If I were to take all of my friends and divide them into two groups, there are plenty of criteria I could choose, but probably the most relevant slice would be between my friends who believe in God, and my friends who don’t.


Many in the believer group know each other as well. The evangelical Christian community in my city is fairly tight-knit. Every once in a while I’ll meet someone new, I’ll mention offhand something about church, it’ll become the topic of conversation, and suddenly we discover that we share a dozen mutual friends.


My non-believer friends come from all walks of life. My old friends from high school fit in this category; so do many of the friends I’ve met through university or part-time jobs. There’s no tight-knit community here. I wouldn’t describe many of them as rationalists, particularly, but it seems that according to lesswrong doctrine, they are above the sanity waterline while my first friend group is below.


Something about this bothers me. Maybe it’s because I find it so refreshing to be with a group of people who are relentlessly positive about life, who constantly remind one another to be positive, and who offer concrete help rather than judgement. Once, when another of our friends couldn’t pay her rent, my Christian friend and I got up at four, took out five hundred dollars in cash at a convenience store, and biked to her house to leave it anonymously in her mailbox before I left for my six am shift at work. The high lasted all day. I can’t think of any other community where this would happen, where it would even be socially acceptable.


I met people at church who had survived the worst circumstances; they had been abused, they had been addicts, they had been homeless. But aside from the concrete help they’d found at church, they’d found some kind of hope as well. They believed that they could succeed. I’ve been incredibly lucky in my life, and I’ve never had reason to doubt that I would succeed, or that people would be there to help me if I ever failed. But for people who’ve only seen evidence that they will fail and be stepped on, the benefits of being told that God loves them unconditionally seem to be non-trivial.


Now to contrast with my non-religious friends; this isn’t universally true, but I’ve seen a trend of general negative-ness. This attitude can be self-directed, i.e. complaining about work or school or relationships without any effort to find solutions. I know some very unhappy people, and it seems insane to me that they just sit back and take it, month after month. The negative attitude can also be directed outwards into biting sarcasm and rude, judgemental comments about others. This often comes from people who seem happy enough with their own lives. Maybe I didn’t notice this as much before I started going to church, where it became obvious in its absence.


I have the same tendencies to criticize and judge as anyone, but at least I notice them and try to keep them in check. I try to ask myself if it really helps to criticize someone. Does whatever I think they’re doing wrong really affect me? Is it my business to correct them? Would they listen to criticism? If I’m a reliable example, most people hate being criticized. It takes a conscious effort to step back and see criticism in a positive light. I try to take this step, and maybe most rationalists-in-the-making do the same, but that’s not the general population, and starting with a criticism tends to close people off and put them on the defensive. The last question I ask myself is, do I want to help them by suggesting a change, or do I only want to vent my own frustration? Venting doesn’t help them, and it doesn’t help me, because for me anyway, focusing on the negative side of an issue tends to flip my entire mindset into the negative. And negative attitudes are contagious. If one person at work is ranting about a bad breakup or a fight with their family, I’ll often catch myself brooding about someone or something I’m annoyed with. If I’m lucky and I’m paying attention, I notice the subliminal messaging before it really gets to be. Sometimes I feel like barking “hey, keep your problems to yourself, I’m trying to be positive here.” But again, if I’m paying attention to my own reactions, I ask myself if it’ll really help to snap at them, and the answer is no, so I’ll try to be an understanding listener.


These are things I do consciously, but since I stopped going to church regularly, I’ve noticed that it’s more of an effort. It feels like I’m holding up a heavy weight alone, going through my day talking to roommates and classmates and co-workers who don’t make any special effort to be positive or non-judgemental or helpful. And as soon as I let down my guard, I slip back into the trap of reacting to criticism defensively instead of constructively, of snapping back on reflex, of making excuses for why I was rude to someone or left my dirty dishes in the sink. I hate the way I act in this default mode, but it’s easy to make excuses for that too. I tell myself that I’m tired, that I’m burnt out, that I can’t be everything to everyone. I tell myself it’s not fair that I try so much harder than everyone else.


At church, there was a marked lack of excuses. The general attitude was that you could be as strong as you needed to be, because it wasn’t your strength, it was God’s strength. The way I see it, it was more the combined strength of a community united by a common ideal. It was like a self-help group, but without the stigma. (Maybe the stigma is imaginary; I just know that I have a negative emotional reaction to self-help books and websites. I know this is probably counterproductive, but I can’t seem to get rid of it.)


I talk to some of my friends, the non-religious ones, and I notice that maybe half the time they’re grumpy or upset or angry or offended, and they don’t stop to think about it, or take the step away that would allow them to question and overcome those feelings. My Christian friends aren’t perfect, and they do occasionally slip into anger and frustration, but they often notice. They often bring it up afterwards, in front of the group, as an example of something they need to work on.


This is why, even though I don’t believe in God and would probably be incapable of it at this point, the last thing I want to do is judge people who believe. A lot of the time, they’ve found something that helps them. This is why I found it instrumentally rational, for six months, to go to youth group once a week and sing songs about Jesus. Happiness is a hard thing to pin down, but I liked myself better during that time. It’s easier to be generous when everyone is being generous around you; it’s easier to be kind and helpful when everyone else is acting that way too. It feels like being held accountable.


I don’t really know what this means. It’s hard to generalize, because I’m talking about people in my age group; most of us are poor and not settled in our lives, without firmly developed social networks. Maybe later on in life, people can make their own tight-knit communities without religion as binding glue; my parents, for example, have an incredibly extensive social group. And I certainly don’t want to imply that all Christian organizations are as open and welcoming as the one I attended. I’m sure than plenty of people have had bad experiences. But what I’ve seen suggests to me that my church (a Pentacostal evangelical Christian group, by the way) served a function in our city that wasn’t being filled by anything else.


It’s limited, of course, by the fact that its founders believe the Bible is literally true, even if they don’t apply that belief thoroughly. (This occasionally involves a tricky kind of doublethink, for example a person who denounces homosexuality when asked directly but who holds nothing against their homosexual friends.) Could the principles of rationality prompt a group of people to form this kind of community? I don’t know. But until then, I’m going to keep hanging out with Christians and sharing their positive thoughts.  


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but it seems that according to lesswrong doctrine, they are above the sanity waterline while my first friend group is below.

No. Having religous beliefs places an upper bound on how rational a person could be, past a certain level of rationality, a person will necessarily discard religion. But this does not mean that any particular atheist became an atheist by achieving that level of rationality. Most have not.

The article Raising the Sanity Waterline proposes not directly arguing against religion, but to instead teach the skills that would enable people to level up to the point where they systematically reject religion on their own, in part because just getting someone to reject religion does not actually make them more rational.

Thank you. You've provided the clearest explanation so far of why it was misleading for me to use that phrase.
I think you are approximately right here, but it's important to think about just how high that upper bound is, and what activities can only be accomplished by people above that bound. It might help to think in more concrete terms about what someone who believes in religion cannot achieve, that a non-believer can. With sufficient compartmentalization of religious beliefs, I would venture to say the answer is a pretty small subset of activities. They may be important activities on a global scale, but mostly unimportant in peoples' day to day functioning. It's very easy to imagine, or better yet, meet, theists who are far more rational in achieving their goals than even many of the people on this board.

I think you're talking about two different things here.

One is the "supportive positive social groups are beneficial, and church is the only one around"

and the other is "atheists are a grumpy lot but religious people are all happier from their religion"

I won't comment on the latter for now.

I can, however, attest that it is perfectly possible to find non-religious supportive social groups. Not just self-help groups - and I really think you should rethink your idea of stigma... a "single parents" group or an "ethnic expats" group has (or should have) zero stigma attached. There are also many other socially supportive groups.

I, personally, am not only a geek, but also a bit of a nerd. I belong to a group called the Society for Creative Anachronism. We're a bunch of people that use "medieval recreation" as an excuse for dressing up nice, eating feasts and learning ancient forms of crafts and/or sport. It's a hell of a lot of fun... it's also quite a thriving community. Totally non-religious.

With the principles of "Honour, chivalry, and service" it's also got its own morality...while I personally have never done a midnight rent-... (read more)

Thank you for your thoughtful comment. That sounds awesome. The fact that I've had more trouble finding such a group maybe has more to do with my age. How did you find this community; was it accidental or deliberate? What are my chances of finding such a group in my own city?
well, the SCA is in most big cities - so you can just google it and see. :) I fell into it by accident. But there are lots of them out there. You just have to follow your own interests. There are often tight-knit communities that are built of fans of some obsession... that then just go on to build a community of friends - though not necessarily with the inbuilt morality function, but I don't think that's necessary... after all, you could instill a "pay it forward" mentality into any group. I'm mainly familiar with the geeky and nerdy ones - SF fandom is another good example. But there are communities of expats, people dealing with certain life-issues (eg traditional self-help groups, weight-loss groups, single-parents groups etc), but also entrepreneurs clubs, alumni of various schools... basically whatever you can think up, some group has built a supportive community around it. The SCA is unusual only in that it really attempts to build a long-term community out of what people would normally consider to be a short-term interest. I've known third-generation SCA members (ie their grandparents joined and their children and grand-children grew up in the society). ...and if you really can't find a group like that nearby... you can always start one.
After reading this, I think that the reason that nonbelievers are known for being more disagreeable is that people who are more disagreeable are more likely to stop believing. That is to say, everyone has doubts, but the more agreeable a person is the more they weight other people's opinions and feelings in their consideration, thus making them less likely to, all other things being equal, stop believing. Or, it's easier to stop believing when you actually do care more about the truth than continuing to be in your religious community. This isn't to say that there aren't really nice nonbelievers, but the selection effect is probably noticeable.
A very interesting point. At the London get-together we talked about how people that are into rationality are the kinds of people who are driven to question everything. People that continually question everything would certainly not do well in a dogmatic religion - which is often defined by a set of things that you are not allowed to question. When you're in the religion, this is often seen as accepting what other people say "on faith", and that questioning them is being rude to them (perhaps as you say by not taking their feelings into consideration). But a questioner isn't actually trying to be rude... just trying to get to the truth. I once wrote a blogpost about the spectrum of preference between Truth and Harmony. People that value Truth will continue to seek the Truth even if it disturbs the harmony amongst a bunch of people - Harmony people will be more likely to "agree to disagree" or make other ameliorating behaviours to preserve the Harmony where people disagree over Truth. I put forward that everyone is on that spectrum. I think an awful lot of people are on the Harmony end of that spectrum. ie they're willing to forego the Truth for the sake of some temporary Harmony. From what I can tell, rationalists are on the other end. Rationalists believe that finding out the Truth is important. They they'll try hard not to hurt people's feelings, but when there is a direct conflict between them, that Truth is more valuable in the long run.
I'd agree with this, and there's obviously a tension in a lot of situations. But it's not a zero-sum game either: some people care about both and sometimes have to sacrifice one. Some don't really care about either that much: either because they just don't care or because they have some value they regard as more important.
oh definitely agreed. I think I personally have moved from "care only about truth and don't care a whit about harmony" to "trying really hard to keep harmony and yet not compromise on the truth"... it's a much tougher line to walk.
Yep: especially because it's all to easy to approach one in an artificial way: we can easily create a cargo cult of either, trying to look 'truthy' or doing the sort of things that harmonious people do but in a massively counter-productive way. One HR person I know springs to mind: she tries very hard to follow all the rules on how to make people feel valued and work together, but it doesn't come at all naturally, and the results feels like you're being turned into a box to be ticked. Much worse in practice than someone just not caring about harmony at all.
I am way on the end of the Harmony spectrum. I like lively discussion, but I hate conflict. I don't know if you've read Eliezer's Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, but at one point the main character has to learn how to 'lose' and admit that other characters are right. I read that part and thought 'that's my default already.' This probably makes it harder for me to be a rationalist.

at one point the main character has to learn how to 'lose' and admit that other characters are right.

