Designing the Church of Glaucon
Peter A. Taylor
June 13, 2013 (Revision A: 7-9-2015)
When I started writing about libertarianism (e.g. The Dog Ate My Manifesto), I tried to keep religion out of it. Later, when I started to write about religion (e.g. Is Rational Religion Possible?), I tried to keep the political partisanship to a minimum. This has proved to be impossible. My essay on The Resurrection of Classical Liberalism started out as a sequel to my appendix on immigration policy in "Dog", and ended up as a prequel to the explicitly religious The Baby and the Bathwater. The original ending I wrote for "Resurrection" has turned into this short sequel to "Bathwater", fleshing out the Church of Glaucon a little bit. These three essays probably make the most sense in the order, "Resurrection", "Bathwater", and "Designing the Church of Glaucon".
... never go to a gunfight without a gun ... never go to a religious war without religion.
— Tom Kratman
Weaving the moral fabric of society
In order to resurrect something like classical liberalism, we need to build or capture institutions that are capable of providing our children with moral "education", or to avoid euphemisms, moral indoctrination. In other words, quasi-religious institutions. As I see it, I am following in the footsteps of Adam Smith, who in some sense was trying to fuse the Christian moral philosophy of Francis Hutcheson with the secular philosophy of David Hume. Nicholas Phillipson discusses this in an EconTalk podcast that I highly recommend.
But what is the scope of this project? Is it limited to political principles (a libertarian curriculum for homeschoolers, perhaps?) or is it a full service replacement for Christianity? I think we need the full service version. Initially, it could take the form of a private education curriculum. We certainly will never be able to entrust this work to the public employees' unions. But in the long run, I don't think anything less than a de facto secular church is capable of providing the sort of support system needed to promote controversial moral doctrines. The job is not just to sketch out some ideals, but to get people to live them. Part of the job of a good church is to promote virtue and suppress the more destructive kinds of self-deception. This isn't just publishing a civics textbook. This is a way of life.
There are two major problems that this church has to solve:
The first problem is figuring out how to tell what moral teachings are right. I certainly have ideas about what would be good moral teachings, but that's not the question. The question is how a well-governed secular church chooses its doctrines.
The second problem is how to convince people who have conflicts of interest that your doctrines are right, and that they shouldn't depend on their own navel-gazing, or wait until they're tempted and then try to think it through by themselves, or participate in a race to the bottom by shopping around for the most permissive church in town.
In an ideal world, this would all be very scientific, and the two problems would be closely related. We would convince people that our doctrines were right simply by showing them our test data and our calculations, with error bands and confidence intervals. The reasoning would be reproducable and falsifiable. There might even be an occasional controlled experiment.
In reality, moral doctrines are credence goods. (It's hard to verify their quality even in hindsight.) Choosing doctrines is, at best, educated guesswork, which may be done by different sets of people in different churches (church polity). Promoting belief in these doctrines is a separate problem, and historically has been done in large part by creating an illusion of consensus and by lying about uncertainty.
But saying that "moral doctrines are credence goods" doesn't go nearly far enough. We get the vast majority of our information and ideas about politically sensitive topics from untrustworthy sources, and getting better information is prohibitively time-consuming except on an occasional basis. Did Michael Brown really have his hands up when he was shot? Politically sensitive information in general is mostly a credence good.
But this still doesn't go nearly far enough. It's not just "information" (as in "data"), but interpretations, opinions, and ideas, including especially ideas about what is "reasonable". Which explanations for the poor performance of public schools in American inner cities are reasonable? What is a reasonable way to assign blame for the 2008 financial melt-down? What is a "reasonable" idea, opinion, or interpretation typically is not something that the average person can verify scientifically. Ideas do have long-term consequences, and serious students may eventually figure them out, but in most cases the average goat-roper is going to have to depend on someone else to do this for him. Ideas about what's reasonable tend to be credence goods.
We are usually beholders not of events but of reports, and students not of history but of interpretations.
— Murdoc on line
A secular salvation story
But why a religion? What exactly are the problems I want to solve? What's wrong with the existing religions?
Basically, people need religion for two reasons, personal and social. On the personal level, religion is a set of software patches for a human mind that is full of maladaptations. Part of what I want is well-developed "virtue ethics" that will protect me from my own psychological weaknesses. (See ch. 8 of Jonathan Haidt's The Happiness Hypothesis.) On the social level, religion helps people cooperate with the other people in their communities. It binds individuals into cohesive groups. Some things really do take a village, and religion helps keep people from defecting under pressure. This is especially important when the village is under attack.
The problems I am trying to solve are two-fold. The first fundamental dogma of the Church of Glaucon is a diagnosis: what's wrong with Western civilization is that we are caught up in a holier-than-thou death spiral. Devin Finbarr defines this as "Leftism":
Leftism is the process by which intellectuals try to obtain power by being holier-than-thou according to the evolving memeplex tradition arising from Christianity.
As Spandrell put it,
The problem is to stop bad people from coming up with bad theology to advance themselves.
The second fundamental dogma of the Church of Glaucon is that the institutions that mold public opinion, which we usually refer to as "the Cathedral", are caught in a feedback loop with intellectuals and popularly elected politicians, and have been thoroughly corrupted. Leftist politics has become a dysfunctional quasi-religion with the gleichgeschaltet (coordinated) or "throne-sniffer" media as its house organ.
I can't really separate culture from government, especially in a democracy. No one has ever come up with a satisfactory answer to the question, "Who watches the watchman?" I also can't separate culture from religion, or at least, quasi-religion. Dysfunctional religion leads to dysfunctional culture. Not the least of the consequences of this is that the ethnic groups that created and most strongly participate in Western civilization are collectively working toward a Darwin award. (See Cultural Collapse Theory.)
The existing religions that I know about are typically unsatisfactory for two reasons. The first reason is that most of them require beliefs in the supernatural which too few modern people share. For some people, belief in a God at all is a problem. Other people believe in a God of sorts (e.g. a "ground of being"), but not one who involves Himself much in human affairs. But even those people who do believe in an actively involved God typically can't agree on what He really said or on who has the authority to speak on His behalf. So the supernaturalist religions are not able to make cogent arguments for a lot of the people I'm trying to reach.
The second reason existing religions are unsatisfactory is because of Conquest's Second Law:
Any organization not explicitly right-wing sooner or later becomes left-wing.
In fact, leftists often argue that Christianity was prototypically left-wing to begin with. The teachings of Jesus seem to me to support this argument. Even if Jesus wasn't recognizably left-wing, Martin Luther was, at least by Finbarr's definition. This gets confusing because "the evolving memeplex tradition arising from Christianity" contains many forks which retain recognizable pieces of Christianity, but which discard and react against other pieces, some of which (e.g. belief in God) seem essential to "Christianity" as commonly understood. Few traditional religions, and none of the atheist-friendly ones like Unitarian Universalism, seem to be able to resist being dragged out to sea by the Leftist undertow.
What I'm looking for, then, is two kinds of salvation. I want to be saved from my own rationalization hamster. But more importantly, I want to be saved from politicians, prophets, witch-hunters, and their various auxiliaries. I'm trying to build an ideological bomb shelter.
Another expression for "build a bomb shelter" is exit in place, which is similar to the Benedict option. The Benedict option is more ambitious: it seeks "not to hide away as a pure remnant — the church would be unfaithful to Christ if it did so — but to strengthen itself to be the church for the world." Cardinal Francis George put it this way:
I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square. His successor will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilization, as the church has done so often in human history.
