Heresies of Mammon

(Contents: atheism, religious discrimination, ideological zealotry and oppression.  Other contents: economic theories of negotiation, CEO:worker income discrepancies and unemployment rates.  Fun contents: Latin phrases and Irreponsible Use of Emphatic Capitalisation.)

The statistician George Box once wrote: “All models are wrong, but some are useful”.  I know very little else about him, but hot-and-sour pan-fried archaeopteryx knickers, that may be the most aware, insightful, and universally applicable observation I’ve ever heard.

There was a hell of a firestorm at one of my favourite sites a little while back (I’m not linking to it because I’d hate to restart anything over there; the mods have put up with more than enough) about trying to convert people into or out of religious beliefs.  It was in many ways a really painful discussion, but it did cause me to think much more about why I, as an entirely unapologetic atheist, am really quite comfortable with other people being religious ceteris paribus*.  I have chronic Someone Is Wrong On The Internet syndrome; seeing people say things that are definitely not true always tweaks me to want/wish/NEED to correct them even if I’m not otherwise taking part in the discussion.  So why do I not react that way to religions, which I do believe are all quite inaccurate as descriptions of reality?

Ultimately, it comes down to my view of humanity as a whole, which could be summarised as ‘we believe what we want to believe’ but would be better expanded to ‘we are drawn to those beliefs that resonate with us and driven from those that repulse us’.  And further: we are drawn to those beliefs that will further allow us to support the beliefs we already have.  People want to be consistent – talk to anyone who’s ever worked in professional survey design and they will tell you that one of the reasons that the order of questions matters is that people will answer the last questions in a way that ensures they stay in line with their answers to the first questions, even if they might otherwise answer in a very different way.  Asking questions in the right order is practically hypnotism.  We all know this.  Consistency is important.

Set that aside for a moment while I talk about economics.  (zing)

I didn’t realise it at first, but apparently I studied in one of the most left-wing economics departments that can be found in Canadian universities (and just being in Canada also means that I’m an honorary socialist from the perspective of most US institutions).  This was a good thing for me, but it certainly complicates things when I run into the greater majority of people who also studied economics and yet appear to operate in an entirely different universe from me.  Now, when my co-worker remarks that we need to keep taxes low on the rich or they’ll stop creating jobs, I mentally facepalm, and depending on the circumstances I might start discussing the relationship (or lack thereof) between personal earnings of executives, corporate earnings, workers’ wages, and employment rates.  (Meet me down in the footnotes!**)  Either way, I know that my co-worker has almost no ability to influence our government’s fiscal and financial policy, and zero ability to influence that of any other government.  So does it do me or anyone else any good to hound them about how wrong their economic ideas are?  This is serious stuff; policies based on these ideologies can and do transform whole countries and the prosperity of millions of people.  But most days it really just does not matter what my co-worker thinks about economics, and in the meantime we have several dozen experts to interview for a research project on rural climate change adaptation.

Being the type of person that I am, beliefs don’t bother me that much except to the extent that they inform actions.  Actions are a big deal.  Someone who says that we should really give supply-side economics another chance has amusingly obsolete views; a politician who actually tries to implement supply-side economic policies must be stopped.  By the same token, a person who believes in any number of deities (to take one popular aspect of religion) does not bother me and I will think them at worst to have misinterpreted some aspect of the world, whereas someone who tries to establish laws purely on the basis of religious justifications, again, must be stopped.

But coming back now to consistency: I use the phrase ‘religious justifications’ intentionally.  And I do so because I can’t help noticing some serious discrepancies between the wisdom some folks claim to have received and the practices that they base on it.  It’s not hard to find in economics – exampli gratia, some libertarians love to talk about social welfare and contractual obligations, stating that if we want to, say, cut down on pollution from a factory, then everyone who is affected by that pollution should pool their resources and form a contract with the factory in which they will pay X amount if the factory also cuts its pollution by Y amount, and then supply/demand curves can determine the most appropriate values of X and Y to maximise social wellbeing through revealed preferences.  Therefore bringing in government regulations just gets in the way and reduces efficiency.  A lot of these arguments, in economics, trace back to a paper by Ronald Coase, in which he describes the efficiency of this kind of bargaining under the assumption that there are no transaction costs – that is, it costs no one any time or effort to do this negotiating.  Now in reality people have got things to do, but more to the point, I have read that paper, and Coase himself says the same near the end: by the way, real people don’t have nearly the time to do this and there are way too many factories and stuff out there for anyone to form contracts with all of them, which is why we need government to handle the big stuff.  But don’t count on finding internet libertarians who quote that bit.  That would get in the way of their ideology.  Except that their ideology is supposedly based on these papers.

Or, in the case of religion, you’ve got (more free examples!) Christians or Muslims or Jews or whoever saying that women absolutely must be subject to men, it says so right here in the Bible, for serious, and you’ve got Christians or Muslims or Jews or whoever saying that, no, not agreeing so much with that idea.  And maybe someone would argue that the first group is obviously just Better At Religion than the latter group, but then that raises the question of what’s up with all those other parts of their scripture that they’re not pushing everywhere every day.  I don’t know nearly so much about Jewish or Islamic scriptures, but I hear Jesus had some pretty harsh things to say about people who held onto their wealth while others were hungry or naked or in distress.  I hear he wasn’t wild about violence or hating people because they were different.  And yet there seem to be an impressive number of people self-labelled as Christians who say that their wealth is morally deserved and those dudes who like to make out with other dudes should be threatened with violence because they are to blame for all evil.***

It’s almost as if they’re quoting the parts of their scriptures that support the things they already want to do, and ignoring the ones that don’t.  It’s almost as if their primary interest in religion is in justifying their predetermined personal preferences – it’s not that I fear things that are different, you see, it’s that God hates things that aren’t like me.  Totally different!

