I have been recently entertaining myself with a 3-day non-stop binge of Theist vs. Atheist debates, On the atheist side: Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Denett, Sam Harris, P.Z. Myers. On the theist corner: Dinesh D'Souza, William Lane Craig, Alistair McGrath, Tim Keller, and (unfortunately) Nassim Nicholas Taleb. One of the interesting points that comes up, often by Hitchens, is what I call the "Bodycount Argument". The atheist will claim: "Look at all the deaths caused by religion: Crusades, Inquisition, Islamic fundamentalism, Japanese militarism, Conquests of the New World" and the list goes on and on. Then the Theist will claim: "Well, look at the Nazis, the Fascists, the Soviets, the Khmer Rouge...". the Atheist then tries to reverse some of that, e.g. the Fascists were the catholic right wing, the SS were mostly confessing Catholics and Hitler had churches pray for him on his birthday, and, most tenuously, that the Soviets had the support of the orthodox church and used the pre-existing structures set up by the Czar to establish their power.

Some of that retort is convincing, some is not so much. You cannot really blame Soviet, Cambodian and Chinese massacres solely on religion. While they do at least manage to bring it to a tie, I suspect that the atheists follow this argument up suboptimally. My instinctive reaction would be "ok, so you proved that except for religion, communism leads to mass slaughter too. I have no problem doing away with both". But the Theists have a stronger form of their argument in which they claim that the crimes of communism are -because- of atheism, so a simple one-line retort won't work in all cases. We need to lay a deeper foundation for that claim to be convincing.

Enter single points of failure. The rudimentary definition, usually given in terms of computer networks, is that a single point of failure is that component which takes down the entire system when it fails. While the term has originated in computer science as far as I can tell, it can be applied to human networks as well. The strategy of Alexander the Great, at the battle of Issus, was instead of trying to defeat the entire, vastly ournumbering, Persian army in combat, to attack the Persian king Darius directly. When he was able to make him flee, the entire Persian army fell into disarray, with one side executing an orderly retreat, but the left flank completely disintegrated while being pursued by Alexander's cavalry. So while the term is new, the concept has been long known and has been used to great effect.

What I want to argue, is that all the examples cited by Theists and Atheists alike, are instances of a single point of -moral- failure. Here, instead of the system disintegrating or stopping to operate, it goes into a sequence of actions that when examined by an outside human observer, or even the participants themselves at a latter date, seem to be immoral, irrational, and akin to madness. The common point in all the examples is that a central organization, supported by a specific fanaticizing ideology, ordered the massacres to occur, and the people at the lower ranks, implemented those orders, despite perhaps individually knowing better.

My explanation of this, is that the lower-ranks had in effect outsourced their moral sense to their leadership. As with all centralised structures, when things go well, they go -really- well (assuming aligned incentives, greedy algorithms generally will not be as optimal as top-down ones), but when they go bad, they can be disastrous. The bigger the power of the network, the bigger the consequences. It is not hard to imagine why the outsourcing happened. Humans are tribal. I think very few, having observed the weekly rituals called 'football games' (whatever your definition of football is) would disagree. But humans are also moral. We have a rough set of rules that we tend to follow relatively consistently. What is of interest in these cases, is that an individual's tribalism completely overrode that individual's personal morality. And this happened repeatedly and reliably, throughout the ranks of each of these human networks.

Coming back to the original argument, if indeed tribalism trumps morality, and the above give us good reason to believe it does, then the theist argument that god put morality inside us comes into question. It does not explain why god saw fit to make our morality less powerful a motivator than our tribal instincts. But the biological explanation stands confirmed: If morality is a mechanism that was useful for intra-tribe interactions, then it would -have- to be suspended when the tribe was facing another. One can imagine the pacifist tribe being annihilated by the non-pacifist tribes around it or, lest I be accused of arguing for group selection, the individual pacifists being attacked both by their own tribe or the enemy tribe. Tribalists may disagree about who gets to live and who gets the resources, but they don't disagree about tribalism.


