Too Dumb To Vote, Part IX – Religion, Morality & Politics

Welcome back, intrepid traveller! The ‘Too Dumb To Vote’ series has taken a back seat to more pressing events, but now it’s back in style. Today we will take a farcically truncated look at the interactions between religion, morality and politics, and how this interplay underlines the weakness of the current democratic system. We’ll hit this in three sections: (i) a rushed look at definitions, and a quick aside on ‘science as religion’, (ii) highlighting how tricks similar to those outlined in TDTV 2-6 are used to lure and keep people in religions, and (iii) how religion affects voting, and to what extent that’s OK.

I.                    Definitions of Religion

There are many. Emile Durkheim,  French ‘Father of Sociology’, saw it as:

a unified set of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden, – beliefs and practices which unite [into] one single moral community, all those who adhere to them. (Durkheim, 1915)

This is pretty good, but a bit dated, mainly because Durkheim was working in a

Dapper Durkheim

Euro-centric world which contained something of a paternalistic hierarchy between ‘proper grown-up religions’ (Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism), contrasted with the belief sets in the colonies (paganism, animism, shamanism, Scientology, magic.) His definition excludes this latter category from counting as religion, since it (in his view) lacks the community-spirit.

Fortunately, good old Clifford Geertz, American anthropologist, proposed this instead:

(1) a system of symbols which acts to (2) establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by (3) formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic
(Geertz,1985,
Religion as a cultural system. Anthropological approaches to the study of religion)

Anthropologists = Rockstars of defining religion

I prefer this one, since it put all blends of otherworldly beliefs on the same footing – there is no hierarchy. Where (for example) Manifest Destiny Protestants were quite happy to see their religion as immeasurably superior to (say) Lakota Sun Dance and Ghost Dance practises, Geertz allows us to point at the whole lot of them and say, “You seem to believe in things that aren’t there. Religion.”
This is clarified by vans Baal and Beek, in:

(Religion is) all explicit and implicit notions and ideas, accepted as true, which relate to a reality which cannot be verified empirically
(van Baal & van Beek 198, “Symbols for communication an introduction to the anthropological study of religion”)

The ‘empirical verification’ stands out to me most strongly. It allows us to condemn belief systems, whatever their pedigree, age and ‘niceness’, to the same box – shit we can’t be sure of. In it, the character “Storm” from this hilarious Tim Minchin video, is as much a religious believer as the Pope.

Now then, now then. Some wonderful thinkers, generally when arguing with atheists or evolution-supporters, point to the Geertz quote and ask smugly, “Isn’t science just another form of religious belief?”

And you can see how this makes sense. We can’t simply hide behind a defence of scientific principles as superior to the truth-finding principles of religious beliefs, as this poster humorously does. Sure, it’s great that science is adaptable and peer-reviewed, meaning that the community will happily discard a theory if compelling evidence disproves it. But so will certain religions, else Messrs Calvin and Luther would’ve just read the Bible, shrugged and muttered, “Seems legit.”
Science does give us a system for understanding and interpreting the world, it is symbols-based, scientists do believe them. Arguably, science even includes a healthy helping of “blind faith” in the belief that our logical systems are sound and our empirical assumptions hold true. This is a rather scary notion, and lots of skeptics/scientists would not concede the point, but there it is.

Dapper Dawkins?

However, “science as religion” is missing something. The morality. Good scientists do not draw morality from science, because science can only establish facts. Professor Dawkins highlights this in one of his gradually-more-offensive talks, here. When you take a survey of scientists, you will find people who argue for a whole spectrum of positions on moral debates (death penalty, abortion, contraception, foreign intervention.) Their way-of-understanding-the-world does not directly inform their ethical choices in the sense “It is good to do x”. Religions will happily say (indeed, it is one of their most important roles to say) “murder is wrong” or “giving to charity is right”.
Science can tell you a near-limitless number of things about murder, from the biology of caving in someone’s head with a baseball bat, to the psychological torment murderers go through, to the different efficacies of legal systems and prisons, but it cannot tell you whether hitting someone with a baseball bat is right, wrong, or indeed has any moral value.

II.                  The Tricks of the Trade

I don’t want to labour this comparison too much, as I’m sure you’ll already have noticed similarities for yourself. It isn’t too hard to see how any of the accidental and deliberate techniques that influence our voting processes can also be used to influence our spiritual choices, just as they affect judicial procedures and social interactions. For analysis, skip to III.

