Friday, April 29, 2011

Why We Believe: Part 2 (Pragmatism)

In Part 1 of "Why We Believe" I talked about the role that socialization plays in the formation of our religious beliefs. Here in Part 2, I will discuss how religion provides many useful benefits for the believer, and how this is a powerful motivation to believe and evangelize. Solomon Schimmel, whose book I mentioned in Part 1, sums up the benefits of religious belief here:

“Religion satisfies many human needs: social, emotional, psychological, and intellectual. This reinforces its hold on someone socialized from birth into it and attracts new converts to it. It can provide, for many people, meaning and purpose to life, hope and support in the face of adversity, transcendence of the finality of death, occasions for joy and festivity, alleviation of existential uncertainty and anxiety, a moral code, a strong sense of individual identity meshed with group identity and cohesion, and, particularly in scientifically ignorant societies, explanations of the mysteries of the universe and of life on earth.”

Religion is useful because it serves these basic human needs. The believer has a need to find meaning and purpose in life; religion teaches that our lives have meaning and purpose. The believer has a need to deal with the fear of death; religion denies death's existence. The believer has a need for social community; religion provides churches and close-knit congregations who share common beliefs. The believer wants answers to the mysteries of life; religion provides the answers (albeit not very accurately) about where we came from, why we are here, and where we are going.

If religion wasn't viewed as useful to the believer, then it wouldn't be around for very long.  The laws that govern the evolution of the living organisms (replication, mutation, and natural selection) also apply to self-replicating ideas. A self-replicating idea is called a "meme" because it operates much like a gene (they rhyme on purpose) in that a meme contains information as well as a motivation for people to spread it. The theory of self-replicating ideas, called memetic theory, and was first posited by Richard Dawkins in his famous book The Selfish Gene. Meme theory has advanced since then, and is now applied to many self-replicating ideas including democracy, capitalism, viral YouTube videos, viral marketing ads, or those silly playground jokes that never go away.

Religious ideas, or memes, have been one of the most successful memes in history, to the point that they are nearly universal.  Memes that are good at replicating become more prevalent in the population, while memes that are not good at replicating eventually die out. An idea that is useful provides a very good motivation to propagate itself.  If an idea becomes outdated and useless, then it usually dies out because it serves no purpose and people will not spread it. "Survival of the fittest" applies to ideas just as it applies to species. The idea that religion is a meme (or a related group of memes called a memeplex) that spreads because it's good at survival, relates to the socialization argument for religion's ubiquity that I discussed previously. Our parents (and their parents before them, etc) had practical reasons to share the religious meme with us. People today have good reasons to share the religion memeplex with their children and neighbors. This is how religion spreads horizontally through societies (by missionary work) and how it spreads vertically through families (by indoctrination of offpspring). There are many reasons why religion spreads, but the utility of the religious meme is one of the best reasons.

However, many pragmatist philosophers, such as the great William James, take the usefulness of religion one step further, and claim that the usefulness of a religious belief is evidence of its truthfulness.  This is the point made in Alma chapter 32 where faith is compared to a seed; if the seed grows and is useful, then it's a sign that the seed is good, or that the belief is true. We are told in Alma 32 that "your knowledge is perfect" and your "faith is dormant" of this thing.  I see this argument pop up a lot in the online LDS community. In fact, just the other day, a very intelligent friend on a Mormon facebook community that I'm a member of, compared religion to a car or a fridge (functional items we use a lot): if the car or fridge works for you, then it's evidence that it's true for you. This is simply a variation of the "faith as a seed" argument used in Alma 32.

But . . . the skeptic would argue that the fact that something is useful only means that it’s useful - not that it’s valid or true.  I have no problem with admitting that religion is useful to people. If it works for you, then by all means, use it, as long as it doesn't hurt somebody else. But saying something is true because "it works for me" is a non sequitur (does not follow) and an example of the pragmatic fallacy. To bastardize a quote by Elder Packer: “Many things that are (useful) are not very (true).”

If religion is true simply because it's practical, then we would have to accept a number of other bogus ideas as true simply because they are also practical, including: homeopathy, numerology, astrology, psychic readings, and a host of other pseudoscientific practices.  Homeopathy treatments - just to take one of these examples - work for the simple reason that they rely on anecdote and the placebo effect, not because there is any effective medicine in the diluted "water memory" cures practitioners sell to their patients. Homeopathic cures have not been shown by objective, peer-reviewed, randomized controlled trials to be effective treatments for any illness.  And yet, despite the complete lack of any scientific evidence, millions of people spend billions of dollars every year on homeopathy treatments because they believe it works.

