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Religion and the Just World Fallacy

Harebrained speculation time!

I’ve been reading a little bit about a cognitive bias I hadn’t heard of before — the Just World Hypothesis, or the Just World Fallacy. It came up several times in the conversations about sexual harassment and victim-blaming — but it occurs to me that it may shed some light on religion, and why people believe in it.

In a very quick, over-simplified nutshell: This hypothesis asserts that human beings have a cognitive bias. We are prone to thinking that the world is fair, and that people get what they deserve — both good and bad. So if bad things happen to someone, we’re unconsciously inclined to think that it’s the consequences of their bad character or bad past behavior. Similarly, when good things happen to someone, we’re unconsciously biased towards thinking that they earned it. Studies show that our opinion of other people goes up when good things happen to them, and goes down when bad things happen to them — even when those events are entirely random. The obvious form that this bias takes is blaming the victims for crimes or disaster or illness — but it takes other forms as well, such as assuming that rich or privileged people have earned their wealth and privilege.

There are apparently a number of theories as to why we would have this cognitive bias. This bias may support our tendency to see the world in terms of agency, things being caused intentionally, rather than random chance. It may make it easier for us to see ourselves as having agency, and thus make us more likely to take action in our own lives. It may help us resolve our own guilt / cognitive dissonance if we think we share some responsibility for the harm being done — such as buying products produced by exploited and abused laborers — or the guilt / cognitive dissonance we may experience if we feel that we ought to intervene in the harm, but are choosing not to. (There are probably other theories about the reasons behind this bias as well: I’m not an expert in psychology, and I just found out about this thing the other day.)

So what does all this have to do with religion?

I bet you see where I’m going with this.

A question that often gets asked of atheists — and that atheists often ask of ourselves — is, “If religion isn’t true, why do most people believe it?” This is obviously a terrible argument for religion: for centuries, most people believed that illness was caused by demons and the Sun revolved around the Earth, and that didn’t make it true. But it’s still a question worth asking… especially for those of us who are trying to persuade people out of this incorrect belief. I personally think the answer is complex and multi-factorial — but I definitely think human cognitive biases are strong among those factors. Examples: Our bias towards seeing intention, even where no intention exists. Our bias towards seeing pattern, even where no pattern exists. Our bias towards believing what we already believe, and towards paying more attention to evidence that supports those beliefs while ignoring evidence that contradicts them. Our bias towards believing what we most want to believe. Our bias towards believing what we were taught as young children. Our bias towards believing what we’re told by authority figures. Our bias towards believing what other people around us believe. Etc.

And it occurs to me that this cognitive bias towards believing that the world is just could very likely be another of the cognitive biases that leads people to believing in religion.

If we’re biased towards believing in a just world, where bad behavior is punished and good behavior is rewarded — this supports religion in a couple of ways. First: Religion provides an imaginary mechanism through which this supposed justice supposedly happens. If you don’t believe in the supernatural, what other explanation can you give for how famine and drought just happened to hit those lazy jerks who most deserved it?

Second, and I think even more importantly: Religion lets people continue to believe that justice is being done… even when it conspicuously is not. Specifically, a belief in the afterlife lets people believe that justice will eventually be done, even when it’s conspicuously not… and that the only reason we don’t see it happening is that it’s going to happen later on, after we die, brought on by the hand of an invisible being or force, in an invisible world that will last forever. And because this invisible being or force is supposedly perfect and knows everything, and because the invisible world supposedly lasts forever, the invisible justice will trump any injustice that happens in the world around us.

A few years ago, a friend told me that she had just become an atheist — and she said that for her, the hardest thing about atheism was letting go of her belief in Hell. At first I was startled by this: to me, the doctrine of Hell is appalling and hideous on the face of it, and I found it hard to imagine that letting go of it would be anything other than a relief. But when I thought about it for a bit, I could see what she meant. I hate the thought of horribly wicked people living, and flourishing, and eventually dying just like everyone else, without ever suffering consequences for their wickedness. When Ken Lay died, it drove me nuts that he just died of a heart attack before we could throw his ass in prison. It reminds of something Julia Sweeney said in Letting God of God:

Then I thought, “Wait a minute, so Hitler, Hitler just… died? No one sat him down and said, ‘You fucked up, buddy?’ And now you’re going to spend an eternity in HELL!’ So Hitler just died.”

