The What-You’d-Implicitly-Heard-Before Telling Thing

G. K. Chesterton, whom I praised yesterday, is also famous for the argument of the “truth-telling thing”:

“This, therefore, is, in conclusion, my reason for accepting the religion and not merely the scattered and secular truths out of the religion. I do it because the thing has not merely told this truth or that truth, but has revealed itself as a truth-telling thing. All other philosophies say the things that plainly seem to be true; only this philosophy has again and again said the thing that does not seem to be true, but is true. Alone of all creeds it is convincing where it is not attractive”

Forgive me if I go into Angry Internet Atheist Mode for a second, but…

Yes, it’s told so many truths. Like that God created the world in seven days. And that there was a giant flood. And that it’s morally acceptable to condemn people to eternal torture. And that homosexuality is wrong. And that slaves should submit to their masters. And women to their husbands. And that the Second Coming will occur before the last of this generation passes away. And that people who are capable of doing so should castrate themselves. And that you should not suffer a witch to live. And that epilepsy is sometimes caused by demons. And that it’s a really really good idea to kill Babylonian children.

And that everything is a combination of essence and accidents. And that things have final and formal causes. And that the planets are arranged in a succession of crystalline spheres, each with a governing angel. And that capitalism is a terrible idea. And that church councils like the one that killed Jan Huss are infallible.

And after you’ve subtracted all the things that, in the light of modernity, obviously the Bible couldn’t have actually mean or obviously couldn’t really have been Biblically supported, what are you left with? Ideas like “humanity is flawed”. Gee, thanks religion. Surely only God could have noticed this startling and well-concealed insight!

When religion makes non-trivial testable claims, whether in its holy books or from later clergy trying to interpret those holy books, those claims have a spectacular record of being exactly as wrong as you would expect from chance – and then some. So what the stars are the “truth telling thing” people talking about?

Let’s ask one. From Unequally Yoked:

In some ways, I find myself in a similar position to Chesterton. I find that a lot of Christian theology works for me in a way that plenty of other philosophies have not. When I say ‘works’ I mean pretty much what Chesterton does—that it matches many of the core assumptions I make about the world, and it harmonizes some of the conflicting ones in ways I didn’t expect, but seem to fit.

Time for a metaphor here, and I’m going to sort of steal it from Alasdair MacIntyre.

Suppose that one of the Roman civil wars – let’s say the one precipitating the Year of Four Emperors – goes on for decades and turns into an apocalypse. Roman civilization and learning are destroyed. All the Romans have are fragments of their old culture. Something something Mt. Olympus. Some kind of apple thrown at some kind of party caused the fall of Troy. There are these books in a cave that tell the future, who knows how they got there? We should avoid hubris, but we don’t know why.

Then someone from a very distant colony arrives, bearing intact copies of the Iliad and the Odyssey and a few other important books that reveal all the tenets of Greco-Roman paganism.

Suddenly, everything makes sense! The reason we go on pilgrimages to Mt. Olympus is because the gods live there. The reason an apple caused the fall of Troy was because it was thrown by the Goddess of Discord! The reason these books in a cave tell the future was because they were written by the Sibyl, who gained the gift of prophecy after a love affair with Apollo. We should avoid hubris because Jupiter is jealous and will zap us with lightning bolts.

On the other hand, the Iliad and Odyssey would continue to be laughably wrong about all testable claims, like that the ocean is perfectly circular or that there’s an island inhabited by Cyclopses.

Because Roman religion was originally shaped by the Iliad and Odyssey and then fractured into confusing fragments, restoring exposure to the source of the religion will cause this feeling of “suddenly everything I believe fits together and makes sense.” But none of this subjective feeling of sense-making will correspond to ability to make correct claims about the external world.

Modern Western civilization spent about fifteen hundred years having its thought processes completely shaped by Christian doctrine. Over the past few centuries, changes in science and philosophy have shattered a lot of Christian doctrine and replaced it with more modernist ideas, but they haven’t succeeded completely and certainly not at the deepest level. Most people contain various strata of conflicting Christian and modernist ideas superimposed upon one another, and not all the Christian ideas are conveniently labeled “Christian”.

Exposure to the Christian ideas in their original form should allow a lot of aspects of modern culture to be viewed in a new light. To give a trivial example, dislike of homosexuality is pretty common in our culture, but has zero intellectual foundation outside of an ethical system that people generally aren’t exposed to unless they specifically study Christian philosophy. Less trivial examples might be beliefs about guilt, penance, justice, innocence, marriage, modesty, humility, etc, etc, etc.

If this were the whole picture, then things could go one of two ways. People could be exposed to really high-grade modern philosophy that removes the remaining Christian elements (like makes the consequentialist argument against stigmatizing homosexuality), suddenly have a revelation of beauty and consistency, and become full-on atheists. Or people could be exposed to the purest form of Ye Olde Time Religion, suddenly have a revelation of beauty and consistency, and become full-on religious people.

Buuuuut it’s more complicated than that because I think the modernist beliefs and the religious beliefs are held in different ways, although don’t ask me to get more technical than that. Maybe the modernist beliefs are held explicitly and endorsed? And the religious beliefs are held kind of subconsciously as aliefs? And so I think the high-grade modernist philosophy and the Ye Olde Time Religion are appealing in different ways and to different parts of our belief structure.

This applies not just to Christianity but to any claim that old ideas should be taken seriously because they match our intuitions and aesthetics. Reactionaries, I’m looking at you here.

