Bryan Caplan  

The Debate

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The turnout for the Iannaccone-Caplan Debate on Economics of Religion was excellent - about 300 people by my count. That's a striking illustration of interaction effects: as solo speakers either of us would have been lucky to draw 50 listeners!

I've set up a webpage on the debate with additional resources, including the full text of my opening statement. The heart of my critique:

Larry has won a great deal of attention for his rational choice theory of religion. But if you look closely, he doesn't really have a rational choice theory of religion; he has a rational choice theory of group membership. As Larry occasionally admits, virtually everything that he says about religion applies just as well to fraternities, chess clubs, and football teams. Yes, belonging to a fraternity has costs and benefits; yes, competition between fraternities leads to more efficient outcomes. And both religions and fraternities have been known to use what Larry calls "bizarre" rules – such as "You can't drink any alcohol," or "You can only drink alcohol," to exclude half-hearted members.

What Larry's research strangely neglects – or, to use his word, "sidesteps" - is the differences between religions and fraternities. The most obvious of these, the 800-pound gorilla in the room, is doctrine. Fraternities don't have much of a doctrine; religions do. To ignore doctrine is to ignore the very thing that makes religion special – and the main reason why critics of religion consider it irrational. Furthermore, to ignore doctrine is to sidestep the deepest objection to Larry's rational choice view of religion: How can you have a rational choice theory of irrational belief?

In case I didn't make it clear in the debate, Larry has done great work and deserves a lot of credit for opening up a fascinating new field of research. But I also think that economists who study religion are tip-toeing around some of the field's most important questions to avoid giving offense. And while there are many reasons why economics is the most successful social science, willingness to say what people don't want to hear is near the top.

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The author at in a related article titled "Is Religion Rational?" debate: Caplan, Iannaccone do the depar writes:
    Congratulations to Bryan Caplan and Larry Iannaccone on a excellent event tonight. [Tracked on November 18, 2005 9:14 PM]
The author at De Gustibus Non Est Disputandum in a related article titled Religião, Irracionalidade e Economia writes:
    Excelente debate entre Caplan e Iannaccone (left to right) com bons links. Se você gosta destes temas - aposto que o Thomas Kang (nosso Kim Jong Il do bem :-) ) - certamente fará bom proveito disto. Claudio... [Tracked on November 19, 2005 6:46 AM]
COMMENTS (20 to date)
Eric writes:

Please tell me that there somewhere exists a video of the debate that you'll soon be putting online.

Mr. Econotarian writes:

The difference between chess clubs and religious institutions isn't just doctrine, it is spirituality.

Research has identified parts of the brain that, when stimulated, lead to spiritual feelings. So it is probably an inborn mechanism that chess and fraternities may not touch as much as religious fervor does.

Here is a good link to some work on the physiology of spirituality.

zaoem writes:

I don't think I understand why doctrine would prevent a rational choice approach. Political parties have doctrines and surely we have useful rat choice models of why voters join these parties, partly based on assertions about what doctrines are more attractive at what times. Surely, there is a lot of fluctuation in the popularity of religions across both time and space, so doctrine is not an absolute thing that keeps people in place. It strikes me that especially models that look at religion and risk aversion have a lot to say about such variation in time and space.

Paul writes:

I don't see why adhering to a religious doctrine is irrational. In my observation, people who engage in the types of behavior proscribed by religion are more likely to get into trouble, be less successful in life, and, as a consequence, be poorer. Adopting a moral code which proscribes drunkeness, promiscuity, etc. (a doctrine, if you will) and joining a group that shares that moral code (which helps reinforce and sustain the code) is a strategy to improve one's prospects for a successful, and even wealthier life. A belief in God and eternal rewards and damnation only strengthen the incentive to behave yourself. Joining a religion could easily be seen as rational strategy to reduce the difficulties of life.

A.West writes:

I know you can do better than that. The cost of religion and a faith-based epistemology is low in the West only because Westerners are essentially hypocritical compartmentalizers, thank goodness, who still take a primarily secular, relatively rational approach to the world, despite their occasional protestations to the contrary on Sundays. Go start a company in Iran or get treated for cancer by an African witch-doctor if you want to see the REAL costs of religion/mysticism. I know you're familiar with Ayn Rand, so go brush up on the real fundamentals here.

Tadhgin writes:

BBC Radio 4's In Our Time touched on the rationality of Religion/belief in God in its discussion of the Philosophy of Pragmatism.

Basically it says that as it is impossible to know for sure if God exists then, rationally, we should believe if it is good for us (individually). It struck me as a good way to get to the starting point for this debate

Roger M writes:

I've learned a lot of good economics from this web site, but Bryan's venture into philosophy and religion shows just how wrong one can be when one gets out of one's area of expertise. I know the most about Christianity, so I'll speak about it. Calling Christianity irrational is simply silly. Philip Gorsky, a prominent sociologist, shows in his book, "The Disciplinary Revolution," that Protestantism gave Western Europe its "rational" revolution, rationalizing all aspects of life and giving birth to the modern state. Gorsky doesn't say so, but many historians credit the Protestant Reformation for the rise of modern science.

I don't want to take up too much space with this, but I want to remind Bryan that Isaac Newton, considered by many the greatest scientist of all time, was a devout believer and great theologian. If you really believe that Christianity is irrational, I challenge you to read any book by Dr. Francis Schaeffer, Ravi Zacharias, or any of the hundreds of philosophers who think Christianity is more rational than secularism.

Roger M writes:

Bryan wrote "...there was not solid evidence against the claims that Jesus was born of a virgin and rose from the dead. But the counter-evidence has always been overwhelming. Everyone else is born of a non-virgin and stays dead. It is absurd to recognize an exception without overwhelming evidence, but all we have is the testimony of a few of his disciples." If accepting the testimony of a few people is irrational, then I suggest that our entire judicial system is irrational, for that's what we do.