Really? That's not at all the lesson I took away, admitting that the other characters were 'right'. Snape was quite wrong; the bullies were even more wrong. Nothing in the narrative tells us that they were 'right'.

The lesson I took away was that one shouldn't try to win in every situation, that doing so is very short-sighted, that some victories are Pyrrhic or Cadmean, that sometimes one has to let wrong people/characters go on their wrong way because the cost of correcting them is too high.

Harry, in those chapters, refuses to lose and is willing to escalate all the way to his nuclear option even when the issue doesn't merit taking such a risk. One wants to accomplish things, not destroy oneself over principles. Thinking is for doing, as the saying goes.

I guess I phrased that badly. When I'm in conflict with someone else, I don't necessarily think they're right, but I almost invariably back down. And usually I TELL them 'maybe you're right' because that pacifies people really well. I don't think this is a good strategy.
I suspect less so than being on the opposite end of said spectrum. Of course being towards the middle and being able to play both sides is almost all the way to be. :)


I wouldn’t describe many of them [my non-believer friends] as rationalists, particularly, but it seems that according to lesswrong doctrine, they are above the sanity waterline while my first friend group is below.

Am I the only one who thinks that this "sanity waterline" model is wildly inaccurate? The model assumes that false beliefs can be somehow ordered by the level of insanity, so that people who have achieved a given level of sanity are immunized against everything below that. This, however, seems to me completely remote from reality. Even if we can agree on some standardized "insanity ranking" for false beliefs -- already an unrealistic assumption -- there's no way people's actual sets of beliefs will conform to the "waterline" rule according to this ranking, not even as the roughest first approximation.

One essential reason for this is the signaling role of beliefs. When it comes to issues that don't have significant instrumental implications, people are drawn to beliefs with the highest signaling value rather than accuracy. High-status beliefs can be anywhere from completely correct to downright crazy, and outside of strictly technical topics, there is typically nothing that would systematically push them towards the former. And indeed, in practice we usually see people with an eclectic mix of correct and ridiculously false beliefs (and everything in-between), with nothing resembling a systematic "sanity waterline."

If you read the original post [http://lesswrong.com/lw/1e/raising_the_sanity_waterline/] by Eliezer, he uses the "sanity waterline" concept only as a loose metaphor. But since then the phrase itself seems to have taken on a life of its own.
saturn: Yes, I've read the original post. In my opinion, its main point is incorrect and it's illusory to talk about a "sanity waterline" even as a loose metaphor. If a belief is high-status and without personal harmful effects for those who hold it, it doesn't matter at all how much it violates the basic principles of sound epistemology, logic, etc. -- even the smartest people will be drawn to it like iron dust to a magnet. Now, Eliezer looks at those few Nobel-winning scientists who adhere seriously to some traditional religion and sees them as an especially extreme example of irrationality that uniquely sticks out. Whereas in reality, the reason they stick out is not that they are especially irrational by some objective measure, but that they don't conform to the prevailing status dynamic: traditional religion has been low-status among the intellectual elites for quite some time now. Among the beliefs that are high-status and shared by a whole lot of scientists -- let alone the rest of the intellectual elite -- many are, in my opinion, far more irrational, but don't stick out simply because it's considered a normal or even expected thing for a high-status person to believe. [1] In that post, Eliezer almost reached the correct insight when he remarked how weird it would be for someone who believes in Santa Claus to win a Nobel prize. What he should have asked at that point is whether there are beliefs that are equally irrational but their status relative to traditional religion is presently as high as the status of traditional religion relative to belief in Santa Claus. (Not an exact comparison, but you get the idea. Plus I also disagree that the latter two are comparable, but that's a complex topic in its own right.) -------------------------------------------------------------------------------- [1] Here, of course, the argument stumbles onto a catch-22 situation, since giving any concrete examples of such beliefs is guaranteed to be a highly controversi
Agreed. I used it partly in jest, to try and show that it WAS an unrealistic assumption.
Try applying the metaphor on the level of cultures rather than individuals. Cultures can vary on how many irrational ideas they tolerate or promote, how much they expect their members to be able to reflect and justify their beliefs, and exactly what kind of beliefs are useful to signal within them. This doesn't require a precise ranking of the degrees of insanity of beliefs.
During the cold war, would you say the USSR or the USA had a higher sanity waterline? Keep in mind that the USSR was an atheist state, while the USA had (and still) has a very religious culture.
I actually can't say, not really having a sufficiently good grasp of the cultural history of either country during the 20th century. I'd rank both as obviously better than most cultures that have existed during human history, but still with widespread obviously weird and counterproductive stuff. Both were sane enough at the commanding level to stick with the game theory of not nuking each other.
The USSR was nominally atheist, but my understanding, based on the testimony of my fencing coach, who grew up in Soviet Russia, is that levels of religious belief were, if not as high as in America, still substantial, and simply practiced in private.
There was also the issue of communism, which is nothing if not a cult.
So are you trying to say that the USSR wasn't truly atheist. That sounds like no true scotsman [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/No_true_scotsman].
Actually, I said it wasn't atheist AT ALL. About as atheist as Don Quixote was a knight. Even the atheism was a manifestation of the personality cult of Karl Marx.
Hold on, where did he say that? He said that they were cultish communists, but (as the OP points out), it's quite possible to be rational about one thing and irrational about another, even though the same strategy would correctly guide you through both issues if you only followed it consistently.
I'm not sure I understand your comment. How exactly would you apply the "waterline" metaphor to comparison between cultures? If anything, it seems to me even less applicable, since there are even more degrees of freedom involved.
This is more of a vague intuition than something built up to withstand prolonged prodding, but individuals have very complex and idiosyncratic complexes of beliefs in their heads, while the beliefs that operate on the level of society get simplified into something that can be transmitted through language. The sets of professed beliefs in a culture need to be put into language, and are then much easier to subject to analysis than whichever thorny messes people are carrying in their heads. As an example, saying that the sanity waterline is higher in health care in contemporary France than it was in health care in 15th century France seems to me to be saying something meaningful and probably true, but it's a lot less obvious exactly how you'd go talking about the sanity waterlines of individual French physicians.
Risto_Saarelma: I don't think that's the case. It seems to me that a very significant part of what people learn from the surrounding culture is not communicated explicitly. To take an important example, some of the essential skills for navigating through the reigning social norms are taboo to discuss explicitly, and you are expected to figure them out by tuning into subtle and implicit aspects of what you see and hear. I'm sure lots of society-wide beliefs are formed by such processes that don't involve any explicit verbal formulation. I agree it can make sense when it comes to particular areas of knowledge, especially those that are technical or hard-scientific. But one would be hard pressed to find many examples when an all-encompassing comparison would make sense.
Yeah, I went and oversimplified there. Though I wonder if it still says something about the complexity of the patterns that the majority of the members of the culture can be expected to internalize them quite fully. It seems like there should be some low common denominator elements going on there compared to what goes on with peoples' internal mental states. I thought about the Medieval Europe versus present-day Europe comparison, but Medieval Europe was probably reasonably sane when it came to agriculture or warfare. One big difference I can think of is how the two would react to a significant change in their circumstances. Present-day culture still isn't quite good at responding to change in the most beneficial way, but Medieval culture could get away with not even considering that things might change in a big way and people would need to reassess how they go about dealing with things. As far as I can tell, the sanity waterline idea emerged from the frustration of people consistently reacting to certain types of new information in a stereotypical and easily refutable way, and in a higher sanity waterline culture, people would have better cached thoughts to match with useful new ideas or would feel obliged to recognize when something should be given more thought before opining about it.

This recalls some of Dennett's thoughts on religion from "Breaking the Spell". He wonders if there is something in religion that can't be replaced by secular institutions, and whether those are on net more helpful than the harms that seem to come along with it.

My intuition is that many newly converted atheists are just guilty of applying reversed stupidity to their social lives, and that a bit more practice in things like luminosity might go a long way once they start to get over their initial disillusionment.

I am not from the southern US (I presume you are, given the content of your post), but I would think this is especially true there, where a very huge majority of the atheists will be "new" ones.

I am not from the southern U.S. either. I'm actually from eastern Canada.
No way! Me too! Are you in Halifax (per chance)?
No... Ottawa. Which come to think of it is not usually referred to as "Eastern" Canada, despite being east of most of the provinces.
My experience has been that many people consider Ottawa to be Eastern Canada and Nova Scotia/New Brunswick/Newfoundland "Atlantic Canada". I just tend to forget that, since all that stuff is so far "west" to me. When tourists come in to town off of the American cruise ships, they tend to pour into town asking how much a cab to Montreal and back will cost, and if they'll get there in time for lunch in half an hour.
I checked, and Ontario is in the Eastern time zone. The Maritime provinces are in the 'Atlantic' time zone. The 'Central' time zone is mostly Manitoba, which is probably why it doesn't sound right to say that Ottawa is 'Central Canada' either.
That must be it, then.

