There Are Rules Here


Patheos’ Science On Religion points out that liberal Protestantism is dying even as more conservative Protestant movements thrive. This seems counterintuitive in the context of society as a whole becoming less religious and conservative. So what’s going on?

In the early 1990s, a political economist named Laurence Iannaccone claimed that seemingly arbitrary demands and restrictions, like going without electricity (the Amish) or abstaining from caffeine (Mormons), can actually make a group stronger. He was trying to explain religious affiliation from a rational-choice perspective: in a marketplace of religious options, why would some people choose religions that make serious demands on their members, when more easygoing, low-investment churches were – literally – right around the corner? Weren’t the warmer and fuzzier churches destined to win out in fair, free-market competition?

According to Iannaccone, no. He claimed that churches that demanded real sacrifice of their members were automatically stronger, since they had built-in tools to eliminate people with weaker commitments. Think about it: if your church says that you have to tithe 10% of your income, arrive on time each Sunday without fail, and agree to believe seemingly crazy things, you’re only going to stick around if you’re really sure you want to. Those who aren’t totally committed will sneak out the back door before the collection plate even gets passed around.

And when a community only retains the most committed followers, it has a much stronger core than a community with laxer membership requirements. Members receive more valuable benefits, in the form of social support and community, than members of other communities, because the social fabric is composed of people who have demonstrated that they’re totally committed to being there. This muscular social fabric, in turn, attracts more members, who are drawn to the benefits of a strong community – leading to growth for groups with strict membership requirements.

The evolutionary anthropologist William Irons calls demanding rituals and onerous requirements “hard-to-fake symbols of commitment.” If you’re not really committed to the group, you won’t be very enthusiastic about fasting, abstaining from coffee, tithing ten percent, or following through on any of the other many costly requirements that conservative religious communities demand. The result? Only the most committed believers stick around, benefiting from one another’s in-group-oriented generosity, social support, and community.

Since then, Sosis has also demonstrated that religious Israeli kibbutz members are more generous in resource-sharing games than both secular, urban Israelis and secular kibbutzim. He argues that this is, in part, because demanding rituals – such as having to pray three times a day and study Torah many hours a week – serve as a signal of investment in the kibbutz community. The more rituals you participate in, the more invested you feel – and the more willing you are to sacrifice for your fellows.

But if your community doesn’t have any of these costly requirements, then you don’t feel that you have to be really committed in order to belong. The whole group ends up with a weakened, and less committed, membership. Liberal Protestant churches, which have famously lax requirements about praxis, belief, and personal investment, therefore often end up having a lot of half-committed believers in their pews. The parishioners sitting next to them can sense that the social fabric of their church isn’t particularly robust, which deters them from investing further in the collective. It’s a feedback loop. The whole community becomes weaker…and weaker…and weaker.

Even though I’ve quoted like half the blog post, it’s worth looking at just to see the empirical and statistical arguments for their hypothesis.

Not that any of this should come as a surprise. This is the same principle of maintaining separation between in-group and out-group members which has worked so well for so many eons. But making the in-group follow specific rules to prove their dedication does seem particularly effective.

I’ve been thinking about this in the context of atheist religion-substitutes. I went to the Secular Solstice last weekend, and it was held in the New York Society For Ethical Culture building. As usual I avoided social interaction by beelining to the nearest reading material, and in this case that was a plaque detailing the group’s history. The Society for Ethical Culture was founded in 1877 by an ex-rabbi (of course it was an ex-rabbi) and looks pretty much exactly like every atheist religious substitute today. That got me a little depressed. Atheism has been trying the same things for the past one hundred fifty years and, I would argue, largely failing for the past one hundred fifty years. Religion substitutes are hard.

The biggest atheist religion-substitute I know of is Sunday Assembly. I recently came across their “Ten Commandments”:

1. Is a 100 per cent celebration of life. We are born from nothing and go to nothing. Let’s enjoy it together.

2. Has no doctrine. We have no set texts so we can make use of wisdom from all sources.

3. Has no deity. We don’t do supernatural but we also won’t tell you you’re wrong if you do.

4. Is radically inclusive. Everyone is welcome, regardless of their beliefs – this is a place of love that is open and accepting.

5. Is free to attend, not-for-profit and volunteer-run. We ask for donations to cover our costs and support our community work.

6. Has a community mission. Through our Action Heroes (you!) we will be a force for good.

7. Is independent. We do not accept sponsorship or promote outside organisations.

8. Is here to stay. With your involvement, the Sunday Assembly will make the world a better place.

9. We won’t tell you how to live, but will try to help you do it as well as you can.

10. And remember point 1…The Sunday Assembly is a celebration of the one life we know we have.

But it’s tough for me to picture these on big stone tablets. And yeah, I know the reason we don’t have the original tablets is that when Sunday Assembly Moses came down from Mt. Sinai he saw the Sunday Assembly people only celebrating life 95 percent, and waxed wroth, and broke the tablets, and then ordered the Levites to slaughter all the men, women, and children who had participated in this abomination. And then…

…okay, that’s probably not the reason they’re not on tablets. But that’s just the thing. It’s impossible to imagine these commandments inspiring strong emotions in anybody. It’s impossible to imagine people sinning against them in a meaningful way. Most of them aren’t even commandments. They’re more like promises not to command. If you absolutely must compare this pablum to a list of ten points, the proper analogy is less to the Ten Commandments than to the Bill of Rights.

