[Link] Belief in religion considered harmful?

by [anonymous]6 min read17th Dec 201154 comments

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I've recently run across this 2007 post on the blog Unqualified Reservations (archive best read here). It is written by Mencious Moldbug, who is probably familiar to some Overcoming Bias and Lesswrong readers. He is a erudite, controversial and most of all contrarian social critic and writer. In 2010 he debated Robin Hanson on the subject of Futarchy.

Why do atheists believe in religion?

Not everyone these days believes in God. But pretty much everyone believes in religion.

By "believing in religion," I mean recognizing a significant categorical distinction between "religious" phenomena, and those that are "nonreligious" or "secular."

For example, the concepts of "freedom of religion" and "separation of church and state" are dependent on the concept of "religion." If "religion" is a noninformative, unimportant, or confusing category, these concepts must also be noninformative, unimportant, or confusing.

Since most atheists, agnostics, etc, consider the First Amendment pretty important, we can assume they "believe in religion."

My question is: why? Is this a useful belief? Does it help us understand the world? Or does it confuse or misinform us? Once again, our team of crack philosophers is on the case.

Let's rule out the possibility that "religion" is noninformative. We can define "religion" as the attribution of existence to anthropomorphic paranormal entities. This definition has its fuzzy corner cases, notably some kinds of Buddhism, but it's short and it'll do for the moment.

We are left with the question: is "religion" an important or clarifying category? Or is it unimportant and confusing?

If you believe in God, obviously you have to believe in religion. Religion is an important category because your religion is true, and all other religions are false. (As Sam Harris puts it, "everyone's an atheist with respect to Zeus.")

For atheists of the all-around variety - including me - the question remains. Why do we believe in "religion?"

One obvious answer is that we have to share the planet with a lot of religious people. If you are an atheist, there is no getting around it: religion, as per Dawkins, is a delusion. Deluded people do crazy things and are often dangerous. We need to have a category for these people, just as we have a category for "large, man-eating carnivores." Certainly, religious violence has killed a lot more people lately than lions, tigers, or bears.

This argument sounds convincing, but it hides a fallacy.

The fallacy is that the distinction between "religion" and other classes of delusion must be clarifying or important. If there is a case for this proposition, we haven't met it yet.

Peoples' actions matter. And peoples' beliefs matter, because they motivate actions.

But actions in the real world must be motivated by beliefs about the real world. Delusions about the paranormal world are only relevant - at least to us atheists - in the special case that they motivate delusions about the real world.

So, as atheists, why should we care about the former? Why not forget about the details of metaphysical doctrine, which pertain to an ethereal plane that doesn't even exist, and concentrate our attention on beliefs about reality?

If you believe that nine Jewish virgins need to be thrown into Mt. Fuji, you are, in my opinion, deluded. Whether you believe this because you are receiving secret messages from Amaterasu Omikami, or because it's just payback for the dirty deeds of the Elders of Zion, affects neither me nor the virgins.

If you believe "partial-birth abortion" is wrong because it's "against God's law," or if you think it's just "unethical," your vote will be the same.

If you are tolerant and respectful of others because you think Allah wants you to be tolerant and respectful of others, how can I possibly have a problem with this? If you stab people in the street because you've misinterpreted Nietzsche and decided that morality is not for you, is that less of a problem?

Lots of people have delusions about the real world. People believe all kinds of crazy things for all kinds of crazy reasons. Some even believe sensible things for crazy reasons. Why should we establish a special category for delusions that are motivated by anthropomorphic paranormal forces?

A reasonable answer is: why not?

Certainly, religion is an important force in the world today. Certainly at least some forms of religion - "fundamentalist," one might say - are actively dangerous. No one is actually stabbing people in the street because of Nietzsche. The same cannot be said for Allah.

How can it possibly confuse or distract us to recognize and protect ourselves against this important class of delusion?

To see the answer, we need to break Godwin's Law.

Which I think may indeed be appropriate. 

Suppose Hitler had declared that, rather than being just some guy from Linz, he was Thor's prophet on earth. (Some people would have been positively delighted by this.) Suppose that everything the Nazis did was done in the name of Thor. Suppose, in other words, that Nazism was in the category "religion."

This is by no means a new idea.

Violating Godwin's law to breach the fence between religion and ideology to see what cognitive dissonances we can dredge up is old hat for us LWers (A Parable On Obsolete Ideologies 2009 by Yvain).

Many writers, including Eric Voegelin, Eric Hoffer, Victor Klemperer, Michael Burleigh, etc, etc, have described the similarities between Nazism and religions. But Nazism does not fit our definition of religion above - no paranormal entities. This is the definition most people use, so most people don't think of Nazism as a religion.

The Allies invaded Nazi Germany and completely suppressed Nazism. To this day in Germany it is illegal to teach National Socialism. I think most Americans, and most Germans, would agree that this is a good thing.

But if we make this one trivial change, turning Nazism into Thorism and making it a "religion," which as we've seen need not change the magnitude or details of Nazi crimes at all, the acts of the Allies are a blatant act of religious intolerance.

