Daily Archives: June 11, 2013

Do People Not Really Believe In Paradise?


(Like herding rabbits)

Over at Sam Harris’ blog, he says that Scott Atran claims that people don’t actually believe in the tenets of their religion, specifically the concept of heaven. To quote:

According to Atran, people who decapitate journalists, filmmakers, and aid workers to cries of “Alahu akbar!” or blow themselves up in crowds of innocents are led to misbehave this way not because of their deeply held beliefs about jihad and martyrdom but because of their experience of male bonding in soccer clubs and barbershops. (Really.) So I asked Atran directly:

“Are you saying that no Muslim suicide bomber has ever blown himself up with the expectation of getting into Paradise?”

“Yes,” he said, “that’s what I’m saying. No one believes in Paradise.”

This can’t possibly be correct. Maybe Harris has misunderstood Atran’s response to his question, but there are certainly people who really believe in the dogmas of their religion. Whatever the cause of this belief is, the end product of the belief is all that matters. And as I’ve posted about recently, one of the ways to influence peoples’ decisions is to appeal to their desire for [ideological] consistency.

Surely, people believe in heaven as a propositional statement, signalling inclusion in the tribe. But the same goes for many other propositional statements. People believe in the theory of relativity signalling inclusion in the tribe. And there are certainly people who don’t actually believe in heaven but believe in the belief in heaven because they consider belief in heaven to be virtuous. Just as I’m sure that there are people who believe in the belief in the theory of relativity, mainly people who simply don’t understand it and don’t want to be seen as backwards bumpkins in an increasingly scientific world. I mean, not many people have the free time to learn and understand the mathematical equations behind relativity for themselves so most people just “believe” in relativity since that’s just what you’re supposed to believe. If Atran is correct, no one “really” believes in anything.

Anyway, Harris points out some other things in the videos on his page that also evidence a lot of the things I’ve mentioned recently about the causes of religion.

Again, I’m going to re-post this post about how our brains are wired:

  • Human brains are effectively populated by rabbits. Your conscious mind is like a very small person attempting to ride a large herd of rabbits, which aren’t all going the same direction. Your job is to pretend to be in control, and make shit up to explain where the rabbits went, and what you did.
  • Humans bunny brains are optimized for social activity, not intellectual activity. If your brain thinks principles first, instead of groups first, it’s broken, and not just a little bit.
  • Of course, this means that anyone thinking group first is almost completely full of crap regarding their reasoning process. They’re (99.86% certainty) making shit up that makes the group look good, and the actual rational value of the statement is near zero. The nominal process “A->B->C” is actually C, now let’s backfill with B and A.
  • Therefore I’m almost only interested in listening to folks who are group-free. If your brain is broken in the kind of way that prohibits group-attachment…then you’re far far more likely to be thinking independently, and shifting perspectives.
  • Aside: FWIW, this is the core (unsolvable?) problem that inhabits rationalist groups. There is a deep and abiding conflict between groupism and thinking. The Randians have encountered this most loudly, but it’s also there in the libertarians, the extropians, the David Deutch-led popperian rationalists, and the LessWrongers.

    New discovery, shouldn’t have been as surprising as it was. When looking for folks who are group-avoidant, I seem to have phenomenally good luck finding great people when talking with Gays from non-leftist areas (rural Texas, Tennessee, downstate Illinois). Because they don’t/can’t fit in with their local culture, and often can’t conveniently exit, they become interesting people. It’s a surprisingly good metric.


    Most people have a group of 5 bunnies that are rather muscular bunnies that focus on group dynamics, group belonging, etc. Their preferences are aligned enough that they usually pull in the same direction. In practice, this means that in conflicts, this particular group of bunnies gets their way most of the time. There is also another bunny who is usually weak and sickly (or a frog) who checks for ideational consistency. That frog usually moves backwards.

