Jun 12 2012

Are Humans Really Rational Creatures?

In a previous post about a wingnut claiming that the Obama administration is allowing Muslims to skip TSA checks at the airport, Dr. X left one of the most lucid and important comments I’ve seen on my blog in more than 8 years of doing this. It was in response to this comment by Michael Heath:

I’m still mulling over Christopher Hitchen’s conclusion that, “religion poisons everything”. However the fact that religious indoctrination systemically taught to children develops people who’ll believe irrational assertions lacking any evidence, well that’s one compelling premise which supports Mr. Hitchen’s conclusion.

And this is Dr. X’s full response:

There is abundant evidence from psychological research that irrationality is built into us, and that pre-rational heuristics govern our beliefs far more than rationality. Ideologies, social bonds and group identifications, not training, determine the ability of most of us to process evidence in dealing with matters related to our sense of social alliances. It’s easy to see how this powerful tendency was selected in human beings and no reason to assume that vulnerability to bias is trained into people or that we can be trained out of bias in some general sense during childhood. My mother loved me when I was born, not because of any inherent quality in me that made me more worthy of love. She regularly acted with disregard for her own interests to protect me. So much of our survival is based on pre-rational, preconscious tendencies and heuristics, while reason is a rather lowly step-child in social relations, and that would generally hold true for group identity.

Reasoning is only a shaky overlay on non-conscious, pre-rational processes. One problem is that reasoning can actually be used quite effectively to support pre-determined views. In people who are more intelligent, the tendency is all the more pronounced. Smart people can talk themselves into a lot of things that aren’t true and sound very thoughtful and rational while they do it. A less intelligent person will be more comfortable with blunt denial. A brighter person will erect complex intellectual systems of justification without awareness that their opinion was already formed. It isn’t that those systems and reasons are necessarily wrong; quite often they’re right. The point is that the intellectual wouldn’t have gotten there if a strong tribal identification was standing in the way. Quite often, smart people who can earn an A+ in a Logic 101, go into false territory and cannot be talked out of it because of an existing group identification and the perception that the enemy holds an opposing position.

I think wingnuts are especially crazy at this time because of the power of their group identity and the perception of a serious threat to the group. The evolved adaptive response to this situation is to become nuts in support of the tribe and nuts in contempt for the opposition.

I also think that the history of the American South in relation to race and to Washington, the capital of the n-loving conqueror, is at the core of the wingnut identity. Republicans have ruthlessly and successfully exploited a fusion between downtrodden (read threatened) Southern, white group identity and an assortment of geographical, educational and religious markers, as well as a variety of cultural tics and habits that extend the identity well beyond the American South. In each of these areas, the idea has been promoted that white people, especially non-urban white men, are members of a unified tribe that is in a fight for its life, under attack from outside enemies. A person who identifies with that group and takes on that sense of life or death threat will not join the discussion as a reasoning, evidence-processing participant. They’re at war with the mental equivalent of Hitler or Stalin or pick your historical enemy who was beyond a reasoning and good-faith discussion.

Why do some of us decouple from our early group identities and change our beliefs? I think there are many circumstantial and internal reasons that it can happen. I used to think I reasoned my way out of my early tribal alliances, but I’m now convinced that reason was only introduced to the extent that my tribal bonds were fraying for other reasons.

Religion, rather than poisoning everything, is IMO usually a group identity not unlike any other group identity. It’s impact become poisonous when that identity feels threatened, but that’s not because religious people aren’t taught to reason. It’s because of group identification and evolved responses to group threat.

I agree with almost all of this. He brilliantly expresses the kind of cognitive shortcuts that we all take at times, shortcuts that skip over rational thinking to reach conclusions that aren’t supported by the evidence. And please note the key fact: We all do this. I know we’d like to think that we’re perfectly rational and immune to such things while those whose views we oppose are infinitely irrational, but the fact that virtually everyone thinks that about themselves is, in fact, evidence for the argument made by Dr. X here.

But that isn’t the end of it. While it’s true that all of us have beliefs that we cling to for pre-rational reasons, particularly group identity, we should not draw two potentially false conclusions based on that fact: A) that everyone is equally irrational; or B) that we therefore can’t use the tools of reason to reach more or less definitive conclusions about what is true and what is not. Note that I’m not saying that Dr. X is reaching those conclusions, only that these would be obvious — and wrong — conclusions to reach.

So is religion different from other pre-rational ideologies and group identifications? Does religion poison everything or is religion just another form of tribal and ideological identification that short circuits our ability to think rationally? The answer, I think, lies somewhere in between. Yes, people can and do engage in the same kind of evidence-ignoring faulty reasoning in the service of non-religious ideologies, but I believe religion is significantly more damaging than the alternatives, for reasons that I think Dr. X would agree with as well.

