Gene Expression

Belief & belief in belief

In my post below I engage with some commenters in my perceptions of “what religion is.” To understand where I am coming from, I thought I would be explicit in some of my assumptions and models.

1) Modern religions often have some very specific beliefs about the nature of God. For example, the Western religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) tend to hod that God

a) is omniscient
b) is omnipotent
c) is omnibenevolent

There are deeper philosophical issues, for example, theologians often speak of the deity in negations because to define what God is is very difficult due to the nature of the subject. Nevertheless, I believe the assumptions above are ground rules which most can agree upon.

2) The process of deduction derives inferences from a set of axioms. Axioms, like the ones above, therefore can be used to generate a cognitive model of how a deity should behave in the mind of an individual. An omnipotent God, for example, is presumably lacking in some of the anxieties in regards to the control of the path of one’s life that wracks most humans. And, as a point of fact, God is often conceived to be “outside” of time and space.

3) Most modern montheists can respond with the above characteristics when queried verbally. In fact, most Christians can repeat the general outlines of the Trinitarian creed in regards to the Nature of God.

4) But, when theists are asked to generate a “story” extemporaneously which involves God, it tends to exhbit features within violate axioms a-c. In fact, the God generated extemporaneously by theists tends to be in contradiction to all of the points above, especially a & b. The reason the narratives are elicited without preperation and requested to be novel is so that the individual can not respond with memorized formulae, but, must take their cognitive model and generate de novo via a chain of implicit inferences.

5) These results tend to be cross-culturally robust. All varieties of theists, and even putative non-theists such as Therevada Buddhists, tend to “tell the same tales.”

6) The implication here is that there is a mental gap between what people say, and what they believe, and, what they believe they believe. This gap can be explained by the fact that there is a decoupling between the reflective conscious mind and the implicit assumptions and beliefs which one brings to the fore in ostensibly conscious exercises. It seems key that the fact is that it is impossible for humans to maintain a concrete model of a divine being of the sort which philosophical theists profess to believe in, explaining perhaps the round about techniques used to ascertain the charater of the deity. In contrast, humans can easily imagine a god which is rather like a super-human. The generation of narratives which reflect a model of super-human gods, as opposed to the God of the philosophers, implies that humans flip to their “default” models which they are primed to respond with their memorized formulae.

7) This is does not negate the reality that humans will kill each other over differences of theology. But, humans will also kill each other over sporting events (e.g. soccer hooliganism). It seems that humans have strong predispositions toward group conformity and affiliation, and notional markers which simply server to demarcate boundaries are crucial to this. A profession of faith which consists of words which are not well understood can suffice in these cases.

8) Why is this relevant? Because when individuals speak of religion they often construct models of human behavior which derive from a-c. To give a precise example, the sociologist of religion turned polemicist Rodney Stark argued that the Trinity was an optimal number of deities in One True God, the unitary God of the Jews and Muslims being too powerful and distant. But, the reality is that Muslims and Jews have almost the same models of the deity implicitly in their minds’ eye, and the veneration of rabbis and pirs serves as a “stand in” for a multiplicity of divine essences. Within Christianity Roman Catholicism’s reverence for the saints is explicitly analogized to polytheism by some thinkers (invariably non-Catholic of course).

9) For models to have inferential power they need to properly take into account all the relevant parameters. The conscious explicit mind is certainly not trivial, but we must not disregarded the framing mental architecture which is universally invariant.

Finally, as a postscript, the fact that theists imbue their beliefs about their beliefs with such ontological, or personal, value is important. Operationally in the day to day world I certainly do not dispute that what an individual says they believe and do is what they believe and do. Only as a matter of further rational analysis do I proceed to enter this mode, but unless we decompose the issues in such an artificial and controlled manner discourse is likely to be no better than gossip.

References: Theological Incorrectness.


  1. #1 Ivo
    July 16, 2006

    So the conclusion is that religious people are usually irrational and the abovementiond point 2 is violated. But this is ‘irrational’ in a strictly descriptive sense. Speaking in a moral sense, it is not necessarily a problem to behave irrationally. In fact, everybody behaves irrationally almost all of the time, because it is not possible to take rational decisions, as making a strictly rational decision implies that you are certain of the outcome, which you never do, beacause there are always factors you had to estimate for lack of hard data. Every decision is based on the irrational feeling that the chosen option is the best.

