Pharyngula

Flattery is nice when you can get it

Andrew Brown is so kind: he calls me one of America’s most notorious atheists in an opinion piece on the wretched Archbishop Chimoio. He also makes an interesting game theoretic argument that, in purely pragmatic terms, the Catholic Church in Africa is simply following a winning strategy that maximizes the differential fitness of their group. It’s probably true, except that I think a rational secular strategy would work best of all … if anyone were playing that side of the game.

Comments

  1. #1 Michael
    September 28, 2007

    Andrew almost sounds like he’s making an underhanded nod to social darwinsim. He should watch out. He almost got a point on my creationist bingo card.

  2. #2 Denis Loubet
    September 28, 2007

    Another guy who confuses acceptance of the Theory of evolution with **approval** of the evolutionary process.
    The mountains of extinct species dramatically demonstrate that evolution is NOT our friend. It’s a mindless, horribly wasteful process. One that doesn’t care if humans as a species live or die, and should not be considered a guide to proper social behavior.

    Grrr…

  3. #3 Caledonian
    September 28, 2007

    The mountains of extinct species dramatically demonstrate that evolution is NOT our friend. It’s a mindless, horribly wasteful process.

    Only things with purposes can be wasteful. Evolution is neither horrible nor wasteful.

  4. #4 david
    September 28, 2007

    Caledonian:

    That’s not strictly true; phrasing differently, a thing can be wasteful wrt a specific purpose. A leaky pipe is wasteful iff you use it to pipe something.

    And evolution really is horribly wasteful insofar as survival of a particular species goes…

  5. #5 Hap
    September 28, 2007

    I’m just curious – if you treat your subjects as expendable assets useful for obtaining your ultimate victory, doesn’t that violate the basic tenets of what you claim to believe? Since the bishop’s actions don’t exactly seem to fit any reasonable definition of “love” that I can picture (though I could be limited in that respect), and since love is what is claimed as the basis for his behavior, isn’t there some cognitive dissonance going on here? And, of course, if the concept of evolution is considered corrosive to the human spirit, why does he choose the aspects of it which are most corrosive to the human spirit and least consistent with what he claims to believe to put into action? I know I’m not supposed to assume evil when stupidity will explain one’s acts sufficiently, but since this seems to approach closely to an effective definition of evil, it’s hard to do here.

  6. #6 Blake Stacey
    September 28, 2007

    Of course, such a strategy presumes that (a) Catholics never ever ever get infected and never ever ever stray from the behavior codes demanded by doctrine. Also, (b) it neglects how an epidemic affects everybody, not just those it infects, through problems like rising healthcare costs and social unrest.

  7. #7 Caledonian
    September 28, 2007

    That’s not strictly true; phrasing differently, a thing can be wasteful wrt a specific purpose. A leaky pipe is wasteful iff you use it to pipe something.

    A leaky pipe has a purpose. If it’s to convey liguid without loss, leaking is wasteful. If it’s to produce drips, it’s quite effective.

    Evolution has no purpose. It cannot be wasteful. It’s not as if the species were going to be used for something but were lost – their destruction was just as meaningless as their creation.

    You people just can’t get out of the habit of viewing everything through the lens of human preference – moreover, your particular preferences. The universe is not concerned with your feelings.

  8. #8 Judas
    September 28, 2007

    He forgot to mention your Trophy Wifetm

  9. #9 Trip the Space Parasite
    September 28, 2007

    Hap @ #5: As they say on Making Light, “Sufficiently advanced incompetence is indistinguishable from malice”.

  10. #10 Denis Loubet
    September 28, 2007

    Caledonian, can we at least agree that evolution is not our friend? There are multiple levels where that is true, surely you can find one that you agree with.

    As to viewing everything through the lens of human preference, well yeah, duh, I’m human. So are you.

  11. #11 Bob L
    September 28, 2007

    Of course, such a strategy presumes that (a) Catholics never ever ever get infected and never ever ever stray from the behavior codes demanded by doctrine.

    Considering the number of Catholics born six months after their parents wedding that does not sound like a viable strategy. But anyway, when in the hell did Catholics become social Darwinists? They’re practically socialist in comparison to other Christians.