First, because religion claims to be based on supernatural revelation that is unquestionable. While it’s true that almost every “worldview” (I hate that word but can’t think of a better replacement at the moment) can be clung to and defended irrationally, religious ideologies are considerably worse in this regard because they begin with the very premise that one cannot question those claims because they come directly from God, who will punish you if you do not believe (especially, in many cases, if you stop believing).

Religion essentially uses threats to keep people believing. Sometimes those threats are immediate, in that leaving a religion behind also often means leaving your entire social network — your tribe — behind. Those who leave are often (not always, of course) ostracized by friends and family. For someone raised in a particular religious group, that is a very powerful incentive not to question one’s beliefs. Indeed, I think that is the primary reason why most people continue to be religious believers (most Christians in this country give little thought to why they believe what they believe, they just keep doing what the group does without much thought or daily influence on their lives). And then, of course, there is the threat of eternal punishment by God if one does not believe correctly or follow the dictates of that religion.

We can contrast this with a secular and skeptical worldview, which begins with the premise that we should apply the tools of reason to better understand the world and which has no threat of an afterlife to compel one not to question. It’s certainly true that skeptics, both individually and in groups, can and do engage in the kind of ostracism that can happen in any community in response to those who challenge the positions taken by the majority of people in the community, that response is at least not built in to the belief structure. Tribal thinking is possible in any group, of course, but skepticism, properly understood and put into practice, demands that it be avoided as much as possible; religion, on the other hand, positively encourages such irrationality with multiple levels of punishment for those who question, both immediate and for all eternity.

Next, to the question of how, if irrationality and tribalism is so common in humans, many of us manage to escape our tribes and develop a new set of beliefs. Dr. X speaks to his own experiences when he says, “I used to think I reasoned my way out of my early tribal alliances, but I’m now convinced that reason was only introduced to the extent that my tribal bonds were fraying for other reasons.” My experience was considerably different, largely because I didn’t have such tribal bonds.

As I’ve mentioned many times, I was raised by an atheist and a Pentecostal. That made for some odd situations, but in retrospect I’m happy about that. It meant that I didn’t have a default belief. It meant I had to think about it in a way that most people never do because I had these two starkly different worldviews in the same home. As a teenager, I became a very devout Christian and was one of the leaders of the local Youth for Christ group. But by the time I was 17 or so, I was asking questions that didn’t have good answers and by 18 or 19, I’d became a skeptic and a rationalist.

At no time during all of that did my atheist father try to talk me out of religion or into non-belief. When I asked him about that later he said, “I didn’t think I had to. I’d raised you to think for yourself and I thought you’d figure it out on your own.” One of the phrases he used a lot, and still uses to this day, is “do your own therapy.” By that he means, ask yourself why you feel the way you do, why you think the things you think, what is motivating you to believe or act in a certain way. And I think that is the essence of true skepticism, to not only question what others believe but what you believe as well. Is it warranted? Does the evidence support it? Are you really being rational here or are you taking a shortcut? If you haven’t taken the time to really do a thorough analysis, don’t reach firm conclusions and don’t make grand statements about that subject.

In recent years, the voice of my father in my head has been accompanied by the voice of one of my good friends, Jeremy Beahan (host of the Reasonable Doubts podcast, producer of my old radio show). Jeremy is one of the most truly rational and skeptical people I’ve ever met. He avoids logical fallacies more consistently than almost anyone I know, and he’s called me out more than once when I’ve oversimplified or engaged in tribalism rather than being genuinely skeptical. I wish I could say that I therefore avoid doing so all the time, but I can’t. I still catch myself at it sometimes and, I’m sure, don’t catch myself at other times when I should.

Jeremy also introduced me to an incredible book that I’ve mentioned many times on this blog, Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson. This book is absolutely vital to understanding the kinds of pre-rational heuristics that Dr. X is talking about above. And once we understand the human tendency toward those kinds of thinking patterns, we are better able to catch ourselves doing it and apply the tools of reason to avoid them as much as possible.

So what lessons might we draw from this? Yes, religion operates much like any system of group identity operates. But it’s also unique in its inoculation against rational challenge and its ability to prevent members of the group from questioning their core beliefs. And yes, we all behave in similar ways at times. But the only worldview that offers a means of transcending those pre-rational thought patterns to any significant degree is skepticism. We need people around us who challenge us not to conform but to think. George Carlin stated this perfectly when he suggested that we don’t just teach people to read but we teach them to question what they’ve read. None of us will ever be Mr. Spock, but some worldviews really do tend to make us more rational than others.


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  1. 1
    Reginald Selkirk


  2. 2

    Excellent post and quoted comment, Ed. One of the reasons I keep coming back.

