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Is Humanism A Religion-Substitute?

27 Post author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 26 March 2008 04:18AM

Followup toBind Yourself to Reality

For many years before the Wright Brothers, people dreamed of flying with magic potions.  There was nothing irrational about the raw desire to fly.  There was nothing tainted about the wish to look down on a cloud from above.  Only the "magic potions" part was irrational.

Suppose you were to put me into an fMRI scanner, and take a movie of my brain's activity levels, while I watched a space shuttle launch.  (Wanting to visit space is not "realistic", but it is an essentially lawful dream—one that can be fulfilled in a lawful universe.)  The fMRI might—maybe, maybe not—resemble the fMRI of a devout Christian watching a nativity scene.

Should an experimenter obtain this result, there's a lot of people out there, both Christians and some atheists, who would gloat:  "Ha, ha, space travel is your religion!"

But that's drawing the wrong category boundary.  It's like saying that, because some people once tried to fly by irrational means, no one should ever enjoy looking out of an airplane window on the clouds below.

If a rocket launch is what it takes to give me a feeling of aesthetic transcendence, I do not see this as a substitute for religion.  That is theomorphism—the viewpoint from gloating religionists who assume that everyone who isn't religious has a hole in their mind that wants filling.

Now, to be fair to the religionists, this is not just a gloating assumption.  There are atheists who have religion-shaped holes in their minds.  I have seen attempts to substitute atheism or even transhumanism for religion.  And the result is invariably awful.  Utterly awful.  Absolutely abjectly awful.

I call such efforts, "hymns to the nonexistence of God".

When someone sets out to write an atheistic hymn—"Hail, oh unintelligent universe," blah, blah, blah—the result will, without exception, suck.

Why?  Because they're being imitative.  Because they have no motivation for writing the hymn except a vague feeling that since churches have hymns, they ought to have one too.  And, on a purely artistic level, that puts them far beneath genuine religious art that is not an imitation of anything, but an original expression of emotion.

Religious hymns were (often) written by people who felt strongly and wrote honestly and put serious effort into the prosody and imagery of their work—that's what gives their work the grace that it possesses, of artistic integrity.

So are atheists doomed to hymnlessness?

There is an acid test of attempts at post-theism.  The acid test is:  "If religion had never existed among the human species—if we had never made the original mistake—would this song, this art, this ritual, this way of thinking, still make sense?"

If humanity had never made the original mistake, there would be no hymns to the nonexistence of God.  But there would still be marriages, so the notion of an atheistic marriage ceremony makes perfect sense—as long as you don't suddenly launch into a lecture on how God doesn't exist.  Because, in a world where religion never had existed, nobody would interrupt a wedding to talk about the implausibility of a distant hypothetical concept.  They'd talk about love, children, commitment, honesty, devotion, but who the heck would mention God?

And, in a human world where religion never had existed, there would still be people who got tears in their eyes watching a space shuttle launch.

Which is why, even if experiment shows that watching a shuttle launch makes "religion"-associated areas of my brain light up, associated with feelings of transcendence, I do not see that as a substitute for religion; I expect the same brain areas would light up, for the same reason, if I lived in a world where religion had never been invented.

A good "atheistic hymn" is simply a song about anything worth singing about that doesn't happen to be religious.

Also, reversed stupidity is not intelligence.  The world's greatest idiot may say the Sun is shining, but that doesn't make it dark out.  The point is not to create a life that resembles religion as little as possible in every surface aspect—this is the same kind of thinking that inspires hymns to the nonexistence of God.  If humanity had never made the original mistake, no one would be trying to avoid things that vaguely resembled religion.  Believe accurately, then feel accordingly:  If space launches actually exist, and watching a rocket rise makes you want to sing, then write the song, dammit.

If I get tears in my eyes at a space shuttle launch, it doesn't mean I'm trying to fill a hole left by religion—it means that my emotional energies, my caring, are bound into the real world.

If God did speak plainly, and answer prayers reliably, God would just become one more boringly real thing, no more worth believing in than the postman.  If God were real, it would destroy the inner uncertainty that brings forth outward fervor in compensation.  And if everyone else believed God were real, it would destroy the specialness of being one of the elect.