I don't know what the right balance is between taking care of ourselves and trying to perform a public service, but in the short term, it's a moot point. We need to get our own houses in order before we can serve as examples to others.
Promoting credence goods is a harder problem than choosing them, and if one succumbs to the temptation to lie about uncertainty (i.e. where do these doctrines come from?), this constrains the selection process. If the Pope speaks ex cathedra on a topic, he can't openly change his mind later without seriously damaging the Catholic church's claim to have reliable moral doctrines. What are our options for church polity, and what are the consequences of our choices?
So what happens if a group of people within one of these churches decides to throw out the old doctrine and start worshipping a golden calf? In a Catholic church, the Pope or his representative says, "Take a hike", and that's the end of the story. In a Presbyterian church, the doctrine can be changed by popular opinion, but it has to happen at the denomination level. In a Congregational church, the doctrine can be changed by popular opinion at the local level. At a UU church, any group of adults can more or less choose whatever doctrines they want to espouse or live by. The Board of Directors could shut down an adult group that was seriously offensive to the rest of the church, but they are unlikely to do so, and they don't have an official creed telling them they have to.
In some churches, the building is owned by a central authority, which gives that authority a lot of unofficial leverage that they don't officially have. Also, ministers typically have professional associations that can turn some screws. And the major donors to a church have a lot of influence, and are a different demographic from the other members. But the questions I am interested in are (1) at what level do doctrinal decisions get made, and (2) what credentials does someone have to have in order to participate in setting doctrine?
Laurence Iannaccone has argued (Deregulating Religion) that churches perform better (deliver better services, have higher attendance, etc.) when they are forced to compete with one another. This is an argument for congregational polity, or failing that, lots of small denominations. This argument makes sense if what churches produce is mainly a private good or a club good*, with each congregation having minimal spillover effects on non-members (and people are reasonably "rational" in the economic sense). The Catholic model, or possibly having an official state religion, makes more sense if the most important thing churches produce is a public good: support for a moral climate that benefits society in general and is not all that immediately beneficial to the members. I lean towards Iannaccone's view. I think the best way to produce a public good like the general moral capital of society is as a side effect of producing private and club goods (e.g. avoiding common mistakes and maintaining a good reputation). It's not perfectly efficient, but neither is monopoly, and a state monopoly on religion in a democracy is a bad idea. But if it takes a religious monopoly to ban polygamy, I'd put up with monopoly. (I.e. I would rather live in a monogamous society with a state religion than in a polygamous society with religious freedom.) I am also concerned with the possibility of an ethical "race to the bottom". I raised the possibility in my review of Be the Solution that it might be to a person's advantage to join an "evil" church that condones members' self-deception at the expense of non-members. But there's no way the Church of Glaucon can prevent people from leaving and going to a more permissive church. I expect that similar, healthy churches will tend to form denominations, and I don't have a problem with that.
* You'll find a brief explanation of private, public, and club goods here.
The other question is what credentials I should be required to have before being allowed to vote on church doctrine. Most Protestant churches seem to assume that every member is passably familiar with the Bible, and that the Bible, and a little common sense, provide enough information to make doctrinal decisions ("the priesthood of all believers"). I'm inclined to imitate the Catholics on this. Moral philosophy should be left to at least semi-professionals. Voting membership should be relatively rare, a privilege held by people similar to deacons, who have passed tests on the most important works of the church canon. The question is whether voting membership should be open to anyone who can pass a test, or should be by invitation only. I lean towards invitation only.
The way I envision this church is that anyone can be a non-voting member, subject to good behavior. I might throw in some minor readings like David Wong's Cracked Magazine article "10 Things Christians and Atheists Can and Must Agree On", and make everyone promise not to be a dick. I might also require that they assent to a short reading from ChevalierdeJohnstone:
The point is that a working civilization is an extremely, impossibly remote result. Statistically, failure is the norm. Barbaric animal stupidity is the natural state of mankind. It is by the slimmest of probabilities that any civilization manages to drag itself up out of the muck, and the entire history of civilizational tradition is the shaky structure on which civilized society is balanced. You cannot throw out that tradition and expect anything but barbarism to result. The only option is a restoration of those civilizational traditions which so many ancestors established by painful trial-and-error; not because these traditions are "good" or "right" but because against all possible odds they have been proven to work.
But in order to be a voting member ("deacon"), you have to (1) find a sponsor, (2) do the sponsor's assigned readings, (3) show some minimal understanding of them, and (4) convince the other deacons that you're not a jerk. I imagine sponsorship becoming formalized into something that resembles the "houses" at J. K. Rowling's Hogwart's School.
Our moral teachings must be grounded in observable fact as far as possible, and we need a mature understanding of the complex relationship between morality and observable fact. Fortunately, Adam Smith made a pretty good start at this with The Theory of Moral Sentiments. I recommend the EconTalk podcast series with Dan Klein on this book. The book itself is worth reading, and is available as a free download in both the Glasgow and Modern Text versions.
But the real trick here is to suppress the more destructive kinds of self-deception. As Richard Feynman put it,
The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.
I once took a class called "Industrial Ecology", in which the professor said that a lot of arguments about environmentalism were misplaced. People argue about whether decisions about cutting down trees should be made in the private sector or the public sector. But regardless of who's making the decision, the real problem is that nobody knows how to price a tree as an environmental good. So the person who saves the Earth is going to be an accountant.
Grounding moral doctrines in observable fact obviously involves careful study of history, and especially of social statistics. Guenter Lewy offers a positive example in Why America Needs Religion. But one of the recurring themes on EconTalk is that it's almost impossible to convince anyone of anything using social statistics. Everybody knows on some level that it's really easy to cherry-pick these kinds of statistics, even when you're trying not to. I find myself wanting to say that we need a Messiah, and that our Messiah needs to be a statistician. But our most serious challenge is "How do we keep the rationalization hamster on his meds?" To paraphrase Andrei Codrescue, what we need are not statisticians, what we need are psychiatrists.
Business model for the Church of Glaucon
I raised the idea of the Church of Glaucon in the context of trying to resurrect classical liberalism as a tool for pursuing good government. But good government is a public good, something whose benefits are spread out so thinly that people have no obvious incentive to participate voluntarily. Such public goods would be produced primarily as a side effect of the church's other activities. Prospective new members are going to be wondering, "What's in it for me?" What services does this church provide for its members?
* Proposed motto for the Church of Glaucon: "Nature to be commanded must be obeyed." — Francis Bacon
Part of the price that the members have to pay for this is to take the church's social norms seriously. But additionally, part of the price that the members have to pay is to cut the church leadership the slack that they need in order to avoid getting co-opted by the Progressive establishment. (Even the Catholic Church has never solved the dilemma of how to have an organization that can correct errors readily without being sensitive to intellectual fashion.) That may mean either doing a lot of reading and debating, or accepting that not everybody who warms a pew is going to be allowed to sit at the adult table when doctrinal decisions are made. Initially, when the church is just a few weirdos talking about homeschooling, it might be democratic. But when it starts to attract people who aren't all that keen on being seen as weirdos, or the wrong kind of weirdos, it will probably be necessary to switch to something more like the Catholic model.
"Prophets" and "Social Justice Warriors" are presumed guilty of inventing bad theology to advance themselves until proven innocent. The first step is to diss them unceasingly. The second step, per James A. Donald, is to test them: crucify them, and if they rise again from the dead in three days, apologize profusely.
Married clergy, and especially married with children, are preferred over unmarried clergy.
