Category Archives: religiosity

Guardians Of The Truth


Reading about how and why religion comes about, you inevitably stumble onto the conclusion that religion isn’t just some aberration of humanity. The only thing that separates tried and true “religion” from other types of groups — or to put it in its real meaning, tribes — that people identify with is belief in the supernatural. Even if you take away belief in the supernatural, there’s nothing stopping a secular grouping (say, feminism or Objectivism) from tapping into the same family of negative behavior that religious people engage in.

The problem isn’t the supernatural. The problem is in-group vs. out-group. And this in-group/out-group animosity becomes more pronounced when you have a group that has an either implicit or explicit charge of guarding the truth:

“The Inquisition thought they had the truth! Clearly this ‘truth’ business is dangerous.” […]

Questions like that don’t have neat single-factor answers. But I would argue that one of the factors has to do with assuming a defensive posture toward the truth, versus a productive posture toward the truth.

When you are the Guardian of the Truth, you’ve got nothing useful to contribute to the Truth but your guardianship of it. When you’re trying to win the Nobel Prize in chemistry by discovering the next benzene or buckyball, someone who challenges the atomic theory isn’t so much a threat to your worldview as a waste of your time.

When you are a Guardian of the Truth, all you can do is try to stave off the inevitable slide into entropy by zapping anything that departs from the Truth. If there’s some way to pump against entropy, generate new true beliefs along with a little waste heat, that same pump can keep the truth alive without secret police. In chemistry you can replicate experiments and see for yourself—and that keeps the precious truth alive without need of violence.

Remember my little maxim that I made up: The more a group promotes prosociality, the less it cares about accurately modeling reality (this is because truth and morality, in practice, occupy two different magisteria). A group that forms on the premise of some social or moral cause (like religion), and is also defending “the truth”, will inevitably lead to horrible behavior just like all of those horror stories that atheists like to blame on religion.

Yudkowsky’s use of “entropy” might muddle the concept a bit, so granting myself the liberty of rewording it, the gravity of the situation becomes clear. “When you are a Guardian of the Truth, all you can do is try to stave off the inevitable slide into [the immoral past] by zapping anything that departs from the Truth”

It also might be helpful to replace “truth” with information.

I am reminded of this very phenomenon of “guardians of the truth” pointed out by one of Jerry Coyne’s recent posts:

First Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s invitation to speak at the Brandeis commencement was withdrawn, and now there are more, for Political Correctness season is upon us. Certainly universities have the right to choose their speakers, but it’s bad form to choose someone and then rescind their invitation, or to cave in to student pressures that make speakers withdraw.


The WSJ is, of course, a conservative organ, and goes on to decry the “loopiness” of the left wing and the ostracism of conservative professors, as well the tendency of universities to allow “the nuttiest professors to dumb down courses and even whole disciplines into tendentious gibberish.” That’s an exaggeration, but still, it’s disturbing that we see the left attacking, in effect, freedom of speech. If you don’t like Condaleeza Rice (and I sure don’t), that doesn’t mean you should mount such a protest against her that she has to withdraw. Are all speakers to be vetted for signs of cryptic conservatism? Are students that loath to hear views that might disagree with them?

I’m no conservative, but these Commencement Police frighten me, and paint students as self-entitled, fragile beings who can’t countenance dissent—unless it’s their own. At my own commencement at William and Mary in 1971, we had an undistinguished state legislator as speaker—and this after many of us wanted a more leftist person. But we didn’t shout him down, or pressure the university to withdraw his invitation. Instead, we organized a “counter commencement,” held at a different time and place, and our class invited and paid for Charles Evers, the older brother of slain civil rights worker Medgar Evers.

People! Stop the tribal thinking! Argument gets counter-argument, not reputation assassination and/or banishment from the tribe.

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Posted by on May 23, 2014 in rationality, religiosity


Ara Norenzayan: Religion and Prosociality

This is a lecture given by Ara Norenzayan describing some of his findings about the sociology behind religious beliefs.

Some of the things he touches on briefly in his lecture (which he said he goes into more depth in his book Big Gods):

Whether religions are the result of a cognitive byproduct model or an evolutionary/sociological adaptation/benefit model. The cognitive byproduct model I first read about in Richard Dawkins’ book The God Delusion, though psychologists and sociologists are coming more in line with the evolutionary adaptation model of religion (though the two aren’t necessarily in opposition). The adaptation model of religions is where religion isn’t a fluke of human cognition, but was specifically selected for by evolution. Or rather and more simply, that religious people had more reproductive success than the “non-religious” (whatever that would mean in the Pleistocene). And, it wasn’t just any old religion; it had to be a religion that promoted prosociality.