(“God shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”)

Atheist religion-substitutes seem unconcerned about or actively hostile to placing rules upon their members. I mean, there are a lot of things that are like “You must be tolerant”. But in practice everybody thinks “intolerant” means “more intolerant than I am, since I am only intolerant of things that are actually bad,” so no one changes their behavior. People say that we have advanced by replacing useless rules like “don’t eat pork” with useful rules like “be tolerant”, but rules against eating pork resulted in decreased pork consumption whereas it’s not clear that rules like “be tolerant” result in anything.

The only secular-ish group I have ever seen which is truly virtuous in this respect is, once again, Giving What We Can. They demand that members give ten percent of their income to charity. To join you must request and sign a paper copy of a form pledging to do this. Every year, the organization asks you to confirm that you are still complying. I don’t know what happens if you aren’t, but I assume it’s too horrible to contemplate. Maybe Peter Singer breaks into your house and kills you for the greater good.

But the point is, here’s an organization that has a very specific rule and demands you follow it. And even though their pledge form looked kind of like a tax return, signing that form was more of a sanctifying and humbling experience than any of the religion-substitutes that try to intentionally generate sanctification. Not because I was at some chapel where someone gave a rousing sermon overusing the word “community”, but because I was binding myself, voluntarily submitting to a higher moral authority.

Someone on my blog a while back used the word “nomic” to refer to a subculture based on following a rule set, sort of like an opt-in religion without beliefs or supernatural elements. I looked to see if it was a real thing but couldn’t find any references other than the card game. But I find the idea interesting. If it contains mechanisms for treating subculture members differently than non-members, it seems like an optional add-on module to government, and a strong candidate for the sort of thing that could develop into a healthy Archipelago.

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317 Responses to There Are Rules Here

  1. injygo says:

    The more of Scott’s posts I read, the more they seem to be saying obvious truths that anyone could say. Maybe I’m in a culture bubble.

    • hawkice says:

      And yet, few people do say these things. If there is one thing we can take from in-group rituals, it is that communication isn’t about information content, but also signalling about focus. Basically, you are double right.

    • I feel like Scott has had several posts recently that are re-iterating opinions he has already expressed, but in a more complete, coherent way. I am pretty sure he has made the argument in this post before on this blog.

    • Deiseach says:

      Human history requires that we get obvious truths stated and restated over and over again, because we’re a damn stupid species that constantly goes “yeah, but maybe the fire won’t burn me this time if I stick my hand in it?”

      Also, new generations have this uncanny habit of coming along out of nowhere (babies: where do these mysterious alien creatures arrive from? what is their purpose? what goals are they working towards?) and imagining that they are the first persons in the history of the world to ever have these particular experiences and emotions and problems (12th century amour courtois: you don’t understand me, I’m in looooovvveeee and I’m suffering and nobody has ever felt like this before!!!!)

    • I remember that Neal Stephenson made almost exactly the same point in The Diamond Age where the one binding ritual of the Reformed Distributed Republic was that you had to ritually save the life of or have your life saved by another member each year.

    • Mary says:

      Repeating the obvious is a useful function.

    • macrojams says:

      Yeah, this is at least old fare on the rationalist interwebs. On Less Wrong it is called evaporative cooling, and for Hanson it is costly signalling.

      • MugaSofer says:

        Evaporative cooling doesn’t say the group will grow, it says it will shrink but become stronger.

        Personally, I *had* heard this before – from conservative xians. I hadn’t seen the data, or a relatively dispassionate (if basic) analysis of “so what do we do next?”

        • macrojams says:

          Obviously there is more going on than evaporative cooling (costly signalling, consitency and committment effects, etc.), but I think that it is a fair first order approximation if the group one is talking about is American xtianity as a whole. As to what to do next, I suppose it really depends on your goals. Kevin Simlar over at MeltingAsphalt has what I consider some of the better steelmanning of religion from an atheist perspective, but is again more descriptive than proscriptive.

        • fubarobfusco says:

          Good on ya for noticing that this kinda makes the opposite prediction from the “evaporative cooling” one. Both can’t be true at once for a group; either it is getting more fanatical and smaller, or it is getting more fanatical and larger.

          Thing is, evaporative cooling doesn’t predict that groups that become more devoted will become smaller. It predicts that when a belief group shrinks, it will shrink by losing its least devoted members, and therefore become more devoted. Eliezer’s big examples are prophecy-believers whose prophecies are disproven, and Objectivists after Ayn and Nathaniel’s big messy breakup drama.

          We can imagine this being a cycle; call it the Cult Engine:

          1. Devoted group attracts new members who want to belong to a devoted group.

          2. Bringing in new members causes socialization costs, as new members come in faster than the group can indoctrinate them.

          3. The center or leadership of the group makes demands that bring members into conflict with larger society or reality, such as false prophecies or expensive signaling.

          4. Less-devoted members ditch the group, while more-devoted ones remain (“evaporative cooling”).

          Over time, this should be a sorting process: some people join the group and become devoted members, especially after going through a few compression cycles. Others join, then leave shaking their heads at the cult’s weird demands.

          The cult engine cycles through the population, accumulating devotees, and not accumulating wishy-washy liberalizers.

          If one of these steps fails too much, the engine stalls:

          1. If the group stops attracting new converts, it has to make peace with the human genome and settle down into the family way — gaining new members primarily by having babies — like the Amish. It stops cycling through the population for converts, but may well become a stable part of society.

          2. If the group attracts new members but can’t socialize them or make demands of them, it has an Eternal September and loses its distinctness as a group.

          3. If the group stops making demands of its members, it becomes Ethical Culture and withers away due to boredom. If on the other hand the demands exceed the interest of new members and one of them is “don’t have sex,” the group becomes the Shakers and withers away due to die-off.

