Thursday, September 27, 2007

How material wealth leads to spiritual poverty

I regularly rail against the rhetorical tactics of strident atheists like Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins because they fail to realize that religion serves a legitimate human need, and that until atheism offers up a competitive substitute for that need it will fail to win hearts and minds. Yes, HH&D's books are bestsellers, but I think they're just preaching to the already unconverted. There is little evidence that they are actually winning over many people who were not already predisposed to rationality. Moreover, their conflation of relgion and fundamentalism is a dangerous fallacy. These are two distinct phenomena, and only one of them (fundamentalism) needs to be combatted.

The need that religion serves is the need to feel that life has a purpose, the need to feel that one is part of something greater than onesself, the need to quell existential angst. Let me concede up front that this need is wholly irrational, but just because something is irrational doesn't mean it isn't real.

When I was in college I had a serious relationship with a girl who lived 2000 miles away (I was in Virginia, she was in California). The rational part of me recognized that it was silly to expect monogamy in such a situation (to say nothing of the fact that I wanted to keep my options open) and I told her so. One day she told me that she had had oral sex with another man. The rational part of me said that this was no big deal. But deep in the dark evolutionary recesses of my brain there arose a powerful and completely unexpected emotion: jealousy. It took me completely by surprise and almost completely paralyzed me for days. At one point I tried to call her, but she was out, which of course made things worse. This was back in the 80's, before cell phones, before AIDS, before voice mail. I sat on the floor literally for several hours listening to the phone ring and ring and ring and ring and ring and ring and...

All the while, part of my brain knew that I was severely overreacting. But simply knowing that didn't make the feeling, or its physical impact on my life, any less real.

Of course, jealousy is irrational only from the point of view of a college student trying to carry on a long-distance relationship. From the point of view of my genes trying to compel me to help them reproduce it makes perfect sense. So too with existential angst. For most of their evolutionary history, humans existed at subsistence levels, always on the hairy edge of starvation. In such an environment, labor is a precious and valuable resource. Any extra hands available to hunt or gather or till or harvest contribute directly to survival. Such an environment selects heavily for instincts that in this modern age we would call a Puritan work ethic, and a belief that human life (which is to say, labor) is precious.

The advent of economic plenty brought about by the indusrial revolution changed everything. Suddenly everything became cheap including labor. It was suddenly possibly for members of the clan to engage in activities not directly related to the production of food without putting the other members in peril of starvation. People could become scholars or poets or even outright parasites (c.f. Paris Hilton) without being strongly selected against, at least not by evolution.

Moreover, labor, once a precious resource, became a commodity. Which is to say that people became a commodity. With division of labor, standardization and specialization, humans were essentially turned into machines, at least in the workplace. All this was enormously beneficial in societal and evolutionary terms (as evidenced by the fact that humans are now overrunning the entire planet) but from the point of view of the human instincts and emotions evolved during leaner times it was a disaster. Our genes evolved a wide variety of dirty tricks to make us want to work hard, to be useful, to be part of something greater than ourselves, to feel like our life had a purpose, to believe that God Himself wanted us to be fruitful and multiply. Barely an eyeblink ago in evolutionary terms these instincts had real survival value. Today they don't, but the gears of evolution turn slowly and those instincts and emotions are still with us, and no less real and impactful on our lives than jealousy.

The reality of these instincts is manifest -- there is no other way to explain the rise of fundamentalism in the modern world. Many authors have written about this, including Karen Armstrong and Michael Lerner. The modern resurgence of fundamentalism is an instrinctive response to the dehumanizing effects of modern industrial society. We evolved to believe that human life is precious because we evolved in a world where that belief had survival value.

Of course, DD&H understand all this. (This is actually the central thesis of "The God Delusion.") What they do not understand is that they are outliers. Random variation naturally produces some people in whom these instincts are less strong or even absent altogether, and with the old evolutionary pressures removed these outliers begint to survive and become more common. But DD&H apparently fail to realize that the vast majority of people cannot simply switch off their instinctive desire for meaning, community, and purpose, even if that desire has to be fulfilled by beliefs that are objectively fictional.

The objective fact of the matter is that human life is no longer precious, which is just another way of saying that labor is cheap. Most people are confronted with this harsh reality every day when they go to work. Modern industrialism has transformed humans from precious individuals to interchangeable components. Evolutionarily it has been a great success. We can now, for example, afford to slaughter each other wholesale with nary a blip on the exponential population curve. But evolution works slowly, and those not-so-old instincts are still with us, and it is very, very hard to shake off the burden of instinct. These feelings are wired deep into the dark recesses of our brain, and logic is a poor weapon against the power of evolution.