Part of the difference between your religious and nonreligious friends may be their own attitudes towards self-improvement. To a religious person, a mistake you make is something God wants you to improve, and all of your religious friends will help you make that improvement. To the baseline atheist, it's just a problem, and there is no structure or real "cause" that will make you actually consider changing your behavior. Genuine rationalists, however, should notice that a problem exists, and figure out a way to change it, but it doesn't sound like your friends have this instinct. If, say a group of transhumanists were meeting regularly, and talking about what habits they needed to change and what improvements they needed to make in order to help make the world a better place, that could resolve the problem. However, transhumanists are somewhat few and far between, so finding that group might be difficult. A Less Wrong meetup might be a good place to start, though.

human beings need roughly value homogenous peer groups in order to activate the part of the brain that says "these are my allies". If that part of the brain pretty much never fires it will lead to the ennui, apathy, negativity and judgment mentioned here. We've been brainwashed to think diversity good, and it is, but it is not a monotonic good. There are lots of negative connotations around communities that share and reinforce strong values. They are often perceived to be xenophobic, and of course they sometimes are, but it is not a fair universal judgement.

That's quite insightful, nazgulnarsil.

Atheists are a small minority in the United States, where society tends to give religious irrationality a pass. That alone is enough to make a person critical, judgmental, and sarcastic. It's not necessarily productive in changing society; it's a way for atheists to feel like at least they're not standing idly by.

Self-directed negativeness is not, in my experience, a trend among atheists. It may be a consequence of the atheists you know not having found their own coherent philosophies after rejecting religious ones, or maybe they haven't realized there's n... (read more)

Possibly true. I wouldn't say that atheists are a "small minority" in my community. (I live in Canada.) This may change things. And many of the "atheists" I know certainly haven't made that step from atheism to humanism.
Ah, then I apologize. When I see the phrase "evangelical Christian community," I immediately think of the U.S. I think that seeing the hold religion has on much of the world, even if it's outside one's own country, could still engender the behavior I described in the first paragraph above. However, it probably is more related to my latter point.
[-][anonymous]12y 7

Recently, I had a look around the internet's atheist/skeptic blogging community, which was new to me. I noticed that there tended to be a distinctive attitude among posts and comments: nice, for the most part, but embattled. There was an unspoken ideal of being the sort of person who faces tough truths, not being weak enough to seek comfort in delusions. There was a lot of snark and a tendency to feud. And the internet atheists/skeptics seemed to think it was really important to have the right opinions and win arguments.

This is all in contrast to the a... (read more)

I think this might have more to do with the venue than the participants. Heroic contrarian snark is a closely held cultural value in a great many Internet subcultures, not just the atheist/skeptical ones -- so much so that many go out of their way to create opportunities to be snarky and heroically contrarian, even at the expense of other values.
I don't know if this is the reason why my 'atheist' friends seem unhappy to me. I think a lot of them are atheist by default, because they haven't thought about the question in years, and unhappy or negative by default, because they don't question that either. It's very easy to be atheist-by-default in my community. Being obviously religious is the thing that stands out.

I totally endorse tight-knit communities, ones in which bonds of friendship are formed and nurtured, ones that foster hope, ones whose members help one another out when needed.

And I certainly endorse the choice of being mindful about how you respond to criticism, how you respond to other people's behavior, how you respond to other people's emotions.

For my own part, I have been lucky enough to find such a community in my own life, and I value it enormously. I've seen that community help one another pay rent, take care of one another's children, help one an... (read more)

I'm happy that you've found such a community, and I find it very encouraging. It originated online? Really? That is...also encouraging.
Its origins are complicated, but yes, online communities were importantly involved, and it would not have become what it did without them. But neither would it have become what it did had it been an exclusively online community. Striking a balance between the convenience of online communities and the stability of geographic ones is something I suspect we (that is, humans) will be experimenting with for several decades to come.
The stability of geographical communities mainly comes from it being impossible to completely avoid people you dislike, or not meet people you could get along with when you frequently are at the same location. I lack the experience of living before the internet was well developed, but I actually prefer meeting and talking to people online. Even when you live in the same house as someone, it is still primarily through the words they say that you have a clue what is going on in their minds. The need for physical proximity seems like it is mostly nostalgia.
You are, of course, entitled to value whatever communities you wish for whatever properties you wish. And, like you, I value online communities for the opportunity to encounter new minds. That said, when a single parent needs a friend to look after their kid for an afternoon, or someone with a broken leg needs a friend to help them get groceries into their third-floor walkup, or someone delerious in an ICU needs a friend to sit with them for an evening, or someone who has just been dumped needs a friend to hold them for a few hours, or someone who just lost their home needs a spare bed to sleep on for a couple of weeks, or any of a million other similar situations arise, words on a screen aren't terribly helpful. I value geographical communities for all of those services and more. But sure, for a community where nobody needs those kinds of services, physical proximity may not be a big deal.

Despite my protestations, my girlfriend recently caught "The Secret" - a ridiculous flight from realism bordering on cultish, based on the believe that that quantum-mechanics proves we create our universe and wishes come true through messages sent out to it.

She has become significantly happier, more positive, and better at dealing with life, with no apparent negative effects or wacky bad decicions.

For some it does seem easier to operate effectively by believing well tailored bullshit than by building a deep understanding of their own psychology and of rational decision making under uncertainty. Fortunately if fed the right bullshit it may lead to approximately the same ultimate decision.
Wow! Sorry for the entropy, Dvorak tutor has eaten my spelling neurons.

Studies indicate that practicing religious people on average are happier than nonbelievers or nonpracticing religious people, and that the relevant variable is the church attendance. That's what motivated me to create this thread. More than having any particular set of positive beliefs, participating in a community that encourages prosocial behavior seems to account for the lifestyle difference; not particularly surprising when you look at the impact church attendance has on you despite the fact that you don't believe.

I would not be surprised if the reason for this was that people with unusually bad lives often lose faith in god as well. Based on a tiny sample space of currently and formerly religious people I know, there seems to be a fairly even divide between people who become more fanatical to cope with their problems and people who give up and look for other supports.

Once, when another of our friends couldn’t pay her rent, my Christian friend and I got up at four, took out five hundred dollars in cash at a convenience store, and biked to her house to leave it anonymously in her mailbox before I left for my six am shift at work. The high lasted all day. I can’t think of any other community where this would happen, where it would even be socially acceptable.

I've seen people on the Internet ask for money when in trouble and get it.

On the internet? Wow!
My sarcasm detector is broken. Could you please explain your reaction without using sarcasm or irony? I do not understand what you mean. [This post contains no sarcasm or irony.]
"I am pleasantly surprised to hear that! It is encouraging to see people form healthy interpersonal networks on the internet despite the difficulties that come along with the medium." (No sarcasm in the grandparent.)
Thank you for clarifying.
My mother would be shocked and horrified. (I did check out the link and read a bit of the article. I'm surprised but not shocked.)
Shocked and horrified by what, exactly? The state of health care in the U.S.?
By the fact that they asked for money and got it. I was partly being sarcastic, but she wasn't impressed when I paid my friend's rent, and I think she would disapprove of this even more.
My mom has repeatedly tried to discourage me from giving money to charity, on the grounds that "you're going to need it".

I think all cities benefit from some kind of commonly shared activity: a festival or a carnival, a public concert, or an art show. Something that has very broad appeal. It seems to me what you are saying is that churches fulfill that need in communities (often by default) and therefore should be kept and/or celebrated.

Unfortunately, there is a lot of garbage that comes with the church community, namely religion. It seems a much better investment would be in actual culture (see above examples: art, music, games, etc...). If we stop accepting churches as default community centers, other more profitable (culture-wise) avenues will be explored.

I think this is a good idea. I'm not saying that churches should be celebrated, more that the need they fulfill should be recognized. It's simplistic to say "people who've lost religion don't have anything to replace it" but that's the feeling I have, although I'm sure what's actually happening is more complex and subtle.
Hmm, I agree that many people want a support-group to help get through the bad-times and help celebrate the good times, and I can see the echo of tribalism in that. so perhaps we are reaching for a form of tribalism that is no longer an inherent part of our current "melting pot" society. We try to form supportive communities of one type or another - whether through friends we met at school, or some other tribe we identify with. Not many of these modern communities are as close-knit as the original tribe, but church is one with a strong world-view - extremely strong opinions including supportive, normative belief-systems - thus people that want a strong social network will often gravitate towards church - or cults... don't forget them as supportive societies full of positive-reinforcement thinking. It's fairly well established (AFAIK) that people without friends or support networks are not as happy as those that are well-integrated into their own society. So yes, I can even see that people without a social network would seem less happy. In a highly-religious neighbourhood, I can easily see that the social pariahs (ie the atheists) would be unhappy. As would any "outgroup" be if they were forced between choosing to abandon their own strongly-held beliefs... or being alone. Think what it would feel like to you to be the only Christian in an all-atheist community. You would be alone, with the only people as friends unsupportive of your views. You would probably seem unhappy too. Thus I do not think it correct to draw the conclusion that religious == happy and atheist == unhappy. I think it's better for you to realise that "person with friends == happy" and "person with no friends == unhappy" the "religion" part is entirely orthogonal to the question here. but "make person with no friend believe what I believe just to fit in" won't work either, if that person is a rationalist. "everybody local to me believes X" is not sufficient evidence for a belief... though it
Is there a Unitarian Universalist congregation in your community? Pentacostalists can be more fun than UUs, but it's something. (I don't know where you live; I believe that UUs as such only exist in North America, but hopefully there's something similar wherever you are.)
My parents took us to a Unitarian Universalist church when I was growing up. I remember it being pretty boring. Then again, I had the attention span of the usual 7-year-old, so it might be worth going back.
As it happens, I was at a U-U service yesterday morning for the dedication of a friend's child, and was reasonably pleased with it. One thing I liked about it was the emphasis on community and mutual support and mutual attentiveness, and on being welcoming to whoever happened to be present regardless of their religious affiliation or lack of it. But it wasn't the most fun morning I've ever spent, certainly.
If you go, I predict that it'll be more boring than the Pentacostalist church, but less boring than it was when you were 7. (In case there's more than one in your area, they can also vary considerably.)

I don't think that rationality and Christianity occupy the same place in one's life -- rationality in itself is only a means to an end, not an end in itself, while following the principles of Christianity does seem to be an end in itself for Christians.