I have a short list of sins in my Bathwater essay (promiscuity, envy, idolatry, hubris, and false witness).
I also have a decision tree in The Dog Ate My Manifesto with libertarian default political positions. In an ideal world, it would be better to just emphasize separation of church and state as Richard Fernandez does in Rebranding Christianity, but because State-worship is central to Progressivism, we have to deal with politics.
We need a homeschooling curriculum and an Antiversity.
We don't trust politicized "science". Human Bio-Diversity (HBD) is a thing. Overlapping bell curves are a thing. Bayes theorem is a thing. Testosterone is a thing. Female hypergamy is a thing. Cuckoldry as part of the female reproductive repertoire is a thing, and so is male antipathy towards it. Different Darwinian pressures between the sexes result in The Inevitability of Patriarchy. Different cognitive biases between the sexes are a thing. (E.g. men and women display different degrees of risk aversion. See also John R. Lott on "the gender gap" in Freedomnomics.)
The Progressives are pushing a False Life Model (FLM), emphasizing career over family, and the same model for men and women. This goes against the Tao. Family formation, where practical, is central to the good life. A good default model is the bower bird: the male builds a house for the female, and the female chooses a mate based on the house, not the plumage. The good life is monogamous. There should be stigmas associated with casual pre-marital sex and with divorce.
The bower bird model of the good life is different for men and women. Men, like bower birds building houses, pursue careers largely to attract women, and women are generally wise not to pursue their careers as single-mindedly as men. For most people, having to spend your time working for someone else is a cost, not a benefit. The common mistakes are also different for men and women. Complementary default sex roles are helpful in avoiding marital conflict, but some flexibility is needed.
Another model for the good life, specifically intended for atheists, is a relay race. In order to find meaning in the race, you have to care both about the baton you're carrying and about your teammates.
I am unsettled on the issue of division of labor between the sexes within the church. Two of my favorite UU ministers are women, but the two churches I most want to emulate, Catholics and Mormons, both prohibit female clergy. Do female clergy cause complications for the men in the church relating to female hypergamy? (Interfering with "structural alpha", perhaps?) Are there too many false positives in the process of identifying good clergy? (That would force the church elders to fall back on their Bayesian priors about cognitive biases vs. sex.) Within the neoreactionary movement, there is a clear need for some sort of Ladies' Auxiliary. A well-run church may need a separate career path for female clergy.
Update, 12-29-2015: One view is that part of the clergy's job is to stabilize marriages by modeling default sex roles that deconflict men and women as much as possible. If this view is correct, that would drive me toward wanting a separate career path for female clergy.
Mormons seem to be better than Catholics at resisting the Leftist undertow. It's not clear to me why. I would prefer to steal Catholic terminology as being more familiar (e.g. "parishes" rather than "wards"), but where the substance conflicts, I would lean towards copying the Mormons.
Update, 3-4-2017: Maybe a major part of the Mormons' success has to do with the banning of alcohol.
I don't know what it would take to "educate" someone to the point where I would trust him to vote on church doctrine, but I do have some idea of how I became the weirdo that I am. It involved reading the following (not in this order):
Several other people have also made lists of recommended readings. These lists are more hard-core reactionary and less libertarian than mine.
Oh, and Tom Wolfe is hereby promoted to Saint Second Class.
Some departures from Christianity
One book that is conspicuously missing from my suggested reading list is the Bible. This seems odd for a project that is in some ways an attempt to reboot Christianity. The problem is that, as Joshua Orsak said, "The Bible is a very heterogeneous book." People can cherry-pick quotations from the Bible to support almost any idea they want to defend. Christians are taught (Ecclesiastes 3), "To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven." Sometimes you're supposed to turn the other cheek, and other times you're supposed to slay the women and donkeys. But how do you know when to do which? Two conclusions fall out of this.
One conclusion is that Martin Luther's sola scriptura is wrong. The flavor that Christianity takes on depends strongly on how sensible the local priest is. The local priest is often a fool, and he doesn't necessarily have much to fall back on for guidance. There may be an archbishop he can ask for an opinion, but the archbishop pretty much has to pull an answer out of his ass. I don't know of anything in the Bible as helpful as the discussion of the "tit for tat" strategy for the Iterated Prisoners' Dilemma in ch. 12 of Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene*. I don't want to discard the Bible entirely because I think it has affected Western civilization in too many ways that nobody really understands. But I don't want to make a fetish of it, either.
The other conclusion is that Luther's idea of "the priesthood of all believers" is also wrong. I trust the average goat roper to brush his own teeth. I don't trust him to perform brain surgery on himself. Protestants treat moral philosophy like tooth brushing, whereas Catholics treat it more like brain surgery. I'm with the Catholics on this one. The priesthood of all believers makes no more sense to me than the brain surgeon-hood of all medical patients.
* Ch. 12 of The Selfish Gene should be included in any future Glauconian Gospel.
The question, "When do we turn the other cheek, and when do we slay the women and donkeys?" needs to be considered both at the individual and at the group level. I am an individual, but I am also a member of a family, a community, a tribe, and a nation. I have different degrees of sympathy, trust and loyalty for different people. And the same is also true for other people that I have to deal with. Furthermore, many decisions about how to treat other people have to be made collectively (e.g. whether or not to go to war). Therefore, a sane moral philosophy has to make sense at the group level as well as at the individual level. Again, there is precedent in the Bible for both kinds of behavior, "universalism" (e.g. the good Samaritan) and "particularism" (e.g. "Let my people go!"). But the new testament seems to be heavily biased towards universalism, and modern people who have been influenced by Christianity tend to take extreme universalist postures (i.e. be a doormat) when preening for the "moral peacock Olympics".
One of the challenges if you want to play good Samaritan is being able to tell the difference between helping deserving people and enabling bad behavior. As Nick Land put it, "Liberty without Social Darwinism is an abnomination in the eyes of Gnon [Nature or Nature's God]." Don't give bourbon to an alcoholic. Don't pay for fertility treatments for someone who can't afford children. Again, this is important both on the individual level and on the group level. Is it morally permissible to adopt children from cultures that haven't come to grips with Thomas Malthus? The "bad" behavior need not be intentional, and the people most in distress may not be the people performing bad acts. (Note that Just War doctrine, with reason, places the blame for the deaths of innocent human shields on the people using them as shields, not on the people whose fire kills them. The innocent shields may have to die.) Also, don't inflict the costs of your "charity" on your neighbors. Don't privatize the sanctimony and socialize the costs. Be skeptical about refugees. Sometimes you have to say, "No."
Dawkins' discussion of "tit for tat" was written in terms of individual behavior, but it also makes sense at the group level in cases where the boundaries of the groups in question are clearly drawn. For example, Progressives and Christians in the US offer freedom of religion to members of religions that typically do not reciprocate when they are in positions of power (e.g. Muslims in Saudi Arabia). Maybe there is a well thought-out reason for this policy, but it seems to me that a compromise made in 1791 has been extended without much thought into radically different circumstances.
Where the group boundaries are unclear, a sane initial position in an argument about universalism vs. particularism would be Hamilton's rule: "b > c / r". (The J. B. S. Haldane version was, "I would jump into a river to save two brothers, but not one, or to save eight cousins but not seven.") I would like to live in a society where strangers treat one another generously and honorably, but it isn't something that you can take for granted. I don't want to live in a society where ethnic tribalism is important, but responsible people need to be prepared for it. As Global Guerrillas put it, "The most important aspect of tribal organization is that it is the organizational cockroach of human history."
