I would like to argue that there could be a more tolerant view of religion/theism here on Less Wrong. The extent to which theism is vilified here seems disproportionate to me.

It depends on the specific scenario how terrible religion is. It is easy to look at the very worst examples of religion and conclude that religion can be irrational in a terribly wrong way. However, religion can also be nearly rational. Considering that any way we view the world is an illusion to some extent. Indeed the whole point of this site is to learn ways to shed more of our illusions, not that we have no illusions.

There are the religious beliefs that contradict empirical observation and those that are independent of it...

A) Could it be rational for a person to hold beliefs that are independent of empirical observation if (a) the person concedes that they are irrational not empirically based and (b) is willing to drop them if they prove to not be useful?

B) Could it be rational for a person to hold unusual beliefs as a result of contradicting empirical observations?

As a least convenient world exercise, what is the most rational belief in God that you can think of?

 

37 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 4:02 PM
New Comment

My views on religion have ... drifted ... a lot over the last year on Less Wrong. It isn't that any specific belief has changed, but all of my amorphous impressions about religion have shifted so that whereas I used to think that religion had value and even "deep wisdom" hidden away here and there, if only I could find it, I now consider this much less likely. I do believe value and deep wisdom can be found co-locally with religion, but this seems in spite of, rather than because of, religiosity.

The problem with religion is epistemology and authority. Being right about a few things (the golden rule, ritualising big life events) doesn't make you right about the other things (bigotry, detrimental policies due to unchecked idealism).

However, I still have the same objections to 'new atheism' I began with. Perhaps now I can describe them more effectively.

I think that the Non-Existence of God is the weakest and least relevant argument that New Atheists make, but it is the one they focus on nearly exclusively, especially with theists.

The non-existence of God is a weak argument because -- especially depending on how you define God -- it's not clear whether God should exist or not. It's also a weak argument because it polarizes the discussion and builds defensive walls in ways that questioning other beliefs would not. I think it would be most effective to allow that God exists -- as say, the "first cause", whatever it is -- and then try and deduce together what his properties are. They're pretty unexciting given a scientific worldview...

The non-existence of God is an irrelevant argument because the problems of religion aren't belief in God, but problems with epistemology and authority. Telling a theist that God doesn't exist sounds most absurd to a theist, but if you ask a theist whether humans sometimes interpret God incorrectly, they'll have to admit 'yes'. So you would already be where you wanted to be -- at a place where they are also wondering, how do human beings make sure they interpret reality correctly?


I am looking forward to a talk next week given by a theist at a nearby college 'giving a response to New Atheism'.

I have also decided to go to a Unitarian service this Sunday. On my way home from work on Tuesday, I saw a billboard that said, "If you like free coffee and discussion, join us". That night I was thinking, "I like coffee" and, "I like discussion" but worried about what they could discuss that would be of interest to me, given my burgeoning discomfort with religious thinking. On my in to work this morning, I read the other side of the billboard that read, 'This week's topic: Atheism". So I'm definitely going.

Over the next week, I'll share the main points and my impressions of the talk and the Sunday gathering here in this thread.

I attended the Unitarian service "topic:atheism" this morning.

I expected some mild, non-pushy arguments for theism -- perhaps not any new or convincing ones even though I would like to encounter some. Instead, they just defined atheism, talked about some common misconceptions, and related the extent to which atheism wasn't tolerated very well in my community, in the spirit of increasing awareness.

It hadn't occurred to me that atheists were a discriminated group. I recently moved to the "Bible-belt" from elsewhere, and haven't yet encountered the phenomenon of Nice-to-meet-you-what-church-do-you-go-to? (Or maybe I did and didn't notice and now my neighbors don't talk to me, which again I haven't noticed.)

Four years ago I wrote a research paper on discrimination against atheists in America. I can post it if anyone wants, but it's 10 pages long and I can just summarize the evidence.

*#1: Anti-atheist provisions in state constitutions of Arkansas, Maryland, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas. Delaware grants freedom of religion with the additional clause that “it is the duty of all men frequently to assemble together for the public worship of Almighty God” and that “the prosperity of communities” depends on “piety and morality.”

*#2: Surveys showing atheists are more distrusted than Muslims and that many people would not vote for an atheist.

