Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Respect for Religious (and Other) Beliefs

In a continuing discussion of atheists standing up for their beliefs, I would like to address another obstacle to discussion and debate - a false dichotomy.

“Either you are an ally in our fight to rid the world of faith, or you share responsibility for all of the religiously motivated terrorism and violence that we see in the world today.”

“Either you are for us, or you are for the terrorists.”

It is a simple-minded way of looking at the world suitable for people who cannot handle more complex realities.

Where do I stand on the issue of tolerance for religion?

Well, imagine that you are with a group of people who have crash-landed on an island. Let us assume a rather mild climate. What is your first order of business: (a) resolve the issue of whether or not a god exists, or (b) find a source of clean drinking water?

I would vote for (b).

The first option can wait. It’s not important.

Now, let’s look to the question of finding water. Let’s say we have two people in the group. One is a geologist. He looks at the rock formations and points to a place where he thinks there is a good chance of finding water. Another member of the group says that he has a magical method of finding water, or a method whereby if he prays hard enough then God will plant knowledge on where to find water in his head.

Now, I ask the geologist, “When you point to a place to find water, how often to people actually find water?” The answer (as determined by a history of empirical observation) is “Fifty percent.”

I ask the magician and the theist, “When you point to a place to find water, how often to people actually find water?” Based from a long history of empirical observation, let’s assume that the odds are no more than chance, about five percent.

On this matter, all I need to know is that 50% is better than 5%. We need water. We go with the option that gives us the best chance of finding water. That’s all that matters.

Now, let’s say that the magician and the theist say that I am not giving their beliefs sufficient respect. In order to show respect for their beliefs, I should give their methods equal consideration along side the methods of the geologists.

If I do not pretend that their method is as good as the geologist's, then I am being told that I am worthy of condemnation. After all, they say, there is nothing special about the scientific method. It is just another way of doing things.

In other words, respecting their belief means pretending that 5% = 50%.

Sorry, but that is not going to happen.

If the advocates of magic and prayer can find a method of success that exceeds or at least equals that of the geologiest in finding water, then they will be given a level of respect that exceeds or at least equals that of the scientist. Without a proven record of success, pretending that they are successful is foolish. It puts the lives, health, and well-being of those of us who are living on this island at risk.

Now, planet earth is an island in space. About 6.5 billion of us are crash-landed on this island. Today, we do not have enough clean water to go around. This is only one threat we have to the life, health, and well-being of the people who are living here. We need real-world solutions to real-world problems. As I see it, we can discuss the existence of God at another time. In the mean time, we need to pay attention to methods of dealing with real-world problems that have a demonstrable real-world effect.

It’s simply a matter of respecting the numbers, and respecting anything that shows a disposition to improving those numbers. Numbers do not lie, and they do not have any tolerance for human prejudice. Reality itself has no respect for our different beliefs. Reality does not care if you believe that a certain magical spell will cure a disease, or if you believe that a prayer can alter the course of a hurricane. If we want to protect ourselves from diseases and hurricanes we need to look at what has real-world effects on how they behave. If magic and prayer have a real-world effect, it will show up in the numbers. If it doesn't show up in the numbers, then they are of no use. Saving lives means paying attention to what does show up in the numbers.

I believe that the proposition that a god exists is almost certainly false. Even if a god exists, it is extremely unlikely that we know anything about what that god wants that would be useful. We have no good reason to assume that what we may think it wants is a reliable indication of what it wants as a matter of fact. The huge numbers of different stories that people have believed, and even the huge varieties of the stories that people believe today, means that for any particular story is almost certainly false.

What I do know is that when people started to actually compare different ways of doing things – comparing their chances of success – the methods that have actually shown constantly improving success rates have not needed to make any mention of a god. There is no god element in their formulas, and adding a god element does not do any good.

It would be quite nice if we could compare religions the way we compare drugs and new forms of crops. “When people pray to god X, we see a 35% chance of survival, but when they pray to god Y, we see a 50% chance of survival, so this suggests that we are better off praying to god X than god Y. This goes in support of the followers of god Y.”

But we see nothing like this. We have absolutely no empirical evidence showing us that, “Employing prayer type P1 to god G increases the chance that rain will fall by an inexplicable 5%” or “By passing law L outlawing sin S reduces hurricane frequencies by 20%.”