  3. 3

    I vaguely recall a study on the ability of chimpanzees to reason and do puzzles. Chimps do better when they expect a tasty reward (like a banana) vs. monkey chow. But there’s a limit – most do significantly worse if you put a whole bunch of bananas right next to them. Their higher reasoning goes out the window; all they think about are the bananas.

    We’re apes, and I think we have the same problem when it comes to cultural, tribal, religious, or political affiliations. Engaging those affiliations can be a powerful motivator. It makes ‘solving the puzzle’ more important to us and focuses our attention. But if you engage them too much, or threaten them too much, it has the opposite effect – our higher reasoning shuts down, and we start thinking only about those affiliations.

    As Dr. X said, our reasoning capability is an overlay. Sometimes you can kick start it by activating the pre-rational centers of the brain, because those help us decide what things are important for us to pay attention to. But if you get those pre-rational centers too activated, they make the decisions and call the shots, and rationality goes out the window.

  4. 4

    Well I would just ask, what did the world that we evolved in look like and what are the elements of rationality in that world?

    Using rationality in today’s context confuses the above, with our current ecological niche. There are two rationalities, one innate, and one learned.

    The learned one is probably the one we want. The other one is under emotional control due to instinct. When you entangle the two…

    I don’t believe for one minute that “illusions” are only optical…

  5. 5

    As one who often reads Dr. X, I want to point out this post and particularly this brief comment:
    I wonder if the tendency among conservatives is to emphasize disposition, while liberals emphasize situational influences. Scratch that. It isn’t difficult at all to think of many exceptions to that observation. Perhaps it has more to do with group identity and who plays the role of the “Other” in our minds. Perhaps dispositional influences are attributed to the Other, while situational influences are more likely attributed to those with whom we feel aligned.
    That brief little remark has made me think more than any of the comments or talking points. This blog is very fortunate in having readers of the caliber of Dr. X and MH.

  6. 6

    “do your own therapy.”

    This changed my life. In an objective way. Reading scientific literature helped me learn how to live, by knowing what shaped the way I interacted with my history. It gave me context in a verbal sense.

  7. 7

    Does religion poison everything or is religion just another form of tribal and ideological identification that short circuits our ability to think rationally?

    What is the definition of “religion”? Does any “religion” poison everything? Do all religions do one or the other of these?

    (Note – I am not religious. I don’t believe in anything supernatural. I put this paragraph here because I have learned that, if I don’t, a post like this, posing these purely neutral questions, may generate intensely emotional, totally non-persuasive flame replies, attacking my presumed religion or “accommodation” highly similar to “you’re going to hell for questioning my religion” type replies one might get on a different forum. If you reply to this comment, please answer the questions above.)

  8. 8

    Smart people can talk themselves into a lot of things that aren’t true and sound very thoughtful and rational while they do it.

    Well, I know this smart person can and does certainly talk himself into a variety of irrational behaviors, and I usually dispense with the “thoughtful and rational” part, except maybe some post-hoc rationalization.

  9. 9

    None of us will ever be Mr. Spock

    Ah, but the whole point of Spock’s character was that he couldn’t be perfectly rational either. The human part of him was always in the mix too, and that was a Good Thing.

    I was made to realize this well over twenty years ago now. I was in a discussion with a friend about something or other, and, exasperated at how muddied my thinking was, wished I could be like Spock and be able to think with perfect logic. She pointed out to me that Spock couldn’t manage it either, although he wanted so badly to be able to. She was right.

  10. 10

    Should one listen to Dr X? Is he/she rational or irrational?
    :) Dingo

  11. 11

    I suspect we would take a huge step forward as a species if all children was taught just one additional fact about religion over and above what they normally learn:

    That the sincerely held religious beliefs of the vast majority of entire world’s population are almost entirely down to where they were born and what their parents believed.

    In other words, your conviction that Christianity, or Mormonism, or Islam, or Hinduism, or Shintoism, etc. is the one-true religion is almost certainly little more than an accident of birth.

    It’s an important lesson–it’s sobering to realize that you could have so easily had an entirely different religious worldview if the circumstances of your birth had been different, and while most are unlikely to rethink their own beliefs in the light of that knowledge, it might help them understand why others believe what they do, and that can only be a good thing.

  12. 12

    Spock always annoys me now. Rationality is NOT unemotional! The brain makes rules, and associations. What matter is how you apply the associations!

    Be more Basal Ganglia, less Limbic…

  13. 13
    Dr X

    Thanks, you are all too kind.

    Should one listen to Dr X? Is he/she rational or irrational? :) Dingo

    I am nuts like everyone else. What makes some officially nuts and others not officially nuts is secondary organization and management of the universal nuttiness.

