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Ch. 11: Religion Is a Team Sport 
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Post Re: Ch. 11: Religion Is a Team Sport
Interbane wrote:
What of the first commandment in Christianity, or the absurdly over-the-top discrimination against other religions that you find in Islam. These are defenses against competing idea groups, and have been exceptionally effective over the years. Add to this the emphasis each religion places on preaching the word across the land. Converting others is a virtue. Then Pascal's wager to keep people from disbelieving after they've swalllowed the pills.

These ideological features are some of the most powerful belief manipulators you can imagine. Whatever comparative competing ideas there may be out there, I can't see many winning against that lineup. I would confidently say that religion is structured intentionally to maximize contagiousness. All you have to do to see this is look at the characteristics of the component ideas.

I'm not saying the characteristics of the ideas are more influential to the spread of religion than the selective advantage it confers to the group. We don't need to reduce the past to a causal chain rather than a causal web. I'm sure multiple influences all worked together. Contagiousness of ideas mixed with group advantage. To focus on one over the other is all too human. There are likely other extraneous factors as well that have had an influence.

I must have had my mind on the old days of loosey-goosey polytheism when when I said that conscious manipulation of memes might have nothing to do with the use of religion to fortify groups. When we do speak of manipulation, we bring in one of the key differences between the way memes work and the way genes do: we have a large part in the "design" process, whereas there is no design at all that controls the expression of genes. As far as the greater contagiousness of the relatively recent monotheisms, I'm not sure about that. In one sense, I can view polytheism as potentially more contagious simply because of the greater possibilities offered, and the developing monotheisms as attempts to stamp out that contagion. There must be some truth to the tales in the Bible about all the backsliding toward the more appealing and entertaining pantheon of gods. It seems that in order to get people to accept that only one god--the god that a priesthood wanted to make king--was to be worshipped, the heavy artillery had to be brought out, and this is where theology begins in earnest, with the commandments and the special humans who received the Word from this god, now God.

Looking at the gradualness of the establishment of monotheism with the Hebrews, which might have taken hundreds of years, as well as the equally long and gradual rise of Christian monotheism, I have some trouble with the idea of contagiousness, which implies the quick, mainly horizontal, spread of traits in a population. Institutionalization takes a great deal of time and effort, as the elites struggle and some slowly consolidate power. All of this might make the inherent qualities of a given ideology less important than how the the culture takes a hold of the ideas and makes them work, which in the context of this discussion means for the greater unity of the group.

It's tantalizing to speculate whether monotheism brought us closer to atheism or was a step back from it. I can see the answer being both yes and no. Paring down to one god from many would seem to take us to a threshold where we can drop that one, too; but having a bunch of gods was apparently a more liberal religious atmosphere in the first place. I would say with some certainty, though, that monotheism brought with it a decrease in superstitious belief.

Although beliefs were foundational to the new, organized religions, looking at religions from the social viewpoint, as Haidt does, has the advantage of bringing out aspects of religion that were there from the beginning, and which still characterize religions at least as much as beliefs do. Looking only at the beliefs, as some do, is too distancing, so you don't get a good idea of what religions are really doing.
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So you know, I've enjoyed this discussion enough that I'm buying the book and will continue to post. This quote is well worded as well, The distinction is made that religion is an enabler of out-group hostility, rather than the motive. I can see many cases where religion is the motive as well, with some passages thrown in the face of the dying heretics. But many times, it would be used to justify a man's pre-existing motive. "God is on my side."

Reading the book is better than relying on my summaries, for sure. It would be hard to rank-order motives whenever humans do anything big. I'm sure that religion is in the forefront sometimes when groups aggress against others. If the religion demonizes others as infidels, it seems likely that this can be sufficient cause for attack.
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The infinite is a good way to put it. Anything that prevents us from "closing the loop" on a specific portion of our worldview. When the mystery is solved, we no longer dwell on it, no longer fantasize about the possibilities. Our focus turns to the mundane daily life and never returns to the fantastic. I'm not sure that true infinite is necessary. Perhaps only the appearance of infinite. For example, I could see worship of mother earth as being sanctified. Earth is a finite ecosystem, but is vastly more complex than we could ever understand.