*#3: Cold war hysteria leads to "In God We Trust" on money and "Under God" in Pledge of Allegiance.

*#4: The Boy Scouts

*#5: Atheists discriminated against in child custody hearings

Upvoted for reporting on a change of mind.

Your points on the New Atheist movement are very interesting - I will have to spend some time thinking them over.

I am looking forward to a talk next week given by a theist at a nearby college 'giving a response to New Atheism'.

Although the talk was interesting, it was a watershed moment when I realized that after a year of dwelling on the theism/atheism debate, I've grown weary of it. Many religious views have a long way to go before their beliefs are consistent with a scientific worldview, and the part of theism I would defend isn't -- in my opinion -- in any real danger of being marginalized by atheism anytime soon. For a while I was testing and developing my own views on theism, but I realize they've been steady now for a while. I'm curious to know if my interest in theism will revive, or if I'll pick something else to think about...

First, I think we're all tolerant of religion and most other kinds of irrationality. There is a difference between tolerance and respect.

Second, there isn't much difference between beliefs that are contradicted by empirical evidence and beliefs that have no evidence for or against them, but are a priori very implausible. Both have a very low likelihood of being true and should therefore be considered false by rational people.

Third, I don't see how conceding that one's beliefs are irrational excuses the irrationality (unless we're talking about mind states that are beyond our control, like phobias). In most cases, such a concession is a symptom of a deeper, more insidious kind of irrationality. After all, what do theists mean when they say that their beliefs aren't rational, but they believe them anyway? Obviously they don't use the word 'rational' the way most of us do. Usually they mean that they know that their beliefs aren't supported by logic or evidence, but they believe there are 'other ways' of discovering truth, which is just smoke to hide the fact that they don't want to question their beliefs.

As a least convenient world exercise, what is the most rational belief in God that you can think of?

Most reasonable theisms:

  • The "we are in a simulation" argument.
  • The "we are God's entertainment" religion.

Most reasonable religious views:

  • Believing in absolute morality, without adequate justification; possibly as a pragmatic matter.
  • At the other extreme, being purely hedonic (we could call this Dionysianism, but the spelling is horrific).
  • Believing a priori that rationalism is necessarily always the winning strategy.

Most reasonable theisms:

Add to the list:

  • Deism (God made the universe and abandoned it)
  • Lovecraft Was Right

I'd personally like to clarify as:

  • Deism (prior to Darwin)

I'd also add:

  • A god that is not a god (a non-omniscient, non-omnipotent being that otherwise seems god-like)
  • The gods of the residents of Greyhawk, if you want the absolute least convenient world

the only plausible version of theism is one in which intelligence came into the universe in a lawful way -- ie, not intelligence first. Even if intelligence did not originate from natural selection here on earth, it must've originated roughly that way somewhere. Maybe that lead to a singularity, to superintelligences, to beings capable of understanding the physics of their universe at the deepest most fundamental level, who decided to create their own universes for fun. Not parsimonious, not constrained by evidence, but at least not as wildly, screamingly absurd as "intelligence came from nowhere and decided to start a universe"

But the "fun" for which the simulated universes are optimized must be of variety likely to arise from the same natural selection. Which doesn't seem to apply at all to what we see. The universe created for its fun value is not at all the same as the ancestral universe, natural selection is an enemy.

I'm not talking about playing cops and robbers or going on a roller-coaster, I'm talking about a kid playing with a chemistry set. When I was 12, I had an a-life simulator called Prokaryote that I used to play with for hours, setting up some interesting initial condition and then seeing what would happen. Having been a theist at the time, I promptly decided that God was playing with us in the same way. Why else start three contradictory religions on the same spot? Why else temporarily give humans the ability to explore a continent, then isolate them for millennia?

In retrospect, I'm not sure how I squared this away with the idea of a benevolent deity I was supposed to be praying to.

I'm not talking about playing cops and robbers or going on a roller-coaster, I'm talking about a kid playing with a chemistry set.

Consider the required power. At the point where you can create a universe as your plaything, you should also be able to choose the universe that meets your preferences very closely, not a random universe like our own.

Now that I have seeped in Less Wrong for another month, I would like to revisit the question of theism. I have always defined God to myself as "whatever is minimally required to make sense" since I have an innate belief that things should make sense. So I found it interesting that at Less Wrong, it is consistently maintained that nothing extra is needed. I found this idea very attractive and I have spent many hours here trying to learning what kind of world view is held here.

