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The New Fundamentalism

Secularism is increasing in the West. The Millennial generation, even in the USA (which is the most religious Western country), is disproportionately the least religious generation.

I was never a big fan of religion. It’s why I started this blog, to archive my notes (literally ὑπομνήματα or “hypomnemata”; “notes”, the underscore of this blog)

and thoughts on the academic scholarship of why religion exists and persists. Indeed, to go beyond just religion, and find out why people believe what they do, in spite of all of the evidence that might refute or contradict their beliefs. So this wave of secularism and its trend towards universal prominence should be a good thing to me right?

Maybe.

Religion isn’t some aberration. The seeds and ingredients that make us believe are baked into our cognition. This goes for the stellar community generating aspects as well as the insidious divisive parts. And it follows that, even though people are becoming less religious in the West, the constituent parts of religiosity, the things that made us religious in the first place, will persist. It’s these parts — completely and utterly inherent to our cognition — that makes religion terrible. Yet religion isn’t unique in its terribleness.

The vast majority of people neither convert nor deconvert from religion due to pure intellectual reasons. Most deconvert due to moral failings they see in their religion or their religious leaders. And this is a problem. Matthew said it best:

Matthew 12

43 When an unclean spirit comes out of a man, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it.
44 Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ When it arrives, it finds the house unoccupied, swept clean and put in order.
45 Then it goes and takes with it seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that man is worse than the first.

The short of it is this: Who cares if we’re becoming less religious when the irrationality that made us believe in the first place is still there? That same irrationality will lead us to replace the old fundamentalism with a new one.

I’ve written a few posts, not just explaining why people believe what they do, but what people might believe in the future; a future where Christianity (in the West) is a minority belief.

Removing The Unclean Spirit of Religion: Communities built around pseudoscience and woo will probably fill the void left by religion

Nature or Nature’s God: Any new “religion” will have both its nuanced version and its lowest common denominator version floating concurrently in the wider memespace; in the battle of ideas, the most popular ideas are optimized for virulence… not for truth

“If I Think Really, Really Hard, I Can Get The Right Answer”: The average person’s brain is optimized for making friends and influencing people. Not figuring out what’s true. Thinking you can figure out what’s true without first getting the proper tools for figuring out what’s true is folly; thinking that you already have those tools is worse. You have to not only constantly use the tools, but be wary of using the tools improperly.

Truth vs. Morality; Rationality vs. Intuition: There will always be scientific truths that are made as a burnt offering to an ethical theory. Most moral or ethical theories have some facet of anti-epistemology by dint of tribalistic human nature. This tribalism usually manifests and calls their anti-epistemology Other Ways Of KnowingTM

Take all of these together, and what will most likely fill the void left by organized religion in the minds of Millennials and beyond will be something that is primarily an ethical theory. It will be good at building communities around itself and will be optimized for spreading, not optimized for truth.

The thing that will make it the new fundamentalism, just like the old fundamentalism, will be the tendency to demonize any scientific findings that might be weaponizable and used against the primary aims of the ethical theory. This will be especially true for any science that makes humanity seem no better or worse than other animals; these ethical theories that assume that we are outside of and beyond our animal cousins are always threatened by this science. If you can predict someone’s response to a scientific question using their ethics, then you are probably dealing with a nascent fundamentalist.

As I wrote before, a group that organizes on the premise of some social or moral cause (like religion), and is also defending “the truth”, will inevitably lead to terrible behavior akin to those horror stories that atheists like to blame on religion.

I have a feeling that this sort of thing will continue indefinitely: Old fundamentalisms replaced with their newer incarnations. And it will continue to happen. The best we can do, as I wrote in Nature or Nature’s God, is to try to take advantage of our overwhelming need for tribalism and redirect it towards goals that both benefit humanity and don’t shy away from uncomfortable truths.

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Posted by on June 12, 2018 in cognitive science, religion

 

When Science And Politics Disagree, People View Scientists Unfavorably

Abstract

Messages emphasizing scientific agreement are increasingly used to communicate politically polarizing issues. Proponents argue that these messages neutralize the effect of people’s political worldviews due to the neutral scientific character of the message. Yet this argument has not undergone extensive testing. Addressing this, we measured participants’ thoughts on scientists featured in messages emphasizing scientific agreement on politically dissonant issues. Our results show that readers often produce less favorable thoughts and moral judgments when scientists agree on a politically dissonant issue. As a result, messages emphasizing scientific agreement on politicized issues might not always neutralize the effect of people’s political worldviews.

