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Religion is absurd. But we need it anyway.

Watch this.

This comes from this video, but I took the time to edit out all other speakers; it really boggles the mind why Atran even agreed to share the panel with that borderline retarded drivel. But I must also thank that he had the patience to listen to that drivel so that we can listen to his superior insight.

I’ll transcribe most of it here for those who can’t watch the video; but do watch it when you can.

 

I think truth and reason have always been slaves to the passions (…) truth is not very much a part of how humans deal with things except at a very mundane level; we have to know what’s true when we cross the street; but the quest for truth is subject to persuasion and victory in argument. And I think what’s really has motivated human beings out of the caves, what’s driven their civilization forward, what drives political movements,  as well as religions, are transcendental beliefs, that go beyond material self-interests of people or even evolutionary concerns like fitness.

Humans had had our present bodies for 200,000 years, but were still stuck in Africa; while our more primitive cousins such as homo herectus or Neanderthals are roaming around the planet, homo sapiens are down to 2,000 souls,  on the verge of extinction, and then bang, around 70,000 years ago, out of Africa, and then in the blink of an eye in geological terms, there’s flying to the moon.

How did this happen? Obviously there was some kind of computational mutation in the brain that allowed for language and theory of mind (I know that he knows…) that allows for deception and construction of an imaginary world. The interesting thing is the human ability to form larger and larger groupings, and to be able to sacrifice themselves for this non-genetic and increasingly anonymous strangers. And that’s what allowed human beings to dominate the Earth, and dominate the rest of their competitors.

So how did that happen? And what is it based on? Well certainly religions are only one part of it. Nations, for example, the idea of the nation itself, is sort of a middle ground between transcendental movements like human rights, which are initially based of absurd ideas, such as “humans are equal”, we have all these “God given rights”, and anthropomorphic gods. It has characteristics of both of them: the nations feel, the nations do things, the nations demands of you. And it’s not just metaphorical. But religions are basically the foundation of this; we have gone a little beyond this in Western societies, but not much.

And let me tell you how I think it’s been so successful. First of all there wouldn’t have been any societies without religion, without transcendental beliefs. Which are absurd. They have to be preposterous. The basic tenets are not false beliefs. They are preposterous beliefs. Something like Aristotle’s category violations, a “four-footed idea”. It’s not something that even has truth conditions. So it’s open to interpretation, which makes it so adaptable. That’s why you have sermons, and imams, and rabbis, and priests, giving you every week a new version of what it actually means, because the foundations of them are meaningless.

But you need meaningless ideas, unfalsifiable, and unverifiable. Otherwise, it’s a mere social contract of convenience which has an exit strategy and people can defect any time they want. Once you buy into this apparently absurd beliefs, and think about it, the more apparently absurd they are, the deeper the trust they engender. And stronger the societies are in competition with other societies. And Darwin of course was the first to point this out in The Descent of Man, saying : why do the heroes and martyrs come into being? They are willing to die and commit to this… what? What are they dying for? They’re not dying even for their families, because they know they are gonna die. They are dying for abstract ideas, abstract causes, which no other creature but man re subject. And human beings will do their utmost exertion for ill or good, not for the sake of kith and kin, but collectively for the sake of abstract ideas. And these abstract ideas are unverifiable, and unfalsifiable

The nation, is again one of them, and so is human rights. In the middle of the 18th century, a bunch of European intellectuals decided that all men are created equal, they are endowed by their Creator, or Providence, with [the right of ] life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But for 99.5% of human history, there were cannibals, oppressed minorities, unequal and suddenly a bunch of intellectuals decide to engineer society so it would be different. It worked, but it was based on an absurd idea to begin with.

[…]

You can see that during the course of history, moralizing gods become more important as civilizations grow. Could civilization continue to advance? Well we haven’t found anything other than belief in transcendental ideas. The idea that human rights is qualitatively different than all the other transcendental ideas I just don’t buy. I once interviewed the head of a white supremacist movement in the US, and he told me “evil is the failure to participate in a race war”. And there was a whole nation of people who actually believed this, and their soldiers by the way were the strongest fighters in the world because they truly bought into that. Human rights and civilization is a very intermittent phenomenon. It’s working now for a bunch of reasons, which is the overwhelming military might and economic power of the Western alliance, but it is a fragile thing. Democracy is not assured by any means. And the idea of human rights as something that is practical is true. It is been made practical it has been socially engineered to be practical. Look at the framers of the Declaration of the Rights of Man. The debates. Or the debates of the Continental Congress about how to frame the Declaration of Independence. The word they used was “sacred”. It was Ben Franklin who imposed “self-evident” because it seemed more rational and it was easier to sell to his philosophical society. But these were sacred ideas, unverifiable, unfalsifiable and which they pledge their honor, their lives and their fortunes. What other things are we willing, besides our own family, to pledge our lives, our honors and our fortunes? To some other contract of convenience? No. It has to be something that moves us, that moves people, that moves nations. And I think for that, we need such ideas.

