Sunday, February 21, 2016

Putting faith in context

I watched a rather interesting and fairly long video recently that got me thinking about how we might decide on the practical benefits (or lack thereof) of religion.

Haidt finds himself in an argument with a bunch of the New Atheists (Dawkins, Harris, and others), and because I find both sides interesting I read more about the disagreements here.  Needless to say I don't fully agree with anyone, but I do think looking at how they think and what they say about each other's positions is likely to be really thought provoking for anyone who is interested in thinking about the effects of religion divorced from any question of whether or not its supernatural claims are true.  Everyone involved in this debate thinks God doesn't exist; they just can't decide what should be said about religion given that basic fact.

One of the things that stirs up a lot of controversy is the fact that in numerous studies religious people give more to charity than atheists.  The difference is only 10%, but it is there.  Note that this is after giving to religious organizations is stripped out, and that similar findings exist for blood donation and volunteering.  Haidt uses this as a reason for us to consider the usefulness of religion and sanctity in general, and suggests that we might well be able to harness the power of belief to improve society.  It is a worthy area of consideration because if we can make people's lives better than we ought to try to do that, I think, even if the methods might be distasteful to some.

The obvious counter argument is that religion, and sanctity in general, rely on falsehoods.  At the very least they require guesses to be presented as facts and hopes to be presented as truths.  We could argue that doing so is inherently wrong but that would hold up truth as something worth pursuing regardless of its effect on human well being, and I don't buy into that.  I think truth is worth pursuing, but I think it is worth pursuing because it improves human well being, not because of any value inherent in it.  Truth itself is not sacred, it is just a really good tool.  Given that, I think that there is a huge downside to religion because I think truth itself is more valuable.  However, I can't prove that; it is just my supposition.

A more appropriate counterargument, I think, is that the data showing that religious people are more giving is based on a highly biased sample.  If you ask people in the US about their giving you may find that religious people give more, but you are asking that question in a country where serious president candidates say that an atheist cannot possibly be a good president.  In that country bans on muslim immigration are being proposed, and muslims are increasingly being brazenly attacked on the street, certainly in some part due to inflammatory comments by political leaders.  In that same nation atheists are even *less* trusted than muslims, but they suffer far less because they cannot be easily identified by their appearance.

In a nation so thoroughly dominated by a single religion you can't seriously expect that the charitable behaviours of religious and nonreligious people will be unaffected by that fact.  Having your holidays be celebrated by most businesses, being able to wear your religious artifacts without question, and being able to get away with assuming that everyone is of your religion unless stated otherwise changes your place in the world.  The question is, would religious people give more if they were the minority who was pushed out of top positions of power?  If atheists ruled the US and the idea of a Christian president was laughable would those surveys still show religious people giving of themselves to others more than the majority?

I doubt we would see the same thing in that reversed scenario.  I can't prove it, obviously, but I can suggest that people who are in a minority that is pushed to the margins spend greatly of themselves just trying to carve out their own space.  They have less time / money / energy to spend, and they probably are less inclined to spend it on others.  If you could do surveys about giving and generosity across many cultures and locations my suspicion is that you would find that the dominant groups were more generous to charities regardless of their religion or lack thereof.

Again, I can't prove that.  But I don't think I need to, particularly.  What I can say with confidence is that in a world where Abrahamic religions are extremely dominant you find that those in those religions donate slightly more to charities than those who do not believe.

That statement does not lead at all to saying that religious people would give more or less to charity in an unbiased sample.  Unfortunately I don't see any good way to acquire such a sample, but if we ever do I will be terribly curious to see what it contains.


  1. Not sure you want to say that Athiests don't donate because they're part of a persecuted minority. The optics of the statement are bad - it looks like an excuse.

    I mentioned to a religious friend once that almost everyone I've met who is strongly religious is a really nice person. His response? "Well, it's kind of self-selecting".

    Strongly religious people (outside of the wacky fanatics who get press but maybe aren't actually that common) may just constitute a lot of the "nicer" people as traditionally defined.

