Politic religion (crosspost)

[I posted this at Crooked Timber a day or two ago and got quite a lively response].

While the aesthetic defence of religion offered by Terry Eagleton might appeal to a small fraction of the intelligentsia, a far more common belief is that, regardless of truth value, religious belief makes people better citizens, and should therefore be encouraged.

Although this claim has various components, the most obvious social benefits of religious belief, and the biggest source of concern about the adverse consequences of unbelief, is the doctrine of an afterlife in which good actions will be rewarded and bad ones punished. Back in the 19th century, lots of people were really worried about this and, even in the 21st it’s a common theme in US discussions of religion.

But do we really need religion for this?

It seems to me that, if I were a social planner designing a religion for a modern capitalist society (any variant), I’d go for a vague belief in karma, embodied in a semi-comprehensible slogan like “what goes around, comes around”. The general idea is that, if you behave in ways that are bad, bad things will happen to you (note the air of paradox in the title of the bestseller “When Bad Things happen to Good People).

Compared to a full-scale religion, there are a bunch of benefits. First, there’s no need for a costly set of professionals to elaborate and expound the idea. Relatedly, there’s little or no room for theological disputes that can turn into social divisions.

Third, although it might seem problematic that there is no definition of “bad” here, that’s actually an asset. Full-scale religions tend to prohibit things like usury, or being gay or working on the Sabbath, and it often turns out that these prohibitions become obsolete or maybe were never useful in the first place, and that new lists of good and bad behavior are needed.

Finally, there’s a big gain in plausibility. Admittedly, some people appear to behave badly and live well, but it’s easy enough to believe that they are deeply deprived in some unobservable way, or that they would have lived even better if they had done better. At any rate, this seems more plausible than an elaborate afterlife with a gradation of eternal punishments and rewards

Of course, there’s an obvious problem with bias here. I’m an agnostic with a vague belief in karma, so it’s maybe not surprising that I would conclude that my beliefs are socially optimal. Ekelund, Hebert and Tollison, economists who appear to be mainline Protestants, have a whole book showing how mainline Protestantism is more economically efficient than Catholicism or (IIRC) fundamentalism.


47 thoughts on “Politic religion (crosspost)

  1. John, I am a firm believer in having a “Church Tax” placed upon all those good citizens instead of taxpayers footing their bill?

  2. I gave the theocrats a serve. I also ought to give fundamentalist atheists a serve too. Some of them are indeed fanatics as post 25 points out.

    Anyone who claims to know what the meaning of life, the universe and everything IS or who claims to know what it IS NOT, is a charlatan. No human can know those things.

  3. the distinction between atheism and agnosticism is far too ambiguous to make a fuss about

    i dont agree,

    it is fundamentally different to state that there is no god, than to say i dont think there is sufficient evidence to make up ones mind either way

  4. I can’t see how it is such a big claim to claim there is no god. I distinguish between “GOD” and super duper sci fi alien being – the existence of which one can’t discount. But to claim there is no supernatural Creator seems pretty straightforward.
    re religion – it is neither necessary nor sufficient for making a person ‘good’. Does religion add to ‘goodness’ – sometimes yes sometimes no.

  5. Smiths: the trouble is, it’s rarely that clear cut. The ambiguity arises from what sort of ‘god’ it is that a person’s says doesn’t exist, or that they’re not sure about.

    In my experience (and no doubt there are contrary examples) most people who identify as ‘agnostics’ do not, in practice, behave as if they think a god, in the traditional theistic sense, might exist – they behave as if that sort of god doesn’t exist. Their agnosticism appears directed more towards vaguer notions of spirituality or more abstract, non-personal concepts of diety than towards the traditional diety (by which I mean the one with a personality, who takes a direct interest in each individual, and whom the philosphers of religion like to call the “theistic god”).
    So if one takes ‘god’ to refer to the sort I just described, that kind of agnosticism is more or less a type of soft-edged atheism. Similarly, many non-dogmatic atheists are not militantly against the possibility of some as yet unidentified ordering principle or principles in the universe. Not every atheist takes the Dawkin’s approach of “it’s the laws of physics and nothing else”. In my opinion, an atheist of this kind is not so far away from the sort of agnostic I described earlier.

    Of course, I suppose one might say that a ‘real’ agnostic is someone who is consciously sitting on the fence vis a vis Pascal’s wager – they’re fifty-fifty on whether the Triune God of Catholic scripture and tradition is up there or not. The thing is, no-one I’ve ever met who claims to be agnostic actually thinks like that.

    The other problem is that, if you take a different meaning for ‘god’ than the one I used above, there arises the need to determine which sort (or sorts) of god a particular person is professing to be agnostic or atheistic about. People may be agnostic about one sort of ‘god’ (the pantheistic god of Spinoza, for example) while disbelieving in another sort of god (say, the Judaeo-Christo-Islamic one).