Now Bryan may not think the evidence is sufficient for him, but that doesn't make it irrational. It's irrational only if you deny that miracles can occur. And accepting that miracles happen is irrational only if you believe in a closed natural system, i.e., one in which God (if He exists) doesn't get involved. The belief in a closed natural system is a form of religion, too, but it's also rational if you accept its assumptions.

In short, from Philosophy 101 I learned that all philosophies, and religions, are rational if one accepts their assumptions. The assumptions behind the virgin birth and divinity of Christ are a personal God who cares about what happens to mankind and gets involved.

Can we test assumptions? Yes, in the same way that modern science tests theories: You create models of how the world would look and work if the assumptions are true, then you compare the known world with the models. Many Christian philosphers have done just that and found the Christan model the most rational and realistic.

Timothy Tien writes:

I believe that some of what I read here on the blog is in part an extension of scottish enlightenment thought. Friends (not the Quaker meaning), the work of guys like Adam Smith and David Hume needs a Calvinistic Laboratory to work. Smith & Hume were very religious and ideological. So by kicking down this leg, you might find your own stool more wobbly.

AJE writes:

Both speakers were superb, and the debate was a great success.

I've written up some thoughts and comments here

Thanks Bryan.

Roger M writes:

Has anyone read CS Lewis's Mere Christianity?

michael e vassar writes:

Great work, but I think that the focus on irrationality ignores Pascal's Wager. Pascal's Wager is sophistry, but it is probably in the minds of many religious adherents, and it is self-protective sophistry as one may endanger one's soul even by questioning one's beliefs. If a person somewhat believes, or believes with a non-negligable probability, and doesn't have habits of thought that enable them to reject religious doctrine at a stroke, the fact that they aren't rationally able to examine the reasoning carefully can trap them.

Blue writes:

If someone has a video and could provide a link, that would be great.

Glen Raphael writes:

Roger, I read Mere Christianity many years ago and found it unpersuasive.

For instance, it includes a version of the "Lord, Liar, or Lunatic?" argument. The argument is that given what the Bible claims Jesus said, Jesus must either have been the Son of God or some sort of lunatic (or con artist, perhaps?) and we have other reasons (within the biblical text) to believe that he wasn't crazy, so therefore he must be telling the truth. This is a false choice, as there are many other possibilities than the two or three given. There was a lot of preaching to the choir of that sort - making circular arguments whereby if you already accept (or are merely too polite to explicitly reject) one fundamental Christian premise you're stuck accepting another. But these arguments won't find any purchase with someone who rejects the whole thing outright. You need faith to get faith.

rrr writes:

Glen, you also need faith to be rational -- faith in the mind (your and others').

Tom2 writes:

One valuable idea I recall from C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity was the transformational power of pretense - that one can wear the mask of piety, for example, and in so doing actually become pious over time. Given what 'Paul' asserts, above, about religious behavior rendering a greater yield from society, the economic rewards of religion are conceivably boundless - given that the low cost of 'pretending' to be what one isn't fully yet, transforms one's character and, therefore, behavior toward more fulfilling and rewarding endeavors. In this way, Religion may be an essential ingredient in Society's reaching a Pareto Optimal state.

rjh writes:

The word "doctrine" can have multiple meanings. If you intend it to mean creed or dogma, then there are religions that lack a doctrine. In North America there are the Unitarian Universalists and some forms of Reformed Judaism that lack a creed. They do have an agreed set of behaviors, but they do not restrict beliefs. Similarly various Eastern religions, such as some forms of Buddhism, lack a creed. Again you have agreed behaviors rather than beliefs.

Peterson writes:

Hans Herman Hoppe has a very interesting lecture on the Mises Institute website where he does not ignore doctrine, but does an economic analysis of various religious beliefs. I think it is lecture five.

Roger M writes:

My point in mentioning CS Lewis wasn't that his arguments are overwhelming, but that they're not irrational. Bryan's point was that religion is irrational. It may be that the religion of most people is irrational. I don't know. I can't read their minds. But if by rational you mean following the rules of logic and reason, you can't argue that Isaac Newtown, CS Lewis, Mortimer Adler, Francis Schaeffer and many others are irrational, whether you find their reasoning persuasive or not.

Tom2 writes:

Religion is not irrational, rather it is meta-rational. Here is a quote from the great philosopher Jacques Maritain's magnum opus, The Degrees of Knowledge: "If, in all that is not God, the essence is really distinct from existence, and related as potency to act, it is nevertheless clear that the act of existing does not complete the essence in the very line of essence, for it belongs to another order (it declares the position extra nihil of the essence entirely consituted in its own line). In order that the existence it receives be its own existence, actuate it as belonging to it alone and unable at the time to actuate another, it is necessary that the nature first receive another kind of completion or termination, a metaphysical mode, thanks to which it confronts existence as a closed whole, as a subject which appropriates to itself alone the act of existing that it receives. This is that subsistence about which there has been so much dispute and the notion of which imposes itself the moment one grasps the import of the intuition of genius by which St. Thomas [Aquinas] saw in the essence itself with all its intelligible determinations a potency with regard to the act of existing."
Reason and logic alone are insufficient for grasping an understanding of ontological reality. Rather, their domain is an empiriological or spatio-temporal one - and thus the limits of science. As Maritain explains: "In this sense, and to speak succinctly, we may say that empiriological explanation has no ontological value, that is, directly ontological. It attains the being of things obliquely and as an indirect foundation, without making it known in itself. What it works on are the natures or essences of the corporeal world, but these are not as such its proper object."

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