[Epistemic status: Hunch in the form of a neologism. I've heard this idea—that I'm dubbing mintheism here—implied in several corners of the Internet. I want to give it a name and take a stab at why it's plausible. This post presupposes a connection between the decline in religious affiliation and the rise of conspiracy theories.]
The gist of it
Put like an SAT analogy, mintheism is to atheism as minarchy is to anarchy.
Fully defined, mintheism is a cost-benefit approach to religious belief and practice within a society that attempts to find the optimal amounts and kinds of religious belief and practice that achieve prosocial outcomes while minimizing antisocial side-effects.
Under this definition, there's many different ways one could solve the optimization problem. I'll explain my take which I'll call the nonsense management approach.
A little nonsense now and then is... necessary for signaling loyalty to your tribe
Social isolation is really undesirable and has measurable negative outcomes (that sentence has 10 words and 8 hyperlinks, sorry). So let's assume people want to be part of a tribe and that conservation of tribalism is basically accurate (analogous to conservation of mass—the level tribalism within a society is never created or destroyed, it just changes forms).
Building on an insight from Mencius Moldbug, the pen name of Curtis Yarvin of Neo-reactionary fame in An Open Letter to Open-Minded Progressives. (Please don't mistake this as staning for Yarvin. While the quoted insight is a good one, I would encourage those who haven't yet to read Scott Alexander's Anti-Reactionary FAQ).
"...in many ways nonsense is a more effective organizing tool than the truth. Anyone can believe in the truth. To believe in nonsense is an unforgeable demonstration of loyalty. It serves as a political uniform. And if you have a uniform, you have an army."
I'll go a little further than Moldbug and say nonsense is a necessary to create and maintain tribes successfully as tribes wouldn't be tribes without sufficiently loyal adherents.
Consider one of the many practices necessary to keep kosher in Judaism, keeping milk and meat separate—specifically not eating meat and diary as part of the same meal. It's difficult to imagine that someone who eats the same amount of cheese and meat but eats them at different times of the day achieves a nutritional advantage that's worth the hassle. If you look at this from the perspective of signaling loyalty, however, it's obviously not about nutrition—the hassle of avoiding this combination is the entire point. It requires a person endeavoring to keep from eating meat and diary at the same time go through inconvenience visible to other people and likely asking others to accommodate them as well. Someone going through the inconvenience and hassle of keeping a rule in a way that's almost certainty necessitates its visibility to others serves the real purpose of signaling of loyalty, in this case to Judaism.
I agree with Sam Harris, attempts at creating tribes on exclusively rational grounds thus far have not been very successful.
(Before people say, "what about secular humanism?" I want to point out that it barely appears in the Pew's Religious Landscape Study to the point that it seems Pew couldn't or didn't populate their profile of humanism and it appears in some tables but is missing from others. That may be an error on Pew's part, or maybe I'm reading it wrong? If someone knows please let me know in the comments. But it seems to me after decades of secular humanist being a thing people could choose to be, a near negligible number of Americans specifically describe themselves as secular humanists.)
This is what Sam Harris (SH) said in response to a statement from Douglas Murray (DM) in his third on-stage debate with Jordan Peterson (58:27 here).
DM: ...I can think of a lot of parents now—in my country and other countries as well—who, I'm just very struck, they themselves are kind of baby boomer or 60s atheists humanists whatever and I start to notice, for instance, that they're enrolling their children in Christian schools. And I say to them, "why are you doing this?" And they have fairly coherent arguments along the lines of what I just said, "look I don't particularly believe this myself but I think it's a pretty good way to bring up the kids, it's a structure of a kind." I'm not sure... I can find all sorts of flaws in that, but enough people are doing it that it's something that needs to be addressed.
SH: Well, I would say, yes, it speaks to a real failure of imagination and an effort in the secular community to produce truly non-embarrassing alternatives.
SH: And this is across the board. This is not just school. This is, how do you conduct a funeral? How do you get married? You know, all of it. What rites of passage can you offer a thirteen-year-old?
I'll be fair to Sam and say he ended that exchange with optimism about the project of secular tribes on par with religions. But perhaps the goal of creating secular exclusively rational alternatives to religion was hopeless from the beginning? If there is a minimum of nonsense necessary to create a successful tribe, then we would expect a tribe that's trying to banish all nonsense from it to be unsuccessful. Even among rationalists we may only be as successful as a tribe because we at times have shared beliefs in things like the Singularity, which Jaron Lanier has ably argued is nonsense.
In the wake of the decline of religion, instead of people flocking to rationalism we have Internet tribes that have filled the vacuum left by religion.
So, put another way, if people are flocking to QAnon because distally they're looking for meaning, belonging, direction and to be part of something greater than themselves, wouldn't the rest of us rather have them be, say... Congregationalists? Or Unitarians? Or Reform Jews? Or Sufi Muslims?
I suspect popular traditional religions survived and flourished in part based on an ability to safely channel tribal impulses in more prosocial ways than alternatives. I'm reminded of Julia Galef's excellent video, A rational view of tradition, that argues (paraphrasing) all else being equal just knowing that something is a tradition gives you some evidence that it's more beneficial than something non-traditional.
