Monday, September 04, 2006

The irrelevance of a ''need'' for religion.

This is one of the stupidest articles I've read lately. The "argument" is made by a psychologist, to the effect that there's a deep psychological need for religion and belief in the supernatural.
The work of Bruce Hood, a professor at Bristol University, suggests that magical and supernatural beliefs are hardwired into our brains from birth, and that religions are therefore tapping into a powerful psychological force.
This is then conflated with a need to believe in the irrational.
"But almost everyone entertains some form of irrational beliefs even if they are not religious."
Which is then conflated with a need to believe in the valuable.
"For example, many people would be reluctant to part with a wedding ring for an identical ring because of the personal significance it holds. Conversely, many people are disgusted by an object if it has associations with 'evil'."
And this is all lumped together into a big mass of crap to conclude that, I think, we should just tolerate creationism rather than laughing hysterically at it.
The battle by scientists against "irrational" beliefs such as creationism is ultimately futile, a leading experimental psychologist said today.
Basically, it's all bullshit. None of it holds together. (The psychologist in question has the nerve to call Richard Dawkins' and Daniel Dennett's views "simplistic". One wonders how much of The Selfish Gene or The Intentional Stance he actually understood.) There's a difference between believing in the supernatural and believing in something irrational. There's a difference between believing in the irrational and believing in value. And nothing about the supernatural, the irrational, or value will undercut evolutionary biology's explanatory prowess when it comes to biology. (I should note that it's a lousy theory of why people value their wedding rings because it's not a theory about why people value their wedding rings.)

8 comments:

undergroundman said...

The man has some better points than you might think. Last year I was hoping for the secular revolution, but now I'm wondering if it will ever happen, as I read more and more about the worldwide religious revival. There is a strange peace to belief in God. Freud didn't call religion the opiate of the masses for no reason.

People do value things for irrational reasons. People do make irrational decisions all the time. My view is that its mainly genetic.

ADHR said...

That there's "peace" to belief in stupid things doesn't make the belief rational, nor does it make it valuable.

Furthermore, it's Marx. And he meant "opiate" as in anaesthetic: religion makes the masses numb to things that really matter.

Blaming human irrationality on genetics is a naturalized version of an old fallacy. Just because people do it doesn't make it natural; just because it happens a lot doesn't make it natural. And, of course, just because it happens a lot doesn't make it one jot less irrational nor more genuinely valuable.

undergroundman said...

Of course, the psychologist wouldn't argue with you as to whether it's valuable or rational. The question is whether we will ever completely shake the belief in irrationality. People persist in irrationality despite intense pressure by the greatest minds of history to change them (look at religion in Communist countries). If environmental influences aren't pushing them there, then we have to conclude that it's a genetic inclination. There's simply nothing else that dictates people's actions. Whether that genetic inclination can be overcome by increasing pressure from philosophy, science, and popular opinion is up for debate (but if people are simply swayed by the popular opinion, then they're still irrational).

What Marx meant when he said opiate can be debated, but it really doesn't matter. Sounds like he was using it pejoratively like Nietzsche would have, but Nietzsche might have gone one further and said that excess philosophizing has also made people numb to things that really matter. It makes more sense to me to think of religion as an addiction: it's incredibly pleasurable and hard to kick.

If people were inclined towards secularism, they would have done it by now. The evidence for it is overwhelming. Instead, many religions are exploding in popularity all across the world. The shift in Europe towards secularism seems to indicate that the majority (the sheep) will shift to the dominant philosophy of the time and the region (as I pointed out, an irrational belief). Most people, genetically, are not inclined towards philosophy and philosophical topics. Across history we've had a relatively consistent and small percentage of the population interested in philosophy, with perhaps a few rare exceptions.

undergroundman said...

Just read the article for the first time - yeah, I can be irrational.

I'd agree with Dawkins that there are basically two types of people in the world (though it's likely more complicated than that).

Would you agree with that assessment?

I mean, I don't think I hold irrational beliefs...heh...at least not willingly...

ADHR said...

I think he would argue about whether it is valuable or rational. The point seems to be that, because people are hard to convince not to believe in irrational things (e.g., the significance of the wedding ring -- which is, incidentally, the conflation of value and rationality, for the ring may actually be valuable, in several senses), we should just tolerate the irrational beliefs. But this is a blatant error. Tolerating irrational beliefs suggests that the beliefs deserve to be tolerated, that they are actually worthwhile. Maybe the view was simply expressed badly, but I took it to be a claim that we should leave crazy beliefs alone, not that trying to change them is extremely difficult, if not impossible.

You're conceding a lot to say that it's not environmental. Social psychologists keep demonstrating that people get less rational in particular social situations, so I'm inclined to think that most of the pressure is environmental. Which suggests that it is highly changeable.

Nietzsche said a lot of things. Occasionally, he was less than completely wrong. (Zing!) I'm not sure religion is really pleasureable, but I'll grant it's a hard habit to kick. That seems to come back to social pressures, though. It's generally hard to leave groups that one is committed to and has spent lots of time in, whether that's a church or World of Warcraft.

I accept that rational thinking is not something most people are "naturally" inclined towards, but I tend to think this, also, is social in its roots. This is particularly prevalent in the US, which is one of the only industrialized nations to have not seen a general turn away from religion. It's also one of the few industrialized nations to be actively hostile towards people of learning and intelligence. (Witness that both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush played down their Ivy League roots during their election campaigns, which would have been incredibly poor strategy if appearing intellectual could win votes.)

Whether or not secularism is spreading is a matter of empirical measurement (plus some conceptual analysis to figure out what needs to be measured, of course). My sense is that it is, but it's hard to see from North America, given that the US is such a massive anti-intellectualist aberration.

