Less Wrong is a community blog devoted to refining the art of human rationality. Please visit our About page for more information.

What Can We Learn About Human Psychology from Christian Apologetics?

40 Post author: ChrisHallquist 21 October 2013 10:02PM

A couple months ago I set up a Skype meeting Robin Hanson to chat about the book he's working on. But the first thing he wanted to talk wasn't directly related to the book. He'd read some of my work critiquing Christian apologetics, and said something to the effect of even though people who spend a lot of time arguing about religion are extreme cases, maybe they somehow shed light on the psychology of ordinary people. I didn't have a good response at the time; I had taken a shot at discussing the sociology of apologetics in my first book, but I was never terribly satisfied with that chapter and hadn't thought about the subject much since writing it.

Since then, I've thought about it more, and now have a better answer for Robin. The take-away is that to understand Christian apologetics, you need to see it as a giant exercise is violating Eliezer's advice in the Against Rationalization subsequence, particularly The Bottom Line. What's particularly noteworthy is the enormous amount of effort many Christians put into doing so, rather than just shrugging their shoulders and saying "I believe on faith." (Note: everything I say here is probably applicable to some degree to other forms of apologetics, but I'll focus on Christian apologetics and in particular Protestant apologetics because it's what I'm most familiar with.)

And I need to emphasize from the start that we are talking about a lot of Christians here. Big name professional apologists are rare, but then so by definition are "big names" in any field. Consumers of apologetics are not so rare: countless evangelicals have read C. S. Lewis' apologetic work Mere Christianity and it's number 3 on Christianity Today's list of "The Top 50 Books That Have Shaped Evangelicals." Immediately following Mere Christianity on the list is another apologetic work, Francis Schaeffer's The God Who Is There. Josh McDowell's The Evidence That Demands A Verdict is number 13. McDowell's More Than A Carpenter has reportedly sold 15 million copies, while Lee Strobel's Case For... books have reportedly sold 10 million copies all together.

I think apologists are best-seen as a highly specialized kind of religious professional, in some ways analogous to priests and ministers. Indeed there's overlap: many prominent apologists have had less well-known careers as pastors, while many evangelical pastors brush up on their apologetic arguments to share them with their congregations.

The second thing you need to understand, if you want to make sense of apologetics, is that apologists are in the business of pretending the purpose of apologetics is something other than what it actually is. This is not something you will learn even from reading many atheist critiques of apologetics, because many critics are willing to politely play along with the pretense that the purpose of apologetics is to open minded-skeptics and debates between skeptics and believers are serious intellectual engagements.

Such politeness may actually be smart tactics, if you are addressing believers and your goal is to persuade them, but that's not what I'll be doing here. Instead, I'll be addressing the mostly-atheist readership of LessWrong, and my goal will be to see what we can learn from apologetics about human psychology in general.

One of the best discussions I've read of the false pretenses of apologetics is a relatively brief section in Robert J. Miller's commentary on a debate between evangelical apologist William Lane Craig and liberal Christian scholar John Dominic Crossan (published alongside other commentaries and a transcript of the debate as Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up?). Miller writes:

Why is it that few, if any, outsiders will be persuaded by Craig's apology? From the way he presents it, we get the impression that he thinks nobody who is informed, rational, and sincere could disagree with it...

I used to think this way myself when I was a fervent believer in the power of apologetics. I was a philosophy major at a Catholic college. I was utterly convinced not only that Christianity was the one true religion that God intended for all humanity, but also that the Catholic Church was the one true church that Christ intended for all Christians. From my study of Thomas Aquinas and modern Christian apologetics, I clearly saw that the central truths of Christianity (and of Catholicism) could be grasped by reason if only one was sincerely seeking God's truth, was humble enough to accept it, and took the time to inform oneself and follow the arguments.

All of this made perfect sense to me, and none of my teachers or fellow students (all of whom were Catholics) gave me any reason to question it. I tried out various apologetic arguments on my like-minded friends, who found them quite convincing. Occasionally they suggested improvements in my arguments, but none of us doubted the effectiveness of apologetics. The only real puzzle in my mind was this: since the truths of Christianity and Catholicism are so evident, why are they not more universally recognized? I concluded that those outside my religion or my church just did not know or did not understand these apologetic arguments, or that they were not completely sincere about seeking the truth...

This mind-set held together until I went to graduate school at secular universities and got to know people who had different religions. For the first time in my life, I got to know people who took other religions as seriously as I took mine. I knew these people were well educated and highly rational, and I could tell from our conversations that they were sincere. A few were people of great goodness and spiritual depth. Yet none of them was persuaded by my apologetics.

This means that if the purpose of apologetics is taken at face-value, "apologies are almost always abject failures." However, he writes:

The is another, more promising way to evaluate the apologetic genre. We can determine its audience, not by whom it seems to be aimed at, but by who actually reads it. And we can determine its purpose, not by what the author seems to intended, but by how it actually functions. if we proceed like this, we reach two important findings: (1) the audience for an apology is insiders; (2) its function is to support what the audience already believes.

This is nothing new to apologists, who know full well that their audiences are insiders. (Why else would Craig speak at Moody Memorial Church or write for Baker Book House?) So why do apologists write as if they were addressing outsiders? They do that, not because they are mistaken about their audience, but because that is the convention of the apologetic genre. An apt comparison is the genre of the open letter. An open letter may begin, "To the President of the United States," but both author and readers understand that the real audience is the general public. Readers don't think they are reading the president's mail... Authors of fables write about talking animals because that is how fables go, not because anyone thinks that animals really talk.

While Miller makes good points, he is too kind to treat the pretense of persuading outsiders as a mere genre convention and imply nobody believes it. He certainly seems to have believed his arguments would persuade outsiders when he was a Catholic college student.

Furthermore, both Josh McDowell and Lee Strobel make their self-presentation as former skeptics persuaded by overwhelming evidence a central part of their marketing. Their fans seem to mostly believe the marketing, and would therefore conclude Miller is wrong about the purpose of apologetics. But scratch the surface, and you start to see marketing is all it is. In recent editions of his books, McDowell claims that in college he traveled Europe researching the evidence for Christianity, but I've been unable to find any record of this claim prior to the 1999 edition of The Evidence that Demands a Verdict (the first edition was published in 1972). 

Lee Strobel's Case for... books go even further playing up the "former skeptic" angle. They consist of a series of interviews with Christian apologists, presented in narrative form with Strobel feigning skepticism and objectivity while pitching the apologists softball questions. In my experience, many of Strobel's fans believe their reading an account of Strobel's conversion. More attentive readers will notice Strobel only claims to be "retracing" his conversion. Strobel's earlier book, Inside the Mind of Unchurched Harry and Mary, gives the real story: Strobel started going to church because of his wife, found it emotionally moving, and then started reading up on apologetics to assure himself it was all true.

Apologetics is marketed this way because fans of apologetics want to believe it. And in his reply to Miller, Craig tries to keep up that image of apologetics, even while conceding some of Miller's points. Craig says he publishes at with evangelical publishing houses because "it is extraordinarily difficult to interest nonevangelical presses in publishing a defense of the historical resurrection of Jesus." Somehow, Craig doesn't consider that this might be because the audience for such material is composed almost entirely of evangelicals.

Craig concedes that few outsiders will be persuaded by his arguments, but then says there are exceptions to this rule. He has a couple stories of how, after one of his appearances on a college campus, a staff member from a campus Christian org (presumably the one that organized the event) told him he'd made some converts.

He also tells tells a story about meeting an investment banker who says he had "wanted to believe in Jesus," but had trouble buying the resurrection story. So he joined a small group at a local church and spent some time talking to one of the ministers there, who "laid out for him the evidence for Jesus' miraculous resurrection. After reading a book of evangelical responses to the liberal Jesus Seminar, the man says that "I asked Jesus into my life."

But Craig concedes the people in his anecdotes are unusual, so before I say anything about them, let's talk about the majority of apologetics consumers who are already believers. For many, I suspect, apologetics gives them a few extra good feels about their faith, but that's the extent of what it does for them. Miller certainly doesn't make it sound like his college-age self would have faced a major crisis of faith without apologetics.

For other Christians, however, consuming apologetics is part of a desperate attempt to hold on to their beliefs in the face of doubts. The ranks of the atheist movement are full of ex-Christians who went through an apologetics-reading phase for this reason. My impression, furthermore, is that there are Christians who have succeeded where many current atheists have failed. For example, Christian apologist Mike Licona (who made headlines when he was forced to resign from his position at Southern Evangelical Seminary for his ever-so-slight deviations from the inerrantist party line) credits his mentor in apologetics, Gary Habermas, with saving his faith.

In fact, when I read Eliezer say that, in the Orthodox Judaism of his childhood, "You're allowed to doubt.  You're just not allowed to successfully doubt," this struck me as a pretty good expression of an attitude that's common in evangelical Protestant apologetics. They may not take it as far as it's taken in Eliezer's account of Judaism—they don't raise doubts just to have a competition over who can come up with the most complicated explanation—but there's a resigned recognition that doubt is inevitable. So they talk about struggling with doubt, dealing with doubt, overcoming doubt, living with doubt. The message is that doubt can be embraced or at least tolerated, as long as you don't, as Eliezer would put it, doubt successfully.

Apologetics, though, seems to serve another, stranger purpose. Once, in college, I attended an apologetics talk put on by the local Campus Crusade chapter, and after the talk ran into an acquaintance who I got to talking with. He explained friends of his had told him about how Christianity had saved their lives, which made him want to convert, but he wasn't sure he could really believe it, hence going to the talk.

This seems to be part of a pattern with other stories I've heard, like Lee Strobel's story (the relatively unvarnished version from Inside the Mind...) and Craig's story of the investment banker: people decide they want to convert for emotional reasons, but some can't believe it at first, so they use apologetics as a tool to get themselves to believe what they've decided they want to believe.

In "The Bottom Line," Eliezer imagines the owner of a box paying a clever arguer to argue that there's a diamond inside. This is, in effect, the role of apologists, to make a living as clever arguers serving people who've decided they want to believe certain religious doctrines are true. As someone who's had rationalist instincts since before I knew anything about rationalism (as an intellectual tradition or movement), part of me is surprised that this would ever work. Shouldn't it be obvious to people that they're fooling themselves?

On the other hand, it says something about people's need to feel rational that they would go to the trouble, rather than just satisfying themselves with believing on faith, as many religious believers seem to do. In fact, this need may be more widespread than most people realize. In Why People Believe Weird Things, Michael Shermer reports on a study that found that while even most religious believers tend to assume other people believe for non-rational reasons, when you ask religious people about their own reasons for their religious beliefs, they're more likely to cite the argument from design than faith.

(What does all this mean for domains outside religion? I'm not actually sure, though there's some rather obvious connections you could draw with people's information-consuming habits in other areas. But that's a problem for another day...)

Comments (162)

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 22 October 2013 10:54:41AM *  12 points [-]

So, is the main purpose of apologetics generating fictional evidence that people can find religion convincing for reasons other than social pressure?

Nonbelievers don't buy this fictional evidence, because for them the "convincing" parts aren't really convincing; but that's okay, because they are not the target audience. Fresh converts find satisfaction in knowing that although they personally joined for social reasons, there were other good reasons for joining, too. Believers are reassured that it is okay to ignore all evidence supposedly against religion, because someone else can explain it all, and that the evidence is really on the side of the religion, as confirmed by the fictional stories of conversion after facing the evidence. Doubters receive guidelines for doubting unsuccessfully, which prevent some of them from finding a way to doubt successfully.

Comment author: Error 28 October 2013 03:00:15AM *  2 points [-]

Believers are reassured that it is okay to ignore all evidence supposedly against religion, because someone else can explain it all

This sounds like trusting domain experts to me, and that's often a decent heuristic. Especially if the cost of finding and vetting evidence is high -- or if you know you're just not very good at correctly extracting evidence from arguments -- taking a knowledgeable and trustworthy person's word for it is a good idea.

Under that model, the apologists are just exploiting an imperfect heuristic. Intentionally or otherwise.

Comment author: Desrtopa 28 October 2013 04:03:56AM *  1 point [-]

The heuristic becomes a bias though, when it skews in a predicable direction relative to accurate guidance. In this case, we have a significant bias towards seeking and trusting expert advice which supports what we already want to believe, rather than expert advice which challenges our current beliefs.

Comment author: KaynanK 22 October 2013 03:31:04PM 1 point [-]

And the apologists themselves either really enjoy the feeling that they know what the unbelievers don't, want to protect the flock against the evidence that would break their faith, or want to make lots of money selling books and DVDs to a large and credulous market.

