PZ Answers Silly Article


When I read this article at Salon.com by Jesse Bering, I almost laughed out loud. Bering, who declares himself an atheist, nonetheless says that we shouldn’t trust atheists and, when faced with doing business with an overtly religious person and one that fails to show conspicuous signs of religious belief, we should go with the former. He offers this anecdote:

So now that I’ve come out of the atheistic closet, entirely undressed, how can I possibly say that I trust those who believe in God more than those whom I’d otherwise consider to be sympathetic and like-minded thinkers? Well, trustworthiness is a different thing altogether from intellect, and I suppose I’m ever the social pragmatist in my dealings with other people.

Take, for example, a situation I found myself in outside a rail station in an Irish seaside town years ago. My luggage in hand, the cold gray sky windy and threatening rain, I was confronted with two taxis at the curb waiting for passengers. One of the cars had a crucifix dangling from the rearview mirror and a dog-eared copy of the Bible on prominent display on the console.

The other taxi showed no trace of any religious icons. Now, all else being equal, which of these two taxis would you choose, considering also that you’re trying to avoid being overcharged, a practice for which this part of the country is notorious — and that being an American during the “W.” administration, I might add, elevates you one step above our forty-third president in respectability? Both drivers are in all probability devout Catholics — this is Ireland, after all. Still, there’s no way to know for certain.

Unless you’re trying to make a point about how “atheists are good people too” or you happen to despise the Catholic Church, it’s really a no-brainer: Go with God. Why is this so obvious? As the political scientist Dominic Johnson has argued, “If supernatural punishment is held as a belief, then this threat becomes a deterrent in reality, so the mechanism can work regardless of whether the threat is genuine or not.” In other words, from a psychological perspective, the ontological question of God’s actual existence is completely irrelevant; all that really matters in the above case is that the taxi driver is fully convinced that God doesn’t like it when he cheats his passengers.

Yes, your jaw should be agape at this point, staring at the screen in at least mild disbelief. He tries to justify this all with studies that apparently show that people are more likely to be honest if they’re surrounded by reminders that God is watching them:

A number of studies have offered empirical support for this supernatural monitoring hypothesis. This is a term coined by Ara Norenzayan, who in multiple studies has found that when participants are implicitly primed with God-related words (“spirit,” “divine,” “sacred” and so on), they become both more “prosocial” and less antisocial. By contrast with nonreligious or neutral words, people who see such religious words, for example, donate more money to a charity after completing a word-scramble task in which they cobble the words together into some coherent sentence. Although he and his collaborator Azim Shariff favored the interpretation that participants behaved more altruistically in the religious condition because the religious words reminded them that God was watching and therefore judging them, Norenzayan had always been cautious not to conclude prematurely that this was caused simply by concerns about heavenly spying. It’s also possible, of course, that these religious words simply activated related social concepts such as “benevolence” and “good deeds,” priming altruistic decision making independent of worrying about God’s fretful glares.

More recent work, however, has allowed Norenzayan to put those concerns to rest. Getting people to think about God — even unconsciously and even, interestingly enough, among nonbelievers — indeed triggers very specific reasoning about their being the targets of someone’s visual attention. Norenzayan and Will Gervais found that this basic effect of religious words making people feel visually exposed panned out across a variety of experimental conditions. In one study, for instance, the investigators used the same implicit God-priming method as before, assigning either a religious or a nonreligious word-scrambling task to believers and atheists. The participants then completed something called the Situational Self-Awareness Scale, and, remarkably, regardless of their explicit belief or disbelief in God, all those who’d been exposed unconsciously to the religious words — but not to the neutral words — showed a spike in their public self-awareness. That is to say, they became significantly more cognizant and concerned about the transparency of their social behaviors from an audience’s point of view.

Furthermore, in a follow-up experiment, Norenzayan and Gervais reasoned that “when people feel that their behavior is being monitored … they tend to cast themselves in a positive light.” This led them to hypothesize that reminders about God would not simply increase self-awareness but also encourage socially desirable responses. Participants’ responses to statements such as “I am sometimes irritated by people who ask favors of me” and “No matter who I’m talking to, I’m always a good listener” should reflect their beliefs about what God wants to hear, not the truth about these unrealistically positive social attributes. In this study, however, the only people who produced socially desirable responses to the implicit God primes were those who actually believed in God. This means that while nonbelievers might feel “exposed” in the wake of receiving implicit God primes, just like believers, this feeling doesn’t influence how atheists attempt to portray themselves socially.

