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The Baby and the Bathwater:
an Atheist Mourns the Death of God

Peter A. Taylor
December 27th, 2012

Part 1: The problem statement.

Man vs. God, God vs. Man. God vs. Nature, Nature vs. God. Very strange religion.

— D.T. Suzuki lecturing about Christianity.

D. T. Suzuki seems to have thought it strange for a religion to express the sorts of conflicts he sees expressed in Christianity. I don't find it strange at all. I think of Mother Nature and God as metaphors. Specifically, I think of Mother Nature as a metaphor for evolution; for reproductive success, which mostly works at the individual level. I think of God as a metaphor for utilitarianism, for the happiness and well-being of a society as a whole. It seems obvious to me that there are conflicts between "Mother Nature" and "God", between individual people, and between people and their various carnal and civic-minded impulses. What we call "morality" is largely a set of social norms that are designed to mediate these various conflicts, and what we call "religion" has a lot to do with promoting some versions of morality.

From Mother Nature's perspective, homo sapiens is a rather strange animal. (I recommend The Third Chimpanzee and Why is Sex Fun?, by Jared Diamond.) Most female mammals can take care of their young without a lot of help. Gorillas practice polygamy. They have harems. Male gorillas fight other males for access to the females, but don't do much to help the females care for the babies. Chimpanzees are promiscuous. The males compete sexually (large testes) against other males, but again don't do much to help the females care for the babies. Human babies are unusually labor intensive, and so Mother Nature wants the human fathers, aunts, uncles, and grandparents to help the mothers out. So while humans are genetically closest to chimps and gorillas, behaviorally, we tend to be more like many species of birds. I think especially of bower birds, where the male basically courts the female by building her a house. But Mother Nature has made us behaviorally flexible, especially men. In terms of Jungian psychology, men have several reproductive archetypes to choose from. We have a gorilla archetype, who would like a harem; a chimpanzee archetype, who is promiscuous and not into pair bonding; and a bower bird archetype who wants a stable monogamous marriage. Like most birds that live in colonies and form bonded pairs, humans also sometimes cheat on their spouses. There is also a spider archetype (Olivia Judson writes in Dr. Tatiana's Sex Advice to All Creation that the mate selection process has gotten so vicious in some species of spiders that rape is normal).

On one level, there are conflicts between men and women over the man's contribution to raising the children, but the reason why Mother Nature has made men less interested in their children than women are is because a man can have more children by having more mates. (There is also uncertainty in the father's case over parentage.) A pregnant woman, in contrast, can't get more pregnant by having sex with more men. But the cheating husband's reproductive success comes at the expense of other men, so on another level, the primary conflict is between different men. The more popular, high status "alpha" men have more opportunities to mate, with fewer strings attached, and would like to be able to exploit these opportunities. The alphas want either polygamy or rampant promiscuity to be legal and socially acceptable, and failing that, would like to cuckold the betas. The "beta" provider types oppose polygamy and need to guard their wives.

I'm not sure that these alpha and beta categories make as much sense regarding women, but I will call a woman "alpha" if she would be able to attract a high status husband in a monogamous society, and "beta" otherwise. This is a strong function of age. The alpha women, like beta men, prefer monogamy. These women want to monopolize the support that could be provided by the alpha men. Beta women tend to be ambivalent between having all of the support of a beta husband versus having a fraction of the support of an alpha husband with multiple wives. But the chimpanzee model is hard on women, depriving mothers of the support of fathers, and making them dependent on family who are less genetically close to the children. Mother Nature likes women to be far more sexually discriminating than she likes men to be. There are lots of sperm cells chasing relatively few eggs.

In those societies where the beta men have won the conflict with the alpha men, and imposed monogamy on them, the alpha men tend to get snatched up by the alpha women. The beta women have a dilemma: marry a beta provider and pass beta DNA on to the children, or mate with an alpha and forgo the father's support. But there is actually a third choice: cuckoldry (NSFW 1, NSFW 2). If successful, this is the optimal outcome from the mother's standpoint. It's the best of both worlds. But from the husband's standpoint, it is utter genetic failure. Plus he spends the rest of his life serving the interests of his genetic rival. (A modern variant of this is known as bureaugamy.) The beta men would also like to cheat on their wives, but the beta men get little opportunity, and genetically speaking, it isn't nearly as harmful to their wives' interests. Consequently, there is a huge, hidden conflict between beta men (most men) and beta women (most women) over female infidelity. Male infidelity isn't nearly as much of an issue for women. Even if infidelity threatens the stability of a marriage, the mother still knows that her children really are hers.

Other opportunities for betrayal involve timing. Men's and women's biological clocks run at different speeds. Alan S. Miller and Satoshi Kanazawa write in Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters that a man's "middle-age crazy" behavior isn't the result of the man's growing old, but his wife's growing old. A woman's fertility drops rapidly with age. A middle-aged man can still have more children if he abandons his wife for a younger woman. This is exacerbated in modern society by the fact that a woman's commitment to her family tends to be front-loaded and the man's tends to be back-loaded. A modern mother likely makes more compromises early in her career in order to be with her husband and raise the children. A modern father's financial responsibilities may not peak until the children are in college.

My image of God takes a very dim view of many of these predispositions. From a genetic standpoint, the conflict over mate selection is a zero-sum game, but materially and emotionally, it is a highly destructive one. From a utilitarian standpoint, faithful monogamy is definitely the way to go. So God thinks that coveting your neighbor's wife is a sin, but Mother Nature likes it. God is firmly on the "K" side of r/K selection theory. Mother Nature can happily go either way. (Susan Walsh says this evolutionary psychology argument is overstated, and Mother Nature also leans toward the "K" side.)

Mother Nature also has a different time lag than God does. "God" learns slowly, as societies accumulate experience with the long term effects of various rules over decades or centuries. But the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptation (EEA) that Mother Nature has prepared us for is roughly 100,000 years ago. This is of particular interest in economics (see Bryan Caplan, David Friedman, and Will Wilkinson). People have cognitive biases that make sense (are adaptive) if you're a nomadic hunter-gatherer living 100,000 years ago in the African Rift Valley with about 50 close relatives. The biases don't make sense if you're a modern voter, in a nation of 300,000,000 people, who works as a commodity trader at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. Where does wealth come from? Mother Nature thinks it literally grows on trees, wild, independently of human incentives, and will spoil if it isn't eaten soon. Adam Smith thought wealth was produced in factories that were built by investors who are sensitive to incentives. So Mother Nature predisposes us towards envy, and to seeing monopolies everywhere. God considers envy to be a sin. Economists consider competition to be normal and tend to regard monopolies as requiring explanations. Economists think that prices are generally set by supply and demand, but no one else seems to find the idea intuitively plausible.

The late Ric Locke described this popular understanding of where wealth comes from in terms of evolutionary psychology, as belief in The Seekrit Stash (Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3).

Kurt Vonnegut called it the Money River, an endless supply of cash flowing freely through obscure faraway canyons, to which The Rich lead their offspring and a few selected friends that they may slurp.

In the popular view, what we need are enlightened statesman who have the courage and moral integrity to kidnap those rich bastards and waterboard them until they tell us where The Seekrit Stash is.

