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Will reason ever outrun faith?

6 Post author: ABranco 07 January 2010 02:00PM

Recently, a video produced by Christians claimed that the future world would be Muslim. It hit 10 million hits in YouTube. The alarming demographics presented were proven mostly false and exaggerated both by BBC and Snopes. Yet, religion is such a powerful self-replicating memeplex that its competition against atheism deserves some analysis.

Leaving apart the aesthetic nicety of some religious rituals — which I respect —, it would be preferable to see a world with predominance of rationality instead of faith, brights instead of supers. Not just because I whimsically wish so, but because reason ensues atheism. Rationality is the primer here. With more rational agents, the more rationality propagates, and people’s maps will be more accurate. And that’s better for us, human beings*.

(* This sentence is a bit of a strong claim, especially because I am not defining exactly what I mean by ‘better’, and some existential pain might be expected as a consequence of being unaided by the crutches of faith and of being deprived of their cultural antibodies. Also, if happiness happens to be an important attribute of ‘better’, I am not sure to what extent being rational will make people happier. Some people are very ok choosing the blue pill. For the time being, let’s take it as an axiom. The claim that rational is better might deserve a separate post.)

Is a predominantly rational and atheist world probable?

Let’s see. Religion — or the lack thereof — and culture are propagated memetically. The propagation can be (1) vertical (i.e., from parents to children) or (2) horizontally (i.e., friends, media and the like).

(1) It seems quite hopeless for atheists to outgrow religious populations through parenting. First, "countries that are relatively secularized usually reproduce more slowly than countries that are more religious. According to the World Bank, the nations with the largest proportions of unbelievers had an average annual population growth rate of just 0.7% in the period 1975-97, while the populations of the most religious countries grew three times as fast." (from The Economist, Faith Equals Fertility).

As this very same article concludes:

"one might half-seriously conclude that atheists and agnostics ought to focus on having more children, to help overcome their demographic disadvantage. Unfortunately for secularists, this may not work even as a joke. Nobody knows exactly why religion and fertility tend to go together. Conventional wisdom says that female education, urbanization, falling infant mortality, and the switch from agriculture to industry and services all tend to cause declines in both religiosity and birth rates. In other words, secularization and smaller families are caused by the same things. Also, many religions enjoin believers to marry early, abjure abortion and sometimes even contraception, all of which leads to larger families. (…) So, religious people have larger families because Western religions encourage having children. Further, as a general proposition (there are, of course, exceptions), religious people tend to place a higher emphasis on altruism, whereas secular people tend to be more self-focused. Thus, for a religious person, children provide the opportunity to nurture and benefit other human beings. For many secular people, however, children merely consume time and resources that otherwise could have been devoted to their own amusement."

Conclusion: as a whole, atheists have less offspring, and they have a good reason to do so. Their being atheists and their lesser fertility rates have the same causes: education. If you think about it, the other causes cited above are themselves a product of proper education.

(2) Can atheism gain more adepts through horizontal propagation? Definitely, although I don't dare predict to what extent. Many atheists — kudos for Dawkins and Hitchens — have been making public calls to reason and openly arguing pro-atheism, in a rather educational approach. Some courageous initiatives have been seen recently.  

This is great.

However, mass media still seems to be among the strongest means of replication. And mass media is a vehicle of entertainment, not a vehicle of truth-seeking.

Making cold reason and correct statistics as appealing than the alternatives is a challenging pursuit. As businesses, mass media networks give more space to whatever pleases the public more. The public is religious — and as it seems, will continue to be so. Therefore, miracles and emotionally charged stories sell more. Well, probably even the brightest minds indulge in some ludic fallacy now and then.

(I haven’t had a TV set at home for some eight years, and completely let go of the daily habit of reading newspapers, too, just like my friend Thomas Jefferson. There’s just too much noise going on — and isn’t it amazing how successful this noise is in deviating our attention from what matters most? But I digress.)

We have a self-fueling pattern here, a memetic selection mechanism:

Medias propagating rationality-related memes stay behind, because there are fewer atheists. So, less of atheist ideas are spread. So there will be even fewer atheists, or, at least, a modest growth speed of atheists in absolute numbers.