  2. #2 razib
    July 16, 2006

    1) expectation.

    2) no, the conclusion is not that religious people are usually irrational. don’t read into what i said more than what said.

  3. #3 Ivo
    July 16, 2006

    You set out to show “what religion is” and say things like:
    The implication here is that there is a mental gap between what people say, and what they believe, and, what they believe they believe.
    Operationally in the day to day world I certainly do not dispute that what an individual says they believe and do is what they believe and do.

    The implication is that that is what differentiates them from others. But that does not just apply to religious people. It applies to everyone. You have not singled out what religion is. You just make a number of non-trivial statements about human cognition/psychology.

    Concerning ‘irrational’: to me, the bit I quoted is pretty much identical with saying “they don’t know why, or even that, they behave the way they do”. But what is being irrational, other than that?

  4. #4 razib
    July 16, 2006

    You have not singled out what religion is.

    i’ve said i’m an nominalist regarding religion, asshole. your stupid, don’t read my blog anymore.

    clue to readers, if you don’t know and value the importance of statistical expectation, don’t read this blog. i’m tired of engaging with 8th grade logicians.

    (preemptive apology if english is your second language, but if it isn’t, i’m not going to allow you to dictate the conversation here. you can always get a free blogspot blog)

  5. #5 Ivo
    July 17, 2006

    Should I have ended my first sentence with a question mark and started the second with “But that would be ‘irrational’ only in a descriptive sense”? I did not mean in any way to offend you or dictate the discussion; I was just pondering something and tried to illustrate that in the simplest words I could think of.

    I think your point 4) illustrates that the human mind doesn’t reach conclusions either by deductive inference or by evaluating what it can statistically expect. Doesn’t that mean that any reasoning that assumes 2) to be valid (either directly, or approximately through the use of statistical expectations) cannot be right?

  6. #6 razib
    July 17, 2006

    you need to flesh out your reasoning so i don’t have to connect the dots. i don’t have lots of time, so that which i have to expend deciphering you is very frustrating and angering to me.

    the short of it is that human minds utilize deductive logic with varied competencies. it isn’t either/or, in some circumstances we aren’t have bad at logic & statistics, but in other situations were are very bad (both as individuals and groups).

  7. #7 DarwinCatholic
    July 17, 2006

    4) But, when theists are asked to generate a “story” extemporaneously which involves God, it tends to exhbit features within violate axioms a-c…. 4) But, when theists are asked to generate a “story” extemporaneously which involves God, it tends to exhbit features within violate axioms a-c.

    Perhaps this is a symptom of being just such an a-c theist as you describe (any possible accusations of polytheism due to veneration of the saints aside) but I guess it seems to me that this problem is more a matter of the intellect exceeding the abilities of the imagination. Thus, while people may (though certainly the vast majority of theists do not) fully understand the philosophical implications of axioms a through c, the entity described by them is so wholly other from what we ourselves are, that any attempt to tell extemporaneous stories about said entity invarriably runs into problems of anthropomorphization. If I were told to extemporaneously tell a story about God doing something, I think I’d probably back out with the claim that God doesn’t “do things” the same way we do, so any attempt to imagine such on my part would be futile.

    What one is to make of people holding beliefs in an entity so different from themselves is another matter. There is, of course, the ontological argument, which (with the proviso that I haven’t read Anselm in a good 6-8 years) is essentially that it’s so unlikely that a God such as the Christian God would be invented if he did not exist, that our capacity to believe in God should be taken as evidence of his existence. On the other extreme, I suppose one might argue that the difficulty which humans have in imagining such a God is proof of his non-existence.

  8. #8 razib
    July 17, 2006


    your point about the nature of extemp. narratives is on point. the only thing i would add is that the assumption that the extemp. narratives reflect the modal mental conception is supported by other behavorial and social tendencies which are predicted by such a model.

    more later.