You could argue for any of those options depending on the particular apologist.

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 23 October 2013 07:41:49AM *  10 points [-]

There are some comments here making a parallel between religious apologetics and some local applause lights (rationality, atheism, cryonics). I think there is some important difference, but it's hard to show exactly what it is. Also, I am not familiar with a lot of religious apologetics -- maybe some of it is more analogical and other is less.

I think the difference is in the attitude of the audience (the real target audience, as this article emphasises) towards the discussed topic, and the -uhm- tone of the author's voice (optimistic or desperate). Here is how I imagine a finctional LessWrong-ish apologetics:

"Dear rationalists! These days science is more unpopular than ever. People have many doubts. They say: no one has ever seen an atom with their own eyes. Scientists speak about interference of quantum particles in their laboratories, but no one has ever travelled to a parallel universe and back; some sciensists even doubt those universes really exist. Futurists often get their predictions wrong.

On the other hand, modern life offers a lot of temptations. You can read your horoscope and know what will happen to you. You can pray for success, and become successful, even without scientific research or rationality exercises. Homeopatic pills cure all kinds of diseases, even those where the official medicine offers no solution. Christianity in Africa helped to reduce the wars and feed the starving children, increasing the average lifespan by 20%.

Facing these strong arguments, it is really difficult to remain faithful to the science. Most of scientists privately admit they often have doubts about their life and education. This book is a story of my life, about how I left my university and spent a decade of my life in a religious cult, and what convinced me to come back. I will also share stories of other scientists in similar situations.

Argument 1: Science is old-fashioned and boring.

Preserving the tradition of Bacon's scientific method feels like living a few hundred years ago, while the society invents new and exciting conspiracy theories about everything around us. Young people don't consider spending their days in a lab wearing a white cloak a good use of their time. Test-tubes and pipettes seem boring compared with colorful mandalas. Reading scientific papers seems boring compared with watching The Zeitgeist.

But this is mostly a prejudice based on ignorance of the real science. I have seen many young people excited about spending their lives in labs. They didn't worry about missing the latest fashion or not having social life. They enjoyed learning from textbooks and doing experiments. Some of them later published their own textbooks. Therefore it is not true that science is old-fashioned and boring."

Et cetera. I hope I conveyed successfully the expression of defeat at the beginning, and then some kind of pride in stubborn resistance at the end. There is a list of good reasons to leave, most of them strawmanish but pointing at some real thing, and at the end there is no good argument for staying except for "but people can be happy in our tribe, too". A writer like S.C.Lewis would try convincing the reader that people want to leave our tribe because they want to signal contrarianism (because there is no other reason for wanting to leave our tribe), but the true contrarians play the game one level higher and not-leave. But contrarian or not, there is a stubborn pride in doing something that has so many widely accepted reasons for not doing, most of them very convincing.

Comment author: V_V 24 October 2013 03:33:29PM *  1 point [-]

Nice try.
I imagine LessWrong apologetics as somebody claiming that cryonics is likely to succeed because hard drives retain their data after you delete them. Oh wait, I didn't imagine it!

Comment author: fezziwig 24 October 2013 03:41:44PM *  0 points [-]

Christianity in Africa helped to reduce the wars and feed the starving children, increasing the average lifespan by 20%.

Is this true, or did you just make it up to parallel similar Christian passages about e.g. condoms and stem cell research?

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 24 October 2013 04:50:31PM *  1 point [-]

I made it up, just like the efficiency of horoscopes, prayer and homeopathics. More precisely, the information about increasing lifespan in Africa by 20% is true, I just made up the attribution to Christianity. However, any Christian apologist is allowed to steal this example and pretend it's true. Or you could imagine a less convenient universe where it's true.

Comment author: Lumifer 24 October 2013 03:48:32PM -1 points [-]

Is this true

You missed the sarcasm tags.

Granted, being invisible, they're a bit hard to see.

Comment author: army1987 25 October 2013 09:36:14AM 0 points [-]

no one has ever seen an atom with their own eyes

Ahem.

(Unless “with their own eyes” means something such that no-one's ever seen a cell with their own eyes either.)

Comment author: mwengler 25 October 2013 05:47:38PM 5 points [-]

Atoms are too small to see with visible light. Its a matter of physics, something much smaller than a wavelength of light cannot be imaged by it, the image has a resolution limit of perhaps 1/3 to 1/2 a wavelength. You can "see" them in scanning tunneling microscopes by raster scanning a surface and measuring the current flowing at each point along the raster scan. You then make a color plot with the color showing how much current is flowing at each point in the raster scan and the result is an image that LOOKS like something you could be seeing, but it is a so-called false image.

Cells with nuclei (eukaryotic) are all big enough to see with visible light. They range in size from 10 to 100 microns, the wavelength of visible light is about 0.5 microns. Yes, you have to focus the light through a magnifying glass or a microscope to see them. But do you generally think of someone wearing glasses as not seeing the things they are looking at because the light is focused through a lens?

I think if you are going to be successfully pedantic you require a hire level of accuracy.

Comment author: Kurros 28 October 2013 01:50:27AM 0 points [-]

It is not very useful to discriminate between "seeing with your eyes" and "seeing with the aid of scientific instruments". Vast amounts of information processing occurs between light landing on your retina and an image forming in your brain, so if you are happy to call looking through glasses, or a microscope, or a telescope, "seeing with your eyes" then I see no reason to make a distinction when the information-carrying particle switches from photons to electrons. Especially since we mostly use digital microscopes etc. these days.

Comment author: mwengler 28 October 2013 01:23:37PM 0 points [-]

Sure and most of the stories I hear I actually read printed words off a page. Somehow, I'd like people describing things to me to not worry so much about what is more important as much as I'd like them to worry about whether what they are saying is accurate. Even if a distinction is claimed to be not important by the teller, they can still stick to accurate descriptions. And sometimes, you know, people disagree about what is and isn't important, and accuracy allows them to still communicate in a productive way.

Comment author: Creutzer 28 October 2013 05:20:51AM 0 points [-]

You may argue that it is not useful, but it is still natural.

Comment author: TsviBT 21 October 2013 11:40:59PM 10 points [-]

This is not something you will learn even from reading many atheist critiques of apologetics, because many critics are willing to politely play along with the pretense that the purpose of apologetics is to open minded-skeptics and debates between skeptics and believers are serious intellectual engagements.

This sentence is messed up.

Comment author: fezziwig 24 October 2013 03:35:51PM 2 points [-]

My proposed fix:

This is not something you will learn even from reading many atheist critiques of apologetics, because many critics are willing to politely play along with the pretense that the purpose of apologetics is to convert open minded-skeptics and that debates between skeptics and believers are serious intellectual engagements.

Comment author: Jonathan_Graehl 22 October 2013 02:02:48AM 2 points [-]

'convert open-minded skeptics, and ...' ?

Comment author: Jack 23 October 2013 11:31:15PM *  9 points [-]

What does all this mean for domains outside religion? I'm not actually sure, though there's some rather obvious connections you could draw with people's information-consuming habits in other areas.

"Connections you could draw" seems like an understatement. Coming from a family that wasn't religious but was very political I don't see any significant difference between religious apologia and political apologia.

I'm not even sure I see a difference in function between religious apologia and atheist apologia. Harris, Dawkins and Hitchens --the most prominent anti-apologists-- do not optimize for de-conversion. They are/were popular because of their popularity among unbelievers. They probably have a slightly better ratio of agreeing to disagreeing readers than Christian writes. But that is probably just because there are more Christians. They probably are also slightly more successful at converting, but that is probably just because they are right. I'd bet most people buy their books to feel more secure in their worldview and more confident in their intelligence and ability to win arguments. They confirm beliefs and flatter egos and make it easier for their readers to signal positive traits to their social groups. Same goes for most forms of atheist 'activism' honestly.

The appropriate Hansonism is something like "atheism isn't about God not existing".

(Also, Chris: I think you and I are about to be in the same App Academy Cohort-- saw your name in the emails and recognized you here.)

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 24 October 2013 08:57:40AM *  12 points [-]

A big part of what Dawkins and others do is signalling high status of atheists.

To explain, imagine that you have two groups A and B living next to each other. Members of the group A have regular meetings listening to guys who say offensive stuff about the group B. ("They are fools, they are immoral, they will be punished in the future and they deserve it.") Speaking these offensive things is socially acceptable; actually it is kind of a taboo to point out their offensiveness. The freedom of group A to speak offensive things about group B is considered one of the most important rights in the society. -- On the other hand, members of the group B are taught that in privacy they are allowed to politely disagree with the teachings of group A, but in any confrontations being extremely polite is critical to their being good citizens. No matter how unfair the group A is towards them, the group B is not socially allowed to defend on the same level.

Guess which one of these two groups has a higher status.

Maybe the group A are Muslims, and the group B are dhimmis. Or maybe the group A are Christians, and the group B are atheists.

People like Dawkins are demonstrating that it is not only okay to be an atheist, but it is okay to be an atheist who does not behave like a dhimmi, despite being socially conditioned and expected to do so. They show that you can display high status and get away with it. They show that the balance of power is not the same as in the past when the social norms were formed. Your religious neighbors may be offended, but they can't burn you at the stake anymore. And fuck them; they were saying and listening to offensive stuff about people like you for years, you were just not socially expected to fight back!

The relation between this and conversion is indirect. In a perfect world, people would choose their religious opinions based on evidence. In this world, status plays an important role in choosing sides. No one has a desire to become low-status, but some people are willing to accept this trade-off because of other things they value. Without strong reasons to act otherwise, people are most likely to choose the higher-status group and remain loyal to it. Now more people can become atheists without paying a cost in status.

And yeah, being right means that now you have status and reality on your side. Which is still far from being an obvious winner, because magical thinking and other biases remain on the other side. Anyway, having more status is better than having less status, ceteris paribus.

Religious apologetics also contains some status-building parts (it often says that people are irreligious because they are stupid and evil), but for the religious side that's not the only channel for status signalling. There is nothing offensive about atheists that you wouldn't already hear repeatedly in most churches. So I guess it is safe to assume that religious apologetics' primary function is something else.

Comment author: Nornagest 24 October 2013 07:11:02PM *  2 points [-]

No matter how unfair the group A is towards them, the group B is not socially allowed to defend on the same level. ... Guess which one of these two groups has a higher status.

I don't think this dynamic is as closely linked to status as you seem to be implying. We could, for example, be looking at union members and executives in the lead-up to a strike, or the adherents of an extremist sect next to the more liberal religion it sprang from. Yet in both cases I don't think many of us would consider the former to hold higher status than the latter.

Similar but less extreme relationships also tend to hold in the aftermath of successful civil rights movements.

Comment author: Jack 24 October 2013 06:42:03PM *  1 point [-]

I actually find this framing -- that atheists are/were this semi-oppressed low-status group -- pretty unpersuasive. As a matter of fact that vast majority of atheists come from the most high status groups in society. And there is a long history of atheistic elites looking down on the superstitions of the proles. Even the admission of atheism itself doesn't so much signal low-status as it does a sort of untrustworthy amorality while simultaneously signalling intelligence and affiliation with high-status academics. Trust is certainly related to status; but I don't think it is quite the same thing. I would compare the social penalties of explicit atheism to something like the social penalties of "acting white" among African-American teenagers. It's not punishment for signalling low-status but punishment for signalling high-status in an unwanted way.

It seems like the atheist "movement" probably wouldn't have happened without our strong social pressures against explicitly recognizing cognitive superiority. The elimination of codified status increases resources spent on signalling un-codified status for the same reason violence only breaks out when there is uncertainty over who will win. And it seems like past generations of atheists routinely embraced a sort of noblese oblige about religion. "Yes, people who believe in God are certainly wrong but it is probably good for them and there is no need to show off how much smarter I am than they." Norms against paternalism make that attitude harder to hold today. The overall result is a climate of insecurity: the attitudes that used to let atheists keep quiet about their beliefs while maintaining a sense of superiority no longer exist. Some atheists might notice that the pledge of allegiance contains "under God" and most Americans don't want an atheist as President. Because of status insecurity they take these as genuine status threats and come up with this whole idea that they are an oppressed group.

Now, holding religious beliefs certainly comes with a cost. So maybe trying to make atheism even more high status is worthwhile. But religion appears to have genuinely beneficial effects on at least some people-- so I'm not sure that equation balances out the way us atheists would like it to. And of course, it is unlikely that outspoken atheists are really motivated by a desire to reduce the social costs of religiosity. If that were the case they would be content to advocate for the sort of secularized theism/ agnostic spirituality which is easier for people to adopt but contains almost no risk of fanaticism or misplaced attention on theology. Really, the only reason to adamantly advocate for a narrow metaphysical position that has zero practical implications is to show off how smart you are.