    But I take heart. While this discussion illustrates the dangers of nuttiness, remember that the nutty core has adaptive qualities and, of interest to me in my work, it actually perceives many things more truthfully, while the hard, outer candy shell can turn reality on its head, all while managing to sound superficially sane. Listening to our inner nut can tell us things about ourselves and our social reality that the “sane” part has difficulty accepting.

  14. 14

    Harold asked: What is the definition of “religion”? Does any “religion” poison everything? Do all religions do one or the other of these?

    I answer as an anthropologist who studied religion and as a person who has “tried them all”. Regigion is a system of shared belief. Religion does not poison everything — only some belief systems do. When religion is used for purposes of control, by state or church, it is poisonous. Religion can also be used for good purposes. Bhuddism can be used for personal enlightenment and reverence for all living things. Hinduism can be used to encourage good works in life for good karma in the next life. Quakers can set up the American Friends Service Committee; make your own list.

    Those who use religion to harm others, or those who take advantage of religionists to make them frightened for political purposes are poisonous. Personally, as a non-beliver, I think politics is now more poisonous than religion — at least here in America.

  15. 15

    My beef with Religion is that it is simply a bad rationality filter. At least every religion that I have ever come across anyway.

    In my experience it’s the cognitive precursor to Philosophy. It fails because philosophies are only generated in a particular place at a particular time. They only have useful elements that are universializable. The rest is history and sociology.

    Logic, Rationality, and the Scientific Method are probably more than ideas. They are probably qualities that are amiable for fixation by natural selection.

    But I could be wrong.

  16. 16

    If humanity were rational we wouldn’t be having this discussion.

    Pant-hooting, crap-flinging chimps are still chimps even if they wear suits.

  17. 17

    Bobaho – on disposition vs. situation, Dr. X is either knowingly or unknowingly describing the fundamental attribution error, which we all make to more or less extent. We attribute our own (and our own tribe’s) success to internal traits such as skill, knowledge, foresight, moral backbone, whatever. We attribute our opponent’s (or opponent’s tribe’s) successes to external factors: they were born rich. They got lucky. They sucked up to the boss. With failures, its the reverse – my failures are bad luck, yours are due to incompetence. In reality, your successes are just as much a matter of luck as your opponents, and your failures just as much a matter of competence (or lack of it).

    I can probably show you your own fundamental attribution error with two simple questions about morals: would you steal, plunder, pillage, etc… if there were no police to stop you? Would most other people? If your answer to those two questions are “yes, no,” its probably because you are attributing your own moral behavior to internal traits while attributing most other people’s moral behavior to the presence of police. In reality, we all get our morality from a mix of both; YOU are MY “other who would steal” and I am YOUR “other who would steal.”

  18. 18

    Arg! Reversed the answers; the answers “no, yes,” are the most commond and show the fundamental attribution error. I doubt anyone sane ever answers “yes, no.” :)

  19. 19

    Excellent post/comment. I agree that having Michael Heath and Dr. X, along with the rest of the regulars makes this a fantastic blog.

    I’m reminded of a quote whose source I can’t recall — dim memory keeps saying Heinlein, but I doubt it: Man is not a rational animal, he is a rationalizing animal.

  20. 20

    Religion essentially uses threats to keep people believing.

    And the threats vary in nature.

    I’m frequently the only rational skeptic in a room full of the woo-addled “spiritual.” When they try to explain the difference between them and me, it often comes down to claims that I’m a “different kind” of person, or that I’m less spiritually evolved, or I’m blinded by ego, fear, or an arrogant desire to be right. People who believe have a different essential nature than those who don’t. They don’t like to say it, but … I’m not like them.

    I tell them I don’t think it’s really any of those things. When we go onto other topics, there’s no huge gulf. We have a lot of things in common and I doubt very much that somebody watching us do an unrelated task could pick me out as “not spiritual.”

    The bottom-line distinction between believers and skeptics is a particular area of education: human fallibility. Not just theirs, but mine and everyone’s. It is very, very easy to make mistakes — particularly when we are motivated to do so. Bias and prejudice distort our perceptions, recollections, and interpretations. I value science and reason because they help put brakes on the tendency to see what I want to see: you must seek out critics and ask “where is this wrong?” I trust a system that encourages self-doubt.

    The opposite of this skeptical approach is pretty much what they do, and explicitly advocate doing: trust your inner wisdom; try to believe in what attracts you; expect intuition to lead you to truth; rely on personal experience — and never let any critic rain on your parade and tell you you’re wrong. Surround yourself with support, and don’t read anything from ‘naysayers’ lest it will close your mind. Then …expect miracles and be open to ‘signs’ that the universe is on your side. What the skeptics call “motivated reasoning” is the desirable mindset what allows you to be guided by something Higher.