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If the argument is, "Who is right about the existence of God?" this a total red herring. If there is no God, this does not predict that people who believe such will be good people. If there is a God, this does not preclude people from slaughtering each other in his name, at least if that God is not friendly or places a high value on human agency.

If the issue is, "Is it better to have a religious or areligious society, when it comes to not having mass murder?" then there simply isn't adequate evidence to decide either way. The sampling is decidedly non-random, particularly because many major religious massacres occurred when the population was smaller, people were somewhat more expensive to kill, and record keeping was sparse.

Arguing, "Communist Russia wasn't religious, therefore, all atheistic governments will kill lots of people," makes as much sense as saying, "The Papacy murdered lots of people during the inquisition, therefore any Christian government will murder lots of people." The religious orientation of a government may have significant implications, but they are not consistent or highly predictive. The fact that Communism and various fascist governments eschewed religion so they could make people worship the state does not mean that any government that promotes atheism will do so.

So your argument is an elaborate way of beating a rather minor point. "God put morality inside us" already has to come with enough caveats as to render it meaningless.

[-][anonymous]12y 6

If the point is "I think tribalism can be analyzed as a single point of failure for morality" then it all makes sense.

If we look at frequency of mass slaughter instead of absolute numbers (i.e., taking into account how recently the atheist countries were established), atheism does seem to come out worse than religion. This may be an instance of the valley of bad rationality.

Or mass killers are anti-Church for the same reason that they are, say, anti-labor-union: they permit no competing organized power structures.

That is a very good point. However, following that syllogism, assuming the massacres were indeed because of immature atheism, and knowing that there are no countries that have actually crossed the valley yet to reassure us that it is indeed finite and the next hill worthwhile, it would seem to cast a shadow of doubt on the whole project. Especially given the potential bodycount of any further experiments.

Also, I guess you could add a world-population percentage weighing to the slaughters, but I doubt the tally would come out different ...unless of course you are a bible literalist and count the Cain vs. Abel slaughter, single handedly wiping out 25% of the world's population :)

[-][anonymous]12y 13

It's very hard to compare one example of genocide to another, particularly when you are comparing events that occurred in different eras. As the genocides of the 20th century proved, technology changes the game by making it easier to commit systematic mass murder. Therefore, comparing body counts or even the frequency of mass slaughter doesn't truly compare two ideologies.

technology changes the game by making it easier to commit systematic mass murder.

Not to mention the simple expedient of having more people around.

As a percentage of the population, the Thirty-Years War, at least nominally between the Catholics and Protestants in 17th century Germany, was the bloodiest in history, with estimates of 20% to 25% of the population dying.

As far as I know, Pol Pot's government "wins" the democide contest, having killed off about 30% of the Cambodian population.

Valleys of rationality are never a reason to call off your own experiment.

If you have some reason to believe that you're in a valley (because they seem common or because someone trusted told you, perhaps), then simply act as if you hadn't entered the valley. Once you're convinced that you found your way out, you can use your new found knowledge.

If you don't think you're in a valley, then you'd think it's stupid to use your old decision making algorithms.

If you're talking about small influences on someone else considering progressing, then you just have to decide how much of your effort to use on warning of upcoming valleys. I suppose its possible that the person/organization in question can be persuaded to try/not try to become more rational, but not be persuaded about the reality/severity of valleys, but I don't think that's a common case.

Voted up, but do the theists really get to pretend that the whole Han cultural complex isn't functionally atheist as they understand atheism? Or that Europe hasn't been atheist for generations by any standard according to which Russia and Germany were atheist?

The Taiping Rebellion in China looks a lot like the Communist revoltion in Russia in some respects, but it's pseudo-Christian (and is any Christianity not pseudo?). Maybe the conclusion should just be that revolutions are bad?

This may be a stored rant, but while I believe that describing tribalism as the single point of moral failure is excellent, I want to be clear about the right name for tribalism in our era-- it's nationalism.

