"Talks a good game about freedom when out of power, but once he’s in – bam! Everyone's enslaved in the human-flourishing mines."

Is Everything A Religion?

I.

On the last Links thread, Eric Raymond claims that environmentalism is a religion. It has “sins” like wasting energy and driving gas-guzzling SUVs. It has “taboos” like genetically modified foods. It has an “apocalypse” in the form of global warming. It even has “rituals” in the form of weekly recycling.

This reminds me of an article I read recently claiming that transhumanism is a religion. But also of the article claiming that social justice is a religion. Also, liberalism is a religion. And conservativism is a religion. Libertarianism is a religion. Communism is a religion. Capitalism is like a religion. Objectivism is a religion. An anthropologist “confirms” that Apple is a religion. But UNIX is also a religion (apparently Linux was the Protestant Reformation).

Is there anything that isn’t like a religion? I spent this morning trying to come up with the least religious things I could think of. Trying to think of practical disciplines aimed at producing a quantifiable result, disciplines which strive to be evidence-based with a minimum of extraneous ideology. What came to mind was investing and medicine.

But investing is about propitiating a mysterious deity (the market) whose blessing or wrath bestows innumerable riches or total ruin. Believers follow gurus like Warren Buffett and Jim Cramer who promise that if they do the right things they will achieve financial salvation. Those who follow their pronouncements will enjoy the blissful afterlife of a comfortable retirement; those who violate their laws will spent their retirement in penury among much wailing and gnashing of teeth.

And medicine involves petitioners going to white-robed priests (doctors) who consult the holy scriptures (Harrison’s Clinical Medicine) to tell them how to live their lives. It has rituals (the yearly physical), taboos (smoking, overeating), and heretics (alternative medicine). Those who follow its rules are assured of a long, happy life; those who violate the rules of its priests will get cancer and die.

Maybe we’re still being too abstract here. What about, I don’t know, not stepping in front of buses? It certainly has a commandment (thou shalt not step in front of buses). It has notions of sin (stepping in front of buses) and virtue (not doing that). It has its rituals (looking both ways before you cross the street), its priests demanding obedience (crossing-guards), and its holy places (crosswalks). It promises blessings on the virtuous, but also terrible vengeance on the wicked (if you step in front of a bus, there will be much wailing and gnashing of teeth).

So one critique of these accusations is that “religion” is a broad enough category that anything can be mapped on to it:

Does it have well-known figures? Then they’re “gurus” and it’s a religion.

Are there books about it? Then those are “scriptures” and it’s a religion.

Does it recommend doing anything regularly? Then those are “rituals” and it’s a religion.

How about just doing anything at all? Then that’s a “commandment” and it’s a religion.

Does it say something is bad? Then that’s “sin” and it’s a religion.

Does it hope to improve the world, or worry about the world getting worse? That’s an “eschatology” and it’s a religion.

Do you disagree with it? Then since you’ve already determined all the evidence is against it, people must believe it on “faith” and it’s a religion.

II.

But that critique goes just a little too far. Once Communists start offering animal sacrifices to statues of Mao and requiring everyone own a copy of the Little Red Book and treat it respectfully, something is going on that’s deeper than just “it has well-known figures”.

Even though it’s easy to say that every belief or movement can be analogized to a religion, I still feel an intuition that some are more “religious” than others. Environmentalism and social justice seem more religious than gun control and pro-choice, even though all four are equally important lefty issues.

The first two are just more of a world-view. I can totally imagine someone saying “My life philosophy is centered around my passion for the environment”, but not so much “My life philosophy is centered around gun control.” I can see a speaker at a wedding saying “John and Jane are perfect for each other, since they are united by their shared passion about social justice”, but not so much “John and Jane are perfect for each other, since they are united by their shared passion for abortion rights.”

Both social justice and environmentalism spawn entire genres of art and literature, and I know people who pretty much exclusively draw their artistic consumption from those genres. But if somebody said “All of my art has a pro-choice theme”, that would probably be pretty creepy.

I know social justice people whose social circle is almost 100% based on social justice, and environmentalists whose social circle is almost 100% based on environmentalism. I don’t think there are that many people whose social circle is 100% based on gun control. And if someone says “I’m fanatical about the environment”, I get a whole lot of stereotypes about them – she probably eats granola, drives a Prius with a dreamcatcher in the window, has a college degree, does yoga. He probably goes hiking a lot, has a beard, takes supplements, is pretty relaxed. If someone says “I’m fanatical about gun control”, I’m stumped.

But all of this stuff about stereotypes and art and insularity sounds a little like religion but even more like culture, or at least subculture.

The difference between “religion” and “culture” has always been pretty vague. Shinto is the best example; it’s less a coherent metaphysical narrative than a bunch of things Japanese people do and a repository for Japanese traditions and rituals. A quick look at Hinduism reveals that they have no idea what gods they believe in, it’s a bunch of different religions stuck together under one umbrella, but the point is that it’s the sort of thing Indian people do and a repository of Indian traditions. Even though Jews have a pretty coherent religion, the line between “Jewish culture” and “Jewish religion” is equally fuzzy. Religion as distinct from culture seems like a pretty Western phenomenon, the result of a triumphant Christianity colonizing cultures it never originated from, ending out with the modern conception of culture as ethnic food + silly costumes.

American culture is paper-thin compared to say Hindu Indian culture, but consider its rituals like the Pledge of Allegiance, its holidays like the Fourth of July, its saints/culture heroes like George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, its myths like Paul Bunyan and Johnny Appleseed, its veneration of founding documents (the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution), and even its hymns like “America the Beautiful” and “Yankee Doodle”.

(the last of which, like all good hymns, uses such archaic language that almost nobody knows what the heck it means)

This gets called American civil religion a lot, but at this point I’m starting to wonder why it should. Maybe instead of accusing every culture of becoming a religion, we should just admit that our current concept of “religion” actually owes a lot to “culture”.

Eliezer writes that every cause wants to be a cult, but I’m not sure I agree with the connotations. I would say every cause wants to be a community. Communities hold values in common. Communities have rules their members have to follow. Communities have heroes and hierarchies. Communities shun people who don’t fit in.

And if all of this sounds super-conservative, keep in mind we’re still talking about environmentalism here, or social justice here. Values in common? Check. Rules? God yes. Heroes and hierarchies? You bet. Shunning people? All the time.

Communities and cultures have their share of danger. Their mix of social and epistemological functions means that any evidence challenging the community’s core beliefs will be taken as an attack on the members’ identity. As a result, community members risk ending up mind-killed. That’s not news. And I don’t think this is especially different from the way religious fanatics are mind-killed. And certainly someone could argue that “religion” is the perfect name for a culture built on shared belief.

But I still think it’s unfair to call these communities/cultures “religions”. “Religion” is too easy to use as the Worst Argument In The World here. It’s supposed to imply all of these other connotations of “religion” like “their beliefs are based on magical thinking” and “they use blind faith instead of reason” and “instead of coming up with a world-view based on evidence they just played Bible Mad Libs.” If those are the connotations you’ve got with “religion”, then I think the word “religion” is actively doing harm here, and you should just use “belief-based community” or “movement” or whatever.

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469 Responses to Is Everything A Religion?

  1. social justice warlock says:

    This is good, yes. Extra fun side note: the disciplines most concerned with defining “culture” (anthropology) and “religion” (religious studies) ended up deciding that culture is pretty much anything humans do and that religion is, uh, who the fuck knows, probably a bad category.

    But I still think it’s unfair to call these communities/cultures “religions”. “Religion” is too easy to use as the Worst Argument In The World here. It’s supposed to imply all of these other connotations of “religion” like “their beliefs are based on magical thinking” and “they use blind faith instead of reason” and “instead of coming up with a world-view based on evidence they just played Bible Mad Libs.” If those are the connotations you’ve got with “religion”, then I think the word “religion” is actively doing harm here, and you should just use “belief-based community” or “movement” or whatever.

    What is strange is that religious people use this as well.

    • Unknowns says:

      Right. That is because religious people tend to assume that their own religion is true and backed by tons of evidence, while all other religions are irrational beliefs without any evidence.

      The truth is that all religions have some evidence for them, even if not very much. And in particular people who are raised in those religions are actually presented with real evidence for them. It just takes them some time to realize (if they ever do) that it wasn’t exactly a random selection of the available evidence.

      • aerdeap says:

        Religous people are also often using it against cultures that are either explicity or implicity anti-religion (atheism, almost all transhumanism, most of SJ etc).

      • Dain says:

        Reminds me of a finding I saw once showing that evangelical Christians were the most suspicious and disdainful of astrology, relative to other Americans. Of course we know this isn’t because they’re a bunch of rationalists.

    • NonsignificantName says:

      If you’re religious: X is a religion, it elevates Y over God! O’d better not believe it of I want to remain Z religion.
      If you’re not: X is a religion, I better not believe it if I want to stay nonreligious and rational.
      Either way, you don’t want to tick “apple” in the religion box.

  2. Social justice specifically resembles Protestantism, even. Catholics have the notion of supererogation, which are good acts over and above what God expects of you. Protestants reject this: the most you can possibly do is the very least that God expects of you. “…Christ saith plainly, When ye have done all that are commanded to you, say, We are unprofitable servants.” God does not hand out “cookies” for good acts.

    The same notion can be found in social justice: the most you can do is the barest minimum expected of you to be “a decent human being”, and suggesting that you do more than is expected of you is disparaged as “asking for cookies”.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      First of all, while I understand the pattern you’re talking about, I think it’s more complicated than that. Certainly people celebrate eg Martin Luther King as having done more than the bare minimum. On the other hand, there is a failure mode where someone’s like “I said hello back to a black person who said hello to me! I am the best social justice person! Look at me, fighting racism!” at which point they do have to be informed that this is kind of a bare minimum. I agree that “you are doing the bare minimum” is overdeployed, but I think it’s for normal Type 1/Type 2 error reasons rather than part of a complete moral philosophy.

      More important, though, supererogation vs. have-to-do-everything is a basic design decision for any moral philosophy. If they choose one branch, you can accuse them of being descended from Catholicism; the other branch, Protestantism. That seems kind of unfair.

      • social justice warlock says:

        Catholicism/Protestantism is a pretty popular choice for this across a wide variety of dichotomies. Do you have a formal hierarchy, or not? Is there a tradition to get continually interpreted, or an unchangeable rulebook that should be adhered to literally? Do you favor maximalist aesthetics, or minimalist ones? &c.

      • Don’t you think “have-to-do-everything” is an unusual aspect to a moral philosophy? Besides Protestantism, it seems more like an exercise in moral philosophy than something people widely actually try to follow and feel bad when they fail.

        For example, are there any other popular religions that have “have-to-do-everything”? Islam doesn’t: it recognises extra daily prayers and extra charity to the poor as supererogatory. I don’t think Judaism has it as such? I don’t think polytheist religions make this kind of demand either.

      • Am I being too harsh on social justice to say that there are no circumstances in which they would consider it acceptable for a white person to display pride in their own anti-racism?

        • Fibs says:

          Maybe a little, but only because the mistake is in making the argument.

          If the explicit stance is: “Being racist is wrong”, people being proud they’re not racist is… pointless. Either they’re not racists (good) or they are, in which case they’re wrong and shouldn’t be. If they’re proud that they’re not it implies that somehow being racist is something that requires effort, or motivation, or focus like sticking to a diet or running five miles and not an automatic thing like breathing.

          The world-view postulates that racism (to pick an example) is an aberrant example of historical evil, so not being a racist is just you doing everything that can reasonably be expected of you.

          So the question isn’t really: “Am I being harsh if I say they won’t give credit for XXX, ever?” I think the question is: “Wait, why are you expecting them to? Why?”.

          So for instance you can talk about how there are like structures in social justice and specific religious traditions, perhaps in an attempt to illuminate some point. I just think comparing them directly leads to a lot of loss for everyone involved.

          Also I’m not sure its correct? No one is saying you need to go out right now and march on your-local-seat-of-government and demand they immediately adopt [policy measure Z] *right now*. I think in many cases what they’re expecting is the bare minimum (“don’t be racist”), and you’re more than allowed to go way beyond it and sign as many petitions as you want, so long as you just also do the bare minimum.

          There’s a difference between supererogation or lack-thereof and an understanding that some people will happily use tiny things to fish for compliments (Have you ever heard: “I’m such a nice person, I didn’t murder anyone with a knife today”?

          The only possible answer can really be: “Sorry, isn’t not-murdering people with knives just what people expect you to do? Do you want cookies for not killing people?” )

          • Tracy W says:

            Although, if we all grew up steeped in a racist culture, without realising it, then not being racist is something that does require effort or motivation, like sticking to a diet or running 5 miles.

            Not murdering someone requires very little effort on my part, perhaps it might be hard to control my temper, but I can generally walk away from a situation entirely. That’s quite different to running for 5 miles. (And there may be some people for whom refraining from murder requires as much effort and willpower as dieting.)

          • So anti-racism isn’t even a thing, then, there’s only racism and not being racist, is that correct?

          • Zorgon says:

            Without commenting on whether anti-racism is “a thing”, it strikes me that it doesn’t actually need to be one to be a signalling element.

          • Ghatanathoah says:

            @Tracy W

            (And there may be some people for whom refraining from murder requires as much effort and willpower as dieting.)

            There’s a Vernor Vinge story called “Original Sin” featuring aliens where that is the case. The aliens lament the fact that humans are “born good,” while the aliens have to work really hard at it.

          • wysinwyg says:

            So anti-racism isn’t even a thing, then, there’s only racism and not being racist, is that correct?

            No, there aren’t even discrete classes like that. People vary along a spectrum of possible positions towards racism. Some people are incredibly intolerant of racism to the point of looking for utterances to classify as racist. Some people agree racism is bad and do their best not to be racist themselves. Some people are not particularly worried about it. (Some of those people are racist presumably, but many of them are not.)

            I think in SJ circles it would be gauche to pat yourself on the back for being anti-racist simply because being anti-racist is part of the tribal identity to begin with. It would be kind of like walking into a bar in Boston and greeting everyone, “Hey guys, I love the Red Sox!” It would come across as trying too hard — an inauthentic attempt to fit into the group.

            The attitude inside the SJ circle would probably be more like, “Well, I don’t like racism but because I’m privileged I probably still do racist stuff and I need to be vigilant about that.”

          • Nornagest says:

            Back in the heady days of RaceFail ’09, which wasn’t exactly driven by modern SJ but has close taxonomic links to it, I remember that Beckett “fail better” quote being thrown around as a way of describing the proper approach to race relations as a person of privilege.

          • The attitude inside the SJ circle would probably be more like, “Well, I don’t like racism but because I’m privileged I probably still do racist stuff and I need to be vigilant about that.”

            “Well, I don’t like sin but because I’m human I still do sinful acts and I need to be vigilant about that.”

            In both cases the guilt/responsibility is not really specific to any particular acts they can name: it’s more just a general sense of corruption. I think this is toxic. If you feel any guilt or responsibility to change your behaviour, it should only be because you can point to particular acts that you regret.

          • wysinwyg says:

            In both cases the guilt/responsibility is not really specific to any particular acts they can name: it’s more just a general sense of corruption. I think this is toxic. If you feel any guilt or responsibility to change your behaviour, it should only be because you can point to particular acts that you regret.

            Where do you get “guilt or responsibility to change your behavior”? Neither of those were stipulated in my comment.

            Suppose I have a temper and I know I have a temper. Would it be “toxic” for me to try to avoid situations that would set me off, or for me to try to adopt strategies that would prevent my temper from getting the best of me?

            Suppose I’m narcoleptic. Is it toxic to avoid driving or otherwise operating heavy machinery?

            From my perspective, morality attaches itself at the level of action. One need not feel guilty or a responsibility to change oneself at the level of tendency, but if such tendencies can affect the likelihood of immoral actions then it seems only sensible to take that into account.

          • Zvi Mowshowitz says:

            If someone would kill someone, and especially if they would probably 100% get away with it, but decides not to because they’ll get a cookie for not doing it, I’m 100% willing to get mugged for a cookie in that spot. Even a real and awesome one from Levain Bakery, let alone a metaphorical one. That seems like excellent strategy and an excellent stabbings-to-cookies exchange rate, even as effective altruism. Otherwise, the person will recognize their incentives are to go back to stabbing people…

          • Bryan Hann says:

            “I am proud that I am not a baby eater.”

        • veronica d says:

          @Ashley Yakeley — I think your question is in the “not even wrong” place.

          Which is to say, social justice says that anyone raised in this culture will have internalized the toxic message of racism, and getting past that would require such an extensive rewrite of how we think that it is effectively impossible.

          Before anyone starts throwing rocks at me, this is an empirical statement about how our brains work and how culture works. Its truth or falsehood is unrelated to how much it offends you.

          Myself, I consider it “close enough to true to work with.”

          So say a white person expresses pride in their anti-racism — fine, but you ain’t done yet! And why are you bragging anyhow?

          For example, what if I say, “I’ve become totally rational. I’m proud. Check out how rational I am! I read the sequences! I’m so darn rational, like, why even argue with me? I already figured it out. I’m done. I’m good. Just listen to how rational I am! You disagree? Well you’re wrong cuz I already established how rational I am, and thus…”

          See the problem?

          Social justice sees anti-racism as “doing work” and likewise we say it will never be complete. First, it cannot be, as we cannot completely rewrite our minds. Second, it is self-perpetuating in our culture. Even if you briefly eliminated your racist thought patterns, you’d go watch some crime dramas or hang out with your racist uncle — or even get into a dumb argument with a black guy! — and then the patterns would return. Cuz everyone you talk to throughout the day has the thought patterns as well.

          #####

          Anti-social-justice people often choose to use religious language to describe this. They use terms like “sin” and “flagellation”. But social justice does not use these words, nor do these concepts map happily on such a frame.

          Which is to say, the anti-social-justice frame of argument is frequently dishonest.

          • Ghatanathoah says:

            Which is to say, social justice says that anyone raised in this culture will have internalized the toxic message of racism, and getting past that would require such an extensive rewrite of how we think that it is effectively impossible.

            I think one reason many rationalist and nerd communities find social justice rhetoric so offensive is that they are unusually good at rewriting how they think, or unusually bad at internalizing oppressive memes. So when a social justice person tells them that they have all these internalized oppressive beliefs, they get mad at them for telling a blatant falsehood.

            Combine this with the Typical Mind Fallacy, and you get someone who is very skeptical of SJ memes. I know that it took me a while to realize that the concept of internalized oppression wasn’t total garbage, simply because I didn’t realize that just because I hadn’t internalized it didn’t mean other people hadn’t.

            The Typical Mind Fallacy also does a good job at explaining why social justice people get so mad at rationalist/nerd types. They assume that all people are equally bad at purging/not internalizing oppressive memes. So when someone says they haven’t internalized any oppressive memes, or have successfully purged any that they have oppressed, the social justice types assume the person must be lying or full of themselves.

            For example, what if I say, “I’ve become totally rational. I’m proud. Check out how rational I am! I read the sequences! I’m so darn rational, like, why even argue with me? I already figured it out. I’m done. I’m good. Just listen to how rational I am! You disagree? Well you’re wrong cuz I already established how rational I am, and thus…”

            I actually didn’t mind the first half of that paragraph. I think that it is reasonable and valuable to spend some time taking pride in how far you’ve come, even while admitting you have some ways to go.

          • Desertopa says:

            “So say a white person expresses pride in their anti-racism — fine, but you ain’t done yet! And why are you bragging anyhow?

            For example, what if I say, “I’ve become totally rational. I’m proud. Check out how rational I am! I read the sequences! I’m so darn rational, like, why even argue with me? I already figured it out. I’m done. I’m good. Just listen to how rational I am! You disagree? Well you’re wrong cuz I already established how rational I am, and thus…””

            But going to the opposite extreme isn’t helpful either. If there’s no acknowledgement for effort and achievement, then there’s much less incentive to try to live up to the ideals. It ends up as an improper use of humility, one that fights against the impetus to progress.

          • Cauê says:

            Ghatanathoah, you could steelman it better than that.

            For instance, let’s take Veronica’s examples:

            “you’d go watch some crime dramas or hang out with your racist uncle — or even get into a dumb argument with a black guy! — and then the patterns would return”

            Now, one of these things is not like the others, in that “a dumb argument with a black guy” is an event that can happen in any culture. Let’s look at that, then.

            If a Nigerian has a dumb argument with a young black man with amber eyes and short hair who’s wearing blue jeans and a t-shirt of a political party, it might affect his stereotype of a supporter of that political party. If it was a random shirt, maybe it’d affect his stereotype of young people. If there was a meme running around that people with amber eyes are dumb, then the event would probably affect his stereotype of people with amber eyes. If this was in the US, the salient factor might be that he was black.

            Memes floating around in a culture will affect salience and stereotypes, and if someone says they’re immune to that, I’ll conclude they could read more on psychology (for instance, this mini-sequence by Scott on LW).

            I think SJ wrongly privileges some instances of biases, ignoring or denying that they are special cases of more general thought patterns (and then doesn’t notice or resists admitting different instances, including in the movement).

          • Gbdub says:

            “Nor do these concepts map happily on such a frame”

            You assert this, but I think you need to do more to demonstrate it. Because at least from my non-SJ, lapsed Catholic viewpoint, your descriptions of toxic culture in the preceding paragraphs map really, really well to the concepts of original sin and temptation as I understand them.

            Frankly the main difference seems to be that in SJ it’s a lot harder to find forgiveness, and much easier to be excommunicated. Although in some cases you can apparently buy indulgences (e.g. Hillary Clinton).

          • Tom Womack says:

            ‘If there’s no acknowledgement for effort and achievement, then there’s much less incentive to try to live up to the ideals.’

            Everyone acknowledges that bringing up a baby is stressful and demanding work and at times very unrewarding; but you acknowledge that someone has not yet put their colicky baby up for adoption only as a wry joke.

          • Ghatanathoah says:

            @Tom Womack

            Parents are frequently praised for things they do to improve their children’s lives. They are also allowed to take vicarious pride in praise their children receive. It is true that people usually put “not putting a baby up for adoption” as a form of basic decency not deserving of praise. But many other activities parent do are considered praiseworthy.

          • Bugmaster says:

            > I think one reason many rationalist and nerd communities find social justice rhetoric so offensive is that they are unusually good at rewriting how they think, or unusually bad at internalizing oppressive memes.

            Hmm, well, I’m a nerd, and I’m probably no better at rewriting how I think than the average guy. Part of a reason why I find social justice rhetoric offensive is because they repeatedly assert that, due to an accident of birth, I (and people like me) am somehow morally inferior, and must therefore spend a significant amount of effort on delivering restitution.

            Being a nerd, I don’t find the proposition itself all that terribly offensive. Yes, it is a strong claim, but I’ve been wrong about strong claims before. What offends me is the fact that the social justice activists usually make this claim without backing it up with evidence; reject any requests for evidence; and in fact treat requests for evidence themselves as evidence of moral inferiority.

            This is the same reason I find some major religions offensive, by the way.

          • Randy M says:

            You do, if you know them, and have the experience to empathize, acknowledge perseverance of a new parent with a difficult child in providing basic care as a genuine, if not uncommon, accomplishment.

          • OK, so your account of racism actually does very closely resembles the Christian account of sin.

            Which is to say, social justice says that anyone raised in this culture will have internalized the toxic message of racism, and getting past that would require such an extensive rewrite of how we think that it is effectively impossible.

            Christianity says that everyone has internal toxic sin, and getting past that is effectively impossible, but one is nevertheless responsible for it, and should feel guilty about it.

            For me the most telling connection is that the guilt is frequently not attached to particular sinful/oppressive acts one has done, but more to a general sense that one is corrupt due to one’s own sin/privilege. I think this is pretty toxic in both cases to be honest.

            Social justice sees anti-racism as “doing work” and likewise we say it will never be complete.

            So this is what I mean: there is no supererogatory anti-racism: all the anti-racism you can possibly do is what is required of you. It closely resembles Protestantism, where all your work is in eradicating your own sin, and there is nothing “extra” you can do that is not required of you.

            The key question for me is, is there any kind of supererogatory activity that those marked “privileged” can do regarding their privilege?

            So say a white person expresses pride in their anti-racism — fine, but you ain’t done yet! And why are you bragging anyhow?

            This resembles “pride” as a Christian sin. I mean, if you’ve done some difficult necessary work, shouldn’t you get to feel good about it?

            For example, what if I say, “I’ve become totally rational. I’m proud. Check out how rational I am! I read the sequences!

            I think it’s OK in rationalist circles to express pride in having become more rational?

          • Maybe my reaction isn’t that close to a typical nerd reaction, but I see SJ as saying: Here is an infinite task. You will never get it right enough. It is the most important infinite task you can take on. You are obligated to be meticulously careful about the feelings of people who have no obligation to care about your feelings. If you express hurt in public, you will be attacked for it, unless you say that it stung, but you’re going to keep enduring it.

          • Nornagest says:

            …rationalist and nerd communities […] are unusually good at rewriting how they think, or unusually bad at internalizing oppressive memes […] social justice people get so mad at rationalist/nerd types [because they] assume that all people are equally bad at purging/not internalizing oppressive memes.

            I’m skeptical of this from several different angles.

            The social dynamics that SJ people cite as underlying oppression are pretty pervasive. Even if I disagree about their causes or their social significance, which I do, I can recognize them, and I recognize that they’re basically impossible to avoid if you grow up in a Western society (or, for that matter, in most of the non-Western societies I’ve visited). That goes for nerds, non-nerds, SJ, anti-SJ, basically everyone that didn’t get lost in the zoo as a child and end up being raised by hyenas, and I’m not sure about them.

            I do think nerds tend to live in a more systematizing headspace, and that that tends to make them less aware of the (largely unconscious) issues that SJ is trying to point to. Ironically I think this actually makes nerds more prone to absorbing SJ memes, as that’s a highly systematizing movement too once you’ve bought its premises.

            Nor do I think nerds (rationalists qua social movement aren’t really on the SJ radar AFAICT) are much better than the general population at rewriting their own psychology; they think they are, sure, but this is an artifact of the tendency towards systematization I mentioned earlier.

          • Cauê says:

            I think it’s OK in rationalist circles to express pride in having become more rational?

            Sure. Although that “I am totally rational, I’m done” part is just ridiculous.

          • wysinwyg says:

            I (and people like me) am somehow morally inferior, and must therefore spend a significant amount of effort on delivering restitution.

            Did you choose to be white or male? If not, it’s hard to see how it could possibly be considered morally inferior.

            I’m pretty sure SJ types don’t think white males are “morally inferior” per se. The real argument is more complicated than that and this straw man gets really tiresome.

            Ben Franklin once made an argument about whether it was better to be:
            A) Born good and behave well because you are not subject to temptation.
            B) Born bad and behave well by expending effort and willpower to resist temptation.

            SJ types think white people are in group B and “minorities” are in group A. That’s not the same as accusing everyone in group B of being “morally inferior”.

            I am a white male who has never felt “morally inferior” or like I was held to be “morally inferior” because I am a white male.

          • Cauê says:

            wysinwyg, maybe you’d want to rephrase that?

            I was born bad and I have an automatic tendency to be worse than people who weren’t born bad, but that doesn’t mean I’m morally inferior because I can work on it? I don’t expect many people to appreciate the difference.

          • Nornagest says:

            It just means you’re practically inferior, for a scope of practice that includes everything morally relevant that this social movement ever talks about! Much better.

          • Mary says:

            Did you choose to be white or male? If not, it’s hard to see how it could possibly be considered morally inferior.

            You assume a desire for intellectual consistency.

          • Bugmaster says:

            @wysinwyg:

            What is the difference between “born bad” and “morally inferior” ? I honestly don’t see the distinction.

          • wysinwyg says:

            I guess it depends on whether you believe in salvation by grace or salvation by acts.

            If you believe in salvation by grace, then yes, “born bad” is necessarily morally inferior.

            However, if you believe in salvation by acts then you cannot determine whether A or B is morally inferior on the basis of their tendency towards temptation. You can only determine which is morally inferior on the basis of actions performed by those individuals.

            Being more subject to temptation makes it more likely to become morally inferior by engaging in immoral acts, but it’s not logically necessary. And one can make a strong case (contra Franklin) that someone “born bad” who “acts good” is more morally praiseworthy than someone “born good” who “acts good”.

            And here, “salvation” just refers to whatever is relevant to one’s moral status. If how one is born is relevant to moral status, then that is what I call “salvation by grace”, and if only one’s actions are relevant to one’s moral status, then that would be “salvation by acts”.

            You assume a desire for intellectual consistency.

            Is charity considered a virtue in this venue?

          • Cauê says:

            That is better, actually.

            The part about tendencies is still wrong, but that’s entangled with too many assumptions to properly deal with right now.

          • wysinwyg says:

            The part about tendencies is still wrong, but that’s entangled with too many assumptions to properly deal with right now.

            I would love to consider your reasons for thinking so, but you didn’t provide any. Nor any indication of in what sense it is wrong.

            I find it a little bit annoying for people to say I’m wrong without giving a reason why they think so. Is this tendency towards annoyance in this situation something I should suppress in this venue?

            That is better, actually.

            It’s the exact same argument, except that I explicitly contrasted temptation vs. action instead of assuming everyone would follow.

          • Cauê says:

            It… seriously is kinda big for this margin to contain.

            But to summarize, as I said above, SJ focuses on some special cases of more general biases, thought patterns and social patterns as if the general cases didn’t exist, or just assign a privileged position to those special cases on insufficient grounds. This happens relative to the moral weight assigned (sometimes inverting the sign on different instances), but more worrisomely when it comes to explain observations, which leads to wrong models. That it additionally makes questioning those models a sin is just sad.

            It’s the exact same argument, except that I explicitly contrasted temptation vs. action instead of assuming everyone would follow.

            Yes, this happens. Assuming people will follow doesn’t work as well as we expect.

          • wysinwyg says:

            I appreciate the explanation, though it is far too abstract for me to understand how it actually pertains to our discussion. It’s not clear to me how any of that has anything to do with the notion of “tendencies” as I employ it.

            From what I can tell, your argument amounts to saying SJ’s place incorrect moral weighting on particular biases. However, it seems to me that moral weighting is always subjective — is/ought hasn’t been solved as far as I know. Is your argument really different from “SJ’s moral opinions are different from mine (and therefore wrong)”?

            I think you may be misunderstanding my intention here. My intention was to simply argue against the straw man that “white males are morally inferior”. This doesn’t necessarily follow from SJ dogma and I would guess most SJ types would deny believing it in the first place. It’s therefore simply not a very effective argument.

          • Cauê says:

            To try to make a little sense of what I mean, staying on the temptation metaphor: an example could be talking about what makes people likely to be tempted by apples, and explaining it as a consequence of the latitude in which apple trees grow or whatever, never mentioning that people are also tempted by peaches, bananas, and steak. The special case of apples is unduly privileged.

            (not to be taken as a 1:1 metaphor about anything, please)

          • ryan says:

            It’s weird because I have about the same response to the last post (wysinwyg 4:41pm) as I do to the original:

            Suppose an employer hires a white candidate over a black candidate out of either a conscious preference for white employees or an unconscious one instilled by the awesome power of socialization.

            Moral judgments be made, the conscious decision is simply wrong, and the unconscious one was at least blameworthy in that a person ought to consciously try to avoid that kind of thing.

            In a normal religion, judgments like that would be backed by because god or the holy book commands it, or maybe even because I said so (how my dad explained why I couldn’t hit back if my sister hit me first).

            But with Social Justice there’s a kind of void space, or very uncertain backing to the judgment. To the extend there is content it seems unreasonable to me to complain too much about that content at least being a lot like a set of religious values. And to the extent those values are supposed to be universal, as in everyone must share them, and if they don’t their a bad person, I mean come on…

          • Limi says:

            wysinwyg: of course you don’t feel morally inferior, you are of the congregation. I am honestly surprised to see you claim that the position ‘white male is morally inferior’ is a strawman though, it’s clear to me.

            If you are born with sin, while some others are not, then you have committed sinful actions – unless you were raised from birth remain constantly aware of your inherent racism/sexism, which I guess is possible, although extraordinarily uncommon. Therefore you are less moral by virtue of the acts you committed before you were made aware of your sin – others have committed less sin.

            That being said, I have also seen the position put forward by prominent figures in the social justice movement – why else would that be the default criticism/explanation of reproductively viable worker ants, no matter who comes out in support of it? I mean, I would rather jam glass under my fingernails than deal with any of that, but it’s clearly not only white males who support it, and yet that is how it is always effectively dismissed.

          • Ghatanathoah says:

            @Nornagest

            I think there are a few stereotypically nerdy traits that can sometimes make someone more resistant to unconscious oppression.

            -Literal-minded following of the rules: Most modern societies at least say they are against oppression, even if they practice it on an informal, unconscious level. A person who is literal-minded and bad at picking up subtext will end up obeying the explicitly stated rules (treat everyone equally) instead of the implicit rules (treat everyone equally, except when they are X or doing Y).

            -Nonconformity: One of the primary mechanisms structures of oppression are enforced with is humanity’s strong desire to punish anyone who does not conform to their social roles. Not caring about social roles, and what others think of you, is another nerd stereotype.

            -Noncompartmentalization: Nerds tend to be worse at compartmentalizing things, and what all their beliefs to fit together. This means they are more likely to notice double-standards and hypocrisy.

            -Ability to internalize explicitly stated ideology: Because of their high levels of systematizing, scrupulosity, and rule-following, I would argue that nerds are better at internalizing explicitly ideologies, and suppressing the parts of their personalities that do not fit those ideologies.

            So I would argue that many “stereotypically nerdy” trait can protect people from internalizing oppressive subconscious beliefs. This means that when they repeatedly get told that they have internalized oppressive beliefs they become angry, because it appears that someone is trying to manipulate and guilt them.

          • FacelessCraven says:

            @Veronica D – Your description seems to map neatly to Christianity. I’m not familiar with the “original sin” branches, but the explanation I am familiar with is that sin is not something that can be entirely avoided by human effort, only constantly resisted and guarded against. This is often described with the metaphor of the “Christian Walk”, which seems analogous to your “doing work”. It’s a struggle that lasts all your life, and the struggle is good and necessary, while offering no grounds for pride or bragging. Likewise, your “I’m Rational!” example maps precisely to the Christian concept of pride, and why it would be pointless to boast about ones’ accomplishments.

            Flagellation I am less clear on, but many commentators in this thread would probably criticize Christianity for similar things, for neurotic obsession about “sins” that they do not perceive as harmful, and which they see Christians obsessed with fruitlessly trying to escape. Similarly, Social Justice seems to extend the definitions of problematic behavior far enough that they implicate behavior that many would consider perfectly acceptable, and even defend their right to strenuously. This too seems at least somewhat similar.

            A further example of Christianity would be what I consider one of its failure modes, wherein Christians stop worrying about the condition of their own soul, and start taking an inordinate interest in the souls of others. This often manifests in the idea of a “Christian Nation”, the idea that it is good to use legal and societal mechanisms to try to enforce christian behavior for all, rather than concerning oneself with one’s own spiritual welfare and that of ones family. The problem with this is that it attempts to hand off care of the soul to an external group, which is both useless (external groups cannot Walk for you) and dangerous (voting and activism and argument counterfeit and replace the actual Walk).