Aren't we supposed to respect other faiths? Shouldn't we at least have restricted our unfriendly attentions to "fundamentalist Nazism," and promoted a more "moderate" version of the creed? Suppose we gave the Taliban the same treatment? What, exactly, is the difference between Eisenhower's policy and Ann Coulter's?

It gets worse. Another one of Voegelin's "political religions," which by our definition are not religions at all (no anthropomorphic paranormal entities) is Marxism. Let's tweak Marxism slightly and assert that the writings of Marx were divinely inspired, leaving everything else in the history of Communism unchanged.

Marxism, unlike Nazism, is still very popular in the world today. A substantial fraction of the professors in Western universities are either Marxists, or strongly influenced by Marxist thought. Nor are these beliefs passive - many fields that are actively taught and quite popular, such as postcolonial studies, seem largely or entirely Marxist in content.

This is certainly not true of Nazism. It is also not true of Christianity or any other "religion" proper. Many professors are Christians, true, and some are even fundamentalists. But the US educational system is quite sensitive to the possibility that it might be indoctrinating youth with Christian fundamentalism. "Creation science," for example, is not taught in any mainstream university and seems unlikely to achieve that status.

If Marxism was a religion, Marxist economics would come pretty close to being the exact equivalent of "intelligent design." But, again, Marxism as religion and Marxism as non-religion involve exactly the same set of delusions about the real world. (Of course, to a Marxist, they are not delusions.)

Should non-Marxist atheists, such as myself, be as concerned about separating Marxism from state-supported education as we are with Christianity? If Marxism is a religion, or if the difference between Marxism as it is in the real world and the version in which Marx was a prophet is insignificant, our "wall of separation" is a torn-up chainlink fence.

But there was a period in which Americans tried to eradicate Marxism the way they fight against "intelligent design" today. It was called McCarthyism. And believers in civil liberties were on exactly the opposite side of the barricades.

As non-Marxist atheists, do we want McCarthy 2.0? Should loyalty oaths be hip this year? Should we schedule new hearings?

This is why the concept of "religion" is harmful. If trivial changes to hypothetical history convert reasonable policies into monstrous injustices, or vice versa, your perception of reality cannot be correct. You have been infected by a toxic meme.

If memes are analogous to parasitic organisms, believing in "religion" is like taking a narrow-spectrum antibiotic on an irregular schedule.
The Dawkins treatment - our latest version of what used to be called anticlericalism - wipes out a colony of susceptible bacteria which have spent a long time learning to coexist reasonably, if imperfectly, with the host. And clears the field for an entirely different phylum of bugs which are unaffected by antireligious therapy. Whose growth, in fact, it may even stimulate.

In the last two centuries, "political religions" have caused far, far more morbidity than "religious religions." But here we are with Dawkins, Harris, and Dennett - still popping the penicillin. Hm. Kind of makes you think, doesn't it?

I hope you can now see reason I've picked a partially misleading title, since I think Moldbug makes a pretty convincing argument that belief in "religion" may be considered harmful even for atheists, let alone those of us who aspire to refine rationality.

In such a model questions like "is the Church of Scientology a religion?" dissolve rapidly. Whether something should be tax exempt because it is "really" a "religion" or "a church" is a legal question of importance only to activists trying to challenge law and lawyers, that shouldn't change our ethical intuitions or cause us to try to imagine a sea or play up rather minor geographical features, to separate the continents of Religion and Ideology in our maps of reality.

Every single proposed mechanism for the retention and spread of religion from convenient curiosity stoppers, indoctrination of youth, to tribal identity markers hold for ideology just as strongly as for religion. Even seemingly very specific memetic adaptations like "God of the gaps", seem to arise in various non-theistic ideologies. Maybe similar adaptations arise because it is the same niche?

Thinking about the implications of such a hypothesis, atheism for one additional god is a rather easy step of rationality to take. Very few people believe in the great Juju or Zeus. Adding YHWH to the list isn't that much of a stretch, for those fortunate enough to be educated and living in most of the West.

But how hard is it for someone to question, in a unbiased fashion, such gods and holy words such as say Democracy?

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Mencious Moldbug, who is probably familiar to some Overcoming Bias and Lesswrong readers. He is a erudite, controversial and most of all contrarian social critic and writer.

I've read mentions of Moldbug here before. I tried reading some of his essays once or twice, but from what i remember, i thought he was too long-winded, i thought he made broad unsupported assumptions and shakey generalizations and never seemed to get to a point. Actually, i remember thinking that, like you mention, he struck me as "most of all contrarian", trying to be controversial for its own sake.

But i've seen a few recommendations of his writing here. Maybe i should reconsider my judgment of him. I know you linked to a debate with him and Robin Hanson... but that's a 72 minute long video. What's a good jumping-off point to get into his writings?

I actually watched the debate video, and Moldbug came across as ridiculous. He has these broad theoretical criticisms of futarchy, and when Hanson tried to offer empirical evidence against the assumptions underlying those criticisms, he rejected the value of empirical evidence. Then he basically revealed that he thinks science is a very bad tool for acquiring knowledge about anything other than the specific system being studied, and that a priori argumentation is a much better tool. On the basis of a priori philosophy (and, I guess, some amount of inspiration from European history and Steve Jobs) he has decided that some form of monarchy (on the model of corporate governance, I take it) is the best way to do things.