Religion may rely on a similar placebo-effect for its usefulness; it works because people believe it's supposed to work. However, if we lose faith in religion, then it usually stops "working" for us as well.  A similar phenomenon occurs with medicinal placebos: realize it's a placebo, and it stops working for you. Placebos can be useful, and their effects can be real (a fact that every scientist knows and has to take account for in their randomized controlled study designs in which they compare a placebo to the real treatment under study).

But does the fact that placebos have real effects mean that they are valid medical treatment?  No. Similarly, just because religion can be useful, does not mean that it is valid or true. Making that claim is overstating the argument of usefulness. Also, what is useful to somebody may not be useful to someone else. Religion may be very useful because it provides meaning, purpose, values, social community, and answers to life's challenges for many people. This is one of the major reasons why the religon meme spreads so well both horizontally in society and vertically in families. However, usefulness is not the same thing as truthfulness. Claiming that because religion is useful, that that somehow makes it truthful as well, simply does not follow, and is an example of the pragmatic fallacy.


  1. ((Josh, I’ll try and post what I wanted to on this entry. I am having enormous technical difficulty posting comments on Part One. ))

    Very sensible rebuttals and comments regarding mine, Josh, and I thank you for the time and effort to respond.

    There are still more things that I could say in response to what you have written, but then you’d send the ball back into my court again, and on and on the game would continue until we were both tired of playing. So I won’t send the ball back and let you get on with writing (and responding) to your next blog entry and doing other things in life. In summation: I hear you, you have good points, yet I think I still have further valid points and clarifications to make as well.

    The only comment I will make, though, (I’m putting the racket down and just lobbing the ball over the net) and we can let it go at that is when you said:

    “There is no evidence to support the association between religious belief and morality, and there are plenty of reasons to doubt it.”

    Well, I am one example of living evidence and all of my kids are as well. What I mean to say is that my religious beliefs, one of which being it was incumbent upon me to be an example and influence for good, i.e, *ambassador* of the Lord’s ‘one, true church’, which kept me on the straight and narrow *morally* and for which I am grateful. I am not saying that all kids need religious beliefs, or exclusively Mormon ones in order to be moral, I am saying that I am evidence that my religious beliefs (that just so happened to have been related to Mormonism) played a major role *for me*. And I will add that among my own children who conducted their lives and felt the same way I did about my religious beliefs when growing up fared better in a lot ways at the time than those who unfortunately went more the ‘way of the world’ (but I don’t want to say or elaborate any more about that). In essence, religion is good and I think there are plenty of examples of that, notwithstanding religion can be and is, in a lot of cases, bad as well. It’s easy to just say, “There is no evidence...” and “...there are plenty of reasons to doubt it.” but show me the data, who compiled it, what was the sample group(s), and how it was determined to be significant in conclusion. But even if there is or isn’t such definitive data, still, *I am* living evidence as it pertains *to me*. In other words, I am my own case study.

    Con’t 1

  2. ((Things are working again! I reset Safari))

    I might add that my three uncles and one aunt, all Roman Catholics, would have lived a lot longer instead of dying of lung cancer related to tobacco had they been ‘under commandment’ or ‘constrained’ to live the Mormon Word of Wisdom. By comparison, my ‘Mormonism’ has benefitted *me* (again, I can only reference *me*) in a lot of positive ways. To be sure, anyone can say, “Yeah, but whose to say that you wouldn’t have benefited, and perhaps even more so from having been raised a Buddhist, or Seventh Day Adventist, or secular humanist, etc, etc.” But that’s moot, and you and I know that. We will never know that explicitly, but implicitly perhaps we can arrive as some supposed, reasonable conjectures.

    Hence, is the Mormon church the BEST place to be raised in? I think is can be a VERY GOOD place if done prudently and within the province of reasonableness. And the esoteric stuff (gold plates, angels, ect) may be just the props on the stage in order to crystallize the story in the actors’ minds, hearts and *moral* consciences. Some take seriously their parts, some don’t; some get carried away and take their roles to extremes, others not so much, or not at all; and some ( or ‘a lot’, so it would seem LOL!) get tired of the play, or don’t like the way in which their particular roles are working out, or don’t believe in the script anymore, which they had thought at one time was based upon a ‘true story’, and so they quit the theater company for something else. Just as my wife and I have done. But the total breadth and depth of the LDS church and the dynamics that drive it need not be considered undesirable, just certain parts of it are. I think the trick is to learn how recognize and discard the dross and use the church for its tenable golden values just as the church uses you for yours. And when you don’t think there is any more *use value* to be given or received, then let it go and move on. Just as we have done. It’s still sad that it has to come to that, but sometimes you have to walk off the stage and leave the company when you are booed not by the audience, but by a lot of the other actors, as well as the directors, and producers.

    Anyway, enough said.

