Bryan Caplan  

More Reasons to Read About Religion

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Tyler Cowen urges us - especially the secular "us" - to read more about religion:

So many religious facts have a very long half-life for their relevance.  Say you learn about how the four Gospels differ -- that's still relevant for understanding Christian divisions or Christian theology today.  Reading about the Reformation?  The chance of that still being relevant is much higher than if you were reading about purely secular divisions in internal German or Swiss politics in those same centuries.

Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, or Muslims?  Facts from many centuries ago still might matter.  And the odds are that people a few centuries from now still ought to read about the origins of Mormonism.

In few other areas do past facts stand such a high chance of remaining relevant for so long.

As an empirical matter, "rationalists" tend not to read so much about religion, but that is precisely the unreasonable thing to do.

I heartily agree, and have several points to add.

1. Studying religion teaches us a tremendous amount about human psychology: our eagerness to embrace doctrines that outsiders consider nonsense, our pretentious overconfidence and hyperbole, our willingness to oppress and even murder over objectively trivial issues. 

2. Studying religion also teaches us a tremendous amount about human sociology: our propensity to split into doctrinally-obsessed clergy and angry-sloganizing laymen, our desire to socialize and especially intermarry with co-religionists, our eagerness to dehumanize outgroups.

3. Once you learn these lessons, most secular ideologies start to seem like thinly-veiled religions as well.  And I'm not just talking about Marxism.  Mainstream liberalism and conservatism fit the same psychological and sociological bill.  And yes, so does libertarianism, despite its overrepresentation of bona fide rationalists and individualists.  It may be a cliche, but politics is the religion of modernity.

4. While you're at it, read (or re-read) Eric Hoffer's The True Believer.  Great stuff, especially for those of us who believe in something.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (9 to date)
Andrew Clough writes:

The book I'd most recommend would be Big Gods.

drobviousso writes:

>most secular ideologies start to seem like thinly-veiled religions as well. And I'm not just talking about Marxism. Mainstream liberalism and conservatism fit the same psychological and sociological bill. And yes, so does libertarianism, despite its overrepresentation of bona fide rationalists and individualists.

I've taken to thinking of it as religion and modern-day ideologies are both instantiations of underlying human tribalist instincts. Two examples are apocalypticism and the myth of the golden age.

Its obvious that global warming panics (a separate issue from AGW) are apocalypticism for athiests, and MAGA is a golden age myth for conservative. But calling it a function of religion instead of a function of human nature does more to cloud the subject than clarify it.

Austin writes:

I'd respond to your comment on the doctrinal obsession of clerics, but I'm too busy writing a review on why this particular paper is inappropriately applying DSGE models to options markets. I mean, does he even Price Theory?

Eliezer Yudkowsky writes:

I think past a certain point, studying "religion" becomes beating up on a fish in a barrel, which is not good for your personal epistemology. You'd be considerably better off studying, say, why p-values are nonsense, even though society in your personal bubble still respects the p-value ritual a lot and people look at you funny when you say it's just bad math, and they suspect you of being part of those barbarian hordes who are always attacking Science, which people in your bubble give a lot of respect. Or, alternatively, you go off and read me arguing against p-values, and you don't know if maybe I'm the ideologue here who fanatically believes p-values are bad. Sincerely trying to sort out this kind of thing trains at least trying to do epistemology.

In modern times, when you read about religion, you're reading about something where you know what people in your bubble are supposed to believe about it. This does not train good habits; it does not involve wavering and wondering to figure out what your conclusion actually is.

Opportunity costs are a thing, and one should be reflexively if defeasibly suspicious when somebody suggests that the most valuable thing with your time is to go do something upper-class that is indirectly supposed to be very good for you somehow. Society updates weirdly and out of sync, after all, and it can still be very upper-class to read sober-sounding books about religion, long after your bubble has shifted to think you are studying false beliefs instead of true beliefs. The prestige lingers, the aura of who goes about talking about such things (hint: not truck drivers), long after the original time when upper-class people read up on the subject because it was the supposed repository of deep and esoteric truths. Now, of course, upper-class people read up about religious history because other upper-class people do.

But, to be fair, perhaps they also anticipate having a desperate need to understand the history of religious divisions in Ireland more deeply than reading Wikipedia will allow, and legitimately rate this much higher in priority than trying to work out who's right in the less-upper-class modern argument over p-values.

Peter Gerdes writes:

I don't really find many of these arguments persuasive reasons to read about religion.

The four points you make in this post don't seem to require any actual knowledge of religious doctrine only the vague awareness that anyone with a decent awareness of current events and historical incidents has about various wars and disputes conducted in the name of religion. Actually learning details about religious doctrine doesn't seem particularly beneficial to understanding these points and, as Eliezer points out above, too easily transforms into something akin to mocking those absurd beliefs held by the other tribe.

