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November 26, 2004


Timothy Burke

It's a very good addition to the conversation. In some sense, for most people, whether evolution or creationism is true has no immediate, observable or practical consequences in their own lives, at least not consequences which they control or are personally responsible for.

Neel Krishnaswami

While it's true that expousing creationism doesn't cost most people anything, it's also true that expousing evolution doesn't cost anything either, and it was a mystery to me why someone would choose to dispute the truth. Observing that believing in creationism is low-cost is necessary but not sufficient, so to speak.

I got a much more satisfying explanation when I ran across Larry Iannaccone's work on the economics of religion. He observed that religious communities are altruistic communities -- the members of a religious community are enjoined to help and support one another. Since altruism is costly, such groups are are subject to a free-rider problem, and the economic theory of clubs suggests that one way of limiting the scope of these problems is for the members of the community to take on customs that make it easier to distinguish members from nonmembers. So you can see a vocal belief in creationism as part of a complex of beliefs that enable members of a motivated religious community (say, devout evangelicals) to distinguish themselves from the rest of the community, so that they can offer intra-group assistance to one another. (The sociologists probably have known of this for decades, but I can read econonomics papers but not sociology papers!)

In short, creationism is a rational false belief.

As a personal response, I see a creationist as someone who values membership in a particular community more than the truth. This may not make them a bad person, but it certainly colors whether I believe any other factual claims they may make.

Abiola Lapite

"So you can see a vocal belief in creationism as part of a complex of beliefs that enable members of a motivated religious community (say, devout evangelicals) to distinguish themselves from the rest of the community, so that they can offer intra-group assistance to one another."

That explanation of affairs, while certainly plausible for less widely-held ideas, seems unworkable to me when we're talking about 63% of the entire adult population.

It would seem to me that the best explanation for such wide-ranging irrationality is that it costs virtually nothing to hold such views, while accepting evolution naturally leads to cognitive dissonance, as it is simply irreconcilable with an activist "god" shaping events and creating humans as the apex of his work. For those who would like to believe that there's someone up in the sky who cares for them, there's no good reason to seriously investigate a theory which says that the world is indifferent to the suffering of individuals, and which offers no practical payback in their daily lives, other than at best a sense of intellectual satisfaction at curiosity fulfilled.

Although I despise them, in a sense I think the creationists are more upfront about this tension between Christian belief and science than are most of their mainline co-believers.


On Rational Irrationality:

1. If it costs nothing to hold these views, then how do we explain the development of these views from minority to majority status? There was a time when holding Xtian views (including the whole account of Creation) was very COSTLY (in an immediate and practical sense). So then why did people hold them? People have held contrarian views even when they were extremely costly. So why? In the same sense, people have REFUSED to hold perfectly rational views even when it cost them.
A roll call of examples:

a. Those folks who refuse to believe in the Science underlying Blood Transfusion. Like the JWs. They refuse to believe and it costs them - their lives in many instances.

b. Folks who refuse to believe in Modern Medicine. Divine Healing / Faith Healing types. They refuse to believe and it costs them.

c. The folks who refused to believe that Hitler was running Germany into the Ground even when evidence was copious as to the fact.

d. Folks who refuse to believe that smoking is dangerous. It costs them.
Generally, they refuse to believe X because they believe Y and they adjudge Y to provide greater profits.

2. The speculative flip-side is even more interesting. For the Xtians think - Why do people hold these secular views? Why dont they believe in Jesus? And some respond: "Well its because they've got everything so good, they have no need for God" - BUT, if the Xtian account is true, then the secularists are going to HELL - another (albeit speculative) example of people holding beliefs even when it costs them.

3. People dont hold beliefs, or refuse to hold beliefs because of immediates costs or consequences of those beliefs. The possession of beliefs is not Cost-Oriented. It is Reward-Oriented. People hold beliefs that give them the greatest rewards according to whatever value measurment system they are using.
Xtians are Xtians because "What does it profit a man if He gain the world and loose his soul?" The emphasis is on profit.
Secularists are secularists because there are psychological wages to be reaped from KNOWING.
And the reason there is such a deficit in scientific knowledge in the Populace is NOT because not knowing doesnt cost, I think it is because not knowing rewards.
Not Knowing Rewards since it frees up valuable Mental Resources which can be deployed to engaging more reward producing beliefs. Like the Belief that your Soul will be saved forever while that of your Neighbor will burn.
In general, where refusing to believe X so that one may believe Y or vice versa provides psychological wages - people will disbelieve X even if it is Rational.
The Kink here is in the Value-System of measuring profits.

Come now - If we really believe that the world and all that is therein is going to be destroyed in a matter of decades - what is the more rational choice?

A. Learn all you can about the world soon to be destroyed and its History.
B. Do Nothing.
C. Take Proactive steps to secure your existence in the Life-After, concentrating on the requirements of such a Life; i.e. Piety, Holiness etc etc etc.

I think, the Rational choice is C. In cases where the components of C are setup in direct contradiction to the components of A - It doesnt make any sense to Choose A. It makes no sense at all. I mean, what do you gain from choosing A?
Whereas if you choose C - Ah!

The appeal of the Rational Irrationality of Religion is not the Activist God or his Care in THE PRESENT. It is the instinct of self-preservation, evoked, via the construct of an After-Life.
Its all Profits, Baby. Profits all the way.
What Reward could be greater than Immortality?
The marketing strategy is Tres Parfait!!!

Neel Krishnaswami

That's a fair point, Abiola. I will have to think and read some more.

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