The Church of Glaucon needs to have something intelligent to say about predatory behavior at the group level, and resistance to it at the group level. This includes fostering asabiyah (group cohesion) and taking it into account in considering the behavior of others. You can't take asabiyah for granted among friends, and you can't take its absence for granted among strangers.
Predatory group behavior demands particularist solutions. Groups thus need to be able to shift back and forth between universalist and particularist policies. There are a number of popular expressions for this. The Marines have a saying, "No better friend, no worse enemy." Steven Den Beste wrote, "The whole point of Jacksonianism is 'You leave me alone and I'll leave you alone. You play fair with me and I'll play fair with you. But if you fuck with me, I'll kill you.'" But my favorite comes from the movie, The Addams Family:
And our credo, "Sic gorgiamus allos subjectatos nunc"..."We gladly feast on those who would subdue us".
Not just pretty words.
Update, 12-29-2015: No discussion of slaying women and donkeys would be complete without a link to James A. Donald's instructions on proper Christian genocide (how to wage war against a dysfunctional society without becoming dysfunctional). I'm actually more interested in supererogation (Article 14 of the Anglican "39 Articles") and Jim's interpretation of the Parable of the Good Samaritan than in genocide, but go ahead and read the whole thing. I'll just include this warning from Seth:
Sometimes Jim is Jim and sometimes Jim is an extreme parody of Jim and sometimes you can't tell which is which.
Earlier I said that the first major problem the Church of Glaucon had was figuring out how to tell what moral doctrines were right. But what does that even mean? The traditional Christian approach to morality (meta-ethics) is to say that there is a unique entity called "God" that is external to the human race, and that a moral doctrine is "right" if God likes it. This leaves Christians with the problem of figuring out God's will, but at least in principle, whether something is right or wrong is an objective fact. But the Church of Glaucon is intended to be formally agnostic about the supernatural, so I can't depend on monotheistic philosophy. I argued that the general consequences of various moral doctrines were knowable in theory, but that in practice, the uncertainty was so high that moral correctness was a credence good. But even if you did know exactly what the long term consequences of some doctrine were, with seven billion people on the Earth, that still leaves us potentially with seven billion different opinions about how desirable those consequences are.
Arthur Leff argued in his Memorandum from the Devil (and more formally, here) that this problem is fundamentally unsolvable. Appeals to science and human nature run afoul of the naturalistic fallacy: If something is natural, it must be good (like high infant mortality, perhaps?). People do things that piss off other people all the time, and this is perfectly natural. Science and nature can tell us what is, but they offer us no objectivity about whether the result is "good". I have a long discussion of meta-ethics in sections 8 through 11 and Appendices A and C in Why Johnny Can't Proselytize, and another short comment here. Much of this material is a condemnation of "moral scientism", pretending to be able to derive "ought" from "is", especially when combined in inconsistent ways with nihilism. (Your moral arguments are invalid because there's no such thing as right and wrong, but mine are Sciency!)
The Church of Glaucon has to take a very different approach to meta-ethics than Christianity does. I also don't want to fall into either of the common traps that Humanists fall into, moral scientism or nihilism. We have to admit that, on top of uncertainty about consequences, the rightness of our moral doctrines is fundamentally a matter of opinion. We nevertheless will still "own" our opinions.
The bad thing about this approach is that it's hard to fill people with moral confidence if you admit that your morals are fundamentally based on matters of opinion. But it will be easier to call the Progressives out on moral scientism if we're not doing it ourselves.
To be continued....
Appendix A: How much can we copy from the Mormons?
The Mormon church (formally, the Latter Day Saints, LDS) is a model of a successful church in many ways.
Guenter Lewy presents some statistics on this in Why America Needs Religion. Anthony Gill also discusses Mormonism on a couple of Research on Religion podcasts, one with
Michael McBride, author of the paper, Club Mormon*
linkrot; moved behind
paywall), and one with
Jeremy Lott, author of the article,
Stranger in a Mormon Land. One of the questions Gill asks of McBride is, with such obvious success, why don't other churches imitate the Mormons more?
* In economic theory, a "club" differs from a "firm" in that a firm has employees who produce things to sell and customers who buy them, whereas a club has members who produce collective goods for the group's own consumption. Economists usually think of churches as clubs rather than firms.
It sounds like a fair question to me. How much of what the Mormons do right is transferable? Can, say, the Unitarian Universalists or the Ethical Culture Society become more like the Mormons in terms of growth and organization without adopting Mormon theology? What about the Church of Glaucon (a clean sheet of paper design)? What are the Mormons doing right, and how is it tied to theology?
First, I need to clarify what counts as a "successful" religion. There are a number of related but different measures.
The Mormon church is organizationally healthy. It is growing and well-funded. Members contribute large numbers of volunteer hours. Any internal controversies it may have are managed quietly. It is effective at doing charity work. It's members have plenty of children.
Members report high levels of commitment and satisfaction. A member's church attendance may wax and wane, but turnover is low.
The LDS is successful at identifying and inculcating "private" virtues. These are behaviors and habits that are good for the individuals who practice them, such as delayed gratification and self-discipline. Economists would describe this as "rationality". Evidence is low divorce rate, high education, low poverty, low addiction, low domestic violence, low abortion, low bastardy, low births to teenage mothers, high marital stability and happiness. Mormons have low levels of crime, which reflects private virtue in so far as crime doesn't pay.
The LDS is successful at identifying and inculcating "club" virtues. These are behaviors that are good for the group, but not necessarily good for outsiders.
The LDS is successful at identifying and inculcating "public" virtues. These are behaviors that are good for society as a whole. In so far as crime makes someone a bad neighbor, low crime is a public virtue. Political behavior is also a matter of public virtue. Modern Mormons make good neighbors and democratic citizens. They vote relatively sanely, in my libertarian opinion. (The early Mormons had a reputation as bad neighbors.)
Obviously, there is a lot of overlap among private, club, and public virtues. Irrational (self-destructive) behavior usually has spillover effects. But in principle, they are different problems. I have an obvious incentive to avoid self-destructive behavior. But it's less clear that I am necessarily going to have an incentive to be a good neighbor. We also need to distinguish between being a good neighbor toward another member of my church and being a good neighbor toward an outsider. The leadership of my church generally has a motive to try to suppress predatory behavior between members, but there are exceptions. (I am inclined to view polygamy mostly as predation by the church leadership on the male followers, who lose opportunities for dating and marriage. I don't know to what extent wives were drawn from the surrounding population, but to that extent, early Mormon polygamy would make Mormons undesirable neighbors in general.*) It's less clear why my church leadership would care about predation by members against outsiders, other than to the extent that they want to avoid large-scale blowback (i.e. group punishment). Maybe my "church" is actually The Thieves' Guild. (The early Mormon church was subject to a lot of group punishment.)
* Lesser Bull writes:
Mostly the latter. There is evidence that the marriage rates for women in [LDS] were really high and the average age of marriage for women low, which does suggest intra-group competition, but its also quite established that there were simply more Mormon women than Mormon men in numbers that approximated the polygamy rates. This may have partly been due to differential survival rates in a frontier environment, but was mostly due to differential conversion rates.
Note that I am separating the problem of identifying virtues from the problem of inculcating them. One kind of church may have leadership with a high level of professionalism, and be good at identifying virtuous behavior. Another kind of church may be good at getting its members riled up and willing to go to some trouble to conform to an agreed-upon set of standards. It's not obvious that a church that's good at one of these jobs is necessarily going to be good at the other.