As an example of a successful religion vs. an unsuccessful religion, Norenzayan compares the Mormon church with the Oneida Perfectionists, who both started around the same time in the same location in the US. Mormonism had a growth rate of about 40% per decade (about the same rate as original Christianity), while the Oneida perfectionists only lasted about 30 years before disbanding; the remnants went on to become a silverware company.

Norenzayan then lists some reasons for why religions become successful:

  • moralizing god spread over increasing individualism to combat the observation that proximity + diversity = war
  • extravagant displays or synchronous behaviors/rituals
  • inculcate self control
  • moral realism: Our morality is the true morality
  • high fertility rates

Norenzayan also mentions that the more abstract ones conception of god is, the less they think said god cares about morality and/or punishes bad behavior. So someone who believes in a completely abstract “ground of being” god more than likely also believes that this god doesn’t care too much about morality. Whereas someone who believes in a god that cares a great deal about morality simultaneously believes that said god is also much more anthropomorphic. At one end of the spectrum is the god of the philosophers/Sophisticated TheologiansTM, at the other is the god of fundamentalists.

Other points:

* Small foraging societies typically don’t have moralizing gods. Big societies generally have moralizing gods. Causal or correlational?

* Economic games and small/big religions: Big religions, that is, the world religions, show more cooperative behavior in economic games. Small religions are more selfish. Again, causal or correlational?

* Belief in god in and of itself doesn’t correlate with any behavior in monetary generosity (belief in god per se doesn’t lead to moral behavior; you need to go to church to reap the benefits! And you get those same benefits being an atheist in church). Though in the context that Norenzayan was mentioning this fact, it was in the context of religious priming. Just declaring theism didn’t make someone more cooperative, but religious priming does. On the other hand, being non-religious makes you sort of impervious to religious priming; though secular priming has the same cooperative effect on the non-religious.

* Prosocial behavior correlates with a belief in a punishing god. Belief in a forgiving god correlates with cheating. Same for hell/heaven belief, respectively (though belief in hell seems to make people less happy).

* Religions are also correlated with extreme rituals for possibly belief in belief (i.e. costly signaling) reasons.

* Religious communes last longer than secular communes; religious ones are more strict. Again… causal or correlational?

* The more that the state/secular institutions provide the things that religion usually provides, the less religious that society. I’ve also read about similar things.

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Posted by on April 11, 2014 in cognitive science, economics/sociology, religiosity


Non-Human Religions

The Hanar

(The Hanar are super religious)

Richard Dawkins was posed the following question on a Reddit AMA:

Q10- Richard, are there any examples of non-human species acting religiously?

A10- Hard to know what that would mean. Elephants have been said to mourn their dead. Some people have semi-seriously suggested that domestic pets might feel religious towards the people who feed and care for them. Not very convincing, I’d abandon that train of thought!

I thought I would take a stab at it; at least, explain why we probably should abandon this type of thought for the time being.

As I’ve written before, first and foremost, religion is something that humans invented. We invented it, just like we invented Diet Coke, because it’s something that appeals to a slew of human biases. If we were to find out if other animals were “religious”, we would first have to demonstrate that other animals have the same biases that humans do.

But even before that, we would have to show that animals have a way of propagating complex cultures from mind to mind. It’s not that religion is just one belief that infects other minds, religion is a complex system of interacting social mores and explanations. So for example, someone could believe in a general god (i.e. a “theist”) but that doesn’t mean that they’re religious. They would need a bunch of supplementing rules of behavior and secondary/tertiary/etc. beliefs that follow “necessarily” from theism to go along with it.

This is one reason why it doesn’t make sense to compare atheism with Christianity. Atheism is just one belief, Christianity is a multitude of beliefs; Christianity is not only theism, but belief in resurrection from the dead, the eternity of minds that are in reality ontologically basic units (souls, angels, demons), the concept of sin, blood atonement, eternal salvation, certain rituals/behaviors you’re supposed to perform for god and for other people… either other Christians or other non-Christians, etc. It would be more accurate (or fair) to compare atheism with theism, or Christianity with Buddhism.

Stepping back into unpackaging Christianity, these beliefs all have precedents in human cognitive biases. For example, we have cognitive biases like hyperactive agency detection, theory of mind/typical mind fallacies, that preceded and fed into the more primitive religions like animism. Do other non-human animals consider, say, rocks or trees, to have a mind that can be communicated with? This seems doubtful.