There have been plenty of opportunities to discover that prayer or some sort of religious observance prevents drought, helps needy people win at games of chance, cures disease, prevents accidents, alters the course of hurricanes, reduces the frequencies of hurricanes, and the like. So far . . . nothing.

Do you want me to respect your beliefs? Show me that you have a more reliable method of finding clean drinking water, curing disease, preventing the destruction of hurricanes, curing cancer, treating diabetes, determining the consequences of putting particular chemicals in our food, air, and water, and you have shown me that I have a reason to listen to what you have to say. Other than that . . . I go with what actually does provide benefits in these areas.

One area in which people make claims about the benefit of religion is that it reduces crime rates. Religion, it is said, has an effect on the possibility that you will be murdered, raped, robbed, or suffer some other form of violence that we have real-world reasons to want to avoid.


Show me the empirical evidence for this. And show me the different effects of different beliefs so that I can see which beliefs we really need to promote if we are going to see the greatest benefit in our crime rates.

One study that I know of compares the rates of various social ills with religiosity of the population suggests that people have lower chances of suffering these ill effects in a secular non-religious society. Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies.

This study looked at homicides, suicides (15 to 24 year olds), early childhood deaths (under five years old), life expectancy, gonorrhea infections (all ages and 15-19 year olds), syphilis infections (all ages and 15-19 year olds), abortions, and teen pregnancies (15 – 17 year olds), and found that the more highly religious America actually scored worse than more secular countries.

Of course, there are some important caveats that are necessary to prevent misinterpreting the data. The findings need to be replicated and one must rule out coincidence. However, at the very least, these data tell us that we have no good reason to suspect that religion is necessary to protect us from social ills. Those people who believe otherwise are not driven to that belief by the data. They have no data. They are driven to their conclusions by another force, by a desire to hate, that causes them to feel a special attraction to ideas that give their hate a confortable home. Throughout history, one of the most common comforts for the bigot is the unfounded idea that those they hate are simply incapable of acting morally for one make-belief reason or another. That is how many religious people treat secular philosophies - with maliciously false accusations of horrible consequences.

So, ultimately, I am interested in priorities. There are certain necessities that all of us should be able to agree that we need. We need to find clean water, enough food to eat, and shelter. We need security from diseases and natural disasters. Deciding that we need to resolve questions about whether a god exists before we put our efforts into solving common problems is absurd. However, in solving these problems, it is absurd not to put our efforts into projects that have a demonstrable record of success. And we need to get people out of the habit of inventing make-believe failures so that their hatred of some group or another can find a comfortable home.

That is how I would propose we make the real world a better place.


Anonymous said...

I'm going to play devil's advocate here.

Of course it's more important to get the God question settled first. It's not about God as such, it's about HELL. Going to HELL is, literally, infinitely bad. Nothing that happens during your life on Earth could possibly be as bad as going to HELL. It's better to be tortured by the Inquisition until you repent than to die a heretic nonbeliever and go to HELL. If suffering horribly on Earth reduces your chances of going to HELL by even the slightest amount, it will be worth it. In fact, if I knew that torturing you would reduce your chances of going to HELL by even the slightest amount, I would actually be obligated to torture you, because HELL is just that bad. I'd much rather die of dehydration than risk going to HELL. It's literally the only thing that matters, no matter how low the probability of going to HELL is.

How do you argue with this hypothetical fanatic? Suppose you two are trapped in the desert and you have one canteen of water between you. He wants to use it to baptize you and thereby keep you out of HELL when you die of dehydration, while you want to drink it in order to increase the probability you will survive to be rescued.

(I apologize for using act-utilitarian reasoning in forming the fanatic's argument. If it matters, imagine that the fanatic is an AI that has been programmed such that its only desire is the desire to maximize utility.)

See also: Pascal's Mugging

Anonymous said...

I think you just pointed out everything that is wrong with the world in one single post, and supplied a simple and therefor logical solution. You make total sense and your language is clear. Too bad about 95% of those 6.5 billion people refuse to listen to plain common sense like that.

We're doomed.

Anonymous said...

