Wacky Beliefs are the Point
Religions and beliefs aren’t about truth, they’re about social cohesion
Note: This week’s Cognitive Revolution AI episode is with Eugenia Kuyda, founder of Replika the digital AI companion. Replika recently shut off their erotica role play mode which has frustrated some users, to say the least. I highly enjoyed our conversation.
This week’s Moment of Zen is a discussion with Noah Smith about our modern cold wars with China & Russia, the new right, and tech’s cultural & political shifts.
We’ve previously talked about how beliefs aren’t about truth, they’re about tribal membership. In this piece we’ll unpack this further.
The conventional wisdom is often that religion is dead because science has made us all rational and we don't need non-scientific beliefs anymore. In some sense they are directionally correct: traditional religions have fallen out of favor with elites and so they are functionally dead. While the percent of the population may become surprisingly more religious, traditional religions will have minimal impact in determining the course of society compared to their impact in previous eras.
So while the conventional wisdom comes to the right conclusion, it is incorrect in how it gets there. Religion isn’t dead because we’ve overcome pseudo-science and blind faith. We still have blind faith, just to different religions that don’t call themselves religions.
But on a mass numbers basis, religion is gaining in popularity, not declining. And that’s partly because religion was never about literal truth in the first place. There’s a fascinating old episode of EconTalk with Laurence Iannacconne on the economics of religion. He talks about the free market for religions, a marketplace where religions are “bought” and “sold” relative to the value they provide for people.
He contrasts the free market of religion (USA) with centralized economies (Europe). Centralized economies operate top-down rather than bottoms-up. Laurence says that even in decentralized free-markets, people are choosing religion again and again.
But how is this true? How are rational people voluntarily signing up for religions, both official and unofficial?
Well, maybe upon introspection, maybe “buying” religion in the marketplace of values is rational. After all, is it more rational to doggedly pursue truth, or to pursue the beliefs that are going to get you food, shelter, and members of the opposite sex, regardless of how true they are?
As we discussed, people want to join tribes. Many new cult members are young people who really need the group support that the tribe provides: Jobs, friends, a spouse. It doesn't matter what makes the tribe stick together, what matters is that there's some mechanism to make a group of people join regularly and live in community.
And so when we leave it to “the free market” people just reorient back into tribes. And tribes need to ensure loyalty. How do they do that? By imposing wacky beliefs.
Wacky beliefs and unreasonable behavioral restrictions are a feature, not a bug. A feature whose purpose is to solve the free-rider problem. By forcing people to believe or say irrational things, you secure their allegiance by having them “burn the boats” to joining other communities. They’ll stay in your cult because they have no where else to go. The wackier the cult's beliefs, the higher the commitment of the people who agree with them. When people are willing to die for their beliefs, it’s less the beliefs they care about and moreso the tribe that they’re willing to die for. After all, what is life without their tribe? Today, it’s far easier to find a new tribe than it used to be, so people are less likely to die for beliefs.
Another key element for religions is that their beliefs be unverifiable and unfalsifiable. They have to be open to interpretation. If the religions were specific and concrete, people wouldn’t be able to use them to justify whatever they wanted to do. And if you can’t use a religion to justify whatever you want to do, what use is the religion? That’s why you have religious leaders giving you every week a new version of what it actually means, because the foundations of them are vague. So whenever you see a wacky idea, whether QAnon or Blue Anon, know that the purpose of it is to demonstrate loyalty to their tribe.
You can think of religion as a set of rules and rituals, and the metaphysics that justify them. The metaphysics is only of interest to a small subset of smart people interested in 'truth'. But most people don't really understand nor really give a shit about truth.
Regarding rituals, you are what you do. And because habit is not built up in a single repetition, but over a lifetime, at a still deeper level you are what you have done.
In delegitimizing traditional religions among elites, we’ve lost the accompanying rituals that have evolved over millennia. We’ve thrown the baby out with the bathwater. And so that’s why we’ve tried to recreate them, from sabbaths to new-age churches to Burning Man. But restoring the rituals without the metaphysics has been hard. As we described in a previous piece:
This begs the question of whether or not this idea of Christian ethics (e.g. moral equality) without Christ will remain defensible. Without theological roots for humanism, what justification do they have? If we lose the enormous heritage of Christian belief, practice, and rituals that have sustained those beliefs for 2,000 years, can they be sustained? Can ethics be sustainably divorced from metaphysics, and selected a la carte?
Nietzsche said, "God is dead, and we have killed him." So when God is dead, how do we defend the values he used to justify? That’s what Nietzsche asked, and that’s what we don’t yet know. Much of intellectual culture in the West over the past 150 years has tried and failed to answer this too.
The fear is what happens is when someone says "I don't share these humanist values and your insults don't harm me." What happens then? Perhaps this explains why some people are seeking institutionalization for these values.
After all, universal humanism is not convincingly derived from philosophy or any other discipline, so it requires a leap of faith. We don't have another theological basis for the equality of all human beings.
This perhaps explains why, as Christian ethics got on flimsier and flimsier ground, Progressivism doubled down on egalitarianism, emphasizing it even more than Christians did.
My co-host of Moment of Zen, Dan Romero, in our recent podcast said that the problem with taking the rituals piecemeal (“a la carteism”) is that it doesn’t cohere or hold together. It doesn’t have the evolved ecology of practices and beliefs that keep the whole thing going. People won’t stick to it because it’s arbitrary. Religion is arbitrary too, but it has a whole ecosystem of beliefs and practices that have proven their value to certain people over generations. So it’s arbitrary, but it works. A la carteism has neither coherence nor evidence. It devolves into nihilism.
In conclusion, wacky beliefs are a feature, not a bug. While the benefits of religion don’t accrue from the beliefs — and taking the beliefs literally do lead some people to do harmful and crazy shit — the beliefs are core to the tribe enduring. Some movements use other bonding mechanisms to keep the tribe together, like having a common enemy or scapegoat, which has its own pros and cons. For most tribes, wacky beliefs are the point.
After reading the past couple of posts on yours about religion, I'm coming to the conclusion that what atheists/non-theists/etc. want isn't exactly a world without belief systems, per se, but a world with belief systems that a.) are both metaphorically AND literally true, and b.) create useful and long-lasting social cohesion without requiring people in those groups to believe wacky things. I think what attracts some people (like myself) to atheism is because we tend to be extremely literal-minded people who don't prioritize social approval as heavily as others, so we reject religion as nothing but wacky beliefs that inevitably lead to mass graves, genocide, etc. But of course, being an intellectual "lone wolf" of this kind is only possible in a prosperous and developed society as ours, where you don't have to be as reliant on the people around you for your own mere survival. Not to mention that atheists tend to fall into the same trap as everyone else of believing the world would be so much better if everyone believes the same things they do.
None of this is going to stop me from being an atheist, though, or wanting a belief system that meets both criteria above (while realizing that atheism fulfills neither). Just because the current limits of human nature means religion-style beliefs are unavoidable now doesn't mean it must always be thus -- right?
Does self-awareness of “wacky beliefs” make belief itself, impossible? If you are aware a set a beliefs are crazy and non-rational is it possible to truly believe them, recognizing the additional value they bring?