Yes. It can be hard to accept that the world isn’t just. It can be hard to accept that good things happen to bad people, and then they just die like everyone else. It can be hard to accept that bad things happen to good people — either at the hands of bad people, or just because of random chance.

But then I think of the next thing Julia Sweeney said:

I thought, “We better make sure that doesn’t happen again.”

If the world is not always just, I don’t want to deceive myself into thinking that it is. Mostly because it isn’t true, and I care whether the things I believe are true. But if the world is not always just, I want to take what action I can to make it more just. I don’t want to be complacent, and convince myself that God or karma or whatever is going to make it all magically balance it out in the end.

If there is any justice at all in the world, it happens because of people. I want to be part of it.

Comments

  1. Brad says

    YES.

    To me, this was the most profound part of Julia Sweeney’s excellent work, when she realized not just the personal or social implications of there being no God, but how radically that changes how we should think and behave in the world, especially with regard to these kinds of issues.

    Social justice, criminal justice, corporate responsibility, care for the environment, the poor, sick, and dying: so many of these issues are so easily brushed aside with religious excuses about how in heaven “He will wipe away all tears” or that all of us facing our “final judgement” or that we are “in the end times”.

    Not that discarding religion makes those profound problems facing humanity any easier to get our mind around, but at least our opinion of those issues isn’t clouded by religous delusion.

  2. gillyc says

    As Terry Pratchett had Death say: “There is no justice. There is just us.”

  3. Leo says

    I’m not so sure, in general, that people have trouble letting go of belief in Hell based on the Just World Hypothesis. From the stories (yes, this means I’m working off of anecdotes and not any good evidence) I hear from such deconverts, it is fear of Hell that makes it hard to let go.

    The Just World Hypothesis, though, could explain why people don’t find the concept of Hell to be hideous.

  4. says

    I’ve never seen the justice that’s apparently inherent in the religious view. Even leaving aside the infinite punishment for finite crimes problem, I don’t see how a god who not only allows sin but creates it, and then punishes people for having the sin that he creates, can be considered to be dispensing anything approaching justice.

  5. joseph8th says

    As usual — clear, concise, and cuts to the quick. You, Greta, are one HELL of a writer. :)

    The point you make about Hell is a really good one. For me, it was the first domino to fall, but I can certainly see why it might be the last.

    As as you point out, it falls on non-believers to do the right thing and seek justice in this life. It’s OUR job, not god(s)’s.

  6. says

    I’m just surprised that this is the first you’ve come across the Just World idea, even if informally. Or maybe you have, and just didn’t identify it as such? It is a huge part of the resistance people have to social justice, because they believe that other people’s suffering IS justice.

  7. 'Tis Himself says

    The concept of the Just World is one of the major points of Job, my favorite book of the Bible.* Job gets all sorts of crap dumped on him and his friends spend a fair bit of time telling him that “everyone knows” people only get crapped on if they’re wicked.

    *I like it because it shows what an asshole Yahweh is. I’ve even had a few Christians and Jews agree that their god is an asshole in Job.

  8. Sastra says

    To bring in another example of the magical thinking of the Just World theory, I’ll mention So-Called Alternative Medicine. If you are sick, then there’s a moral reason behind it. People don’t just get cancer because of causes beyond their control: Nature doesn’t work that way, it wants you to be healthy. You did (or are doing) something wrong — or somebody wicked did something wicked to you. Think happy thoughts, eat the right food, rid yourself of “toxins,” get back to the perfectly just and fair way that Nature intended. Otherwise, you’ve only yourself to blame.

    “Just World” Theory often comes up on blogs and websites dedicated to fighting medical pseudoscience. As so often the case, intuitions about the “spiritual” connections of all events work to undermine what science reveals about why bad things happen to good people. .. and no, it’s not fair.

  9. Cafeeine says

    While I understand the impulse behind the idea of hell, it was never a big part of religion for me growing up. In Greek Christianity, the idea was that heaven or hell was an issue between man and God. The closest thing to just world thinking is the idea that after death, the matter is out of your jurisdiction, so to speak, so there is no point in keeping enmity. I can’t recall any instance of people imagining with glee people suffering in hell a la Fred Phelps.

  10. xtog42 says

    Just to play Devil’s advocate on the “victim-blaming” aspect of this post,….

    Can we say that the victim should never be blamed?

