If God is dead, is anything permissible?

One of my regular commenters asked, in a previous thread, “If everyone was truly released from the shackles of religion, and got beyond the false moral codes imposed on them, would society collapse in a heap of nihilism?” This question needs a longer answer that will fit in a reply comment.

The shortest summary is “No!”. The less short answer is: “No, because religious moral codes are epiphenomenal.” And it is on point to add that the question reveals serious ignorance of the actual traits of most religions over most of history.

I’ll address the historical point first. The commenter’s question was framed from within the assumptions of one particular family of religions: the Judeo/Christian/Islamic tradition, which are more succinctly describable as the bastard offspring of Zoroastrian dualism. In this family, “religion” bundles cosmology, theology, and morality into a single total system designed primarily to enforce norms by programming the believer with an internalized guilt machine.

Because the dominant religions of the modern West are all derived from this group, it is difficult for Westerners to understand how bizarre and exceptional these religions are in a broader context. Most religions are not total systems. Most religions do not tie morality to cosmology. In fact, most religions have very little to say about morality at all!

Consider, for example, an Altaic shaman. It’s not his job to pronounce on who should sleep with who, or to tell people that theft is wrong. It’s not even his job to tell people that they must worship Tengri or Kara-han; dealing with the gods is his specialty, thank you. His job combines aspects of psychologist and medic with a bit of divination. The closest analog of “morality”, in his culture, is a set of inherited customs and taboos which is reinforced by explanatory myths but not generated by them and not really dependent on them. The closest equivalent of religious structures about right and wrong is an elaborate set of rules about ritual purity and impurity. In the jargon of the field, his religion is an orthopraxy rather than an orthodoxy.

Over most human cultures in most human history, “religion” has been much more like Altaic shamanism than like Christianity, Judaism, or Islam. Er, so why didn’t these cultures “collapse in a heap of nihilism”? The same question actually applies to modern religions outside the post-Zoroastrian family. Buddhism and Hinduism, for example, are almost completely unconcerned with “morality”. Hinduism is organized around ritual purity and impurity; Buddhism’s quest for merit is about liberation of the self from attachments, not about duties one owes to God or others.

Here’s another clue. One of the most pervasive taboos worldwide is against having sex with your near relatives. While religions almost never explicitly forbid this, you’d have a very hard time finding anyone who thinks it isn’t deeply wrong and icky. So: not only do lots of people have religions that don’t teach them any “morality” in the sense modern Westerners understand the term, there are near-univeral moral rules that religions don’t have a central role in propagating.

The correct way to understand religious moral codes is as epiphenomena; they’re built on top of evolved adaptive responses that predate any particular religion, and probably predate religion itself. Those of our ancestors for whom incest was not taboo inbred themselves out. The Ten Commandments may say “Thou shall not bear false witness”, but it is likely that the minds of social primates have included a cheater-detection module for five thousand times longer than the Ten Commandments have existed.

Societies without religious morality don’t “collapse into nihilism” because religion isn’t the basis of morality. “Morality” is accumulated knowledge about how not to screw up your genetic line’s reproductive chances; this is almost though not quite the same as how not to screw up your kin-group’s or tribe’s reproductive success, and the difference can be safely ignored in this context. Religions come and go without changing more than the superficial details.

The collapse of religious authority could lead to nihilism only if moral rules were fundamentally arbitrary. But they aren’t. If you have sex with your near relatives, many of the children will have serious recessive defects. If you steal from others, sooner or later a posse’s going to come around to take back the stuff and beat the crap out of you. If you tell lies, people won’t trust you and won’t come through for you when you need them. None of these rules depend on which gods you worship, or whether you have any at all.

128 thoughts on “If God is dead, is anything permissible?

  1. …and the rules regarding private property rights are a reflection of the primal observation that it’s better to respect “mine & yours” than endanger our health in a fight over such things.

  2. Are Greek gods also from that same Zoroastrian family? They were very keen on punishment, even if their moral was not too high by our standards.

  3. >Are Greek gods also from that same Zoroastrian family? They were very keen on punishment, even if their moral was not too high by our standards.

    No, they aren’t. And if you’ll review the Greek myths, you’ll find that divine punishment in them has little or nothing to do with what we’d call “morality”; mostly it’s a result of getting on the wrong side of a god’s whim, or hubristically aspiring to the status of a god.

  4. Granted, but religion is still a very efficient way to increase the effectiveness of these “moral” instincts, and render them less dependent on calculations of self-interest, or short-term considerations which may seem to outweigh the moral instincts from a prudential aspect. From a game-theory POV, “moral code” religions provide a powerful focal point for coordination.

    Indeed, that is why people talk about the “shackles” of religion, et cetera.

    It seems that the objection is not to religion per se, but to the content of these religions. If a “moral code” religion were to have morals with which you perfectly agreed, you would be writing about it as the best thing since sliced bread.

  5. It seems that the objection is not to religion per se, but to the content of these religions. If a “moral code” religion were to have morals with which you perfectly agreed, you would be writing about it as the best thing since sliced bread.

    And if a frog had wings he wouldn’t bump his ass when he hopped.

    “Moral code” religions which reflect Eric’s values (among which is: thou shalt not interfere with the freedom of others to think and believe as they wish) are almost a contradiction in terms. There have been experiments with retrofitting this sort of value system onto Christianity; the Baptist movement was one such. And look where the Baptists are today.

  6. Hinduism is closer to “religion” than “shamanism” in your taxonomy. Look no further than the Mahabharata.

    The central story of this epic is set off by a ritual crisis. One of the legitimate elders of the Kuru royal family is blind and the other has a skin disease rendering both ritually unfit for kingship. (There is a third but he has taken a vow of celibacy also rendering him unfit.) Their children resolve the problem in the traditional way–war. As members of the Kshatriya caste by birth, trial by combat is their custom.

    On the eve of battle, one of the warriors, Arjuna has misgivings. He confesses his doubts to his charioteer Krishna who as luck would have it is God incarnate. This is the famous Bhagavadgita. Krishna Bhagavans advice in the gita is sarvadharmAnparityajya mAmekaM sharaNaM vraja. “renouncing all dharma, take refuge in me alone.” (18.66a) A sentiment old YHVH could get on board with don’t you think?

    Of course the traditional commentators have taken pains to show that taking refuge in God requires diligent performance of ritualistic dharma. Or as my own Guruji vividly explained to me “If Shiva Bhagavan were to appear here right now and tell you to do something contrary to the dharmashastras [law books] your answer should be ‘Sorry Bhagavan but you have forbidden it.’” So in that sense you are right that Hinduism values orthopraxy over orthodoxy but my point is that this orthopraxy as understood by Hindus is a duty to God. (Isn’t that also the Jewish attitude towards mitzvot in the “Western” tradition?) I think most Hindus would agree that without God there is only nihilism.

    Religion supplanted paganism because paganism doesn’t scale. (And an appeal to evolution as a basis for morality doesn’t change that.) But the paganistic spirit has power and it resonates with mens hearts. Smart religions co-opt paganism, only dumb ones try to supress it.

  7. “f you have sex with your near relatives, many of the children will have serious recessive defects. If you steal from others, sooner or later a posse’s going to come around to take back the stuff and beat the crap out of you. If you tell lies, people won’t trust you and won’t come through for you when you need them.”

    Right. And there’s a second-order reason to eschew such behaviors: do you really want to help create a society in which these things are commonplace and accepted? I may be an atheist, but I’m not Mad Max. My chances of survival are much greater if I have friends and neighbors I can trust. And that’s not very likely if they can’t trust me.

  8. >From a game-theory POV, “moral code” religions provide a powerful focal point for coordination.

    Good insight. In fact, there’s a very active line of analysis in evolutionary psychology that starts from exactly that premise.

    However, we also have lots of evidence that “moral code” religions are not necessary as a coordination point. So the justification of religious morality on that ground is at best contingent and weak.

  9. >And there’s a second-order reason to eschew such behaviors: do you really want to help create a society in which these things are commonplace and accepted?

    Precisely. This is why Jaidhar is wrong and an appeal to evolution as a basis for morality does in fact scale. (I’m leaving aside his ungrounded use of the term “paganism”).

  10. For a lengthy treatment of this issue, see Michael Shermer’s book _The Science of Good and Evil_. A more interesting question than “Why are people so moral when they don’t have to be?” is “Why are some people evil?” and Shermer makes a number of interesting observations to this question.

  11. “… and an appeal to evolution as a basis for morality does in fact scale … ”
    While I certainly will acknowledge that evolution has equipped us with moral sentiments, I have misgivings about basing morality on evolution. The way I see it, evolution has equipped us with many sentiments, but not all of them can be considered moral. There was once a study that claimed that the propensity for rape was ingrained in us be evolution. This study was widely critized by the PC crowd. I don’t know if the study is true or not, but it is not hard to see that it *could* be true. It *could* be true that in our ancestral environment, raping women increased your chances of getting your genes in the next generation. But does that mean that rape is moral?
    There is also some evidence that strong tribalism (us vs them mentality) is also ingrained in us by evolution. But does that make tribalism moral? To me, tribalism seems like the root of many problems.
    Evolution is red in tooth and claw. Basing your morality on it might be dangerous.
    Unfortunately I don’t have a good alternative, but I’ll keep looking ;)

  12. First, let me say I come from the major western bastard offspring of
    Zoroastrian dualism, so I’m probably blind to my prejudices.

    I have a problem with your statement, “‘morality’ is accumulated
    knowledge about how not to screw up your genetic line’s reproductive
    chances”. This statement “deifies” the concept of reproduction. It
    implies that, cosmologically, the primary purpose of a person is to
    reproduce. Setting aside whether or not that is the primary purpose
    of humanity; this belief is part of the basis of your morality. A
    person’s moral standard is based in that persons understanding of the
    purpose of humanity. Good, improves humanity’s lot. Bad, damages
    humanity’s lot. A person’s understanding of the of humanity’s purpose
    is that persons god, the basis of their religion. “Why are we here?”,
    is a religious question.

    So, I don’t see how we can rationally separate morality from cosmology,
    and theology.

  13. Oops I meant shamanism doesn’t scale not paganism. s/paganism/shamanism/ and sorry about that.

    I’ll grant that evolution seems plausible for explaining some of our major taboos but much of what I’ve read about evolutionary psychology (admittedly pop stuff) seems to be “just so” stories. Perhaps if I look at more rigorous studies (and assuming they exist) I’ll change my mind about that.

  14. > If everyone was truly released from the shackles of religion, and got beyond the false moral codes imposed on them, would society collapse in a heap of nihilism?

    See Sweden for instance . About %85 of people are atheist, and this country is one of the most civilized and peaceful countries on the planet earth :)

  15. Christopher Hitchens includes a very nice chapter on this topic in his book “god is not Great” – going to even greater lengths by stipulating that the practice of abandoning reason to faith causes far more atrocity than it creates what most of us would call “good works.” Ayn Rand had a great deal to say on this as well.

    My personal take is that most people (~85%, to pull a number from my posterior orifice) are “basically good,” that is, they respect the rights of others, enjoy helping people, etc. and would continue to “be good” regardless of religion or upbringing. The small minority that is just, to use the vernacular, “all fucked up” is pretty much the same way. I was brought up in a very religious household, community, and peer group, and saw plenty of both sides. I’m very non-religious now (a self-described “Fundamentalist Agnostic” – I’m really serious about not giving a rat’s ass about the existence of a divine power) and I think that my current group of fellow travelers is on the whole more moral and more consistent in their morals than those I grew up with. This is primarily because our morality is based on reasons – it’s rigorously built up from a very simple set of core premises – that we understand, accept, and can articulate. We’re never given the opportunity to fall back on the crutch of ” because the Bible (or other “holy tome”) says so.” We stand on our own, as human beings.

  16. A story:

    When Penn Jillette had a radio show, he interviewed Richard Dawkins. Dawkins had a story about being on a radio talk show and getting a call from someone who said that if someone could prove god didn’t exist, he’d go straight out and shoot his neighbor, since there was no reason not to. When the radio host and Dawkins tried talking to the man, it became rather obvious that he wasn’t trying to make a point, but really meant it.

  17. >Pete Wilson Says:
    >February 10th, 2010 at 3:02 pm
    >This statement “deifies” the concept of reproduction.