Dierdre McClosky claims that the Industrial Revolution was the result of cultural change. The 17th century Dutch and British decided that being a merchant was a respectable occupation after all, and their economies took off. I interpret this as a victory of God over Nature. See also Mike Munger on middlemen.

Munger also did a podcast on microfinance, which he endorses, but claims most people don't really understand. The problem that microfinance solves is not physical but cultural. Microfinance gives people a moral weapon that they can use to defend themselves against the moral claims that neighbors and relatives in close-knit communities have against anyone who manages to build up enough wealth to be able to make a modest investment. (As Ayn Rand put it in Anthem, "To be free, a man must be free of his brothers. That is freedom. That and nothing else.")

Another area of conflict between Mother Nature and God involves tribalism. Christian theologians talk about universalism vs. particularism. How big is your tribe? Is it just the 50 people you're most closely related to, or the entire world, or something in between? How rapidly do your sympathies fall away with decreasing relatedness? Richard Dawkins discusses the Darwinian pressures (Mother Nature) driving this in The Selfish Gene. In contrast, Isabel Patterson, in The God of the Machine, portrayed the history of human progress in terms of finding systems of organization that allowed unrelated people to cooperate better at larger and larger scales.

hbd chick claims that the reason Europe is no longer tribal is because the Catholic Church banned cousin marriage (consanguinity) as well as polygamy. The degree of relatedness that was banned varied over time and place, sometimes going as far as banning marriage between sixth cousins. Over a period of some 500 years, this undermined European tribes. This also was a victory of God over Nature. (Update: nice interview here.)

Part 2: What Christianity has to do with God

I sometimes describe religion as being the psychological equivalent of a Swiss army knife. It has many functions, and which "blade" is the most important depends on what you're trying to do on a given day. Usually I think about religion in terms of competition for social status between different groups of people, but here I'm going to focus on Christianity's role in preserving and promoting social norms that restrain antisocial or maladaptive behavior. Jonathan Haidt writes in The Righteous Mind, "Religions are moral exoskeletons." As Guenter Lewy put it in Why America Needs Religion, "The urgent task for believers and nonbelievers alike, I submit, is to replenish the moral capital that was accumulated over many centuries from a unique stock of religious and ethical teachings, a fund of treasure that we have been depleting of late at an alarming rate."

Atheists often underestimate the difficulty of defending social norms, or "morality". Larry Loen, defending atheists as moral people, once wrote, "I don't need God to tell me not to wear loose clothing around machine tools." This presents morality as being about easily foreseeable appeals to self-interest. Eliezer Yudkowsky has a more serious view of "ethics": Something seems to be a good idea, but it violates your parents' advice. Should you do it? Are you smarter than your ethics? He warns that human intelligence is "running on corrupted hardware." We are especially prone to self-deception. "There are obvious silly things here that you shouldn't do; for example, you shouldn't wait until you're really tempted, and then try to figure out if you're smarter than your ethics on that particular occasion." Would you have been smart enough to predict the effects of banning consanguinity for 500 years (assuming "hbd chick" is right)? Would you have predicted the Industrial Revolution (assuming Dierdre McCloskey is right)? Would you have been able to convince your children that you were smart enough to foresee these things, and they should trust your judgement over their own, even after your death? Many of the conflicts between "God" and "Mother Nature" involve conflicts of interest between people as individuals and people as members of large groups. How do you teach your children to reconcile these conflicts? How do you prove in an argument that a particular social norm is superior to a proposed alternative?

The short answer is that usually you can't prove it. Morality is generally what economists (e.g. Keith R. Brouhle) call a "credence good", "a good whose quality characteristics cannot be determined before, during, or even after use."1 How do you explain to your children the bad long term effects of some behavior (e.g. promiscuity) for them or for society? Historically, the easiest answer has often been that you don't explain it. The parents often don't know in the first place. Instead, you tell them that God says not to do it.

Danny, a Cherokee Museum docent at Tahlequah, OK, recently gave us visitors some examples of things that Cherokee mothers used to tell their children to get them to behave: Children have to eat their bread crusts because that makes their teeth strong. They can't make noise blowing across bottle mouths because that causes storms. They can't play with fire or they'll pee the bed at night. Danny said this doesn't work with better educated children.

A functionally similar answer that an atheist might be able to use might sound like Temple Grandin's explanation in Thinking In Pictures of how she, as an autistic woman, understands the social norms surrounding sex. She has several categories for rules that other people enforce, and one of these categories is what she calls "sins of the system". These are rules that make no sense to her, but that she obeys anyway, because she recognizes that, for whatever reason, other people are deadly serious about them. More generally, the average person doesn't have to know why a rule was made. But as Yudkowsky observes,

But in general—there's only so much power that can vest in what your parents told you not to do. One shouldn't underestimate the power. Smart people debated historical lessons in the course of forging the Enlightenment ethics that much of Western culture draws upon; and some subcultures, like scientific academia, or science-fiction fandom, draw on those ethics more directly. But even so the power of the past is bounded.

So how much weight do you give to tradition, and how do you figure out when it's time to change? My environment may have changed from when my ancestors developed some of their rules. Maybe some of those rules were mistakes or political decisions in the first place. Do I have enough evidence to justify changing the rules? How big was the original data set? I probably don't have good enough data to even be able to calculate a sample size, and it's likely that the questions I'm asking are too vague to be able to figure out what would constitute valid data. Perhaps the messiah I'm looking for is a statistician.

In practice, decisions to amend religious rules are judgement calls. At least in Protestant churches, the resulting changes are not openly acknowledged as amendments, but appear as changes in "interpretation" of changeless ancient texts of supernatural origin. The supernatural claims are part of the mystique that churches have historically used in order to promote their credence goods. An honest discussion of the amendment process might threaten the churches' ability to get their members to take their teachings seriously. God isn't supposed to change, but human judgement can shift regarding what God really meant.

But if humans are fallible, how do we convince ourselves that our church finally got it right this time? Usually, we do this by creating an illusion of consensus. We drive away anyone who openly disagrees with the dominant view, and then we take a vote, or choose a leader or committee. "God" may not be strictly necessary to promote a credence good, but at the very least, churches and church-like organizations need some way to create an illusion of consensus. The "scientific" peer review process can also be used to perform this role. (See Mencius Moldbug's comments on pre- and post-WWII Western and Soviet science. I also recommend South Park's season 10 episodes 12 and 13, Go, God, Go! "Science be praised!")

Update, 2-21-2013: Moldbug recently posted a beautiful tribute to Lawrence Auster, which contains a superb discussion, from an atheist's viewpoint, of the role of God in the mind of Man. No excerpt can do it justice, but here's a teaser:

The entire question of "whether God exists" seems to me entirely superfluous and sterile....

Does Hamlet exist?

But if we change the question to: "is Hamlet a useful concept?" we find that again everyone agrees. Hamlet is a literary character, and perfectly real in that sense. It is completely sensible to say, for instance, that someone is acting like Hamlet, or should be more like Hamlet, or should be less like Hamlet. These statements are well-defined and cogent.

