Wednesday, April 25, 2007 46 Comments

Why do atheists believe in religion?

Not everyone these days believes in God. But pretty much everyone believes in religion.

By "believing in religion," I mean recognizing a significant categorical distinction between "religious" phenomena, and those that are "nonreligious" or "secular."

For example, the concepts of "freedom of religion" and "separation of church and state" are dependent on the concept of "religion." If "religion" is a noninformative, unimportant, or confusing category, these concepts must also be noninformative, unimportant, or confusing.

Since most atheists, agnostics, etc, consider the First Amendment pretty important, we can assume they "believe in religion."

My question is: why? Is this a useful belief? Does it help us understand the world? Or does it confuse or misinform us? Once again, our team of crack philosophers is on the case.

Let's rule out the possibility that "religion" is noninformative. We can define "religion" as the attribution of existence to anthropomorphic paranormal entities. This definition has its fuzzy corner cases, notably some kinds of Buddhism, but it's short and it'll do for the moment.

We are left with the question: is "religion" an important or clarifying category? Or is it unimportant and confusing?

If you believe in God, obviously you have to believe in religion. Religion is an important category because your religion is true, and all other religions are false. (As Sam Harris puts it, "everyone's an atheist with respect to Zeus.")

For atheists of the all-around variety - including me - the question remains. Why do we believe in "religion?"

One obvious answer is that we have to share the planet with a lot of religious people. If you are an atheist, there is no getting around it: religion, as per Dawkins, is a delusion. Deluded people do crazy things and are often dangerous. We need to have a category for these people, just as we have a category for "large, man-eating carnivores." Certainly, religious violence has killed a lot more people lately than lions, tigers, or bears.

This argument sounds convincing, but it hides a fallacy.

The fallacy is that the distinction between "religion" and other classes of delusion must be clarifying or important. If there is a case for this proposition, we haven't met it yet.

Peoples' actions matter. And peoples' beliefs matter, because they motivate actions.

But actions in the real world must be motivated by beliefs about the real world. Delusions about the paranormal world are only relevant - at least to us atheists - in the special case that they motivate delusions about the real world.

So, as atheists, why should we care about the former? Why not forget about the details of metaphysical doctrine, which pertain to an ethereal plane that doesn't even exist, and concentrate our attention on beliefs about reality?

If you believe that nine Jewish virgins need to be thrown into Mt. Fuji, you are, in my opinion, deluded. Whether you believe this because you are receiving secret messages from Amaterasu Omikami, or because it's just payback for the dirty deeds of the Elders of Zion, affects neither me nor the virgins.

If you believe "partial-birth abortion" is wrong because it's "against God's law," or if you think it's just "unethical," your vote will be the same.

If you are tolerant and respectful of others because you think Allah wants you to be tolerant and respectful of others, how can I possibly have a problem with this? If you stab people in the street because you've misinterpreted Nietzsche and decided that morality is not for you, is that less of a problem?

Lots of people have delusions about the real world. People believe all kinds of crazy things for all kinds of crazy reasons. Some even believe sensible things for crazy reasons. Why should we establish a special category for delusions that are motivated by anthropomorphic paranormal forces?

A reasonable answer is: why not?

Certainly, religion is an important force in the world today. Certainly at least some forms of religion - "fundamentalist," one might say - are actively dangerous. No one is actually stabbing people in the street because of Nietzsche. The same cannot be said for Allah.

How can it possibly confuse or distract us to recognize and protect ourselves against this important class of delusion?

To see the answer, we need to break Godwin's Law.

Suppose Hitler had declared that, rather than being just some guy from Linz, he was Thor's prophet on earth. (Some people would have been positively delighted by this.) Suppose that everything the Nazis did was done in the name of Thor. Suppose, in other words, that Nazism was in the category "religion."

This is by no means a new idea. Many writers, including Eric Voegelin, Eric Hoffer, Victor Klemperer, Michael Burleigh, etc, etc, have described the similarities between Nazism and religions. But Nazism does not fit our definition of religion above - no paranormal entities. This is the definition most people use, so most people don't think of Nazism as a religion.