    Nope. It just acknowledges it as important. Morals are a tool of survival, yes, but _good_ survival. Most humans have made the decision NOT to be like the rest of the animals; we want to do more than just live, we want to live well. Violence doesn’t really further that, so we’ve generally excised it from our morality. With that in mind, morality isn’t such a big deal, and it is pretty easy to figure out what the “right” morality is. My morality is simple, “mind your own business, and keep your hands to yourself”. As long as I can operate that way WITH people who operate that way, we’ll be fine. Otherwise, I have a shotgun. There are more than a few places on Earth where, if you don’t understand this simple morality, you won’t last long, whatever your religion (or lack thereof).

    “Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed.”, we shouldn’t deify nature (eveolution, reproduction), but we MUST take it into account. The fact that religion SOMETIMES improves our condition is nice, but it is misdirection at best. Proverbs 3:5* will get you nowhere fast. If you want morality, figure out how to live best in _reality_.

    * Proverbs 3:5, KJV Bible, “Trust in the LORD with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding.”

  18. the practice of abandoning reason to faith causes far more atrocity than it creates

    I completely agree. In fact, part of the problem here is that some people assume that religion automatically requires “faith,” and is therefore a non-rational process.

    Originally, Israelite practice was very different. The Hebrew word usually translated as “faith,” emunah, literally means “to confirm through experience.” At first, Israelites believed in God etc. because of direct mystical experiences, following a meditative system that later developed into what we know as the Kabbalah.

    Unfortunately, after the mystical tradition was suppressed and we entered into mutual influence with Christianity, “faith” as such became more important in Judaism and tended to supplant the original emphasis on direct experience.

    I get into arguments about this all the time with other Jews. Belief need not require abandoning reason.

  19. @Pete Wilson:

    it implies that, cosmologically, the primary purpose of a person is to reproduce.

    Yes, yes it is. Biologists often grok this well. Like all life on this planet, we’re born, we reach reproductive maturity, screw like rabbits, give birth, and ultimately, once we’re beyond our reproductive usefulness, our bodies start to deteriorate and then we die (if we’re not killed off early by the competition). All of our most basic instincts revolve around survival of the species. Deny it all you want, but certain primal urges are very, very difficult, if not impossible, to completely suppress.

    Setting aside whether or not that is the primary purpose of humanity; this belief is part of the basis of your morality.

    As I said, this is how science sees it. See Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, which is the current prevailing scientific theory. An understanding of science is not a “belief.” Reproduction as the primary purpose of human beings is proven scientific fact, not belief.

    A person’s moral standard is based in that persons understanding of the purpose of humanity.

    Nonsense. Morality is based on cultural norms. Where cultural norms come from is a subject of much debate, but the evolutionary psychology explanation offered by esr is probably as good as any other scientific theory.

    Good, improves humanity’s lot. Bad, damages humanity’s lot.

    The entire concept of “good” and “bad” comes out of Zoroastrianism. “Good” and “bad” are extremely relative terms. Among fundamentalist Muslims (Islam is another red-headed bastard stepchild of Zoroastrianism), if a woman commits adultery, it is “good” to kill her. In the U.S., most of society finds it “bad” — morally reprehensible, even — for a parent to tattoo their child. (A couple here in Florida were recently arrested and jailed for this very same reason.) In some indigenous cultures, a parent who doesn’t tattoo their child is morally reprehensible.

    IOW, “good” and “bad” cannot be defined in absolute terms.

    A person’s understanding of the of humanity’s purpose is that persons god, the basis of their religion.

    Not all religions are based on a “God”. Ever heard of Buddhism?

    “Why are we here?”, is a religious question.

    Nonsense. It’s a question some scientists are actually trying to answer every day.

  20. >>> Here’s another clue. One of the most pervasive taboos worldwide is against having sex with your near relatives. While religions almost never explicitly forbid this, you’d have a very hard time finding anyone who thinks it isn’t deeply wrong and icky.

    But what if the purpose of the sex was not to have kids, but just for enjoyment? There would be no offspring to worry about, so why not?

    You are right, though, that most people just instinctively find this icky, even if they can’t rationally explain why. I think this falls under the category of “the wisdom of repugnance.”

    This is icky, but I can’t exactly give logical reasons why not. It just is.

  21. @Morgan :
    > The entire concept of “good” and “bad” comes out of Zoroastrianism.

    Exactly , and that’s why Frederick Nietzsche named his perdurable book “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” .

  22. Darrencardinal, you can’t be serious. It’s only recently that one can reliably have sex “just for enjoyment” without at least a significant risk that there will be children as a result. Even today, most forms of birth control are either irreversable or not entirely reliable.

    One way around the problem is to only let the very wealthy/powerful marry their siblings or other near relatives, so that they can afford a few unhealthy children, and even if they don’t produce *any* healthy children, there are rules which allow healthy near-relatives to inherit their status.

  23. One thing I’ve noticed about most atheists I’ve met (and please understand being in seriously redneck area of a seriously redneck state it’s a pretty limited survey :^) is that a number of them, being (I guess) first generational non-believers, have a tendency to equate morals with religion and reject both. More importantly, they appear for all the world to be more interested in rejecting morals than rejecting religion so they can lead a completely hedonistic lifestyle with out judgment or consequence.

    The few examples I have from people who grew up in atheist families do indeed tend to be moral on most matters (although they do seem to draw some funny conclusions on the oddest things, but then the person I’m thinking of is a contrarian anyway, so maybe that explains it :^).

    Question: For those with a background in non-religious morality, how would you convince somebody that just because God isn’t telling them they shouldn’t lie, steal, or do drugs, it’s still a bad idea?

    As you might imagine, most of the people I’m thinking of are <25 years old (and the rest generally act like they are).

  24. >Question: For those with a background in non-religious morality, how would you convince somebody that just because God isn’t telling them they shouldn’t lie, steal, or do drugs, it’s still a bad idea?

    Explain to them that what goes around comes around basically. If you lie, steal, or do drugs you store up consequences for yourself you’re not going to like.

  25. Pete Wilson said:
    >A person’s moral standard is based in that persons understanding of the purpose of humanity.

    morgan greywolf said:
    > Nonsense. Morality is based on cultural norms.

    It is all fine and well to simply declare “nonsense” every time someone proposes a moral dimension to reality. But before you do, consider the notion that the new glorious science of “evolutionary psychology” may not hold all the answers. For instance I have noticed that people often confuse “culture” with it’s products. Food, national dress, ritual, and sexual mores, for instance do not comprise “culture”, nor even aspects of it. Even langauge, though much closer to the source, it merely an artifact of culture. Culture itself is in fact much closer to what Pete describes, I think. It comprises the ways in which people perceive the relationship between the individual and society, and the relative values they assign to the various exchanges therein.

    This doesn’t deny an evolutionary component to the way culture is transmitted, but when we run afoul of cultural norms that run contrary to our own internalized understanding of right and wrong we must make a choice. And when we do, it will sometimes end at Napier’s Gallows. Napier need not hang the widow-burners to preserve his tribe, but his moral compass cannot both possess knowledge of it and allow it to happen. Not every man of Napier’s generation and culture followed this moral imperative. In fact a great many did not, and preferred the pragmatism of “Roman Rule” when dealing with what they repugnant cultural norms and values. Despite few theories to the contrary, we do not seem to culture robots, pre-programmed to perform rote individual-vs-group math that always arrives at the same conclusions. We argue. We surprise one another. Quite a lot, actually. ;^)

  26. >>Question: For those with a background in non-religious morality, how would you convince somebody that just because God isn’t telling them they shouldn’t lie, steal, or do drugs, it’s still a bad idea?

    >Explain to them that what goes around comes around basically. If you lie, steal, or do drugs you store up consequences for yourself you’re not going to like.

    This comment suggests that morality has some sort of code that enforces this “law”. While you may call this justice, others would argue that the justice system (state or non-state enforced) is the symptom of something else, the product – not the source. Thus, what is it that ensures that what goes around comes around?

    Furthermore, there have been many men (and women) who have done great evil and have procreated well (which is what evolutionary theory requires), so I don’t think this stacks up. I don’t see how morality and atheism have anything in common with each other and thus no bearing on each other – although plenty are trying hard to match the two together like you do above.

    There is little doubt that religions are different but I disagree with your analysis of religions. It seems to me to be an attempt to compress the religions of the world into a couple of small shoe boxes that they don’t fit.

  27. esr> Explain to them that what goes around comes around basically. If you lie, steal, or do drugs you store up consequences for yourself you’re not going to like.

    Yeah, that’s been the general tack (though a bit more long winded :^). I get the feeling it didn’t make much of an impression. But then again, they trust no one over 30 :^).

  28. greywolf:

    Reproduction [is] the primary purpose of human beings

    You’re mixing causality with teleology. Reproduction is the cause for the existence of humans. The word “purpose”, however, implies intention. Who holds intentions regarding the existence of human beings? Only ourselves. Our purpose is ours to make. This is a completely separate matter from the historical cause of our existence.

    “Why are we here?”, is a religious question.

    Nonsense. It’s a question some scientists are actually trying to answer every day.

    “Why are we here?” is an ill-defined question. Biology can only tell us how we came to be here. (Religion, in contrast, can’t tell us anything.)

  29. >Who holds intentions regarding the existence of human beings? Only ourselves. Our purpose is ours to make

    Agreed.

    >(Religion, in contrast, can’t tell us anything.)

    That’s not quite true. It can tell us truths about ourselves. It goes wrong when it wanders into cosmology and tries to become a total explanatory system.

  30. > “Why are we here?” is an ill-defined question.

    Yes. Slightly more well defined, but wholly unanswerable to universalists (including evolutionary pscychologists) is “Why am I here?” You have to define “I” and you have to define “here”, but we seem very capable of doing those things as individuals insomuch as language lets us know what is going on in each others minds. “Why” is the damned problem. And you are absolutely correct that “How” dos not equal “Why.” Those words aren’t synonyms. They are profoundly divorced. 6,000 years of recorded philosophical thought could tell you that, but so could a freshman Journalism student.

  31. I think that my original comment didn’t express my thought on this really clearly. In societies past our social mobility has been very constrained, and a moral code can be enforced by your close society. If you sleep around you are treated as a slut, and in a society where the scarlet letter matters, that is a big deal. If you lie and don’t keep your word, then, in a small society your reputation is ruined, and you can’t do much. To put it another way, with limited social mobility and small social groups, it was of great consequence to break the moral codes. The tool of religion further enhanced this by adding a imprimatur of moral authority to the moral code, though obviously there were other ways to do this, as Eric rightly pointed out. Here by moral code, I am referring more specifically to the patterns of behavior that were acceptable and unacceptable.

    Today, we live in a society of vastly greater social mobility. If you get a reputation as a liar, you can find a new group easily enough. The slut can become a virgin by moving a couple of towns over. In this type of society, religion plays a bigger role in a sense of enforcing the moral code. It gives a reason beyond the fear of your neighbors, to do “what is right”. While the threat of societal opprobrium might be easily over come, the threat of eternal damnation still hangs over you.

    Something else that is new is the striving for meaning in life. In past societies most people were too busy just trying to survive to be concerned about the meaning of their life. Times are different now, and religion has largely adapted with it. Most churches today spend more time talking about meaning than damnation (though that threat is always lurking in the background.)

    Add these two things together: the fear that keeps your behavior patterns in line with what is expected and the sudden realization that life has not meaning, and so I fear the aforementioned slide into nihilistic chaos. Both of these are relatively new phenomena.

  32. Honestly, greywolf’s error is so basic that I wonder at having to correct it.

    ESR, I would suggest that religion, unaided by science, can give us hints about ourselves but not answers, unless you have a religion in mind which includes within itself controlled studies of its purported findings.

  33. dgreer Says:
    > More importantly, they appear for all the world to be more
    > interested in rejecting morals than rejecting religion so they
    > can lead a completely hedonistic lifestyle with out judgment
    > or consequence.

    And that is bad exactly why? What is wrong with pursuing a life for one’s own enjoyment? People quickly learn that there are consequences to really dumb choices, but I find the puritanical view the hedonism is some self evident evil rather disturbing. Your own Bible even recommends it. Paul says in First Corinthians 15 that if Christ wasn’t raised from the dead then we should eat, drink and be merry. So, if you reject the unfounded believe that Christ was resurrected from the dead then Paul’s advice is hedonism. For once I think the Bible offers some good advice here.

  34. Morgan Greywolf writes:
    > Yes, yes it is. [the primary purpose of a person is to reproduce]

    No, no it isn’t. Purpose implies some sort of intelligent decision. That is like saying the purpose of a river is to flow downhill. It isn’t, that is the physics of a river, not its purpose. A river doesn’t have a purpose, though, obviously, it has a lot of uses.