This general theory of mind is an outgrowth of our highly social mind; our tendency for tribalism and groupthink. Survival in groups meant modeling other minds accurately and doing the “ritual” to get that mind to do what you wanted it to do. It seems that even other primates don’t have this “do a ritual to get what you want” bias (I don’t know what the real name of it would be called) that would be a necessary condition for religious behavior.

If a non-human animal had all of these behaviors, then we might consider it religious, but how exactly would that singular animal spread it to others of his group? Even children aren’t naturally religious. They need to be taught to use supernatural explanations. And children have biases that make them want to follow adults moreso than in other animals.

We then have some subsequent biases like the just world fallacy (good things only happen to good people, bad things only happen to bad people), promiscuous teleology (everything has a purpose), that also seem to be necessary seedling cognitive biases that eventually sprout into a facet of religious belief. These biases are behind our thoughts on morality, which is what leads into a lot of the abhorrent behavior associated with religion. Especially the moral obligation to guard the truth at all costs.

We then have behaviors that we do that seem to either make us engage in self-punishment for feeling guilty (hence the concept of atonement), or as signaling behavior for showing our allegiance and dedication to our social group. If non-human animals didn’t show those sorts of behaviors, then I would be highly doubtful they could practice anything that resembles “religion”.

Lastly, the religious behavior — in order to be more successful than other memes and stay fixed in a population — would have to be something that increases group bonding. Which, in the case of the activities that go along with religion, seems rather specified to human evolution. Chanting together in some sort of fertility ritual might not actually improve fertility, but it certainly increases group bonding… in humans.

So it doesn’t seem to me that other non-human animals can be religious. It would take an animal that is probably at least as social as humans are — susceptible to all of the sociological biases and cognitive algorithms that humans have — to even begin to exhibit religious behavior.

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Posted by on November 29, 2013 in cognitive science, religiosity


Are Atheists Smarter Than Religious People?


So says a new study popularized by Yahoo! News. A minor disagreement with the conclusions of the study was published over at Salon (Christopher Hitchens’ former employer).

Yahoo! News reports that a review of 63 scientific studies over the years has found that religious people are less intelligent than non-believers. The study, by Miron Zuckerman of the University of Rochester, found that there is “ a reliable negative relation between intelligence and religiosity” in 53 out of the 63 studies review. This is the case even when intelligent people who are non-believers grow old.


“Intelligent people typically spend more time in school—a form of self-regulation that may yield long-term benefits,” the researchers write. “People possessing the functions that religion provides are likely to adopt atheism, people lacking these very functions (e.g., the poor, the helpless) are likely to adopt theism.”


One flaw in the study, though, is that it does not appear to take into account socioeconomic factors. Growing up in a comfortable household impacts a person’s educational levels and professional success, and therefore may influence the religious beliefs of the person.

What do I think? I don’t think it’s likely that atheists are “smarter” than theists. As you’re no doubt aware of by now from reading my blog, most of our beliefs are a function of our social standing. Human brains are wired for groupthink, and as such, we will tend to believe and defend those beliefs that confer to us the greatest social/sociological benefits. Meaning that most of our arguments for our beliefs are rationalizations of feelings related to ingroup/outgroup dynamics (unless you’re on the autism side of things). Simply put, knowing the reasons why people are religious — or hold most any belief for that matter — would at the most have a weak correlation with intelligence. I don’t want to sound like a conservative blowhard, but in higher education environments if you want to fit in socially, dampening your religiosity is probably a good investment. It’s not deterministic, but it probably has a pretty good unconscious effect.

The Salon article does bring up an important objection: Did this study control for socio-economic status? At the country level, poverty/economic inequality is one of the leading indicators of religiosity. It’s like having a cold; religion is the sneezing and economic inequality is the actual virus.

Of course, being rich doesn’t prevent you from believing in irrational claims

Furthermore, “intelligence” is a fuzzy concept. People can be highly intelligent in their System 1 reasoning (morality/intuition) or they can be highly intelligent in their System 2 reasoning (logic/abstraction). According to MIRI (the AI institute that Eliezer Yudkowsky works for) if we taboo the word “intelligence” we get something like efficient cross-domain optimization. Or, as a simple formula: Intelligence = Optimization Power / Resources Used. So, if someone is able to maximize their optimization power while minimizing the resources they use, then they are — from the vantage point of AI — “intelligent”. What does that mean?

Our “logical” thinking system takes up vast mental resources, while our intuitive thinking system takes up very little. As in my thief and wizard analogy, if you’re able to beat the game using only your thief this could be seen as a much better use of resources than relying on your wizard. Especially if beating the game takes equal amount of time using both. For a real world analogy, is someone who is socially successful (i.e. intuitive intelligence) optimizing their goals in life better than someone who is maxed out in logical intelligence?

