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Is Rational Religion Possible?

Peter A. Taylor
December 27, 2001; revision C: November 4, 2004

Several articles on the relationship between science and religion got me thinking about the functions that religions perform, and the methods religions use to perform those functions. Religion seems to me like a psychological "Swiss Army knife" with many overlapping functions. I offer here my own opinions about what I think are some of the more important functions and methods of religion, and their implications. By extension, I hope to answer the question of what makes for a good religion. By further extension, I hope to suggest ways to improve my own Unitarian Universalist (UU) church.

One of the articles that influenced me was Richard Dawkins' critical review of Stephen J. Gould's book, Rocks of Ages. (He makes a similar point in this Forbes article.) Gould argued that science and religion, properly understood, do not overlap. Dawkins argued that religions, as actually practiced by people in real life, do overlap with science. For example, they come into direct conflict where miracle stories are involved. Why do religions seem dependent on miracle stories, stories that cross the boundary between Gould's "nonoverlapping magisteria" of science and religion? Why is it so hard for religion to keep its dog off of the neighbor's lawn? To answer this, I'll try to list some of the functions of religion and then see how they relate to miracle stories or other forms of suspension of disbelief.

Addendum, 9-17-2006: Assuming, that is, that religion actually has any positive functions that are not performed equally well by fraternal organizations. Richard Dawkins suggested in The Selfish Gene that religion is like a virus, replicating itself at the expense of the creatures it infects, not for their benefit. My reaction is that as far as I can tell, atheists aren't any better adjusted than Christians, and social statistics seem to bear this out. See my remarks regarding "conservation of irrationality" below and in the afterthoughts to my Polyatheism sermon. There was a much more persuasive article by Paul Bloom in the December, 2005 issue of The Atlantic Monthly called "Is God an Accident?" Bloom suggests that religion is an evolutionary side effect (spandrel) of the differences in the ways the human brain processes information about physical objects and other creatures' thought processes. People tend to believe in God because we are predisposed to think of bodies and spirits as separate things, and biased to commit far more false positives than false negatives in looking for intentions behind the events we see.

This book review by Kim Sterelny (Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, by Daniel C. Dennett) is also well worth reading. Social scientists, especially economists, try to approach religion from a neutral, scientific standpoint, but as Sterelny writes, "The economic model looks neutral only so long as we refuse to ask ourselves whether the expectation of return is rational."

Functions of Religion

Function 1: Personal Psychology

One function of religion is to provide a support system for doing personal psychology. Terry Kellogg defines religion as "a support system for spirituality." Michael Meade calls this "polishing the soul." 12-step programs talk of "moral inventories."

Rev. Davidson Loehr talks of the need for a religious "salvation story:"

By "salvation story," I don't mean anything supernatural. I mean a tradition's understanding of the human condition, its malaise, and its prescription for satisfying the deep yearning that has always marked serious religions, and its sense of how and why living out of this story makes our lives more fulfilling and useful to the larger world.

This psychological work, done properly, requires self-honesty.

An alternate meaning of "spirituality" could be having an intense psychological experience, such as speaking in tongues or being "ridden" by a Santerian orisha. This may require losing one's head rather than tightening down one's loose screws.

One aspect of "polishing the soul" is developing self-discipline, a certain kind of "moral character" or "virtue." James Bennett has been in the news recently for having allegedly blown $8M on gambling. Even if I'm internally conflicted about gambling, I would be attracted to a church that could help me learn to restrain myself from gambling to excess.

The reason James Bennett's gambling revelations are so damaging to him, and why ministerial indiscretions are so damaging to a church, is that they demonstrate that the respective moral aparatus doesn't work. Either the moral rules are impossible to follow (even for the leaders), or the rules aren't being taught, promoted, or enforced very well (even the leaders aren't getting the support they need in order to act right).

Polishing the soul also implies what the Buddhists call "right relationship." As David Throop put it, I don't want to be a "jerk" (ignorant of other people's needs, rights, or feelings), an "asshole" (indifferent), or a "bastard" (actively hostile), and I don't want to raise my children to be any of those things, either. I want a church to define rules (behavioral norms) that help me get along well with others, and to help instill these as habits, so that I and my children do them automatically, despite any contrary predispositions. From this perspective, my son's martial arts training is very church-like, because it is very heavily oriented toward etiquette. Butch Cockrell has argued that growing congregations are "outward thinking." They do a lot of community service. One possible reason why this is an attractive thing is that it proves that the congregation is not full of jerks, assholes, or bastards. This makes the church attractive both as a means of learning "right relationship" and as a meat market.

Psychologists such as C. G. Jung have argued for a long time that religion is a reflection of innate, irrational aspects of human nature (archetypes). As such, at the very least religion can provide us with insights into the tendencies with which we are trying to cope. (The C. G. Jung Education Center here in Houston is also fairly church-like.) But in addition to reflecting human nature, religion may also be a means of coping with it directly; a way of helping us deal with our innate tendencies towards certain kinds of maladaptive behavior. The most obvious direct role for religion would be for religions to help teach us when and how to override these predispositions or default modes of thought and behavior, helping us overcome our irrationality. Religious leaders in such a role might, for example, encourage people to accept women's lib. (But another way to reconcile modern society with human nature is to try to change society, making the world safe for irrationality, so to speak. Religious leaders who play this role might respond to women's lib by trying to suppress it.)

One obvious form of irrationality is people's capacity for self-deception regarding their own virtues and their rivals' vices. Pop psychology books variously describe this as denial and projection, paranoia, and making neurotic claims of moral superiority. A good religion should help us recognize and overcome these tendencies. A bad religion may encourage them and try to exploit them.

Function 2: Placebos

Another function of religion is faith healing, also known as placebos. This seems to generally involve deception, if not self-deception. This is unfortunate, because placebos really do relieve suffering in many cases. UU ministers are not renowned for faith healing. Maybe they could do "doubt healing" instead: lay hands on the afflicted area and ask, "Are you sure you're really sick?" :-) Maybe Deepak Chopra has got an angle on faith healing without self-deception, but Oral Roberts seems to have a significant advantage over us rationalists here.

Function 3: The Opiate of the Masses

A third function of religion is to be what Karl Marx called "the opiate of the masses." (I'm an atheist, if you haven't already guessed.) Death, disease, hardship, and poverty are easier to stomach with self-deception and miracle stories about reincarnation, afterlife, and divine retribution for one's enemies, or even justice. Michael Meade talks of a need for mythological protection from the "awe and terror" of life, which for most people is no longer really being met by traditional religions. Other aspects of the "opiate of the masses" are believing that one's place in the social hierarchy or in the universe in general is higher or more central than it really is, that life is simpler than it really is, or that one's society is more cohesive than it really is. But for most people, relieving the fear of death seems to be by far the most important aspect of this "opiate."