    I mean, it’s incredibly easy to think of times when the victim played a role in their own victimization (Ex: Bernie Madoff, theft of stuff that was not properly secured, ignorant risk taking, associating with lawless people, etc).

    Setting aside the whole back and forth about sexual harassment, can’t we say that SOMETIMES, a victim deserves ‘some’ blame, and in particular if the victim’s response to the victimization is way over the top (ex: shooting someone dead who butts in front of you in line) do they not deserve some criticism?

    One might even think about the 911 attacks, many 911 truthers make claims that our politicians may have played a role in instigating those events. So to use a less dramatic example, say a guy goes up to another guy in a bar and calls him names, spills his drink, blows smoke in his face,…when the dude has finally had enough and decks the guy to the floor, are we not to blame the dude on the floor at least somewhat for his predicament?

    I bring this up because if you agree that sometimes a victim does deserve some blame, then it is easy to see why the Just World Fallacy is in play for many people.

    On the religious angle, the ultimate commentary on this might be said to be Voltaire’s Candide, where he confronts the Just World Fallacy head on, or Leibnizian Optimism, by arguing with Dr Pangloss, that all is NOT exactly for the best in the best of all possible worlds.

  11. Loqi says

    Setting aside the whole back and forth about sexual harassment, can’t we say that SOMETIMES, a victim deserves ‘some’ blame, and in particular if the victim’s response to the victimization is way over the top (ex: shooting someone dead who butts in front of you in line) do they not deserve some criticism?

    What? How is the shooter the victim here?

    when the dude has finally had enough and decks the guy to the floor, are we not to blame the dude on the floor at least somewhat for his predicament?

    No. We’re to blame the dude on the ground for what he did (that is, a litany of misdemeanors) and the dude who punched him for what he did (assault and battery).

  12. echidna says

    Seems appropriate to quote this exchange between Susan and DEATH:

    “All right,” said Susan. “I’m not stupid. You’re saying humans need… fantasies to make life bearable.”

    REALLY? AS IF IT WAS SOME KIND OF PINK PILL? NO. HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMAN. TO BE THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE.

    “Tooth fairies? Hogfathers? Little—”

    YES. AS PRACTICE. YOU HAVE TO START OUT LEARNING TO BELIEVE THE LITTLE LIES.

    “So we can believe the big ones?”

    YES. JUSTICE. MERCY. DUTY. THAT SORT OF THING.

    “They’re not the same at all!”

    YOU THINK SO? THEN TAKE THE UNIVERSE AND GRIND IT DOWN TO THE FINEST POWDER AND SIEVE IT THROUGH THE FINEST SIEVE AND THEN SHOW ME ONE ATOM OF JUSTICE, ONE MOLECULE OF MERCY. AND YET—Death waved a hand. AND YET YOU ACT AS IF THERE IS SOME IDEAL ORDER IN THE WORLD, AS IF THERE IS SOME… SOME RIGHTNESS IN THE UNIVERSE BY WHICH IT MAY BE JUDGED.

    “Yes, but people have got to believe that, or what’s the point—”

    MY POINT EXACTLY.”
    ― Terry Pratchett, Hogfather

  13. echidna says

    One of the most insidious superstitious phrases: “Everything happens for a reason”.

  14. echidna says

    Great post Greta. I’ve posted those quotes because Pratchett beautifully presents the notion of justice as a big lie, and the second to show the role of religion, no matter how vague, seems to be to encourage acceptance of the status quo. What the two quotes above do is show how comforting these notions are (unless you see through them).

  15. Loqi says

    One of the most insidious superstitious phrases: “Everything happens for a reason”.

    I get near violently angry when people say things like that. I’ve got a spinal injury that causes immense pain and is degenerative. When someone invokes the Just World fallacy, I feel compelled to challenge them on what they did right that I did wrong. So far, no answer.

  16. Sastra says

    echidna #13 wrote:

    One of the most insidious superstitious phrases: “Everything happens for a reason”.

    Yes; insidious because, like many religious concepts, it rests on a deepity. There is an interpretation which is true but trivial. There is an interpretation which is extraordinary but false. Trade on the resemblance, jumping back and forth in order to confuse the situation and therefore yourself and your audience. Thus, you end up with the fuzzy thought processes of religion.

    Of course everything happens for a reason. I mean, you can trace all events back through a network of cause and effect. But they try to sneak in moral and ethical reasons, a story plot about the grand narrative of How It All Makes Sense because it’s all about helping you learn what you’re supposed to learn.

