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The Good Bayesian

-3 Post author: Sideways 25 March 2009 09:39PM

    I've talked religion with people of many different ages and creeds, and none of them have ever been content to practice their religion in private.  All belong to a religious community; many contribute money and time above and beyond the minimum requirement.  And in all the religious discussions I've ever had, I've never heard anyone decline to participate because their religion is "intensely private and individual."

    So Eliezer's quote from William James by way of Adam Frank left me scratching my head, as well.  I think of religion first and foremost as a social behavior rather than an individual one.  It's not just that religious people use the claim of private revelation as a defense against reason; it's that they can attend sermons, sing in a choir, recite prayers in unison--and then make that claim of "solitary" experience with a straight face!

    Eliezer's post listed some of the ways that theodicy warps rational thought on the individual level, as sort of warning label on the "poisoned chalice."  Religious people are liable to respond that religion may not make people rational, but it makes them altruistic "good Samaritans."  (Never mind that in the parable, the Samaritan is more altruistic than a high priest!)  They claim that any harm religion does to the individual is outweighed by its benefits to the group.

    Rationalists should make the case that religion is harmful to society as a whole, as well as individuals:

  • Religious groups waste resources.  I couldn't find exact figures, but Austin Cline claims that tax-exempt religious organizations own 20-25% of land in the US, denying the government billions in tax revenue. Donations and tithes to churches are wasted on funding monasteries, missionaries, and "bible schools."  Rationality dojos, or even the government, could allocate these resources more effectively.
  • Religion degrades political discourse.  Clergymen have an inappropriate amount of involvement and influence in the politics of their congregations, e.g. Catholic bishops denying communion to politicians who support abortion rights.  The Terry Schiavo debacle demonstrated that American right-wing religious groups are willing to use political power in unethical ways.  It's a national disgrace that no non-Christian could be elected President in the US today.  (I don't mean to be US-centric, it's just where my knowledge is concentrated.  If you have an example from another country, please add it in comments.)
  • Organized religion obstructs social progress.  Because religions are based on dogma, they have a status-quo bias that has placed religious institutions on the wrong side of every moral issue in American history, from the abolition of slavery to Prohibition to stem cell research.
  • Religious pluralism and state-sponsored religions both harm society.  Many competing religions contribute to social fragmentation and create useless discord (as opposed to the useful discord of, say, a free market).  A single state-sponsored religion inevitably intrudes into citizens' privacy and the political process.  The optimal solution is an atheist society.

    I left out at least one obvious argument for the benefit of commenters.

Comments (15)

Comment author: andrewc 26 March 2009 04:17:19AM 5 points [-]

By definition someone for whom religion or spirituality is intensely personal is going to avoid talking to you about it. The fact that that in all the conversations about religion you have ever had, no-one has declined to participate on those grounds is hardly evidence that these people don't exist.

Hmmm, methinks you are moderately wrong about religious organisations being on the wrong side of 'every' moral issue in American history. You've heard of the Quakers - funny hats, oatmeal, social justice and all that.

I just don't see modern secular churches (ok so maybe you don't have those in the USA yet...) like the Anglicans as a major force for irrationality. When they bump up against science there are a few protests and then they cede ground, and explain any contradictions between scripture and reality by admitting scripture is mostly just stories.

Comment author: dclayh 25 March 2009 10:02:19PM *  3 points [-]

Religious pluralism and state-sponsored religions both harm society. Many competing religions contribute to social fragmentation and create useless discord (as opposed to the useful discord of, say, a free market). A single state-sponsored religion inevitably intrudes into citizens' privacy and the political process.

Competing religions may not be good for society, but they do seem to be good for religion. I read a fascinating article once (which I unfortunately cannot locate) which argued that the U.S.'s policy of free religion led to a competitive marketplace of different churches, which functioned as markets do to keep religion responsive to what people want, which kept religiosity strong down to the present day. Whereas in Europe, state religions were stagnant and stultified, and so the people gradually drifted away from them.

Comment author: talisman 26 March 2009 02:45:25AM 5 points [-]

This post feels out of accord with the Virtues. It feels like a debate brief against religion rather than a curious, light, humble, empirical exploration. "On the wrong side of every moral issue in American history"? "Denying the government billions in tax revenue"? This doesn't strike me as the talk of a truthseeker; rather, a polemicist.

Religion is true (vague, but you know what I mean I hope) with a very low odds ratio, perhaps 1-to-100k against? In any case way down in the hazy low probability region where the intuition has a hard time. Call it evidence of -70 to -40 decibels.

Religion net helps the total utility of humans in the present day with a still adverse but much higher odds ratio. I would be reluctant to go as far as -15 decibels.

It seems to me that you are conflating the two numbers.

Your first point about the claim of privacy is good, though.

