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Enlightened foolishness

I am negative about religion. Faith to me is no more than ‘blind-acceptance’ of fantasy. I think we should discard ‘faith’ nonsense during adolescence at the time we start reading sad existentialist novels by Camus and Sartre. Move on to better things. I also agree with Nietzsche: Religious belief makes it too easy. You don’t have to think if you have blind faith in the fantastic. Belief in Jesus alone guarantees salvation.

So why do people believe? This is a positive question. Why accept beliefs you can never hope to falsify?

One answer, provided in the 28 January 2006 NewScientist (subscription only), uses evolutionary biology. Religion has functional advantages, gives ‘structure to the universe’, is an ‘opiate of the masses’ (one feels better or is resigned to life), enforces a moral code that promotes ‘social order’ and gives a sense of ‘group’.

People who are religious are less ill and suffer less mental illness (apart from their religious views!). Religion provides a ‘social glue’ by establishing rituals, like aerobic exercise, that release abundant endorphins into the brain, flooding the brain as endogenous opiates do, making people happy and ‘tuning-up’ the immune system.

These endorphins also reduce ‘free-rider’ issues in society at large. Religion helps resolve intractable Prisoner Dilemmas by promoting trust – and by doing so promotes trade. While monkeys may groom each other to create trust, belief in Jesus helps promote a common moral code and allows large groups to bond. Theology provides the ‘stick’ and the ‘carrot’ that makes dullards have ‘faith’.

The religious beliefs themselves are nonsense but so, anyway, are 80% of anti-depressant drugs that have beneficial effects as placebos. Placebos release endorphins as does belief in Jesus and, presumably, Santa Claus. Anticipating relief – a ‘kissing cousin to expectation’, according to the New Scientist, makes it happen. But prayer only works if you do it – the prayers of others have zilch effect.

I come pretty close to agreeing with William S. Burroughs, as quoted in the book by Daniel Odier, The Job. ‘To travel in space you must leave the old verbal garbage behind: God talk, mother talk, love talk, party talk. You must learn to exist with no religion, no country, no allies. You must learn to live alone in silence. Anyone who prays in space is not there’.

This can be a disturbing, though liberating idea. But I understand too why many people need to be deluded by religion and the social and personal advantages stemming from such views.

Update: D.C. Dennett’s, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, takes up the themes in this note though from a dispassionate philosophical perspective. The thesis: Religion should be subject to argument and scrutiny using psychology, neuroscience, genetics, soicial and cultural history. Children should be taught about the harm and good faith has done both as an inspiration for social reform and altruism and as slogans that can inspire hatreds.

4 comments to Enlightened foolishness

  • Bring Back EP at LP

    Harry,

    It is easy to show Christianity is a load of codswallop.
    Jesus never lived. Thus he couldn’t rise from the dead.

    By the way there are 48 messianic prophecies that came true.

    The probability of this is? ( hint it is VERY high).

    The biggest prediction is saying a King called Cyrus would allow the Jews back to Jerusalem.
    This probability cannot be calculated for obvious reasons!

  • EcoStudent

    Many beliefs are popularly considered to be “rational” even though they aren’t falsifiable. However, just because you can’t falsify a belief doesn’t mean it cannot be arrived at logically.

    C.S. Lewis is credited with the at least two different logical arguments for Christianity. Firstly, he did a kind of simple game theory analysis about believing in God. The assumptions were that:

    (1) It is impossible to know for certain in this world whether or not there is a God.

    (2) If there is a God, then there will be positive consequences for having believed in him on earth.

    (3) There are no costs on earth to believing in God.

    So the solution would look like this:
    No God God Exists Don’t Believe 0 0
    Believe 0 1

    Obviously, the assumptions are simplifying assumptions and many would debate their veracity – but if they hold, then it is rational to believe in God, regardless of whether or not you can falsify your belief in him.

    However which God should you believe in? Here C.S. Lewis come up with another logical argument, although in a format less common for economists.

    If you accept that the records of what Jesus said about himself, as recorded in the gospels are true records of what he said, then C.S. Lewis argued that there were three possiblities:

    (1) What he was saying was false, and he knew it, so he was a liar.

    (2) What he was saying was false, but he didn’t know it, so he was a lunatic.

    (3) What he was saying was actually true.

    C.S. Lewis then argued based on the accounts that the records both of Christ’s life and his disciples lives were such that neither option one or option two were plausible. Thus to paraphrase Sherlock Holmes:

    “When you have eliminated all the
    other possibilities, then what remains, however improbable, is true!”

  • EcoStudent

    Payoff matrix in previous comment should have read:

    Don’t Believe
    No God – 0
    God – 0

    Believe
    No God – 0
    God – 1

    Hence as it is always an equilibrium to believe.

  • hc

    Dear Econ-student, C.S. Lewis’s argument sounds to me equivalent to Pascal’s Wager. Pascal sought to provide prudential reasons for believing in God. Putting it crudely, we should wager that God exists because it is the best bet.

    Pascal maintained that we don’t know whether God exists or not but must make a decision. Considering the outcomes (making the ‘non-belief’ guess gives nothing, making the ‘right’ guess gives infinite bliss) you should believe. This suggests on prudential grounds that we should believe God exists. Quoting from the excellent Wiki survey:

    ‘God is, or He is not. But to which side shall we incline? Reason can decide nothing here. There is an infinite chaos which separated us. A game is being played at the extremity of this infinite distance where heads or tails will turn up… Which will you choose then? Let us see. Since you must choose, let us see which interests you least. You have two things to lose, the true and the good; and two things to stake, your reason and your will, your knowledge and your happiness; and your nature has two things to shun, error and misery. Your reason is no more shocked in choosing one rather than the other, since you must of necessity choose… But your happiness? Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is… If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is’.

    This however seems a foolish argument. Will God reward you if you believe in him/her because you adopt this calculating stance? By the way which God will you choose and will this matter? Moreover a mixed strategy of tossing a coin to decide if God exists will give you the same payoff as the strategy suggested if accurate belief in God gives infinite reward.

    The refutation criterion I evoke here is just an attempt to assess evidence about the world. I take your point that tautological mathematics and astronomical theories of the university do not involve refutation.

    I think on the last question by Lewis one might say, if Jesus Christ was alive and has been accurately recorded that option (2) is partly correct. Some of the things Christ said embody moral values that all of us endeavour to pursue. This has nothing at all to do with the existence of God. On those other bits because he just got it wrong. That would not make him a ‘lunatic’.