Like morality itself, [religion] is both the devil and the angel of human history. It is responsible for both. First of all, just as a matter of fact, if you look at the Encyclopedia of War, religions are responsible for about 7% of wars. So it’s not overly responsible for war across human history, and in the last century it’s been minimally responsible for wars. It’s had a comeback recently.

The content of religious beliefs are what people make of them at the moment. What they agree upon them at the moment. They aren’t fixed, they are forever adaptable. And that is why they are counterintuitive and absurd. Because if they were fixed, if you could give them propositional content, if you could falsify them, or verify them, they’d be stuck. So they have to be open.

And you can’t simply say they’re ungrounded and false beliefs. Because they just aren’t. I did an experiment after an argument with Richard Dawkins, “religions are bad memes, they are things that flow around on people’s brains, they infect them they take them over. So we made this experiment, I put on the Ten Commandments on the board, and had somebody pick up one of the Ten Commandments, like “you shall not bow before false idols”. Then someone who didn’t see it came in the room and had to paraphrase it. And we went through ten iterations of that. Then I put a whole bunch of propositions on the board, and after the tenth person I asked: what did the last person tell you? Not a single one picked up one of the commandments. Everybody had their interpretations, they all thought they meant the same thing. Like, “I should spend more time with my family”, “money isn’t everything”, whatever it was. The only people who actually recognized the originally commandments were autists. Because they literally paraphrased every version of it. Normally the way we handle religious beliefs is not fixed in some fundamental, literal sense, but to give it a sense of community for us. I’m an atheistic humanistic guy, I work with people in Al Qaeda and other groups, and I find the devotion to religious beliefs to be basically the same.

[Religion] is as part of human nature as our language, and our basic cognitive thought processes. We are group animals. When Durkheim talks about religion, he simply says substitute the word group for God, and you’ve got it. We are group animals, we live in groups and we live in increasingly larger groups of anonymous strangers. How are we gonna keep them together?

The moment we have a theory of mind, I know that you know that he knows, which again emerged probably with the faculty of language around 70,000 years ago, you have deception in line. So how do you stop defection? Now if it’s just again a social contract, where it’s a matter of convenience and utilitarian calculation, well logic tells you “let me look for a better deal down the line”. Then by backward induction, you say: “well if there’s a better deal down the line better for me to defect now”. So societies would fall apart pretty quick. So if you don’t want societies to fall apart, if you want something larger than a tribe and a family, you’re gonna need them.

There’s a prize for those who can see the connection between this and my other recent posts.

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36 responses to “Religion is absurd. But we need it anyway.

  1. Pingback: Religion is absurd. But we need it anyway. | Neoreactive

  2. B March 14, 2015 at 21:23

    Well, the connection is obvious.

    Your previous posts were about how when you make a person the schelling point of your society, or a rationalist ideology, there is a positive feedback loop. People compete to demonstrate their devotion in progressively stupider and more destructive ways. Nobody can dial it back, because there is a coordination problem. It’s easy and safe to use Mao or The Environment as a schelling point-who’s against Mao? Who’s against The Environment? But it’s impossible to say, “guys, maybe…maybe Mao is just a guy and The Environment can sometimes take a back seat to things like having enough to eat,” because others will turn on you out of fear or for personal advantage, and those who secretly agree will be quiet. So these things burn into the ground, until people lose cohesion and momentum. Hopefully at that point a Deng steps in. But not always.

    This guy is saying that with religion, the positive feedback loop can take you in a good direction. Building civilizations, achieving incredible things, self-sacrifice and nobility in any sense other than the stoic are only possible with religion. Your schelling point is now beyond Mao or utilitarianism or “the children” or whatever.

    The problem is that, being atheists and not deeply familiar with how any particular religion works, you’re like Sovietologists. Guys from Berkeley who took a few years of classes, spent about three months in total on short trips to Moscow, and are now writing sweeping articles for Foreign Affairs on The Soviet Mentality, what Andropov thinks and what Suslov will do. You are describing in awkward language shallow and fleeting impressions of something big.