    It’s not just traditional heaven-and-hell religions which cut off questions and doubts. Even the loosey-goosey feel-good newagey faiths have a penalty for the nonbeliever and apostate: you have negative energy and a closed-mind. Dispassionate assessment of claims for truth is a sign that you lack the emotional chops to dare to believe.

    The thing is, it’s not that these folks are irrational across the board. They understand and value skepticism, recognizing the pitfalls of bias. They can be shrewd, scientific, and reasonable — in any area which doesn’t intersect (or which they think doesn’t intersect) with their “spiritual” beliefs. It’s like a boom comes down. Those beliefs cover a large territory, with borders that seem to be able to be stuck anywhere. And that territory apparently includes who is inside the tribe of the Enlightened — and who is low on the human hierarchy.

  21. 21

    I can’t be certain, but I strongly suspect the “believe or else” thing is a pretty modern development, not a fundamental part of religion. Was there ever a rule about being punished if you don’t believe in, say, Aphrodite? Manitou?

    And on the other hand, you can find the same mechanism in, say, some versions of Marxism, or in conspiracy theories.

    I want a word that describes these kinds of ideologies, where you have certain basic beliefs that you are not allowed to question. “Religion” doesn’t quite cut it. And it’s certainly not true for every ideology.

    In any case, with regard to using your reason to shore up what you already believe in, there’s still a major difference between those that will reconsider when given a good argument, and those that won’t. The latter state of mind I’m accustomed to seeing described as a “geschlossene Weltanschauung” or “geschlossenes Weldbild” (closed worldview – as in a mathematical set closed with regard to a certain operation). Those are the people who can explain anything – their worldview isn’t falsifiable. Seen from the outside, they provide a pretty good example what the point is of falsifiability. Unfortunately, the people who most need to understand this, cannot see it from the outside pretty much by definition.

    Hmm. I suspect you actually find both kinds of people in every ideology with enough members. But not always in the same proportions.

  22. 22

    I’m frequently the only rational skeptic in a room full of the woo-addled “spiritual.”

    Why is that?

  23. 23

    I dealt with this issue, but with a narrower and more specific focus, when I got my graduate degree in economics. I had my undergrad degree in both economics and psychology and tried to deal with the concept of “rational behavior” from an economic viewpoint. As anyone who’s taken Econ 101 knows, in order to make predictions about economies, economists use simplifying assumptions. One of the key one is that all actors in an economic transaction are “rational.” That includes having access to complete and accurate information on all topics (an impossibility in the real world). The simplifying assumptions work well to create solvable mathematic problems that can be used to grossly predict economic behaviors – and they work better with macroecnomics, where the sheer number of actors outweigh the indiosyncracies of individuals, than with microeconomics.

    The problem of course is that not all economic actors are “rational” in the economic sense and that inefficiencies and inadequacies in market forces if they are left to themselves. For instance, classical economics, with rational actors, predicts that racial discrimination cannot be a stable force in society. That is because rational employers who do not discriminate would end up with a better/more productive workforce and those that discriminate would be pushed out of the market by their more successful peers (and this process would happen relatively quickly). Yet discrimination prevails even now, although it is measurably lesser than in decades past. Why the dichotomy? Because the classical assumption of rationality does not reflect the reality of how people actually think and act, so it does not account for any attribution errors (e.g., as one professor noted, in the post-bellum south the concept of white supremacy did not die even though there were now free, black actors in the market. Why was this? Well, “unemployed and uneducated” was mistakenly attributed by the white population as “lazy and stupid,” which reinforced stereotypes rather than helping to destroy them.

    What I tried, and failed, to do with my econ work was to replace this simplified rationality with a more nuanced version of human thinking that took into account the intellectual shortcuts that humans have to use in order to process the amount of information to which we’re exposed (i.e., it is okay to stereotype when one is classifying all trucks, cars, buses, trains and planes as “vehicles,” while it fails miserably when assessing other humans).

    So, are humans rational? No, but does that imply that rationality is the best way to process information at all times? Maybe not. Humans are able to process enormous amounts of information and that is nothing at which to sneeze. So, is there a way to factor the actual intellectual shortcuts humans are programmed to use into our understanding of how to reduce the negative effects of those shortcuts?

  24. 24

    Should one listen to Dr X? Is he/she rational or irrational?

    Didn’t anyone tell you? He’s one of them. ;)

  25. 25

    It’s almost like the world is approaching a symbolic bottleneck. Folks willing consider the sources of information most likely to let the group survive will win out. I hope…

  26. 26
    Homo Straminus

    cptdoom@23: “What I tried, and failed, to do…”

    Your goal sounds pretty epic. What was your criteria for failure? Unable to prove the point? Disapproval of it? Change of focus?

    If, as it sounds by your comment, the role of irrationality in economics hasn’t been addressed, it’s a vital and intriguing concept that I hope receives attention soon.