Comment author: Sideways 26 March 2009 04:30:02AM *  0 points [-]

On reflection I agree with you that my language was ill-considered. I'm not going to edit the original post, because there's no point pretending I didn't make the mistake.

Incidentally, since creating this post, my karma has gone from 45 to 4294967341. I would guess that this post was downvoted to a negative number, and it broke some sort of counter. I don't know of any better way than a comment to report the bug, so there you have it.

Comment author: ciphergoth 26 March 2009 09:24:06AM *  0 points [-]


Edit: I'm wrong. Your karma is 2^32 + 47! That's a whole separate bug, and a very wacky unexpected one too.

Comment author: Sideways 26 March 2009 04:08:43PM -1 points [-]

I've been upvoted at least once in the interim, so I suspect that it's the same bug after all: my net negative post is contributing the 2^32, and my upvoted comments are contributing the 47. I have nothing like the programming skill needed to confirm this.

I've been thinking about Talisman's post further, and I think my education is to blame. It's been so heavy on persuasive writing and rhetoric that I've gotten into the habit of overstating my own confidence and hiding the chain of reason justifying my opinions, as a writing style rather than a style of thought.

Whatever the case, this may be my last comment. With a karma score that high, I'm sure to transcend the cycle of reincarnation! Nirvana by divine software bug is unorthodox, but I'll take what I can get.

Comment author: jimrandomh 25 March 2009 11:01:50PM *  4 points [-]

I agree that the claim that religion is a solitary experience is nonsensical, and that religious organizations have some negative effects on society. However, I don't think it's true that religious organizations do more harm than good. It's probably true that religions do less good than comparable non-religious organizations would, but if you eliminated churches, many of the community service projects and other positive externalities they produce would be lost. Therefore, I have to dispute this claim:

Religious groups waste resources. ... Austin Cline claims that tax-exempt religious organizations own 20-25% of land in the US, denying the government billions in tax revenue.

The number given here is clearly the wrong order of magnitude; I think we would notice if one-fifth of all land in the country was owned by religious organizations! (Austin Cline, doesn't assert it directly, either; instead, he uses the weasel words "It is estimated that", with no source.)

If one wishes to argue that religions are bad because they waste resources, it matters how much they collect in donations, how much of it is put to good use, how much is wasted, and how much it would cost to collect the same amount of money in other ways. While I don't support everything that churches spend money on, I think that on balance they do more good than harm.

Comment author: Nick_Tarleton 26 March 2009 12:21:40AM 3 points [-]

Eliezer only said that sacredness is private and individual, not religion.

I tend to AWYC, but this post really sounds like an angry death spiral in several places.

Comment author: topynate 25 March 2009 10:14:25PM 2 points [-]

Quibble: do you really mean "theodicy"? I think "theology" would fit better.

Comment author: Sideways 26 March 2009 01:05:56AM 3 points [-]

Theodicy is the defense of God-belief against criticism, particularly the problem of evil. Theology--religious people, left to themselves, trying to figure out God--doesn't warp rationality nearly as much as the strategies religious people use to protect their religion from criticism.

Comment author: Rune 26 March 2009 01:10:12AM 1 point [-]

I left out at least one obvious argument for the benefit of commenters.

Religious extremists blowing things up, killing people and trying to destroy the world in general?

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 25 March 2009 10:30:17PM *  1 point [-]

Not sure of where to ask this question, so I might as well ask it here. (Thought of some old entries that may fit better, but I don't know if comments posted there will get noticed.)

I'm writing an essay on why all religion is objectively false. It is basically a summary of some of Eliezer's main themes and reformulates in my words points found in posts like Outside the Laboratory, Burdensome Details, Dark Side Epistemology, and so on. As such, I feel a bit reluctant to post it in its full length here - I feel like I'd be preaching to the choir, and not contributing anything new. On the other hand, it may be useful to newcomers, and getting a certain lesson reformulated in some other fashion is always useful for learning.

So what I'm basically asking is - when it's done, should I post it in LW in its entirety, or should I just post a link? I realize that it doesn't really make that big of a difference which way I do, but for some reason I still felt like I should ask for the general opinion...

Comment author: Yvain 25 March 2009 10:32:31PM 1 point [-]

On a related note, can we have a LW Open Thread, or some other way to post links or single-sentence points that don't deserve their own topics?

Comment author: badger 26 March 2009 12:03:47AM 4 points [-]

I could be mistaken, but I thought links with minimal commentary were fair game for posts. They probably wouldn't be promoted to the front page, but could constitute the bulk of total posts. Clearly, we are still sorting out the norms of this community, but this seems to be what Eliezer had in mind when he wrote the about page.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 26 March 2009 12:10:03AM 3 points [-]

Indeed so.