    Loqi’s spinal injury didn’t happen in order to reward, punish, or otherwise move Loqi along the path of enlightenment. Shit happens. We can then choose to deal with it in ways which are better or worse for ourselves, our health, and our own peace of mind — but the idea that it ought to be viewed as a wonderful gift for that purpose is frankly quite creepy.

  17. Otrame says

    I think the Just World is a part of our evolved social awareness. We are born with a sense of fair needed to let the needs of society (which supports us) over individual needs. We spend a lot of time both teaching our kids to be fair and insisting that the world is not fair. Pratchett is right, of course. Justice and mercy only exist if we insist that they do.

    Or, as the saying goes, there is no justice there is just us.

  18. ik says

    This is frankly a REALLY big thing with religion.

    I certainly do get the idea of having a hard time getting over hell. I have embraced the existance of vengeful elements in my mind, though not the actual performance of vengeance. It sometimes feels like I’m being cheated. Of course, when humanity does truly become just, we will be more vindicated than we would be with God..

  19. Robert B. says

    The Just World Fallacy is also a big deal for Ayn Rand/Objectivism. They view it in naturalistic terms rather than an inviolable magic, of course – as I read it, Ayn Rand believed that since the point of ethics is to maximize goodness for oneself, good things tend to happen to good people and bad things to bad people, unless someone specifically does something to make it happen otherwise. Hence all the hate for welfare and so on – wealth is a direct consequence of virtue, and to redistribute it is to bypass what Rand had her character Francisco d’Anconia call “the moral law.” With a “the.” And maybe also capital letters, it’s been a while since I last read Atlas.

    That “moral law” is the part of Objectivism that really messed me up. I never really bought into Rand’s politics, I twisted my philosophy into pretzels to explain why I could say I had a selfish ethic but not actually act like a jerk. But every time something bad happens to me, I still feel like it’s my fault for not being rational and virtuous enough.

  20. lpetrich says

    Seems an awful lot like Panglossianism, the belief that this is the best of all possible worlds. Voltaire very memorably satirized that notion in his novel Candide. Read / Candide / Invitation to World Literature

    Pangloss was professor of metaphysico-theologico-cosmolo-nigology. He proved admirably that there is no effect without a cause, and that, in this best of all possible worlds, the Baron’s castle was the most magnificent of castles, and his lady the best of all possible Baronesses.

    “It is demonstrable,” said he, “that things cannot be otherwise than as they are; for all being created for an end, all is necessarily for the best end. Observe, that the nose has been formed to bear spectacles—thus we have spectacles. Legs are visibly designed for stockings—and we have stockings. Stones were made to be hewn, and to construct castles—therefore my lord has a magnificent castle; for the greatest baron in the province ought to be the best lodged. Pigs were made to be eaten—therefore we eat pork all the year round. Consequently they who assert that all is well have said a foolish thing, they should have said all is for the best.”

    I get economic Panglossianism all the time from pro-capitalist ideologues. They sometimes seem like they believe that if there was an all-out economic collapse, than that would be the best possible economy, and that it would be wrong to try to stop it. For some people, capitalism is like a religion, it seems to me.

  21. karmakin says

    The Just World fallacy is a big deal for me, or at least it’s been a big deal since I’ve become aware of it, which is fairly recently. It’s been a pretty big step forward for how I think about religion and theism.

    In short, Greta is right. To put it simply, the Just World fallacy provides an end run around the problem of evil. However, I think that’s only one side of the coin. That’s the chicken, and here’s the egg:

    I don’t believe that all Christians or all theists or whatever have the same concept of God. In fact, I personally think this concept is somewhat fluid. People who tend to believe in an interventionist deity…well..the Just World fallacy combines with that belief in a particularly nasty way.

    To put it simply, it means that God picks winners and losers. And as such, any movement towards social justice is just entirely out the window. Quite frankly, I strongly believe that the Tea Party movement in the US is a sort of “coming out” party for this sort of political theistic materialism. (More people, I think are actively interventionist now than they were 20-30 years ago).

    This is why I don’t oppose religion per se, or even what we conventionally think of theism, which can include deistic or pantheistic beliefs (which don’t fall for this fallacy), as the threat of interventionist theism is simply too great at this time. If we can fight off interventionism, even if it means theists switching to deistic or pantheistic belief systems…I’m OK with that. Feel free to disagree with me, but I feel like the stakes are too high to fight for complete change.