There's also something to consider with followers of physics becoming religious. Think of the mysteries within quantum physics. Perhaps not infiinite, conceptually, but they are hopelessly mysterious to the point where sanctification is all too likely. On the other hand, we do not worship Pi. I think that not only is the infinite that is the hallmark of the sacred, but a dose of the mysterious is needed as well. Perhaps not "mysterious", but "insoluble"?

This might be why science is so often attacked as a destroyer of the quality people tag with the name 'spiritual.' Science does seek to transform what we don't understand into mundane realities, but it could in its way be a carrier of the spiritual or infinite in the sense that this inquiring into the nature of things will never, ever, end. Frontiers are important for this sense of the infinite to hold, and there will always be new frontiers in science.



Last edited by DWill on Sat Aug 25, 2012 7:25 pm, edited 1 time in total.



Sat Aug 25, 2012 7:22 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 11: Religion Is a Team Sport
One last part to Haidt's thoughts on religion is what interests and agitates people the most: whether it's a force for good or evil. What he's already said about religion amounts to the judgment that religion was necessary for getting us to the state of social organization from which we could launch our complex civilizations. I don't think that can be considered as established, but Haidt offers a decent argument to that effect. Relgions have always enabled to people "to achieve together what we can't achieve alone." Haidt observes, however, that the same can be said of the Mafia, so does the solidarity that religion clearly provides translate to goodness, as most would recognize it? Haidt says it does, but to his credit he specifies that the data available is from the contemporary U.S. and doesn't prove anything like a general humanizing effect of religion across time and cultures. Religious people (defined solely by frequency of church attendance) give away much more money than do the non-religious. It's true that the great bulk of what the religious give is to their churches, but even this can be said to have some generally benign effect for society. Giving to churches also primes people for greater giving to secular charities, according to some data. When researchers try to figure out what qualities or beliefs are responsible for this generosity, all they come up with is this: the greater the embeddedness of the church members, the greater the generosity. This finding that makes some intuitive sense: if we have person-to-person contacts, we're going to feel more inclined to follow through with supporting an organiazation. If I knew Chris O'Connor personally, I'd be more responsible in my donations to booktalk.

Can't any organization in the secular world give people this sense of shared belonging that makes makes them sacrifice so much time and money? Probably, but I think experience would show that religions just have the formula down and can do it with considerably better results.

For these reasons, Haidt, though an atheist himself, thinks we should hesitate before we advocate ushering in a post-religious society. For him, religion is providing a degree of binding and norming that more than compensates for its other major effect: blinding its adherents to the narrowness of religious tenets. He says we do not yet know how non-religious societies will fare in the long run, the record of northern European countries not yet being extensive enough. He hints that one result of atheism is to reduce a society's ability to "turn resources into offspring." Atheists and agnostics are notorious low-breeders, after all.



Thu Aug 30, 2012 7:03 am
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Post Re: Ch. 11: Religion Is a Team Sport
A culture that I'm always appreciative of is the Easter Asian cultures. Some of the subsets of their Taoist religions are non-theistic. It is a belief system that deviates in some critical areas from the Middle Eastern religions. The sanctification of certain principles doesn't rely on a central story(a likely false story at that), and instead is based on a more intellectual foundation. The humility and respect of Asians in general seems to be greater than Americans as well.

A belief system acting as a social glue doesn't need to have the negatives that are prominent in Abrahamic religions. Even within the category of religions, a non-theistic version can serve the purpose of fostering social adhesion.

Imagine if the dominant religion on Earth was a non-theistic variety of Taoism. I doubt you'd find the intellectual community so polarized over it's ubiquity. I also doubt it would act as powerfully as a motivator to conquest and oppression.


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Thu Aug 30, 2012 2:55 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 11: Religion Is a Team Sport
I'm tempted by one of Hitchens' chapter titles, "There Is No Eastern Solution," but I don'tknow enough about Eastern religion to say whether he's right that Taoism, Buddhism, etc. don't avoid the problems of the monotheistic faiths. I do think that if we're looking at the widespread adoption of more philosophical and less theistic religions, the road is pretty steep no matter which ones we're talking about. I believe the great majority of adherents to the Eastern religions are involved with theism and superstition.