            Whether this later part is similar to Social Justice, I’m not sure. Certainly, there seems to be an idea in Social Justice that actively reshaping society is a good and necessary thing… but then there is a large portion of Christianity that believes the same. In a recent thread in Thing of Things, you wrote how people were being foolish, arguing about the topic as though it all came down to “social justice points”, when really it was a simple question of, “would this thing be good for me, personally, yes or no?” It seems to me that there is at least a glimmer of similarity between that idea and the one above, that trying to do better oneself is a good thing, and theoretical and societal questions often drown that point out. The larger “Christian Nation” idea seems to map fairly well to Social Justice’s attempts to reshape society as a whole.

            In any case, this is based on a charitable interpretation of my own interaction with Christianity, and a (hopefully) charitable interpretation of your description of Social Justice. In any case, it seems to me that people who consider the word “religion” a slur can deploy it about as easily against Social Justice as they can against actual churches, and your explanation does less than you thought to explain why they shouldn’t.

          • FacelessCraven says:

            @Ghatanathoah – “So I would argue that many “stereotypically nerdy” trait can protect people from internalizing oppressive subconscious beliefs.”

            This is a claim that can actually be checked against data, I think. Your argument is that randomly nerds would score better on implicit association tests?

            I find that… pretty unlikely, but I’d be fascinated to see the results.

            Long story short, your list seems like good explanations for why not many nerds join the KKK, or why nerds might tend to vote democrat, but it doesn’t seem to impinge much on the theories of internalized prejudice. I don’t think the argument is that prejudice is communicated on the same channel as, say, social niceties. It’s supposed to be considerably deeper and more insidious than that. It’s about how the unconscious shapes the conscious, and not vice versa, if I understand it correctly.

          • Alexander Stanislaw says:

            Veronica, do you have a reddit account? I’d love to have a (the first ever?) level headed discussion of SJ somewhere, but it would violate the commenting rules of an open thread here.

          • FacelessCraven says:

            @Ashley Yackeley – “For me the most telling connection is that the guilt is frequently not attached to particular sinful/oppressive acts one has done, but more to a general sense that one is corrupt due to one’s own sin/privilege. I think this is pretty toxic in both cases to be honest.”

            On the Christian side, my understanding of guilt is more along the lines of a sobering understanding of your own limitations, not a corrosive misery that eats away at you from the inside out. And while you may not be as you wish you were, at least you are not alone, since all other humans are in the same condition.

            Why would this be toxic? Humans are weak and fallible. Our plans go awry, our systems break down, our towers collapse. What in your experience as a human would lead you to expect flawless perfection as the default state?

          • Andrew says:

            Which is to say, social justice says that anyone raised in this culture will have internalized the toxic message of racism, and getting past that would require such an extensive rewrite of how we think that it is effectively impossible.

            […]

            Social justice sees anti-racism as “doing work” and likewise we say it will never be complete.

            Wow. You really believe that? Seems crazy.

            Might I suggest that you may be employing a definition of “racism” that is so subtle and ethereal that it is not actually a problem?

            Like, suppose that for any given person, there is no way that they can “rewrite their minds” to erase toxic racism. OK. But might it be possible for a given person to be sufficiently not-racist that, insofar as that person’s individual social relations with all other people are concerned, racism is the very least of their “sins”?

            Concretely, let’s take another “sin” that can never be fully erased: impatience. Is it possible for a person to be sufficient not-racist that society would be much better off if they quit trying to work on being even less racist, and started to concentrate more on becoming more patient?

            Not to suggest that there is necessarily a trade-off between them (although there could be), but more to elicit whether you think that the impossible-to-eliminate-racism problem is more or less severe than the impossible-to-eliminate-impatience problem.

    • Error says:

      I sort of wonder if “decent human being” as a binary flag should be discarded as useless. I’m too tired right now to figure out why that seems right, though.

      • I do believe they have a tendency to reject the notion of relative decency, that is, decent given one’s cultural background.

      • Tom Womack says:

        I don’t think there’s any argument that can be made that it ever was anything other than useless, its sole purpose is to provide a binary divide with a right side and a wrong side that your argument can try to push people over.

    • Deiseach says:

      Because my introduction to the very idea of “social justice” was within the context of Catholicism, my automatic mental image when I read phrases like “social justice warriors” is to think of, well, Jesuits 🙂

      If Wikipedia is to be believed, blame the Jesuits!

      A Jesuit priest named Luigi Taparelli is typically credited with coining the term, and it spread during the revolutions of 1848 with the work of Antonio Rosmini-Serbati.

      Pope Leo XIII, who studied under Taparelli, published in 1891 the encyclical De Rerum Novarum (On the Condition of the Working Classes), rejecting both socialism and capitalism, while defending labor unions and private property. He stated that society should be based on cooperation and not class conflict and competition. In this document, Leo set out the Catholic Church’s response to the social instability and labor conflict that had arisen in the wake of industrialization and had led to the rise of socialism. The Pope advocated that the role of the State was to promote social justice through the protection of rights, while the Church must speak out on social issues in order to teach correct social principles and ensure class harmony.

      So yes – the modern Internet version of Social Justice is a very different animal to what I’m accustomed to.

      • Peter says:

        These days I tend to use “SJ” to refer to the modern phenomenon, and long for the day when I can use “social justice” in an older sense of the term without it being mixed up with the contemporary meaning.

        There’s a book I have on Asperger’s, and it refers to people with that condition as often having “a strong sense of social justice”. I want that sense of the term back!

        In my bitterest moments I say to myself, “social as in media, justice as in vigilante or mob”.

        • Irrelevant says:

          The “social” there is like the “aspirational” in “aspirational goal.” It means “as opposed to actual.”

    • Anthony says:

      As other commenters have pointed out, I think this is wrong. Because obviously SJ activists are doing more than is expected of them. But bragging about that is a violation of their mores, just as it’s not really couth for a Catholic to brag about their good works (despite the scripture about hiding one’s light under a bushel basket).

      SJ does derive a lot of patterns from Protestantism, but this isn’t necessarily one of them. (For that matter, do all Protestants not believe in supererogation?)

      • Because obviously SJ activists are doing more than is expected of them.

        Are they? One key difference is that Christianity says that everyone has sin, whereas SJ says that only some people have privilege on some given axis. (Although, given the number of SJ axes of oppression to grind, almost everyone has some kind of privilege.)

        So the question is, is it possible for an “ally” or someone stained with privilege to do more than expected of them on that axis of oppression, even as an activist?

        • wysinwyg says:

          So the question is, is it possible for an “ally” or someone stained with privilege to do more than expected of them on that axis of oppression, even as an activist?

          Why would you even expect all SJ activists to agree on something like this?

          Let’s say Alice does a lot of good anti-racism activism or whatever. Bob might think she’s only doing what’s expected of her while Charley might think she’s gone well beyond the call of duty.

          This isn’t a hivemind we’re talking about. SJ dogma doesn’t provide an answer to every possible question.

          • Let’s say Alice does a lot of good anti-racism activism or whatever. Bob might think she’s only doing what’s expected of her while Charley might think she’s gone well beyond the call of duty.

            The SJ spaces I’ve seen on the internet would not welcome Charley’s sentiment if Alice and Charley were both white. Is that unusual?

          • wysinwyg says:

            The SJ spaces I’ve seen on the internet would not welcome Charley’s sentiment if Alice and Charley were both white. Is that unusual?

            I dunno, I don’t spend much time in SJ spaces online.

            However, I can’t help but notice that you seem unable to talk about SJ folks in anything but an aggregate. Individual SJ folks don’t have opinions, it is the “spaces” that “welcome” certain attitudes and not others.

            However much you’d like to demonize SJ folks, they are individual human beings with the capacity of forming their own opinions, even if they too often don’t. Unless you find me a concrete example of one white person congratulating another for anti-racism activism and a bunch of other people yelling at both of them because of it, I’m going to be skeptical the claim you make on behalf of “SJ spaces online”.

          • However, I can’t help but notice that you seem unable to talk about SJ folks in anything but an aggregate. Individual SJ folks don’t have opinions, it is the “spaces” that “welcome” certain attitudes and not others.

            Well, that’s what we’re criticising: SJ culture and norms, not individual people who participate in it.

          • wysinwyg, I’m interested in anything you have to say about notable people in SJ with different beliefs.

          • Andrew says:

            SJ is a thought-system, not just a coincidence of individual preferences.

    • Derelict says:

      I’d have to qualify your statement about “God does not hand out cookies for good acts” with the context that the reason Protestants believe this is that they also believe that God already gave the biggest cookie of all to us free of any charge or obligation — eternal salvation and life. And that Christians don’t do good acts to earn their way into heaven (Ephesians 2:8-9) — they do good acts because they’ve received this gift, out of gratitude, expecting nothing. The arrow of causation points the other way.

      I’d also stipulate that what I learned in church is that the most we can do actually doesn’t even meet the expectation God has for us (for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God — Romans 3:23), and his forgiveness is the only thing that gets us on his good side, not anything we do for him.

      If you’re arguing that social justice takes a page from the Protestant work ethic, they’ve perverted it by removing the underlying subtext of grace. In other words, they’re a demanding god who doesn’t forgive and condemns everybody to hell who doesn’t meet their standard. And they want you to earn the salvation you can never attain.

      • Unique Identifier says:

        This is the perfect opposite of my understanding.

        In Christianity, every one is either born a sinner, or will eventually become one. Living a life free of sin is impossible, thus everybody is in need of absolution. Absolution is granted by owning up to this fact – I am a sinner – professing belief in Christ, and begging forgiveness.

        In SJ, at least as far as white men go, not being a racist is impossible, or at least contributing to the patriarchy and institutionalized racism through microagressions or internalized racism, or benefiting from the white male privilege. Thus, white men are racists and in need of absolution.

        Absolution in SJ works the -exact same way- as in Christianity – by professing ones racism, vowing to do better to adhere to SJ and more of less implicitly begging forgiveness from those you have trodden down as member of the oppressor class.

        Becoming a Christian does not mean you cease to be a sinner, and becoming an SJ does not mean you cease to be racist, but in both cases it means that you are doing your best to be better and thus are a decent, if imperfect human being. In Christianity, you become absolved of your sin – at least Catholicism expects you to regularly go through a ritual for these purposes. In SJ, your role can change from oppressor to SJ Paladin, as long as you keep fighting to tear down patriarchy and oppression.

        The parallels seem spot on, in this regard.

        • Derelict says:

          I do agree that the sinner parallel is the same in social justice and Protestantism, in which the way you “convert from your old ways”, so to say, is by confessing your birth-crime (sins / privilege) and declaring that you will act against them in allegiance to the higher power (God / nondiscrimination).

          It’s even the same in that the vengeful social justice god and the Christian god are both the ones who decide who gets absolved.

          What I’m trying to get at is that they’re not completely analogous, and that there are important differences in the (supposed) dynamics of the situation. Namely that in Christianity, forgiveness is actually given to you when you beg for it, and that’s what causes you to do the right thing afterward.

          You were born a bad person, and you’ll never become a good person by yourself; this is true in both schools. But the Christian god promises that you will be made good in Jesus Christ. Social justice promises no such thing, and forces you to make yourself good to avoid condemnation, which you can never complete the task of.

          • FacelessCraven says:

            @Derelict – “Namely that in Christianity, forgiveness is actually given to you when you beg for it…”

            I seem to recall, say, Bill Clinton asking forgiveness from the nation for his infidelities, and in my circles it certainly was not extended. The assumption was that his apology was not sincere. So it goes with Social Justice, I’d imagine.

      • FacelessCraven says:

        @Derelict – “If you’re arguing that social justice takes a page from the Protestant work ethic, they’ve perverted it by removing the underlying subtext of grace. In other words, they’re a demanding god who doesn’t forgive and condemns everybody to hell who doesn’t meet their standard. And they want you to earn the salvation you can never attain.”

        That sounds like an outsider’s view of Social Justice, and sounds very similar to outsiders’ negative views on Christianity and the Christian God. I mean, I was going to write an example, but really those exact words match perfectly.

        I’m not an SJ advocate, but I’m pretty sure those who are would argue that your impression of SJ is flawed, that forgiveness and peace are freely available, that “salvation” is obtainable come the revolution, and in the meantime we are expected to lend our backs to the work at hand. The fields are ready but the workers are few, yes?

        • Derelict says:

          That sounds like an outsider’s view of Social Justice, and sounds very similar to outsiders’ negative views on Christianity and the Christian God. I mean, I was going to write an example, but really those exact words match perfectly.

          It is indeed an outsider’s view of (the current state of) social justice, as I live close to the movement but am not an active partaker in it.

          As for being an outsider’s view of what the Christian god must seem like, yes, I can understand why as well. I’m not going to say those people just don’t understand what Christianity is really like, because I’m similarly ignorant about their cultures and customs.

          I’m not an SJ advocate, but I’m pretty sure those who are would argue that your impression of SJ is flawed.

          And it may very well be. There are many social justice advocates I know who would never subscribe to the viewpoints about non-forgiveness I said above, and those are the people I support.

          But my impression here is of the people who vengefully post on blogs about racists, forming hate mobs to make them lose their jobs over the most trivial things, and continuing to emphasize that supporting social justice is the bare minimum standard for being a not-so-bad human being. That impression is that they aren’t such easy forgivers.

          I’m aware that such people exist in Christianity as well. Perhaps the people who aren’t so willing to forgive are just “social justice fundamentalists”, in which case both movements need to do a better job of rejecting them for the harm they cause.

          Forgiveness and peace are freely available, “salvation” is obtainable come the revolution, and in the meantime we are expected to lend our backs to the work at hand.

          If this were the case, I’d be totally fine with it. I will lend my back to supporting marginalized groups wherever I find the opportunity to do so.

          But again, my impression of the people who are most corely involved in social justice warfare (and more loosely anyone devoutly involved in social justice in general) is that forgiveness seems to be a cookie that they can’t give out so easily to those of privilege. Maybe I’m wrong about this. As I admitted above, they may just be fundamentalists, not representing the rest of the movement. But for those very fundamentalists to use that excuse would be a classic motte-and-bailey defense, and it would be those fundamentalists and their attitudes of non-forgiveness that I believe show that non-resemblance of the Protestant philosophy.

          Maybe that means I misused the term “social justice” in my above post. In which case, let’s taboo it and replace it with “the avengement-of-prejudice movement”. If that means I wasn’t talking about the same social justice that Ashley Yakeley was talking about, then I retract my statements as irrelevant.

          And there is one other, somewhat unrelated thing that troubles me — if social justice paladins really do think that the minimum requirement to be a decent human being is to do the absolute most they can to promote social justice, and they do believe that this “Revolution” is really going to happen, then doesn’t that create a sort of Roko’s Basilisk of Social Justice? Will the Warriors decide to punish everybody who didn’t contribute enough to bring the Revolution to fruition? Although I suppose they’re not as evil as that.

          • FacelessCraven says:

            In all honestly, I despise Social Justice and would like nothing more than to see it all burn to the ground in an orgy of ideological cannibalism and bitter woe, but after reading the comments in the last thread, and writing a few of my own, it seems that there are more than enough people venting about the awful SJ and not enough extending it the charity given to, say, Climate Change Skepticism or NeoReactionary thought. Then in this post, there’s one person speaking up to give the SJ viewpoint, and a dozen or more counterarguments, some venting more than they engage. Debate works better when there’s two sides talking.

            For this discussion, after the fire is out and the head is clear, it seems likely that how I feel about SJ is not far off from how some others feel about my own faith. I’d give my own opinions on What’s Wrong With Social Justice, but that angle seems to have been pretty well covered by others already. Suffice to say, I don’t disagree with much of your analysis, but it seems a decent argument that these problems are failure modes of Social Justice, not features of the core model. One could ask whether the failure modes are not actually more common than the successful versions, but it seems more charitable to investigate the idea that Social Justice contains something worthy of the name it wears.

            “…forgiveness seems to be a cookie that they can’t give out so easily to those of privilege.”

            Christians believe that forgiveness comes free to those who sincerely ask for it. The problems usually set in around the “sincerely” part, which offers a global excuse to denying forgiveness. Social Justice seems to have a similar problem, and it’s not an easy thing to fix. Having stated my antipathy, it seems inappropriate for me to offer a more complete defense. Suffice to say, Christianity has several significant structural advantages, and many would say we do no better at tamping down the crazies and the zealots. I think they’re wrong, but not indisputably so.

            “Perhaps the people who aren’t so willing to forgive are just “social justice fundamentalists”, in which case both movements need to do a better job of rejecting them for the harm they cause.”

            How well do conservative branches of the Church do “forgiving” practicing homosexuals? In both systems, forgiveness assumes submission, and submission is not a thing that comes easily to humans, which aggravates the “sincerity” problem. And again, Social Justice has a lot less structure to help sort this stuff out with. Almost none, in fact. There is no central leadership that I’m aware of. There is no unquestioned scripture to refer to. You can argue that someone is “doing it wrong”, but what if they ignore you? Why waste time fighting among yourselves when the colors on your uniforms all basically match, and the rifles are pointed generally in the right direction, and more importantly the enemy is OUT THERE, actually wrecking peoples lives in a systematic way?

            …One answer might be that the damage done by the zealots is significantly outpacing the good your community can accomplish while ignoring them. And in this, too, Social Justice seems pretty similar to Christianity.

            “And there is one other, somewhat unrelated thing that troubles me — if social justice paladins really do think that the minimum requirement to be a decent human being is to do the absolute most they can to promote social justice…”

            Christians who are serious about their faith don’t, in my experience, look down on non-Christians as less than “decent human beings”. Certainly they believe that living for Christ is the correct choice, and strictly superior to whatever else the world may offer. They would, I expect, consider the choices of others to be poorly made, but poor decisions, even on very important matters, do not necessarily make someone less than a “decent human being”. One can be woefully misguided without being evil or corrupt. I suspect it is similar for those who take Social Justice seriously, but would much rather hear the views of an actual practitioner rather than speculate further.

            “Will the Warriors decide to punish everybody who didn’t contribute enough to bring the Revolution to fruition?”

            Well, if you ever listen to some of the angrier ones, where they talk about feeding the earth…

            “Although I suppose they’re not as evil as that.”

            The ones around here certainly aren’t, but if there’s one thing I wish Social Justice would borrow more of, it’s the Love Your Enemy idea. As a movement, they need it badly, even just from a purely pragmatic perspective. So do I, when you get down to it.

            Incidentally, if you’re looking for some reading on some of the internal conflicts of the ideology, Someone dropped a really fantastic article in a recent thread. I recommend it:
            http://theamericanreader.com/jenesuispasliberal-entering-the-quagmire-of-online-leftism/
            I think it sheds a good amount of light on the issues in play.

            Thanks much for the discussion. Thinking hard about how SJ compares to my own favored ideologies feels like it helped clear my head considerably.

          • Irrelevant says:

            an orgy of ideological cannibalism

            Man, philosophers throw the worst parties.

          • Derelict says:

            I don’t disagree with much of your analysis, but it seems a decent argument that these problems are failure modes of Social Justice, not features of the core model. One could ask whether the failure modes are not actually more common than the successful versions, but it seems more charitable to investigate the idea that Social Justice contains something worthy of the name it wears.

            You’re absolutely right. Remember how I ended up noticing I was conflating two versions of the term “social justice” — the avengement-of-prejudice movement (more commonly called social justice warfare) and the promotion-of-equality movement (more commonly called social justice advocacy)?

            Avengement of prejudice is a failure mode of promotion of equality, and promotion of equality doesn’t have the forgiveness problem, which would make it more similar to the Protestant philosophy. It’s bad to be a racist, sure, but it’s also bad to use being a marginalized group as a moral status symbol and free rein to condemn others. In the same way that it’s bad to be a sinner, but then again, let he who is without sin cast the first stone.

            The core model of promotion of equality, as I understand it, is exactly that — the final mission is to accommodate everybody’s identity equally regardless of what that identity happens to be. It may be an infinite goal that we all have to work towards, but there’s no inherent condemnation of people who aren’t maximizing the paperclip of empowering marginalized groups.

            In all honesty, I despise Social Justice and would like nothing more than to see it all burn to the ground in an orgy of ideological cannibalism and bitter woe, but after reading the comments in the last thread, and writing a few of my own, it seems that there are more than enough people venting about the awful SJ and not enough extending it the charity given to, say, Climate Change Skepticism or Neo-Reactionary thought.

            I suppose so. I try to be charitable everywhere, and discovering the principle of charity articulated clearly on this website was one of the best things I could have asked for in terms of argumentation.

            I’m the one playing the contrarian and you’re the one playing the meta-contrarian here. I’ve been on both sides of the social justice war in different periods, not really subscribing to either side, but playing along with both. I don’t despise Social Justice quite as much as you do, but then again, it depends on whether you’re talking about avengement of prejudice or promotion of equality. The Prejudice Avengers can burn to the ground as far as I’m concerned; that would leave the Equality Promoters free to do their work.

            For what it’s worth, I have no problems with the cookie analogy per se — those who simply treat women or black people or another marginalized group like human beings haven’t really earned any special admiration. But if they’ve truly taken painful steps to better themselves and change their mindsets, I don’t think it’s right to criticize them just for wanting some general recognition. And I certainly wouldn’t consider actively defending others against racist, sexist, etc. acts as just “treating women/black people/other marginalized group like human beings”. That would be like considering standing up to a bully for somebody else the bare minimum standard for being a decent school kid.

            How well do conservative branches of the Church do “forgiving” practicing homosexuals? In both systems, forgiveness assumes submission, and submission is not a thing that comes easily to humans, which aggravates the “sincerity” problem.

            That’s a good question. My own pastor referred me to Romans 1:26-27 as an example of homosexuals being denied forgiveness — God “gave them over” to their shameful lusts. But then reading the passage in a large context, it seems that the passage is talking about the general sinfulness of humanity, and that homosexuality is a symptom of sin, not a type of it. (Although then treating it as a “symptom” would be their justification for re-education camps and the like… I don’t claim to know how to solve this issue.)

            Christians believe that forgiveness comes free to those who sincerely ask for it. The problems usually set in around the “sincerely” part, which offers a global excuse to denying forgiveness.

            Not if Paul has anything to say about it. The second chapter of Romans condemns those people who would pass judgment on others — i.e. deny forgiveness. Because it’s a part of the law, and only those who would obey the law are the ones who achieve eternal life.

            Of course, in the interest of non-judgment, those people who dredge up excuses against forgiveness aren’t Bad People, and it’s not my place to condemn them, just as it’s not my place to condemn the Prejudice Avengers for their misdeeds (even though I’m being a complete hypocrite with my statement above that I wouldn’t mind them burning to the ground).

            [discussion about woeful misguidance vs. evil]

            I suspect it is similar for those who take Social Justice seriously, but would much rather hear the views of an actual practitioner rather than speculate further.

            I would as well, but I’m wondering how difficult it would be to get an actual practitioner to talk about this topic, especially if they knew it arose from a discussion on this website.

            The ones around here certainly aren’t, but if there’s one thing I wish Social Justice would borrow more of, it’s the Love Your Enemy idea. As a movement, they need it badly, even just from a purely pragmatic perspective. So do I, when you get down to it.

            As long as we’re all referencing Martin Luther King Jr. in this thread, “hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that”.

            Thanks much for the discussion. Thinking hard about how SJ compares to my own favored ideologies feels like it helped clear my head considerably.

            Thank you for taking me up on it. It’s nice that there’s a place where people can talk about these things without being totally hounded for talking about it.

  3. eqdw says:

    My rule of thumb, as one who escaped from a fairly fundamentalist upbringing with more than a handful of stories: if engaging with it gives me a panic attack, it’s a religion.

    Alternative food-for-thought discussion-prompt definitions:

    If it involves a large group of people doing things without being able to clearly articulate why they’re doing it, it may be religious

    If it has a clearly stated goal, but its actions are not consistent with achieving that goal (ie they’re done for signaling value, not progress), it may be religious (common environmentalism qualifies by this

    If it demands compliance to an internally-inconsistent epistemology, it may be religious (american civil religion qualifies here, I think. I could also rattle off a million and one anecdotes about Christianity here. Ironically, also capital-A Atheism)

    If it has an extremely strong ingroup/outgroup dynamic, it may be a religion (think “I am an X and I would *NEVER* let my children marry a Y”. By this definition, the Republican and Democrat parties are religions).

    If it has any kind of organized leadership that doesn’t believe it’s own mythology, but encourages it “for the sake of the masses”, it may be a religion (cult-like startup cultures)

    Or, what I think might be my most quintessential definition: If the average group member requires faith to justify their group membership, it may be a religion. (This one is interesting because faith could be required for all sorts of reasons. For example, science is pretty clearly not a religion by this metric. However, pop science *is*. I Fucking Love Science is. This is also kind of a restatement of the first definition)

    —-

    Finally, a humourous one: if you use a memeplex as the most important filtering function regarding who you wish to associate with, it may be a religion

    • mmrst says:

      I think science is an interesting test case for any metric of religion. It’s full of prophets (Dirac, Mendel), gurus (Penrose, E. O. Wilson), scriptures (The Principia, The Origin of Species) and things you have to/can’t/probably should or shouldn’t do which we can call commandments and sins. My life philosophy is centered around science, and while I’ve never been to a wedding between two scientists I’m willing to bet people remark on their common occupation. Maybe a lot of people would say it’s a religion because of all that, but I think most scientists would say it’s fundamentally different or even that science and religion are antipodally opposing ways of thinking.
      Personally I think it speaks well of your metrics that scientists know why they do the things they do, those things really do further their stated goals, and the people at the top believe just as much as anyone else. High-energy physics is self-inconsistent right now, but it’s a source of enormous embarrassment that a good portion of high-energy physicists are working hard on correcting. The ingroup/outgroup one depends a little on whether the outgroup is English majors or homeopaths.

      • eqdw says:

        What I’m trying to get at regarding science is that I see “science” as encapsulating two largely different cultural spheres.

        The first is the idea of rationality, hypothesizing, statistical testing. This is what Real Scientists do. This is what gets published in journals.

        The second is the idea of pop science. Something being popularized, on its own, doesn’t make it a religion. But it seems to me that pop science has kind of melded with internet atheism and anti-christian/anti-republican folks to act as a shibboleth. As a result, you get all these people reposting IFLS type memes, not because they understand what’s going on underneath, but because they want to signal how enlightened they are.

        The real scientists are doing it for knowledge. The religious scientists (scientologists? GOD DAMMIT L RON) are doing it for cultural cachet.

        I forget who wrote this, but I read a blog post somewhere (was it here?) that called this kind of pop science “science as a literary genre”. Kind of the same idea

      • How is high-energy physics inconsistent?

        • Pete says:

          The Standard Model breaks down at very high energies, and you need something like supersymmetry to fix it – problem being that we have no evidence of supersymmetry beyond the SM. (Unsure if that’s what they were getting at).

        • Anthony says:

          Peter Woit explains, at book length.

      • Tracy W says:

        How do Dirac and Mendel map on to prophets? All due respect to the guys, but if anyone occupied that place in science I would have thought it would have been Francis Bacon.

        And The Principia and The Origin of the Species aren’t very good examples of scripture:they’re heavily factual books that support their theories (with mathematics or examples). Furthermore, no one is expected to have read them to qualify as a physicist or biologist, although I found The Origin of the Species surprisingly readable.

        • James Picone says:

          And both books are outdated – very few religions have modern revisions to their scripture that they tout almost proudly. Mostly when that happens you get a new religion.

      • Peter says:

        One interesting difference between science and other disciplines that scientists don’t seem to be so interested in old books, and depending on the discipline, even old papers languish in the archives (although in Chemistry it’s sometimes fun to find a reaction in a 100-year-old journal and then say “OMG, they used _what_ as the solvent??? I’m not using that!). The Origin of Species may be a bit of a special case, but even then, it’s something you read for historical interest, if you want to know about evolution you read a textbook, or a modern popular science book.

        It’s quite a contrast with philosophy which seems to be a lot keener on the classics, and religion looks a lot like philosophy in this regard.

    • “If it involves a large group of people doing things without being able to clearly articulate why they’re doing it, it may be religious.”

      Meh, when I first learned Calculus without every paying attention to proofs, I’m pretty sure you could say I was part of a large group of people doing things without being able to clearly articulate why they were doing it. More generally… this happens all the time, in practices of all sorts, I think.

      • eqdw says:

        You bring up a good point, and so I guess I might append “without coercion” to it. I’d argue that most students in courses they don’t care about are being coerced, insofar as if they could wave a magic wand they wouldn’t be there.

        More generally: that’s kind of my point. I may be using the term religious overly broadly here. But I also think that a lot more things analogize to religion (with negative connotations) than one might think

      • Andrew says:

        I don’t think you’re trying hard enough to articulate why. Because you would have had reasons.

        They might be something along the lines of: “because it’s required for this class; and I want to pass this class so I can graduate; and I want to graduate so I can […].”

        Or it might have been something along the lines of “because it’s required for this class; and I want to keep my GPA high enough not to get kicked out of university; and I want to stay in university because [of all the hot girls around here|my parents would [kill me|take away my car] if I got expelled for bad grades].”

        Anyway, if you really couldn’t articulate any reason for keeping up with your classwork, you probably _could_ be classified as having been brainwashed by the adults around you and in need of mental liberation.

      • not_all_environmentalsts says:

        @ Andrew
        I don’t think you’re trying hard enough to articulate why. Because you would have had reasons.

        Articulate to whom? The “to pass this course” … “to stay in school” answers sound like what you’d say to a clueless and boorish questioner. Or when you didn’t feel up to spelling out, “I’m interested in some advanced material using calculus, so I have to learn calculus to get to that. I don’t know or care why the teacher is starting with ‘proofs’, so I’m muddling through them. If he has a good reason, I’ll probably find out eventually.”

        • Andrew says:

          Articulate to anyone, but honestly. (I guess you could say: articulate to yourself.)

          I tried to give a couple examples of real reasons that people have for just going along with whatever some professor says. You mention another one, which is just as realistic.

          The point is that there’s a distinction between conforming to what is expected of you for a real reason (even if you don’t understand the reason for _the thing you’re conforming to_, you understand the reason for the conformity itself) and conforming to something without any reason at all, because you haven’t thought about it and don’t understand your own self.

          My parsing/suspicion was that OP above was actually giving an example of the former, thinking it was the same as the latter.

          • not_all_environmentalists says:

            For an example of actually being unable to articulate, suppose you were asked without context, “Why don’t you leave your lover, change your major, and move to Timbuktu?” I think I’d stammer around among too many reasons, unable to even focus on the main reasons at that moment, and perhaps be unable to articulate an answer to the question as a whole, even after longer thought.

          • Bryan Hann says:

            And if I ask you why you are taking a particular math course, I might be generally interested in whether your interests lay in this area, or if it was because it was a required course. Perhaps there is no situation in which this would be the best question to ask for that purpose. But there are situations in which is is a *reasonable* question. I might be the opposite of clueless and borish, and the answer ‘because I need it to graduate’ might be an appropriate and *helpful* answer.

            (And “why don’t you” questions seem to be fundamentally different than “why do you” questions.)

  4. Janne says:

    So, “religion” is really just culture with a bit of extra. Small raisins of metaphysics embedded within the great sponge-cake of culture. Adding flavour and a certain special character, without fundamentally changing the cake. And the sponge cake will taste just fine without those raisins, especially if you add the tart zest of critical thinking.

    Now I want some cake.

    • lmm says:

      I think you wanted cake already.

    • Nicholas says:

      It would be more accurate but less fun to suggest that culture is what you get when a civil religion and a supernatural religion are coexisting harmoniously. All of the features the two have in common will blur together into a super-structure, leaving their differences to polarize the community into a secular and a sacred sphere, each concerned with those things viewed as unique to one religion or the other.

  5. jjbees says:

    The common theme is ideology!

    Ideology is the enemy of the “reasonable” man! Anytime someone starts bringing up their boilerplate ideology I tune out.

    People need ideology in their day to day life because they don’t have the time, willingness, or ability to think things through.

    I recommend reading a little bit about Max Stirner if you haven’t heard of him.

    • aerdeap says:

      Your rejection of ideology is pretty ideological.

    • Fibs says:

      Edit: Cleared some wording, apologies if I came across as weirdly internet aggressive.

      As aerdeap wrote, your rejection of ideology is uniformly ideological – it becomes a filtering mechanism for someone to make choices in the world, rule possibilities out and in and also assign value to the huddled masses who refuse to follow their enlightened stance. (I mean, it’s pretty clear those ideologues just don’t have the ability and willingess to think through things, that’s why I’m an aideologue! I’m smart.)

      The problem is the word ideology – all it really means is the ordering of myths. And everyone does it. I think stopping short of saying that ideology is needed because people are “lazy” is incorrect. Ideology of any given kind is a neccesary component of salience and sapience in the first place. There needs to be *some* kind of ordering mechanism in a persons interactions with the world, even if that ordering mechanism is: “Think every single thing through logically at all times and to the fullest extent that the expenditure of time and ability allows”. Else how is someone going to decide on anything? They can’t, since any decision made is made because of an ordering of some set of values and if they refuse to do any of that… drat, we’ve walked into a conceptual paradox.

      Then some people (Because People) end up going a bit too far perhaps and four centuries later the creed of Eat Red Berries is engaged in a decade long attritional trench war with the Hymns of I Prefer Apples.

      I mean, sure, okay, Max Stirner, he wrote some interesting interesting stuff, and in a given technical sense I’m not opposed to the idea that every given concept is just an artificial construction that allows someone to impose their view on others, making it important than one becomes aware of the concepts one is operating with / operated on by. It makes sense.

      But it’s a bit of a jump from model agnosticism to declaring all possible models invalid, because modelling expectations and the myths we assume is how the world operates is what allows us to operate in the world. There’s a natural incentive to assign superior value to ones own models – after all, I doubt very many people willingly say that their understanding of the world and how to act is inferior to some other person without also trying to adopt the things that other person does. There’s little reason to continue using a proven malfunctioning system. Maybe that’s just me.

      Anyway my point is: It’s trivial to insinuate that others have their beliefs “merely” because those beliefs are ideologies or religion(s) or something. It imparts a notion that they’re – what was that again, ah yes – unable, unwilling and out of time to actually sit down and think about the stuff they expouse. But what you’re actually just saying is: “You have (some parts of) an ordered understanding of the universe, and I disagree with that order, but being unable/unwilling/out of time to argue against specific points of your ideology, I am instead going to proclaim that the entire edifice is shockingly worthless because you believe it and my ideology of superior rationality has taught me that belief, faith and the concept of “ideology” is automatically irrational and can be discarded””.

      It’s kind of a trap, really. Something someone might want to avoid.

    • Tracy W says:

      No, I think you underestimate the importance of ideology. Quite often the facts we get are false or misleading in some way. An ideology gives us a way of thinking about how likely it is. Eg, when I go to see a stage magician and I can’t figure out how they did one of their tricks (a very common occurrence), I don’t automatically assume that all my understanding of physics is entirely wrong, I consider the possibility that the stage magician is good at their job.

      Or, for another example, I was looking at some official statistics from the International Energy Agency and they implied that in 1980 Italy was getting an average coal plant efficiency of over 50%. Now, all due respect to Italian engineers, but I rather think that that was a mistake in the numbers as the top coal plant efficiencies in the world are only in the 40s even now, and the Italians can’t be cooling their coal plants in the Baltic sea, they have to use the Mediterranean sea, which is a bit warmer.

      I’ve used physics here as an example, but outside physics the problems of making sense of data get even greater.

    • Gbdub says:

      It’s not ideology that’s the problem, it’s the idea of the sacred. An ideology that is merely a shorthand for a well-evidences series of principles is usually okay, as long as you’re willing to question and/or modify the ideology when presented with new information.

