Tuesday, December 9, 2008

RtBotS, Part 7 of 9: Worship, Communism, Stop Signs, Dinesh D'Souza, and Mike


(9) The other major benefit of (5) above is that it provides an answer to the question posed (often sneeringly) by religious believers: "Don't you believe in anything?" Yes, we do: the Rationalist Credo. This effectively nullifies one of the more easily scored (although, paradoxically, less logically substantive) points against atheism, i.e. that atheism is a negative proposition rather than a positive one. "You aren't proposing an alternative belief; you're just proposing lack of belief." Wrong, for the reasons articulated above.

However, this does open up a new potential objection to atheism. I described the spiritual libido as a limitless wellspring of mental energy that can be expended solely through faith. This "urge to believe" is not quite the same thing as an "urge to worship." Belief and worship are different; the former can exist without the latter, but the reverse is not true. The object of belief does not have to be personified in any way, even in the abstract, but the object of worship does. While the Rationalist Credo can serve as a satisfactory object of belief, it would be silly to worship it. But if one of the reasons people purchase religion over atheism is to satisfy some innate drive to actually worship, and not merely believe, then (5) doesn't really advance our position at all.

The only thing that gives me hope in the face of this possibility is that there are already well-established religions that are based on belief without worship; one could argue this is the defining distinction between Eastern and Western religions. The Abrahamic faiths all revolve around a single anthropomorphic, personified, intentional God; Eastern religions revolve around disembodied philosophies. (Animism is an interesting hybrid, in which worship does indeed take place, but the objects of worship are the essences of natural objects and phenomena, like trees, rocks, weather, celestial objects, earthquakes, animals, and the like, many of which are not even animate, never mind anthropomorphic.)

I take this as evidence that the drive to worship someone arose more recently, and is therefore less potent, than the spiritual libido proposed in (5) above. I even have a conjecture about how it came about.

Imagine that there were a real flesh-and-blood person -- let's call him Mike -- who is good friends with every single human being on earth. Whatever your native tongue, he speaks it fluently. You and he go way back; sort of a childhood friend, college roommate, and next-door neighbor all rolled into one. If you were awakened at 2:30 on a Tuesday morning by frantic banging on your front door, and you opened it to find Mike standing there wondering if he could crash on your couch for a few days, you'd welcome him with open arms and spend the next six hours catching up with him (screw going back to bed, you can call in sick). And Mike has that exact same kind of relationship with Thai middle managers, Vietnamese rice farmers, Mexican truck drivers, Russian billionaires, Australian construction foremen, Yanomamo tribesmen, French Catholic priests, Alaskan fishermen, Dutch day-traders, Scottish university professors, Moroccan cab drivers, Samoan soccer players, Venezuelan factory workers, Italian barbers, Czech rock musicians, Iranian soldiers, Indonesian bellhops, and even Andy Dick.

Mike, if he existed, would have a very powerful effect on the social dynamics of the world. Strangers always warm up to each other more quickly if it turns out that they both have an acquaintance in common (assuming the common acquaintance is not an enemy to either). Mike would guarantee that any two people picked at random on the planet would have at least one person in common; not just a casual acquaintance, either, but a good friend. Enmity would have a much harder time developing in such a social dynamic (although I'm sure it would still manage occasionally). Mike's existence would essentially be a very useful mechanism for helping the world cohere.

The sociologist Robin Dunbar has proposed that there is an upper limit on the human mind's ability to keep track of stable social relationships. These are relationships in which an individual knows who each person is, and how each person relates to every other person. Dunbar's number, as it's known, has several proposed values, but the most widely accepted is 150. More colloquially, Dunbar's number is thought of as the size of one's "monkeysphere."

The monkeysphere is the set of people in whose lives you have some emotional investment. If someone beyond your monkeysphere dies, you might still end up at their funeral, but only at a monkeyspheric funeral are you guaranteed to cry. This is different from normal human compassion. Reading about a tornado that decimated the homes of a dozen people in Arkansas might elicit strong sympathy, but you won't hop on the next flight to Little Rock to help them rebuild unless they're in your monkeysphere.

A monkeysphere of 150 was probably fine for early humans, because structures of tribe and kin, coupled with high infant mortality and low life expectancy, meant that they could conceivably live out their entire lives without ever meeting more than 150 other people. But when people started settling in villages and then cities (thanks to agriculture and animal husbandry), the monkeysphere was potentially very small compared to the size of the groups in which people found themselves living.