Religious apologetics also contains some status-building parts (it often says that people are irreligious because they are stupid and evil), but for the religious side that's not the only channel for status signalling. There is nothing offensive about atheists that you wouldn't already hear repeatedly in most churches. So I guess it is safe to assume that religious apologetics' primary function is something else.

Really? I think the facade of successful argument is absolutely crucial for religious people to maintain the pretense that they are actually smarter than atheists. It's a much more successful set of signals than complaints about sinners or yelling about atheists going to hell. The latter has the reek of "yes, you might be low-status now but in Heaven everything will be made right".

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 25 October 2013 08:28:42AM *  4 points [-]

The word "status" is too wide brush; sometimes is may be argued that both sides have higher status depending on which aspects one focuses on. Also, it may depend on country; although I think this specific case should be true for USA, too. Instead of debating whether a falling tree in an empty forest makes a sound, let's address the specific claims:

  • Scientists are respected (by some parts of society), and they are often irreligious. The state supports them by giving them money, letting them run universities, etc.
  • Priests are respected (by some parts of society). The state supports them by giving them special tax status, etc. (details depend on specific country).
  • Schools teach secular science. Sometimes there are problems, but the victories are overwhelmingly on one side.
  • Expressions of religion are pushed into schools. Depending on the specific country we may be talking about mandatory religious education, crosses on the walls, or making students recite the Pledge of Allegiance with added words "under God".
  • Many religious people openly say they wouldn't vote an atheist into an office. Therefore people have to pay lip service to religion if they compete for an elected position. (On the other hand, politics is always about saying what your voters want to hear.)
  • Ignoring religious rules is something powerful people can do to signal their power.
  • It is socially accepted for religious people to say offensive things about atheists; things that would be classified as an obvious hate speech if they were made about some other group of people outside of religious context.
  • Laws are mostly secular. Religious people can get some victories like preventing gay marriage; but they are not able to have people executed for heresy, and usually can't even make abortion illegal. (There are countries where this is completely different, but most of the developed world is like this.)

Okay, now it seems balanced, perhaps even better for the atheist side. Seems like religion's power is mostly in "talking", while atheists have power in "doing". An atheist must sometimes pay lip service to the religion, but the religious people are aware that often this is all they get. Now if the atheists stop even being respectful to religious people, they lost it all... or must organize a counter-attack. The religious people still have an advantage in numbers. But if they lose real power and respect, they will start losing the numbers, too. And I guess it already happens... just very slowly.

Looking back to my previous post... I guess this is what it feels like from inside to believe to be arguing for the underdog when in reality one merely signals their belonging to the winning faction. Interesting!

Comment author: Nornagest 25 October 2013 08:54:17PM 0 points [-]

Most of what you're counting as victories for atheism seem to point more to secular reductionism or Enlightenment values than to atheism per se. I suppose there's an argument to be made that that sort of thing is implicitly atheist, but I'd be more comfortable saying that it represents a cultural tendency that might be excluded by some religious frameworks but basically runs orthogonal to religiosity as such. Most of the people originally spearheading the Enlightenment weren't atheists, although I wouldn't call many of them traditional religionists by any means.

Put another way, it's possible for atheist identity to be socially condemned but secular praxis not to be. Here in the US, it's not at all hard to find nominal Christians that nonetheless rely on secular reductionist models for pretty much all decisions not involving actual religious ritual; I'd even call that the norm in many segments of society. If you're feeling generous, you could also add a selection of moral issues that reduce to complicated sociological questions without much in the way of empirical backing.

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 26 October 2013 10:54:03AM 0 points [-]

it's possible for atheist identity to be socially condemned but secular praxis not to be

Exactly.

Comment author: Luke_A_Somers 24 October 2013 08:13:33PM 2 points [-]

2nd sentence: If so, they are those who can afford to burn some status to avow it. Saying something is expensive does not mean that only poor people have it. This breaks the parallel given above, yes.

3rd sentence: there is a long history of any elite looking down on anything of the proles.

it is unlikely that outspoken atheists are really motivated by a desire to reduce the social costs of religiosity.

... why? Some try what you suggest, but I hardly see it as an slam-dunk superior strategy.

Comment author: Jack 25 October 2013 05:22:18AM 0 points [-]

If so, they are those who can afford to burn some status to avow it.

Sure, but you don't really think IQ and education have nothing to do with whether someone is an atheist, right?

Here is a question; are people among the cognitive and educational who have other status hits more or less likely to be an atheist? If you're right then men who are educated and have high IQs but are gay should be less likely to admit to atheism, yes?

... why? Some try what you suggest, but I hardly see it as an slam-dunk superior strategy.

The point isn't even whether one is better than the other (though it certainly seems plausible that a less radical, more comforting position made with a kinder, politer tone would do better). The point is people who try that strategy don't get book deals. They don't even get popular on the internet. And that is despite it probably being the more popular position over all. They don't get popular because the readership of pro-atheist arguments are people who already agree with the arguments. Remember this quote:

Why is it that few, if any, outsiders will be persuaded by Craig's apology? From the way he presents it, we get the impression that he thinks nobody who is informed, rational, and sincere could disagree with it...

You could replace "Craig" with Dawkins, Harris or Hitchens and no one would even notice.

Comment author: Jiro 25 October 2013 02:26:53PM 1 point [-]

Sure, but you don't really think IQ and education have nothing to do with whether someone is an atheist, right?

If they do because people with those traits can more afford to lose the status, that's still having something to do with it.

Besides, there's the huge confounding factor that being educated or high IQ is more likely to lead to lead you to truth and atheism is true.

If you're right then men who are educated and have high IQs but are gay should be less likely to admit to atheism, yes?

If the status lost by being atheist and the status lost by being gay are completely different, this would be true. I would suggest that the status that is lost by either one overlaps heavily, given the nature of anti-gay bias. Someone who already lost that portion of status because of being gay cannot lose it again by being atheist. This would neutralize or even reverse the effect.

Comment author: Luke_A_Somers 25 October 2013 03:34:20PM 0 points [-]

Sure, but you don't really think IQ and education have nothing to do with whether someone is an atheist, right?

That was a confounding factor so obvious that I thought it didn't need to be mentioned. Its existence certainly doesn't strengthen your case!

If you're right then men who are educated and have high IQs but are gay should be less likely to admit to atheism, yes?

That's a very interesting question! It does seem to be an implication, at least at first glance. I suspect that it will depend on the relative prevalence of anti-gay sentiment in religious and atheistic communities, which will vary from locale to locale.

(so far, this is basically a +1 to Jiro's comment)

The point is people who try that strategy don't get book deals.

That provides a selection effect. It's another step from there to it warping the motivations. And it's a doozy. You're asking us to believe that atheists would seriously consider writing books just to get people to adopt a more moderate tone in their religion, without advocating for atheism, just because that would be more effective, and that it took a monetary incentive to get them to change their minds?

The idea that they couldn't possibly write such a volume seems like it ought to enter into the reasoning process somewhere.

Comment author: Jack 25 October 2013 07:51:42PM 0 points [-]

That was a confounding factor so obvious that I thought it didn't need to be mentioned. Its existence certainly doesn't strengthen your case!

Of course it does: being high status (having a high IQ and a good education) makes you an atheist. So when norms are changed to benefit atheists they're benefiting a high-status group of people. If atheist books are about making atheists higher status it's about making high-status people have higher status.

It's like if I wrote about how bespoke suits are awesome. Sure you could point to lots of people who make fun of bespoke suits ("you look like a dandy" or "sell-out!") and suggest that rich educated people are the only people who can accept the status hit to wear them. But wearing a bespoke suit is a marker of high status groups. If you don't have a great job in certain sectors and make a lot of money you don't end up wearing one. It isn't meaningful to try to think about the status effects of atheism and suit-wearing in isolation from the cultural environment in which they exist. Being an atheist is part of being part of the cognitive elite.

You're asking us to believe that atheists would seriously consider writing books just to get people to adopt a more moderate tone in their religion, without advocating for atheism, just because that would be more effective, and that it took a monetary incentive to get them to change their minds?

I'm saying that atheist apologetics is more or less symmetrical to Christian apologetics in it's function. They provide people with confidence in their worldview and bolster their status. As such, the market for books by atheists is driven by atheists just like the market for books by Christians is driven by Christians. If atheist writing and activism were actually about trying to reduce the social costs of religion they wouldn't sound like Richard Dawkins and Chris Hitchens.

I'm not saying there is some conspiracy among atheist book publishers to keep people from being moderate. I'm saying the market reflects what people value: signalling intelligence and status, not an altruistic drive to help society by reducing the impact of religion. I'm not saying there is anything sinister at work. I'm certain atheists and Christians both think they are trying to improve the world: but really it's mostly about signaling.

Comment author: Luke_A_Somers 26 October 2013 03:40:07PM *  0 points [-]

Of course it does: being high status (having a high IQ and a good education) makes you an atheist.

Whoa, you're mucking around with the causality here.

Having high IQ and good education -> high status;

same factors -> atheist.

They share causes. One does not follow from the other.

On the publishing, you just said right there that the filter lies at the publisher level - not the author level. The more controversial, less useful books sell better. That I would agree with, but that's not what you said earlier - you specifically addressed the authors' motivations. Nothing you've said addresses that.

Neither of us even moved towards suggesting a conspiracy. Where did that come from?

Comment author: Jack 26 October 2013 09:12:15PM *  0 points [-]

On the publishing, you just said right there that the filter lies at the publisher level - not the author level. The more controversial, less useful books sell better. That I would agree with, but that's not what you said earlier - you specifically addressed the authors' motivations. Nothing you've said addresses that.

Authors respond to incentives like everyone else in the history of the world. But I was never talking about authors motivations: I was talking about the values illustrated by the atheist movement as can be seen from what the book market produces.

Neither of us even moved towards suggesting a conspiracy. Where did that come from?

I can't understand what you disputable about my position so I was guessing at possible miscommunications.

Comment author: Luke_A_Somers 27 October 2013 02:59:54PM *  1 point [-]

I was never talking about authors motivations

vs

it is unlikely that outspoken atheists are really motivated by a desire to reduce the social costs of religiosity.

Comment author: hairyfigment 25 October 2013 06:07:28AM 0 points [-]

If you're right then men who are educated and have high IQs but are gay should be less likely to admit to atheism, yes?

Sure, if they don't perceive religious people pushing them away. Not sure what community of high-IQ men would let you test this, but perhaps you could study Unitarians.

The point is people who try that strategy don't get book deals.

Did you mean to say something less blatantly false?

Comment author: Jack 25 October 2013 08:45:30AM 1 point [-]

Did you mean to say something less blatantly false?

I'm not sure how many on that list actually qualify as non-believers who who write books targeted to religious fundamentalists urging them to moderate their views. Most sound like religious people trying to get atheists to be more spiritual. But even to the extent that they exemplify that approach: outside of the Dalai Lama how many books have the last 20 winners sold? How many are idolized by atheists?

Comment author: Jiro 24 October 2013 08:56:42PM *  1 point [-]

As a matter of fact that vast majority of atheists come from the most high status groups in society.

... because people who are otherwise high status are the only ones who can afford to take the hit in status from being atheist. (Also, because other things being equal, being right is more likely to lead to high status than being wrong.)

And of course, it is unlikely that outspoken atheists are really motivated by a desire to reduce the social costs of religiosity. If that were the case they would be content to advocate for the sort of secularized theism/ agnostic spirituality which is easier for people to adopt but contains almost no risk of fanaticism or misplaced attention on theology. Really, the only reason to adamantly advocate for a narrow metaphysical position that has zero practical implications is to show off how smart you are.

That doesn't follow, because people value being honest. Most people would not advocate a position that's 95% of their own position, but insincere, in preference to sincerely advocating their own position, even if the remaining 5% has no practical applications.

Comment author: Jack 25 October 2013 05:07:24AM 2 points [-]

... because people who are otherwise high status are the only ones who can afford to take the hit in status from being atheist. (Also, because other things being equal, being right is more likely to lead to high status than being wrong.)

It seems plausible there is some selection effect like that. But people who have high IQs and good science educations are way more likely to become atheists for what seem like obvious reasons. 72% of the National Academy of Scientists are explicitly atheist. You don't really think that's just because they face less stigma, right?