Economist Laurence Iannaccone is more charitable than I am regarding people's beliefs in the supernatural. As he writes in "Religious Extremism: Origins and Consequences,"

Rational individuals will seek to understand and influence the supernatural to the extent that they remain uncertain of its non-existence.

Such behavior may be "rational" in the goal-oriented, economic sense, but being uncertain of the non-existence of the supernatural seems to me to be a far cry from having faith in a church's promises of specific supernatural rewards. If a church teaches people to be agnostic or open-minded about the supernatural, it may be consistent with Gould's doctrine of the "nonoverlapping magisteria" of science and religion, but if a church insists on afterlife claims being taken seriously or miracle stories being taken literally, then it is irrational for Dawkins' purposes. While Iannaccone presents religions as attempting to reduce risk through various forms of diversification or quality assurance, I see churches as shamelessly exaggerating the level of uncertainty that a reasonable person can entertain about unpleasant facts such as mortality.

Sociologist Rodney Stark writes of "compensators." The idea here is that if we can't demonstrably get supernatural goods like eternal salvation (or even world peace), we at least get to enjoy vague promises. Religion is to some extent like a lottery ticket, which in my view is mainly a visualization aid that helps people enjoy some pleasant fantasies.

Function 4: Tangible Social Amenities

Churches also provide a number of social goods and services. These fall into several categories:

Bringing people together

One obvious social amenity that churches provide is that they introduce people to one another give them a place to be together (Kaffeeklatsches and dating services). "Outward thinking" congregations have an advantage here. A frequently asked question around Unitarian Universalists is "Why do atheists go to church?" My usual answer to this is an old Jewish joke that "Goldberg goes to the synagogue to talk to God, and I go to the synagogue to talk to Goldberg." But not all "Goldbergs" are equally fun to talk to. I want a social institution that selects for the kind of people that I will get along with and filters out people I won't like. This makes an appropriate church a good meat market--that's where I met my wife and why I originally went there. Selecting for "my kind of people" could mean that I want to meet people whose souls have already been "polished" according to some criterion that I care about. Perhaps there are lots of people at a particular church who operate on the same level of moral reasoning that I do (as defined by psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg). But it could also be simply a matter of finding people with common tastes (ie. classical music vs. rapp). Part of the trick of being a good meat market is that churches don't just bring people together, but do so in an environment that favors friendships developing.

Organizing people for group action

Other important services that religions perform involve getting their members to work together as a cohesive group. Part of this trick is getting people to behave altruistically, but part of it is simply organization. Economists and political scientists spend a lot of time studying institutions that produce "public goods," goods that can only be provided to groups, and which typically require complex negotiations. Religions play this game, too, creating organizations that make it easier for people to cut complicated deals, which is perfectly rational.

The Mormon church is known for taking care of its members. One way of looking at this is that it is "a complicated deal," a form of implicit social insurance.

[Update, 7-11-2005: My family had a house fire on June 3rd, 2005, and we are deeply indebted to our church (and our do-jang) for their physical and emotional support. We had decent fire insurance, so money wasn't a big problem, but staying sane was a challenge. Thanks to our church (and others), we got timely physical help and advice from people who didn't have conflicts of interest, as well as emotional support (the invaluable "non-anxious presence"). I am embarrassed by the unappreciative attitude I have taken towards the strength of the social bonds at my church in this essay. Another family had a similar experience a few years ago after a flood. I am also struck by the unspeakable inadequacy of the term, "social insurance," to describe this kind of help.]

One way that religions often help organize people is by encouraging people to play a game of "follow the leader." I'm reminded of Jared Diamond's explanation in Guns, Germs, and Steel for why horses are easy to domesticate, but zebras are apparently impossible. Horses naturally form social hierarchies, but zebras don't. We domesticate horses largely by hijacking their natural tendencies to form hierarchies, and putting a human in place of the lead stallion. Human hierarchies can be hijacked by imaginary friends called "gods," or by abstractions like "justice," but social cohesion usually involves an alpha male. Religions often reinforce human social hierarchies by claiming supernatural authority and revelation on behalf of leaders.

Religion can also influence what sorts of things people may do in order to compete for status. In a healthy society, getting wealth by pleasing one's customers should convey more status than getting wealth by burglary. A good religion should raise the social status of people who build charity hospitals. A mediocre religion might raise the status of people who talk about metaphysics. A bad religion might raise the social status of people who burn witches at the stake or blow up Israeli buses. (Dr. Iannaccone argues in The Market for Martyrs that religious violence has more to do with the political environment than with a religion's formal doctrines. See also Deregulating Religion. R. Scott Appleby similarly argues, "It is difficult to remain a radical or hard-line fundamentalist in a democratic society precisely because there is usually someone listening to you, agreeing at least in part with your protest and willing to compromise on some points in order to join forces for the sake of increased political influence." See Religious Fundamentalisms and Global Conflict, from the Foreign Policy Association. But Salman Rushdie warns that some strains of religion are "self-exculpatory and paranoid," and even under the same political environment, some religions seem to be better than others.)

I think the tendency to form hierarchies is mostly a good thing, but it is easily abused. Incidentally, one of the side effects of our hierarchies being hijacked by gods and abstractions is that our philosophers tend to not make very much sense when they talk about ethics. Edward O. Wilson has some choice words about this in chapter 11 of his book, Consilience.

Promoting a sense of group identity also makes it easier to get people to work together as a group. There is an evolutionary advantage to any gene that can predispose its owner to help out his close kin. The word, "kindness," is related to the word, "kin." Religions can hijack this tendency, encouraging people to view communities of people they are not related to through the same rose-colored glasses that people would otherwise reserve for viewing their own or their relatives' virtues.

Group identity figures strongly in the mass movements Eric Hoffer wrote about in The True Believer. People who feel themselves as having low status tend to do desperate things to improve it. People with low self-esteem often want to melt into something bigger and better than themselves, such as the Church, or the Party. If channeled in appropriate ways, this might not be so bad. The positive examples of altruistic behavior that Betty Sue Flowers talks about in the context of "the path of service" benefit both the server and the recipient, with no need to create an out-group. But the examples Hoffer gives (ie. the Nazi movement) are extreme forms of the "paranoid" behavior discussed above, are extremely negative, and involve tremendous amounts of self-deception.

Another consideration is that religions can create feelings of self-loathing as well as exploit them. The idea of original sin may make people easier to lead, for better or worse.

Providing people with information

Another perfectly rational way to help produce public goods is to point out opportunities where altruism and enlightened self-interest come together. For example, a religion may remind us that we will have better relationships with our neighbors if we take a casserole over to their house when someone is in the hospital.

As a side effect of bring people together, churches give people sources of many other kinds of information. This includes everything from creditworthiness, recommending doctors, trading childrearing tips, and keeping an eye on one another's children.