    So what is the purpose of a person? The biology of a person is designed to propagate and vary genes in as effective a way as possible, but that is not its purpose, as if genes had some sort of intelligence built in. It just is the physical properties of biology. People don’t intrinsically have a purpose. People have a life that has some utility, and they can if they so choose apply a purpose to their life (or as if often the case have no purpose, or take on a purpose that someone else gives them.)

  35. Jessica Boxer said:
    > No, no it isn’t. Purpose implies some sort of intelligent decision.

    Well, it’s not the first thing you’ve said that I’ve agreed with. But it may be the strongest and clearest agreement, among a pile of non-starters.

  36. esr Says:

    If you lie, steal, or do drugs you store up consequences for yourself you’re not going to like.

    Question: if the only thing keeping an atheist from bad behavior is a fear of consequences, does the resulting good behavior count as “moral” behavior? Or is it merely selfish behavior that happens to overlap the same actions that good behavior includes?

    I say no. That was why I rejected Pascal’s Wager as a child even though at that time I was very religious. No God I could take seriously would be impressed by a person who believed something just because they were expected to believe it (or worse, believed it only because there was some small statistical chance that they were expected to believe it).

    Even as a wacko, brainwashed, drinking-the-kool-aid holy roller, I understood that a true belief had to be based on actual evidence, rather than on silly mind games. An understanding that later led to a total rejection of religion.

  37. >Question: if the only thing keeping an atheist from bad behavior is a fear of consequences, does the resulting good behavior count as “moral” behavior? Or is it merely selfish behavior that happens to overlap the same actions that good behavior includes?

    I don’t view that as an interesting distinction, because I don’t think there is any such thing as unselfish behavior; I’m with Ayn Rand on this one. Look up “ethical egoist” sometime.

  38. “Yes. Slightly more well defined, but wholly unanswerable to universalists (including evolutionary pscychologists) is “Why am I here?” You have to define “I” and you have to define “here”, but we seem very capable of doing those things as individuals insomuch as language lets us know what is going on in each others minds.”

    “Why am I here?” is a common rephrasing of “What is the purpose of my life?” or “What direction should I take in my life?” (in abstract terms.)

    This is actually a trivial computational problem — if you know your correct birth time, google “North Node Astrology” and do a natal chart. House/sign of moon’s North Node placement gives the answer. North Node = “good”, South Node = “bad”, in individual terms.

  39. > This is actually a trivial computational problem… (google things)

    Hahaha. Very good.

    Or, if this isn’t a joke, then “very scary.”

  40. Difference between “very scary” and trivial – 11 years of experience.

  41. The discussion so far does make me wonder: How it is that some people who rightly proclaim that climate is too difficult to appropriately model are so quick to believe that the pathways of the evolution and present of “mind” (or soul) is so handily mapped by new words (RNA!, Emergence! Fitness Maximizers!) that they can declare moral frameworks to be “nonsense.”

    Well. The whole of EP seems like utter nonsense to me, exchanging Ockham’s Razor for his broken wheat thresher.

  42. > Difference between “very scary” and trivial – 11 years of experience.

    Does this mean an 11-year old adolescent? 11 years of experience. of what? I confess I don’t “get” this comment, and so I don’t know if I agree with it or not.

  43. Eleven years of experience reading palms or whatever it is that JB does. The Haiti thread had more if you’re interested.

  44. Eric, a while back you presented a piece in which you talked about Asimov and his willingness to be honest about how good he was, in the areas he was so good in. Some did not agree with you. Being an expert in 2 or 3 fields myself, I agree.

    Well, philosophy of religion is one of those fields. And I have to say, you are wrong — inadequately informed, mainly — in so many ways, I don’t know where to start. Maybe when I finish the dissertation I’m currently working on (taking a doctorate in my 50s — why? — because it’s there), I might have time for something like this. But the next project is already planned, so … let’s just say you can’t be equally expert in everything and let it go at that.

    This is not a criticism of your central point. Sometimes you can be very right, even though your supporting arguments are mistaken. This is one of those times.

    As you say, morality does not depend on religion. That it seems to, for so many, is a barometer of their emotional immaturity. “Be good so you don’t get punished” is one of the most infantile of reasons for doing good. And yet for a lot of people, Christian, Jew, Hindu, and Buddhist alike in my experience (I don’t know many Muslims or those of other faiths), that is exactly the level of their morality. “Pie in the sky when you die” is equally childish, although it emphases the carrot rather than the stick, which I personally find slightly preferable.

    On the whole, it takes a kind of sophistication of which most people will never be capable to appreciate that the best reason for acting morally is the pleasure which one derives from it. Most folks would call that selfish. This is because they do not have the sophistication to recognize that pleasure is not always to be found in self-gratification.

  45. ESR, do you know of any books or writings that dissect the, as you so aptly called it, internal guilt/sin/thoughtcrime monitor on which Pauline religion is based? I know it by direct experience, but haven’t read any analysis of it.

    ESR: Aldous Huxley nailed it pretty exactly in a couple of his books. Wilhelm Reich nibbled around the edges in “The Mass Psychology of Fascism”. But mainly I grokked this from reading Augustine.

  46. “I say no. That was why I rejected Pascal’s Wager as a child even though at that time I was very religious. No God I could take seriously would be impressed by a person who believed something just because they were expected to believe it (or worse, believed it only because there was some small statistical chance that they were expected to believe it).”

    @techtech-
    Pascal’s Wager is not a method to lead to belief nor does it point at any theology in particular, it simply states that because we have no reliable way to determine if there is a god, the eternal recourse is better if you believe there is one than if you believe there is not one. It simply asks the question, ‘What if you are wrong?’

  47. dgreer: Larry Loen on the soc.religion.unitarian-univ newsgroup once wrote, “I don’t need God to tell me not to wear loose clothing around machine tools.”

  48. @McCabe and @JessicaBoxer:

    I think you’re splitting hairs here, but technically yes, you’re both correct.

    Science can tell us how we came to be here, but it can also tell us some things about why, for example, life evolved on our planet, in our solar system, as opposed to lots of others that seems to us to be incapable of supporting life. Mostly by telling us “how”.

    Our collective purpose from an evolutionary standpoint is to propogate the species. I agree that our purpose as individuals is ours to make by conscious choice. But those are answers to two different questions. Pete was trying to say that our purpose can only be divined from religious belief; I posit that our purpose comes from multiple sources, and that religious belief is unnecessary to this end. Like esr, I think that religion can tell us things about ourselves , and I’ll add that this can help us to define our purpose and role in the world, but I also think replacing rational thought with religion is dangerous and unhealthy.

    In any respect, religion is unnecessary to the whole process, which I think must involve rational thought and reflection on the part of the individual.

    @jrok: Yes, you have a very good grounding in defining culture. You’re right in that culture is not the food or the art or the clothing or even the language. But I think you misunderstand what Pete is saying: he’s saying that one’s religion must define one’s purpose and that one’s concept of “good” and “bad” will spring from that. (Unless it is I who misunderstand Pete!) I think that that can be true for some individuals, however, IMHO, what is “good” and “bad” or “right” and “wrong” must come from one’s personal ethics, and that those ethics arrise from both personal choices and from cultural norms, but religion need not be involved.

  49. Jessica Boxer:
    >dgreer Says:
    >> More importantly, they appear for all the world to be more
    >> interested in rejecting morals than rejecting religion so they
    >> can lead a completely hedonistic lifestyle with out judgment
    >> or consequence.
    >
    >And that is bad exactly why?

    Err, reread the entire sentence. I believe most folks would agree (and the Bible certainly would agree) that a “hedonistic lifestyle without judgment or consequence.” is a bad thing, and ultimately not reality. The implication (which I think most folks got) is that they want to conduct their lives in self destructive and other-destructive ways and not be judged for it. You cannot lie, cheat, and steal and not have consequences, and that’s exactly what these kids are trying to do, using the guise of “atheism” and “rejecting Christianity” as a ruse to excuse their naughty behavior. In an earlier day, they would have been called hoodlums.

    In short, actions have consequences and my point was to try to show them that before the consequences became too damaging to themselves or, more importantly, their families (the innocent bystanders). I was seeking advise from people who have rejected religion on a solid foundation of thought to see if my tack in this was wrong.

    BTW, I’m not trying to “lead them back to the fold,” because I believe their soul (or lack thereof) is their own business and between them and God alone.

  50. Peter A. Taylor

    >dgreer: Larry Loen on the soc.religion.unitarian-univ newsgroup once wrote, “I don’t need God to tell me not to wear loose clothing >around machine tools.”

    That’s a freakin’ brilliant quote. Thanks! :^)

  51. If you haven’t read it, “The Evolution of God” by Wright is a pretty comprehensive discussion about the heritage of the Book-religions and how they came to be allencompassing from a moral perspective (something that is a fairly new invention – even newer than Jesus it seems like).

  52. If we are going to talk about the Near Eastern prophetic faiths, I think the sample should include at least the fourth major world faith in that tradition: Marxism. In some ways Marxism is more like early Judaism than either Christianity or Islam is. . . .

  53. dgreer said:
    > You cannot lie, cheat, and steal and not have consequences…

    Would someone please tell that to the likes of Robert Mugabi, and their bosom buddies at the U.N.? They appear to have missed this memo.

    Frankly, the stark prosperity of evil defeats any of these well structured arguments about the mechanical, observable evolution of the moral universe.

    The semantics of “this is religion” and “this is not religion” aside, my reason tell the moral universe is both inherently human and unreasonable. Though close in evolutionary terms, Monkeys do not inhabit that moral universe. Dominant apes freeze out mating rites for the weaker ones, period. the only sifting of this hierarchy occurs when one ape challenges and defeats the dominant in physical contest. This arrangement sounds familiar in many ways to our own. But it is profoundly different, because there are no Monkey George Washingtons. Power, once captured, is not surrendered or distributed in the service of “self-evident truths.” Monkeys have learn and use tools and communicate with verbal and non-verbal language, but they don’t have “truths,” self-evident or otherwise. Monkeys have facts.

  54. You know, this “prosperity of evil”, the observable evidence of which is overwhelming, reminds me of something someone wrote on the Wiccan thread, correctly parsing “Satanism” as neither a real teleology nor a religion per se, but rather an inversion of a pre-existing post-Zoroastrian religion.

    But modernism turned it into something else entirely, I think. Anton LaVey’s “Church of Satan” is a good example of this. LaVey was more of a comedianthen a theologian. His overriding ethos, if i recall, was something to the tune of “Do what thou wilt”, which stripped of any phony-baloney religious context sounds like dry advocacy for the sort of anarcho-libertarianism that prizes “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” and “freedom from tyranny” above all else.

    LaVey was either a very clever satirist or a very dim-witted one, but the conundrum he points to is real. We act primarily as self-interested individuals, and collectively assemble and strive to uphold a civilization that protects our individual ability to do so. Yet as we condemn someone like Muammar Ghadaffi, his life reads like a rich tapestry of a successful self-interested gene machine. He lives in secure luxury, surrounded by a harem who he regularly seeds with DNA, seems self-actualized (well, as much as he can be) and is generally in wont for nothing. Isn’t he a glorious machine! If we were to take computational models of mind, evolutionary psychology and epiphenomena seriously, we would admire and aspire to Ghadaffi, as opposed to inferior models Washington. Many American models seem outright defective, actually. Hamilton, Lincoln and King were blasted to death by enemies in their primes. The coordinate response is to avoid causing any controversies, or pissing anyone off even if your ends are well-reasoned and noble (or perhaps “nobility” and “heroism” also collapse under the weight of our generative automata.)

    If God is Dead, and we depend on “accumulated knowledge about how not to screw up your genetic line’s reproductive chances,” then the whole of history and the prosperity of evil tells we should throw these ideals out as well. Even with our “internalized guilt machine”, criminals regularly prosper from their crimes, sometimes in extreme ways.

    In any case, if the game plan is to “Kill God” in favor of a Utopia of Spocklike beings, I can only say bon chance. That sucker has more lives than Rasputin and Jason Vorhees combined. Chop off his head and three will grow in its place. People will turn to Jedi-ism and UFO cults and “Weather Machine-N.W.O-reptoid” cosmology. They have already started to do so. That particular Soviet psi-op seems to have worked quite well.