          4. If the tension between the group and society becomes too large, and the group is too small, society crushes it like the Branch Davidians at Waco. Surviving a crush attempt is a great way to focus the group, though — see the Mormons in Illinois or the entire freaking history of the Jews.

        • Anonymous says:

          This could be evaporative cooling among mainline protestants. That is, as their congregations shrink those who remain shift toward evangelical strains.

      • Scott Alexander says:

        I agree that “difficult things makes groups stronger” is old news, but I don’t think anyone had pointed out the relation to atheist religion substitutes before.

    • grendelkhan says:

      I’m currently reading Sociology: A Very Short Introduction, and there’s a description of the ways in which radical groups become less radical over time (the “Iron Law of Oligarchy”), and how that’s mitigated. I think it’s a pretty standard result in sociology, if I’m not reading too much into that.

    • RCF says:

      Although, no mention of cognitive dissonance, which in this case is actually a relevant concept (the general populace seems to think that it is simply another word for “hypocrisy”, when in fact it means something quite different).

      • Eric Hamell says:

        Yes, it annoys me greatly that the term cognitive dissonance has become popular lately, but with the wrong meaning. The proper sense is a very powerful intellectual tool for understanding behavioral change and manipulation, whereas the common usage is merely an epithet.

  2. blacktrance says:

    Religion substitutes being hard to organize is something to be celebrated – if anything, it should be harder. It means that it’s more difficult (though still not very difficult) to convince certain kinds of people to join groups that impose burdens on them and organize them into in-groups. The atheist equivalent of church isn’t (and/or shouldn’t be) “Ethical Culture” and giving 10% to efficient charities, it’s sleeping in on Sunday and rejecting imposed obligations.

    • Anonymous says:

      I can understand your libertarian desire to not have a government which forces people to give resources towards a common goal, given their poor track record in comparison to groups which are actually trying to be effectively altruistic there isn’t much reason to support liberal social policies. But you also seem opposed to basically any social structure which incentivizes pro social behavior in any form, whether it is consensual or not. Why would making the creation of alternatives to religion which make people happy while encouraging them to save lives more difficult benefit you in any way?

      My suspicion is that you just don’t like getting guilt tripped by people with a holier-than-thou attitude, but does this REALLY outweigh the costs.

      • blacktrance says:

        Why would making the creation of alternatives to religion which make people happy while encouraging them to save lives more difficult benefit you in any way?

        Because I care about people and want them to do the right thing and for the right reasons, rather than make themselves uncomfortable – especially if they’re making themselves uncomfortable for the wrong reasons. I dislike seeing people wracked with guilt, or even making themselves uncomfortable for some reason that doesn’t in the long run benefit them – if it’s a burden and no one is forcing you to carry it, then don’t carry it. At least, that’s what I think about things like Giving What We Can. As far as alternatives to religion in general, they strengthen loyalty to the ingroup (which is defection against everybody else), increase bias (holding the ingroup and outgroup to different standards), and promote partisanship.

        By the way, I’m not against social structures that incentivize pro-social behavior. I’m in favor of capitalism, and also think that some people would be made happy by donating to charity – but it shouldn’t be pushed on people as the correct moral choice regardless of what makes them happy.

        • Mary says:

          Better the right thing for the wrong reason than the wrong thing.

          • blacktrance says:

            Maybe. If they have the wrong reasons, they’re less likely to do the right thing consistently, even if they do it from time to time. But what I meant was more that charity is the right thing to do only if you have the right reasons for it.

        • Brad says:

          >I dislike seeing people wracked with guilt, or even making themselves uncomfortable for some reason that doesn’t in the long run benefit them – if it’s a burden and no one is forcing you to carry it, then don’t carry it.

          But you’re not understanding: acting charitably, is not, primarily, about benefiting oneself, but benefiting *others*, even at cost to one’s self. If you ultimately prioritize yourself (that is, you give on the basis of some form of rationalistic self-interest) all that’s going to happen is you will eventually find it more rationally in your self-interest to not give all that much.

          And if one is serious about devoting one’s life, and by extension, society, to that idea of prioritizing others above oneself, then by necessity I myself will need to be discomforted. That is, you can’t serve two masters here; you might be able to serve others and *incidentally* have some level of comfort, or you might serve yourself primarily while occasionally and incidentally giving charitably, but there is a bottom line here that will take priority over other considerations when it conflicts with other things in your life. (Protestant preachers tend to phrase this idea like this: Your God is what you choose to serve.)

          If I, by my inaction and indolence, fail to donate money that could save the life of people in the third world, is it somehow commendable that I can follow through with my failure to give in comfort? *Shouldn’t* I be uncomfortable with that? Why the hell should I be proud of that kind of attitude? I should be ashamed, and if I feel a conflict coming up here, well, either I’m going to turn off my shame-circuitry and indulge myself, or I’m going to act in accordance with my charitable duties until I don’t anymore. But it seems strange to suggest we can sit on a fence here.

          • Jadagul says:

            Asking people to prioritize others over themselves is deeply horrifying. This is basically the only thing Rand did get right, and the reason so many people find her so compelling.

            (I care a lot about other people, but I do that because it makes me happy. It’s not putting them over me, and it shouldn’t be).

          • Paul Torek says:

            You can definitely serve two masters, or 7 billion, or however many. Of course you can play verbal/mathematical games and call the weighted-average-vector of terminal values a “single master”, but that has the air of fiction about it. A useful fiction in some circumstances (utility theory in economics or game theory), but not faithful to the ways we think about everyday life. Nor is it an improvement over those ways for thinking about everyday choices.