  12. #12 notthedroids
    September 28, 2007

    “But when you get such astonishing statistics as that an African-American male who attends church has a life expectancy 11 years greater than one who does not there are only two explanations: either God looks after his own, or church attendance makes it much easier to avoid self-destructive behaviour.”

    I was with Brown up until this really basic correlation/causation gaffe.

  13. #13 Brownian
    September 28, 2007

    Caledonian, can we at least agree that evolution is not our friend? There are multiple levels where that is true, surely you can find one that you agree with.

    As to viewing everything through the lens of human preference, well yeah, duh, I’m human. So are you.

    Sorry, but Caledonian’s spot on here. We can certainly make claims about our own human interest, but it makes no more sense to say that evolution is or is not our friend then it does to say that wind or water are/n’t our friends.

  14. #14 CalGeorge
    September 28, 2007

    I am surprised to find Roman Catholic prelates quite so stupid and ignorant.

    I am not. They traffic in stupidity and ignorance. They practically define it.

    The Catholic Church is a refuge for egomaniacal, controlling idiots who have terrible difficulty leaving the stone ages of human mentality behind.

    They all need to grow up.

  15. #15 Mike O'Risal
    September 28, 2007

    Errr… how can anyone see a strategy under which your side either shrinks or disappears entirely due to communicable, preventable disease as “winning?” That’s like winning a game of Russian roulette by loading all chambers.

  16. #16 K. Signal Eingang
    September 28, 2007

    #13, I don’t follow. Isn’t saying “evolution is indifferent to our interests” basically just a more moderated (but wordy) way of saying “evolution is not our friend”? (Which in turn is *not* the same as saying “evolution is our enemy”.)

    I’m not sure if I’m misreading everyone or if everyone’s misreading the essay, but the author isn’t saying that the archbishop is thinking this stuff through in these strategic terms, or that the evolutionary logic justifies his position. He’s simply saying that if the game is natural selection in an STD-ridden environment, then one working strategy is to increase everybody else’s exposure while limiting your own group’s. Assuming even a small cohort of true believing monogamites in your group, and also assuming that true believers are likely to beget more of the same, then the advantage over time should be significant. That the strategy works (at least hypothetically) doesn’t say anything about the moral quality of the strategy or the game.

    PZ’s point about the rational strategy being preferable, in that it involves considerably less hypocrisy and needless death (and about the same or greater amount of sex) is of course correct, but I don’t think the author of the article would dispute that, either.

  17. #17 sailor
    September 28, 2007

    His whole thing is a crock of shit. He bases it on the premise that African-Americans live 11 years longer if they are church members. But African Americans have a completely different culture to Africans. The difference is very high among the young in the USA which preumably means the more time they spend in church they less time they spend dealing drugs and fighting in gangs. There is no evidence this has anything at all to do with Africa. It is an appalingly thought through idea.

  18. #18 windy
    September 28, 2007

    …a religion composed entirely of lesbians will be outgrown by one consisting entirely of monogamous, faithful couples.

    Lesbians can’t be monogamous or faithful? The word Brown seems to be searching for is “heterosexual”.

    Give the lesbians access to reproductive technology, and who’s got the greatest potential growth rate then?

  19. #19 Brownian
    September 28, 2007

    #13, I don’t follow. Isn’t saying “evolution is indifferent to our interests” basically just a more moderated (but wordy) way of saying “evolution is not our friend”? (Which in turn is *not* the same as saying “evolution is our enemy”.)

    Maybe, but why wouldn’t you just say “evolution is indifferent to our interests” and avoid the risk of the unintended connotations of anthropomorphism?

    I mean, it’s true to say “evolution doesn’t like chocolate”, “evolution doesn’t think it’s fat”, or “evolution hasn’t called me just to say ‘hello’ in the last month”, but that doesn’t mean one should.

    We already live in a society in which the majority of its members don’t understand and are hostile to the theory of evolution. I don’t see how sloppy writing and speech is going to help that situation.

  20. #20 Clay Shirky
    September 28, 2007

    I think a rational secular strategy would work best of all.

    Probably not.