  55. # dgreer Says:
    > I believe most folks would agree (and the Bible certainly
    > would agree) that a “hedonistic lifestyle without judgment
    > or consequence.” is a bad thing, and ultimately not reality.

    Your sentence makes no sense to me. Are you saying a life conducted with poor judgment is likely to have negative consequences? Well of course. Are you saying the a hedonistic lifestyle ultimately leads to negative consequences? If so, what is your proof that is true? I think your basic point is that morality is ultimately beneficial to the individual. I’d say that depends on the moral code. There are plenty of things in Christian morality that are extremely damaging to the individual.

    > The implication (which I think most folks got) is that they want
    > to conduct their lives in self destructive and other-destructive ways

    But you assume your conclusion, that is to say you assume that hedonistic lifestyles are intrinsically self destructive. It doesn’t surprise me that you think that, since that is one of the basic tenets of puritanism, but I see no proof that it is correct. On the contrary, stoicism and puritanism are far more obviously self destructive. What the heck is wrong with trying to enjoy your life?

    > You cannot lie, cheat, and steal and not have consequences,

    Wouldn’t it be nice if that were true! I completely disagree with your conclusion (and ESR’s statement that “what goes around comes around”.) Look at the world around you. What goes around, often does not come around. Politicians make their living lying, cheating and stealing, but they end up with libraries and highways named after them, statues built to them, and multimillion dollar lecture circuit jobs when they are done.

  56. @Jessica Boxer
    > On the contrary, stoicism and puritanism are far more obviously self
    > destructive. What the heck is wrong with trying to enjoy your life?

    Didn’t you just say “But you assume your conclusion?” This statement seems to assume it’s conclusion as well, don’t you think? There can be plenty wrong with “enjoy(ing) your life.” It is possible that Jack the Ripper enjoyed his life. It is almost undeniable that Colonel Ghadaffi enjoys his.

  57. jrok Says:
    > Yet as we condemn someone like Muammar Ghadaffi,

    I think this is a great example of some of the things I have been saying jrok. Why can’t we all be like him? Because most of us have a built in aversion to doing what is necessary to be him (killing, cheating, stealing etc.) That built in mechanism comes from social conditioning, the memes we grow up with, our religious beliefs and so forth. Take away the enforcement mechanisms and who knows what goes down. Of course there is another side to this. We look at Khadaffi and only see the successful murderer/cheater/thief. There are hundreds of people in his wake who were equally willing to reject the don’t murder/cheat/steal meme, but were not as successful as him. His was a high risk gambit that paid of (since someone was going to win.) Perhaps most of us have a lower tolerance for risk. Perhaps given the choice between 1) live a comfortable life of security and mild oppression, or 2) flip a coin five times, if you get five heads become fabulously wealthy and powerful, get one tails, die a horrible painful death. I suppose most would choose 1.

  58. # jrok Says:
    > There can be plenty wrong with “enjoy(ing) your life.”

    The implication of dgreer’s posts is that hedonism is intrinsically bad (for others.) My point was more that that is not true, or at least he has offered no evidence that it is true. His contention that these poor misguided souls who reject his religion and his morality are necessarily worse off, and certainly offer a negative contribution to society. I say that there is no proof that is true, on the contrary, I think it is probably not true in general.

    > It is possible that Jack the Ripper enjoyed his life.

    People like him usually are tortured souls. But your might be right. Most hedonists do not murder hookers though.

    > It is almost undeniable that Colonel Ghadaffi enjoys his.

    Damocles apparently lost his appetite. However, most hedonists do not live like Ghadaffi.

  59. Cowpox is totally unnecessary to humans, too, but in certain societies it’s a good idea.

    Neal Stephenson touches on this on and off (I think particularly in Cryptonomican, though I’m sure the theme arises elsewhere); even if your ideal is pure rationalism, you may be better off starting with some relatively inert faith so that you don’t leave a psycho-emotional gap that would be filled by some other faith-based belief system like Marxism.

    I suppose this is another form of my problem with anarchism in general – it’s not so much that I disapprove as such, as that I believe it would leave an opening for something nastier than what it proposes to replace…

  60. >Neal Stephenson touches on this on and off (I think particularly in Cryptonomican, though I’m sure the theme arises elsewhere); even if your ideal is pure rationalism, you may be better off starting with some relatively inert faith so that you don’t leave a psycho-emotional gap that would be filled by some other faith-based belief system like Marxism.

    Yes. This is one of the reasons neopaganism is a really, really good idea.

  61. @Jessica Boxer
    > That built in mechanism comes from social conditioning, the memes we grow up with, our religious beliefs and so forth.
    > The implication of dgreer’s posts is that hedonism is intrinsically bad (for others.) My point was more that that is not true…

    Actually, I think our points are very close and also very far away. It is interesting that words like “mechanism” and “programming” keep rearing up in this discussion, mostly because it is teleolgies, in general, grasp onto the lowest hanging fruit of metaphor to describe a phenomenon. I don’t think, for instance, “computational models” of mind escape linguistic evolution, even though they sometimes pretend to. We have all grown up in a world where we are immersed in complex machinery, so we are are staring describing ourselves as complex machines, in terms of software/hardware dualities – which is pretty darn Cartesian when you get right down to it. I have no doubt that if were matured in a world immersed and in jars full of radishes, after a generation or so we would have sophists recording elaborate models of mind in terms of jar/radish duality. The duality itself is a thread that runs through geographic and philosophical empires come and gone.

    I also think it’s no accident that in Genesis, the Tree of Knowledge of the Good and the Bad was the original sin that cast man out of Paradise. I often wonder if the “obedience” part was scribbled in later (man’s exile as divine punishment for disobeying the Law), because stripped of this, we are left with the idea that, if we didn’t inherently recognize the difference between good and evil deeds, via empathy, we would be better off somehow. Cain may kill Abel and feel no guilt. I may murder all my neighbors and steal their wives, without being a “tortured soul.” The people may haggle of the words to describe the parser itself, and describe it in terms of “helper” and “bully” software, etc. But as it stands, no one has proven that it does not exist as an intrinsic and perhaps unreasonable part of what we are. None of our closest relatives (who must at least be paritally successful, since they are still around) display anything like this faculty. There are no Monkey George Washingtons, but there are no Monkey Augustines, nor Monkey Anton LaVeys nor Monkey Jack the Rippers either.

  62. First, the difficulty of discussing such subject from any point of view other than a strongly anti-religious one is that one often seems like saying much more than he actually intends to. The defender of the sometimes-usefulness of religions often seems like a covert theist too cowardly to admit he is one. So let me begin with declaring that what I am interested in is not religion per se but

    1) certain effects religion had on certain societies
    2) the problem that in such certain societies ONLY religion had such an effect
    3) our modern societies are quite like those certain societes and we are yet to find an alternative that could have a similar effect as religion
    4) if there are alternatives that can have a similar effect I’m very interested in hearing about them because I too don’t like the concept of a god.
    5) There are alternatives working in small circles, from Buddhism to certain martial arts, but what are the alternatives that can work for everybody? For hundreds of millions? This is the big question.

    So what is that effect I’m talking about?

    I’ve just read an excellent historical novel playing in Medieval Poland, available online at: http://fulltextarchive.com/pages/The-Knights-of-the-Cross.php

    This is just a novel, but a very well researched one, very authentic, and the interesting thing is the following. It describes a society consisting of individuals governed by their passions. Pride, aggression, greed, desire for glory, you name it. And the only thing that seems to prevent people from killing each other for it is religion. This of course causes a huge lack of trust, and it is religion again that can create trust. So in the novel when the knight is just about to swear bloody revenge against his enemies, someone reminds him about religion and thus forgiveness and charity. So when travellers on the road meet other travellers they assume the others are there to rob them and the only way the others can convince them they are not robbers is pointing out that they are religious. (I’ve much oversimplified the complex scenes playing in that novel – it’s just a blog comment, not a full review.) The general and VERY plausible impression is that were it not for religion, they were total barbarians – a no-rules-obey bloody struggle of small warlords for whatever satisfies their passion, ususally glory, revenge, power, money and sex.

    Now. Our modern socities are not quite like that – our vices tend to be passive rather than active: we tend to have the lazy kinds of vices, rather the aggressive kinds. (Well, usually.)

    But still our modern societies are more similar to those ones in one regard: they are BIG. Altaic shamanism could work very well in small tribes living on big, sparsely populated lands.

    You see, our basic problem since about the Bronze Age is population density. On one hand people are in high supply, are therefore cheap, on the other hand such dense populations can easily conquer Nature and therefore can feel their power is limitless and thus the egos can get quite big.

    In those small tribal societies, religion in such a sense was not necessary because it was a small band of people against big and powerful Nature, and that in itself could teach enough humility, create group cohesion and generally keep the egos small. Even in a modern society living in the country as opposed to the city creates a certain kind of piety (fear, respect, awe) of the forces of nature and that tends to make the ego smaller and this is why rural folks are less likely to vote for left-wing parties, for the left-wing is basically the political-ideological manifestation of the big ego of a man who can see no natural limits for his appetite or vision or utopia or project or whatever.

    I suppose in small circles in modern socities sci-fi works just like that: it teaches that humans are but a layer of thin and sparse protein on one rock against a huge, cold, uncaring universe. That works, I suppose, in the same way: it makes us understand our limitations, reins in the ego and creates cohesion.

    But in large circles, in dense populations and amongst most kind of people neither works.

    Of course there were always the small circes of the wise in dense populations too, the students of the Buddha, Platon, Marcus Aurelius, you name it.

    But the only historically tested way to somehow make the average person realize that he should not try to become a small god – should not try to think that his own appetite, opinion or vision is the only rule he should follow – was by telling him there is god above him who had set him some limits.

    I don’t like it. Neither do most of you. There must be alternatives. Surely the Altaic one isn’t one: we aren’t a small tribe in a sparsely populated land against a big and awe-inspiring nature.

    It is important to have a correct model of human nature. Eh, I should have began with this. Human nature is not just a set of disconnected thoughts and passions: I like this, I don’t like that. There is a basic negative force called the ego, of which all that’s harmful – meaning: unethical for others and also preventing our own happiness – comes. It’s the sense that I am here, you are there, I am important, you are not. It’s not only a moral question but also an intellectual one.

    Reason is like a camera with wings. It can fly around the world, record an objective picture, and we call that Science. Objective knowledge.

    The free flight of this winged camera, Reason, is hindered by another force, which is the ego. Ego is basically a center of gravity. I. I am important. When the gravity of the ego sucks in the camera it can only record the world from the ego. Justice is whatever satisfies my passions. Truth is what I want to believe. The worst cause is the lack of self-reflection, which is the major precondition for all morality and ethics. If we want to be ethical, the camera of Reason must fly free. It must be allowed to fly outside the ego, and record the ego objectively: “Am I acting according to my own ethical principles?”

    This is the only life – the reflected life – worth living because it is the life of the Homo Sapiens with Reason and not the life of a kind of a long pig, and the precondition is that the gravity of the ego must be small enough not to suck in the camera of Reason. We cannot be ethical without letting our camera record ourself. We cannot be ethical without self-reflection, self-examination. And we cannot be happy without it.

    There are small circles who can do it without a god and they are the ones who are doing it right, because there is really no god. Buddhists, philosophers of ethics, scientists, sci-fi fans. They can do it.

    But the hundreds of millions of people cannot do it without imagining a cosmic Daddy who tells them they must have limitations, which hopefully will help to let their camera fly free. Hopefully, because it doesn’t always work. Er, it _usually_ doesn’t work. But it at least works _sometimes_, and nothing else does – in the densely populated societes.

    The Altaic shamans are a wholly different case. The average tribesman had to let his camera fly because he lived in a dangerous environment where the lack of self-reflection meant death. It is the safety of the densely populated societies that allowed our egos grow big.

  63. There is something I must clarify.

    The problem of the ego is not the problem of selfishness vs. altruism. Selfishness and altruism are just modern slogans, they have no meat in them. The ego is a deeper problem. A _moderate_ selfishness is often a sign of a smaller ego than too much altruism.

    Consider the man who says “I want a nice car”. He is selfish. But he wants something that’s entirely in the human orders of magnitude. Many people have it, many, many more people can reach this goal by hard work and good budgeting, and thus such a man is basically modest. What he wants is just human-scaled, limited, modest, normal therefore, his ego is not too big – provided he does not try to get it by crime, politics etc.

    Then consider the man who says “I want no injustice in the world”. He is altruistic or sounds like one. But basically he thinks he is a god. He thinks he can decide what is just, what is not, he can find ways to turn the just into unjust without causing more harm etc. It’s the textbook case of the big ego, of a man trying to play a god.