          • blacktrance says:

            But you’re not understanding: acting charitably, is not, primarily, about benefiting oneself, but benefiting *others*, even at cost to one’s self. If you ultimately prioritize yourself (that is, you give on the basis of some form of rationalistic self-interest) all that’s going to happen is you will eventually find it more rationally in your self-interest to not give all that much.

            That depends on what you mean by “acting charitably”. I used it to simply mean “giving to charity”, but you seem to be using it to mean “benefiting others for their own sake”. Indeed, I do think that someone pursuing their rational self-interest (and therefore not benefiting others for their own sake) is probably not going to give high amounts to charity.

            I’m not suggesting sitting on a fence between self-interest and self-sacrifice. I’m saying we should go with self-interest all the way, but sometimes that involves some charitable giving anyway.

          • RCF says:


            “Asking people to prioritize others over themselves is deeply horrifying.”

            So if you’re considering killing someone so you can steal $100 from them, and I ask you to prioritize the other person not dying over you getting $100, that’s deeply horrifying?

            @Paul Torek
            “Of course you can play verbal/mathematical games and call the weighted-average-vector of terminal values a “single master”, but that has the air of fiction about it.”

            There’s nothing fictional or game-playing about it. If you’re going to go around accusing people playing games every time there’s a large inferential distance, there isn’t going to be much useful discussion.


            “I used it to simply mean “giving to charity” ”

            That’s a rather limited meaning.

          • Jadagul says:

            If I were the sort of person who thought $100 was worth killing over, that would make me horrifying. That doesn’t make you any less horrifying.

            You shouldn’t tell me to put others over myself. You should convince me to value other people in such a way that I don’t want to kill them.

            I know this sounds like sophistry, but it really isn’t. I do nice things for other people because it makes me happy to do nice things for other people, not because I hate it but feel obligated to do so.

            (In general. Visiting my parents for Christmas is about half and half so I’m really crabby this week, sorry).

          • Julia says:

            >If one is serious about devoting one’s life, and by extension, society, to that idea of prioritizing others above oneself

            I don’t think of myself as prioritizing others above myself (and practically, not even at the same level of myself). But prioritizing them even some means recognizing that preventing child deaths is more important than me having more expensive clothes, for example.

          • Luke Somers says:

            Jadagul, we are not single points in priority space. Allowing some high-priority needs of others to supersede your low-priority wishes isn’t horrifying.

            Note, even the proposal here is ‘90% for you and 10% for others’.

        • Anonymous says:

        • RCF says:

          “As far as alternatives to religion in general, they strengthen loyalty to the ingroup (which is defection against everybody else)”

          No, it’s not.

          • Anonymous says:

            Sure is. You can rate everyone ++++++ and your group +++++++, but that’s only obfuscation and not functionally different from rating everyone – and your group +.

            If everyone in the world is equally likely to help everyone, then ten people promising to help each other a bit more are defecting, even if they aren’t going out to harm everyone else, just passively absorbing resources by redirecting them to their own dome.

          • Anonymous says:

            No, that is not correct.

          • Caspian says:

            There are aspects of loyalty that are negative sum, e.g. being biased when it’s important to be fair, and aspects that are positive sum, e.g. focusing enough attention on helping an ingroup member when diluted, less focused attention is useless.

          • Anonymous says:

            You’re right, I was thinking strictly of the cases where the community props its members up the overall social ladder, like helping them get jobs, but there are aspects to it which don’t disadvantage outsiders.

    • Anonymous says:

      My model of you is basically just imagining the straw man Ayn Rand fan, I’m curious if there is actually any situation where you would go against that.

      • blacktrance says:

        I support a carbon tax, am against the gold standard, and I’m not as dismissive of mainstream economics and philosophy, unlike Rand. As for the straw Rand fan – you don’t see me quoting long passages from Atlas Shrugged, or calling people looters and moochers all the time, do you?

        • Anonymous says:

          You call them defectors rather than looters or moochers.

          • blacktrance says:

            Some people use “defector” as a term of condemnation or an insult, but I don’t. I, too, am a defector – if the incentive structure is set up a certain way, then defecting is the rational thing to do. But the existence of defectors is a sign that the incentive structure should be changed.

    • Deiseach says:

      I’m quite happy to reject the imposed obligation of not kicking you in the head and stealing all your money, blacktrance, if that’s any comfort to you? 🙂

      Actually, that’s a lie: I would not be at all comfortable kicking you in the head and stealing your money. But some people would be. Some people would be happy to. Which is why any form of functioning organisation has to impose some kind of sanctions or requirements or penalties or even Codes of Conduct; not to make people guilty for no purpose, but to balance out the fact that some people will only be restrained from doing harm by the prospect of punishment or sanction.

      I don’t want to get into the whole happiness versus virtue as a rule of ethics debate, but there are those who won’t “do the right thing for the right reason” either because they don’t recognise it as the right thing or don’t care: they’re happy to do what benefits them and to hell with the rest of you (see your carbon tax idea: if that’s not a coercive measure of imposing socially-sanctioned guilt, what else do you call it?)

      • blacktrance says:

        It’s to your advantage to choose not to kick me in the head, though – at least, as long as I agree to restrict myself in the same way.

        The general principle is that there are certain restrictions that are mutually advantageous to those being restricted, and because it’s advantageous for you to make use of them (by restricting yourself in exchange for others doing the same), it’s not a case of self-sacrifice. One example of this in practice is a right to not be murdered. Another example is a carbon tax, which is about coordination, not guilt. Neither of them is self-sacrificial, because you’re better off than you would have been if no one adhered to the restriction. The same cannot be said for extreme charitable giving (e.g. Giving What We Can), where you’re hurting yourself to make others better off.