The Allies invaded Nazi Germany and completely suppressed Nazism. To this day in Germany it is illegal to teach National Socialism. I think most Americans, and most Germans, would agree that this is a good thing.

But if we make this one trivial change, turning Nazism into Thorism and making it a "religion," which as we've seen need not change the magnitude or details of Nazi crimes at all, the acts of the Allies are a blatant act of religious intolerance.

Aren't we supposed to respect other faiths? Shouldn't we at least have restricted our unfriendly attentions to "fundamentalist Nazism," and promoted a more "moderate" version of the creed? Suppose we gave the Taliban the same treatment? What, exactly, is the difference between Eisenhower's policy and Ann Coulter's?

It gets worse. Another one of Voegelin's "political religions," which by our definition are not religions at all (no anthropomorphic paranormal entities) is Marxism. Let's tweak Marxism slightly and assert that the writings of Marx were divinely inspired, leaving everything else in the history of Communism unchanged.

Marxism, unlike Nazism, is still very popular in the world today. A substantial fraction of the professors in Western universities are either Marxists, or strongly influenced by Marxist thought. Nor are these beliefs passive - many fields that are actively taught and quite popular, such as postcolonial studies, seem largely or entirely Marxist in content.

This is certainly not true of Nazism. It is also not true of Christianity or any other "religion" proper. Many professors are Christians, true, and some are even fundamentalists. But the US educational system is quite sensitive to the possibility that it might be indoctrinating youth with Christian fundamentalism. "Creation science," for example, is not taught in any mainstream university and seems unlikely to achieve that status.

If Marxism was a religion, Marxist economics would come pretty close to being the exact equivalent of "intelligent design." But, again, Marxism as religion and Marxism as non-religion involve exactly the same set of delusions about the real world. (Of course, to a Marxist, they are not delusions.)

Should non-Marxist atheists, such as myself, be as concerned about separating Marxism from state-supported education as we are with Christianity? If Marxism is a religion, or if the difference between Marxism as it is in the real world and the version in which Marx was a prophet is insignificant, our "wall of separation" is a torn-up chainlink fence.

But there was a period in which Americans tried to eradicate Marxism the way they fight against "intelligent design" today. It was called McCarthyism. And believers in civil liberties were on exactly the opposite side of the barricades.

As non-Marxist atheists, do we want McCarthy 2.0? Should loyalty oaths be hip this year? Should we schedule new hearings?

This is why the concept of "religion" is harmful. If trivial changes to hypothetical history convert reasonable policies into monstrous injustices, or vice versa, your perception of reality cannot be correct. You have been infected by a toxic meme.

If memes are analogous to parasitic organisms, believing in "religion" is like taking a narrow-spectrum antibiotic on an irregular schedule. The Dawkins treatment - our latest version of what used to be called anticlericalism - wipes out a colony of susceptible bacteria which have spent a long time learning to coexist reasonably, if imperfectly, with the host. And clears the field for an entirely different phylum of bugs which are unaffected by antireligious therapy. Whose growth, in fact, it may even stimulate.

In the last two centuries, "political religions" have caused far, far more morbidity than "religious religions." But here we are with Dawkins, Harris, and Dennett - still popping the penicillin. Hm. Kind of makes you think, doesn't it?

(Update: before commenting on this post, please see my new comments policy.)


Blogger David Aames said...

Atheism is monstrously boring. We have such a brief flowering in this little world, why rationalize everything? It won't matter a whit on the shores at the end. Atheist's think too much. (technically I am one, but don't like it very much) Religion is a Noble Lie, a useful means of social control... along with shame.

April 26, 2007 at 4:25 AM  
Blogger Cowtown Pattie said...


Heavy stuff, but I think you make perfect sense.