Afaik, about 50 million died in Hitler's War.

Nationalism is one particularly common and obvious form of tribalism, but there are plenty of others. People also sometimes do evil things out of loyalty to political parties, religions, corporations, gangs, even sports teams. Pretty much any organization with a hierarchical structure can cause problems if someone untrustworth ends up at the top.

You don't need hierarchies or anybody at the top - group psychology is enough. Think hooligans, lynch mobs ...

Russian communists were internationalists and wanted a world revolution. That's why they supported left-wing movements throughout the world, and that's why Moscow has numerous places named like Patrice Lumumba University or Martin Luther King Square (no kidding). The idea of peaceful coexistence with the capitalist West became acceptable only after most of the killings were finished.

The single-point-of-failure word you're looking for isn't "nationalism", it's more like "ideology" or "mass movement". Read Eric Hoffer's "The True Believer" for more.

Also, the USSR didn't just kill foreigners or ethnic minorities.

No, the word I want is "nationalism". It's commonly flavored with ideology, but mere ideology doesn't have as much power as a national government.

Also, the havoc caused by ideological governments is partly framed as necessary for the nation.

Mass movements may eventually may start causing as much havoc as governments (especially if we count decentralized terrorism as a mass movement), but I don't think it's happened yet. What mass movements do you have in mind?

but mere ideology doesn't have as much power as a national government


I know this ideology that created many national governments...

I know this other ideology that openly said it wanted to gain power in a country and persecute a certain ethnic group, and then did just that...

And, get this, I know another ideology that started out in a poor province and took over an empire...

No, the word I want is "nationalism". It's commonly flavored with ideology, but mere ideology doesn't have as much power as a national government.

"Paternalism" seems to capture the relevant aspects of nationalism, religion, and mass movement ideologies.

The scary aspect of nationalism is the common belief that it should override all other values.

Thank you for your kind words. I don't know if I'm nitpicking here, but I don't see tribalism as a single point of moral failure, I see it as leading to group structures with a single point of moral failure.

As for the modern name, while for the country I grew up in, Greece, religion and nationality are practically the same (the religion is tellingly named greek orthodox christianity), I use tribalism for any situation where people may put their alegiance in a group. Nations are perhaps the nearest modern equivalent to the tribe concept, but cities, neighborhoods, clans/families, religions, football clubs, political parties, and nearly anything else you can organise people around can take over the psychological function of a tribe.

and nearly anything else you can organise people around

Like blogs. I wonder if people feel that LessWrong forms a rationalist tribe, and if so, whether it contains a single point of moral failure.

If Eliezer Yudowsky came to your house and handed you a gun and said that he would need your help with killing some people, that there was a very good reason for doing so and he would explain on the way there, would you get in the van?

Bearing in mind, of course, that he's convinced people to let an unFriendly AI out of the box, so once he gets you alone he'll probably be able to convince you of just about anything.

Yeah, I'd probably get in the van. I'd be very confused by the whole thing, but given the situation, it seems likely that someone needs to get shot - it would take me a while to figure out whether that someone was assassin!Eliezer or the people he says need to die, but I'd rather be in a position where I could influence events than not be in one.

Refusing to kill is influencing events. I wouldn't get in the van, do your crazy shit without me.

If Eliezer Yudowsky came to your house and handed you a gun and said that he would need your help with killing some people, that there was a very good reason for doing so and he would explain on the way there, would you get in the van?

Hell yeah. Just let me grab my bullet proof vest! What is our escape plan?

I would reject the offer based upon the assumption that EY should be able to find or purchase more suitable assassins, and thus I was being tested or manipulated in some ridiculous fashion.

However, it would significantly raise my estimation that those people may need to die (+>10%).

Let's say that you've got military training but are currently deeply in debt and unemployed, that you know EY knows about those factors, and that inside the door of the van you spot three other people who you recognize as having similar skills and similar predicaments.

...that is so absurd that I would accept it as strong evidence that this reality is a computer simulation being tweaked for interestingness. I'd get in the car, lest I disappear for being too boring.