It is also a well-defined and cogent statement to say that Lawrence Auster is a servant of God. One can serve without orders. Larry doesn't need God's cell-phone number to serve God, and nor for that matter does the Pope. When we say "God," we know what we mean - it is a shorthand for the superhuman and perfect, for infinite wisdom and intelligence, just as the character of Hamlet is a shorthand for a mercurial and hesitating character. What, pray tell me, is the Flying Spaghetti Monster a shorthand for?

At the level of evolutionary psychology, man is both a social animal and a hierarchical one. Not only is he extremely good at defining and relating to characters, he is born with "modules" both for ruling and for serving.

Whether a man is a king, a peasant or anything in between, to ask him to be an atheist and an egalitarian is to ask him not to use the machines in his brain that he was born with.

Read the whole thing.

Part 3: The death of God

The ability of Christian churches in the West to maintain the "moral capital" that Guenter Lewy writes about has been eroding over the last several hundred years. The Enlightenment has brought the churches' supernatural claims increasingly into question, and the churches haven't really adapted. Keith Windschuttle distinguishes between radical and skeptical versions of the Enlightenment, and thinks that the problem is that the radicals got it wrong, but I think the damage to the Christian moral machinery was pretty much inevitable.

From Lewy's standpoint, the forces defending Western moral capital have two problems, one minor and one major. The minor problem consists of atheists like me who reject the churches' supernatural claims of authority for their traditional moral teachings. This is a minor problem because atheism has never been all that popular. As Edward O. Wilson put it, "The human mind evolved to believe in gods." There just aren't that many of us. The major problem consists of nominal Christians who kind of believe in God in a Deist sort of way, but who don't really have much confidence in the churches' moral traditions. They are functional agnostics. They may think there is a God, but they don't think the churches have any better a handle on what God wants than they get from staring at their navels.

The Bible itself is part of the problem, especially for Protestants, who have historically been more likely than Catholics to interpret it for themselves and to make a "fetish" of it, in Theodore Parker's words. Part of the problem is that there are things in the Bible that undermine the belief that Christianity deserves to be taken seriously. But the Bible is also to some extent a moral history, a record of arguments people have had over thousands of years, and contains multiple viewpoints. There is a "classical" view of human nature, which I value, and count as part of the Christian "wisdom tradition", but there is also a "romantic" view of human nature, which I credit the "traditionalists" for having quietly swept under the rug. This romantic aspect of the Judeo-Christian tradition (e.g. false transcendence and extremism on the universalism-particularism spectrum) lends credence to movements (heresies, according to Bruce Charlton) like "the Social Gospel" and "Liberation Theology". I am sympathetic to the argument that the romantics are actually closer to the origins of Christianity than those I am calling "traditionalists". At the very least, the romantic tendency in Christianity seems like a recurring infection, like shingles. But I don't care about Christianity's origins. I care about accumulated wisdom.

So a God of sorts continues to live in the hearts of Deists and apathetic agnostics. Also, especially in the US, there are still substantial numbers of serious Christians, as well as the unserious ones (see also Churchianity). But the God I write about, who represents this accumulated moral capital, has been severely undermined, and is no longer dominant.

Part 4: The jailbreak

Recall Suzuki's three-way conflict, among Nature, God, and Man. Mother Nature and God issue conflicting orders to humans, who disobey them both. The reason for this is that Mother Nature has prepared us to play a very complicated game. She is mostly interested in natural selection at the individual level, but still partly interested in group selection. We are also a social animal: teamwork is important even for narrowly selfish reasons. But we are not ants, programmed to sacrifice ourselves for a close relative's reproductive success. We have to find balance between our wishes and the demands of others. Furthermore, we need a great deal of mental flexibility to handle complicated, changing environments. Our genetic firmware has a lot of software overrides.

So in addition to selfish urges, Mother Nature also gave us a moral sense, a predisposition to create and follow social norms, to invent God, whose job it is to keep the selfish urges in check. In a good religion, God is the public face of a collective that is in touch with a large experience base, a wisdom tradition. Some of this wisdom is wise at the individual level, but some is beneficial for the collective, and requires managing conflicts of interest. To balance our selfish interests with our needs for cooperation from others, Mother Nature also gave us other tools for managing our relationships with others, to influence or evade social norms, to keep God in check. Thus we have great capacity for rationalizing that we are doing "the right thing" when we are not.

From the perspective of my religious upbringing, the idea of a need to check God, to keep Him at arm's length, sounds utterly blasphemous. It certainly isn't orthodox. In order to find support for this idea in the Christian tradition, I would have to look to William Blake's view of Satan in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, but even Blake is looking for completion for God, not protection from Him. Loki and Coyote don't fit, either. Respectable social science uses different language. Steven Pinker writes in The Blank Slate of the conscious mind being a "spin doctor" rather than the head of state. Jonathan Haidt writes in The Righteous Mind of an emotional elephant with a rational rider, who is the elephant's "press secretary", not a dictator. I admire both Pinker and Haidt, but I feel a need to go a bit further downmarket in my search for an apt metaphor, to the dark realms of animal spirits and mockery, where not just the commenters, but the owners of websites routinely use pseudonyms.

One of the metaphors that are popular in some of the naughty regions of the internet is the "rationalization hamster". This is a hamster that frenetically turns an exercise wheel inside a person's brain, connected to a machine that produces rationalizations. In these terms, I claim that the death of God has had an effect that is almost Shakespearean:

Cry 'Havoc!' and let slip the hamsters of rationalization....

Recall Larry Loen's comment that "I don't need God to tell me not to wear loose clothing around machine tools." I heard a similar thought expressed a few weeks ago from a former Christian friend who said that people have an innate sense of right and wrong, and religion isn't necessary for promoting moral behavior. This is exactly the position that Guenter Lewy started to write Why America Needs Religion in order to promote, and ended up rejecting.

My friend claimed that people have an innate sense of morality. This is only partly true. Our innate moral sense is like our innate ability to learn language. We are not born fluent in English, Japanese, or some other established language. Babies have very limited communication repertoires. What we are born with is a combination of predispositions (Bayesian priors) and the ability to learn. On the one hand, the idea that we are a completely blank slate is wrong (see Pinker!). But on the other hand, it is equally wrong to think that the capacity to internalize a wisdom tradition will produce a morally healthy society in the absence of a wisdom tradition to internalize.

Part of the problem is that Mother Nature often encourages maladaptive rules. Mother Nature gave us "common sense". But "common sense" is what tells you that the Earth is flat. That may have been a good enough approximation 100,000 years ago. Another part of the problem is that human moral reasoning is as much about finding creative ways of evading rules as it is about obeying them. Creating one rule and evading a different rule mean essentially the same thing. A third part of the problem is institutional memory. To have good rules, we need large experience bases, passed on from generation to generation, and wisdom in dealing with novel circumstances. And then we have the problem of incentives for compliance. You might convince me that giving all of my money to a particular charity would be good from a utilitarian standpoint, but where is my incentive to be "good"? A good wisdom tradition should not only tell us how to be nice to each other, but when and how much, and it should also tell us how to reward people for it. It's theoretically possible for Deist, agnostic, or atheist institutions to produce effective wisdom traditions, comparable to the Catholic church, but don't be surprised if it takes a thousand years to do it, and so far, I don't see a lot of evidence that very many people even realize that the problem exists.