Enter Mike. Or, since Mike can't ever really exist, God. It's my conjecture that worship of an anthropomorphic, personified, intentional God must have been a very useful mechanism for helping larger groups cohere -- just like Mike -- because God could serve as a unifying placeholder in the monkeyspheres of everyone in the group. Mike and God alike would occupy a single slot in everyone's monkeysphere, creating an automatic icebreaker between two strangers. This function is especially noticeable when listening to fundamentalist Christians talk about Jesus as if they're all on a first-name basis with him. "Yeah, Jesus and I go way back." "Oh, you know Jesus too?" Another potential enmity avoided, another group's unity reinforced.

This is not so hard to accept. Consider all those overweight, depressed, lower-income folks in Middle America who obsessively read gossip rags like People magazine, Us Weekly, etc. Those people, due to a paucity of satisfying relationships with people they actually know, have allocated monkeysphere slots to celebrities. (The monkeysphere-placeholder idea figures into politics, too: when pollsters ask "Which candidate would you rather have a beer with?" they're really asking "Which candidate would you willingly allocate a monkeysphere slot to?") The monkeysphere developed because of the need to track personal relationships, but with today's technology and social structures, it can be inhabited by people who, in a sense not literal but still very significant, are not real. (Oprah!)

So what, if anything, does this tell us about how we should improve atheism's marketing? Does it mean that we should try to elect some Atheist Mike to trot the globe, befriend everyone, live a good life, and happen to be an atheist? I think this would be a very bad idea, for the following reason.

One of the attacks that religious believers like to mount against atheism is that "atheistic regimes have done just as much, if not more, evil than have religious ones." One of Dinesh D'Souza's favorite rhetorical flourishes is to point out that the Salem witch trials and the Spanish Inquisition, so often held up as paragons of evil done in religion's name, had a total body count of 2,018, hundreds of years ago, whereas the Holocaust, Stalinist Russia, Pol Pot's Cambodia, and Kim Jong-Il's North Korea have, in our own lifetimes, killed tens of millions. If atheists insist on the genuinely pious among religious believers to be held responsible for the deaths committed in the name of religion, D'Souza says, then surely they cannot absolve themselves of the crimes of Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, and Jong-Il.

(This has inspired an exchange in several debates that I'd like to comment on, but first I want to circle back to the whole Atheist Mike/monkeysphere thing and make my main point.)

Every corporate CEO will tell you that there is a big difference between firing someone and merely laying him off. In one case, the position still exists, to be given to someone else; in the other, it is eliminated altogether. With atheism, either way God is out of a job. The key distinction is that it's ethically harmless when this is done by eliminating the position entirely, but I concede that it does have the potential to be quite ethically harmful when it is done by merely firing God and replacing him with some earthbound figure. Stalin, Pol Pot, and Kim Jong-Il militated not for the layoff, but for the firing, to pave the way for their own ascension to God's old job. That's what allowed those evils to take place. (In Jong-Il's case that is literally true; as Christopher Hitchens enjoys pointing out, North Korea is a "necrocracy," in which the head of state is Kim Jong-Il's long-dead father; the son is merely the head of the country's only political party and the leader of its military.)

So, for this reason, suggesting that atheists exploit the monkeysphere-placeholder trick that lies at the core of worship-oriented religion, by coming up with some actual human to fill the atheists' monkeysphere slot, is a terrible idea.

(I can think of one exception to this conclusion, and it ties back to point (2). If atheism were to someday suffer a martyr, that deceased personage might be a suitable monkeysphere placeholder for atheism -- but only if he or she dies childless. Leaving behind a bloodline makes the prospect of another repressive regime, one whose evils are indisputably and explicitly done in atheism's name, much too likely to risk.)

Let's revisit Dinesh D'Souza's claim. The Four Horsemen have rebutted it by saying that it evidences a confusion of correlation with causality; there is a difference between people who happen to be atheists doing vile things versus people doing vile things in the name of atheism. Rabbi David Wolpe has thoughtfully responded that, although this may be true of the Holocaust (Hitler professed Christianity, although there is dissonance between his public and private writings on the subject), the other instances of mass murder under discussion were undertaken in the name of Communism, an ideology that explicitly embraces atheism as part of its underlying principles. So, by transitivity, says Wolpe, they were, in fact, undertaken in atheism's name.