Nothing I saw in the video makes him seem like someone whose ideas I want to spend time exploring. (The essay quoted above is better, but still not all that impressive.) Is the debate with Hanson representative of Moldbug's style of argumentation, or is it somewhat of an aberration?

Here's how the discussion between Moldbug and Hanson went:

M: Decision markets won't work well if P, and we don't know that ~P.

H: We have data from lab and field experiments, and we always find ~P.

M: Well, induction is useless. Why should I believe ~P for a system you haven't experimented on?

H: Well, here are some theoretical arguments suggesting ~P.

M: Oh, I don't deny that often ~P. But how do you know that always ~P?

H: Is there any kind of evidence I could present that would convince you that ~P in the relevant cases?

M: Nope. The problem is, you're thinking like a social scientist. You need to think like a philosopher.

H: Okay.... so what does thinking like a philosopher reveal?

M: We need a monarch.

[-][anonymous]9y 8

M: We need a monarch.

Monarchy is clearly the best form of government for appropriate value of variable monarch. What else is FAI rearranging matter in the light cone after all?

Monarchy is clearly the best form of government for appropriate value of variable monarch. What else is FAI rearranging matter in the light cone after all?

An entirely different form of singleton. Even presidents and dictators don't qualify as "Monarchs" and they are a whole lot more similar to a King than an FAI is.

[-][anonymous]9y 5

Where does it say your absolute ruler needs to be human? :P

Jest aside, you are right, the kind of AI's people normally talk about when discussing FAI are sufficiently different from any human mind or even what we may intuitively imagine a mind to be, for the comparison to be grossly misleading. Talking about a ruler or supreme judge is a much worse comparison than say the old theological comparisons of YHWH to this, since ironically he was likley to be much more anthropomorphic in many respects than a FAI would be.

The statement was a bit tongue in cheek, I just wanted to point out that monarchy gets various ick feelings from us because we are mostly anti-authoritarian, but a supreme AI is the ultimate authoritarian form of government since anything it sets to do, it will do.

The reason I wanted to point to this bias was that I've been considering that there may be other (local) maxima on the graph of the function good (concentration of power, trustworthiness) for lesser values of concentrated power and trustworthiness.

[-][anonymous]9y 3

That is an amusing and not too inaccurate summary. Up voted!

[-][anonymous]9y 15

Moldbug has his own idea for best possible government ever (TM) and is biased in its favour, he tries to find what he can to criticizes futarchy because I think he's spooked on some level it could do as well as his own proposal and may be easier to implement. Being a big fan of the formal power structure matching the actual power structure in a country (something that probably appeals to the non-neurotpyical especially strongly), the common human bias of someone manipulating the market to gain informal power probably seems a unusually disturbing possibility, to the point of him wanting to avoid it on aesthetic grounds and seeking rationalizations to justify it.

I think Robin Hanson clearly won that debate, though lets remember that Robin Hanson is pretty good at winning debates (according to audience polls he generally beats EY too). Moldbug is a bit out of his league, his writing is in my opinion much better.

He is good at diagnosing the state of modern democracies and is probably also reliable on the history of ideas, his proposed treatments, or in other words, what to do about it, are much less impressive. For example he puts hope in the internet being a game changers wanting to build a better truth seeking mechanism than academia (something like a super reliable wikipedia with original research allowed). When people see how much better its predictions are it is supposed to start to replace academia. Consider just how naive such an attitude is in light of his otherwise cheerily cynical attitude - people do not value truth that much, even when its very useful they won't like it if bad signalling accompanies it, and who has the biggest influence on signaling game among the educated? The very same class he calls the iron polygon of power or "The Cathedral". The multi-headed beast that unites and is a cross-section of the Ivy Leagues, the Media, the State and those now fashionably called the 1%, will eat up anything as quaint as a unusually good description of reality up as an appetizer on the way to real problems that might threaten it.

If not earlier academia will direct its legitimacy granting or damaging attention to his revipedia project when it will be trusted and starts doing what Moldbug really hopes it will do. It is supposed to simply one day announce what the best form of government according to the information available is, and all other forms will lose legitimacy. Naturally the best form of government will turn out to be neocamerialism.

I think it probably would outperform modern democracies in quality of life, but something as radical as an actually reliable reality mapping institution or process, that directly affects public opinion and policy, would probably come up with something different. Moldbug has an above average map of reality for someone who's interested in politics, he's just bad at navigating it and won't accept that there may be a no win scenario here.

Meh, from everything I've seen your first few impressions were accurate.

[-][anonymous]9y 3

Most of his early political thinking is summarized here.

Edit: He also apparently wrote a sequence of posts titled "A gentle introduction to Unqualified Reservations".

Thank you. That looks a bit more manageable to start with.

I heard LW people talking about him, went to see what all the fuss was about and like you I just gave up after a while. I suspect his essays are long to keep people from thinking about them too clearly.