Language and Rhetoric. Religions are as guilty as anyone (except perhaps advertisers) for using logical fallacies, not least appeals to tradition, in defending their positions or attacking those of others. Moreover, the fire-and-brimstone preacher or charming local witch doctor can be reliably imagined to use hyperbolic language, extreme emotional vocabulary and ‘ting to impress on you the aura of their spaghetti monster in the sky. They tend to let you join in, with songs and prayers, which not only give you the ‘group membership’ feel, but also act as convincers – by repeating religious affirmations or mantras, our brains naturally believe them more. [See also Family Guy S9E9]

The Flying Spaghetti Monster. Valid and sexy.

Physical. As previously noted, you’re more likely to trust and believe in someone of your own class/ethnic group/aesthetic assumptions/gender/accent. Religious leaders (and devotees) have specific forms of dress that conform to potential believers’ expectations. Most will also exploit the cultural link between confidence, good public speaking and effective leadership. Lots of religions tend to emphasise the “Other-ness” of nonconformists and competing religions, giving your hostility-programmed subconscious lots to get fired up about. Woohoo.

Magic. Oh you know religions are a huge culprit. Faith healing, explaining natural events (e.g. US TVangelical Pat Robertson arguing a snowstom is God’s way of punishing the Gays. Derren Brown does a lot of excellent videos on this, exposing ‘psychics’, ‘mediums’ and various religious miracle workers (4OD) who use Barnum Statements and suggestion. Sadly it doesn’t end there.  Religions are great fans of void filling (creating a horrible problem which you cannot solve for yourself, and presenting theirs as the only cure). See also: Hell.

Brain Chemistry. As well as being littered with appeals to confirmation and memory biases (e.g. using good luck to prove the effectiveness of prayer, interpreting God not destroying the world as evidence that the Apocalypse is coming), most religious events and experiences do a serious number on your subconscious. As well as the powerful effects of group membership and action, you’ve got the cunningly designed centres-of-worship and the affirmation rituals (e.g. Mass, Hajj, 400,000 prostrations).

An excellent blend of these at work can be seen (or inferred) from the Soul Survivor (Christian Summer Camp) that friend and atheist blogger extraordinaire Alex Gabriel attended and documented recently.

III.  What does it all mean, Basil? Or, how religion affects politics, and if that’s OK

It’s important to acknowledge that politics and morality cannot be divorced, and should not be. We ultimately want to vote on policies we think are ‘Good’, and our definition of ‘Good’ depends on our morality. We need some form of ethical (or meta-ethical) value-system to determine what aspects of policy we prioritise, and what outcomes we would prefer. And if you’re convinced that your religion is the correct method for determining morality, then that’s valid.

Where religion isn’t valid is in determining which policy will bring about the outcome you’ve decided is ‘Good’. What I’m warning against is religious techniques being applied to political problems willy-nilly, when the most superficial look at that religion shows a whole confused range of views on the topic (e.g. whether the death penalty is acceptable for Christians, whether Sharia should be followed to the letter, whether Israel should even exist as a state). Moreover, I’m terrified when people deploy religious non-facts to serious arguments. This is where science comes in. Science is not qualified to say whether injections or condoms are morally good, but it can empirically prove to A) South African tribal groups who reject bovine flu vaccines, fearing that they contain evil spirits designed to kill cattle, and B) the Pope, rejecting contraception on numerous grounds in favour of abstinence, that the ‘scientific’ methods are quantifiable more effective in reducing bovine flu and STI-AIDS rates.

It seems to me that an informed voter needs both a well thought –out value system* and the ability to rationally evaluate arguments and statistics. Even for those of you who disagree with the franchise-qualification idea should, I hope, still see the value in a greater emphasis on adequate  universal critical thinking education.

God Bless America.

*This may be the content of a future blog, but in the meantime, let’s just say that your value system is well thought out if you’re confident that you came to it regardless of all the naughty influences in II. This can of course include non-religious value systems (utilitarianism, Aristotelian value-ethics, neo-Platonism, hedonism, whatevs.)

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8 thoughts on “Too Dumb To Vote, Part IX – Religion, Morality & Politics

  1. As I only just discovered your blog, I figured I’d post something to this and previous arguments combined here.

    So though I agree with this article (your argument about science being a religion, and that there is fundamentally a link between morality and politics, and that science lacks morality, but should still be used to figure out what method should be taken. This in contrast to religion, as we need morals to compare the different outcomes versus each other, but that to determine what outcome will result of which action path is what science tells us [partly]). However I disagree with your conclusion that this means people should not be allowed to vote.