Until DD&H realize that for many people religion is just as much a compulsion as reason is for them they will continue to fail to win hearts and minds. And that is a damn shame.

16 comments:

denis bider said...

I strongly object to your referring to Paris Hilton as a parasite. She may have done nothing in particular to inherit the wealth she has, but depriving her ancestors of the right to pass their wealth onto her, if they choose to do so, is to deprive them for their rightfully earned reward for their economic contributions (their Hilton hotel chain). If they have chosen not to enjoy the rewards of their labor themselves, but to pass it onto their retarded child, that is entirely legitimate. The wealth was rightfully earned, so that does not make her a parasite.

On the other hand, people enjoying social welfare can rightfully be called parasites, because they are not enjoying the fruits of rightfully owned labor, instead they are enjoying a forcefully confiscated product of someone else's real work. If anyone is a parasite, it's not Paris Hilton, it's the bums living off social welfare.

denis bider said...

Good point overall though. I think this is the first time you express yourself so clearly. I find it hard to disagree.

denis bider said...

So your criticism of what you call DD&H appears to be well-reasoned. But what's the other side of the coin? Do you have suggestions for a different strategy? How should atheists attempt to win the hearts and minds of people, if not the way DD&H are doing it?

Given the apparent lack of better alternatives, I don't see how their approach is harmful. I don't see how they'll win many hearts and minds on the side of the converted, but at least the consolidation and public affirmation of agnosticism/atheism is a positive consequence that I welcome. Better than nothing; a sort of "coming out of the closet" for all the atheists and agnostics of the world, so to speak.

Ron said...

I strongly object to your referring to Paris Hilton as a parasite.

Just because Paris sponges off her willing parents instead of society doesn't make her any less of a parasite IMO. I agree that welfare recipients are parasites too, but from a moral point of view I find Paris more reprehensible because she could choose to make somthing of herself whereas many welfare recipients really don't have that option because they don't have even the minimal capital required to e.g. get a good night's sleep. (And believe me, I know whereof I speak.)

Good point overall though. I think this is the first time you express yourself so clearly.

Thanks. I've been wrestling with this post for weeks. Sometimes the hardest things to explain are the ones that are intuitively obvious to you.

How should atheists attempt to win the hearts and minds of people

That's a long story that will have to wait for another post, but the short version of the answer is: the same way religious people do -- with an effective marketing campaign that is grounded not in logic or beligerance or negativity but in the recognition and fulfillment of people's spiritual needs.

denis bider said...

Sometimes the hardest things to explain are the ones that are intuitively obvious to you.

Indeed.


That's a long story that will have to wait for another post, but the short version of the answer is: the same way religious people do -- with an effective marketing campaign that is grounded not in logic or beligerance or negativity but in the recognition and fulfillment of people's spiritual needs.

The problem I see here is that I find what you just described - a marketing campaign grounded not in logic but in recognition and fulfillment of people's spiritual needs - inherently contradictory to the idea we want to spread in the first place. The way I see it, the idea we want to spread is reason; rationality. Wouldn't it be fundamentally dishonest, wouldn't it defeat the purpose, to try to spread it through irrational means?

The way I see it, all those people who aren't inclined to rational thought simply won't do much rational thinking. The most that could be done about them is to invent a religion (appeal to them on spiritual grounds, as you speak) that helps make those people subservient to people who think rationally.

But this has all the potential in the world to devolve into exactly what religions are today. You can't persuade people who aren't rational to recognize and follow a leader who is. They will recognize and follow a leader that appeals to their instincts.

In other words, you can create a spiritual movement that will lead people to recognize the value of reason, but your movement will be unstable and will be easily hijacked by hypocritical people desirous of leadership.


Just because Paris sponges off her willing parents instead of society doesn't make her any less of a parasite IMO. I agree that welfare recipients are parasites too, but from a moral point of view I find Paris more reprehensible because she could choose to make somthing of herself whereas many welfare recipients really don't have that option because they don't have even the minimal capital required to e.g. get a good night's sleep. (And believe me, I know whereof I speak.)

Mmm, maybe, and I agree that welfare recipients should have been given equal educational opportunity to begin with. But Paris inherited her money fair and square. If her parents give it to her, it's her money. You can't question that, or else you need to start questioning all transactions and gifts, business or otherwise.