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103 Responses to The What-You’d-Implicitly-Heard-Before Telling Thing

  1. DavidAgain says:

    This is fascinating. Not really on the historical detail – as far as I can see, the question is how much we can meaningfully and fairly we can draw a line round something and call it ‘Christianity’: the same applies I think to how we identify advances from the past as ‘science’ in your piece on scientism. But it had never really occurred to me before that we should expect a sense of ‘recognition’ from our ‘native’ religion in this way: and it helps explain some of the differences based on how ‘native’ religion is to you – how many of the edge ideas you’ve absorbed, even if you lack the core belief.

    This isn’t even a matter of straightforward belief – I often seem to find more of an intuitive echo with Christian beliefs/traditions than the Christians I know have with those beliefs/traditions, I think because my temparement and my reading habits (in particular of poetry) give those ideas huge amounts of aesthetic weight for me. It also helps explain for me how I have very different feelings about Christianity and other religions, despite having studied several and being fascinated in general. Buddhism, for instance, sometimes seems to have a feel of ‘truthiness’ on certain individual points, but I find the central Christian story immensely powerful at a gut level. It is just linked with such thick layers of early memory, aesthetic experience and (mostly second-hand) intellectual speculation that it overflows with a sense of meaningfulness.

    There’s an echo of this in the really enjoyable experience of reading a book when you’ve read several sequels/copies/pastiches – the move from the fragmentary to the more complete and original can be deeply satisfying.

    • DavidAgain says:

      PS: the obvious adjunct to this is the (original Nietzsche version of the) Death of God issue. If we have lots of things that we believe in at a gut level and that find a sense of great recognition in religion, then just how much of what we believe is actually implicitly based on a metaphysical underpinning we’ve rejected?

      I think sensitivity to this explains some of the fear around atheism/materialism and in general arguments that go against traditional structures: there’s a fairly massive and not necessarily illegitimate slippery slope fear.

  2. sviga lae says:

    Regarding the “claim that old ideas should be taken seriously because they match our intuitions and aesthetics”, this charge fails against reactionaries because there are clearly stated reasons for both past and present intuitions and aesthetics to be in alignment that are more than arbitrary, as in the case of religion.

    Namely, the consistent link is of course the revealed stability of ‘human nature’/evopsych/game-theoretic patterns of human behaviour, and furthermore the recognition that these thinkers were able to approach their subjects, if not with the benefit of modern analytical tools, data and theories, at least with less burdensome cultural baggage.

  3. Alex says:

    Which parts of it? And more importantly, what alternatives are you suggesting?

  4. Berry says:

    Oh yes, that’s much more explicit…

  5. Irenist says:

    Scott, the Roman Empire analogy is brilliant and thought-provoking, as your writing so consistently (and thus addictively) is.

    That said, here are my quibbles with this post–please pardon the “angry Internet Christian” tone of some of them, kept for pithier argument since this comment is verbose enough as it is:

    “When religion makes non-trivial testable claims”:

    1. “Religion”? What’s that? Whose primary identity is “I am a religionist”? So apropos of Chesterton and Libresco, let’s stick with Catholicism and see how your argument works for that tradition.

    2. “Testable claims”? Religion is not failed science. It is not in the business of the quantitative prediction and control of material objects. If your argument against religion is that it fails as science, I’d hate to hear your opinion of poetry. “I read all of Moby Dick and I haven’t caught any fish! It’s worthless!”

    2. “Like that God created the world in seven days.” Not claimed by Catholicism to be literally true; never infallibly claimed by Catholicism to be literally true. Frankly, not even really claimed by the Book of Genesis itself to be literally true, since that book seems to have been more concerned with lining up metaphorical correspondences with the Temple in Jerusalem to send the message that “All the World is a Temple” than it was with being natural science manque.

    3. “And that there was a giant flood.” Ditto.

    4. “And that it’s morally acceptable to condemn people to eternal torture.” Nope. The claim is that of Lewis’ “Great Divorce”: that it’s morally acceptable for God to allow the obstinate to *choose* eternal misery. Still perhaps problematic, but a different claim.

    5. “And that homosexuality is wrong.” Equivocal: Homosexuality as a predisposition isn’t wrong at all. But yes, Catholicism condemns fornication of all kinds, gay and straight, and teaches that gay folks are called to celibacy.

    6. “And that slaves should submit to their masters.” Abolition of slavery was no more possible for ancient agrarians of St. Paul’s day than abolition of wage slavery seems to be for modern capitalism. Preferring quietism to the revolts of a Spartacus or a Lenin in such circumstances is arguably entirely prudent from the perspective of the welfare of the oppressed themselves. Blood-drenched revolt against economic reality helps no one.

    7. “And women to their husbands.” Christianity was less patriarchal than the society in which it arose, and St. Paul’s idea that the husband should be a Christ-like sacrificer for his beloved bride was an improvement over the Roman tendency to treat women as disposable, easily-divorced chattel.

    8. “And that the Second Coming will occur before the last of this generation passes away.” Not the Second Coming. Destruction of Jersualem and beginning of the Church Age, a.k.a., the Kingdom of God. Happened right on schedule.

    9. “And that people who are capable of doing so should castrate themselves.”

    Never has any Catholic (as opposed to a heretic like Origen) interpreted this verse literally.

    10. And that you should not suffer a witch to live.

    Witch-hunting was primarily a Protestant hobby in Europe, and remains primarily a Pentecostal hobby in Africa. The various Inquisitions tended to be skeptical of bumpkins trying to convince them that old ladies living on real estate coveted by the bumpkins were witches.