So, why not start with existing religions and try to optimize? What we want is to minimize the harmfulness of tribes, and this requires minimizing the side-effects of belief (or belief in belief) in tribal nonsense as well as containing and mitigating cross-contamination in areas where religious tribal nonsense would be really bad.
Christopher Hitchens (CH) was asked something along these lines while speaking at one Google's campuses in 2011 (33:17 here).
Q: ...I have a buddy who styles himself as a kind of an allegorical pagan. And he's had a lot of angry criticisms of religion, many of which echo yours. But at the same time he feels in himself a kind of a biological need to be part of a circle of believers in a community which he feels helps his rather fragile emotional demeanor. He goes through, you know, depression and things like that, and he finds that belief. So what he'd done is try to find what he feels as the least obnoxious religion he could find and then not take it too seriously. What would you say to such a person?
CH: Well, that used to be called the Church of England—or, the Unitarians, about whom Bertrand Russell said, "The great thing about them is they believe in one god maximum." Peter De Vries is very good on this. He says people used to be pagan and polytheist and believe in multiple gods, and then they started believing in one god and they're going nearer the true figure all the time. This is progress.
Scott Alexander's essays, "Creationism Unchallenged" and "New Atheism: The Godlessness That Failed" are also relevant here as examples of Christianity out-competing alternatives that are more epistemically rational. Until we understand why we're losing, there is a case to be made for minimizing the damage.
Religions as containers adapted to hold nonsense
In this mintheist framing, religions can play a critical role in society as semi-permeable containers of nonsense ideas. Partially because they co-evolved with political systems, for example, through a process reminiscent of system integration testing and as a consequence many countries have developed church and state separation to varying degrees.
That's a nice existing framework. When people are religious they're usually willing to admit that they're religious. When they attempt to push nonsense out of their religious framework we can point out the wisdom and precedent of separating church and state. Voila! We have a mechanism to contain the nonsense, without taking much away from the tribes that believe in the nonsense. It may not be perfect, but it's becoming more and more obvious it's better than the alternative.
At times, there will be valid insights from religions, so we don't want to completely wall them in. We just want to create friction to prevent religious ideas from migrating outside of religions without proving their worth.
No precedent for separation of conspiracy theory and state
In contrast to separation of church and state, there is no well-known precedent for separation of conspiracy theory and state. The American Psychological Association doesn't directly say that "conspiracy theorism" fills the vacuum of religion, but they come close. For example in an article on the purpose of conspiracy theories.
People believe in conspiracy theories for a variety of reasons—to explain random events, to feel special or unique, or for a sense of social belonging, to name a few.
I don't know if most people that are conspiracy theorists would admit that they're conspiracy theorists, but I would suspect not. If only because labeling the beliefs that are their tethers to their tribe as conspiracy theory would appear disloyal to that tribe. For the same reason I would further doubt a flat earth conspiracy theorist, for example, would come out and say "I believe the world is flat because it gives me friends, meaning and a sense of belonging" even though that seems to be the distal reason.
Limiting nonsense cross-contamination
Politics is supposed to serve a purpose separate from those typically assigned to religion. I'll use a definition of the purpose of politics from Bernard Crick which was good enough to appear on Wikipedia.
"...politics is a distinctive form of rule whereby people act together through institutionalized procedures to resolve differences, to conciliate diverse interests and values and to make public policies in the pursuit of common purposes."
That's a place where you'd like to minimize contamination from nonsense. You could make similar statements about say, science, engineering, mathematics, journalism, sensemaking, etc.
I want you to picture a factory-like warehouse that metaphorically makes societies. Sort of like Santa's workshop at the North Pole, except instead of toys it makes our societal institutions. There's a workbench where religion is made, and there's a large bin within arm's reach from the religion workbench that's filled with a sticky substance called 'nonsense.' The nice thing about religion is that it's "nonsense-philic" (nonsense is attracted to it). There are barriers between the religion workbench and other workbenches that are mostly impermeable to religious nonsense and prevent it from contaminating workbenches where science, engineering, mathematics, journalism and sensemaking are made. But, if you're not careful with nonsense it seeps into everything like a glitter bomb or sand.
There's another workbench that's recently seen increased activity called conspiracy theorism. It's also nonsense-philic but when nonsense is coated in conspiracy theorism the barriers preventing it from contaminating other workbenches are much less effective. Overtime the nonsense starts gumming up everything else in the factory and the stations for science, engineering, mathematics, journalism and sensemaking are making products tainted with nonsense.
Pivoting toward religious optimization?
If we can quantify things like Gross National Happiness in theory we should be able to measure the happiness and societal value of various religions, balance that with side-effects and make recommendations. Sort of a compromise between instrumental rationality and epistemic rationality.
We could also find a way to survey conspiracy theorists and see what religions are most appealing from them and potentially promote those as alternative tribes. This would present an additional problem of ensuring that those religions are robust enough to not be unduly influenced by conspiracies, or it would just be another form of entryism.
- Conspiratulity - this is a interesting confluence of beliefs and is maybe is kind of thing their would be less if more traditional religious belief hadn't diminished, but nothing about it strikes me as particularly egregious beyond it's constituent parts.
- Microsolidarity - a framework for creating small mutual aid groups.