      It’s when you start to hold things sacred and inviolable, when you label certain topics as doubleplusungood taboo, that I think you start crossing the line to religion. And that’s the failure mode you see in enviros and SJs (and to a lesser extent gun control): Thou Shalt Not Question global warming, such that any criticism, even good stuff that would advance the science, is lumped in with the most ignorant denialism. Thou Shalt Not Discuss inherent biological bases for gender differences. Thou Shalt Not Ask for evidence for the efficacy of gun control, for It Is Known that guns are icky, and who but a heretic would touch one voluntarily? (Or in traditional religion: Thou Shalt Not Draw a Cartoon Prophet, or We Shalt Murder You, for we are peaceful people of the Book)

    • blacktrance says:

      They can think things through, but then what? How they decide what rules or outcomes are good can reasonably be called “ideology”. Consider gun control, for example – two people can see the same evidence but draw different conclusions. If absence of gun control increases crime by a certain amount, one may say “And therefore gun control is a good policy”, while the other may say “Nevertheless, gun ownership is a matter of liberty and we shouldn’t be trading it off like this”. Does that mean that the latter is ideological and the former isn’t? No, they’re just ideological in different ways – quasi-utilitarian intuitive pragmatism is itself an ideology. Abandoning ideology altogether would require abandoning your values and/or the practice of principled reasoning.

  6. Airgap says:

    I think Moldbug’s take is better. Religion is a bad fundamental concept. The better one is “Tradition.” Some traditions include gods and such. These are “Religious traditions,” or sometimes “Religions” for short.

    • I realized that I could still be a conservative and not believe in a benevolent god, or a god at all. I saw that this actually strengthened my views.

    • BPGnarls says:

      I found Moldbug’s Tradition argument convincing as well, particularly because it includes all of the common counter examples (“no, your religion is science, technology, etc.”) from first principles.

      Why does it appear that the same core cultural themes appear in almost every religion/Tradition/social movement? Because these symbols/relationships are the best performing models in the “Free Market of Human Ideas (TM)”.

    • I didn’t get this from Moldbug, but concur. “Religion” as distinct category from culture, ethics, art, etc. is an artifact of recent cultural changes within Western civ, and the category becomes nonsensical once you try to apply it broadly. Why is why our Constitutional protections concerning “freedom of religion” are actively harmful: they prohibit the government from making use of old, successful memeplexes because those are “religions”, but gives us no defenses against new memeplexes like “social justice”, even though the new memeplexes are much more likely to be toxic.

    • Bugmaster says:

      I think one feature that makes some religions different from mere traditions is their explicit rejection of evidence as a motivator for changing one’s mind (or behaviors). This feature is commonly known as “faith”.

      • Airgap says:

        I don’t think “Explict rejection of evidence” is a particularly common element of religious traditions. “Rationalizing away evidence against our particular beliefs” probably comes up from time to time.

        • Nicholas says:

          There is a quote from a catholic theologian who is well known, and the quote I am told is considered respectable itself, and when the quote is translated to English it says roughly “The only reason to believe, is how ridiculous all the evidence we have is, and how illogical our explanatory model is.”

  7. Toggle says:

    At least one really distinct (although not binary) quality that certain belief systems have, is a tendency to explain larger and larger fractions of human experience as you care more deeply about the thing.

    Think about the patriarchy versus gun violence.

    If one accepts the usefulness of the patrarchy model in certain circumstances (male-only golf clubs are certainly patriarchical!), then it’s fairly easy to extend that pattern of thought in to analogous cases. And the model itself is happy to oblige, since it’s fairly nebulous and designed with the capacity to explain (not necessarily predict) a wide variety of phenomena. It can and often does happen that this model grows to become an explanation of almost every political event and media offering that you encounter throughout your day, and even things like class performance and personal social patterns. Thus, the more you think about patrarchy, the more you think about patriarchy.

    Compare to gun violence, which is just not relevant to most everyday situations. You can be an extremist about it in context, but the context itself cannot grow large enough to account for your whole life. It’s this difference that we tend to notice when we call something a ‘religion’, I think. When everything is a product of the patriarchy, you can’t not talk about the patriarchy, because every subject is the patriarchy. “God” is among the oldest and strongest of the ideas that has this quality, so ‘social justice is a religion’ is a fairly sensible form of pattern-matching.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I’m not sure that a priori a Martian could have decided that patriarchy was applicable to everything but gun violence wasn’t.

      The reason there are male-only golf clubs is that in our gun-violence-ruled-culture, we think of women as needing to be protected since a mass shooting could happen at any time.

      • Toggle says:

        I suppose you could do that, but I would assume that the (epidemiology? kinetics?) of the situation would not be equivalent between any two ideas. Some ideas really are designed to explain everything, or at least are able to hill-climb very far in that direction as they develop, monotheism being a nice and explicit example. And some models are just built for a narrow domain and nobody expects them to leave it. In the case of social justice, it does seem like it’s built from the ground up to be a comprehensive critique of society, and thus more broadly applicable to moment-by-moment experiences.

      • Caleb says:

        How useful is it to talk about a priori concepts when what we are interested in is a particular pattern of thought? Toggle is talking about how the concept triggers the pattern, not the nature of the concept itself. I think it’s a useful tool, regardless of whether one can trace back the ‘triggering’ thought to a distinct a proiri category.

      • Anonymous says:

        That’s easily disproved by the existence of male-only-golf-club-like phenomena in the pre-gun world.
        If you want an ideology that explains everything you to base it on something that can be thought of as having always existed (like god or the patriarchy).

        Violence could probably work.

        • Autolykos says:

          Surely, true ideologists won’t sully their minds with something as sordid as evidence.
          The question “does it even make sense” isn’t useful to determine that something is not an ideology.

      • Deiseach says:

        I’m raising my eyebrows a bit there, Scott, since there are (or were) plenty of male-only clubs on this side of the Atlantic but a lot less availabilty of guns for everyone.

      • Tangent says:

        And the reason women are thought to need protection is… the patriarchy, of course. I don’t know, your gun example seems very weak in comparison, I think you’d struggle to get the same explains-everything character.

        I’m not from the US but gun control and pro-choice seem to me like narrower categories than social justice and environmentalism, more analogous to say disability rights (which I can still see people building an identity around) or renewable energy advocacy (probably not so much). I’m not convinced they make good comparisons.

      • randy m says:

        Feminist memes are colonizing the anti gun movement, such as trans phobicly calling guns substitute phalluses.

        • Patrick says:

          Hmm. From my perspective, sneering about guns being substitute phalusses is just a perjorative reference to the perceived tendency of gun owners to view their guns as totemic representations of empowerment and potency. Whereas your response, in its interpretation of an insult as having gender politics relevance, is much more based on feminist memetic colonization. In short, if I had to put money on who was the feminist- someone who sneers about “ammosexuals” or someone who polices that for transphobia, I’d pick the latter.

          • Randy M says:

            “From my perspective, sneering about guns being substitute phalusses is just a perjorative reference to the perceived tendency of gun owners to view their guns as totemic representations of empowerment and potency”

            Perceived tendency.

            Exactly, perceived by whom? I think it is feminist thinking to view any sort of potency as inherently gender-bound.
            Besides, plenty of feminists don’t police for transphobia, they perpetuate it, viewing trans* as taking both patriarchal advantages when convenient and feminine protections.

        • I’ve seen guns referred to as penis substitutes for a long time– I think it’s before SJ was a public force.

          I think of that as the last vestige of Freudianism in mainstream culture.

          • Peter says:

            Seems pretty Freudian to me.

            It’s interesting looking at the responses of feminists in past eras to Freudianism. Some strands liked to debunk it as sexist nonsense (hurrah!). Others thought that with just a little modification you could build theories with it (especially if by “Freud” you mean “Lacan”?). I don’t think the latter strand is entirely dead but if not it’s hanging on by its fingernails.

            Also it’s not clear to me how much of the latter was really motivated by feminism as such, and how much was “I like psychoanalysis/literary theory/whatever, I need to justify my existence… I know, I’ll use it to further the feminist cause!”

      • ADifferentAnonymous says:

        That example feels a bit forced, but I think you’re right overall. It’s not so hard to imagine a big expansive religiony ideology whose main tenet was gun control, you just have to go a bit deeper. Maybe they think violence and implicit threats of violence cause all our woes, and having more instruments of violence around makes violence more present in our life. They also don’t like other weapons, marital arts, combat sports, and media depictions of violence.

        But you can’t really tie the gun control movement into a narrative like that, and that’s a significant empirical fact. And no doubt in some universe people are wondering how you could build a while religion out of wanting more stringent pollution regulation, and that’s a real difference between their environmentalism and ours.

        • Irrelevant says:

          You’re describing pacifists and/or non-aggression principlers, both of which are indeed worldviews but which tend to be disjoint from support of gun control.

          • DES3264 says:

            It seems to me to be a pretty common cluster of leftish views that gun’s should not be privately owned, children should be discouraged from violent play and violent media, corporal punishment is wrong (both of children and of adult criminals) and that police violence is generally unjustified. While literally endorsing pacifism is rare, people in this cluster will rarely endorse any war within their lifetimes. Any of these views can be justified, and I hold some of them. But I think the cluster is better explained as a taboo against violence then a logical position. And I think this is pretty similar to kashrut requiring blood to be removed from meat before eating it.

            I remember an intriguing old blogpost where Mennonites and Mennonite-sympathizers were saying things like “pacifism is more a state of mind than a prohibition on particular acts. Therefore, competitive sports and games are all kind of suspect.” So one can combine this way of thought with literal religion.

        • Nornagest says:

          But you can’t really tie the gun control movement into a narrative like that, and that’s a significant empirical fact.

          Really? Because that sounds a lot like a narrative that I remember as being prominent in the Nineties, when the American gun control movement made its biggest gains and when the moral panics around video games and media violence were peaking. It didn’t pick up a name or crystallize a unified opposition, but it was there.

          (Martial arts didn’t get particularly caught up in it, granted, but I think that has to do with Orientalism on the part of the demographics normally responsible for promulgating moral panics. And ninja weapons are still illegal in California.)

          • ADifferentAnonymous says:

            And if that had continued to pick up steam, maybe gun control could have been one of this post’s examples of something that is a religion/culture/whatever instead of something that isn’t. My point is that gun-control-as-a-narrow-policy-goal and gun-control-as-a-religion/culture are both possible.

        • not_all_environmentalists says:

          And no doubt in some universe people are wondering how you could build a while religion out of wanting more stringent pollution regulation, and that’s a real difference between their environmentalism and ours.

          /houseboat here, trying to remember the 60s/

          More like the other way around. A few pioneers (for reasons including religious) started a political effort to get some regulations. That effort produced a political movement, which produced a larger community, which included space for quite a few people to share some religious feelings they had had for a long time.

          Of course most of the environmentalists then and now have positive reasons other than ‘religious feelings’.

      • Gbdub says:

        I’m going to have to disagree with Scott as well – Toggle is onto something. And it’s not relevant what a Martian can see, because what matters is, within humanity, which bits of culture tempt you into expanding them into a whole way of life, a Grand Theory of Everything, rather than a singular, separable cause?

        Note that both gun control and pro-choice true believers are TRYING to expand into a full culture. Listen to anti-gunners talk about the “culture of violence” and try to eliminate not only guns, but anything that might normalize guns (like kids with gun-shaped PopTarts). Or pro-choicers label opposition to their cause as a “war on women”. The problem is that feminism and SJ already beat them to the meta-meme, and dubbed it Patriarchy.

        So now you can be pro-choice without being full-on feminist, but it’s hard to be Feminist without being pro-choice. Gun control is a bit more separable, but still there are a lot more a anti-gunners who are not SJs then the reverse.

  8. Don’t forget the more abstract parts of mathematics.

    “Das ist nicht Mathematik. Das ist Theologie.”—Paul Gordan (about existence proofs that don’t include a method of constructing the object in question)

  9. Cauê says:

    “American culture is paper-thin compared to say Hindu Indian culture”

    …?

    Maybe this is just you not noticing American culture because that’s your default.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      What is the American equivalent of the Vedas?

      • Airgap says:

        I Love Lucy

      • Cauê says:

        The Bible.

        An Indian would certainly notice that as part of “American culture”, even if we don’t.

        If we don’t count the part of the culture that was inherited/brought from Europe (and why shouldn’t we), maybe we should also not count anything Indian from before 400 years ago, to make it fair. I’m pretty confident the US would win that one, but in any case “paper-thin” isn’t right.

        • Right. The thick part of American culture is just Western Civilization, all 3,000 years of it, and Western Civ is about 75% Christianity. But since America is no longer explicitly Christian, it’s easy to pretend that all of that culture isn’t American culture.

          • Cauê says:

            Perhaps what’s happening is that we’re looking at the whole of Indian Civilization on one side, but only that part of American culture *which differs from General Western Culture* (and is thus marked as “American”) on the other.

            That could indeed come out “paper-thin”, but it’s not a proper way to look at it.

      • cassander says:

        the constitution, declaration of independence, gettysburg address, “the only thing you have to fear is fear itself,” “mr. gorbachev tear down this wall”, vague lockean notions of social contract.

        Not an exhaustive list, and not in any particular, order, but those are the shibboleths center to our civic religion. And, no, they aren’t understood in more than a superficial sense, any more than the average christian has read his bible from cover to cover.

        • Samuel Skinner says:

          “the only thing you have to fear is fear itself”

          Nihil nobis metuendum est, praeter metum ipsum.
          We have not to fear anything, except fear itself.
          By legend, Caesar told it to his wife Calpurnia, who was praying him not to go to the Senate, where, as she saw in dream, he would die.

    • ? says:

      I haven’t seen any half rigorous explanation of what it means for a culture to be deep or shallow, but the concept seems meaningful.

      Maybe it has to do with how long a group of people have been “together” as a culture? Like, Americans have obviously inherited a huge amount from the old world, but perhaps the variety of different cultures makes there less of a “shared” identity, that mostly everyone can agree on. That is, the only things Americans can really be expected to agree on are the relatively recent products of mass media and education. Imagine trying to define “Roman culture” in a way that included the whole empire, not just the city.

      By this logic though, I actually think Indian culture is also quite thin. If anything the U.S. seems to actually be much more cohesive. The Vedas = Bible thing is so clearly true I don’t really see how you could miss it. Pointing it out might seem exclusionary, but remember India has religious minorities too.

    • Alexander Stanislaw says:

      I think upper class educated American culture is paper thin compared to its counterpart in India. The set of shared customs and beliefs and norms is much smaller in America.

      American culture in general? I’m not sure religion is heavily engrained into the day to day life of people in India in a way I suspect it isn’t in America. Since Scott has travelled to India and lived in other countries other than the US, I think he knows what he’s talking about.

      • Cauê says:

        Well, I’m looking at both India and the US from the outside, and I don’t know what he’s talking about.

        We’re probably using “culture” to mean different things (or maybe “deep).

      • I don’t know what Scott means, either, but I wonder if part of what’s making American culture look smaller than it is is that a great deal of American culture is generated commercially and changes quickly.

  10. Unknowns says:

    Another way to fix this at least partially is just to stop assuming that religions have no evidence for them, since the main point of calling all these things religions is to say that they are irrational beliefs without any evidence.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Hm. I feel like Judaism, Christianity, and Islam form an obvious category. I wouldn’t mind including Greek paganism, Norse paganism, Scientology and related cults, and Zoroastrianism as well.

      I think religion is an important natural category, and that it would be hard to make that category without “not very evidence based” being a pretty obvious feature.

      • Unknowns says:

        Right, religion is a pretty reasonable category, and that things like “science” obviously do not fall into it, while the things that you mentioned do. And certainly most people who accept a religion do so without basing their acceptance much on evidence, and many or most of them will admit this explicitly.

        So I guess I would want to say something like this: “something which for the most part gets accepted for reasons other than evidence” is clearly a feature of religion. But “something which in fact has no or very little evidence” should not be put down as a defining feature, even if it turns out to be true of all religions, because this is not an essential part of what makes us think that something is a religion.

        I’ll give a hypothetical example to illustrate this. Suppose tomorrow God appeared to you and told you that Catholicism is definitely true, explaining anything that appears to be a contradiction and providing any proofs you might ask for. You would probably convert to Catholicism after that, and although certainly other people would say it was an irrational belief without evidence and that you had gone insane, in fact that would not be the case. You would know yourself that your belief was evidence based, but I doubt that you would therefore be willing to say “my Catholicism is not a religion.”

        And in practice, although most people do not make such a claim, there are various people who do think their religion is evidence based, whether converts or people raised in a religion who have simply spent a long time thinking about it. Now it is possible that their judgment of the evidence is biased, but it doesn’t change the fact that they have reasons, and being biased is not part of why we call them religious. And such people do in fact sometimes convert to another religion, or to no religion, when new considerations come up. So clearly reasons are having a significant effect on their beliefs, whether or not they are reasoning well.

        • aerdeap says:

          Religion is (often) evidence based, but evidence that is only experienced by the individual in question.

          “Based on subjective, personal experience and not necessarily quantifiable fact” is a better working definition of religion, I think.

          • Scott says:

            Experienced by the person in question, and then validated by millions of others who have had a similar experience. Each individual experience is subjective, but the replication of that experience in others gives plenty of evidence to the believer.

            Objective validation I think is more of the rub here.

          • Is there obhe tube justification independent of intersubjective justification?

        • Tracy W says:

          Huh, no I would not want to convert to Catholicism. If Catholicism is true I want to give God a good kicking (same for any other variety of Christianity I can think of right now). I’m not going to engage in worship of that bastard, except possibly in a moment of weakness out of sheer fear.

          There’s no way that any empirical reality of a creator by itself requires someone to worship that creator.

          • Unknowns says:

            Part of Catholicism would be that rebellion against God is morally wrong, so if you were convinced it was true, even if you still wanted to rebel, you would believe it was wrong to do so.

          • Tracy W says:

            You can’t get an “ought” from an “is” statement. So there can be no proof that rebellion against God is morally wrong.

          • Deiseach says:

            If it is true, your belief or disbelief is irrelevant. and proclaiming that you don’t believe it is denial of reality. No, you don’t have to worship, you have free will. But the point woiuld be that, faced with indisputable and inescapable fact (of the Flying Spaghetti Monster or whatever), saying you don’t accept it would be like saying “I don’t accept gravity”.

            And if it is true, then it’s as much use objecting to how the world is made as it would be to object to the physical laws of matter that mean if you cut yourself, you bleed and feel pain.

          • Kiya says:

            I have nothing particularly insightful to contribute, but Tracy, I wish to subscribe to your newsletter.

            Also, how do you (Christian types) reconcile free will with omnipotence? God could control our minds, but chooses not to? Does he make exceptions?

          • Tracy W says:

            If it is true, your belief or disbelief is irrelevant.

            I’m talking about ethical requirements, not empirical fact. Yes, I presumably would, in this thought experiment, agree that there was a God. But my response to that knowledge would be to try to give him a good kicking. I certainly have no intention of loving the Catholic God with all my heart and with all my soul and with all my mind, any more than I love the Ebola virus with all my heart and with all my soul and with all my mind.

            When I said that I would not become Catholic, even under those circumstances, I was objecting to the moral requirements of the Catholic creed (or any other Christian one I can think of right now), not the empirical statements.

          • randy m says:

            If Catholicism is true, you will not be able to behold good and defy him. If your cartoon version is true, you will certainly be able to persuade him by dint of your superior reasoning ability.

          • Highly Effective People says:

            Putting aside the Miltonian futility of giving God “a kicking,” it seems that this desire is rooted in a bit of a false claim.

            There is virtually no evil in the world, and all of it created in the minds of we who suffer it. Marcus Aurelius gives a better argument than I can here but regardless of whether you believe in destiny or random chance it should be fairly obvious that our pain and pleasure aren’t given any special consideration by causality. The indifference of nature is practically an axiom of science after all. And human beings are more than capable of thriving in pain (and even death) while withering in pleasure. So how can we call painful or deadly things external to us evil when the choice to respond virtuously or viciously is by definition something exclusively under our control?

            Lest you think this bit of Stoicism is a complete derail, it also points out a flaw in the whole “Is X a Religion?” game: not only is there is no clear distinction between religion and culture but the line between religion and secular philosophy is at least as indistinct. My attempt to save it is to mentally replace ‘X is a Religion’ with ‘Xists are Fanatics.’ That more accurately captures the core of the criticism and avoids getting bogged down in a semantic ooze (although obviously it’s more directly confrontational).

          • Tracy W says:

            @randy m

            If Catholicism is true, you will not be able to behold good and defy him.

            If we’re talking about the Catholic God, we’re talking about this.
            And also, seriously, why on earth would you think that I would be unable to defy good even if I did encounter it? I assure you that I have an awful lot of character flaws.

            [Edit: Cut for length.]

            @Highly Effective People

            There is virtually no evil in the world, and all of it created in the minds of we who suffer it.

            This assumes mind-body dualism. Well, mind-world dualism. I reject that based on Occam’s Razor. Minds are part of the world, as this explains how our mind can interact with the world. If you some evidence that this hypothesis is wrong, please let me know, but otherwise I will continue to regard evil as being in the world *because* it is in the minds of we who suffer.

            it should be fairly obvious that our pain and pleasure aren’t given any special consideration by causality

            Why did you pick out the word “causality” here? I can’t see if it would have made any difference to the remainder of your argument if instead of “causality” you had said “love” or “autumn” or “fourier analysis”.

            So how can we call painful or deadly things external to us evil when the choice to respond virtuously or viciously is by definition something exclusively under our control?

            Well personally I start with the vowel “e” and then I think I move my lower jaw back and my tongue up to do the “vil” syllable. I understand some people use voice synthesizers.

          • Irrelevant says:

            The issue there is that Occam’s Razor is even more effective at eliminating good-evil dualism than it is mind-body.

          • Tracy W says:

            @Irrelevant: if I ever find myself falling into good-evil dualism I hope I will remind myself of your point.

          • Deiseach says:

            Mmmm, but that distinction lies in a theological quibble: many Protestant fundamentalists believe “religion” is something only pagans like Catholics practice 🙂

            There’s a lot of proof-texting about “do not pile up empty words like the pagans do” and the admonishment about works righteousness; by contrast, the Pure Gospel Belief is not ‘religion’ in that sense – the sense of man-made works and rituals and formulaic words.

      • Paul says:

        “Not evidence based” doesn’t tell you much though. Whether you say that or you say religion, you’re lumping together many modern practices with a vast number of others of a purely pragmatic metaphysical bent.

        The ancient Romans for example didn’t care what you believed or how true your faith might be, they cared that you did the right things. Saying you weren’t going to sacrifice because you didn’t believe in the gods would be like saying; “I’m not going to pay taxes that pay for sedatives that keep immortal eldritch abominations from waking up and scouring the landscape.” That’s a rather different sort of ‘not evidence based’ view than one that’s concerned instead for your personal virtue and the disposition of your immortal soul.

        • Harald K says:

          Right. There’s a huge gap between belief-oriented religions like the Abrahamic ones and practice-oriented religions like Hinduism.

          Maharishi Manesh Yogi convinced a lot of atheists and agnostics (and to be fair, lots of religious people too) to chant all day that they bow down to Saraswati. If they’d known the first thing about Hinduism being a practice oriented religion, they’d save themselves that particular embarrassment.

        • Deiseach says:

          Saying you weren’t going to sacrifice because you didn’t believe in the gods would be like saying; “I’m not going to pay taxes that pay for sedatives that keep immortal eldritch abominations from waking up and scouring the landscape.”

          Which is why they regarded Christians as atheists and likely to bring about the downfall of society; by refusing to practice things like sacrificing to the gods, they were breaking the contracts and so invoking the wrath of the numinous forces. The Romans had much less of a personal idea of “the gods” than the Greeks (which is why they borrowed so much wholesale from the Greeks, and they were certainly less ‘religious’ than the Etruscans), but they had a very clear view of “We do this for you, you do that for us; we’ve made a bargain and as long as both sides stick to it, we’ll both do well”.

          You might or might not believe in an actual Jupiter wielding an actual thunderbolt, but there was the idea of a natural/supernatural force behind the State, which was appeased by carrying out the appropriate rituals (so the survival of the office of the Flamen Dialis, with its archaic taboos and practices which, though no longer understood as to how they had arisen, were observed). Failure to do this was defaulting on the contract, and penalties were likely to accrue.

          Orthopraxy was everything, orthodoxy not so much 🙂

      • Nornagest says:

        I’m actually not sure that these all form a natural category. Structurally, Norse paganism has far more in common with Shinto (or, at a somewhat greater remove, Hinduism) than it does with Christianity or Islam, and I think these differences might be big enough to render them a separate cluster within the space of cultural traditions. (Greek and [especially] Roman paganism looks intermediate to me, probably because Christianity picked up a lot of Roman traditions.)

        Back when I was hanging out with a lot of neopagans, I picked up from them the concept of orthodoxy versus orthopraxis. The Norse didn’t have much use for uniformity of belief: there were certain gods and spirits that everyone would be aware of, but also a lot of regional variation, and they wouldn’t have particularly cared if you believed in Odin as a literal beardy one-eyed dude with two pet ravens and a magic spear or an abstract personification of cunning leadership or something else. But they’d very much care if you neglected the mores of hospitality, or if you failed to take the serpent figureheads on your ship down when approaching a friendly shore (which was thought to offend the spirits of the land), or if the local goði wasn’t doing the right rituals at planting and harvest.

        That sort of stuff’s still important in the Abrahamic religions, but it’s not the core of the religion in the same way.

        • This is all true, but it should be pointed out that even the Abrahamic religions are less concerned with orthodoxy than is commonly assumed. Judaism and Islam have relatively straightforward creeds, and the bulk of their tradition is concerned with practice, not doctine. Christianity is the most orthodoxy-centered Abrahamic religion, and Protestantism is the most orthodoxy-centered branch of Christianity, and evangelicals/fundamentalists are the most orthodoxy-centered sect of Protestantism, having almost entirely eliminated “orthopraxy” as an explicit concern. (Evangelicals have their own customs of practice, of course, but they explicitly disavow that those practices are normative and assert that you can do basically anything so long as you follow the doctrines.) But, as usually happens in these discussions, the prominence of evangelicals in American religious experience causes many people to treat that paradigm as the standard.

        • Harald K says:

          I note that when Romans wrote about Germanic tribes, they didn’t say “they seem to believe in some god they call Donar”. No, they just said “they hold big celebrations in Zeus’ honor”. They fit every god they encountered into their own framework, or did their very best.

          Same with the norse. When there were suddenly stories about Odin hanged himself in order to gain wisdom, or Baldur being betrayed and killed (but he will return after the end of the world!), that’s attempts to fit really alien and itchy ideas into the only framework they knew. This is a thing pagans/practice centered religions just do.

          • Nornagest says:

            Yeah, I remember that from Tacitus, and I wouldn’t be surprised if some other writers did the same thing. I don’t think we should overgeneralize from that, though; the Romans also had a habit of importing foreign gods wholesale and worshipping them alongside their own pantheon, sometimes as an enclosed mystery religion (e.g. Mithras) and sometimes more-or-less on par with the native pantheon (e.g. Isis). Syncretism was common, but there seem to have been limits on it.

      • ” I feel like Judaism, Christianity, and Islam form an obvious category. I wouldn’t mind including Greek paganism, Norse paganism, Scientology and related cults, and Zoroastrianism as well.”

        GKC, in The Everlasting Man, argues that comparative religion is bunk because it lumps the three Abrahamic religions with a bunch of entirely different things.

        It seems to me that “X is a religion” is useful to the extent that it helps us make sense of X by observations of other things considered religions. I was struck long ago by the parallelism between the history of Objectivism after Rand’s death and of Islam after Mohammed’s.

        It’s also potentially useful for inducing a little more humility into people who are confident that other people’s beliefs are unreasonable, theirs are reasonable. It’s true that most people who don’t believe in evolution or in global warming hold their views because they are what the people around them who they trust, and who they want approval from, tell them. But it’s also true of most people on the other side of those arguments. You have probably seen Dan Kahan’s research relevant to this—not sure if you’ve posted on it or not.

    • Autolykos says:

      Yup. “Has evidence in favor of it” as a category very, very slightly misses the point. While p(religion|no valid evidence) is pretty high, p(not religion|valid evidence) should be quite a bit lower.
      Way more telling is how it reacts to (new) contradicting evidence. If it’s “ignore/suppress/deny”, that points towards religion. If it’s “adjust probability of beliefs being true” that’s a pretty strong point against it being a religion.

      • Anonymous says:

        I bet you wouldn’t update your belief that this distinction is useful even if you encountered evidence that contradicts your stereotyping.

        • Autolykos says:

          What kind of evidence do you have in mind?

          If I suddenly found multiple large movements that are commonly regarded as a religion and self-identify as one, but regularly throw out or edit their teachings when new evidence comes around (and admit their mistake, instead of claiming they Always Were At War With Eastasia), I’d definitely get rid of that criterion for calling something a religion. But currently, I can only think of half an example that kinda fits:
          Pretty much everyone agrees that one of the central texts in Chinese Zen Buddhism is very probably a rather recent fake, and the Buddhists seem to accept that view instead of stubbornly claiming it to be written by the old master.

          And don’t tell me about modern interpretations of the Bible, unless the Pope (or a similar authority) put their money where their mouth is and unambiguously declare which parts we should take literally, which parts metaphorically and which ones were just ravings of lunatics high on incense.

          • Anthony says:

            The Catholic Church has, several times in the 20th and 21st centuries, stated that evolution is true, and is how God created humans, despite the very direct contradiction with scripture.

  11. Cauê says:

    It seems that people would benefit from Eliezer’s sequence about words. I’m trying to point to a specific post, but they’re kinda connected. Anything about categories, probably.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I think we’re arguing about the position of things in thingspace and not just the boundaries. There are real similarities between some ideologies and some religions, and the reason why that should be is an empirical question, not a semantic one.

      • Cauê says:

        But those similarities aren’t about every part that counts for our category “religion”. Most of your examples have nothing to do with metaphysics, for instance, which is a pretty big deal.

        Among other patterns, I used to think “this is like a religion” when something made questioning itself into a crime. Now I put this in a larger category of *memetic self-defense mechanisms*, that also include things like “resistance” in psychoanalisis, the various pre-built “other people only oppose this because they are X and want Y” in politics, or “the Devil can be very persuasive” in, well, religion. Religion seems to have a lot of these, but once I saw that this is what I was looking for, I saw that the supernatural stuff and the community stuff don’t matter much here.

        Sometimes we will care that things are blue and hairy, and sometimes we’ll care that they’re round and filled with vanadium.

        • I’m not sure I want to completely dump the idea of religion, but I strongly approve the idea of looking at how well-defended memeplexes are, and by what means.

        • Scott says:

          We could play around with how to refer to the cluster. ‘Fortressed memeplex’? ‘Political battle’? ‘Holy war’? ‘Movement’?

          Religion isn’t a bad word at all I think, since you can subdivide it into secular and non-secular religions.

  12. Thursday says:

    In my opinion, actual religion religion really needs to involve attributing some sort of personal agency to things in the non-human world. Otherwise, the word become essentially meaningless. Even if not everybody gets particularly passionate about, or even believes in, such non-human agents, they are one of the things that can provoke the most extraordinarily powerful passions in at least some people.

    But it is true that most human activities involve at least some similarity to religion, and it is very difficult to not think in ways that are at least somewhat teleological, which means that even non-religious people sometimes think in religious ways.

    • Anthony says:

      some sort of personal agency to things in the non-human world

      Ok – under this definition, environmentalism (as a movement) definitely qualifies. Social “Justice” not so much, though the way SJs use “patriarchy” and “structural oppression” comes pretty darn close.

      • Thursday says:

        I would agree that many forms of environmentalism clearly meet this definition of religion.

    • randy m says:

      Moloch approves of this definition.

  13. The word “culture” is covering an awful lot of ground here.

    Some cultural differences have no inherent significance; funny hats, food choices, and whatever. The significance is entirely in how they affect our perceptions of one another.

    But some of these things are not like the others. For example, in my home country, traditional Maori views on land ownership and sovereignty differ in important ways from traditional Pakeha (New Zealand non-Maori) views. This causes significant, if mostly quiet, tension, and seems much more “real” to me in some sense than the “other” kind of culture. We can’t solve the problem simply by getting used to it, the way we can get used to people wearing funny hats. We actually have to make decisions, and pretty much the best we can do is come up with a compromise that makes both sides equally unhappy.

    I’m not really sure what to make of this. I probably just need to read an anthropology primer.

    • danfiction says:

      In America, at least, I get the impression that what gets called “culture” is just actual cultures—distinct worldviews—that fail to compete with other cultures and the monoculture, and end up parted out and demoted to food-and-hat pseudo-culture.

      I’m totally disconnected from any non-American heritage, so the two examples that come to mind are Christian phenomena—the ascendent Catholic and evangelical cultures of the first and second halves of the 20th century.

      In the 40s or 50s, say, you could live what was basically a parallel Catholic life in conversation with but distinct from the broader culture—read Catholic books, orient your life toward Catholic customs, thinking of yourself as Catholic in the same way you thought of yourself as American, rather than as a bolt-on part of your identity. In the 80s and 90s a similar parallel ecosystem sprung up around evangelicalism. It was much more self-consciously modeled after American culture—here are your rock stars, here are your inspiring heroes, here are your self-help books—maybe because it was flimsier than the transplanted Catholic traditions but also because it was unwisely certain it could remake American culture in its own image, or somehow secretly represented it already.

      The parallel evangelical culture isn’t gone, but it’s certainly diminished, for reasons that I would probably mangle badly from the Christopher Lasch original if I tried to put them here. (It’s really hard to compete with the elite culture when they have all the TVs and write the checks, etc.) But it faded in a way I recognize everywhere I look at people like me who are handwave-American: The true believers live different lives, their kids wear different clothes, their grandkids join a new culture and hyphenate the vestigial one onto the front. You fast for lent, your kids eat fish on Ash Wednesday, your grandkids make strained jokes about lent but don’t really know when it starts. You read Judith Butler cover to cover, your kid shares videos about unique and very brave teens, your grandkid thinks the important thing is to just be good to people, really.

      In Springfield, where I’m from, there’s a part of the state fairgrounds called Ethnic Village where people go to be Irish and Italian and Polish once a year. You eat food out of booths, prepared from recipes somebody found online, and then you watch a traveling step-dance troupe at the Ameren pavilion in the middle, and then you go back out to the fair and behave indistinguishably from the people around you.

      • The U.S.A. is something of a special case, in that its population descends mostly from people willing to abandon one culture (at least partially) in favor of another; we Americans might assume culture is more malleable generally than it actually is in the rest of the world.

  14. J says:

    Moloch is the anti religion. Moloch, which emerges from our unconscious devotion, with no Pope and no heretics.

  15. grammatically right of center says:

    Social justice and environmentalism seem more religious than gun control and pro-choice

    Scott, I’m sorry to complain about your grammar (meaning: I realize that I’m violating social norms by doing so, but am sufficiently bothered that I’m doing it anyway; please don’t mistake this complaint for an attempt to gain status at your expense), but this thing you do where you use adjectives and adjectival phrases as if they were nouns is something I find terribly annoying. “Pro-choice” here is an example. One can be pro-choice, one can take a pro-choice position, but one cannot (please!) say something like “pro-choice is a religious movement”. Just like you say “environmentalism is a religious movement”, but not “environmental is a religious movement” or “environmentalist is a religious movement”. (In a sentence like “‘environmentalist’ is a label”, the quotation marks are crucial!)