From this weak premise, he concludes that it’s a “no-brainer” to always opt to do business with someone who makes conspicuous their belief in God. What I didn’t know when I read this is that PZ Myers had written a response to it, and it’s a pretty devastating one.

I read Bering’s anecdote completely differently, because I’m more likely to pay attention to the forest than the trees. He says right out that this region has a reputation for overcharging; it’s also a small town in Ireland, so I can safely assume that it is almost entirely Irish Catholic, and finding an atheist cabdriver would be an outlier. So I would immediately infer that being religious and overcharging customers are not mutually incompatible — and that if a behavior is the norm, you are not protected from it by associating with people who conform to other norms.

There’s also the obvious fact that religious people are not less prone to break the law or cheat. We don’t see an obvious correlation between religiosity and criminality (well, the correlation is there, but it goes the wrong way for Bering’s hypothesis, and I’m not going to go there because the causality is complex, and I do not believe that religion makes people bad). We can see an inarguable tendency for religion to cause people to check their behavior in the short term, but in the long term… human beings are really, really good at rationalizing all kinds of objectionable behavior. It seems likely to me that these small town Irish taxi drivers with a reputation for overcharging have almost certainly developed their own justifications for it — their passengers are foreigners, or too rich for their own good, or perhaps wicked godless psychologists from the big city here to corrupt the youth, and therefore deserving of a little extra billing — and that these rationalizations would not be consequences of their faith or lack thereof.

So maybe I should go with the godless cabbie (setting aside the faux pas of jumping the queue)? No, wait, there’s another problem here. Dangling a crucifix from the mirror is a cheap signal; it may also be an unnecessary signal in an area where Catholicism is taken for granted. We Americans may be accustomed to obnoxious religious people wearing their faith prominently on their sleeve, but it’s not universal — most religious people have no desire to constantly trumpet their beliefs at others. So I know absolutely nothing about the religious preferences of either driver. Basing a decision on potentially misleading cues, and on a false presumption that religious taxi drivers are more trustworthy, is pointless. Just get in the first cab and be done with it…

But let’s return to the example of our Irish taxi drivers, upon whom we’re also busily imposing our own biases about their motivations. Let’s complicate it some more. What if one of these godless taxi drivers was also a fan of Jesse Bering’s evolutionary psychology writings, and having read his latest, was placing a Bible and crucifix in his taxi specifically to fool the rubes? These could be deceptive signals!

I think the real lesson here is clear. When choosing a taxi, be sure to quiz them on basic psychology, and avoid the ones that understand the concepts at a simplistic level. I’m not worried about getting into a taxi with either a Catholic or an atheist, but the thought of being taken for a ride by a pop psychologist terrifies me — you never know what glib bill of sale you’ll be given.

In fact, we have more than enough examples of the conspicuously religious fleecing their followers and committing fraud on massive scales to know what the signals upon which Bering relies in his hypothetical world do not necessarily apply in the real world. This is pure bunk, from stem to stern.

Comments

  1. says

    Usually when I am choosing a taxi, I look to see if the tires are showing thread, if there are pieces about to fall off, or giant smash and scrape marks on the body. I’m more concerned about whether the driver is safe, than whether the driver is going to try to rip me off.

  2. says

    (Although this makes me think how fun it would be to be a taxi driver and make a little fake shrine to satan in the glovebox. For the passengers who care about such things. “I’m driving especially well today because I sacrificed 2 catholic nuns last night!”)

  3. says

    …considering also that you’re trying to avoid being overcharged, a practice for which this part of the country is notorious…

    “Overcharged” by what measure, exactly? I’m sure those cabbies, theist and atheist alike, have a different idea from his as to what that word means. Does he actually think cab rates are a moral issue on which religious beliefs have any real ijpact? Or is he looking for an obedient sheep who won’t have the unmitigated gall to stand up for his own interests?