[-][anonymous]9y 1

Don't underestimate the inferential differences involved. Consider how much text the sequences amount to. Even individual entries are sometimes monstrous in length.

In the same sense, the Roman Empire never thought of itself as anything other than the Roman Republic.

Here's most of my problems with Moldbug condensed into one sentence: a bold assertion with no literal meaning that I can easily confirm or falsify.

[-][anonymous]9y 6

The literal meaning is the plain meaning.

If you where to travel back in time and ask the people living in the Roman Empire what their system of government is, the surprising answer is that most would say "Republic". Rome was formally still a republic for a very very long time. Not only that it also presented itself in both propaganda and action as a Republican government and most preserved sources even point to it being considered a republic by many living in it except those defeated in its power struggles.

What the Roman state considered itself to be, and whether it considered itself a republic, and what the people thought is something that is easily confirmed or falsified, as much as any historical fact or interpretation can be, by a moderate amount of scholarship.

But that's because the meaning of res publica most foundational for them would have been "the system of government we live under," and it wouldn't have been ridiculous for them to consider it continuous with the system of government in place in Rome before the Principate. When Gibbons uses the idiomatic translation of the term, "commonwealth," to refer to what he and we call the Empire, or James Madison and the bunch talk about how republics like Rome are the best sort of government because they combine monarchy with aristocracy and democracy, we shouldn't be surprised; words change. Things changed with the Principate but they also changed with the Aventine Succession, Marsic War, rise of the Praetorian Guard, and so on.

Likewise for quite some time before the Principate Rome together with its holdings constituted an "empire" in the modern sense, but if you traveled back 21 centuries and inquired Roma rem publicam uel imperium habit? they'd consider the question confused.

But that's because the meaning of res publica most foundational for them would have been "the system of government we live under," and it wouldn't have been ridiculous for them to consider it continuous with the system of government in place in Rome before the Principate.

The foundational event of the Roman state, on which its institutions based their claim to legitimacy, was the 509BC revolution that threw out the king and established the Republic. (Not at all unlike the U.S., in fact.) Even well into the imperial period, monarchy was seen by the Romans as characteristic of barbarians and Oriental aliens, and it would have been extremely offensive to suggest that the reigning imperatores were in fact monarchs, and the whole system utterly and irreconcilably different from the old Republic. It took three centuries of this charade until Diocletian finally ended the pretense and openly proclaimed himself a monarch and demanded to be approached and addressed as such.

That's my strong impression at least, though admittedly I'm not an expert in classical history. So I think the analogy with the modern U.S. government is quite pertinent if, indeed, its de facto system of government is very different from what it is supposed to be according to its formal constitution and the political formulas that are piously declared in public.

Likewise for quite some time before the Principate Rome together with its holdings constituted an "empire" in the modern sense, but if you traveled back 21 centuries and inquired Roma rem publicam uel imperium habit? they'd consider the question confused.

My high-school Latin has rusted almost to the point of nonexistence, but shouldn't this be vel and habet?

In any case, if you travelled back 21 centuries, the imperium would have been understood as an office given to certain military commanders within the republican institutions (sometimes only honorific, and sometimes conveying actual authority). It had nothing resembling the modern meaning of "empire." And if you asked back then whether Rome was a republic or a monarchy (using any commonly recognized word for the latter), to a Roman it would have sounded as laughable as if you gave the same question to a modern-day American.

[EDIT: Due to sheer carelessness, I interpreted "back 21 centuries" as the early first century AD, i.e. the time of Augustus. Looking back, I'm now not sure what exact period it was supposed to refer to.]

Roma rem publicam uel imperium habit?

My high-school Latin has rusted almost to the point of nonexistence, but shouldn't this be vel and habet?

Habet yes, but "u" is actually a better transcription than "v", and is in fact preferred by some modern scholars. (Latin did not have the sound represented by "v", and Roman writing did not have the character "U"; instead, the character "V" was used to represent the phonemes /u/ and /w/.)

(ETA: Also, though my Latin is rusty as well, the word we want here is probably aut [roughly "xor"] rather than uel.)

Interesting -- I know that the original Latin alphabet didn't have the letter "U," but I've never seen a modern transcription that uses "u" for both /u/ and /w/. How recent is this trend?

Fairly recent, as far as I know; probably no earlier than the 1980s. (This is just a guess based on vague memory.) I'm not even sure it has spread much beyond people whose interest in Latin is specifically linguistic. (For instance I don't know that there are any pedagogical materials -- as opposed to linguistic treatises -- that use this spelling, though there might be.)

Spelling Latin with u has always been there (but as a tiny minority of texts). Here are some occurrences of omnia uincit amor over the years: 1603, 1743, 1894, 1974.

If you compare the frequencies of vincit and uincit on Google Ngram viewer, you'll see that the u spelling has always been present at a low frequency. There doesn't seem to be any noticeable recent trend (other than the general decline of Latin as a proportion of printed material). I tried a few other Latin words and got similar results.

