Sunday, September 14, 2008

Worrying About Religion

"I afraid she'll listen to voices in her head, thinking they are divine inspiration, when confronted with national security issues. What if God tells her to launch the missiles?"
(recent Usenet post about Palin)

The argument--someone offered a version of it not long ago in a comment here--sounds right, but I don't think it is.

When you get on an airplane, do you worry about whether the pilot is a fundamentalist? What if God tells him to fly into a mountain? The mechanic who checked it? What if God told him not to bother—everything was fine? If you go in for an operation, is the question of whether the surgeon believes in evolution one of your main concerns? What if God tells him to cut out your heart and put it on an altar? When driving down the highway, do you worry that perhaps one car in ten coming the other direction is driven by a religious believer who might decide that this is his moment to go to heaven?

There is evidence all around us that people can hold apparently weird religious beliefs and still do a competent job of dealing with the real world. Perhaps that means that they don't really believe in the weird beliefs--that they are a story they enjoy telling themselves, not a real part of their picture of the world. Perhaps it merely means that knowing how to fly an airplane or use a scalpel doesn't depend on your view of religion, so pilots and surgeons who happen to have odd religious beliefs nonetheless learn and practice their professional skills the same way other pilots and surgeons do.

Whatever the explanation, I think it's clear by ordinary observation that holding weird religious, or for that matter political, beliefs rarely makes one unable to live one's life with an ordinary degree of competence.

And, of course, so far as Palin is concerned, the evidence most often cited—her supposed belief that the Iraq war is divinely inspired—is bogus, as I have already pointed out. Her actual remarks implied that she didn't know if it was God's plan or not, which suggests that she does not have voices in her head to answer such questions but must make up her own mind. Just like the rest of us.

23 Comments:

At 3:30 PM, September 14, 2008, Blogger Mark said...

I agree with most of what you said, David, but I'd like to offer a counter example. Many evangelical Christians believe that God favors Israel in its conflict with the Palestinians. This causes many of these people to pressure the American government to support hard-line Israeli policies. Without this religious belief, I doubt many of these people would care about a conflict half-way around the world that needn't involve America.

 
At 5:31 PM, September 14, 2008, Blogger Michael F. Martin said...

I agree completely. Since the early 20th Century we've known that no matter what your set of axioms, there are going to be statements that are true that you can't test either way. A good many religious beliefs seem to fall within that category when your set of axioms are the set adopted by most modern scientists.

And how about the United States as an evidence for the claim that "people can hold apparently weird religious beliefs and still do a competent job of dealing with the real world"? We're home to some of the weirdest religions known in history, and it hasn't interfered much with our economic growth. One has to wonder whether, in fact, it has helped our economic growth.

In response to the earlier comment by mark, I think it goes to far to say that "many evangelical Christians believe that God favors Israel." Many of the evangelical Christians I know wouldn't go so far as to say that God favors the modern nation of Israel. Most know, for example, that the Gaza strip was never part of ancient Israel.

 
At 7:50 PM, September 14, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A lot of the criticism I've read about Palin paints her as a corrupt political manipulator. If so, she's probably not especially sincere about the God-talk. Choose one or the other.

 
At 7:56 PM, September 14, 2008, Anonymous mdavid said...

I think it's clear by ordinary observation that holding weird religious, or for that matter political, beliefs rarely makes one unable to live one's life with an ordinary degree of competence.

Good thing. Otherwise, it is quite logical that athiests would be likely to not give a rip about the death/and or suffering of their fellow man...why? That person is nothing more than a mere mixture of molecules, with no meaning beyond that of any animal.

Indeed, follow this logic, and it's the non-believers who are the real threat if they lived out their belief system.

 
At 8:30 PM, September 14, 2008, Anonymous MachineGhost said...

MDavid, your statement is false as any perusal of the research from behaviorial economics will point the way that human beings have numerous biologically hard-wired cognitive biases, of which empathy and conscience are just one. Which is why only about 1-2% of the population is devoid of such humane biases -- to keep the rest of us on alert and preserve these survival traits when reproducing.