  3. Pauli, I'm having trouble understanding why you think LDS beliefs are moral. I know the LDS church believes they practice life in a moral way, and teaches that they are morally superior to many in the world, however I have not found their reasoning for stating so to be other than "I have a book(s) that says so" (which they then rationalize away from when demonstrating obvious immoral actions and ideas) or "My ecclesiastical authority says so" which is just a tautology for the previous statement. Your example of smoking can be replaced with overeating, or driving a car for that matter, and would be equally as insufficient in grounding your argument for your basis in morality. I like your suggestion of discarding the dross, but what tools do you use to base that decision on?

  4. Josh,
    Have any creative religious analogies to the nocebo effect??

    I enjoy Ben Goldacre's presentation on it

    Amen again on your brilliant presentation of our natural world.

  5. @ Tyson:

    “Your example of smoking can be replaced with overeating, or driving a car for that matter”

    I don’t quite understand the connection with overeating and driving a car. Overeating I can understand, but driving a car??

    But anyway, *morality* is a moving target, even for some ardent members of the LDS church let alone all of the various cultures that have been stitched into the fabric of, for example, just our Western society as a whole. I couldn’t even begin to categorize, quantify and qualify what’s moral and what isn’t for all of these eclectic entities. I’m just not that smart, and in fact even epistemologically that might even be a tall order for God (unless He’s figured out exactly how many angels there really are or can dance/stand on the head of a pin!). My point was in reference to *my* recognition and acceptance of what *I believe* to be moral in the LDS church, which I found to be of benefit while growing up in said church. Please re-read my comment again. I thought I made it clear when i stated, “I am not saying that all kids need religious beliefs, or exclusively Mormon ones in order to be moral,” Again, the ‘proof is in the pudding,’ i.e., the general sense of Mormon moral pudding (or I should say “green Jello”!) that I was exposed to and espoused was a good thing for *me*.

  6. Perhaps expressing the ‘sense’ of what I am saying in a poetic way is germane (more than a logical, academic way). The LDS church at the time I was growing up was a good place, a (or ‘the’) right place, even a comfortable place to be *for me*, and perhaps just as subjective a place morally as any place can be for love.

    Clay County
    by John Hodgen

    Just past Kellie Mae's Klip 'n' Dip Beauty Salon
and the cement slab, cinder blocks, and rusty tin roof
of the Lawtey Grace Community Evangelical Church,
and behind the saw grass and scrub brush along Pitchkettle Road,
a young black girl stands dawdling with one foot behind the other,
her toe digging rhythmically into the red clay of her driveway,
her heel wagging cozily like a cat's tail, a metronome,
as she talks to a young man on a motorcycle,
his red helmet still on, true biker of love.

And just before the buckwheat field that opens lonely as grace,
the field with the massive trees in the middle, shattered by
a slender roan horse feeds under its basilica of broken branches,
because he knows that is the place
where the soft tufts of grass
taste the sweetest.

  7. Tyson: great video about the placebo and nocebo effect. To answer your question about what are some examples of the nocebo effect in religion - I'd say that religion, at it's core, is an example of a nocebo.

    Let me first reiterate that there are plenty of beneficial effects of religion. There are lots of placebos. But at religions very foundation, we are taught that human nature is evil, that we are fallen, that our normal human drives are manifestations of evil within us - or examples of the devil tempting us. We are taught that we should feel guilty for doing anything that feels good. We are taught that the only way to be whole and complete and free of guilt is to have faith in Jesus and worship God. If we doubt this, we are taught that we should feel guilty.

    So - at it's core - religion tells us that humans are naturally evil, that normal human drives (sexuality, for example) are evil, and religion uses guilt to manipulate the religious adherent. That terrible prognosis of human nature is extremely damaging - and would qualify as a nocebo. Knowing a little bit about your family Tyson, I can't help but think of how much damage religious views about homosexuality can have on people.

  8. Pauli, I think we are of one mind on many areas, but just a few comments for your consideration.

    Smoking related illness kill lots of people each year, automobile accidents nearly as many. The Amish I knew smoke and didn't drive, and have the same anecdotal correlation between their belief and pragmatic lifestyle.

    I agree with you that morality is a moving target. I like Sam Harris' analogy to physical health, both are frayed at the edges of definition, and what we view as moral/healthy will undoubtedly change for the better as we learn more. I would argue that religion is resistant, and obstinately so, to this approach, and to our detriment. I can understand how you feel that an LDS environment was appropriate for you, as it was for me, during my development, but that, in the long run, (for me) was shortsighted and quite painful. I don't know what the opportunity cost of my reliance upon a pious lie was, I very well may have been in the grave by now. But by analogy, if I had just graduation from university with a degree in physics, and still viewed the world through the lens of Newtonian laws, I would be at a disadvantage in the progressive work place. Even though I could find work as an engineer somewhere, it won't be at the LHC.