    So as far as I’m concerned, it’s perfectly possible to be both an atheist and an agnostic at the same time. 😉

  6. well tim,

    my agnosticism was a logical consequence of my youthfull atheism,
    i realised sometime ago that i could not categorically disprove the existence of god,
    some would say that you dont need to, its up to the believers to make a compelling case,
    but i dont see it like that,

    its linked to scientific holes as well,
    i dont believe in the concept of the the big bang,
    in fact i think its farcical,
    so i came to believe in an infinite universe,
    spatially extended waves in space,
    time is an effect of space, not athing by itself,

    but then you think to yourself, well i have just left a whopping great mystery by accepting an infinite space that i cannot truly understand,

    and there is a lot of space for some force i cannot comprehend in all of that,

    but i return always to my fundamental sense that there is no god in a religious sense,

    i simply dont and cant know enough to make an informed decision,

    thats what i call agnosticism

  7. Crispin #
    There are so many sayings in so many different religions that have similarities to the idea of Karma. Its quite amazing:

    Bahai “Ascribe not to any soul that which thou wouldst not have ascribed to thee, and say not that which thou doest not.”

    Conficianism “Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself.”

    Islam “Hurt no one so that no one may hurt you.”

    Christianity “Do unto others etc (I assume most know this one)”

    Jainism “Nothing which breathes, which exists, which lives, or which has essence or potential of life, should be destroyed or ruled over, or subjugated, or harmed, or denied of its essence or potential.”

    Judaism “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.”

    Sikhism “Whom should I despise, since the one Lord made us all.”

    Taoism “Regard your neighbor’s gain as your own gain, and your neighbor’s loss as your own loss.”

    There must be something in the idea. Its pretty wiidespread and not unique to any religion except perhaps according to…….

    George Bernard Shaw “Do not do unto others as you would expect they should do unto you. Their tastes may not be the same.”

  8. I’m okay with having a vague karma type religion with no central authority. For the sake of a better society I’m prepared to believe that socialists and tax officials are more likely to get struck by lightening or run over by buses. Although it does seem empiracly clearly that their elevated risk of bad stuff happening is not sufficently high to usher in a utopian society any time soon.

  9. Old bumper sticker:
    “Sorry, but my Karma just ran over your Dogma.”

    I have a book with a picture of a unicorn in it. Not many people believe in unicorns and yet it is defined in the dictionary. It ‘exists’ and is ‘real’ in some sense and yet I can’t believe that there ever existed a real unicorn.

    Same diff (in my humble opinion). But I’m certainly not going to kill anyone, go to war, get in a fight or take someone’s land over the issue. Now on the other hand, if the Church of The Unicorn starts telling me what I can and can’t do…

  10. Well, over much time, I’ve had cause to thank God for Fish and Eagleton (no pun intended).
    Eaglerton, in particular button-holed post modern negativist yuppie neo liberalism beautifully, in the coining of the term, “selfish individualism”.
    Hugh Mackay is known of course for the kindred term, “Victimhood/ Entitlement” currently manifested (ubiquitously) in the whingings of Capalingua, et al, over the putative removal of the upper mortgage belt’s health care privileges and middle-class welfare, but I reckon Fish and Eagleton are spot on in trying to get people to get beyond or “off”, self absorption and above narcissism in suggesting, using metaphysics-based terminology or other wise.
    A second’s thought and some may find that, indeed, there may be more something more important than American rightist libertarianism; than the selfish greed of yuppies and to look out side themselves in search of something “bigger” or greater, than bloody minded, mean spirited, Dickensian “self”, exclusively.
    Eg, relating to, if not actually altruism, than at least healthy, balanced and nuanced rather than neurotic and self- obsessed strains of self preservation and (then consequently earned rather than demanded , self-regard.
    Then maybe, we could get back to solving ecological and global social problems involving incredible suffering for those we’ve “othered”, rather than just sitting back foot-stamping that the world adjust to us, regardless of actual accountability, or just expecting mac mansions and million$ just to fall into our spoilt laps solely because we think are white, middle-class little tin gods ourselves.

  11. Paul Walter comments
    “A second’s thought and some may find that, indeed, there may be more something more important than American rightist libertarianism; than the selfish greed of yuppies and to look out side themselves in search of something “bigger” or greater, than bloody minded, mean spirited, Dickensian “self”, exclusively.”

    Well on my sons paper run this morning (which he has been doing since he was 12 – he pointed out a sign on a residents letter box saying “mum dont you think this is rude?”

    the sign said “No Manly Daily, Not now, Not ever”

    I did think it was rude, so I got out my trusty whiteboard marker and wrote over the top of the “not now, not ever”…the word “please.”

