onsdag 25. april 2007

Moldbug: Why do atheists believe in religion?

This is an abbreviated post. The original can be found here.

Far from everyone believes that there is a God, but almost everyone believes that there is such a thing as religion. I don't see what this term "religion" really does to help our understanding, though. Assuming that it's a meaningful word and not a content-free slang term, "religion" seems to mean something like the attribution of existence to anthropomorphic paranormal entities - wizards, in short. (There are a few edge cases like Buddhism, but this definition will do for the moment.)

Of course, if you believe in God, you naturally believe in religion. But if you're an atheist like me, why do you believe in religion? You might answer that religion, as Dawkins says, is a delusion, and a delusion that often leads people to do horrible violent things. Therefore it's useful to have a word for these people and their beliefs, much like we have words for large dangerous animals, rather than saying "That big furry orange animal with the black stripes and the long tail".

But in this case, why do we have a word for delusions involving wizards, instead of one for delusions in general, or possibly violence-prone delusions? After all:
-if you want to capture and throw nine Jewish virgins into a volcano, I think you're deluded and should be stopped, and I don't care whether you're doing it as a sacrifice to the volcano god, or as revenge for what the Elders of Zion did to you last week.
-if you vote against partial-birth abortion because you think it's "against God's law" or "unethical", your vote comes out the same either way.
-if you're tolerant and respectful because you think Allah wants you to be tolerant and respectful, I prefer this to if you're stabbing people in the street because you read Nietzsche and decided you didn't like morality.

One response might be "why not?"

 To answer this, I'm going to break Godwin's Law.

Suppose Hitler, with the support of the Thule Society, decided to proclaim that he was the prophet of Thor. Further suppose that everything the Nazis did was in the name of Thor, and Nazism was a religion. (Some people already say Nazism was a religion, but it didn't have any wizards, so meh. Most of us disagree.)

Most people approve of the Allies invading Nazi Germany and suppressing Nazism so hard that it's still pretty suppressed today. But if they had been been suppressing Thor-ism, that would have been religious intolerance, and by common understanding, the Allies should have targeted the extremist and fundamentalist Thorists while negotiating with the moderate ones, making it clear that they respected freedom of religion and the right to be a Thorist.

Our supposition said nothing about how bad the Nazis were, so it shouldn't have resulted in this big a change. But looking at it this way, the WW2 policy of stamping out Nazism seems like Ann Coulter's suggested response to the September 11 attacks: "The nation has been invaded by a fanatical, murderous cult. We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity." Not exactly something most people approve of.

On the flipside, let's consider another delusion with bloody hands and suppose that Communism was religious. (Some people say this too, but again, meh.) If Marx believed his writings were divinely inspired, this would imply, at least in the United States with its separation of church and state, that Communism would be effectively banned from public universities, where there are currently entire courses, such as postcolonial studies, dedicated to teaching Communist beliefs. Note, again, that we changed nothing about how delusional Communism is.

The Marxist view of economics, in particular, resembles one Christian view of evolution called "intelligent design". And there are a lot of people fighting hard to keep intelligent design out of classrooms, with rather fewer fighting for the end of postcolonial studies. But there was a time when a lot of people were fighting very hard to keep Communism out of classrooms, and it was called McCarthyism. Curiously, it had pretty much the opposite sides from the fight against intelligent design, and is greatly disapproved of today.

So, as a non-Marxist atheist, this is why I believe that the word "religion" is not only unhelpful but actively harms our understanding. By making trivial labeling changes to hypothetical history, we change nominally acceptable policy into terrible injustice, or vice versa. This can't be right.

To extend the analogy Richard Dawkins made of memes to genes, what Dawkins is doing is like taking a narrow-spectrum antibiotic based on self-diagnosis. We risk wiping away a susceptible bacteria colony that's evolved to the point where we can coexist reasonably peacefully with it, clearing space for a new and more dangerous type that our medicine doesn't affect. And if you ask me, delusions concerning politics have killed a lot more people the past few hundred years than delusions concerning wizards.

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