  27. 27

    Cpt Doom –

    Behavioral finance/economics is becoming a fairly well developed field. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Behavioral_finance

    One of my personal beliefs is that ingrained heuristics that generate emotional urges, which were extremely useful during evolution, have an impact on financial behavior.

    For example, the simple heuristic “do what everyone else starts doing, especially if they’re doing it fast” has great value in any social species that experiences predation. When all the other monkeys are racing for the trees fast, you should, too.

    Another factor is that cognitive dissonance is often suppressed by doubling down on the original idea and jamming the doubts into denial territory (creationists are very good at this).

    Another thing is simply the human tendency to over-assume that recent trends will continue. It’s the Blade Runner version of predicting the future. Blade Runner is set in 2019, but there are no cell phones or personal computing devices, and there plenty of androids that feel emotions and can’t be distinguished from humans, moon colonies, and whatnot.

    During bubbles, especially the recent housing bubble, people entering the market at the peak of the bubble often feel a frenzied, emotional need to jump in (or dump) before it’s “too late”.

    However, dismissing all of this as purely “irrational” is not necessarily helpful. It’s a combination of incomplete information, valid heuristics, and emotional biases that themselves are often useful and were probably selected for.

  28. 28
    Dr X


    Knowingly, but my interest there was in the “there is more to it than that” because I think there is a strong interactional effect between actor-observor status and positive-negative valuation of an act. Specifically, the attribution pattern is flipped for positive versus negative actions. That from marital research on spousal attributions in stable v deteriorating marriages– a maddening challenge in couples therapy as behavior begins to change, but attributions lag. When the attributions change, you know they’re making positive headway.

  29. 29

    khms @21:

    I can’t be certain, but I strongly suspect the “believe or else” thing is a pretty modern development, not a fundamental part of religion

    I doubt its modern. While the code of Hammurabi has no religious procriptions, I bet a lot of other ancient laws do. Heck, the ten commandments arguably says ‘believe or else.’ And the gnostic variants of early christianity seem to have been, um, ‘disappeared with prejudice” in the second or third century AD.

  30. 30

    harold #22 wrote

    Why is that?

    About 10 years ago I was invited to join a new “Wild Women” tea group, composed of brave, daring feminists who aren’t afraid to think ‘outside the box’ and speak their minds! Turned out the rest were all commited “New Age” types with a horror of actual dissent.

    But… it’s a small town, they really are nice –and I pick up a lot. They talk about their views a great deal; I can really only talk about mine by stealth. But that’s a skill. I listen, learn, and practice.

    If I ask questions politely they will tell me things I did not think it possible for otherwise normal, intelligent people to believe — or profess. I think they think I’m tamed, and quite impressed. I suppose I might be impressed — horrified is more like it — but I am far, very far, from tamed.

  31. 31

    @ Harold 27
    I believe you.

    I have been doing a lot of Neurobiology reading lately and I think the mental ramifications of Epigenetics (sort of the more terrifying “Son of Genetics”) would suggest you could be right.

    The field is concentrating on the negatives since science has had a has a medical bias(fortunately), so the data all has to do with how the way we treat each other has detectable, physical impact on your DNA. I know that should sound like something from the depths of Planet Woo, but in this case all the words are involved with resarchable science.

    These are methylations and other describable chemical modifications to the DNA of specific genes that have real emotional impacts. At this point they are looking at genes from suicide victims and schizophrenics, and individuals suffering from depression. How long until they start looking at genes known to be used in intense financial situations?

    Wikipedia does not cover the really disturbing stuff but I would need Ed’s permission to post a link to the Review since it is pretty disturbing.

  32. 32

    eric –

    I doubt its modern. While the code of Hammurabi has no religious procriptions, I bet a lot of other ancient laws do.

    I’ll be guilty of massively generalizing here, but…the Old Testament, which may not be as old as the stuff that inspired it, emphasizes performing ritual sacrifices specifically the the Jewish God. It’s sometimes implied that other gods may exist, but that the Jewish God will punish Jews who sacrifice to the other gods. Some of the language implies that there may have been multiple Jewish Gods. It emphasizes performing the correct rituals, though.

    Polytheistic societies have often been tolerant of any religion. Some have demanded token adherence to a perfunctory “official” state religion, as a supplement to whatever you choose. It was never illegal to worship Jesus in ancient Rome. It was trendy in pagan Rome to worship Ancient Egyptian gods at one time. It was just very strongly encouraged that, whatever your personal favorite god, you also do some perfunctory genuflections to the emperor as some sort of god, broadly defined. On the other hand, the Mongol empire simply had total freedom of religion (this statement not a blanket defense of the Mongol empire).