  64. @Jrok

    His overriding ethos, if i recall, was something to the tune of “Do what thou wilt”

    If LaVey used this (and it’s entirely possible he did), it didn’t come from him and is most certainly a corruption of a commonly-cited quote from Aleister Crowley’s Liber AL vel Legis (or, The Book of the Law): 1:40: “Do what thou Wilt shall be the whole of the Law.” This is usually cited along with 1:57: “Love is the law, love under Will.” It may very well derive from St. Augustine of Hippo’s “Love, and do what thou wilt.” Anyway, it’s tenent of the Ordo Templis Orientis, and is referred to as the Law of Thelema. It has nothing to do with Satanism or LaVey’s Church of Satanism.

  65. Jessica,

    > Something else that is new is the striving for meaning in life. In past societies most people were too busy just trying to survive to be concerned about the meaning of their life.

    I don’t think this is true. From what I’ve read, hunter gatherers have plenty of free time in which to be concerned about the meaning of their lives. I’ve heard it’s easier for them to survive than it is for sweat shop factory workers, for example.

    I think all those native myths were concerned with the meaning of life. There is an awful lot of richly meaningful material in most myths.

    But hey, I’m just free associating here. My anthropological bona fides aren’t.

    Yours,
    Tom

  66. >>Question: For those with a background in non-religious morality, how would you convince somebody that just because God isn’t telling them they shouldn’t lie, steal, or do drugs, it’s still a bad idea?

    ESR:
    >Explain to them that what goes around comes around basically. If you lie, steal, or do drugs you store up consequences for yourself you’re not going to like.

    That’s, in a nutshell, what you and many other intelligent folks don’t understand about human nature, because you assume everybody is just like you and your friends.

    You present an appeal to Reason. But most folks are governed by passions and not Reason. Passion is the manifestation of the ego: of the over-importance of the self and thus the inability to rationality reflect on one’s own actions, having a tyranny of appetite instead: me, my, mine, NOW!

    The power of passion (the ego) must be somehow limited BEFORE Reason can begin to guide our actions.

    It may sound strange to you because you had the luck to be born with a small ego. But you’ve said you lived in Southern Italy. Haven’t you seen any people who OBVIOUSLY governed by passion instead of Reason, and thus no rational explanation would have helped?

  67. >Haven’t you seen any people who OBVIOUSLY governed by passion instead of Reason, and thus no rational explanation would have helped?

    Other than a tiny minority of obvious mental defectives, no. When you say most people are governed by “passion”, what I hear is that (a) you don’t understand the incentive structures around them, and (b) you don’t understand that a minimax choice from a limited set of coping strategies can look like irrationality to someone with more coping strategies available.

  68. @morgan:

    If LaVey used this (and it’s entirely possible he did), it didn’t come from him and is most certainly a corruption of a commonly-cited quote from Aleister Crowley’s Liber AL vel Legis (or, The Book of the Law): 1:40: “Do what thou Wilt shall be the whole of the Law.”

    Yes, I recall that it was specifically a corruption (or perhaps, a derivative) of Crowley, who LaVey mentioned quite often from what I recall. I do not think he attributed it to himself, but the point was that LaVey was a modernist mutation of Crowley. The brand name of “Satanism” was a tweak, I think, since the whole of his “theology” read like a satire of deconstructionism in general. He was an advocate of hedonism as the highest (lowest?) human pursuit, but also said stuff things tantamount to “if you don’t like sex, don’t do it.” Individual as his own godhead sort of stuff, not hedonism for hedonism’s sake for the glory of some anti-heroic God. More like a codification of the”Me Generation.” None of these were new ideas; they were old ones that LaVey was trying to package into a religion.

  69. Jessica,

    “Paul says in First Corinthians 15 that if Christ wasn’t raised from the dead then we should eat, drink and be merry.”

    That’s an important observation. The best way to understand original, Paulian Christianity is to consider it a strictly antiphilosophical, populist religion of the masses, strictly _exoteric_. And the reason why it was so is because the Roman Empire was in a deep psychological, moral and spiritual crisis. It is not possible for civilized people to believe Nero is beloved by the gods and keep believing in those gods. It just could not work any more as a civilisatory force, meaning, a populist-popular force. Intelligent people can be merry, eat and drink but for the others, for the masses if no limits are set drinking will become alcoholism and merriness will become adultery and then killing each other out of jealousy etc. A popular-populist force has not many other means than to rely to the simplest kinds of stories about divine retribution to try to at least to keep some lid on that explosive stuff.

    Later on, when Augustine discovered Plato and Aquinas discovered Aristotle they got intellectually more respectable, less exoteric and could come up with better arguments than 1 Cor 15.

    They have not fully managed to become an acceptable intellectual philosophy, precisely because of the one big problem left, the unlogical personification of the universe.

    Still the important thing is to understand the historical significance and the general effect on the masses both then and now, for that effect was useful. It grew up in an age where people like you or me were rare. Seneca perhaps and a few others, not many. It was an age where not only the masses, but the ruler of the known world himself, Nero, was an animal. He knew no other limit than his own will, appetite or whim.

    C. was meant to train such people into being civilised. It still has its usefulness in such regard. We need not believe in it. But it would be a thorough historical blindness not to recognize its usefulness in toilet training the half-animal, huge-ego masses either then or now. I think we, who were born in a century where nuclear holocaust was an arms length away because mankind’s leaders were half-animal huge-ego monsters (mostly the ones the side of the sickle and the hammer of course although there were quite a few nuke hawks on the blue side too), should not be too proud about how far progressed we are….

  70. “When you say most people are governed by “passion”, what I hear is that (a) you don’t understand the incentive structures around them, and (b) you don’t understand that a minimax choice from a limited set of coping strategies can look like irrationality to someone with more coping strategies available.”

    That sounds almost like a more intelligent version of what the left is saying about how people are programmed by their environment…

    The million dollar question is: why do people sometimes react very differently to very similar incentives and choices of coping strategies? Why does one of two twins born in a ghetto become a doctor and the other one a gangster?

    The major problem is that in this field, in the field of the problem of the gravity of the ego, there was little research done so I must rely to mostly empathic understanding of how it works and just cannot rely facts, and obviously it will not convince you. It’s not because it’s impossible to research but because we haven’t yet really got the clue that it could be a good idea to research. OK, I propose one simple test of it all. One simple test of a small ego is a sense of humour, sense of self-irony, being able not to take even our holiest ideas always very seriously, self-criticism but an objective one and no self-flagellation, admitting failures, and looking for ways how one can improve what one sees inadequate in oneself, and a profound and sincere interest in at least some other people. A simple test of the big ego is the inability to take a joke, inability to take criticism, seeing everything as an insult to one’s respect or “face” which must be protected at all costs (status game), every idea is to be taken very seriously and a profound dissatisfaction is felt and expressed when reality is unwilling to cooperate, either the lack of self-criticism (everything is the fault of others or society) or the opposite extreme, self-flagellation, which is just basically another kind of big-ego game, the holier-than-thou one, and an inability to see other people as anything else but the object of one’s desires or an obstacle to them. My theory is that the big ego means the winged camera sucked into the center of the self and the small ego means it can fly freely and can record everything including the ego. I explained before why the problem of the ego is not the same as the problem of selfishness and altruism. The above are the predictions from it. Does it correlate with your experiences of living a reasonable life vs. living a stupid, criminal or simply a frustrating and unhappy one or not?

  71. >The million dollar question is: why do people sometimes react very differently to very similar incentives and choices of coping strategies? Why does one of two twins born in a ghetto become a doctor and the other one a gangster?

    Yes, that is the million-dollar question. But I think when you talk about people being ruled by “passion”, you render yourself unable to see the really important factors. Like: maybe one of them simply isn’t intelligent enough to get through medical school, so “gangster” is of the two the more rational choice. Or, if you want to assume equal intellectual capability, maybe they have a large difference in time preference. Both are rational within their own frameworks of their capabilities and preferences.

  72. Wow, where to start with this one. The reason why moral understandings predate human history is because they are transcendent. They exist in the eternal mind of the God as described in the bible and not in the vain imaginations of men. Let’s just take the example of a “posse” seeking revenge for someone stealing their property. For the perpetrator, if he has no moral compass to guide him no one can tell him that it’s wrong to take others property. For the victims if they have no moral compass, then why should they be complaining about their stuff being taken if indeed the law of the land is survival of the fittest? So without a moral presupposition the result is anarchy and chaos. Yes, there are certain religions that are not concerned with morality, but underneath the covers that what’s they are going after. So the “moral” of the story is even those that don’t follow a moral compass, but yet can and indeed (I have known certain atheists to have greater morals than some Christians) are moral, but they have no basis for being so.

  73. # Justin Andrusk Says:
    > even those that don’t follow a moral compass, but yet can and indeed …
    > are moral, but they have no basis for being so.

    Nonsense. The moral basis is quite simple. Society is weaker if property rights are regularly undermined. Consequently, societies who have a strong anti theft meme tend to out survive those that do not. These societies enforce their anti theft meme by a variety of social mechanisms such as threat of banishment from the group, religious threats of damnation, threats of violence from society’s enforcement arm (the police or the Stazi), or simply tut-tuts from your Mom.

    Of course there are other factors involved in the survival of a society than just their property rights philosophy, which is why property rights can be compromised in a society a little bit before competitors overwhelm it. But looking at that one factor in isolation, the mechanism for anti theft morality is blindingly obvious to non ideologues.

    No god is necessary to construct a utilitarian system of morality. It would arise in a society as surely as pond scum becomes people and by very similar mechanisms. The basis is simple: the utility of the group can sometimes override the utility of the individual if the value is high enough to threaten the individual to comply. In economics math:

    Forced compliance happens when:

    IB < GB*k – CC

    Where IB is the individual benefit of violating the theft laws, GB is the group benefit of having enforced property rights, k is the number of people in the group, and CC is the cost of forcing everyone to comply.

    Nobody does the math, competition finds the best societies.

  74. @Jessica Boxer:
    > No god is necessary to construct a utilitarian system of morality.

    Very true. In fact, a god stands as an obstacle to such a system. And that is why one may be preferred. Removing this obstacle would open the door to ever creeping utilitarian ideas, and eventually a universalist ethos that reduces humans to bees in the hive (or, if you prefer cogs in the machine.) The Marxists understood this very well. That is why they proclaimed “religion is the opiate of the masses.” They had designs on the “masses.” They believed, if properly disenfranchised of the notion that there was anything particularly “special” about them, they could be more effectively mobilized. Communists have always found religion to be an existential threat.

    This is not to say that all irreligious people are or will become communists (Jessica Boxer, for instance, probably won’t), nor that religious people cannot adapt socialist and Marxist tenets to fit into their worldview (Jeremiah Wright could and did). But the existential danger of religion to centralized authority (and even to centralized “religious” authority, as in the case of Protestantism) has a commanding historical narrative that is difficult to handwave away.

  75. “Religion is the opiate of the masses” is a misquote, or rather, a quote taken out of context so that its meaning is entirely changed.

    Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

    The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.

    Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers from the chain not in order that man shall continue to bear that chain without fantasy or consolation, but so that he shall throw off the chain and cull the living flower. The criticism of religion disillusions man, so that he will think, act, and fashion his reality like a man who has discarded his illusions and regained his senses, so that he will move around himself as his own true Sun. Religion is only the illusory Sun which revolves around man as long as he does not revolve around himself.

  76. > “Religion is the opiate of the masses” is a misquote, or rather,
    > a quote taken out of context so that its meaning is entirely changed.

    You’ve only stated the full quote, not proven I’ve taken it out of context. In fact, my context is entirely correct.

  77. ESR: indeed! At least some of Islam’s moral code is derived from desert life. For example, Muslim women must hide from the sun because sunlight destroys the folic acid necessary for brain development. That’s why Muslim men don’t have similar constraints. It gets explained as protecting women from men’s lustful glances, but that’s just bullshit for the ignorant. Same thing for not eating pork (trichinosis). Same thing for cleanliness (if you don’t have good access to water, you need to stay clean in the first place).

    I can’t say that I understand the prohibition against flute music. That one seems to lack a logical explanation.

  78. esr Says:

    I don’t think there is any such thing as unselfish behavior

    I generally agree.

    My issue with your statement is probably “mere” wording, but the wording is important here.