        • Mary says:

          “It’s to your advantage to choose not to kick me in the head, though – at least, as long as I agree to restrict myself in the same way.”

          Not if I kick hard enough!

        • Deiseach says:

          Neither of them is self-sacrificial, because you’re better off than you would have been if no one adhered to the restriction.

          But am I better off? I can’t buy my nice big expensive gas-guzzling motor that shows how big a cheese I am since I have the spare cash to blow on this yoke* because of your silly old carbon tax, and it is supposed to benefit some not even in existence yet future generations if the land where they’re living is not under salt flood water.

          Screw them! How can I participate in the politics of envy if you and your bleeding-heart buddies in the government are slapping these punitive taxes on me?

          *May be triggered by recent radio ad campaign I heard that was predicated on, basically, “Sure you’re a miserable grump with no friends because you worked and sweated every hour while other people were having lives, but now you’re The Boss and can buy our Big Luxury Car in order to rub their noses in it that you’re The Boss and rich and they’re not The Boss”.

          It was horrible. It wasn’t even “whee, this car is fun” or “indulge yourself”, it was “the only pleasure left in your wizened dried husk of a heart will be to evoke envy in others”.

          • blacktrance says:

            Presumably the carbon tax will actually make you better off, because the negative effects of global warming aren’t limited to future generations living underwater, but also to effects on agricultural production. You probably buy food, so you care about that.

          • Would you not support a carbon tax if you thought the negative externalities were farther in the future but the same in magnitude? Do you think sufficiently old people should be against a carbon tax?

          • blacktrance says:

            It definitely makes sense for old people to be against a carbon tax (unless they care about future generations). As for the general case of the negative effects being further into the future, that’s an interesting question that I’ll have to think about.

          • Glen Raphael says:

            Presumably the carbon tax will actually make you better off, because the negative effects of global warming aren’t limited to future generations living underwater, but also to effects on agricultural production

            Nope. Even if the carbon tax made a significant difference in warming and did so at a reasonable cost (both pretty unlikely assumptions), the near-term effects of global warming on agriculture in general (say, over the next 50 years) are generally predicted to be positive. In northern climates where most of the food is grown now, a little more warmth gives you a longer growing season, and a little more CO2 helps crops grow better. Closer to the equator where it’s too hot for most food crops they don’t need any more warming but the extra CO2 makes forestry more productive.

            According to the IPCC the first 1-3 degrees of warming is a net positive for food. It’s true that their predictions are for it to EVENTUALLY be a negative factor, but that’ll be after we’re dead so by your own logic we can’t take that into account in deciding whether to have a carbon tax.

            (see here, section “Aggregate market impacts” . The admission that expected warming this century probably HELPS FEED THE PLANET is always made begrudgingly and with lots of “…though it *could* be worse!” hedging, but it’s there. In this iteration of the report, the relevant quote is: “Some estimates suggest that gross world product could increase up to about 1-3°C warming, largely because of estimated direct CO2 effects on agriculture, but such estimates carry only low confidence.” )

          • Leo says:

            Deiseach on love: Pleasure and indulgence will ruin you and doom us all. Work and sweat every hour and harden your will against the whims of your heart.

            Deiseach on cars: Live a little! Don’t let work turn you into a wizened husk!

            I’m not saying this is at all contradictory. I am saying it is hilarious.

          • Deiseach says:

            In the phrase attributed to Sir Boyle Roche, “Why should we care for posterity? What has posterity ever done for us?”

            Of course I can afford food, I’m rich enough to buy, tax and run a huge status-signalling machine! Poor people grow and harvest my food for me; so what if quinoa becoming a cash crop means the harvest gets exported to the West and a former staple gets priced off the market for the natives?

            Or to quote the Scottish comedian Frankie Boyle: “In Scotland we have mixed feelings about Global Warming, because we will get to sit on the mountains and watch the English drown”.


            Leo, I do think people should be very aware of the consequences of indulgence. But for feck’s sake, if you’re going to sin, at least get some enjoyment out of it! That car ad was all about stoking envy, and it didn’t even pretend you would get any benefit or enjoyment out of your expensive status symbol other than “yes, you’ve made yourself miserable all your life only for the money to buy useless products like this, the only benefit of which is that they make other people feel bad”.

            That’s not how I want to live: if I’m going to be working hard and scrimping and going without and generally being a secular ascetic, the least I’d want is “the end result will give you or others pleasure and happiness”.

            That’s why Eliezer’s view in the quoted post about “Church versus Taskforce”, whatever his real views are, about stained glass giving him the heebie-jeebies is so sad. His Brave New World is a vision of vast bare concrete walls with no chink to let the light in? Video screens playing useful, improving, instructive lectures with occasional breaks for (doubtlessly carefully-selected) popular entertainment, but no expression of the arts and crafts of artisans in making coloured glass, putting it together in designs, and building it into walls to intertwine made-things with natural-things so that humans can relish human ingenuity and beauty? That’s a sad, grey, anthill world and I don’t want to live in it!

          • Luke Somers says:

            While I can’t find the post you’re referring to, I rather suspect Eliezer’s heebie-jeebies are restricted to stained glass, not art in general, and are a statement of personal preference, not a normative prescription.

            Heck, heebie-jeebies aren’t even really a personal preference, just a psychological reaction.