She didn't comit any crime or fraud to receive her money, she was just a cute child, and that was good enough.

Hey, Bill Gates hands out money to children in Africa, and he isn't even choosing for the cutest.

Furthermore, Paris is performing a useful public service. She's entertaining people (intentionally or otherwise). That counts.

Ron said...

Wouldn't it be fundamentally dishonest, wouldn't it defeat the purpose, to try to spread it through irrational means?

Not if that's the only effective way to do it.

your movement will be unstable

I never said it would be easy. One of the biggest challenges will be overcoming self-fulfilling prophecies like that one.

Paris inherited her money fair and square.

No argument. But that doesn't make her any less of a parasite.

She's entertaining people

Yes, but she doesn't make her living that way.

Note by the way that there is nothing inherently pejorative about calling someone a parasite. Many creatures on this earth are parasites and they get along quite nicely. It is only because you have this evolved Puritan work ethic hard-wired into your brain that you think being a parasite is bad. If you'd been born a tapework instead of a human you wouldn't feel this way. :-)

Bill Gates hands out money to children in Africa

Indeed, but it is not at all clear whether that does more good than harm (to say nothing of the fact that Bill didn't make his money playing by the rules).

Ron said...

Oh, one other last-minute thought:

wouldn't it defeat the purpose, to try to spread it through irrational means?

My goal is not to make everyone rational. I don't think that's realistic or even the Right Thing To Do (tm). If people want to be irrational that's their right -- as long as they don't try to use the government to force everyone else to be irrational along with them. My goal is just to get enough people thinking rationally enough that the remaining irrationality in the world doesn't fuck it up too badly. There were plenty of irrational people doing irrational things back in the 70's and 80's, but if we could just go back to how things were then (in socio-political terms at least) I would consider that a huge win.

quantamos said...

This is a very insightful post. I would like to make a comment about why I feel the arguments from HH&D are particularly weak:


1) A lot of them boil down to "you shouldn't believe this because it's silly". But this kind of opinion won't sway anybody who has felt the benefits of their religion. As an article in The Economist (back in December I think, the topic was the Pentacostal explosion in Latin American and Africa), eloquently but paraphrased here, the man with an argument has no leverage on the man with an experience.

2) Others look at Mosaic Law and argue that because the punishment doesn't fit the crime, God is not just. However, there is an explanation that is more self consistent. Any Biblically knowledgeable person should draw the opposite conclusion; that God takes sin very seriously. Arguments that fall into this category will be dismissed as hubris by Christian listeners.

3) Other arguments discuss bad things people have done in the name of their religion in more recent times. These are painful arguments since all religious people have been disappointed by coreligionists, modern and medieval. However, the ones who take their religion seriously will not be swayed because they will conclude that these represent the failings of individuals, and not of their religion. Why would they conclude this? Most of them because they've been similarly disappointed with themselves, and they still believe.

4) Other arguments will bring up a bit of scripture, attack some interpretation, and conclude that the Bible is severely flawed. The problem is that if a Christian listener doesn't agree with the interpretation, then obviously they're not going to agree with the conclusion. This kind of strawman argument is disappointingly common from such rationalists as HH&D.

5) Some criticisms are entirely valid. Like Gandhi said, "I like your Jesus, but not your Christians... your Christians are so unlike your Jesus." I have no rebuttal.

I was reading last night about pentecostal evangelists are cooking the books to make money at their healing services. But I accuse HH&D of something similar. I don't feel like they're presenting a balanced argument. If I were to go to one of their lectures, I'd ask the question "Wow! you must be shocked that there are any Christians at all!". I've heard less from Harris, but Hitchens and Dawkins are little more than vitriol!

So yes I agree, atheism will never be popular with the unwashed masses unless it can present some kind of spiritual pill that people can take. But that's not the only thing necessary to purge religious power from the planet. I have some speculation on what might be attempted, for the sake of humanity, to eliminate irrational influence. I'd say not to worry, I think the book of Revelations predicts that rationalists like HH&D will be given free reign and a chance to design a rational society.

Cheers!

denis bider said...

While we're discussing reason and ridding public policy of irrationality, one might mention that there have been excesses of rational hubris in public policy as well, and that this too had devastating consequences. The many attempts at socialism and communism are a striking example. Hoover's overenthusiastic "central engineer" approach to the U.S. economy of 1929 could be another.

Reason is the most promising tool we have, but it too can lead to overconfidence and failure. The up side is that a strategy of reason is more quickly self-correcting in light of new evidence, whereas faith-based strategies are much more resistant to change and take longer to incorporate new knowledge.