I personally think that a truly “intelligent” person would be someone who is both an efficient intuitive thinker and also an efficient logical thinker; someone who excels at both social and abstract intelligence. And again, by “efficient” I mean maximizing their goals while minimizing their brainpower. If I have kids, I would definitely have them concentrate on being socially successful a bit more than logically intelligent; he or she should learn how to intuitively persuade and could then have people more logically intelligent than him/herself do the heavy cognitive lifting. But it would probably be good to maximize both. Most of the atheists that I first met were/are good at logical reasoning, but fail at social reasoning. Moreover, a lot of the more socially intelligent atheists I’ve come to know became atheists for (obviously) non-rational reasons, mired in the many cognitive biases that we have, even though they still had higher education degrees.

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Posted by on August 14, 2013 in religiosity


Omniscience… But With A Catch


(God doesn’t know where Adam and Eve are, but he knows they’re up to no good)

Where do moralizing gods come from? Reported by the British Psychological Society blog:

To test this moralisation bias theory, Purzycki has conducted what he describes as “the first study to systematically compared the minds of gods.” For this he surveyed 88 Christians at the University of Connecticut (including 60 Catholics, 14 Protestants) and 88 ethnic Tyvans living in Southern Siberia.

True to the religious teachings of their faith, the Christians stated initially that their god knows everything. However, when they rated God’s knowledge of 50 moral and non-moral issues (e.g. “God knows if I was helpful to someone”; “… knows what is under my bed”), they showed a clear bias for rating him more knowledgeable and concerned about moral facts than non-moral ones. “In one sitting, students claim both that God knows everything, but knows moral information better than non-moral information,” Purzycki said.


The Tyvans’ explicit teachings state that the Cher eezi are not concerned with people’s interpersonal moral behaviour. However, asked to rate their spirit masters’ knowledge of 50 issues, the Tyvans showed a consistent bias, rating their knowledge and concern of moral facts as greater than their knowledge and concern for non-moral facts.

This was the case even when the analysis was restricted to those Tyvans who didn’t list a single interpersonal behaviour when asked at the survey start to name things that please or anger their spirit masters. On the other hand, true to their teachings, the Tyvans’ survey answers were influenced by geography – they said spirit masters knew and cared more about moral behaviour in their relevant geographical location.

So there seems to be a general intuition that gods are experts on moral behavior, even when the religion in question explicitly states that the god does not judge moral behavior.

This joins another thread about moral intuition in general, where people who use more intuition in their everyday judgements are more likely to be religious. Moreover, people assume that their moral intuitions are shared by their gods… so of course the moral facts that you know would be known by your god (because you don’t know what generates your feeling of certainty over a moral fact) but your god might not know non-moral facts that you yourself don’t know.

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Posted by on August 1, 2013 in cognitive science, religiosity


Are Decisions Made Without Emotion?


I was reading an interesting blog post that someone posted in a general group on Facebook. It was a blog by a conservative Christian. Normally I would have dismissed this as the random musings of a lay Christian, but he had some interesting things to say that I might have also dismissed a few years ago.

Obviously, his evidences for the existence of god and the resurrection of Jesus I’ve addressed and refuted over a couple of posts on my blog. His evidences:

* The argument and evidence of the beginning of our universe out of non-being
* The design of our universe in a very finely-tuned manner to support life (not just human life, but life of any sort)
* The existence of certain phenomena that simply cannot be explained or exist within an atheist’s worldivew, including:

**The 1st person perspective
**Free Will

*The existence of objective moral duties and obligations which seem to span all cultures, geographies and time periods in history
*The historically reliable evidence that Jesus truly did live, teach, die and rise again on the third day

Like I said, I’ve addressed a lot of these things from the framework of the laws of thought; laws of thought that go beyond and are more specific than the run of the mill atheist Traditional Rationality rules-of-thumb. Not that I’m knocking atheist/Traditional rationality, it’s just that they aren’t precise enough.