    “The content of religious beliefs are what people make of them at the moment. What they agree upon them at the moment. They aren’t fixed, they are forever adaptable. And that is why they are counterintuitive and absurd. Because if they were fixed, if you could give them propositional content, if you could falsify them, or verify them, they’d be stuck. So they have to be open.”

    This is garbage, as is his “meme” experiment. Naturally, when you isolate some particular element of a religion from all context, it has no lasting power. But when it is in a context, when you have a nation that knows exactly what it means and why, with scholars who can explain, with sources, where it comes from, what its historical interpretations and applications are, then you have stability. So, for instance, we Jews don’t make sculptures. Because we know exactly what the third commandment means. And we don’t worship other gods (which is what the second commandment says-not “idols.”) What does this have to do with falsifiability or verifiability? You can’t falsify or verify a moral precept, regardless of whether it’s fixed or not.

    • spandrell March 14, 2015 at 22:22

      Your previous posts were about how when you make a person the schelling point of your society, or a rationalist ideology, there is a positive feedback loop.

      Hah, nice try. I didn’t make that qualification. I even specifically said modern Islamism is a textbook example of the same signalling spiral.

      You’re just pulling a gigantic No True Scotsman here by saying that religions are stable, unless they’re not but those aren’t true religions. All religions have changed a lot historically. What’s the deal with those Reform Jews, or the myriad messianic Hassidic and Haredi and whatever prophets all around? What are they selling if not their own slightly modified of not-so-stable doctrine?

      Sure some tenets are more stable than others; Islamists kill and burn other muslims all the time; but they build statues! I guess even Atran’s kids got a Bar Mitzvah. But religions change all the time under the slightest pressure.

      I guess one could say the emphasis that Judaism and Islam put on concrete rules over metaphysics is an attempt to stabilize the society, and it’s been quite successful at it. But most other religions aren’t like that, and even Judaism and Islam are prone to splinterism and drift; because that’s what humans do.

      bonus: http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x17a5tm_the-shtetto-is-about-humanity_fun

      • B March 15, 2015 at 13:43

        Modern Islamism is basically socialism with a turban, as a reading of Qutb will tell you.

        Reform Jews are assimilationists. No different from the guys who used to tug the remnants of their foreskins down so the Greeks would let them into gymnasia.

        Messianism is fundamental to Judaism, has been for a long time. Guys who claim their deceased leader was the Messiah spin off or abandon this claim after some time, as happened to Christians and Sabbateans. You’re misusing the terms Haredi and Hasid here, btw. Obviously, a religion has to be useful in changing circumstances, but its core has to be stable. So you have the same tefillin used today as were 2ky ago and prior to that, but we can apply halakha to dishwashers and plane travel.

        Having a stable religion doesn’t mean nobody comes in or leaves.

        I don’t know who Satran is.

        • spandrell March 15, 2015 at 16:36

          That was Atran, sorry, my typo.

          I’m certainly misusing the terms as I’m no expert in your history; but it’s transparent that people make of religion whatever suits them, subject to particular social constraints. Some religions manage to remain stable more than others, and perhaps your own has a better claim at being the most stable than others (it helps that there’s few of you and for ages you have been socially isolated without access to wider power).

          Still if religion were only about propositional truth, being “useful” would have no actual meaning, and people would understand and follow the truth without change.

          • B March 15, 2015 at 23:09

            It’s not transparent to me that my people make of religion what suits them, or that it particularly suited the Aztecs to sacrifice their children (to put two incomparable things in the same sentence.) I am sure that it would suit Jews better to eat delicious but forbidden pork, to work on Shabbat and make extra money, to sleep with their wives whenever they wished and not 60% of the month or so. Of course a rationale can be found for all these things, but it’s generally a post-factum just-so story, impossible to conceive of at the time of the commandments.

            About truth-there is a very good Midrash (allegorical tale) about how when G-d was deciding to make man, the angel of truth and the angel of peace spoke against it, saying that man would be full of lies and violence. The angel of kindness and the angel of righteousness spoke for it, saying that he would do kindness and righteousness. There being a tie of two against two, G-d took truth and threw it to the ground, where it shattered into a million pieces, that “truth will spring from the earth and righteousness look down from the sky” (Psalm 85). Then he created us.

            The point is we have an existence where by nature there is no one absolute and unified truth which is accessible to us. If there were such a truth, we would not be able to grasp it or use it to answer our moral questions. The Torah has 70 faces, as they say. It is possible to be very wrong, but impossible to be absolutely right.