    When you say all behavior is selfish behavior, you must mean that when a person chooses someone else’s happiness over their own happiness, they are choosing to satisfy some need within themselves other than their own immediate happiness. That’s where the wording gets confusing, when we start discussing multiple needs within a single person, competing with each other. Yes, by definition, on some level,all needs are selfish needs, or they wouldn’t be needs at all.

    But, contrary (I think) to the spirit of your statement, we can still say one need is a selfish need (ex: eating a doughnut and enjoying it) and another need is a selfless need (ex: wanting to give a doughnut to your friend so they may enjoy it).

    Yes you can expect to vicariously enjoy your friend’s experience with the doughnut, and that’s what makes the act selfish on a technicality, but the act is still what we call generous, and that’s what makes it a selfless act in the usual conversational sense.

    techtech Says:
    >Question: if the only thing keeping an atheist from bad
    >behavior is a fear of consequences, does the resulting
    >good behavior count as “moral” behavior?

    How does my original question work in the context of these “selfish needs” and “selfless needs” that I’ve just defined?

    Maybe this is a Better Question: If a person enjoys hurting people (they are a sadist), but they rationally choose to share a doughnut in hopes of future rewards (perhaps reciprocity from the recipient and/or entry into heaven), are they behaving more or less selfishly than another person who chooses to share a doughnut for the simple vicarious enjoyment that they get from watching another human being enjoy a doughnut?

  79. jrok, so your claim is that religion is so fractious that it’s an existential threat to centralized authority? Nonsense, religions were the first to try to attain centralized authority, with the pope and his church, and Protestantism was merely an internal revolt against that central authority. The reason new centralized authorities go after religion is because you have to kill the old bull before you can become the new stud. As for using religion for morality, I think one problem with those who rejected religion in the past is that they didn’t sufficiently articulate the real ongoing need for organizations to help develop such a morality. One can have an atheist “church” where one goes to listen to moral “sermons” and discuss moral choices with one’s neighbors without any god involved at all. I think that is precisely what we need to replace religion, a multitude of specific moral codes and institutions to advance them that help individuals develop and choose their moral codes.

    All too often the result of not having such organizations is that the irreligious flounder about without a solid sense of moral “best practices” and then lapse back into religion to have some sense of moral code provided to them. The sort of people who stay successfully atheist are often those who’re smart enough to figure their moral code out on their own, but most people need some sort of structure or organization to help them. That’s probably why atheism has not really taken off yet, atheists have not created such groups to impart and discuss moral codes, doing the moral teaching that religions do while excising all the god and faith nonsense. Perhaps religion made sense in an earlier, more brutish time, imparting moral codes and deflating all opposition by invoking a higher authority, god. However, that makes no sense now that we understand and control so much of our lives and surroundings. Faith is a call to authority, which is not a good environment to inculcate reason.

  80. Religion does for philosophy what renormalization does for quantum field theory: it handles the infinities, but does nothing to explain them. Thanks a lot for the mind f***, Universe.

  81. A few questions so far:
    What are some “moral ‘best practices’”? I would think in that list are lying and stealing, but some cultures are base on it (Somalia, Washington, etc.) We live in a time where social norms are more efficient enforced than almost any time in human history but yet basic use of morals seems to be on the decline. Why is that?

    Secondly, would I be correct in saying that morality only has a benefit to one’s larger society? In other words, the only reason I should be moral is because I want my neighbor to be. In fact, I might rather my neighbor be moral and not be bound by morality myself.

  82. ajay:

    jrok, so your claim is that religion is so fractious that it’s an existential threat to centralized authority?

    All institutions are fractious. Otherwise nothing would have ever changed. Science and Religion both evolve, but various institutions that rise out of them will eventually schizm. That is why I feareth not the Global Warming cultists, for once the zenith of the power madness is reached, history tells us it crack and crumble.

    Nonsense, religions were the first to try to attain centralized authority, with the pope and his church, and Protestantism was merely an internal revolt against that central authority. Protestantism was merely an internal revolt against that central authority.

    No, this is hardly the tip of the iceberg with Protestantism. What begun as internal argument snowballed into open revolt and repudiation of centralized authority. That repudiation of central authority, embodied by the pope and his feudal hierarchy, is what begat all of the various genus and species of protestant faiths. While I do not deny that Deism was a common mode of many founders, I do deny that Deism was akin to athiesm. It certainly was not. And the vast majority of American colonial Protestants were not merely Catholics By Another Name, looking to build a new papal authority. They were the intellectual inheritors of the Lutherans, the Calvinists the Anabaptists, etc. American Protestantism played a crucial role in the Revolution itself, since it naturally encouraged a streak of rebelliousness towards people who claimed their authority over you came from God, as King George did.

    One can have an atheist “church” where one goes to listen to moral “sermons” and discuss moral choices with one’s neighbors without any god involved at all. I think that is precisely what we need to replace religion, a multitude of specific moral codes and institutions to advance them that help individuals develop and choose their moral codes.

    Sounds like the internet, except that all religious speech and mentions of God are filer-replaced by euphemisms like “mutually agreeable moral module.” Again, god luck assembling this “church” of atheism. I guarantee you it can only come into fruition via totalitarian means. This is not simply because of various bell curves (although they play a role), but because what you are selling doesn’t particularly sound like its worth buying.

  83. The sort of people who stay successfully atheist are often those who’re smart enough to figure their moral code out on their own, but most people need some sort of structure or organization to help them. That’s probably why atheism has not really taken off yet, atheists have not created such groups to impart and discuss moral codes, doing the moral teaching that religions do while excising all the god and faith nonsense.

    Creating a group to “impart moral codes” free from religious contexts? Isn’t that what the EPA does? The ICC? Hollywood has been doing it since the 1930′s. Greenpeace, PETA, the IPCC and the are unctuous bishops of the humanist church. The latest jeremiads in Durban were full of irreligious moralizing. Past groups imparting God-free moral codes include such luminaries as Lenin’s CPC, Fidel Castro’s Revolutionaries, the butchers of the Khmer Rouge, and on and on. It’s been proven over and over that the Athiest Utopia is not a salon of genteel sockfooted Spocks calmly discussing the relative merits of this or that social norm. It is a iron-fisted and jackbooted mob who, robbed of any sense of mystery about themselves and the world, will seek only that which is tangible and material.

  84. # jrok Says:
    > It’s been proven over and over that the Athiest Utopia is …a iron-fisted
    > and jackbooted mob who, robbed of any sense of mystery about
    > themselves and the world, will seek only that which is tangible and material

    Come on, seriously? For sure there have been some atheist government regimes who have been brutally oppressive, but you are familiar with the Taliban, right? And the crusades? The Spanish Inquisition? The Aztecs? Sparta? Man’s inhumanity to man transcends religious beliefs, and is justified both in the name of God, the name of the State, and the name of utility.

    However, there are many largely benign organizations dedicated in some measure to conveying an atheist moral code. The public school system for example, or much of TV news and entertainment. I am not a fan of the US public school system but even I would not call it a jackbooted mob.

  85. jrok Says:
    > Removing this obstacle would open the door to ever
    > creeping utilitarian ideas, and eventually a universalist
    > ethos that reduces humans to bees in the hive

    Again, come on seriously? You think utilitarianism necessarily leads to humans being treated as cogs in the machine? You are confusing government and society. There are huge benefits to a society if the people are free. Simply speaking, cogs in the wheel are not very innovative, and don’t work very hard; free people tend to do both.

    Liberty is detrimental to the goals of government (generally speaking), but, as I said, government is not society, and competition between societies tends to maximize the effectiveness of societies, not governments.

  86. Come on, seriously?

    And as long as we are being “serious”, are you going to seriously tell me that you think I’ve never heard of “the Taliban, the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, The Aztecs or Sparta”? Can we stop with this faux assumption of ignorance, please?

    For sure there have been some atheist government regimes who have been brutally oppressive…

    Please give me a list of those that weren’t brutally oppressive.

    However, there are many largely benign organizations dedicated in some measure to conveying an atheist moral code.

    They are only “benign” insomuch as you do not think they are doing damage to individuality and the concept of self-evident rights. I do.

    The public school system for example, or much of TV news and entertainment. I am not a fan of the US public school system but even I would not call it a jackbooted mob.

    Right now, no. But they aren’t velvet revolutionaries either. Give them total authority to denigrate and suppress religion, allow them to fully propagandize the populace into believing they possess no souls, that they are merely meat machines functioning at various levels of operation and defect, that rights are not inherent but conferred through the mutual agreement of their intellectual betters, and you will see lots of mobs; some jackbooted and privileged, others pitchforked and righteously pissed off.

    I think the certainty of Atheism is what leads it inevitably to totalitarianism. Regimental atheism is the ultimate form of one-way-ism.

  87. @Jessica

    Again, come on seriously? You think utilitarianism necessarily leads to humans being treated as cogs in the machine? You are confusing government and society.

    Yes, I am still serious. And yes, I think utilitarianism eventually leads to the kind of zero sum games and decay of individualism that leads to totalitarianism. And no, I am not confusing government and society.

  88. jrok,

    > Sounds like the internet, except that all religious speech and mentions of God are filer-replaced by euphemisms like “mutually agreeable moral module.” Again, god luck assembling this “church” of atheism. I guarantee you it can only come into fruition via totalitarian means. This is not simply because of various bell curves (although they play a role), but because what you are selling doesn’t particularly sound like its worth buying.

    I have an existance proof of an organization that proves you are wrong. It’s called the Unitarians. Ever been to a Unitarian church? There are a few Christians there, but it’s mainly agnostics and atheists. There might be some Deists, or their theological decendants. And neither the sermons nor the ceremonies ever talked about God in the one I attended, IIRC. You had to do that in conversation after services.

    There are a lot of liberal Protestant denominations which trend agnostic and atheist. Less and less devotion to the Bible. Less and less devotion to theology. And much, much less certainty on faith in general.

    So I would say that such organizations can come about through non-totalitarian means.

    Yours,
    Tom

  89. > Ever been to a Unitarian church?

    Nope. I’ve met quite a few Unitarians. Nice people, but they mainly seem to be a comprised of middle-aged lefty agnostics who either lapsed from religion in their youth or never received any religious instruction whatsoever, being the children of the Flower Children. Of course this is anecdotal evidence, but so is your evidence that Unitarians are mostly “atheists.” From this statement, I can only imagine we have a different understanding of what atheism is.

    Just speaking broadly, I think agnosticism is the most natural and socially healthy mode for humans. At the very least, it is far less destructive then unyielding fundamentalism and the arch pseudo-faith of atheism. Certainty is the death of dissent, and the fact is we don’t know everything, no matter how much we try to pretend we do.

  90. > Of course this is anecdotal evidence, but so is your evidence that Unitarians are mostly “atheists.” From this statement, I can only imagine we have a different understanding of what atheism is.

    No, it just means we read their minds differently. But whether Unitarians are mostly atheists or mostly agnostics, they comprise a group of people who go to church and listen to sermons on how to behave without believing in God, so they seem to me to be an existance proof of something you thought did not exist.

    Maybe I misread you. Or maybe you forgot about the Unitarians.

    Are Unitarian churches, even if filled with agnostics, not atheists, an example of something you thaought could not exist?

    Yours,
    Tom

  91. Are Unitarian churches, even if filled with agnostics, not atheists, an example of something you thaought could not exist?

    Obviously not, Tom, since I already mentioned that I have met such peoplle. My wife and I know a family of them quite well (they are girlfiends from childhood). So obviously I do not think they are an existence proof of an Atheist Church, imparting moral codes along the lines of “don’t screw up your deme’s chances for survival” and delivering sermons on how a deeper understanding of game theory will quiet your soul when a loved one perishes in a fire. I don’t so much read their minds as listen to them talk and express their opinions about themselves and the world. I know this isn’t as fashionable as Sociobiology, CG and EP, where I would simply have to look at a chart of their genome to categorically state what they really mean when they say they think or believe certain things. I’ll leave that to glimmering, faultless geniuses like Fodor and Dawkins, and drag my knuckles along after Gould.

  92. “If everyone was truly released from the shackles of religion, and got beyond the false moral codes imposed on them, would society collapse in a heap of nihilism?

    This is the question at hand, and the way I answer it is “not right away.” But eventually, yes. When the how becomes inseparable from the why, a tall order of nihilism is on the dessert menu.