    Scott Atran suggests that religion doesn’t simply happen to be counterfactual, the point of it is to be so, because belief in counterfactuals is good proof of a strong commitment to group norms. It’s too easy to believe in things that are observably true for such commitment to produce much in the way of social cohesion, and even less in social exclusion.

    A good article on the subject is “Religion’s evolutionary landscape: Counterintuition, commitment,
    compassion, communion”, at http://www.sitemaker.umich.edu/satran/files/atran-norenzayanbbs05.pdf

    One relevant passage (of many):

    “The criterion of costly commitment rules out cognitive theories of religion as inadequate, however insightful they may be. Cognitive theories attempt to explain religious belief and practice as cultural manipulations of ordinary psychological processes of categorization, reasoning, and remembering. They do not account for the emotional involvement that leads people to sacrifice to others what is dear to themselves, including labor, limb, and life. Such theories are often short on motive and are unable to distinguish Mickey Mouse from Moses, cartoon fantasy from religious belief. They fail to tell us why, in general, the greater the sacrifice–as in Abraham offering up his beloved son–the more others trust in one’s religious commitment.”

    If Atran is right (Pascal Boyer pursues a similar line of thought in Religion Explained, glossed in “Why is religion natural?” – http://www.csicop.org/si/2004-03/religion.html), then a rational secular strategy will not produce enough costly or hard to fake evidence of non-defection. Anyone can believe in the truth; it takes real work to believe in virgin birth.

  21. #21 Brownian
    September 28, 2007

    C’mon, sailor, you’re just splitting hairs. I mean, they’re all black, aren’t they?

    Actually, good point. I wondered about the statistic, but I completely missed that he was talking about African-Americans, not Africans. The two groups, as most any African immigrant to the US will tell you, are no more alike than Africans and Vietnamese-Americans (well, other than skin colour and an affinity for hip-hop.)

  22. #22 Robert Thille
    September 28, 2007

    If Catholics _really_ believed what they profess to believe, then they’d all flock to war-torn areas trying to help the poor and the sick, hoping to get shot or die of some horrible disease in a manner sure to send them straight to heaven. Since they don’t all do that, I see that as evidence they don’t really believe what they profess to believe.

    Ask someone who believe in destiny and that god will take them when he’s decided it’s time to step in front of a speeding bus. They won’t do it.

  23. #23 CalGeorge
    September 28, 2007

    Anyone can believe in the truth; it takes real work to believe in virgin birth.

    Anyone can believe in the virgin birth. It takes real work to believe in pursuing the truth.

    If someone sits in a pew and gets told a bunch of crap about a virgin birth, it’s going to be easy to swallow – because everyone around you is sitting there passively accepting the Kool-aid. Doubts are easily suppressed. How could all the people in the congregation be deluded?

    The hard part is to get up, scowl at the minister, preacher, etc. and walk away, acting on one’s doubt.

  24. #24 Denis Loubet
    September 28, 2007

    I would think that when you have a number of people who believe that scientists like evolution and think that it’s our friend, and that we should emulate it, the first thing to say in response is that no, evolution is not our friend, and we should not emulate it. THEN we explain that evolution is a mindless process, indifferent to our interests.

  25. #25 k
    September 28, 2007

    YOU’RE, “one of America’s most notorious atheists?”
    Now, I mean this in the nicest possible way but…seriously, I never heard of you until I did an LJ search on Atheists. And I just see you as a prof who likes to blog a lot about Atheist subjects. I think you should be trying harder, get out there and get seen. I’m thinking an Atheist book and a book tour. I know, it’s been done to death but ya gotta do better than a proliferate blog to earn a title like that. Have you been on Larry King or Jay Leno or something? People watch those shows, that would go a long way to the title.
    I think my point is, you can’t accept it as flattery if it comes from a crazy person. They lack the wit to understand reality and stuff, LOL
    But it’s a good idea, the title. Why not try to acquire it for real? It would be cool. I could say, “I knew him when…”

  26. #26 Clay Shirky
    September 28, 2007

    The hard part is to get up, scowl at the minister, preacher, etc. and walk away, acting on one’s doubt.