Providing people with bargaining tools

Some kinds of morality (ie. self-discipline) are immediately useful to the person who practices them, but other kinds look more like tools to be used by leaders in directing the behavior of others.

One way for leaders to manipulate other people's behavior is simply to lie to them. Tell them, "Do what's in the best interest of society, or God's will, and God will reward you after you're dead." Depending on the wisdom of the religious authorities in identifying "God's will," this can benefit society overall at the occasional expense of some individuals.

This doesn't actually have to involve lies or supernatural forces. All that is really needed is an authority figure who has the moral authority to bless good behavior and stigmatize bad behavior.

Another way religion can provide people with a bargaining tool is to offer someone a "commitment strategy." In other words, rather than me taking advantage of your belief in God to change your behavior, I instead convince you that my belief in God makes me a trustworthy person for you to interact with. This allows you to rely on a contract with me that is not, strictly speaking, enforceable. This trustworthiness is likely to be in our mutual best interest, rational or not.

An alternate form of commitment strategy is that my professed beliefs could also make me a very dangerous person to give offense to, possibly making me a more effective bully. My perhaps unrealistic beliefs might prevent me from backing down when I'm taking an unreasonable position, which may make appeasement seem like a more attractive policy for my potential enemies. Garrett Hardin argued in "The Tragedy of the Commons" that self-deception makes us better negotiators, which is an evolutionary advantage. These sorts of advantages are sometimes called the "rationality of irrationality."

Function 5: Social Status and Ego Justification

"There are no grades of vanity, there are only grades of ability in concealing it."

-- Mark Twain

A fifth function of religion is to help some individuals raise or maintain their perceived place in the social hierarchy. Social status and related issues could be classified as either psychological goods or social amenities, but I call them out separately because of their importance and the amount of space I will devote to them. As Jared Diamond has argued in The Third Chimpanzee and Why Is Sex Fun?, for both sexes, a human being's reproductive prospects are sensitive to social status. From an evolutionary biology standpoint, one would therefore expect that people would have deep cravings for social status or anything that was a good proxy for it, and that this is not a mere cultural construct. For my present purposes, I'm not going to distinguish between genuine social status (seen through the eyes of others, such as a potential mate) and ego justification (being self-satisfied, even if I'm still unpopular). I think of ego justification as partly an internal representation of social status and partly a claim of being deserving of high social status, or a sense of having a tool for raising it. I also don't care for present purposes whether my status or ego justification derives from my own personal behavior (such as keeping a kosher kitchen) or collectively, from simply being a member of a group that I perceive as having high status. One thing that helps provide ego justification is having a "sense of mission" (ie. that what I am doing is important). The point is that all of this stuff is at least partly subjective and context dependent, and churches can promote favorable bias and context, making mountains out of molehills or misdemeanors out of felonies.

As an illustration of this, consider members of two different families who are not on particularly good terms, say, the Hatfields and McCoys. Andy, Bob, and Charlie are members of the Hatfield family, and Dave, Ernie, and Frank are members of the McCoy family. Frank's happiness will be greater if he can find a church that reinforces the biases of the McCoy family than if he attends a church that reinforces the biases of the Hatfield family.

Subjective Social Status
          x Andy  
      x Bob  
  x Charlie  

x Dave  
x Ernie      
x Frank        
Status among McCoys

Nelson Thompson, who was patient enough to read an earlier draft of this essay, offered the following comments:

You briefly touched on hierarchies and self-esteem in your essay, and how religion promotes them. Recent reading suggests to me that this may be far more important in our psychology than would first seem evident.

We have personal self-esteem, and then we have 'superorganism' self-esteem. "...I may feel at the bottom of the food chain personally, but by GOD, I am a card carrying member of XYZ, and XYZ rules!! I may be poor but my church is the richest in town. My religion may be spit on as warlike and barbaric, but we're kicking serious butt all over the planet..." And so on. Christianity, Islam, Catholicism, Judaism, Buddhism and Hinduism are all major superorganisms on Earth. Competing for resources and minds. So are the USA, Europe, China and South America. So are the international conglomerates.

The measure of self-esteem within a society is often called 'pecking order'.

Animal and human studies show that the higher an individual is on the local pecking order, the healthier they tend to be, and they have lower stress. Artificially raise the pecking order of an individual, and their posture, stress hormones, white blood cell count, etc, change (quickly!) to match those others who were originally at the apex of the group. We have an inborn genetic urge to raise our position in the pecking order. Belonging to a superorganism (like UU, perhaps) is one way to do this. Working to raise the position of UU within the superorganismic pecking order can only help.

Religion is one powerful way of convincing people that their position in the universal pecking order is higher than it might actually be. This makes them all healthier, more energetic, less stressed, more optimistic, and perhaps more belligerent.

Most of my comments, especially about "pecking order" and "superorganisms" came from Bloom's book, The Lucifer Principle.

R. Scott Appleby (Religious Fundamentalisms and Global Conflict) argues that some fundamentalisms can be seen as "early-warning systems, launching counterattacks against trends that could undermine society's moral foundation." He emphasizes that education doesn't necessarily inhibit fundamentalism, perhaps even encouraging fundamentalism by making people more aware of some of the social problems that religion is looked upon to solve. I am inclined to interpret this "early warning system" as an attempt to preserve a diminishing social advantage.

Mark Juergensmeyer's recent book, Terror in the Mind of God, also cites numerous cases where terrorist religious extremism is associated with groups of people who have marginal or precarious and deteriorating social status. Here again, education may exacerbate fundamentalist tendencies by making people more aware of just how precarious their situation is. Much of the violence in India is associated with high-caste Hindus, whose high social status has become precarious under modern Indian politics. In religious terrorist groups in general, and particularly in Palestine, there is also a link between social status and sex. For one thing, terrorist groups seem to have very strong tendencies towards misogyny. My impression is that masculinity is a Bloomian "superorganism." Another point is that suicide bombers tend to be sexually frustrated young men. Sexually frustrated young men seem to be instinctively drawn to things that make them seem more important. Juergensmeyer describes many acts of terrorism in terms of "performance art," apparent attempts to garner publicity for the sake of the feelings of importance it brings, with little logical connection to any rationally identifiable political objectives.

Terror in the Mind of God was recommended to me by Robert Handy, who also brought up the concept of "status anxiety," which he was kind enough to explain in an email:

I used the wrong term. It's "status frustration," introduced by Samuel Bell and others in a landmark work on the radical right of the 1950s. The book is entitled Radical Right. It was published in 1955. I just ordered a new copy and loaned it to my dentist because I had been explaining to him that an inordinate number of dentists belonged to the John Birch Society.

