Monday, October 24, 2011

The "Wacky" Religious Beliefs of Politicians: Should We Care?

Mitt Romney's Mormonism as inspired a lot of discussion lately about whether we it is okay to vote against a politician because of their religion. As everyone knows, Mormons have beliefs that seem odd to non-Mormons. Now it turns out that Herman Cain has an unusual supernatural-related belief as well: that the number 45 has a special significance in his life, often appearing as a "sign" of important events. Not too surprisingly, this has been discussed in the leftosphere in posts with titles like "Herman Cain is Even Crazier than You Thought." Here is a thoughtful discussion of whether Romney's religion is something we should care about.

Well, should we? I just want to make one point that hasn't been made yet in the discussions I have seen.

A lot of the discussion has been about how "wacky" the religious or supernaturalist beliefs of Cain and Romney supposedly are. My point is this: I don't think that the "wackiness" of a religious belief matters at all. The simple reason is that, in my experience, it does not correlate with anything else, including wackiness of non-religious beliefs.

As a senior in high school, I lived in a town (Santa Rosa, CA) that had a substantial Mormon community. I knew several Mormon teenagers and though I was already an atheist I even attended services in their church a couple of times. (No, I wasn't flirting with Mormon beliefs. I was flirting with a Mormon girl.)

These people, one and all, were as industrious, rational, well-adjusted and decent as anyone you would hope to meet. On the one hand. On the other hand, they believed things like -- that (some) people become gods when they die, that Satan is the estranged brother of Jesus, and that American Indians are descended from the lost tribes of Israel.

Facts of the latter sort seemed to have no effect on facts of the former sort -- unless it was a beneficial effect! .

I see a much more general phenomenon here. I have often noticed that distinctively religious belief, in general, not just the "wackiness" of such beliefs, is curiously insulated from the rest of life, and in particular from beliefs about other things. (This is one of the things that inspired philosopher Georges Rey to write brilliant paper, Meta-Atheism: Religious Avowal as Self-Deception.)

I know scientists who are sincere religious believers, and those beliefs as often as not are as fuzzy and sloppy as their scientific work is clear and rigorous.

Religious belief seems to be a part of a person's life in which they get their crazies out. If this sounds offensive or nutty to you, just interpret it, for the moment, as a sort of thought experiment, as a thesis about religious beliefs different from your own. ... Does that help? Well, just as Romney's "magic underwear" seems wacky to you, so your belief that the Creator of the whole universe cares whether your marriage ends in divorce or not seems wacky to me. I have even heard tell of Christians praying to win at football -- as if the Great Mystery would pick sides in a game!

Religions are full of goofball ideas, and yet that does not seem to cause people to have goofball ideas in other realms. Like those scientists, we use one sort of logic for religion and a completely different one for everything else.

I can think of two possible explanations for this:

This subject-matter is special. Religion is about invisible beings with inexplicable super-powers. It just feels natural to think about them in ways that are paradoxical, paralogical, evidence-free, and obviously wish-fulfilling.

Or how about this:

There are no consequences. If you think irrationally about the stock market and act on those thoughts, reality will punish you for it. But if you think irrationally about an invisible super-being -- making sure that these thoughts do not lead you to make predictions about the real world - reality will not punish you.

Anyway, I'm not worried about the wackiness of a politician's religious beliefs. Except for real-world implications (for instance, regarding abortion or gay rights) their religious thoughts can just run riot as far as I am concerned - which, as often as not, they will.


Anonymous said...

There's another aspect to this as well: religious thought in many makes demands on one's rationality that can be met in different ways. At one extreme is what one might call hyperliteralism; at the other is hypoermetaphoricalism. Both are responses to the impression that mainstream religious beliefs are irrational. The mainstream doctrine of the Trinity is a case in point: the mainstream Christian says that there is one God, but that this person is also three people, and yet still one person. Huh? The hyppermetaphoricalist (Hegel is an example) will say something like "oh that's just a way of saying that life has three aspects to it, or the world can be viewed in three different basic ways, or somesuch." And that is a somewhat reasonable way of dealing with a reason-defying notion. But the Mormon says "a person is a person, so there must be three; a person occupies space, so these three people must occupy space." It is *doggedly* commonsensical (and in the history of Mormonism there is some disdain directed at benighted rival Christians who lack this *clarity* about the content of their beliefs). The problem is that this makes them much more susceptible to falsification, and this is where things go awry. I give them credit for demanding that received Christian notions be made to make sense. What's so strange is that, having done so, they do not immediately reject them. Those whose beliefs are more murky need not do so, because as long as it is far from clear what they accept, it is equally far from clear what would constitute a reason to reject.

Matt Olver said...

Science still has a lot of explaining to do for things like the natural and physical causal origins of cellular life on Earth, what the mystery of consciousness is all about and what a conscious mind is, and where evolution is taking humanity. Emergent phenomena like consciousness aren't 'visible' per se but we have a leap of faith and literally take it at face value that most other people and animals have it. The scientific answers to these questions may never arrive any time soon. A few things that stood out to me in your entry were a couple of statements.

"I know scientists who are sincere religious believers, and those beliefs as often as not are as fuzzy and sloppy as their scientific work is clear and rigorous."
This seems to imply that religious believers like to take short-cuts and easy way out explanations. Some of this translates to being lazy intellectually and professionally. I don't disagree.

"Religion is about invisible beings with inexplicable super-powers."
Religious people will tell you it means much more than this. But I'm a person that sees religion within a human evolutionary context. Daniel Dennett has a lot of spot on things to say about this, namely that religion shouldn't be off limits to scientific inquiry. I was glad to see him speak at the UW-Madison in 2008. Is it possible that religion is just a one part stepping stone in the development of our human evolution? Probably.

What's the political significance of all this? I think out of all of the GOP candidates Ron Paul is closest to Thomas Jefferson in many respects including faith. Jefferson said in Notes on the State of Virginia, "It does me no harm if my neighbor believes in twenty gods or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg." Paul has stated that he agrees with this statement and even had it up on his website at one point.

- Matt

Tommy said...

good post. I have a lot of the same thoughts. however, you should point out that while having a religious belief is not a strike against you, being distinctly agnostic or atheist would has seriously favorable implications.