    But, somewhat paradoxically, I don’t truly believe this can happen. Not perfectly or permanently, in any case. Even in a classic dystopia, where all former books on the subject were burned, new languages were designed and generations were heavily propagandized to believe they were mechanical meat sacks with no free will, I think the religious instinct would claw it’s way back to the surface eventually.

  93. ESR,

    “But I think when you talk about people being ruled by “passion”, you render yourself unable to see the really important factors. Like: maybe one of them simply isn’t intelligent enough to get through medical school, so “gangster” is of the two the more rational choice. Or, if you want to assume equal intellectual capability, maybe they have a large difference in time preference. Both are rational within their own frameworks of their capabilities and preferences.”

    But this would mean that people always act by rational consideration, are always driven by the rational part of the mind, and the only real difference is that 1) the inputs are different 2) sometimes the rational mind is stupid and calculates badly.

    There are many problems with it. The most obvious one is that it doesn’t even rhyme with other theories you subcribe to.

    Such as your own evolutionary views of human nature, because AFAIK the basis of the evolutionary view is that we have the brain of a clever monkey _on top of_ the brain of a reptile. Or something like that. Maybe what I mean by “passion” is the situations when the clever monkey becomes incapable of restraining the reptile and the reptile takes over the show.

    Such as the theory of time preference. I think you are well aware that TP is not just about interest rates but basically it is high time preferences that make people fuck up their lives by becoming drug addicts etc., etc. aren’t you? Surely I agree that IQ and environment ( = are we in a situation where our future seems to be amendable by our actions or are we in a situation we just cannot control) has a lot to do with TP, but from everyday experience it’s just not everything. Recognizing a course of action is more profitable in the long run doesn’t automatically lead to actually doing so and the difference lies in the ability of the rational mind to control the ego, which requires the ego must be small and relatively tame.

    It’s about the fifth time I’m trying to explain to you the problem of the ego and I think the main reason you are incapable of getting is that it was never a problem for you, you were kinda born with a small enough ego, and you’ve always been in circles with small egos. How many of your friends struggle with booze or smoking despite that they live a good and successful life and despite that they are smart enough to know exactly what it will cause? I suppose the number is close to zero.

    But it’s very hard to actually understand how societies work this way…

    Anyway. Getting a bit closer to the original topic, what if Abrahamic religions ARE incentive structures and coping strategies? The best explanation I’ve seen for their holy books is that they are manuals for group survival. If the most widespread things human beings do is evolutionary hard-coded then the making of myths is probably the most evolutionarily natural thing to do, because there was no civilization without one. (Or more.) Intellectuals can live well without myths, of course, myths are actually harmful for intellectual activity. From this two follows is that the way to evaluate and rate myths is by their ability to provide efficient incentives and coping strategies for non-intellectuals.

    An excellent example is the relationship between rigid sexual mores and functioning families amongst non-intellectuals. The worst example I’ve seen in the Western world is Britain. A few generations ago religion provided rigid sexual mores, then the intellectuals have rebelled against it. From their point of view it made sense: intellectuals are capable of having sex without having children and if they happen to get pregnant despite that, they tend to have enough self-control to arrange things so that the kid will have an acceptable upbringing. Intellectuals need no sexual mores. Therefore they rebelled against them and destroyed rigid sexual mores. The result for them was excellent but for non-intellectuals was abysmal. 40% of kids are born out of wedlock, without a father, the serial boyfriends of the mother cannot and don’t want to provide a proper father figure, the result for boys is that the local thugs will be their example of a real man, and the results of that are too easy to predict – and are observably disastrous. Therodore Dalrymple (Anthony Daniels) spent decades as a psychiater treating exactly this sort of family-less underclass and the general experiences are quite upsetting:

    http://www.city-journal.org/html/12_4_oh_to_be.html

    http://www.city-journal.org/html/10_3_urbanities-all_sex.html

    I can partially verify it by having lived a few miles from where Dalrymple gathered such experiences. And I must point out the situation in Britain is in no way unique or special, but simply a more advanced, more extreme case of what’s going on almost everywhere. In cities, I mean.

    Really the problem is intellectuals thinking what works for them will work for everyone, and not understand that what’s an indeed unnecessarily bigoted, prudish and stupid limitation for them is a necesary myth for creating a strategy without which non-intellectuals cannot cope.

    Intellectuals should have treated religion and the sexual and other mores associated with it the same way I treat speed limits. Don’t obey them of course. But don’t complain. Don’t critise nor rebel. Just silently use your brain to find out how to break them without getting punished for it, because they weren’t meant for you but for those who cannot drive – or fuck – intelligently. And they need them.

  94. Justin,

    “Let’s just take the example of a “posse” seeking revenge for someone stealing their property. For the perpetrator, if he has no moral compass to guide him no one can tell him that it’s wrong to take others property. For the victims if they have no moral compass, then why should they be complaining about their stuff being taken if indeed the law of the land is survival of the fittest? So without a moral presupposition the result is anarchy and chaos.”

    The problem is that you have invented religion without philosophy. Actually not you, the inventor was Calvin and Luther, you just follow in their footsteps. Basically you imagine a Hobbesian world where people pursuing their passions is all there is, and you propose religion as simply a set of laws how NOT to pursue said passions. Or which passions not to pursue at all. Yeah, better than nothing, of course, but basically you have taken a sensible, good king who makes just laws, elevated him up into the universe and call the result god. You haven’t even asked the first question of philosophy, namely, what is a good life and what are good ways to live, you take it for granted that the pursuit of passion is OK but one must obey some certain rules. Wherever religion = such Protestants it’s a small wonder everybody else is hostile to it – it’s very simplistic.

    Clarification: the anti-Protestant stuff I wrote above may sound as if a Catholic wrote it. In fact I am no Catholic because I am no Theist. But I can rate the Catholics higher than such Protestants because they at least attempt to make philosophy i.e. attempt to understand human nature and the problem of the ego. Augustine or Aquinas at least had some attempts to nail down the philosphical problem: the problem with “superbia” (vanity) and “amor sui”. The attempt is not fully convicing, doesn’t really come close to the really good attempts like Buddha or Aristotle but at least is an attempt. But this? Follow your passion but obey the rules? It’s hardly more than mythified politics.

  95. Jrok,

    “I think the _certainty_ of Atheism is what leads it inevitably to totalitarianism. Regimental atheism is the ultimate form of one-way-ism.”

    I had much to disagree with the other stuff you wrote – it is possible to be moral, spiritual and philosophical while being atheists, just look at the Buddhists or Marcus Aurelius – but this I think one does make sense. Basically you are trying to say what Chesteron said:

    “There is a very special sense in which materialism has more restrictions than spiritualism. Mr. McCabe thinks me a slave because I am not allowed to believe in determinism. I think Mr. McCabe a slave because he is not allowed to believe in fairies. But if we examine the two vetoes we shall see that his is really much more of a pure veto than mine. The Christian is quite free to believe that there is a considerable amount of settled order and inevitable development in the universe. But the materialist is not allowed to admit into his spotless machine the slightest speck of spiritualism or miracle. Poor Mr. McCabe is not allowed to retain even the tiniest imp, though it might be hiding in a pimpernel.”

    If I grok it right your problem is NOT that one person doesn’t believe in a god, the other does, and you think the first one is wrong.

    If I grok it right your problem is what Chesterton had wrote: that the first one believes with much more certainty, much more conviction, much more intolerance and much less margin for error in that there is no god than the other one believes there is one.

    It’s interesting that you are inverting the old assumption: that atheists are more open-minded than theists because they believe in a thousand possible ways how things can be while the later believe in only one, strictly defined way. Basically you are saying it’s the other way around.

    Actually… in some sense actually you may be right but what you wrote is not enough to prove it. Basically you should read some Eric Voegelin f.e. The New Science of Politics. What you wrote is only true if we assume all atheists are progressives i.e. secular gnostics who want to immanentize the escathon i.e. create a strict and rigid this-wordly religion. This was often true for many atheists but you have not proved it is always the case – because it is not always the case. The most one can say is that it is often or usually true for people who don’t philosophize, because those who don’t will find life unbearable without either an other-wordly religion or a this-worldly one like progressivism. But this is no rule, just a correlation, because there are many counter-examples.

  96. “Just speaking broadly, I think agnosticism is the most natural and socially healthy mode for humans. ”

    I think there is a basic terminological problem. There should be a new category, called “Anti-Theism”, meaning a hostile stance against Theism, to be separated from Agnosticism and Atheism.

    Currently there is confusion. Atheism should simply mean one does not believe. This is not very far from Agnosticism, in practice it should be a something similar. But not believing does not necessarily mean one considers all Theists idiots and all theistic religions as only harmful and never doing anything useful. This is not “a” but “anti”. (Like: Social Democrats are “acommunists”, Libertarians and Conservatives are “anticommunists”.)

    Because we do not have this important and useful category, aggressive Anti-Theists like Dawkins are mistakenly called Atheists. This is a problem because Anti-Theism doesn’t follow from Atheism. People like me are in trouble, because, not believing, we should call ourselves Atheists but that means the problem of adopting the same label as Dawkins, which is wrong, because we aren’t hostile to religion at all, we think there is a high chance it is a useful illusion, we just don’t happen to believe in it. The result is that non-hostile Atheists have renamed themselves to Agnostics which adds to the confusion.

    I vote for defining the Anti-Theists as a separate group from Atheists for clearing up this confusion.

  97. @Shenpen

    The worst example I’ve seen in the Western world is Britain….. The result for them was excellent but for non-intellectuals was abysmal. 40% of kids are born out of wedlock, without a father, the serial boyfriends of the mother cannot and don’t want to provide a proper father figure, the result for boys is that the local thugs will be their example of a real man, and the results of that are too easy to predict – and are observably disastrous.

    Wow, Britain is the example? You ought to visit the States more often Shenpen. 40% are born out of wedlock here as well. By and large these people not only lack coping mechanisms and impulse control, but their egos have swelled into vast, swirling Black Holes fed by a culture that seems like it is actively attempting to breed out shame.

    We are all really going to miss that internal guilt machine when it is entirely replaced by “TMZ”, Multicultural platitudes and bestiality porn. Likely, we will have construct a new one from scratch, if anyone intelligent enough to do so is left alive.

  98. I had much to disagree with the other stuff you wrote – it is possible to be moral, spiritual and philosophical while being atheists, just look at the Buddhists or Marcus Aurelius – but this I think one does make sense.

    With all due respect, I don’t think you grokked me correctly on this note. I didn’t say (and have not observed, and do not think) that it is impossible for an atheist to be moral and philosophical. “Spiritual” is a matter that would have to be more narrowly defined for me to properly comment on it., but the other two, certainly. Individuals can be moral, ethical and kind without being religious. As was Marcus Aurelius. As are *certain* Buddhists… for individual Buddhists can live morally or amorally or immorally, just like individual Episcopalians or individual Jews.

    It is even possible that Marx inhabited a moral universe. It is not, I think, possible that Stalin did. But I wasn’t referring to individuals, but to institutions. The trial balloon being sent up was for a sort institutionalized athiesm, or which you (perhaps properly) deem Anti-theism, with secular scriptures. I took aim at that balloon, because it’s been attempted often enough over the past century, and its results have been universally terrifying. That’s why I asked Jessica if she could provide some experiments wherein religion is expunged in favor of state-sponsored atheism (and utilitarian “gospels” that explain morality in this-worldy terms) that have resulted in anything but brutal oppression or, at the very least, a broad rolling back of individual freedoms. I’ll ask the same thing of you. I’m not trying to be smarmy. I just know of none to date.

  99. @Shenpen

    Just to elaborate, I think my entire point hinges on the the notion of “self-evident truths,” and why they are an important component of freedom. I recall (perhaps not precisely) that in earlier drafts of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson used the phrase “we hold these truths to be Sacred and Undeniable” until Franklin and Adams gently talked him down off the ledge. It was probably in pursuit of a greater economy of language then anything else – Jefferson had a grandiloquent streak in him. But even with that revision, the statement has always still struck me as a bit redundant. They were not positing “theories,” which are by nature open to debate and deconstruction and revision. They were espousing “truths” that required no further evidence. The preamble was, in that sense, not merely a “Just So” statement, but a religious expression. I do not hold that it was a particularly Christian one, but it was religious in the sense that it was unassailable by reason. Eric chooses to assail it anyway: not to rip it down, but to provide supporting evidence for it in the language of reason and science. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, exactly. I do think it is somewhat unnecessary and maybe unintentionally dangerous. Once you toss “truths” into the arena of scientific debate, it is almost certain that they will eventually succumb to reductionism, and cease to be truths.