It has certainly been a challenging study in inference to figure out what Less Wrong is about. I'm only beginning to understand what "rationality" is (i.e., the core, fundamental principles) and I may only infer what it is by observing the arguments that rationalists make, considering of course the obvious complications that rationalists are not perfectly rational nor is there a single "rational" view.

I've observed sincerely, I think, to some extent, and I induce that the probability that "rationality" is a meaningful, self-consistent, complete theory is tiny. Do you guys know this? I suspect so, because there are ribbons, here and there, of the suggestion that meaning is actually indeed too much to ask of authentic observation of "reality".

It is not obvious, of course, that any theory developed by human beings must be consistent and complete and meaningful. Perhaps, by some metric, rationality is as good a theory as another.

But theism. I don't know if the assumption of God is necessary for a consistent and complete theory, but certainly it would be sufficient? I think I've heard from Bayesians before that God is not impossible, just extremely unlikely. Your argument from the beginning has been that belief in God is not justified. Yet, if belief in God results in a meaningful theory, isn't that more justified than a set of beliefs that result in a meaningless theory?

Perhaps "God" is not the missing element required to make "rationality" consistent and complete -- however, anything that I can think of adding that might fix the theory could be eliminated by exactly the same arguments that you use to eliminate belief in God. (For example: Truth. Love. Quality. etc.)

I'm hoping that someone here is much wiser than me and can point me in a fruitful direction. Can you validate the existence of the inconsistency I speak of, in your terms, and explain how you resolve it?

"I have always defined God to myself as "whatever is minimally required to make sense" since I have an innate belief (that I cannot excise, even if I wished to) that things should make sense."

This is needlessly obscure and far from the normal meaning of the term, and the use of such a loaded word is suspicious.

and I induce that the probability that "rationality" is a meaningful (self-consistent, compete) theory is tiny.

A theory of what?

You seem to be expecting "rationality" to replace "God" in some slot; perhaps "theory of everything". But this seems to me a category error, rationality being an activity, not an explanation.

Perhaps "God" is not the missing element required to make "rationality" consistent and complete -- however, anything that I can think of adding that might fix the theory could be eliminated by exactly the same arguments that you use to eliminate belief in God. (For example: Truth. Love. Quality. etc.)

Truth, love, and quality are directly observable. Though I don't see what you hope to do with them. I suspect that the missing element you see is actually an unnecessary element.

Could you explain what this missing element is missing from, and what it should supply?

Could you explain what this missing element is missing from, and what it should supply?

At that time, I was keenly experiencing the lack of an objective morality in the materialist worldview.

You seem to be expecting "rationality" to replace "God" in some slot; perhaps "theory of everything". But this seems to me a category error, rationality being an activity, not an explanation.

This is exactly correct. I thought 'rationality' was a paradigm to replace a religious worldview. I probably meant 'materialism' everywhere I used the word 'rationality'.

I agree that it's not productive to have a pile-on whenever someone writes something that implies they hold a religious belief, but that doesn't mean religion is "nearly rational".

what is the most rational belief in God that you can think of?

One could imagine someone with a suitable archeological background reaching the conclusion that there used to be one or more interventionist gods around. These gods either lost interest in us or died out prior to modern times. If you take testimony from Biblical times seriously, it doesn't prove beings exist now who are immortal or omnipotent or able to perform magic, but it does suggest some people thought such beings existed in the past and if you take their testimony as more than good storytelling you might conclude the existence of a sort of trickster deity a few thousand years ago., one that made a lot of false claims or had fase claims made about it, but that also could do a few cool tricks based on abilities no longer evident today.

[-][anonymous]13y 0

There is but one issue with religion in my sense. Religion limits humanity's, and individuals', potential to become more.

Why ? Because religion is based upon flawed premises, flawed priors. Aside from those, religions can be perfectly logical and rational. Some of the best rationalists I've heard about, or met, were religious persons, and were held close to optimally rational views inside their religion's worldview.