    This is personally hard, yes, but that wasn’t the context P.Z was setting up with his original comment.

    He was hypothesizing that the differential fitness of a rational and secular group would outperform that of a religious group. In that particular scenario, your scowling atheist is likely to be reducing group coherence (or, rather, in the manner of religion everywhere, causing everyone else to double down on their counterfactual beliefs in panic.)

    Atran and Boyer’s work suggests that the cost of maintaining not just any old counterfactual beliefs but the same counterfactual beliefs within a group takes considerable energy, not least being frequent and highly ritualized meetings to re-affirm commitment to assertions nowhere in evidence. Atran in particular suggests that this cost is a key component of differential fitness.

  27. #27 Jason
    September 28, 2007

    Clay Shirky,

    How does Atran account for the dramatic, and apparently accelerating, rise of secularism in the west, including the United States, over the past several decades?

  28. #28 Stanton
    September 28, 2007

    …THEN we explain that evolution is a mindless process, indifferent to our interests.

    In the exact same way nuclear fission and hydrogen-bonding are ultimately indifferent to the concerns of humans or other carbon-based lifeforms.

  29. #29 Timothy
    September 28, 2007

    Caledonian, can we at least agree that evolution is not our friend? There are multiple levels where that is true, surely you can find one that you agree with.

    Well Denis, I can kind of see your point. There does seem to be a selective advantage to being an unrepentant coward who hides behind the skirts of his imaginary friend Jesus.

    But on the other hand, look at all the tasty animals evolution has given us. Really, how bad can it be if it gave us chickens, salmons, bacons, and beefs? And that’s just for starters! I bet most people have trouble getting their friends to even bring chips and dip to the party.

  30. #30 Pete
    September 29, 2007

    Read this harshly-worded reprimand of Chimoio from the Vatican:
    http://seraphin.vatican.va/news_services/press/vis/dinamiche/d0_en.htm

    This will hopefully make the bishop change his tune.

  31. #31 demallien
    September 29, 2007

    Oooo, Clay Shirky! Cool! As someone that has researched group dynamics, do you agree with Andrew Brown that the Archbishop was acting subconciously, or do you think that his behaviour is more aligned with someone that is aware of group dynamics, and is deliberately trying to create an external enemy, whilst at the same time reinforcing the benefits of membership in his group?

    My next question is slightly off topic, but I’ve been hoping for 2-3 years now to bump into you on a blog, ever since having read “A Group is its Own Worst Enemy”. What I wanted to know is, as someone that has researched the topic of group interactions, do you find that this changes the way that you yourself act when you find yourself in a group, such as this blog?

  32. #32 bernarda
    September 29, 2007

    Clay gives some interesting texts and says, “Scott Atran suggests that religion doesn’t simply happen to be counterfactual, the point of it is to be so, because belief in counterfactuals is good proof of a strong commitment to group norms.”

    There is an interview with Jim Carroll at Tomdispatch in which he explains some aspects of “fundamentalism”.

    http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/174837/tomdispatch_interview_james_carroll_american_fundamentalisms

    “First of all, what is fundamentalism? The word itself was coined in the early twentieth century and applied to a particular brand of Protestantism. It comes from a determination to protect what were called, in foundational manifestos, the five fundamentals of Christian belief, particularly the inerrancy of scripture. Scripture can’t make a mistake, right? It has to be read literally.

    This was a counterattack against so-called liberal religion’s embrace of the insights of the Enlightenment and the scientific age. Can you apply normal standards of historical criticism to religious belief? The fundamentalists said no, because normal standards might lead you to understand texts as having been composed in normal human circumstances, instead of inspired by God. So when you read the Gospel accounts of the birth of Jesus through the lens of historical critical method you may conclude that the three kings never actually traveled to Bethlehem, that it’s a mythical story created to make a point — a genre that the people who wrote it were comfortable with.

    Fundamentalists reacted against any mitigating of the literal fact of the three kings. To read texts for their theological meaning rather than for their historical literalness would undercut the whole affirmation of the religion. The next thing, you’d be saying that Jesus didn’t rise from the dead on the third day. And if that didn’t happen, where are you?”