    Your argument that “P1: Democracy is favoured on the assumption that the electorate rationally votes with its best interests at heart” is something I’d disagree with (you go into slightly more detail in blog VI, but I do not believe you’ve ever strongly backed it up). Instead, I’d say that democracy is fundamentally a compromise.

    It is a compromise, because it is not the most efficient method (and could never be). Representative democracy is a reasonably good method of choosing people to take our important decisions, while preventing the worst case. Regardless of how intelligent, knowledgeable and selfless the voters are, resources still have to be spend on campaigning and voting, which is ultimately ‘waste’, compared to a simpler system.
    However democracy’s strength lies in what happens when it goes wrong. When a government comes in which is obviously wrong, takes bad or corrupt decisions, we can get rid of them. Even though we may not always end up with the ideal leader, a bad leader won’t last.
    That is the fundamental advantage of democracy, that we outperform an absolute ‘avoid badness’ strategy such as a random selection process (politicians are fundamentally reasonably competent in contrast to a random selection process), and still avoid it terribly going wrong (as we can get rid of them).

    As I therefore see democracy’s existence as a compromise instead of the goal of always making the best choice, I’m against selective voting. I believe it opens the door to a whole variety of issues, not least of which a government biasing the selection criteria into their favour (just look at how the uk changes the county boundaries to help the party in power every time). I like the idea of selective information you make in blog VII, but in general I believe your suggestions would lead to more potential for the government to cheat, and a reduction of equal importance being allocated to the different groups in society (e.g. selective voting by intelligence would allow the government to get away with treating them worse: I believe people are not fully informed about other people’s lives, wouldn’t be able to fully understand if they were and tend to vote selfishly up to some level anyways). Though it may lead to some different, better decisions being taken, I’d therefore generally keep democracy as it is run atm.

    • Hey Claus, thanks for such a full response : ) Really interesting.
      I think you’re right to attack ““P1: Democracy is favoured on the ass
      umption that the electorate rationally votes with its best interests at heart”. I’d argue that whilst I didn’t create that premise as a straw-man, it’s certainly not the *only* reason people support democracy. There are many, probably. Lots of people think, for example, that it is prima facie important for everyone to have a voice in government – you and Sarah both seem to hold to this, which is fine. Would it be fair to say you’d replace my P with “P1. Democracy is favoured on the assumption that it prevents rule by the worst governments.”
      I’d disagree with this on a number of levels. Firstly, historical evidence proves that democracy can and does install (and not-quickly-oust) leaders who are pretty bloody evil, including Saddam Hussein, Milton Obote (Uganda, twice!), Robert Mugabe (Zimbabwe), Charles Taylor (Liberia), Francois Duvalier (Haiti), Kim Jong-il, Mussolini, Ceausescu (Romania, re-elected in ’89 and this article suggests over 40% of Romanians would vote for him Now!), Slobodan Milosevic (/his party and cronies), and most recently, Putin*. And…you know…the other one. There is also evidence that the USA overall opposed the election of George Bush (Jr.) but through Ralph Nader’s candidacy leeching Democrat votes, the worst candidate won. So…I don’t really accept your premise.
      I don’t dispute what you say about voting being ‘wasteful’, indeed I think it supports some of my propositions.
      Looking specifically at my franchise proposals, I understand and share your fear of government skewing the tests as they currently do constituency boundaries – that’s why I included a whole paragraph limiting government’s ability to do so:

      “The syllabus and examination will be created and monitored by an independent commission and regularly reviewed by the whole public, ensuring it tests skills, not positions (i.e. appreciating the difference between strong and weak arguments for republicanism, rather than supporting republicanism and penalising monarchism). The review system and commission should include representatives from minorities concerned that their exclusion would lead to an unfairly restricted definition of a certain skill or issue. Nonetheless, the examinations should be substantially rigorous.”
      (-TDTV, part vii)

      To sum up, I’d say that even if I did accept your premise, I think my model of post-democracy delivers “less evil leaders” more routinely than current democracy. A lot of the nasty men I list above won elections on Absolutely Terrible platforms, deploying the techniques I criticise in II-V extensively. A population educated to ignore rhetoric and understand substantive argument would not, in many cases, have elected those men*.

      * Yes, I concede that several of these elections can be described as rigged/biased, although by no means all of them, and in most the evidence for the rigging does not wholly discount the probability that they would have won without it. In any case, having gained the popular power to enable nationwide rigging requires a substantial level of popular/democratic support, lest the election’s results be contested or a rebellion break out.