    11. “And that epilepsy is sometimes caused by demons.” If demons exist, presumably they can cause all manner of ills. But Catholic exorcists are constantly telling inquirers to please seek psychatric help before turning to them as a last resort.

    12. “And that it’s a really really good idea to kill Babylonian children.” Catholic aren’t interpreting that Psalm literally. You want an advocate of killing children from the greater Babylon metro area? I give you atheist Christopher Hitchens, Soviet apologist turned Iraq War cheerleader. Want opponents of smashing those children’s skulls with bombs? I’ve got some popes for you.

    13. “And that everything is a combination of essence and accidents. And that things have final and formal causes.”

    The Catholic Church doesn’t teach this; Scholastics adapted it from the cutting edge Aristotelianism of their day. However, I join with Edward Feser in thinking that, as people like Thomas Nagel are beginning to figure out, Aristotelian metaphysics is substantially correct. So I actually wish I COULD claim this one for the Catholics.

    14. “And that the planets are arranged in a succession of crystalline spheres, each with a governing angel.”

    The heavenly spheres were the science of the time, as Mary said upthread. They weren’t in any way a “religous” concept. And if we’re going to put Albertus Magnus down against “religion” because he was involved in the scientific speculation of his century, then we can put Fr. Nicolas Copernicus and Fr. Ruder Boskovic and Fr. Georges Lemaitre and Fr. Gregor Mendel down for it, yes? Either non-religious scientific opinions by Catholics count or they don’t.

    15. “And that capitalism is a terrible idea.”

    Laissez faire capitalism IS a terrible idea. The modern social democratic welfare states of Europe, based in large part directly on the Catholic social teaching of the Christian Democratic parties, is vastly superior. Give me Europe over Galt’s Gulch, and Christian Democrats over Libertarians, any day of the week.

    16. And after you’ve subtracted all the things that, in the light of modernity, obviously the Bible couldn’t have actually mean or obviously couldn’t really have been Biblically supported, what are you left with?

    Among other things: Moral realism, the belief that consciousness is more than an illusion to be dissolved by Daniel Dennett’s linguistic analysis, the faith that it is possible to trade the Darwinian nihilism of something like John Gray’s “Straw Dogs” for moral decency, and a metaphysical conviction that beings make sense only in the light of Being.

    Atheism leads logically–in my view, YMMV, of course–to the reductionism of an Alex Rosenberg and the Darwinian despair of a John Gray. I think Frank Jackson’s Mary learns something about qualia like redness when she walks out of her black and white room, and I think moral uplift is more than empty cant. Catholicism agrees: the mind is more than the brain, and transcendence is possible. These aren’t “testable” claims, but they are important claims.

    Chesterton and Libresco find themselves to be moral realists who think human flourishing involves us being kinder to each other than the iterated game theoretical interactions of an atheist understanding of evolution would predict us to be capable of in the long term. Catholicism accords with moral realism and with hope that there’s more to life than the law of the jungle as lived out either by subsistence-level Hobbesian savages or subsistence-level Hansonian “ems”–both of which are precisely the sorts of misery atheism leads one to expect as the inevitable course of selfish apes following their incentives to the bitter end. If you take Chesterton’s and Libresco’s core moral convictions as truths, Catholicism has consistently told them.

    The only two claims left on your list that are actual Catholic claims are disapproval of fornication (gay and straight) and objection to the doctrine of Hell. Neither the free will theodicies about Hell nor the Aristotelian natural law arguments about sex that isn’t procreative in kind are so obviously wrong that (IMHO) they can count as points AGAINST Catholicism without (again, IMHO) a fair amount of either detailed argument or mere question-begging.

    • Douglas Knight says:

      Witch-hunting…remains primarily a Pentecostal hobby in Africa.

      Do you have a source for that? Or the coarser breakdown into Christian, Muslim, and animist? How about just the total number of accusations or lynchings?

      Or an easier question: When an English language newspaper reports on accusations of “witchcraft” in Africa, is the word used in the native language the same as the word used in translations of the Bible?

      • Irenist says:

        To be honest, Douglas, I was thinking more in terms of “It’s not a Catholic thing” than in terms of “It is a Pentecostal thing.” There may be a fair amount of Muslim and animist witch-hunting, too, but I recall reading that most Christians who go in for it are from the various homegrown African denominations, rather than, e.g., Catholics or Anglicans. There are, I assume exceptions, just as there were indeed some Catholic witch-hunts in Europe, despite it being largely a Protestant thing. However, I went googling for a cite just now and found this,
        in which African Catholics complain that their Western educated clergy aren’t taking the “reality of witchcraft seriously” enough. So I think the honest thing for me to do here is to retreat from my original claim back to an analogy with Albertus Magnus and the celestial spheres–I don’t think Catholicism made Africans believe in witchcraft, but like belief in celestial spheres in Ptolemaic Europe, making Catholics of Africans is going to involve there being Catholics who believe in witchcraft; the Africans ALREADY believed in it, so Catholicism is irrelevant. I suppose atheist Africans won’t believe in it, but that’d be more because they’re part of a tiny minority of intellectuals than because belief in magic is inconsistent with absence of a God belief–which it isn’t, as anyone who’s ever talked to a secular believer in qi or reiki can tell you.

        • Douglas Knight says:

          Thanks. That’s what I believe, but so much that I read is ambiguous.

          • Irenist says:

            Thanks to you, too, Douglas, for prompting me to update the accuracy of my beliefs on the whole witchcraft-in-Africa thing!

        • Douglas Knight says:

          Oh, by the way, the article you linked mentions the Bible, so it implicitly answers my translation question.