    He goes on to explain that “fundamentalism” is also found in most liberals’ discourses. They implicitly accept the idea of American exceptualism.

    “The point here is that the initial city-on-a-hill impulse has never stopped being part of our self-understanding — the idea of America as having a mission to the world or, in biblical terms, a mission to the gentiles. “Go forth and teach all nations,” Jesus commands. This commission is implicit in George Bush’s war to establish democracy — or “freedom” — everywhere. When Americans talk about freedom, it’s our secular code word for salvation. There’s no salvation outside the church; there’s no freedom outside the American way of life. Notice how, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the disappearance of the Soviet system, there is still something called the “Free World.” As opposed to what?

    A Special Mission to Iraq — and the World

    This missionizing in the name of freedom is a basic American impulse. Lincoln was the high priest of this rhetoric, “the last best hope of mankind.” The United States of America is justified by the virtue of its mission. The entire movement of American power across the continent of North America was a movement to fulfill the “manifest destiny” of a free people extending freedom. Because this is understood as a profoundly virtuous impulse, we’ve seldom criticized it. As a nation, we have begun to reckon with the crime of slavery, but we haven’t begun to reckon with the crime of genocide against the Native-American peoples. That’s because we haven’t really acknowledged what was wrong with it.

    Think of that phrase — “manifest destiny.” A key doctrine in what I am calling American fundamentalism. It remains an inch below the surface of the American belief system. What’s interesting is that this sense of special mission cuts across the spectrum — right wing/left wing, liberals/conservatives — because generally the liberal argument against government policies since World War II is that our wars — Vietnam then, Iraq now — represent an egregious failure to live up to America’s true calling. We’re better than this. Even antiwar critics, who begin to bang the drum, do it by appealing to an exceptional American missionizing impulse. You don’t get the sense, even from most liberals, that — no, America is a nation like other nations and we’re going to screw things up the way other nations do.”

  33. #33 Andrew Brown
    September 29, 2007

    K. Signal Eingang has nailed exactly what I was trying to say.

    Brownian, Sailor — what on earth has blackness got to do with the general argument that religion affects behaviour, and behaviour affects reproductive fitness?

    I’m not, of course, arguing that religion always or everywhere affects behaviour in the ways it claims to do, or even in the ways the believers suppose it does. But it doesn’t have to, to have an effect.

  34. #34 Arnosium Upinarum
    September 29, 2007

    Denis: i’m afraid Caledonian and Brownian are quite correct.

    I can appreciate what you are TRYING to say (I think) but in saying,

    “evolution is NOT our friend. It’s a mindless, horribly wasteful process. One that doesn’t care if humans as a species live or die”

    you unwittingly invest it with a behavior (antagonistically) linked to human interests.

    Yet its entirely possible to FAVORABLY IDENTIFY WITH nature (and natural processes like evolution) without the personification baggage. Your observation that anti-evolutionists charge scientists with “approving” rather than “accepting” evolution is well taken as far as it goes, but it implies that scientists find the process to be somehow unwholesome despite themselves. It may be “horribly wasteful” from selected points of view, but seen from an appropriately distant perspective, all that “waste” looks rather essential to the process. Efficiency has nothing to do with it. Yes, “it doesn’t care”. And it doesn’t care that it doesn’t care, ad infinitum. We’re the ones who do all the caring. So long as we do, we don’t need to worry that nature doesn’t. That’s the lesson that religionists find so difficult to assimilate.

    I certainly don’t feel any discomfort in having to “accept” what’s been abundantly demonstrated to be the reality, and I think most scientists share a sense of elation in the process by which nature produces complexity. Knowing a bit about how nature works helps us identify with a reality independent of ourselves. Its a beautiful thing. Not at all icky or dangerous.

    All this reminds me of a curious statement made by a “crazy, psalm-singing, skinny old maid”:

    “Nature, Mr. Alnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above.”

    The quotes come from the characters played by Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn, respectively, in “The African Queen”.

    It boils down to this: either one likes what one sees, or one doesn’t. (One may guess where religionists and scientists come down on that pair of reactions). All the higher-order rest – approval, acceptance, identification, etc. – hinge on that basic human criterion: like it or not”.