    I also genuinely think it’s important for a free people to have truths that they don’t need to defend. Frankly, not everyone is going to be equally capable of defending them, whether because of intelligence or education or talent or time. But they still need them.

  100. >I vote for defining the Anti-Theists as a separate group from Atheists for clearing up this confusion.

    And, in case there’s any confusion, I will cheerfully identify myself as an anti-theist.

  101. Jrok,

    “The trial balloon being sent up was for a sort institutionalized athiesm, or which you (perhaps properly) deem Anti-theism, with secular scriptures. I took aim at that balloon, because it’s been attempted often enough over the past century, and its results have been universally terrifying.”

    Yes, I know what you mean. The ballon has many attributes. You chose the attribute “atheist” because you think it’s the most important attribute – it is certainly an attribute of this but why is it the most important attribute? I think the important clue is exactly what you mentioned, that it has “secular scriptures”. In other words, it’s not really a complete lack of religion but instead of a reinventing of religion on this-worldly terms. Again I cannot overemphasize how important The New Science of Politics is. Eric Voegelin gives a complete genealogy of this thing, from Joachim de Flora to Marx and Hitler, starting from old gnosticism, then through Puritanism and gradually turning into secular gnosticism. To sum it up, secular gnosticism means the idea that the escathon is not something going on hidden behind the scenes like in other-wordly religions – which allows the believers of other-wordly religions to think naturalistically-rationally about this world – but an import of the idea of the escathon into this world, to claim that this very society is an escathon – that it can transcend history and human nature.

    The real point here is that both truly non-religious attitudes and other-worldly religions are on the same side on this thing: they are not trying to explain this world, the real world as an escathon but they maintain that this world belongs to nature and therefore is subject to the laws of nature including human nature. “No transcendence” and “other-wordly transcendence” are on the same side, their common enemy is “political transcendence”.

    So what I am trying to say is that atheism can mean different things. If it means a truly non-religious, down-to-earth attitude then it is not dangerous. It is dangerous only when atheism, rationalism etc. are turned into this-worldy pseudo-religions. This tends to correlate with aggressive anti-theism because this-wordly religions just don’t like competition. There is a long history of pseudo-rationalistic secular religions, my favourite story is Henri de Saint-Simons idea of starting a Church of Newton with 12 mathemathicians as the high priests. It could make an easy laugh except when we consider that it was Saint-Simons main student, Comte, who founded sociology and Positivism. Positivism, esp. Logical Positivism is considered a respectable, rational thing, but only until we consider that there is such a thing as the Church of Positivism still alive in Brasil. So basically what I mean is that many seemingly-rational modern ideas are actually secular religions. Secular Gnosticisms. Read Voegelin. There is little better to in this regard, that book is a gem.

    “I also genuinely think it’s important for a free people to have truths that they don’t need to defend. Frankly, not everyone is going to be equally capable of defending them, whether because of intelligence or education or talent or time.”

    This is basically the old problem I was trying to explain here – that whatever works for intellectuals doesn’t necessarily work for others. Given that we live in an age of the myth of equality there is a strong habit to not to try to think in terms of different groups of people, but just to think in one group, “people”.

    It’s the dominance of the passive voice, if you know what I mean. Such as “questionable truths” or “unquestionable truths”. The passive voice is used because of the modern egalitarian cultural assumption that the subject – the questioner – is irrelevant. Either something is questionable by everyone or by no one.

    This is, basically, the problem. It’s not “questionable” or “not questionable” in general, but the question is who should question them and who should just accept them. You know, just like speed limits, they are not for everyone, but they are for most. It makes sense to say that certain truths should not be questioned by most people because yes, then they tend to erode. But OTOH there should be some circles, made of wise, intelligent and well-meaning people who should just question everything because really, there is no idea such as that a better idea is impossible to find. Everything can be improved on.

    We must rediscover the “inner circle” and the “outer circle” (esoteric/exoteric truths). On the exoteric level there must be unquestionable truths on the esoteric level, none.

  102. I vote for defining the Anti-Theists as a separate group from Atheists for clearing up this confusion.

    Hmmmm…. so applying a little metasyntactic language here, does that make fundamentalist Christians anti-anti-theists or anti-atheists? What about agnostics that actively support the rights of anti-theists? Would they be pro-anti-theists? Argh. My head hurts now.

  103. Boy, I sure hate it when Chesterton quotes me prehumously. :)

    I think the label ‘antitheist’ is a swell idea, and count me in.

    Common misconception: I’m afraid I can’t find the citation for this, but it comes originally from US Census data. Teenage pregnancy, unwanted pregnancy, venereal diseases, and divorce are all more common in rural American than in American cities. I would be obliged if somebody with better google-fu can substantiative this.

    Jrok, atheism and state brutality: Every feudalist state–a far more common and pervasive failure-mode than communism, springing up everywhere in human history–was supported by the local theist religion, if one existed. Fascism was entirely and overtly Catholic-backed. The Stalinist state was arm-in-arm with the Russian Orthodox church. The North Koreans are made to worship their dictator as a diune god.

    In contrast, one of the only truly secular states in history has comported itself pretty well. It is called the United States of America.

  104. Eric, WordPress ate my em-dashes and didn’t used to. Did you change the configuration?

    ESR says: No, but I think the PHP engine was upgraded recently.

  105. In contrast, one of the only truly secular states in history has comported itself pretty well. It is called the United States of America.

    I would say that USA was WASP in its core values from 1789 to 1968, or thereabouts.

  106. In contrast, one of the only truly secular states in history has comported itself pretty well. It is called the United States of America.

    But, you haven’t proven that it is a “secular state”, because you haven’t addressed our “self-evident truths.” Self-evident truth might as well be inscribed on a tablet in the desert.

  107. Shenpen,

    The real point here is that both truly non-religious attitudes and other-worldly religions are on the same side on this thing: they are not trying to explain this world, the real world as an escathon but they maintain that this world belongs to nature and therefore is subject to the laws of nature including human nature. “No transcendence” and “other-wordly transcendence” are on the same side, their common enemy is “political transcendence”.

    Yes, I’ve always thought the very same thing, and the statement above is truly a compelling argument for why “agnosticism” more properly defines what we have come to widely call “atheism.” Esr can sneer all he wants to at Gould, but I do think that his magisteriums represented a step in the right direction. Anti-theists and religious fundamentalists see the conflicts between Science and Religion as a zero-sum game; a War that can only end by one institution full conquering and supplanting the other. But the lasting and most desirable resolution is one that yields the “how” to Science and the “why” to Religion.

  108. But the lasting and most desirable resolution is one that yields the “how” to Science and the “why” to Religion.

    …at the exoteric level, of course.

  109. >But, you haven’t proven that it is a “secular state”, because you haven’t addressed our “self-evident truths.”

    They’re game rules, the value of which is known by their consequences. Don’t mystify things unnecessarily; it’s not a convincing argument.

  110. They’re game rules, the value of which is known by their consequences. Don’t mystify things unnecessarily; it’s not a convincing argument.

    That is my point. I don’t need them to be a convincing argument, and neither did the founders. They were “just so.” If you need them to be game rules, that’s fine. But if the game rule ever falters or fails, or if the science of game theory (like all sciences) expands to disprove the logic of one of your inalienable rights, such as the right to bear arms, it does not magically disappear. You still have that right. And if Jessica proclaimed in an ironically loud voice, that she does not have the right to free speech, she is also wrong. She does have that right.

  111. But if the game rule ever falters or fails, or if the science of game theory (like all sciences) expands to disprove the logic of one of your inalienable rights, such as the right to bear arms, it does not magically disappear.

    By the way, it would be perfectly easy to design a simple game that “proves” that gun ownership rights are preferable to the banning of guns. But it would be equally easy to design a game that “proves” magical flying horse rights are preferable to the banning of magical flying horses. The oversimplification or outright removal economic realities from decision theory merely requires a different set of assumptions from “just so” declarations. By the rules of the game, we (rightly) accept that a law whih allows everyone to be armed is preferable to a law which allows some to be armed and denies others from being armed. But this doesn’t reflect reality. For instance, if my neighbor can afford a machine gun and I can only afford a sling and a stone, than I surely would prefer a law which allows people to only carry slings and stones. And if Shenpen can not even afford a sling and a stone, he would prefer a law which allows no one to carry arms of any kind.

    Game theory also presumes that everyone is playing the same game at the same time, and that motivations for playing and priority of outcomes are the same. While it would be preferable to be better armed than your neighbors, and non-preferable to be outgunned by them, a Law preventing everyone from being armed would, perhaps ground into a stone tablet in the desert, would promote a mutually acceptable outcome for those that did not wish to shoot their neighbors, but an acceptable outcome to those he were only happy when they were blasting their neighbors to pieces. Luckily, the reverse is also true. A Truth which says “we all have the right to arm ourselves” sets the rules of the game in an escathon unassailable by reason. It forces everyone to play the same game, and to arm themselves as best they can. This can lead to desirable consequences or undesirable ones; or, more likely, consequences that are desirable for some and undesirable for others.

  112. Hideous typo. Sorry:

    While it would be preferable to be better armed than your neighbors, and non-preferable to be outgunned by them, a Law preventing everyone from being armed, perhaps ground into a stone tablet in the desert, would promote a mutually acceptable outcome for those that did not wish to shoot their neighbors, but an unacceptable outcome to those who were only happy when they were blasting their neighbors to pieces.

  113. I would say that USA was WASP in its core values from 1789 to 1968, or thereabouts.

    The USA is explicitly secular thanks to the First Amendment, despite the continual failure of WASPs to understand this.

    But, you haven’t proven that it is a “secular state”, because you haven’t addressed our “self-evident truths.” Self-evident truth might as well be inscribed on a tablet in the desert.

    Sorry, I completely fail to understand what you’re saying here. (This actually applies to most of what you’ve been saying.)

  114. Sorry, I completely fail to understand what you’re saying here. (This actually applies to most of what you’ve been saying.)

    That’s okay. It’s not complicated, though. A self-evident truth is beyond the limits of reason or evidence. It is therefore a other-worldly, religious expression. It is unfalsifiable and unalterable by contrary evidence.

  115. It addresses your claim that the United States are a purely secular state. There’s a bit of crossover from the Wiccan thread of a discussion about self-evidence and the Declaration/Bill of Rights, so if you didn’t read that thread, I can understand your confusion.

    But, if you are asking how it addresses your claims that godless Soviet and NK communists were really religious theocrats, it doesn’t. Those claims were too ridiculous to address… I honestly assumed you were making a joke.

  116. It is interesting, by the way, that while Mann and his goon squad are doing the usual tapdance over at RealClimate, many of the long time skeptics at Climate Audit are in a conciliatory mood, willing to hear Jones out and hoping that his recent troubles will bring him back into the fold of sober science.

    I have to admit, my mood is not so forgiving. But it’s worth noting that the narrative that their allies in the media have been selling is, as usual, upside-down. The skeptical view on climate modeling allows for honest error, while the AGW view is full of strident, unyielding zeal of the worst kind.

  117. I’ll quickly adress the “icky” factor of “most pervasive taboos worldwide is against having sex with your near relatives.”

    Darrencardinal Said:
    February 10th, 2010 at 5:46 pm

    >>But what if the purpose of the sex was not to have kids, but just for enjoyment? There would be no offspring to worry about, so why not? …most people just instinctively find this icky, even if they can’t rationally explain why.<<

    Here's the reason for the world wide taboo and the ickyness of incest. Humans live in groups. Rules of taboos and dos are created by groups inorder to insure the funtionality of the group with it itself.

    Anyone who has younger relatives might understand what I'm about to describe. A kid you help raise remains a kid in your head your whole life. I have a nephew who in my head is somewhere around 2 or 9. He has graduated from college and has a job. Intellectually, I know he is an adult and he has had a number of girlfriends. Emotionally, I identify him as the little guy who asked, "Will you help me potty, please?" when I would take care of him for my sister-in-law.

    Just visualizing him engaging in sexually aproprietate behavior as an adult is "icky."

    It is easy to guess that this one of the core motivations for world wide taboo. Another motivation, which I've read in socialogy books would be the desire of the group to interact and join with other groups. Hense, "marry outside the family."

  118. >See Sweden for instance . About %85 of people are atheist, and this country is one of the most civilized and peaceful countries on the planet earth :)

    Actually 73% of Swedes belong to the Church of Sweden and 76% of Swedes believe in some form of God or spiritual life force.

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