If you invest your emotional energy in space travel, you don't have those vulnerabilities.  I can see the Space Shuttle rise without losing the awe.  Everyone else can believe that Space Shuttles are real, and it doesn't make them any less special.  I haven't painted myself into the corner.

The choice between God and humanity is not just a choice of drugs.  Above all, humanity actually exists. 


Part of the Joy in the Merely Real subsequence of Reductionism

Next post: "Scarcity"

Previous post: "Amazing Breakthrough Day: April 1st"

Comments (41)

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Comment author: anonymous12 26 March 2008 05:28:52AM 2 points [-]

If a rocket launch is what it takes to give me a feeling of aesthetic transcendence, I do not see this as a substitute for religion. That is theomorphism - the viewpoint from gloating religionists who assume that everyone who isn't religious has a hole in their mind that wants filling.

Eliezer, there is evience that people do have a God-shaped hole in their minds. Razib @ gnxp.com has documented this extensively. For instance Buddhism is a nominally non-theistic religion, yet it has independently evolved into worship of the "Lord Buddha", or some Bodhisattva, etc. [1] [2]

Comment author: Kingreaper 30 August 2011 09:55:21PM 15 points [-]

But is the hole really "God shaped" or is it, in fact, "big powerful human" shaped?

Because theologians describe God with specific terms, and properties; but most religious people I know just think of God as a "big powerful human" even when their preachers tell them all these theological properties, their mind seems to shape it into "big powerful human" shape.

Comment author: athmwiji 26 March 2008 05:53:47AM 0 points [-]

In peaceful moments when my mind is clear i become aware of my own experience and the passage of time independent of what my specific experience is at that moment.

I consider this to be a religious experience.

Also, it seems to be the only thing about me that is consistent over time. Certainly I do not now think the same way I did when I was 10 years old, nor do i look the same, or want the same things. My memory connects me more to that 10 year old then other people, but even my memories are suspect.

Through my empathy i can recognize that the experiences of other people are similar in this regard, and so i feel the distinction between myself and others is arbitrary. In this way i can transcend personal identity, and death.

No gods. No afterlife. No reincarnation. No fairy tales.

Scientific models help us by giving accurate predictions, but they are not the only models worth considering. Other models present an ontology that gives meaning to our experiences. People who consider money to be valuable accept the ontological authority of the market place in much the same way that catholics accept the ontological authority of priests over which crackers are the flesh of god.

Comment author: Z._M._Davis 26 March 2008 06:28:53AM 5 points [-]

Caledonian, not the goal--of whom? Not the point--of what? You write as if you think the Evolution Fairy is going to smite us if we don't consciously try to maximize inclusive genetic fitness.

Comment author: TGGP4 26 March 2008 08:25:49AM -1 points [-]

Eliezer has been discussing his delight in spacecraft, which seems different than humanism. Mencius Moldbug has a seven-part series on the religious nature of humanism ending here.

Comment author: Ben_Jones 26 March 2008 10:39:09AM 2 points [-]

Roko & co: Can we try and pin down what exactly we mean by a 'religious-shaped hole'? I mean, even if there is such a hole, perhaps it's just a 'fulfilment-hole' that many have traditionally filled with religion.

My cod-psychology two pence: people like feeling part of something bigger and grander. What's bigger and grander than being in a Super Happy Agent's Super Club? Can one feel comfortable with the notion that there probably isn't a bigger, grander scheme? I don't have too much trouble.

If it's not a religion-hole, but simply an innate desire to feel something profound, then surely better to fill it with something you can see, feel, touch, understand. That said, God's never spoken to me - I imagine that must be a pretty fulfilling experience.

Comment author: Hopefully_Anonymous 26 March 2008 12:28:32PM -1 points [-]

I'm glad to see robust criticism of Eliezer and his foil-seeking relationship with religion on this blog. Let's encourage Eliezer to focus more on innovating ways to overcome bias and less on these type of foil-seeking contrasts (the guy who likes space shuttles vs. the guy who claims to believe in Jesus as God).

Comment author: Nick_Tarleton 26 March 2008 12:44:52PM 0 points [-]

My cod-psychology two pence: people like feeling part of something bigger and grander.

This isn't just your idea, actually.