    (It always felt to me like you were doing this with “transgender”, using it when one should say “transgenderism”, but I couldn’t exactly explain what was wrong since “gender” is in fact a noun. It just felt like you were using it as an adjective, and then turning around and using that adjective as a noun, as with “pro-choice” above, as opposed to using it as a noun directly derived from the noun “gender”. The “pro-choice” example supports this hypothesis.)

    Basically, what it feels like is that you’re not bothering to use correct morphology, as if you somehow think that doing so would slow you down too much. I would be grateful if you could maybe a little more often sacrifice an extra couple of seconds (and possibly a modicum of cutesiness) by writing something like “the pro-choice position” or “pro-choice-ness” or “pro-choice-ism” (the latter two are still cutesily “non-standard”!).

    • Douglas Knight says:

      You complain that he doesn’t use correct morphology, but then you demonstrate that there is no correct morphology. (Does “the pro-choice position” count as morphology?)

      • grammatically right of center says:

        I didn’t demonstrate that there was no correct morphology; I demonstrated (or rather, allowed) that there was no correct morphology that was lexicographically standard.

        “The pro-choice position” counts as avoiding the choice between non-standard vocabulary and incorrect morphology. Given that choice, I request that one always choose non-standard vocabulary.

    • Irrelevant says:

      I found the grammatical awkwardness there a useful component of the argument, though that was likely unintentional. If abortionism and disarmianity were in fact worldviews, they would probably also have accepted nouns.

    • Deiseach says:

      Come, let you and I sit on the side of the comments thread, shaking our walking sticks at the goldurn kids trespassing on our lawns 🙂

      This is what I’ve been mildly grousing about, that the STEM types have no ear for language.

      • Anonymous says:

        [insert condescending comment about “humanities types”.]

        • Douglas Knight says:

          “Humanities types” have no ear for language.

        • Deiseach says:

          Yes, but you need us to turn your grunts and chicken-scratches into intelligible communication 🙂

          • Nornagest says:

            I would think that an acute communicator such as yourself would be aware that a smiley face doesn’t make a statement any less rude.

            Also, reported.

          • Irrelevant says:

            Isn’t it a bit early in the year to have the World’s Wiltingest Violet competition, Norn?

          • Deiseach says:

            Thank you for informing me of that, Nornagest. In future I shall be rude frowningly.

            Reported? *clutches to ample bosom, weeping joyfully* My first ever “ban this sick filth!” request. I’ve been called names, rebuked, and generally given a bad impression of myself online, but never before have I had anyone report me to the mods!

            I’d like to thank the Academy, my parents, and all the little people (you know who you are) who made this possible!

          • Nornagest says:

            I’m not looking for a ban, but I wouldn’t say no to a slap on the wrist in nice bright mod letters. You’ve got a habit of taking gratuitous cheap shots that I’d like to see reined in, and as we’ve seen here already I don’t think mere disapproval from the commentariat is going to cut it.

          • I don’t find Deiseach’s comment rude beyond the normal limits of banter. But I offer Eric Raymond, who surely counts as a STEM type, as a counterexample. Also Dawkins. Verner Vinge. Isaac Asimov.

            And I disagree with Grammatically about the initial post. Scott’s ellipsis of “pro-choice” for “the pro-choice movement” worked for me and fit his (effective) writing style.

            Although I also probably count as grammatically right of center, since I wince every time I see “they” as a gender neutral singular taking a singular verb form.

          • Scott Alexander says:

            David: You mean something like “They says…”? Do people do that?!

      • Scott Alexander says:

        So you’re using the example of a person who isn’t in STEM, who is a successful blogger frequently praised for his writing skills, using a non-standard coinage one time, as an example that STEM people have no ear for language?

        (if I were a jerk, I’d point out that “STEM types”, which turns “science, technology, engineering, and mathematics” into an adjective, is no better than me turning “pro-choice” into a noun).

    • Cauê says:

      I prefer Scott’s way.

      But I’m not a native speaker, so make of that what you will.

    • InferentialDistance says:

      Nouning adjectives is valid. Same with verbing nouns. Linguistics agrees.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I actually thought about this before writing that sentence. I worried that adding things like “pro-choice-ism” would bias things by making it artificially sound more like an ideology, and saying “being pro-choice” would bias it away from that by making it sound like an action. I think the way it looks right now is acceptable. Consider phrases like “feminism is too white” – “feminism” is being used to mean “the feminist movement”. I think you can pull the same trick to make “pro-choice” mean “the pro-choice movement”.

    • buckwheatloaf says:

      so he made a grammar mistake. but at least he isn’t patronizing and doesn’t sound like he’s off in another planet when he’s writing something. dont try to mistake your corrections for trying to gain status at his expense? when you come of as patronizing that disclaimer isn’t needed. it isn’t needed even if you hadn’t. there is a million ways you could correct his grammar without violating social norms and not be confused with trying to gain status from doing so. but you are right that you did violate them. you violated them by being patronizing.

      most people would rather read something with grammar errors left and right if it comes from a grounded person with great common sense that has a natural talent for expressing their ideas, than read something from somebody who gets all the grammar right but has a poor attitude that comes across when they write something. grammatical writing can be found in a hundred places. high quality people that do high quality writing from good motives is not as abundant. i would be happy to do a big compromise on grammar to get that. sure there’s some that the grammar will be pretty important for like you. so you can suggest some changes. which you did. and im sure what you suggested was perfectly sensible, but i didn’t like the way you suggested it.

  16. Irrelevant says:

    I was taught that the generic term for these -isms and -ities was worldview,* with religion and the various other terms people are bringing up being slightly different ways of slicing up the same category that mostly differ in how strongly they connote each of the typical factors a worldview has. “X is a tradition” emphasizes that it’s received and long-standing, “X is a religion” that it’s all-encompassing and organized, “X is a cult” that it’s fringe and exclusionary, “X is a faith” that it’s metaphysical and unprovable, “X is a culture” that its adherents are demographically clustered, and “X is a philosophy” that it’s intellectually influential. Calling environmentalism a religion or libertarianism a culture is in a sense slicing things up wrongly, but it’s an error in degree rather than fundamentals, and using that sort of “incorrect” mapping can be educational when it brings usually overlooked traits to the forefront.

    *Wikipedia has somehow started using the word “lifestance” for this, which is just horrendous-sounding.

    • JM says:

      If you read about Native Americans’ religions they’re essentially indistinguishable from hard-core environmentalism. Use all parts of the buffalo, renewable this, natural that, etc. Most of it’s a sort of modern founding myth because their ancestors were in reality about as environmentally conscious as any other culture in history (that is to say, not at all), and today’s Native Americans latched onto asceticism-and-environmentalism-as-religion because it lets them feel superior to the polluting materialists who took their homeland, but the point still stands: there’s not a lot of daylight between some uber-granola environmentalist in Portland (who is almost certain not to be affiliated with a traditional monotheistic religion) and something that is pretty clearly a religion.

      • Native American religion may include environmental respect, but it includes supernatural entities as well. That a rather important distinction from environmentalism.

        • JM says:

          But that’s exactly my point. Environmentalism (not the political movement, but the “lifestance” or whatever) has everything except _explicit_ deities, but I think that has as much to do with the political sensibilities of environmentalists, who tend to think organized religion is a bit creepy and explicitly stated belief in deities is superstitious, than with the underlying belief system.

        • Anthony says:

          The way many environmentalists talk about “nature” (or “Gaia”) certainly qualifies it as a supernatural entity.

      • Douglas Knight says:

        Is that really what happens when you read about the religions, or is that only what happens when you read about the religions in books written by environmentalists?

      • Nornagest says:

        I rather suspect the popular perception of this has more to do with environmentalism than it does with Native American religion. Most of the very many Native American religions share a respect for the physical environment, sure — practically all animistic traditions do — but I doubt anyone bothered to look deeply into them when they were drawing up the Indian-sheds-a-single-tear posters.

  17. When people ask about my religion, I sometimes say “I grew up environmentalist, but now I’m agnostic.”

    What I think makes the environmentalist movement more religious than the rest is how permeable it is to supernatural beliefs.

  18. Dermot Harnett says:

    This is why I read your blog.excellent post.

  19. Herald says:

    Regardless of whether an ideology qualifies as a religion, it is worth noting when ideologies have religious qualities.

    If an ideological is cladistically descended from a religion, or isomorphic to a religion (aside from belief in the supernatural), then there is a stronger case that the ideology is religious. There is also a stronger case if you can show that an ideology is related to a specific religion, rather than just having a vaguely religious quality.

    Moldbug makes the case that modern liberalism and progressivism are ideologically descended from Protestantism, through Calvinism, Puritanism, and Unitarian Universalism. Moldbug pictures Protestantism becoming Progressivism through a continuous process, like the Ship of Theseus. The last plank of the ship to be replaced happened to be belief in God. Is it still the same ship?

    Moldbug’s case for the religious roots of progressivism is much more detailed, historical, and far-reaching than many of the other putative “religions” Scott discusses, such as Apple or Objectivism. He is talking about something more than a dogmatic ideology.

    Even if it’s not technically accurate to call a non-supernatural belief system a “religion,” such a claim can still convey a lot of meaning if that belief system overlaps with a religion enough. How can we explain Unitarian Universalists, some of whom are atheists? Is a UU Christian religious, while a UU atheist is not, even though they agree about 99.9% of everything else?

    It’s at least important to be able to call ideologies “religious,” in the sense that they have qualities in common with religions.

    • Irrelevant says:

      Got a link to specific places he makes his argument? I am in no way up for reading Moldbug’s entire blog.

      • Herald says:

        I apologize for not providing links, because I don’t know what gets caught in the spam filter. I made a post with a lot of links, which are currently in the spam filter. For now, you could Google “Moldbuggery” and find Moldbug’s posts organized by series, and check out the How Dawkins Got Pwned series, or the Ultracalvinism/Universalism series.

  20. Harald K says:

    Sometimes I find you insightful Scott. But the times you do stuff like promoting Eric S. Raymond’s comment denying anthropogenic global warming without even commenting on it, those are among the furthest from those times. This is right up there with vaccine denial.

    As I pointed out in the very same thread you quoted, it’s mostly not the environmental movement that pushes the “personal virtue”. You have a damn good example in Keep America Beautiful, formed by corporations as a “personal virtue” bulwark against bottle recycling bills and other regulation. Politicians are also fond of “personal virtue”-type signaling, it makes sense for them.

    But it doesn’t make sense for environmental organizations. Even the ones I find totally unsympathetic and mercenary, e.g. Greenpeace, don’t want to give you a false sense of virtue just because you’re recycling or switching to LED lightbulbs or whatever. It’d be counterproductive for them, since if you feel virtuous over those things, there’d be less pressure to feel virtuous by giving money to Greenpeace.

    No, not everything is a religion. Lots of things are more like profit-seeking corporations instead.

    • JM says:

      While I agree about the AGW comment saying far more about the speaker than about environmentalists, there are a lot of environmentalists out there (e.g. my European relatives who object to nuclear power) who are more interested in some vague notion of environmental beauty and purity than in actually protecting the environment. For them, environmentalism is a proxy for a sort of animistic belief in the spirit of nature and natural things and a need to stay in balance with it. The idea that there might be tradeoffs in environmental protection (not to pick on my relatives, but they can’t see that while nuclear power creates one kind of problem it solves another) is anathema to them, just as the notion of tradeoffs in obeying God’s will is anathema to a member of a traditional religion. The root of this is an underlying and essentially religious faith that there is a single correct way to engage with the environment (God) and that doing things that create a feeling of personal connection with nature (God) is self-evidently virtuous.

      And while, again, the AGW comment makes it clear that Raymond’s a nut, that particular broken clock happens to be right on recycling. (Mixed metaphor, I know. Sorry I’m not sorry.) It makes you feel warm and fuzzy inside but accomplishes essentially nothing. For the really hard-core pro-recycling folks it reflects either some really intense signalling or the mentality I described above, in which recycling is a way of purifying one’s own little corner of the world.

      • I think your relatives are an example of Environmentalism that is not about the environment.

        • JM says:

          Yeah. The vast majority of real-life environmentalism (not the platonic ideal of environmentalist activism) is either signalling (e.g. college students pushing for recycling in their building to show off that They Care About Important Things) or an effort to make your own little corner of the planet feel pure (the Kennedys objecting to wind farms off of Cape Cod, my relatives objecting to nuclear power, me feeling good about myself for taking out the recycling).

      • Tom Womack says:

        The figures about recycling being pointless seem to be mostly drawn from very old studies.

        http://www.wrap.org.uk/content/plastic gives some actual numbers: both what real UK capitalists really paid for a ton of used plastic bottles of various types, and what new plastic costs. For comparison, in 1996 you got about 500kWh electricity by burning a ton of plastic, which would sell today for around £50 retail or £20 wholesale.

        I’m reasonably confident that it doesn’t cost £1000 in salary, diesel and depreciation of the truck to collect twenty tons of plastic bottles in a truck in a reasonably dense urban area.

        • JM says:

          Recycling isn’t profitable if you include the cost of separating the valuable stuff from the actual trash, which is why cities usually compel you to separate your garbage for free for them. In any event, profitability isn’t a particularly good measure of whether recycling is worthwhile in this context. The question is what environmental benefits are derived from recycling, and except for a few special cases (batteries being one, I think) the answer is “basically none.”

      • not_all_environmentalists says:

        recycling is a way of purifying one’s own little corner of the world

        Aw, can’t we Real Environmenalists enjoy a little recreational purifying in the privacy of our own homes? After a long hard day researching trade-offs, debunking bike lanes, helping to triage projects … it’s nice to unwind in a daydream. As long as the Purity Ritual doesn’t take time or resources from the real stuff.

        What’s better though, is shopping at the local funky organic market (run by friends we trust), thus supporting the market, the local makers, the local farmers…. Hm, almost a little oeconomy there. That’s purity, community, and real stuff.

    • FacelessCraven says:

      Aren’t environmental organizations distinct from environmentalism, the ideology that prioritizes managing human impact on nature? Isn’t the idea of the “Apple Religion” pretty distinct and quite a bit larger than the Apple corporation? My understanding was that the “environmentalism religion” is environmentalism as the public at large understands it, as a set of ideas and rituals with little understanding of the global picture or their actual meaning. Lots of people act this way about environmentalism, just as they do about Christianity or Science or any other cultural foundation.

      • Harald K says:

        Well, since you mention science: I’d say that the more you actually know about science, the less you treat it as a religion. As I see it, it’s therefore unfair to call science a religion, even though many people treat it as such.

        That effect is present in environmentalism too. The more you are into environmentalism as a political movement, the less cheap moral glow you get from recycling, I bet.

        But there is an important difference still, in that the things that promote cheap moral glow often come not from casual, ignorant or misguided environmentalists, but people indifferent to, or even actively aiming to undermine environmentalist efforts.

        It may sound crazy, but it’s also well documented and impossible to deny in many cases. I keep referencing Keep America Beautiful because it was an early, and consequently recklessly overt, effort to do this sort of thing. They really were formed to prevent environmental regulation, and most people have no clue.

        • FacelessCraven says:

          No objection to any of that. I thought Scott’s point was that the people involved in Environmentalism for the cheap moral glow vastly outnumber the people who are really serious about it. The same pattern would appear to hold for Science, Christianity, Democrats/Republicans, Communism, and Apple, simply because it’s so much easier to join the group on a cheap moral glow level than it is to make a deep and lasting commitment of your time and mental energy. People can be a lot of things on a superficial level, but usually only one or two things in a serious way. There are a lot of things to be, so most people that ally themselves to any group are going to be pretty wishy-washy about it.

    • Tracy W says:

      Your argument that, say, Greenpeace isn’t a religion because it doesn’t want to give people a false sense of virtue as they’d then feel less pressure to donate to Greenpeace strikes me as an argument that proves too much. For example, churches certainly have a strong interest in people donating money to them, does that mean that they didn’t encourage people to engage in rituals that gave a sense of virtue? (Eg attending church, taking mass/bible study classes/etc).

      • Harald K says:

        Religions are open about wanting people to feel good, whether than is called to “attain enlightenment” or “rest certain in your salvation” or whatever. A church that sacrificed this objective in order to make more money, would as I see it be more like a corporation and less like a church. Indeed, a few churches may be like that.

        But if you’re just attending church, taking mass/bible study classes/etc., that still helps the organization further itself in a way changing to LED lightbulbs really does not help Greenpeace.

        The difference is because making members feel better is neither an explicit goal of Greenpeace, or an implicit goal of Greenpeace except occasionally as a means to the end (of the organizations’ self-procreation).

        Although both can manipulate you for self-serving ends, there’s a big difference between an organization that is overtly oriented around you, your thoughts and feelings, and one that claims some goal independent of that.

        • Tracy W says:

          Your claim was that Greenpeace wouldn’t encourage people to participate in rituals as it would take away from donating money to Greenpeace. But if that’s true, why would taking mass or bible study classes be any different? Taking mass isn’t like missionary work.

          And “making members feel better” is the overt goal of nearly any organisation, isn’t it? Greenpeace says “do this and you and your children won’t die of pollution”, the Church says “do this and you won’t suffer in eternal hellfire”, the army says “do this and we’ll give you a medal and posthumous fame and you’ll know you didn’t let your mates down”, the running club says “do this and you’ll get fitter and make new friends”.

          • Harald K says:

            Guess I’m not being clear. Religions have an “excuse” for caring about you, but an organization working towards a collective goal would discredit itself by overtly caring too much for how members feel.

            A Greenpeace that says “those LED lightbulbs aren’t really making a meaningful contribution, you know” benefits in two ways. One is simply in credibility: you, after all, think you’re supporting Greenpeace for idealistic causes (even if a feel-good factor is really what’s keeping you there). You don’t want to literally hear that you’re being virtuous and that it’s enough, even that’s secretly how you want to feel. The other way they benefit is the one I talked about, that the economic contribution becomes the main way to feel good.

            But imagine a church that says “all that praying and fasting and meditation and stuff doesn’t really matter much you know, what you need to do is give money to us!” – they’re talking down their own product, so to say. The point isn’t only saving the world, you are also the point.

            For Greenpeace, you are not the point, and you don’t want to be the point. Anything you want for yourself, you want as a side effect of reaching the collective goal (at least overtly).

            A running club, that’s slightly more like a religion again. The point is to give something to the world, maybe, but if so through giving it first to you, the member.

            An organization ostensibly working towards a shared, extrinsic goal, loses credibility from feelgood rituals. But an organization working overtly towards an individual benefit exclusive to its members, may often gain credibility from them, even if they also pursue some “for the good of all mankind” type goals.

            I wonder if this has any implications for the EA crowd. They are very much about wanting to avoid feeling good about themselves over something that doesn’t really help. In that way they’re definitively more like activist organizations like Greenpeace, than a church or a running club.

          • Tracy W says:

            Religions have an “excuse” for caring about you, but an organization working towards a collective goal would discredit itself by overtly caring too much for how members feel.

            Interesting claim, what evidence do you have to support it? In particular you have any examples of organisations that have discredited themselves by overtly caring too much?

            A Greenpeace that says “those LED lightbulbs aren’t really making a meaningful contribution, you know” benefits in two ways.

            But what Greenpeace says is “Every day you leave an incandescent burning is a wasted day for the climate and a waste of money for you.” (see question “I’ve just brought brand new incandescent bulbs”)

            So, Greenpeace is saying roughly the opposite of what you think they should be saying. Greenpeace is saying you should change lightbulbs.

            But imagine a church that says

            I would find this rather more convincing if, rather than asking me to imagine something, you gave an example of a church that said basically that. I know from experience that my imagination doesn’t always match with reality.

          • Harald K says:

            Of course they say you should change lightbulbs, but they absolutely do not praise you for doing so. They don’t want you to even think in that direction – note their main individual argument is that you save money.

            (They’re also making a quantitative claim: that throwing away just bought incandescents saves energy over using them until they go out. It’d be interesting to know if that claim was true).

            When asked point blank: “Will changing a lightbulb really make a difference?” they evade the question, start talking about energy efficiency standards etc. They are clear that what they really want is for incandescents to be banned, though. And if you want to make a difference, go out and become an activist (harass your shops to stop carrying incandescents) and “most importantly: Sign up to our email list”.

            “But imagine a church that says” – did you read what I said? The point was that no reasonable church says something like that. I can’t well find an example of a church that does something I think makes no sense for a church, nor would it be a point in my favor if I could.

            “In particular you have any examples of organisations that have discredited themselves by overtly caring too much?”

            For the same reason I don’t expect to find many churches that “talk down their product”, I don’t expect to find many environmental organizations that fail by hugging their members too much. But it is, at least, not hard to find environmental organizations that have been attacked for supposedly being feel-good hippy places, even if they didn’t deserve it. “Fremtiden I våre hender”, a Norwegian organization founded by a hippie quantum philosophy guy (the name also means “the future in our hands”), has trouble being taken seriously thanks to its founders’ airy ideas. But the actual organization is in fact quite reasonable in its positions. They attracted some attention for (and annoyed Norwegian farmers by) saying that if you’re going to eat meat anyway, importing it by ship from Botswana is a great idea for the environment. Also, they’re exactly the kind of environmental organization which will say that cutting down on air travel matters a lot more than lightbulbs.

          • Douglas Knight says:

            Yes, throwing away new incandescents and replacing them with fluorescents really does save energy. This is very easy to check for yourself. In operation, the replacement saves energy. The only way that the total operation could fail to save energy is if the energy used in creating the fluorescent bulb were larger than the energy saved in its lifetime. But the energy consumed in its lifetime costs an order of magnitude more than the bulb, so unless the manufacturers are losing money on all the energy it takes to fabricate the bulb, there cannot be so much energy in it.

          • Tracy W says:

            These seems to be going from checkable claims to ones about what organisations really want, so I’m going to bow out.

    • Tom Scharf says:

      “…denying anthropogenic global warming….”

      1. The extracted quote was silent on this subject.
      2. You are willfully moving the goalposts.

      From further comments in that thread it is clear the commenter doesn’t deny that warming has happened or will continue to happen. He questions how much much warming will occur and what the effects will be.

      But you pull out the denier label to intentionally paint a false picture. This is so common now that you and others barely even notice what you are doing.

      Possibly you could have been more accurate? You could say he “denies global warming will be catastrophic”. Unfortunately that is very defensible position and backed up by the science. Are there scenarios where AGW could be catastrophic? Yes. Are they likely? Absolutely not. “Denying” a low probability scenario will occur seems very reasonable. It just places the commenter out of your tribe, so labeling is now OK.

      And that is the working definition of denier in my experience. Those who do not support immediate and costly action to address AGW. But advocates use a sleight of hand to imagine this really means a denial of science.

      Can one believe the world has warmed, that man has some responsibility for this, and be justified in thinking that proposed policy prescriptions are either ineffective on reducing global emissions or not cost effective (the cure is worse than the disease)?

      Is it much easier to label someone a global warming denier than answer that question?

      • Harald K says:

        Sigh. ESR has a long, long history of climate science denial.

        From further comments in that thread it is clear the commenter doesn’t deny that warming has happened or will continue to happen.

        He doesn’t deny it there, in the sense that he doesn’t say anything about it at all. Before I waste more time in another climate denial debate, I ask what I usually do, that everyone who wants to have one annotate their posts with their best estimate for climate sensitivity.

        While I wait, I guess I’ll go back to the last one and see if I succeeded in explaining to anyone why the greenhouse effect doesn’t contradict the second law of thermodynamics. “Lukewarmers” like you don’t seem to help much in those discussions, you just say that people like that are strawmen and don’t exist.

        (3 degrees C)

        • Cauê says:

          Suppose all of that is granted. I still don’t see why Scott shouldn’t highlight that particular comment to make the specific point he made.

          • JM says:

            Because it’s not in any deep sense a religious eschatology if it’s an empirically verifiable phenomenon (otherwise physics is a religion, too, with “heat death” as its eschatology), so Raymond’s point is wrong for reasons unrelated to Scott’s broader thesis.

          • Cauê says:

            You’re assuming the conclusion. If there are psychological and social patterns that make it likely for eschatology to show up along with other aspects of “religion”, I don’t see how that should necessarily have anything to do with it being based on empirically-grounded theories. Besides, that’s just the kind of thing the post was investigating.

            It’s not implying AGW is not a thing, not any more than it’d be implying that the singularity isn’t a reasonable concept a few paragraphs down, or that “Does it hope to improve the world, or worry about the world getting worse? That’s an ‘eschatology’ and it’s a religion” is a useful heuristic.

          • JM says:

            That really trivializes the notion of an eschatology. If someone points a loaded gun in my face and I worry about the consequences, my worrying is not an eschatology.

            AGW may be in a meaningful sense an eschatology for the crowd that worries about greenhouse emissions wrecking the ozone layer (i.e., the scientifically illiterate), but for the (many) people who understand what it is and view it quite reasonably as a loaded gun pointed at the whole planet, it’s a risk to be addressed like any other. It just happens to be a really fucking big risk.

          • Cauê says:

            If I understood you, the part that you say trivializes eschatology was not actually proposed as a serious heuristic.

          • JM says:

            If there are psychological and social patterns that make it likely for eschatology to show up along with other aspects of “religion”, I don’t see how that should necessarily have anything to do with it being based on empirically-grounded theories. Besides, that’s just the kind of thing the post was investigating.

            If there’s a really good empirical reason to worry about something (again, e.g. gun in face) then it will trivially match up with the “psychological and social pattern” of eschatology. An eschatology is a qualitatively different kind of worrying from everyday worrying about getting hit by a bus — and Scott basically agrees with that reasoning at the end of Section 1. He just neglects to point that AGW’s being real puts Raymond’s example in that same category as getting hit by a bus (i.e. normal worry) and not in the same category as social justice (religion-like enough to spur debate).

          • Highly Effective People says:

            Epidemic bacterial diseases are real threats as well, and if anything they have much stronger evidence of their existence and danger than climate patterns which can only be observed statistically.

            Yet when someone suggests that antibiotic resistance will end modern civilization we know that they are either employing hyperbole or have no idea what they’re talking about. It’s a real threat and a serious threat, but it is not an existential threat.

            Global warming is a real and serious problem and will likely get much worse than it is now. But it is not a threat to civilization much less humanity as a species. Treating it as such is either dishonest or deluded, and eschatology does tend to inspire mass delusions.

          • JM says:

            Ebola (or whatever’s next) won’t spread in the US, and that’s not because of medicines. It’s because we have a highly effective system for identifying and isolating people who are contagious. Anyway, if The Next Big One is a virus, antibiotic resistance wouldn’t make much of a difference, would it?

            On the other hand, global warming in the moderate- and worst-case models isn’t quite asteroid-that-killed-the-dinosaurs bad, but it’s certainly worth a few Spanish Flus. About a billion people’s homes wind up underwater, weather pattern changes turn productive farmland into desert across the globe, tropical diseases spread to areas entirely unprepared for them, Europe gets Russia’s climate, and so on. That sounds dramatic, and maybe it won’t be that bad. But the top experts mostly seem to think the above is reasonably plausible, and do you really want to find out the hard way?

            Point is, those “climate patterns which can only be observed statistically” are the vibrations in the cup of water in Jurassic Park. Might be nothing… might be a T-Rex.

          • Tom Scharf says:

            Please point where top experts mostly seem to think AGW will kill 100’s of millions of people. (Several Spanish flu’s). It certainly isn’t in the IPCC reports.

            That isn’t science. Its hyperbole. My guess is you rarely get called on such alarmist and misleading statements.

            Do let us know your sea level rise estimates so we can check your billion under water statement.

          • Harald K says:

            HEP, it’s wrong to speak as if climate could only be observed statistically. Well, it’s true in one sense, but then all physics can only be observed statistically, since it’s based on measurement.

            There is no difference between climate science and any other “hard” science. If there is one thing I could get into people’s heads, that’s it. It’s not statistical voodoo, it’s a problem that’s being approached both in a “bottom-up” (a.k.a reductionist) manner from basic physics, and in a “top-down” (a.k.a. holistic or evidence based) manner. By lots of people, who have no shared ideology.

            (Climate denial however, is about as exclusive to the libertarian right wing as creationism is to fundamentalist Christianity.)

            Your epidemic bacteria? Well, you have microbiologists as the ones most purely working bottom up, and epidemiologists working most purely top-down. Look, it’s another “hard” science.

            But you can’t tell from any of that the scale of the problem. It’s not inherently impossible that a virulent disease will wipe us all out – I mean, it probably won’t, but you have to actually look at the science’s results in order to say that. You can’t categorically rule it out just from some handwaving comparison to another discipline.

          • Highly Effective People says:

            JM & Harald K,

            I had assumed that repeatedly saying “global warming is a real and serious problem” would prevent people from misidentifying me as a climate skeptic (and a libertarian?) but apparently not.

            To reiterate: Global warming is, according to our best science, a real phenomenon. Just like antibiotic resistance. And it is currently a problem, predicted by credible experts to get worse in the near future. Just like antibiotic resistance. And you can easily determine who has no idea what they’re talking about in relarion to global warming because they default to either ‘everybody lives!’ optimism or apocalyptic pessimism. Just like antibiotic resistance.

            Global warming is going to have severe consequences but it will not end western civilization nor drive the human race to extinction. And those are the kind of hyperbolic claims you hear constantly, even in otherwise intelligent communities like LW or academia. Something is amiss.

          • Harald K says:

            “it will not end western civilization nor drive the human race to extinction.”

            To judge whether that is true, you need to

            1. look at the science,
            2. make some pretty difficult assumptions about what society will do and not do.

            You can’t assume it to be so just because it’s outside your personal Overton window of “stuff that sounds reasonable”. That’s my point.

            In fact there are things, such as the clathrate gun hypothesis, that are up there with nuclear weapons in potential to lead to “the end of the world as we know it”. As it happens, fortunately the clathrate gun seems less likely to go off, but you need climate science and climate models to say that.

      • James Picone says:

        (90% ECS estimate: 2-4.5, median 3)

        From my perspective as a ClimateBall(tm) veteran, ‘skeptics’ don’t actually have a position on climate change, just a collection of memes (Pause! Antarctic sea ice is increasing! Cycles! Arctic recovery! Hockey stick! Fraud! UHI! It’s the sun! Ice age cometh!) This might be a result of the climate denialist community being a substantial number of idiots and a few intelligent lukewarmers, but the actions and associations of, for example, McIntyre, Curry, Lindzen, Spencer, Soon, Tol, etc. don’t really help that interpretation.

        As a result, I usually call a spade a spade – when you see stuff from dyed-in-the-wool libertarians like ESR that’s vaguely dismissive of climate change, it’s probably safe to assume that his position is “anything but CO2”, rather than some kind of coherent narrative that sensitivity is <2c and warming is good.

        P.S. low-probability catastrophic outcomes are really good reasons to agitate for doing something. IPCC estimate is something like 5% chance ECS >4c, something like 1% >6c. This is not a good bet to take, even if you only look at catastrophic outcomes and ignore the merely bad.

        This is not a point I thought I would have to make in a community familiar with the concept of x-risk.

        • Unique Identifier says:

          I find it vastly more likely that you have failed to understand their position – perhaps even failed to try to understand it – than that these people [ESR seemingly included] simply don’t -have- a position. To be honest, the sheer arrogance is baffling.

          For instance, creationism is by all standards wrong, but its adherents definitely have a position, and some of their objections are good and hard questions about evolution.

          • James Picone says:

            Take the concept of a Gish Gallop, transplant it to climate science. That’s the phenomenon I’m talking about.

            Duane Gish thinks that evolution is wrong. He doesn’t think that because he’s looked at the evidence. Rather, he goes out of his way to interpret the evidence such that it implies evolution is wrong. As a result, in arguments, he just brings up huge swathes of things that Definitively Disprove Evolution, some of which are mutually contradictory, and none of which he actually stands by in any meaningful way or cares about.

            Similarly, in the vast majority of arguments about climate science I’ve been in, the average ‘skeptic’ thinks Global Warming Is Wrong In Some Way, and they’ll grasp for whatever thing they can throw out that can be spun as an argument for them. Knock one down, they’ll come back with two completely different ones that have different implied positions. This *might* be an effect of me mostly ending up in arguments with a particular group of skeptic that does that, and there is a different group where that’s not the case. I don’t know. But by the millionth time you have to explain to someone that CO2 forcing must be roughly 1c or thermodynamics is wrong, that eyeballing trends in noisy data is a terrible idea, or that the homogenisation process on global temperature datasets doesn’t significantly change the global average and also isn’t fraud, the pattern is pretty clear.

            You see people arguing that the sun is the cause of recent warming, and also that all the global temperature datasets are fraudulent lies and it’s all UHI all the time. Another popular combination in the ice-age-cometh subset is climate sensitivity is low, also the current low solar cycle means an ice age is coming. These positions involve believing things that are either mutually inconsistent or very close to mutually inconsistent, and so I interpret people throwing both out as engaging in motivated cognition or signalling. Usually the context makes motivated cognition more likely.

            And that’s before you even get to the fundamentally dishonest people, the ones who use a Greenland ice core running up to 1950 as a global temperature dataset up to present, or note that the summer-winter difference in the arctic is the Largest Percentage Gain Ever so it can’t be melting, or show comparisons of IPCC projections and surface temperature aligned to a single particularly warm year. I’ve seen all of those multiple times from different people. My charity is spent.

          • Null Hypothesis says:

            I find it much more likely that he is correct, and that you are correct.

            More specifically, 90% of “AGW believers” and “AGW Deniers” are both people following one belief or another based on what some person or organization they respect told them, and are just regurgitating memes for their own side.

            The important point is that ALL sides in contentious debates are mostly populated with uninformed masses of people who do not have defensible or rational or coherent evidence-based reasons for their positions.

            Therefore, citing these people’s lack of coherence in supporting their conclusions in order to discredit the conclusions they support, is a logical fallacy of some sort. Ironically, I imagine that those groups of ‘uninformed masses’ include subgroups of people who believe the way they do for little other reason than because they disdain the existence of the other side’s uninformed masses.

          • James Picone says:

            I’m aware that maybe I’m just interacting with the idiots in the ‘skeptic’ movement, but if that were the case surely there’d be some leading lights in the ‘skeptic’ movement, who make hard-hitting analysis and find errors.

            I can’t think of any that have found major problems. Let me list a few that come to mind as potentials:

            Steve McIntyre found some minor issues in MBH98, a paleoclimate paper that was one of the first in its field and was also out of date by the time McIntyre looked at it. None of the things McIntyre found substantially changed the output of the paper, and later paleoclimatic reconstructions are well inside MBH98’s error bars. McIntyre does a few things with his public analysis that looks deliberately deceptive, as Deep Climate demonstrated (with the Wegman Report version). If we’re charitable, McIntyre found some minor paleoclimate errors, but nothing that actually damages the AGW case, and that’s about it.

            Judith Curry has, to the best of my knowledge, found no actual issues with AGW, but she does publish some climate research – mostly on her hypothesis that there’s large-scale multidecadal natural variation in the climate system. This is a fringe hypothesis, but not a crazy one. Nowadays, she hypes up uncertainty, apparently unaware that being more uncertain about the negative impacts of climate change is an argument for action in a risk management context (widening the uncertainty bars means the ‘bad outcomes’ probability mass has a more-bad median, and risk management cares only about the bad effects). Also she hangs out with the GWPF and groups like that, which are definitely nuts.

            Roy Spencer and John Christy maintain the UAH atmospheric temperature record – they do real science. On the sidelines, Spencer occasionally publishes curve-fitting exercises where he gets a trivial climate model to kind-of-fit global average surface temperature with unphysical values. Bombshell that is not. His rejection of AGW seems to be religiously motivated – he’s a part of the Cornwall Alliance, a group that believes AGW can’t happen because God wouldn’t let us destroy the world. He has form on letting his religion influence his science – he’s also a young-earth creationist.