So. The design of the universe? Fine tuning is actually an argument for atheism per the rules of probability theory (most theists grossly misuse probability when attempting to argue for the Earth’s/Solar System’s/Universe’s fine tuning). Or at least, an argument for a non-all powerful god. And the reason that the fine tuning of the universe is evidence against the Christian god is because the Christian god is unfalsifiable; there are too many possible other “finely tuned” constants that the Christian god could have decided to go with to definitively rule those out and use our current universe’s configuration instead. The Christian god could have had us survive on Mercury, Neptune, a comet that orbits the sun every 500 years, have had us live in a universe where only five stars could form in the entire universe or one where a star existed every Planck-length if he really wanted to. καθὼς γέγραπται: παρὰ δὲ θεῷ πάντα δυνατά

The certain phenomenon that can’t be explained from an atheist point of view: These actually make less sense from a supernaturalist point of view since that point of view requires more metaphysical coin flips. So e.g. supernatural beings break the 2nd law of thermodynamics. Supernatural beings as described move around, so unless they are perpetual motion machines they would be generating heat from their movement. But we have no evidence of said heat, and absence of evidence is evidence of absence. So you would have to posit some other physics that allows for perpetual motion machines to prop up that belief, which is an extra (highly unlikely) metaphysical coin flip.

Did Jesus rise from the dead? The history of early Christianity is itself unreliable, and a man rising from the dead is too extraordinary to explain the pretty mundane and wholly predictable emergence of Christianity.

But that’s not what I was interested in. What interested me was his examples of groupthink, which as I’ve been writing about, atheists are not necessarily immune to.

But it seems to me that this is just a dodge since when we get into the evidence, I find that they mostly don’t want to discuss it. They want to insult and jeer and dismiss anything that might possibly disagree with what they want to be true. And as I looked further, I realized that was the key…it boils down to what atheists want to be true.

As Michael Talbot, author The Holographic Universe, put it:

“But why is science so resistant to the paranormal in particular? This is a more difficult question. In commenting on the reistance he experienced to his own unorthodox views on health, Yale surgeon Dr. Bernie S. Siegel, author of the best-selling book ‘Love, Medicine, and Miracles’, asserts that it is because people are addicted to their beliefs. Siegel says this is why when you try to change someone’s belief they act like an addict.

“There seems to be a good deal of truth to Siegel’s observation, which perhaps is why so many of civilization’s greatest insights and advances have at first been greeted with such passionate denial. We are addicted to our beliefs and we do act like addicts when someone tries to wrest from us the powerful opium of our dogmas. And since Western science has devoted several centuries to not believing in the paranormal, it is not going to surrender its addiction lightly.”

– Michael Talbot, The Holographic Universe pp. 6 & 7

My own experiences matched up with what Talbot was saying. People seemed to have adopted a worldview and were addicted to it to the point that they were simply trying to defend it at all costs regardless of whether the evidence supported them or not.

He has a few other examples. It’s ironic that he writes as though these same biases don’t apply to him and his conservative Christian worldview. The fact that he’s writing in English is pretty good evidence that he was raised in a Christian household, even moreso that he was raised in a Christian culture. All of which he probably strongly identifies with. And it’s highly unlikely that he’s studied any cognitive science to learn where these biases come from and how to overcome his biases. It’s this fact of groupthink which, ironically, is one of the reasons why I have a hard time thinking that free will is a coherent concept; the evidence that he presents against atheism as atheists engaging in groupthink is one of the strongest evidences against free will. I would go so far as to say that thinking souls exists is a massive cognitive bias based on how our minds are embodied.

So it’s not so much that atheists are “afraid” of religion (I would bet that a good lot of them are) but that they identify too strongly with atheism, leading to such reactions. As I’ve learned from the cognitive science of rationality (again, rationality that most atheist are unaware of), the first step towards epistemic irrationality is identifying too strongly with a group or an ideology (on the other hand, this might be the instrumentally rational thing to do). This identity will lead to motivated skepticism and biases like the sophistication effect and the introspection bias.

Though the thing about biases, unlike with logical fallacies, is that they simply weigh towards an irrational conclusion. They don’t necessitate an irrational conclusion; this fits well within the framework of thinking of rationality in terms of probability.

All of this talk about biases, however, doesn’t mean that atheism is false nor that conservative Christianity is false. This is an actual logical fallacy that the blogger rests his conclusion on which shouldn’t be done. But his observation that a lot of atheists react emotionally to critiques of atheism, or feel more at home in atheist groups, makes sense when you know how our brains are wired for groupthink (unless you tend towards the Aspergers/autism spectrum like I do). Indeed, without emotion we wouldn’t be able to place value on the act of being rational. To choose to be rational is itself an emotional decision. And we have no control over our emotions.