That doesn't follow, because people value being honest.

Honesty is a sufficient explanation for why, when asked if they believe in God, someone answers "No.". It isn't an explanation for dedicated careers, blogs and books to showing everyone that God doesn't exist. There are lots of things people can spend their time talking about and honesty doesn't explain the need to tell people they are wrong. Honesty isn't a sufficient explanation for the same reason it isn't a sufficient explanation of Christian apologetics.

Most people would not advocate a position that's 95% of their own position, but insincere, in preference to sincerely advocating their own position, even if the remaining 5% has no practical applications.

Really? I see people doing that all the time. 5% even seems low. In contexts where what people advocate is actually going to have an impact (like within social groups or in the work place) you routinely see people compromise and bite their tongue in order to make their advocacy more persuasive. Unrestrained, unproductive honesty is a great indicator that someone is interested less in persuading and more in showing off. Compare politicians to political/policy journalists and compare both to the average partisan on the Internet. The less someone thinks their words will accomplish the more likely they are to speak in an unfiltered way.

Comment author: Jiro 25 October 2013 02:32:18PM *  0 points [-]

72% of the National Academy of Scientists are explicitly atheist. You don't really think that's just because they face less stigma, right?

It's not just because they face less stigma. It's also because in order to become a scientist, you have to be able to reason well, and if you reason well, you're more likely to be atheist. You may as well study whether scientists can balance their checkbook, discover that more of them can than the general public, and conclude that balancing their checkbook signals high status rather than the fact that smart people balance their checkbooks more than stupid people.

Honesty is a sufficient explanation for why, when asked if they believe in God, someone answers "No.". It isn't an explanation for dedicated careers, blogs and books to showing everyone that God doesn't exist.

The honesty just explains the last 5%. As you acknowledge, other explanations would explain why someone would write books about a generalized secular agnosticism. Honesty is just what leads an atheist to write the book about atheism instead of agnosticism, rather than being his impetus for writing a book at all.

Comment author: Jack 25 October 2013 08:48:51PM -1 points [-]

You may as well study whether scientists can balance their checkbook, discover that more of them can than the general public, and conclude that balancing their checkbook signals high status rather than the fact that smart people balance their checkbooks more than stupid people.

Publicly mentioning balancing your checkbook certainly signals higher status! The explanation for why people don't believe in God is that God doesn't exist and people with intelligence and education can figure that out. The explanation for why people go around loudly proclaiming disbelief is that it signals they are intelligent and well educated enough to figure out that God doesn't exist.

The honesty just explains the last 5%. As you acknowledge, other explanations would explain why someone would write books about a generalized secular agnosticism. Honesty is just what leads an atheist to write the book about atheism instead of agnosticism, rather than being his impetus for writing a book at all.

So you're saying someone decides to dedicate their lives to reducing the impact of religion on the world and then honesty just compels them to write in a way that is optimized for signalling the intelligence and status of their community rather than reducing the impact of religion? It's not just saying "there is no god" when you could say "maybe there is no god": it's about tone and language. Most popular atheist writing contains exactly the same tone of condescension as the stuff William Lane Craig writes, the same tone of superiority as a book written by Al Franken or Sean Hannity.

Do you agree that religious and political polemics aren't really about helping the other side see the light? If so, why would it be different for atheism?

I'm not saying that Richard Dawkins sits down to write "The God Delusion" thinking "ugh, those religious people are so low status, I need to write a book about how much better atheists and scientists are". I adore Dawkins. But if you want to see what people value: look at the market. The most successful and respected atheist writers are/were renowned not for empathizing, patient explanations but for their barbed wit and knockdown rhetoric. The second tier of atheist media is even worse: the Victor Stenger books, the Bill Maher movie. Look at r/atheism which is entirely image macros about how theists are dumb being sent back and forth between atheists. I see no indication anywhere that the movement values people and work based on how effective they are at deconverting theists and not just how good they are at making other atheists feel good about themselves.

Comment author: Jiro 25 October 2013 09:13:05PM 0 points [-]

So you're saying someone decides to dedicate their lives to reducing the impact of religion on the world and then honesty just compels them to write in a way that is optimized for signalling the intelligence and status of their community rather than reducing the impact of religion?

Huh? They decide to write the book in order to reduce the impact of religion. The fact that the book is specifically atheist rather than "secularized theism/ agnostic spirituality" happens because they are atheist and being honest about their beliefs.

It is far from unlikely that someone who writes an anti-religion book and is an atheist would write the book from an atheist perspective rather than another anti-religion perspective. That choice is not so implausible that you need to explain the coincidence away by saying that that's not his real reason and it must be status signalling instead.

Comment author: Jack 25 October 2013 09:31:17PM 3 points [-]

You're missing the forest for the trees. Obviously any one person could be writing for any reason at all. The question is what do successful atheist polemics have in common, and why.

Again, I'm curious if you see the pattern I'm pointing out in other areas? Do you think most popular political books are optimized to convert the undecided or the opposition? Or are atheists special?

Comment author: TheOtherDave 24 October 2013 07:16:13PM *  1 point [-]

Agreed with most of this, but...

I think the facade of successful argument is absolutely crucial for religious people to maintain the pretense that they are actually smarter than atheists.

Very few of the religious people I know attempt to frame themselves as smarter than atheists (nor as smarter than members of other religions). Rather, they attempt to frame themselves as more moral than atheists. (Although the constraints on discourse usually obligate them to do so very indirectly.)

That said, the facade of successful argument is admittedly crucial to avoid being framed as dumber than atheists. Which isn't the same thing at all.

Comment author: Jack 24 October 2013 07:33:58PM 0 points [-]

I agree with this, though I think there is a minority of religious people for whom feeling smarter than atheists actually is important.

Comment author: Brillyant 24 October 2013 07:37:37PM 2 points [-]

You make a good point in saying their conversion rates are likely higher just as a matter of them being right.

I think Hitchens and Dawkins provide a much needed antithetical punch in the nose of religion's thesis.

For deconverts from Christianity (like myself), I'd credit them with being something like an atheist pastor during the strange existential/nihilistic void that many feel after losing faith.

I suppose I did read them to feel more secure in my worldview and confirm my beliefs (or rather doubts)... but it felt more like a much-needed antidote to the long-standing effects religion's poison.

Comment author: selylindi 22 October 2013 04:49:21PM *  6 points [-]

The article's conclusion is that "people decide they want to convert for emotional reasons, but some can't believe it at first, so they use apologetics as a tool to get themselves to believe what they've decided they want to believe."

So we expect apologetic literature and speakers as a market niche wherever there are emotionally manipulative (claimed) rewards and punishments attendant on belief. Some rewards and punishments are quite real, like social status, praise, and condemnation. Others are fictional, like afterlives and the deep satisfaction of living according to divine law.

Similarly to mainstream religion, there is plentiful apologetic literature, speakers, and films for political ideologies. The social rewards of being in a political group are real; the future consequences that are promised if only enough elections can be won may or may not be real.

Given religions where beliefs are not rewarded or punished, we'd expect little or no consumption of apologetics. Shinto, neopaganism, and Unitarian Universalism fit that. However, there is certainly plenty of apologetic literature for secular humanist atheism, which also lacks the rewards/punishments. That looks to almost entirely undermine the hypothesis.

There is also basically no apologetic literature for believing in the greatness of particular sports teams, despite the large social rewards of being in a fanbase and the promised vicarious glory of psyching your team up for a win by your fervent support. OK, so to me the hypothesis is dead. Something more is going on than simple market response to rewarded/punished belief.

Any ideas what?

There were three times in my life when I consumed apologetics. First was when I was evangelical Protestant and it was a tool for the religious imperative of winning converts. Second was when I could no longer believe my childhood religion, but still believed in God and the importance of Jesus, and so I read the apologetics of other religions to see which was most likely true, and I ended up converting Catholic for a while. Third was when I became infatuated with the principled style of libertarian political ideology and needed the apologetics to "understand" why nothing fit.

Based on my own anecotal experience, then, my next hypothesis would be that apologetic argument and literature is demanded when people are (1) committed to a theory (for any reasons good or bad) and (2) also committed to acknowledging the facts, and (3) the facts don't fit the theory in a straightforward way, and (4) complex fits of facts to theory are tolerated.

Religions that propose explanations would then be expected to have apologetics, and religions that don't propose explanations would not. All political ideologies would be expected to have apologetics, because it's an unfortunate fact of life that the consequences of politics are very complicated. Secular humanist atheists, insofar as they propose explanations for life, the universe, and everything, similarly end up occasionally faced with bizarre and extraordinary scenarios that defy simple explanation, and so they have apologetics. Some sports fans may, after a loss, blame the coach, the refs, the weather, and other factors, but at least in my experience most are willing to believe the other team played better. Oddly, we even end up with pro-science apologetics sometimes; at least I remember my physics and chemistry professors spending inordinate time mis-explaining phenomena when they were committed to the phenomena being explainable primarily by that week's lesson.

It seems to fit. And it suggests that the process leading to apologetics can be interrupted at two places, as described elsewhere by Eliezer. First, don't be committed to a theory. Don't make a belief part of your identity. Let your beliefs be faithless and blown about by the winds of evidence. Second, count facts that require detailed explanations as contrary evidence even if the explanation is adequate. (This is not strictly Bayesianly correct but it seems like a good approximation.)

Comment author: Zvi 28 October 2013 12:59:48PM 4 points [-]

There is apologetic literature for sports teams, if you're looking for it. Most of the time you can find some in your local paper, and it goes all the way up to book form. The difference is that a sports fan doesn't think that everyone should root for their team; sports requires a loyal opposition. One major audience is those who move, and thus need to become convinced to root for their new home team. And indeed, most of the time it comes down to one of the following arguments:

  1. This team has a long and honored tradition, thus the rewards of being a fan are deeper.
  2. This team has a chance to win, Real Soon Now, thus you are more likely to be rewarded with victory. (This one is a large % of the sports section, and often is the back page of the New York Post).
  3. This team's fans are better in some way, thus you want to be one of them.
  4. This team's players are just dandy, awesome people, so root for them! The extent to which people change their arguments here after trades or free agent signings or drafts is staggering.
Comment author: RichardKennaway 22 October 2013 02:36:05PM 6 points [-]

we reach two important findings: (1) the audience for an apology is insiders; (2) its function is to support what the audience already believes.

Or perhaps it is a matter of inferential distance? There is little point in booming religion to atheists. Few will be convinced. Those on the edges, though, and those within who have never really thought about their religion, will be more fertile ground. Think of it as triage: saving those who both need saving, and can be saved.

To what extent are postings such as this apologetics, by this understanding of the word, for rationality? Or the CFAR workshops? Or the Sequences? How many religious folk have been deconverted by reading LessWrong, in proportion to the number who feel like they found what they always believed?

A poll. In the below, read "LessWrong" as meaning LessWrong itself, LessWrong meetups, CFAR workshops, and any similar activities connected with LessWrong. "Religious" means considering oneself a member of a specific named religion, with attendant supernatural beliefs.

Submitting...

Comment author: Wes_W 24 October 2013 04:35:58PM 3 points [-]

Some of Eliezer's writings played a significant role in my deconversion. By the time I found Less Wrong, I could not have been described as anything like devout, but still mostly alieved the religion I was raised in. Any decent atheist writer might have had a similar effect, I suspect: for me, the key was seeing how an atheist thinks about things, and noticing that it made perfect sense.

On my own, I might have fumbled to atheism eventually, but almost certainly a shakier and lower-quality form of it.

Comment author: JQuinton 22 October 2013 04:57:56PM 9 points [-]

I answered this poll with "LessWrong has had no particular impact on my beliefs regarding religion" but that's not really true.

Reading LessWrong actually made me less antagonistic towards religion, since I didn't start reading about cognitive science and sociology until being prompted by reading LessWrong posts. Reading that stuff made me realize that there isn't some "rational little homunculus inside that is being ‘corrupted’ by all these evolved heuristics and biases layered over it" but that we are biases and heuristics; religion isn't some alien thing to be removed from the planet, but more like something that we should harness and possibly try to make healthier versions of.

Comment author: ChrisHallquist 22 October 2013 03:58:25PM 6 points [-]

I'd actually be surprised if LessWrong made many deconverts (though such people would be interesting to hear from, if they exist). The Sequences take atheism and a vague respect for rationality for granted, and focus on arguing about other topics. And the Sequences have shifted my beliefs around on some of those other topics, most notably Bayesianism.