Rationality is an art which one follows to acquire true beliefs and take effective action, regardless of one's utility function. The question 'Could the principles of rationality prompt a group of people to form this kind of community?' feels like it's asking something of rationality that is completely tange... (read more)

Also for me, going to church and ish-following the principles of Christianity was a means to an end ("I want something to hold me accountable to being a better person") whereas trying to become more rational has less of a well-defined end.
One potential end for rationality is "I want to be able to hold myself accountable for being a better person." I'm not currently able to do that entirely, but I think I'm getting better, in part through participating in the LW community. I go to church to help me be accountable to my daughter. The church we attend is gay-friendly and supports a family of two men and a baby. Some churches are filled with bitter people always looking to criticize each other, usually behind their backs. You're lucky to be part of a positive church community. I am, too.
I guess maybe it's not the ideal wording. But it seems like a very rational thing to do to seek out a supporting community. And if one doesn't exist that suits your ideology, it seems rational to create it. That being said, maybe not everyone feels the same desire for this type of community that I do, so it does depend on what your utility function is. I used rationality because it's more general than the term transhumanism, which not everyone on lesswrong reacts positively to. And altruism doesn't seem right either; it wasn't out of altruism that I went to church, it was because I fulfilled MY utility function.
One's utility function describes the process by which one makes decisions; it can be altruistic. You may have been thinking of your personal hedonic function. I doubt that many of the other people were attending for selfish reasons.
I have no idea why most people attended. However, though I doubt they would have wanted to view their reasons as selfish, I suspect it had more to do with their own stability, happiness, etc than with making the world a better place.
You might be right. Many people do talk about how their lives were changed by religion rather than how God wants them to follow religion. I don't have enough experience with this to know which is more common, but, upon reflection, it seems probable that many people practice religion for reason that I would describe as selfish (though not entirely egoistic because people also care about their families and friends, as well as have at least some level of concern even for far away people).
[-][anonymous]12y 3

Do you find it plausible that if your atheist friends took up religion, they would become less negative? Perhaps to the degree obtainable by associating with those with a more positive outlook, but I don't think that's the predominant cause of the corresponding attitudes.

It sound to me that what you describe as a positive attitude is being high on the Agreeableness Big Five trait, which happens to be the strongest predictor of religiosity of the five:

"Kosek (1999), MacDonald (2000;0, and Taylor and MacDonald (1999) found that measures of Agreebalenes ... (read more)

Thank you, your conclusions seem very plausible. I have noticed this. (My family, all atheists, are a lot less agreeable, and I think they get a lot less out of church services than I do.) I've also noticed that I'm conscientious in the extreme, and I like my general agreeability; it makes my head a more pleasant place to live. (Also, most of the time I don't feel emotions strongly.) My personal experience is that attitudes are VERY contagious. I'm very introverted, although I can play extroverted, and I often go around wrapped up in my own thoughts...but I'm STILL strongly affected by the attitude of those around me. I think that if anything, more extroverted people would be influenced more by this. The problem at my work at the pool, for example, is that nearly EVERYONE has a negative attitude towards the job (i.e. not taking it seriously, coming in hungover on Sunday mornings and never doing maintenance), and a lot of people have negative attitudes towards their lives in general (maybe because it's a predominantly university-student jobs, and students tend to be poor and face a lot of uncertainty.) Being conscientious, I try very hard, to the point that it's a running joke with my coworkers. Another milieu, like a cushy government office job where the employees are comfortably settled into their lives and have spouses and kids and fulfilling hobbies they can afford to pursue, might not have the same bias.

Are your nonreligious friends really above the sanity waterline? There are a variety of common insane delusions, and all that we clearly know is that they don't have one specific one.

By this question, I mean to cast doubt on the premise that, by the standards of this blog, your religious friends are less sane than your nonreligious friends.

Judging by previous posts, and confirmed by the comments here, most LessWrongers have a VERY negative view of religion. And I'm not saying that my religious friends are necessarily more or less sane, only that they're often happier and pleasanter to spend time with. (Depends on how you define 'sanity' though.)

Most of the people here who talk about religion have a VERY negative view. The people who don't feel obliged to talk about it typically view religion only a little more negatively than a taste for country music and a little less negatively than a taste for WWE wrestling.

WWE wrestling, poorly choreographed though it is, shows far better taste than religion. I rank country music generally in third, though there are shining exceptions (much of Hank Williams, for example). More seriously: I have a very low opinion of religion (a little more negatively than 9/11 conspiracy propagation, a little less negatively than multi-level marketing schemes) but I rarely talk about religion on Less Wrong, because I've just gotten very tired of having arguments on the Internet about religion.
Which was not obvious to me. I tend to comment on posts I like and ignore ones I dislike. Maybe others do the opposite...?
I comment on posts that interest me. Frequently those are posts I either like or dislike. Usually, those are not posts on topics that I have already seen debated to death. I have already seen religion debated to death.
I tend to comment when I have something to say and not when I don't. I don't generally have much to say about religion at a "pro or con" level, which is mostly the level at which this community engages with the subject.
"I tend to comment when I have something to say and not when I don't." That sounds like a good system.
Sure, but they have negative views on lots of things. Your religious friends are clearly insane by lesswrong standards, but aren't your nonreligious friends also insane?

Communities built on a shared delusion are one thing, ones built on a delusion that entails harming others are another. I'd be a lot more okay with Christianity if it didn't so often imply such noxious positions about human rights or whatever.

