How theism works

by Paul Crowley1 min read10th Apr 200939 comments

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There's a reason we can all agree on theism as a good source of examples of irrationality.

Let's divide the factors that lead to memetic success into two classes: those based on corresponding to evidence, and those detached from evidence. If we imagine a two-dimensional scattergram of memes rated against these two criteria, we can define a frontier of maximum success, along which any idea can only gain in one criterion by losing on the other. This doesn't imply that evidential and non-evidential success are opposed in general; just that whatever shape memespace has, it will have a convex hull that can be drawn across this border.

Religion is what you get when you push totally for non-evidential memetic success. All ties to reality are essentially cut. As a result, all the other dials can be pushed up to 11. God is not just wise, nice, and powerful - he is all knowing, omnibenificent, and omnipotent. Heaven and Hell are not just pleasant and unpleasant places you can spend a long time in - they are the very best possible and the very worst possible experiences, and for all eternity. Religion doesn't just make people better; it is the sole source of morality. And so on; because all of these things happen "offstage", there's no contradictory evidence when you turn the dials up, so of course they'll end up on the highest settings.

This freedom is theism's defining characteristic. Even the most stupid pseudoscience is to some extent about "evidence": people wouldn't believe in it if they didn't think they had evidence for it, though we now understand the cognitive biases and other effects that lead them to think so. That's why there are no homeopathic cures for amputation.

I agree with other commentators that the drug war is the other real world idea that I would attack here without fear of contradiction, but I would still say that drug prohibition is a model of sanity compared to theism. Theism really is the maddest thing you can believe without being considered mad.

Footnote: This was originally a comment on The uniquely awful example of theism, but I was encouraged to make a top-level post from it. I should point out that there are issues with my dividing line between "evidence-based" and "not evidence-based", since you could argue that mathematics is not evidence-based and nor is the belief that evidence is a good way to learn about the world; however, it should be clear that neither of these has the freedom that religion has to make up whatever will make people most likely to spread the word.

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No - I think this comment just makes my earlier point about "schizophrenia" in The uniquely awful example of theism: We have such a negative impression of religion because we categorize anything irrational as "religion".

Also, this post says "theism" but really means "Christianity and Islam".

Consider Scientology. I think we can agree it's a religion. But it doesn't presuppose a spiritual realm which can cause effects in the natural world and yet not be investigated. It doesn't disclaim evidential reasoning; it actually relies on evidential reasoning. Just not very good evidential reasoning, plus some good stagecraft.

Consider Hinduism. It doesn't have much dogma. It isn't about making claims about the world the way Christianity or Islam is. It's more like a catalog of Jungian archetypes and models for thinking about the world. A Hindu "God" isn't a cause of events in the world; it's more like a manifestation of or symbol for patterns of events.

Consider Buddhism. It doesn't have any "offstage" place for events that impact our world.

Consider animism. It also is very brief on dogma. It's very evidential. The volcano erupted; therefore, the volcano god is angry.

Consider Unitarianism. Brief on dogma. It's mainly about community.

So why do we call these things religions? Because "religion", the way most non-LW people (can we call them MW people?) use it, has to do with providing explanations, perspectives, guidelines, and community.

You've used the word "theism" in your post, instead of "religion". Your points are better (tho still not to the point of my "agreeing" with them) if we're careful to use the word "theism" and not "religion". I might even agree with you if we use the term "monotheism", although there are versions of Judaism that resist your accusations.

But it takes a lot of discipline to read an argument made explicity about "theism", and refrain from applying it to "religion". Unless you explicitly point out that you're not talking about religion in general, I would expect the majority of LW readers to classify this mentally in the "arguments against religion" folder.

Heck, I'm a non-religious non-atheist. I consider it somewhere between possible and probable that our world is a simulation created by a God, probably for research or entertainment.

To be nitpicky...

We have such a negative impression of religion because we categorize anything irrational as "religion".

Being the least bit charitable, the irrational belief that the moon is made of cheese has nothing to do with religion and I am guessing most people here would not file it under that category. Your sentence might read better the other way:

We have such a negative impression of religion because we categorize anything "religious" as irrational.

At which point I would hazard that the community would accept it and wait for evidence to the contrary.

Consider Scientology [... et al]

I am not sure what you are asking us to consider.