At the risk of sounding like a schoolmarm with a red pencil, I love this analogy:

If Marxism is a religion, or if the difference between Marxism as it is in the real world and the version in which Marx was a prophet is insignificant, our "wall of separation" is a torn-up chainlink fence.

April 26, 2007 at 9:19 AM  
Blogger Dale said...

Your argument begins with a fallacy. The 1st Amendment is not about "freedom of religion". Here's what it says about religion:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;

It's pretty easy to look up stuff on Google. I don't understand why more people don't use it before they write.

April 26, 2007 at 7:11 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

Very true! What most people believe the 1st Amendment says, and what the people who wrote (and ratified) it meant, are two very different things.

Obviously I am going by the former. Maybe the Supreme Court could do a bit of Googling themselves...

April 26, 2007 at 8:34 PM  
Blogger kipp said...

I fail to believe in alot of things other people have faith in: The goodwill of bureaucrats, the moral superiority of veganism to carnivory, the value of conformity, or the idea of "environmental justice" to name a few. Unlike "atheism", thre isn't an age-old word to precisely denote my lack of belief in all these things. And unlike religion, veganism doesn't really claim to hold the keys to the purpose of existence and the fate of the universe. In short, we "believe in religion" as atheists because it would be pragmatically foolish not to.

The abstract notion of the equality of all forms of delusion is nice and all - and I rank marxism as bad as any religious faith. There happens to be a qord for that too: Anti-communist.

But until adkins dieters, vegans or cold-fusionists attempt to run my life and the government, I'll have no guilt in making the metaphysically ungrounded distinction between these ideas and religions.

April 27, 2007 at 11:54 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

How in the world did you come to the conclusion that postcolonial studies was largely similar to Marxism? Do you know what you are talking about?

April 27, 2007 at 11:58 AM  
Anonymous Consumatopia said...

This works in reverse too, right? If we have no reason to believe that the paranormal represents a meaningful distinction in categories of delusion, the same is true of Nazism and Marxism. Which would mean that non-Nazis have no reason to believe that Nazism exists as an ideology.

The error here is that just because two things are bad for the same reason doesn't mean they should be thought of as the same--just because they are bad for the same reason doesn't mean they have the same solution. If people can be cured of delusion through reason rather than kept from implementing their delusion with restraining force, then the source of their delusion probably matters. It especially matters if we, ourselves, wish to avoid our own delusions--the lessons to be learned from the errors of religion and the errors of totalitarianism are different lessons.

There's also a minor problem that the kinds of mistakes people will make will likely correlate with with the sources of those mistakes. It doesn't seem probable that people would invent a story of a Marx God that teaches exactly the same stuff that Karl Marx taught (even if South American liberation theologians tried to move in that direction), and it doesn't seem likely that an organization like the Catholic Church would create itself without reference to the supernatural. You can invent belief systems in both cases that would satisfy the requirements, but the fact that those belief systems are unlikely to arise outside of thought experiment is relevant in how we speak and deal with belief.

The right model for this memetically is not antibiotics but vaccination. Marxism and Nazism are in no sense antimeme resistant versions of Christianity--as evidenced by Christianity and Islam surging ahead of these ideologies in popularity. They are each different memes with their own vaccines--the counter-arguments--and just like flu vaccines, we must change the vaccine distribution according to the prevalence of the matching pathogens.

Or will you now argue that because both viruses and bacteria make us sick, we should eliminate the distinction between them?

Finally, there is a huge difference between an ideology that makes a faulty appeal to reason like Marxism and religion which claims to be beyond reason. (In which case it's helpful to distinguish religion from other forms of paranormal belief that claim to be science driven like telepathy.) Marxism is still within the realm of ideas, it can be debated and discussed. The probably has something to do with why we're complaining about Marxist universities while the ID folks are attempting to infiltrate elementary and secondary education. Marxism expects to win the argument, Fundamentalism expects to precede the argument.

April 27, 2007 at 12:33 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

Postcolonial studies replaces "the proletariat" with "indigenous peoples."

Everything else is the same.