        • RCF says:

          But then it’s about how you frame it. If you frame it as “agree to refrain from kicking me in the head”, then it’s not to your advantage. It’s only when you couple that with “in exchange for me agreeing to refrain from kicking you in the head”, and treat those two agreements as a single unit, that they become advantageous. With the carbon tax, you believe that it is to everyone’s advantage to have it, but there are others than disagree with you about how harmful carbon dioxide is. So for them, it is an imposed obligation. Charity can be viewed as being in one’s rational self-interest, if it’s framed in terms of counterfactual precommitments with respect to the Rawlian Veil.

          • blacktrance says:

            Regarding carbon dioxide, that’s an empirical matter. Either it is sufficiently harmful for people to rationally restrict themselves, or it isn’t.

            Charity can be viewed as being in one’s rational self-interest, if it’s framed in terms of counterfactual precommitments with respect to the Rawlian Veil.

            That would be a misleading framing, because we don’t have reasons to care about what bargains we would’ve made behind the Veil of Ignorance. It’s like Parfitt’s Hitchhiker – you want to commit to pay all future drivers from now on, but given the situation you’re in now, paying existing drivers would be a loss. It’s the same with the Rawlsian Veil – charity may have a positive expected value to people who don’t know their position, but we aren’t and have never been in that state, so it doesn’t matter.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Yes and no.

      By “atheist religion substitute” I don’t mean “turning atheism into a religion”, I mean “a thing that fills religion’s mental niche, but is not incompatible with lack of belief in God”. Sleeping in on Sundays isn’t it.

      • blacktrance says:

        I didn’t think you meant turning atheism into a religion. Of course, sleeping in on Sunday is as much of a religion substitute as not eating is a cuisine. As other commenters have pointed out, there are things that may fulfill religion’s mental niche while being secular (e.g. political activism), but in certain respects they’re still less similar to religion than they could be. But I think one of the advantages of atheism is that it doesn’t have that “thing that fills religion’s mental niche”, and part of rationality is combating the presence of that niche to the extent that it exists.

        • Deiseach says:

          But I think one of the advantages of atheism is that it doesn’t have that “thing that fills religion’s mental niche”

          I think atheism does, if you think of the “reasons/search for meaning/purpose of life” stuff that religion at least in part claims to answer. How often do you see things like “Cosmos” and its remake do the Big End Vision bit where we’re told that the universe is a vast trove of marvels and wonders and science reveals all these to us, so humans can find transcendence even without religion?

          I’m sure at least some atheists do find “meaning of life” satisfaction in atheism as a philosophical, ethical or cultural system to provide a framework and structure of meaning, even if it’s Douglas Adams “The answer is 42” type materialism, or the British bus ad campaign “There’s probably no god, now stop worrying and enjoy your life”.

          Even if atheism provides “Humans are the ones who create and define such a concept as ‘meaning’ in a materialist, determinist universe, so it’s in your hands to go out there and make what difference in the world you think is best” as a principle, it’s at least an alternative to the Baltimore Catechism question and answer:

          Question: Why did God make you?

          Answer: God made me to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him forever in the next.

    • Eric Hamell says:

      You confuse the issue by speaking of imposed obligations, since these groups are voluntary (unless they’re employing psychological manipulation). It seems society has progressed considerably thanks to the general rise in standards of personal conduct (something I’m particularly conscious of at the moment, as I’m presently reading Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature. Of course a society guided consistently by an ethic of compassion will be understanding of those who are unable to live up to it for reasons like intellectual impairment or innate sociopathy.

      • blacktrance says:

        Impositions of obligations can be non-coercive but still bad. There are other examples of non-coercive imposition: “If you really loved me, you’d do X”, “You’re a bad person if you don’t share this link”, “Repent for your sins!”, etc.

  3. Janne says:

    Why not look at the societies that have become largely non-religious? Countries such as Sweden or Japan were just as religous as others a few centuries ago, and now being a religious believer is a slightly odd, slightly suspect minority behavior.

    I don’t know what did happen (having a state church in Sweden is sometimes cited as a reason, but Japan never had a similar religious monoculture) but I do know that “sekular alternatives” played no role at all. There never were non-trainspotting communities celebrating their shared disinterest in trainspotting. And why would there be?

    • Evan Þ says:

      Mightn’t State Shinto, even though it was only imposed in anything approaching an organized way for eighty years, have played a similar role in Japan? It seems to me that it was widely accepted enough for a long enough period that Japanese culture could’ve react against it in a similar way to Swedish (and, to a perhaps-lesser extent, British) culture reacting against its own state church.

      • Janne says:

        As you say, it wasn’t for that long, and it wasn’t all that organized if I understand it right; it was only a state religion – in Sweden, the church was effectively a part of the public administration for centuries. You could certainly argue that the Catholic church is at least as, and likely more, embedded in Italian life as _the_ societally appproved and sanctioned organization as Shinto ever was during the Meji era.

        Also, they never pushed to homogenize or drive out all the buddhist sects in the country. I think both the situation and the time frame is too different to serve as a common explanation.

      • JohannesD says:

        But the Swedes haven’t really “reacted against” their state church. The Lutheran Church in Sweden, like in Finland, is liberal, inclusive, and as secular as an organization can be while still being called a “church”, and most of the people who identify as non-religious are still members of the church!

        In Finland, the main force driving people to renounce their membership in the Church these days seems to be the conservative views of the chairwoman of the minority Christian Democratic party, views that are emphatically not part of the mainline dogma (and neither the party nor the chair herself has any official position in the Church!) Ironically, when the Archbishop recently stood for gay marriage, that too triggered a wave of resignations – this time by the more conservative members who felt the Church has become way too liberal!

        • Right. The Swedish Lutheran Church has declined much the same as the US mainlines, and for the same reason. (Whatever that reason is, though I concur with Handle’s take.)