Religious medias get richer and bigger, because there are many religious people who support them. So more religious ideas are spread. So there will be even more of them, with a fast growth. As an example, Brazilian TV network Rede Record, after being acquired by the direction of the religious group IURD (aka UCKG), left from a very small market share to being second place in the ratings in 2007. Rede Record growth
— the fastest among the country's networks has been, alas, fueled by the tithe of IURD's followers (source here, Portuguese only).

One could argue that, as internet access becomes widespread, we should expect its decentralized and democratic nature to be on the side of those who are trying to enhance their maps with valuable information. Nevertheless, someone who doesn’t directly look for it will be carried away by the noise or, worse, by misguided information. One has to start, as a child, guided by a rational mind. And having a rational mind depends heavily on this person’s education and upbringing, which depends on what kind of parents they have. Oops.

Of course there are exceptions, those who make an effort to think by themselves despite their environment. They seem, however, to be outnumbered by the masses under the influence of bandwagon effect.

Where lies the hope for a predominantly rational and atheist world anyway?

Comments (29)

Comment author: clockbackward 09 January 2010 05:22:56PM 5 points [-]

Atheism has some properties that religion does not that may allow it to spread rapidly under certain cultural conditions that likely will exist in the future. For example, as technology continues to play a larger and larger role in our lives (and continues to spread to the poorest countries), that may well correlate with an increase in the respect for and interest in science that people have, as well as the number of people trained in scientific fields. As science tends to directly contradict many religious stories (such as the creation of the world in Genesis), and since levels of religious belief among scientists are generally much lower than among the population at large, that may increase the rate at which atheism spreads.

Comment author: pdf23ds 10 January 2010 12:01:54AM 1 point [-]

You know what Arthur C. Clark said about advanced technology. And indeed, it seems like most people treat it as nothing more than magic. Using technology doesn't create respect for science, unfortunately. Let alone interest. (Except in people predisposed to either.)

I do see a possible way for technology to decrease faith, though. With technology, it's quickly becoming much easier to form much more accurate impressions of the world, which lessens the need for and impact of weird superstitions and rationalizations that often lead to or reinforce religious or otherwise irrational beliefs. For instance, I imagine the advent of videocameras has led to a decline in the belief of ghosts and spirits. When personal video life recorders become a standard part of your wearable computer, belief in apparitions will probably be nearly eliminated.

Comment author: clockbackward 10 January 2010 04:23:24PM 1 point [-]

Sure, many people treat technology like magic, but as it becomes an ever increasing part our our lives, it is hard to deny that the supply of jobs in science and engineering will increase, and subsequently that the number of scientists and engineers will grow to meet this demand. What is more, even if most people are not curious about the technology they grow up with, that does not preclude the possibility that increased technology correlates with increased interest in science. All it would take is one in 10 or even 1 in 20 people to be influenced by the technology they use.

Comment author: mattnewport 09 January 2010 08:47:25PM 0 points [-]

My impression is that if anything recent technological progress in the developed world has gone along with a decrease in respect for and interest in science. While adherence to organized religion seems to have declined in much of the developed world it has often been replaced by equally non-scientific beliefs in new age mumbo jumbo and various kinds of 'spirituality'.

Comment author: whpearson 07 January 2010 10:25:58PM *  2 points [-]

Religion is declining in the UK.

For those who don't want to read it. From 1964 to 2005 people attending services has dropped from 74% to 31% and people saying they don't belong to a religion has gone from 3% to 38%.

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 07 January 2010 10:31:49PM 1 point [-]

Interesting. From the link:

"Those who 'do not belong' have first shed the practical and theoretical underpinnings of their religion, before finally overcoming social pressure to state 'your' religion. There are many who are not at the later stages of this secularisation process, so they still say they 'belong', although they are in the process of forgetting & discarding the physical and mental aspects of what they say they belong to. Sociologists know that if they count heads and ask about beliefs, more people say they belong to a religion, and say they have the beliefs of a particular religion, than actually do. People over-state their own religiosity; that's why statistics from polls will often give higher percentages of 'believers' than will head-counting and deeper investigations."