If you disagree, perhaps you could point out some issue on which Marxists believe X and postcolonialists believe Y. I'd certainly be interested in hearing of any such contradiction.

April 27, 2007 at 12:39 PM  
Blogger Mike said...

everyone's an atheist with respect to Zeus.

Are you dising Zeus. Here's some free advice -- do *not* go outside during a thunderstorm.

April 27, 2007 at 12:48 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...


You raise excellent points. Most of them I'm afraid I'll have to answer in future posts. This is lame, I know. Please stick around!

As for your last point, though: Google has let me down, and I can't find out who said "You can't reason anyone out of anything that he wasn't reasoned into," or words to that effect. Was it Swift? Can anyone help me out on this?

But my point is that Christianity, like other traditional religions, has a long, long history of "apologias" which purport to derive Christian doctrine from pure reason. The emphasis on faith is actually a rather recent and more or less Protestant development.

It's impossible to change anyone's mind. All you can do is convince bystanders that you are right and your interlocutor is wrong. If minds change, they change themselves.

By this rather practical standard, "faith" in a paranormal entity is no more or less difficult to refute than any other rhetorical tactic which slips a miracle into the syllogism. Give me one fallacy and I can prove anything.

April 27, 2007 at 12:53 PM  
Blogger Sid Schwab said...

I think at some point in the future you'll read this and be embarrassed. It really sounds like a term paper, happily using words and forcing meaning into them. In the sense you use it, the term "believe in religion" is meaningless; you are trying to invent some sort of fallacy, some inherent contradiction. But, as another commenter has said, religion exists. To deny that would be like, oh, denying evolution or global warming. So yeah, I "believe in" religion, like I believe in the sun. Which is not to say that that in some way conflicts with atheism, which is based on reality. The reality is, religion is all around us. You think you've discovered a paradox. Whereas a life of the mind is enjoyable, you've wasted your energy on this one.

April 27, 2007 at 1:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think you are confusion the use of "religion" as an institutional category with the use of "religious" as a phenomenological one. Saying there should be separation of church and state does not endorse the notion that there are specific phenomena that are religious any more than it does the idea that there are definable, "state-ous" phenomena.

April 27, 2007 at 1:10 PM  
Blogger michael said...

I think a bit more Sam Harris would be instructive here.

It is a common argument to note that the secular ideologies of Marxism and Nazism (though Nazism had a strong mythological component) have spilled more blood than religion.

Sam Harris' reply is that the core problem of religion and Marxism and Nazism is dogmatism. It is dogmatism itself that lends to intellectual stubborn-ness and rigidity.

He also points out that the particular danger of religion is that it elevates dogmatism into a virtue rather than a vice - and it is this facet of religion that makes it so intransigent. This faith element to religion is something that no secular ideology shares.

This is why Marxism has largely died out or mutated: it proved a good descriptor but a why pre-scriptor. Religion on the other hand persists despite its complete failure as either.

April 27, 2007 at 1:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

We atheists believe in religion the same way we believe in booger-eaters. i.e. We acknowledge that there are those around us who practice religion/eat boogers, however it doesn't mean that we ourselves do it.

Religion exists, we atheists recognize that it exists but chose not to participate in it. Why is that such a hard concept to understand?

Some people are gay. Do you have to go engage in sex with someone of the same sex as you in order to acknowledge that there are gay people in the world? Because that's what your argument boils down to and I hope you now realize how silly an argument that is.

April 27, 2007 at 1:16 PM  
Blogger Joe said...

"But, as another commenter has said, religion exists. To deny that would be like, oh, denying evolution or global warming. So yeah, I "believe in" religion, like I believe in the sun."

Reminds me of the Mark Twain quip when someone asked him if he believed in infant baptism: "Believe it? Hell, I've seen it!"

April 27, 2007 at 1:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Unlike theism, which is invisible, the practice of religion is visible. To claim one "believes" in religion is nonsense, we simply "observe" it. It's hard to miss, even when wanting to. No one need "believe" what is visible, but theism is not merely belief, but "faith." Lot's of linguistic confusion, if you don't mind me saying.