            Richard Lindzen is has done a lot of real atmospheric science. His ‘iris’ hypothesis is that there’s a large negative feedback involving changes in tropical cloud cover. Several papers came out after Lindzen published that idea, demonstrating that it wouldn’t work. To the best of my knowledge, that’s his sole non-trivial-meme low-ECS argument.

            Wei-Hock ‘Willie’ Soon mostly plays the same curve-fitting games as Spencer, but he does it with ‘natural cycles’ rather than simple climate models. As an aside, I don’t think the current controversy over Willie Soon not declaring his funding in a few papers is a big deal – it’s not like it was unclear where Soon’s funding was coming from, and he almost certainly would have published the same papers without industry funding.

            Richard Tol mostly really doesn’t like Cook2013, and occasionally publishes research claiming that GW will have good effects. And then several other papers get published pointing out mistakes he made that materially effect his results.

            There are others – Akasofu, Ridley, Morner, Balunias, etc.. But I genuinely can’t think of any that have anything resembling a strong argument, rather than the usual list of pre-bunked claims.

    • randy m says:

      I find this ironically close enough to “You didn’t say the creed correctly!” I think we all know Scott doesn’t endorse every element of a passage he may quote.

    • Princess Stargirl says:

      “But the times you do stuff like promoting Eric S. Raymond’s comment denying anthropogenic global warming without even commenting on it, those are among the furthest from those times. This is right up there with vaccine denial.”

      This attitude is incredibly toxic. Once this attitude has become common in a community its over. I think its good for community members to vocally express their displeasure at this stuff.

      Anyway this is obviously false for many reasons:

      1) ESR did not deny anthromorphic Global warming

      2) The evidence that human activity is a major driver of global warming is much weaker than the evidence that vaccines are safe and effective. Though the evidence for AGW is quite strong your comparison is still bad.

      3) The severity of the effects of AGW are not well understood. The benefits of vaccines are very well understood.

      4) Promoting vaccines is fairly cheap compared to trying to prevent AGW. Its very clear that the benefits of vaccines greatly outweigh the costs of vaccine (they are not that expensive and they are very safe). However its unclear which anti-AGW measures would pass a cost/benefit analysis. Some surely will not though some would. In addition the costs of a serious effort to stop AGW would fall disproportionately heavily on the world’s underprivileged (especially those in China).

      5) There has been alot of dishonest efforts to encourage anti-AGW measures. The measures to encourage vaccination have been pretty sincere. Even if some anti-AGW position is correct some of its arguments are likely to be dis-honest.

      —–

      Finally Vaccines are one of the clearest issues. Equivocating between Vaccines and AGW is really dishonest. Please stop making posts like the above. Its not even like you just insulted people with different views on aGW from yours. You impugned Scott merely for tolerating dissent.

      Punishment of non-publishers is a very dangerous game.

      • grendelkhan says:

        1) ESR did not deny anthromorphic Global warming

        I for one will not rest until the scales fall from ESR’s eyes, and he declares that the world is gradually turning into a very sexy man.

      • Paul Brinkley says:

        As was stated earlier in the thread, ESR has in fact claimed that the AGW theory is busted.

        However, contrary to other claims, this doesn’t indicate he’s a nut. His claim is contingent on AGW predictions failing. That actually seems like a rational conclusion to me. Add the posturing on the AGW side and I do indeed get a strong impression that we’re looking at a naked emperor.

        OTOH, add bad behavior from the skeptic side, and I grow suspicious of them, too – however, it means I’m left with one side arguing “do as thou wilt”, and the other side arguing “do things OUR way”.

        • James Picone says:

          His claim is contingent on facile bullshit. When I said in another comment here that GW ‘skeptics’ just seem to have a collection of self-contradictory memes but no real position, this is the kind of thing I’m talking about.

          First, it’s based on the idea that there’s 15 years of no-statistically-significant-warming, which is only true for that time period (1999-2014) if you use the RSS lower trophosphere dataset, I’m pretty sure (that is, UAH, HADCRUT and GISTEMP all show statistically significant warming over that time period). RSS has almost certainly got an uncorrected cold bias in it. At least, Roy Spencer thinks so.

          Not only that, but the two lower-trophosphere satellite records, UAH and RSS, both show much larger effects from ENSO than the two surface temperature datasets (HADCRUT and GISTEMP). 1998 was the largest el-Nino event in recorded history, and the years since then have been much more on the la-nina side (at least, until very recently – like te last few months). It’s almost like ESR is using the dataset most favourable to his argument, cherry-picking the start point to be most favourable to his argument, and even then – wait for it – the 1979-1998 trend is within the error bars for the 1999-2014 trend, and there’s no statistical evidence of a ‘pause’, it may well just be noise. This has been explained all over the damn place, and ESR has no excuse for not knowing it.

          But wait, there’s more! ESR notes:

          (I really cannot resist pointing out that I have been predicting this something like this quite loudly since at least the beginning of the grand solar minimum in 2008, when I forecast correctly that measured GAT would track the falling direction of change in incident solar radiation rather the rising direction of CO2 levels. By a year later I had demonstrated a better predictive record than the IPCC ever has.)

          A one-year-long prediction. You can’t make this up. Six years if we were being really charitable. Still utterly ridiculous. The IPCC is predicting climate, not weather.

          But hang on a second, ESR seems to think that TSI is a much more important forcing than CO2 – which is unphysical. A watt is a watt. The climate system has no ability to tell the difference between a CO2-backradiation watt and an extra TSI watt. And the implied claim that TSI is responsible for temperature variation over the record implies a non-low climate sensitivity, because TSI hasn’t changed much. And hey, maybe that low TSI over the last cycle is relevant to the low atmospheric temperature trend ESR is claiming.

          If ESR actually did the numbers, he would find that he cannot reconcile a 1c CS and the measured TSI forcing with the current temperature record. It’s not actually possible.

          Speaking of not actually possible:

          Meanwhile, back in the real world, the simplest explanation for the observed facts is that the CO2/H20 positive greenhousing feedback central to the alarmist models simply doesn’t happen – it was an unphysical fantasy all along. CO2 levels do affect GAT, but only in a straightforward logarithmic/sublinear way that leads to extremely low climate sensitivity – and even that effect is now basically saturated (the atmosphere is thermalizing as much as it can).

          ESR not only believes that if you warm up the atmosphere it won’t increase water vapour content (or that water vapor isn’t a greenhouse gas, I guess?), but he’s actually endorsing a level of sky-dragon-slayer greenhouse-effect denial. This is nutty.

          P.S.: ‘stadium wave’ is /Judith Curry’s/ hypothesis, not one the climatological community takes seriously. It’s ‘ENSO’, not ‘ANSO’, and taking it into account makes sense for the same reasons taking volcanic eruptions makes sense. And, again, Curry’s the one who thinks that there are multidecadal patterns of natural variation in surface air temperature, not the IPCC.

          EDIT: And in the comments he links to WUWT. Yup, on this particular matter, he’s a nut.

          EDIT EDIT: Oh man, the comments. Foo Quuxman:

          That would be the same CFC scare that was ginned up by the company who’s CFC patents were about to expire and wanted to shift the market to it’s other chemical lines in order to maintain the monopoly profits it was getting?

          The same CFCs that are so much heavier than air that they had no chance of getting up to the ozone layer?

          And the hole in that layer that was known of long before the introduction of CFCs?

          Thanks for playing, I needed a laugh.

          followed by Dgarsys, who I really, really hope is making a joke, because this looks like he’s laughing at the people who claim volcanoes outpace human CO2 emissions, but I honestly don’t know:

          IIRC – the same CFC’s that a single volcanic eruption could dwarf the entirety of human output for a year or two…

          ESR, of course, thinks all the temperature records are fraudulent:

          We’ll be able to answer that only when we get access to weather station data that hasn’t been “normalized”, “corrected”, “smoothed”, or otherwise massaged to fit a narrative. Good luck with that.

          Someone claims that water vapour becomes a net negative feedback at high temperature changes. Amazing. ESR responds by saying “Oh hey that’s cool, do you have a cite?”, and later by noting that CO2 levels and atmospheric temperature have been higher in the past, but not noticing the implication that H20 can’t be net negative or paleoclimate could never have been that warm with that much CO2.

          I can’t stress this enough – the things going-on at ESR’s blog are Dunning-Kruger. The hypotheses they are discussing are nonsense.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      “Sometimes I find you insightful Scott. But the times you do stuff like promoting Eric S. Raymond’s comment denying anthropogenic global warming without even commenting on it, those are among the furthest from those times. This is right up there with vaccine denial.”

      Without even commenting on it? Some might say that right underneath the quote there is AN ENTIRE POST ABOUT HOW IT IS WRONG, HOW COULD YOU MISS THE ENTIRE ACTUAL POST YOU ARE SOMEHOW COMMENTING ON?

      God help you if you read further and see the part about not-stepping-in-front-of-buses.

      • Unique Identifier says:

        Commenting, in this context, is placeholder for condemning as blasphemy.

        If someone spots you sitting next to Satan in a bar, it’s not enough to say ‘Eh, I don’t know that guy’. You have to raise your crucifix and spit in his face.

        • Chiva says:

          No you don’t. That’s just you imposing your moral missives on other people. In my world, the High Horse is a ride for children 12 and under. ;p

    • rsj says:

      I wasn’t convinced by the original article until I read this. Now I see the inquisition has arrived, complete with labeling heretics for refusing the believe — what else does “denial” mean here? — as well as being aligned with the Satan — “profit-seeking corporations”.

      While I don’t think that everything is a religion, I do think that the world is big enough for most everything to be turned into a religion by a small group of hardcore adherents.

      • not_all_environmentalsts says:

        While I don’t think that everything is a religion, I do think that the world is big enough for most everything to be turned into a religion by a small group of hardcore adherents.

        Or to be portrayed as a religion by critics stretching the definition of ‘religion’. Paging General Semantics to sort out some TWAITW stuff, mostly what the General would call “undistributed middles”.

        As for the central meaning of ‘environmentalist’ — imo it’s “Anyone who says zie is” plus “Environmentalist is as environmentalist does”.

        This includes the anti-nuclear German relatives, the gas-savers whom I disagree with, people who like the idea of ‘Gaia’ and people who think it’s silly and harmful, people who have religious feelings about ‘Nature’ and people who don’t, anti-tech and clean-energy-tech, etc etc.

        It would be fun to sort out the different uses of “No true environmentalist” that have been bouncing around here — and the use of ‘Environmentalism’ to mean ‘the social organization and (presumed) psychology of the True Environmentalists ‘.

        Probably too late now, though.

  21. cbhacking says:

    I don’t have a lot to say about this post right now (except “thank you for writing this, it’s given me a lot to think about”) but I found it very amusing that, in a blog post inspired by a comment from ESR, you include a link to a page that includes Linus metaphorically nailing his source code to a cathedral. The author of that metaphor was most likely aware that the wording used worked at another level than just the reference to the Ninety-Five Theses nailed to the All Saint’s Church, but I was still amused to see it linked in an ESR-inspired post.

  22. FullMeta_Rationalist says:

    I remember the first time I was introduced to this idea was in this 11 minute video (relevance begins around 6:20). I think it adds to this discussion by noticing that religion isn’t synonymous with “culture” (or “community”), but is one of many types of culture.

    What we call it appears to depend on what type of kind common denominator the community organizes itself around or defines itself by. At the lowest level of organization, the community is called “family”. The common denominator here is blood ties, which are mediated through proximity. At the next level, the community is called “religion”. The common denominator is {memes|beliefs|rituals}, which is mediated through text. At the highest level is “nationality”. The common denominator is the market, which is mediated by legal-jurisdictions. Of course, other leaky generalizations exist. But the three mentioned seem like the big ones.

    I think family isn’t hyperbolized to the extent religion is because biology is fixed while beliefs are mutable. I.e. we can’t choose our family, but we can choose our religions. So family is sort of a low-blow nowadays. Also, I can’t really imagine any negative-externalities inherent to the family unit. E.g. “Social Justice (…) has the structure of a family unit” doesn’t seem obviously bad in any way.

    I think nationality isn’t hyperbolized like religion is because nations provide tangible benefits like military security and financial stability, while a religion’s benefits are more difficult to evaluate. This makes religion an easy target of ridicule because believers often find it difficult to justify their religion to non-believers, while a native can point a foreigner to historical facts to support why their homeland isn’t worthy of ridicule. E.g. “Social Justice (…) has the structure of a communist nation” doesn’t pack the same degree of silliness because even critics of communism will admit the USSR provided its citizens things a hermit like Ralph Waldo Emerson couldn’t provide himself.

    I also think it’s worth noticing that the “kin/religion/nation” triad is empirical rather than semantic (like Scott complains about above [0]). Religions compete with each other because belief-systems are often inconsistent and therefore incompatible. E.g. the Christian concept of salvation is fundamentally at odds with the Hindu concept of reincarnation. But one can belong to a family, religion, and nation simultaneously because there’s no fundamental incompatibilities since ancestry, memetics, and law compete in different spaces.

    [0] I know that paragraph wasn’t the answer your “semantic vs emprical “comment was asking for. But it was what prompted that paragraph.

    • FullMeta_Rationalist says:

      When I encounter a question like this, the first thing I do is look at the etymology. The entry for religion contains everything I would expect. Piety, sacredness, community, faith, divine bond, etc. One particular speculation reads

      relegere “go through again” (in reading or in thought), from re- “again” (see re-) + legere “read” (see lecture (n.)).

      I propose that the characteristic which distinguishes religion from environmentalism is the vector of transmission: myth. Every major religion I can think of has its sacred scriptures, or at least a rich oral tradition. Christianity has its Bible, Islam has its Quran , Hinduism has its Vedas, etc. I don’t think it was an accident that Comparative Religion’s founding document was about the Monomyth.

      I realize that environmentalism has its sacred cows too. But Silent Spring doesn’t strike me as mythical the way the Rape of Persephone does. I do think environmentalism follows a narrative in the sense that “Mother Earth is Dying”. However (as other commenters have noticed) there’s nothing supernatural about DDT or CFC. Narrative alone does not a religion make.

      Additionally, environmentalism’s narrative mostly concerns the future. Myths tend to focus on the past. For example, I would be very surprised to learn of an environmentalist creation-myth. The focus on the past is the reason I suspect the correct etymology of religion is derived from a phrase meaning “to read again”.

      A weaker observation: environmentalism at least has a purpose outside of itself, while religion seems self-serving. E.g. environmentalism’s mission is to save the earth. But if the earth’s tenants were suddenly awash in infinite resources, I imagine environmentalists wouldn’t have any reason to continue their crusade. To paraphrase Eliezer, “Environmentalism seeks to annihilate itself.”

      Religion on the other hand sustains its existence for its own sake. Even if the Forces of Good forever triumphed over the Forces of Evil, I suspect most theists would remain theists. Environmentalism is of instrumental utility, while piety is of terminal utility. Religion is therefore worth building a community around, one which can withstand the volatility of the eons.

      Under this interpretation, religion isn’t just a belief-system but a repository. Like how philosophy is best read backwards, religion is a time-capsule filled with ancient memes intended for us to benefit from and dutifully transmit to posterity.

      • Irrelevant says:

        I think you’re taking the wrong connotation from “read again” there, and religion’s word root is referencing the idea of a mantra rather than a historical myth.

        • FullMeta_Rationalist says:

          Interesting. Source? I’m scouring DuckDuckGo and the links I’m finding aren’t any more informative about Cicero’s hypothesis than what etymonline has already offered.

      • Scott Alexander says:

        Are you sure? I’d always heard religion derived from re + ligio, ligare, to bind.

  23. chaosmage says:

    Scholars of religion, if they try to define “religion” as a general category at all, nowadays tend to use something like: “Religion is the belief in nonphysical intentional agents and the attempt to win their favor.” There are subtle variations, and this is not universally accepted in the field (some go as far elsewhere as to claim “religion is whatever scholars of religion study” at least in private conversation). But it does draw a pretty neat boundary around the group of cultural systems that encyclopedias list under “religions”, and helps against attempts to waitwo things like environmentalism.

    • Michael R says:

      I hate to be dogmatic here, but… much of this thread (I think everyone except chaosmage) is mistakenly interpreting religion as a secular belief.

      Religion is the intersection of three things:
      (1) a belief in a supernatural entity (or entities),
      (2) a moral code dictated by the supernatural entity,
      (3) an organisation supporting the supernatural entity.
      (…with some room to quibbling over things like Bhudda and Confucious, which heads into the religion/culture issues Scott mentioned.)

      The common pattern in most of this thread is to diminish this to:
      (1′) a belief (or memeplex),
      (2′) a moral mode based on that belief,
      (3′) an organisation supporting that belief.
      Once this happens, then many things look like religions. But they’re not, because they don’t have the quality that makes religion different.

      Take a religious person at their word when they say Jesus/JHVH/Shiva/Odin/Zeus/fox-spirit/whatever exists, and it becomes perfectly clear what the difference is between a religion and environmentalism/ transhumanism/ liberalism/ conservativism/ libertarianism/ communism/ Capitalism/ Apple-ism/ UNIX-ism/ whatever.

      (I feel like I should link to How an Algorithm feels on the inside.)

      • Wrong Species says:

        As far as buddhism goes, it may not have a god but it does have a supernatural force that punishes or rewards you. And Confucianism is definitely not a religion, unless you want to include all ethical beliefs as religions.

      • Chiva says:

        Playing pedantic here. But, religion actually encompasses other definitions. And, I for one, find it relatively appalling that many people on this thread, who seem so hung up about definitions, haven’t bothered to consider (ie look up) that there are, in use, meanings to this word that require no theistic or supernatural belief. It’s like somebody can’t use Google.

        http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/religion

        FYI: Forms of Buddhism, forms of Taoism, forms of Universalism, forms of theosophy and forms of Hinduism require no supernatural belief whatsoever.

    • Anthony says:

      Environmentalism, in its populist form, most definitely fits the ” belief in nonphysical intentional agents and the attempt to win their favor” pattern, with “nature” as the nonphysical intentional agent. (Or non-human, as mentioned in another comment above.)

      Though I will grant that definition does mostly exclude most other ideologies/worldviews commonly described as religions, except in pathological cases, such as some naive beliefs about capitalism and “the market” or “the invisible hand”. Some other ideologies don’t actually specify a non-human intentional agent, but expect that certain actions will lead, in not very-well-specified ways, to a much better world; Marxism is an example of this.

      • randy m says:

        The way some progressives talk about being on the right side of history, I think this may occasionally qualify.

      • chaosmage says:

        I could see the Gaia hypothesis possibly fit the aforementioned definition of religion, but I don’t see how mere environmentalism would. After all, for Nature to be the kind of agent this definition talks about, you’d have to believe Nature notices how you, personally, act. Not just be impacted by you, but somehow actively represent you in some mind-like capacity. Does anybody (who isn’t either subscribed to the Gaia hypothesis or a Pagan) actually believe that? (And if so, even that wouldn’t justify throwing all environmentalists in the same category as those who do.)

        • Anthony says:

          Nature might not notice *individual* actions, but nature certainly notices aggregate actions. Which is why environmentalists are so insistent that everyone else should do what they do.

  24. Jack V says:

    I have been experimenting with basically saying “culture” instead of “religion” and thinking of religions as cultures with certain features, usually a moral framework and/or a supernatural element. Basically anything I want to say about religion seems to be true of cultures in general, but religions happen to be the most prominent and sometimes dogmatic examples.

    Like, yay religious freedom! Everyone should have religious freedom! But in fact, that applies to other cultures too: atheist Jews and atheist Muslims and vegetarians shouldn’t be required to eat pork if they don’t want to; people should have time off to celebrate Christmas/passover/etc whether they’re religious or not; people shouldn’t be discriminated against.

    And the bad aspects of some segments of religion, of being dogmatic and brainwashy, those are almost the same as some devout communism, or other devout patriotism, that everyone has to believe and take it for granted.

    But saying “culture” instead of “religion” makes me more comfortable with the idea that everyone should have their culture respected, but religious cultures shouldn’t necessarily be MORE respected.

  25. If religion is loosely defined to means a set of beliefs and rituals, then even brushing your teeth can be viewed a some sort of religion unto itself. The distinction though is that in a religion the beliefs cannot be falsified with any standard scientific method, and it offers no framework within science and math to do so. String theory cannot be verified yet, but it does have an underlying scientific and mathematical basis that has some logical consistency ,whereas religious creation myths don’t.

  26. Salem says:

    But I still think it’s unfair to call these communities/cultures “religions”… It’s supposed to imply all of these other connotations of “religion” like “their beliefs are based on magical thinking” and “they use blind faith instead of reason” and “instead of coming up with a world-view based on evidence they just played Bible Mad Libs.”

    I can’t speak for Eric S. Raymond, but I think that’s exactly what he wanted to imply. So to claim it’s unfair, you have to demonstrate that environmentalists don’t behave like that – or more strictly, that they behave substantially less like that than do standard religions. Frankly I think Raymond has them bang to rights.

    I used to volunteer for a Christian environmentalist charity (I am not religious, nor an environmentalist in the ordinary sense of the word). And I promise you that the magical thinking about God was far less noticeable than the magical thinking about the environment.

    • ” It’s supposed to imply all of these other connotations of “religion” like “their beliefs are based on magical thinking” and “they use blind faith instead of reason” and “instead of coming up with a world-view based on evidence they just played Bible Mad Libs.”I

      can’t speak for Eric S. Raymond, but Ithink that’s exactly what he wanted to imply. ”

      I agree. It makes sense, because connotationally linking environmentalism with religion is a much easier way of making it out to be unscientific than disapproving the science.

      • Cauê says:

        There’s the science, and then there’s the people who sign petitions to ban dihydrogen monoxide.

      • Vaniver says:

        It makes sense, because connotationally linking environmentalism with religion is a much easier way of making it out to be unscientific than disapproving the science.

        The first question I ask any environmentalist (who has signalled that they want to engage on an intellectual level) is what they think about nuclear power. I’ve found it to be a fairly good litmus test of whether they’re a scientific environmentalist (“nuclear is way nicer than coal!”) or a values environmentalist (“nuclear is dangerous (impure)!”).

        • Pete says:

          This is a good approach. It will never cease to amaze me how many people are willing to point to the authority of science when it comes to global warming, but will argue that scientists don’t know what they’re talking about, or are corporate shills, when it comes to GMOs or Nuclear.

          The other thing that values environmentalists (I very much agree with that distinction) tend to do is be incredibly smug about their rightness. They seem happy that environmental disaster is around the corner and that the way to avert it is to suffer some economic pain now. It seems to vindicate their stance against capitalism.

          I fully accept the scientific consensus around climate change, but I would love it if it was wrong. I hate to think of the consequences that even some of the low end estimates for temperature rise could have (acknowledging that some consequences are already being seen).

        • Held In Escrow says:

          At the same time, the absolute fetishization of nuclear is kind of terrible. The technology, mainly due to politics, has simply not kept up with renewables or the massive drop in natural gas prices, so building more is kind of dumb.

          • Tom Womack says:

            It is a deliberate result of popularly-accepted policy that nuclear technology moves very, very slowly; it combines the level of finicky regulation involved with building satellites with the level of glamour involved in running a sewage-works.

            Things are expensive because there is no political way to make them cheaper, because any move to make them cheaper gets spun as ‘sacrificing safety for money’; you need thousands of workers to build the plant, there is an imposed requirement for large numbers of inspections by inspectors who are not available on your schedule, and so you have to keep paying workers who can’t do any work until the inspections are complete.

        • not_all_environmentalists says:

          For the moment I’m tentatively pro-nuclear. If I ever need to vote on it, I’ll look more closely. Sfaik, its dangers are Maybe’s and In the Future, and can be worked on by Scientific Progress. Fossil fuels, ethanol, and industrial size wind farms are all doing at least some damage to their locations For Sure and Already.

        • You should ask if their concerns about nuclear are based upon waste or proliferation before you make any assumptions. The waste issue, while definitely not good, is pretty obviously a lesser evil. If their worry is proliferation, I wouldn’t be writing them off too quickly..

          • There’s another category of nuclear problems: accidents.

          • Harald K says:

            The reason I hear many cite for opposition to nuclear power, is that it has a history of overpromising and underdelivering despite all the “dual use technology” money that has been sunk into it.

            The theme isn’t so much that nuclear is the devil. It’s that nuclear had it’s chance, the low hanging fruit there has been picked and it’s time for less explored technologies to get their chance.

            (The more sensible organizations also see a role for nuclear, just not a silver bullet role).

      • Salem says:

        Below, a distinction was drawn between conservationism, pastoralism and Gaianism. Conservation can be useful, but it is very much the motte. The modern environmentalist movement is full of pastoralism at best and Gaianism at worst. The reason so many people loathe the eco-freaks is not that we are looking for an excuse to ignore “the science” but simply that we don’t share their world view.

        I have spent years of my life in practical conservation. I regard the environmental movement as a far greater threat to mankind than environmental destruction or climate change.

        • Of course some like most movements environmentalists include some irrational people…but what kind of threat could they possibly pose? Loads and loads of people aren’t scientific, and even if you think they are religious, loads and loads of people have all sorts of far more radical and violent religious beliefs. Saying they threaten mankind just seems nuts to me.

          • Salem says:

            The threat, obviously, is the political power the environmentalist movement wields, and the laws they pass and would like to pass.

            Yes, there are other crazy groups, but few of them have the same access to power in modern states. In addition, most crazy religious groups have pretty benign demands compared to environmentalists. It really doesn’t matter if some middle-school children use a biology textbook pushing I.D., compared to everyone paying £50 a year extra for our gas bills.

          • Harald K says:

            Do you think £50 a year extra is a greater threat than global warming? I got to say, then you place an extremely low value on the damage warming is already doing to us.

            Among other things, the damage to what self-styled conservationists typically care about, like locally endangered species.

            Either way. Noted “warmist” and former Reagan voter, the much demonized James Hansen, has proposed a fully refunded carbon tax: Tax fossil carbon heavily at the source, but refund it on a per capita basis. So if you use less than average, it’s a net transfer to you. How do you feel about such a proposal?

          • Salem says:

            But the extra £50 a year for the green levy has nothing to do with global warming, and is merely one of a thousand green policies (although it is a particularly obvious and pernicious one).

            I’d be happy with a fully refunded carbon tax set at an appropriate level (although I’d prefer one that served to abolish particularly evil taxes such as inheritance tax). But this isn’t what the actual environmentalist movement campaigns for.

          • Green groups calling for policy changes you don’t agree with or think are wrong, even if they are wrong, does not constitute a serious danger, much less a threat to mankind. I don’t know why green groups trigger such hyperbole in people.

          • Glen Raphael says:

            > “Saying [Greens] threaten mankind just seems nuts to me.”

            Technological and economic progress is how civilization advances. It’s how we’ve solved civilization-scale problems in the past and how we will continue to solve them in the future…if we aren’t hamstrung by listening too much to environmentalists. Ecological groups tend to notice the costs of new technologies and developments but give almost no weight to the benefits – especially economic benefits – of those same technologies and developments. This leads them to propose and support policies that slow down economic and technological growth for the benefit of their own largely aesthetic and/or symbolic concerns.

            The refusal of the ecology-minded to weigh costs versus benefits makes them utility monsters; utility monsters are dangerous.

            To elaborate: There is literally NO amount of economic profit in a development project that would get your average Green group to admit “yeah, I guess in that case it’s okay to {cut down that stand of old-growth forest/wipe out that native species/increase CO2 production}”. But economic profit is what ultimately gives us the resources we need to attack larger threats. We NEED it.

            Suppose we give up a couple percent of annual world GDP to (symbolically) “fight AGW”. Compound that cost over decades and the world is a LOT poorer 50 or a hundred years hence than it would otherwise have been. Following a lower-growth curve today might easily make the difference as to whether we’re rich and capable enough to notice and divert the next incoming comet. Or fight some new pathogen. Or any other threat you can imagine, including simpler ones such as feeding the world population.

            …At least, that’s why the greens scare me more than any specific threat they claim to currently be fighting.

          • > The refusal of the ecology-minded to weigh costs versus benefits

            Mainstream green groups don’t actually advocate or think like that. That sounds more like some hippie somebody met some time. Also, suboptimal policy does not equal security threat or existential risk. Disagreement is just part of a pluralist democracy. A little perspective please.

          • not_all_environmentalists says:

            Technological and economic progress is how civilization advances. It’s how we’ve solved civilization-scale problems in the past and how we will continue to solve them in the future…if we aren’t hamstrung by listening too much to environmentalists.

            The environmentalists I know are mostly pretty gung-ho about new technology, so as to get away from those dirty primitive mines and wells, and are criticized for wanting to spend too much money on it.

        • Harald K says:

          May I ask what kind of practical conservation you’ve been engaging in, where you haven’t had occasion to see the effects of warming firsthand?

          You’re either grossly overestimating the danger from environmentalists (even the few hippie ones), or underestimating the problem of AGW, or both.

          • Salem says:

            The biggest conservation effort I participated in was creating a country park out of derelict land. You are right that this didn’t give me any first-hand knowledge of climate change, but you’re wrong to imply that I don’t see it as a problem.

            Look, above I linked the official policies of the Green Party. Opinion polls suggest they represent about 10% of the electorate; as such they can be taken as a pretty mainstream expression of environmentalism (and there are of course environmentalist influences in all the other major political parties too). They are a clear and present danger; it’s even possible they’ll have a share in government after the election. By comparison, the worry as to whether temperatures will be 2 or 4 degrees higher in a century is pretty remote.

          • Harald K says:

            I fail to see what’s so terrible about the UK green party. Yes, they’re kind of social-liberal on other issues, but so? Do you expect them to be a single-issue party?

            I can’t find (in what you linked) much suggesting that the UK Green party are especially radical in their environmental demands. They’re not banning meat or air travel or anything.

            Other parties are free to call themselves environmentalists as well. In my country, they do. The environmental organization Bellona is loosely associated with the conservative party in Norway, and they’re by no means just about protecting wetlands and endangered species or the other traditional “conservationist” fare. In fact, they’ve long been focused on the threat of nuclear pollution and proliferation in the far north, and are not too popular in the Russian government.

            I agree it’s a pity the Green party isn’t pushing for something like the fully refunded carbon tax, but rather for more or less toothless changes and mildly liberal social policies. But why isn’t your party (whatever it is) pushing for that fully refunded tax?

          • Deiseach says:

            They are a clear and present danger; it’s even possible they’ll have a share in government after the election.

            Salem, I suggest you don’t worry; if the experience of The Green Party in Ireland, when they did get into government, is any indication, they’ll soon become indistinguishable from the mass of politicians.

          • Salem says:

            But why isn’t your party (whatever it is) pushing for that fully refunded tax?

            Because Britain is already subject to the EU’s cap-and-trade system. A carbon tax is supposed to be an alternative to cap-and-trade, not an addition to it.

    • Sigivald says:

      Yeah, I had the same though.

      I cannot claim to know ESR’s mind, but from reading him for a long time, I don’t think he’d have much problem with at least the first two parts of that.

    • Deiseach says:

      The worst of both worlds is when religious groups (even churches/denominations) jump on the environmentalist bandwagon as some kind of – well, I have no idea why or what. To prove that they’re up with the times? That they’re engaged in doing right for the world?

      I had a particular example in mind but I’m not going to use it because the Principle of Charity managed to rein me in in time. But what drives me spare (and fortunately, I think they’re waning) are the “Ecological Stations of the Cross” malarkey. I’m going to give a kicking to my own religious tradition here, but I was first made aware of it via The Episcopal Church.

      • FacelessCraven says:

        Are you familiar with the concept of… well, a google search seems to indicate that the Social Gospel is probably a decent term for it. That’s probably at least a little of where it’s coming from.

        • Deiseach says:

          I have heard of the Social Gospel, though I’m not familiar enough with it to express an informed opinion.

          I think the trouble is with what C.S. Lewis described as “Christianity and – “. As soon as you start going on campaigns about “Christianity and Capitalism” or “Christianity and Communism” or “Christianity and Mosquito Nets”, the Christianity gets driven out more and more and the real element of interest is the cause you were using Christianity to make more palatable to the general public.

          That’s why the condemnations of liberation theology – in some interpretations, the movement became more and more entangled with Marxism (and, in a Latin American context, if I’m not wildly imagining it, Maoism) and less to do with theology; it became a left-wing political activist movement rather than incorporating Catholic social teaching into practice. “The preferential option for the poor” led down some strange by-ways. Then again, that does not mean that “the preferential option for the poor” can be dismissed as warmed-over socialism/Communism, either.

    • Paul Brinkley says:

      “Not all religion is labeled as such.” –me

      I think Scott hit on it best with the final few sentences, aye.

      I think that what most people are trying to suggest by likening something to a religion is that it isn’t rational. This side here is Religion, that other side is Science, and you should decide in favor of the Science, because Science. This is itself a faith-based claim as I phrased it, but it’s really supposed to be shorthand for a more rational claim, that science tightens down what we’re allowed to accept on faith to the barest minimum, namely, that we can trust our observations.

      Things go to ick around the point where I see some people’s observations being dismissed without scrutiny, particularly because certain other people have a credential. The latter are worth greater consideration knowing nothing else, naturally, but when evidence is produced that the credential process itself has cracks, I’m compelled to either devalue the latter crowd somewhat, or value the former somewhat. Science isn’t something only people with degrees in science can do. If it were, then what we’re actually looking at is just a guild… or a clergy.

      The value of science is supposed to be that it fundamentally usurps that social structure. Science is universally accessible. All you need is reason and observation. If I factor 11291, I don’t need a math degree to get the right answer, and to be regarded as if I got the right answer. I might get the wrong answer, but that’s completely independent of my credentials.

      Even tough problems whose resolutions require the sort of resources that only certain people can afford are not treated as if those certain people are uniquely ordained to resolve them. Their position is contingent on their resources and discipline; anyone else with similar resources and discipline is supposed to merit equal regard. So, tough questions require more than reason and observation, but still do not require social status.

      I’ve read Eric’s writing enough to know that this is what he’s getting at with his comment. Reason is the thing. Religion is “bad” because it is irrational in specific respects, and other things which exhibit the same irrationality are as bad as religion. It may be wrapped around a rational core, and probably nearly everything is, but we’re permitted to be especially skeptical if something aspires to reason and yet wraps itself in religious trappings.

  27. Peter says:

    I remember reading Bob Altemeyer’s The Authoritarians, and there was some experiment about all-encompassing worldviews, and people being given Likert scaled-questions like “My worldview informs every aspect of my life” and “I get excited just thinking about how right my worldview is”, “Everyone needs to know about my worldview” etc., to see how all-encompasing people found their worldviews. Various views were considered – religious, scientific, capitalist, communist, environmentalist, whatever. “Religious” came at the top of the list by a long way. However, there had to be a number two, and it may amuse you to learn what got that slot: “feminist”.

  28. Morgan says:

    I found this post interesting because I came to a lot of the same conclusions from a somewhat different angle. As a child, I was a pretty hard-core atheist (ironically, I now volunteer for a church). I spent a lot of time pondering why religion led people to behave so irrationally. Over time, though, I gradually came to the conclusion that few if any of the irrational behaviors attributed to religion are unique to it. Just as anything can look like a religion if you squint at it right, it’s not hard to look at a religion and see all of the ways it reflects the secular world. Religious groups behave in various ways like businesses, political bodies, schools, etc.