Indeed, one might even suggest that focusing too much on the religious beliefs involved in various conflicts causes one to overlook the true, rather than purported, reasons for various conflicts and disagreements.

As for Cowen's original point I don't see the fact that religious knowledge is particularly long lived to be an argument for spending more time learning it unless you expect to remain alive (and remember what you've learned) for hundreds of years. Even if you do any reasonable discounting function about the value of future decisions puts some serious limitations on the extra value that learning facts that remain relevant for a long time offers.

Philo writes:

Cowen: "In few other areas do past facts stand such a high chance of remaining relevant for so long." The lesson: To the extent that you are going to read history you should include the history of religion. But, as Yudkowsky remarks, we must consider *opportunity costs*: for practical purposes, how much history should you read?

Caplan: "Studying religion teaches us a tremendous amount about human psychology . . . and sociology." But we still have to generalize the lessons--e.g., to see the analogy between past religions and present-day ideologies--and generalizing to cover new domains is hard for us ordinary human beings. It may be more efficient for you and me to let someone who is good at it read the history and point us explicitly to the practically relevant lessons.

UlfC writes:

I like Eric Hoffer a lot as well.

Also read "Marriage and Civilization: How Monogamy Made Us Human" by William Tucker [link].

Western civilization is based on monogamy enforced by Christianity. Societies allowing polygamy tend to be violent because men will fight for women instead of doing productive work and help raise children.

Actually polygamy is more libertarian then monogamy, but the outcome for societies hasn't been good. So this is an area where I think conservatives have a point.

Alan Crowe writes:

Studying religion foregrounds the differences between the various framing devices.

Framing device? Muhammad could have told people that he had been off in the desert having a good hard think about how people should live and he had come up with Sharia Law all by him self. If he had, no-one would have cared and we would not remember him today. In reality he surrounded his text with a frame. An angel had dictated the word of God to him. In 610, that is a respectable framing device and makes his tale more impressive.

But Marx has a problem. Europe in 1848 is very different to Arabia in 610. Fashions for framing devices have changed. If he wants to make a splash and be remembered he needs to get with the times. Science is the new shiny, not angels. So Marx sells us historical inevitability, worked out by science, just like Edmund Halley predicting the return of his comet and having it turn up in 1758, just as predicted. Since Marxism is scientific, doubting it is as stupid as doubting Newtonian Mechanics.

Err, wait, wut? Where are Marx's differential equations? What is his equivalent of Kepler's Laws. People seemed happy to take Marx's word for it. He says it is scientific and he has written a book, just as impenetrable as Newton's Principia. So people believe, just as in earlier times they believed that Muhammad had taken dictation from an angel.

I asked for a word for the concept of which Islam and Marxism are equally paradigmatic examples. I was offered "messianic ideology". Sounds good.

Studying religion teaches us a tremendous amount about human psychology

The mass of people who make up the followers of a messianic ideology, whether Islam or Marxism, do insist that it have a fashionable framing device. But I don't think that they care about the details, beyond requiring it to be à la mode. And that is where the danger lies. If you study religion you get sucked into the details. Islam seems completely different to Marxism. If you take their framing devices seriously, well, they are completely incompatible.

Then you try to understand the world around you. There are Iranians fighting the Shah to bring about a Communist revolution and build a better world around the common ownership of the means of production. There are Iranians fighting the Shah to bring about an Islamic revolution and a better world around Sharia Law. If you are a student of religion there are two separate groups of people to understand. Why don't people care that communism doesn't actually work? Why don't people care that Islam brings war not peace? Once you have let the details of the framing device take center stage you have two separate mysteries to understand.

But both have a prophet/father-figure: Muhammad, Marx. Both have a book: Koran, Das Capital. Both have a worldly side to their creed that people fight to implement. Both have immunity to empirical disproof. And both have a framing device that ties it all together in a package, so that ordinary people can say "this is really true, I will fight for it!"

I think the important psychological insight is that ordinary people never nerd out over the details. They aren't going to learn calculus to solve Marx's differential equations themselves, to check he got it right. They are not going to learn short hand so that they can read Muhammad's original dictation and check that he transcribed it into Arabic correctly. They are looking for a sense of belonging and longing for a shared, heroic meaning for their lives.

Studying religion makes the world harder to understand because it splits patterns of behavior too finely by taking a nerdy approach to details. Ordinary people do care about the details; if you swap the Koran and Das Capital, they will notice and get upset. But it is not our nerdy concern. They want the one they grew up with, or the one they converted to as an expression of teenage angst. Ordinary peoples belief is fungible and when we "study religion" and nerd out on the details we lose touch with how ordinary people work.

Henri Hein writes:

"hint: not truck drivers"

I liked your post, but I have a problem with this stereotyping. I have met bookish plumbers and mechanics and yes, truck drivers, and I have met "upper class people" that were almost pathological in their intellectual indifference.

Eric Hoffer was mentioned with approval several times above. He was a stevedore.


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