    • Berry says:

      “And that the Second Coming will occur before the last of this generation passes away.” Not the Second Coming. Destruction of Jersualem and beginning of the Church Age, a.k.a., the Kingdom of God. Happened right on schedule.


      • Irenist says:

        Destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., beginning of the Kingdom of God as instantiated in the Church founded by the Apostles. All that happened right on schedule. Not the Second Coming. What I’m claiming is that the eschatological stuff ought to be interpreted in an “amilliennialist” way, in which Christ’s predictions refer to Titus’ invasion of Jersualem and the founding of the Catholic Church, and the Book of Revelation is mostly about the Neronian persecution. Jerusalem was destroyed within the lifetime of Christ’s listeners. (St. John the Apostle lived until the 90’s A.D., IIRC.). Obviously, the Second Coming hasn’t happened yet. But I’m arguing that the Second Coming isn’t what Christ is primarily talking about there.

        • Irenist says:

          Incidentally, New Testament descriptions of the apocalyptic horrors of the operations of Titus’ army in Judea (described by Josephus if you’re interested) or of the abomination of desolation (the deified Titus) in the Temple aren’t arguments FOR Christianity, either: the N.T. was composed late enough that any atheist is entitled to note that even on my interpretation these are post-dictions, not prophecy. Of course, if Christ actually prophesied it in advance, that’s impressive–but the N.T. doesn’t demonstrate that independently. So I’m not claiming N.T. predictions that Jerusalem will be destroyed or that the Church will be founded at Pentecost are arguments FOR Christianity, which would be intellectually dishonest, I’m just trying to rebut Scott’s contention that a) the N.T. predicts the imminent Second Coming and that therefore b) Christianity made a demonstrably false prediction.

        • Irenist says:

          I said “amillenialist” is what I’m describing here as the typical Catholic position, but I think the most precise description of the interpretation of the N.T. I’m discussing is “partial preterist” given the issues I’ve raised. Here’s a primer:

    • Alex says:

      When I read this post at first I thought it was a typical angry rant about things that current Catholics don’t actually believe, but its more subtle than that. Scott is arguing that throughout history Catholics _have_ made falsifiable claims about the world all of the non-trivial ones have failed. Therefore the hypothesis that Catholicism is a truth generating machine is probably false.

      • Irenist says:

        Sure. And despite my quibbles, I think Scott has a very, very strong point. I’ve never personally liked the “truth-telling thing” apologetical argument. And indeed, I think the historical attitude of, e.g., St. Augustine, was that the wacky stuff in Genesis was CERTAIN to have its primary import in its analogical meanings, but MIGHT also be literally true, depending on what natural philosophy turned up. That seems like a reasonable position given the proto-science of the time, and certainly doesn’t argue for Christianity as an inerrant oracle of confirmed predictions. I also don’t have much use for “this accords with my gut intuitions” arguments in apologetics, since they remind me too much of LDS missionaries telling me to sit with the Book of Mormon for a while and see if it makes me feel all warm and spiritual. Self-suggestion is not a truth-telling thing. I prefer what I take to be Aquinas’ more modest claim: Christianity is not inconsistent with anything we can learn from natural reason, and all its specific revealed teachings are complementary to what we gather from natural reason. But the arguments for theism that impress me are metaphysical deductions, and the arguments for faith in the Christian God to me presuppose those metaphysical preambulae fidei that attempt to demonstrate theism metaphysically.

        As for my quibbles, they are only that: quibbles. The basic gist of Scott’s post here is a strong (and original) argument indeed, as is typical of Scott, and I’ll be very interested to see if Leah Libresco responds to it, or finds herself to busy to engage with it.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      It looks like you’ve already gotten to this lower down on this thread, but I don’t think *I’m* the one demanding that religion be science or Moby Dick be a fishing-manual.

      The truth-telling thing argument is the claim that one should believe Catholicism because it makes statements that are later independently confirmed; as I interpret it, it’s saying we can trust religion because it has proven to be an effective fishing manual. I can say “No it hasn’t” without making unreasonable demands.

      As for the individual claims, yes, I agree that the religious party line is that they didn’t mean what they sounded like. I’ll take the “this generation shall not pass away” one as an example. It sounded a lot like Jesus was saying he would come back in full Messiah style very soon. Early Christian texts suggest this was how the early Christians interpreted it too. Then it didn’t happen. Then everyone said “Ah, apparently it just meant the destruction of the Temple.”

      There is nothing in Catholicism (or any other religion, for that matter) that can’t be retroactively interpreted to fit with the truth. It’s no different than when 9-11 happens and people look through Nostradamus, find something that looks vaguely 9-11ish, and claim Nostradamus predicted 9-11. But if they can’t get that from Nostradamus before using hindsight, we can’t give Nostradamus points for that. Likewise, I feel like people didn’t so much use Catholicism (the Bible, the writings of the Church Fathers, whatever) to come up with the truth on the issues above so much as come up with the truth through totally different means and then, having figured it out, decided that was what Catholicism must mean even though it said what looked like the opposite.

      For example, the Catholics were totally into witch-burning – Malleus Maleficarum was written before the Protestant Reformation! This was a perfectly reasonable Biblical position – the Bible says “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” – and so was honestly derived from the tenets of the religion. Then people used reason and common sense to determine witches didn’t exist, and started protesting that “Catholicism isn’t about burning witches!” and that that is one of the many Bible passages that must be interpreted metaphorically. This is no different than how when Protestant churches go liberal, they say that Christianity has never really been against gay marriage and the apparent anti-gay verses in the Bible were meant in some other sense.