Are you proposing these as examples of rational religions? I can follow the concept that a "rational religion" may or could exist, which is what I think you are trying to say, but I cannot tell if you think the religions you listed were rational.

Perhaps the list is an example of nontheistic religions? That seems to fit better with the rest of what you said:

[W]hy do we call these things religions? Because "religion", the way most non-LW people use it, has to do with providing explanations, perspectives, guidelines, and community

Providing explanations, perspectives, guidelines, and community fits a broader subject than "religions." Your average high-school fits those criteria and does not qualify as a religion. At this point it would also be useful to start trying to strictly define the terms. This is especially true if you think that "religion" is negatively and unfairly associated with "irrational."

Unless you explicitly point out that you're not talking about religion in general, I would expect the majority of LW readers to classify this mentally in the "arguments against religion" folder.

Personally, I drop it in the folder labeled "arguments related to religion." Argue semantics all you want, it fits.

The religions I listed, some of which are theistic, do not claim to be immune to evidential reasoning. The post says that is the defining characteristic of religion.

Oh! Okay, I think I understand much better. For reference, I think I found the relevant sentence in the original post:

Religion is what you get when you push totally for non-evidential memetic success.

Of note, what one claims to be is not always what one is, but I catch your drift and the point stands.

[-][anonymous]12y -1

I'm pretty sure you've got it.

(Off-topic) You could probably edit out the drug war bit.

(Note) This was originally supposed to be a comment in response to the same post ciphergoth was responding to. After a while it bloated into something not directly related to the original post and so I just saved it somewhere until it was more relevant. I think it actually fits this post better but the whole thing is only slightly related to the topic.

God is not just wise, nice, and powerful - he is all knowing, omnibenificent, and omnipotent. Heaven and Hell are not just pleasant and unpleasant places you can spend a long time in - they are the very best possible and the very worst possible experiences, and for all eternity.

This is strictly only useful when talking to someone who believes that specific set of beliefs. What if the religion believes in an evil God? A God that can be tricked? What it believes we are the Gods? Any or all of these could be just as irrational, but they are instantly excluded from the argument and any theist who does not perfectly fit the example can just shrug it off and say, "oh, it does not apply to me." That does not seem particularly useful, but I watch communities of rational atheists stand and nod their head like the ultimate truth has been spoken even though it only applies to a strict subset of theistic beliefs.

There are huge swaths of major religious theory that are blatantly irrational. Some world religions even take the irrationality as a core feature and emphasize its own inability to be rationally processed. There is, however, a strong tendency to look at these logic evils, denounce them, and then throw the rest of Earth's theology into the same category of "obviously stupid".

(Minor point) I am not saying that the rest of Earth's theology doesn't belong in the category of obviously stupid. I am saying that I watch a lot of people (not necessary people here) start throwing things into that bucket irrationally. Whether they end up there eventually is irrelevant.

The most prevalent examples are posts that apparently assume folk-Christianity as the one religion. To unfairly pick on someone, your post is an example. To claim that "theism" works a certain way and then only give one, albeit common, example of theism is a little shortsighted. Your point is wonderful and useful, but it does not apply to all of theism.

The problem is not that you found something irrational about theism. The problem seems to be that much of what is said about the invalidity of religion is assumed to be true or rational. In other words, I see this:

Belief A is a known problem and has been denounced by the throngs of rationalists.
Belief B looks suspiciously similar to Belief A and is denounced out of hand by the same throngs.

To express this pattern with a non-theistic example:

Pascal's Wager is a known problem and has been denounced by the throngs of rationalists.
Arguments for cryonics looks suspiciously similar to Pascal's Wager and is denounced out of hand by the same throngs.

This pattern is directly addressed by Eliezer's The Pascal's Wager Fallacy Fallacy and is also talked about in Roko's Rationality, Cryonics and Pascal's Wager.

In the case of cryonics, Eliezer and Roko argued that cryonics deserves another shot. In the case of theism, I am not saying any particular belief deserves another shot, I am just reminding the community as a whole that "irrational by association" is a fallacy.

(Side topic) One possible response to this, in my opinion, is that theism is rotten at its core. Theism, all variants, have been denounced as irrational and nitpicking over specific examples just slows everything down. Someone who is a theist happened to miss the memo. I am not suggesting nitpicking everything because most of it does not matter. This was true in the example of your post: nitpicking really has little value since the point he was making still stands. Generally speaking, one-off comments do not have a scope was intended to cover challenges to the assumed truths about theism, which is why I avoided posting this comment until you made it the subject of a full post.