Ah, was my language too strong? I apologize - my point was simply this: that all too often in discussions of the value of Christian community etc., the political, emotional, and physical harms tied up in the same structures that maintain these communities are elided.
This is why I said "not all Christian communities are like the one I attended." I cannot think of a single area where "my" church took a noxious position on human rights. It meant that they focused more on certain parts of the Bible ("love your neighbor as yourself" etc) than on other more negative parts.
Well, for one, it sounds like it explicitly condemns homosexuality? Maybe that's not precisely what you'd call a "position on human rights", but it still causes harm.
From what I saw, the general sentiment was "we feel like we should believe homosexuality is wrong because it says so in the Bible, but we're a bit embarrassed about that, so we're just not going to talk about the issue." Some churches focus more on that element than others though. (One branch of the Canadian Anglican church, for example, has explicitly declared that they're OK with homosexual ministers.)
I'm not sure whether that constitutes a position on human rights or not, and whether it's a noxious position if so. It is certainly an active refusal to adopt a position I can endorse on a human rights issue. Then again, pretty much everyone I know is in that position with respect to some issue or other. For my own part, I have difficulty endorsing any community that is incapable of supporting families like my husband and I, and I would not feel welcomed or supported by them.
I'm unclear on why the parent has been voted down. Can someone who has downvoted it please explain?
Thinking about it, I suppose they might be rejecting the idea that my endorsal of a community should be contingent on that community offering support for families like mine. Which, actually, I agree with; there are lots of communities I endorse that don't actively support such families. Heck, LW is itself such a community, insofar as it has not getting involved in politics as a virtue, given that the existence of my family is a political issue in the U.S.. It was clear to me that by "community" I meant community of the sort Swimmer963 was talking about, but I can certainly understand if that wasn't clear to others.
The idea seems reasonable to me; it would be pretty tough to get any of the support benefits of a community if the community explicitly won't offer you support. :-\ I think that's a somewhat different kind of support than what swimmer963 was talking about. For a given community to be considered supportive of you, they only have to actively support you. If they hypocritically denounce others who are in the same situation as you but who aren't part of the particular community, that's an indication of internal doublethink going on and also a stress on the relationship between you and the community, but I dunno if I'd call it "unsupportive".
Sure. There's a reason I talk about support for my family here, rather than support for me. I mean, something like "Hey, Dave, we think you're awesome, and it's a real shame that you're caught up in this relationship, and we want you to know that whatever we can do to help you get over that, we're here for you, buddy!" is perhaps supportive of me, but it is certainly not supportive of my family. (I actually had someone say essentially this to me once, upon discovering that I was queer. We'd met professionally, and she made me a job offer to join her on a startup, and had commented that she was a devout Christian and that was very important to her. I commented in turn that I was indifferent to her religion, but it might make her reconsider the offer upon knowing about my sexuality. Which indeed it did. I thanked her for her concern, let her know that I didn't consider my family to be at all inappropriate, and offered my assistance should she ever choose to get over her religious affiliation, and we haven't spoken since. But I digress.)
That is...fairly horrible. Good comeback though.
(shrug) She believed that the way I lived my life wasn't in my best interests and wasn't moral/ethical, and she therefore offered her assistance should I wish to change the way I live my life. She did that without trying to impose herself into my life or take away my freedoms or damage me or etc. I actually endorse all of that, as far as it goes. The world would be a far better place if more people responded to that situation that way. And given the number of people in the world who do try to impose themselves into my life, take away my freedoms, damage me, etc. based on their beliefs about my interests and/or the morality of my life (or do the equivalent for people in my reference class), I feel it's important to calibrate my reaction. If I get bent out of shape by people like her, then I don't have a way of dealing with people who would, say, beat me up and hang me from a tree, or remove legal protections from my marriage, or force me into a behavior-modification program. I consider her evaluation of my interests flawed, of course, but that's just as true of the many people who offered to, or informed me that they were, praying for my recovery after my stroke. And I really appreciated them.
I...guess. Maybe I'm just spoiled by living in a country, and belonging to an age group, where the people who are okay with homosexuality say so loudly and the people who AREN'T okay with it don't talk about that. The church I go to (the Anglican Church of Canada) officially accepts homosexuals into its clergy, and that's kind of what I'm used to. So to me, a response like hers does seem pretty awful, but not to you because you're used to worse... I still think what you said was a good comeback. Not helpful, maybe, but snappy and funny, and it might have made her think...
Don't get me wrong: in my actual life I don't have to deal with much of that stuff. I go to friends' religious ceremonies with my husband all the time, for example, and nobody blinks... or if they do, they keep it to themselves. More generally, people who don't consider me a social and moral peer are cordially invited to get the hell off my lawn, and I have enough social power to make that stick, enforced by an awesome community in which my basic humanity is simply never in question. (Well, at least not because of my sexuality. I do get a certain amount of "What planet are you from, Dave?" but that's different.) I suspect that if I didn't have those advantages, I would rapidly lose my sense of perspective. All of that said, I think it's the correct perspective, and would remain so even if I lost it. It makes no sense to judge people against my social context rather than their own.
Oh, yeah, that is pretty nasty. I was imagining something more along the lines of "Oh, we support you and you family, you're not like those other gay families".
Ah, I see. Yeah, I get that sort of thing too, by virtue of not being stereotypically Other in any particularly visible way. When i was growing up, I got a lot of variants on "Funny, you don't look Jewish"; when I came out I got a lot of "But you don't really act gay." (To which my usual response was "I do, actually. This is how a lot of gay people act. It's part of our devious plot to trick you into treating us like people.") I mostly treat that kind of statement as a good sign, though... a symptom of cracks in the infrastructure. That is, someone starts out believing that all Xes are Y, and that W is not Y, and then discovers W is an X. If they can avoid concluding that W actually is Y after all (which is the easiest fix), the contradictions in their worldview will start to build up. My usual experience is that after weeks or months or years of continued acquaintance, those people ultimately reject the "All Xes are Y" bit. I've gone through the analogous process myself when breaking down some of my own prejudices, and I appreciate the patience of the folks who helped me through it. It seems only just to pay that forward.
Of course it constitutes a position on human rights. Human rights are not passive things. They must be actively defended or they simply cease to exist. Tyrannies often begin not with the stripping of rights but simply with a lack of enforcement (Haebius Corpus? Don't worry, you still have that right - it says so right here on this paper.) until the memory of it fades away [http://enchantedmotherhood.wordpress.com/2011/02/22/you-call-this-security/]. There are no rights but those we take. When someone expresses doubts that a particular group of humans should be allowed certain rights they are attacking the concept of universal human rights in its entirety. And anyone who is embarrassed into silence rather than at least saying "no, that's wrong" is implicit in the murder of human rights.
Some groups of humans are excluded from rights that other humans have, in every legal system. Examples would include minors, convicted criminals, and adults who have been found mentally incompetent. Going further, you have the right to own and dispose of your own property, and I do not share this right to your property. I don't subscribe to any conception of "universal human rights" that would suggest otherwise.
Those are, in my opinion, all examples of groups that don't have the power to enforce their rights. They lack the numbers to protect their rights, and lack the ability to draw powerful allies to their cause. Another example of "no rights but those we take." Which is exactly why I wish to keep social pressure high for all humans to defend what I consider the most basic rights. Reminding people that rights must be actively defended, and condemning those who shrink away from doing so, is one tactic. I do this because I'm rather attached to the rights I have now, and would like to hold on to them. You do not?
I'm surprised at your reaction. Let me illustrate my examples: for "minors," think "five year olds." For "incompetents" think "people in comas." For criminals...well, just think about convicted criminals. You can't seriously be arguing that criminals should never be punished. There is no society on Earth that does not restrict the rights of minors, convicted criminals, and adults who have been found mentally incompetent.
I'm not arguing that (see replies to Davids). But I also note that I am not a minor, convicted criminal, or mentally incompetent and therefore expect I may be biased. I certainly don't trust everything I think, and I note that as long as I'm running on hostile hardware it can be in my best interest to follow certain rules proven to protect me against myself [http://lesswrong.com/lw/uv/ends_dont_justify_means_among_humans/].
Of course you start with biases. We all do. But we seek to overcome these biases in order to become less wrong. So, I ask you, in light of the responses you have received, and as one aspiring rationalist to another: is it not true that some groups of humans must be excluded from rights that other humans have?
No. There may be good reasons for certain individuals to have their rights violated. Entire groups cannot be excluded from the rest of humanity. I don't think it's sufficient to simply note "I may have these biases, and I should seek to overcome them". This may make one seem less biased without actually changing anything. The rest of the tribe applauds your self-awareness and wisdom, and then continues to preferentially hire white people. Actually overcoming a bias means doing the work of imposing rules we find inconvenient. Rules like "I will not take leadership for the good of the tribe, even when it's for the good of the tribe" or "I will not exclude groups of humans from certain rights, even when they should be excluded from those rights."
I buy that human rights might well be an example of how ends don't justify the means for humans. But what do you mean by 'groups'. Criminals could be considered to be (maybe even defined as?) 'individuals whose rights we're justified in violating'. It's trivially true that you could identifiy a set of 'individuals whose rights we should violate'. They'd also have common qualities such as criminality, insanity etc. So what defines a 'group' for your purposes? Is the point simply that you can't take rights from a whole group based on a undeserving minority?
Yes, I specifically avoid identifying groups who's rights we can take away because once we do that it becomes very tempting, and very easy, to define anyone you dislike as belonging to such a group. One can quickly find themselves in Ray Comfort territory [http://www.christiananswers.net/gospel/goodperson.html].
But failing to identify such groups, while permitting ourselves to take freedoms away from individuals (as you do here [http://lesswrong.com/lw/4pg/positive_thinking/3nyd]), isn't clearly an improvement. If I trust myself to evaluate individuals justly before depriving them of freedoms, it's not clear to me why I don't trust myself to evaluate them justly before assigning them to groups. Conversely, if I don't trust myself to deal justly with individuals I dislike, it's not clear to me why I trust myself to deprive them of freedoms. It seems to me that this problem is hard enough to require better tools than the ones you seem to be attempting to solve it with.
I think that it's much harder to prove an individual's guilt of a crime in a court of law than it is to assign someone to a group. I really hope I don't live in society where you can deprive someone of freedoms on your own for any reason. :) (or any one person, for the record - I don't have anything against you personally). I advocate "individual guilt" over "group affiliations" as criteria specifically because it requires much stronger standards of evidence. As the most egregious example of this - it would be very hard to prove Anwar al-Awlaki [http://www.salon.com/news/opinion/glenn_greenwald/2010/04/07/assassinations] has done anything illegal. And yet he's been condemned to death simply by having the president place him in the group "terrorist". So, I guess my hope has been shattered, actually. :( I meant that "I really hope" sentence more as an aspiration statement, really.
I agree with you that some people in the US are being deprived of freedoms without legal recourse because powerful people have declared them to have certain group affiliations, like "terrorist," and that in many cases this is a mistake. I also suspect that some people in the US are being mistakenly deprived of their freedoms in courts of law, despite nominal legal recourse, without any particular group affiliation being asserted, because powerful people desire it. I'd say (90+% confidence) there's at least an order of magnitude more people in the second group than the first.
At this point I think the discussion gets murky, because legal recourse is often intentionally biased and group affiliation is often implicit. The drug war comes to mind. I'd assert that there's a lot of overlap and we could reduce the second group a great deal by strengthening popular support of universal rights.
I certainly agree that the group/individual distinction gets murky when you get into the specifics of how societies actually make the choice to grant and withhold freedoms... that's why I was questioning the distinction in the first place. I agree that if there were strong and pervasive support for a common understanding of what freedoms people are entitled to by default (which is more or less what I understand by "universal rights"), there would be fewer cases of people being deprived of those freedoms, all else being equal. It's not clear to me that all else can be equal, though. It's also not clear to me that encouraging everyone to support universal rights, without at the same time encouraging us to support a specific model of universal rights, is anywhere near as effective.
Eek... Who writes this stuff? This is definitely the negative side of Christianity, although hopefully not an influential sect...
That's a disturbing page in several ways, but I don't see anything on it which implies actively violating anyone's rights, unless you interpret security from proselytism as a fundamental right.
I used it as an example because a favorite tactic of Ray Comfort is to ask someone "Have you ever told a lie?". Which is tantamount to asking "Are you a human?". After receiving an affirmative answer he asks "Well, doesn't that make you a liar? And god says no liar can enter heaven."
It's tricky for me to wrap my head around the logic of faith and repentance descended from Calvinism, but there's some pretty clever Dark Arts in there. "Your salvation-state has been predetermined by God, and there's nothing you can do about it -- but God only assigns salvation to people he expects to join his church and believe really hard. Do you think you're smarter than God?" I wonder if Calvinists would be unusually disposed toward one-boxing on Newcomb's Problem?
Maybe "violating" is the wrong word to use in this context. I would rather say that everyone has certain rights -- such as freedom from imprisonment -- conditioned on (for example) not violating other people's rights -- as in killing or assaulting them. P.S. Also, societies deprive minors and the incompetent from some rights for their own protection. I don't think we want to live in a world in which a slick salesperson could commit a ten year old or an advanced Alzheimer's patient to an expensive fifty year contract.
And we also deprive everyday people of certain rights for their own protection: the right of free contract is limited. For instance, I can't sign a contract with a clause saying that if I break it the other party has the right to my unpaid labour in perputuity. Similarly, I can't sell my organs, at least in this country.
You're saying some individuals should have their rights violated? What do you think a "right" is?
I find talk of rights is often very confused, with no one entirely sure what even they themselves mean by the term, much less the others in the conversation. It may be a good time to taboo the word. The best explanation I've found for "right" that seems to apply in the real world is "an extremely strong aversion to punishing acts of X with violence", which is based off the Desirist model. What that means in practice is that to assert that people have a right to freedom of movement is to say that everyone should have a very strong aversion to punishing free movement with violence. Sometimes a person's right to free movement will be violated because "a very strong aversion" is not infinite for good reason. When there are enough counter-weighing reasons (the person is assaulting someone, or the person has committed a crime and taking away this freedom will prevent others from committing a similar crime in the future) then that person's right is violated. But the reasons must be strong reasons, and provably demonstrated, in order to out-weigh a very strong aversion. And it remains the case that the right still exists. Everyone should still have a strong aversion to restricting the movements of others, even as we acknowledge that in this one case we have enough countervailing reasons to violate that right for this person.
I don't think this definition conforms with what most people mean by "rights." Assume an entirely nonviolent society. You try to vote. I throw your ballot away-- nonviolently. What right do you have? I sell you a boat or a car or a house. You pay me money. I take the money and laugh in your face. Nonviolently. What recourse do you have? Consider the example of criminal law. X has murdered someone. If X (predictably) resists imprisonment, I would say, use violence to subdue X. Would you not? X is in the group of humans who are "convicted criminals." How does this conform with your original assertion that "When someone expresses doubts that a particular group of humans should be allowed certain rights they are attacking the concept of universal human rights in its entirety?" This is not how the United Nations, for example, uses the term "universal human rights."
I don't see how any of those apply. In the first two, there are no rights on the part of the transgressor. No society recognizes a person's right to throw away official ballots or to cheat others of their money, so there is no prohibition on using violence to prevent that. Rights never come into the picture at all, so I think we've had some miscommunication along the way. In the third case, we use violence to subdue X not because he belongs to a group, but because we have determined (hopefully in a fair trial) that he has murdered someone. We now have strong enough justification to outweigh our aversion to taking away his freedom. The statement "We should always have an aversion to taking away freedom, but in this case we have important reasons to do so, and here they are" is not anywhere in the same category as "I doubt group Y should have a right to freedom"
On the one hand, a small part of me would like to discuss this further. On the other, I think this is becoming less relevant to the original post. Also -- and this is critical for me personally -- I've got some stuff to do in the real world now. I note that we cannot agree to disagree [http://wiki.lesswrong.com/wiki/Aumann%27s_agreement_theorem]. But I gotta go. Best wishes (and I mean that totally sincerely, without sarcasm).
I think some of the confusion here might come from the fact that freedom from violence is often cast as a right -- in which case we either have to make some awkward exceptions, or to draw an initiation/reaction distinction. This doesn't seem like an insurmountable hurdle, though; societies frequently do both.
Question: are there other reasons, in your opinion, why the rights of these groups might be restricted? Or is it purely a matter of power? To put this another way, and to pick a specific example for clarity: suppose on Tuesday, Sam and Pat are both free to walk around the city as they choose. Then on Wednesday, Sam and Pat are put in a cage (or whatever), preventing them from exercising this freedom. They attempt to prevent this, and attempt to enlist powerful allies to prevent it, and they fail. From your perspective, is it correct to claim that their rights are being curtailed and I deserve condemnation if I fail to defend those rights... for example, if I have the key to that cage and don't use it to free them? Or are there additional factors that need to be established to justify that claim?
There are many reasons why certain actions should be taken, such as putting someone in a cage. It may prevent others from doing whatever it was that prompted us to put that person in a cage. However it is still true that in general we are all better off if everyone possesses a love of freedom for all, even if in this individual case the consequences of locking someone up outweigh other considerations. Thus we should respect that their right to freedom exists even as we are violating it, and acknowledge that the world would be a better place if this wasn't necessary. That's all in ideal-world-land though. In practice, it's just a matter of power. Right now there are war criminals giving book tours and talk-show circuits in the US who are free because they harnessed a great deal of power over their lives. And there are national heroes [http://www.bradleymanning.org/] who are locked away in isolation because they made those people uncomfortable.
OK, thanks. For the record, I think there are people in the real world whose freedoms are being restricted, not only because they lack the power to prevent it, but because a variety of other conditions apply that I endorse restricting people's freedoms for... much like what you say of ideal-world land. To say that more succinctly, I think there are people in the real world whose freedoms are being justly restricted. I gather we disagree about this, which is fine... I'm content to leave it there. I certainly agree with you, though, that power is a critical factor, and that there are people in the real world who are being made to suffer unjustly, and that there are people in the real world who are unjustly benefiting.
I'm trying to understand your last few posts. Do you believe that human rights SHOULD BE universal, but in fact ARE only for those who take them? Or does 'universal' here mean something like 'with the inherent ability to claim and enforce them'? Because I'm not sure why it would be fundamental that criminals would be unable to enforce their rights? Because of this, I'm not sure if you think we should defend rights for criminals, minors and/or the mentally incompetent as well as for homosexuals. As a side point, you say that you encourage others to defend rights because you're attached to your own rights. Is this a case of valuing them in others because you do in yourself, or a matter of your own rights being safeguarded by a society that defends rights in general?
As I said to TheOtherDavid, there are sometimes reasons to take actions that violate others rights. There are more such reasons for violating the rights of minors/criminals/mentally incompetant than for homosexuals and so I'd put more energy into preventing the violation of rights against homosexuals. In fact I think there's so few reasons for violating the rights of homosexuals that I view it as an affront to civilization and to myself as a civilized human to do so. Both.
OK: so rights are universal over all people, but they're not inalienable, in that you sometimes have good reason for violating them. I'm not sure whether that always reflects our approach, especially for minors: is it that we think they have rights such as voting, contract etc. but we violate this right due to some risk or danger? Or do we simply not hold that they have those rights? On the sidepoint: fair enough. Presumably it's mostly valuing them in others, as if you want to defend your own rights than doing so by encouraging a general culture of defence of rights is very indirect and the net effect to you personally would presumably be much smaller than simpler accruing greater wealth/power/knowledge.
Hm... I've never fully thought out the situation with minors. This probably would have occurred to me earlier if I had children of my own. I want to say that I'm not sure that very young children can be considered fully human in the same way as adults, but this raises several red flags, not the least of which is the problem of determining when a person counts as "human" or not. I think rather than dig myself into a hole that I'm not sure I even support, I'd rather default back to my previous position - Minors have rights at the same point that anyone else has rights: once they have the power/allies to assert and defend those rights. The position in general does deserve some more pondering.
I suppose that depends on whether the 'basic rights' include things like voting and contract, that you might consider distinctively rights of citizens. To be honest, I never know how to take human rights language. Some people treat it as morally factual that people have certain rights, whether these are upheld and exercised or not. For me, 'rights' has to refer to a sort of social contract. We say that people have the 'right to life' because it makes certain decisions more difficult to take than if we just said you had to do what was best for your citizens in general. It's very difficult to condemn a country for 'not pursuing policies that evidence suggests maximises the freedom and quality of life of its citizens'. Doing so involves all sorts of sub-arguments and complexities. Whereas saying 'they torture people' at least gives you a clear point of objection, even if the fact and justification are both subject to argument afterwards. Kudos on the 'I've never fully thought the situation through', btw. Remarkably rare words on the net.
What about people who simply are silent, but not necessarily embarrassed? I mean, there are lots of people in the world whose rights are being deprived, and I am silent about most of them most of the time. So is pretty much everyone I know. I don't know all of our emotional motivations, but our silence is demonstrable. If that means we're all implicit in the murder of human rights and the spread of tyranny, I can accept that, but it's not clear that there's any grounds for singling out Swimmer's community for special treatment (which I understood to be the original context) on that basis.
I don't spend every minute decrying all the injustices of humanity, but if someone I know says in my presence that muslims are violent I at least let them know of my disapproval. Maybe that's a contributing factor to Swimmer's non-believing friends seeming grumpy and judgmental.
Actually I like it when people frankly correct other people's incorrect opinions. The negativity I'm talking about is more on the line of 'I hate this job, I'm so bored, my family is so stupid, I'm so sick of school' and also comments like 'That kid has the biggest head ever, I bet it makes her sink to the bottom of the pool' or 'seriously, why do fat people keep coming here and buying chips? They should just die.' This is the kind of negativity I see a LOT less of in Christian circles. Atheists may also be more likely to correct people's opinions, being more contrarian, but it's not something I've noticed personally.