    Was that an uncharitable act? My son is only a kid who delivers the papers and gets paid a very low rate for doing it, rain, hail, freezing cold, winter and summer for 5 years now. The complaints have outweighed the compliments over that period (papers too late, too early, wanted personally delivered to each unit in a block etc, missing papers outside paper boys control).

    A few niceties dont go astray in the selfish world we live in. If thats Karma – then Ill wear any graffiti on my letter box.

  12. I think people in general have a desire to have some control or knowing over their future and passing. It makes them feel safe and worthwhile. Thus we have had the natural evolution of relgious doctrines that promise us “heaven” after passing.

    Of couse its not just death we are pre-occupied with but, what our future life holds for us. Thus we have tarot card readers, star signs experts, numerology, even doctors and probably many other life practitioners to predict our future and guide us to our destiny.

    The word “destiny” in itself implies that despite all the control we seek to have over our future, our destiny is the overiding factor in our life. Some prefer to be in the hands of destiny.

    It seems to me that humans in general seek to have as much control over the future of their lives as possible, thus we have established the sciences that provide us with prediction of possible futures amd philosophies of original thoughts that try to make more of our live than the passing dreams they are.

    I see a the religious doctrines akin to political doctrines in how people act collectively. Despite their social and economic benefits they will always be open to manipulation by those in power who understand (and pander to) the driving principles behind those doctrines. This is obvious the world round. Many political parties depend on the religious vote and this applies in in reverse as well.

    I think the concept of Karma is attractive. It is quiet logical and intutive to expect that for every impression you make on the world it will in some way have a consequence that affects you physically or metaphysically , directly or indirectly.

    My metaphysical world hinges on two points. I see my metaphysical life as an ON/ OFF swith. The dream will stop some day. But in return for my reality I plan to leave my legacy for those I care for.

    My physical life is much like a reusable eggtimer. The organic matter I am made of will simply rearrange itself some day into some other living organic functional medium.

  13. Ubiquity, religion is an extension of the survival instinct, which refuses to accept that there is an end.

  14. BilB and Ubiquity: I’m not so sure that immortality of the self is really the strongest motivator here. I don’t think people in general have that strong a sense of mortality. If they did, they might drive better (and I don’t only mean teenagers here).

    It’s the loss of close others that really does it, I think. People don’t want to believe (and find it hard to) that such solid presences are really gone.

    And of course motivation is only half the deal anyway. There are real metaphysical puzzles involved, notably to do with consciousness. The very fact that that no-one’s got anywhere at all with them yet is grounds enough for humility for everyone concerned, I would think.

  15. Crispin.

    The consciousness angle is indeed a major puzzle and vector in religion. The continuity of self. Consciouness came before a conscious understanding of what consciousness is. Religion is an primeavel drive.

    Nice idea on the driving but doesn’t cut the mustard, as everyone BELIEVES that they are the best driver on the road, until the crash…which is always someone elses fault…because,,,. That is the survival thing.

    For the record, while not being at all religious, I am a Christian sympathiser, and am only too pleased for my daughters to take on the Christianity mantle.

  16. I agree with CB @4 that a belief in karma must surely entail accepting the possibility that economic inequality is a result of merit.

    If a person is poor or has financial problems, then this could be bad karma for past misdeeds. In which case, trying to help such people or offer sympathy would be simply upsetting the natural order of the universe.

    Of course, there is an equal possibility that a successful person could be simply taking more from the universe and their karmic debt has not fully materialised yet. Just as a poor person may have made sacrifices that will generate good karma to come. For these reasons, it is possible that there would not be as strong a correlation between merit and outcomes across the whole of society.

    But on some level a belief in karma must imply a belief in a just universe. In which case, this is hard to reconcile with economic doctrines that assume the least deserving get the greatest rewards.

  17. There was a book several years ago called “Buddhism without beliefs” (http://www.amazon.com/Buddhism-without-Beliefs-Stephen-Batchelor/dp/1573226564) by Stephen Batchelor, that might match your ideas on karma. This set out a form of karma that did not require any faith in an afterlife or or in anything supernatural at all.

    Mind you, there was some argument that Batchelor held a more-orthodox view of Buddhism himself but simply wrote what he thought he could get non-believing western intellectuals to accept.

  18. Pr Q says:

    Politic religion (crosspost)

    I wish I had enough time to reduce Pr Q’s immodest proposal – for an “alternative religion” based on a secularised form of Buddhism – into more digestible mince-meat. But for the time being I would like to make a plea for a less offensive denomination. This is the first and last time I will ever indulge in identity politics, I promise.

    The locution “political Christian” is distasteful. If anything “Political Religion” stands for the very opposite of what I want in a religion. It was a 20thC hysteria which sought to put religious zeal into secular ideology.

    I humbly submit the denomination “practical Christian”, with focus on institutional deeds. As opposed to those “theoretical Christians”, who focus on ideological words.