This is everywhere and it really shouldn’t surprise anyone if we keep finding it in other aspects of human behaviour.  Where does religion come from?  No clue.  Is it objectively good for anything?  Not sure.  Is it an actual source of evil?  No.  How could I possibly believe that?  I’m an atheist.  I don’t believe in any external sources of evil.  Evil is in us by process of elimination.  It is a necessary consequence of my atheism that I believe all religions were wholly invented by regular people.  They’ve survived because they were useful to people, and sometimes what they’ve been useful for is letting people pass the buck.

So when I hear people talk about getting everyone to be atheist, specifically with the corollary that this will somehow remove evils from the world, I’m pretty freakin’ skeptical about the plausibility of their goals.  If someone who demonstrably does evil things goes to jail and declares afterwards that they converted to religion and are a whole new person, we tend not to buy it.  Why in the world would we imagine that someone religious who became atheistwouldcompletely revamp their morality?

Sure, there are direct testimonies from people who are/were religious and struggled with teachings that they simultaneously believed had divine backup and yet conflicted with their own good morals.  Those folks deserve help and support, and maybe they would be better off as atheists.  But the idea that somehow the bigots who throw rote quotes out in defence of their bigotry would actually become good people if only they were atheist is just not plausible to me.  They’ll find some other argument – junk psychology or evolutionary determinism or any kind of pseudoscience they want – that will let them keep doing what they want to do, which is, very simply, to be allowed to hurt others and aggrandise themselves.

The problem with religious jackwagons is not that they’re religious.  It’s that they’re jackwagons.  If they weren’t religious, they would be some other kind of jackwagon.  Is jackwagonry impossible to change?  Certainly not.  But trying to cure it by going for the religion is not in line with empirical evidence.  There are too many of my fellow atheists who are reprehensible for me to believe that religious beliefs are a meaningful contributor to just being a really awful person.  We as atheists should be smarter than that.

There are, absolutely and without question, many, many places and situations in the world where religion is used as an excuse to hurt people.  It’s used to divide, to exclude, to deny vital things to those who need them.  And yes, large parts of religion are functionally immune to evidence, but if you think that makes it somehow unique – I’m an economist and I have a Laffer Curve to sell you.

Why don’t I mind if other people are religious?  Because religion doesn’t have to be oppressive, exclusive, or socially favoured.  Those things can and should be fought – religious privileges, sectarian legislation, coercive proselytisation.  And if we can agree on taking those out, then no, I don’t much care what kind of metaphysics you believe in and I don’t have time to waste trying to ‘correct’ everyone in the world on every issue.

*’All else equal’; used in statistics to describe changing a single variable in an expression without changing anything else.  Of course, it’s impossible to just flip some ‘theist/atheist’ switch in someone’s head and keep every other outlook and conviction static.  There are too many implications and consequences.  But I don’t know the Latin for ‘all else equal as far as that is possible which might be more or less depending on certain factors’.  I bet in German that’s all one word.

**Let’s check with our pals at the Institute for Policy Studies concerning income ratios of CEOs to workers – in 2010, among the S&P 500, CEOs received an average of $10,762,304 (up almost 28% from 2009) and workers received an average of $33,121 (up all of 3.3% from 2009), for a total ratio of 325:1, so that’s a pretty impressive ungrokkably huge discrepancy.  How are they doing in Japan?  Well, according to the Nikkei business daily as reported by the Wall Street Journal, in the 2009-2010 fiscal year, their CEOs made approximately 4.8 times as much as their average worker, down from 5.8 the year before.  Four-point-eight.  If you compare Japanese unemployment rates and US unemployment rates you’ll notice that they follow a very similar pattern, with the meaningful difference that Japan has way lower unemployment.  Both countries’ unemployment rates peaked in 2009, with Japan at 5.6% (highest ever) and the US at 10% (highest since 1983).  To get the best visual comparison, set both graphs to the same time period, say 1960-2012.  Now, I am a responsible econometrician and I’m not saying that reducing this income discrepancy will automatically fix everything.  I’m just saying that correlations sometimes exist for a reason and that if people seriously want to mitigate economic implosions maybe they should look more closely at what folks are doing in countries that consider 5% unemployment to be absurdly high.

***Fun pastime for trying to understand the homobigoted perspective: step 1: find at least one video involving same-sex intimacy as suit your comfort level – even just a clip of Mitchell and Cameron (Modern Family) kissing will do fine.  Step 2: find a similar number of videos from movies depicting catastrophic disasters – things like 2012 or The Day After Tomorrow are ideal.  Step 3: watch all of the videos in alternating order – one from the first group, followed by one of the terrible repercussions depicted in the second group.  For bonus subtext, follow a lesbian kiss with the bit from Return of the King when Sauron’s giant mighty tower fractures and explodes.  Step 4: realise with growing horror that some people may actually believe that this is a legitimate concern.  Step 5: realise with even more horror that there are definitely people with serious sociopolitical power who want you to believe this is a legitimate concern because it will keep you distracted while they steal everything you own, and sometimes they are succeeding.

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One comment on “Heresies of Mammon

  1. hapax says:

    But I don’t know the Latin for ‘all else equal as far as that is possible which might be more or less depending on certain factors’.

    I believe the term you want is “mutatis mutandis” — which means “changing those things which ought to be changed” (implied, “NOT changing those things which oughtn’t”)

    So, for example: “Melodie Johnson Howe’s Maggie Hill/Claire Conrad series (which is awesomecakes, by the way) read — mutatis mutandis — as gender-swapped Nero Wolfe/ Archie Godwin mysteries” implies that the tone of the mysteries, the personalities of the characters, etc. remain the same, except that the protagonists would wear different clothing, experience sexism, would not have the same upper body strength, and so forth.

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