The basic concept is that there are people who are frustrated because they are lacking in the power and influence they think they deserve. Dentists are a good example. They have as much education (training?) as doctors; make as much money as doctors; but do not (did not in those days) realize as much respect/influence in society. To empower themselves, they joined radical groups like the Birch Society.

Today's equivalent would be the Jerry Falwells of our world and those who lead the anti-abortion movement; people who bomb abortion clinics, etc. I would include Islamic terrorists in that group as well as the militia groups of the 1990s and people like Timothy McVeigh. Just change the names and causes and you find the same root condition: status frustration.

That could include male sexual frustration to the extent that sex is, for some males, a domineering act and thus a condition of power.

I wonder to what extent "spirituality" is simply a euphemism for feeling superior to other people. As comedian Richard Jeni suggested, most religious arguments boil down to "My imaginary friend is better that your imaginary friend." I'm better than you are because God says so.

[The correct quote is, "Going to war over religion is basically killing each other to see who's got the better imaginary friend."]

This claim is typically camouflaged in terms of morality. It isn't just luck that I'm going to Heaven and you're going to Hell, it's a reflection of divine moral judgment. Furthermore, under monotheism, I can present this divine judgement as a matter of objective fact, not just the opinion of one deity among many. This camouflage requires me to pretend that it is impossible for atheists to be moral. If I were to allow the possibility of morality being based on something other than my one God, that would undermine my claim of objective moral superiority.

Ivan Stang makes a point similar to Richard Jeni's on the CD, "Live at Starwood '99," in which he presents an atheist's view of the prevailing god concept (at least in Dallas, Texas), as an "invisible monster." He explains that atheists may not believe in this invisible monster, but because so many Southern Baptists do, the atheists still have to deal with it. I think it is very telling that this powerful (and emphatically male) "invisible monster" invariably believes the same things that its "followers" do.

If powerful monsters believe the same things I do, you had better listen to me. I am important.

Update 7-2-2007: A side effect of competition for social status, and possibly a side effect of providing placebos or "the opiate of the masses" as well, is a tendency to create scapegoats. I argue in When a Majority Feels Persecuted that "Whom may I use as a scapegoat?" is one of the most important of the questions that religions need to answer. I also argue in The Care and Feeding of Scapegoats that modern Progressivism is a pseudo-religion whose selection of scapegoats seems to be its defining characteristic. The importance of scapegoats in general is perhaps best illustrated by the Kris Kristofferson song, "Jesus Was a Capricorn:"

Jesus Was a Capricorn. He ate organic food.
He believed in love and peace and never wore no shoes.
Long hair, beard and sandals and a funky bunch of friends;
'Recon they'd just nail him up if he 'come down again.

'Cause everybody's got to have somebody to look down on,
who they can feel better than at any time they please,
someone doin' somethin' dirty, decent folks can frown on.
If you can't find nobody else then help yourself to me.

Update 1-6-2015: Churches do not merely help raise members' perceived status relative to non-members. They can also channel potentially wasteful or destructive competition between members into harmless or beneficial outlets. For example, a minister might get young men to compete at doing volunteer work (e.g. fixing up New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina) instead of buying expensive cars. Also, I have been thinking of different kinds of status (e.g. wealth vs. moral superiority) as being close substitutes for one another, but on reflection, this is almost certainly not true.

Miscellaneous Functions

Religions may serve other functions as well. Maybe religion helps preserve certain kinds of implicit knowledge, such as that it's a bad idea to eat pork in some parts of the world. But we have better sources of this sort of information nowadays, and technology changes too fast for tradition to be a very trustworthy guide. Also, some of what religion is is merely bad science; in fact, bad science may be the origin of many religions (Mithraism has a lot to do with the discovery of precession of the equinoxes, according to The Origin of the Mithraic Mysteries, by David Ulansey). Religions also provide answers of a sort to scientifically unanswerable questions such as "Why does the universe exist?" ("Why is there something rather than nothing?" as Sam Keen asked on his "Living the Questions" audio tape). There are surely other psychological predispositions I haven't thought about. Jungian psychologists seem to have no shortage of archetypes to write about. I further suspect that religions often serve significantly different mixes of functions for men than they do for women. It has also been suggested that religion provides a safe haven for people with schizotypal personalities (people who have trouble distinguishing between fantasy and reality). But I am mainly interested in the functions I've already discussed.

Implications for Rationality

My initial thought about the Gould vs. Dawkins controversy was that whether or not religion was compatible with science depended on how desperately one was interested in the "placebo" and "opiate of the masses" functions. If we are willing to forgo comforting nonsense about immortality, etc., we should be able to talk sensibly about the other concerns of religion: psychology, social services, etc., most of which are better served by self-honesty. If my purposes are largely related to "polishing the soul," for example, self-deception seems very unlikely to make me a better person. Honesty may limit my ability to comfort the dying largely to helping them maintain a sense of perspective and being a "non-anxious presense," but that's probably enough. I'm not convinced that irrational religious faith healing is really all that much more effective than hugs, sugar pills, and Deepak Chopra anyway. For too many people, the use of beliefs about the supernatural to promote faith healing and provide comfort has become too transparent, and simply isn't very effective. The "denial" stage of grieving isn't supposed to last a long time anyway. This sacrifice of the "opiate" function in favor of honesty seems like a good trade to me, so I was cheerful about the prospects for rational religion. In fact, I was cheerful to the point of being puzzled about why it hadn't caught on better. Why wasn't Unitarian Universalism more popular, and why wasn't the atheist humanist faction more dominant within UU?

Part of the reason for my cheerfulness was that I was taking a narrow view of irrationality, defining it in the sense of being inconsistent with modern science. This makes sense in terms of the Dawkins-Gould argument, but it is not by any means the most disturbing form of irrationality one encounters in churches. The need to define irrationality more broadly became increasingly important to me over time.

One disturbing form of irrationality is xenophobia. Sam Keen seemed to provide a partial answer to the mystery of why rational religion was so hard which is related to xenophobia. He argued on his "Living the Questions" tape that the question, "Who are my people?" is closely linked to the questions, "Who are not my people?" and "Why is there evil in the world?" If the church functions that are related to social cohesion are the most important functions churches have, and if high levels of cohesion require a strong sense of group identity, this suggests several problems. One problem is that a strong sense of group identity may require irrational beliefs about the other people in the church, such as that they are qualitatively more loyal, more altruistic, or otherwise morally superior to people in other churches. This seems to be a major problem with Islam. In most cases this is unlikely to be true, and if the members of some church are particularly loyal to one another, this raises another problem: to have a strong sense of group identity may be to skate perilously close to xenophobia. While these sorts of irrationality may not involve violations of the laws of physics, the practical consequences of xenophobia are usually far more serious.