Comment author: RolfAndreassen 07 January 2010 10:02:58PM 9 points [-]

I have this difficulty with your argument: It explains why atheism cannot continue to increase, but it does not explain how we've gotten to the current level. What about your analysis of the future fails for the past, such that secularism managed to spread to the level we see in 2009?

Comment author: Drahflow 07 January 2010 06:21:54PM 1 point [-]

I agree with the analysis that (2) is the way to go.

Accepting faith as an evolved Memeplex, it is probably well adapted to the communications model of the past few centuries. By intelligent design of some memes however, a determined rationalist community should be able to gain an edge here, as a designed memeplex could be better adapted to the modern media situation.

A concerted effort in this direction should identify common traits of well spreading memes, and design new memes or attach payloads to old ones. Think "saving cute kittens via rationality" on youtube. Depending on the available resources, one might even be able to subdue newly spreading memes with a new variant including the desired payload.

Is anybody aware of data about which memes spread how fast and any kind of analysis about the relevant factors?

Comment author: nerzhin 11 January 2010 09:40:52PM 1 point [-]

This proposal fits exactly the definition of the Dark Arts. Are you suggesting that we encourage people to use irrational means to accept rationalist truths?

Comment author: Kobayashi 07 January 2010 06:13:53PM *  5 points [-]

This is a discussion of tactics and strategy, yes? And your complaint is that you don't have access to the same 'weapons' as your opponent?

Perhaps your assumptions about what is necessary to win are wrong. I moved progressively away from religion as I became aware of how limited religion was. (Not God, religion.) Ironically, I had to study religion and philosophy to be able to see this. If you are going to attempt horizontal propagation, then knowledge about religion and its history might be one of your best weapons. Certainly it opens doors to conversations you can't have if your reaction to a believer is simply 'Oh, you poor ignorant fool. I have the Truth; let me tell it to you.'

Do you know how the Catholic/Christian church progressively edited the contents of their canon? Are you familiar with the 'heresies' that were progressively (and violently) quashed by the Church during its history? Do you understand what prompts men to mythologize one of their own, and can you articulate it? The history of the Church speaks for itself, and it doesn't speak well for religion. Once a believer can question the Church/religion, then (and perhaps only then) can a believer question the ideas behind the Church (i.e., God). It may be a huge mistake to assume that you can win by attacking the idea of God first.

(Oh, I will add that reading a great deal of science fiction helped me too. Especially science fiction that dealt with alternative theologies, and the abuse of power within religious hierarchies. If others have had a similar experience, maybe there should be a list of helpful fiction...)

Comment author: Zachary_Kurtz 07 January 2010 04:46:38PM 0 points [-]

your assumption seems to be that religious memes, such as faith reproduce faster than rationalist memes. I'm not so sure that assumption is true. What it is more influential religion and faith, or reason and (most importantly) wealth?

Comment author: bessiambre 07 January 2010 03:41:43PM *  1 point [-]

Great article. I made the same unsettling realization a couple years ago. It hit me when I was pondering why the two other ages of reason: the Italian renaissance and greek antiquity only lasted a short period. It seems reason is not a good reason (heh) for self replication compared to religion. The superior demographic powers of the unreasonables always makes them take over eventually.

Once in a while, the stars align and the atheistic/scientific population gets some prominence but it never lasts.

We see the same debates of reason vs religion in the two other periods. See for example Lucretius' epic poem De Rerum Natura http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/De_rerum_natura

The debate is futile however as even though the texts may be useful in providing inspiration for a Galileo or two to advance science, it doesn't seem to be enough to counter demographics.

Comment author: taw 07 January 2010 04:54:48PM 3 points [-]

The Italian renaissance was highly religious and all major figures were devout Christians. There was nothing remotely atheistic about it.

I don't know about how religious Greek antiquity was, but even the non-religious ones were not rational by even the lowest standards.