What happens when the authority of the traditional God of, say, the Catholic church, is removed, and the products of Windschuttle's "radical enlightenment" give free rein to their rationalization hamsters insist on thinking for themselves? I'm going to pick on my fellow Unitarian Universalists specifically, but I intend most of my criticisms of them to apply to the "reality-based community" or Windschuttle's "radical enlightenment" in general. Let's consider some of the things the Catholic church has traditionally taught were sins.

Part 5: Political consequences

Advocates of particular political doctrines...should beware of denying the context in which their doctrines can operate....

— Bernard Crick, In Defence of Politics

Mencius Moldbug has a very fine rant on the institution of voting. He refers to Senator Benjamin H. Hill, who writes,

Suffrage, then, is not a right—it is not a privilege—it is a trust, and a most solemn and sacred trust. It is the trust of preserving society, of securing rights, of protecting persons.

My rights to life, liberty, and property depend on your willingness to vote for politicians who will honor them. Are you worthy of this trust? Or, on election day, do you let your rationalization hamster run wild? As Nick Land put it,

This democracy thing is easy — you just vote for the guy who promises you the most stuff. An idiot could do it.

The idea of voting as a trust, to protect the rights of others, is alien to my generation. Since roughly the time of Woodrow Wilson, government has only grown, and since the time of FDR, it has been determinedly redistributionist. Voters have rewarded politicians for transforming the US into a rent-seeking society.

Jason Pullen notes some parallels between the writings of Jonathan Haidt and George Washington's Farewell Address2. James Madison, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams expressed similar concerns3.

While the US remains dominated by nominal Christians (i.e. apathetic agnostics), God's ability to stand against the rationalization hamster collapsed around Wilson's time, long before nominally Christian "social gospel" was accepted in the US as "science", circa 1945. Since Wilson's time, the dominant political philosophy (and quasi-religion) in the US has been Progressivism. Ronald Wilson Reagan used different rhetoric than the original Wilson, but the actual policies of the Republican Party, despite the hyperbolic claims of both major parties, even at its most "conservative", have been hard to distinguish from those of the Democratic Party. American politics for the last hundred years has been like the cafeteria in the Monty Python "Spam" sketch. Everything in Monty Python's cafeteria menu has got Spam in it. Everything on the US political menu for the last hundred years has had Progressivism in it. The major parties differ slightly on the amount of Progressivism. We have (NSFW) the Gimmedat Party and Gimmedat Lite. Mostly they differ on the degree of dishonesty in the labelling.

If my claim that the US political menu is full of Progressivism sounds strange to you, consider that Progressives keep redefining themselves in order to maintain some moral superiority daylight between themselves and the "conservatives", who constantly shift their positions in order to comply with what the shifting majority consensus considers to be morally correct. (See the Overton Window.) To make sense of this, we need to look at invariants, something more basic than whether political hemlines are going up or down this year. We need to look at moral axioms.

If we follow Haidt's line of reasoning, about religion as a moral exoskeleton, what are the principal moral axioms of the relevant "religions" in the US today? Libertarianism is easy: "Don't throw the first punch." But libertarianism is a mere fringe movement. We do have a majority of nominal Christians, who used to believe, and sometimes still do, in a number of propositions including that "Envy is a sin." But if we define Christianity so as to exclude people who no longer believe this, we have probably excluded most of them. There is another moral axiom that I see implied whenever I read people arguing about political economy (tax policy, for instance) on Facebook: "From each according to his ability; to each according to his need." Would it be unfair to call this "Communism"? Maybe a little, but it seems to me that the reason to look for another term is to avoid an unhelpful emotional reaction on the part of one's audience rather than because of excessive unfairness. (I can think of another word that might be a more precise description of the prevailing economic model in the US, but it would be even less popular.) I prefer the term, "secular romanticism". So while "Communism" is probably not a good choice of terms, I think there is an essential truth in Moldbug's remark that there are two major religions in the US: Christianity and Communism (more here, here, and here). The latter has been dominant for basically a century, and the political consequences of this have been a loss of inhibitions against rent-seeking, provided that it is done in the name of some altruistic end (see Bruce Yandle's "Bootleggers and Baptists").

In parenting books, authors sometimes distinguish between "start" and "stop" behavior. Getting children to start doing something you want them to do is a different problem than getting them to stop doing something you don't. In addition to the above problem of getting people to stop rent-seeking behavior, we also have the problem of getting them to actively cooperate with one another voluntarily. Jonathan Haidt writes about this from a center-left standpoint in The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. He says human nature is 90% chimp and 10% bee. On p. 270 he defines moral systems:

Moral systems are interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, technologies, and evolved psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate self-interest and make cooperative societies possible.

I am more focused on stop behavior than start behavior, but the latter is also necessary.

Part 6: Personal consequences

The death of God has also been a personal tragedy for me. I feel like I have no one to talk to. The Christians can't deal with my theology, and I can't deal with the secular romantics' projections and hatemongering. Sam Keen says that one of the seven questions that any religion has to answer is "Who are my people?" I don't have an answer to that. I see other people in my life who have committed to a political party as "their people", and they seem to me to have chosen badly. This seems to be a continuing pattern in my family. My parents were divided by traditional religion. She was a Protestant; he was an agnostic. I don't know what kinds of conversations they had behind closed doors, but they never talked about religion with each other in front of me. I tried to make sure that I married within my religion. But now I note Bryan Caplan's comment that "Political/economic ideology is the religion of modernity." I seem to have screwed up. My father's policy of not talking to my mother about "religion" seems like the only option for me, too.

There is also the problem of lack of "meaning", or I would prefer to say, a sense of purpose. I tried to read Rick Warren's The Purpose-Driven Life. I couldn't get through the theological language, which I never really was able to translate into language that made sense to me, but I am still a little jealous of those who can. Jonathan Haidt writes in The Righteous Mind about Emile Durkheim's observations that the breakdown of traditional religion causes "anomie". I feel that, and trying to find the meaning of life in my career has been a bust. I also see this in people around me.

Along with humans as 90% chimp and 10% bee, Haidt writes about a "switch" in people's heads, triggered by sacredness, that flips them from "chimp" into "bee" mode. I don't get this switch flipped very often.

All of these things are related. I don't think a belief in a god is strictly necessary in order to deal with any of them, but I need something better than what I have.

Part 7: Building a better religion

Problems with Christianity

If we want to build a replacement for Christianity, we need to understand what went wrong with Christianity. The obvious problems with Christianity are the factual claims it makes that fly in the face of modern hard science, and the implausible claims it makes about the supernatural. But from a practical standpoint, there may be worse problems than those.

Buddhists talk of being in "right relationship" with other people. What is "right relationship"? A good "wisdom tradition" should not only tell us how to be nice to each other, but when and how much, and it should also tell us how to reward people for it. How far out of my way should I go for someone without an explicit quid pro quo? How much should I reward other people for doing me and my neighbors favors without an explicit contract? The Christian approach (at least the one I grew up with) seems to be to set the bar 1000 times higher than is reasonable, and hope people do 0.1% of what you ask of them. Their moral "teachings" are exhortation rather than clarification. I call this the "nice doggy" school of moral philosophy. I can pat my dog on the head and give him verbal encouragement, but I make no actual attempt to explain game theory to him. Christians similarly don't give an explanation of why I should be "good" that makes sense. They just say pretty words and make impossible promises. There is an old nautical expression, "One hand for the ship, one hand for yourself." You have to balance your immediate material interests against the needs of your teammates. I never got this sense of balance from Christianity. My view of the Christian approach to being "good" is that if a little bit is good, then as much as is physically possible is ideal.