(Necropost)

(Off-topic) You could probably edit out the drug war bit.

Why? I was quite glad to see it. The drug war is a "uniquely awful" example itself, being something no longer based on evidence but manufacturing it, and worse - perhaps humorously so, if only it were fiction - causing the very things it supposedly acts to prevent: death, disease, suffering, economic and social cost, and drug addiction. (Yes! Portugal and Prague show us what happens when personal use is decriminalized: fewer drug users!).

Religion is the most exaggerated one can get when detached from evidence; the drug war is, perhaps, the most corrupt.

Link-following leads to the actual paper (pdf, 4 MB). It quotes an official-sounding institute. It's not very good, though - decriminalization was in 2001, but it rarely shows pre-2001 data. There's a clear decrease in drug-related deaths, not much else.

If this really leads to fewer users, this is surprising new information. I'd expect "more use, but overall less harm", and wouldn't be surprised by "more users, but overall less use", but I can't see why there'd be fewer users. Either my model is false or this story is wrong!

Well, that's just one Google result (try "drug use portugal" or "drug use decriminalization") - I've seen several articles about drug use decreasing in the Netherlands, Czech Republic, and Portugal after each nation decriminalized some or all drugs.

I would imagine that this is because (in Portugal, at least) instead of arrest, users are required to attend counseling and support groups (and it's much easier to seek help when one needn't fear arrest). These groups are designed mostly to help people stop using drugs, and I would bet they work at least a small percent of the time.

IAWYC. However, it is possible to launch arguments against theism which are so deep as to take out the entire spectrum of religions, including Buddhism and New Age spirituality, in a single blast. See e.g. excluding the supernatural.

Of course, this only invalidates at least one central element of every religion - perhaps their scriptures say somewhere than the sky is blue, or such; reversed stupidity is not intelligence.

Certainly some branches of Buddhism and of Taoism explicitly reject the supernatural. Maybe even some Norse mythology does, though that's much less clear to me.

Note that there is a large space of possible materialist theisms (eg The Matrix).

The division of nature into spiritual/physical came much later than the invention of religion. I don't think an ancient Greek could have described his beliefs as supernatural in the way that we understand; the concept of "supernatural" wasn't complete until we had a concept of "the natural" as those things that obeyed the laws of nature.

So, I think saying that "religion has the supernatural at its core" (not that I know what Eliezer means to say, but that's part of what I think he's saying) is a projection of more recent, relatively sophisticated theological ideas onto the entire spectrum of religions.

Heck. I read the link Eliezer gave, and actually that isn't what he's saying, because he's defining "supernatural" in a particular way that probably does include the entire spectrum of existing religions: > By far the best definition I've ever heard of the supernatural is Richard Carrier's: A "supernatural" explanation appeals to ontologically basic mental things, mental entities that cannot be reduced to nonmental entities. This might not describe Unitarianism. It doesn't describe the Matrix theism, which is part of an underexplored space of "theisms that are not religious". And it may just be historical accident that our theisms are religious, and that our religions are supernatural. Would you consider someone who believed in an absolute morality, but not in a God or an afterlife or spirits, to be religious, but have no supernatural beliefs?

I have heard that Hobbes claimed to be materialistic and a Christian!

Hobbes definitely believed (or claimed to) in God and a materialist account of human beings. It's less clear that he believed in a materialist account of God Himself. (This belief has shown up in Christianity a number of times; the Jehovah's Witnesses, for example. It's probably the most natural reading of the Bible.)

The phrase "materialist theism" is interesting. Do you mean materialist religion? If not, do you mind expounding on your terms?

Like The Matrix. The makers of the Matrix are gods to those living in the Matrix. If those in the Matrix were aware of it, they would be theists, but probably not religious.

That's not an actual religion. (EDIT: That is, nobody actually seems to believe in and worship this religion.) And there's a reason for that.

What is the reason?

Because unless the Lords of the Matrix are made of spirit-stuff, having them being mere material beings made out of atoms, just like us only they happen to be the ones in charge of the simulation, does not make for very satisfying theology as long as you're going to just make stuff up anyway.

It really is my impression that the Norse Aesir were just like that. You know, they have blood, have children, die, need to eat, etc. Despite that, Odin was involved in creating the (our) universe (Midgard).