      • Gilbert says:

        The “this generation shall not pass away” thing actually is a weak point, i.e. it counts as evidence against Christianity. Not decisive evidence, but evidence non the less.

        But chalking the witch-burning up to Catholicism is a lot like blaming McCarthyanism on liberal democracy. Yes, in both cases the perpetrators believed in the respective ideology and justified their actions by it because those were the relevant discourses of the respective times. And in both cases the justifications made some sense. But they would have made such arguments either way, so it’s not evidence for or against the respective philosophy tending that way.

        You probably can fill in your own defense of liberal democracy, so let me skip ahead to doing better on witch-burning:

        The various Germanic tribes enjoyed the occasional witch-killing (sometimes burning, but also witch-in-swamp-drowning) in their pagan times and Christianity put an end to that. During the middle ages witch-belief was punished as heresy. Then in reformation times the Church lost a lot of control over parts of Europe. That’s trivial for the Protestant parts, but it also meant a lot of secularization in the still Catholic parts of the Holy Roman Empire. Simultaneously the invention of the printing press made mass media hysteric feedback loops possible. The witch craze happened at that time and only in the parts of Europe where Church control had diminished. It was very much a grassroots thing, with ordinary folks pressing their civil authorities to do something. Meanwhile in other parts of Europe the various inquisitions continued to suppress witch-belief. Rome had actually condemned the Malleus Maleficarum a few years after its publication, before it gained influence. And then the people who ‘used reason and common sense to determine witches didn’t exist, and started protesting that “Catholicism isn’t about burning witches!”’ also were concerned that that kind of witch plague was too Manichean to fit into Catholic metaphysics.

        So if you look at it, it’s true that actual Catholics were into burning witches, but it is also quite obvious that ceteris paribus social power of Chatholicism correlated negatively with burn-happyness. If anything that is a vindication of the truth telling thing.

  6. Ronak M Soni says:

    (Admittedly weak) supporting evidence: I, and all my friends who read stuff, usually feel bafflement when faced with certain Christian ideas – mostly relating to guilt and suffering (you should have seen the faces when I explained what the fuck Pushkin’s poem “The Prophet” was about). This, by the way, includes a Christian brought up in a local strain of the religion.

    So, anecdotally, the same intuition is not held all over the world.

    (I suppose it can be claimed that Indian culture is a corrupted one, but I’ll just shoot that counterargument the dirts. I stopped reading Edward Feser when he claimed that all religions were worshipping the Catholic God, with clear indication that Catholicism had come up with the right answer and everyone else was approximating it.)

    • Ronak M Soni says:

      Last bit came out wrong. My problem is that such arguments are impossible to refute (you just come from the corrupted culture). Obviously if someone’s a Catholic he/she has spent time thinking about why not other religions – but seriously you need to give me lots of evidence that other religions are mere projections of Christianity (and lots of evidence that the hypothesis wasn’t privileged just because it’s your birth religion). Feser just stated it in a comment, as if it was self-evident.

  7. Mary says:

    And that church councils like the one that killed Jan Huss are infallible.

    This is simply and flatly false. The Church does not and has never claimed infallibility in any judical proceeding.

    • Alex says:

      Information is sparse, but from what I can tell, conciliarism was embraced for a few decades in the 15th century although it was declared heresy later. The Council of Constance seemed to be very confident in it.

      In any case, there are more than enough other false church teachings to support Scott’s argument.

      • Douglas Knight says:

        That link agrees with Mary’s “The Church does not and has never claimed infallibility in any judical proceeding.” At least it agrees that not all acts of ecumenical councils are classified as infallible.

        Your original statement “church councils like the one that killed Jan Huss are infallible” is technically true, but pretty weaselly. It is not very different from saying “Popes like Rodrigo Borgia are infallible.”

  8. SapientPearwood says:

    Thanks for the post, this clarified an idea I’ve had for a while. The comparison to Roman culture was especially helpful.

    The idea is that religion resonates with us because it originally shaped our culture. How did it become so influential in the first place? It implies that even before religion permeated culture, it was already appealing to people at the time. I can’t name any specifics, but I recall reading that many (as in a disproportional amount to just chance) religions address the beginning, the rapture, the son of god born to a human, and other similar characteristics in their holy books.

    • von Kalifornen says:

      It’s also worth noting how much tradition there ends up being that doesn’t translate and that isn’t religious.

    • houseboatonstyx says:

      These ideas go far beyond the basic sort of mammalian instincts I’m talking about: a parent/creator, who provides for and directs the offspring, in a heirarchial system.

  9. Curious says:

    I’ve never understood why Leah Libresco is constantly praised for her intellect (which I think is generally lacking) or her argumentation (which I think is generally hollow and logically very flawed). Yes, she knows how to string words together into syntactically correct sentences, but that doesn’t mean that the things she writes actually make sense.

    • B_For_Bandana says:

      Don’t forget, she talks about liking math!

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I know from knowing her in person that she is in fact very smart. And her arguments are never directly wrong in the sense of having an obvious fallacy. That having been said, about two-thirds of what she says might as well be written in Chinese for all the sense it makes to me.

      • Berry says:

        “That having been said, about two-thirds of what she says might as well be written in Chinese for all the sense it makes.”

        But other than that, she says all the right things! Gah, it’s frustrating, because I feel like she should know better, but every time I say that to myself I wonder whether I’m just not trying hard enough to understand her and then I read more and then it loops in on itself and I’m back to square one.

        • Curious says:

          Same experience here. I’m inclined to think that a lack of clarity in writing reflects a lack of clarity in thinking. She is definitely in the “crackpot” category in my mind.