Contrast this with Richard Dawkins' chapter on the iterated prisoners' dilemma in The Selfish Gene. The strategies that work are minor variations on "tit for tat": quick to punish antisocial behavior, and quick to forgive. Reciprocity matters, and so does genetic relatedness. I want a church that is savvy about game theory and evolutionary psychology: the Church of von Neumann and Morgenstern, or the Church of Satoshi Kanazawa (motto: "eppur si muove"), not the Church of Nice Doggy.

In addition to the problem of individuals being in right relationship with other individuals, there is also the problem of tribes being in right relationship with other tribes. This is the universalism vs. particularism problem.

Some important versions of Christianity, popular among middle-class American whites, seem to have a particular vulnerability in that they encourage universalist attitudes towards other groups of people who do not reciprocate. This plays out in American politics in a number of ways. We have the old rule that "politics stops at the water's edge", but the American "Christians" take this rule more seriously than the "Communists".

Mostly we see this in domestic "identity politics". Blacks, Hispanics, and Asians are expected to vote tribally, for the party of identity politics. Blacks in particular are likely to be called "traitors" for voting in the national interest or for "commutative justice" rather than for racial spoils. Women are also expected to vote tribally, based on "women's issues", as defined by the party of identity politics. But white Anglo-Saxon Protestant men (WASP-M) are expected to be universalists. (The division between Protestant and Catholic is no longer very important.) The slightest suggestion of particularism on the part of WASP-M's is "racism" and "sexism", and is the worst form of moral turpitude ever imagined by man.

This is confusing because Progressives like to posture as universalists, too. Steve Sailer wrote, "In contrast, modern liberals' defining trait is making a public spectacle of how their loyalties leapfrog over some unworthy folks relatively close to them in favor of other people they barely know (or in the case of profoundly liberal sci-fi movies such as Avatar, other 10-foot-tall blue space creatures they barely know)." Progressives regard Western Christians and classical liberals as beyond the pale, but foreign leftists are co-members of the Progressive tribe, and foreign barbarians are useful idiots and convenient theatrical props.

This Christian enthusiasm for turning the other cheek makes no sense to me. A sane religion needs to understand "tit for tat" both at the individual and at the group level. There is a place for Haidt's "hive switch", but a sane religion needs to be selective about it.

Design parameters

So what are the parameters we can play with in designing a new religion?

One of these parameters is the posture we take towards self-deception. Individually, we each have incentives to cheat in the competition for social status, and this cheating entails copious amounts of self-deception (discussed in more detail here, here, and here). An "evil" religion encourages this, and tries to exploit it for the benefit of the leadership. Society as a whole would be better off if everyone joined a "good" religion such as Eliezer Yudkowsky's Black Belt Rationality Dojo, and went to heroic lengths to root out self-deception. But individually, we don't have enough incentive to exercise that much mental discipline, and we normally don't. Failing Yudkowsky's ideal, my second choice would be a religion that channels self-deception in harmless directions. The idea is that you can say anything you like about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, but you have to be realistic about foreign policy. My third choice would be to follow Jefferson's maxim that where religion is concerned, "divided we stand, united we fall" (a low Herfindahl index). If we can divide society into a whole bunch of little religions, they can be wrong about important things, as long as they are all wrong in different ways, and can't get together to make their wrong ideas the law of the land.

Another parameter is our posture towards supernatural beings. I don't believe in supernatural beings, but people have cognitive biases that drive them towards theism. It isn't clear to me whether we should resist these biases or try to work with them. Should our new religion specifically target atheists, and encourage atheism, or accept these theistic cognitive biases, and try to channel them in beneficial directions? The latter possibility raises the questions of whether monotheism or polytheism is better, both for the individual and for society as a whole. The Progressives that we really need to reach are atheists and functional agnostics. But who, besides God, is a match for the rationalization hamster?

A third parameter is openness. Should a good religion be an open book, or is it better to encourage people to avoid public controversy, and to maintain "inner mysteries" that are withheld from people who aren't mature enough to handle them? Depending on how disingenuous Progressives are with regard to free speech and freedom of religion, the choice to become a mystery religion may be made for us.

The strict-lenient spectrum covers a number of related issues. Do we want a religion that focuses more on meeting the specific needs of individuals (private goods), or one that focuses more on collective goods? Larry Iannaccone offers a "New Age crystal shop" as an example of a religious organization that focuses on private goods. Some of the functions of lenient churches also overlap with those of a good coffee shop. On the other hand, a sense of group identity, flipping Jonathan Haidt's "hive switch", is a collective good. Specifically, this is a "club good", because the beneficiaries are primarily the members of the "club" rather than society as a whole, but the claim that a group is producing benefits for all of society could well be part of the group's mystique. I'm interested in full-fledged public goods, such as teaching voters that envy is a sin, but the only way I see to produce these benefits is as a side effect of churches competing with one another for social status. "Lenient" churches tend to produce more private goods, and "strict" churches tend to produce more club goods.

One could argue that the Catholic Church was successful at suppressing polygamy and consanguinity because it was the official state religion of Rome and many of Rome's successor states. If we're interested in producing public goods, perhaps we should reopen the question of whether a state religion is desirable. I continue to oppose this because under any circumstances I can forsee, an official state religion would be likely to be worse than the unofficial one we have now in the US. Western European state churches have been utterly feckless for all of living memory.

Another parameter, the level of tension the church maintains with the broader community, also maps onto the strict-lenient scale. Iannaccone sometimes calls this "distinctiveness". Strict churches maintain higher tension. They are costlier in some sense for their members (e.g. Baptists have to give up drinking and dancing), but more rewarding. I want to say that usually this tension comes at some cost in reasonableness (ie. sanity), but this is not necessarily the case. If a society is sufficiently screwed up, a relatively sane minority may have to be somewhat insular.

How insular a church is may limit its growth. I argued elsewhere that, because of the competition for social status, no religion can ever really be universal. But this leaves open the question of how big a church should be. Do we want mega churches like Joel Osteen's, or small ones where everyone knows everyone else? Or do we care, as long as they fight the good fight against the rationalization hamster? I lean toward churches that are small enough for everyone to know everyone else. I think this makes it easier for people to give one another constructive criticism. But I'm not sure if a close reading of the history of Christianity supports this idea or not. It probably depends on the clergy.

One aspect of the tension between a religion and the broader society is the universalism vs. particularism question. Does the church community have porous boundaries or relatively rigid ones? How important is it for members to act cohesively? Does intertribal "right relationship" mean being a good Samaritan? Is it every man for himself, with little concern whether one does business with a coreligionist or an outsider? Or do the tribe members have to circle the wagons against outsiders incessantly to protect one another?