But the Aesir had a sacred dimension that the Matrix Lords would not; they had assigned roles in the scheme of things and not just assumed roles in the scheme of things.

Doesn't Agent Smith have an assigned role as a coordinator of the immune system? Doesn't something like fate or game theory ordain that some entity with his characteristics fill that role? Hell, the simulated universe in the Matrix was forced by human nature, e.g. "what's right" while the Norse universe could just as easily have been different and will be after Ragnarok. And of course, to determinist, everything MUST happen and to scientists/Humeans everything does happen for a reason, even if the reason is "the quantum coin flip comes up both ways. It inevitably progressed to a world where you saw it come up heads and one where you saw tails and in both of those worlds, to you asking this question and my giving this answer.

If anyone started talking about Agent Smith just filling the ordained and necessary role as the coordinator of the immune system, then they would have invented the Matrix religion. That is, once you have divinely ordained roles, you have a religion, whether or not there's a postulated divinity to do the divine ordaining.

You just invented Ken Wilbur's Blue developmental stage, which he and I agree was not reached by humans until the last 3000 or so years. The earliest religions, like the Egyptian one, clearly didn't have this. Neither does Silmarilianism (Valarism? )BTW.

Ken Wilber, with an e; a list of colors that doesn't seem terribly helpful. Does the axial age fit in?

The Valar are like norse gods, but Eru Iluvatar is like the christian god. I think the mythology of the Silmarillion fits Eliezer's comment. I'm not sure how much Wilber cares about mythology, though; I suspect you're responding to a gestalt sense of the practice of religion by numenoreans, elves, or the men of Gondor, which may not match the mythology.

Technically, the Matrix Lords might have been assigned roles to carry out in the program when it was created by it's initial creator and be programmed to carry them out. (Thus somewhat resembling religion)

On the other hand, wouldn't trying to in some way (if possible) please the Lords of the Matrix and secure rewards be highly desirable if possible? In some possible Matrix-like situations, cult-like devotion might actually be rational.

You raise an interesting point I've considered before in relation to Bostrom's simulation argument: if we're living in a simulation, wouldn't that effectively make God real? I can't see a way to deny this without some linguistic legerdemain. It seems like one's probability assignment to the proposition "God is real" should be lower-bounded by the proposition "we're living in a simulation."

However, it is possible to launch arguments against theism which are so deep as to take out the entire spectrum of religions, including Buddhism and New Age spirituality, in a single blast. See e.g. excluding the supernatural.

Oh, no doubt. I have not done a whole ton of studying in that area (yet; thanks for the link) but I find it interesting that people do not start from the core instead of picking away at the fringes. If you can knock out the foundation, why bother with the attic?

Of course, this only invalidates at least one central element of every religion - perhaps their scriptures say somewhere than the sky is blue, or such; reversed stupidity is not intelligence.

In addition, I never thought that a religion assumes belief in the supernatural, but I am rusty on some of these definitions. I just know that people disagree about it.

(Edited out; thanks komponisto) I am not familiar with the term "reversed stupidity" but I do not see what intelligence has to do with irrationality. Am I missing something?

I am not familiar with the term "reversed stupidity" but I do not see what intelligence >has to do with irrationality. Am I missing something?

See Reversed Stupidity is Not Intelligence.

This is a response to Swimmy's comment on theism (it's such a frequent target here because it needs no introduction) in Awful Austrians, but since the remark there was an aside in response to this post, it seems more appropriate here.


Theism is a useful whipping boy because it needs no introduction.

The real reason that theism and religion are discussed so much here is not because they need no introduction, but because they hold such a unique and fundamental place in the minds of adherents -- they touch everything else either directly or indirectly, including the origin and nature of reality, human nature, morality, the meaning of life, and most of the mysteries or former mysteries we've had.

Another factor is that the general methodology for decision making in religion (especially forms that emphasize faith over reason or empirical evidence) is profoundly antithetical to that of science and rationality. Where else has contempt for reason and the empirical appeared and been codified into a system but in certain religious traditions?

There are no other terrible epistemologies that have anywhere near as much influence on the world and the lives of billions of people.

This doesn't imply that evidential and non-evidential success are opposed in general; just that whatever shape memespace has, it will have a convex hull that can be drawn across this border.