April 27, 2007 at 1:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You write:
Postcolonial studies replaces "the proletariat" with "indigenous peoples."

Everything else is the same.

If you disagree, perhaps you could point out some issue on which Marxists believe X and postcolonialists believe Y. I'd certainly be interested in hearing of any such contradiction.

Marxism emphasizes internal contradictions of a system based on the economic relationship of classes. Postcolonialism doesn't. It doesn't even concern itself with economic class, rather it is largely concerned with the construction of knowledge as a product of a discourse. Marxism's emphasis on material relations; postcolonialism, idealist relations.

Postcolonialism, being a method against colonialism, asserts that there is no eschatology of progress or teleology to history. Marxism does not. In fact, Marx himself was sympathetic to the goals of colonialism.

Postcolonialism is concerned with perception; Marxism with class.

Postcolonialism is concerned with texts; Marxism is concerned with economics.

Read Said, Dirks, or Cohn, and tell me they are identical to Marxist.

April 27, 2007 at 1:40 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

I'm starting to wonder who linked to this! Comment moderation may have to go back on.

I guess it's not surprising that a lot of contemporary readers aren't used to postulated definitions. Aristotle, we miss you, all is forgiven, please come back. You'd sort of wish they'd read to the end of the post, though, before commenting.

April 27, 2007 at 3:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Aristotle? (The link is from Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish.) The philosophy of language has been updated since Aristotle's day. May I suggest Frege, Russell, Wittgenstein, Kripke, Popper, Austin, Searle, and Davidson? All within the last century, no less.

April 27, 2007 at 3:15 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

Anonymous postcolonial theorist,

You are obviously quite familiar with both postcolonialism and Marxism.

The problem is that when I mentioned "Marxism" I was using it in the same sense as "Christianity," that is, as a movement rather than a body of doctrine.

The Bible says that the earth was created in seven days. Many of today's Christians do not believe that the earth was created in seven days. Nonetheless, they call themselves Christians and so do I.

Marx created an enormous body of doctrine, which some people I suppose probably still follow to the letter - as though there was some kind of revelation involved. Nonetheless, to use the word "Marxist" for only this group seems like a bit of a waste.

Marxist-Leninism, for example, contradicts the writings of Marx in many respects. But most people consider Marxist-Leninists Marxists. If you don't, fine, it's just a word.

So, yes: much in postcolonial theory is doctrinally different from Marxism. This is in fact very much analogous to the disputes that devotees of different sects of Christianity may hold about the nature of Jesus.

The question is: what actions of Marxists do postcolonialist theorists disagree with? Again, the policies that Marxists propose for the proletariat, or (more to the point) those who wish to lead the proletariat, strike me as generally comparable to those that postcolonialists
propose for "indigenous peoples."

April 27, 2007 at 3:20 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

Gay species,

The "Aristotle" mention was addressed to others. BTW, I consider Aristotle perfectly respectable, despite the fact that he lived a long time ago. I do gather that others have written a book or two since then. But all I meant was that it's quite common to try and define one's terms when there's a complex or subtle point to be made.

Anyway, your (original) question is addressed quite directly, I think, toward the end of the post. Perhaps I should have put this bit first.

April 27, 2007 at 3:27 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

Anonymous at 1:10,

This is a good point which I'll cover in future. Without paranormal anthropomorphic entities, how do we define a "church"? Again - hm.

April 27, 2007 at 4:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The question is: what actions of Marxists do postcolonialist theorists disagree with? Again, the policies that Marxists propose for the proletariat, or (more to the point) those who wish to lead the proletariat, strike me as generally comparable to those that postcolonialists
propose for "indigenous peoples."

I'll leave aside your tendency to shift the question.

I sense that your view of postcolonialists and Marxists comprises people who are vehemently opposed to colonialism. That group of people includes Edmund Burke and Adam Smith. It also includes Frantz Fanon. Its such a large group that it is effectively vacuous.