    • amuchmoreexotic says:

      I have two theories about her:

      1. she’s a smart person with an unusually high number of mirror neurons and/or capacity for empathy, which makes her constitutionally predisposed to thinking objective morality is something real, or “morality is a person who loves me”. I once went on a date with a woman who, when watching Bane breaking a dude’s neck in The Dark Knight Rises, seemed to be compelled to twist her neck to mirror the on-screen action. If my moral intuition that neck-snapping is wrong had that kind of visceral force, I’d probably feel a lot more inclined to believe in some kind of objectively grounded morality. [flagged for possible logical rudeness]

      2. her engagement, but not (as far as I’m aware) marriage to some Catholic dude, along with her frequent emphasis on the idea that we are all wounded and broken, suggests to me that she’s a lesbian or lady-leaning bisexual, but is somehow in denial of or otherwise not OK with her sexuality.

    • Shel says:

      I’m not sure why people find her conversion so hard to understand. To me, it seems fairly logical to go from a belief in objective morality to a belief in Someone who put it there, and Catholicism is probably one of the most attractive faiths for intellectuals in a Christianized society. (As for why she believes in objective morality, I’m less sure, but I suspect that might be one of those gut-level intuition things that one was not argued into and thus cannot be argued out of.)

      • Curious says:

        I’m not only referring to her conversion-related posts. I really tried to be charitable towards her by reading many of her posts on a whole range of topics (including mathematics and morality in general), especially because so many LessWrong readers have spoken well of her. But I’ve found all of her posts (at least those that I’ve read) to be unbelievably substandard in terms of argumentation.

      • Alex says:

        I’m not sure either. It seems fairly obvious why she converted. Much of her philosophy was developed alongside high status Catholics in her debating group in college. Hence she had a social incentive to investigate Catholicism and eventually convert as well as a common philosophical foundation narrowing the inferential distance between her and Catholicism.

        • Cuddlefish says:

          I meant to reply to your other comment, but I cannot locate the ‘Reply’ button for that one. I have checked out those two posts, and my opinion of her hasn’t changed — she just seems to be a good facilitator who is nevertheless incapable of constructing decent arguments herself.

      • blacktrance says:

        A word of caution – “objective morality” doesn’t necessarily mean stone-tablet morality of the kind that a god could put there. Hobbesian contractarianism (and its descendants) are considered objective morality as well, but they’re far from stone-tablet-style.

  10. Trent Fowler says:


    Insightful stuff, I hadn’t quite thought of this particular explanation for how religion can make the world seem more explicable. You can probably get part of the way toward understand if/how religious and modernist ideas are held differently by noting that 1) modernist ideas have never been shattered in the way you claim religions have and 2) modernist ideas usually come with a host of ancillary beliefs (like valuing empiricism and evidence) which make it at least a little more difficult for nonsense to thrive.

  11. Deiseach says:

    Also, the crystalline spheres is not scriptural, it was the “working with the best science of the day” adaptation by theologians and philosophers. Throwing that into the mix is like a Young Earth Creationist bashing science because “Phlogiston!”

    You can certainly disagree with religion because you think it’s nonsense, but at least hit us with the specifics belonging to us and not broad cultural tropes 🙂

    • Charlie says:

      The phlogistonites didn’t confine Galileo to house arrest.

      And yes, that is unfair, times were different then. But times were also different when the bible was written, which makes the unfairness a sadly necessary part of any useful comparison.

      • Gilbert says:

        On the other hand forced sterilizations and scientific racism were very much things supported and organized by actual scientists in the name of science.

        Plus Galileo is already about the best example supporters of the conflict thesis can come up with, which is kinda lame in comparison to the evidence such an epic conflict should have left if it had been a thing. Which is part of why it’s no longer taken serious in actual academic history. But then somehow Internet atheists are much less skeptical of their own origin myths than of the Christian ones …

      • Richard Gadsden says:

        The Catholic church didn’t confine Galileo to house arrest for what he believed.

        They confined him to house arrest for being an asshole about the Pope.

        A a general rule of thumb, being an asshole about an absolute ruler gets you worse than house arrest in most time periods.

  12. Deiseach says:

    Explain why (a) you think the Bible says capitalism is a terrible idea (b) capitalism is not a terrible idea.

    I think capitalism is a human system, with the flaws and virtues that implies, but I cannot understand the “Free Market Capitalism is infallible, impeccable, immaculately conceived and will save us all” mindset which I have seen in places.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      a) I don’t think the Bible says that, any more than I think the Bible says the planets are in crystalline spheres. I think that’s something religion has concluded, using the Bible as a guide, and that if we’re talking about religion’s ability to get the right answer, it’s fair to bring in the kinds of conclusions religious people have traditionally drawn.

      b) “Free Market Capitalism is infallible, impeccable, immaculately conceived and will save us all” seems like at the very least arguments 2 and 3 from here. I think looking at China before and after they instituted a free market system, or East vs. West Germany, or nearly any other natural experiment, is pretty sufficient to explain why capitalism is a good (NOT PERFECT WILL SOLVE EVERYTHING) system.

      • Multiheaded says:

        I think looking at China before and after they instituted a free market system, or East vs. West Germany, or nearly any other natural experiment, is pretty sufficient

        Hey, how about the USSR? Have you done any research on what we went through in the 1990s? And while you’re onto the better-publicised stories like China, there are also some complicated areas:

      • Deiseach says:

        Oh, as a system for buying and selling stuff (where stuff means everything from making horseshoes to those kinds of services where it’s all done by pushing buttons to trade but nobody physically handles anything), capitalism works in its way.