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Posted by on July 26, 2013 in cognitive science, god, religiosity


The Biggest Challenges to Staying Christian


Courtesy of Adam Lee of Daylight Atheism:

On Patheos’ evangelical Christian channel, Peter Enns has been soliciting comments from his readers about what the greatest challenges are to remaining Christian. He got hundreds of responses, and he’s compiled a list of five common themes in the answers:

1. The Bible, namely inerrancy. This was the most commonly cited challenge, whether implicitly or explicitly, and it lay behind most of the others mentioned. The pressure many of you expressed was the expectation of holding specifically to an inerrant Bible in the face of such things as biblical criticism, contradictions, implausibilities in the biblical story, irrelevance for life (its ancient context), and the fact that the Bible is just plain confusing.

2. The conflict between the biblical view of the world and scientific models. In addition to biological evolution, mentioned were psychology, social psychology, evolutionary psychology, and anthropology. What seems to fuel this concern is not simply the notion that Scripture and science offer incompatible models for cosmic, geological, and human origins, but that scientific models are verifiable, widely accepted, and likely correct, thus consigning the Bible to something other than a reliable description of reality.

3. Where is God? A number of you, largely in emails, wrote of personal experiences that would tax to the breaking point anyone’s faith in a living God who is just, attentive, and loving. Mentioned were many forms of random/senseless suffering and God’s absence or “random” presence (can’t count on God being there).

4. How Christians behave. Tribalism, insider-outsider thinking; hypocrisy, power; feeling misled, sheltered, lied to by leaders; a history of immoral and unChristian behavior towards others (e.g., Crusades, Jewish pogroms). In short, practically speaking, commenters experienced that Christians too often exhibit the same behaviors as everyone else, which is more than simply an unfortunate situation but is interpreted as evidence that Christianity is not true-more a crutch or a lingering relic of antiquity than a present spiritual reality.

5. The exclusivism of Christianity. Given 1-4 above, and in our ever shrinking world, can Christians claim that their way is the only way?

Adam Lee has his owns thoughts on the significance of this, which are good, but I want to write my own.

Why be concerned about what Christians are struggling with? I don’t have a problem with Christianity per se, but I have a problem with groupthink (which is a much larger problem, one that atheists aren’t immune to). A few years ago I might have said that Christianity is problematic, but this assumes that there is one true version of Christianity. Even though Christian “orthodoxy” tries to paint that picture in history, even though modern Christians might try to promote that idea, there never was one, true version of Christianity, nor will there ever be. Again, the problem is tribal politics, which will cause Christians to act like jerks for the tribe, even if their rationale uses religious wording:

Subject: You and [girlfriend],

Hi [boyfriend],

I see that you and [girlfriend] are ratcheting up your relationship. As I said before, this puts your family in a very difficult situation.

Althought it seems you have made up your mind about this, I want to make sure that you are aware of the scriptures on this.

The most helpful passage about marrying an unbeliever can be found at 2 Cor 6: 14 Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? 15 What harmony is there between Christ and Belial[a]? What does a believer have in common with an unbeliever?

Besides this there are numerous Old Testament passages in which Israelite men married non-believing women from other nations, always to the displeasure of the Lord. For example, in Ezra 10, Israel is rebuked for their marriage to foreign wives: 10 Then Ezra the priest stood up and said to them, “You have been unfaithful, you have married foreign women, adding to Israel’s guilt. 11 Now make confession to the LORD, the God of your fathers, and do his will. Separate yourselves from the peoples around you and from your foreign wives.” 12 The whole assembly responded with a loud voice: “You are right! We must do as you say.

When you think about it, it only makes sense. What is more fundamental to a person, their values, their world view, their preferences and convictions than their true religious beliefs?

More to the point for the Christian, how can we justify joining ourselves as one with someone who is opposed to what we believe and hold dear, our relationship to Jesus.

I say all this [boyfriend] because while I love you dearly, I am quickly coming to a point where lines must be drawn. As your relationship picks up, so does my unease with the two of you.

I am sorry it has come to this [boyfriend]. I sincerely hope that I am wrong. But nothing I see in your relationship, nothing in the way [girlfriend] presents herself, gives me any hope. And it grieves me that you do not seem moved by this at all. Quite frankly, this has struck me as one of those times when you set yourself to do what you want, regardless of the truth of the situation.

I suggest that you, [girlfriend], and I meet. Unless and until we hear her beliefs about Christ, this uneasy relationship will continue. In fact, it will become worse



If Christianity changed to become a religion that prevented stuff like that, then I wouldn’t have much of a problem with it. Unfortunately, because there isn’t a tradition of overcoming bias in Christianity, I don’t know if that’s even possible. We’ll continue to get stories like the above and life threatening instances of misogyny due to the built-in focus on valuing the dogma of the religion instead of the well-being of the very real human beings practicing it. In order for Christianity to become more socially acceptable in the modern world, it has to become more like science. And it seems like that’s impossible while Christianity remains a religion with a mysterious god.