April 27, 2007 at 4:03 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...


A good point.

Indeed the core problem is dogmatism. But Thomas Aquinas was by no means dogmatic. Religion today is much more dogmatic than in Aquinas' day. But it is also much less powerful.

In other words, paranormal beliefs (to which Mr. Harris is b no means immune) certainly imply a nonzero level of dogmatism, if only because they imply a faith which cannot be verified. But it is too easy to assume that they are the most significant present source of unreasonable thinking.

April 27, 2007 at 4:06 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...


If I am shifting the question, which I am, it is only because I defined it poorly in the first place. My apologies.

I certainly would not describe everyone who has been opposed to colonialism as a postcolonial theorist. Similarly, favoring a progressive income tax does not make you a Marxist, believing it's wrong to kill does not make you a Christian, etc, etc.

Thanks again for taking the time to comment!

April 27, 2007 at 4:08 PM  
Anonymous random guy said...

A largely over looked discussion about religion in America, is that a lot of times religion really denotes more of an ethnic allegance than actual belief.

Think of the terms Irish Catholic and Southern Baptist.

I've known lots of people who define themselves as a member of a religious group but are agnostic when it comes to actual belief.

April 27, 2007 at 4:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In full disclosure, I think Aristotle got many things right, esp. his ethics. Between his time and ours we've experience a "wisdom" and "prudence" deficit. Ecce homo!

N.B. Teleology, the purpose of a final end, is great psychology, just misappropriated to all natural things. Aristotle is not the first to commit the anthromophoric fallacy. But his disciples continue to foster the Naturalistic Fallacy. I'll take De Anima over all "cultists of the mind," with rational psychology smarter than anything depth psychology, just not as profitable. An Austrian economist should indulge those profits. Now it's the Law of Attraction psycho-babble, yesterday Freud's, tomorrow . . .

April 27, 2007 at 6:16 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

Random guy: yes.

Gay species: I can't quite tell what you're trying to say. But perhaps it's just because I'm not smart enough. Please stick around, you seem to have a useful perspective...

April 27, 2007 at 8:09 PM  
Anonymous Daniel said...

If you believe in God, obviously you have to believe in religion.

Do you? Since when? It is quite possible to believe in a deity and yet reject religion as a man-made construct that furthers not an understanding of God, but an establishment of a prelacy that exists to serve itself.

Further, forcing a belief in religion as to a generality is a bit of a non sequitur. We may or may not believe in a particular religion, but would feel compelled to acknowledge at least that religion exists, whether or not we find it relevant.

Found this via Sullivan. Nice site.

April 28, 2007 at 7:21 AM  
Blogger Menlo Bob said...

As Dawkins indicates, religion is a delusion. How else to explain why individuals would be more generous with money, time and compassion than the non-religious. What other group of likeminded individuals is responsible for undoing slavery and founding our greatest universities? It's delusional.

April 28, 2007 at 9:24 AM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

menlo bob,

Somehow I suspect you've been saving that one up...

April 28, 2007 at 9:57 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

People seem to be ignoring the most interesting question raised in the original post, which as I understand it is essentially, "Why do we create a separate category religion for one species of delusion?"

I would say that this is because religions are typically learned, as I think Dennett has pointed-out, by ordinary, ordinarily-rational people, when they are children, and learn this sort of "knowledge" about the world at the same time they learn that fire is dangerous and jam tastes good on bread.

This is different from someone whose fillings have started to tell them that The Wrong Ethnic Group is in control of Major League Baseball, and so it is his duty to rebroadcast games.... To extend the pathogen/niche line of discussion, one is a widespread illness found among otherwise-healthy members of a populace (think of goiters in the old Alps), the other is an idiosyncratic ailment that might or might not be catching.