And if you asked back then whether Rome was a republic or a monarchy (using any commonly recognized word for the latter), to a Roman it would have sounded as laughable as if you gave the same question to a modern-day American.

I'm not sure about this. Caesar was murdered because of fears that he would become a king, and surely well-informed later Romans would have realized that the concentration of power under the emperors matched or surpassed the one under Caesar (plus hereditary succession, of course). And in fact Tacitus' 'Annals' begin with a contrast between the "freedom and consulships" that started with Lucius Brutus and the "despotism" of Augustus and his successors. Perhaps a patriotic double standard ("we Romans are not slaves to a king like those Eastern barbarians") would have prevented them from calling the Empire a monarchy, but if asked whether the actual organization of their government resembled more closely that of Rome in 200 BC or that of the Kingdom of the Parthians, they might have admitted to the latter.

Sure, with years the pretense became increasingly transparent -- and of course, already in the time of Caesar, it was clear to any informed observer that things were very different from the heyday of the republican institutions. Still, I'm sure a second-century Roman would have been offended if one were to suggest that the proud republican "SPQR" inscriptions on public buildings and military standards were just a hypocritical sham, even if that claim would have been more or less correct.

Moreover, the imperial succession is one issue where it seems like the need to maintain the pretense had serious practical implications, since it was impossible to legislate clear succession rules that would recognize the imperial office as hereditary. In this regard, as much as the republican institutions had become increasingly irrelevant from Augustus on, there was still a deep and fundamental difference from explicit hereditary monarchies such as the Parthian Empire.

But i've seen a few recommendations of his writing here. Maybe i should reconsider my judgment of him. I know you linked to a debate with him and Robin Hanson... but that's a 72 minute long video.

I wouldn't recommend that debate, it's not exactly Moldbug's most shining moment.

A decent jumping-off point may be his formalist manifesto. There are probably some other good starting points (Maybe this, this, or this )

Mencius tends to be very long-winded, but is a decent enough writer. Some of his sarcastic contrarian trolling can get a bit tiring, and he does repeat himself in different posts, but he at least has some unusual non-stupid ideas, I just wish he organized them better and dropped the sarcasm.

Educated people have referred to complexes of ideas they dislike as "religions" for hundreds of years; it's the foundational ad hominem of Enlightenment discourse. As has been pointed out elsewhere in the thread, having a specific category for supernaturally-justified complexes of beliefs is a pretty good filtering heuristic. Having a term for complexes of beliefs that one dislikes, and then everybody using it as though it weren't indexical - which is already true to an extent for "religion" and "ideology" - is just a recipe for mindkilling and other discussion failure modes.

The non-indexical meaning of "ideology" serves perfectly well as a term for Nazism, Marxism, The Completely Rational Stuff That You Believe, &c.

[-][anonymous]9y 8

Educated people have referred to complexes of ideas they dislike as "religions" for hundreds of years; it's the foundational ad hominem of Enlightenment discourse.

In other words, you would agree that tagging a memeplex a religion or ideology would affect, perhaps significantly, its fitness in various circles and circumstances?

Regardless of whether it does or dosen't include a supernaturally-justified component.

Shouldn't we then expect memeplexes to adapt to this, and try and get people to tag them a certain way? I think intelligent design is arguably an example of this.

I think that this sort of tagging, on and off, is something that people try to do all the time, and I don't think it's particularly effective for altering memeplex fitness except as part of a broader and otherwise effective strategy to portray memeplex hosts as stupid, insular, and low-status. It works great for signalling that you're a host to an opposing memeplex, though.

Like, consider the widespread practice of referring to Confucianism as a religion. Excluding the term itself it doesn't seem that people reason and think about it as something other than a political ideology or even political disposition.

Moldbug makes a pretty convincing argument that belief in "religion" may be considered harmful

So the idea is that making a distinction between supernatural wrong beliefs and non-supernatural wrong beliefs is bad, because non-supernatural wrong beliefs are bad? Or maybe the claim is that it's just as easy to tell that marxism is wrong as it is to tell that creationism is wrong, so we shouldn't treat them differently? That would be incorrect, though.

One angle on religion is that it's "memes people are so attached to that it's more trouble than it's worth to use violence to oppose them, especially if the people themselves aren't very violent".

Nationalism is in the same category, I think.

[-][anonymous]9y 4

What are some memes that are worth opposing with violence?

Thuggee and Dacoity?

Edit: Also Sati), probably since I was already primed for British colonial suppression of local Indian culture with some good effects mixed in. I wonder if there are examples outside of imperialism/colonialism.

This argument primarily comes down to arguing that because a certain category has blurry boundaries that we shouldn't use it. This confuses having blurry boundaries with being useful. There seems to be a fair bit of implicitly arguing over definitions also which isn't helpful.

The only marginally interesting section is:

The Allies invaded Nazi Germany and completely suppressed Nazism. To this day in Germany it is illegal to teach National Socialism. I think most Americans, and most Germans, would agree that this is a good thing.

But if we make this one trivial change, turning Nazism into Thorism and making it a "religion," which as we've seen need not change the magnitude or details of Nazi crimes at all, the acts of the Allies are a blatant act of religious intolerance.

