Arnold Kling  

Religion as a Basis for Trust

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I have been lucky that my last two book purchases both proved interesting--I think I saw both mentioned on Arts and Letters Daily, so it's not all luck. I have mentioned Frederick Crews' Follies of the Wise. I just finished Nicholas Wade's Before the Dawn, which reports on recent techniques for using genetic analysis to take a fresh look at issues in anthropology.

On religion, Wade writes,

These sacred truths are unverifiable, and unfalsifiable, but the faithful nevertheless accept them to be unquestionable. In doing so, like assemblies of the faithful since the dawn of language, they bind themselves together for protection or common action against the unbelievers and their lies. (p. 165-166)

Think about this in the context of the matrix that I proposed here, in which some ideas are popular but not empiricist. What Wade is suggesting is that when you and I share religious beliefs, it is easier for us to trust one another, even though we are strangers. It would make sense that non-empiricist beliefs would serve as better trust cues than empiricist beliefs.

Wade says that people need protection against cheats and liars in order to deal with strangers. One sanction against cheats and liars is the threat of excommunication. By espousing religious beliefs, I signal that I care about being excommunicated, and so I signal that I am less likely to lie or cheat.

Obviously, this is a pretty tenuous hypothesis. But something to consider. I certainly believe that in business conversations and political discussions among friends, a lot of communication consists of "trust cues" that are designed to enable people to be comfortable with one another. In fact, among my liberal friends, bashing President Bush is such an important "trust cue" that it seems to be a necessary part of every conversation.

I should also point out that Wade says that "Modern states now accomplish by other means many of the early roles performed by religion" (p. 164) and that the role of religion "is now supplied by many other cultural and political institutions" (p. 168)

COMMENTS (14 to date)
Nathan Smith writes:

Can empiricism tell me whether it's wrong to lie? Or to be cruel to my neighbors? Can empiricism tell me whether I have free will, or am a deterministic automoton?

Empiricism accumulates information about the world by identifying patterns in experience. It is useful for gaining some kinds of knowledge, but other faculties, such as conscience and introspection, are essential for equipping a person with a worldview complete enough to qualify them as sane. A person who tried to live only by empiricism, and not conscience or introspection, would be like someone who decides his eyes can't be trusted, and treats only hearing and touch as sources of reliable information.

The motivation for empiricism is that what is observable by the five senses is a sort of intellectual commons. We can all see, hear, touch, etc., the same things, whereas truths arrived at by introspection are "subjective" in the sense that consensus cannot be established in the same systematic fashion. But that doesn't mean that introspection cannot give us access to truth.

The type of beliefs that form the basis for community ties, I think, are generally not the types of beliefs to which empiricism is applicable.

dearieme writes:

If religion is about trust cues, why are some of the most Muslim countries notorious for lack of trust outside the immediate family?

Robert writes:

If religion is about trust cues, why are some of the most Muslim countries notorious for lack of trust outside the immediate family?

If everyone gives the same signal, the signal is of no value. Hence a universally acknowledged monotheism gives a poor trust cue. On the other hand, the polytheistic systems of the classical world were ideally equipped to use cult as a trust cue. So when trade between Rome and some other city began to become significant, it was common to erect the trading deity of that city in the Roman marketplace so that contracts could be solemnified in the view of the god that would give the Romans' trade partners the best confidence in the contract.

Matt writes:

Religions, in the past, contained both historical and scientiic truth as well as social restrictions. Hence, they function a sort of a cultural resevoir of knowledge.

The Garden of Eden is a famous example. It both described agricultural knowledge and a social proscription. The agricultural knowledge was that picking food stuffs and depositing the seeds around hunting camps caused food stuffs to grow in abundance along the hunting migration. The proscription was designed to prevent the tribe from lingering at the various hunting camps and delaying the search for game. That is, it formed that cultural battle from hunter/gatherer man to proto-agricultural man.

Steve Sailer writes:

Lots of ambitious young businessmen who moved to NYC in the late 19th and early 20th Century converted to Episcopalianism (frequently from Congregationalism or other Puritan-descended sects) so they could be seen at church by other businessmen and thus trusted as honest God-fearing men of affairs, which then gave impetus to even more to convert to Episcopalianism.

Brad Hutchings writes:

Trust cues, the hard currency of the Type M world. I love it. For the most part though, I think I prefer being the odd-man-out in the liberal group with the Bush bashing introductions than being a little odd in a conservative group deciding how and how many volts the border fence will be. Knee-jerk liberals make me laugh, while knee-jerk conservatives really embarass me.

But the worst alternative of all is to have a dinner party with people all over the map like that show on CNN weekends with Miles O'Brien. I think on that show, their trust metric must be that they're all cool enough to be on CNN and have camermen running and panning around them while they pretend to have a casual conversation.

caveatBettor writes:

All religions are not created equal, at least not in the development of the field of economics. Without Calvinists, we would lose Adam Smith, Thomas Reid, and David Hume. Without post-Scottish Enlightenment Anglicans, we would lose David Ricardo and Thomas Malthus. Well, Ricardo also started out as an Orthodox Jew.

And where would economics be without them?

If we removed all religions besides judeo-christian faiths, I am wondering if the science is equally impacted in its progress. Perhaps a greater respect of individuals, and of government laws, is reflected by those who seriously subscribe to Scriptures.

On a related economic subject, the United States seem to have demonstrated economic outperformance in the last couple of centuries. A study of its founding national principles and faith influences in contrast to other nations, may, in fact, reveal similar correlations and causations.

RogerM writes:

You're right, caveatBettor, all religions aren't created equal. Irreligious people like to lump all religions together according to the lowest common denominator, thereby creating a straw man they can easily defeat. Books like "The Disciplinary Revolution," by Gorski, and "The Victory of Reason," by Stark, show that Christianity, and Protestantism in particular, is unique in its emphasis on reason. Many philosphers of science credit the emphasis on reason in Christianity for the rise of modern science. Islam had that emphasis at one time and lost it.

That Christianity is verifiable/falsifiable is at the heart of the creation/evolution debate. Evolution, if true, falsifies orthodox Christianity; creationism verifies it.

Dan Landau writes:

Religion is a basis for trust and a basis for morality. That is true, and worse, no one has yet found a basis for group morality except religion. However, there is still a little problem, how do you believe in a god who created Sadam Hussein, Hitler, Mao, Stalin, malaria, aids, cancer, death of children, the plague, famine, floods, earth quakes, etc?

caveatBettor writes:

Dan Landau:

a god who would allow a library of economics and liberty would also allow the suffering to which you speak, wouldn't she?

or is your preferred world a world without preferences?

RogerM writes:

Dan: "However, there is still a little problem, how do you believe in a god who created Sadam Hussein, Hitler, Mao, Stalin, malaria, aids, cancer, death of children, the plague, famine, floods, earth quakes, etc?"

I think we're getting more deeply into religious beliefs than this site is intended for, so if you'll email me at, I'll share what I know about it.

Swimmy writes:

On the actual veracity of the original argument, I can indeed verify that I trust the people in my church much more than I would trust any other congregation of people I meet with regularly (or much more often, such as classmates). Perhaps they're actually more trustworthy, or they've just given me more opportunity to be trusting of them--inviting me over for free meals, etc.

Mr. Econotarian writes:

I'm certain religiosity is an evolved trait. But the question is, why?

Perhaps it is sexual selection. "He's a god-fearing, righteous man. And still hot." "She's a virgin". There you go.

dearieme writes:

Robert: a most thoughtful comment. Have you perhaps "explained" the Reformation? Universal medieval Roman Catholicism was less useful than modern fragmented Protestantism?

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