This suggests one possible reason why UU isn't more popular: its members tend to be converts from other religions, and may thus be self-selected for having been put off by a tendency towards xenophobia in those religions. This may make UUs generally skittish about building a strong sense of group identity, which makes it difficult to build a strong organization or to create an atmosphere that is much more attractive than a coffee house. Another possible explanation is that it is hierarchy rather than xenophobia that recent converts to UU react against, but that the results are the same. New members react against the characteristics needed to build a strong church, and older members drop out because they find that the limited subset of their needs that are met at UU churches are more conveniently met at libraries and coffee houses.

But lots of large mainstream churches manage to keep xenophobia in check. Illogic seems to drive more people to convert from other churches to UU than xenophobia or hierarchy. Furthermore, the UUs who are more interested in building a strong institution seem to be the most into multiculturalism. The problem of creating a better sense of group identity seems tractable: all we have to do is use humanism as a common demoninator. It seemed reasonable to think that humanist language could unite us without making us any more xenophobic or hierarchic than the United Methodists or Episcopalians.

I started to become decidedly less cheerful about the prospects for rational religion around the time of the 2002 US elections, when I found that, politically, I had far more in common with my conservative Christian co-workers and many similar internet writers than I did with (apparently) most of my co-religionists. This is not a matter of polite, thoughtful differences of opinion, which are the norm regarding theology in UU churches. Instead, I found that people who pride themselves on their rationality and intellectual generousity would make wildly abusive and inconsistent ad hominem attacks along narrow partisan lines and suggest publicly that anyone who disagreed with them was mentally ill. When I challenged a friend on one specific point of fact, he defended what I regarded as reckless disregard for the truth as "poetic truth."

This sounds similar to xenophobia, but it is far more narrowly focused. Rather than all outsiders to the church being viewed as morally inferior, only certain other groups are demonized. Also, I frankly find it difficult to explain anything that goes on in a UU church in terms of having an excessive amount of social cohesion and group identity. But clearly, our disinclination to take theology seriously has not done much to rid us of irrationality; it has merely forced irrationality to manifest itself in a different form.

I had joked before about there being a law of "conservation of irrationality," but for me, the joke had stopped being funny. (9-27-2008: Mollie Ziegler Hemingway writes in the Wall Street Journal that Martin Gardner was on to this in 1983.) As the religious conservative, James Heidinger, put it,

"When theology is no longer central in the life of the church, something inevitably steps in to fill the gap, and among mainline Protestant liberals, that something is political ideology."

My explanation for this is that (1) much of the irrational behavior associated with religion is related to people having a craving for ego justification, (2) changing a person's theological beliefs has little effect on his tendency to crave ego justification, and (3) politics is the continuation of religion by other means.

So by Thanksgiving of 2003, I was struggling to make sense of the role that ego justification played in religion in general. It was at about this time that I discovered Dr. Iannaccone's Economics of Religion website. This got me looking at religion from a very different angle.

Economics of Religion

One way of looking at religious institutions is to set aside their claims about the substance of what they offer, and try to draw inferences about them from the ways they operate. Different kinds of economic goods create different challenges for the organizations that produce them. Some of the relevant classes of economic goods are private goods, public goods, club goods, and an overlapping class called credence goods.

Normal businesses produce private goods, ordinary things like sports drink. If I drink a bottle of Gatorade, I will be less thirsty afterwards, but the guy down the street from me won't be significantly affected. Some religious or quasi-religious instutions, such as New Age crystal shops, or the C. G. Jung Education Center, operate largely on a fee-for-service or sales basis. These look a lot like normal businesses, and appear to be mainly selling private goods.

Another class of goods is public goods, things like flood control dams, which benefit pre-existing groups of people. Businesses that try to produce public goods not only can't isolate individual customers to demand payment, but can't control membership in the group that may or may not get served. Public goods are sometimes produced by governments, sometimes by monopolies, and sometimes as side effects of producing private goods. In competitive religious markets like the US, public goods probably have little to do with how churches are organized.

Club goods are similar to public goods, except that the organization does control who the members of the group of potential customers are. These are often produced by clubs and churches. An appropriate atmosphere in a church service is a club good. Churches are normally more like clubs than like ordinary businesses.

Another type of good that is relevant to a discussion of religious organizations is the credence good. Keith R. Brouhle writes, "A credence good is a good whose quality characteristics cannot be determined before, during, or even after use." (Update: Here's a better definition.) An example of this is "green" toilet paper, which claims to be made of recycled paper, but I can't easily verify this even if I've been using that brand for years. I also don't really even know if recycling paper is such a good idea. If I'm worried about carbon dioxide being a greenhouse gas, maybe growing trees and putting their products in landfills is beneficial. Another example of a credence good is eternal salvation, because by the time customers know for sure if they've been cheated, it's too late to act on the information. A basis for believing in the rightness of one's moral views is also typically a credence good (see Appendix B).

Credence goods seem to be central to most religions, almost to the point of being a defining characteristic. Laurence Iannaccone has argued that much of the odd behavior of churches and sects is related to making credence goods seem less dubious (Risk, Rationality, and Religious Portfolios) [moved behind paywall]. To me, the most important thing churches do to make their credence goods seem more convincing is to bring like-minded people together, thus creating an illusion of consensus. This illusion of consensus is a club good, and I would argue that the distinctions Dr. Iannaccone makes among crystal shops, "inclusive" churches, and "exclusive" churches (or "sects") can be satisfactorily explained in terms of the relative importance of illusions of consensus.

In a crystal shop, the illusion of consensus is not important. Individual customers become convinced of the value of what they are buying more or less independently, and they are buying private goods. Iannaccone calls this "portfolio religion" because customers typically patronize any number of different suppliers. He tries to explain this in terms of uncertainty and diversification, but what is most striking to me is the customers' indifference towards group consensus.

In churches, on the other hand, club goods are important, but the specific club goods that are most important may or may not be credence goods. There is a spectrum running from "inclusive" or mainstream churches to "exclusive" churches or "sects." The inclusive churches emphasize conventional social amenities such as opportunities to meet new people, and the exclusive ones emphasize credence goods such as eternal salvation or moral superiority (ego justification). Since the marketing of credence goods benefits tremendously from being able to maintain an illusion of consensus, churches that emphasize credence goods are under severe pressure to drive away any member who openly expresses skepticism. (Iannaccone explains his "sacrifice and stigma" response in terms of forcing members to provide a public or club good (Why Strict Churches Are Strong), whereas I am trying to explain a breakdown of civility in terms of suppressing a public or club bad. In my view, skeptics are driven off not because they don't participate enough but because they are seen as turds in the punchbowl.) Inclusive churches, on the other hand, emphasize civility.

Iannaccone also describes the exclusive and inclusive churches respectively as being in states of high and low tension with the surrounding society. It seems to me that an emphasis on moral superiority explains the high level of tension with the surrounding society better than eternal salvation does, so I am inclined to look at the difference between inclusive and exclusive churches largely in terms of their emphasis on ego justification.