  22. echidna says

    Sastra, I’m in awe of your writing. I have a decent vocabulary, and your expansion of the word “insidious” is exactly what I meant by the term. But I couldn’t have expanded it as clearly as you did.

  23. karmakin says

    Let me rephrase my last sentence. I think the stakes are too high to require or demand complete change right off the bat.

  24. Dunc says

    Ooh, if you’re just getting into the Just World Fallacy, you need to dig into the Crommunist archives for his series on System Justification Theory… It’s fascinating, and explains a hell of a lot.

    As for Hitler… Hitler didn’t “just die”. He shot himself, in the ruins of his dream, with the knowledge that he had utterly failed, and completely destroyed his beloved Germany in the process. I’ll take that.

    The trick to finding any justice in the world is to let go of the notions of reward and punishment… Was Hitler happy? Was Hitler ever happy? Ken Lay? Was he happy? Do happy people dedicate their entire lives to the endless pursuit of vastly more wealth than they could ever conceivably use? I think not… Happiness comes from the ability to find satisfaction and contentment, not from wealth and luxury.

  25. Irreverend Bastard says

    Good article. Greta Christina is the one who introduced me to FtB, as I followed her here from wherever she used to be. She writes like I think I would, if I were a writer.

    The idea of “justice” or “fairness” is something that I think we’re born with. Children are very quick to latch onto it, and the expression “it’s not fair!” is making parents’ ears bleed all over the world.

    An important evolutionary step for mankind is to let go of the idea of “karma”, or “justice”.

  26. left0ver1under says

    In a very quick, over-simplified nutshell: This hypothesis asserts that human beings have a cognitive bias. We are prone to thinking that the world is fair, and that people get what they deserve — both good and bad. So if bad things happen to someone, we’re unconsciously inclined to think that it’s the consequences of their bad character or bad past behavior.

    Which is, of course, a load of codswallop…or should I say, godswallop, since religion is involved.

    I take the view of selfishness being the norm: Our basest motivations are the desire to survive and propagate, and everything we do is an extension of that. Socialized animals cooperate because they benefit from giving up short term individual gain (i.e. taking by force from the weak) for the benefits of socialization such as nurturing.

    In a one-off encounter between different species, selfishness pays (e.g. lions and cheetahs), but not in a social atmostphere of one species (e.g. amongst a troop of chimpanzees). The religious would ignorantly counter by saying “You wouldn’t steal from a family member but you’d steal from a stranger!” which is a load of crap. Socialization is more than family, it’s communities, cities and countries. Even as a tourist in a foreign place, people tend to act ethically because we are concerned about what others think of us.

    Atheists want to live in a civilized society, so we try to make it one. By voluntarily working for the benefit of others as well as ourselves, we gain a social structure, both community and relationships. The religious are also motivated by selfishness, but they are more concerned with the myth of “going to hell” and having a spit inserted up their nethers and out through their mouths. They don’t see the need to be civil or cooperative except where there is personal benefit, not because it is “the right thing to do”.

    The two may sound similar, but atheists don’t believe the lie of “I can pray and be forgiven!” Forgiveness from a god is an excuse for hypocritical behaviour – wanting the protections of society but none of its obligations.

  27. Tussilago says

    The Just World fallacy makes me think of what Dorothy Rowe has written about how, in her experience as a psychologist, people are more likely to become depressed if they have been taught as children to believe in a just world. They think that if they work hard to be good, bad things won’t happen to them. So when bad things do happen, they have to either blame themselves for not being good enough, or change their whole perspective on the world and see that what they believed was wrong the whole time.

  28. says

    One more root that occurs to me for the Just World mindset is based in humans surviving based on learning skills: “You’re in that bad situation because you didn’t learn how to avoid it, therefore you deserve it.”

    It also overlaps with the “mistakes were made, but not by me” mentality that’s gotten some attention among my blogs. We’re willing to accept circumstantial factors for ourselves but not so much for others. If someone trips, he’s more likely to blame outside factors while if someone else trips, he’s more willing to blame it on the tripper being clumsy.

    One thing I try to do in life is give people the benefit of the doubt. When I get fast food, I don’t assume the young workers are high school dropouts, but reasonably likely to be college students working for their tuition. Bad luck and bad circumstances happen.