        • Hidden Author March 15, 2015 at 18:26

          B, you say Islamism is Socialism with a turban but look at Egypt. There state property is managed by the ruling elite of military officers while the Muslim Brotherhood fed on the activism and donations of middle- and upper-class cadres and sought to privatize the state assets that the military officers wanted to keep as bureaucratic fiefdoms. OTOH, the oil sheiks who sponsor Islamism do tend to invest the oil revenues of their states into building even bigger state-run economies so perhaps that was the model you were thinking of.

          • B March 15, 2015 at 23:12

            Also in Russia and the US the upper and middle class were the ones pushing socialism.

            In the recent article in the Atlantic, you can see the Islamic State’s official position. Nobody is obliged to work, everyone gets free food, clothing, living quarters and health care, although you may work if you wish. Satellite photos of Eastern Syria at night 5 years ago and today show that this works as well as can be expected.

            • Hidden Author March 16, 2015 at 02:00

              OK but what about the Muslim Brotherhood’s rhetoric about privatizing the military officers’ fiefdoms in state-owned industry before those same military officers launched a coup and dissolved their organization. It seems to me that not only a religion of one billion people but even the politicization of it is bound to go in more than one direction…

              • B March 16, 2015 at 22:45

                Is there a point at which they renounced Qutb’s ideology? If not, I assume that the rhetoric was just rhetoric.

              • Hidden Author March 16, 2015 at 23:18

                But the Muslim Brotherhood existed before Qutb. They may like or dislike Qutb on a particular point at a particular time but their Schelling point is still Mohammed.

              • B March 17, 2015 at 23:06

                Their Mohammed is interpreted in a light where he is awfully concerned with social justice.

            • drunkenrabbit March 16, 2015 at 05:53

              There’s a world of difference between promising a welfare state as a goodie and having the welfare state as your primary motivation. Disaffected youth aren’t flocking to ISIS’ banner to wage a jihad for free healthcare.

              • B March 16, 2015 at 22:44

                They are flocking for the same reason they flocked to the Red Army. War is fun, war for a higher cause is funner.

                But the grown men like Qutb, Al Zawahiri, etc., are there because they believe in the theory, which is socialism with a turban.

              • drunkenrabbit March 17, 2015 at 02:49

                I’d really strenuously object to your “socialism with a turban” characterization. The leftist-looking elements in modern Salafi/Qutbist thought are partly based in Islamic tradition and amplified for popular appeal, but they’re non-essential. Economic redistribution isn’t the sine qua non of Islamic radicalism, theonomy is.

                I’m not really disagreeing with your original post, though. I do think that (at least Abrahamic) religions aren’t creations of convenience, but rather that they have irreducible principles and the occasional schismatics that slough off, and then are assimilated by outsiders. The same couldn’t be said for religions that don’t have a point of origin in a single, supposedly infallible text.

              • B March 17, 2015 at 23:18

                Look, the whole point of Qutb’s philosophy is that as soon as a government is established based on the principles allegedly followed by Mohammed’s companions, there will be material plenty for all, rule and order, peace on earth and goodwill among men. This is quite different from the way Muslims have traditionally perceived their government. I mean that it’s hard to imagine a jihad against the Ottomans for failure to provide everyone three hots and a cot and looking the other way while Sufis sodomized chai boys. Everyone had the idea that good enough was good enough-there were Islamic courts, a functional society, what else do you need?

                Now, in Judaism it’s possible that the Messianic age will come and there will be no major changes in the natural order. There will be the strong and the weak, etc. Maimonides discusses this here: http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Maimonides'_Introduction_to_%22Helek%22_(Abelson). But is it imaginable that if ISIS or the MB come to power and fail to impose material plenty and freedom from internal strife, they will keep their legitimacy for long? To keep power, they will have to do what the Soviets did and what Hamas does, blame the Enemy for their failure. But that tune gets old quick. Idealism vanishes in such conditions.

  3. cassander March 15, 2015 at 22:06

    Most of what everyone believes is indistinguishable from nonsense. I believe the planet is 3 billion years old, young earth creationists say 6000 years. Both of us got our answer the same way, reading it in some book. With years of practical experience in some profession, we can perhaps come to know it really well, but everything outside that narrow slice we take essentially on faith. That makes faith powerful, people accept these cultural ideas, these statements written in books, and believe them to the extent that they will die for them. Can it go wrong? Of course, it often does. But human society would be impossible without it.

  4. nickbsteves March 16, 2015 at 18:31

    “That’s why you have sermons, and imams, and rabbis, and priests, giving you every week a new version of what it actually means, because the foundations of them are meaningless.”