The main virtue that concerns me is avoiding certain kinds of self-deception. Robert Heinlein called self-deception "the root of all evil". I don't think human beings are capable of eliminating self-deception completely, but people (especially leaders) can channel self-deception on their friends' (followers') part in relatively benign directions, and maybe get them to cut back on it slightly. I call this the principle of Conservation of Irrationality and discuss it at great length in The Market for Sanctimony. This goes along with Eric Hoffer's observation in The True Believer that religious and political commitments are close substitutes for one another. It's a whole lot easier to re-direct self-deception than to get rid of it.
Limiting self-deception is hard. Certain kinds of self-deception (e.g. Commandment XI) are advantageous for the self-deceiver. Other kinds may be advantageous from a group-selection standpoint, such as a belief in immortality that encourages soldiers to fight valiantly. Other kinds of self-deception are flaws that harm both the individual and his kin to the advantage of duplicitous outsiders. This is where politicians and political parties come in. As Tyler Cowan wrote regarding political parties in Self-Deception as the Root of Political Failure (2003),
Parties will attempt to exploit voter self-deception and indeed we can think of parties as organized vehicles for this purpose (among other purposes). In particular, parties will try to buy off extremists by making it easier for them to self-deceive.
I discuss incentives for self-deception, and for encouraging or discouraging self-deception in others in a religious context in my review of Michael Strong's Be the Solution. A "good" religion identifies and inculcates private, club, and public virtues. An "evil" religion may encourage self-deception that benefits the leadership or their political allies at the expense of the membership, or rewards the membership (e.g. with higher social status) at the expense of non-members.* The trick is for a religion to be successful both in the "good" sense (public virtue) and in the growing and satisfying senses.
The short version of all this is that I want religion to teach that envy is a sin, not a sacrament. I also don't want religion to encourage voters to chase "squirrels", distractions such as gay marriage that provide politicians with cover for their financial predations.
* As Glenn Reynolds wrote regarding the Islamic State (ISIS), "Like most successful cults, it lets people act like demons while feeling like angels."
So how does Mormonism work?
The McBride paper was written in terms of raising commitment levels of their members and dealing with free rider problems. The paper focused on two principal methods of doing this: stigma-screening and menu-monitoring.
Stigma-screening is a familiar idea in the economics of religion literature (e.g. Sacrifice and Stigma: Reducing Free-Riding in Cults, Communes, and Other Collectives, by Laurence Iannaccone). The idea is that less-committed members of a church or other type of club consume club goods and services without contributing appropriate amounts of money or volunteer time. These are "free riders". One way to deal with this problem is to drive off the less-committed members by imposing burdensome requirements on them, such as making them wear saffron robes or give up alcohol or coffee.
Menu-monitoring is more novel. Instead of membership being a yes-or-no proposition, there are degrees of membership. Some of the benefits of membership in a church are excludable. McBride has a table (Table 1, p. 406) in Club Mormon describing various benefits offered by the LDS in terms of how frequently they are withheld. Some benefits are not excluded either because they are hard to withhold (e.g. enjoyment from attending worship meetings) or because they tend to build community (e.g. help with moving to new residence) and draw less-involved people in (analogous to "loss leaders" at grocery stores). Other benefits are reserved for the most-committed members, including access to temples and temple rituals. Ordinary worship meetings are not held in "temples". Excludable benefits are often associated with eternal salvation. Even eternal salvation comes in different levels. The other side of the menu-monitoring model is that the church has to be able to figure out who's pulling his weight and who isn't (see p. 410). To this end, the LDS sends "home teachers" or "visiting teachers" to members' homes once a month. These visits appear to be as much about monitoring as teaching.† There are also frequent "interviews", such as an annual review of tithing by a bishop.
Not really true. Hometeachers never really pick up on low levels of commitment that aren't already apparent from folks not attending church meetings or refusing church callings. What hometeaching does is differentiate commitment levels (and pastoral ability) among active members. Most active Mormons are still somewhat slipshod about their monthly hometeaching. The ones who aren't tend to be called to positions of status, like Elders Quorum President or Bishop.
Another noteworthy fact about Mormons is that they are not feminists. Women can't become priests, for example. It's possible that there is a complementary female side of Mormonism that I'm not seeing. I find myself wondering whether men and women need separate religions. Another possibility is that Mormon patriarchy is a reflection of female hypergamy, and that any feminists who claim that Mormon women are being oppressed are simply wrong. My understanding is that the general trend is that women are more interested in church than men are, and tend to drag men into church behind them, even though they like men to lead once they join. In this view, church is to a considerable extent a show that men put on for women.
The Lott article was more casual and descriptive. One of the points that Lott made about the Mormon service he attended was the emphasis in the sermon on turning off the electronics and focusing your attention on your family. I am reminded of a statement by philosopher Robert Solomon, "'Rationality' means caring about the right things." This is private virtue. Why is this so difficult?
Another point that came up during Lott's visit was that Mormons made a big deal about apostolic succession. The Mormons believe that the Catholic church lost its legitimacy (i.e. apostolic succession) during Constantine's time, and that God re-established it through the Mormons. This is important because it provides the rationale for why anyone should take the LDS' moral teachings seriously.
Lott also described the meeting space (not a "temple") and the service. "The decor of the chapel, with no cross, no images, no shiny objects, and an unobtrusive electric organ, was designed to focus attention on the speaker or singer." Gill writes, "Jeremy also noted that the service was less liturgical than other Christian services, yet they had a typical amount of singing." My taste in religious decor runs more in the direction of Houston's C. G. Jung Education Center, which feels more like a small art museum. But art displays are clearly not essential for regular meetings. I have no idea what a Mormon "temple" looks like.‡
In that respect, Mormonism seems a little like a mystery religion.
They look like a very nice business hotel on the inside, with a few inexplicable cosmological touches. The temples are open for tours before they are dedicated, so the LDS church posts pictures of temple interiors online:
Interior temple photos
Inside the temple
I have to confess here that I'm not entirely on board with several aspects of the economics of religion literature. This literature tries to be neutral both on the existence of God and on the rationality of various religious claims, but as Kim Sterelny writes, "The economic model looks neutral only so long as we refuse to ask ourselves whether the expectation of return is rational." I also don't really buy Iannaccone's idea of stigma as a cure for free riders. One of the central tasks of any normal church is to promote credence goods, beliefs that are difficult or impossible to verify. Iannaccone describes eternal salvation in Introduction to the Economics of Religion as "the ultimate 'credence good'". The Church of the SubGenius drives this point home by promising "Eternal salvation or triple your money back!" I also argue that moral correctness is a credence good. One of the principal ways that churches promote credence goods is by creating an illusion of consensus. In my view, the main reason why people in a church like my UU church would want to run off members like me is not because I'm a free rider, but because I'm a turd in their punchbowl. I try to promote doubt in my church's unofficial dogmas, hopefully shattering the illusion of consensus.
I tend to think of religion, or at least Christianity, including Mormonism, as something like a cross between a recreational ice hockey league and a fantasy role-playing game (FRPG). The competition in recreational hockey is basically over social status, or "bragging rights" as one coach put it at the CanAm camp. The league officials set up rules about how to compete for social status. Kicking the puck into the net doesn't count. Success is partly personal, but partly collective. Everyone on the winning team, including the lowest-rated player, gets to carry the trophy on a lap around the ice at the end of the season. Similarly, the Latter Day Saints presumably regard all of their members in good standing as "saints". But religion also resembles an FRPG. Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) was patterned on the fiction of J. R. R. Tolkien, who patterned his work on Western mythology and consciously emphasized a religious perspective on good and evil. D&D is explicitly a set of rules about how to use your imagination. Specifically, it's about how a group of people should use their imagination collectively, coordinated by a leader (the Dungeon Master, or DM). In both religion and D&D, some of this imagination is channeled into creating a persona who is more admirable, or at least more interesting, than the player is in real life.