    One thing is certain: the more this article is publicized, the more sales of tacky religious knicknacks will spike — just like those “baby on board” signs that made such a huge difference on driving habits in the ’80s.

  4. birgerjohansson says

    Marcus ranum,
    You remind me of the taxi driver in “Top Ten” ;-)
    Also, the same graphic novel had a Yazidian superhero, who nominally worshipped Satan.

  5. says

    The Amazon blurb about the book from which this rubbish is taken doesn’t exactly make it sound like a serious attempt to inform. It’s more like a compendium of “fun facts” that may (or may not) be complete, properly presented and explained, and/or understood in their proper context. In this case, the author is clearly showing nothing but his own prejudice, with a few lame “studies” thrown in for cred. (And there’s no verification of how trustworthy those cabbies he babbled about really were, so his prejudice was totally untested.)

  6. thalwen says

    I don’t think I want a taxi driver whose only reason for not cheating me is punishment from a sky fairy. I’d prefer one that thinks cheating people is like.. actually wrong.

    Also, the more religious crap in a cab the bigger chance that the driver will have some right-wing crap playing on the radio.

  7. says

    As the political scientist Dominic Johnson has argued, “If supernatural punishment is held as a belief, then this threat becomes a deterrent in reality, so the mechanism can work regardless of whether the threat is genuine or not.”

    Except in the eyes of many (if not most) believers, supernatural punishment is something reserved for other people. Thanks to the Lake Wobegon effect, everyone thinks their moral fiber is above average. Relatively few people think that they’re the ones who are going to hell.

  8. says

    Ugh, self-hating atheists. What have we done to deserve this plague? Oh wait–God doesn’t exist; there must be some other reason. But they are a plague.

  9. eric says

    The other taxi showed no trace of any religious icons. Now, all else being equal, which of these two taxis would you choose

    The ‘no trace’ taxi. I agree that, as he says, both drivers are likely Catholic. On overcharging, there really any relevant information in this picture – its a coin flip, because AFAIK no studies have ever shown that greater religiosity correlates with more law-abiding behavior (AFAIK they don’t show the reverse, either).

    But I DO care about a pleasant ride where I am not bothered by the driver, and where I don’t have to listen to religious crap on the radio. I very rationally expect that the with-icons driver is more likely to listen to religious stuff and try and engage me in religious conversation than the no-icon driver.

    Now, to be fair to icon-owning taxi drivers, I’d make the same judgement if it were a Limbaugh bobblehead-containing taxi vs. no-bobblehead taxi, for exactly the same reason; I don’t want listen to him on the radio or have a taxi driver that wants to talk politics with me, either.

  10. John Hinkle says

    I worked with a back-stabbing liar who was, among his other charming traits, stealing from the company. He was overtly and annoyingly Christian.
     
    At another job I worked with a pathological liar who almost cost me the job. He spread rumors about me (a contractor) and an admin (employee). My contractor management wanted not even a hint of impropriety, since this gig was big money for, well, everyone but me, evidently. So I had to defend myself, since the rumors were all over the place. Anyway, pathological liar exhibited no religious characteristics whatsoever. He may have been an atheist, who knows.
     
    So, there you have it. Anecdotal, sample size of two.

  11. says

    Except in the eyes of many (if not most) believers, supernatural punishment is something reserved for other people. Thanks to the Lake Wobegon effect, everyone thinks their moral fiber is above average. Relatively few people think that they’re the ones who are going to hell.

    I think there’s some evidence that many folks in the Middle Ages thought both that a majority of humankind were going to wind up roasting with the goats AND that their individual chances weren’t terrific. Such a belief probably had an unintended “Why the Hell not then?” effect.

  12. AsqJames says

    They’re clearly both wrong. If the last few years have shown us anything it’s that free markets are the only way to establish a fair price for goods and services. Thus the correct way to choose a taxi is to hire Goldman Sachs, Barclays, or some other reputable financial institution to set up an auction on your behalf. The bank will invite bids from all the available cabbies, select the lowest one, add their modest percentage and you can ride to your destination with the satisfaction of knowing you got the best deal.

  13. says

    I like Mano Singham’s response:

    While I agree with PZ in his criticisms of Bering’s arguments, I have to disagree with him on his choice of which cab to take on grounds that have nothing to do with religion. Doesn’t PZ read or watch any spy fiction? If he did, he would know that you never take the first cab because those always contain the bad guys who are planning to kidnap you. You must always let a few cabs go by before getting into one.