The comparison to apologetics is more apt, I think, for sites like Rational Wiki, which Konkvistador aptly described as, "what a slightly left of centre atheist needs to win an internet debate... an ammunition depot to aid in winning debates."

Comment author: BlueSun 24 October 2013 03:42:42PM 9 points [-]

I deconverted in large part because of Less Wrong. Looking back at it now, I hadn't had a strong belief since I was 18 (by which I mean, if you asked most believers what the p(god) is they'd say 100% whereas I might have said 90%) but that might just be my mind going back and fixing memories so present me thinks better of past me.

I'd be happy to do an AMA (I went from Mormon to Atheist) but a couple of the main things that convinced me were:

  • Seeing that other apologists could make up similar arguments to make just about anything look true (for example, other religious apologists, homeopathy, anti-vaccines, etc)

  • Seeing the evidence for evolution and specifically, how new information supports true things. That showed me that for true things, new information doesn't need to be explained away, but actually supports the hypothesis. For example, with evolution discoveries such as carbon dating, the fossil record, and DNA all support it. Those same discoveries have to be explained away via apologetics for religions.

  • Bayesian thinking. I have an econ background so kind of did this informally but the emphasis from less wrong that once you see evidence against you need to actively lower your probability a bit really helped me. Before I'd done what EY pointed out where you take all of your evidence for and stacked that against this one evidence against and then when the next evidence against comes along you take all your evidence for and stack it against that one evidence, etc.

  • The value that I want to believe what is true. I had this before but wasn't as proactive about it.

  • Before I felt like my belief system was logical and fit the evidence and if someone didn't believe it was because they hadn't looked at the evidence and fairly considered it. Seeing people look at the evidence and then cogently explain why they still didn't believe gave me a "I notice I'm confused" moment.\

  • etc.

Comment author: Brillyant 24 October 2013 07:23:08PM 3 points [-]

• Seeing that other apologists could make up similar arguments to make just about anything look true (for example, other religious apologists, homeopathy, anti-vaccines, etc)

I see a couple things similar to this that were probably the biggest factors in my deconversion now that I look back.

Within Christianity, over a long period of time, they are so sure about so many views that end up being demonstrably wrong.

They are sure that the Earth is the center of the universe. And when that debate is finally settled, they are just as sure that evolution is false...

And then, in time, when that debate is just as settled (in the public) as heliocentrism, they'll retreat, and then dig in and try to argue for the next line of nonsense for X decades/centuries.

Something similar also occurs in all the different sects of Christianity at any given time. They are often each equally convinced of mutually exclusive claims. One sect is sure speaking in tongues is from God, one is sure it is from the Devil, one is sure it only existed -- but only in the first century, one is sure it is nonsense (but they still accept all the other magical stuff in the Bible).

The interesting observation (and the thing that helped me de-convert) is that among all these differing beliefs, Christians of all stripes from all times use basically the same apologetic tactics and seem to be each convinced that they are right because of some sophisticated-sounding hermeneutic they use to "rightly interpret the Bible".

Using the Bible, you could argue for almost any position you'd like and make it look true as long as you find a way to tie it to "Scripture".

Reminds me of a quote from an old LW post... "If you are equally good at explaining any outcome, you have zero knowledge."

Comment author: Nornagest 24 October 2013 07:41:25PM *  0 points [-]

I don't think it's entirely fair to blame e.g. geocentrist cosmology on Christianity qua religion. Those debates happened at a time when the Church was, or recently had been, the primary European vector of literacy and philosophy: basically the only intellectual game in town. Challenges to its natural philosophy had the character of attacks on a scientific establishment, or the closest thing available at the time, as much as a religious one. They did draw on the language and norms of religion in their responses, but you can hardly condemn a bunch of clergy for that.

Creationism's fair game, though.

Comment author: lavalamp 23 October 2013 11:50:05PM 6 points [-]

I'd actually be surprised if LessWrong made many deconverts

raises hand

One could argue that LW just made the inevitable happen faster, though.

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 24 October 2013 08:14:13AM *  6 points [-]

Connotationally about "just made the inevitable happen faster": Sometimes the timing makes a huge difference. For a man, being just a few years late may result in a marriage where "coming out" would mean losing all contact with their children. For a woman, being just a few years late may result in being married to an old polygamous guy and having no chance to get even high-school education.

All the religion needs to win is to keep you long enough so that it can keep your children, too.

Comment author: lavalamp 24 October 2013 07:30:53PM 1 point [-]

Yeah, good point, agreed-- I'm possibly in the former category there, it's hard to say.

Comment author: Nisan 22 October 2013 09:03:40PM 13 points [-]

Articles like Belief in Belief and A Parable on Obsolete Ideologies were instrumental in my deconversion.

Comment author: ChrisHallquist 22 October 2013 09:51:08PM 6 points [-]

Thanks for that comment. Re-skimming those articles, those are both good examples of LW articles that don't assume atheism from the start. Which isn't true of a lot of articles on LW, but it's good to remember it's true of some of them.

Comment author: Desrtopa 22 October 2013 07:19:40PM 3 points [-]

I'd actually be surprised if LessWrong made many deconverts (though such people would be interesting to hear from, if they exist).

I'm personally familiar with one, who I believe now posts under a different username, whose deconversion process I was witness to online, although I think the discussion transcripts are no longer hosted online.

Comment author: Benito 22 October 2013 06:51:07PM 0 points [-]

"Is man the rational animal, or are there a lot of irrationalities in our everyday decisions, and has your belief altered since you began reading LessWrong" "Did you previously have any beliefs on QM interpretations, and have they been affected by reading LW" "Has reading LessWrong affected your levels of productivity in any way, and if so, how?"

Those are probably three more appropriate questions for LW readers, although I do expect that the last question would receive mostly 'no'. I don't think this is especially damning for LW though, because that's a quite hard task.

Comment author: DanielLC 29 October 2013 03:58:15AM 0 points [-]

Is man the rational animal, or are there a lot of irrationalities in our everyday decisions, and has your belief altered since you began reading LessWrong

Man is the most rational animal, and there are a lot of irrationalities in our everyday decisions. I don't remember explicitly thinking about it, but I would guess that I'd have thought it obvious before reading LessWrong. I know I didn't have trouble understanding the reason for the title of this blog.

Did you previously have any beliefs on QM interpretations, and have they been affected by reading LW

I was previously agnostic. Seeing Eliezer mention that MWI was true shifted my beliefs significantly towards that. Learning enough QM to understand why shifted me the rest of the way.

Has reading LessWrong affected your levels of productivity in any way, and if so, how?

I don't know.

Comment author: RichardKennaway 23 October 2013 08:40:27AM 2 points [-]

I notice that 2 people have answered that they converted to a religion because of LessWrong. I suspect that they jest, but if not, please tell us about it.

Comment author: EHeller 24 October 2013 06:52:25PM 6 points [-]

I believe the reasonably public case is the blogger at Unequally Yoked, who credits the posts on How To Actually Change Your Mind on pushing her towards Catholicism.

I know of at least one other, but his is not my story to tell.

Comment author: Jiro 24 October 2013 09:01:23PM 0 points [-]

Was her religious background before the posts Catholic? If so, this seems like an astonishing coincidence. Just like people with Christian backgrounds don't get Muslim mystical experiences, they don't convert to Islam by using reason either.

Comment author: pragmatist 24 October 2013 10:00:54PM *  3 points [-]

From her blog's About page:

I grew up as an atheist in a non-religious household on Long Island, so I didn’t meet any outspoken Christians in real life until I went to college. I had seen people like Jerry Falwell on TV, but my community was so isolated from religion that, when we learned about the Reformation in AP European History, one student raised his hand to ask if Lutherans still existed.

Based on her last name, I'm guessing her ancestral religion (at least on her father's side) is Judaism.

Comment author: Jiro 24 October 2013 10:27:50PM 2 points [-]

Hmm, that does still say that her boyfriend was Catholic and made her agree to go to Mass. So although that's not her background in the sense of having been raised in it, it's still the one she was most exposed to. and it's still a coincidence that the one she was exposed to happened to be the one that she supposedly rationally concluded was right.

Comment author: pragmatist 28 October 2013 11:42:40AM *  3 points [-]

In what sense is this a coincidence? In order to be rationally convinced of an idea, you need to be exposed to the idea. That's not surprising. Now it may be the case that there is some other religion out there, to which she hasn't been properly exposed, that provides more satisfying answers to the questions that motivate her than Catholicism does. But given that she hasn't in fact been exposed to that religion, I don't see how you can blame her (on rational grounds) for not converting to it. I believe in all kinds of scientific theories because they're the most convincing ones I've encountered so far, not because I've evaluated them against every other possible theory.

The choice she made was essentially between atheism and Catholicism (and perhaps a couple of other religions in which she was well schooled), and she decided Catholicism made more sense to her than atheism. You can't blame this on a lack of exposure to atheist arguments, I don't think. She was an atheist blogger (as in, someone who blogs advocating atheism) for a while before converting, and at least somewhat familiar with LW-style rationalism, if I'm not mistaken.

Also, she's not claiming her conversion to Catholicism is the consequence of some mystical experience that had nothing to do with her prior exposure to the religion. If that were the case, I'd understand suspicion that the mystical experience just happened to coincide with the dogma to which she had been exposed. But as far as I can tell, she says she converted to Catholicism precisely because she became immersed in Catholic philosophy and found a lot of it very convincing, so the exposure to Catholicism isn't a coincidence, it's the admitted cause of her conversion.

Comment author: Jiro 28 October 2013 02:30:03PM 3 points [-]

In what sense is this a coincidence? In order to be rationally convinced of an idea, you need to be exposed to the idea.

In order to be rationally convinced of an idea, you do need some level of exposure to an idea. But you don't need the level of exposure that happened here. We don't normally find people suddenly believing in Fermat's Last Theorem because their boyfriend made them go to several months of Fermat's Last Theorem lectures. That's a sign of a meme that bootstraps our existing social structures in order to spread, not of rational thinking.

Comment author: pragmatist 28 October 2013 02:53:59PM *  1 point [-]

I agree that her boyfriend convincing her to go to Mass with him is a sign that he at least believed that some form of non-rational persuasion would work (since Mass isn't really about making rational arguments for Catholicism). Still, it's not obvious to me that this was the cause of her conversion. I'm guessing a much bigger factor was what she mentions in the next sentence: the deal they had where they would exchange books arguing for their respective positions.

I think you're underestimating the intellectual strength of Catholic theology, especially of the contemporary Thomist variety. It's miles ahead of any other religious apologetics I've encountered. I've read some of it, and while I'm not even remotely convinced, I can see how it could be extremely convincing to very intelligent people. In fact, I suspect I would have been much more susceptible to conversion if I had read some of this stuff earlier in life, before I read a bunch of philosophy (pragmatism, actually, hence my username) that basically inocculated me against it.

Comment author: DanielLC 29 October 2013 04:03:33AM 1 point [-]

But given that she hasn't in fact been exposed to that religion, I don't see how you can blame her (on rational grounds) for not converting to it.

I can't blame her for not concluding that it's true, but I can blame her for concluding that it's false. She knew that there were many, many religions that she hadn't been exposed to. She knew that it would be a huge coincidence for the one she was exposed to to be right. She at least should have been able to guess that there could have been biases that gave a good alternative explanation for this other than that it was a coincidence.

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 25 October 2013 06:40:46AM 2 points [-]

To be fair, the people who converted to atheism probably had some elements of atheism in their environment, too.

Comment author: Jiro 25 October 2013 02:43:53PM 2 points [-]

But there's only one kind of atheism, and many different kinds of religion, so the observation "isn't it funny that they went with the specific kind that's convenient for non-rational reasons" doesn't really apply.

Comment author: TheAncientGeek 25 October 2013 03:52:21PM 4 points [-]

The atheism of the never-believer is different to that of the deconverted.

Comment author: Wes_W 25 October 2013 04:50:44PM 4 points [-]

At least in the Mormonism of my youth, it is generally acknowledged that converts tend to take their faith more seriously than those born into it. Lasting conversion is not an easy process, and frequently involves both social and internal conflict, so there are selection effects against less-dedicated converts. Additionally, cognitive dissonance and sunk-cost reasoning will tend to make people attach more value to their faith if they had to fight for it. A similar effect in atheism would be unsurprising; deconversion is at least as hard as conversion.

Is this what you had in mind, or did you mean something else? And is this a meaningful distinction to make here, since you can't convert to born Catholicism anyway?

Comment author: TheAncientGeek 28 October 2013 06:20:22PM *  0 points [-]

I wasn't aware distinctions were meaningless unless a matter of choice. Makes me rethink the whole life vs death issue.