This dovetails nicely with Adam Smith's thinking in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. I don't literally feel your pain. I have to imagine it. Moral education is in large part a matter of training people to use their imagination in certain ways. This is a natural function for religion. Ideally, religion builds and preserves the moral capital of society. But it could easily be the opposite. Competitive self-deception is a dangerous sport.
This FRPG flavor is closely related to the tendency for Christianity, including Mormonism, but unlike Taoism or Confucianism, to be a drama queen. Christians have Heaven and Hell, Armageddon, and Judgement Day (eschatology). Confucians have nothing like this. The tendency of Christianity to be a missionary religion is another facet of this FRPG aspect or "drama". I want the Church of Glaucon to break out of this Christian "drama queen" pattern. I want it to be realistic. But Smith's comments about the use of the imagination sound right to me. I want to squeeze what advantage I can from copying Mormon and Christian moral pedagogy. This probably includes studying the Christian crucifixion story, which I think cleverly forces people to look at the scapegoating process through the eyes of the scapegoat. I just don't want to encourage people to take it literally.
Another important characteristic of Christianity in general, and Mormonism in particular, is that it is a "congregational" religion. This is the "fictive kinship" that Moldbug remarks upon. It creates extended pseudo-families that people will not only trust, but make real sacrifices for. Rodney Stark remarked that when the Roman government persecuted Christians, it did so because of a general policy of suppressing any organization that provided an alternative to the State as a locus of community, including a volunteer fire company. Christianity was persecuted. The Cult of Isis was not. But that alternative to the State as a locus of community is exactly what I want in a religion, for reasons that Jonathan Haidt explains in The Righteous Mind, (p. 242-3). Haidt writes that, as social animals, people are 90% chimp (selfish) and 10% bee (altruistic towards our social units). We're mostly selfish, but we need to get that "hive switch" thrown occasionally. If we don't get this "need for deep connection" met by "small-scale hives" (e.g. churches), we become easy marks for some smooth-talking politician like Mussolini who hijacks people's religious impulses by dressing up his political program as "spiritual existence".
For some purposes, it makes sense to think of the Catholic Church (or the Mormon Church) as a single large unit, and for others, as a large number of small "hives". The Mormons limit the size of their "wards" to numbers not too much above the
Dunbar number. One of the things I like about Christianity is "render unto Caesar", consciously distancing itself from the State (at least in theory), and I'm afraid that this is harder for large organizations to do. In the case of the American Revolution, the popular support for the Colonial government was mediated to a considerable extent by
a variety of independent churches. This seems to me like a good model. In any case, I want the Church of Glaucon to perform a function similar to Christianity in being a "congregational" religion (in the sense of binding a community together, not in the sense of having local democratic church polity).
Earlier, I asked why it was so difficult to get people to exhibit "private virtue", or what economists call "rationality".
In part, it's difficult because people just aren't very rational. In particular, they often have bruised egos. There is a temptation to turn to various rationalizations, distractions, and vices to drown our sorrows. A healthy church tries to discourage this, but it can fail in a number of ways. The first line of defense against rationalization and vice is the laity. In a healthy church, if I start rationalizing bad behavior in front of my friends, one of them is likely to tell me off long before the conversation reaches the minister. One way the church leadership can fail to keep a lid on vices is if they don't get enough cooperation from the laity. A second failure mode is if the church leadership tries to lower their standards in order to attract and retain more members. (See Dilbert here.) This is probably a bad move in terms of long term membership, but definitely a bad move in terms of producing virtuous members. The church leadership needs to get rid of people who will encourage their peers to rationalize destructive behavior*. A third failure mode is if the church leadership doesn't really have the authority to set high standards without getting fired. This is why I like Mormon church polity better than Congregationalist church polity (as discussed in the main body this essay). Lott reports that "outside the official power structure in Salt Lake City, it's mostly a religion of earnest amateurs", but the official power structure matters. You don't want to let the inmates run the asylum.
* Larry Iannaccone writes in Why the Jehovah's Witnesses Grow so Rapidly: A Theoretical Application that "the leader of a rapidly growing evangelical Protestant group noted that it was not only necessary to keep the front door of the church open, but that it was necessary to keep the back door open, too."
Unitarian Universalism, as an established congregationalist church with a formal commitment to democracy, can't readily switch to Mormon-style polity, but the Church of Glaucon can. Specifically, I propose:
As soon as The Church of Glaucon is large enough to differentiate between lay people and clergy, it should imitate the organizational structure of the Mormons, or failing that, the Catholics. (Orthodox churches are too closely associated with their respective secular governments.)
I would like to propose here The Charge of the Church of Glaucon:
As a member of the Church of Glaucon, you are charged with the task of encouraging good behavior and discouraging the rationalization of bad behavior by your peers. If you condone the rationalization of bad behavior, your peers are charged with the task of correcting you. If they fail, the leaders are charged with the task of correcting you. If you prove to be a slow learner, the leaders are charged with the task of expelling you.
The church leadership should also have a code of conduct that forbids them from lowering membership standards in the name of growth. Prospective new members could perhaps be evaluated on a scale of 1-10 in terms of the weight of their emotional baggage and their level of status frustration. How much do they crave social status? How capable are they of coming by it honestly?
The main thing I don't want to copy from the Mormons is their theology. The obvious thing to worry about, then, is that the theology is related to their success in ways that I haven't yet even begun to suspect. Meta-ethics is one subject that I know needs to be completely re-thought. What else is there?
Here be dragons.
Appendix B: On the nature and role of beliefs
One of the things I said in an earlier version of Appendix A was that "one of the primary objectives of the Church of Glaucon is to break out of the Christian pattern (including Mormons) of using beliefs as shibboleths." My motivation for this was that I want my church to avoid playing the irrational games that Eliezer Yudkowsky describes as "cultishness". He says that it isn't the beliefs themselves that are cultish, but the ways people in cults defend their beliefs that makes these groups cultish. I would like to avoid putting people in a situation where they can't carry on rational discourse about certain topics for fear of being kicked out of the church.
Lesser Bull's reaction to the above quotation was,
Impossible. Look, you can have groups that are constituted by economic ties or blood ties or even cultural ties. But beliefs as shibboleths didn't just happen. It's adaptive. Allowing beliefs to constitute your thede allows thede formation in much more variety of circumstances than otherwise, and allows the thede to spread and compete when otherwise it couldn't. Also, its impossible because you are acting based on beliefs. Your Church of Glaucon is based on what you believe to be good and desirable. If you tell people, "Don't be too sure about our beliefs", all you are really saying is that there is a second hidden set of beliefs that you really embrace.
My initial reaction to this comment was that I was using the word, "beliefs", in a much narrower sense than Lesser Bull was using it. There are "positive" (factual) beliefs and "normative" beliefs (about what is desirable). There are beliefs about the supernatural, about the natural world, about human nature, about relationships between specific people, and meaningless banalities of the "not even wrong" variety. There are loudly proclaimed but transient beliefs, often political posturings, and permanent core beliefs. There are ideas about strategies. There are formal and informal doctrines, which may be directly opposed: you should love your enemies (but we have certain boogiemen). There are ideas like the trinity that are so far gone into abstraction or vagueness as to be unclassifiable.