If God exists, as well as if there's an afterlife, a paradise, hell, final judgment, absolute morality, if we have immortal souls, if the physical world is but a test, etc. then it is rational to, working inside that system, optimize our lives as best as possible, to live virtuously. And, yes, religion's purpose, inside that system, is to help people to become "more" than they are, to realize themselves. A goal similar to ours rationalists, a goal you can see in almost any active individual or group of individuals.

The moral compass of a Catholic is, ideally, the idea of "what can I do to grow further in love, towards others and myself ?". This is good, but since the very definition of love contains a part referring to something that doesn't exist (God), the whole idea has a flaw that can make it become incoherent in the long term; paradoxical.

Even worse, since it isn't easy to follow that moral compass, they have a guide, a reference, the Word of God, the Holy Bible. What is in that book, is presumed to be true. Just in the same way that a scientist presumes that what he can observe of the world around him, is true. Based on that, both would use their best judgment to try and understand that observed truth, for themselves, to make sense of it. But you can certainly see the issue with presuming that the Bible is the absolute word of God, basing your actions upon your best understanding of it, if that book isn't, after all, the Word of God, but only the work of human priests and early philosophers, a few millenia ago ?

Whenever people want to obtain something of reality, usually a better life, but fail to get the correct picture of what reality is, they harm themselves, and others too in the process. Religion (and not just catholicism, but religion in general) holds a lot of short and mid term benefits, both for individuals, and society as a whole. But it places a hard limit on our potential to develop and attain that better life, and that can be felt on the long term.

Then again, human beings are known to discount long term benefits for shorter term ones.

There is a big difference between acknowledging that we are all irrational to lesser and greater degrees and in different ways, and saying we should tolerate identified irrationalities. The point is to overcome irrationalities, not to find rationalizations for them.

Saying that religious beliefs should be shielded from rational inquiry (as long as we're "willing to drop them...") seems like a slippery slope that leads to being rational about the things you've always wanted to be rational about and keeping all the irrationalities that you happen to like.

You're right: the point is to overcome irrationalities, not to find rationalizations for them. Still, given the prevalence of religious views, rational people should understand the source of religious views more fully -- which would lead to more empathy for religious views than is shown, I think.

As a least convenient world exercise, what is the most rational belief in God that you can think of?

The most rational belief in God I've encountered is probably this characterization of the Mormon God. I have no idea if it resembles the official doctrine at all, but it's far more coherent than most theistic dogma I've run across.

I was about to respond with something very similar. I grew up LDS, and while the religion is filled with contradictions, their conception of God by itself seems much more tenable than generic Christian belief. It is official doctrine that God (or "Heavenly Father") is a physical being, bound by the laws of the universe. My father-in-law, a professor at an LDS university, believes that God is neither omnipotent nor omniscient. Few Mormons would go that far, but it is still consistent with doctrine.

A) Could it be rational for a person to hold beliefs that are independent of empirical observation if (a) the person concedes that they are irrational and (b) is willing to drop them if they prove to not be useful?

Assuming that it is irrational to hold irrational beliefs, part (a) negates (A). (b) begs the question as to what their use is and what else can achieve that use. If something rational can achieve the same thing, would it not be superior?

I think for (A) to be true you have to allow for rational beliefs that are independent of empirical observation.

B) Could it be rational for a person to hold unusual beliefs as a result of contradicting empirical observations?

If "unusual beliefs" simply means "not what most people believe," sure. Tying this to religious experiences and beliefs is a bit of a jump since you are beginning to place categorical restrictions to the beliefs. An argument can probably be made that there is no such rational religious belief. I have not seen it yet, but I have not looked around for one.

I would like to argue that there could be a more tolerant view of religion/theism here on Less Wrong. The extent to which theism is vilified here seems disproportionate to me.

Some of the difficulty may be that words like "tolerant" and "vilified" imply malice or hate. I see little reason to hate bad religious beliefs any more than other types of bad beliefs.

I think it can be rational to hold irrational beliefs. So there we differ, and now I understand better the way you and others are arguing against religious beliefs.

I believe now I will be able to communicate better with the group in general.

Later edit: Here, I was using the term irrational to mean beliefs that are beyond rational. Life absolutely requires such beliefs.

[-][anonymous]12y -2

I have had the opposite experience that many people on this website seems to have. I came to Less Wrong as a firm atheist, but realized that I did not seem to have any personal basis for this belief. After I read this article, I decided to take a serious look at possibilities for a deity.