Something like this, then.

Ping me after the Singularity, we'll produce the SIAI Hit Squad video game.

More likely the situation would turn out much more mundane. And with more rooftop chases.

inside the door of the van you spot three other people who you recognize as having similar skills and similar predicaments.

A crack commando unit sent to prison by a military court for a crime they didn't commit?

"What would you do if you were a completely different person?"

The me-that-is-not-me would accept the offer, based upon the evidence that three others of a similar cluster in person-space also agreed, are recognized by the me-that-is-not-me, making it likely that they have worked together previously on such extra-judicial excursions, and that the me-that-is-not-me apparently has very poor decision-making capabilities, at least to the point of the inability to find decent employment, to avoid debt, or to avoid the military.

I do not consider such hypotheticals useful.

The point is, if you were asked to do something obviously immoral, but that could conceivably be justified, and that nobody else could do for you. Maybe some atrocity related to your job.

I do not consider such hypotheticals useful.

Me neither, honestly, but it's popular enough around here I thought I'd give it a shot.

"Obviously immoral" and "conceivably justifiable" are mutually exclusive by my definitions. I would plug the act into my standard moral function, which apparently answers the question "is there a single point of moral failure" with "no," at least for me.

What I mean is, something which would under normal circumstances be bad, but given very specific conditions would be the best way to prevent something even worse, and further, that demonstrating those conditions would be difficult.

Yes, that's what I understood it to mean, and I view it as a trolley problem with error bars and "leadership influence" in the form of being from EY.

Who is "Eliezer Yudowsky?"


Perhaps the real single point of failure is identifying as anything. I might identify as a rationalist when speaking to others, but in my own mind I think such an identification would be unhelpful (and could be harmful).

Deeper, more controversial answer: The single point of failure is words, or rather the fact that social convenience strongly impels us to make a medium designed for communication double as a medium for our own thoughts. The phenomenon of self-identifying as an "X-ist" (even if initially only for social convenience) is just one of the unfortunate consequences.

The body count argument annoys me, and it's disappointing to see people like Hitchens use it. Whether or not there is evidence-based reasons to believe in god is a separate issue from whether people who do or do not believe in god do other stupid or immoral things. There are atheists, I'm sure, who reject god for completely irrational reasons and are generally irrational themselves. It matters not just what you believe, but why you believe it.

The body count argument is an attempt to address a couple of points-- that religion is necessary to make people moral and that religion, or alternatively lack of religion, makes people better than they would be otherwise.

I'd say the evidence is pretty strong that religion is not necessary to make people moral, though the argument that the good residual effects of religion hang on for a couple of generations but fade is harder to disprove. On the other hand, I think it's close enough to non-falsifiable that I don't worry about it.

I've never seen it argued that religion increases the moral range among people, leading to both more generous behavior (some of it useful) and more destructive behavior, but I don't find this implausible. I can't say whether increasing the moral range can be said a priori to be a good or bad thing. Like nationalism, religion is a force concentrator.

On the other hand, I think it's close enough to non-falsifiable that I don't worry about it.

A hypothesis which is non-falsifiable has an alternative which is also non-falsifiable. You don't get to "not worry about it" unless you can show that the prior is low, which is a separate matter from any difficulties of setting up an experiment that everyone will agree is definitive.

The prior has several parts. Would the null hypothesis be that people are moral because there are practical and emotional advantages? That the good effects of religion don't fade?

And just to go sideways a little, should "religion" be viewed as a single thing for this discussion, or do some religions or some approaches to religion have different moral effects?

Agreed, falsifiability isn't the issue. But there is a problem with the question being ill-defined. Questions such as "Does atheism make society less moral?" have to be unpacked using counterfactuals, which in turn can be unpacked only if you have some precise conception of the alternative scenarios within some robust theory. These are missing in all discussions of these questions that I've seen.