It is very likely that you are religious because you'll likely claim "Satan" or some other such mystic nonsense is responsible for those 1-2% deviates and that no human being likely can act moral without some likely omniscient threat of punishment.

Indeed, follow this logic, and it's obvious that you're being the irrational one and the real threat if you act on your belief system, rather than pontificating about it.

 
At 10:24 PM, September 14, 2008, Anonymous Mike said...

I don't think competency is the only thing at question here. There is also the issue of what her policy goals might be. Take Bush for example. There have been reports that Bush claimed that invading Iraq was God's plan. The decision to go into Iraq was not, in my opinion, incompetency, but just bad policy.(The incompetency came later.)

Piloting an aircraft is not a good analogy in my opinion because there are very narrow expectations of what a pilot is supposed to do. A pilot's job is simply to safely fly from one destination to the other. The presidency (as most people understand it today) has a much broader job description: do good for the country. There is more room for interpretation here, and more opportunity for one's spiritual and philosophical beliefs to be put into action.

 
At 1:25 AM, September 15, 2008, Blogger Jonathan said...

As all American presidential candidates are devoutly religious, or least wouldn't be caught admitting otherwise, any American regarding this as a drawback in a politician has to decide which is the least dangerous lunatic to elect. The Iranians are surely thinking, "And people worry about us?"

 
At 4:22 AM, September 15, 2008, Anonymous Dick White said...

In addition to Professor Friedman's observation that empirical data support reasonable behavior by those holding weird beliefs (by conventional standards), concerns over Palin's religious beliefs may be allayed by the institutions of the Presidency. A president doesn't launch missels. The launching follows a series of recommendations and approvals of myriad forces within the government. Now that decision may be a poor one but it necessarily reflects a host of considerations other than the president's weird beliefs. Similarly on sensitive matters of domestic policy, e.g., repeal Roe v. Wade. Such an initiative requires legislative action which itself no doubt would ultimately be considered by the Supreme Court (just consider the history of partial birth abortion legislation). Other than changing the wall paper in the Oval Office (which probably the First Dude would oversee), the President has precious little unilateral power to do much that would seriously affect the 300 million of us.

 
At 5:14 AM, September 15, 2008, Blogger Michael Thomas said...

Even Newton beleived in a God of the gaps. It is possible for lesser beings to have perfectly rational Apolonian beliefs about everything in their life that matters and strange Dionysian beliefs about "the gaps." Here this could just be the things that they are not experts in. For a slightly different take on this hypothesis, check out "The Myth of the Rational Voter" or any of Bryan Caplan's papers on rational irrationality.

 
At 5:58 AM, September 15, 2008, Blogger Gary McGath said...

Pilots, surgeons, and so forth have clear professional norms about what they're supposed to do. Anyone with an inclination to act against them because of supposed instructions from God would probably be weeded out early. Presidents of the United States, on the other hand, have much more leeway in what they can do, and no one is particularly surprised when they do highly unreasonable things. So there's considerably more reason to worry about religion-based irrationality in a president than in most other professions.

Having said that, I'm more worried about Obama's prayer to be made an instrument of God's will than I am about Palin's praying that the United States should be acting in accordance with God's will.

 
At 7:48 AM, September 15, 2008, Anonymous mjg said...

Everybody has false beliefs about all sorts of things, but for the most part these are of no consequence in their everyday life.

My pilot my have a genuine, deeply held belief that the world is 5000 years old, but so what? My surgeon might believe the Sun orbits around the Earth, but neither of these has any impact on their professional competence. Short of hiring an oil geologist or a rocket scientist neither of these "weird" beliefs should concern me.

The question re. Palin is whether she has false beliefs which impact her decision making or reveal something worrying about the way she reasons about evidence. Nothing I've heard, though, suggests she's more likely to hear voices than anybody else.

 
At 8:23 AM, September 15, 2008, Blogger jimbino said...

The one good thing you can say about religion is that it mostly doesn't matter one way or another. Prayer never works, of course, but it is a waste of time.