I suspect all churches need to offer their members some amount of ego justification, even the most inclusive ones, but churches differ both in how much ego justification they offer and in the pretexts they use for it. The pretext is usually theology, something involving the supernatural or metaphysical, but churches and church-like organizations can also use pseudo-science, politics, or philosophy as a basis for ego justification. We then have a pseudo-religion: an intellectual box that inevitably has some significant shortcomings, but which is being used as a source of ego justification.

Radical ("large-L") Libertarianism is one such pseudo-religion. The large-L Libertarians think laissez faire automatically solves all problems, where small-l libertarianism is vague and flexible. I am a small-l libertarian, and even I think the large-L Libertarians are impossible to reason with. A similar distinction could be made between large-P and small-p Progressives. A small-p progressive can be reasoned with, but a large-P Progressive is practicing a pseudo-religion and cannot be reasoned with.

This brings me to the internal conflicts within my local UU church. One friend of mine describes the problem as "creeping dogmatism." As I see it, this is really two problems. The first problem is that a significant number, if not a majority of members, both locally and within UU in general, have adopted Progressivism as a de facto creed. The second problem is that, despite our stated UU principles (and the Progressive commitments to multiculturalism and diversity), a significant number of these large-P Progressives seem more interested in the exclusive value of ego justification that comes from maintaining an illusion of consensus than in the inclusive value of civility. It is not clear to me to what extent these are conscious decisions.

This is not a minor difference in taste or a scientific technicality, but a major structural problem in the church. What do we offer a new visitor? A visitor may have children he is looking for help in rearing well, but he may also have a bruised ego. Do we offer him a demonstration of civility towards people we disagree with, or ego justification based on our alleged moral superiority over them? It is possible to compromise between these two functions, but it is not possible to be good at both.

The Ideas of the Shipwrecked

"These are the only genuine ideas, the ideas of the shipwrecked. All the rest is rhetoric, posturing, farce."

-- Søren Kierkegaard

I mentioned the advantages of "outward thinking" in terms of personal psychology and meat markets, but a sense of mission is also important. I used to have a sense of mission, a Promethean attitude that we UUs were going to turn Western religion on its ear and show everyone else how to do it right. This attitude gave me ego justification and a sense of urgency about my financial commitment to and volunteer efforts for the church, of which I now feel the lack. Now I tend to think of UU as caught up in the same dilemmas as all the other churches, one among many, and not necessarily the most sensible. While I think it is possible for religion to be "rational" in the sense of being compatible with modern science, I am less optimistic about whether it is possible for a religion to be rational in a more general sense. I think you can train people to face death bravely, but I'm not sure you can train people not to be self-righteous.

Perhaps we are limited to choosing what kinds of irrationality to engage in. Some are better than others. The difference between a good religion (or pseudo-religion) and a bad one may be like the difference between cowpox and smallpox. Cowpox is technically a disease, but it won't kill you, and it keeps you from getting smallpox, which will kill you. Modern mainstream Christianity seems to provide its adherants with the ego justification they need, with side effects that are decidedly less destructive than those of Islam or Marxism. (George Orwell suggested something along these lines in his 1945 essay, "Notes on Nationalism.")

Where do we go from here? Is this "conservation of irrationality" theory more or less right? Is mainstream Christianity as rational a kind of church as we can come up with? One form of progress would be to try to do a better job of advancing people in their psychological development so that we need less ego justification or so we can be more conscious and lighthearted about how we pursue it as individuals. Another form of progress would be to try to build religious institutions that do a better job of channeling people's cravings for ego justification into more productive or at least less harmful outlets. I am not ready to abandon churches as a social institution, a place to go to talk to Goldberg, at the very least. Bookstores and coffeeshops don't cut it for me. I also think that the formally creedless UU church is as good a place to start as any in my quest to build a better church. But I will make some suggestions of other organizations that we can look to for ideas: the C. G. Jung Education Center, the Kuk Sool Won martial arts school, and Buddhism.

The Jung Center is too focused on polishing the soul to get tangled up in political propaganda.

Kuk Sool Won (KSW) requires some explanation. KSW has a creed, some catechism, a heavy emphasis on civility, lots of ritual, and a certain amount of boasting. The KSW "creed" is not a list of beliefs, but affirmations and statements of intent, such as, "I will develop myself in a positive manner...." The "catechism" I refer to is in the student handbook, with statements such as, "When a winner makes a mistake, he says 'I was wrong.' A loser says 'It wasn't my fault.'" Everyone is "sir" or "ma'am," and the black belts (and black belt candidates) have titles. Ritual manifests itself largely in bowing. Students bow when entering or leaving the building, when entering or leaving the exercise floor, at the beginning and ending of class, whenever interacting with a black belt, when preparing to unsheath a practice sword (they bow to the sword), and basically whenever they're not sure what to do. The explanation I was given for most of the bowing at KSW is functionally identical to the explanation I was given for casting a circle at my wife's Pagan rituals: whatever happened outside the do-jang earlier in the day stays outside and does not affect what goes on inside (it creates a psychologically protected space). There is also a certain amount of ritualized boasting (ego justification), which goes on in the form of a call and response drill during warm-up exercises:

Call: Who are you?

Response: Winners, sir!

Call: Why?

Response: We're here, sir!

KSW and Buddhism both emphasize physical activities (or perhaps I should say inactivities in the case of Buddhism). I admire the Buddhists I have met for holding their ideas loosely and for affirming the interrelationship between mind and body. I also like Taoism, which I understand to have heavily influenced Zen Buddhism. I think of humanist readings as a "least common denominator" for UU services, but Taoist readings probably work just as well.

Another possibility is to emphasize practices rather than beliefs. This dovetails nicely with Buddhism, but I was thinking particularly of charity works such as those done by Habitat for Humanity. Building houses for the poor seems like a good thing to ask people to do in exchange for officially recognized bragging rights. It is important that these be unambiguously benign works, rather than partisan political activities or other works whose results are questionable.

One thing that might help us hold our ideas lightly is more emphasis on humor. Margot Adler has a chapter in Drawing Down the Moon on "religions of paradox and play," such as Discordianism. My favorite play religion is the Church of the Subgenius, but it is too sarcastic and insulting to be useful in an inclusive church except rarely, to ridicule someone who is being particularly obnoxious.

One "ha, ha, just serious" feature I would like to add to a play religion is sports fandom. I suggest that every good religious person should have a favorite professional sports team to root for. Everyone should have a harmless outlet for "paranoid" impulses (a source of ego justification or "superorganism self-esteem"), and the more ridiculous it is, the less dangerous it is. This would help remind us to recognize and laugh at our cravings for ego justification. I would like expressions of this fandom to be formally ritualized. This could help de-politicize a church because, from an economist's perspective, there is a close similarity between the average person's political affiliations and affiliations with professional sports franchises.