  9. #9 Pithlord
    July 17, 2006

    I accept your premise that their is a gap between folk religion (which was probably selected for during human evolution, although I find the fitness advantage obscure) and ideological or credal religion. It is a part of the job of the priesthood (or the party cadre) to negotiate this tension.

    I wonder if the tension itself might not have important historical effects. Religions which are too close to our inbuilt species-religion don’t seem to have the same kind of fervour and drive that religions that impose nature-denying taboos (like don’t represent the divine visually and don’t imagine the divine as female — maybe even treat those who agree with you as kin) have.

  10. #10 razib
    July 17, 2006

    eligions which are too close to our inbuilt species-religion don’t seem to have the same kind of fervour and drive that religions that impose nature-denying taboos

    i think it is probably best to analogize ferver inducing institutional religious with coda and formula as extensions on top of in-built religion. the reason that the latter seem to lack ferver and zeal is because the ones you see extant are simply those without the institutional layering on top.

  11. #11 Pithlord
    July 18, 2006

    I’m not sure. Paganism in antiquity –which might be closer to our natural religious impulses — had an institutional layering, and complicated ideological formulations such as neo-Platonism, but it didn’t seem to have the “fervour” of Christianity and Islam (or of Manicheanism, to be more obscure).

  12. #12 DarwinCatholic
    July 18, 2006

    I suppose it in part depends what you mean by fervor. I think people very much believed in classical paganism, though from some of the interesting work that’s been done lately on superstition, magic, household gods, etc. it appears not to have been extensive and rather darker than the bright and charming set of myths one typically reads in gradeschool.

    However, my impression from reading period pagan works (and take this for what you will, since obviously I read them through the lens of being a Catholic) is that however seriously they may have believed in the existence and power of the gods, many people did not love them, indeed, they often feared them or at least hoped not to come to their notice.

    The major monotheisms seem to inspire great love for their deity than ancient paganism did for its, and perhaps that is the sense in which monotheists seem to have more fervor.

  13. #13 Pithlord
    July 18, 2006

    The major monotheisms seem to inspire great love for their deity than ancient paganism did for its…

    With a healthy dose of fear, as well.

    Certainly, pagans could be wildly devoted to a particular cult or god. Or they could be very abstract functional monotheists or atheists. What they didn’t have was a sense that some specific religious event had occurred in history, and its message needed to be spread across the world at all costs. Nor did they think it was essential to keep the doctrine pure. People who flouted customary piety were condemned as criminals, naturally, but there was no sense that humans had to keep the message straight.

    I think that some of the urgency of the spread and the need for purity of doctrine gets its force from the denial of religious instincts implicit in monotheism, particularly universalist montheisms like Christianity and Islam.

  14. #14 razib
    July 19, 2006

    you all make good points, and i was going to respond in detail in a post, but i just don’t have the time today, so quickies

    1) it is debatable as to whether neoplatonism had any real relationship to mass paganism. so definition matters, generating a pagan-christian dichotomy tends to skew the perception i think. paganism by its nature was simply all that was disjoint from christianity. one could argue in many ways that xtianity synthesized elements of mass paganism and elite philosophy, and, one could argue that about all successful ‘higher’ religions.

    2) be cautious about viewing ancient or medieval religion through modern eyes. even in the modern world it can be argued that the judeo-islamic G-d is one of law and not love. one could make similar arguments about xtianity prior to the pietistic revolution which spread to the masses.

    3) my use of the word ‘institutional’ was inapt. but, local temple institutionalism of ancient state paganism (or state shinto or imperial china’s cult of heaven) is i believe somewhat different from the cultural complexes which islam or christianity present. to be short about it, i believe these two monotheisms offer you a universalist tribalism.

    4) look at religion through various methodological lenses. the fervor and memetic power of monotheisms is persuasive, but remember that for all practical purposes the peasants of france were only superficially christianized by the 8th century (see gregory of tours description of magic and superstition on the noble estates). for all the power of christianity pagans remained in justinians time, 2 centuries after constantine, at the peak of society (tribonian and zosimus).

    more later.