  2. re: science, morality, the things you said about that. Go and read a book by Jacob Bronowski titled “Science and Human Values”. It’s only a hundred-or-so pages long but it is a brilliant essay and shows how your statement “Good scientists do not draw morality from science,” is either incomplete or wrong. I bet you a pint that you will enjoy this book, old chap.

    • I’m afraid no Northamptonshire libraries stock the book, so I’ll have to get back to you more fully when I get my hands on it. In the meantime I’ve read a bunch of reviews and a chapter summary. It’s certainly interesting, but I’m not sure I’m convinced.

      He states:
      ‘The society of scientists is simple because it has a directing purpose: to explore the truth. Nevertheless, it has to solve the problem of every society, which is to find a compromise between man and men. It must encourage the single scientist to be independent, and the body of scientists to be tolerant. From these basic conditions, which form the prime values, there follows step by step a range of values: dissent, freedom of thought and speech, justice, honour, human dignity and self-respect.’

      I appreciated this, but did not completely agree. I’d accept the values he suggests from “Encourage the single scientist to be independent…” to “freedom…thought and speech”, plus others in the essay such as scepticism and testing for truth, not (Classical) “Rationalism”. I do not see how justice et al automatically follow. The values that I say I accept, I had meant and assumed were included in ‘science’ whenever I stated ‘science’, and are otherwise clearly implied values throughout my site. They are essential parts of ‘what I was talking about when I valued science’, although I concede that I didn’t make that clear.
      Moreover, these values do not arise from the gleanings of science. They arise from the practice and (to Geertz it) ‘rituals’ of science, and are based on the aforementioned reverence for logic and empiricism. When Crick and Watson discovered/published about the Double Helix, they didn’t wave their paper around yelling, “Here’s proof we should value human dignity! Yeah!”

      That a scientifically-minded community is more probable than, say, a theocracy, to develop such values is likely and hopeful, but I don’t see it necessitating or entailing them. It’s more a Neitzchean/Foucaultian look at an episteme-shift; when a community’s worldview accepts science, it’s more predisposed to all the other goodness. My wider argument is all in favour of this. But such morals are in themselves outside of science, and one can be ‘scientific’ whilst still adhering to an ethos that denies justice, honour, human dignity and respect in many circumstances. Bronowski doesn’t seem to oppose this, he says those ethics “derive directly from (scientific) activity”, and idealised scientific activity at that, not that the science itself proves their objectivity.

      This almost stumbles into the realms of Sam Harris. Harris can very adequately prove that ‘the majority of humans find the concept of dropping one’s daughter in acid’ reprehensible through MRI scans, but that does not help derive an objective moral law in the slightest, it merely presents a group’s specific morality, conditioned by society/religion/evolutionary-biology/emotive response. Bronowski traces the evolution of Western morals from the Renaissance, as linked to science. Fine. But that just presents a competing (and pretty wide) moral spectrum.

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  5. This isn’t exactly the right post for my comment but I’m really hungover and it will do. A while ago I was reading your article about post-democracy and several people responded highlighting potential flaws of your proposed system and you asked if anyone else had suggestions. The other day I read an article about basing votes on science;id you cannot back up your argument with solid science, it is immediately invalid. This would make your idea on not voting purely on economic policy irrelevant as nobody will be able to prove their policy is the best. It was also written in the Zeitgeist movements policy or whatever so it would also be irrelevant as there would be no economy, but you see theit point. Only people that can explain their reason to vote for a specific argument backed up with strong science gets a vote. It might be elitist but if decisions are getting made for the scientifically “right” reason, this is better than the majority’s “wrong” decision. Thoughts?

    • I think, as much o even more than my own proposals, that sounds pretty good in theory but completely unworkable in practice.
      1.) Who defines what is, and isn’t, respectable science? For most legislation in which science is important, there are necessarily subjective calls to be made – for example, what ‘quality of life’ is for a foetus, and what age that becomes ‘viable’, or how ‘relatively safe’ a recreational drug is.
      2.) There are countless policy areas that I can’t realllly see science having much sway over. You note it wouldn’t help for economics – neither would it do much for education, immigration, foreign policy, etc etc. Which I think would mean no-one legislates on those issues? Which seems pretty crazy. Whereas my system attempts to get the ‘best informed’ and ‘least biased’ decision on a leadership or policy, this one would simply get ‘no decision’ in a huge number of cases.
      3.) Time. constraints. Even without the issues in (1.), science takes ages. This is vital, the peer-review system being science’s most salient characteristic as separated from art and magic. For legislation, especially in emergencies, the need to carry out multiple experiments would be, at the least, v unwieldy.

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