Objectivists, in describing their idea of right relationship, seem to focus on protecting individuals from abuse, including abuse by their supposed friends and family members. I think they overstate their case, but they're not necessarily crazy. Limiting abuse is not sufficient for right relationship, but it is necessary. Consider Ayn Rand's 1974 address to West Point. She has an implicit recognition of the need for a society, through the military, at least, to act cohesively with little in the way of quid pro quo, but she is a lot less articulate here than when talking about individual rights. I read this speech as a "nice doggy" speech. It's not the lecture on game theory that I'm looking for.

Part of the strict-lenient issue is figuring out how high our behavioral standards should be. One of the functions I would like a church to perform is to be a charm school. (Part of this "charm school" function is that a good religion should teach people how to brag.) I want them to encourage high standards in comportment and dress in my children. In a lenient church, this might be viewed as a form of abuse. High standards can involve making positive demands, such as a requirement for missionary work, as well as negative demands, such as giving up alcohol. How demanding should we be, and how forgiving of failures? How easy should it be to get kicked out of a good church? How much self-deception would a student have to demonstrate before Eliezer Yudkowsky would bust him back to white belt? How much stigma should be associated with divorce? I don't want someone's status in the church to be an all-or-nothing prospect. I joke about the church issuing colored belts and getting busted to a lower belt level for misconduct. That seems a bit too direct. But maybe less direct, but still formal status symbols are in order? Social status does seem to be the coin with which church volunteers are rewarded.

There also have to be different standards for different people. We have to judge children differently from adults, for example. Do we cut some adults more slack than others where self-deception is concerned? Robert Heinlein's character, Lazarus Long, thought so:

This sad little lizard told me that he was a brontosaurus on his mother's side. I did not laugh; people who boast of ancestry often have little else to sustain them. Humoring them costs nothing and adds to happiness in a world in which happiness is always in short supply.

Alternately, this could also be taken as an example of self-deception being channeled in a harmless direction.

Having fallen out of the good graces of the church fathers, how difficult should it be to get back in? Do we need confessionals and penances? Are atheists more susceptible to escalation of failure than Christians, given that they lack a formal forgiveness procedure? If it's hard to get back in the good graces of an internalized "impartial spectator", are atheists more reluctant to admit their errors?

Do we need different religions for men and women? Simon Grey's comments about Men and Church could be interpreted that way, although that was not his apparent intention. Note the reference here to the Holy Hamster. Update: Vox Day adds, also unintentionally arguing my case for me, "The speed of the collapse is remarkable; it appears that every church denomination that has permitted women to teach in the church and hold authority over men has immediately and rapidly declined."

It may be that what I am looking for is not a single religion, but a complementary set that function at different levels. There is tension between Jefferson's "divided we stand" view of religion and Guenter Lewy's concerns about rapidly depleting moral capital that operates at a national level. It isn't obvious to what extent the club goods that a number of small sects produce will add up to public goods at the national level. Some virtues, such as delayed gratification, are good for society as a whole, but the particularist Balkanization I see in modern politics is not good. The variety of Christian churches that built up the moral capital Lewy writes about were politically independent of the Catholic Church, but their moral teachings were essentially similar. It isn't obvious how to combine hdb chick's anti-tribal Catholic Church with Iannaccone's view of the virtue of a low Herfindahl index, unless the point is to keep the churches so small that they have to be friendly to each other, and to keep the turnover rate high enough to keep them from being too insular. I'm not sure how to reconcile this with particularism sometimes being necessary. I am reminded of a Buddhist story about a monk who expresses anger on a public bus and has to explain himself to his students. To paraphrase, "Tribalism is a weapon. You use it and then you put it away." How does American "civil religion" factor into this? At the national level, I don't want my society to be unnecessarily belligerent, but I do want the government to be able to function in the national interest. Maybe what I want is triple membership, in a narrowly particularist traditional church, a civil religion of national scope, and a general default attitude of goodwill towards all men (universalism). A small, "strict" church might best meet my psychological needs and help me compete against my neighbors in other churches, serving as my Burkean "little platoon", with multiple, concentric circles of affiliation beyond it.

Part 8: Church Fathers without a Christ

"We are Church Fathers without a Christ. Any ideas?" — Maurice Spandrell

In starting a new religion, basically, we have two problems. One problem is how to identify the moral teachings we want to propagate. God just markets moral goods. He doesn't identify them. In practice, moral correctness is a credence good, and the particular teachings that a church embraces will have to be chosen by human beings, probably behind closed doors to avoid embarrassing admissions of the level of uncertainty. If the church elders are wise, they will lean heavily on tradition, but as Yudkowsky says, "there's only so much power that can vest in what your parents told you not to do." Like the Amish, in deciding which technological innovations to embrace and which to reject, the elders are going to have to get together and make some judgement calls. The other obvious sources of wisdom are game theory and evolutionary psychology, or more generally, behavioral economics. But these are suggestive rather than decisive, more speculation than science.

The other problem is arranging things so that the moral doctrines we are trying to promote are aligned with people's psychological needs. This requires a well-thought out set of moral doctrines and leaders, lay and professional, who are able to provide emotional carrots and sticks to enforce them. This implies that there are incentives in place for the leaders to enforce the doctrines. Looking at it from the other direction, it also implies that the church polity is motivated to choose leaders who will do this, and that the membership actually care what the "leaders" think. The moral doctrines have to be tied to meeting people's psychological needs. It's a public good problem, and it's non-trivial. If we could find a completely satisfactory solution to it, we could start that Black Belt Rationality Dojo that Eliezer Yudkowsky was talking about. I expect that our clergy will have to pick their battles more carefully than that.

Let's review the basics of how to start a worthwhile new religion:

  1. You have to get your members to be nice to one another, and to new prospective members. Etiquette is more important than doctrine.
  2. You have to deal with self-deception. Suppress it, channel it, disperse it, or exploit it. Neo-Pagans often say they don't believe in anything they need to be saved from. I do. I sometimes need to be saved from my own rationalization hamster. I will often need to be saved from yours.
  3. Set high standards. Not impossibly high, but high. You won't always meet them.
  4. Behavioral norms should be grounded in game theory.

I don't actually think the prospects of success are high. What hope there is owes more to tradition than to analysis. As ChevalierdeJohnstone wrote,

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.

Friedrich von Hayek wrote something very similar in The Fatal Conceit:

The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.

But having said that, how do we start one, and what do we call it? "Yet Another Space Alien Cult" is not a good choice for a religion that we want people to want to join. We could tip our hats to Rudyard Kipling and call it "The Church of the Copybook Headings". Other names I thought of include "The Church of Evolutionary Psychology", "The Church of Statistics", and "The Church of Jesus Christ, Game Theoretician". But after reading Jonathan Haidt's The Righteous Mind, I propose "The Church of Glaucon". (See chapter 4.) Haidt says of Glaucon,

He's the guy in Plato's Republic who challenges Socrates with the story of the Ring of Gyges, which makes a man invisible at will. He says that a man with such a ring would behave abominably, once freed from concerns about detection and reputation. I think Glaucon was right, and so we must design ethical "systems" for Glauconian creatures like ourselves.
From p. 74 of the book (ISBN 978-0-307-37790-6):
In this chapter I'll show that reason is not fit to rule; it was designed to seek justification, not truth. I'll show that Glaucon was right: people care a great deal more about reputation than about reality. In fact, I'll praise Glaucon for the rest of the book as the guy who got it right—the guy who realized that the most important principle for designing an ethical society is to make sure that everyone's reputation is on the line all the time, so that bad behavior will always bring bad consequences....