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Posted by on June 7, 2013 in religiosity


The Fundamental Differences Between Science and Religion


Here is a post outlining anthropologist Scott Atran’s research about the fundamental differences between science and religion, and why there can never be any reconciliation. To sum up Neil’s post:

1. Metaphors and Analogies

Science aims to reduce the analogy to a factual description, where the terms of the analogy are finally specified, with no loose ends . . . . Science seeks to kill the metaphor, religion strives to keep it poetic.

Religion strives to keep the metaphor alive, and to keep it poetic and endlessly open to further elaboration and extrapolation. The metaphors of religion are never fully assimilated with factual and commonsensical beliefs.

2. The Place of Humanity (and Agency)

Humans are only incidental presences in the scientific universe but they are central to religion. Scientific understanding of how the universe works would remain the same if humans never were mentioned at all. But religion without a key role for humanity would make no sense.

3. Moral Absolutes versus Ever Changing Truths

A third difference that seems crucial to social life is that religions arc morally absolute, however conceptually flexible and open-textured, whereas science endlessly pursues ever changing truth by strict and rigid means. Religion establishes truth to provide moral and social stability. Science sacrifices surety to discover truth’s illusions. Religion abhors the competition for truth. Science can’t live without it.

4. Factual Knowledge has only a Support Role in Religion

Factual knowledge is not a principal aim of religion. It only plays a supporting role.

Only in the past decade has the Catholic Church reluctantly come to acknowledge the factual plausibility of the ideas of Copernicus, Galileo, and Darwin (Geitner, 1999). The earlier rejection of their theories stemmed from the challenges posed to a cosmic order unifying the moral and material worlds. . . . A lag time was necessary to refurbish and remake the moral and material connections in such a way that would permit faith in a unified cosmology to survive. (p. 278)

If this is the case then why does religion survive? I posted a comment on Neil’s blog post that sums it up.

Basically, we think in metaphor because our brains are inside of a body, so how we speak in every day conversation is overflowing with metaphor. As Neil wrote above, science aims to kill the metaphor and get to the true meaning while religion aims to keep it alive. There can be no reconciliation there.

In describing gravity, Science uses the metaphor of a bowling ball on a mattress. But Science knows this is incorrect. Religion would be content with the subjective beauty of the bowling ball metaphor and wouldn’t bother to correct you.

Religion also has human beings as the focal point of Creation, which is why god will always be hopelessly human. A truly alien god is a god that no one would worship. Well, almost no one 🙂

There’s of course, what I’ve concluded is the main reason for religion; at least, religion-like entities: groupthink. Religion seems to be a special case of the more general phenomenon of our brains being wired for tribal politics. It’s not so much that people believe in religions because they’re true, they believe in them because the group does. This makes sense of Dennett’s “belief in belief”, and why anthropologists and psychologists understand religion more than the so-called New Atheists:

The role of belief in religion is greatly overstated, as anthropologists have long known. In 1912, Émile Durkheim, one of the founders of modern social science, argued that religion arose as a way for social groups to experience themselves as groups. He thought that when people experienced themselves in social groups they felt bigger than themselves, better, more alive — and that they identified that aliveness as something supernatural. Religious ideas arose to make sense of this experience of being part of something greater. Durkheim thought that belief was more like a flag than a philosophical position: You don’t go to church because you believe in God; rather, you believe in God because you go to church.

I don’t think this is the whole story — that you believe in god because you go to church — but it probably accounts for a lot of it.

The New Atheists aren’t completely wrong about religion, though. The way you defeat religion is what differentiates the “New” atheists and the old ones: Saying that religion is not cool, or has no place in modern society. Those sorts of arguments — the same sort of social shaming that feminists use — are what will get people to fall away from religion. This is one of the reasons why “the Internet belongs to feminists and atheists (and pr0n)”; the most prolific Internet users are also the most likely to be atheists or non-religious due to the vast amount of social shaming that goes on there. I personally think that’s taking advantage of the dark arts, but what are ya gonna do. Facts change peoples opinion a lot less than being ostracized does.

One of the major differences between most other political groups and religion is that religious beliefs focus around “socializing” (I put that in scare quotes for a reason) with supernatural beings. Because the causes for religious belief are mainly cognitive/sociological, there are a lot sociological/psychological circumstances that increase religiosity, like high income inequality, loneliness, or feeling out of control (combined with baseline human psychology like hyperactive agency detection, promiscuous teleology [i.e. things have a purpose] and the just world fallacy). Which is probably one of the main reasons why minorities and women are more religious than men/people in relative power (indeed, women are more likely than men to say they are lonely).