  14. matty1 says

    Drivers expect you to take the first cab in the queue and in my experience if you try to get in a cab further back they will just point you to the front.

  15. Jeremy Shaffer says

    The idea that it is best to do business with someone that makes their religious or theistic beliefs known is simply absurd in my experience. That is unless, as my experience suggests, your intended goal is to be overcharged for sub rate service/ product or to support dirty business practices. I’m sure there are honest business people that are religious but I’d imagine that they can let their work speak for them and don’t need to let people know about their religious beliefs.

  16. d cwilson says

    #17: Well, she calls herself a political analyst. I have yet to see her put together a coherent analysis, so I have my doubts.

  17. dogmeat says

    My experience is purely anecdotal, but while working with contractors on both our home project and for my mother’s rental properties, a quick and rather accurate rule of thumb was:

    “the more overtly religious the contractor, the bigger the crook.”

    I don’t know if this holds true for other professions, but we were pretty much dead on when it came to contractors.

    ‘Bee @5: The method dishonest cab drivers use to overcharge you is most commonly referred to as “taking you for a ride.”. They go miles out of their way to rack up a higher fair. Guy I knew in the Navy had 112 mile cab ride in Hawaii (Oahu is only about 35 mile at it’s widest.). He was only going from Honolulu to Pearl Harbor, about 1/5 that distance. We joked about the cabby taking him to see the sea turtles on the north shore “on his way to Pearl.”

  18. ArtK says

    A perfect example of why atheist isn’t the same thing as rationalist. Nothing like an unwarranted assumpion based on trivial “evidence”.

  19. caseloweraz says

    “The other taxi showed no trace of any religious icons.”

    Does not the Bible admonish believers to pray in private? I agree that both cabbies are likely Catholics. But I would go with the one who doesn’t wear his religion on his sleeve, so to speak (even if I had to wait in the rain for the first to find another fare.)

  20. nickcharles says

    Nora and I often laze away the weekends sipping wine and ale and enjoying (if you can call it that) cheesy true crime stories on TruTV or A&E, usually hosted by Dominick Dunne or some other scandalmonger. If I chugged a bottle every time the phrase “devout Christian” or “avid church-goer” was used to describe the killer or swindler on the screen, I could polish off a six pack in no time at all. Every installment always seems to include some baffled yahoo who just can’t believe Pastor MacGuffin was capable of conning his parishioners or murdering his mistress and dividing her body parts between three duffel bags. I guess you can count Jesse Bering amongst the rubes.

  21. raven says

    The idea that it is best to do business with someone that makes their religious or theistic beliefs known is simply absurd in my experience.

    I avoid them whenever possible unless they are the only ones or I know differently that they are both a xian and competent and honest. Which can occur amazingly enough.

    We used to have something called the xian yellow pages out here, listing “xian” businesses. I thought is was very helpful knowing who not to patronize. There weren’t very many listed and it hasn’t appeared for years now.

  22. raven says

    AS noted above, xian affinity group scams are common and we read about them constantly.

    There are whole armies of people making their big money off of pandering to and defrauding xians.

    A few recent examples would be the Ken Ham gang and their creation museum and attempted multi-tens of milions of dollars Ark Theme Park. Ham is paid very well and probably far more in perks and deferred pay than is publicly disclosed.

    Or the Crouches of TBN, who have converted tens of millions to their own use.

    Benny Hinn the faith healer who is very wealthy off of it. Pat Robertson, the rumored to be billionaire who says it is because god likes him.

  23. jolo5309 says

    @Marcus Ranum

    Usually when I am choosing a taxi, I look to see if the tires are showing thread, if there are pieces about to fall off, or giant smash and scrape marks on the body.

    Never take a cab in Cuba, they are all Lada’s & Moskvitch’s, and many of them look like that.

    On the religious bit, apparently Mr Bering has never realised that it is ok for the religious to mislead others, has he never heard of “Lying for Jesus”?

  24. d cwilson says

    “the more overtly religious the contractor, the bigger the crook.”

