Belief in belief, and why it’s important

Oct 30, JDN 2457692

In my previous post on ridiculous beliefs, I passed briefly over this sentence:

“People invest their identity in beliefs, and decide what beliefs to profess based on the group identities they value most.”

Today I’d like to talk about the fact that “to profess” is a very important phrase in that sentence. Part of understanding ridiculous beliefs, I think, is understanding that many, if not most, of them are not actually proper beliefs. They are what Daniel Dennett calls “belief in belief”, and has elsewhere been referred to as “anomalous belief”. They are not beliefs in the ordinary sense that we would line up with the other beliefs in our worldview and use them to anticipate experiences and motivate actions. They are something else, lone islands of belief that are not weaved into our worldview. But all the same they are invested with importance, often moral or even ultimate importance; this one belief may not make any sense with everyone else, but you must believe it, because it is a vital part of your identity and your tribe. To abandon it would not simply be mistaken; it would be heresy, it would be treason.

How do I know this? Mainly because nobody has tried to stone me to death lately.

The Bible is quite explicit about at least a dozen reasons I am supposed to be executed forthwith; you likely share many of them: Heresy, apostasy, blasphemy, nonbelief, sodomy, fornication, covetousness, taking God’s name in vain, eating shellfish (though I don’t anymore!), wearing mixed fiber, shaving, working on the Sabbath, making images of things, and my personal favorite, not stoning other people for committing such crimes (as we call it in game theory, a second-order punishment).

Yet I have met many people who profess to be “Bible-believing Christians”, and even may oppose some of these activities (chiefly sodomy, blasphemy, and nonbelief) on the grounds that they are against what the Bible says—and yet not one has tried to arrange my execution, nor have I ever seriously feared that they might.

Is this because we live in a secular society? Well, yes—but not simply that. It isn’t just that these people are afraid of being punished by our secular government should they murder me for my sins; they believe that it is morally wrong to murder me, and would rarely even consider the option. Someone could point them to the passage in Leviticus (20:16, as it turns out) that explicitly says I should be executed, and it would not change their behavior toward me.

On first glance this is quite baffling. If I thought you were about to drink a glass of water that contained cyanide, I would stop you, by force if necessary. So if they truly believe that I am going to be sent to Hell—infinitely worse than cyanide—then shouldn’t they be willing to use any means necessary to stop that from happening? And wouldn’t this be all the more true if they believe that they themselves will go to Hell should they fail to punish me?

If these “Bible-believing Christians” truly believed in Hell the way that I believe in cyanide—that is, as proper beliefs which anticipate experience and motivate action—then they would in fact try to force my conversion or execute me, and in doing so would believe that they are doing right. This used to be quite common in many Christian societies (most infamously in the Salem Witch Trials), and still is disturbingly common in many Muslim societies—ISIS doesn’t just throw gay men off rooftops and stone them as a weird idiosyncrasy; it is written in the Hadith that they’re supposed to. Nor is this sort of thing confined to terrorist groups; the “legitimate” government of Saudi Arabia routinely beheads atheists or imprisons homosexuals (though has a very capricious enforcement system, likely so that the monarchy can trump up charges to justify executing whomever they choose). Beheading people because the book said so is what your behavior would look like if you honestly believed, as a proper belief, that the Qur’an or the Bible or whatever holy book actually contained the ultimate truth of the universe. The great irony of calling religion people’s “deeply-held belief” is that it is in almost all circumstances the exact opposite—it is their most weakly held belief, the one that they could most easily sacrifice without changing their behavior.

Yet perhaps we can’t even say that to people, because they will get equally defensive and insist that they really do hold this very important anomalous belief, and how dare you accuse them otherwise. Because one of the beliefs they really do hold, as a proper belief, and a rather deeply-held one, is that you must always profess to believe your religion and defend your belief in it, and if anyone catches you not believing it that’s a horrible, horrible thing. So even though it’s obvious to everyone—probably even to you—that your behavior looks nothing like what it would if you actually believed in this book, you must say that you do, scream that you do if necessary, for no one must ever, ever find out that it is not a proper belief.

Another common trick is to try to convince people that their beliefs do affect their behavior, even when they plainly don’t. We typically use the words “religious” and “moral” almost interchangeably, when they are at best orthogonal and arguably even opposed. Part of why so many people seem to hold so rigidly to their belief-in-belief is that they think that morality cannot be justified without recourse to religion; so even though on some level they know religion doesn’t make sense, they are afraid to admit it, because they think that means admitting that morality doesn’t make sense. If you are even tempted by this inference, I present to you the entire history of ethical philosophy. Divine Command theory has been a minority view among philosophers for centuries.

Indeed, it is precisely because your moral beliefs are not based on your religion that you feel a need to resort to that defense of your religion. If you simply believed religion as a proper belief, you would base your moral beliefs on your religion, sure enough; but you’d also defend your religion in a fundamentally different way, not as something you’re supposed to believe, not as a belief that makes you a good person, but as something that is just actually true. (And indeed, many fanatics actually do defend their beliefs in those terms.) No one ever uses the argument that if we stop believing in chairs we’ll all become murderers, because chairs are actually there. We don’t believe in belief in chairs; we believe in chairs.