My friend, as an atheist I couldn't agree more with your opinion and your arguments. Unfortunately people, have the (strange for me) desire to believe that a God exists ONLY to keep an eye on them and giving them punishments or gifts for their good/bad habits. I believe that as science comes closer to our everyday life, people will become less prejudice.

Anonymous said...

Doug S. is absolutely correct (I've written about it here in the past). It's difficult for us to grasp how these people think, but, to them, nothing else matters compared to whether you go to hell or not, so everything else is irrelevant.

Suppose you know someone who doesn't believe in God, and you're absolutely, 100% sure that you have only the two following choices:

1- do nothing, and that person lives a happy, healthy life for 60 more years, then goes to hell and suffers eternally;

2- torture that person for 60 years, and that person has a 5% chance (not a certainty, mind you) of not going to hell.

Isn't choice 2 the most moral? In fact, isn't choice 2 the only real option, if you're not a monster? Anything finite compared to infinity really amounts to nothing.

Therefore, suffering and dying but not going to hell is more than worthwhile for these people. Which means that health and even basic survival pale into insignificance compared to "being saved".

Martin Freedman said...

Hi Pedroe and Doug S

The attitude to justify torture to avoid hell is an extremist/fanatical viewpoint however it is I think fairly rare (but could be more rare). Most xians and muslims regard that if you don't listen to them then you are going to hell, but that is your choice, their job is done once they have spread the "word". Xians, even as less so than muslims, regardless, are not morally obliged to take this further. Still it does give some an excuse to apply or keep double standards in society in their favour.

Alonzo's point was that we should encourage of world to emphasize real-questions and real-world answers to real-world problems.

The fanatic cant be argued wiht they need to be dealt with - as a common criminal. The double standards theists can be argued with - not to change their mind about hell etc. - but by using using the legal tools available including debate, free speech, protest, campaigning and voting to change laws to remove and prevent double standards. The rest can be free to believe whatever they want about hell.

Martin Freedman said...

Another answer to Alonzo's point is to parapharse Hume who said, if I recall correctly, "A wise man proportions belief according to the evidence". Similarly one could say "a wise man respects a belief according to the evidence" :-)

Anonymous said...

Doug, I think this arguement is flawed in three significant ways.

First, almost no one in the real world believes as the fanatic does. You'll notice (or at least I have) that in almost every aspect of life, all people act as if there is no god, all the time. The only time god is invoked is in church, and to justify their prejudices. So this is not a situation we need to worry about.

Secondly, there is no such thing as a human with only one desire. Therefore we can help to outweigh his desire to keep us from going to hell by threatening to thwart his desires to stay out of prison, to not be harmed, to be accepted by his peers, and so on. It would be preferable if we could form a society that wouldn't produce any people with this crazy desire, but given a large enough population one or two nutters will always show up. We have laws to deal with these people. "Reasoning" with them is not the correct tool to deal with this situation, it would be like trying to reason with a flat tire to get it to change itself.

And finally, I believe you are implying that since this fanatism is justified by a literal reading of the fanatic's holy book, any normal moderate people who also give some weight to the holy book are not justified in condemn the fanatic unless they drop their religious beliefs. On paper this may be correct. However I don't care about who is philosophically more correct on paper, I care about how people act. If you tell normal people that they are on the side of the fanatic and they must drop their religion to be on the side of reason, you will NOT get a lot of converts to the side of reason to sanction the heretic. You will be creating a situation were you are forcing all religious people into a "Them" group, and putting yourself and other non-theists into a "Us" group. Seeing the the religious make up ~80% of the population, what you are doing is ensuring that reason will be overwhelmed and destroyed, and the fanatic will be that much stronger for it. If you want to strengthen your position, you fail by committing suicide.

Anonymous said...

In today's world, the "torture people to keep them out of hell" belief is relatively rare (at least, it's rare where I live), but in the Bad Old Days, it was the explicit justification for the Spanish Inquisition's treatment of heretics and was advocated by many prominent Catholic theologians. (I think I've read that somewhere, but I could be mistaken.)

Anyway, the "obvious" way to rebut - as opposed to ignore - the fanatic's argument is to say that, given our current knowledge about the world, we have no reason to believe that our actions have any affect whatsoever on the probability of going to any hell that may or may not exist. The infinities are canceled by zeros, and we can go on living our lives as though there were no possibility of going to hell in the first place. It's basically the same kind of refutation that can be applied to Pascal's Wager type arguments.