          This may be analogous with the case of biological monocultures. In a region with only one super-dominant organism, an infection that infects that organism can level the whole ecosystem. In a nation with one super-dominant religious body, an infection in that body can cause its total collapse. But the US has never been a religious monoculture; it’s always had a plurality of sects. Those that were susceptible to progressivism are dying of that disease, but those that are more resilient are able to thrive in the new space created for them.

          • drunkenrabbit says:

            IANAS (I am not a Swede), but I think another thing may be that Sweden’s biological and cultural homogeneity makes it safe for Swedes to abandon their traditional religion. Their “Swedishness” is enough social glue that the church is redundant, or at least something that can be ignored without fear of social isolation or unraveling.

          • JohannesD says:

            Yeah, but people don’t flock from liberal mainline lutheranism to conservative evangelical sects like in the US! It’s mostly secular church-members-in-name-only staying that way or resigning and becoming officially nonreligious. The conservative sects have stayed largely irrelevant; most people who can be said to be actually religious are content with staying with the mainline church. Many people simply don’t seem to have a need in their lives for an organized religion or an equivalent.

          • @Johannes, I don’t have a ready explanation for that. One hypothesis would be that a competitive religious environment increases religiosity across the board, even in the mainline churches, such that even the mainliners have a conservative, highly religious segment which jumps ship (or at least complains loudly) as the decline into secularism advances; while the churches in the non-competitive environment have no such segment, or a much smaller segment.

          • Later Rodent says:

            I think of it as a monopoly losing customers while many competing suppliers always innovate.

            Either way, this is why I think Iran will be a very atheist country in a generation or three.

        • Jaskologist says:

          It is too early to learn much from the Swedish or Japanese experiments. We need a few more generations to see how things shake out, and the demographics frankly do not look promising so far.

          • Jiro says:

            The problem with saying that it’s too early to learn from prominent examples like Sweden or Japan is that you’ve basically made the original claim unfalsifiable–none of the possible evidence is good enough to count.

          • Jaskologist says:

            Sometime we really don’t have good evidence available! That is not a case you should discount!

            But see also this comment. History is available for perusal.

          • drs says:

            I wonder what you think Sweden’s fertility rate is, and whether you’ve looked it up recently.

    • George says:

      Well, if you believe Internet commenters, Sweden is being taken over by increasingly extreme Muslims, so perhaps they’re not an exception to the rule.

    • Richard Metzler says:

      “but I do know that “sekular alternatives” played no role at all. ”

      Probably not explicitly, as groups that demanded membership, but I believe that secular (i.e., state-sponsored) alternatives to the tangible benefits of belonging to a religion – public schools, kindergardens, hospitals, retirement homes, counselling, secular wedding ceremonies etc. – are important.

      • JohannesD says:

        Interestingly, for many Finns, at least, one of the very few reasons to retain their church membership is to get a church wedding.

    • Anonymous says:

      And why would there be?

      Because (almost?) every other society in history has had religion play a role in community life. It seems like such a structure would naturally form as long as there are bunch of humans in one place. And if it didn’t, there would be reason to feel like something important was missing.

    • Anonymous says:

      It seems to me that religiosity negatively correlates with the perceived level of safety and security, of all kinds (financial security, health, security against crime, ethnic persecution, foreign invasion, etc.)
      I suppose this is because religious communities provide both material benefits to their members and feel good delusions to quench their anxiety (“the opium of the people”).

      Japan, for instance, is a country with high median material wealth, the highest life expectancy in the world, low crime, ethnically homogeneous, low risk of war.
      Sweden is, or at least used to be, similar. Right now however, like other wealthy European countries, they seem to have problems with the large scale Muslim immigration: a significant fraction of second and third generation immigrants radicalize their religious beliefs, possibly due to perceived hostility of the natives, which in turn makes the natives even more hostile. Christianity might make a come back.

      • vV_Vv says:

        (I wrote the comment above. I’ve no idea why it appeared as Anonymous)

      • peterdjones says:

        > It seems to me that religiosity negatively correlates with the perceived level of safety and security, of all kinds (financial security, health, security against crime, ethnic persecution, foreign invasion, etc.)

        Generally true, but the US is an outlier.

        • vV_Vv says:

          Generally true, but the US is an outlier.

          Is it? Compared to most other developed countries like Japan and Sweden, the US has higher crime rates, lower social welfare and higher racial, ethnic and religious dishomogeneity.

      • Jaskologist says:

        Seems to be true in the present, but how much in the past?

        China seems like it would provide a good case study. There was a large stretch of time where they literally, and pretty justifiably, considered themselves the center of civilization. Presumably, they felt pretty secure during this time. Were they also non-religious then? Same for Japan during their insular period.

        I understand that the Chinese also developed a theory of dynastic cycles. That probably contains useful information as well.

        (Interestingly, once it became clear that basically every European power could push China around without breaking a sweat, they turned hard towards Marxist atheism. That may not count as “less religious,” though; I basically agree with the others here that Marxism/progressivism/SJWism are the atheist religions.)

        • Doug S. says:

          They tried Christianity first. As with Maoism, many people died.

        • RCF says:

          China was dominated by foreign powers for over a century before the communists took over. And Marxism was a European ideology that was supported by Russia.

          • cassander says:

            >(Interestingly, once it became clear that basically every European power could push China around without breaking a sweat, they turned hard towards Marxist atheism. That may not count as “less religious,” though; I basically agree with the others here that Marxism/progressivism/SJWism are the atheist religions.)

            a much broader segment of the educated population fixed on the KMT’s fascism (that’s what they called it prior to ww2) than communism. the peasants just signed up with mao because he let them kill their landlords.