Comment author: Wes_W 28 October 2013 07:14:42PM 2 points [-]

I'm honestly not sure what you're trying to say here. Can you clarify?

Given that the atheism of a never-believer is different than the atheism of the deconverted (more on this in a moment), the deconverted still only has one of those options actually available to them. "But there's only one kind of atheism [that you can deconvert to]" would still set it apart from the multiple theisms you could convert to.

On the other hand, I don't think I agree that there's only one kind of atheism, nor that the cleanest dividing line is between deconverts and never-believers. In broad strokes all atheists share certain beliefs, but when you zoom out that far, Abrahamic religions start to blend together too.

Comment author: Mark_Friedenbach 25 October 2013 04:07:29PM 0 points [-]

How so?

Comment author: DanielLC 29 October 2013 04:08:12AM 0 points [-]

Atheism stands out more. The explanation that you converted for non-rational reasons is just as good as before, but it's less of a coincidence, so this is less evidence of an error in reasoning.

Comment author: Wes_W 25 October 2013 04:49:32PM *  1 point [-]

I'm not convinced this is a useful criticism, since we would expect Catholic converts to have been exposed to Catholicism first, even if Catholicism were true. Similarly, we would expect people with non-Islamic backgrounds to not convert to Islam, even if Catholicism were true. Even the religious believe this, which is why missionary work was and is a big deal in various Christian denominations throughout history.

Comment author: Jiro 25 October 2013 05:49:50PM *  1 point [-]

I agree that some exposure is necessary; however, the degree of exposure necessary for conversion to be possible is nowhere near the degree of exposure involved here. At one point I didn't know that there are infinitely many prime numbers, and I had to be exposed to it before I would believe it (since I don't generally go around trying to prove random mathematical statements); but I didn't have to be exposed to months of lectures on the subject or be surrounded by people who made belief in that proposition a cornerstone of social interaction with them.

In the case of missionary work, I'd point out that one reason for missionary work is to force the religion's members to publicly commit to and sacrifice for the religion. It's a type of psychological pressure on believers to make them do things that keep them within the fold, not mainly a way of gaining converts.

Comment author: Nornagest 24 October 2013 06:32:55PM 6 points [-]

2 out of 89 (as of this writing) is well below Lizardman's constant, so I'm inclined to dismiss it.

Comment author: army1987 23 October 2013 12:19:55PM *  6 points [-]

I suspect that they jest,

When there's no “I'm not going to vote; just show me the results” option, it's likely that a few people will answer at random.

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 24 October 2013 07:52:41AM 6 points [-]

How about updating the LW code to add the "just show me the results" option automatically? Or perhaps add a link to display the results without voting.

Yeah, I am suggesting work for other people that I wouldn't do myself...

Comment author: cdwhite 22 October 2013 06:27:37AM *  14 points [-]

Christian here (and very long-time lurker), of more or less the "I believe on faith" stripe. I've noticed that in addition to the uses you mention here, /Mere Christianity/ serves as a summary of doctrine. (I can't really speak to other apologetics.)

I've found that Sunday school and sermons generally incline much more to vague, feel-good platitudes than to actual, you know, positive or normative claims. You're left in this position of "OK, I have [for whatever reason] bought into the Church and its credibility---now what do these people actually believe? How can I draw on the collective experience of all these people?" /Mere Christianity/ tells you what, exactly, the vast majority of those people you find credible believe.

Further, it does so in a way that attempts to make those things plausible and memorable, even though you believe them not because of the Lewis' attempts at plausibility, but because of the credibility of the people who've given their assent to those things. This is much more readable, enjoyable, and amenable to discussion than a catechism. It's sort of like worked-out examples or concrete special cases in a textbook.

Comment author: fubarobfusco 22 October 2013 06:51:49AM 20 points [-]

One of the things that I think many atheists misunderstand about Christian belief is the degree to which it has to do with belief in the sense of having trust for particular people, not only the sense of having credence in a proposition.

I was reminded of this a while back when talking with a young Christian boy, a relative of mine. He had said that he believed something-or-other — I think the proposition was that the Devil exists; or possibly that temptations to do bad things (like get in fights with his brothers) are caused by the Devil. I asked him why he believed that. His answer was that he believed it because his guardians and teachers had taught him that it was true; and he trusts them.

This creates an interesting trap for teaching rationality: If someone ties credence in particular propositions to their trust in particular people, then asking them to doubt the proposition can come across as a threat to their relationship with the person. Many people are taught when they're young to regard "I don't believe you" as a bit of an insult. So to someone whose reasons to believe rest on trust in individuals, even saying, "I don't believe the Devil exists" carries the implication, "I think your guardians and teachers taught you wrongly."

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 22 October 2013 11:04:41AM 10 points [-]

On the other hand, it is emotionally perfectly okay to throw away all the inconvenient parts of science, because those scientists were usually not a part of one's family or circle of friends. They were just some strangers, and offending them indirectly is no problem -- even suggesting that they devoted their whole lifes to spreading lies and participating in evil conspiracies. That's still emotionally more acceptable than imagining that my Mommy and Daddy lied to me every day for my whole life.

Comment author: Luke_A_Somers 24 October 2013 07:27:17PM 2 points [-]

Or even that Mommy and Daddy were mistaken.

Comment author: michaelsullivan 31 October 2013 08:20:06PM 1 point [-]

That scenario assumes a kind of religion that is more directly in opposition to science than is typical outside of conservative evangelicals. Admittedly that's a large faction with political power, but they aren't even a majority of christians, let alone theists.

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 31 October 2013 09:03:00PM 3 points [-]

People routinely accuse scientists of participating in conspiracies, even when there is no religion involved. Just tell them how homeopathy is not scientifically proved, or horoscopes.

Comment author: pianoforte611 22 October 2013 01:07:00PM 0 points [-]

I suppose so, but isn't this true of most beliefs?

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 22 October 2013 01:25:42PM *  12 points [-]

I heard that small children get offended by hearing that their favorite teacher was wrong about something. But somehow this effect gets weaker as they grow up.

A part of it may be realising that humans make mistakes, even humans we love and respect. But I suspect another important part may be that as we grow up, the details of beliefs of elementary-school teachers are forgotten, and the high-school teachers don't have the same impact on us because we meet them older. At some moments people realize their own parents make mistakes, which starts with a big disappointment, and then gradually becomes just an acceptable fact about fellow humans.

So seems to me there are circumstances which make "this is what people I love and respect believe; thinking otherwise would mean betraying them" thinking stronger or weaker. Typical religious education has a few aspects that make it stronger: it starts at a small age, it is reinforced periodically, it is a belief of community instead of just individuals, and it is intentionally connected with strong emotions. There are whole institutions built for this purpose, it doesn't just happen accidentally. Many kinds of manipulation, lying, and emotional blackmail are considered fair game for this noble purpose. -- I mean, small children are literally scared by prospect of torture unless they agree to think and feel certain way! (Sure, it's the invisible imaginary person that is supposed to torture them, but the whole point is that the imaginary person and therefore the threat is presented to the child as a sure fact, confirmed by all respected authorities.)

Other beliefs usually don't have this strong support, although in some situations a political belief can work the same way. North Korea would be a textbook example, but on a smaller scale it could happen everywhere if you have sufficiently mindkilled parents and neighbors and censored access to information outside of the community. Ordinary beliefs typically don't have this kind of elaborate repulsive system.

Comment author: AspiringRationalist 24 October 2013 02:48:46AM 3 points [-]

I heard that small children get offended by hearing that their favorite teacher was wrong about something. But somehow this effect gets weaker as they grow up.

A part of it may be realising that humans make mistakes, even humans we love and respect. But I suspect another important part may be that as we grow up, the details of beliefs of elementary-school teachers are forgotten, and the high-school teachers don't have the same impact on us because we meet them older. At some moments people realize their own parents make mistakes, which starts with a big disappointment, and then gradually becomes just an acceptable fact about fellow humans.

Small children are quite helpless, and in a society more tolerant of harming or abandoning them (eg. the ancestral environment), offending the adults around them carried severe risks. Teenagers and adults could probably better afford to express disagreement.

Comment author: JQuinton 22 October 2013 08:15:48PM 3 points [-]

That meshes well with another study that found that children under 5 assume adults know everything that the child knows. It's only after around age 5 that children begin to stop ascribing that trait to adults. Link:

Lane concludes: "…data from the current study provide compelling evidence that when children begin to understand the cognitive limitations of humans, they typically attribute those same limitations to God, and this applies even to religiously exposed children.

Only later, at around age 5 years did religiously exposed children reliably differentiate between humans’ fallible mental abilities and inaccurate mental states versus God’s less fallible abilities and states.

These results suggest that in their everyday reasoning, even children who are raised in religious settings often initially understand God’s mind as constrained and fallible, very similar to their understanding of ordinary human minds."

So children have to develop an understanding of omniscience, even if they are raised in a religious environment. However, when raised in a religious environment, they seem to understand omniscience earlier - evidence of the importance of learning, as well as brain maturation.

Comment author: Lumifer 22 October 2013 08:28:52PM 1 point [-]

children under 5 assume adults know everything that the child knows

Is this, basically, the theory of mind?

Comment author: pianoforte611 22 October 2013 01:57:02PM 1 point [-]

Wow thank you! Great insights.

Comment author: mwengler 25 October 2013 05:54:00PM 5 points [-]

I think concluding the real purpose of apologetics is for the believer fans because they are the ones who read most of it is bad reasoning.

Is the real purpose of a national army so that people can run and participate in training exercises? The armies of so many countries are hardly ever used for what they say they are for.

I have been atheist since I was about 12. I have consumed some apologetics along the way, usually having it recited to me by someone I was talking to or having it highly recommended to me by those people. Curious as to whether I was wrong or not in my atheism I would read some of the apologies. They did not convince me, but it wasn't a huge miss, I bet they do convince some people who are on the fence.

The best apologists i would expect are the ones who have the best understanding of how the mind falls away from religious belief. The best apologists I would expect are people who have actually fallen away and been sucked back in, or who are always close to being sucked away from belief. The sweet spot for apology should be people who are just barely believing and people who are just barely non-believing. This is qualitatively quite different than declaring apologies as delivered under false pretenses.

Comment author: garethrees 05 January 2014 11:09:16PM *  3 points [-]

I once attended an apologetical talk given by the Christian Union at my college. (They were offering free food.) The invited speaker presented a version of C. S. Lewis's trilemma: liar, lunatic or lord? (a kind of proof by alliteration).

I spoke to the speaker afterwards and took him to task for presenting such a silly argument, which I said was hardly likely to convince anyone not already a Christian. He freely admitted the logical flaws in the trilemma argument, and said that his own personal justifications for belief were quite different—he appealed, if I recall correctly, to his personal experience and to William Paley's argument from design—but he said that these kinds of justifications didn't go down so well with the members of the Christian Union who had invited him to speak, and that the trilemma was "the kind of thing people expected to hear" at these events. So this one speaker was quite clear about the nature of the audience for an apologetical lecture.

Comment author: ArisKatsaris 05 January 2014 11:36:44PM 0 points [-]

Hey, are you the same Gareth Rees I remember from the IF Community, years back? If so, cheers. Nice seeing your name again.

Comment author: AlanCrowe 23 October 2013 06:58:38PM 3 points [-]

Each compartment has its own threshold for evidence.

The post reminded me of Christians talking bravely about there being plenty of evidence for their beliefs. How does that work?

  • When evidence is abundant we avoid information overload by raising the threshold for what counts as evidence. We have the luxury of taking our decisions on the basis of good quality evidence and the further luxury of dismissing mediocre evidence as not evidence at all.

  • Evidence is seldom abundant. Usually we work with a middling threshold for evidence, doing the best we can with the mediocre evidence that the middle threshold admits to our councils, and accepting that we will sometimes do the wrong thing due to misleading evidence.

  • When evidence is scarce we turn our quality threshold down another notch, so we still have evidence, even if it is just a translation of a copy of an old text that is supposed to be eye witness testimony but was written down one hundred years after the event.

I think that the way it works with compartmentalization is that we give each compartment its own threshold. For example, an accountant is doing due diligence work on the prospect for The Plastic Toy Manufacturing Company. It looks like being a good investment, they have an exclusive contract with Disney for movie tie-ins. Look, it says so, right there in the prospectus. Naturally the accountant writes to Disney to confirm this. If Disney do not reply, that is a huge red flag.