And really, if such a belief were completely isolated, it would not be a problem; it would just be this weird thing you say you believe that everyone really knows you don’t and it doesn’t affect how you behave, but okay, whatever. The problem is that it’s never quite isolated from your proper beliefs; it does affect some things—and in particular it can offer a kind of “support” for other real, proper beliefs that you do have, support which is now immune to rational criticism.

For example, as I already mentioned: Most of these “Bible-believing Christians” do, in fact, morally oppose homosexuality, and say that their reason for doing so is based on the Bible. This cannot literally be true, because if they actually believed the Bible they wouldn’t want gay marriage taken off the books, they’d want a mass pogrom of 4-10% of the population (depending how you count), on a par with the Holocaust. Fortunately their proper belief that genocide is wrong is overriding. But they have no such overriding belief supporting the moral permissibility of homosexuality or the personal liberty of marriage rights, so the very tenuous link to their belief-in-belief in the Bible is sufficient to tilt their actual behavior.

Similarly, if the people I meet who say they think maybe 9/11 was an inside job by our government really believed that, they would most likely be trying to organize a violent revolution; any government willing to murder 3,000 of its own citizens in a false flag operation is one that must be overturned and can probably only be overturned by force. At the very least, they would flee the country. If they lived in a country where the government is actually like that, like Zimbabwe or North Korea, they wouldn’t fear being dismissed as conspiracy theorists, they’d fear being captured and executed. The very fact that you live within the United States and exercise your free speech rights here says pretty strongly that you don’t actually believe our government is that evil. But they wouldn’t be so outspoken about their conspiracy theories if they didn’t at least believe in believing them.

I also have to wonder how many of our politicians who lean on the Constitution as their source of authority have actually read the Constitution, as it says a number of rather explicit things against, oh, say, the establishment of religion (First Amendment) or searches and arrests without warrants (Fourth Amendment) that they don’t much seem to care about. Some are better about this than others; Rand Paul, for instance, actually takes the Constitution pretty seriously (and is frequently found arguing against things like warrantless searches as a result!), but Ted Cruz for example says he has spent decades “defending the Constitution”, despite saying things like “America is a Christian nation” that directly violate the First Amendment. Cruz doesn’t really seem to believe in the Constitution; but maybe he believes in believing the Constitution. (It’s also quite possible he’s just lying to manipulate voters.)


Is America uniquely… mean?

JDN 2457454

I read this article yesterday which I found both very resonant and very disturbing: At least among First World countries, the United States really does seem uniquely, for lack of a better word, mean.

The formal psychological terminology is social dominance orientation; the political science term is authoritarianism. In economics, we notice the difference due to its effect on income inequality. But all of these concepts are capturing part of a deeper underlying reality that in the age of Trump I am finding increasingly hard to deny. The best predictor of support for Trump is authoritarianism.

Of course I’ve already talked about our enormous military budget; but then Tennessee had to make their official state rifle a 50-caliber weapon capable of destroying light tanks. There is something especially dominant, aggressive, and violent about American culture.

We are certainly not unique in the world as a whole—actually I think the amount of social dominance orientation, authoritarianism, and inequality in the US is fairly similar to the world average. We are unique in our gun ownership, but our military spending proportional to GDP is not particularly high by world standards—we’re just an extremely rich country. But in all these respects we are a unique outlier among First World countries; in many ways we resemble a rich authoritarian petrostate like Qatar rather than a European social democracy like France or the UK. (At least we’re not Saudi Arabia?)

More than other First World cultures, Americans believe in hierarchy; they believe that someone should be on top and other people should be on the bottom. More than that, they believe that people “like us” should be on top and people “not like us” should be on the bottom, however that is defined—often in terms of race or religion, but not necessarily.

Indeed, one of the things I find most baffling about this is that it is often more important to people that others be held down than that they themselves be lifted up. This is the only way I can make sense of the fact that people who have watched their wages be drained into the pockets of billionaires for a generation can think that the most important things to do right now are block out illegal immigrants and deport Muslims.

It seems to be that people become convinced that their own status, whatever it may be, is deserved: If they are rich, it is obviously because they are so brilliant and hard-working (something Trump clearly believes about himself, being a textbook example of Narcissistic Personality Disorder); if they are poor, it is obviously because they are so incompetent and lazy. Thus, being lifted up doesn’t make sense; why would you give me things I don’t deserve?

But then when they see people who are different from them, they know automatically that those people must be by definition inferior, as all who are Not of Our Tribe are by definition inferior. And therefore, any of them who are rich gained their position through corruption or injustice, and all of them who are poor deserve their fate for being so inferior. Thus, it is most vital to ensure that these Not of Our Tribe are held down from reaching high positions they so obviously do not deserve.