    I think that the idea that religion is a thing that can be neatly separated from everything else in human experience is a Western (and especially American) one. And that’s not by accident – Christianity and Islam have both spent centuries presenting themselves as being apart from, and superior to, secular institutions (I can’t really speak to Judaism). Critics of religion tend to disagree with the idea that religious institutions are superior while still accepting the premise that they are fundamentally different from other human endeavors. And since the founding fathers enshrined that idea in the US constitution, it’s been ratified by secular authority.

    In my view, the problems of religion – which are many – are the same problems found in the rest of the human experience. Certainly individual religions may exemplify particular pathologies, but it’s hard to find a trait that applies to all religions that doesn’t also apply to secular institutions as well. “Religion” as a boogeyman is a little bit like the Devil – a scapegoat for a problem that was in us all along.

  29. stubydoo says:

    I’m certain that environmentalism as a religion is a thing that exists. I however also maintain that environmentalism as non-religion also exists. Here’s a story that might be illustrative:

    Once upon a time, I spent a weekend with my (then-)girlfriend at a campground in a State Park in the woods, which had ~200 camping plots. As we were packing to leave, we had to sort out what to do with our accumulated trash. We initially had trouble finding any recycling bins.

    I said “maybe they don’t have recycling in order to avoid the extra pollution from transporting it out” (or something similar)

    She said (apparently failing to notice the second half of my statement): “don’t you think that a State Park would care about the environment”.

    What then followed was a very heated argument in which I unsuccessfully tried to convince her of the possibility that someone might reasonably decide that schlepping a plastic bottle ~80 miles on a presumably mostly empty truck to the nearest town plausibly large enough to have a garbage transfer depot, when added to the additional ~150 mile truck ride to a port and round trip across the ocean to China plus however much energy consumption and pollution happens in the refabrication process for plastic, might add up to more environmental damage than burying that plastic bottle on-site and making the replacement bottle instead out of newly mined oil.

    She firmly maintained throughout that not only is this absolutely not possible, but also that knowing this fact does not require any specialized scientific (or logistical) knowledge – it is a matter of pure common sense.

    ——

    Some people find it rhetorically useful to treat environmentalism per se as inherently religious. Accordingly, I would sometimes run into people who declare that the fact that I’m concerned about the possibility that anthropogenic climate change might possibly end up destroying civilization is proof that I am being religious. I hold otherwise – though it does seem that Scott’s proposed definitions in the OP don’t help me out much.

    • Lupis42 says:

      In that sense, Christianity as a religion is a thing that exists, and Christianity as a non-religion is also a thing that exists, and we’re back to square one.
      Except…

      This actually goes somewhere useful, in the context of the waitw. The assertion “X is a religion” is generally a shorthand for “X is a community based around a set of beliefs and rituals, which its members accept uncritically, and justify with magical thinking”.
      Attempts to explicitly separate ‘culture’ from ‘religion’ are suddenly a function of surveying the nominal adherents. If people are uncritically accepting the beliefs and performing the rituals, and defining at least part of their identity thereby, it’s a religion for them.
      This exposes all political ideologies, but it also exposes plenty of adherents of smaller systems of belief. For example, while I am a strong proponent of open source, I have had more than a few conversations with people who were effectively behaving as religious proponents. There are religious libertarians out there, religious environmentalists, religious adherents to atheism, progressivism, feminism, postmodernism, and secularism.
      In this sense, calling something a religion is making the argument that all, or nearly all of it’s adherents are effectively religious. I don’t think any of those things qualify, while I’d bet that Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism do.
      If I were betting, however, I’d lay long odds on environmentalism as the one with the highest ratio of ‘religious’ adherents to critical adherents, primarily because of it’s relative longevity and popularity. Pop science is probably headed in the same direction.

      • Paul Brinkley says:

        I see this comment as touching on one of those issues in which I disagree with ESR. He has a very strong aversion to chiliastic religions, but seems to include a much larger group that appears to me to be much more benign. Namely, he’s pretty firm in criticizing Christianity, Islam, Zoroastrianism, and other specific religions for certain irrational beliefs they force upon the adherent. But I see a lot of their practitioners only practicing “religion-lite” – they don’t appear to apply the ecclesiastic beliefs to daily life. Generations of Christians will grow up, live, pray, and die without calling for a crusade on anything worse than mildew in the bathroom. The irrationality I see appears more explainable to me as a trait in all humans to apply it sparingly to conserve energy and let the hindbrain handle the rest. I don’t hold chiliastic religion responsible for nurturing that behavior; I suspect it’s more of a symptom.

    • Cauê says:

      “She firmly maintained throughout that not only is this absolutely not possible, but also that knowing this fact does not require any specialized scientific (or logistical) knowledge – it is a matter of pure common sense.”

      I *know* that’s the kind of thing going on inside people’s heads, but it’s still scary to see when they spell it out.

    • Ghatanathoah says:

      She firmly maintained throughout that not only is this absolutely not possible, but also that knowing this fact does not require any specialized scientific (or logistical) knowledge – it is a matter of pure common sense.

      I’m going to give my girlfriend a big hug as soon as I see her now. She’d never do anything like what you described.

    • Why assume a mostly empty truck rather than a truck that comes by on a schedule which is related to the expected amount of recyclables?

    • not_all_environmentalsts says:

      @ stubydoo
      What then followed was a very heated argument in which I unsuccessfully tried to convince her of the possibility that someone might reasonably decide that schlepping a plastic bottle ~80 miles on a presumably mostly empty truck to the nearest town plausibly large enough to have a garbage transfer depot, when added to the additional ~150 mile truck ride to a port and round trip across the ocean to China plus however much energy consumption and pollution happens in the refabrication process for plastic, might add up to more environmental damage than burying that plastic bottle on-site and making the replacement bottle instead out of newly mined oil.

      On further thought, even granting your worst-case version of recycling today’s bottle, I think the anti-burying-it side is basically right. Accident vs essence.

      Essence: According to the displays that many state parks have about how long it takes for various materials to break down if left on the ground or buried, most plastic items stay intact for months/years — then break down into small particles which are still plastic, which continue to do damage. This bottle, if buried, will be essentially the same for years.

      Accident (A): Re your stronger points, the recycling process is improving at least month by month: doing it closer and by cleaner, more efficient methods.

      Accident (B): Lack of a recycle bin at that park may have been deliberate, for economy. The park officials may think cheaper=better the bottles should go out with the rest of the trash and probably end up in a landfill. Might add a sign saying: “Recyclables — if you packed it in, pack it out”.

      (Me personally — I’m skeptical about avoiding “newly-mined oil”. Somebody is going to mine it and use it for something. Better it goes back in the ground=landfill, than into the air as smoke from a bulldozer.)

      But again, essence: plastic is dangerous in a way that paper is not, so best to think carefully about it. People who knee-jerkily avoid plastic, nuclear — and anything else dubious — may be right more often than wrong. Strategy vs tactics.

  30. Shenpen says:

    I find the idea of religion just being a subset of culture interesting and useful on many levels.

    For example it explains how an atheist can be a cultural Christian. If Christianity is primarily a culture and only secondarily a culture that happens to carry beliefs about the universe, it is perfectly possible to associate strong with the first without the other. I read the Less Wrong sequences and see how Eliezer is running in circles trying to pin down religion purely as belief, or belief in belief, or belief in belief in belief, when it is mainly just culture. Some people just want to be Christians or Jews. In order to be members, they occasionally expected to reply yes to the question is there a god. After sufficient repetition, the inner voice also matches it, so the is-there-a-god pattern evokes a yes-pattern even in the thoughts. And this gets reflected upon as “I believe”. But it is not really belief in any sense Elizer means the word “belief”. Not even belief in belief in belief.

    I like it how it turns the relationship between religion and conservatism around. Atheist cultural social conservatives are seen as weird by both sides. If you don’t think god forbade it, why would you oppose gay equality? The answer in this model is, the person does not identify with the culture of equality, he identifies the culture of Christianity and simply does not adopt its more radical ideas, such as that there is a god, but still adopts its culture and values.

    It makes paganism more understandable. Paganism and Christanity were both cultures, just Christianity had more religious aspects in the culture. Pagan culture lost because not sufficiently cultish.

    • Lupis42 says:

      Pagan culture lost because not sufficiently cultish.

      And yet most of the Christians celebrate pagan holidays like the solstice and the equinox, many of the name their days after pagan gods, and they celebrate the literature, art, and philosophy of those pagans that had writing.
      The Pagan peoples became nominally Christian, and the Christians became practically Pagan.

      • Irrelevant says:

        You’ve got the meanings of “nominally” and “practically” exactly backwards. Europe became practically Christian-feudal-theocratic (a state that differed substantially from both earlier Christian and previous pagan practices) and maintained nominal pagan elements. The interesting question is whether the fact that it turned Christian-feudal-theocratic rather than pagan-feudal-theocratic was essential or a historical accident.

        • Lupis42 says:

          Actually, I’d say (from what I know of dark ages history and the Christian conversions of places like Scandinavia) that mostly, it was the pagan elements that were retained, with the name ‘Christ’ plastered over them, e.g. Christmas, an incredibly pagan celebration of nature and fertility in winter.
          The Church took over the bureaucratic functions (I doubt it was an accident, it probably had to do with the whole writing thing), but more pagan traditions survive Roman Christian traditions.

          • Mary says:

            the pagan origins of Christian elements have been greatly overstated — by, frankly, bigoted anthropologists.

  31. Vaniver says:

    I very much like the claim “every cause wants to be a community,” and think that talking about communities is the right way to approach this.

    I know social justice people whose social circle is almost 100% based on social justice, and environmentalists whose social circle is almost 100% based on environmentalism. … If someone says “I’m fanatical about gun control”, I’m stumped.

    I’m curious how much this is just your personal experience. Both of the issues you mention do seem to have lifestyle activists on the other side; I’ve met pro-lifers who opposition to abortion and respect for life was comparable to the SJW’s opposition to patriarchy and respect for justice, and gun rights people who cared about guns and using them comparable to environmentalists caring about environments and preserving them.

    And so now the question becomes if there are lifestyle anti-environmentalists, or lifestyle anti-social justice folks. I don’t think so for the first–yes, I know people who love the petroleum industry and Monsanto, but I see mostly a combination of respect for science and hatred of ‘idiots,’ not an actual hatred of the environment. For the second I’m not sure. Perhaps NRx or PUA counts? But I suspect describing two people as being brought together by their shared love of PUA is missing the mark.

    So, in a reckless attempt to use human psychology to determine the truth-value of policy claims (i.e. I don’t take the following seriously), it looks to me like you could characterize this as realists on one side and idealists on the other. In this view, pro-choice is just a sensible position that nobody gets fired up about, and it’s only the insensibility of the pro-life position that allows people to get fired up about it. But, similarly, environmentalism (as a lifestyle) is insensible, and we should just go along with burning oil and genetically modifying organisms until the economics changes, which is hardly an inspiring position.

    • Lupis42 says:

      But, similarly, environmentalism (as a lifestyle) is insensible, and we should just go along with burning oil and genetically modifying organisms until the economics changes.

      That’s the premise of “The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels” in a nutshell.

  32. Hans Rinderknecht says:

    Very interesting argument. One thing that’s missing: if the behaviors we lazily associate with religion are actually features of culture (shared values, rules to follow, heroes, hierarchies, outcasts) that people create or accept as a shortcut to behaving optimally (i.e. allowing them to not have to think too hard all the time about what the right behavior is), then what exactly does religion mean? What is left over? If nothing is left over, than ‘religion’ just becomes an emotionally charged word for a vibrant culture – often negatively emotionally charged in the futurist community, carrying connotations of a dangerous and antiquated cultural memeplex; and positively emotionally charged in other communities.

    Perhaps there is a level of memetic exclusivity (e.g. there is no god but God) or zeal (proselytization and crusades) that characterize a religion as a specific type of culture. Religion would also seem to imply a unified vision of how the universe works as a whole. These seem like reasonable extensions; although under these definitions science is actually highly “religious,” unless you also include the condition that knowledge be perceived as unchanging. (In science, the universe is unchanging, and our knowledge of it is partial, imperfect, and improvable.)

    One more condition for a religion I think is providing a specific context (or story) for the sentient experience: a feeling that you as an individual fit in the greater story arc of the universe. (Science doesn’t provide that directly, as it doesn’t recognize stories as a fundamental property of the universe.) Are there other conditions for what might be considered a religion, rather than a culture?

    • Deiseach says:

      Science doesn’t provide that directly, as it doesn’t recognize stories as a fundamental property of the universe.

      Oh, no? Well, maybe Science doesn’t, but some scientists do 🙂

    • Irrelevant says:

      what exactly does religion mean? What is left over? If nothing is left over, than ‘religion’ just becomes an emotionally charged word for a vibrant culture – often negatively emotionally charged in the futurist community, carrying connotations of a dangerous and antiquated cultural memeplex; and positively emotionally charged in other communities.

      As a matter of practical language?

      Religion, noun. “A mental position from which one can convert to Christianity, or vice versa.”

      • TeslaCoil says:

        Brilliant! This is one of the times when definition using a test object is both useful and elegant.

  33. Alrenous says:

    So a religion is a philosophy that becomes part of your identity?

    What happens when you identify with philosophy per se?

  34. Jiro says:

    Scott is cheating a bit since his examples of “everything is a religion” include things that are clearly intended as jokes, such as Linux. Hardly anyone *really* thinks Linux is like a religion.

    • Murphy says:

      I dunno. Lots of programmers take the regular religious wars as a joke but there are some who seem to genuinely treat it as a purity/contamination style moral issue and feel really really strongly about it.

  35. michael vassar says:

    Better minds than yours? I think not. Better scholar? Absolutely! More influential on my thinking? You betcha! More fun? No way.

    I worry here that we fail to benefit from the power of culture when we Parable of the Talents rare cultural achievements and treat them as individual exceptionality. http://slatestarcodex.com/2015/01/31/the-parable-of-the-talents/
    Jonathan Haidt isn’t just exceptional, he’s one of the great examples, like Charlie Munger or Mencius Moldbug, of a particular kind of exceptionality that lays out its methodology, shouts down “Hey Kids, you can do this too”, and invariably ends up failing to inspire actual imitators. Yes, thorough scholarship really is a super-power, yet for every hundred people who dream of great accomplishment AND have the potential to pull it off if they just did the work, not one does. The same could be said for systematic experimentation, a-la Tim Ferris, or the conjunction of actually building a company and actually doing the arithmetic, like Elon Musk. These practices aren’t mysteries. They work and just aren’t done. A century ago we had a lot more Haidts and a lot more Musks. If the readers of this blog were all to adopt such superpowers it would change the world.

    • J says:

      Reminds me of this story:

      Once there lived a village of creatures along the bottom of a great crystal river. The current of the river swept silently over them all — young and old, rich and poor, good and evil — the current going its own way, knowing only its own crystal self.
      Each creature in its own manner clung tightly to the twigs and rocks of the river bottom, for clinging was their way of life, and resisting the current was what each had learned from birth.

      But one creature said at last, “I am tired of clinging. Though I cannot see it with my eyes, I trust that the current knows where it is going. I shall let go, and let it take me where it will. Clinging, I shall die of boredom.”

      The other creatures laughed and said, “Fool! Let go, and that current you worship will throw you tumbled and smashed against the rocks, and you will die quicker than boredom!”

      But the one heeded them not, and taking a breath did let go, and at once was tumbled and smashed by the current across the rocks.

      Yet in time, as the creature refused to cling again, the current lifted him free from the bottom, and he was bruised and hurt no more.

      And the creatures downstream, to whom he was a stranger, cried, “See a miracle! A creature like ourselves, yet he flies! See the messiah, come to save us all!”

      And the one carried in the current said, “I am no more messiah than you. The river delights to lift us free, if only we dare let go. Our true work is this voyage, this adventure.”

      But they cried the more, “Savior!” all the while clinging to the rocks, and when they looked again he was gone, and they were left alone making legends of a savior.

      — from Illusions by Richard Bach

    • Eli Sennesh says:

      Oy Vassar! Just who the hell do you think I am?! “Do your damn background research! Google is your friend!” is kinda my thing.

      That said, I don’t think we have fewer scholars these days than we did a century ago. The numbers just don’t add up: even if only a small fraction of professional academics (ie: professional legwork-doers) are True Scholars, by whatever definition we can agree on, then we’ve still got far more of them than a century ago. We’ve just got fewer famous scholars per-capita, because fame as a scholar scales roughly with the gap between the average level of education and the level of expertise necessary to understand the scholar’s research. It also scales with society’s belief in the March of Progress, which was shattered by the two World Wars and their utter brutality.

      But anyway, actual scholarship and research have expanded exponentially from a century ago, boosted by the creation of national science agencies, state-sponsored university systems, and the PhD system itself (which incentivizes a pyramid-shaped labor structure that ensures a vast oversupply of trained academics relative to any market for professors that expands sub-exponentially). What has expanded only slightly is the average level of education across the population in-general. Of course, the average reader of this blog will think themselves pretty educated, but they probably only have a bachelors degree in one field. Those of us with postgraduate or post-bachelors professional training are on the high end even here, and we’re the top 11.77%. Those with actual doctorates (medical, legal, and PhD) are the top 1.77% of the population by educational attainment. (Numbers fetched from Wikipedia.)

      Now, you can rail on and on about the variable quality of degrees, and I do agree many degrees are low-quality, but I find that argument suspicious since it is almost always mobilized to claim that fewer people should attain degrees in general (ie: deliberate degree deflation) rather than more (ie: inflate the eliteness-signal value of a degree but keep the academic rigor and just educate more people to a greater degree). In fact, its being mobilized that way is already a sign of anti-intellectualism! The fact that we now place high financial disincentives against scholarship, even for the elite (yes, even for the already well-off from educated families, the financial incentive is uniformly against purely academic postgraduate training, once vocational master’s degrees are factored out), also contributes to devaluing scholarship in the public consciousness.

      TL;DR: You want more Haidts, more Musks, and more, well, us, then you need to change what and whom is glorified, and raise the general level of education among the population. Stop glorifying money and status as terminal goods, and instead force money and status to attach themselves to real scholarship! Stop using elitist arguments about degree inflation as an excuse to avoid hard questions about how to improve pedagogy, and figure out how to force calculus and statistics down the throats of the masses. Stop throwing most scholars out of scholarship, and let them/us do what they/we were trained to do professionally!

      Oh, and lastly, just to finish off, you need to crucify Francis Fukayama and Robin Hanson and their goddamned “capitalism is the Hegelian End of History, this already is Utopia, and if you don’t like it, you’re the problem” bullshit. If you want more people to systematically work to need the world, you need to admit the world remains imperfect and unfinished, rather than trying to quash every dream as an atrocity waiting to happen!

      Now if you’ll excuse me, I have things to study, theorems to prove, books to read, and code to implement. You know how it is.

    • Josh Haas says:

      Great comment! Reminds me of this post I read recently by a senior consulting exec giving advice to students who want to become consultants. Anyone could follow it –and I bet if you did it would put you way above the competition–but few people know what they want enough to really follow through: http://onhumanenterprise.com/advice-student/

  36. Murphy says:

    I’m not sure about some of that stuff.

    There’s also a certain feeling when you’re listening to someone whatever their cause and gradually realise that if they’d been born 200 years earlier they would have been a nun or pastor and what they’re saying would change very little. When they can shoehorn pretty much anything they disapprove of into a violation of the codes of their particular causes framework. Perhaps it’s a sign that the cause/movement/religion in question has reached the point where it has a fully general arsenal of hostile memes that can be used against any opponent or perhaps it’s more an indicator that the individual in question can shoehorn anyone and any action into the local version of satan.

  37. John Schilling says:

    I see environmentalism as a combination of three distinct world views, which for want of any official terminology I call “Pastoralism”, “Conservationism”, and “Gaianism”. Roughly in order of creation, I think.

    Pastoralism is the belief that humans are happiest and healthiest when they are living someplace like the Shire, or Norman Rockwell Small-Town Americana, or whatnot. Except, you know, with free Wi-Fi at the local coffee shop, and modern dentistry, and I only have to leisurely tend my garden while thinking and talking insightfully about stuff that will inspire other people to work fourteen hours a day producing wheat and pork and leather. But whatever, we’re going to need lots more trees and lots fewer cities and factories to all be happy and healthy.

    Conservationism is the belief that the natural environment is very useful and ought to be preserved for the use of Man – including men and women who live in cities but might want to get out hunting every autumn, and would like their medical researchers to have a nicely diverse population of soil bacteria to screen for new antibiotics, etc, etc. Of course, Man also needs electricity, and if the last snail darter habitat is getting in the way of the new hydroelectric plant, it isn’t necessarily the dam that loses.

    Gaianism, is the belief that the natural environment is intrinsically valuable in its own right and so must be protected from Man. Snail darter vs. dam, the fish automatically wins, even if the fish is provably useless for any human purpose.

    As the name implies, Gaianism seems to have the attributes of a religion, complete with a creator deity – though most Gaians just use “Nature” or “Mother Nature”, the role is approximately the same. Only the most boringly and uselessly narrow definitions of religion would entirely exclude this strain of environmentalism. Others have already noted the otherwise-pointless rituals, etc.

    Pastoralism and Conservationism, almost completely non-religious in theory and practice.

    • Salem says:

      I like your breakdown. But I would say that while pastoralism doesn’t have to be religious, the environmental kind normally is.

    • Glen Raphael says:

      The main thing that makes Gaianism (and AGW) feel religious to me is its apocalyptic nature. Environmentalists seem unusually prone to carrying signs that say “The End of the World is Nigh!” The actual nature of our demise varies, but in every place and time since the 1970s (and probably well before), environmental activists have been telling us nature is fragile and that we have broken it and therefore we are all literally doomed to suffer and be destroyed for our past sins.

      That the world is bound to end any day now in a specific foretold manner – via a “Second Coming of Jesus” – is one of the silliest things Christians believe. Yet environmentalists have a story just like it, except in their story we are killed by overpopulation, acid rain (from air pollution), global cooling (from air pollution), global warming (from air pollution), the loss of bees (from pesticide use), GM monoculture, nuclear meltdowns or whatever their favorite fear du jour is.

      That belief – that ALL OF CIVILIZATION IS DOOMED by the one specific thing that they care about – is really weird and is not something environmentalism shares with all the other candidates Scott mentioned. Pro-choice or Anti-abortion or anti-gun or pro-gun or Apple or Linux people surely think the world would be better if their own views were universally adopted, but the very fate of the world isn’t really at stake.

      • Scott Alexander says:

        Most of the things accused of eschatology don’t literally imply that the Earth will cease to exist (gray goo excepted). They just propose that things will suddenly become much, much worse.

        This is very often correct. If a Native American in 1491 had predicted “the end of the world” was nigh, I’d concede the point with only a tiny amount of exaggeration. Same with a Roman in 300 AD. Same with anyone in the Bronze Age before the Bronze Age collapse. Same with a Neanderthal in 45000 BC.

        If we get a global warming catastrophe in the 95th percentile of badness according to environmentalist estimates, would that be better or worse than China’s Cultural Revolution? What about the Black Plague? What about the Mongols?

        People keep saying “they’re predicting a gigantic disaster that ends our civilization as we know it” as if that were some pie-in-the-sky reductio ad absurdum, rather than just another thing that happens from time to time.

        • Glen Raphael says:

          > People keep saying “they’re predicting a gigantic disaster that ends our civilization as we know it” as if that were some pie-in-the-sky reductio ad absurdum

          Wrong tense. I would have rather emphasized that they keep “predicting a gigantic disaster that ends our civilization as we know it”. As in, they seem inclined towards those sorts of predictions so they study science with the aim of justifying this pre-existing belief. If it had only happened once or twice it’d be one thing, but it keeps happening.

          The most notable prior example (among many) was the Club Of Rome and its Population Bomb, which was pretty much the exact same thing as AGW today: inappropriate trend extrapolation combined with Stephen Schneider-style scary scenarios and simplified dramatic statements that minimize doubts. We ought to have learned something from that incident.

          > If we get a global warming catastrophe in the 95th percentile of badness according to environmentalist estimates

          They don’t make “estimates”; they invent “scenarios” that are deliberately designed to seem scary and be non-falsifiable. And sure, the notion that some gigantic disaster might eventually happen is not an extraordinary claim, but the notion that these guys are right to have predicted one in advance kind of is, given the track record. “Environmentalists predict doom if we continue on our current course” is a zero-information claim because (a) given their priors, they’d be saying that whether or not it was a well-founded belief, and (b) one thing we can be certain of is that we won’t continue on our exact current course.

          And sure, maybe this time there really is a wolf. Maybe this time the sky really is falling.

          And Pascal’s Wager might have a great payoff if you sell all your possessions and give the money to the nearest church.

          • John Schilling says:

            This sort of thing is specific to Gaian environmentalism, I think. At times with a degree of impied agency – [environmental threat du jour] is Gaia’s Vengeance upon Man and his polluting industrial civilization – that makes the religious nature of the belief system almost explicit.

          • James Picone says:

            You do realise that global warming was discussed before the gigantic mid-1970s-to-recent-day warming trend, right? Just extrapolating temperature trends in the period of time this stuff was discovered would lead you to “We’re going to have an ice age and all be doomed”.

            The basis of GW is physics, not sophisticated climate models, not braindead statistical analysis, it’s just physics.

          • Glen Raphael says:

            > Just extrapolating temperature trends in the period of time this stuff was discovered would lead you to “We’re going to have an ice age and all be doomed”.

            Sure, and this is what that sounded like in 1977 (narrated by Leonard Nimoy!): In Search Of: The Coming Ice Age

            The claim that “there will be some warming from CO2” might be basic physics but the catastrophe predictions are premised on both improbably large continuing “feedbacks” and improbably large increases in fossil fuel use over time. Meanwhile, even the IPCC says the next 1-3 degrees of warming saves lives and makes it easier to feed the planet – longer growing seasons in the north and more productive forestry near the equator due to the combination of milder winters and more CO2 fertilization. Seems like a net win. (Given a choice between the planet getting warmer and getting cooler, I far prefer the former.)

            If we do nothing, 50 years from now our descendants will be so immeasurably richer and smarter and more technically capable and better informed than we are today that I trust them to figure out whether they need to worry about it; to try to stop it now feels like premature optimization. Especially since we don’t know how to stop it – there are no proposals on the table that pass a decent cost-benefit analysis.

          • James Picone says:

            I notice that you have not defended the claim that GW is based on naive trend extrapolation, like you outright stated.

            Yes, there was a fringe of ice-age-comething going on at the time. I’m not sure even that was based on naive trend extrapolation, so much as people being bad at Milankovitch cycles. And it was a fringe opinion – not as fringe as it is nowadays, certainly, but even then, global warming was the hypothesis.

            I’m going to do what Harald K does and ask that you say what your ECS estimate is and why. Mine is 2-4.5 with 90% confidence, median 3, which is basically the current IPCC range minus the 1.5-2 range because I think that’s implausibly low.

            There are /reasons/ for this. There are definitely feedbacks – the Earth doesn’t tend to do nothing in response to getting warmer or colder. Those feedbacks are almost certainly positive, because water vapour is a gigantic positive feedback. I’m honestly not sure what part of that you contest – do you argue that evaporation rates don’t go up with temperature? That water vapour isn’t a greenhouse gas?

            As for improbably large fossil fuel increases, atmospheric CO2 content has been going up faster than exponential, and that’s with the ocean absorbing a good ~50% of what we emit, a state of affairs that physically cannot continue. At current rates of emission, we’ll hit double preindustrial in ~80 years, but the whole superexponential increase thing means that linear trends aren’t terribly appropriate. It’s definitely plausible that we could double preindustrial CO2 in the next two decades.

            I suspect some very interesting quote-mining is going on with your claim that warming from 1-3c saves lives. Perhaps you are focusing on excess mortality and ignoring any of the (rather large) economic effects that we should predict? Maybe you’re just making it up? Maybe you’re uncritically repeating something you heard from someone else who made it up? I don’t know. But it is deceptive. For example, Earth is not a cylinder. Farmland moving northwards means there’s less farmland.

            The economic argument is nonsense. The costs of GW are substantially higher than the costs of doing something about it. That’s the point. Doing something about it now means our descendents in 50 years time will be wealthier than if we hadn’t done something, and they also won’t have to spend ludicrous amounts of energy or engineering effort doing geoengineering or pumping CO2 out of the atmosphere, or something similar.

            GW has the feature that the earlier you start doing something about it, the easier it is to deal with. If we want to avoid temperature rise of X, we have a carbon budget – a total amount of CO2 we can emit before we will have that rise. The earlier emissions start levelling off and then dropping, the slower they can do that without us going over the budget.

          • Glen Raphael says:

            > you have not defended the claim that GW is based on naive trend extrapolation

            One form of “naive trend extrapolation” in the scariest GW scenarios is the assumption that absent all this hand-wringing human behavior won’t adjust. That we’ll get drowned cities and a flood of “climate refugees” because somehow nobody will have noticed a couple millimeters per year of ocean rising – it’ll catch us all by surprise when the change adds up to feet and then all of a sudden we’ll be swimming down Broadway and panicking in Indonesia. Given that over a century or more we’ll need to replace older buildings and houses and people will relocate anyway, they’ll tend to do so with a particular directionality if that seems indicated. Humans adapt. (Similarly, on a century scale farmers will grow different crops and do so in different places – this will happen with or without climate change in any particular direction for any particular reason.)

            Another naive trend extrapolation is the assumption that we won’t have naturally moved to lower-carbon energy sources over time – that we’ll just keep burning more and more and more coal rather than shifting pretty quickly to other sources once they become better and cheaper.

            > say what your ECS estimate is

            If I must, you can count me with the “lukewarmers” – in or below that “improbably low” range you discounted. But I’m not convinced the concept makes much sense or has a knowable answer.

            > The costs of GW are substantially higher than the costs of doing something about it.

            What’s your source on that? The Stern Report? I’d rather see something that applies a sensible discount rate. The claims I’ve seen for things like Kyoto were that for a ludicrous cost we might postpone X degrees of warming by a trivial amount of time, but we were supposed to do this anyway because “it’s a first step” and somehow if we START shooting ourselves in the foot by hobbling our economy now it’ll make it easier to hurt ourselves even more later and somehow magically this will translate into doing something “meaningful” that doesn’t continue hurting more than it helps.

            Suffice it to say that I’m in the same camp as McIntyre and Loehle. I think average temperatures today are approximately as high as they were during the MWP – whether they’re actually higher or lower is probably not possible to determine – and since the last time it got this warm the trend turned around on its own I suspect there’s a negative feedback or two likely to start kicking in soon.

            But there is a huge inferential gap between people who take John Cook seriously and people who take Steve McIntyre seriously – we probably won’t bridge it here and now. (At some point I might have to write a book, or at least an article.)

          • James Picone says:

            One form of “naive trend extrapolation” in the scariest GW scenarios is the assumption that absent all this hand-wringing human behavior won’t adjust.

            Your original post seemed to me to just be implying that climate scientists in the 90s went “Well, trend is up, that’ll probably go on forever”. That’s a rather different claim than the one you’re making now. And for what it’s worth, a bunch of cities having to move over the next century is pretty expensive. Similarly a bunch of farms going out of business because their farmland isn’t profitably farmable any more.

            Another naive trend extrapolation is the assumption that we won’t have naturally moved to lower-carbon energy sources over time – that we’ll just keep burning more and more and more coal rather than shifting pretty quickly to other sources once they become better and cheaper.

            Technological progress doesn’t happen by magic. If we want lower-carbon energy sources to be better and cheaper, we have to invest money in research. Also something something full cost of carbon-emitting power not present in the costs people pay for it because emissions are an externality.

            If I must, you can count me with the “lukewarmers” – in or below that “improbably low” range you discounted. But I’m not convinced the concept makes much sense or has a knowable answer.

            Well that’s curious. You think that the climate’s response to forcing isn’t linear over relevant scales? That it differs from forcing to forcing significantly?

            What’s your source on that? The Stern Report?

            Stern Report was on the high end of projected costs, but most analyses come out saying that GW will cost a fair amount, at the very least of the same order as mitigation. AR5 is unfortunately only available as a PDF, but AR4 is plenty linkable. Summary on costs of GW, with links to some relevant chapters. Summary of costs of mitigation, with links to relevant chapters.

            It’s also worth nothing that there’s a risk management interest in limiting CO2 emissions. If ECS ends up on the high end of the IPCC likely range, or even higher, it is unpleasant. They assess something like a 1% chance for ECS >5c. There are plausible catastrophic outcomes here, and while they’re unlikely, I don’t think that’s a risk civilisation should take.

            The claims I’ve seen for things like Kyoto were that for a ludicrous cost we might postpone X degrees of warming by a trivial amount of time…

            I dunno about Kyoto. Politicians have been pretty awful about doing the sensible policy options, for any number of reasons – probably because being seen to Do Something About Climate Change is a vote winner, but actually Doing Something About Climate Change is not. British Columbia imposed a revenue-neutral carbon tax in 2008. The usual difficulties with economic data abound, but it doesn’t seem to have hurt BC much and the fuels covered seem to have dropped in usage. I’m not sure how much cover of the energy generation sector it’s got, though.

            Australia implemented a kind-of-revenue-neutral carbon tax a few years back, too – instead of directly returning the profits, they significantly increased the tax-free threshold – but that didn’t last long enough for any serious analysis, the next government revoked it.

            When we start is very relevant, though. I think I’ve already explained this, but assuming the IPCC’s estimates are right, there’s a certain amount of CO2 we can emit before we cross some threshold temperature (any threshold temperature), and so the sooner we start bringing emissions down the gentler they can come down. The idea is that if we business-as-usual all the way to 2040 and then realise that those scientists had it right, the sensible policy option might be ‘ban fossil fuels’, which is obviously going to be somewhat more disruptive than a carbon tax. Similarly, if we BAU for ten more years, any CT instituted is probably going to have to be higher to be enough.

            Suffice it to say that I’m in the same camp as McIntyre and Loehle. I think average temperatures today are approximately as high as they were during the MWP – whether they’re actually higher or lower is probably not possible to determine – and since the last time it got this warm the trend turned around on its own I suspect there’s a negative feedback or two likely to start kicking in soon.

            Um, didn’t you say that you think ECS, if meaningful, is extremely low?

            So where’s the fuckoff huge forcing that makes the MWP as warm as today?

            This is also probably a good place to point out that ECS <2c makes it extremely difficult to explain paleoclimate, and close to impossible to explain how we go from ice ages to interglacials – not enough warming to kick out of the snowball phase.

            I hope you also realise that Loehle's 'reconstruction' can't really be compared against modern-day temperatures, at least without a lot of work – you have to rebaseline it, and I have no idea how you'd determine the appropriate baseline. Also Loehle's reconstruction is almost certainly wrong, but I think you know I think that. :P.

          • Anonymous says:

            And for what it’s worth, a bunch of cities having to move over the next century is pretty expensive. Similarly a bunch of farms going out of business because their farmland isn’t profitably farmable any more.

            You’re holding the wrong system constant. In basic dynamical systems theory, if you want to approximate the result of two subsystems that have sufficiently different timescales, you hold the slow subsystem constant, let the fast subsystem converge, then take a small step forward in the slow system. The fact is that political/economic systems operate on a much faster timescale than climate systems. This means that the expense of a city moving over in the next century doesn’t at all approximate the cost of just moving a city now. It means that in the next 10-15 years, the prime real estate could be a little further inland than it is now. Some people will choose to move in that direction. 10-15 years after that, the prime real estate will be a little further inland from that.

