Fight Me: Incumbent religions still get too much leeway

by mike_hawke3 min read7th Jan 202112 comments


ReligionWorld Optimization

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[1], 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 (I claim that you can and should respect the function something serves while also disdaining the weak or outdated aspects.)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?

  1. 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. ↩︎


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This post references Jordan Peterson (Christian), the Bible (Christian), Mormanism (Christian), Judaism (Abrahamic), Catholocism (Christian) and "standard Christianity". It claims to critique "religion" while mostly addressing a peculiar Monotheistic religion.

Most religious people are Monotheistic. But "Monotheism" describes a minority of religious diversity. To criticize "religion" and then draw all your data from Monotheism is like discussing "life" and then drawing all your data from hominids.

Monotheism (including Christianity and Judaism) is anomalous among religions because it is predicated on a singular truth. I suspect Monotheism's requirement for a global religious truth is foundational to weird Christian behaviors like the Arian debates at the Council of Nicea. From my understanding of history, no equally abstract-and-esoteric religious debate ever rose to comparable political importance in a polytheistic civilization. It could be that "Monotheistic religion"—not "religion"—is what causes the particular religious anti-epistemologies we are familiar with in the West.

Related to Monotheistic singular truth is its emphasis on cosmology (including physics). In polytheistic religions, cosmology is often as unimportant as it is flexible. Such a theology is hardly an obstacle to science. To criticize all of polytheistic religions by their cosmology is like judging science by the fashion sense of grad students, or grading runway models according to their skills at calculus.

In my experience, the word "religion" is often used by Western intellectuals to describe Monotheism instead of reflecting the true diversity of an anthology that includes Zen mysticism, !Kung polytheism and Daoism.

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.

I think this is the right direction to go.

Yeah. Hunter-gatherer beliefs maybe not so much, but I do have more respect for Greek and Roman polytheism (which led to achievements like a 50km long aqueduct, going under hills and over valleys, that descends at exactly 25cm per km) than for the successor religion that destroyed the aqueducts, burned the libraries, and introduced religious wars to the world. Then it took over a thousand years to mold Christianity into something compatible with human achievement, and just as it became more or less ok, the kids are replacing it with something worse again. This narrative is exaggerated, but I do tentatively believe something like it, and would be interested to hear arguments against.

It claims to critique "religion" while mostly addressing a peculiar Monotheistic religion. 

Fair point. Author was a bit focused when drawing their analogy. However, I think their thesis is still intact even when compared against Eastern (and Northern, and Southern) religions.

...incumbent religions deserve a lot of credit for helping people survive millennia of scarcity in untamed environments...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.

It reminds me of another [LessWrong post]( I was reading a while back. The key takeaway there is

The Buddha had a tougher task because he had to explain causation, locus of control, and other critical concepts to farmers from scratch.

Newer religions (such as Scientology) get a leg up on the old ones in that they have an entire field of psychology and a more current vocabulary to pull from. For instance, look at [Scientology's Training Routines](\)), specifically TR-0: Confronting.

In the first exercise, a student and coach face each other with eyes open. The routine ends when the student can confront the coach for at least two hours without movement, excessive blinking, or loss of attention. The second exercise is the same, except that the coach tries to distract the student both verbally and physically.

Looks like an exercise in self-confidence followed by a lesson in resiliency. 

If one pendulum extreme is "throw out the baby with the bathwater" and the other pendulum extreme is "all religions must be deferred to due to hidden virtue that has helped us survive for tens of thousands of years" then perhaps the equilibrium of this pendulum arc is to discover and assimilate the wisdom of religion in order to ascend religion. 

EDIT: apologies for formatting. working on fixing it. fixed!

Looks like an exercise in self-confidence followed by a lesson in resiliency. 

It an exercise in disassociation where a good portion of mainstream psychologists would say that is unhealthy.

I think there's little reason to think that scientologies interventions are better then those intervention that have been refined over centuries in monastries of the older religions. 

I think more people being religious is good on the margin and basically don't think that religion is a signifiant  barrier to spread and advance of good ideas and practices.

I think your mistake is your crux not including the broader social benefits that religion brings. Religion is maybe the only, or at least one of very few, forces that can bring large numbers of different people from within a community together on a regular basis and, in Europe and probably the US this has enormous benefits. What research on happiness and well-being tell us is that, assuming you have your base material needs met, your social realations become the most important factor in your happiness. This I am very confident about.

 What I am less confident about but I think is still important is that having good institutions for working and middle class people to organise around has historically been very important for them achieving good politcal outcomes, and socially desirable outcomes in the form of inclusive economic instituions to use Acemoglu and Robinson's framework. I think the success of Christian democratic parties in building the social democractic state in Northern and Western Europe and their taking the place of the aristocratic conservative parties is an example of this being relevent in the context of high income democratic political economy. The other very prominant example is the importance of black churches in the African-American political movement.This is very important if you think that technology is endogenous to political and economic institutions. 

The other piece I am less confident about is that religion is in general a positive socialising force and a good way of making young men who would otherwise have poor life outcomes and cause social harm, to be turned into better citizens. Examples of this are the pretty robust evidence that students at Catholic Schools have better exam results, the success in intellectual fields of the European and American Jewry, and the importance of the Catholic Church in the rehabilitation of latin Americans involved gang crime. 