Neutralizing the Effect of Political Worldviews by Communicating Scientific Agreement: A Thought-Listing Study

 
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Posted by on May 21, 2018 in cognitive science

 

Is Everyone Arguing From Identity Politics?

Recently, Sam Harris and Ezra Klein had a debate about the ethics and pitfalls behind identity politics. From their transcript, there are two points that I wanted to put a spotlight on.

Ezra Klein
We all have a lot of different identities we’re part of all times. I do, too. I have all kinds of identities that you can call forward… I think that your core identity in this is as someone who feels you get treated unfairly by politically correct mobs and —

Sam Harris
That is not identity politics. That is my experience as a public intellectual trying to talk about ideas.

Ezra Klein
That is what folks from the dominant group get to do. They get to say, my thing isn’t identity politics, only yours is.

Klein, whether he realizes it or not, is engaging in a Motte and Bailey sort of dialectic. Recall that Motte and Bailey is when you define some concept as a fully general one that no one can reasonably disagree with when on the defensive, but when you’re on the offensive you define it in a very specific way. And if you find yourself on the defensive again, you back into the very general and saccharine version of the concept. From that post:

It goes a bit like this: When theists use the argument “God is just another word for the Ground of All Being” or “God is love”, I mean, that’s a pretty inoffensive premise. Of course, things like love exist and, well, existence exists. But then in another breath they’re praying to god to find their keys, or get them a new job, or, more in a more sinister context, send hurricanes because he’s angry at homosexuals; this more interactive god is not just “love” or the ground of all being. It’s, quite obviously, a personal god. A god with agency. You point this out, but then the theist retreats; he rejoins “But no, God is just another word for love/Ground of Being, surely you can’t object to that?”

Klein is defining “identity politics” as just two separate words — “identity” and then “politics” — both in their extremely generic versions that happen to be placed next to each other. Obviously, everyone has an identity and everyone has some sort of politics that would afford that identity added rights or power. So, in this bland sense, everyone is arguing from “identity” “politics”: Harris’ main identity that he argues from is that of an atheist.

However, what’s being debated between the two, which was the impetus for their chat in the first place, is the more specific identity politics, which is not the generic “identity” plus generic “politics”. It is very much politics linked only to race/gender/sexual orientation. Sam Harris rightly points out that generic “identity” plus generic “politics” is not identity politics. Atheism is not included in this definition of identity politics. But Klein, having deployed this rhetorical sleight of hand, claims that politics related to atheism (or being a public intellectual, per Harris’ previous comment) is “identity politics”.

So to be clear: “Identity” and “politics”, their generic versions, is the Motte. No one would disagree that we care about our identities. But identity politics, that is, politics tied to one’s race/gender/sexual orientation, is the bailey. Where all of the actual debate is at. Klein retreated to the Motte when Harris’ claimed that he’s not interested in the Bailey. Klein is behaving no differently than a Christian trying to convince a non-believer that they actually believe in god by claiming “god is just love”.

If Harris new about the post-modernist tactic of Motte-and-Bailey-ing, he might have been able to spot Klein’s behavior and corrected it. Alas, people listening to the podcast or reading the transcript will come away with the impression that Klein made a valid point. He did not.

Another thing I noticed that stuck out to me was this exchange between the two:

Sam Harris
I’m in the, once again, having the bewildering experience of agreeing with virtually everything you said there, and yet it has basically no relevance to what I view as our underlying disagreement.

Ezra Klein You have that bewildering experience because you don’t realize when you keep saying that everybody else is thinking tribally, but you’re not, that that is our disagreement.

Sam Harris Well, no, because I know I’m not thinking tribally —

Ezra Klein Well, that is our disagreement.

Ugh. Literally everyone thinks tribally. Tribalism is built into our brains. To say that you’re not thinking tribally is trying to claim that you have no biases. And as we all know, saying or thinking that you have no biases is evidence that you have many. So I happen to agree with Klein in this little exchange.