But even this is word games. Among other problems, it assumes that one actually supports the current German law against Nazis. One can be against or in favor of this whether or not one treats it as a religion.

Overall, I'm unimpressed.

This argument primarily comes down to arguing that because a certain category has blurry boundaries that we shouldn't use it. This confuses having blurry boundaries with being useful.

The problem is not with the category having blurry boundaries, but with the fact that it (arguably) leads to grossly miscalibrated heuristics for evaluating beliefs. Such bad heuristics then end up being not just widely used by individuals, but also built into the system of government.

There is one especially common pattern in ideological disputes where such heuristics can be catastrophically bad. Suppose side A in a dispute claims a religious basis for its beliefs, which are however not derived from the religious axioms in some strict logical manner, but in fact the religious stuff serves only as the supporting narrative for what is just accumulated conventional wisdom and tradition. Suppose then that the opposing side B claims that its beliefs are a product of pure rational thinking, whereas in reality their supposed "rational thinking" or even "science" is a mere rationalization for their ideology -- which is, at bottom, just another collection of human biases and metaphysical beliefs, although the latter are not about any anthropomorphic entities.

In situations of this sort, it is not at all unusual that the beliefs of the side A about practical issues are in fact reasonably close to reality, while the beliefs of the group B are grossly delusional and incredibly destructive if applied in practice. But the "religion" heuristic can make a wannabe rational thinker side with B for the ultimately silly reason that their metaphysics doesn't involve anthropomorphic entities. (Even if the entities it does postulate are just as fictitious, the resulting reasoning equally fallacious, and the ultimate practical implications far crazier.)

Now, of course, contemporary examples of this pattern are likely to be ideologically charged to an extreme degree. But for a distant and hopefully uncontroversial example, imagine living in some country circa 1930 where there is an ongoing struggle for power between, say, some run-of-the-mill Christian conservatives and Communists. The religion heuristic might tell you that the latter, whatever their faults, are at least attempting to base their worldview on rational thinking, so they can't possibly be the worse choice -- even though they are in fact, by any reasonable measure, the more insane side by orders of magnitude. (And unsurprisingly, around that time plenty of purported rational thinkers did end up supporting the crazier side in disputes of this sort.)

Also, to end this comment on a more controversial note, what I find really scary is that the modern "separation of church and state" principle, which uses the "religion" heuristic for determining who is allowed to influence the workings of the government, is actively selecting for ideologies that are most adept at hiding their metaphysics below layers of purportedly pure rational (or even "scientific") thinking. While this is admittedly a controversial view, it seems to me that these are quite possibly the most dangerous sorts of delusions.

[-][anonymous]9y 7

This argument primarily comes down to arguing that because a certain category has blurry boundaries that we shouldn't use it. This confuses having blurry boundaries with being useful. There seems to be a fair bit of implicitly arguing over definitions also which isn't helpful.

Not at all. It tries to expose the mental dissonance of many people who would support cracking down on and wiping out Nazism the ideology, but as soon as there was a supernatural element to the belief system such as the god Thor, they wouldn't and would talk only about dealing with Nazi "extremists".

Why in the world should we care about metaphysical entities in people's heads to the point of changing our ethical judgements on them? Crazy is crazy. If its transmitted like a religion, if it often springs from and back into religion, it causes as much change in political arrangements and personal behaviour as religion, people use the same rationalizations... if it quacks like a duck and walks like a duck, isn't the rational thing to just consider it a duck?

Feel free to have different words for white, purple and yellow ducks, but don't thinks surface features will give you great predictive value beyond people considering yellow ducks lucky and purple ducks more yummy, even though there dosen't seems to be any evidence of this.

You claim the distinction is very useful and that there is no gain to be had by thinking just about ducks in general most of the time, shouldn't you be the one at least come up with some reasons why this is so? The only reason I can think of is that "religion" is formally protected against persecution with legislation. But I don't let law affect my personal ethical judgement elsewhere to a great extent, why should it do so here?

But even this is word games. Among other problems, it assumes that one actually supports the current German law against Nazis. One can be against or in favour of this whether or not one treats it as a religion.

But why do you think some people wouldn't be changing their view on the laws if Nazism was perceived as a religion?

Why in the world should we care about metaphysical entities in people's heads to the point of changing our ethical judgements on them?

Following the insights of Max Stirner, I would go still further and claim that the difference is not between belief systems that involve metaphysical entities and those that don't, but merely between different kinds of metaphysical entities. This means that the issue at hand is whether the antropomorphic quality of these entities is by itself such an important difference for the worse.

The really scary thing is that humans seem incapable of establishing a workable system of Schelling points that would be capable of serving as the basis for organized society, and which wouldn't base its Schelling points on some kind of shared metaphysical fictions. An objective evaluation of different belief systems that are capable of filling this role would be a fascinating project. (Unfortunately, it would also be a project of immense difficulty, not just because of the sheer complexity of the problem, but also because all sorts of biases would interfere with it -- not least since it would likely make the current reigning ideologies look quite bad in comparison on at least some important metrics.)