    THe focus on the institutional basis for religion has a distinguished intellectual history. Not for nothing did Dr Knopfelmacher chose Marx-Durkheim-Weber as his pedagogical trinity. Those giants of social theory concentrated on the institutional, rather than ideological, aspects of religion.

    “Practical Christians” are very often agnostic. That is we accept the intellectual epistemics of Science-Nature magazine. Whilst adopting the institutional ethics of a post-Vatican II Catholic.

    Which is basically wishy-washy mid-20th C liberalism. But enunciated with sanctimonious airs and graces, the better to foster the Old School spirit and enjoining “good works”.

    This is still enough in keeping with the spirit of our founding prophet to warrant the term “Christian”:

    Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.

    James 2:24

  19. I think it is worth mentioning that the underlying premise, namely that virtue is promoted by a belief in an omniscient diety who rewards or punishes in the afterlife, has been falsified scientifically. I don’t know a proper citation, but I recall that there were scientific studies (from before the days of human subjects committees) that showed that pretty much everyone will cheat if they believe the chances of getting caught are slight. Nobody is deterred by the fear that a vengeful diety is watching them. This raises obvious questions about what “believers” actually believe, which in turn calls into question any argument for the social utility of such “beliefs.”

  20. Andy,
    Do you think it’s possible to test that hypothesis scientifically? I’m unconvinced by the virtue argument but I don’t see any way to measure a personal quality which will be different for each experimental subject.

  21. #44, 45 as i posted earlier – religious belief (say the one with an omniscient deity) is neither necessary nor sufficient to make a person ‘good’. There is no need to test this as examples abound of good people who are not religious and bad people who are. Of course you need to define good and bad, but I’m happy to leave them as unproblematic and probably the statement holds for any definition of good and bad anyway.
    re testing the hypothesis @44 scientifically – there is no problem as one can set up a moral challenge (eg based around lying or stealing) and then see how people go in the challenge relative to their religiosity.

  22. # 43 jack strocchi Says: May 10th, 2009 at 5:12 pm

    I humbly submit the denomination “practical Christian”, with focus on institutional deeds. As opposed to those “theoretical Christians”, who focus on ideological words.

    I suggest the phrase “practical Christian” adequately describes the personal world-view of most of AUS’s practising Christians. That is, folk who accept the epistemics of Science-Nature but want their children to be brought up according the ethics of the Sermoniser on the Mount.

    My suggestion was made as an alternative to Pr Q’s “political Christian” construction, which I find a bit offensive. (Jesus, of all people, was the last man who wanted to wear the laurel of Ceasar.)

    It turns out that the phrase “practical Christianity” really does have a noble pedigree. No less an authority than the “Iron Chancellor” used the phrase “practical Christianity” to describe the ethical basis for his own pre-emptive version of social democracy. God’s truth I coined the phrase off the top of my head, with no idea of its pedigree. Wikipedia elaborates:

    it was Bismarck who established the first practical aspects of this program. The program of the Social Democrats included all of the programs that Bismarck eventually implemented, but also included programs designed to preempt the programs championed by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.

    Bismarck opened debate on the subject on 17 November 1881 in the Imperial Message to the Reichstag, using the term practical Christianity[33] to describe his program.

    Its re-assuring for me realise that I walk in the same ideological footsteps of the the greatest statesman of 19th C Europe.

    But this significant co-incidence should also give Pr Q pause for thought. He has explicated social-democracy as a “>program for egalitarian risk-management. This is exactly the philosophy that under-pinned Herr Bismarck’s social legislation program:

    the actual complaint of the worker is the insecurity of his existence; he is unsure if he will always have work, he is unsure if he will always be healthy and he can predict that he will reach old age and be unable to work.

    If he falls into poverty, and be that only through prolonged illness, he will find himself totally helpless being on his own, and society currently does not accept any responsibility towards him beyond the usual provisions for the poor, even if he has been working all the time ever so diligently and faithfully.

    Pr Q wants to preserve and promote a social-democratic political policies. But he also appears to be dabbling in a secularised Buddhism (“karma”). Without all that repressive Christian baggage.

    To each his own, I always say. But I also say, following Max Weber, that social systems are not just like trams that one can hop on and off just as one pleases. There is often a useful fit between personal morals and political modes. On this reading of ideological history, “practical Christianity” is the personal ethic that has worked best to underpin a social-democratic polity.

    No doubt Pr Q would respond that the intensely Christian America has not exactly delivered on social-democracy. Whereas the increasingly secularised Scandanavia has continued to entrench social democracy. But here it is racial solidarity, rather than religious sentiment, that is the better predictor of social-democratic policies.

    Pr Q has frequently cited the social-democratic EU as the poster-child polity for sound social policy. But it was largely founded by Christian Democrats and Christian Socialists. This should make him think twice about ditching our religious heritage for a mess of Oriental potage.

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