    The idea that faith is required is mainly a Christian thing. It comes up in the Four Gospels, but really takes off with Paul. However, there’s no part of the Bible that suggests that faith is a license to sin.

    What we see in the US today is the post-modern, childish cult idea that “faith” is a get-out-of-jail free card. God is literally conceptualized as a powerful rich dad who loves you, hates everybody else, and who will always forgive anything you do.

  33. 33

    Joshua –

    None of that stuff surprises me.

    You start out as a single-celled zygote and if all goes well, you end up as an adult with an estimated ten trillion or so cells in your body, give or take an order of magnitude.

    You’ll sometimes see people say that there are “two hundred” types of cells in the human body, that’s extremely conservative and many cell types can do quite different things at different times.

    Different cells doing different things express different proteins. They also potentially express other things that are different, but in modern cells the synthesis of other things is nearly always catalyzed by specific enzymes, which are proteins (not to exclude that RNA might have undiscovered roles, etc).

    So different rates of expression of genes has a massive amount to do with what makes cells different from other cells and what makes them do different things at different times.

    Emotions aren’t magic, they result from interactions between some types of brain cells with each other, with the cells of the endocrine system, etc.

    What we call epigenetics is, to a large degree, related to which genes are expressed in which cells.

  34. 34

    Sastra said –

    About 10 years ago I was invited to join a new “Wild Women” tea group, composed of brave, daring feminists who aren’t afraid to think ‘outside the box’ and speak their minds! Turned out the rest were all commited “New Age” types with a horror of actual dissent.

    A constant meme in US society is that being “wild” and “rebellious” means conforming to a group identity, just a group identity that’s somewhat different from a hypothetical “default American” identity. If anything, sometimes it seems that “rebellious” groups can be more internally conformist than other groups.

    A lot of nice people are into superstition in a harmless way. I remember meeting a nice young woman whose mother was a nurse. She discussed her intense belief in ghosts, which apparently her mother claims to see in the hospital. I just told her that I never see any ghosts; either there aren’t any, or they leave me alone and I leave them alone.

  35. 35
    Dr X


    What we see in the US today is the post-modern, childish cult idea that “faith” is a get-out-of-jail free card. God is literally conceptualized as a powerful rich dad who loves you, hates everybody else, and who will always forgive anything you do.

    The appeal of this is obvious, but could it also be that this is an extension of the reformist movement to disempower the Roman Church which owned the rituals and tyrannized with its self-proclaimed authority over the forgiveness of sins as agent/proxies for God? In this sense, the get out of jail free card could be said to be a bit more than God as rich Dad. More like refusing to grant power to a corrupt Rich Daddy Catholic Church. But, of course, there is no free lunch, even when people insist it’s free, and solutions create their own new problems.

    The thing that’s interesting to me is that the Catholic, and especially, the Jewish versions of the vicissitudes of guilt correspond more closely to the primitive psychological reality. For the Jews, sin was expiated through projective identification: scapegoats took in the sin, where it could literally be destroyed (jesus is this sort of psychic scapegoat for christians) with less damage to real human beings, the sinners. Sin was also seen as something requiring atonement, a punishment to reset the moral balance, which is consistent with the talion principle.

    Here’s my all-time favorite, spontaneously arising, one-off, modern ritual expiation. It also explains the psychology of Catholic Communion and a bit about core heuristics that look nutty but served a purpose. In this true story, killing and eating a baseball was more humane than murdering a baseball fan.

    The idea of expiation without ongoing scapegoats, and without punishment/atonement and moral rebalancing, is in some sense progressive, if you think about it. First, though, the idea of an eye for an eye, might seem harsh, but seen in light of normal retaliatory human tendencies, it represents a civilizing restraint. It only seems harsh if we’re influenced by the “get out of jail free” modern Christian moral perspective or similar moral sensibilities (with other origins) that defy our more primitive inclinations. The idea of turning the other cheek, goes one further in the sense that it says that human beings are best when they don’t exact punishment to reset the scales. Obviously, if lived by everyone, a lot of needless suffering could be dispensed with, of course that ain’t happening.

    I think the idea of God-forgiveness without punishment is supposed to inspire the same between people in dealing with one another, which isn’t, IMO, so childish. It actually requires maturity, broader perspective and compassion.

    The problem is that maturity and broader perspective rarely accompany the g-o-o-j-f belief. The modern Christian prescription itself isn’t so bad, but it’s impotent without psychological insight into the unconscious vicissitudes of guilt.

    I find it fascinating that the more manifestly in favor of get-of-out-of-jail-free the religious conviction, the more punitive and unforgiving the religion seems to be in practice. Finite, defined punishment, can have an emotionally settling quality–it can restore inner equilibrium. Those who are loudest to proclaim scotfree forgiveness, without appreciating the deeper psychological ramifications of their position, can be left with gnawing, building desire for vengeance and gnawing needs to exact vengeance. So the loudest faith nullifies sin people seem to be the most about threatening and punishing every damn real and imaginary infraction.