What, then, is the function of moral reasoning? Does it seem to have been shaped, tuned, and crafted (by natural selection) to help us find the truth, so that we can know the right way to behave and condemn those who behave wrongly? If you believe that, then you are a rationalist, like Plato, Socrates, and Kohlberg. Or does moral reasoning seem to have been shaped, tuned, and crafted to help us pursue socially strategic goals, such as guarding our reputations and convincing other people to support us, or our team, in disputes? If you believe that, then you are a Glauconian.

As for starting one, I have two suggestions. One is to start out as a lay study group focused on evolutionary psychology. This could probably be formed at most UU churches and most college campuses. It might be easier to co-opt an existing religion than to start a new one. The other suggestion is something like the Society for Creative Anachronism, but oriented around "steampunk" fantasy literature or Victorian culture. I keep being reminded of the depiction of Freemasonry in the movie, The Man Who Would Be King. The institution seemed to provide a sheltered environment for certain virtues to flourish, regardless of what was going on in the broader society. I don't really want to start a mystery religion, but in the short term, I am more concerned with building a stable institution than in proselytizing. I don't want to invent another organization like the Libertarian Party. I think Andrew Breitbart had it right when he said, "Politics is downstream of culture." But if we are targeting leftists as potential converts, we might be better off basing our religion on the writings of a leftist heretic like Jonathan Haidt. We may want to declare him to be one of our patron saints, whether he likes it or not, along with Satoshi Kanazawa and Adam Smith

Further thoughts on religion for atheists may be found in The Resurrection of Classical Liberalism and Designing The Church of Glaucon.

My answer to D. T. Suzuki:

Mother Nature vs. God. Mother Nature vs. the Rationalization Hamster. God vs. the Rationalization Hamster. Not so strange.


The Provisional Logo of the Church of Glaucon

with apologies to the makers of openclipart-0.18
(and envious glances at Sunshine Mary)

Sorry, no ferrets.

Appendix: The natural life-cycle of religions

(Annotated comments originally written circa 2007 for a discussion on the larryniven-l science fiction email discussion list.)

Comments for Jim Stiles on "main sequence" religions:

I have loaned out the book I am trying to remember [Rational Choice Theory and Religion: Summary and Assessment, Lawrence A. Young, ed., ISBN: 0-415-91192-3 (pbk.), excerpts below], but here are my impressions of how new religions get started and eventually grow old:

For purposes of this discussion, a "religion" is something like a Christian "denomination," or possibly an individual congregation if its leadership is independent of other churches. For my purposes, Christianity is a family of related religions rather that a single religion.

Religions are usually started by a charismatic crazy person and some friends or relatives. They don't get taken over by crazy people, they start out that way. In order to survive, they generally have to do two things:

  1. They have to be nice to their followers. Recent converts will say they joined because these people were nice to them. Later they internalize the church's narrative and their story changes to how they joined because these people preach what I really believe.
  2. They have to attract people who are unhappy with mainstream churches. Sociologists plot churches on a spectrum according to how much tension they maintain with the surrounding society. [high-tension "sects" vs. low-tension "churches"] New religions tend to attract people with low social status (poor in spirit) who want to invert society's pecking order (Matthew 20:16, "So the last shall be first, and the first last").

As a consequence of wanting to invert society's pecking order, new religions tend to be on the high-tension end of the spectrum and preach lots of jeremiads against mainstream society. They also tend to be demanding of their followers: go to lots of meetings, do missionary work, and don't express any skepticism that would spoil the fun of believing that we're better than those sinners out there. Apostates must be ejected.

[Update, 3-12-2014: Rodney Stark claims that religions are usually started by elites, and mentions Buddhism as an example. See The Triumph of Christianity podcast 1. He seems to imply in podcast 2 that, until fairly recently, religion was largely a leisure activity for rich people. But maybe I'm overgeneralizing. Note also podcast 3.]

If the religion survives and grows, eventually it is likely to attract more mainstream people who prefer a low-tension relationship with normal society, and aren't willing to put up with as many demands. A successful religion attracts more successful people, and this also makes it easier to find more recruits. Within the church, leadership positions tend to go disproportionately to people with the same social skills that make people successful outside the church. As these more normal and more socially successful people get into leadership positions, they tend to push the church toward the center of the high-tension/low-tension spectrum. There are fewer mandatory meetings and less missionary work. This makes it easier for even more mainstream people to join and stay, but takes a lot of the motivation away from the original poor-in-spirit class of people who founded it and were its most enthusiastic supporters. But along with low-tension-with-society comes low levels of committment from members and lower levels of interest from prospective members. IIRC, the Methodists stopped growing not long after they dropped some of their requirements for attending lots of meetings*. Iannaccone discusses this paradox in "Why Strict Churches Are Strong" and in "Toward an Economic Theory of 'Fundamentalism'". If you want a church that provides a high level of psychological benefits to its members, at least of the sort that one gets in high-tension, "strict" churches, you have to get rid of apathetic members.

These trends tend to be self-reinforcing, and churches tend to move further to the low-tension end of the spectrum over time. Apostasy is no longer such a big deal. Drinking coffee and bowling are more important than theology. The church becomes undifferentiated from its peers and well-managed, but boring. It is easy to be a member, but you no longer get much reassurance of being better than the people down the street. Existing members are smug and happy, but everyone else is bored, including the children. The average age among the members creeps up and membership declines. Eventually the board sells the building to a younger church or to the child care provider who had been renting space there.

According to the sociologists, Unitarian Universalism is the quintessential "lenient" or low-tension church. This is true in terms of theology, but in terms of political ideology, we are actually quite conflicted about the level of tension we maintain with mainstream society. There are lots of UUs, especially in positions of leadership, who would very much like to turn the world upside down politically. We have no formal justification for driving away political apostates, but we do this informally fairly often, and anyone who attends needs to put up with lots of political jeremiads.

* See ch. 3, by Roger Finke, "The Consequences of Religious Competition: Supply-side Explanations for Religious Change", p. 53-4:

The Methodists' transformation from sect to church serves as one example. When Bishop Francis Asbury rode from circuit to circuit in the early nineteenth century, camp meeting revivals were "the battle ax and weapon of war" for converting sinners, the weekly class meeting challenged members on matters of faith and conduct, and lay ministers directed the affairs of local congregations, as the circuit riders served as traveling evangelists. But in 1855 the famous circuit rider Peter Cartwright was lamenting that his Methodists had "almost let camp meetings die out," the class meetings were now neglected, and the circuit riders were dismounting and replacing the local lay preachers. By the end of the century, many suggested that the official standards for membership should not be enforced because the church "succeeds, not by casting out [members], but by getting them in and developing all their capabilities for good".

But the Methodist attempt to attract more by asking for less was a failure. When the membership standards were high, the Methodists skyrocketed from 2.5 percent of all church adherents in 1776 to 34.2 percent in 1850—and then the long decline began. Since 1850 the rate has fallen steadily to the current low of 8.1 percent of all church adherents (and still falling).