Comment author: bessiambre 07 January 2010 05:51:38PM 1 point [-]

At the time, the catholic church had a reign of terror. Going against religion was considered heresy and sometimes punished by death so it's not a surprise everyone were claiming to be good Christians and doing everything to look like good Christians. However, the Italian renaissance ideals were definitely moving away from Christian dogma and towards a more mechanistic, scientific, humanistic and secular interpretation of the universe.

I find Michaelangelo's sistine chapel representation of god being in the shape of a human brain a good example of the whole situation. They were trying to convey subtle messages so that the pope wouldn't notice. Given that Michaelangelo and Leonardo were pioneers on human dissections, IMO it is unlikely a coincidence. http://www.byui.edu/onlinelearning/courses/hum/202/CreationOfAdamBrain.htm

Comment author: MatthewB 07 January 2010 05:12:03PM 4 points [-]

Greek Antiquity had a very different form of religious practice than the Levantine Monomyths. The religions were centered around personal revelation, like the Abrahamic faiths, but the revelations did not come from an omniscient personal God. They came instead from an inner world that was supposed to be a reflection of the perfect world of the Gods (and this was in strange irony to their mythology that showed these very same Gods to be tremendously imperfect). Their religions also tended to be very absent of dogma, since they had no codified rituals or rites that led to personal revelation. They did have codified rites for things that lay outside of the personal relationship of the people with the god, and had to do with the relationship of the Gods with nature instead.

Joseph Campbell's The Masks of God, Vol 1: Primitive Mythology and The Masks of God, Vol 3: Occidental Mythology talk about these differences in great detail.

It was this absence of dogma & Rites pertaining to a personal relationship with the Gods that allowed the Greeks to be more open minded about the exploration of the world than the Christians who saw the balance of the world hung upon their personal relationship with God as portrayed through the rite and dogma of the Church. Upset that Dogma, and one upsets the balance of the Universe...

At least that is what I got out of reading Campbell when I was younger. I should get those books back from a friend I loaned them to and re-read them.

Comment author: taw 08 January 2010 12:05:15AM 2 points [-]

What kind of evidence do we have on what common folks in Ancient Greece believed, as opposed to a tiny number of philosophers? To me ancient god-for-every-occasion polytheism sounds a lot like Medieval saint-for-every-occasion Catholicism.

Comment author: MatthewB 08 January 2010 12:03:26PM 2 points [-]

Again, according to Campbell, the two are very similar, and many of the Saints were chosen to fill specific pagan holidays.

The Ancient Greeks had a very different type of belief than the more modern Christian beliefs, and even tried to make accommodations for the Jewish and Christian Gods (only to be mocked by the Jews and Christians for their efforts to be inclusive). The Ancient Greek Belief was that your Family Spirits and Ancestors did more of the job that we would think of a personal theistic god doing. These spirits watched out for family members and strove against enemy family spirits for political/temporal dominance. The Greek Gods were remote powers of the natural world and were to be avoided at all costs in daily life. The last thing you really wanted was the natural force of lightning or rain to show up in town. So, ceremonies and rituals were made to propitiate these Gods so that they would do their jobs and "Please, Please, leave us alone!"

One would petition only specific Gods whose myths made it clear that they had a vested interest in specific peoples. Athena was one such God, Zeus was another, for the peoples of Crete and Pergemon. However, outside of those specific remits, it was dangerous to play with the gods by calling for their favor or damnation.

Thus, most people in Ancient Greece, believed that such beings existed, but that "Mostly, they leave me alone as long as I make sure to observe their rites." They were very powerful, but I don't think that any of the Greek Gods, nor all of them combined, could be said to be omnipotent, omniscient, and certainly not omnipresent (The Greek Gods were personifications, like people who had very a specific locale).

So, yes, they were very much like the Saint-for-every-occasion. Save that they did not have the larger presence of an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent being lording over them and mankind.

Comment author: MatthewB 07 January 2010 04:07:25PM 4 points [-]

This time, the atheists have a way to either escape from the brutality of religious oppression, or to overthrow it in a limited fashion.

I think it was Cyril Kornbluth who wrote the Story The Marching Morons where normal society was... a bunch of morons. The society had another side though, anyone who showed the slightest real intelligence was whisked off to live as the real power behind society.