"[T]here is the pleasant life — having as many of the pleasures as you can and the skills to amplify them — and the good life — knowing what your signature strengths are and recrafting everything you do to use them a much as possible. But there's a third form of life, and if you're a bridge player like me, or a stamp collector, you can have eudaemonia; that is, you can be in flow. But everyone finds that as they grow older and look in the mirror they worry that they're fidgeting until they die. That's because there's a third form of happiness that is ineluctably pursued by humans, and that's the pursuit of meaning. I'm not going to be sophomoric enough to try to tell Edge viewers the theory of meaning, but there is one thing we know about meaning: that meaning consists in attachment to something bigger than you are. The self is not a very good site for meaning, and the larger the thing that you can credibly attach yourself to, the more meaning you get out of life."

Roko: The Sadducees were one religious sect with no belief in an afterlife. There are probably others (some Australian Aboriginal religions come to mind, but I can't find a cite). Buddhism in its original and more austere present forms (if that counts as a religion) lacks #1 and #2, and promises #3 and #4 through natural law rather than a deity. Still, those beliefs describe the vast majority of religions.

Comment author: Caledonian2 26 March 2008 01:19:01PM -2 points [-]

You write as if you think the Evolution Fairy is going to smite us if we don't consciously try to maximize inclusive genetic fitness.

Read the last quote. Acting against the grain of reality tends to cause the actor to cease being real.

Is that bad from the actor's perspective? How should I know? But actors who view that as good, or who act regardless of that consequence, tend not to accumulate in existence. They do not endure.

We are descended from the actors who survived their environments, who one way or another made the choices that went along with the grain. Now the grain has shifted, but we're repeating the same patterns.

Comment author: Cyan2 26 March 2008 02:06:33PM 0 points [-]

I think this really drives home my point - a sect split off from judaism (a religion which very much DOES believe in the afterlife) and within a few generations went extinct again. Moral of the tale: No belief in afterlife = not a viable religious belief system.

Post hoc ergo propter hoc. You have to examine the full story of that extinction and others like (and unlike) it before you can make this assertion in confidence.

Susceptibility to beliefs which fit a fairly specific list of criteria may be HARD CODED into the average human brain.

The more specific the list, the less credence one should give it. Evolution will build just enough structure to let environment provide the rest of the information.

Religion is only one source of group cohesiveness conveyed by deeper meaning. The other major one I can think of off the top of my head is nationalism. The role of ritual would probably be best understood by examining it in all of the contexts where some deeper meaning is the binding agent, not just religion. Military rituals would be a good place to start.

Comment author: Liz_W 26 March 2008 03:13:58PM 0 points [-]

I agree with you that atheists who experience awe or similar emotions in response to non-religious phenomena are not necessarily trying to fill a God-shaped hole. I don't follow the distinction you make between my experience of God and yours of the space shuttle launch, though. If sharing the experience of the space shuttle does not detract from your awe, why should sharing the experience of God detract from mine?

Comment author: josh 26 March 2008 03:30:22PM 5 points [-]

"Feeling good is not the point."

but it sure does feel good.

Comment author: JulianMorrison 26 March 2008 03:47:42PM 0 points [-]

To those defending religion by lauding "a god-shaped hole in the mind": how would you react to a custom-designed pill which went to that part of the brain and plugged the hole? Or better yet, a vaccine which stopped it up permanently (and could be given with the other "shots" to an infant)?

Comment author: Nick_Tarleton 26 March 2008 04:08:47PM 0 points [-]

Liz, space shuttles exist. God, on the other hand.... I may be missing something, though, as I don't see where "sharing" comes from.

Julian, I don't see anyone defending religion, just pointing out that people do have a God-shaped hole. I find it plausible that that hole exists, and personally I'd like to plug it to the extent that I have one, but only if I was confident that doing so wouldn't reduce my feeling of transcendent awe at real things.

Comment author: Glen_Raphael 26 March 2008 04:08:54PM 2 points [-]

The claim that religiously-inspired music is inherently more beautiful than atheistically-inspired music initially seems plausible but on reflection it seems clear there is a severe selection bias at work. The majority of religiously-inspired songs that have been written actually suck, as do the vast majority of songs of any sort. A few early churches cultivated an environment in which singing and songwriting were well rewarded, something one could make a career out of. Many talented people spent lifetimes writing song after song - most of them terrible - for the church and hundreds of years later a few of the songs that survive from that era are lovely. Do you really think Handel couldn't have written a decent song about atheism if he'd been paid to do so? Or at least, one that we'd regard as good if people had been singing it for centuries?