            Similarly, you paint a picture of farms going bust like it’s the Dust Bowl (remember, the Dust Bowl onset was on a timescale of 1-3 years, and the duration like approximately a decade). Instead, we have to step forward slowly in the slow variable. A farmer thinks, “This field is a little less profitable than it has been in previous years. Maybe I should consider planting a different crop on it.” The farmer’s son may think, “I hate to sell this field that’s been in the family for decades, but I really think this one a bit further north would help keep our earnings on track.”

            In addition the fact that political/economic systems are much faster than climate systems, we’re also far more terrible at modeling these fast systems. Without having a suitable model for the fast system, people do the best they can (hold the fast system constant and move the slow system), but it’s wrong. It’s hardly useful.

          • James Picone says:

            There’s wealth invested in coastal properties and farmland that isn’t marginal now but might be in GW-world. Moving that infrastructure and farmland requires people spending money – the coastal properties and previously-good farmland isn’t going to be worth as much when sold as the new-improved property and farmland is going to be worth. The money spent developing property less-coastally could have been spent doing something else. Yes, property is always being developed, but more will have to be built up (or, more likely, large dykes are going to have to be built) as sea levels rise.

            Essentially the GW world spent a bunch of money doing things that they wouldn’t have had to if we spent money using less efficient/less convenient energy sources now. I don’t think encouraging that shift – which will eventually have to happen, GW doesn’t stop in 2100 if we’re still emitting – by imposing a revenue-neutral CO2 tax is likely to cost more than the cost of fighting the sea and/or developing a bunch more infrastructure, the costs of moving farmland (losing some in the process because, and it’s weird that I have to keep repeating this, Earth is not a cylinder, and farmland moving northwards means there’s less farmable area), the costs of building desalinisation plants and the like in places that have water security issues, etc.

          • Glen Raphael says:

            Anonymous: exactly right. The cost of moving a city inland (or otherwise adapting structures to higher local tides) is practically free given the timescales we’re doing it on.

            BTW, did you know the city of Chicago lifted most of its downtown buildings by 6 feet in the 1850s?While people were living and working in them?

            > Also Loehle’s reconstruction is almost certainly wrong

            Of course it is. Everybody’s reconstructions are wrong (if by “wrong” you mean don’t accurately reflect temperature history), but at least his manage to avoid a few of the more obvious problems with MBH and its ilk. (the weirdest thing about the paleo debate is how everybody agrees MBH had a bunch of flaws including the use of strip-bark proxies, but it’s okay because some other studies that all had the exact same flaws and used some of the exact same input proxies reached similar conclusions, so MBH must be right after all. Loehle’s reconstruction was at least different enough to be interesting given that context.)

            One of my favorite Loehle papers is A mathematical analysis of the divergence problem in dendroclimatology. Upshot: you simply can’t use trees – any trees – to reconstruct past climate the way Mann&co would like to. (Whether you can use other proxies to get a more reasonable answer is still kind of an open question.)

            And getting back to an earlier point:

            > I suspect some very interesting quote-mining is going on with your claim that warming from 1-3c saves lives.

            The IPCC reports rarely give their good news in a clearly-stated way. There’s a lot of hedging and caveats – more so now even than in TAR – but if you read carefully you’ll notice they still can’t entirely avoid saying it. The underlying facts here include that the part of our planet where most of the world’s food is grown is currently limited by the length of the growing season. Warming initially means it gets less cold in the places where it’s now coldest – higher latitudes in the winter – much more than it gets warmer where it’s now warmest, so we shouldn’t be surprised to notice that a little warming helps to feed the planet.

            Here’s the roundabout way the IPCC says that in AR4:

            “For increases in global mean temperature of less than 1-3°C above 1990 levels, some impacts are projected to produce benefits in some places and some sectors, and produce costs in other places and other sectors. It is, however, projected that some low-latitude and polar regions will experience net costs even for small increases in temperature.”

            (To parse that last caveat, keep in mind that the world’s cereal crops are not grown in “low-latitude or polar regions”.)

            Or if you prefer the same info in chart form, look for the phrase “tendencies for some cereal productivity to increase at mid- to high- latitudes” here.

            Also from that first link, there is a table showing it is virtually certain that we’ll see “Reduced human mortality from decreased cold exposure” and it is very likely we’ll see “Increased risk of heat-related mortality”. As I understand it, the magnitude of those factors adds to a net gain – more people currently die from too much cold than too much heat; warming on-net is expected to save lives that way too. At least for the next few degrees.

            (Incidentally, just last year the CDC calculated that in the US it’s about 2-to-1; twice as many Americans die from excess cold as excess heat.)

          • James Picone says:

            Loehle’s is wrong-er than MBH/Moberg/Ljunquist/Marcott etc., and it was rather clear that’s what I meant.

            Loehle avoids the ‘error’ of using disputed proxy series by using very few proxy series. Was it 17? 21? Somewhere around there. Mostly northern hemisphere proxy series. And then he essentially just averages them together. No area weighting. No compensating for how much better some proxies are than others. No real validation to speak of, either. Loehle’s ‘reconstruction’ can’t be taken seriously as anything other than a sketch, and the lack of area weighting, sparse number of proxies and giving equal weight to terrible proxies explains entirely why it shows so much more variability than, say, Ljunquist, which is 30-90 only and still shows less variability than Loehle.

            Also, y’know, reconstructions without tree rings do exist. They look basically the same as all the other reconstructions. A global, same-as-present-day MWP just isn’t defensible based on the paleoclimate data.

            Looks like I was right about you quote-mining, too. Noting that warming will reduce cold deaths more than warm deaths is not the same as noting that GW, overall, will save more people than it kills over that temperature range. They aren’t the same claim at all. Sea level rise, non-temperature weather disasters (tornadoes, hurricanes, whatever), water security etc. are all relevant impacts here that aren’t included in that statement. Yes I know that the impacts on tornadoes and hurricanes are extremely uncertain and they might reduce.

            I notice that you are dodging the point that the temperature variation Loehle claims over the past few thousand years is extremely inconsistent with a low ECS, and that ice age -> interglacial transitions are essentially impossible under ECS <1.5, and kind of hard under ECS 1.5-2.

          • Anonymous says:

            @James Picone

            You’re still holding the wrong system constant. Real estate values go up and down all the time. They move with respect to environmental concerns, yes… but they move much faster in response to political/economic conditions.

            Your claim that “more will have to be built up” is totally unsupportable without a good model of the fast system.

            Sea level rise

            Slow.

            non-temperature weather disasters (tornadoes, hurricanes, whatever)

            Fast, but as you mentioned, the predictions are extremely uncertain and they might reduce.

            water security

            Slow.

            @Glen Raphael

            You’re also wrong that the cost is “practically free”. You’re wrong, because of exactly what I said above – we don’t have a usable model to estimate this.

          • Glen Raphael says:

            If you prefer Moberg or Ljungquist, fine: those find the exact same result as Loehle – an MWP that looks “warmer” than the modern era when we look solely at the proxy-based reconstruction portion of the chart.

            If you want to compare the MWP to today using those sort of methods, all you have to do is bring the proxies up to date so you can compare like to like. What is not valid is tacking the instrumental record onto the end of the reconstructed record – regardless of how one chooses to calibrate it – and imagining that those are measuring the same kind of thing. The instrumental record is inherently much higher variance than the proxies. Until recent warming actually shows up in the proxies you can’t use proxies to claim current temperatures are unprecedented. It’s just not reasonable to think a flat or declining proxy in the past represented flat or declining temperatures but the same flat or declining proxy NOW should just be ignored in favor of the instrumental record. Divergence NOW suggests the possibility of divergence THEN.

            My claim that the initial 1-3 degrees of warming is beneficial rests on the net effect on agriculture – it should make food cheaper, which helps prevent people from starving. That is a very good thing. (That warming also reduces deaths directly related to the net immediate effect of temperature extremes is just a nice side bonus on top of that.)

          • James Picone says:

            If by ‘find the same result as Loehle’ you mean ‘find a result with something like half the variance of Loehle’, then sure. But conveniently, Moberg and Ljunquist do have a baseline, their temperature anomaly can be easily compared with the modern day, and if we do that the /temperature estimates/ their proxy series have for the MWP are smaller than the temperature estimates from observational data.

            (It’s worth noting that Ljunquist is /not/ a global reconstruction, it’s extratropical northern hemisphere – 30-90 – only. It also shows less variability than Loehle, which is not what you’d expect if Loehle was an accurate global reconstruction. The northern hemisphere has warmed more than the global average over the instrumental period, by a large amount – there’s more land by percentage area in the NH compared to the SH).

            This idea that proxy data can’t be compared with observational data is weird. I’ve seen it before. I don’t get it. Temperature data is temperature data. Temperature data with large uncertainties can be compared to temperature data with much smaller uncertainty ranges pretty easily.

            It’s also kind of interesting that you simultaneously believe that we can’t compare proxy data to the present day, but also the MWP was totally as warm as the present day.

            I am actually genuinely interested in how you think ECS works, given that you’ve said you don’t think the concept makes sense and also believe a set of facts relating to the concept as I understand it that are mutually inconsistent.

            What you said, and I quote: “Meanwhile, even the IPCC says the next 1-3 degrees of warming saves lives and makes it easier to feed the planet”.

            What they actually said was “Some crops in some places may get benefits from small-to-medium amounts of warming, and heat deaths will increase less than cold deaths decrease”. Those claims are not the same thing.

            For starters, and why do I need to keep pointing this out, Earth is not a sphere. There is less land at mid-to-high latitudes than there is at low latitudes. The growing range for cereals shifting polewards a bit reduces the area that can be cereal-farmed. If the cereals simultaneously get slightly more productive, that’s great, that’ll counteract that.

            Also, oh McIntyre. The sheer amount of nonsense is startling. First, the implication that the IPCC has any direct control over where research funding is spent. If nobody is funding proxy-collection activities, there aren’t going to be any proxies collected. There’s the implication that the paleoclimate community doesn’t want it to happen. I’m sure Mann would be very happy if some government handed out a grant to update proxy series to the present day. He’s hardly the one stopping it from happening. There’s the reference to ‘billions of dollars’ spent on climate research, which is bullshit on so many levels (how much of that is for the satellite monitoring McIntyre mentions in that very post? Cumulative over what time period? No scientist is getting rich off of this.) Shit-stirring about satellite-vs-surface records, which is hilarious because they don’t even measure the same thing (the satellite records are a synthetic lower trophosphere channel, not the temperature at the surface. As of 2005 I’m pretty sure there were still serious bugs in both of the satellite series, too – there’s been a history of UAH and RSS needing to be corrected for cold biases). The selective quoting – for starters, notice Mann’s reference to ‘coral’ and ‘ice core’ records, which McIntyre completely fails to follow up. Mann’s comment continues to:

            For example, through a composite of the relatively few very long available proxy records that extend all the way through the 1990s, Jones and Mann (2004) show that proxy-reconstructed Northern Hemisphere temperatures [navy blue curve in Figure 2 here, do indeed reproduce the post-1980 warming indicated by the instrumental record (red curve in same figure).

            Link is to here, although the image doesn’t appear to load any more. Study reference, though.

            Also a complete lack of insight into the idea that maybe tree rings might not be an amazing proxy in the present day climate, what with CO2 concentrations having increased drastically in a short span of time to much larger than they have been over the MBH period, plus all the other anthropogenic activities that might be kind of terrible for tree ring accuracy (SOx and NOx emissions, various aerosols).

          • Glen Raphael says:

            “This idea that proxy data can’t be compared with observational data is weird. I’ve seen it before. I don’t get it. Temperature data is temperature data.”

            The problem is that proxy data is NOT temperature data, so you can’t treat it as such.

            Let’s use the MBH tree rings as a simple example. We’ll ignore the divergence issue and just reason about them from first principles. So: The way we convert tree rings into a temperature history is that we go out and find some old trees near the treeline that we believe have been temperature limited – meaning they seem to grow better when it’s warmer during the growing season. It doesn’t matter WHY they grow better when it’s warm. Maybe there’s more snowmelt or more rain when it’s warm so they get more water. Maybe there’s a different level of cloud cover when it’s warmer so they get more (or less?) sun. The important thing is that we have some reason to think there is a consistent {warmer => better growth} relationship and we already know better growth produces thicker tree rings, so if we measure the rings seen in a core sample and assume a linear temperature/growth relationship, we can translate that info into something kind of like a summer temperature record. Correct so far?

            However (notes Forest Ecology expert Loehle in several papers, including one I linked above), the temperature/growth function even for temperature-limited trees can’t be linear. (If it were, trees could grow an infinite amount if it were infinitely hot.) Rather, the relationship has more of an inverted-U shape. Which is to say that if we are looking at any one specific tree in one specific location with its specific local constraints, there must exist some OPTIMAL TEMPERATURE that would maximize that tree’s growth. Being significantly colder OR WARMER than optimum means less growth. Still with me?

            So if you’ll indulge me with a thought experiment: let us imagine that the MWP is global and includes a period MUCH WARMER than today, so much warmer that it was ABOVE the optimum growing temperature for the tree we’ve sampled.

            What would that do to the shape of our chart? Answer: as that peak MWP temperature approaches, our “temperature” chart (that until then had been pretty accurate) would suddenly go flat or even show a DECLINE in “temperature”. If we compared this result to the charts from other proxies in other parts of the world, we might then conclude the MWP was “only a local phenomenon” and that it did NOT peak at levels above the current day.

            The mere fact that our “temperature” is being measured by a PHYSICAL PROCESS that has a physical maximum possible result means very-warm past temperatures must at some point get CLIPPED.

            And there is no scaling factor that can correct for this clipping – there’s no way to tell the difference near the top of the peak of the MWP between “the temperature trend actually flattened or declined a bit here” versus “the temperature kept rising but exceeded the ability of this proxy in this location to tell us it was doing that so it LOOKS like it flattened or declined a bit here”

            So when you just tack on the instrumental record at the end, you end up comparing a recent temperature record that WASN’T clipped at the high end to an older one that was. Or at least might have been. Which is great propaganda if you want to claim temps are “unprecedented”, but terrible science.

            If my hunch that the MWP was as warm or warmer than today is true, the simplest prediction it makes is that when we update the proxies we WON’T see record-breaking tree rings to match our current record-breaking temperatures. And sure enough, we don’t – we instead see The Divergence Problem.

            There are dozens of other problems with the big non-Loehle reconstructions, but this one alone is damning enough. (Applying the logic of this example to other proxy records is left as an exercise for the reader.)

            As for WHY I suspect the MWP was about as warm as today, you can get that impression directly from glacier evidence without need of detailed multiproxy reconstructions. To wit: nearly everywhere around the world that we find retreating glaciers, as they retreat they reveal evidence that treelines were higher roughly a thousand years ago than they are today or that the now-covered area wasn’t covered back then.

            (Loehle’s proxy is probably more accurate in terms of variability than the others in part BECAUSE it uses fewer (and better-qualified) proxies – using more inherently is likely to dampen the signal. But that’s another argument for another time; I’m done with this one.)

          • James Picone says:

            Thermometers have limits past which they don’t work particularly well, too. All measurement tools do, as far as I’m aware. The correct response isn’t to ignore any hope of comparing records of some phenomenon measured with different mechanisms, the correct response is to do he complex work required to homogenise them.

            Sure, tree rings do weird stuff outside of their optimal range, but that optimal range is different from the optimal range of other proxies, and if you’re doing something more sophisticated to combine them than simple averaging you can use that fact.

            This feels a bit having-and-eating, too – because you then go on to compare glacier proxies to the present day (p.s., your intuition is probably driven by most of the glacier records being northern-hemisphere, because most of the land – particularly land in places that form glaciers – is in the northern hemisphere. That said, Ljunquist strongly suggests that the peak of the MWP in the northern hemisphere wasn’t warmer than the present day on average, and modern-day NH temperatures are even higher than that, and modern-day NH land temperatures – probably the most direct comparison – higher still…). There /are/ several paleoclimate studies that don’t use tree rings. They show essentially the same result as all the rest.

            I’m still curious as to how you reconcile low CS values with a large MWP, as well. Was there a gigantic forcing going on at the time? What was it? Do you think climate has gigantic natural variability that somehow isn’t present in the modern day and also doesn’t imply an easily-perturbed climatological system? Do you think that CS is highly nonlinear, dropping off rapidly past present day temperatures? The last one is at least self-consistent, but as far as I’m aware there’s zero evidence for it, it would be Weird in a pretty significant way (all the major identified feedbacks don’t have any obvious nonlinearities at present-day temperatures to several degrees above it), and it also seems like a convenient fallback in the same way “The dragon is flour-permeable” is a convenient fallback.

            EDIT: I guess there’s also the question of whether you consider comparing UAH/RSS to HADCRUT/GISS legitimate is there, as well. These are completely different mechanisms for observing temperature, with different limits, different error modes, different systematic failures, even different responses to particular modes in the climactic system (it’s pretty well demonstrated that ENSO events show up much more dramatically in the satellite datasets than in the surface datasets).

            EDIT EDIT: I probably shouldn’t let this go by either:

            (Loehle’s proxy is probably more accurate in terms of variability than the others in part BECAUSE it uses fewer (and better-qualified) proxies – using more inherently is likely to dampen the signal. But that’s another argument for another time; I’m done with this one.)

            This is utterly ridiculous. It’s well-known that regional temperatures are much more variable than global average temperature – compare any annual temperature data series (say, greenwich to any global average dataset (say, GISTEMP. Keep your eyes on the scale!).

            That’s because when individual regions get warm or cold, it’s not because the Earth as a whole has gotten warm or cold, it’s because energy within the climate system has shifted around – place A is warmer than average because place B is colder than average, and the total amount of energy is roughly conserved (obviously there is still global variability, just less).

            Using small numbers of not-very-well-distributed proxies (and not area-weighting!) and then combining them via simple averages and not weighting the more informative proxies is a recipe for displaying as much variability as possible. Loehle’s ‘reconstruction’ is a NH-extratropical reconstruction dominated by the proxies with the highest variability and the most points, and it’s much less reflective of global average surface temperature than any of the more mainstream ones as a result. They’re not even well-selected proxies – some of the ones he used have a grand total of three datapoints in the time period he’s reconstructing. One of them might not have any data points in the the period.

          • Glen Raphael says:

            Just regarding the last EDIT EDIT part: If there exists any dating uncertainty in your proxies – which there probably does – then the more proxies you use the more the resulting signal will be dampened, because your peaks won’t perfectly align in TIME.

            And if you follow a more Mannian “kitchen sink” approach and toss in every proxy you can think of with no attempt to verify temperature sensitivity or even check that the signal ends up being used right-side-up, that dampens the signal even more – some component of your signal is either random or is non-random noise introduced by non-temperature-related components. Adding more data only helps if it’s GOOD data you’re adding.

            Taking these sort of factors into account, you CAN use a proxy to suggest what times may have been warmer or colder than other times during the length of the proxy record, but you have to keep in mind that the overall variability is being dampened and/or clipped so we can’t directly compare the top (or bottom!) values to the modern-day instrument record. You might try to fudge this by adding an uncertainty envelope, but if so, this envelope should add MORE uncertainty at the extremes rather than a uniform amount throughout.

            It’s not worth my trying to debunk the ENTIRE set of skepticalscience talking points here in the forgotten margins of Scott’s blog, so I’m going to leave it at that for now. Thanks for being reasonably civil; I’m sure the issue will come up again.

          • James Picone says:

            Most proxies aren’t point measurements – they’re usually closer to an average over the time period for each data point. That’ll reduce the impact of dating uncertainty shifting peaks around relative to each other – it’s already there in that a lot of the peaks are spread out over decades.

            Tamino did a synthetic-data look at a similar effect. It definitely does reduce the size of peaks, but not enough to get rid of them – if there was anything remotely similar to the current warming we would see it in Marcott. AFAIK MBH98 had enough uncertainty on the shaft to allow that sort of thing to happen undetected.

            It’s worth noting that MBH98 didn’t just simply average proxies, the PCA method used would reduce the impact of things like the Tiljander proxy dataset (for those following at home, Mann’s statistical method for calibrating proxy data against observational data to determine the relationship put the Tiljander sediment data series the wrong way up. IIRC there’s evidence of the proxy being disturbed by agricultural runoff or something in the calibration period MBH98 used and that was the reason? It might also have been that Tiljander is just not a good proxy. Don’t recall. Didn’t have a large impact on the resulting reconstruction).

    • not_all_environmentalists says:

      Gaianism, is the belief that the natural environment is intrinsically valuable in its own right and so must be protected from Man. Snail darter vs. dam, the fish automatically wins, even if the fish is provably useless for any human purpose.

      As the name implies, Gaianism seems to have the attributes of a religion, complete with a creator deity – though most Gaians just use “Nature” or “Mother Nature”, the role is approximately the same.

      No concept such as Gaia/Gaianism nor woo nor any religious feeling is necessary for “the belief that the natural environment is intrinsically valuable in its own right and so must be protected from Man”.

      • John Schilling says:

        It isn’t necessary in theory; it does seem to be almost omnipresent in practice.

        My hypothesis there is that human brains are wired against forming consequentialist ethical systems based on the equivalence of snail darters and human beings, but are wired in favor of believing there is an Angry Nature Spirit That Will Punish Us If We Are Sinful. People who hold the former sort of belief tend to do so in private, maybe writing thoughtful essays that almost nobody reads. Or they find a community somewhat supportive of their goals among the more numerous Angry Nature Spirit sort of environmentalist, in which their status and effectiveness increase in proportion to their ability to express their beliefs in Gaian terms.

  38. J. Quinton says:

    I think that the only thing separating “real” religion from the things that people pejoratively label religion is that real religion is about trying to gain favor with or avoiding interacting with beings that are fundamentally mental in ontology. Because these beings can do real harm to you in the physical world.

    If, say, social justice warriorism included beliefs about appeasing the spirits of social justice, or had hymns or rituals that were about rebuking the spirits/gods of racism or sexism (and the beliefs that these spirits actually existed, not just metaphorically) then it would be a religion. I guess some further argument could be made that some strains of environmentalism or SJ might include the belief that humans are fundamentally mental (e.g., mind-body dualism; men and women are exactly the same except for genitalia etc.) but that might be a stretch.

    I think this is the delimiter between people who are culturally Jewish/Christian and religiously Jewish/Christian. Cultural Christians/Jews don’t try to factor in pleasing god/evading evil spirits into their daily lives; at least to the extent that religious Jews/Christians do. It might be more gray scale than a sharp border.

    As the refrain from elementary school goes: “all rectangles are squares, but not all squares are rectangles”. It’s pretty much arguing about the difference between a cupcake and a muffin: If you eat the wrong one for breakfast, then people will think you’re weird. But if you scrape off the icing, no one will bat an eye.

    Religion, like music, is cheesecake for the mind – an “exquisite confection crafted to tickle the sensitive spots of our mental faculties”. So the fact that religion, like football and pop concerts, taps into our instincts is not a coincidence and it’s not a surprise.

    In fact, it’s bleeding obvious.

    That leads to another critical concept. There is more than one way of tickling these sensitive mental spots. All of culture does it. It just so happens that one group of cultural practices in the West that seem to appeal to similar mental biases have been given the label ‘religion’.
    (source)

    • Jaskologist says:

      Definitions of “religion” that hinge on a supernatural aspect fall short when it comes to Buddhism, as in the present case. Heck, Buddhism pretty much denies the existence of personal beings period, including you and I.

  39. Ross Levatter says:

    Medicine may not be a religion, but mental illness is a myth…

    • Deiseach says:

      mental illness is a myth

      I’ll be sure to remember that the next time we’re dealing with one of our tenants who says her kitchen went on fire because sparks shot out of her fingers.

      Or the tenant who is convinced the government (by means of us acting as its agents) is spying on her by planting cameras in her house.

      Or the tenant who is regularly hospitalised because her paranoid schizophrenia peaks and she goes off her meds. Mental illness is only a myth after all, so when she thinks people are breaking into her house because all the neighbours have keys to her house, and are tearing her clothes and smearing chocolate on her walls, we can tell her “Don’t tell us mythological stories!” instead of sending the workmen out to change the locks for her.

      • SanguineVizier says:

        “While I have argued that mental illnesses do not exist, I obviously did not imply that the social and psychological occurrences to which this label is currently being attached also do not exist. Like the personal and social troubles which people had in the Middle Ages, they are real enough. It is the labels we give them that concerns us and, having labelled them, what we do about them.” — Thomas Szasz, “The Myth of Mental Illness”

        “Our adversaries are not demons, witches, fate, or mental illness. We have no enemy whom we can fight, exorcise, or dispel by “cure.” What we do have are problems in living — whether these be biologic, economic, political, or sociopsychological.” – Thomas Szasz, “The Myth of Mental Illness” (emphasis in original)

        You may find the claim that mental illness is a myth to be false, but you might charitably try engaging with it in some way other than fatuous dismissal by anecdote. Obviously people engage in very bizarre behaviors, so presumably that is not what is meant by the claim that mental illness is a myth. As I understand it, the claim that mental illness is a myth is that while people do engage in bizarre, often destructive behaviors (what Szasz called problems in living), treating the behaviors as medical problems is not the best approach, just as treating the behaviors as demonic possession problems is not the best approach.

        • Whatever happened to Anonymous says:

          So, what’s the best approach?

          • SanguineVizier says:

            I do not know what the best approach is; the mental illness model seems to work well enough to me, but perhaps future neurology advances will render it obsolete and we will confidently speak of brain diseases instead.

            Something like schizophrenia seems to me to be a medical problem, but homosexuality does not, and I do not think it changed from being a medical problem to not being one in 1973. As an outsider to psychology and psychiatry, some of the mental illness categories look like schizophrenia, and others look more like homosexuality, where an unusual behavior is stigmatized to the point of being regarded as a medical problem. I do not know exactly where the line should be drawn, that is for people in the field to determine.

        • Mary says:

          So what sort of problem in living do epileptics have?

          Or, for that matter, severe hypothyroidism patients (once known as catatonia patients)?

          If you say they were just misclassified as mental illnesses, how do you know that the mental illness of nowadays are not likewise misclassified?

          (As a rule, once we pin down a mental illness to its physical causes, we stop calling it mental illness.)

          • SanguineVizier says:

            I do not think I understand the import of your questions. It seems obvious that seizures and the various symptoms of hypothyroidism are problems in living, and equally obvious that you would know that, so presumably the questions are intended rhetorically and you meant something deeper, but it escapes me as to what. Could you provide clarification?

            The things classified as mental illnesses very well could get reclassified as physical brain/nervous system conditions, and I expect them to as neurology advances our understanding of the brain and nervous system. Speaking as a materialist, it would shock me if there were no underlying physical cause for a given behavior. If an unusual behavior has an underlying physical cause and is widely regarded as a mental illness, that does not necessarily mean it is a medical problem.

            Homosexuality would probably be the standard example here. I think it did not stop being a mental illness or medical problem in 1973; it never was either one, the psychiatric community was simply in error on that point, and regarding homosexuality as a medical problem is not the best approach. I do not regard these claims as controversial. Szasz, controversially, said that these claims are true of everything that is currently regarded as a mental illness. I am skeptical of that claim, but I am likewise skeptical that everything currently regarded as a mental illness is best regarded as a medical problem.

          • Mary says:

            ” It seems obvious that seizures and the various symptoms of hypothyroidism are problems in living,”

            BZZZZTTTT!

            The claim you wanted us to engage was that mental illnesses, not the consequences thereof, were “problems in living.”

        • Deiseach says:

          Problems in living is very good. Saying it’s not an illness is not helpful – and I’m speaking not alone as a purveyor of fatuous anecdote, but as someone struggling with depression.

          I have a physical illness – Type II diabetes – which is treated by medication as well as lifestyle modification. However, when I finally crumbled and went in to talk to my GP about my depression, I got fobbed off (and yes, that was how it felt) with “We’ll make an appointment for counselling”.

          My brain chemicals are out of whack. Treating that as a “problem in living” that can be adjusted with a bit of Happy Thoughts and A Nice Chat is as fatuous as treating my insulin imbalance the same way.

          I do consider I have a mental illness, a real illness, that is just as physically real as my diabetes and needs intervention and treatment the same way, not just “let’s re-adjust how you approach your lifestyle”.

          And the clients I’ve mentioned need drugs and hospitalisation, as well as other supports. Patting them on the head patronisingly about how it’s society’s problem of approach to their unique atypical attitudes to living is no damn good when they’re suffering from physiological imbalances affecting their brain.

  40. Dude Man says:

    Is it fair to compare specific aspects of secular communities to specific actions of religious communities? For example, would it be kosher to point out the similarities between the way the rationalists treat the singularity and millenarianism?

    • Peter says:

      Fair or not, it wouldn’t be original. Also there are pitfalls. See http://lesswrong.com/lw/x1/imaginary_positions/.

      • Dude Man says:

        Millenarianism does not necessarily mean “those who don’t help are evil and will be punished.” It’s entirely possible to believe that the world is coming to an end without it. Quite frankly, I think Eliezer is too focused on the criticisms that aren’t accurate (we alone will be saved) to notice the ones that are (you’re still shouting “the end is nigh!”).

        • Peter says:

          I think the point there is that if you go in with a pattern-matching mindset, you – or at any rate careless journalists who round to the Nearest Cliche, and have a sparse Cliche Space for people they don’t respect – end up believing false facts about Yudkowsky et al., and then any conclusions drawn from false facts suffer from garbage-in garbage-out. And if false facts are in evidence, that’s evidence for the critics being incompetent.

        • MicaiahC says:

          Ironically saying that EY’s group claims “that the end is nigh” is given as an example of accurate criticism, when MIRI has claimed that they think any human level AI is further in the future median estimate by AI experts. (30-50 years in the future).

          I mean, I guess you could map this to weird religious claims about things happening in that time range…? But at this point you’d be purposefully fishing for noncentral examples of religions. Not exactly confidence filling.

          • Nornagest says:

            It is written that we knoweth not the day nor the hour of the coming of the paperclip.

          • Lesser Bull says:

            “we knoweth” is bad grammar.

            In the original King Jamesian, the phrase is “no man knoweth”

  41. Wrong Species says:

    How about we leave the label “religion” to ideologies with an explicit supernatural force? I don’t know why people insist on making it more complicated than that.

    • Mary says:

      Sure. As soon as you define “supernatural.”

      I recommend C. S. Lewis’s Studies in Words for that. At least the chapter on Nature.

      • David says:

        Sure. As soon as you define “supernatural.”

        I think the one articulated by Richard Carrier and
        elaborated on by Eliezer Yudkowsky, of things which have ontologically basic mental elements – things with the properties of minds (such as intentions, desires etc) which are not reducible-in-principle to the interactions of component elements that do not themselves have mind-ish properties – seems a pretty useful working definition.

  42. Emlin says:

    I think some people (a lot of people? I’m really not sure) have a drive to have $thisthingwewillcallreligion in their life and a wide variety of things can fill that space. So it’s not that environmentalism “is” a religion so much as that environmentalism can be related to as religion. It’s less about the core of the thing, and more on the person’s side. And when a lot of people are treating a thing like religion, it develops patterns that we recognize from other more common religions. Because religion is sort of a process, I think, and creates recognizeable byproducts. And it doesn’t say anything about environmentalism one way or another, but it may say something about (some) environmentalists.

  43. Pingback: Ever More Quotes of the day - Making a long story longer Making a long story longer

  44. TomA says:

    In order to understand the root of this phenomena, you have to look backward in time. When our species first developed complex language, it then became feasible (and advantageous) to convey wisdom to succeeding generations through words and indoctrinated mental habits. This practice takes many forms, but religious methodologies are ubiquitous and lasting, so they likely are quite effective at this. Faith is a necessary component that ensures fidelity in the face of great unknowns, such as existed in our early ancestral period. This proclivity is wired into our brain morphology by evolution, and will not disappear anytime soon.

  45. Fake Name says:

    You’re taking “everything is a religion” to be a reductio ad absurdum rather than a beautiful realization.

    I get that if we’re biased against religion, likening things to religion betrays malicious intent: that we’re only trying to discredit social justice, environmentalism or whatever we’re comparing to religion. This article uses ontological acrobatics to conclude that those arguments are unfair — “Those are BELIEF-BASED COMMUNITIES, not religions” — and can’t be used to condemn an entire movement.

    But if we’re not biased against religion, everything being like a religion means that even while traditional religions are losing favor, the values religions in general stand for are perpetuated. Meaning: those who feel lost in an apparently post-religious world can always find solace in social justice, environmentalism or whatever other contemporary religions prosper today. I think that’s a good thing, and in that case, the ontological acrobatics are actively harmful: saying “those are BELIEF-BASED COMMUNITIES, not religions” basically means “those movements don’t uphold the values you’re looking for in religion (and, incidentally, you’re all alone now, religious scum)”.

    I prefer the latter attitude toward “everything is a religion” to the former. Notice that while religious fundamentalists are unpleasant, religious people in general are very pleasant — notoriously so — and dislike fundamentalists as much as atheists do. Social justice activists are almost universally unpleasant. If social justice isn’t like religion, then maybe SJ really is inherently unpleasant and I find it distressing that it has so many adherents. But if it IS like religion, maybe social justice has untapped potential for good and I have faith for our future.

  46. onyomi says:

    As an anarchist, I do sometimes compare statism to a religion, but for a slightly different reason:

    There seems to me to be a parallel between believing in a central planner for the universe and in believing in central planners for society.

    Also, voting is about as effective as prayer.

  47. Grant says:

    Another comparison of environmentalism to religion; carbon credits as indulgences. Just as the Catholic church allowed people to purchase indulgences to absolve themselves or others from sin, environmentalism allows you to absolve your carbon footprint buy purchasing carbon credits.

    The most important similarity though between environmentalism and religion, is the sense of purpose that it gives people. Environmentalists themselves make the comparison to religion and the sense of purposes that it gives. Stanley Kurtz is a conservative author who has written on this topic. He cites a Bill McKibben article where Mckibben talks about how his “leftism grew more righteous in college.” Kurtz also talks about a book on global warming as a secular religion, The Fanaticism of the Apocalypse: Save the Earth, Punish Human Beings, by Pascal Bruckner.

    http://www.nationalreview.com/education-week/360874/wannabe-oppressed-stanley-kurtz

  48. Steersman says:

    Scott (OP):

    Even though it’s easy to say that every belief or movement can be analogized to a religion, I still feel an intuition that some are more “religious” than others. Social justice and environmentalism seem more religious than gun control and pro-choice, even though all four are equally important lefty issues.

    Interesting post – and many of the related comments. And I agree there’s some value in trying to understand what it is that makes something a religion. Consider this definition:

    3. A cause, principle, or activity pursued with zeal or conscientious devotion: a person for whom art became a religion.

    But the crux of the matter seems, as you suggested, to be type and nature of the faith that undergirds the principles which they zealously promote. Which is not to say that faith is intrinsically or totally without value. As Norbert Wiener, one of the progenitors of the science of cybernetics, put it in his The Human Use of Human Beings (highly recommended):

    I have said that science is impossible without faith. By this I do not mean that the faith on which science depends is religious in nature or involves the acceptance of any of the dogmas of the ordinary religious creeds, yet without faith that nature is subject to law there can be no science. No amount of demonstration can ever prove that nature is subject to law. [pg 193]

    Seems to me that the value of faith is very much dependant on the degree to which it is tempered by reason – apparently quite an important dichotomy which even some traditional religions genuflect to, although that frequently seems like mere lip service. So I think another important attribute of religion is the degree to which the faith is blind, if not totally dumb and stupid and barbaric.