So yeah. Not much else to add. Religion and science not only can’t get along, but shouldn’t get along because science should remain apolitical; there shouldn’t be any groupthink involved in scientific progress. Once you start doing that, you start moving away from authentic discovery and towards *backflip* GO SCIENCE *crowd cheers*

I once attended a panel on the topic, “Are science and religion compatible?” One of the women on the panel, a pagan, held forth interminably upon how she believed that the Earth had been created when a giant primordial cow was born into the primordial abyss, who licked a primordial god into existence, whose descendants killed a primordial giant and used its corpse to create the Earth, etc. The tale was long, and detailed, and more absurd than the Earth being supported on the back of a giant turtle. And the speaker clearly knew enough science to know this.


It finally occurred to me that this woman wasn’t trying to convince us or even convince herself. Her recitation of the creation story wasn’t about the creation of the world at all. Rather, by launching into a five-minute diatribe about the primordial cow, she was cheering for paganism, like holding up a banner at a football game. A banner saying “GO BLUES” isn’t a statement of fact, or an attempt to persuade; it doesn’t have to be convincing—it’s a cheer.


The Rise of Irreligiosity in the World


Of course, I already know many of the data and arguments put forth in this Edge essay. Religiosity on a national scale is correlated with high income inequality, financial/health insecurity, poor education, high birth rates, etc. Nevertheless, the authors made an argument that I never really thought of before, but its implications should have been obvious to me:

Even though liberal, pro-evolution religions are not at fault for unacceptable social policies, organized faith cannot reform itself by supporting successful secular social arrangements because these actions inadvertently suppress popular religiosity. They are caught in a classic Catch-22. And liberal churches are even less able to thrive in advanced democracies than are their more conservative counterparts, so if churches, temples and mosques become matriarchal by socio-politically liberalizing they risk secularizing themselves into further insignificance.

Liberal religionists are really in a bind. If they continue to liberalize — meaning increasing the well-being of people in “material” ways such as welfare states, social justice, etc. — then they will lead to their own undoing. Welfare states and social justice are the main sociological factors that lead to nations becoming non-religious. I don’t have any problem with that, but if they want to see their traditions continue beyond just textbooks, then they might have an issue with it.

And then their mere existence gives aid and comfort to fundamentalists. As Sam Harris has argued, the fact that liberal religionists think that faith is a virtue is all the vindication that fundamentalists need to argue their points and validate their existence.

So the liberal versions of religion have two options: Become more radical by way of denying the establishment of programs that promote the welfare state and/or social justice causes (e.g. birth control, as rampant pregnancy is one way to stabilize or increase the religious population) so that nations stay religious, or continue supporting social justice and/or things like universal healthcare which would eventually lead to their religions becoming a minority if not worse.

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Posted by on May 9, 2013 in economics/sociology, religiosity


Getting ‘Em Early


(A practitioner of the dark arts)

Here’s a study that supports my recent bend on the link between cognitive science and religiosity, Exploiting children’s social instincts to boost their learning:

Young children’s instinct for group membership can be exploited to boost their learning performance. That’s according to a new study that recalls classic social psychology research conducted in the 1970s. Back then Henri Tajfel showed a darker side to this group mentality. In his “minimal group” studies, schoolboys were divided into two groups based merely on their preference for one of two artists. The arbitrary groups thus formed, the boys showed immediate bias against peers not in their group.


In one condition, the children were told that they were members of “the Blue Group” that did puzzles. Although they were alone, the children donned a blue t-shirt, sat on a blue chair, and the puzzle box had a blue sticker on it. They were further told that children in the “the Green group” do other things.


Even though they worked alone and there was no history to their group membership, the children in the Blue Group condition were fired up by their belonging to the group that does puzzles – they persisted 29 per cent longer on the puzzle than children in the “child number 3” condition and 35 per cent longer than children not allocated to a group or individual identity.

Religious organizations know that to get a person adhering to a religion for life you have to get ’em when they’re young. The above research suggets why this is so: because our brains are wired for groupthink. Tell a child they are a Catholic, or Hindu, or Jewish, and they’ll hold that identity longer that they rationally should.

Richard Dawkins famously argued that telling children what religion they are before they have the emotional and intellectual maturity to understand such a choice is child abuse. I’m not sure I agree with that, but certainly telling a child what religion they are against their will is taking advantage of the dark arts.

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Posted by on April 22, 2013 in cognitive science, religiosity

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