While that was a fictionalization of a fear that the ignorant and stupid would out breed the smarter and better educated (a very real fear in my opinion), it did show something that is rapidly becoming the case. There are a great many technologies that require some pretty sophisticated knowledge to continue functioning. eventually society may get to the point where the intelligentsia may be able to hold the ignorant and stupid members of society (no matter how powerful) for ransom via the technologies controlled by the intelligentsia. It may not be obvious, explicit power, yet it is not something that should be overlooked.

Comment author: nerzhin 11 January 2010 09:44:54PM 0 points [-]

eventually society may get to the point where the intelligentsia may be able to hold the ignorant and stupid members of society (no matter how powerful) for ransom via the technologies controlled by the intelligentsia

Are you in favor of this development or opposed?

Comment author: MatthewB 12 January 2010 12:41:36AM 2 points [-]

I do not know one way or the other at this point. From a recent NYT article about the Tea Party Movement, it seems the populace of the USA thinks that this is already the case.

Comment author: Blueberry 14 January 2010 01:04:27AM 0 points [-]

eventually society may get to the point where the intelligentsia may be able to hold the ignorant and stupid members of society (no matter how powerful) for ransom via the technologies controlled by the intelligentsia

I believe the Unabomber Manifesto makes a similar claim. It's worth reading.

Comment author: MatthewB 14 January 2010 03:27:40AM 2 points [-]

The Unabomber manifesto is an incredibly dense piece of prose. I found it hard to get through, but you are correct. Ted lived in mortal fear of the Intelligentsia being in control because he thought that they were all as psychopathic as he. I would fear a bunch of emotionless robots who hated humanity in charge even if they did run everything in as rational a fashion as possible.

It is likely that the educated and intelligent elite will one day in fact control most of the wealth in the world, and by de facto the actual running of the world under nearly impotent governmental cover. I think that this may well be a side-effect of the Singularity, and if a Friendly AI is indeed developed, it may wind up being very much like The Forbin Project (Except that the AI will not need to threaten us, as it will probably be fantastically capable of just manipulating the masses into the behavior it wishes).

As long as basic freedoms are preserved, I could care less if we were governed by a mindless mob, a group of super-geniuses, or ducks pecking at a light board to play tic-tac-toe to cast legislation.

Comment author: MatthewB 07 January 2010 03:31:16PM *  1 point [-]

Rationality is the primer here. With more rational agents, the more rationality propagates, and people’s maps will be more accurate. And that’s better for us, human beings*.

I recently halted a discussion with a theist, after discovering he was a Biblical Literalist who had not been listening to a word I said.

My whole conversation centered, not around the atheist/theist difference, and not once did I bring up his faith as a problem. Rather, I spent the entire conversation trying to get him to understand the importance of having an accurate map of reality. That science does not explicitly tell us how to live, or what is moral (although, it will have something to say about those things if empirical claims are made), but rather it is a tool for observing the world, and then testing those observations in order for us to make a model of reality. I am sure that someone other than myself from LW would have been able to explain this much more clearly than I, but ultimately I discovered it would not have mattered who it was who was trying to educate this man.

His whole world view boiled down to equivocation such that the Bible and Religion were he only authorities and if some fact did not fit with that authority, he would twist and mangle the definitions or terms until they would fit (in his mind only).

The one thing that does give me hope is that those who eventually do wind up creating an AI will have as our friend something that will be in a far better position to order the world for the better. However, that is only if we manage to accomplish such a thing before faith realizes its ultimate goal of sending us all to their maker (i.e. a metaphor for killing us all).

The point about the media is well taken. For instance, the TV Crime-Drama Numb3rs had an atheistic savant mathematician who was graciously given work by his Brother (an FBI agent) to help with solving crimes. At some point in the series, the older FBI brother begins flirting with Judaism, which the mathematician brother decries (since he is an Atheist, of course)... well, that doesn't sit well with the audience, so they have the typical episode where something miraculous occurs and the mathematician sees God.... This is what we will have to deal with in the USA. That and that atheists are seen as the most reviled group, right after murderers, homosexuals and drug addicts.