One thing I considered was that during the big bang, an equal amount of matter and antimatter should be produced. Matter and antimatter are attracted to each other and react to become photons upon impact, so there should not be any matter or antimatter in the universe.

Science has two possible explanations for this, but one results in too much matter while the other would result in too little. Therefore, to the best of my knowledge science has no rational explanation for the amount of matter in this universe.

On the other hand, I could create a belief that a deity decided to make photons decay in a manner that results in only matter, and left the universe alone after.

Obviously, the Bayesian probability for this is very weak, but it is also the only theory that I see that has any chance of being true, so it is one that I, as a rationalist should believe in.

Remember, in the middle ages, theism was the rational belief, as atheism did not have as much support. This is the same. I do not expect this theory to last, or even be true, but it has the highest probability of being correct.

The probability that you don't understand cosmology is much higher than the probability that God exists. :-)

I came to Less Wrong as a firm atheist, but realized that I did not seem to have any personal basis for this belief. After I read this article, I decided to take a serious look at possibilities for a deity.

Funny. I came to LessWrong as a firm atheist, then realized that atheism was an answer to a question nobody ever had any rational right to ask.

Therefore, to the best of my knowledge science has no rational explanation for the amount of matter in this universe.

In other words, "science doesn't know how X happened, therefore god did it." This is the classic argument from ignorance. Much better to say "I don't know why matter predominates." That is a perfectly legitimate answer, even in the unlikely event that NO scientific explanation is ever forthcoming.

Obviously, the Bayesian probability for this is very weak, but it is also the only theory that I see that has any chance of being true, so it is one that I, as a rationalist should believe in.

There are a few things that are confused here. First of all, if this explanation is the only one you can think of, that does not mean you should believe in it.

If I watch a magic trick and I can't figure out how it was done, the only 'explanation' I can think of is magic. That does not mean it is rational to believe it was magic until I think of a better explanation. I just admit my confusion and keep thinking. :)

I do not expect this theory to last, or even be true, but it has the highest probability of being correct.

Actually, what "highest probability of being correct" MEANS is precisely that you should expect this theory to be true.

[-][anonymous]12y 3

I was not saying that I am no longer an atheist, or am convinced of anything new. At the time, I was thinking that as science has no theories that have any probability of being correct, the only term to calculate probability was the God did it theory.

Clearly I was wrong, and I didn't think that I could use the probability that science will discover some presently unknown method.

Once I take that into account, that is far more likely. I was just unaware that it would be correct to try to calculate the probability of that term.

I do not expect this theory to last, or even be true, but it has the highest probability of being correct.

Quoth Anna: "If you can predict what you'll believe a few years from now, consider believing that already." If you have evidence that future evidence will require you to adjust your belief in a particular direction, then according to the laws of probability theory, you have evidence on which you're failing to update your current belief.

Anyway, aside from that in particular, you're pretty confused about several things, and I'm wondering if you've read "A Technical Explanation of Technical Explanation" and the sequences "Mysterious Answers to Mysterious Questions" and "Reductionism)".

Stress on the particular direction. Expecting to change, but not any particular direction just calls for lowering confidence. But this is just a quibble about the phrasing. As applied here, it does actually work.

Apparently, there are causal/physical explanations for everything that occurs. It seems terribly unlikely that this feature of reality would suddenly break down at "matter and antimatter". To put it another way, the part of me that believes in God believes God would leave a nice explanation for physicists to discover for the asymmetry of matter and anti-matter as well as everything else. I guess I don't consider that question basic enough. The basic question, for me, is why there is anything at all - not just 'matter', but the rules and structure of the universe.

I think it's safe to say that CP violation and baryogenesis are just not very well-understood right now. Where are you getting this claim that there are "two possible explanations, one which results in too much matter and the other too little"? I find it very unlikely that this is exhaustive of what current theories people may have of baryogenesis, much less which ones are possible (and still far more probable than baryogenesis via gods).

[-][anonymous]12y 0

That's just the Standard Model. Nobody expects the Standard Model is actually true as is. And this would be one more reason why!

Most of the matter in the universe, we have not observed. Most of the matter we have observed, we have done so only through its interaction with photons, which interact with matter and antimatter in the same way.

Are you sure this thing you are trying to explain actually happened?