I went to church without being convinced that god existed for years, so I can kind of see where you are coming from with this. What made me actually decide to become openly atheist was probably that I got involved in competitive gaming, and met a large enough group of friends who were interested in rationality that I no longer felt it was necessary to be in a church to have that kind of tight knit community. I like seeing groups of people and having interesting discussions regularly, but it makes me even happier when the ideas we share are non contradictor... (read more)

Very good way of putting it. I was very frustrated at times having discussions with Christian friends, and I'm lucky enough to have people outside that circle who I can talk to (for example, my brother, who also reads LessWrong.) It would be even nicer if these people outside my Christian circle had any inclination to a) band together in community, or b) make an effort to be positive, nice, generous, etc.
Re: meetup. There's a page somewhere on how to start a LessWrong meetup. But it's not hard: create a top-level post, say you want to meet in [city], give a location and time decently in advance, and wait for people to say they're coming in the comments.
Wasn't sure if I wanted to add this, but I guess I will. The difference in how we handle charity makes sense to me, because I sense an unwillingness in atheist communities (or at least in me and the people I know) to ask for help in the first place compared to religious communities. This year, I was unable to go to university because I went to a private school for grades 10 - 12, and my dad got sick and has been unable to work this year. We did not have enough money for me to pay for most of my courses so I took this year off to work, and might take next year off as well. My parents asked for help at church (and this was actually after I stopped attending) and were able to get almost half of the money we still needed. I feel kind of bad about accepting money from people who I just decided to stop meeting with, but since I am going to have my work cut out making enough this summer as it is, I am glad that they helped. When I have problems, I tend to focus on what I could be doing to fix them so much that I kind of forget that it would not be an issue if I could swallow my pride and get help. Maybe religion conditions you to think that all of your problems are insurmountable if you don't try and get assistance from someone else, I am not sure.

This occasionally involves a tricky kind of doublethink, for example a person who denounces homosexuality when asked directly but who holds nothing against their homosexual friends.

That combination isn't especially hard to do even without doublethink. But there are plenty of other examples (including other more incoherent combinations of beliefs related to homosexuality) that would demonstrate your point!

I can't believe both at the same time and I find it hard to imagine how someone could. Maybe this shows childish simplicity in my thoughts more than anything else, but even if I try to be okay with inconsistencies in my belief system, they drive me up the wall.
My point is that this is not an inconsistency at all. It is just something that is surprising to many since on subjects like homosexuality people tend to associate public disapproval of a specific behavior with political aggression to those with the identity and so personal conflict with the individuals who happen to practice it. But that just doesn't logically follow. To get from "disapprove of behaviour X" to "have a problem with person B who does X" you need to add in a whole other premise... which is not something everybody does. Bear in mind that the kind of Christians (ie. nice ones) who can denounce homosexuality when asked directly but hold nothing against their homosexual friends are also the kind who take particular delight in the verse "For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God". And the meaning that conveys is uplifting to them. Becomes it comes loaded with the connotation "And it doesn't matter. Jesus loves us all and we can all be forgiven and we should forgive. How can I hold anything against anyone when God doesn't hold anything against me despite all my naughty thoughts about Sam naked? Just because we believe in omnipotent imaginary friends doesn't mean we are obliged to be intolerant dicks. Hallelujah". Well, they really do think the first bit. The not being intolerant is just a pleasant side effect from my perspective. :)
You know what? That makes a LOT of sense. There are enough things my friends do that I disapprove of, or that at least seem irrational to me, but if they're not hurting others I don't hold it against them. I understand this more, thank you.
There are plenty of activities that I don't approve of, but which friends of mine engage in. I don't see any inconsistency there. Being someone's friend does not require endorsing everything they do. (Hell, I don't even endorse everything I do.) Can you say more about the nature of the inconsistency that troubles you?
See my reply above. I guess the inconsistency is that it DOES bother me when my friends do things I don't endorse. I try not to let it affect the way I treat them, as my friends, but it does rankle.
Well, sure. It bothers me, too. And sometimes I say to my friends "You know, it really bothers me that you do X." And I do things that bother my friends. And sometimes they say to me "You know, Dave, it really bothers me that you do X." And we all try not to say that too often, because that's annoying... but when the right moment arises, we say it. And that isn't a contradiction. Quite the contrary, part of what friendship entails is the willingness -- I might even say the obligation -- to find supportive ways of communicating such things. It's uncomfortable, sometimes extremely so. But we do it, because that's part of what friends do. (Some of us are, of course, better at it than others.)

As always, generalising from anecdotes can be dangerous. I am married to a christian, and have occasion to meet both non-religious and religious people. I see a wide variety of mental behaviours in them, with depressive and positive in both communities. In most cases these behaviours actually have their root in (I suspect) other parts of their background.