The other key part I disagree about is the degree to which religion stops people from adopting Good ideas and Good practices. My argument for this is that religion is a major force in very few peoples lives in rich democracies. Very few people are observant of the religion that they say that they belive in. Church attendances are very low in all Christian countries except the US, and even there it's quite low. I have much less evidence for this applying today, but historically individuals who've wanted to adopt ideas that their religion would seem to prohibit have been able to find ways of making it work. For the great Enlightenment thinkers of Laplace, Paine, Lagrange, Locke this was a belief in a God that existed but had no impact on Earth, for the Slave owners of the US South it was that God was fine with slavery, for the emerging middle classes of Europe in the long 19th century it was Calvinism, for Democratic polticians representing 2nd and 3rd genneration of  immigrants in the North East it was the switch from pro-life to pro-choice. 

The bit of your argument that I buy, is that it seems very plausible that a very smart Hindu devotes his life to the study of Sanskrit rather than something you and I would consider more useful (as Aymrata Sen nearly did), and there's a lower probability that Ben Shapiro is a conservative and potentially that more Americans belive in climate change. 

I've purposefully restcrited this to thinking about rich democracies because I think that's what your post was about. Hinduism in Indian is a different ball game and Islam in low income unstable countries again seems outside the scope of your post.  

I think your point about the importance of Christian churches as a center of community to the rural USA is underappreciated in liberal cities. There are good arguments that the breakdown of Christianity equals the breakdown of Middle America.

I was thinking about the various services and ministries provided by my small-city church, and to reconstruct its social impact, you'd have to have at least these things:

  • a community center where children are, weekly, taught morality and good behavior from nursery through high school, and then graduated into adult morality study classes
  • a social club where the members donate ten percent of their (sometimes not inconsiderable) income for the good of the community
  • a TV studio with live audience seating and up-to-date A/V equipment where professional speakers and singers can perform live for an audience, and have their content recorded and published to the web

Increasing its positive impact on the city would be easier without having to avoid certain rulings which would (especially in light of the narrowness of the Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission ruling) require us to host events for people antithetical to our core purpose as a church: pointing people to Jesus.  And because Cthulu swims left and Moloch consumes all, we're caught between the Charybdis of relaxing our standards and the Scylla of dying off before enough new members show up to repopulate the church.

I think I find this plausible. An alternative to MichaelBowbly's take is that religion may crowd out other community organization efforts which could plausibly be better.

I'm thinking of unions, boys and girls clubs, community centers, active citizenship groups, meetup groups, and other types of groups that have never yet existed.

It could be that in practice introducing people to religious practices shows them examples of ways to organize their communities, but it could also be that religious community efforts are artificially propped up by government subsidies via being tax exempt.

The normative implication in this case, which I think is probably a good idea in general, is that you should focus on building intimate (not professionalized and distant) community groups to connect with people and exchange services.

I think it's unlikely that there'd be a crowding out effect currently on the margin (although I expect you would as some point if you're attracting progressively less sociable people), as you say because it builds know how, but also because it builds social capital and maybe breaks the negative feedback loop of loneliness. 

My second claim is that religion is much much better as a community organising force than any other institution other than unions. I think this is because it can attract a very high percentage of a population, it persists through gennerations, and there aren't the same types of barriers you get with groups organised around a specific interest, and they don't skew middle class (often at least.) 

I find both directions plausible. I do agree that I don't see any existing institutions ready to take it's place, but looking at secular solstice, for example, I definitely expect that better institutions are possible.

There might be a sufficiency stagnation following similar mechanics to crowding out, since people have a "good enough" option they don't try to build better things, and centralized leadership causes institutional conservatism.

I would bet this is supported by worse outcomes for more centralized churches, like unitarians vs megachurches or orthodox catholics, but that's a weakly held belief.

The sufficiency stagnation point is a good one, especially given that is suggests that the people becoming religious on the margin are likely to be the best individuals of the population not currently committed to strong social institutions, to start better ones than religions. 

Potentially a crux is that the ideas that really broad social institutions can be based around may mostly be based around certain types of really strong emotions like tribalism and faith, the crux being if 'mostly' means 90%, 99% or 99.999%. 

One thing I struggle with in your post is the concept of religion. I don't see that you offer a clear definition of what you are getting at so I have to fill in a lot of area and then try to apply your thought to that and see if any conclusions follow. I'm failing miserably I think.

Adding, perhaps to clarify my own thinking on what is really driving my comment. The post seems to take a highly complex subject area that touches on a number of largely separate (separable?) aspects of life and invited discussion on all as if they are a rather simple subject area.

Perhaps an example to illustrate. If we consider religion as a social institution related to beliefs and faiths that cannot be empirically validated we get a good separation between religion and science. However we also know that religions historically have played a rather large role in scientific inquiry historically (though admittedly the reverse is true). Similarly, we can cast religion in a social structure of governance/government.  I don't think we can discuss religion at the level of the OP without clearly delineating which aspect of religion we're talking about.