Comment author: pjeby 07 January 2010 05:09:22PM 6 points [-]

The point about the media is well taken. For instance, the TV Crime-Drama Numb3rs had an atheistic savant mathematician who was graciously given work by his Brother (an FBI agent) to help with solving crimes. At some point in the series, the older FBI brother begins flirting with Judaism, which the mathematician brother decries (since he is an Atheist, of course)... well, that doesn't sit well with the audience, so they have the typical episode where something miraculous occurs and the mathematician sees God.... This is what we will have to deal with in the USA. That and that atheists are seen as the most reviled group, right after murderers, homosexuals and drug addicts.

On the other hand, we have shows like "Lie to Me" and "House", where the main characters are brilliant atheist altruists for whom the quest for truth is the most important thing, even if they're also antisocial jerks who're willing to lie and make people miserable. That's still an improvement. ;-)

Comment author: Christian_Szegedy 08 January 2010 01:04:12AM *  3 points [-]

I loved the first 4 seasons of House MD for the exact same reason. However in the last two seasons they softened up his character (plus added a lot of other inconsistencies), to the extent it's too frustrating for me to watch it.

I stopped watching it lately when the super rich guy sacrifices his whole fortune to save his son and manages to do so!

Looks like no mass-media show can escape the fate of being dumbed down finally.

Comment author: pjeby 08 January 2010 02:07:35AM 2 points [-]

I stopped watching it lately when the super rich guy sacrifices his whole fortune to save his son and manages to do so!

People routinely do stupid, irrational things and end up better off for it by blind chance... and then use that to justify their stupid decision. So I thought that particular instance was just realism, showing what atheists have to put up with. ;-)

The show does throw in a few annoying synchronicities now and then, but then, so does real life. Also, let's be honest: House's routine epiphanies are no more out of the blue than a random miracle would be... and as far as I can recall, all the miracles on the show have been due to doctors' epiphanies or other human virtues, rather than by divine intervention.

Comment author: Christian_Szegedy 08 January 2010 02:31:57AM *  2 points [-]

Also, let's be honest: House's routine epiphanies are no more out of the blue than a random miracle would be...

No. They are not random. That is the result of continuous subconscious processing. Completely realistic and familiar for anyone working on hard problems.

I would not mind some random miracles, but in the last episodes of the show highly improbable miracles became the rule rather than exception. The first few seasons were quite different.

Comment author: pjeby 08 January 2010 03:36:45AM 2 points [-]

No. They are not random. That is the result of continuous subconscious processing. Completely realistic and familiar for anyone working on hard problems.

And anyone working on hard problems would also solve some of them during the straightforward, logical deductions phase.

(Ironically, this particular aspect of the show is arguably an anti-rational message, since the straightforward expertise and logical thinking of all the doctors (House included, except for his occasional work in the clinic) always makes things worse instead of better.)

Comment author: Christian_Szegedy 08 January 2010 09:17:33AM *  0 points [-]

There have been a lot of simpler problems that House solved immediately by ingenious but conscious deduction.

I agree that it is not realistic that House regularly has his flashes of insights always triggered by some seemingly irrelevant discussion with James. Still It is a dramatic vehicle that entertains me, simply because I know this kind of flashes very well and I can identify with them. I'd say this is the definition of a hard problem, that one needs some epiphany to solve them. Mathematicians usually label everything that can be solved by straightforward deduction "trivial", even if the deduction is long-winding or elaborate.

I don't agree that this aspect is anti-rational. Intuition is not at all irrational: once you had the flash, you get a completely rational insight. Even if the invention process is (practically) impossible to explain, the result should be fully rational (and rationally checkable) otherwise it is useless. It is an extremely common experience: everyone who works on non-trivial or problems gets used to using his brain in a very intuitive manner: moving from vague shadows to well defined contours, not on a crystal clear linear path.

I also don't agree that the message is that the logical thinking and expertise of the doctors in the episodes is useless. It is important to cut of the irrelevant branches. After everything seems to be ruled out, House's even greater expertise is needed to solve the case, but this solution is based on ruling out the higher probability branches first.