But on reflection, he's right. There are some beliefs that I want the Church of Glaucon to be officially agnostic about, such as supernatural beliefs. As long as the atheists, Deists, polytheists, and functional agnostics that I expect to comprise the Church's membership can't agree on what the One True God told them to do, I don't see any point in arguing about supernaturalism. There are other beliefs that fall into the "don't be too sure" category. For example, I intend to use evolutionary psychology to provide justifications for my claims about human nature and the behavioral norms of the Church of Glaucon, but evolutionary psychology is only a tool, and not a critically important or a very trustworthy one. As long as Johnny Troublemaker is on board with the Church's teachings about human nature, I don't care how he got there; I wouldn't kick him out of the Church for being a creationist. I also probably wouldn't kick him out for getting a bad grade on his moral philosophy paper. However, I would kick him out for insisting that he was competent to grade his own paper (i.e. for believing in something equivalent to "the priesthood of all believers"). If Johnny is allowed to grade his own paper, then it becomes too difficult to keep bad behavior in check. So Lesser Bull is right. There is also a set of "really embrace" beliefs. Also, a number of beliefs about human nature fall into this category (see Pinker's The Blank Slate), so I can't really salvage my earlier thinking by trying to draw a distinction between various kinds of beliefs, and saying that I am only counting matters of empirical fact as "beliefs".
Again quoting Lesser Bull,
Our discussion would be clearer if we distinguish between beliefs as shibboleths and beliefs as part of what is actually constitutive of a group. I am persuaded that beliefs are part of what constitutes a group, especially a religion, especially for converts (in other words, especially for new religions). In theory, you are right that a group could be constituted simply on the basis of a mutual pact* (with the unstated but crucial belief that pacts are supposed to be adhered to), but is there ever anything like that in practice? I can't think of anything, except where the pactees are also bound together by some sort of external circumstance, usually a serious outside threat. Because you have to have a reason to make the pact. Why not with some other group of people instead of this group of people? Why pact with them?
This is especially true with respect to religion. What makes a religion a religion? What does it satisfy in the human soul? The answers are going to be things like meaning, purpose, morality, holiness, transcendence. Saying 'this is holy because we agreed that its holy' isn't going to cut the mustard. You need something more, something that says 'this is intrinsically holy, this is something we ought to agree to,' and when you do that, you are beyond covenant and back into belief.
That's why I think the beliefs involving "proper church organization and processes for keeping bad behavior in check" aren't sufficient. They are too self-reflexive. They are obviously secondary beliefs that flow from the existence of a religious organization, but they don't explain why you want the organization to exist in the first place. It sounds like you want it more or less to fill the religion-hole in the human heart so no actual religions sneak in, but that is extremely unsatisfactory. It's inherently ersatz. I think the bare minimum you could get away with would be recasting that motivation into religious terms. Man's search for meaning, for God, you say, is something to be embraced as part of the human condition, but it invariably is corrupted by Satan and by man's own weaknesses into various kinds of pathologies, like competitive holier-than-thouness. The divine mission of the Church of Glaucon is to model to the world a purified and holy way to pursue holiness.
* UU claims to be a "covenantal" religion as opposed to a "creedal" religion.
The term, "constitutive" beliefs, brings up a number of interesting points. I want to reopen the question of why people join churches. I also want to show that it matters whether we're talking about a lenient church like UU or a strict church like LDS. Finally, I still want to say something more about cultishness.
1. Which comes first, belief or commitment?
Do people join churches because they agree with the church's core doctrines (e.g. ideas about eternal salvation), or because they have made an emotional connection to that group of people? The sociology of religion literature I've read (e.g. Laurence Iannaccone and Randall Collins, discussed here) seems to support the latter view. My slogan for this is, "Etiquette is more important than doctrine."
Lesser Bull drew my attention to this, also from Randall Collins:
Sincerity is not an important question in politics, because sincere belief is a social product: successful IRs [interaction rituals] make people into sincere believers.
On the other hand, also via Lesser Bull,
Would-be commune founders, take note:
"The anthropologist Richard Sosis examined the history of two hundred communes founded in the United States in the nineteenth century. Which kind of commune survived longest? Sosis found that the difference was stark: just 6% of the secular communes were still functioning twenty years after their founding, compared to 39% of religious communes. He found one master variable: the number of costly sacrifices that each commune demanded from its members. It was things like giving up alcohol and tobacco, fasting for days at a time, conforming to a communal dress code or hairstyle, or cutting ties with outsiders. For religious communes, the effect was perfectly linear: the more sacrifice a commune demanded, the longer it lasted. But Sosis was surprised to discover that demands for sacrifice did not help secular communes. Most of them failed within eight years, and there was no correlation between sacrifice and longevity."
See also Sarah Perry.
After talking to a UU friend (the "Minister of Lunch"), I have come to the conclusion that...it's complicated. A church can certainly drive people away, especially visitors, by not being nice to them. We "corpse-cold Unitarians" are experts at this. But there are lots of churches that are friendly, that I don't want to attend. A typical UU chooses a UU church rather than a Christian church because of "constitutive" beliefs. Usually this is not just an indifference toward, but an outright rejection of, certain Christian doctrines (divinity of Jesus, substitutive atonement, eternal life, etc.) that would make attendance at a Christian church uncomfortable, even in a lenient church that doesn't mind if you don't move your lips while they recite the Nicene creed, etc. Churches promote "credence goods" (Iannaccone's term), largely by creating an illusion of consensus (my spin), and lack of agreement with the group's constitutive beliefs puts one in the awkward position of being an unintentional turd in the punchbowl. At a Christian church, when some widow talks about seeing her late husband again in Heaven, I would have to bite my tongue. It would be hard to feel at home if I had to do this continually.
"Etiquette" (being nice to people, especially succoring the poor in spirit) and constitutive beliefs are both important. Churches aren't "creedal" or "covenantal"; they are a mixture of both, even if the creedal aspect is informal, or even denied.
2. The relative importance of etiquette and constitutive beliefs probably depends on where the church is on the strict-lenient spectrum.
Some of our members have a certain amount of ambivalence about this, but UU really is a "lenient" church. It has constitutive beliefs, but there is no central agreed-upon "salvation story". Individual members can be plenty dogmatic about their politics, and have mostly similar politics, but as much as I complain about it, the pressure to conform is limited. You don't get kicked out for dissenting. You might be removed from a position as RE teacher (Religious Education, i.e. Sunday school) for having an affair. You might get kicked out for being obnoxious. You won't be kicked out for being politically conservative. If you're vocal about conservative or libertarian beliefs, or if you don't have a thick enough skin, people might act obnoxious to you until you get pissed off and leave, but this pressure is informal and limited.
I think rejection of the idea of divine substitutive atonement is a UU constitutive belief in a way that political partisanship is not. This generally shared rejection helps make UU gatherings feel special to us, at least a little sacred. (At least to me.) Jonathan Haidt writes that "sacredness binds and blinds", but rejecting substitutive atonement together is only a little bit sacred, so it only binds and blinds a little bit. If someone attends our church who does believe in substitutive atonement, it's not a big deal. It doesn't interfere with the church's main concerns, which as Webster Kitchell says, tend to involve trying to understand our children more than trying to understand God.