But you're looking at the output of professionals at the height of their craft, winnowed by time. It's like comparing Casablanca with some recent student art film projects and claiming black & white movies are inherently better.

(FWIW, here's the closest thing that I've written... Hymn of the Flying Spaghetti Monster )

Comment author: Michael_G.r.2 26 March 2008 05:34:26PM 0 points [-]

You made me go to Youtube and watch shuttle launches..


Comment author: Doug_S. 26 March 2008 05:45:54PM 0 points [-]

We can use this as an "atheist hymn":


Comment author: Alan_Crowe 26 March 2008 05:58:17PM 1 point [-]

When someone sets out to write an atheistic hymn - "Hail, oh unintelligent universe," blah, blah, blah - the result will, without exception, suck.

I've just submitted my Militant Atheists' Marching Song to Reddit. Does it suck? Since I wrote the words, it is not my place to judge.

Comment author: Psy-Kosh 26 March 2008 06:18:37PM 0 points [-]

As far as the hypothetical anti-religion pill... I'd be hesitant, not due to love of religion, but cooerced brain modification seems like it's a extra super duper "warning, warning, thar be demons past these gates" level of "eeek"

Brain modification/upgrades... "wheee! sign me up!"

Cooerced brain modification/upgrades... this is where I say "okay, wait, seriously think things through here."

Comment author: Unknown 26 March 2008 07:31:37PM 1 point [-]

Julian's comment about "defending religion" reminds me of Eliezer's talk about the Blues and the Greens, and about politics; since religion is the Hated Enemy, we have to support every possible argument against it, and one possible argument is that religion is 100% foreign to human nature. So if anyone admits that this argument is flawed, he is supporting the Hated Enemy and must be condemned as a heretic.

Comment author: Manon_de_Gaillande 26 March 2008 07:57:24PM 0 points [-]

If people do have a religion-shaped hole (I can tell at least some do), what are they supposed to do about it? Ignoring it to focus on real things will not plug the hole. Modifying your brain or creating a real godlike thing is not possible yet. So what are we to do?

Comment author: anon12 26 March 2008 10:09:03PM 0 points [-]

"There are atheists who have religion-shaped holes in their minds. I have seen attempts to substitute atheism or even transhumanism for religion. And the result is invariably awful. Utterly awful. Absolutely abjectly awful."


Don't you're early writings, i.e. "Meaning of Life FAQs", exhibit this tendency? Aren't they such attempts? I just want to know how much your views have changed since then. Your site states those writings are out of date, but I am still curious.


Comment author: Cyan2 26 March 2008 10:43:14PM 1 point [-]

Roko wrote:

It looks to me like my list is well-supported by the evidence... But this is a bit of a digression; I can't do a very thorough investigation into the scientific origins of religious belief. I think I have shown sufficient evidence to cast doubt on the assertion that we don't have a "religion-shaped hole" to fill.

I'm not asking you to do a thorough investigation -- I'm suggesting that you've put too much credence in one possible explanation when there are alternative less or equally complex explanations.

For example, a "life's meaning"-shaped hole in one's brain seems more plausible than a specifically religion-shaped hole. The features on your list may be characteristics of religions that make them particularly good at appearing to convey meaning (or at taking advantage of flaws in human cognition; or at generating a fear-based response; or... etc.). In short, the listed features make religions fit memes -- no religion-shaped hole required. I regard this as a simpler hyphothesis that equally well explains the available facts.

It would be a mistake to proceed as if the available information confirmed the religion-shaped-hole hypothesis. It's plausible -- but that's all.

Comment author: Caledonian2 27 March 2008 12:09:39AM 1 point [-]

the more specific the predictions a hypothesis makes, the more credence we should give it

Incorrect. The more specific the predictions a hypothesis makes, the easier it becomes to confirm or reject the hypothesis, and the more meaningful investigation and observation can be in evaluating it. But that is why we should treat such hypotheses more seriously than vague ones, not why we should view them as more credible than vague ones.