Now let me make some more modest doctrinal proposals. I don't want any doctrine to be rigidly enshrined, but it would still be nice to have some provisional doctrine, or "default settings" on our religious software. The existence of formal doctrine might also tend to discourage people from treating widespread opinions as doctrine. A formal creed that eschews political partisanship would help. It would also be nice to have something analogous to The Federalist Papers explaining why these doctrines were chosen, to raise the level of debate when people argue about changing them.

A "standard model" of morality might also be nice, so we can do a better job of not being jerks. We'll argue about this incessantly, but it would be nice to have a baseline to start from.

I would also like to have a "standard model" of philosophy. Personally, I tend to run in the direction of J. S. Mill and Thomas Hobbes, rather than J. J. Rousseau. If my church is going to take positions that are based on Rousseau, I would like this to be made explicit so we can more easily carry on an intelligent argument about it.

But until we get this civility vs. ego justification problem figured out, I will try not to get too uptight about the use of sarcasm.

One of the most irrational of all conventions of modern society is the one to the effect that religious opinions should be respected. [This] convention protects them, and so they proceed with their blather unwhipped and almost unmolested to the great damage of common sense and common decency. That they should have this immunity is an outrage. There is nothing in religious ideas, as a class, to lift them above other ideas. On the contrary, they are always dubious and often quite silly.

-- H. L. Mencken, Minority Report 1956

Hail Eris! and Praise "Bob!"

Appendix A
Postscript on Church Finances

If I'm going to ask you to take economic analysis of religion seriously, it is probably good to ask why different kinds of supposedly similar organizations are funded differently. New Age crystal shops (or the Jung Center) charge by the rock (or book or class). "The Aero Club, Inc." charged monthly dues plus usage fees, including a minimum flying charge. Kuk Sool Won charges more or less a flat rate, although there are various discounts and premiums. Although some Protestant churches used to charge for pew rental, and some strict sects make specific monetary demands, my church is typical, and begs for donations. Why is my church (or churches in general) financed differently from KSW, the Jung Center, or The Aero Club, Inc.? Here are some possibilities:

  1. Different mix of club goods vs. private goods.

  2. Price discrimination (this fits the tithing model nicely).

  3. Marketing considerations (loss leaders, free samples, etc.).

  4. Inability to measure perceived value to customers.

  5. Desire to proselytize, influence the outside world, grow rapidly.

  6. Threatening to refuse service to a member is inconsistent with insurance functions and inconsistent with claims of loyalty and altruism towards one's extended family.

  7. Our mission is too important and our magic is too powerful for us to be limited by mundane methods of collecting money (posturing about power and importance).

I think the correct answer is mainly #2. People donate because they get ego justification for it, and the amount of ego justification they get is more or less proportional to how much they donate. I find this discouraging, because it suggests that churches have a financial incentive to cater to people who have especially strong cravings for ego justification. A business that charges a flat rate has an incentive to cater to the marginal customer, who is on the verge of joining or quitting. A donation-based institution has an incentive to pay more attention to getting the heavy donors excited.

Appendix B
Is Morality a Credence Good?


"What many lack today -- and intellectuals most of all -- is some source of moral values besides the tribal identifications offered by partisan politics."

-- anonymous at

Earlier I claimed that a basis for believing in the rightness of one's moral views is typically a "credence good," which Keith R. Brouhle defined as "a good whose quality characteristics cannot be determined before, during, or even after use." The question comes down to "Where do we get our moral theories, and how do we know they're right?" Here are some possible answers:

  1. Supernaturalism. I believe my moral theories are right because they came from a supernatural source. My only uncertainties are over interpretation.

  2. Wisdom Tradition. I am confident my moral theories are mostly right because they came from a "wisdom tradition" and have been well tested. I am uncertain about the need for revision. My environment may have changed. Do I have enough evidence to justify changing the rules?

    I regard mainstream Christians as pretending to have a supernatural source while actually having a wisdom tradition. "Interpretation" is really revision. The unwritten rules are thus more important than the written rules, or as Paul put it, "The letter kills, but the spirit gives life."

  3. Analysis. I am confident my moral theories are right because they follow logically from assumptions I trust. I am uncertain about the rightness and applicability of the principles as well as the way they are applied (ie. act-utilitarianism requires me to be able to predict the future in some detail).

    Politically oriented moral theories are often justified by analysis. This includes both "scientific socialism" and several versions of libertarianism (Robert Nozick's version from Anarchy, State, and Utopia and Ayn Rand's "Objectivism." Other versions of libertarianism, such as F. A. Hayek's, emphasize wisdom traditions.

  4. Personal Intuition. I am confident of my moral theories because I trust my own personal intuition (despite a lack of analysis or peer support). It just feels right.

  5. Great leader. I am confident of my group's moral theories because I trust the intuition of a particular leader.

  6. Group Consensus. I am confident about my group's moral theories because we have debated them, listened to some testimony, and reached a consensus. There is some uncertainty regarding whose testimony is admissible and who is eligible to sit in judgement. Members of my group presumably understand our doctrines better than non-members. How much weight should I give to the opinions of non-members?

Supernatural authority is obviously a credence good. Personal intuition is not a credence good if the "quality characteristic" is a purely subjective warm feeling, but if I want to prove that I'm right and you're wrong in any objective sense, intuition is irrelevant -- I either find another approach or I embrace morality as a credence good. Similarly, in order to claim objective moral rightness based on a great leader, unless there is way to verify his decisions, the moral correctness of his intuition is a credence good.

Whether or not moral rectitude based on a wisdom tradition is a credence good depends on several degrees of uncertainty. Do I actually have sane, consistent criteria for judging the outcomes of past behavior? Do I actually have an experience base that allows me to make the relevant comparisons? Do I know how to interpret the data I have? If the answer to any of these questions is "not really," then my moral theory is at best only a working hypothesis awaiting better evidence, and if there is no way of obtaining better evidence it is a credence good. If the answer is "I think so, but I'm not sure," then my moral theory is an article of faith to the extent that I place more confidence in it than my uncertainties reasonably permit.

Moral rectitude supported by analysis is a credence good if the analysis depends on moral or behavioral assumptions that I trust without verification. Robert Nozick's version of libertarianism depends on trusting controversial moral assumptions. On the other hand, if my analysis is an attempt to clarify the outcomes of people's behavior (ie. "consequentialist"), and is backed up by observations, then it is subject to the same questions we need to ask regarding a wisdom tradition. It differs from a wisdom tradition in that a wisdom tradition puts more emphasis on having a lot of data and consequentialist analysis emphasizes careful interpretation, but you need some of both data and interpretation either way.