But religion can retard and ruin whole cultures for centuries. The fact that Muslim countries are still living pre-enlightenment is at least partially attributable to the oppressive religion that sets them apart from secular cultures.

 
At 8:46 AM, September 15, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Worrying About National Security

Whatever the explanation, I think it's clear by ordinary observation that holding weird religious, or for that matter political, beliefs rarely makes one unable to live one's life with an ordinary degree of competence.

What if you know that your pilot belongs to a small but violent branch of Islam, and it's his first time in the air -- flying into a mountain might be the least of your concerns. Similarly, if your surgeon tells you that you had better pray to the Lord before you go under, you might just start to worry a little bit.

Pilots and surgeons and ordinary drivers on the street are not called upon to make political decisions of national and global scope. They don't have to grapple with a world riven by religious conflict. Don't you think we want to examine the religious beliefs of our political leaders with greater scrutiny than our barbers?

That said, Palin addressed this issue in an interview with Charlie Gibson. She said she would never presume to speak on behalf of God. She then paraphrased Abraham Lincoln, saying that her prayer was not that we be on God's side, but that God be on our side.

 
At 12:50 PM, September 15, 2008, Blogger Justin said...

Indeed -- moreover, I fear that the religion argument is mostly a distraction to more substantive concerns.

I have serious problems with Palin, but the religious issues are minor considerations. More serious are the persistent (and apparently decently substantiated) accounts of how she approaches power. I'd far rather folks focused on those instead, since they are much more relevant to the question of how she governs...

 
At 7:47 PM, September 15, 2008, Anonymous Nathan said...

One important distinction, which I'm surprised David has missed, is the distinction between government and free markets. On the free market, airlines tend not to hire pilots whom they fear might crash their planes; airlines that fail at this objective tend to go out of business. Governments led by politicians who do crazy things are subject to much less competitive pressure. If they're bad enough, they may get conquered by other countries or fall from within, but as demonstrated by the former Soviet Union, North Korea, Cuba, Zimbabwe, and numerous other nations, even very poorly run regimes can last very long and inflict immeasurable damage.

Admittedly, democracy can be a slight check on politicians, but probably only marginally better than armed revolt against a despot, and nowhere near as effective of a feedback loop as the free market.

 
At 2:54 PM, September 16, 2008, Blogger mtraven said...

I worry if a pilot is a fundamentalist because it means he might get raptured right out of the cockpit at any time.

 
At 7:05 PM, September 16, 2008, Anonymous Mr. Mercy Vetsel said...

MDavid,

Indeed, follow this logic, and it's the non-believers who are the real threat if they lived out their belief system.

Excellent point, as is the original post.

I think it's obvious that religion is untrue, but the question of which set of beliefs is most dangerous brings to mind the Soviet Union, Maoist China and arguably even Nazi Germany.

Maybe the big two or three atheistic mass murderers just had better technology and a grander scale, but you'll be hard pressed to find an example of any religious people committing the level of atrocities that Stalin and Mao carried out.

-Mercy

 
At 3:23 PM, September 17, 2008, Blogger Jonathan said...

Mr Mercy Vetsel, there have been mass atrocities throughout human history, most of them committed by religious people, because most people were religious back then.

In the 20th century, somewhat fewer people were religious, the world population was larger, and things were done on a larger scale.

Neither religion nor lack of religion causes people to become mass murderers. It's something peculiar to those people. All one can say is that neither religion nor lack of religion stops people from behaving in that way.

The Europeans who colonized North and South America, exterminating most of the natives in the process, were I believe mostly very religious.

 
At 8:32 PM, September 17, 2008, Anonymous Bhushan K. said...

I agree with you to the extent that Palin's statement was most probably misinterpreted for obvious reasons. In any case, a lot of what is said during the campaign season merely constitutes playing to the gallery, and could safely be discounted for most practical purposes.

However, I beg to differ with you on the analogies you have drawn.

Indeed, when you go in for a surgery or board an airplane, you do not worry about the biases or beliefs of the surgeons or pilots adversely influencing their actions.