Perhaps it's not so much reason versus unreason. Perhaps it is the length of the grief cycle (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance) that is the actual difference between thinking strategies we want to encourage (reason) and thinking strategies we don't.

No argument. But that doesn't make her any less of a parasite.

Fair enough.

Peculiarly, the dictionary shows the word parasite to have an interesting etymology:

parasite, n. [...] 3. (in ancient Greece) a person who received free meals in return for amusing or impudent conversation, flattering remarks, etc.

parasite, n. [...] 3. A professional dinner guest, especially in ancient Greece.

That sounds quite like Paris Hilton, indeed. :)


Indeed, but it is not at all clear whether that does more good than harm

Agreed. Aside for the opportunity cost of spending money in this way, I wouldn't say it causes harm, but I don't expect that it will be fruitful.


(to say nothing of the fact that Bill didn't make his money playing by the rules).

I hope that what you mean here are shady marketing practices used in the past to encourage OEMs to bundle Windows, which were more than questionable indeed; not the popular strawmen, like the browser and Media Player fallacies.

Ron said...

one might mention that there have been excesses of rational hubris in public policy as well

An astute observation. Maybe what the world needs more of is not rationality but humility.

I wouldn't say it causes harm

James Shikwati would.

I hope that what you mean here are shady marketing practices used in the past to encourage OEMs to bundle Windows, which were more than questionable indeed; not the popular strawmen, like the browser and Media Player fallacies.

Well, I don't really want to get into this here, but I think that the effects of MS's shady practices in the past have never been adequately addressed, and so their negative impact continues to be felt today. When it comes to infrastructure, monopolies are self-perpetuating, and I think that MS is where it is today not because it produces good products but because it continues to leverage the monopoly that it improperly established in the 90's. (One indication of this is that there is an entire industry that revolves around helping people deal with problems caused by Microsoft products.)

But more than that, I think that Microsoft's management simply has no sense of honor or fair play, and they would revert to shady practices again in an instant if they thought they could get away with it. I have no proof of this, but this is the sense I get from them.

denis bider said...

James Shikwati would.

Awesome! This is a different argument than I usually make, but it's so much more convincing, and so much more powerful as it is coming from the right person, too.

I just love his phrase "devastating urge to do good". This can be used for so many other things that Europeans and Americans like to do that are inherently destructive and stupid, despite them being meant to "help".


But more than that, I think that Microsoft's management simply has no sense of honor or fair play, and they would revert to shady practices again in an instant if they thought they could get away with it. I have no proof of this, but this is the sense I get from them.

I think you're right about that. They are no teddy bears, and they did play dirty at some point.

I wouldn't say that the industry around Microsoft products is proof of them being a bad thing though, just like an industry of car shops isn't proof of cars being a bad thing.

Doesn't mean a competitor wouldn't need the same supporting industry if they were in Microsoft's place.

Don said...

Ron wrote:
Until DD&H realize that for many people religion is just as much a compulsion as reason is for them they will continue to fail to win hearts and minds.

I don't think you're giving them enough credit.

There are two distinct questions. The first is: "is religion true?" Most religious people believe that it is. DD&H directly attack this belief: religion is not, in fact, true.

A different question is: "given that religion is not true, why is it so popular?" This is also an interesting question, and different from the first. I get the sense that DD&H are postponing (or perhaps not interested) in this second question, which seems to be what you're addressing.

Or it could be that attacking the truthfulness of religion is an important first step in changing hearts and minds. As you mentioned (but objected to!) in your previous post, it's hard for a person to "believe" in something that they don't actually think is true.

denis bider said...

I wonder if Amos is still reading this. Amos: I checked your blog, you seem to be an insightful person - and you also appear to be a member of a church.

You wrote earlier about reasons in general why a religious person would reject the arguments of HH&D. But why do you believe? You seem to be a pretty reasonable guy. Why are you religious?

Is it because, as you wrote under (1) - "the man with an argument has no leverage on the man with an experience"?

Ron said...

I wonder if Amos is still reading this.

Yes, he left a comment upstream. His handle is "quantamos".

Ron said...

"is religion true?" Most religious people believe that it is. DD&H directly attack this belief: religion is not, in fact, true.

I addressed this in an earlier post.

quantamos said...

Why am I religious?

I have come to accept that this is a difficult question to answer while simultaneously claiming to be rational. It's not quite as simple as "having an experience".

I'll try to post an explanation on my blog soon.