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Fri Aug 31, 2012 4:56 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 11: Religion Is a Team Sport
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I believe the great majority of adherents to the Eastern religions are involved with theism and superstition.


I see, point taken. I need more data.

The non-theistic subset of eastern religions, do you know if they foster group adhesion as well as the other eastern religions?

What book is it in that has the title you mentioned?


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Fri Aug 31, 2012 7:39 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 11: Religion Is a Team Sport
The chapter title is from God Is Not Great. I don't know about the group cohesion factor of Eastern religion. One of the problems is deciding whether, if those religions don't bind quite as well as the Abrahamic ones, that is really such a bad thing. Using Haidt's mantra--morality (and religion) binds and blinds-- there's always a downside to that groupishness, so we're in trade-off land again. Some people, and I'm one of them, are going to feel more comfortable with less group emphasis anyway. Tribalism may be what got us to the point of creating our civilizations, but at this time it's possible that what we need is much less of it.

The example of Eastern religion is attractive, though. Maybe the attraction comes partly from unfamiliarity. I was reading in a museum about how the three great teachings--Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism--combined in China in no particular format to provide the people with a flexible system of belief and conduct, so that orthodoxy really couldn't exist. Yet that didn't prevent the Chinese from making great civilizations. The idea is appealing.

Haidt tells us in the book how he became a pluralist, which for him means accepting, and even welcoming, people with moral matrices different from his own. This is a difficult thing to do, since I think it's natural for each of us to want to see other people be more like us. If we think about it, though, we might see how that would have a bad effect overall. It might be more healthy to think well of people who think and behave differently from us. There might be a value in moral diversity similar to the value of biological diversity in a ecosystem.



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Post Re: Ch. 11: Religion Is a Team Sport
Honestly, I didn't realize that we discussed this book eight years ago. It seems like just a few years back. It looks as though I agreed with Haidt's perspective on the purpose of religion and its importance in every human culture as a means of bonding. Conveniently enough, I still think he gets it pretty right. I had read three of the New Atheist books Haidt talks about (missing Dennett's), and though I found each well written and almost riveting, I also found the claim that religions have been the locus of most of our problems to ignore their ability to pull people together and manage social behavior, probably to a degree unsurpassed by other institutions (even football). That isn't necessarily to say that today they continue to be as vital in a democratic society, though Haidt cites research from Robert Putnam and David Campbell indicating that the quickened erosion of religion could deplete us of everyday philanthropists.

I'm curious about what Harry Marks thinks of the long-delayed definition of morality Haidt gives (p. 270) and the discussion that follows. How does Haidt do pairing this descriptive definition with normative theories such as Bentham's utilitarianism, to provide the aspect of morality that I think Harry thought Haidt had neglected?



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Post Re: Ch. 11: Religion Is a Team Sport
DWill wrote:
To fill out the narrative on religion used by the New Atheists: we have mental modules that have produced real benefits; they've contributed to our survival-- not just the supersensitive agency detection device, but possibly others such as a "gullible learning module" (Dawkins) or a module for falling in love. The incidental results of these modules have given us religion. We created gods because we saw agency everywhere; religions took advantage of our ability to fall in love to make us fall in love with God. No argument from Haidt this far, but he parts ways from them when they say that religion itself didn't benefit individuals or groups in terms of evolutionary or adaptive advantage. Haidt believes that "genes [were] selected because individuals or groups who were better at 'godding' outcompeted those who failed to produce, fear, or love their gods." So Haidt goes beyond those who argue that religions strengthened groups through cultural, but not genetic, evolution. Haidt also finds it extremely unlikely that "the genes for producing these various modules were all in place by the time modern humans left Africa," but that "the genes did not change in response to selection pressures either for or against religiosity during the 50,000 years since then."


Religion has undergone considerable cultural evolution that has little to do with the "agency detection" and "gullible learning" that so disturb the New Atheists. I appreciated this chapter very much, but felt that it just scratched the surface of the discussion. Surely we need to recognize that religion has generally influenced behavior, and in so doing may have succeeded in propagating itself by tapping into "groupishness". Leaving out the behavioral component leaves Dawkins, et al, looking biased, if not ignorant. But the appeal of religion is partly intellectual, giving us a narrative or worldview that makes sense of our urge to promote the divine (or the sacred, if you want a term that works in East Asia).