Not at all. It tries to expose the mental dissonance of many people who would support cracking down on and wiping out Nazism the ideology, but as soon as there was a supernatural element to the belief system such as the god Thor, they wouldn't and would talk only about dealing with Nazi "extremists".

Do we have any real evidence that these people exist to a large degree and are at all common?

You're too kind by far. A category which is cognitively economical but classes a few non-dangerous items into a largely dangerous category, or vice versa, can still be extremely useful. So a criticism which points to such an instance (Marxism) is weak. But a criticism which invents such an instance (Nazism a la Thor) is beyond weak. Categories prove their usefulness is the real world.

The problem is - to paraphrase pragmatist's summary of the Hanson-Moldbug debate - Moldbug is thinking like a(n old-school analytic) philosopher. We need to think like social scientists on this one.

This seems reasonable on its face except for the implicit claim that Marxism isn't dangerous. The history of the 20th century seems to indicate otherwise.

Huh? Did you miss the "or vice versa"?

Hmm. I think I did. Sorry about that.

We can define "religion" as the attribution of existence to anthropomorphic paranormal entities.

It seems pretty unorthodox. Here's Wikipedia on the topic:

Religion is a collection of cultural systems, belief systems, and worldviews that establishes symbols that relate humanity to spirituality and, sometimes, to moral values.

Since most atheists, agnostics, etc, consider the First Amendment pretty important, we can assume they 'believe in religion'.

That's a pretty large logical leap. The First Amendment protects the right to speech and the right to petition government in addition to freedom of religion. Even if I accept Moldbug's assertion that religious ideology should be treated no different from other ideology, I can still think that the First Amendment is important.

Charitably, he meant the relevant part of the First Amendment.

The problem with this argument is that the label of religion still servers a useful purpose. It lets us know right away when an idea is wrong. Religion is not just wrong, but uniquely wrong. It is always wrong. It's the true north for your mental compass, the absolute zero of your belief barometer, the nobel gas in your idea-chemistry set.

Example: I am not a world renowned physicist. I'm somewhat familiar with it as an interested layman. If a new quantum model were to show up on the news explaining how neutrinos are still going faster than light, I wouldn't be able to personally vet the theory. If I wanted to find the truth, I could ask people on LessWrong what they thought or seek out expert opinion elsewhere. However, if this new quantum model was based on divine revelation (or hey, lets go with angels), I would immediately know it was incorrect. This same heuristic holds true whether I'm looking at cancer treatement options for my parents, choosing what of physical therapy message to get or not get, trying to find a nice personality test to take, or learning my girlfriend became pregnant via immaculate conception.

So, why treat religion separately? Because it is useful having a unique category for 'always wrong theories' . It saves me time mentally filing newly encountered information. As for special protections for religion, I think it works out quite well for us. Considering we're considered worse than rapists, I shudder to think how we would be treated if there weren't a precedent for religious tolerance.

It lets us know right away when an idea is wrong. Religion is not just wrong, but uniquely wrong. It is always wrong.

How seriously do you want to support this claim?

I mean, among the most famous claims of several popular American religions is that "Don't murder" and "Don't steal" are important moral principles. I will admit to being more than a little partial to those principles myself. If I take your claim literally it follows that I should reject those principles.

If you're just engaging in hyperbole and don't really mean what you wrote, that's fine; please don't feel obligated to defend it just for consistency's sake. But if you do mean it, I'm interested in your more detailed reasoning.

The basis for the idea of "Thou Shalt Not Murder" is not religious. Before the commands, there was Hammurabi's Code, and before that Sumerian Code of Ur-Nammu, and before that it was custom. The earliest laws were a codification of what people were already doing. In other words, if Scientology claims they had invented calculus, that doesn't mean I suddenly distrust my ability to do derivatives.

A cleaner definition would be that 'supernatural explanations are always wrong', of which religious explanations are a subset. If I were to go into full pedant mode, I suppose this would be cleaner: "Explanations which require ontologically basic mental things provide zero bits of evidence. A theory which has only those such explanations as proof does not deserve to be privileged above random chance."

In real world terms, we only usually only encounter things which trigger the above in the case of religion, folk medicine, and superstition. Though I admit my original wording was sloppy.

Thanks for clarifying.

For my part, I agree that there's something here that is a marker for unreliable explanations, though I'm more inclined to unpack it as "explanations which require entities for which no strong evidence exists" rather than "explanations which require ontologically basic mental entities," and it seems to me that in the real world we encounter such explanations in all sorts of secular situations as well -- for example, many explanations of economic and political events seem to fall in this category. But I suppose a sufficiently broad understanding of "superstition" can be made to cover these situations as well.

For my part, I agree that there's something here that is a marker for unreliable explanations, though I'm more inclined to unpack it as "explanations which require entities for which no strong evidence exists" rather than "explanations which require ontologically basic mental entities," and it seems to me that in the real world we encounter such explanations in all sorts of secular situations as well -- for example, many explanations of economic and political events seem to fall in this category.

