Taking advantage of religion

Many (most?) nonbelievers are convinced that supernatural believers would be better off without their religion.

That’s hard to evaluate, particularly since important beliefs such as religious convictions are not merely instrumental in letting us achieve our purposes. Instead, they strongly shape what our deepest interests are. Unless we have a way of figuring out who is “better off” independently of our particular interests, it is hard to see how we can say that the religious would invariably better off without belief. I don’t think this is doable. Sometimes we just care about different things, and that is that. If, for example, we were to find out that secular people enjoy some advantage in worldly achievements, well, the religious can rightly say they care about spiritual attainments. If, as at least some social science suggests, believers are happier, secular people could turn their nose up at what they see as cheap therapy.

But there might be some way of making headway by a more limited, more relative comparison. After all, we think of false belief as a handicap. A cognitive mistake should have pragmatic consequences. If we find a group of believers in competition with nonbelievers, trying to achieve outcomes they both care about, we might be able to find out who enjoys an advantage and who suffers from a handicap. In fact, we might be able to do even better. If we were to run into situations where nonbelievers were able to exploit the cognitive handicap of supernatural conviction and directly take advantage of believers, that would be pretty significant.

I don’t, however, see any of this happening. Religion can leave believers vulnerable to exploitation. Where Turkish Muslims are concerned, for example, it’s very common to run into financial scandals. A bunch of people present themselves as good Muslims of impeccable character, and gain the trust and the savings of devout believers, for some investment or charitable activity. They then abscond with the money. And there is the depressingly common phenomenon of sect leaders living in luxury, partly by giving the economic activity of their followers coherence, but also partly by outright exploitation.

So religious belief making groups of believers vulnerable to exploitation is not uncommon. But it’s not clear to me that this isn’t just an occasional price to pay for the social cohesion religion seems to offer so often. Overall, the benefits of belief for establishing trust may be worth the occasional incident of misplaced trust. We have an arms race between social predators and prey; neither can be said to be better off.

More important, the more blatant examples of religious communities being subjected to exploitation do not involve nonbelievers taking advantage of religion. Religion is typically a hard to fake signal of commitment. It is probably easier to exploit a community if you genuinely share its supernatural beliefs in most respects. Why pay the extra cost of concealing nonbelief, if you can exploit the community and (mostly) believe at the same time? So these are not, I think, examples that can reveal any genuine competitive advantage for nonbelief.

By and large, I’m not convinced nonbelief offers any unambiguous advantage. If it were, I would expect more cases where nonbelievers successfully take advantage of religion.

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    Taner Edis said: “If, as at least some social science suggests, believers are happier, secular people could turn their nose up at what they see as cheap therapy.

    And also:

    After all, we think of false belief as a handicap. A cognitive mistake should have pragmatic consequences.

    Indeed. And to be unhappy is a pragmatic consequence, is it not?

    Perhaps the most important question in philosophy is “what is truth?”. I don’t think that the concept of truth can be divorced from the concept of usefulness. Indeed it seems that usefulness is central to the question of truth, even in the case of, say, arithmetic truths.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06106486055928496810 The Kilted American

    "I don’t think that the concept of truth can be divorced from the concept of usefulness."

    If you mean this as in living a useful life – I would disagree.. there are many folks that suffer from believing they are somebody they are not.. But yet live a useful and productive life.
    There are many believers and non believers that live a useful life in the service of others – and only one side can be correct.

    While truth is useful. without question.. I am not sure how central usefulness is to truth.. some truth is worthless – or worth less then other truths.

    Of course I think all truth is objective

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09010421115826273321 Rourke

    A few comments:

    (1) I happen to personally believe truth is objective, Mr. Kilted America, though I don't think that's especially relevant to this discussion:

    (2) Taner, I completely agree with you about the benefits of religion. I live in a fairly religious ("moderate") household, and people are daily selling the benefits of religion to me. Meanwhile, I observe the same (smaller-scale, but extant) social exploitation and general unpleasantness associated with religion that nobody bothers to mention when they're trying to convert me, years after I stopped beliving.

    (3) Viva longa Secular Outpost! (That's fake Latin, by the way.)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16802918328975492093 yashwata

    "If we were to run into situations where nonbelievers were able to exploit the cognitive handicap of supernatural conviction and directly take advantage of believers, that would be pretty significant. I don't, however, see any of this happening."

    Have you ever heard of the Roman Catholic Church? In this ancient tradition, priests exploit the cognitive handicap of supernatural conviction in order to rape and torture young children by the millions.

    You might say: Catholic priests are not nonbelievers. But of course they are. As Dennett puts it (Breaking the Spell, p. 227): "You wouldn’t masturbate with your mother watching you! How on earth could you masturbate with God watching you? Do you really believe God is watching you? Perhaps not." Priests are not necessarily believers. After all, they are experts on their trade. They know how bogus it is. (Furthermore, a case can be made that there is no such thing as religious belief: that no one really believes in any god.)

    "But it's not clear to me that this isn't just an occasional price to pay for the social cohesion religion seems to offer so often."

    It's clear to me. Religion may seem to offer social cohesion, but this is a misconception. The purpose of religion is coercion, not cohesion. The price of religion is paid by the members (including, for example, the altar-boys), to the leaders of the religion. The purpose of the coercion is that the leaders make a living from it – plus perks.

    Why do casinos exist? Is it because a cohort of people dying to waste their money on cheap tricks polls its resources to create a setting in which that can be accomplished? No. Someone builds a casino, who sees the cohort's vulnerability to those cheap tricks as a way to make a killing.

    Now, why do churches exist?

    "By and large, I'm not convinced nonbelief offers any unambiguous advantage."

    I have never been raped, partly because I was never Catholic. Does that count as an unambiguous advantage?


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