        But the particular case I am thinking of is a discussion where every time and no matter what example I brought up, the Disciple of Truly True Capitalism came back with “That’s not real capitalism” and “They weren’t/aren’t real capitalists” – because Real Capitalists and Real Capitalism would work like the perfect textbook examples and unlike the real-world grubbiness where people are greedy, short-sighted, venal and ambitious, and systems go wrong. As I said on here before, it was the nearest thing to a religious faith I’ve seen (and the person in question wasn’t particularly religious otherwise, and may even have been a pure secularist).

        • von Kalifornen says:

          You also meet plenty of people who use “capitalism” to describe a system of corruption that sometimes forms in capitalist societies, but has little to do with capital or buying or selling stuff.

        • impromptu says:

          Capitalism works precisely because people are greedy, short-sighted, venal and ambitious. It decentralizes decision making so that everyone can act to service their own, proximate wants while also creating the most value: they choose the most valuable-to-society work that they can do — because the market has priced it accordingly and they want the highest wages they can get; they consume goods and services that they will get the most benefit from relative to the cost to society of producing them — because they know their own desires best and the market “knows” the cost of fulfilling those desires perfectly through pricing.

          Whereas if you have a centralized system, you have people making decisions about production and pricing for the benefit of others, without the incentive of greed to make the decisions optimal and without the perfect knowledge of the desires being fulfilled (because they are not their own desires).

        • Earnest Peer says:

          Thanks for the demonstration, impromptu.

        • Paul Torek says:

          No True Scotsman would be a less-than-pure capitalist, donchaknow.

  13. Joe says:

    I think your right that it is obvious that humanity is flawed but I think Christianity offers the most rational reason why. We are at odds with God or the ultimate grounds of reason and goodness. For instance someone might ask “Why does almost every culture stigmatize homosexuality?” Rational thought gives us the answer. Our intuitions let us know that we need to think more about something, they in courage us to belive that the world is intelligible(Hume denies this by rejecting the princible of causality). The modernist philosophy you mention only offers clever justifications for acting on emotion and whims. Taken to there ultimate conclusion(nihilism) is too much for most people to handle so they settle for theroputic theism. It would be nice to hear how your philosophy avoids nihilism.

    • Trent Fowler says:

      How is being in conflict with God a more rational explanation for human flaws than saying we evolved with a brain that is just good enough to have allowed us to survive but is actually sub-optimal in many ways?

      And naturalism doesn’t lead inexorably to nihilism. The emotions, relationships, and experiences for which we live are still real and meaningful, but we can understand them without the unjustified metaphysical baggage of religion.

    • Shel says:

      “almost every culture stigmatizes homosexuality”

      [citation needed]

      • Shel says:

        Also I’m not sure why nihilism being too much for humans to handle means it’s untrue. The universe is under no obligation to fit the desires of apes with pretensions.

  14. Shel says:

    I’m not sure about this post because (while neither a reactionary nor a Catholic) I *do* believe the ideas I believe because they match my intuitions and aesthetics, including ones which derive from growing up in a Christian culture. I don’t want to throw out my intuitions and aesthetics altogether, but I don’t know if there is a consistent rule for when they are suspect because origins and when they are not.

    • houseboatonstyx says:

      In an atheistic universe, how would Christianity (or similar religions) have become powerful, or even had any credibiiity? Perhaps because they resonated with our mammalian instincts?

      • The power of the Jesus story is that it plays on moral intuitions we hold innately from our social primate heritage. We revere someone who sacrifices themselves for the good of the tribe (dead war heroes) and feel compelled to honour their memory and look after their relatives, mate with their brothers etc – Christianity plays on that by asserting that Jesus is part of your tribe and he died for you, and therefore you should respect his Dad.

        Similarly, “do unto others as you would be done by” is an extension of the innate wisdom that you should cooperate with members of your tribe (or at least cheat sneakily when you’re sure no one can see). It just asks you to construct all of humanity as your tribe. Which is a good idea, and it’s a shame Christians dropped it in practice so quickly.

      • Aris Katsaris says:

        > In an atheistic universe, how would Christianity (or similar religions) have become powerful, or even had any credibiiity?

        The same ways that Islam became powerful in a non-Islamic universe, or that Communism became powerful in a non-Communist universe, or that Astrology became powerful in a non-astrologist universe…? Where exactly is the difficulty here?

        • Aris, I keep running into you on different websites and you keep saying the thing I was going to say. Stop that, dangit!

        • Scott Alexander says:

          @Rolf: I’ve noticed this too.

        • amuchmoreexotic says:

          Let’s steelman the question – how come Christianity is the most powerful religion, in terms of number of adherents, or military might wielded by its adherents?

          Perhaps it plays to our mammalian social instincts better than the competing brands.

        • houseboatonstyx says:

          Perhaps I was unclear. Religions similar to Christianity would include Islam, Judaism, Zeus-centered pantheons, etc. We’re used to a pattern of offspring created and/or ruled by a powerful parent, caring for the children and protecting them, demanding obedience (usually rightfully), etc. A religion that projects that pattern onto the cosmos, resonates with our mammalian instincts/intuitions (or the intuitions we form by observing some of the animals around us).

      • von Kalifornen says:

        They exist because they resonate w/ our mammalian instincts. The Epicurean Truth’s blind idiot god would never have even a cult dedicated to it.

  15. Mary says:

    I look at the history of what atheists have actually believed and note its hits-to-misses ratio is not that high.