  29. ohioobserver says

    The world isn’t just. Things just happen. While there is cause and effect, the moral disposition of humans has little to do with the circumstances they experience. The default position is injustice.

    WE invented the concept of justice. It may be one of the best inventions of the human species. We haven’t been so good, so far, at implementing that concept, even though we have it and understand it.

    The whole “Just World” idea is probably a major impediment to creating a just world by our own efforts. If we assume the world is just, we don’t have to do anything to make it so.

    Justice doesn’t come from outside; it comes from the concerted action of human beings. Believing that it comes from outside us is an obstacle to achieving justice, in our personal lives and in society.

    Another pernicious effect of religion.

  30. xtog42 says

    @Loqi please reread my post, you misread it.

    To summarize: Blaming the victim while generally unfair is sometimes justified.

    When? If someone’s own uncivil/irresponsible behaviors precipitate their victimization (ex: leaving your car running, while spending an hour in the store, only to come out and find your car stolen),…it doesn’t mean you deserved to have your car stolen, but you do deserve some blame even though you are the victim.

    Also,…the victim can legitimately be criticized when they overreact to their victimization. (some have pointed to America’s response to the 911 attacks as an example of this)

    None of this justifies their victimization, but nevertheless victims can and do deserve blame/criticism for their actions either before or after the event. So, people who have implied that “blaming the victim” is ALWAYS wrong, are not correct in this belief.

    I tied this point into the meaning of the post by noting that The Just World fallacy is sustained by this fact (that victims sometimes do play a role in their victimization).

  31. says

    The whole “Just World” idea is probably a major impediment to creating a just world by our own efforts. If we assume the world is just, we don’t have to do anything to make it so.

    This is one of the reasons I have always believed religion is nothing but a tool for social control. If the wealthy and powerful can have the (slightly less wealthy, slightly less powerful) asskissing spokesmouthpiece for the almighty say “he deserves his wealth and power” then it may make it less likely that some of the disempowered are going to sneak up on his ass late some night and regulate accounts.

  32. Anne Marie says

    Also, buying into the Just World Fallacy allows people to feel in control of their lives. They can believe that if they just act a certain way and believe certain things (and in the case of sexism, harassment and sexual assault – take certain precautions), good things will happen and bad things will be avoided. It’s a great method of distancing oneself from victims of misfortune and convincing oneself that only good things will come in the future.

  33. Anne Marie says

    I think people often employ this fallacy in a more emotional way in that they want “bad” people to pay for their actions rather than that they pragmatically weigh the morality of eternal damnation.

  34. Anne Marie says

    “None of this justifies their victimization, but nevertheless victims can and do deserve blame/criticism for their actions either before or after the event. So, people who have implied that ‘blaming the victim’ is ALWAYS wrong, are not correct in this belief.”

    There is a difference between blaming a person who happens to be a victim for bad behavior and blaming a victim for their own victimization. “Blaming the victim” is the latter.

  35. Snivelling Little Ratfaced Git says

    I learned about JWT about a year back, and it opened my eyes to what I (and my family) experienced over the past few years.

    Six years ago my daughter was killed in a car accident, and then two months later we lost our unborn son at 20 weeks (severe Spina Bifida). Hard, yes. Horrible, yes. Any meaning to be taken from it? Of course not.

    But over time, the sympathy that we first received often turned sour, and we felt we were being blamed for what happened to us.

    JWT helps to explain these reactions. I undertand that it is adaptive, and allows people to deal with the cognitive dissonance created by the perception of something bad happening to an innocent person. It’s quite an unconscious effect, and exists across cultures, genders, and age groups.

    I agree with those who suggest it can explain a lot about religion too. So much of the supposedly sympathetic statements link the two things: “God only does this to those who can take it”, “There’s a reason for this happening – so that other children may live” etc.

    @xtog42 Your point is so obvious as to be unremarkable.

  36. mnb0 says

    Excellent article again. I don’t how to praise you without repeating myself.
    One point: there are religious people as well who want to take action to make the world just. It might be harder in the States than in Europe and in Suriname (where I live), but I don’t have any problem in forming a coalition with them – on my terms.

  37. pipenta says

    I use that maddening “Everything happens for a reason.” shit as an atheist teaching moment .