The Church of Glaucon, on the other hand, does have a salvation story and the beliefs that go with it. In addition to being saved from my own foibles, I want to be saved from Progressivism. I have beliefs about human nature, beliefs about the long term effects of Progressives' actions, and beliefs and interpretations about Progressives' internal psychological processes. I'm looking for moral support that can enable ordinary people to stand upright in the hurricane-force winds of intellectual fashion that blow from Washington, Hollywood, and New York. The Church of Glaucon is intended precisely to maintain a high level of tension with the surrounding society, and high commitment, which puts it firmly on the "strict" end of the strict-lenient spectrum: "cultish" in the Iannaccone sense.
It's worse than that. I don't just want to be saved from Progressivism, I specifically want to be saved from the Cathedral. The Church of Glaucon has to be anal about its beliefs because a central tenet of neoreaction is that people are drowning in a sea of propaganda. Beliefs about propaganda and public opinion are therefore a critical part of my salvation story. The church's doctrines have to bind people tightly in order to resist the Cathedral's Deutungshoheit, its narrative-determining sovereignty. I am asking people to bear substantial costs (stigma and loss of various opportunities that depend on being in step with political fashion).
The major problem the Church of Glaucon faces is that politically sensitive information is generally a credence good. We can't normally depend on scientific experiments to tell us who's telling the truth. We can only spot-check our sources. (Social statistics are notoriously hard to reproduce. Ideally, I would like to have a statistician-messiah to sort this out for me, but I'm not holding my breath.) In addition, there is the problem of "bounded rationality": human beings just aren't very rational. We're easy to fool. On top of that, we have the problem that there is often a social "tragedy of the commons". If the rules that determine who has social status are perverse, I may be personally better off playing to win by the existing rules, even though my community as a whole may be better off by me pushing back against those rules.
There are a couple of metaphors that Jonathan Haidt uses that are helpful here. One is that "Religions are moral exoskeletons." We need those exoskeletons. Another of Haidt's metaphors is the "hive switch", a mental switch that determines when people behave socially like bees rather than like chimpanzees. In order to get people to bind themselves together to resist psychological attacks from the Cathedral, we need to be able to flip the hive switch. Until our statistician-messiah appears, we have to fight cognitive bias with cognitive bias. Our constitutive beliefs have to be holy.
3. The question then becomes whether a church can be cultish in the Iannaccone sense without also being cultish in the Yudkowsky sense.
Can our sacred teachings bind without blinding? Or at least, can we avoid being blinded to anything important? Do the church's beliefs have to produce stigma? Do they have to be absurd?
Again, after consulting the "Minister of Lunch", I have come to the conclusion that...it's complicated. There are different kinds of beliefs religions use in different (overlapping) ways. There are constitutive beliefs, such as the widespread belief in some sort of conscious "Creator", which I view as not being parsimonious, but not absurd, either. There are extreme stigma-producing beliefs, such as the Jehovah's Witnesses' expectations of being taken up in the Rapture all those years ago. Some of these beliefs are used as shibboleths, like military Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) systems, separating group members from non-members. There is "inessential weirdness", such as the holier-than-thou vegan who is engaged in intramural status competition rather than intermural competition. How stigmatizing beliefs have to be depends on what they're being used for.
A common complaint against Christianity is that it has miracle stories that conflict with science. For me, this is the easy part. I'm not selling eternal life. The sacred teachings of the Church of Glaucon are about human nature, not about the supernatural. The church should be agnostic about the supernatural. I don't care how you think humans originated, as long as you accept realistic doctrines about human nature. If genuine social science research nails down some fact about human nature that conflicts with church teachings, the church will yield; I just don't believe that much of current social science is genuine science rather than political propaganda. If you can get reproducable results, we'll yield. In some ways the church has to be strict, but where beliefs about the supernatural are concerned, it should be lenient.
Another complaint, made by Scott Atran against religious beliefs in general, is that they have to be meaningless (e.g. a "four-footed idea") or absurd (effectively meaningless) in order to be sufficiently flexible. The point is for religious leaders to be able to regulate their followers' behavior. Atran argues that their beliefs have to be sincere in order to prevent people from defecting under pressure, but have to be flexible to be able to adapt to unforeseen circumstances. Thus, only the priests can reliably say how to interpret the divine commands in any given situation. I don't buy this argument. It seems to me that legal rules are usually vague enough to be more flexible than we want them to be, often despite efforts to make them clear. Flexibility is easy. See Ecclesiastes 3:1.
To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven.
There are a couple of quotations in Eric Hoffer's The True Believer that suggest an alternative explanation for these "four-footed ideas":
We can be absolutely certain only about things we do not understand....
If a doctrine is not unintelligible, it has to be vague; and if neither unintelligible nor vague, it has to be unverifiable. One has to get to heaven or the distant future to determine the truth of an effective doctrine.
At the risk of putting words in Hoffer's mouth, his explanation for unintelligibility is that church members' moral confidence depends on making the provenance for the church's moral claims unfalsifiable. The problem isn't how to make the rules flexible. The problem is how to prevent their provenance from being refuted.
Lesser Bull also offered an alternative to Atran's view: the beliefs Atran finds problematic are only "absurd" for atheists, i.e. Jonathan Haidt's "WEIRD" demographic (Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic).
Iannaccone argues that stigma binds strict churches together by driving off free riders. Again, I'm skeptical about the mechanism, but he has data to support his association of "stigma" and "distinctiveness" with commitment and cohesion. And clearly, absurd beliefs can produce stigma.
But how much stigma do we need? Enough to keep out entryists? That may not be possible. I think of the problem as "How do I get the children to listen to Radio Derb when all the neighbors' kids are watching Saturday Night Live?" I want enough stigma, or social inconveniences like strange dietary requirements, to isolate them socially, so they're not tempted to become like "cafeteria Catholics". I want the half-in, half-out position in the church to be socially untenable. I want backsliding to be uncomfortable.
Cranking up the "stigma" level (discomfort for people who are neither fully in nor fully out of the church) as needed doesn't seem like it should be all that hard without resorting to inserting implausible claims into our creed. Some stigma comes from just being different. There is a lot of stigma to be had by thumbing one's nose at the conventional wisdom, what all the high-status opinion makers are saying. If that isn't enough, we can require people to dress funny like Santeria initiates or wear funny hats like the Sikhs. Just having correct but counter-fashionable beliefs may produce all the stigma we need.
But I'm really not confident about a church being able to maintain a high level of moral confidence without being "cultish" in the Yudkowsky sense. The Church of Glaucon will have to engage in a tug-of-war with the western world's intellectual fashion industry, aka "the Cathedral", over what are fundamentally credence goods.
The good news is that I'm willing to settle for a draw. I don't have to prove that my ideas are right, I just have to show that the Progressives are wrong, either about various facts and interpretations directly, or that the uncertainty level about the issues that the Progressives set store by is higher than they are willing to admit. It's enough to point out when Progressives fail to use consistent standards of evidence or to be honest and humble about uncertainty over political questions, including crucially, matters of interpretation, not just factual questions.
The bad news is that I'm a mouse in a tug-of-war against an elephant. Can I fight cognitive bias with cognitive bias, pushing uphill against Deutungshoheit, without cheating and being Yudkowsky-cultish? Human nature seems to lean toward cultishness.
But I do want to point out that there are no "noble lies" here. I'm not asking people to pretend something is true that I don't believe. The idea of starting a new religion has gotten some criticism from Ted Colt and JMSmith. It's arguable whether the Church of Glaucon can meaningfully be said to be "without antecedent" (Colt), but there is no "conscious fiction" here (Smith), no asking people to row to a ficticious island.