    You want to sleep in on Sunday, swear and covet your neighbour? Do whatever you want, whenever you want? Organized religion probably isn't for you. I suspect your interest in charitable giving may be low as well.

    When you gather a bunch of people together with a theme of sacrifice and helping, is it surprising that they're good at...helping?

    Similarly, I suspect charitable giving among Muslims is higher because it's part of their faith - 10% of their income if I recall correctly. Minority or not.

    There aren't a lot of Athiest social groups. So you can't point at large self-selecting group of Athiests and do a comparison.

    Your thoughts on the US and minorities seems like nonsense. Of course, without stats on charitable giving in non-US countries, I can't prove it. :-)

    1. Your experience of religious people all being very nice is quite contrary to my experience. I have found them to be by far worse than the atheist crowd, both in terms of personal appeal and 'niceness'. Those are, of course, highly subjective anecdotes so they aren't super useful.

      Also, you should note that there are tons of religious people who engage in the swearing, sleeping in on Sunday, and coveting sorts of behaviours. We haven't established that there is any correlation there at all. Remember, most Christian denominations teach that you can do all those things as much as you like but as long as you accept Jesus, you go to heaven... and those who don't accept Jesus but live lives full of goodness and charity burn forever. So officially there is no particular reason for a Christian to be a good person, reward-wise.

      Theme of sacrifice and helping? You mean theme of xenophobia and hatred? Have you *read* the bible?

      Let's be frank. People don't become religious because they are generous. They become religious because their parents told them to be, by and large. Conversions and spontaneous acquisitions of religion are by far a tiny minority, and they usually seem to go hand in hand with helping oneself, rather than a desperate need to help others. Religion is far more about who is in what group and what random stuff they hold sacred than it is about any particular type of personality or virtue.

  2. I think that "The Authoritarians" has a suggestion of what the answer is:

    In it, the author notes a number of features of "authoritarian followers" - people who look for authorities to tell them what to do. Dogmatism, compartmentalized thinking, aggressiveness in defense of authority. But also happiness and generosity.

    I think it's about internal vs. external validation. A person who looks to an authority to tell them the purpose of their life is *also* a person who gets considerable happiness out of helping other people. I don't think it has anything to do with whether or not a religion is dominant. Quite a few oppressed religions are notoriously helpful and kind. By descriptions I've read Christians in Maoist China were extremely dedicated to good works even though they had to practice their faith almost entirely in secret.

    But it also doesn't have to do religion. There are lots of modern substitutes for religion for a person who doesn't see how there could be an invisible sky friend but is looking for some kind of external life instructions - paleo diet, anti-vax movement, attachment parenting, etc.

    So I think there is a "third cause." It's not religion making people nice or nice people being religious. It's just a personality type that is more likely to be religious and more likely to be nice (even if only to those who are part of their religious in-group).

  3. I will buy that. I am convinced that 'just make people religious and they will be generous' is bunk, but a correlation between religion and generosity remains plausible (not not proven) as far as I am concerned.

    Liberals and atheists also are more likely to vote for higher taxes and greater government support for those in need, but are less likely to act individually. Similarly it is hard to figure out how to leverage that, if leverage is even possible.

  4. I think atheists being more likely to support higher taxes fits the same pattern. A person who seeks external validation is more likely to believe in God, and wants to help people, but wants to *be the one* doing the helping. I think having a division of labour where we all pay into a pool that is used make things better and reduce the number of people who need that kind of direct help is probably just more efficient, but knowing that things are running well because your paycheck is garnished doesn't give the same sense of doing good.

    I used to donate to Sick Kids on a regular basis and I asked them several times to stop sending me their little mail outs saying "Check out this kid who is sick who is totally getting better because of *your* donation." Charities have to shill like that to appeal to the sort of people who give to charities.

    Maybe the government should run commercials every now and then just being like, "Hey those of you who are paying taxes, look at some of the good things they are doing; and those of you who need these services, we're happy to help. Let's keep making things better!"