Anonymous said...

Ok, but doesn't that conflict with the unstated premise that the fanatic already believes that he does, in fact, know there is a hell and knows the actions to be taken that can effect someone's chances of ending up there? He obviously didn't accept these beliefs due to an application of reason.

Anonymous said...

It's not impossible to acquire such beliefs through the application of reason; many things people believe, they believe because other people tell them it is so. For example, if I tell you that my name is Douglas, that's a pretty good reason to believe that my name is, in fact, Douglas. Similarly, someone who claims to have been abducted by aliens is more likely to really have been abducted than someone who makes no such claim, even if the evidence suggests that the most likely explanation is that the person had a sleep-related hallucination. If I say that I am communicating with the Dark Lords of the Matrix and they will destroy the world unless you do what I say, then it is rational to increase your degree of confidence in the proposition "Douglas is communicating with the Dark Lords of the Matrix and they will destroy the world unless you do what he says" by some tiny, nonzero amount. If a claim is grandiose enough, a "rational" agent might still decide that the low probability of the claim might be overwhelmed by its consequences if it were true.

In the real world, a fanatic is almost guaranteed to be something other than the hypothetical "rational fanatic" presented, but

Again, it's the Pascal's Mugging argument. If there's even a slight chance at averting a scenario that one believes would have Nearly Infinite badness, then it tends to overwhelm other considerations. There's also the paper at http://www.nickbostrom.com/ethics/infinite.pdf to consider, on the problems of infinities in ethical theories. It could even be a problem for D.U.: if one desire tends to fulfill an infinite number of desires and simultaneously tends to thwart an infinite number of desires, then whether or not that desire is good may be undefined.

(Again, I know you don't like the "maximizing utility" formulation of ethics, but I'm using it more in the decision-theoretic sense, as a mathematical function that describes an agent's desires and their relative strength. For the purposes of this discussion, "An agent acts to fulfill the more and stronger of its desires given its beliefs" and "An agent acts to maximize its expected utility" should be taken to mean the exact same thing.)

Anonymous said...

If I say that I am communicating with the Dark Lords of the Matrix and they will destroy the world unless you do what I say, then it is rational to increase your degree of confidence in the proposition "Douglas is communicating with the Dark Lords of the Matrix and they will destroy the world unless you do what he says" by some tiny, nonzero amount.

At the risk of derailling the thread, I had to ask about this, because it's also brought up in the Pascal's Mugging you linked. How is it in any way rational to increase the probability of that by any amount at all? You say it's rational to increase the probability by some tiny, almost zero, but nonzero amount. However to assign this a probability of anything BUT zero goes against everything that the agent knows about reality. A rational agent would increase the probability of "Bob is in contact with the Dark Lords of the Matrix" by 0, and would increase the probability of "Bob is a liar" and "Bob is attempting to manipulate me" by ~1.

At least by any useful definition of the word "rational" that I can imagine.

Martin Freedman said...

Doug S.

if one desire tends to fulfill an infinite number of desires and simultaneously tends to thwart an infinite number of desires, then whether or not that desire is good may be undefined.

(Again, I know you don't like the "maximizing utility" formulation of ethics, but I'm using it more in the decision-theoretic sense, as a mathematical function that describes an agent's desires and their relative strength. For the purposes of this discussion, "An agent acts to fulfill the more and stronger of its desires given its beliefs" and "An agent acts to maximize its expected utility" should be taken to mean the exact same thing.)

Sorry I don't think this is DU but rather Desire Fulfillment Act Utilitarianism - in other words objective preference satisfaction.

In DU a desire is evaluated compared to its absence. There is the existence of a desire's fulfillments and thwarting is unbounded (which I question next) and its absence is not unbounded then the absence is to be preferred. Then you might ask what if it absence is leads to only desire thwarting and no desire fulfillment? Well since the alternative is unbounded it does not solve the question so look for another desire to deal with it.

I question that it is possible for a desire to be really unbounded, instead this being an indicator that the desire is based on a fiction and can never be fulfilled. Of course desires such exist and can have implications on the real-world as we know ;-) Still it is only the real-world implications of a desire that can be taken into account. DU is a realist model.