There is another kind of single point of moral failure besides social structures. It is possible for people to structure their beliefs in such a way that adding a single false belief breaks their entire moral system. For example, if someone truly believes that all morality comes from God, then their behavior will change drastically for the worse if they come to wrongly believe that:

  • God hates X
  • God speaks through X (where X is a person)
  • God speaks to them
  • God lacks true authority over them

There are plenty of cases where people have come to believe such things, and turned evil because of it. If you model people as having a bunch of beliefs that they received from their parents and from observation, then throw a few randomly-generated or maliciously-optimized beliefs on top, then one way to judge the quality of a belief system is by the amount of harm that the extra, false beliefs can do. If someone attaches all their moral beliefs to a single concept like God, then a single new false belief involving that concept can turn them evil. On the other hand, someone who knows a bunch of moral rules and believes them to be individually justified (preferrably justified in multiple ways) can't have that happen.

Note that not all theistic belief systems have this problem, and major religions have safeguards (albeit imperfect ones) against certain morality-breaking falsehoods. There are also plenty of non-theistic belief systems which have the same problem.

If I rationalize it to my own satisfaction and/or just don't care, it's indistinguishable from being good.

With the added nastiness of not actually being wrong. Except that if you ever notice yourself thinking this the gig is already up.

This is why I prefer identifying as a rationalist rather than as an atheist. Being able to generally identify wrong beliefs is more important to having the right answer on the question of whether God exists or not. For all I know, you could have the answer for the wrong reasons - for example, "believing in God is something low-prestige people like hillibillies do, whereas smart classy people (the ones I want to look like) don't believe in that nonsense". In a different context, the same algorithm might give you something like "smart classy people admire the Soviet Union, so I will too" (disclaimer : I have no idea how fashionable it was, if ever, to admire the Soviet Union, I just picked the example at random. Someone with a better knowledge of history could probably find a better one).

Not even the term "rationalism" can manage to sever itself from the Soviet Union. Both the French Revolution and the Communist Revolution were genuine bastard children of the Enlightenment - missing what we would now regard as some key elements, yes, turning into pure power plays as they spiraled downward, but way back at the dawn of time they both started in, metaphorically speaking, the coffeeshops of Oxford.

I have no idea how fashionable it was, if ever, to admire the Soviet Union, I just picked the example at random.

In the years immediately following the revolution it is probably fair to say that the cultural elite of the American left (Greenwich Village, Bohemia, the Beat movement) admired the Soviet Union. John Reed's thoughts are probably representative since these people were hearing about the USSR from him. The CPUSA was sort of hip for a while, as well, through WWII. I'm not sure "classy" is the right word but these groups did hold a certain kind of social status that would have attracted young people. By the 1960s though, the same types of people would have admired Third World leftist movements rather than the Soviet Union.

Your "wrong" example is not so extremely far fetched. Somewhat related reading:


Substitute "free will" for religion and you can see that people's morality will be affected by focusing on something they can't even define or does not even have a clear meaning. The author of blog posting seriously ponders whether publishing scientific findings on the human behavior can adversly affect the morality of the "less classy" majority of the society. :)

I think Robert Oppenheimer qualifies as smart and classy.

This argument fails several ways. First as history. Some of the atrocities happened without central organization -- e.g., Islamic fundamentalists aren't all part of any one organization, although they've created a variety of more or less hierarchical organizations; the displacement of the Indians (which had essentially nothing to do with religion except as a stock of rationalizations for things people would have done anyway) -- and all the others had important elements of individual initiative.

(I must say I found it amusing that you concede that the crimes against humanity committed by atheist states weren't solely the fault of religion. When you start saying things like that, you've spent much too long seeing arguments as weapons to be used on behalf of "your side".)

Second, it refutes a position nobody holds. No religionist believes in a flavor of God-implanted moral sense strong enough to overcome all the various temptations to behave immorally; usually they believe quite the opposite, that it was mostly or totally broken by some sort of Fall. If you find yourself triumphantly refuting a view that cannot in any case survive contact with ordinarily accessible reality, you're probably dealing with strawmen.