Is there any mathematical reason why the hull can't be concave?

The only applicable mathematical meaning for the word "hull" that I know of here refers to the convex hull. You can draw a variety of non-convex figures that enclose a set of points of course, but I've not heard those referred to as "hulls".

I'm not trying to be a smartass about the word hull; I'm just curious to know if there is a good mathematical reason why the shape of the boundary you mention in the post would necessarily be convex.

I'm sorry, I'm not following you. The hull is convex by definition, no matter where the points are.

Thinking about it though, the appropriate figure to consider isn't the convex hull, but the set of points which are not dominated by any other points. That can produce a concave figure, but it's still true to say that when you switch between them, you have to lose on one axis to gain on another, again by definition.

That answers my question.

I think I disagree with the fundamental premise of this post - that "evidence" is a basis for survival of memes. I think that memes survive because they are useful, fun or interesting. Religion may not have a strong basis in hard direct evidence, but it does seem to explain a lot of things that science fails at - Why does the universe exist? Why am I here? What should I do? How can I get along with people? How can I make the world a better place? To non-specialists these might be thought of as more important questions than what tiny pieces of matter are made of. It also seems true that there is a bias even within science towards the useful, over the evidential (see the Oil drop experiment and cargo cult science.

I accuse Atheists in general (and more specifically this argument) of selectively quoting religious thought and choosing only to attack the easy, and largely irrelevant parts of religion. Typical talking points among atheists are abortion, masturbation, the miracles, contraception, hell, exactly what god is, intelligent design. Typical talking points (sermon topics) among Christians seem to be self improvement, finding strength, belief in others, giving to others, love, etc. If you are eager to learn, why not ask about the areas of Christian belief which are likely to challenge your ideas, and less easy to attack, rather than picking easy and less relevant targets?

If you want evidence of whether religion exists, why not ask a representative sample of Christians whether Jesus has changed their lives? Why not ask them how? And can you explain what is so contemptible about Religion, but not the concept of "romantic love" (to take one of millions of hard to justify human pursuits)? How many millions of dollars, suicides, hours are wasted by teenagers and other people who are "in love"? How much fighting and misery is caused by this concept - and what evidence is there that it has any more meaning than religion?

Just to put this on a more positive footing - I'd ask not "how can people believe this tosh" but instead "why do people believe this seeming tosh". Just to give you an idea, I agree that god probably doesn't exist, but I also believe that a way of life that focuses on what you don't have (e.g. what shoes to buy, how hot some female stranger looks = avarice and lust) or a way of life that focuses on how you have what others don't (e.g. my porsche, my house, my wife, my tan = pride and vanity) lead to a state of constant dissatisfaction (i.e. hell, or pergatory). I think that people are also happier believing that there is something far more rational, wise and right than themselves - I think this blog agrees that people are very often wrong and irrational.

The concept of constant rebirth in buddhism is also a very useful metaphor to bear in mind - almost all relationships, possessions, projects have a birth, a life and a death. When I am dealing with an exciting new project or idea it's a rush - but it's helpful to know that will end, and I think a partial divorce from this constant beginning and ending (i.e. transition from samsara to nirvana) is a good thing.

I accuse Atheists in general (and more specifically this argument) of selectively quoting religious thought and choosing only to attack the easy, and largely irrelevant parts of religion. Typical talking points among atheists are abortion, masturbation, the miracles, contraception, hell, exactly what god is, intelligent design. Typical talking points (sermon topics) among Christians seem to be [...]

Ooh, a challenge? Bring it on!

self improvement

Is better performed from a basis of rationality (what does the evidence suggest will work?). Very little evidence that religious people are more self-improved than secularists.

finding strength

Even granting the premise that religion grants better strength than secular substitutes (which is not proven), religion introduces possible attack vector in form of refutation of underlying beliefs.

belief in others

Have that anyway. More to the point, religions discourage belief in others when those others are acting contrary to the memeplex.

giving to others

In practice, this might be true - in theory, a secularist can allocate resources more efficiently on the basis of need rather than ideology.

love

You're joking, right?

Look, this list reads like a Dark-Side cached thought about antitheists: "You're attacking irrelevancies! Look at all the great things you're ignoring!" As such, it is boring, and I don't want to read it.

I think that memes survive because they are useful, fun or interesting.

At least one of these categories brings "evidence" back in.