    The idea that evolution (or nature) ‘isn’t our friend’ is easily rejectable. Its not only incomplete its potentially misleading. It may imply its our enemy. It may also mean its utterly indifferent. At its worst, it suggests that nature has an agenda with respect to us. It has nothing to do with friendship, good or bad, at all.

    Any way you look at it, the assertion only goes toe deep into the shallows and carries with it the complaint of getting wet…or that the ocean has gotten a bit drier.

  35. #35 Arnosium Upinarum
    September 29, 2007

    bernarda: good points.

    What I would like to find is just one example of American deists praying for America to get it right. But they don’t do that. They’re ‘loyal patriots’ and would rather pray that America should prevail, right or wrong. Never mind how severely the wrong weakens America. From the numbers, it is evidently much easier to pretend being a patriot than it is to be an authentic one.

  36. #36 ArchWay
    September 29, 2007

    If survival of our DNA line is the result of evolution, could we not say that evolution has been our friend? I’m here, and I am more than kindly disposed toward evolution because of it.

  37. #37 Kausik Datta
    September 29, 2007

    ArchWay, what others (Caledonian, Blake Stacey and Brownian) have been trying to say here is that YOU may be kindly disposed towards evolution, for the benefits YOU think it has given YOU (capitalization for emphasis only). Evolution, the process, as well as the universe at large, does not give a damn either way. In anthropomorphic terms (just for the sake of understanding), evolution is neither a friend nor foe to anyone or anything. It is an inevitable process, whether you like the outcomes or not.

  38. #38 Brownian
    September 29, 2007

    Brownian, Sailor — what on earth has blackness got to do with the general argument that religion affects behaviour, and behaviour affects reproductive fitness?

    Nothing, I think. I’m glad to read that you don’t think there’s a relationship between the two either. Your use of a statistic about African-American males in a piece about Africans suggested that you might have thought otherwise.

  39. #39 Andrew Brown
    September 29, 2007

    Ah — yes this did occur to me afterwards. But it just happened to be the most striking statistic I could remember in a hurry. I’m pretty certain you would find a similar advantage to being a protestant in Russia, if only because they don’t drink, but I have never found a good reference. Anyway, I trust you’ll accept that as an example that has nothing to do with Africans.

  40. #40 Clay Shirky
    September 29, 2007

    How does Atran account for the dramatic, and apparently accelerating, rise of secularism in the west, including the United States, over the past several decades?

    With the caveat that I haven’t seen Atran or Boyer address the question directly, I’ll offer some speculation based on their work (and on Richard Sosis’s, who is also in the ‘Religion as a costly signal of group commitment’ camp):

    Atheism flourishes in places where there is reduced penalty for defecting from belief (since such belief is costly, time-consuming, and not observably effective on its own terms.)

    Among the attributes of Western life (for citizens of European descent) that may reduce that penalty are the rule of law, which reduces the need to rely in social capital as an enforcement mechanism for agreements, and religious tolerance, which demonstrates that members of different religions are not struck dead as apostates.

    Interestingly, the percentage of atheists is far more pronounced in Western Europe than in the U.S. This may be because many of those countries have an official religion, which damages the syncretism always available in the US to enroll defectors from other religions (as with Hispanic evangelism or Scientology). It may be because the welfare state provides access to the kinds of safety net that, in the U.S., is produced in social rather than governmental forms. It may be because education is designed at the national rather than local level, shielding science education from the preferences of the local population for reduced friction with religious belief, whatever the damage to the science itself.

    If any of these things are explanatory, we’d expect to see atheism in the U.S. vary more by race and less by class than Western Europe — elites of all races would be likelier candidates for atheism than the middle-class or poor in the U.S. In Europe, we’d expect members of the dominant nationality to be likelier to be atheists, even if they were not upper-class, while even wealthy immigrant families, who are cared for by, but not integrated into, the society at large would still find considerable value in the kind of social integration that costly commitment to religion produces.

  41. #41 Monado
    September 29, 2007

    Actually, there’s a statistical advantage to being a Mormon in America, because they don’t drink. Or so I read, somewhere, sometime.

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