In the past few years I've gone from being almost entirely dismissive of religion to being much more uncertain and equivocal. In particular, I've become much warier of implicitly judging The Old Ways against modern conditions and assumptions. These changes happened partly because I heard Jordan Peterson manage to give Sam Harris a couple of decent counterarguments, and partly due to various other things in the air such as The Secret of Our Success and Doesn't Matter, Warm Fuzzies. I think this arc of beliefs is familiar to many of you.
But I feel that we're now missing something else.
Sure, incumbent religions deserve a lot of credit for helping people survive millennia of scarcity in untamed environments. And Jordan Peterson might be right when he says it’s too easy to throw the baby out with the bathwater. But those same religions are also clearly contributing to This Failing Earth: reliable methods of reasoning are still niche, faith is held up as a virtue even in advanced countries, bioethicists promote death, and very few people even know about cryonics or Fun Theory.
Even among educated people, feelings of awe and wonder are often more closely associated with Iron-age myths than with science. This is absurd and it bothers me greatly. Read the Bible, watch Sagan's Cosmos, and then tell me that their relative statures are anywhere near appropriate. "Merely" real phenomena like decoherence and the arrow of time and evolution by natural selection are obviously æsthetically richer (for better and for worse) than "a god did it" or other formerly useful fictions. Stories about humanoid gods have their place, and that place is in anthropology exhibits alongside rain dances and augury.
Here's possibly my most important crux: Respect for incumbent religions comes at the cost of more modern philosophies. Rocket launch rituals, Wisdom Day, vitrification ceremonies or so on would be embraced more quickly if people didn’t repress their disdain for things like circumcision ceremonies or theories of immaterial souls. (I claim that you can and should respect the function something serves while also disdaining the weak or outdated aspects.) I ask you: Doesn’t standard Mormonism pose an obstacle to Mormon Transhumanism? And isn't that bad?
Here's a strong claim you might be able to change my view on: However much humble respect you have for some Abrahamic religion like Judaism, you should have even more for the primitive spiritualism of hunter gatherer tribes. Such superstitions survive in harsher environments, they have less margin for error, they have tighter feedback loops, their anti-epistemologies are less developed, and all their practitioners have major skin in the game.
We are in humanity’s awkward adolescence. Less than 2 centuries ago we didn’t have Darwin’s theory of evolution nor the internet nor an obesity epidemic nor widespread education. Religions like Catholocism developed to cope with larger, faster-changing, and more complex human affairs--that is to say harder problems--and as such, we ought to expect them to exhibit more unforced errors than those pre-agricultural myths. The baby:bathwater ratio is lower, but more importantly it is easier to increase.
Government makes for a nice comparison here. It's true that people give weak reasons for criticizing government policies they don't understand. It's true that many people should try a little harder to understand the difficulties of coordination and execution, and why governments do wrong things so often. But this should strengthen your reform spirit and give you more things to rant about, not less. Every government still has deep sicknesses, and I feel morally compelled to not offer excuses without then immediately nodding toward efforts to cure them. For me this usually goes something like "blah blah complex problem blah blah bad equilibrium blah blah prediction markets, incentive engineering, small-scale experimentation". Just like with religion, I don't expect to be able to improve much on the governance traditions of a hunter-gatherer tribe--in that sense, I have more "respect" for them than for my own government.
Here's an important question all this raises for me: What should I say to my religious friends and family now? In 2010 it felt right to summarily dismiss religion without apology and accept whatever friction or conflict that might cause (I was also just generally more abrasive back then). In 2018, it often felt best to just silently hope that they would one day keep the baby and dump the bathwater. Now...I dunno. Maybe I'll start saying something along the lines of "Hey, that's fine but have you heard the other Good News? Some fairly plausible big-O analysis of human flourishing suggests that something better than Heaven may await us in this world if humanity can get its act together. And don't worry, soon this may not be such a weird, low-status idea!"
To conclude, here's what my opinions make me anticipate: In the Future, some number of modernized religions (or religion analogues) will prevail, and people will look back with disappointment, lamenting how it couldn’t have happened sooner. A few people (possibly including you) will think "all those excuses I made for standard Christianity probably didn't help things".
And to recapitulate:
- I think it's good that many adherents of that old New Atheist thing have moderated their criticisms of religion by being more even-handed and less overconfident.
- The pendulum has swung too far. I now frequently hear people give excuses to incumbent religions without also showing an appropriate drive for reform.
- Crux: The presence and status of those incumbents stands in the way of challengers. I would like to see those challengers ascend sooner rather than later.
- Anticipation: If these days the only thing you say about incumbent religions is that we shouldn't underestimate their hard-to-see virtues...I expect that you may one day wish you had chosen more forward-looking things to say.
- Supposing I'm basically right, there must be some normative implications for my words or deeds. What are they?
When you get your wisdom teeth extracted, have a Wisdom Day party celebrating humanity’s incipient control over our own biology. With the advent of cooked food, our jaws shrank, leaving harmful vestigial teeth behind. Then with the development of dental surgery, we patched up Azathoth’s half-assed job. ↩︎