This is an excellent point that deserves a serious response. It raises two questions that must be explored. The first is, is the kind of atheism that comes as a free side dish with one's purchase of Communism the same kind of atheism being proposed here? The second is, has Wolpe effectively deprived atheists of the ability to condemn the doctrines of religion for the evils of certain of its adherents?

Sam Harris thinks he has effectively dispatched the first question by asking, "Is too much skeptical inquiry really what's wrong with North Korea?" But the glibness-to-insight ratio of this rejoinder is just a little too high for it not to feel like an artful dodge. I think a clearer approach is to seize upon the distinction made in (5): "Note that atheism appears nowhere in [the Rationalist Credo]. My atheism is not a part of my belief system; it is a consequence of it."This matters because there is more than one way that one can arrive at being an atheist. To illustrate this, consider the "no-values voters" imagined by The Onion. (Follow the link; it's funny.) These are voters who cheerfully reject morality and whose top issues are death, suffering, engulfing things in flames, poisoning wells, molesting infants, etc. (Their political action committee is named "Citizens For A Bleaker America.") This no-values voting bloc could easily arrive at atheism through the following reasoning:

(i) God is the source of humanity's moral compass.
(ii) We reject humanity's moral compass.
(iii) Therefore we reject God.

This is an utterly different type of atheism from that which flows from the Rationalist Credo; in fact, the Rationalist Credo has a prohibition against just this kind of reasoning in item (5e). Atheism may be the correct conclusion, but it is possible to arrive at it for the wrong reasons. Although a believer in the Rationlist Credo might find (ii) personally objectionable, it is item (i) that suffers from faulty reasoning.

Because the Rationalist Credo includes the Golden Rule, I hope it is apparent that the kind of atheism arrived at through its reasoning would never tolerate actions that would be tolerated by the "no-values voter" type of atheism. The no-values voter arrives at atheism through flawed reasoning, but Communism arrives at it through no reasoning at all; it simply assumes the lack of God as a postulate, with no further exploration. (5e) forces us to treat lack of reasoning the same as faulty reasoning; hence, Communistic atheism is just as different from, and reprehensible to, the kind of atheism based on the Rationalist Credo as is the "no-values voter" kind.

So that answers Wolpe's first question with a resounding "no." The second question, i.e. have atheists been deprived of the ability to condemn religious doctrine for the evils of certain of its adherents, is a variation of the old "ideology versus practitioner problem." This problem asks, can we blame an abstract ideology for the concrete evils of its individual practitioners? The question presupposes that the concrete evils in question were explicitly done in the name of the ideology in question, which I think Wolpe has reasonably established in this case. The thought experiment that I use to think about this problem is something I call "the parable of the stop sign."

Imagine a four-way intersection with a stop sign facing each incoming road. Visualize one of the stop signs in your mind. Now imagine that, instead of being red with the word “stop” on it, it is purple and has a big exclamation point, and that’s it. Obviously the sign-maker’s intent would be the same: cars should stop when they encounter the sign. A cursory inspection of the surroundings makes it clear that anything other than stopping could have bad results. But, it’s open to interpretation. Some people could interpret the purple to mean slowing down, not stopping. Some people could interpret the exclamation point to mean speeding up, not stopping. The goal of the sign is to modify our behavior a certain way, but its openness to interpretation prevents that from happening reliably.

It seems to me that the key factor in whether a belief system can be abused, can be put to uses its originators did not intend, is its openness to interpretation. Now, as any postmodern literature professor will tell you, everything is open to interpretation (although, unfortunately, that's really the only thing a postmodern literature professor can tell you). Be that as it may, I think it's possible that some belief systems are more open to interpretation than others.

The unfortunate thing about "openness to interpretation" is that it is, itself, open to interpretation. How does one define or quantify it? I propose a fairly unambiguous measurement: length. The longer a text, the greater its openness to interpretation. This proposal flows out of the following observation. Suppose that any two sentences are chosen at random out of a given text. Without even knowing what they are, we can say that there is a chance -- low, but nonzero -- that those sentences will contradict each other to some extent. As the number of statements in a document increases, the chance that it will evidence some degree of self-contradiction increases.