    A couple of relevant passages quoted in Ibn Warraq’s Why I’m Not a Muslim (also highly recommended):

    Timeo hominem unius libri. [I fear the man of a single book] — St. Thomas Aquinas

    The truth is that the pretension to infallibility, by whomsoever made, has done endless mischief; with impartial malignity it has proved a curse, alike to those who have made it and those who have accepted it; and its most baneful shape is book infallibility. For sacerdotal corporations and schools of philosophy are able, under due compulsion of opinion, to retreat from positions that have become untenable; while the dead hand of a book sets and stiffens, amidst texts and formulae, until it becomes a mere petrifaction, fit only for that function of stumbling block, which it so admirably performs. Wherever bibliolatry has prevailed, bigotry and cruelty have accompanied it. It lies at the root of the deep-seated, sometimes disguised, but never absent, antagonism of all the varieties of ecclesiasticism to the freedom of thought and to the spirit of scientific investigation. For those who look upon ignorance as one of the chief sources of evil; and hold veracity, not merely in act, but in thought, to be the one condition of true progress, whether moral or intellectual, it is clear that the biblical idol must go the way of all other idols. Of infallibility, in all shapes, lay or clerical, it is needful to iterate with more than Catonic pertinacity, Delenda est. — T. H, Huxley, Science and Hebrew Tradition

    “Delenda est” indeed. Though not to make a religion out of that ….

  49. blacktrance says:

    I think there are at least three relevant factors: an (organized) belief in the supernatural, dogma that is not to be questioned, and moral demandingness. To fulfill the strict definition of “religion”, only the first is necessary, but the most salient examples of religion also have the other two. SJ doesn’t have any of the first (though maybe it gets points for privilege being similar to original sin?), but a lot of the other two. Something similar holds for standard progressive environmentalism, though it tends to be less demanding, but Gaianist environmentalism is strongly dogmatic, demanding, and sometimes supernatural, so it’s reasonable to classify it as “religion” in a loose sense. Libertarianism can sometimes be dogmatic, but is neither supernaturalist nor demanding, so it’s not a religion. The American Civil Religion in its moderate form doesn’t have any of these features, but in its stronger, more patriotic form, it has all three.

  50. Medicine strikes me as more religiony than investing, for the following reasons:

    1) In medicine, there is a higher social barrier to entry into the profession, or contact with the profession. You either have to get into medical school or pay to physically go to a doctor’s office. In investing, you read a book, get a bank card and go to a website, and you’re doing it.

    2) Related to #1, in medicine there is much more central control of dogma and surrounding culture, by virtue of new members of the profession only being created in a capital-intensive process requiring them to spend large amounts of time in the same place associating with each other. Yes there are investment prophets (ha! still funny!) but their creation and our association with them is not nearly as systematized.

    3) There is much more immediate and more objective feedback in investing than in most of medicine, and therefore fewer cognitive games we can play with its truth claims to make its belief-statements more suitable for tribal signaling. For this reason the branch of medicine that has veered closest to religion is yours (Scott’s) and mine, that being psychiatry, particularly in the form of Freud and associated analytic schools. I’m not as worried about the same thing happening in, say, emergency medicine or anesthesia.

    It may also be useful to contrast investing with things that openly call themselves religion. And indeed there are neat guys like Creflo Dollar who promote “prosperity theology”, but no one seems confused as to whether what Mr. Dollar is doing is religion or investing.

  51. armenia4ever says:

    If you have any kind of worldview which makes any kind of determination about (1) right and wrong, (2) what is acceptable in society and what isn’t, (3) what is preferred and what is not, you have a religion and/or what is essentially a life philosophy.

    Religion isn’t just “spiritual” in nature. If someone tells me I can’t do something because it’s wrong and/or is illegal, its a moral code of some kind of that person’s “religion.”

    I wonder if this is abstract.

  52. Dain says:

    You may have noticed that the New Atheists have gone from being a liberal bunch to a conservative bunch in the last decade, due almost entirely to external political realignments. I don’t think younger progressives are as wedded to being seen as wholly secular compared to their older counterparts, as religion has become more attached in the public mind to underdog Islam and not George W. Bush evangelicals.

    So the notion of calling out SJWs for being “like a religion” won’t be do the damage people think it will. In fact maybe it’ll become a badge of honor?

    • Susebron says:

      I doubt it. Accusations of religiosity against SJ are generally used in such a way that implies the bad connotations of religion.

  53. I’m inclined to think that patriotism leads to a religion for each country, but then, I think countries are tremendous works of imagination, and once imagination is strong enough, it has effects in the material world.

    A pet peeve: Whenever I say that state communism is evidence that atheism doesn’t make people treat each other better than religion does, people say “But Communism is a religion.” I don’t think they believe Communism is a religion when they’re thinking about other contexts.

    Would mainstream American attitudes about food add up to a religion? Or something like a religion? I’m wondering about things that are on the spectrum between religions and not-religions. I don’t have any examples yet, but human organizations are changeable and varied enough that such have to exist.

    • Irrelevant says:

      A pet peeve: Whenever I say that state communism is evidence that atheism doesn’t make people treat each other better than religion does, people say “But Communism is a religion.” I don’t think they believe Communism is a religion when they’re thinking about other contexts.

      Huh. I’ve never gotten that response. I must hang out with a group that less closely conflates atheism and rationality.

      • Deiseach says:

        Mostly met that response in the context of:

        Evangelical Atheist: Religion is to blame for everything! If we only did away with religion, there would be no more wars or global violence! Religion is responsible for all the wars and atrocities ever carried out throughout the whole of human history!

        Theist of varying degree of intensity: Well, atheism has its own share of atrocities. Look at the Soviet Union under Stalin, for instance. That shows that it’s human nature, not religion in particular, that makes people use violence to further their own ends.

        Evangelical Atheist: That’s completely different, and besides, Communism under Stalin was a religion! After all, he was a seminarian, wasn’t he? Yeah! He set up the system to copy religion! So you see, religion is to blame there, too! And Hitler was Catholic!

      • Jaskologist says:

        This was precisely the argument Christopher Hitchens made in God is Not Great, trying to head off the obvious counter to his central thesis.

    • John Schilling says:

      Communism is pretty much always the first thing that comes to my mind when the subject turns to “things people turn to when they need to fill a religion-sized hole in their head”, regardless of whether I am otherwise trying to denounce either communism or atheism.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I’ve heard that a lot of times.

      It seems…sort of correct-ish to me? Like I would be prepared to use it in the following situation:

      A: Religious persecutions are bad
      B: But atheist persecutions are worse. After all, the Communists were atheists!
      A: Yes, but they used Communism as pretty much a religion. The point is, having a universalizing ideology that you accept fanatically leads you to do terrible things.

  54. mengsk says:

    Everything is a religion…. except for Unitarian Universalism

    • Airgap says:

      It depends. Are Discordianism or the Church of Subgenius religions?

      • Nornagest says:

        Depends. Are hot dog buns involved?

      • Chiva says:

        Yes. I know people who are or have been really into both. Ivan Stang is someone who was a childhood acquaintance. It is entirely possible to have a “joke” religion.

      • Scott Alexander says:

        I’ve heard Discordianism described as “a religion disguised as a joke disguised as a religion”, which seems about right to me.

        • Anonymous Cowherd says:

          Last time I was in San Francisco, I ate a hot dog (complete with bun) on a Friday at the grave of Emperor Norton. I have no idea whether I was doing it ironically.

  55. Scott says:

    So one question I have is whether these secular religious carry the same benefits of traditional religions. Namely, that those involved with a religious community tend to be happier and live longer.

  56. I find it extremely unfortunate that environmentalism is getting placed in the same camp as SJ by people on SSC. My reason is that while both movements contain plenty of irrational people, environmentalism contains a pretty big group that are not. But for some reason people love to make out the whole environmentalism movement revolves around mysticism and an irrational Gaia myth.

    In my experience biologists tend to have quite high level of concern for the environment, whether that be in terms of utilty for humanity or direct concern for non-human species (unlike champagne hippies they can’t be accused of holding a non-empirical view of nature). IIRC, they also report the highest levels of non-religiousity of any academic field there is. So I think if you’re going to ascribe religious aspects to parts of the environmentalism, you ought to be a bit more precise in who you’re actually talking about. Large amounts of the population want to see the environment protected, but large amounts of the population do not spend their weekends smoking weed and trying to absorb mystical energies of the forest.

    Personally, I intrinsically value other species (though not to the same level as my own), and also have a strong interest in logic, cognitive bias and technology. For me, there is no conflict – perhaps because I’m up the scientific end of concern for the environment. But before you write off environmentalism, maybe its worth investing some serious effort into reseraching and steel-manning your perception of it a little bit.

    • Irrelevant says:

      I think you’re running into a disagreement that’s primarily on quasi-political affiliations and belief ownership rather than belief content. SSC readers appear to gravitate towards the engineering stance on environmental issues, that conservation is good, efficiency is good, poisoning things is bad, and which specific tradeoffs to accept is a complex optimization problem rather than a black-and-white moral issue. So they accept most of the same positions as scientific environmentalists, but consider those stances obvious good things that environmentalism doesn’t own, and associate the label “environmentalism” with “blue tribe anti-intellectualism.” Theistic readers presumably feel the same about SSC’s pro-charity-but-not-religion stance.

      • Jesse M. says:

        “SSC readers appear to gravitate towards the engineering stance on environmental issues, that conservation is good, efficiency is good, poisoning things is bad, and which specific tradeoffs to accept is a complex optimization problem rather than a black-and-white moral issue.”

        I suspect the majority of self-described environmentalists would feel the same way if questioned, so that if you are imagining the typical “environmentalist” as taking a position very different from this reasonable one, then you are using a type of weak man argument. After all, if someone felt it was purely a “black-and-white moral issue” and not a “complex optimization problem”, wouldn’t that lead them naturally to the Unabomer’s conclusions that industrial society itself must be destroyed, or at least that all fossil fuel burning should be stopped immediately (regardless of consequences for us) rather than gradually scaled back until we can get most of our energy from renewables a few decades from now? Which solution do you think more self-described environmentalists would favor, the latter or the former?

      • @Irrelevant

        Actually now I’ve thought about it more I think you’re right on the money. I’m just running into political groups shooting off their usual barrages, as well as the post-political group trying to distance themselves from anything that looks even a bit partisan. Basically, just bad context to consider those issues within.

    • Anthony says:

      To be fair to SJism, the motte they’re defending is mostly reasonable – even though I would consider myself to be an HBDer, I think that treating all people as of equal moral worth and with equal legal rights, regardless of race or ethnicity, is generally positive. (In fact, one of my main disagreements with the more conventional and bureaucratic versions of SJism is that the facts of nature require treating people differently if one is trying to equalize outcomes, which is what most SJers are trying to do.)

      Environmentalism is the same way – conservationism, and as Irrelevant calls it, scientific environmentalism, is a worthwhile motte. But in both cases, the bailey is full of religious crazies.

      • Motte and bailey, or weak man argument? Refusing to differentiate between green views looks pretty much like the latter to me.

      • not_all_environmentalsts says:

        Environmentalism is the same way – conservationism, and as Irrelevant calls it, scientific environmentalism, is a worthwhile motte. But in both cases, the bailey is full of religious crazies.

        I’ll question your “full of”. Do you mean there are quite a few of them there? A majority (how would you know)? The most vocal? (Or the most quoted by critics?)

        And which environmentalists are you labeling religious? I would so label two kinds: people who get inspirational feelings from postcards* (probably quite a few, including perhaps the German relatives who didn’t look into practical trade-offs), and maybe a few Deep Ecology people who as someone said write thoughtful papers that aren’t read. Certainly not by the postcard people.

        Hm. Maybe “A Religious Environmentalist is anyone who says zie is?” Or some other phrasing with real religious words in it, such as “My religion is Environmentalism” or “I give deep reverence to Nature”. Somehow, I think ‘Gaia’ is just metaphoric shorthand used by scientists, whom I have yet to see using Gaia and reverence or worship etc in the same sentence.

        * But they do vote on our side of most issues

      • Anonymous Cowherd says:

        The really maddening thing to me is that while I want, ultimately, the same world that (I think) (most) SJWs want–one where people are morally judged for chosen actions, not unchosen attributes–I find their tactics and group culture so instinctively repellant as to constitute a disgust reaction. With NRX, OTOH, I disagree violently with the goals of at least one major wing of the movement (the theonomists (e.g. Jim)), but they feel far less like Others that Must Be Defeated At All Costs.

  57. mico says:

    Here is a potentially coherent definition of a religion: A set of moral values and principles that can underpin a coherent society.

    Islam is one.
    Judaism is one.
    Hinduism is one.
    Medicine is not one.
    Christianity used to be one but probably isn’t any more.
    Buddhism is arguably not one as it says nothing about the state.
    Scientology wants to be one.
    Science is not one (it isn’t a set of moral values).
    Socialism is one.
    Environmentalism is one, or at least part of one.
    Conservatism is not itself a religion, it’s belief in a dead or dying religion.
    Democracy is a religion, but most democrats aren’t Democrats.

    This is just playing with definitions, but if we accept this definition, I consider it at least historically interesting that socialism and environmentalism and other aspects of the contemporary Western left are not just religious ideas, but clearly developments of or schismatic offshoots from Christianity specifically. Socialism is Christian in a way that it is not Islamic or Hindu or Democratic. Indeed self-flagellating religions don’t seem to exist in most of the world; Christianity is pretty unique in that regard even just among the Abrahamic religions.

    To distinguish better between them, because clearly there’s some difference, let’s return to your claim that calling something a religion is a slur. This is really referring to the belief that religion is unscientific, because religions often make factual claims that can be scientifically disproved. But these factual claims are tangential to the religious content of the religion, which is its set of value judgements. Science tells us nothing about value judgements, and all societies have to be underpinned by some set of value judgements, so it’s not reasonable to consider this irrational.

    A better slur-word for the unscientific type of religion might be idolatory, which can be defined as association of abstract values with personal rituals. I fully agree that Bible Belt Christianity is way more idolatrous than Marxism despite having mostly the same content. Marx, like Luther, was just pointing out that despite all the fuss the Church was making about its grand buildings and social position, it wasn’t doing much to lift up the wretched or love its neighbour.

    Social Justice looks extremely idolatrous to me though. That might be why I have come to viscerally loathe Social Justice and actively avoid its supporters, whereas I can have perfectly enjoyable discussions with orthodox Marxists, despite probably having less in common with them on policy.

    • Thursday says:

      Mohism in China is a lot like Socialism. Most ideas Christianity is supposedly the ancestor of usually have significant parallels in times/places where Christianity couldn’t possibly be an influence.

    • Peter says:

      Congratulations on comment of the week!

      Re: the last paragraph – a little while back someone linked to http://theamericanreader.com/jenesuispasliberal-entering-the-quagmire-of-online-leftism/, which I’m reminded of. Your orthodox Marxists look like they’re diagonally opposite the “Moralist cluster” which seems to correspond to core online SJ types, with an emphasis on both “searching out damaging people and ideas” and “the autonomous struggle toward virtuous, productive action” – i.e. a recipe made for policing the personal virtue of people they talk to.

    • Harald K says:

      “Indeed self-flagellating religions don’t seem to exist in most of the world; Christianity is pretty unique in that regard even just among the Abrahamic religions.”

      Thus you show you are not to be trusted as an authority on Abrahamic religions.

  58. Unique Identifier says:

    Regarding recycling-as-ritual and environmentalism-as-religion, the current [official, nationwide] curriculum for 10 year olds in Norway includes the following. This is one of roughly 25 bullet points under the category ‘study of nature’, describing the sort of competence the students are supposed to obtain during 3rd and 4th grade.
    – practice recycling and discuss why recycling is important

    Interestingly, the text in the previous version is subtly different:
    – describe how and discuss why we recycle

    The very next bullet point is:
    – describe what can be done to care for nature in one’s own surroundings and argument [note: garbled translation, should be the verb form, argue] for consideration when visiting nature

    Make of this what you will.

    Source: http://www.udir.no/kl06/NAT1-03/Hele/Kompetansemaal/Kompetansemal-etter-4-arstrinn/?lplang=eng

    • not_all_environmentalists says:

      @ Unique Identifier
      This is one of roughly 25 bullet points under the category ‘study of nature’, describing the sort of competence the students are supposed to obtain during 3rd and 4th grade.
      – practice recycling and discuss why recycling is important

      Recycling what, where (within Norway)? Increasingly, more kinds of materials are able to be processed and sold, in more areas. By the time those 3rd and 4th graders are old enough to vote, technology will have taken care of most of the problems cited by current opponents.

      However, most of the Whys will still apply.

      • Unique Identifier says:

        ‘Recycling’ is a translation of ‘kildesortering’, literally sorting-by-material. It really means separating your own trash into organic, cardboard/paper, plastic, glass/metal, what I think is called ‘residential recycling’.

        I wouldn’t say this is a perfectly useless skill, but you have to wonder why it shows up in school, for ten year olds. They are, to the best of my knowledge, not given classes on personal hygiene or maintaining a bicycle.

        • not_all_environmentalists says:

          Taking out the kitchen trash is a traditional task for 10-year olds, and parents may not know the current categories either.

          Maybe your point is to show how prevalent this is? That large amounts of time and energy are being wasted in ‘ceremony’? That’s an issue for current fact-research.

          Anyway, there’s little room for fakery in – describe what can be done to care for nature in one’s own surroundings and argument [note: garbled translation, should be the verb form, argue] for consideration when visiting nature. Why do you include that in your comment?

          • Unique Identifier says:

            My contention is that it requires an attachment to environmentalism – beyond the reasonable and rational and bordering on the ideological or religious – to deem these sort of skills so essential that they should be taught to ten year olds.

            It is important to keep in mind that this is a curriculum – you can’t just dump every potentially useful idea in there. You have to pick and choose. Make sure you appreciate what has been left out in the cold, to make room for these skills. Evolution is for instance first introduced in 10th grade.

            I also want to point out how the bullet points presuppose the correct attitude. If a student learns about recycling, but doesn’t agree that it is important, either the student has failed to learn, or the teacher has failed to teach him. It is reminiscent of:
            – describe the life of Churchill and explain why he is the savior of western civilization

          • not_all_environmentalists says:

            @ Unique Identifier

            Thanks for your explanation. I have some familiarity with US middle school issues, and I agree with the following:

            I also want to point out how the bullet points presuppose the correct attitude. If a student learns about recycling, but doesn’t agree that it is important, either the student has failed to learn, or the teacher has failed to teach him. It is reminiscent of:
            – describe the life of Churchill and explain why he is the savior of western civilization

            Yes. I hate the kind of writing that sneaks a main contention (‘Churchill is the savior’ / ‘recycling is important’) into a complex sentence, as though the contention were already accepted with no need of support. Importance of recycling may have been introduced and supported in the actual teaching, but this is still a bad style and dulls critical thinking.

            This material is teaching more than facts; it gives practice in grammar, essay writing, etc.

            Most children soon learn to fake the opinions the teacher wants, without corrupting their own thinking. If they don’t already know that, better they learn it in 4th grade than go to college or the work world without it.

            It is important to keep in mind that this is a curriculum – you can’t just dump every potentially useful idea in there. You have to pick and choose.

            Whether this was too much on recycling, would depend on how much time/content was spent on other subjects.

            Make sure you appreciate what has been left out in the cold, to make room for these skills.

            A good point in general, but I’m not familiar with what sort of skills are needed in Norway.

            Evolution is for instance first introduced in 10th grade.

            We often introduce several subjects early, in very general, simple terms, and add more depth each year.

            Now I disagree with or would question the following:

            My contention is that it requires an attachment to environmentalism – beyond the reasonable and rational and bordering on the ideological or religious – to deem these sort of skills so essential that they should be taught to ten year olds.

            For this we should ask their parents! If the child already has that chore, they’d want zim taught as soon as possible how to do it right. It would be reasonable for the teaching materials to reflect how much of the country was actually doing that sort of recyling. Teaching all the nation’s children how to sort trash even where there are no trucks yet to collect it, could show bias – ideological perhaps, but religious feeling about environmentalism would scarcely be needed to motivate this.

          • Unique Identifier says:

            You have this exactly backwards, near the end. Insofar as the parents want their children to recycle, they are perfectly capable of teaching their children to do this. Children also generally keep their rooms tidy, brush their teeth and take baths – parents teach them this (or don’t), and schools ignore the topic.

            The reason this is included in school curriculum, is not because parents want help teaching their children to recycle. It is precisely the opposite, namely that environmentalists do not trust the parents to make sure the children observe this ritual.

          • not_all_environmentalsts says:

            Maybe I’ve got your point. In the US we’d say “separation of church and state”. If parents want Bible stories taught as facts, do it on your own time, not in public schools But Bible vs Evolution is different, because the Bible isn’t evolving. ;- The effectiveness of kitchen recycling, varies from one location to another, from, say, one month to another. This is a question of fact — well, many facts. (So many facts, that any blanket statement is unlikely to be true of even a majority of instances. The one thing that does apply to all recycling efforts now or future — is that improvement is being made.)

            Saying that something could survive as a ‘ritual’ whether true or not, does not mean it is untrue. Vaccination could continue simply as ‘ritual’ (once a year, go to special sanctum with white clothed ministers, accept a moment of pain as test of your trust, etc) even if new evidence showed it ineffective. But in fact vaccination is worth doing and is improving, no matter what the patients’ emotional motives are. So a schoolbook chapter on why we have vaccinations, what do they do, etc would not be putting religion into the schoolbook.

          • Unique Identifier says:

            At this point, I think we agree on all counts. It is easy to imagine an alternate dimension, where residential recycling was so valuable that it did indeed belong in the curriculum of school children. I imagine Fremen children [Dune by Frank Herbert] would learn all about water conservation at an early age.

            It just doesn’t seem to me, that that’s the world we live in.

            Personally, I would also object to the fetishization of science – see the category of competence goals themed ‘the budding researcher’ (!). It’s surely well intended, and a proper understanding of the scientific method is by all means a laudable goal, but it comes of to me as evangelizing.

            Particularly, the habit of introducing concepts at an age where the students cannot possibly understand them, seems insidious. There’s a difference between educating children and programming them.

          • not_all_environmentalsts says:

            It just doesn’t seem to me, that that’s the world we live in.

            Some parts of it are, some parts are not, and some are not yet; though all or most parts seem going in that direction.

            Personally, I would also object to the fetishization of science

            On fetishization, evangelizing, and programming, in a schoolbook, it seems we quite agree.

            It seems we have excavated and untangled our way down to agreement on major points. Thank you for a very good discussion.

          • Irrelevant says:

            Personally, I would also object to the fetishization of science – see the category of competence goals themed ‘the budding researcher’ (!). It’s surely well intended, and a proper understanding of the scientific method is by all means a laudable goal, but it comes of to me as evangelizing.

            It is a point of bitter (and occasionally gleeful) irony to me that a “teach the controversy” biology program was in fact the first point in my education where I was taught about the workings of science rather than taught heroic narratives about science.

          • Unique Identifier says:

            Thanks to you, too.

        • Harald K says:

          Landsmann her.

          I think it shows up in our schools as an alibi. That environmental stuff is hard and depressing and we don’t like to think about it (especially not all that oil we pump up!), but hope lies with the next generation! As long as we teach them well all will be OK.

      • Harald K says:

        When you posit that technological progress will have taken care of most problems, remember Popper’s warning: The future of science can itself never be scientifically predicted in advance.

  59. Chiva says:

    “Social justice and environmentalism seem more religious than gun control and pro-choice, even though all four are equally important lefty issues.”

    I am sure this has been pointed out but, just in case. The other side of Gun control and abortion are explicit religious issues for those possessing the opposite view. Being Pro-life is religious. Having the “right to bare arms” is religious and are both based on biblical foundations.

    • Nornagest says:

      Okay, so there’s a few things going on here. First of all, you seem to be confusing “religious” with “deontological”, which is not at all what Scott seems to mean; while e.g. being pro-life is usually embedded in a religious worldview, there is no religion of pro-life in the same way that environmentalism or social justice find themselves at the center of quasi-religious social movements; it implies no rituals or observances, no supernaturalism or eschatology of its own; it’s not the central fact of a worldview or even particularly important to it. (Lest I be misunderstood here, I’m pro-choice.)

      Second, and more tangentially in this context: while the most prominent arguments for both a pro-life and a pro-gun stance are deontological, the same goes for most issues of popular ethics. The deontology of natural rights (which has its roots in Enlightenment-era Christianity, though not particularly in the Bible) is, like it or not, the dominant ethical framework in American politics, and while you could make an argument that it’s religious in the context of American civil religion, arguments under it are not religious on their own terms.

      • Chiva says:

        No. You seem to be confusing that I typed ” are explicit religious issues” and “is religious” with “is a religion”. Why not back up the ‘splane a couple of ooches? You might actually be dealing with someone not using the precision of language that you personally desire. Or, you might have jumped the gun, both might be happening, or something else completely. (like maybe I am bad at typing and you’re making ablest assumptions) Generally, it’s polite to ask qualifying questions before ya go off.

        “Second, and more tangentially in this context….”

        I would in fact make the argument that the two basic sources of the Modern Western world view is based explicitly on Protestant morality and, older, synarchic consequences/modes of Imperialism. If queried, I might even be able to show evidence.

        But, this was not my point. My point was to alert the OP that his inability to “picture” the range of the sort of person who says “I’m fanatical about gun control” did not mean there aren’t, in fact, plenty of people like that. And, that, depending on who you’re around, the typical “pro-gun” and “Anti-choice” person is significantly more “religious”, in terms of qualified behaviors of the OP (and in a real world explicit ideological basis), than the so-called “progressive” ideological counter.

        Obvs. Scott has not spent a ton of time in places like Texas. Because, if that had been in his set of experiences, half of the OP wouldn’t even been happening. I figured somewhere in 300+ comments someone might have pointed that out. But, in going through them, it seems as if no one else had. (I might have missed something though)

        Edit: For clarity.

        • Nornagest says:

          Okay, so I had a post typed up, but on rereading I don’t think this is the kind of conversation I want to participate in. Tapping out.

          • Chiva says:

            Just the same, you could probably apologize for the gratuitous ‘splane. It hurt my feels and was annoying.

          • Nornagest says:

            My condolences re: your feels, but I don’t think I owe you an apology.

          • Chiva says:

            I don’t think I am “owed” per se. Just that you could. The thing is that you assumed that I didn’t understand the distinction you explained. When, rather, in my view, it was the case that I simply didn’t agree with your selected point of view and felt you misunderstood me. But, I didn’t want to argue it either. No hard feelings

    • mico says:

      There is a huge number of irreligious pro-gun activists. One of them (Eric Raymond) posts in these comments. I grant there are fewer irreligious abortion opponents.

      I’m really intrigued what’s the religious origin of the right to bear arms. I thought it arose from the English Civil War and the English Bill of Rights of 1689, and the fact that the US Bill of Rights was written by people who just fought a war that would not have been possible without private firearms ownership.

      • Chiva says:

        “here is a huge number of irreligious pro-gun activists…”

        True as that is. You will find that most, if not all of them, come from a cultural of origin that has a dominant evangelical/protestant world view. Regardless, I was not suggesting that absolutely everyone having a ‘pro-firearms” view was defacto making a religious argument or even spiritually religious themselves. I was attempting to say that the basis of the popular arguments are explicitly religiously based and biblical. That in both cases they are generally religious issues and can be termed ‘religious” in themselves And, they clearly can.

        However, having met a set of pro-life christian conservative progressive vegans. I could never suggest anything stronger, in real terms, than “most but not all” when making a sketch of a group. Given the broadness of the OP, I erroneously thought it was safe to pipe up here without tagging everything with “some but not all.” I assumed that was understood.

        It seemed plain that OP was speaking in imprecise generalities. He clearly stereotyped or used tropes regarding a number of basic views, in order to give context to his thoughts. This seemed like an acceptable fair use of tropes and cliches and so I countered with similar. It is beyond me, why he should get a pass here and I should not. (maybe you just like him more)

        None the less, we could all go into a deep dive regarding the broad religiosity of gun culture and gun ownership. Purely secular tasks like going to the range, cleaning the gun, collecting firearms, reading up on the topic etc. are easily depicted as ritualized and communal events. And, frankly it’s easier, for me, to do that with firearm culture than say animal rights activism. Gun oil even takes the place of incense in such a comparison. We could speak at length of the parallels with religion given in the broad outline in the OP.

        As for the biblical justification, well again, there is an explicit Protestant context, in US firearm culture. For example “English Bill of Rights of 1689” was written during the Glorious Revolution and was basically the cap of a successful twenty year or so attempt to keep England Protestant. As there’s basically an analogous twenty year stretch where the head of the monarchy was Catholic. And, believe it or not, Catholic vs. Protestant was very big deal then and remains so in some places to this day.

        Now, if you’re looking for actual biblical verses used as justification, off the top of my head there’s “Take the Earth and subdue it” and “An Eye for an Eye” and the Decalog. There’s tons more. There is a plethora of religious argument there. However, my guess is that isn’t your point. And, besides, I would have to Google and link to achieve anything nearing total accuracy. I am not opposed to doing some small bit of that. However, it’s not as if I am expressing some esoteric view, not easily found online.

        Are you interested in how this makes the States? Because, we can go “It’s specifically Protestant morality” there too. After all, the Puritans are the big winners in the “who has the dominant colonial culture?” sweepstakes.
        Anyway, I hope that clears things up. Otherwise, we can have another round of discussion.

        Edited: for clarity.

        • John Schilling says:

          I would argue that the right to keep and bear arms comes from a dominant Germanic paganist world view, by way of various Angles, Saxons, and Normans. But mostly I would argue that just about every culture that went into the British Isles and just about every culture that came out of it, carried a general admiration of or respect for an armed citizenry.

          There is a very not-coincidental correlation between “Maybe the British of Olden Days were wrong about private armaments” and “Maybe the British of Olden Days were wrong about how everyone should be Protestant Christians”, both here and in Britain. And Canada, Australia, etc. It does not follow from this that the right to keep and bear arms is a part of Protestant culture. Here and now, it really isn’t.

          • Chiva says:

            Smashing! I would really like to see some evidence fleshing the Germanic paganism connection out. That is quite new to me. So please point me to some sources.

            Here, I can suggest two quick links supporting my British/American Protestant assertion. I know there’s more and likely there’s far better evidence, this is just the top two from a quick search.

            A) http://www.academia.edu/5423970/Statistical_Analysis_of_Americans_Attitude_Toward_Gun_Control

            B) http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/1386741?sid=21106267277273&uid=2129&uid=70&uid=4&uid=2

            Anyway, I am really curious about your POV and am looking forward to reading more about it. Thanks.

            “here is a very not-coincidental correlation between “Maybe the British of Olden Days..”

            Yeah, I mean here’s there’s a ton one could parse. (Why were they wrong etc?) I am up for it if you are.

            To me, “wrong” is not as important as that this appears to be what did happen. Like, personally, I am a pacifist. so, for me, there’s no real “making anyone correct” here. When we are looking for the origins of a currently held ideological set or at the inherent religiosity of an ideological set, then our judgment regarding the morality of the players seems irrelevant.

            Do you really think this distinction is important to explore (if so why?) or were you just making an aside?

            Also, I do think gun ownership is part of Protestant culture then and now. Firearms are a technology that flows within the Protestant ethic of self reliance. And, up until heavy industrialization, you needed a gun for game, to protect yourself, and to manage your crops. I think historic gun ownership is fairly well understood on a subsistence basis. And, it seems that the nature of Protestant colonization (ie pioneering) is more or less ideal for such a marriage.

            Anyway, looking forward to your response. Thanks

  60. Eli says:

    And if all of this sounds super-conservative

    It doesn’t, unless you start by assuming conservatives have a monopoly on the concept of “community”, and that leftists are all ultra-individualists. Since we can all clearly agree that Randian libertarians are not Leftists (we leftists hate Rand) and that “community organizing” is Leftist (it’s where SJWs seek careers), I think we can straightforwardly falsify that assumption.

    And of course many things are “religions”! You’re dealing with the species pan narrans here, the story-telling ape. Religion is the story we tell to try to explain our real, actual lives to ourselves in an emotionally meaningful way. You can say “meta-narrative” if you want to sound more abstractly philosophical about it, but that’s what’s going on.

    So of course transhumanism, for instance, is a religion! But I feel that, as somewhat rational thinkers, as people who change our minds in response to reasons, we shouldn’t be using “religion” or “narrative” or “ideology” as “Everything that falls under this word is false.” That’s assuming you can start from the non-epistemic qualities of human psychology and arrive at an epistemic conclusion, ie: assuming you can tell whether claims are true by how meta-contrary they are.

    So the answer to “Is transhumanism/rationalism/LessWrongianism a religion?” is, “Yes, and as Believers we should be careful not to fall into Mind-Killed Cultist failure modes, but we should also, as intelligent people, ask whether the actual claims are true or false, because that’s what’s important.”

    • Scott Alexander says:

      It’s not so much that the very idea of community is conservative, so much as the idea that communities should have strong unified values and shun those who deviate from them.

      I’m sure leftists think in terms of communities having values, but I don’t think they’d talk about them in those words.

  61. Hook says:

    I just finished reading Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari. He considers a belief system a religion if it involves a superhuman order and “based on this superhuman order, religion establishes norms and values it considers binding.” Sports teams don’t count because everyone considers the rules arbitrary. Physics (for an appropriately bounded definition of physics) doesn’t count because it doesn’t establish norms. Communism definitely counts as does capitalism(“private property” being part of the superhuman order and “contract law” being part of the norms).

    In this sense, “religion” is not supposed to be pejorative. It refers to an “imagined reality” shared by a large group of people and it allows those people to effectively cooperate. Money is an example of such an imagined reality, as are nations.

    I think the primary point behind using this definition is to point to certain ways that people organize themselves and recognize that it hasn’t always been that way, and it doesn’t always have to be that way in the future, but that there are reasons for the current organization and costs to transitioning to a new form.

  62. I find amusing that, in reply to a post exploring what kinds of political movements and cultures are like religions, at least one commenter who probably thinks of himself as a rationalist delivered a rant that can be summarized as “ESR is a vile heretic for not believing in AGW, and should be shunned and no-platformed” without appearing to notice that by doing so he was underlining my original point about environmentalism.

    The confirmation status of AGW is denotatively irrelevant to the point I was making in my original comment. What makes for a religious belief is not its truth or falsity but the way in which humans form and maintain it. When we see a high degree of emotional attachment, hostility towards contrary evidence, and a pattern of demonizing people who present contrary evidence, then we are seeing religious belief maintainance even if the belief content is as well-confirmed as the law of gravity.

    In a community of rationalists, that kind of behavior should shift prior probabilities towards the religiously-maintained belief (whether in AGW or anything else) being false. Because if a rationalist has arguments that do not invoke multiple tropes of dark epistemology, he or she makes them.

    • James Picone says:

      If Scott’s post heavily quoted a comment claiming science was a religion with evolution as the origin story, presented by a creationist, and someone responded “Seriously Scott? Promoting creationism?” would you say that supported the thesis that science was religious in the sense you’re using?

      (also something something your position implies AGW denial is also religious, which is kind of the point of Scott’s post here – ‘religion’ in the sense being used here is not terribly meaningful)

  63. Bryan Hann says:

    I would recommend Roy A. Clouser’s The Myth of Religious Neutrality in which he argues that the notion of divinity is best understood as that which exists and whose existence not contingent on any other thing (my paraphrase). It may be the natural numbers (the Pythagoreans) or sense experience (Hume). A divinity belief may manifest itself culturally in a polarity: form/substance in ancient Greece. (Note that Clouser here would not speak of Zeus and his cohorts as ‘divine’. These are beings more powerful than man, but are not themselves incontingent.)