Furthermore its functionality leads to appropriation by power structures, as Marx observed. There is no question in my mind that Medieval Catholicism was shaped by the priorities of a power structure closely interwoven with the feudal structure of society. You can find the same thing in the Coptic Christianity of Ethiopia. There is little question in my mind that Lutheran schism was driven by German desire for independence from Rome, and Calvinism was driven by endorsement of the rising commercial class and its belief in its own value to society. Mormonism became a force largely because polygamy fit with the priorities of the frontier. One could go on.

DWill wrote:
For Dawkins and Dennett, people and genes had little to do with the growth, or rather mutations, of religion. Religions are not composed of genes, but like genes they are "heritable, they mutate, and there is selection among these mutations." The selection isn't based, however, on advantages the host gets from the religions, but from the competition among the religious memes themselves, some of which happen to be better than others at lodging deep within the human mind and getting themselves passed on to the next generation of host minds. In the case of religious memes, the effect on the host is negative, but that is consistent with forms of life called parasites and viruses.
Whether or not it is a negative effect is open for debate. I think you have it right that the competition is for success at being replicated. Fox News is more successful as a worldview than MSNBC is, but not necessarily because it improves the lives of adherents. Such a comparison suggests we should always look at why a set of memes is successful and not just whether it is "correct." Haidt has made an effort to do so, while Hitchens, Dawkins et all have largely asked the oversimplified question why anyone would believe religious narratives rather than to simply accept what they are told by scientists. As if the whole matter recapitulates the intellectual journey they took, and there are no social influences on what we choose to believe. (I could give a number of counterexamples from the writings of Dawkins or Dennett - they are hardly exempt from motivated reasoning).

DWill wrote:
It's important to make clear that throughout the book, Haidt generally doesn't use the words 'beneficial' or 'adaptive' in a normative sense. It might not be a 'good' thing, in our view or for other groups, that a group becomes more effective by exploiting religion. Haidt clearly marks the exceptions to this labeling practice, when occasionally he does venture to say that religion can be positive on the social level.
Sure, but for those of us living the religious life, intellectual appeal is part of why we choose to believe the way we do.

I smile crookedly when I hear someone refer to God as "Him" since I have gone to inclusive language churches for 40 years. That change was not a result of primordial lodging of murky and mysterious emotionality, it was a considered judgment on what we refer to when we talk about God and whether it makes sense for the referent to be male. It encompasses the ability to assess the symbolism we use to convey religious thought, which raises questions as to why we trust God and whether we think that makes sense for others.

"Positive on a social level" is a description not just of assessing the decision whether to trust God, but also of how we will choose to represent that trust, what filter we will use for biblical authority, and many other shaping choices.

Stepping back to reflect on the chapter, what else I think Haidt gets very right (besides the importance of considering the behavior engendered by the religious practice) is the importance of making sense of sacrifice. By casting the social contract in Locke-ian individualistic terms, we have prejudiced the discussion toward thinking that the common good should only appeal to us to the extent that it directly and materially benefits us.

A recent remark in a NY Times op-ed about Covid suggested that conservative "open up" arguments seemed to take the view that individuals are just parts in the economic machinery, and that we have no function higher than keeping the productive process going to avoid hurting the system. Well, that is part of the case Haidt makes: a religious mindset helps us view our contribution to others, and to social functioning, as a valid goal worth pursuing. I'm not saying that should inevitably lead to "open up" conclusions (for one thing, the owner class has a self-interest in wanting workers to sacrifice for the sake of the economy, since they don't have to be part of that sacrifice), but I am saying it is a bit weird (or WEIRD?) for a commentator to find an appeal to the greater common good as somehow illegitimate or ignorant.

It has helped me think about these matters, to be able to identify "sacred" appeal as distinct from "authority" appeal and "avoiding harm" appeal. I live with these all the time, and of course never really disentangled them except when a particular issue pits one appeal against another. It opens some lively lines of questioning. It also helps to have Haidt's views on why the distinct moral instincts were reinforced. Being able to think about the primitive sources of their appeal is helpful in assessing how we should re-imagine them in the present day.