I appreciate the strong feedback. Let's see the points one by one:

Islamic fundamentalists may not be part of the same organization (although a very large percentage of those performing the worst acts of terrorism somewhat identify with al-quaeda or one of its affiliated organizations) but all you need is a common text as a reference point, a shared understanding of how to interpret it and what it implies, and identification with a culture that encourages blind obedience to those perceived implications. And these all exist and tie together the Islamic fundamentalists.

As for displacement of Native Americans, there is a whole religiously-inspired theory about why they were to be displaced (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manifest_destiny#Native_Americans) . Yes, of course there were individualistic incentives too, but they were at the very least enabled by religion.

About the use of the word 'solely', I simply did not wish to get into the discussion about whether religion had any involvement at all or not. Establishing that it did not have sole responsibility was enough to proceed with my argument. I think you are reading my sentence in the reverse, as in "if it didn't have sole responsibility, it must have had partial responsibility" but this claim is nowhere to be found in the text. My claim allows for religion to have some responsibility or no responsibility at all.

Finally, my point is that the tribal instinct routinely overrides the moral instinct. This requires additional mental contortions on the part of religion (reference to a fall that is completely incompatible with evolution, essentially resorting to a different argument) whereas it fits naturally with the atheist claim that morality evolved.

Again, thanks for giving me the chance to respond/clarify.

If you really want a problematic argument, try natural evil. The body count from disease and whatnot is rather better evidence for atheism than for theism. Or try a thought experiment: If you were omnipotent, would you do anything about cancer? AIDS? Genetic disease? What does your answer imply about God?

This, as expounded in another of my comments, is an extremely minor point at best, and more reasonably is totally irrelevant, even if it sounds important.

On a similar note, why doesn't God just kill everyone right now and take us all to Heaven without us having to live less-than-perfect lives on Earth?

Free will!

What does free fill have to do with not being killed?

As I understand the term, "free will" means that your thoughts and actions are your own, and not controlled by God. This doesn't rule out any other meddling by God.

It was a joke; I was parroting a typical Christian response that all evil, including natural evil, is because of free will.

How immune do people here think they are to tribalist thinking? How confident are you you wouldn't get swept up in a nationalist fervor?

I'd say nationalism is less worrisome for LWers than X-ism, where X is some tribe that inspires tribal thinking but that isn't usually seen as a tribe.

I don't think I've ever seen a bunch of people quite so full of habitual self-doubt as the folks on Less Wrong. Personally, I just don't see how nationalist fervors even work. Rallies of any kind have always left me cold, even when everybody around me is cheering their lungs out. There's no way I could start thinking thoughts like "My country, right or wrong" for more than three seconds without stopping to root out the infection -- a familiar feeling by now, actually, since knowing about cognitive hazards often makes it possible to recognize when you're slipping into one. I don't think I'm unusual among LW-denizens in this respect.

But by all means, keep on being uneasy about this. That's probably prudent.

I'm not! Yay us, boo them!

For myself, I am painfully aware of my vulnerability to nationalism. I blame it on the years of propaganda from the entire cultural context I grew up in.

I had heard the SS mostly declared themselves "Gottglaubige"* rather than adhering to any specific denomination.

*Said by some to be a euphemism for atheist.

Hitchens very often cites the Catholic historian Paul Johnson’s, A History of Christianity, as saying that 25% of the SS were confessing Catholics, but not a single one of them was excommunicated for taking part in the Final Solution.

Catholic excommunication is usually reserved for those who commit heresy, apostasy, and schism. It's not a punishment - it's a recognition that the person has done something that severs them from the communion of the Church, like publicly declaring that one of the members of the Trinity was subordinate to another, or that they are three aspects of the same being. Murder is the sort of thing resolvable by the sacrament of Confession.

Which fits with the point being made by Alexandros about tribalism. The Church's morality is based more off on adhering to the tribal identity than with actual moral actions. It is a worse offense to fail to adhere to tribal identity than to murder.