The former is safer because it can't be that dangerous if it's so prevalent, but more dangerous because a lot of people will share the same groundless beliefs. The latter might be deadly, but for the moment its prevalence is for the moment limited. Sorry to skirt the Godwin Radius, but the disaster wrought by the combination of Hitler's monomaniacal nativism and nationalism combined with the German populace's high-but-not-insane levels of the same comes to mind.

April 28, 2007 at 5:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mr Aames makes a good Straussian argument for religion, but I'd take issue with his claim that atheism is boring. Religion can be interesting as folklore or as a formal system (the Talmud and Responsa can be boring and fascinating at the same time, and its Islamic equivalent reads much the same).

Atheism doesn't close us off to the appreciation of religion on those terms, but rather only removes the requirement that we believe them to enjoy them. This in turn allows us to continue seeming-endless numbers of conversations beyond where they'd stop if the answer could be a simple "God did it," which really seems like a way of avoiding saying, "I don't know,"---the three little words at the start of as many adventures as "I love you."

(Some will say, "You can't appreciate or understand these syustems in the same way if you don't believe they're the absolute truth---a good point: nothing convinces you of the importance of gravity thatn the prospect of falling a long distance. But, on the other hand, if you've got a parachute you might be in better shape to appreciate the fall---and your experience in free-fall might help you understand that gravity doesn't exist except as a poor choice of co-ordinate systems....

April 28, 2007 at 5:56 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...


If you are going to leave two excellent comments in a row, I wish you'd pick a handle!

It is true that traditional paranormalist religions can be installed at a very early age, and that such installations are very hard to defeat. As the Jesuits used to say, "Give me the child when he is six..."

But surely there is no exclusive quality of paranormalism that differentiates it from other kernels (see the followup) in this regard.

Anyone who's my age, for instance, may remember Lady Bird Johnson's anti-litterbug campaign. How I wanted, when I was four, not to be a litterbug! And, of course, these days kindergarten is not too soon for our children to start learning about the importance of diversity and the environment.

As for the Straussian argument, which is really what most of your educated conservative thought about religion boils down to these days, there is certainly much to be said for it. And against it. I'm afraid the comments section is not the place to do justice to this point.

April 29, 2007 at 11:32 AM  
Blogger Kate said...

Sure, why not make a comparison between Marxism, Nazism, and Religion?
I'm actually a Marxist. Every day I get up and sit on my bed with my copy of the Communist Manifesto and read one of my favorite passages, say how, "The bourgeoisie has torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and has reduced the family relation into a mere money relation." Say I read that this morning, and decided to spend my day considering how this passage applies to my life. I decide not to ask my mother for lunch money, so I don't eat lunch.

Okay, so I'm kidding. But take that statement and play fill in the blank, changing Marxist to Christian, Communist Manifesto to Bible, etc. Do Marxists actually get up in the morning and think this way? No. Do those of religious faith? Yes.

While I'm sympathetic with your concern for the negative impacts religious extremism (I'm including "Christian Fundamentalists" in this category) has on people's lives, I wonder where your thinking places personal religious faith, the kind where you don't force everyone around you to live with your beliefs.

April 29, 2007 at 7:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

(Sorry not to pick a handle, but I range widely and dislike having my information in so many machines I can't admin or hack. Thanks for the compliment.)

(Warning: long. I'll try not to post again to this thread, as there only so many electrons and iron atoms.)

>But surely there is no exclusive
>quality of paranormalism that
>differentiates it from other
>kernels (see the followup) in this

This is exactly my (stolen, to a Galambosian) point: most of what's taught children is not explicitly paranormal, and ends up being obviously useful and benign. Religion may in fact be used to encode some of this good things, like in-group morality, hygiene, and general advice for living that's useful*. So the child learns how to walk, and that's worth it, since there are so many things out of reach that might be edible. The child learns not to annoy people stronger than she---sure, she might learn this when her father beats her, but a stranger might _kill_ her. The child learns at the same time that the Big-Endians must be slain.