Do you mean that we often encounter social/political explanations involving entities for which no strong evidence exists, or the less trivial one that social/political explanations often involve (not explicitly supernatural) ontologically basic mental entities? It's hard for me to think of mental entities employed in social explanations - "investor confidence," "blowback," "will of the indomitable German people," whatever - that aren't charitably reducible to more basic mental and non-mental entities, or explicitly mystical anyway, like say Alfred Rosenberg's conception of the will of the indomitable German people.

Do you mean that we often encounter social/political explanations involving entities for which no strong evidence exists, or the less trivial one that social/political explanations often involve (not explicitly supernatural) ontologically basic mental entities?

But why should the mental quality of the postulated entities be such a big deal?

Note that in the context of ideology and politics, the critical question is not so much about positive explanations of phenomena, but about normative justifications. And in this context, I really don't see why one should privilege justifications whose metaphysical element happens not to include any antropomorphic (or as you say "mental") entities.

For example, what is supposed to be so much more irrational about semantic stop signs that say "X must be done because otherwise we'd violate God's commandments" versus those that say "X must be done because otherwise we'd violate human rights"? (Of course, it may be that you mostly prefer those concrete Xs that happen to be justified the latter way in the present public discourse, but surely it's not difficult to imagine an opposite hypothetical situation, i.e. one where people justify something you otherwise favor by invoking God's commands while others justify something you oppose by invoking human rights.)

I had assumed that the explanations we're talking about were positive or causal.

When it does come to normative explanations in everyday life I don't think the implied metaethical framework is particularly interesting or important, given how humans actually make decisions and employ concepts. Obviously, read literally any reference to external, not-merely-intersubjective entities like "human rights" are as silly as references to God's commands, and if we're having a discussion about philosophy they can be dismissed with exactly the same anti-supernaturalism heuristic, but we all know that God or human rights forbidding something, nine times out of ten, just means the speaker dislikes it and is appealing to the shared values generally connected to that metaphysical shibboleth, etc. Like, if I'm on the phone with my father and mention that something's been stressful lately, and he says he'll keep me in his prayers, I have no reason to be concerned that he literally believes in - that his anticipations of experience are controlled by - the power to telepathically communicate with the creator of the universe and request it to supernaturally alter the physical world on my behalf; I just note that he's signalling that he cares for me and get a few fuzzies from that.

(And sure, it's not even hard for me to think of concretely existing situations of the sort you mention.)

I mean that we often encounter both religious and sociopolitical explanations involving entities for which no strong evidence exists, and that I see no benefit to differentially focusing my attention on the subset of that set of explanations that involves ontologically basic mental entities.

I don't believe that sociopolitical explanations often involve ontologically basic mental entities, whether supernatural or not.

Ramanujan claimed to get mathematical revelations from the Hindu goddess Namagiri. Some Hindus today actually believe that Ramanujan really did get math from deities.

This isn't the only example of this I have, only the most blatant. The Bible has rules about covering up feces. The Talmud has one wash hands before eating. And it also says not to use sharp sticks or rocks when wiping. If you want I can give similar examples from Islamic texts.

Your claim that " Religion is not just wrong, but uniquely wrong. It is always wrong." seems to not work.

I don't agree with your interpretation of the article. It seems clear to me that an outsider that doesn't share the community beliefs would be considered most likely to break with community norms and steal money, even if this belief is wrong. It has nothing to do with being considered 'worse' than a rapist. Even though an outsider might also be considered the more likely rapist ... these biased probability assignments are completely different than believing an innocent-so-far atheist is worse than a convicted rapist.

This smacks pretty strongly to me of undiscriminating skepticism. If you refuse to entertain the notion of a relevant difference between throwing people into Mount Fuji (not that there's a lot to throw someone into)because you believe that a god demands it and throwing people into Mount Fuji out of a sense of retribution, are you going to entertain the notion of a difference between campaigning to stop an AI project because they always turn out badly in movies, and campaigning to stop it because you've got strong reason to believe it will FOOM into an Unfriendly AI? How about discriminating between people who want to be mummified so they'll be whole in the afterlife, and people who want to be cryonically frozen? Or between the Rapture and the Singularity?

An action may be the same regardless of what motivated it, but different beliefs have different implications. They will change according to different evidence or reasoning, or when different belief nodes are switched (for example, a moderate Muslim's actions may be changed by being convinced that the original intent captured in the Koran was for Islam to be spread by the sword, in a way that a non-Muslim's absolutely won't be.) And if you can't discriminate between strange seeming actions by the actual reasons that motivated them, then you're just going to end up judging according to your own adopted memes and cultural norms.

But if we make this one trivial change, turning Nazism into Thorism and making it a "religion," which as we've seen need not change the magnitude or details of Nazi crimes at all, the acts of the Allies are a blatant act of religious intolerance.

Aren't we supposed to respect other faiths?

It's certainly convenient to do so when you can't discriminate between differing beliefs on the basis of evidence. If you default to not respecting complex webs of belief unsupported by evidence, the problem goes away. But it certainly doesn't require you to not recognize a subcategory of belief webs as "religious".