  36. 36
    Dr X

    Last sentence at 35 should read:

    “So the loudest faith-nullifies-sin people seem to be the most into threatening and punishing every damn real and imaginary infraction.”

  37. 37

    There are just one or two points in Ed’s objections that I believe need responding to.

    First with the idea that religions are more damaging because they promote the idea that they are from the divine, there is a certain problem with that. While most of the major religions may contain that message most adherents don’t exactly follow it, if they did then the religions would be far more monolithic. There would be far fewer sects and denominations and hence much less diversity within the religions. So while they may have that idea of unquestionable revelation it’s not born out in practice. This is especially true when you consider the fact that the more liberal sects and denominations allow a certain level of scepticism.

    More importantly however, there is a certain utility to this idea of unquestionable revelation, and it has to do with signalling. One of the purposes of beliefs and doctrines is that they serve as a means to signalling group association. A person who talks in depth about the divinity of Jesus, the son of god, and the trinity will be communicating or signalling their association to the Christian community. But to question that doctrine will be signalling to others within the Christian community that they don’t share the same identity and hence don’t belong to the same social group. So the idea that the doctrine is divinely inspired and immutable is meant to maintain commitment to the community and dissuade betrayal. Something that I don’t think is all that unreasonable.

    The last point, and this leads on from my second paragraph, is that it may seem harsh punish someone for not believing, but it’s necessary. When that belief forms an important part of the identity, association and social order of the community, any break from it is seen as disruptive and deserving of punishment from within the community. No one is immune from it either. Whatever social grouping a person belongs to, there is some level of punishment exercised against those who challenge the doctrine and hence the community. It should be noted that it depends on the attitude within the community towards internal challenges that determines the severity of the punishment. There are some religious communities where scepticism is encouraged and greater freedom of individual thought is welcomed, and not punished.

  38. 38
    Dr X


    Related to your observations, philosopher-analyst Levi Bryant’s comments on the New Atheists’ focus on beliefs over the relational dimensions of religion is, I think, relevant.


  39. 39

    @khms #21

    I want a word that describes these kinds of ideologies, where you have certain basic beliefs that you are not allowed to question.


  40. 40

    Interesting article in the New Yorker regarding cognitive bias.


  41. 41

    khms (#21) – ‘doctrinaire’?
    As to enforced belief as being recent, consider:

    Exodus 20
    3 Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
    4 Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.
    5 Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me;
    6 And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.

  42. 42
    StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return!

    Question in the title here :Are Humans Really Rational Creatures?

    Answer : Nope.

  43. 43
    StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return!

    @18. eric:

    Arg! Reversed the answers; the answers “no, yes,” are the most commond and show the fundamental attribution error. I doubt anyone sane ever answers “yes, no.” :)

    Actually for quite a while saying “yeah, nah, … ” was a consistent verbal tic especially amongst Aussie sportspeople & bogans.

    A meaningless filler roughly equivilent to “um, er, well ..”

    And, well, I’ll admit to saying that sort of thing on occassion myself. (Shrugs.)

  44. 44

    “Cpt Doom –”

    Hey, if Rick Warren or oneathem other megasheps reads up on behavioral finance/economics and crosses it with his own brand of snakeoilsmanship, I can see a new bumper sticker for the “Prosperity Gospel” crowd:


    The answer, curiously enough, something Rick W. touts.

    “For example, the simple heuristic “do what everyone else starts doing, especially if they’re doing it fast” has great value in any social species that experiences predation. When all the other monkeys are racing for the trees fast, you should, too.”

    You only have to be faster than ONE of the other monkeys.

    “”During bubbles, especially the recent housing bubble, people entering the market at the peak of the bubble often feel a frenzied, emotional need to jump in (or dump) before it’s “too late”.”

    * What Is JESUS Buying Now?

  45. 45

    A great followup up to “Mistakes Were Made” would be “On Being Certain” by Robert A Burton. Burton is a neurologist who explores how the feeling of certainty works in the human mind and brain. The feeling of certainty is just that, a feeling, something like an emotion. It has very little to do with actual knowledge and can arise after any number of mental shortcuts and heuristics have been used. Having the certain feeling that something is true has very little bearing on whether anything actually is true. In fact, many forms of religious experience could very well be strongly triggered feelings of knowing without any associated information content. The fact that your “knowing” neurons are firing has little bearing on your oneness with the universe, no matter how it makes you feel.

    (Burton makes one blunder in the book where he misreads a Dawkins quote, but don’t let that spoil an otherwise excellent book.)

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