Monday, July 5, 2010

Other People's Religion

For quite some time I was baffled by the question, "why do so many people believe, or at least purport to believe, statements which clearly are not supported by the evidence?" The clearest example of this is other people's religions. We may convince ourselves that our own religion is true and clearly so, but given the variety of different beliefs in the world, it is undeniable that the vast majority of them must be wrong. In fact, viewed from the outside, other people's religions often seem not just obviously wrong, but literally laughable.

It turns out the answer is reasonably well known. The beliefs in question serve as group membership markers. Evidence has nothing to do with it. These beliefs are often of matters which are unknowable (what happens after one dies), or at least seemed to be when they were first formulated (where did the world come from). Often compliance with some sort of ritual is required, but I think people comply with the ritual in order to demonstrate their commitment to the group, not because of a genuine belief that violating some taboo will genuinely do harm to the violator or to anyone else.

These beliefs tend to be of little practical significance for those who hold them. It's easy to find people who will tell you this, but it may be difficult to convince yourself this is true, particularly since the significance of the beliefs are if anything more often asserted from the outside than from the inside; atheists often talk as if it's just a baby step from allowing the teaching of creationism as an "alternative theory" to witch burning. Conversely, Christians often talk as if a belief that humans are just another species of animal will lead to people acting like animals; they won't so much behave immorally as behave as if morality isn't even a meaningful concept. In the real world, not only do a majority of Americans believe in some form of creationism already, but most people who "believe in evolution" have some comic-book conception of it that is no closer to the scientific theory of evolution by natural selection than is the Genesis myth, and incidentally is somehow not incompatible with a belief in God.

In any dispute in which people separate into identifiable factions, whether allegedly religious, political, artistic, or even scientific, it is likely that a significant fraction of the adherents of each side have chosen their position not on the evidence of the issue itself but rather on which group they identify with. In principle scientific disputes can be resolved by observation and experiment, but in practice, particularly in the "soft sciences", this is not possible, particularly if one has very demanding standards for the burden of proof.

Unfortunately, none of this actually helps determine truth. As a neutral third party, it is easy to conclude that disputants on both sides are expressing far more confidence in the correctness of their opinions than is reasonable that this is largely based on a feeling of solidarity with those on their side and a dislike of those on the other, particularly since they aren't at all sgy about expressing this dislike, although they will reverse the arrow of causality. And if one is oneself involved in a political or "scientific" dispute in which emotions run strong, the idea that those on the other side genuinely believe that they are "the good guys" seems even more preposterous than the idea that they simply believe that what they say is true. Nonetheless, they do.