Of course there exist counterexamples on both sides. Haiku poems and Zen koans are extremely short, yet inspire a multitude of different interpretations. Russell's and Whitehead's Principia Mathematica is 460 pages long, yet is entirely internally consistent. But these documents are counterexamples precisely because they aren't representative samples of most writing. In their cases, self-contradiction was the authors' paramount concern; Principia's authors went to extraordinary lengths to avoid it, and the Eastern philosophers went to extraordinary lengths to embrace it (as part of their effort to, as Douglas Hofstadter puts it, "break the back of logic"). Most documents are somewhere in the middle. And it is in this vast middle that the correlation between length and likelihood of self-contradiction applies.

If we graph the correlation between (a) number of statements in a document and (b) the chances of that document contradicting itself, we'll find that it (like the brain size-to-cognitive power graph discussed in Part 5 above) follows an exponential curve. The tipping point of this curve represents the interpretability threshold: ideological documents that sit below it are like a normal stop sign, and those that sit above it are like the purple-exclamation-point stop sign.

The reason atheists are able to score easy debate points by pointing out the Crusades, the Inquisition, etc. is that the Abrahamic holy books are thousands of pages long, well above the interpretability threshold. Wolpe was able to score his equivalent debate points because the "holy book" of Marx and Engels, the Communist Manifesto, is 58 pages long -- much closer to, but still, apparently, above, the interpretability threshold.

The Rationalist Credo, by contrast, clocks in at one page -- well below the interpretability threshold. It is hard to envision a tyrant ruling his dictatorship with an iron fist in the name of the scientific method and the Golden Rule. (Indeed, for an example of a society governed by beliefs essentially identical to the Rationalist Credo, see Sweden.)

I have characteristically resorted to nerdy, quasi-mathematical arguments to refute Rabbi Wolpe's point, but there are several other angles from which to view these issues. The remainder of this section deals with them.

To explore the first of these alternative angles, I must first introduce the central reason why I harbor such antipathy for religion: it artificially and inappropriately conjoins two questions that are best considered independently. The first question is, "What is the nature of existence?" The second question is, "How should we act?" It is my conviction that the first question can be answered by science and science alone; answering that question is why science exists at all. As for the second question, I readily agree with critics of atheism that science has little to offer in grappling with it (although Sam Harris has intriguingly wondered if those magisteria are completely nonoverlapping). Religion conflates the two by answering the first -- "An omniscient, omnipotent, benevolent God created us and all that surrounds us" -- and then answers the second by continuing -- "and He has laid down the following rules, which we should all follow." Religious believers insist that morality flows from God primarily because that is how religion has structured its co-answers to these two otherwise unrelated questions.

I bring this up now to point out that, while the answer Communism provides to the first question is the same one that atheism does, its answer to the second question is a virtual mirror image of the content of Jesus Christ's ethical teachings. Jesus preached the ethical nobility of severing one's emotional ties to worldly goods, exhorting the haves to give everything they own to the have-nots. What is Communism if not the translation of Christ's message into the secular language of post-Adam Smith economics? Communism may not think Jesus was the son of God, but it certainly seems to think his answers to "How should we act?" were on the right track. At minimum, this is good evidence that one can reach moral conclusions through reasoning that makes no appeal to a higher power. Communism echoes Christ because he said it first, not because he was divine.

There is another angle from which to view this. Let us side with D'Souza and Wolpe that Stalin et al. inflicted their evil upon the world explicitly because of their atheism. Then suppose that, later in life, they had crises of conscience, saw the error of their ways, and accepted Jesus Christ as their savior. (We will pause to let Rabbi Wolpe descend from this train of thought, since he obviously does not share D'Souza's Roman Catholicism.) Wouldn't the massive burden of their sins be transferred, at that point, from their own shoulders to those of the Lord? Wouldn't all their transgressions be forgiven, washed away in the blood of Christ? Is that really the kind of moral dynamic that Christians willingly embrace? No harm no foul?

Yet another angle from which to view this: D'Souza says that orders of magnitude separate the death tolls of older religious episodes of mass murder versus modern atheistic ones. Subtracting motive from the equation, leaving only means, it's worth pointing out that man's technical capacity to inflict death is much greater in modernity than antiquity. Imagine how many more would have perished in the Spanish Inquisition, or for that matter the Crusades, if the Vatican had had gas chambers, tanks, rifles, machine guns, artillery, bombers, and so on at its disposal. Does anyone really doubt that popes Urban II or Innocent III would have nuked Mecca if they'd had the means?


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