What I will agree with is that religousity can encourage people to be more altruistic than they might be otherwise. While a rationalist might carefully reach the same results, it is a more difficult course... (read more)

I really, really, wish that problem came from religion and not universal human behavior. It would make non-religious communities so much more pleasant!
Well it's not as if they can just look up the Universal List of Actually Good Behaviors and devote themselves to those. What should they devote themselves to if not the things they believe are good?
The slavish devotion means that they don't question the goodness of these beliefs. Frequently I will find people (and this includes myself) engaging in behaviours that contradict key assumptions they make about what they believe to be good, because they haven't thought carefully about those actions. Any group think can discourage critical thinking, but religious groupings can be particularly prone to it.
Yes, sorry, I should have made clear that that issue is attached to the nature of the closely knit group (as I suspect the benefits are)
Agreed that generalizing from anecdotes can be dangerous. Thus the posting it to a public forum where people can tell me whether or not my conclusions are generalizable...so far the consensus is probably not.
"What I will agree with is that religousity can encourage people to be more altruistic than they might be otherwise. While a rationalist might carefully reach the same results, it is a more difficult course to enter without getting caught up in simple selfish action." Very well put. This is exactly the behavior I've noticed in myself since I stopped going to the church.

If I were to take all of my friends and divide them into two groups, there are plenty of criteria I could choose, but probably the most relevant slice would be between my friends who believe in God, and my friends who don’t...I find it so refreshing to be with a group of people who are relentlessly positive about life, who constantly remind one another to be positive, and who offer concrete help rather than judgement.

It seems that by "relevant" you meant something like "best at dividing my friends into distinct groups". However, the ... (read more)

"It was religion, in the first place, that told you it is wrong to hang out with people who don't share your beliefs." Actually, my friends and relatives who are atheists have been WAY more judgemental about the fact that I go to church than my religious friends have been about my being a (fairly open) atheist.
What I am trying to say is three levels removed from your objection to it. Associating with people is a proxy for believing as they do or taking their beliefs seriously, and I wouldn't particularly expect atheists to be less judgmental about associating with Christians than vice versa. I am instead suggesting erroneous belief systems are the source of the belief that it is wrong to associate with people of different beliefs. Not that it is indicative of negative qualities, but wrong per se. Also, it is the belief system that spawned the error, for false belief systems do relatively better in a meta-environment of discouraging freedom of association and encouraging group reinforcement than true belief systems do. This is a comment on belief systems and the negative consequence of false ones' persistence, not on any individuals who are members of the system. Finally, the idea that belief systems should naturally discourage member contact with others has become so natural to you that you assume rationalist belief systems have it, and argue against the objection before it is raised. That it should seem so natural is sad, and I see it as a consequence of being surrounded by so many religious systems in modern American society. 1) The problem is not judging people based on their friends. This is sound Bayesian evidence, even if just a scrap. Be judgmental to the appropriate degree: too much is too much, and too little is too little. 2) The problem is that false belief systems have spawned the idea of limiting one's associations. 3) The problem is that the evil idea in 2) above has become viewed as natural, and even become an attitude rationalists are assumed to hold!
One comment: the atheist friends who judge me on associating with Christians are, for the most part, not professed rationalists. I doubt their belief systems are any more self-consistent than those of my religious friends; they just don't happen to contain God. I certainly don't think it should be part of any rationalist belief system to judge! Just that it happens to me (and it also happens to me from my brother, who DOES claim to be a rationalist and reads LessWrong) and that I find it unpleasant. I like how you make the distinction between judging people based on the friends, and limiting contact with them based on your judgement. I do the first (probably a bit less than most people, but that has more to do with the fact that I have an "agreeable" personality than anything else) but I try very hard not to do the latter, and hate it when people (mostly coming from the atheist side) try to ask that of me.
But that could be the exception to the norm.

It seems to me as though my mom has become more religious ever since her mother and aunt died. During her mother's funeral, she mentioned a study on mothers whose children were dying of leukemia that tried to evaluate different kinds of coping assistance; according to her, the only thing that actually worked (as measured by the level of stress hormones) was sending the mothers to religious services. The cynic in me wants to respond that, yes, if you fool someone who's dying into believing that they're perfectly healthy, of course they're going to feel happ... (read more)

The way your post more or less conflates the need for a community, the need for 'positive thinking', and the need for self-deception feels like grade A Dark Arts to me, especially because you've managed to slip in a suggestion that there's something bad about condemning self-deception.

Your comment seems to me to unduly assume bad faith from the poster and may benefit from rephrasing.
If something presents a cognitive hazard, it is better to label it as such as unambiguously as possible.
That isn't what you did, though.
If someone wants to deceive themself, and the self-deception makes them LESS likely to behave hurtfully towards others, I feel I have no right to condemn them. I have the right to condemn MYSELF for self-deception, because it's my choice to aim for greater rationality, but I wouldn't force someone else to take that choice any more than I would force them to be religious.
More Dark Arts. Now you're conflating condemning some beliefs with forcing someone to abandon those beliefs.
Is the self deception necessary or optimal to achieve that behavior though? It might be better for them to be religious and altruistic than irreligious and antisocial, but might there not be an alternative that's better than either [http://lesswrong.com/lw/hu/the_third_alternative/]? If you really don't judge people for their failings, can you be happy for them if they improve?
Yes, that third alternative may be better (altruistic and irreligious), but it comes at a high cost (the individual usually loses that community, even if only from their own withdrawal) which will need a safety net prepared. And well prepared at that. I can vouch that a number of my religious friends, should they lose their religiosity, would likely fall closer to ethical nihilism, losing the altruism and being more bitter, which is all kinds of fun [http://df.magmawiki.com/index.php/40d:Fun]. So yeah, maybe it's better, but it's also significantly more costly, and the easier alternative is far from bad if it's strong on the altruistic side.
Which is why it's such a handy thing to have prosocial secular communities.
We are not in disagreement here; my point was only noting a possible large risk of deconversions, which should be counted in the third alternative if the major social group of someone is their religious group.

The belief that complaining, casting blame, and making excuses are the preferred ways to deal with problems is probably less (instrumentally) sane than belief in god. But I don't see why a person without one must have the other.

In theory. But in practice, this is the correlation I've noted.
Do you have a point other than "hey, here's a correlation"? I haven't found any correlation, personally.
I agree. I'd also point out the oft-repeated point that "correlation does not imply causation". My own hypothesis would be to conclude that "social support causes happiness" and that religion is not important at all except that religious communities have an historical association with social support networks.
Have you specifically LOOKED for a correlation? i.e. have you attended a church to see how its members behave? I won't say this is why I went to church, because it had more to do with a) liking the music, social atmosphere, etc and b) wanting to understand how someone could 'believe' things that seemed so irrational. (And now I think I understand that better.)
I too have noticed this. In fact, most of your post could have been written about me.
Would you mind explaining how? I would like to see more of other people's observations, since mine are likely to be biased.
How large is your sample? My impression is that most religious people don't get nearly as much good out of their religion as the folks you know.
My sample is not small in terms of people, but it may not be representative in terms of demographics, and a lot of the people do come from the same church, so in that sense it's biased.
However you must prove both a lack of selection-bias and a suitable sample-size before that correlation is meaningful. :)

It strikes me that this discussion of the benefits of religiosity, separate from its truth, is reminiscent of the placebo effect.

I applaud you on your willingness to share this experience. I might even call it brave, because there is a strong sort of stigma against anything religious in most "rationalist" circles. I also congratulate you on finding a workable solution in spite of those stigmas, rather than sticking to absurd, self-contrived constraints on being Rational(TM). I hardly think that church-going is the best long-term solution to a chronic negativity problem, but when supposedly ideal methods are shown to consistently fail in some way or another.. Well, there's ... (read more)

"I applaud you on your willingness to share this experience. I might even call it brave, because there is a strong sort of stigma against anything religious in most "rationalist" circles." Actually, what I've been thinking is "I should post controversial-by-Lesswrong-standards things more often." This post has double the comments of any of my other posts.
See the 'Help' link at the bottom right of the comment box for explanations of the Markdown syntax used here. In particular, quote a paragraph by preceding it by ">".
Thank you wedrifid! I have been wondering for weeks how people do that!

I wouldn’t describe many of them as rationalists, particularly, but it seems that according to lesswrong doctrine, they are above the sanity waterline while my first friend group is below.

Woah there! I never signed up to any doctrine like that! Where is that one written down? (So that I can reject it explicitly in the right context!)

For a start, a lot of those non-believers that you know I would almost certainly consider below the sanity waterline. And some of your Christian friends probably come in above. My immediate family members, for example, are s... (read more)

That is what I sincerely hoped most people would think. I used the phrase partly as sarcasm.
[-][anonymous]12y 0

Do you find it plausible that if your atheist friends took up religion, they would become less negative? Perhaps to the degree obtainable by associating with those with a more positive outlook, but I don't think that's the predominant cause of the corresponding attitudes.

It sound to me that what you describe as a positive attitude is being high on the Agreeableness Big Five trait, which happens to be the strongest predictor of religiosity of the five:

"Kosek (1999), MacDonald (2000;0, and Taylor and MacDonald (1999) found that measures of Agreebalenes ... (read more)

[-][anonymous]12y 0

After reading this, I think that the reason that nonbelievers are known for being more disagreeable is that people who are more disagreeable are more likely to stop believing.

That is to say, everyone has doubts, but the more agreeable a person is the more they weight other people's opinions and feelings in their consideration, thus making them less likely to, all other things being equal, stop believing.

Or, it's easier to stop believing when you actually do care more about the truth than continuing to be in your religious community.

This isn't to say that there aren't really nice nonbelievers, but the selection effect is probably noticeable.

I think the idea that religion is "irrational" is overly simplistic. The disagreement between atheists and religious people is really over values. Eliezer often says that rationalists win. But rationalists are nearly the opposite - they are the people who would rather be right than win. The people who would rather win, than be right, are usually religious.