    What? Did this guy flunk out of the PZ Myers School for Religious Cartoon Drawing or something?

    We have a tool, and that tool helps us understand how *some* things work. And, over time we develop such great faith in that tool we start to believe stupid things like: this tool can explain how EVERYTHING works, why we should even bother having such a tool, and if the tool cannot explain a thing, then it is not a thing. Which is just retarded.

    Everyone thinks they got the best axioms, and everybody judges everybody else’s axioms by first assuming the unassailable truth of their own. You think the Beatles are the best, eh? Well I think it’s the Rolling Stones. So there ya go.

    • spandrell March 16, 2015 at 19:08

      Talk about signalling. At least B makes an effort.

      You could take notes of what your priest says in his sermon every week, and track how it changes during the years; then comparing it with what CNN has been saying during that time.

      You could do that across a number of churches too. Or make a study of papal encyclicals over time.

      Or you could not do it and keep enjoying the benefits of your religious community without having to notice too much.

      • nickbsteves March 16, 2015 at 22:26

        Make an effort at what? This Atran guy says some very smart, very perspicacious things, but when it comes to the actual experience of religion he’s autistic. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But you’d expect at least some humility there. Maybe it was an applause line, given his audience.

        So the onus is now on me to prove that my religion only evolves very slowly, even tho’ that is transparently obvious? On me to prove that what Fr. Happy-clap (or the rare Fr. Hell-fire) happens to say in his commentary upon the gospel reading each week does not add up to the content of my religion? There are two kinds of Catholics who don’t listen to sermons: progressives and traditionalists. (For different reasons.)

        The basic liturgy of the Catholic and Orthodox churches is ancient (with the latter, to be honest, with the even stronger claim. Orthos haven’t updated canon law in over a millenium IIRC). Catholics updated their catechism in the 1980s, first change in… actually I have no idea… probably centuries. And little in there that wasn’t widely taught and believed 500 years earlier. Oh they nipped at the edges of capital punishment a bit, and grew strangely silent on usury. Over half a millennium. Not exactly changing each week.

        • spandrell March 16, 2015 at 22:58

          If anything Atran has been fighting for years the New Atheists, and Dawkins, Harris and his ilk hate him to the guts. And that’s because he makes a good scientific claim that religion is necessary for human society. He got no applauses; he got murderous stares for daring to say that “human rights” is a preposterous idea used as a signalling post.

          Now this of course won’t satisfy theonomists because he doesn’t take at face value the propositional content of any religion. He is “autistic” because he points out that fighting about homoiousia or filioque doesn’t even make sense. And that homiilies shouldn’t be necessary if religion were as claimed about believing in a handful of facts. Now of course they don’t randomly change every week, that’s hyperbole. There are both cognitive and institutional constraints. But the very fact that there are neoreactionary Catholics and communist Catholics who are both completely convinced of their bona fide Catholicism should tell you something about the “religious experience”. But the liturgy is the same! Yeah, right. God is in the order in which the priest wipes the cup and the plates.

          But really, I don’t even want to make a good argument against you. Please go on being a noble pater familias and spread your brand of reactionary Catholicism to those who are willing to listen. It’s better for all.

          • nickbsteves March 18, 2015 at 22:58

            Good religions are not totalizing metanarratives, of which you may ask any question whatsoever, and get the “correct” answer. In fact, that’s a sure sign of a bad one. (Seriously got a question the other day on the official catholic position on hitler. Had to disappoint the asker there.) The Catholic Church does not exist to keep people from being commies. If natural reason and common sense cannot do that, then what power hath the Church?

          • Mark Citadel March 30, 2015 at 00:42

            I agree with perhaps the over-arching meta-narrative. Dawkins and his ilk are essentially idiots who don’t understand that a society cannot long divorce itself from religious moorings and retain the fruits that those moorings have born. I believe it was Peter Hitchens who coined the term ‘Afterglow’ in its cultural context, that essentially Modernity feeds off of the social constructs of its hated adversary, religion.

            However, I think to take an almost clinical Darwinian view of the matter is to miss the mark by a long way. It essentially assumes the Modernist is factually accurate in spite of his sorely lacking critical faculties, but that he is simply being self-destructive or inattentive to his needs.

            The theory seems to be, “Man needs religion because he cannot function in this world without an illusion.”

            Whereas I would say the accurate summation of these observations is actually thus, “Man needs religion because he cannot function in this world without the Truth.”

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