bookmark_borderTaking advantage of religion

Many (most?) nonbelievers are convinced that supernatural believers would be better off without their religion.

That’s hard to evaluate, particularly since important beliefs such as religious convictions are not merely instrumental in letting us achieve our purposes. Instead, they strongly shape what our deepest interests are. Unless we have a way of figuring out who is “better off” independently of our particular interests, it is hard to see how we can say that the religious would invariably better off without belief. I don’t think this is doable. Sometimes we just care about different things, and that is that. If, for example, we were to find out that secular people enjoy some advantage in worldly achievements, well, the religious can rightly say they care about spiritual attainments. If, as at least some social science suggests, believers are happier, secular people could turn their nose up at what they see as cheap therapy.

But there might be some way of making headway by a more limited, more relative comparison. After all, we think of false belief as a handicap. A cognitive mistake should have pragmatic consequences. If we find a group of believers in competition with nonbelievers, trying to achieve outcomes they both care about, we might be able to find out who enjoys an advantage and who suffers from a handicap. In fact, we might be able to do even better. If we were to run into situations where nonbelievers were able to exploit the cognitive handicap of supernatural conviction and directly take advantage of believers, that would be pretty significant.

I don’t, however, see any of this happening. Religion can leave believers vulnerable to exploitation. Where Turkish Muslims are concerned, for example, it’s very common to run into financial scandals. A bunch of people present themselves as good Muslims of impeccable character, and gain the trust and the savings of devout believers, for some investment or charitable activity. They then abscond with the money. And there is the depressingly common phenomenon of sect leaders living in luxury, partly by giving the economic activity of their followers coherence, but also partly by outright exploitation.

So religious belief making groups of believers vulnerable to exploitation is not uncommon. But it’s not clear to me that this isn’t just an occasional price to pay for the social cohesion religion seems to offer so often. Overall, the benefits of belief for establishing trust may be worth the occasional incident of misplaced trust. We have an arms race between social predators and prey; neither can be said to be better off.

More important, the more blatant examples of religious communities being subjected to exploitation do not involve nonbelievers taking advantage of religion. Religion is typically a hard to fake signal of commitment. It is probably easier to exploit a community if you genuinely share its supernatural beliefs in most respects. Why pay the extra cost of concealing nonbelief, if you can exploit the community and (mostly) believe at the same time? So these are not, I think, examples that can reveal any genuine competitive advantage for nonbelief.

By and large, I’m not convinced nonbelief offers any unambiguous advantage. If it were, I would expect more cases where nonbelievers successfully take advantage of religion.

bookmark_borderZero probabilities

There is a subset of the supernatural being fan club whose members are enamored of improbability arguments. That is, they will calculate the probability of some feature of the universe, get a very small number, and declare that since the probability is so low under a naturalistic scenario, supernatural intervention is required.

Usually there are some blatant surface errors in such a calculation, such as assumptions no one is entitled to, or an artificially narrow set of naturalistic scenarios. But there are also deeper concerns. “Inverse problems” are notoriously nasty, and inferences to supernatural causes based on alleged improbabilities is a particularly good place to find pathologies.

Try these examples out for size:

1 (Strong version): The probability of the universe is exactly zero. If lower probabilities mean increased credibilty for a supernatural explanation, then we can conclude with certainty that God created the universe.

As a matter of fact, the probability of the exact state of our universe is (probably) zero. That is, it seems reasonable to say that there are an uncountable infinity of possible states of the universe. In that case, whatever state we occupy is trivially a zero measure set. Its probability is exactly (not approximately) equal to zero. Short of logical impossibilities, it’s hard to find a better candidate for divine causation on account of improbability.

2 (Weak version): As we increase our knowledge about the universe, we automatically decrease the probability of the universe. Therefore, as science advances, the likelihood that there is a God inevitably increases.

Our universe is constrained by the (finite) information we have about it. As we increase our information, we eliminate possible universes that do not conform to the new information from the set of possibilities. Therefore the probability of the information we have decreases as the amount of information increases.

I hope the bullshit nature of these arguments is obvious. Many supernaturalists think they can infer a supernatural cause based only on improbability of a data set, without specifying any new pattern in the data that is explained by a supernatural agent. You simply can’t do that—it’s merely a failure to recognize randomness. The pathology here is not merely in using inappropriate statistical models and so forth, though often these show up as devices to inflate alleged improbabilities. (The above arguments are independent of such concerns.) Even if you get the probabilities right, you are not entitled to infer supernatural agency. Improbability is not a excuse to get out of doing real, novel explanatory work.

But then again, I do think that a major thread through almost all intellectualized supernatural belief is a failure to appreciate randomness.