    “The louder he talked of his honor, the faster we counted our spoons.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

  25. says

    Drivers expect you to take the first cab in the queue…

    That’s pretty much the law at busy taxi-ranks like NYC Penn Station. Elsewhere it’s probably considered fairness, good manners, and a good way to prevent cabbies from getting into too many fights over who is whose fare. IF people start to regularly stall about and choose which of the available taxis they like best, then the process will become a bollixed-up nightmare for everyone involved. All of which just makes this guy’s prejudice-based recommendation even stupider.

  26. kermit. says

    I would happily pay a premium if I could thereby avoid hearing either religious programming or Rush and his ilk.

  27. ambera says

    My mom has the opposite policy. She rents apartments and anyone who mentions what a good Christian they are immediately has a strike against them for getting the apartment because, in her experience, the more vocally religious someone is, the more likely they are to be a deadbeat. Note that my mom is not by any stretch an atheist.

  28. Infophile says

    A number of studies have offered empirical support for this supernatural monitoring hypothesis. This is a term coined by Ara Norenzayan, who in multiple studies has found that when participants are implicitly primed with God-related words (“spirit,” “divine,” “sacred” and so on), they become both more “prosocial” and less antisocial.

    I could also point to studies showing that when people consider themselves to be good (such by, oh, I don’t know, displaying their religion all over the place as a constant reminder) they’re more likely to be dishonest than people who consider themselves bad. It’s as if our consciences aren’t concerned with doing good so much as doing enough good for the day, after which point, screw it, MINE! If someone’s religion convinces them that they’re already good (or worse, that behavior such as proselytizing or donating to a church is good), they’ll have less of a moral budget left for doing actual good things.

    Perhaps the supernatural monitor effect counteracts this to some extent, but it’s hardly as simple as this article makes it appear.

  29. says

    Disagree with Bering all you want– I do– but at least get his position right, people. He didn’t say that the pious are more virtuous in general. He didn’t say that believing in God makes you a better person than not believing in God. He said that being reminded of theological concepts makes believers behave better. This is supported by the studies he cites.

    The primary problem, as I see it, is that he’s assuming that a cross dangling from the rearview mirror functions to prime (priming: to evoke thoughts on a certain topic) a taxi driver as a theological symptom and prompt him/her to behave more ethically. I don’t think this is the case, or at least it’s not supported by evidence from Norenzayan and Sharif’s and Norenzayan and Gervais’ studies, because those studies involved non-habitual exposure to theological words and symbols. If the supposed prime is something you see every day, I don’t think it’s likely to have anything like the same effect.

    Some other relevant facts:

    1. Bering is an atheist. This is beyond dispute to anyone who has actually read his papers or books.

    2. Bering enjoys being provocative, which you know if you read his column for Scientific American, “Bering in Mind.” Usually on sexual topics, but occasionally on religion too. He has provoked theists, and it doesn’t surprise me at all to see him provoking atheists.

    3. PZ hates Jesse Bering– not because Bering is a “pop psychologist” (which makes him sound like he either lacks a PhD or got one off a Cracker Jack box, neither of which are true) but because he’s an evolutionary psychologist, and PZ hates all things evolutionary psychology.

  30. raven says

    3. PZ hates Jesse Bering– not because Bering is a “pop psychologist” (which makes him sound like he either lacks a PhD or got one off a Cracker Jack box, neither of which are true) but because he’s an evolutionary psychologist, and PZ hates all things evolutionary psychology.

    Well that is good to know.

    Evo psych is just Sociobiology with a new name.

    I don’t trust it either. A lot of it is pick your conclusion and work backwards pseudoscience.

  31. says

    Evolutionary psychology deniers = people who are content to believe that every part of an animal evolved except the brain.

  32. Midnight Rambler says

    Evolutionary psychology = concocting stories about how modern Americans’ behavior might have evolved from that of apes, while ignoring how people act elsewhere.

  33. dexitroboper says

    William S. Burroughs: “Never do business with a religious son-of-a-bitch. His word ain’t worth a shit — not with the Good Lord telling him how to fuck you on the deal.”

  34. says

    Midnight Rambler,

    1. We are apes.

    2. Stop taking your full understanding of EP fromPsychology Today. It’s a crap magazine.

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