I must say, though, that like many conservatives I think he gets the "free-riding" issue wrong. It is true that people can find themselves wandering into dependency because that is the slope of the land. In a village there is no great difficulty in perceiving such behavior and providing incentives to change, and in economy without great surpluses of output, the motivation is strong. But the truth is that we are long past the point at which we need to crack the whip to make sure everyone contributes. We are in a "Player Piano" economy, (again with the Vonnegut) in which the work of the headquarters people and the academic superstructure creates most of the value and the rest of us just accept whatever place the economy will deign to offer us. What is really difficult these days is to get into a job with a sense of meaning and real contribution. We could cut way down on the material rewards for such work and people would still scramble for it.

Sure, there is still a "free riding" detector module, and Murdoch's people play it like a fine violin. But the economics involved are far more complex than our stone age moral intuition can process. Which brings me to my last overall point: Haidt doesn't get to dodge the intellectual and cultural issues by appealing to evolution and instinct. I have made that point on nearly every post about this book, and I respect his occasional willingness to engage with it, but I am essentially arguing that what matters about these issues is mainly beyond the scope of the book.



Thu Apr 23, 2020 8:29 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 11: Religion Is a Team Sport
DWill wrote:
Honestly, I didn't realize that we discussed this book eight years ago. It seems like just a few years back. It looks as though I agreed with Haidt's perspective on the purpose of religion and its importance in every human culture as a means of bonding. Conveniently enough, I still think he gets it pretty right. I had read three of the New Atheist books Haidt talks about (missing Dennett's), and though I found each well written and almost riveting, I also found the claim that religions have been the locus of most of our problems to ignore their ability to pull people together and manage social behavior, probably to a degree unsurpassed by other institutions (even football). That isn't necessarily to say that today they continue to be as vital in a democratic society, though Haidt cites research from Robert Putnam and David Campbell indicating that the quickened erosion of religion could deplete us of everyday philanthropists.

I'm curious about what Harry Marks thinks of the long-delayed definition of morality Haidt gives (p. 270) and the discussion that follows. How does Haidt do pairing this descriptive definition with normative theories such as Bentham's utilitarianism, to provide the aspect of morality that I think Harry thought Haidt had neglected?


I don't find a lot to object to about Haidt's definition of moral systems, except that it is -etic rather than -emic, meaning that it addresses what these systems are doing as viewed from the outside without considering the meaning people find in them. To use his own analysis, this automatically demotes the dimension of honoring the sacred, since there is no sense that in promoting cooperation and suppressing self-interest people actually experience a more meaningful life. Such goals are worth honoring and supporting, so that life is not just one damned thing after another.

I think WEIRD people tend to be shy about discussing what makes life worth living. Maybe this is partly because the idea of the sacred presumes a kind of judgment on the aimless. I learned, 30 years ago, to think of aimlessness as a curse rather than mainly a moral failing. It is like depression or anxiety. The reluctance may also be because there are so many different sources of meaning in life that we resist a sort of "monotheistic" imperialism by particular concepts of the ultimate source of meaning. It doesn't need to be theistic - the sacredness of nature or the sacredness of family can thrive without any supernatural sanction.

Unfortunately we have much reason to believe that suppressing discussion of sacred values leads people to hide that very sacred status from themselves. So we get all kinds of judgment in modern society (not least of them being judgment against claims that values apply to everyone rather than being personal "choices") which then turns around and claims to be just personal and arbitrary choice. This is a deeply incoherent mode of thinking about life. It is valid to think of truth and understanding having a sacred status, for example, and the educated classes are quite willing to express contempt for ignorant opinions (I do it regularly), but to act as though this has nothing to do with shaping a common value system (and finding meaning in it) is self-deception as well as being self-isolating.

The question of how useful religion is to promoting social cohesion or "moral capital" in a secular age is a crucial one, and I don't think we have the answer. One must, I suppose, take a position of trust, but to be secular is always to hedge bets on which worldview will be the most fruitful and fulfilling. If that mainly works to give us a healthy appreciation for different views, then I think that can be really beneficial. If, instead, it mainly works to create Durkheim's "anomie" and be unwilling to make any commitments or trust any larger social principles, then obviously that would be devastating.



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