My desire to be right, even at the expense of winning, was probably once responsible for my interest in rationality. But today I would rather win than be right, and religion looks less appealing than ever.
I don't believe that anybody reading less wrong would rather win than be right. It isn't something you can even consciously choose. If you even get to the step where you ask yourself, "Would I rather win than be right?" it means you're one of those people who'd rather be right. When I say you would "rather" be right, I mean that your mind operates in a way so that reason generally overrides other factors in choosing your beliefs. Supposing you decided that becoming Mormon was a winning strategy. Could you make yourself believe in Mormonism? Not just act it out, but really believe in it? If not, your mind would rather be right than win.
No. But if you offered me a pill which let me believe in Mormonism, I would go for it, which I think is the relevant question. The way you have phrased it, it seems to me that you could just as well argue "Suppose you decided that flying was a winning strategy. Could you fly?".
It isn't the relevant question. There is no such pill. You can't do it. Yet there are millions of people who are able to do it! I believe this is because their subconscious, rational decision-making process can compute expected utility without being aware of their own operation, and thus being hindered from setting beliefs so as to maximize utility rather than correctness. This isn't wrong - it's adaptative! If your decision-making were purely conscious, you would be unable to choose beliefs that are false but likely to lead to preferred outcomes.
It is far more likely that their subconscious hack of a decision making process executes a heuristic [http://lesswrong.com/lw/l0/adaptationexecuters_not_fitnessmaximizers/] to rationalize [http://lesswrong.com/lw/js/the_bottom_line/] as a conscious belief the belief being professed [http://lesswrong.com/lw/i6/professing_and_cheering/] by high status people, that heuristic having evolved because it has been adaptive.
It's important to keep in mind that our subconscious isn't rational, isn't trying to maximize our utility function, and is frequently hijacked by a bunch of jury-rigged hacks put in place by generations of horny monkeys. Evolution is not on our side.
Our subconscious is "rational" if rational is defined as "winning". True, it's winning at something you don't identify as "your" utility function. But the claim I'm making is that subconscious mechanisms have some winning strategies open to them, that conscious strategies don't. The question whether it's implementing "your" utility function or not is a different question.
Our subconscious may be somewhat optimized for the task of increasing inclusive genetic fitness but I doubt it's optimal, evolution is stupid and gets stuck in local maxima all the time. There are probably points in the space of all possible subconsciouses that would do much better, especially since we are in quite a different environment to the one it was optimized for.
I disagree. I don't think the subconscious computes any expected utility at all. I think it's in large part a dumb set of heuristics and reflexes that isn't particularly good at 'winning' in its current environment. Sure, it's true that "subconscious mechanisms have some winning strategies open to them that conscious strategies don't", but that's a much weaker claim. That it's using a different utility function is important to remember and nonobvious in the great-grandparent (we wouldn't say it's good to be taken over by a brainslug simply because the brainslug is better at achieving its goals than we are at achieving ours).
I have spent a long time trying to figure out what exactly works differently about my Christian friends' brains that allows them to really, truly believe without (apparent) cognitive dissonance. Not to say that I would choose to believe unconditionally if I had the ability, but I would like to understand. Maybe. I wish there was a way of researching this without biasing the results.
[To clarify, I'm an atheist, and this is not intended as a defense of religion, only as an analogy which might possibly illuminate the nature of religious belief.] Suppose you're framed. You know that you didn't commit that crime, but you've been perfectly framed. All the evidence points to your guilt. And yet, in the face of all the evidence, you know that you didn't commit it. What's your evidence? You might say, "I remember clearly". But some psychologist might argue with you that you are in denial, that you have constructed a false memory, and so on. He might even show brain scans which he says proves that you've suppressed your memory. Some of us will continue to believe that our memory is true and that we are innocent and that somehow we've been framed. We have a strong inner conviction about what happened - which conviction is nothing more or less than our own memory. That conviction in one's own innocence in this scenario resembles religious belief in various respects. All the physical evidence points to guilt. You can show not a scrap of evidence in defense of your innocence. All you have is your own conviction that you are innocent. And, similarly, all the physical evidence points to the falsehood of your religion (we suppose for the sake of argument). You can't show a scrap of evidence in defense of your religion. All you have is your own conviction that your religion is true.
Of course, in this case (unlike with religion) you have a good reason to believe that your subjective personal conviction correlates with the truth - and even so you should be open to the possibility of being wrong.
From a religious person's point of view, why do they not have a good reason to believe that their personal convictions don't correlate with truth?
I was attempting to show that even with all the reasons taken away - with all the empirical evidence, with the experts telling him that his memories are false - with nothing left but his own naked feeling of conviction, a normal, healthy human being may very well retain his conviction. Now, if a person wanted to state a reason for retaining his conviction, he might argue as follows: "this conviction in my own innocence is the consequence of the fact of my innocence, and is thus evidence of my innocence - the only evidence I have left". If A tends to cause B and not-A tends to prevent B, then B is evidence (though not proof) of A. Our brains are built so that facts tend (however imperfectly) to cause beliefs in those facts. Thus, if we find in ourselves a belief in some fact, then this is evidence (however imperfect) that the fact is true. This, however, is all after-the-fact reasoning to support the simple psychological phenomenon of retaining one's own convictions. That phenomenon can be explained and justified, as I did in the paragraph above, but the phenomenon itself is simply the habit of sticking to one's convictions, even in the face of evidence to the contrary. The phenomenon is stubbornness in one's beliefs. Once one starts believing something, then one keeps believing it. Notice I'm not saying anything about this being a belief in a world they want to live in. I don't think that stuff is essential. Once you have a belief, however you got it, you tend to stick to it, even when the evidence goes against it. It's normal to do that. And, sometimes, it's the right thing to do.
The fact that they're better explained by other causes than the divine? The fact that people with similar experiences are objectively most likely to be factually incorrect in that specific domain? What good reason is there? Edit: Consider all the people who have faith in some religion based on subjective personal conviction, and separate them into mutually exclusive groups. No one group is in the majority. Thus, your subjective personal conviction regarding religion is, best case scenario, more likely to be wrong than right.
I would say their criteria for a "better" explanation is different; they see an explanation as "better" if it implies the kind of world they want to live in. And of course that's irrational, but I doubt it feels irrational from the inside.
I agree. I guess I shouldn't squint so hard at the analogy! :)
Disappointing. If this is your reaction, my analogy failed. What I tried to create was a situation in which all you have is your conviction. I took away all your props, all the empirical evidence. All you have is your memory, which I argued here [http://lesswrong.com/lw/4pg/positive_thinking/3r33] reduces to conviction, and I even threw in a battalion of experts telling you that your memories are false. My point is that with all this, with all the evidence pointing against his belief and with nothing left to him but his own conviction itself, a normal, healthy human being may very well maintain his conviction - in the face of everything.
Sorry! I think the analogy is great, though now I'm interested in asking a friend of mine to provide ones from his own (theistic) perspective. It might be stronger if there is no proposed mechanism for denial / false memories, and you're just being accused of lying, perhaps?
Maybe, though my purpose was to minimize your own reasons for being convinced of your own innocence. If other people are accusing you of lying, well, you know you're not lying, so their accusations do not act to reduce your own basis for your convictions. If we want to draw an analogy here between the innocent framed person and the religious person, we might compare the proposed mechanism for false memories with the mechanisms that the non-religious propose to explain why the religious believe what they do. For example, an atheist might say, "you only believe that because you were taught it when you were too young to resist indoctrination". A psychologist might come up with an equally plausible explanation as to how you came to have a false memory of your innocence. In both cases, you (the religious person or the accused person) have these explanations purporting to explain and debunk your beliefs that you need to deal with one way or another.
That describes it pretty well. I would argue that a lot of Christians do have some form of evidence, though; the experiences of transcendent joy that they call the 'presence of God'. I know they're not lying about that because I've felt that as well. I can induce it in myself fairly predictably by singing the right kind of music with a group of people...or even just thinking about things I find beautiful, like math. I just don't consider it evidence for God, per se.
I agree. I was deliberately pushing the lack of evidence as far as I could in order to make the point as strongly as I could. In my imagined scenario (someone perfectly framed of a crime who nevertheless knows perfectly well that he is innocent - though has absolutely no evidence to lean on), I find it completely realistic to be such a person and to have a strong conviction in my own innocence even though there is not a scrap of evidence for it and a lot of evidence against it. This, I think, may provide a basis for trying to imagine what it is like to have a strong belief in a religion despite no evidence, even in the face of contrary evidence. As you say, the religious actually do have certain kinds of evidence. I think it's worthwhile to, if it is possible, try to understand people sympathetically, to try to understand them from the inside. I think that the ease of imagining myself as a perfectly framed person who remains firmly convinced of his own innocence in the face of zero evidence for and plenty against suggests that the difference between believers and nonbelievers is not as deep as it might have seemed. There is, necessarily, some difference, but I don't think it's a matter of the brain functioning drastically differently.
I don't think so either. From the explanations others have given me, belief seems to come from a) wanting the world to be a certain way, b) thinking (probably not consciously) that the world is this way if they believe it is, and c) interpreting observations about the world as evidence for the world being that way. Well, I have a) as well. It would be really freaking awesome if there was a God who talked to you and answered your prayers and never let anything bad happen. But I know that my believing that doesn't make it true, and so I interpret the same real-world observations as meaning different things.
I don't think one's own memories count as having no evidence.
I think of it as follows. What is a memory? What is it like to experience having a memory? Subjectively, it seems to me that having a memory is like having an image, which I can call up at will, and in addition to having this image, I have the conviction that this image is a true image of some past thing or event. So what makes an image into what seems to me to be a memory rather than a mere fancy or daydream, is my own personal conviction that the image is a true reflection of the past. In this case you have a memory which is, or seems to be, a union of an image and a conviction about that image. Is the image taken by itself evidence of your past? I submit that it is at best weak evidence, since the image could just as easily be a flight of fancy. What makes the image into what seems to you to be a memory and thus into evidence of your past is your own conviction that the image is true. So the heart of the evidence is the fact of your conviction. But conviction is just what the religious have. But I submit that it is furthermore possible to have a memory about the past even without an image. You can simply know (or seem to yourself to know) that something happened. This memory is pure conviction. Finally, you can be convinced that you are innocent, not because of any memory that you have of the past, but because you do not have a certain memory, namely the memory of having committed the crime. In this case, there is no memory. So, you say, "I don't think one's own memories count as having no evidence". But here, you have an absence of a particular memory, namely, the absence of the memory of the crime. Meanwhile, don't forget that (in the comment where I introduced this scenario) I did mention the existence of an expert, which we could enlarge to an endless parade of highly credentialed psychologists and neurologists from the best universities, who all swear up and down that you have suppressed your true memories of having committed the crime and constructed fal
The problem is that you can only be sure about the appearance of such. The cognitive dissonance just needs to be small enough so that it doesn't manifest in outward action.
Maybe. I've asked them, though, and they don't seem to find it a serious problem. They find ways to get around it...I could quote examples if I remembered the vocabulary better. In fact, a number of people seemed confused when I tried to explain my inability to believe.
Maybe this is key to the problem, such that they are able to build such a strong mental block between those two aspects of the brain so that the concept of the conflict of belief is actively rejected.
A strong mental block. Interesting. Plausible...

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