This is what makes religion a different kind of delusion from an idiosyncratic one: it enjoys the status of consensus reality, and was set in motion in a child-rational brain along with a bunch of stuff of which even crusty atheists would approve.

As for Communism, Nazism, and religion, I'd say there's a great deal of similarity, but with differences. Religion does not _necessarily_ seek physical power; that they tend to is probably an evolutionary effect---Jews, Jains, and Zoroastrians no longer seek converts, and all are small and relatively endangered---give it another of couple of thousand years and who knows? Both Communism and Nazism seek have material power, but Communism has other ostensible goals---Nazism and its slow brother Fascism are ideologies _of_ power. (Communism sought "all power to the proletariat", but believed that there very soon would be almost nothing _but_; America proved resistant both due to false consciousness [the belief that you were a rich man in waiting] and a very real moderate distribution of property---note how since Communism has ceased to be a threat, that defensive measure has been cut back.)

It's indecent to the victims of Communism-as-she-was-spoke to say that its apparent good intentions excuse its adherents' crimes; it does however point to the real distinction between it and Nazism: it could fall of its own contradictions---the phrases "Worker's Paradise" or "Socialism building Communism" could no longer be said with a straight face by anyone less humour-challenged than Bob Avakian. Nazism could only be defeated on its own terms: a religion of martial victory has to be defeated in war.

Which brings us back to religion. It's a tough nut to crack, since all success is proof of God's favour and so should be strong in our faith, and all defeat is proof that we struggle against Powers and Principalities and _must_ remain strong in our faith. (I'm writing about the very expansionist and Infernocentric religions, Christianity and Islam.)

The only weapons that work in the long run seem to be material prosperity and secular education. This is daunting, but also cool: in an era of "cheap" W.M.D.s, the only way we'll make it is to make everyone else as rich and smart as possible....

*"Three men die in such a way as to be considered suicides: a man who rises too quickly after blood-letting, a man who lies with another man's wife, and a man who eats peeled garlic left out overnight," as best as I can remember it---note I don't know Aramaic, so this would be a translation at best anyway.

May 2, 2007 at 6:04 AM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...


There have been moderate and fanatical Nazis, Marxists, and Christians. Some Nazis no doubt tried to refresh their faith with "Mein Kampf" every day. Most were a little more human. I think the same applies to Christians.

My concern is with others' actions as they may affect me. Personal faith is clearly very beneficial to many people - I have no problem at all with AA's definition of it, for example. It is organized beliefs in a political context that concern me, as I think they concern you.

May 2, 2007 at 2:03 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...


I like the bit about the garlic.

Unfortunately, prosperity and education often seem to make it more, not less, possible for very strange ideas about the world to flourish.

If there was one idea in National Socialism, it was that the state should serve the interests of the German people. Obviously, the Third Reich wound up contradicting that principle in a rather spectacular way. But that's not to say it couldn't have happened in other ways. I suspect Nazism, too, would have ended up in a more or less Brezhnevite condition in which the relationship between official ideology and generalized sclerosis became obvious.

(Obviously there is no sign of anything like this happening in the free democratic world.)

Thanks again for your comments! Come back any time, anonymous or not...

May 2, 2007 at 2:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

> Why should we establish a special category for delusions that are motivated by anthropomorphic paranormal forces?

One good Answer to this question is: Because religious imagery seems to be an especially easy and effective way to manipulate people. If you look at religion as a technology for manipulation then it is just a specific set of behavioral software to alter the actions of the masses. As such, belief in the idea of religion by an atheist may be necessary to design a counter technology.


May 7, 2007 at 10:44 AM  
Blogger Faré said...

In Teach Your Kids Mental Hygiene!, a blog post that is partly a reply to this one (and other MM productions), I give this explanation to the phenomenon described by MM:
People who believe that the word god is special will be relaxing their mental hygiene against religions that respectively do or don't use that word, depending on these people themselves respectively believing in god or not -- this is the reason why all religions, whether theistic, atheistic or neutral on this topic, tend to collaborate in spreading this superstition.

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