On Sunday the accountant goes to Church. They have a prospectus, called the Bible, which makes big claims about their exclusive deal with God. When you pray to God to get confirmation, He ignores you. Awkward!

People have a sense of what it is realistic to expect by way of evidence which varies between the various compartments of their lives. In every compartment their beliefs are comfortably supported by a reasonable quantity and quality of evidence relative to the standard expected for that compartment.

Should we aim at a uniform threshold for evidence across all compartments? That ideas seems too glib. It is good to be more open and trusting in friendship and personal relationships than in business. One will not get far in artistic creation if one doubts ones own talent to the extent of treating it like a dodgy business partner.

Or maybe having a uniform threshold is exactly the right thing to do. That leaves you aware that in important areas of your life you have little evidence and your posteriori distributions have lots of entropy. Then you have to live courageously, trusting friends and lovers despite poor evidence and the risk of betrayal, trusting ones talent and finishing ones novel despite the risk that it is 1000 pages of unpublishable drek.

Comment author: deepthoughtlife 25 October 2013 06:31:45PM 1 point [-]

A uniform threshold is in fact a very bad idea, because different areas legitimately do have a different amount of available evidence. For instance, the threshold in physics is vastly higher than in neurology, even though both are tremendously complicated, because it is much easier to perform the testing in physics, where we can simply set more money to the task (build things such as the LHC, simply to check a few loose ends). If there is limited evidence, we still often have to come to a conclusion, and we need that conclusion to be right.

If talking about certain religious matters, there is virtually no evidence on either side. In fact, it may be that there cannot be a sufficient amount of evidence to determine its, no matter what threshold we set. I believe that this is true, which is why I am strongly agnostic.

In many ways, this is similar to being an atheist, (I definitely do not believe in any specific god or religion), but strong atheism requires even more faith than being religious. An omnipotent being is not a logical contradiction, while being capable of causing any kind of results to your testing, and thus there is absolutely no way to prove the nonexistence of an omnipotent being. It is perhaps possible to disprove that the omnipotent being does certain kinds of things regularly, but then the apologetics have the right to point out why your formulation doesn't apply to their god. At least the religious tend to admit the lack of evidence, and that they go by their faith.

Comment author: linkhyrule5 25 October 2013 07:15:56PM 1 point [-]

... Um, the default assumption is that any given hypothesis is wrong, you can't get your priors to converge otherwise. Omnipotent intelligent beings are sufficiently complex that I'd need a few megabits in their favor before I gave them parity with physics.

Comment author: CarlShulman 25 October 2013 10:44:44PM *  1 point [-]

Um, the default assumption is that any given hypothesis is wrong, you can't get your priors to converge otherwise. Omnipotent intelligent beings are sufficiently complex that I'd need a few megabits in their favor before I gave them parity with physics.

This given hypothesis is wrong. A megabit means a 2^1,000,000+ odds ratio.

If you can specify physics with n bits, and pick out a narrow class of humans or computers or books with ~k bits, and humans can produce an algorithmic description of a world with an omnigod, then you can specify the omnigod with ~n+k bits.

I don't think it takes a megabit to specify a world like Permutation City for an intelligence to be essentially omnipotent in. Specifying intelligence along the lines of AIXI with unbounded computation requires few bits.

Comment author: linkhyrule5 26 October 2013 06:07:50AM 1 point [-]

Point. I was thinking in terms of "this particular intelligence," and whatever an AGI looks like I will happily offer 999:1 odds it will take more than a megabit of disc space. But if you just want "an intelligence," yeah, not nearly as much.

... Still would need an awful lot to compete with physics, though.

Comment author: linkhyrule5 26 October 2013 06:10:18AM 0 points [-]

To clarify: This is because any given hypothesis has a prior proportional to 2^-(complexity), which for any reasonable hypothesis means ludicrously low odds of being true.

Then you update on evidence, and just seeing things gives you megabits to work with, so that goes up significantly for particular hypotheses, but... the point is, even aside from evidence something like "God exists" is starting at a massive penalty compared to physics.

Comment author: deepthoughtlife 25 October 2013 10:42:10PM 0 points [-]

No, that is not the default way to handle a hypothesis. The default is to ask: why should I believe this? If they have reasons, you look into it, assuming you care. If the reasons are false, expound upon that. If they are not false, you cannot simply claim that, since the proof is insufficient, it is false.

The point of my argument was that there was very little evidence either way. I implied that truth of the hypothesis would have no certain effect upon the world. Thus it is untestable, and completely unrelated to science. Therefore, any statement that it is false needs either a logical proof (all possible worlds), or to go on faith.

The physics analogy was on the other subject, of where we set the thresholds. In this case, even if we set them very low, we can say nothing. Your response makes more sense to the question of whether it is a belief you should personally adopt, not whether it is true or not.

Side Note: A few megabits? Really? You think you are that close to infallible? I know I'm not, even on logical certainties.

Comment author: linkhyrule5 26 October 2013 06:02:11AM *  1 point [-]

If they are not false, you cannot simply claim that, since the proof is insufficient, it is false.

Um, yes you can, or you end up being stuck believing any random "insufficient disproof" hypothesis. I'll name a few, if you want: there's an invisible intangible unicorn in your room, your boss is being mind-controlled by space aliens through subspace, and your door is wired to explode but only when you would be in a position to be killed by it.

If you give any of these meaningful credence - even enough to be "agnostic" about it - then you shouldn't ever use that door, might consider quitting your job, and will work under the assumption that you never have privacy

And no, I don't think I'm that close to infallible, I think I'd have to be that close to infallible to believe something that ridiculous.

Comment author: JQuinton 28 October 2013 04:53:38PM 0 points [-]

In many ways, this is similar to being an atheist, (I definitely do not believe in any specific god or religion), but strong atheism requires even more faith than being religious. An omnipotent being is not a logical contradiction, while being capable of causing any kind of results to your testing, and thus there is absolutely no way to prove the nonexistence of an omnipotent being.

If there's no way to prove the nonexistence of an omnipotent being, this is the most egregious example of a belief not paying rent.

This is the same reasoning that one should give for not outright rejecting the hypothesis that the universe was created last Thursday, with all of our memories of everything beyond last Thursday being a fabrication. There's no way to prove it wrong, so by your logic you can't reject it outright.

Comment author: Adele_L 22 October 2013 01:37:32AM 3 points [-]

Your link to "Against Rationalization" is broken.

Back when I was religious, I initially just believed everything, and worked hard to optimize my life based on those beliefs. After some exposure to some atheists online, and realizing that a significant number of scientifically minded people were irreligious, I started inventing apologetics for explaining why I had those beliefs. I was concerned about the loss of social status that being religious might bring me, and wanted to mitigate that risk by having some ready arguments. I never really bothered reading much apologetics, though.

I didn't become an atheist because of this, and I didn't feel like I really had any doubts at this point. What did actually change my mind several months later was noticing that my religious morality was highly incompatible with my intuitive morality.

Comment author: Lumifer 22 October 2013 06:40:15PM 6 points [-]

I would be interested in parallels between Christian apologetics and cryonics apologetics...

Comment author: Brillyant 23 October 2013 08:03:48PM *  2 points [-]

As a former Christian who was an active apologist for the faith, I think one of the keys is the presupposition that God exists (and perhaps that it is likely that God is like the Christian God).

From there, you can build a pretty sophisticated and coherent theology that, when maintained through prayer/devotion/church attendance, is a suitable apologetic that is basically invincible to reason.

So, there are (roughly) three "levels" of apologetic in my mind...

  1. Apologetics to support the presupposition that a god exists.

  2. Apologetics to support the presupposition that the Christian God exists.

  3. Apologetics granting presupposition #1 & #2.

Depending how you define "god", #1 can be interesting. (I'm agnostic and consider of range of views to be rather reasonable on this level.)

I don't think #2 almost ever works, apart from (mostly childhood) indoctrination. People may go through an emotionally vulnerable time where they are more open to new ideas, or become some level of "cultural Christian" because they found a church they like and enjoy, etc. Generally, there is just too much information available in 2013 for people to consider anything resembling the Christian God to be a reasonable belief.

'#3 is for those already in the fold. And I think it makes up the majority of published Christian apologetics books. People parrot these ideas and try to use them online against atheists and agnostics.

One other note: I do think you might be overstating the overall interest in Christian apologetics on the behalf of Christians themselves. It has risen in popularity, I think. But there is some still some huge number of Christians in the "I believe on faith & am quite content not to mix rationality in with my warm Jesus fuzzies."

You mentioned books in regard to this. As far as CT's list... meh. I'm not sure that indicates much apart from the CT staff opinion. Total sales may be a better indicator... but Purpose Driven Life is self-help drivel and sold 30 million copies. The Left Behind series of "books" sold 65 copies. I don't think most Christians are nearly as interested in defending the faith as they are assuming they are right, enjoying their "relationship with God" and all the positive things it gives them -- Christianity works for them, and they aren't that interested in it beyond that.

Comment author: Vaniver 21 October 2013 11:26:35PM 2 points [-]

then started reading up on apologetics to assume himself it was all true.

I think you mean "assure" himself, but I'm not actually sure.

Comment author: ChrisHallquist 22 October 2013 01:06:33AM *  0 points [-]

Yes. Fixed.

Comment author: shminux 22 October 2013 04:44:51PM *  1 point [-]

Why this fascination with Christian apologia? Rabbinic writings are at least as clever, if less known outside Judaism. Islam is similar, too. LDS, what have you. There are versions of clever arguers in almost any religion, why pick this one? Actually, if you pick a cause and want to come up with the best argument for it, just hire Yvain to steelman it for you. The downside is that he will not stop there and proceed to write just as convincing a counter-argument, as our reactionary friends know too well

Comment author: Desrtopa 22 October 2013 05:08:25PM 8 points [-]

Why this fascination with Christian apologia? Rabbinic writings at least as clever, if less known outside Judaism. Islam is similar, too. LDS, what have you. There are versions of clever arguers in almost any religion, why pick this one?

This is at least cursorily addressed in the post; Christian apologia is the subject he's already familiar with. Writing the post didn't require him to develop some new expertise.

Comment author: paper-machine 22 October 2013 05:26:17PM *  3 points [-]

LDS, what have you.

In my misspent youth as a philosophy major, I never found any logical-sounding defense of Mormonism that was particularly clever. Are there some that I missed?

Comment author: hairyfigment 22 October 2013 06:41:26PM 6 points [-]

Probably not, but:

  • The Catholic Church has (at one time or another) ruled out as heresy every way to model the Trinity. LDS does not seem to require strict logical self-contradictions.

  • While getting your own planet when you die is an additional detail with no evidence behind it, you might well expect some such result from a benevolent deity.

  • Orson Scott Card tries to make their beliefs sound like modern multiverse/macrocosm theory.

  • Becoming a deity yourself brings Mormonism close to something an intelligent creator might do. Of course, you wouldn't expect people to die before that point. Even if we depart from LDS orthodoxy by accepting re-incarnation, the lack of childproofing safeguards creates a problem for any variant that refuses to go full Truman Show.

Comment author: Desrtopa 22 October 2013 06:32:15PM 0 points [-]

What do you mean by "clever?"? I found some to be no less clever than, for instance, Catholic apologia, so the answer could be "yes" or "no" depending on what standards you expect it to meet.

Comment author: paper-machine 22 October 2013 06:33:31PM 0 points [-]

Novel, witty, unexpected, ...

Comment author: Desrtopa 22 October 2013 06:35:14PM 0 points [-]

I think that again, this depends on how your standards have been calibrated by exposure to other apologia, and to other fields where standards of genuine insight are likely to be higher.

Comment author: paper-machine 22 October 2013 06:36:49PM 1 point [-]

Why don't you just tell me what you're thinking of, so I can make my own judgement. I promise not to hold you personally accountable if it doesn't satisfy my standards.

Comment author: Desrtopa 22 October 2013 07:02:12PM 0 points [-]

I don't have an individual defense in mind, but the LW boards have occasionally been visited by Mormons who recommended some defenses of the religion.

If I were to create a work of apology for Mormonism, I'd probably start by flipping around this argument. Instead of taking it as a premise that we don't take Mormonism seriously, and working from there to the conclusion that we shouldn't put much credence in the testimony of the apostles, I'd work from the principles by which many people already suppose that the testimony of the apostles can be taken seriously, and argue that this calls upon us to put credence in Mormonism.

Comment author: V_V 24 October 2013 04:00:42PM 0 points [-]

Well, Mormonism entails the belief that a civilization of Christian Native Americans existed in historical times, and disappeared prior to European colonization leaving behind no trace whatsoever but a single book made of golden plates that nobody except Joseph Smith and eleven alleged witnesses has ever seen.