I’m fairly sure that most of this happens at a very deep unconscious level; it calls upon ancient evolutionary instincts to love our own tribe, to serve the alpha male, to fear and hate those of other tribes. These instincts may well have served us 200,000 years ago (then again, they may just have been the best our brains could manage at the time); but they are becoming a dangerous liability today.

As E.O. Wilson put it: “The real problem of humanity is the following: we have paleolithic emotions; medieval institutions; and god-like technology.”

Yet this cannot be a complete explanation, for there is variation in these attitudes. A purely instinctual theory should say that all human cultures have this to an essentially equal degree; but I started this post by pointing out that the United States appears to have a particularly large amount relative to Europe.

So, there must be something in the cultures or institutions of different nations that makes them either enhance or suppress this instinctual tribalism. There must be something that Europe is doing right, the US is doing wrong, and Saudi Arabia is doing very, very wrong.
Well, the obvious one that sticks out at me is religion. It seems fairly obvious to me that Sweden is less religious than the US, which is less religious than Saudi Arabia.

Data does back me up on this. Religiosity isn’t easy to measure, but we have methods of doing so. If we ask people in various countries if religion is very important in their lives, the percentage of people who say yes gives us an indication of how religious that country is.

In Saudi Arabia, 93% say yes. In the United States, 65% say yes. In Sweden, only 17% say yes.

Religiosity tends to be highest in the poorest countries, but the US is an outlier, far too rich for our religion (or too religious for our wealth).

Religiosity also tends to be highest in countries with high inequality—this time, the US fits right in.

The link between religion and inequality is quite clear. It’s harder to say which way the causation runs. Perhaps high inequality makes people cling more to religion as a comfort, and getting rid of religion would only mean taking that comfort away. Or, perhaps religion actually makes people believe more in social dominance, and thus is part of what keeps that high inequality in place. It could also be a feedback loop, in which higher inequality leads to higher religiosity which leads to higher inequality.

That said, I think we actually have some evidence that causality runs from religion to inequality, rather than the other way around. The secularization of France took place around the same time as the French Revolution that overthrew the existing economic system and replaced it with one that had substantially less inequality. Iran’s government became substantially more based on religion in the latter half of the 20th century, and their inequality soared thereafter.

Above all, Donald Trump dominates the evangelical vote, which makes absolutely no sense if religion is a comfort against inequality—but perfect sense if religion solidifies the tendency of people to think in terms of hierarchy and authoritarianism.

This also makes sense in terms of the content of religion, especially Abrahamaic religion; read the Bible and the Qur’an, and you will see that their primary goal seems to be to convince you that some people, namely people who believe in this book, are just better than other people, and we should be in charge because God says so. (And you wouldn’t try to argue with God, would you?) They really make no particular effort to convince you that God actually exists; they spend all their argumentative effort on what God wants you to do and who God wants you to put in charge—and for some strange reason it always seems to be the same guys who are writing down “God’s words” in the book! What a coincidence!

If religion is indeed the problem, or a large part of the problem, what can we do about it? That’s the most difficult part. We’ve been making absolutely conclusive rational arguments against religion since literally 300 years before Jesus was even born (there has never been a time in human history in which it was rational for an educated person to believe in Christianity or Islam, for the religions did not come into existence until well after the arguments to refute them were well-known!), and the empirical evidence against theism has only gotten stronger ever since; so that clearly isn’t enough.

I think what we really need to do at this point is confront the moral monopoly that religion has asserted for itself. The “Moral Majority” was neither, but its name still sort of makes sense to us because we so strongly associate being moral with being religious. We use terms like “Christian” and “generous” almost interchangeably. And whenever you get into a debate about religion, shortly after you have thoroughly demolished any shred of empirical credibility religion still had left, you can basically guarantee that the response will be: “But without God, how can you know right from wrong?”

What is perhaps most baffling about this concept of morality so commonplace in our culture is that not only is the command of a higher authority that rewards and punishes you not the highest level of moral development—it is literally the lowest. Of the six stages of moral thinking Kohlberg documented in children, the reward and punishment orientation exemplified by the Bible and the Qur’an is the very first. I think many of these people really truly haven’t gotten past level 1, which is why when you start trying to explain how you base your moral judgments on universal principles of justice and consequences (level 6) they don’t seem to have any idea what you’re talking about.

Perhaps this is a task for our education system (philosophy classes in middle school?), perhaps we need something more drastic than that, or perhaps it is enough that we keep speaking about it in public. But somehow we need to break up the monopoly that religion has on moral concepts, so that people no longer feel ashamed to say that something is morally wrong without being able to cite a particular passage from a particular book from the Iron Age. Perhaps once we can finally make people realize that morality does not depend on religion, we can finally free them from the grip of religion—and therefore from the grip of authoritarianism and social dominance.

If this is right, then the reason America is so mean is that we are so Christian—and people need to realize that this is not a paradoxical statement.