ADHR said...

And I think most people exist somewhere on a continuum, and their positions can shift with time. The idea that there's a neat division into types seems to overlook (if not deny) the diversity and plasticity of the human animal.

undergroundman said...

"Maybe the view was simply expressed badly, but I took it to be a claim that we should leave crazy beliefs alone, not that trying to change them is extremely difficult, if not impossible."

Yeah, I gave him the latter view. If you think the former, then yeah, it's a stupid belief. We should fight irrationality whenever it appears. (Regardless of the fact that rationality is subjective - the most common definition, it appears, is that the rational belief is that which makes the most sense.)

"Nietzsche said a lot of things. Occasionally, he was less than completely wrong. (Zing!)"

Perhaps you should make the groundbreaking post refuting Nietzsche. :) If you can point me towards one, I'd love to see it. As it is, it seems that the literature (and my professors) are tight-lipped when it comes to Nietzsche and his mistakes.

He seems to be the most rational and on-target philosopher yet for his time. He realizes that a lot of what came before him is right, but he realizes that it is also flawed in its universal approach (essentially a dishonest approach).

"It's also one of the few industrialized nations to be actively hostile towards people of learning and intelligence."

As if the United States was the only nation suspicious of the Ivory Tower of knowledge. Please. If it was one of the few, we would have academics in elected positions across the world - yet we don't. (I find the fact that philosophers, economists, and other worthy academics don't run for office to be shameful and extremely disheartening.)

The U.S., the UK, and Australia are all quite religious yet developed. The Christian/conservative parties remain strong throughout other developed countries.

"The idea that there's a neat division into types seems to overlook (if not deny) the diversity and plasticity of the human animal."

So basically you believe that people can be irrational throughout their live, then suddenly adopt rationality The evidence seems scant through my anecdotal evidence, and it would suggest that these people undergo a life-changing epiphany. I suspect most people live their lives by a fallacious 'appeal to the majority or authority' belief, and coincidentally it turns them towards rational beliefs when the majority does.

ADHR said...

Yeah, I gave him the latter view. If you think the former, then yeah, it's a stupid belief. We should fight irrationality whenever it appears. (Regardless of the fact that rationality is subjective - the most common definition, it appears, is that the rational belief is that which makes the most sense.)

There's two senses of "subjective", and I think you're conflating them. The first means something like "non-truth-evaluable". The second means something like "requires a subject". The first is obviously much stronger -- it makes a positive claim about whether a proposition can have truth-conditions or not. The latter is weaker -- it only states a necessary condition on a particular proposition being truth-evaluable. In the second sense, I think you're probably right: no subjects, no rationality. In the first sense, I doubt it: there are correct and incorrect judgements of rationality.

Perhaps you should make the groundbreaking post refuting Nietzsche. :) If you can point me towards one, I'd love to see it. As it is, it seems that the literature (and my professors) are tight-lipped when it comes to Nietzsche and his mistakes.

He seems to be the most rational and on-target philosopher yet for his time. He realizes that a lot of what came before him is right, but he realizes that it is also flawed in its universal approach (essentially a dishonest approach).


There's a huge critical literature in Nietzsche. A bunch is, of course, in German, but English-language scholarship is coming of age. You're not going to get a knock-down refutation from anyone, but, as with all the greats, there are those who think he was on to something and those who think he was completely off-base on everything. Consult the Philosopher's Index or find a good series of books and pick out the Nietzsche volume (Routledge, for example, has what looks like a good series on the "great philosophers", edited by Brian Leiter; I think they have a Nietzsche volume).

As if the United States was the only nation suspicious of the Ivory Tower of knowledge. Please. If it was one of the few, we would have academics in elected positions across the world - yet we don't. (I find the fact that philosophers, economists, and other worthy academics don't run for office to be shameful and extremely disheartening.)

Now, hang on. I didn't say the only, I said "one of the few". Whether or not academics are in elected offices is also a side-issue; as long as academics are taken seriously, I think that's sufficient to say that there is little hostility towards intellectuals. If you like political examples, though, it's worth noting that the current Canadian PM has a Master's in econ, and the leader of the Opposition Party, the Liberals, has a PhD in sociology.

The U.S., the UK, and Australia are all quite religious yet developed. The Christian/conservative parties remain strong throughout other developed countries.

You also can't connect Christian and conservative together outside the US. The terms take on very different meanings. For example, the current Canadian PM, Stephen Harper, is a "conservative", yet he is (apparently) content to allow same-sex marriages to continue and is at least paying lip service to environmental issues. The leader of the UK Tory party (David Cameron) is also really pushing environmental issues, legally-recognized same-sex partnerships, and national public healthcare. Harper is a Christian, but keeps it quiet; I'm not sure what, if any, particular religion Cameron practices.

The point is: American "conservatism" is a much more extreme, radicalized beast than conservatism in most of the West, and the connection to religion is really peculiar to the US. There are indeed religious parties in other countries, but they are very marginal. In Canada, for example, the Christian Heritage Party consistently polls at less than 1% nationally.

So basically you believe that people can be irrational throughout their live, then suddenly adopt rationality The evidence seems scant through my anecdotal evidence, and it would suggest that these people undergo a life-changing epiphany. I suspect most people live their lives by a fallacious 'appeal to the majority or authority' belief, and coincidentally it turns them towards rational beliefs when the majority does.

That's certainly possible (although, if they act in a way consistent with rationality, on what basis can we say they are not really rational?). But I don't see any a priori reason to reject the possibility of conversion.