It seems that Mormonism is strictly less probable than the other main branches of Christianity, though we are comparing exceptionally small numbers here.

Comment author: DanielLC 29 October 2013 04:33:27AM *  0 points [-]

Well, Mormonism entails the belief that a civilization of Christian Native Americans existed in historical times, and disappeared prior to European colonization leaving behind no trace whatsoever but a single book made of golden plates that nobody except Joseph Smith and eleven alleged witnesses has ever seen.

How much exactly would we expect to find?

I recall doing some research on the 2012 doomsday thing. As far as I can find, not even the Mayans have any idea what significance that date might have had, and the only reason we have any idea that that date is even a neat point on the calendar is that the Europeans visited just before the Mayans stopped using long count.

Do we have a lot written remains of their religions?

I guess we'd expect to find statues of Jesus (he supposedly visited, complete with holes in his hands and feet). I'm not sure if they would still be recognizable.

Their beliefs are probably more specific, if that's what you mean, but the contents of the Book of Mormon are specific. You don't decide that someone is more likely to be lying the longer they talk, purely because what they are saying is getting more specific.

Comment author: TheOtherDave 29 October 2013 01:11:45PM 2 points [-]

You don't decide that someone is more likely to be lying the longer they talk, purely because what they are saying is getting more specific.

Lying? No, not necessarily... lying is complicated.
But saying something false? Yes, I certainly do.
All else being equal, the more specific the claim, the less likely it is to be true.

Of course, in real-world cases all else is never equal... but the generalization I quote above simply doesn't hold.

Comment author: V_V 29 October 2013 11:13:30AM *  1 point [-]

Do we have a lot written remains of their religions?

It depends on your definition of "a lot", but certainly we have texts from pre-Spanish times which have been deciphered and, together with other evidence, give us a fairly good picture of who these people were and what they did believe: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maya_codices

I guess we'd expect to find statues of Jesus (he supposedly visited, complete with holes in his hands and feet). I'm not sure if they would still be recognizable.

We'd expect to find all kinds of written texts, and ruins of cities with inscriptions, statues, temples, tombs, etc. All the kind of stuff that this type of civilizations leave behind.

Their beliefs are probably more specific, if that's what you mean, but the contents of the Book of Mormon are specific. You don't decide that someone is more likely to be lying the longer they talk, purely because what they are saying is getting more specific.

It depends on what they say. The more improbable claims that don't logically imply each other they make, the higher the chance that they are lying.

Comment author: Desrtopa 25 October 2013 12:29:55AM 0 points [-]

This is true, but apologists have done quite a lot of work trying to reconcile the claims of their religion with the existing physical record, and I don't think their efforts are inferior to those of more mainstream Christian apologists.

Biblical literalism entails the belief that God wiped out the human race minus one family with a world-encompassing flood which subjected all terrestrial animals to a population bottleneck of one to seven mating pairs per species, which would have to have spread out from one geographic location to repopulate the globe. Compared to that burden of improbability, the empirical claims of Mormonism are a paltry addition, and there are no shortage of apologists to defend that claim.

Comment author: V_V 25 October 2013 01:27:10PM 0 points [-]

Mormons also believe in a literal Noah's flood.

Comment author: shminux 22 October 2013 05:35:38PM 0 points [-]

I'm sure you have spent more time reading up on this than I have, so probably not.

Comment author: ChrisHallquist 22 October 2013 06:36:39PM 4 points [-]

Partly it's because I come from a dominant-Christian culture, partly because of accidents of my personal history led to me reading a lot of Christian apologetics. I do know a little bit about Muslim and Mormon apologetics, and yes there are parallels (in fact, I once wrote a book chapter on the similarities between evangelical apologetics and Mormon apologetics).

I haven't bothered much with Jewish apologetics, as Judaism is in the unfortunate situation that its founders (Abraham, Moses) pretty clearly didn't exist (yes, Jesus mythicism, I know, but that's more controversial). On the other hand, yeah, I've heard the rabbinical writings are fascinating.

Comment author: shminux 22 October 2013 07:35:32PM 2 points [-]

Judaism is in the unfortunate situation that its founders (Abraham, Moses) pretty clearly didn't exist

Why is it important? If it matters to you that a prophet in question is historical beyond doubt, then you ought to stick with Islam or with other more recent religions. Say, how about Scientology? It's well documented, and also pretty convincing, I bet. All that is known about historical Jesus with high likelihood is that there once lived a Jew who was executed during the time Pontius Pilate apparently was the prefect of the Judaea Province. The rest of the "evidence" is heavily Christian and so hardly trustworthy.

Comment author: ChrisHallquist 22 October 2013 07:40:05PM 0 points [-]

It's not the only thing that matters, hence no paying attention to Scientology apologetics. But the non-existence of Moses is well-enough established to justify saying, "Hopless case! Next!" when it comes to Jewish apologetics.

Comment author: shminux 22 October 2013 07:50:05PM 2 points [-]

Sorry, I was unclear. My question is, given the title of your post "What can we learn about psychology...", why would it matter if the original event was real or made-up? You can fruitfully study the psychology of the apologetics either way.

Comment author: ChrisHallquist 22 October 2013 07:52:52PM 2 points [-]

As already explained, long before this post I spent a lot of time reading Christian apologetics for other reasons.

Comment author: Luke_A_Somers 24 October 2013 08:26:19PM 3 points [-]

I think what's going on here is a misinterpretation of your intention with the "Judaism is in the unfortunate situation..." comment. You were indicating why in the past you had not thought about them, and not that they would be any more or less illuminating for this purpose... right?

Comment author: ChrisHallquist 25 October 2013 05:09:36AM 0 points [-]

Yes.

Comment author: V_V 24 October 2013 03:47:08PM *  1 point [-]

Why is the nonexistence of Abraham and Moses anymore established than the nonexistence of Jesus? And anyway, Abraham and Moses are also considered prophets by Christianity and Islam, so if their nonexistence was a problem for Judaism, it should be a problem for Christianity and Islam as well.

Comment author: katydee 22 October 2013 05:42:05AM 1 point [-]

This is very interesting, but why is it posted to Main?

Comment author: ChrisHallquist 22 October 2013 05:57:30AM 2 points [-]

Why wouldn't it be?

Comment author: katydee 22 October 2013 06:05:24AM 1 point [-]

It seems like something that would be much more fitting as a personal blog post linked to LW via Discussion.

Comment author: ChrisHallquist 22 October 2013 06:33:42AM 3 points [-]

Ah ok. Yeah, this isn't quite standard LW fare, but I don't think it's that far off. Also, my impression (from reading the Craft and Community sequence) is that LW was intended to be a place for a somewhat broader array of writing under the "rationalist" umbrella than "more stuff like the Sequences."

But Eliezer is welcome to correct me here.

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 22 October 2013 09:40:56AM *  6 points [-]

It reminded me of "Professing and Cheering" -- an anecdote from real life; expert's opinion; a conclusion for aspiring rationalists.

As a data point: I liked it; it explained a thing that I suspected but never put into such clear words; and I would like to see more articles like this. And I think it is important for rationality, because religious apologetics is a millenia-old Dark Art, its frequency is high and its impact can be huge.

Comment author: Cthulhoo 22 October 2013 02:43:31PM *  0 points [-]

Make it two data points. I am really enjoiying your (Chris) posts. Besides the content (which I do think belongs to LW) I like the writing style a lot: the entries are long, but engaging.

Comment author: ThereIsNoJustice 22 October 2013 02:46:51AM -3 points [-]

I'm reminded of this piece. It's very long for an internet piece so I'm going to summarize. Some of this is my own words, some directly copied. It in general describes the different perspectives of the brain's hemispheres, based on The Master and His Emissary by Iain McGilchrist.

Left Hemisphere: Creates divisions for manipulation, but it doesn't care about accuracy. Its main focus is reinforcing the divisions it's already made. It is less logical than it is usually like a pathological liar. The left hemisphere isn't interested in reality so much as it wants to prop up its own image and stories. The left hemisphere hungers for certainty and as often as possible expresses itself in absolute and certain terms. The casualty here is obviously accuracy. And when certainties clash with what's actually going on, the left hemisphere sides with certainties. The fundamental character of the left hemisphere is to sacrifice the truth for defending its divisions, stories, and certainties.

Right Hemisphere: Generates attention in terms of the whole. It focuses on qualities rather than concepts. For example, the right hemisphere is responsible for recognizing or visualizing the color red. The right hemisphere perceives and imagines in pictures. It is nondual. It focuses on what it happening in full: the specific, particular, indescribable understanding of what is actually happening. It doesn't care about certainty. It's seeing the whole of things, and relating to them as accurately and honestly as possible.

Left-Right Relationship: In experiments with split-brain patients, the left hemisphere answers. The right hemisphere sees the snowy landscape and picks up the snow-shovel card. But the left hemisphere sees a chicken, and is asked to explain why they picked up the shovel card. In short, they make up an answer out of thin air. "Because you use a shovel to clean up after chickens." They chose the card because you use a snow shovel to shovel snow. But the patient tells a story of a rational connection that didn't occur. Why do these people make up a rational connection like this?

A Sharp Left Turn: Why fake a thought process? Why is the brain so fast at faking it that it gives rational-seeming answers on the fly? And if the split brain patients experience this, and are so good at it, doesn't it seem almost as if the left hemisphere might have done this before? It's important what kind of response this is. It's a rational seeming response. And that seems to imply an agenda: despite not having any good reason and fessing up to it, we instead get the rational seeming response which gives us the impression of a rational person. More specifically, that the person has a rational mind. In short, a mind that doesn't exist because no rational process took place. The left hemisphere is able and eager to create the illusion of a mind.

Peacock People: In brief, the mind is not as much a survival tool as a courtship tool. The mind is for building status through displays: poems, language, knowledge, buildings, drawings, carts, cars, phones -- instead of the peacock's tail, you have the products of human creativity, engineering. If this were true, we should expect the mind to be more concerned with making things than understanding the world rationally. In fact this is the case. In some sense, the rational mind is actually the manipulative mind. It's a mind that wants to alter things in the world for the display of status far more than it wants to understand the world.

The Illusion of Self: What draws people to other people is not usually their rational or logical thinking. That thinking might provide a framework and has to at least appear consistent. But the real draw is a person's character. The mind is there to project the image of a mind with vibrance and flavor. That is, a human self.

I haven't read the book he references so I can't say whether its supported well or not, but I think the one insight to take away is that the mind/brain has "make things up" wired into it.

Comment author: MackHelldalgo 31 October 2013 06:11:59PM 0 points [-]

I recall reading that the "Left/Right Brain" model of the mind is considered false by the general psychological community. I have class in five minutes, but I'll probably come back later to double-check and search for sources.

Comment author: bramflakes 22 October 2013 12:40:55AM -1 points [-]

My impression, furthermore, is that there are Christians who have succeeded where many current atheists have failed. For example, Christian apologist Mike Licona (who made headlines when he was forced to resign from his position at Southern Evangelical Seminary for his ever-so-slight deviations from the inerrantist party line) credits his mentor in apologetics, Gary Habermas, with saving his faith.

I don't get this part. Why have they succeeded and how have other atheists failed? There's a few other typos and grammatical slips that other commenters have pointed out too.

Great essay though. It also seems to be true for ideologies in general, not just religion. I'd bet most political essays that purport to be towards the open-minded skeptic are actually used to provide more intellectual ammunition for the already-converted. However, I also suspect that there is more genuine "apologetic" material for political ideologies.

Comment author: ChrisHallquist 22 October 2013 01:08:56AM 1 point [-]

If this was confusing, I mean succeeded at holding on to their faith through apologetics. If you understood that and are wondering why they're different... I don't know.

If you can point me towards other typos & grammatical slips that would be helpful. I generally try to proofread my work but I'm a terrible proofreader.

Comment author: arundelo 22 October 2013 02:26:01AM *  5 points [-]

A proofreading trick I use sometimes: Touch each individual word as you read it (with a physical pointer like a pen or with the mouse pointer). For even greater accuracy, read aloud while you're doing this.

A proofreading trick I have not used much: Make a printout and read it upside down.

Edit:

Proofreading with a bigger font makes it easier to catch stuff like "assume" versus "assure". A serif font makes the difference between "I" and "l" visible. In a fixed-width font (e.g. Courier New) all the characters are the same width, so spelling and punctuation errors are easier to see (compare "rn"/"m" versus "rn"/"m").