But this is perhaps better explained by the sense of security one feels in knowing that the surgeon and the pilot have undergone a rigorous and objective training process that would have pruned undesirable candidates before they got to the job. When you know that thousands of pilots are flying airplanes all around you and that not one has faltered in the recent past due to their personal beliefs, you tends to consider the chances of that changing to be very low. (Even with limited or no formal education in mathematics, the human instinct for probability is commendable.)

Unlike such a process-driven system, Palin was selected arbitrarily by one man (I am not questioning his competence or wisdom), and even if he was aided by a competent team, it would be safe to assume that their selection criteria were predominantly of short term nature: that of weakening their electoral opponent.

(If the primary objective is met, the arguments are easily manufactured to justify how the selection will meet the post-electoral objectives.)

As a passenger, you are not responsible for selecting the pilot; the system has already taken care of their evaluation. But when it comes to evaluating and endorsing an individual running for the position of the Vice President of the United States, in the absence of a process-driven system, citizens (probably must) depend on the information available to them to independently evaluate the competence of the candidate.

With unbiased information becoming increasingly difficult to obtain from other sources, statements made by candidates in first person will always have the highest value in forming an opinion about that candidate.

After all, one does not have the luxury of observing the performance of several thousand presidents or vice presidents to conclude that the chances of one odd President messing up the situation is low. (The examples available, I suspect, would only cause one to be all the more cautious.)

 
At 8:49 PM, September 17, 2008, Blogger Andrew said...

"That said, Palin addressed this issue in an interview with Charlie Gibson. She said she would never presume to speak on behalf of God. She then paraphrased Abraham Lincoln, saying that her prayer was not that we be on God's side, but that God be on our side."

I think you got that last part backwards. Lincoln is supposed to have said:

“Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God's side, for God is always right”

Regardless, Palin's comments still leave us with many unanswered questions about her religious ideas. If Palin agrees with Lincoln, that God is always right and that we should strive to be on his "side", HOW do we determine God's will? Can we extrapolate it from the Bible? Through prayer? What exactly?

Has Palin ever talked to God directly? Has she ever seen a vision or had any reason to believe God has communicated with her or even that he exists at all? If anyone has any information about Palin's (or any of the candidate's) views on these matters, I'd like to know them.

Furthermore, if God is always right, and his will is laid out clearly in the Bible, is Palin in favor of having Biblical law?

Gary McGath writes:

"Having said that, I'm more worried about Obama's prayer to be made an instrument of God's will than I am about Palin's praying that the United States should be acting in accordance with God's will."

I think Gary is right. Obama has tried very hard to court religious folks and I think he has been given a free pass on justifying his religious ideas. Then again, so has nearly every religious politician ever to run for office.

 
At 11:21 PM, September 17, 2008, Blogger David Friedman said...

"I think you got that last part backwards."

You are correct. Palin's statement is consistent with Lincoln's, inconsistent with my summary.

 
At 10:59 AM, September 19, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I think you got that last part backwards."

You are correct. Palin's statement is consistent with Lincoln's, inconsistent with my summary.


David, I wrote that summary in a comment on this page, and Andrew was pointing out my mistake. I think you're in the clear. Sorry for the confusion. (Thanks for the correction, Andrew.)

The quote is structured (ABBA) as an "antimetabole" - a rhetorical device often more stylish than sensible. Here, the point is especially cryptic to those of us who are agnostics. As Andrew pointed out, it leaves a lot of questions unanswered.

By contrast, in Capitalism & Freedom, your father used this figure to sharpen an important distinction when he wrote, "Not all schooling is education nor all education, schooling."

I recently posted this quote on Wikipedia as an example of an antimetabole, with links to your father and his book. With luck, a few diligent students of rhetoric will follow the links, learn some good economic theory, and put their skills to better use.

 
At 7:57 AM, September 25, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

David,
It's twenty two years later, and you're still reasoning by (faulty) analogy. Religions don't have a written history of dictating how planes should be piloted, they do have multi-millenium history of dictating how governments should be run.

Your arguments were and are the lowest form of sophistry. As a former student, I never took them seriously.

F.

 

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