Comment author: Cyan2 27 March 2008 12:32:38AM 0 points [-]

Roko, my hypothesis makes the same predictions as yours. It just has less working parts.

This discussion is skirting thread-hijacking, so I'm happy to agree to disagree at this point.

Comment author: cucu 27 March 2008 09:02:57AM 1 point [-]

nice post - now I know I'm not the only one with tears when seeing a rocket launch :)

Comment author: Tom_White 27 March 2008 01:38:35PM -1 points [-]

Why do you confuse "theism" and "religion"? There are major world religions that are not at all theistic, like Buddhism. It's unrealistic to lump them together, it just makes you look ... silly.

Comment author: bigjeff5 02 February 2011 10:07:29PM 1 point [-]

I believe he is including all religions in this category, not just theist religions.

For example, what can Buddhism tell us about reality any more than Christianity? They share the same fundamental problem: they aren't real.

Besides, Buddhists tend to worship Buddha in lieu of a God, anyway, so even that part they couldn't get right.

Comment author: Captain_Obvious 27 March 2008 04:05:49PM -1 points [-]

How do we know that the religionists don't have a "space-shuttle-launch"-shaped hole in /their/ heads?

Geez, it almost makes you wonder if maybe religion might be a substitute for science...

Comment author: Captain_Obvious 27 March 2008 06:17:02PM 0 points [-]

Space shuttles weren't present in our era of evolutionary adaptedness, neither was science.

OK, but neither was anything like our modern forms of religion. Just because you don't have something to fit a given hole doesn't mean the hole couldn't exist (and of course I'm kidding about the specifics of the shuttle-launch-shaped-hole)

Besides, while "modern" science wasn't present, the overall goal (trying to understand the world we find ourselves in) certainly was. Lacking anything like modern science, people had to "fill in the hole" (in their understanding of their world) with religion.

Regardless of whether that's actually true or not (and I'm certainly no anthropoligist!), my real point is that it's incredibly presumptuous of the religionists to assume that just because thing A causes person 1 to feel similar to how thing B causes person 2 to feel, that person 1 is obviously trying to fill an B-shaped hole with A, which is merely a pale substitute for B, whereas B is "clearly" the genuine article. They don't even consider for a second that person 2 might be filling an A-shaped hole with B!

Comment author: Jeroen 28 March 2008 08:36:39AM 1 point [-]

"When someone sets out to write an atheistic hymn - "Hail, oh unintelligent universe," blah, blah, blah - the result will, without exception, suck."

You are obviously unfamiliar with "le semeur", unofficial hymn of the University of Brussels ("spreading atheism since 1834")


Comment author: Luke_A_Somers 29 August 2011 10:31:55PM 2 points [-]

If God did speak plainly, and answer prayers reliably, God would just become one more real thing, sure. But I would sure hope that God would be an awesome real thing, even more so than shuttle launches. And I sure like me some shuttle launches (speaking of specifically-shaped holes in hearts).

Comment author: Desrtopa 30 August 2011 09:36:30PM 2 points [-]

Seconded. I find a lot of religious practices really cool; not so much the bedside prayers, but the fervent devotion of holy people can be really awe inspiring, but the fact that it's built up around something imaginary is a big letdown. I can only imagine how cool religion would seem if it actually did anything.

Comment author: GDC3 08 March 2012 12:24:51AM 0 points [-]

What if I have a strong emotional response to the existence of a creature that would make up such a thing as a religion? I suppose it feels more poignant than transcendant, but I've always had strong tender feelings about other peoples religious beliefs.

If the original mistake was never made it would not be referenced as a meme in fiction, but given that it is mightn't I just as well enjoy God as a fictional character or a cultural tradition to reference but not believe?

I agree that hymns to the nonexistence of God are bad, but that's indeed because they're imitative and not genuinely expressive. But there are genuine emotional expressions to the very real existence of the idea of God. And I think they prove that the "would not exist without the underlying mistake" is too broad.

Comment author: Michaelag 01 April 2017 03:59:29PM 0 points [-]

I'm vaguely surprised that no one has asked, "What about 'Hope Eyrie'?" though I do realize that it is a hymn / anthem for humanism and space travel, rather than against belief in God or whatever.

Hope Eyrie