    • Buck says:

      Do you think that the atheists have a lower hits-to-misses ratio than Catholics?

      • Mary says:

        Lower. Much lower. “If God is dead, everything is permissible” and as a brief look into the history of atheism shows, believing anything is permissible.

        • anodognosic says:

          The worst crimes have not come from anything-is-permissible atheists. They came from people with a definite ideology that, contrary to telling them that everything is permissible, told them that killing and torturing was mandatory. And on that count, the record of the Catholic Church is not exactly sterling either.

        • von Kalifornen says:

          Modern atheism has never said that anything is permissible.

        • g says:

          That line is (1) a misquotation of (2) something said by a fictional character in (3) a book written by a Christian.

          I do not think history shows that atheists are much different morally from theists.

        • g says:

          I realise that I may have misunderstood you — perhaps you weren’t intending to say anything about morality, in which case the second paragraph of my reply isn’t really to the point.

          I don’t see that looking into the history of atheism shows atheists believing sillier things, or fewer correct things, than theists. Could you please be more specific?

    • anodognosic says:

      Yes, but atheists, having no allegiance to a particular text or tradition, can evolve. The Soviet Union was super duper evil? I don’t share their ideology and feel absolutely no need to defend it. Meanwhile, even progressive Christians are saddled with all the awful parts of the Bible, and Catholics with their rather problematic Tradition, and can’t change that without becoming not-Christians. So I’m not sweating over the mistakes of past atheists.

      • Mary says:

        So what you think is the appropriate comparison is all the historical Christians who have ever existed versus — well, you.

        • anodognosic says:

          Well, no. I’m just saying that continuity is a lot more important in the case of Christians than Atheists. There isn’t even any continuity between the Soviet Union and myself–I and most contemporary anglophone atheists did not come through it via the same ideology as 19th and 20th century Marxists. You might say that a number of atheists in the early 20th Century, say, were rather fond of racial eugenics and social Darwinism, but we are perfectly free to repudiate all of that, so that it becomes a past shame, if anything, and nothing more. Meanwhile, the Bible will always be with Christians. There will always be the necessity to explain away the bad in the Good Book. The Catholic Church is still in many ways the same Catholic Church as it was in the Middle Ages–in fact that tends to be a point of pride.

          So I guess what I am saying is that we can break with our past, and hold no allegiance to it. Christians simply don’t have that option unless they jettison not only a lot of their Tradition, but much of the Bible itself. So they will continue to make the same mistakes over and over again.

    • Anonymous says:

      We’re talking about the predictions of Christianity, not Christians. Atheism makes one claim: there is no god. That’s either right or wrong. So atheism has either the best or worst track record of any religion: all claims correct, or none.

      • Trent Fowler says:

        That’s only true of the strongest form of atheism, which no atheist I know of or have read holds. Atheism isn’t a positive claim that there is no god, but is more properly understood as a refusal to believe god exists is when there aren’t good reasons for doing so.

        • Aris Katsaris says:

          When I say “There is no god” and when I say “I believe there is no god”, I communicate the same amount of information, my belief in the absence of god.

          I don’t think that the distinction you’re trying to make is meaningful at all.

      • Berry says:

        But out of that one claim, certain things follow, and we can examine the track record for anticipating or allowing for those.

        • Trent Fowler says:

          But I’m saying that atheism doesn’t actually make a claim at all (besides, I guess, the claim that you shouldn’t believe things without reasons to do so).

        • Berry says:

          I’m not sure why you keep saying that. Most of the atheists I’ve met are so precisely because they assert that no Gods exist. I’m an atheist, and I assert that no Gods exist.

      • Mary says:

        Ah. So the appropriate comparison is between real, flesh and blood, actually existing Christians and the Platonic archetype of an atheist who does not and can not exist because no one’s sole belief is that God does not exist.

        That is rather unpersuasive.

      • von Kalifornen says:

        One can also imagine a form of atheism that might recognize the existence of extremely powerful intelligent beings such as Yahweh, Apollo, Adonis, etc. but refuse to submit to their demands, worship them, or treat them as anything other than unusually powerful citizens of the world .

        • houseboatonstyx says:

          Fwiw, Jainism and Buddhism are sometimes called atheistic religions, although they do have various spirits and deities and heavens and hells etc. But apparently they lack any one all powerful creator Jehovah/Allah figure.

    • Steve says:

      I agree that atheism is not a good truth-generating machine, like Chesterton claims Christianity is. But that’s because atheism isn’t supposed to be a truth-generating machine; it’s supposed to be one of the outputs of such a machine. If atheism is the core of your worldview, you’re doing it wrong.

      • von Kalifornen says:

        The truth-telling ‘thing’ of most modern atheists is what I call the Epicurean Truth, which can be very broadly summarized as materialistic reductionism.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I note that no one has ever tried to use a “truth-telling thing” argument with regard to atheism.

      • Actually, I don’t know if that’s strictly true. If you look at deconversion stories, you find quite a few people saying “Suddenly all these struggles made perfect sense – you just had to assume that there was, in fact, no god, and then everything was consistent with my experience and intuition.”

        • Ben Lash says:

          That is actually my experience, both personally an my experience with Atheists. Generally raised in a Christian or religious tradition, there’s a moment where you go “This…doesn’t actually make any sense. No god is a much better hypothesis.”

        • Berry says:

          Yup, agree with Ben on this one. Felt a lot like when I actually learned about Evolution, in that everything almost audibly clicked into place.

    • Sly says:

      What a pitiful attempt.

      Atheists don’t claim to be divinely inspired by the word of God.

    • You did no such thing.