.  I do not intend to justify all varieties of theism, nor do I intend to justify much in the way of common theistic behavior.)

I'm not adopted.  You all believe me, right?  How do you think I came by this information, that you're confident in my statement?  The obvious and correct answer is that my parents told me so1.  Why do I believe them?  Well, they would be in a position to know the answer, and they have been generally honest and sincere in their statements to me.  A false belief on the subject could be hazardous to me, if I report inaccurate family history to physicians, and I believe that my parents have my safety in mind.  I know of the existence of adopted people; the possibility isn't completely absent from my mind - but I believe quite confidently that I am not among those people, because my parents say otherwise.

Now let's consider another example.  I have a friend who plans to name her first daughter Wednesday.  Wednesday will also not be adopted, but that isn't the part of the example that is important: Wednesday will grow up in Provo, Utah, in a Mormon family in a Mormon community with Mormon friends, classmates, and neighbors, attending an LDS church every week and reading scripture and participating in church activities.  It is overwhelmingly likely that she will believe the doctrines of the LDS church, because not only her parents, but virtually everyone she knows will reinforce these beliefs in her.  Given the particular nuances of Mormonism as opposed to other forms of Christianity, Wednesday will also be regularly informed that several of these people are in a position to have special knowledge on the subject via direct prayer-derived evidence2 - in much the same way that her parents will have special knowledge of her non-adopted status via direct experience when she wasn't in a state suitable to notice or remember the events.  Also, a false belief on the subject could have all kinds of bad consequences - if the Muslims are right, for instance, no doubt Hell awaits Wednesday and her family - so if she also correctly assumes that her parents have her best interests at heart, she'll assume they would do their best to give her accurate information.

Atheism tends to be treated as an open-and-shut case here and in other intellectually sophisticated venues, but is that fair?  What about Wednesday?  What would have to happen to her to get her to give up those beliefs?  Well, for starters, she'd have to dramatically change her opinion of her family.  Her parents care enough about honesty that they are already planning not to deceive her about Santa Claus - should she believe that they're liars?  They're both college-educated, clever people, who read a lot and think carefully about (some) things - should she believe that they're fools?  They've traveled around the world and have friends like me who are, vocally, non-Mormons and even non-Christians - should she believe that her parents have not been exposed to other ideas?

Would giving up her religion help Wednesday win?  I don't think her family would outright reject her for it, but it would definitely strain those valued relationships, and some of the aforementioned friends, classmates, and neighbors would certainly react badly.  It doesn't seem that it would make her any richer, happier, more successful - especially if she carries on living in Utah3.  (I reject out of hand the idea that she should deconvert in the closet and systematically lie to everyone she knows.)  It would make her right.  And that would be all it would do - if she were lucky.

Is it really essential that, as a community, we exclude or dismiss or reflexively criticize theists who are good at partitioning, who like and are good at rational reasoning in every other sphere - and who just have higher priorities than being right?  I have priorities that I'd probably put ahead of being right, too; I'm just not in a position where I really have to choose between "keeping my friends and being right", "feeling at home and being right", "eating this week and being right".  That's my luck, not my cleverness, at work.

When Wednesday has been born and has learned to read, it would be nice if there were a place for her here.


1I have other evidence - I have inherited some physical characteristics from my parents and have seen my birth certificate - but the point is that this is something I would take their word for even if I didn't take after them very strongly and had never seen the documentation.

2Mormons believe in direct revelation, and they also believe that priesthood authorities are entitled to receive revelations for those over whom they have said authority (e.g. fathers for their children, husbands for their wives, etc.).

3I have lived in Salt Lake City, and during this time was, as always, openly an atheist.  Everyone was tolerant of me, but I do not think it improved my situation in any way.