Asking whether morality based on group consensus is a credence good is a trick question. Consensus isn't a source of beliefs, but a means of aggregating them. We have to ask where the individual beliefs came from and why we are aggregating them. If the individual beliefs are based on observations and logical inferences, and the purpose of aggregating them is to check for mistakes and to get a better grip on uncertainty, then we have something like an ideal scientific consensus. If the individual beliefs are themselves credence goods, then our aggregate is a credence good. If the reason for aggregating beliefs is in order to conceal uncertainty, we have an example of the "illusion of consensus" Laurence Iannaccone describes in the context of churches promoting beliefs in supernatural credence goods.

Why do I say "illusion" of consensus? One reason is that a genuine scientific consensus crosses institutional lines. If you run off all the skeptics and then dismiss the opinions of non-members, then the resulting consensus is merely sample bias. Another way that a consensus can be an illusion is if the people involved have incentives not to report their true beliefs. Scientists build their reputations by discovering errors. A scientific consensus indicates that knowledgeable people have been looking for errors and have not found any. On the other hand, if a consensus is formed among people who gather in large part to provide one another with emotional support, it is more likely to indicate simply that people are biting their tongues. And if a consensus misrepresents intuition as fact, that is another kind of illusion.

Most of the moral arguments I am interested in are consequentialist: arguments that claim to be based on wisdom traditions or related inferences. I think the main reason why these turn out to be credence goods is due to a lack of honest and clear criteria for preferring one outcome over another. What criteria do people use in judging moral rules? I think of my moral views as a decision-making tool, to be judged based on how well they help me avoid common mistakes. In the case of "personal" morality, these might be mistakes that lead to personally destructive outcomes such as being shot by a jealous husband, in which case I should be inclined to follow these rules unilaterally. My system of "public" morality, small-l libertarianism, is also ostensibly a decision-making tool, but these are rules that help societies avoid common mistakes. These rules are intended to apply to everyone, although my willingness to follow them may depend on other people following them. Perhaps I am willing to embrace your rules so that you will let me into your club. But my views of other people's systems of morality are not necessarily so flattering, and perhaps I am kidding myself about my own motives as well. A moral theory could be a tool I use for manipulating other people's behavior, and I may judge it on that basis. These might be rules that are irrelevant to me, or that I have no intention of following, but that I want you to follow, or that I want you to feel guilty about not following. This kind of morality might make me a more successful televangelist. Or perhaps I want to be let into your club, but I intend to cheat. Other moral theories could simply be posturing, which I might judge on the basis of how they make me feel (ie. Sam Keen's "neurotic claims of moral superiority") or how they affect my popularity. These might be rules that I can't seriously expect anyone to follow, but which I espouse in order to boost my social status (or ego) or my tribe's reputation, perhaps to make me (or us) look like someone who deserves to be in a leadership position. This kind of morality might help me win a political campaign -- as a challenger I can argue that the incumbent was morally obligated to make an omelette without breaking eggs. We are all prone to this sort of thing. As I argued earlier, human beings are social animals and our reproductive prospects are sensitive to social status. From a Darwinian standpoint, any of these criteria might make sense, and different moral theories might look good depending on which of these criteria is most important under a given circumstance. All of us will be tempted to judge ourselves and others by inconsistent criteria.

Update 7-2-2007: For a slightly more coherent discussion of what moral doctrines are supposed to accomplish, see my review of Guenter Lewy's Why America Needs Religion: Secular Modernity and its Discontents. My list includes doctrines that facilitate (1) private goods, (2) public goods, (3) certain kinds of fraud, and (4) changing people's tastes.

If I am going to use my moral code as a means of making "neurotic claims of moral superiority," I'm surely not going to admit that I am doing so, even to myself. I will therefore insist that my rules are ones that everyone should follow, regardless of whether this is even possible. I will want support from other members of my tribe to give my views the appearance of objectivity (see also moral scientism), but I will not want my logic or selection criteria to be specific enough for my position to be capable of being proven objectively wrong. In other words, my morality will be a credence good, and I will favor social institutions that are filled with like-minded people and that are good at creating an illusion of consensus.

It is not clear to me to what extent the need for an illusion of consensus about morality forces people to attend churches and join political parties, and to what extent the desire to be part of a group comes first, with moral theories being post-hoc rationalizations. Neo-neocon has an excellent discussion of the psychology of being part of a group, using the metaphor of a ring dance from Milan Kundera's Book of Laughter and Forgetting. She also has an excellent series called A Mind is a Diffcult Thing to Change, that describes her decades-long post-Vietnam process of deciding to leave a dance she was a part of. But my impression of most modern intellectuals is that it would be hard to overstate the importance to them of being able to claim a position of moral leadership.

I want to say that the alternative to a moral theory being a credence good is often for it to drown in uncertainty. But that's not right. A credence good is something that already has drowned in uncertainty. The question becomes, "Am I going to deal with uncertainty honestly, or am I going to lie about it?" The price of honesty is the surrender of false moral confidence. This is what happened to my version of libertarianism. I eventually wrote something called The Dog Ate My Manifesto. It's not very emotionally satisfying to claim a position of moral leadership based on arguments that are acknowledged to be only 51% likely to be correct. I also think "We have a slight preponderance of evidence on our side" would tend to make for a rather lacklustre political slogan.

So how do we know whether we are engaged in sanctimonious nonsense? I just got through arguing that the answer is probably yes, but that we probably don't want to know it. If this is a group activity, which is usually the case, and for some reason we did want to know, the easiest way to figure it out is probably to look at the other people in the group and ask yourself whether they are being honest about uncertainty. Jonathan Miller once said, "The difference between a scientist and a witch doctor is that a good scientist is always bending over backwards to consider the possibility that he may be wrong." Are the people around you worried that they may be wrong? Another way to recognize an illusion of consensus is to pay attention to whether these people are engaged in what political scientist John Ferejohn calls "the politics of persuasion" or "the politics of mobilization." Are the leaders saying things that might reasonably be expected to persuade a skeptical audience, or are they "preaching to the choir," trying to stir up people who already agree and drive off people who don't? If people get angry over the crime of apostasy, that's a bad sign.

Again, because we're human, the answer is probably yes, we are engaged in sanctimonious nonsense. This is true whether we attend a Southern Baptist or a Unitarian Universalist church. We're the same species. I would like to believe that the intensity of sanctimony is lower at a UU church, and the style is certainly different, and more to my liking, but the substance is similar. Large, self-selected groups of people with similar moral beliefs tend to misrepresent the origins and purposes of those beliefs. In my view, most Christians have a wisdom tradition which they pretend is a supernatural source. UUs too often have intuitions and tribal identifications which we pretend are wisdom traditions and scientific analyses.

Update: See "What Does 'Morality' Mean?"


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