[FoRK] Eli, atheism, religion, memes, synchronicity

Jeff Bone <jbone at place.org> on Tue Dec 4 09:39:12 PST 2007

(Regardless of the practicality of the notion of FAI, one very large  
reason our aforementioned buddy Eli would never achieve it anyway is  
that he spends all his time holding forth on matters of philosophy,  
etc.  In a strange bout of synchronicity yesterday, he wrote this...   
quintessentially Eli, somebody needs to do the remote differential  
diagnosis on his corpus, fascinating really.)


Every now and then, you see people arguing over whether atheism is a  
"religion".  As I touched on in Purpose and Pragmatism, arguing over  
the meaning of a word nearly always means that you've lost track of  
the original question.  How might this argument arise to begin with?

An atheist is holding forth, blaming "religion" for the Inquisition,  
the Crusades, and various conflicts with or within Islam.  The  
religious one may reply, "But atheism is also a religion, because you  
also have beliefs about God; you believe God doesn't exist."  Then  
the atheist answers, "If atheism is a religion, then not collecting  
stamps is a hobby," and the argument begins.

Or the one may reply, "But horrors just as great were inflicted by  
Stalin, who was an atheist, and who suppressed churches in the name  
of atheism; therefore you are wrong to blame the violence on  
religion."  Now the atheist may be tempted to reply "No true  
Scotsman", saying, "Stalin's religion was Communism."  The religious  
one answers "If Communism is a religion, then Star Wars fandom is a  
government," and the argument begins.

Should a "religious" person be defined as someone who has a definite  
opinion about the existence of at least one God, e.g., assigning a  
probability lower than 10% or higher than 90% to the existence of  
Zeus?  Or should a "religious" person be defined as someone who has a  
positive opinion, say a probability higher than 90%, for the  
existence of at least one God?  In the former case, Stalin was  
"religious"; in the latter case, Stalin was "not religious".

But this is exactly the wrong way to look at the problem.  What you  
really want to know - what the argument was originally about - is  
why, at certain points in human history, large groups of people were  
slaughtered and tortured, ostensibly in the name of an idea.   
Redefining a word won't change the facts of history one way or the  

Communism was a complex catastrophe, and there may be no single why,  
no single critical link in the chain of causality.  But if I had to  
suggest an ur-mistake, it would be... well, I'll let God say it for me:

"If your brother, the son of your father or of your mother, or your  
son or daughter, or the spouse whom you embrace, or your most  
intimate friend, tries to secretly seduce you, saying, 'Let us go and  
serve other gods,' unknown to you or your ancestors before you, gods  
of the peoples surrounding you, whether near you or far away,  
anywhere throughout the world, you must not consent, you must not  
listen to him; you must show him no pity, you must not spare him or  
conceal his guilt. No, you must kill him, your hand must strike the  
first blow in putting him to death and the hands of the rest of the  
people following.  You must stone him to death, since he has tried to  
divert you from Yahweh your God."  (Deuteronomy 13:7-11, emphasis added)

This was likewise the rule which Stalin set for Communism, and Hitler  
for Nazism: if your brother tries to tell you why Marx is wrong, if  
your son tries to tell you the Jews are not planning world conquest,  
then do not debate him or set forth your own evidence; do not perform  
replicable experiments or examine history; but turn him in at once to  
the secret police.

Yesterday, I suggested that one key to resisting an affective death  
spiral is the principle of "burdensome details" - just remembering to  
question the specific details of each additional nice claim about the  
Great Idea.  (It's not trivial advice.  People often don't remember  
to do this when they're listening to a futurist sketching amazingly  
detailed projections about the wonders of tomorrow, let alone when  
they're thinking about their favorite idea ever.)  This wouldn't get  
rid of the halo effect, but  it would hopefully reduce the resonance  
to below criticality, so that one nice-sounding claim triggers less  
than 1.0 additional nice-sounding claims, on average.

The diametric opposite of this advice, which sends the halo effect  
supercritical, is when it feels wrong to argue against any positive  
claim about the Great Idea.  Politics is the mind-killer.  Arguments  
are soldiers.  Once you know which side you're on, you must support  
all favorable claims, and argue against all unfavorable claims.   
Otherwise it's like giving aid and comfort to the enemy, or stabbing  
your friends in the back.


...you feel that contradicting someone else who makes a flawed nice  
claim in favor of evolution, would be giving aid and comfort to the  
...you feel like you get spiritual credit for each nice thing you say  
about God, and arguing about it would interfere with your  
relationship with God;
...you have the distinct sense that the other people in the room will  
dislike you for "not supporting our troops" if you argue against the  
latest war;
...saying anything against Communism gets you stoned to death shot;
...then the affective death spiral has gone supercritical.  It is now  
a Super Happy Death Spiral.

It's not religion, as such, that is the key categorization, relative  
to our original question:  "What makes the slaughter?"  The best  
distinction I've heard between "supernatural" and "naturalistic"  
worldviews is that a supernatural worldview asserts the existence of  
ontologically basic mental substances, like spirits, while a  
naturalistic worldview reduces mental phenomena to nonmental parts.   
(Can't find original source.)  Focusing on this as the source of the  
problem buys into religious exceptionalism.  Supernaturalist claims  
are worth distinguishing, because they always turn out to be wrong  
for fairly fundamental reasons.  But it's still just one kind of  

An affective death spiral can nucleate around supernatural beliefs;  
especially monotheisms whose pinnacle is a Super Happy Agent, defined  
primarily by agreeing with any nice statement about it; especially  
meme complexes grown sophisticated enough to assert supernatural  
punishments for disbelief.  But the death spiral can also start  
around a political innovation, a charismatic leader, belief in racial  
destiny, or an economic hypothesis.  The lesson of history is that  
affective death spirals are dangerous whether or not they happen to  
involve supernaturalism.  Religion isn't special enough, as a class  
of mistake, to be the key problem.

Sam Harris came closer when he put the accusing finger on faith. If  
you don't place an appropriate burden of proof on each and every  
additional nice claim, the affective resonance gets started very  
easily.  Look at the poor New Agers.  Christianity developed defenses  
against criticism, arguing for the wonders of faith; New Agers  
culturally inherit the cached thought that faith is positive, but  
lack Christianity's exclusionary scripture to keep out competing  
memes.  New Agers end up in happy death spirals around stars, trees,  
magnets, diets, spells, unicorns...

But the affective death spiral turns much deadlier after criticism  
becomes a sin, or a gaffe, or a crime.  There are things in this  
world that are worth praising greatly, and you can't flatly say that  
praise beyond a certain point is forbidden.  But there is never an  
Idea so true that it's wrong to criticize any argument that supports  
it.  Never.  Never ever never for ever.  That is flat.  The vast  
majority of possible beliefs in a nontrivial answer space are false,  
and likewise, the vast majority of possible supporting arguments for  
a true belief are also false, and not even the happiest idea can  
change that.

And it is triple ultra forbidden to respond with violence.  There are  
a very few injunctions in the art of rationality that have no ifs,  
ands, buts, or escape clauses.  This is one of them.  Bad argument  
gets counterargument.  Does not get bullet.  Never.  Never ever never  
for ever.

Posted by Eliezer Yudkowsky at 11:40 AM in Psychology, Religion |  

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