However, in the larger debate, Harris probably just means that he doesn’t think or argue primarily from identifying with the “tribes” of straight, white, or cisgender. I actually think his main “tribes” are atheist and liberal.

So on the weight of things, I lean heavily in support of Sam Harris in this exchange. And no, not everyone is arguing from Identity Politics.

 
 

Epistemic beliefs’ role in promoting misperceptions and conspiracist ideation

Abstract

The present study uses a series of large, nationally representative surveys of the U.S. population to produce valid and reliable measures of three aspects of epistemic beliefs: reliance on intuition for factual beliefs (Faith in Intuition for facts), importance of consistency between empirical evidence and beliefs (Need for evidence), and conviction that “facts” are politically constructed (Truth is political). Analyses confirm that these factors complement established predictors of misperception [my emph.], substantively increasing our ability to explain both individuals’ propensity to engage in conspiracist ideation, and their willingness to embrace falsehoods about high-profile scientific and political issues. Individuals who view reality as a political construct are significantly more likely to embrace falsehoods, whereas those who believe that their conclusions must hew to available evidence tend to hold more accurate beliefs.

Garrett RK, Weeks BE (2017) Epistemic beliefs’ role in promoting misperceptions and conspiracist ideation. PLoS ONE 12(9): e0184733. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0184733

 
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Posted by on September 20, 2017 in cognitive science, religion

 

Believing widely doubted conspiracy theories satisfies some people’s need to feel special

Unrelenting faith in the face of insurmountable contradictory evidence is a trait of believers in conspiracy theories that has long confounded researchers. For instance, past research has demonstrated how attempting to use evidence to sway believers of anti-vaccine conspiracy theories can backfire, increasing their certainty in the conspiracy. Could it also be the case that knowing that most people doubt a conspiracy actually makes believing in it more appealing, by fostering in the believer a sense of being somehow special? This question was explored recently in the European Journal of Social Psychology by Roland Imhoff and Pia Karoline Lamberty at Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany.

[…]

While information about the popularity of the theory didn’t affect participants overall, it did impact those who said that they tended to endorse a lot of conspiracy theories. Among these conspiracy-prone participants, their belief in the made-up smoke detector conspiracy was enhanced on average when the conspiracy was framed as a minority opinion. Just as people are known to stop liking a band as soon as it becomes popular or “mainstream”, it appears conspiracy theorists can behave in a very similar fashion upon learning about the next big new conspiracy theory.

A final, unforeseen and particularly astounding finding emerged only after the participants had been debriefed. A full 25 per cent of the sample continued to retain beliefs in the made-up smoke detector conspiracy even after they had been told that the theory was false and had been made up by the researchers for the sole purpose of the study. Supporting the researchers’ conclusion further, this continued belief in the made-up conspiracy theory was correlated with the participants’ self-reported Need For Uniqueness. Taken together, the findings provide convincing evidence that some people are motivated to agree with conspiracy theories with an aura of exclusiveness. To them it may not matter in the slightest that their views are in the minority, to the contrary this knowledge could actually amplify their beliefs.

Read more at BPS Research Digest

 
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Posted by on September 5, 2017 in cognitive science, religion

 

People on the left and right use different cognitive systems to make moral judgments

“When it comes to emotionally charged, morally contentious decisions, people who self-identify as conservatives tend to make these decisions based on their emotive, intuitive responses to the scenario in question (their gut feelings), whereas those who identify as liberal tend to put gut-feelings aside and make decisions based on an attempt to reason logically and consciously about the scenario,”

Read more at PsyPost

 
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Posted by on June 26, 2017 in cognitive science

 

Study uncovers how brain damage increases religious fundamentalism

Research has found religious belief is associated with certain regions of the human brain, but there is still much to learn about how these areas influence religious belief. A new study in the journal Neuropsychologia found that lesions in a particular brain region tend to increase religious fundamentalism.

“Human beliefs, and in this case religious beliefs, are one of the cognitive and social knowledge stores that distinguish us from other species and are an indication of how evolution and cognitive/social processes influenced the development of the human brain,” Jordan Grafman of Northwestern University, the study’s corresponding author, told PsyPost.

Read more at PsyPost

 
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Posted by on June 8, 2017 in cognitive science, religion

 
 
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