Ch. 7, "Religious Choice and Religious Vitality", by Nancy T. Ammerman, p. 128:

We know, for instance, that even the Baby Boomers who have dropped out and not returned seem still to be remarkably "religious." They believe in God (80 percent say yes, and another 16 percent are uncertain, but think so), they are likely to describe themselves as "spiritual," and they say that problems of meaning in life are things they think a good deal about. Stark and Iannaccone (1994) report that what they call "potential demand" (levels of belief, despite lack of belonging) are remarkably high throughout Europe. Reginald Bibby (1993) notes similar levels of unofficial belief in the face of official institutional decline in Canada.

To use the economic language of rational choice theory, there appears to be more religious demand than suitable institutions available to meet that demand.

Ch. 10, "Stark and Bainbridge, Durkheim and Weber: Theoretical Comparisons", by Randall Collins, p. 165:

In general, wealthier and more powerful persons have less need for compensators [a sort of religious "rain check" for supernatural goods that Rodney Stark introduces on p. 7], they still have some need, since everyone is subject to death, illness, old age, and personal difficulties. Hence the typical conflict within churches: the upper classes seeking greater accomodation so they can enjoy the things of the world; the lower classes seeking greater tension through more exclusive focus on compensators. The dynamics of individual recruitment, and the ups and downs of religious organizations follow from this stratification of demands and resources. Although the lower classes in general have more need for compensators, it is the upper classes who are best able to put together a successful organization or to rise to dominance within it; and in any case a successful religion amasses wealth and organizational power for its full-time leaders, so they too tend over time towards greater accommodation with worldly success.

P. 168:

(3) Personal ties. Personal ties are the most efficacious modes of recruitment in all sorts of religious groups, far more than literature and advertising appealing to ideas. The highly successful Mormon recruitment process shows that the degree of closeness of social ties is highly correlated with the success of recruitment attempts, with the highest level of all (50%) where recruitment is not of individuals but of small groups through family-to-family visits, and doctrine is introduced at the end of the process (Stark and Bainbridge, 1985).

(4) Social ties. This evidence suggests social ties are prior to ideological beliefs (a point conceded by Stark and Bainbridge at times: e.g., 1985). This is congruent with the Durkheimian point that ideas are symbols of group membership, and grow out of it.

See also "Religion, Values, and Behavioral Constraint", by Laurence Iannaccone. At the top, he says, "[Working paper - not for quotation]". But what the hell. I can't find the source I'm looking for. On p. 12, he says,

Studies of new religious movements consistently find that the typical recruit joins the group and adopts its behavioral standards before accepting the truth of the group's teachings (Robbins 1988).
This refers to:
Robbins, Thomas. Cults, Converts and Charisma: The Sociology of New Religious Movements. London: Sage, 1988.

Update: See also The Market for Martyrs, by Laurence Iannaccone, pp. 6-7:

In short, social attachments lie at the heart of conversion, and conversion tends to proceed along social networks....

...[P]eople's retrospective descriptions of their conversion experiences tend to stress theology. As long as the group views belief as central to its mission, converts will face strong pressure to make doctrine the center of their subsequent testimonies. As Robbins (1988) observes, citing studies by Greil and Rudy (1984), Heirich (1977), and others, "Ideological pressure often leads converts to construct testimonials of the 'I once was lost but now am found' variety." These retrospective accounts are best seen as products of the converts' new identities rather than descriptions of their antecedents. Most new converts have much to learn about the doctrines of their new religions, and many harbor serious doubts about core beliefs at the time they join.


1. This definition of credence good, "a good whose quality characteristics cannot be determined before, during, or even after use", may actually be too strong for my purposes.

Sometimes a bad procedure has obviously disasterous consequences. As an aerospace engineer, when the guy from de Havilland tells me my fatigue testing methodology is wrong, it's obvious that it's in my interest to give him a fair hearing. In other cases, it's obvious that people are arguing over stupid things that are of no consequence, such as Jonathan Swift's Lilliputians arguing over whether to open an egg at the big or little end. These people I can and must blow off.

What makes the question, "Should I listen to my critics?", interesting is uncertainty. I wrote above that morality was a credence good, that it was impossible to determine its quality even after the fact. But as with the Lilliputian eggs, if I were really sure that a particular moral doctrine was a pure credence good, if I could be really sure that I and the people I care about would never be faced with negative consequences of a wrong decision, then there would be no reason to argue over my decision. Real-world concerns about moral doctrines are usually somewhere in between airworthiness and egg-opening in their level of factual groundedness.

It's these murky cases involving borderline credence goods that give us the most trouble. An example would be whether easy, no-fault divorce is good, or whether divorce should be difficult, scrutinized, and in "frivolous" cases, heavily stigmatized. The stakes are high, especially if children are involved. So do people listen to their critics where family law and sexual mores are concerned? For example, do Southern Baptists and Unitarian Universalists typically take one another's concerns seriously? The stakes are high, but the consequences are partly external, and some of the consequences are deniable and subject to long delays. It may take generations for the effects on the institution of marriage to play out, and even then, the causes are murky, and easy to self-deceive about. There are conflicts of interest involving protecting the guilty and promoting flattering narratives. Morality looks like a credence good if you squint. But often there really are wrong answers, which will reveal themselves if you live long enough and are minimally honest.

Update, 5-5-2013: A better definition of a credence good is: "A type of good with qualities that cannot be observed by the consumer after purchase, making it difficult to assess its utility." The key is that determining the good's quality is difficult, not impossible.

2. Jason Pullen writes,


In his Farewell Address of 1796, President George Washington states:

Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of Patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great Pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of duties of men and citizens. The mere Politician, equally with the pious man ought to respect and cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity.

In his book The Righteous Mind (2012), Psychologist Jonathan Haidt writes:

Religions are moral exoskeletons. If you live in a religious community, you are meshed in a set of norms, relationships, and institutions that work primarily on the elephant [the unconscious] to influence your behavior.


In his Farewell Address, Washington states:

Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure...

In his book, Haidt writes:

But if you are an atheist living in a looser community with a less binding moral matrix, you might have to rely somewhat more on an internal moral compass, read by the rider [the conscious].


In his address, Washington states:

Let it simply be asked where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths, which are the instruments of investigation in Courts of Justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition, that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that National morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.

In his book, Haidt writes:

When societies lose their grip on individuals, allowing all to do as they please, the result is often a decrease in happiness and an increase in suicide.... Societies that forgo the exoskeleton of religion should reflect carefully on what will happen to them over several generations.

I agree with both Washington and Haidt. According to my observations, within our American society, people's altruism and religiosity are directly correlated. Half of the outliers represent the people with a religion who are not altruistic. The other half of the outliers represent people without a religion who are altruistic, just as Washington and Haidt concede. And within a distinct line of correlation, where most people fall, people's altruism rises as their participation in religion rises, or people's altruism falls as their participation in religion falls, just as Washington and Haidt warn. And to maintain social order, a public policy should be based upon the distinct line rather than the outliers.

3. James Madison wrote in The Federalist no. 55,

As there is a degree of depravity in mankind which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust, so there are other qualities in human nature which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence. Republican government presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form.

Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become more corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.
      — Benjamin Franklin

Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself. There was never a democracy that did not commit suicide.
      — John Adams

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