    I say, calmly but very firmly, “NO. Shit, as they say, just happens. But what you get, what life and chance dumps into your lap, you respond actively to it or not. And that’s where the meaning comes from:YOU. You get to decide: Do I laugh this off? Do I get angry? Do I grit my teeth? Cry, mourn, let go? Move on? Try to cowboy up? Try to muster some dignity? Is this the time to start swinging? Can I learn from this in a way to avoid future problems? Can I learn from this in a way to help others, make the world a better place? You DECIDE. Not the universe, not some god thing. Sitting on your ass and saying, “Oh everything happens for a reason/It’s all part of god’s plan.” is pathetic, lazy and a cop out*!

    *Except in those circumstances in which the reasoned response is to sit on your ass. Which does happen sometimes. ;)

  38. pipenta says

    Sorry Sastra, I basically repeated you. I was interrupted halfway down the response thread and when I came back I didn’t finish reading. Eh, I get sloppy because reading is progressively more difficult because my retinas are dying. Something that is most decidedly not happening because of a fucking cosmic plan. Just crap genes.

  39. pipenta says

    lpetrich, You got me cackling and reminded me of Douglas Adam’s Panglossian Puddle.

  40. Millicent says

    Ooh, the Just World fallacy, how I loathe it. I have multiple sclerosis, and this kind of muddled attempt at an “explanation” comes up all the damn time. “God only gives us what we can handle.” “This is part of God’s plan for me.” Religion is always tied up in it, and it has always befuddled me. How is it comforting to think that the Invisible Sky Fairy singled you out, personally, for some suffering? And of course the “answer” is a combo of thinking oneself terribly different and interesting and spiritually advanced, plus the added bonus of rewards coming later. ‘Cause big suffering now is gonna mean super-special awesomeness in Heaven. Urgh.

    If I hadn’t already been an atheist when I was diagnosed, I believe this kind of toxic crap would have pushed me in that direction. It is EVERYWHERE among self-help and support groups, and the inherent victim-blaminess of it makes me shudder. No, I do not find it reassuring to think that an omniscient, omnipotent supernatural being *made me sick*. That’s not comforting, it’s fucking creepy.

  41. says

    One of the most difficult parts to let go of for me was the afterlife, and though fear of death was a big part of that, the desire for there to be some justice in the universe was another large factor as well. Ultimately, though, I couldn’t square that desire with what I saw around me.

    I hear the “everything happens for a reason” thing a lot, so much so that I’ve gotten used to it almost, but it’s still frustrating, because it’s an acceptance of the unacceptable, a recommendation to just accept things how they are.

    @echidna (#12): Thanks for the quote!

  42. says

    I remember when I was much younger than I am today, thinking about this same topic. It occurred to that many people say, “the world is not fair,” but most people don’t stop to think about why it is that we all keep trying to make it that way. I thought, “why is it that we humans have this thing about wanting to make the world ‘fair’? Do small children think this way?” Well, the answer is that, yes, small children do think this way. So do primates. It’s a social thing. Why is it that we humans see Jesus in a piece of toast? Because our brains are wired to pick up on faces. It’s a social thing. We’re social creatures, just like other primates. We think this way because we’re social. We’re social because we think this way. One doesn’t really need to go any further. Yes, it has implications on our view of the world. So would any other hard-wired way of thinking. Certainly, it’s the reason why we’re always trying to create justice, and since we see that justice doesn’t happen sometimes, we create the idea of an imaginary justice after death. It doesn’t explain all of religion, but no one point will. It definitely explains “Heaven and Hell.” Fortunately, our brains are also capable of logic, so we can understand the limitations on the way our brains work and work to move beyond it. It may be hard, but building a good, loving, supportive, and inclusive world without a big daddy looking over us is hard work. I’m up for it!

Trackbacks

  1. […] “In a very quick, over-simplified nutshell: This hypothesis asserts that human beings have a cognitive bias. We are prone to thinking that the world is fair, and that people get what they deserve — both good and bad. So if bad things happen to someone, we’re unconsciously inclined to think that it’s the consequences of their bad character or bad past behavior. Similarly, when good things happen to someone, we’re unconsciously biased towards thinking that they earned it. Studies show that our opinion of other people goes up when good things happen to them, and goes down when bad things happen to them — even when those events are entirely random. The obvious form that this bias takes is blaming the victims for crimes or disaster or illness — but it takes other forms as well, such as assuming that rich or privileged people have earned their wealth and privilege.” Religion and the Just World Fallacy – Greta Christina’s Blog […]

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