    In some rare folks, the frog is unusually muscular. Not a normal frog or even a bullfrog, but a big-ass pixie frog who eats rats. He gets what he wants a little bit. Or he has a buddy: 2 giant pixie frogs. These people would land in what Simon Baron Cohen (autism researcher) talks about as high on the systematizing scale. Now, some other rare folks would have group bunnies that were sick…they had polio as baby bunnies. One of the 5 died. The other 4 are crippled and can’t walk effectively.

    If you run into a person who (a) has crippled group bunnies, and (b) has giant pixie-frogs…then you get a different approach to cognition than you see in most.

    That doesn’t say it’s better.

    FWIW, the book that most informed my thinking on Rabbit-Brains is “Everyone (Else) is a Hypocrite” by Robert Kurzban. Fabulous book. Rabbits are my wording.

  • Rabbits!

    The videos that Harris has on his blog point out a number of things that are evidence of why Islam is such a successful religion:

    1. People chanting together increases bonding — basically getting all of the rabbits in line — which then makes people more likely to strive for ideological consistency. Since religions are inherently contradictory — Islam included — it’s relative child’s play to make someone do despicable things in the name of “religion” from select readings or “cherrypicking”.
    2. More on consistency. If you are told that you are a member of a group that does XYZ, then you will try harder than normal to do XYZ.
    3. People will subconsciously adopt the morality of people they read in fiction. So whether Jew, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, etc., if you are told to read some select passages from those holy books depicting the main character doing violent acts, you will subconsciously adopt that morality. At least temporarily.
    4. Moral judgements are made intuitively. Meaning that we don’t have access to the underlying cognitive algorithm that produces our feeling of certainty about a moral action. So it’s probably true that people subconsciously ascribe a moral judgement to be what their tribe/society would want but their conscious mind says “This is for Allah!”.
    5. The larger sociological issue: Economics. High levels of economic inequality are correlated with high levels of religiosity. It doesn’t get any more economically unequal than a few fat-cat sultans living it up while the vast majority of the rest of the people live in poverty.

    So if I attempt to Steelman Atran’s response, as I’ve come to understand it, he’s basically saying that people arrive at their deeply held beliefs about jihad and martyrdom from the road of their experience of male bonding in soccer clubs and barbershops. Just like I’ve arrived at the destination of being proud of my military service due to the road of bootcamp, because bootcamp is intentionally designed that way. It would be a strawman to say that I’m not “really” proud of my military service, but that’s the impression I get from Harris’ presentation of Atran’s argument. Which makes no sense.

    But there’s another possible explanation.

    It could be that Atran really did say what Harris said, and confused himself by mistaking explaining something vs. explaining something away:

    John Keats’s Lamia (1819) surely deserves some kind of award for Most Famously Annoying Poetry:

    …Do not all charms fly
    At the mere touch of cold philosophy?
    There was an awful rainbow once in heaven:
    We know her woof, her texture; she is given
    In the dull catalogue of common things.
    Philosophy will clip an Angel’s wings,
    Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,
    Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine—
    Unweave a rainbow.


    Apparently “the mere touch of cold philosophy”, i.e., the truth, has destroyed:

    Haunts in the air
    Gnomes in the mine


    The rainbow was explained. The haunts in the air, and gnomes in the mine, were explained away.

    I think this is the key distinction that anti-reductionists don’t get about reductionism.

    You can see this failure to get the distinction in the classic objection to reductionism:

    If reductionism is correct, then even your belief in reductionism is just the mere result of the motion of molecules—why should I listen to anything you say?

    The key word, in the above, is mere; a word which implies that accepting reductionism would explain away all the reasoning processes leading up to my acceptance of reductionism, the way that an optical illusion is explained away.

    So just because the reason that someone was convinced of heaven was due to tribal politics, does not mean they don’t “really” believe in heaven. That would be explaining away their belief in paradise, which is fallacious. There really should be a formal name for this fallacy, so I’ll hereby christen it the explaining away fallacy.

    ‘Hasn’t it ever occurred to you that in your promiscuous pursuit of women you are merely trying to assuage your subconscious fears of sexual impotence?’

    ‘Yes, sir, it has.’

    ‘Then why do you do it?’

    ‘To assuage my fears of sexual impotence.’

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