        • vV_Vv says:

          I wouldn’t find implausible that the average citizen of Medieval China or Medieval Japan felt more secure than the average citizen of the war-ridden plague-ridden Medieval Europe and, as a result, was less religious.

          In fact, AFAIK there were no holy wars in Medieval China and Japan, or persecutions of heretics, or the various manifestation of religious histeria and fundamentalism that were common in Europe.
          China and Japan, on the other hand, had various schools of Buddhism in addtion to their local and equally varied traditional religions (Chinese folk religion and Shinto) which coexisted largely pacefully.
          Also, Medieval Europeans devoted a significant fraction of their resorces to build giant gothic cathedrals. While China and Japan also have some large temples, I doubt that the fraction of per-capita resources spent on religion was comparable.

          Medieval Chinese and Japanese people probably felt more secure compared to other Medieval people, but obviously they must have felt much less secure compared to anybody living in a present-day developed country, which is consistent with them being more religious than modern people living in developed countries.

          • cassander says:

            >In fact, AFAIK there were no holy wars in Medieval China and Japan, or persecutions of heretics, or the various manifestation of religious histeria and fundamentalism that were common in Europe.

            Japan is famous for having forcibly rolled back christianity, and china had what was arguably the biggest religious war in history. And when you go back earlier, there is definitely on again off again persecution of whatever sect was out of favor by the in favor sect, but I don’t know enough to know how vehement it was.

          • Anonymous says:

            The Taiping Rebellion happened in the mid 19th century, that’s hardly Medieval. I don’t know much about Christianity in Japan though.

          • nydwracu says:

            Not this again. Don’t make me start talking about Burma. (Did you know there have been Buddhist religious wars? And that there are Buddhist fundamentalists? And that there are Buddhist fundamentalists today?)

            Not that this was confined to Burma.

            Shinto vs. Buddhism, Zen vs. the Allies, all those new religions… and that’s just Japan, which, unlike China, is not known for rebellions, wars with the hordes, and the Seven Kill Stele.

            (Fun fact: the Taiping Rebellion, which started in 1850, killed about as many people as lived in the USA at the time.)


    • Deiseach says:

      But in that case, the entire society is the “non-trainspotting community”. If religious persons are the weirdoes and uncool kids, then the cool, normal, thing is to be the secular person who fits in with the predominant social culture. Things changed gradually and subtly; I have no idea about Sweden, but I’d be happy to venture that part of the reason for Japan’s change was to do with post-war social changes: the American occupation, for want of a better word, where emulation of Western society was perceived as the way forward, including losing or downplaying anything associated with the discredited old regime – see the insistence on removing the quasi-divine status of the Emperor, and the Directive abolishing Shintoism as the state religion.

      Because the old military regime had used religion as part of ultra-nationalism, the occupying Western powers were quite determined to remove the threat of Japanese militarism (and to replace Japan with themselves as the major influence in the Asian sphere), which included stripping-out identification of the national religion with national identity, and make Japan into a model Western-style secular democracy (see today where it’s routine to refer to Israel as the only secular democracy in the Middle East).

      Same thing happened in Western cultures, of course; look at British history and the Glorious Revolution and the identification of Protestantism (in the form of the State church: Anglicans only, no Dissenters or Non-Conformists need apply) with freedom, progress, and science which created the British Empire, height and summit of human history*

      (*I may possibly be approaching this from an Irish angle which means a certain amount of disagreement with their self-assessment of Westminster as “Mother of Parliaments” and giving the rule of law and democracy to the world).

    • but Japan never had a similar religious monoculture

      There was the Danka system, which surely counts as a state religion if ever there was one. Lasted about three centuries. The Shintoist movement under the Meiji Restoration was sort of a reaction against the Danka system, attempting to replace “foreign” Buddhism with “native” Shinto, but it never really worked. Nonetheless, if you add the two together you get a state religious system which was in place for about as long as Anglicanism has been official in England. More than you wanted to know here.

  4. Anonymous says:

    So in the “Nobody is Perfect, Everything is Commensurable” thread, someone said that the drive for holiness leads to self-mortification. Maybe that is another factor in this phenomenon.

  5. hawkice says:

    It’s easy to ignore this as a flippant comparison, but David Foster Wallace (among many others, but I think he’s the writer I’d recommend on this subject) suggests that, as ritualistic people, all humans always have religion. Sometimes that religion is drug use. Sometimes that religion is competitive tennis. And there’s something to be said about religion, that simply being around has battle tested it enough to know it won’t totally ruin your life like tennis-as-religion will. I feel like this is a well understood idea generally, to the point of extreme paranoia that the above is accidentally plagiarized.

    In our hearts, many of us feel this is the community and ritual that guides us. But defining rituals is incredibly hard to do right, maybe impossible to do deliberately. And I’m not sure ritualism meets my personal goals (which include agenty-ness). So the ritual itself might be cringe-worthy for reasons slightly more complex than if we asked people to wear mage costumes, for instance (which, I mean, it’s something we could ask of ourselves).

    • David Hart says:

      It sounds like this ties in to the reason-as-memetic-immune-disorder idea. Tennis as memetic immune disorder?

      (Also, why the hell does my computer query the spelling of ‘memetic’? It’s a perfectly cromulent word)

      Though I’m not sure I’d want to use the word ‘religion’ here. Perhaps ‘enthusiasms’? Most humans have enthusiasms (of which religions-in-the-traditional-sense are an important subset), but I’m not sure you can so easily say that the non-religion enthusiasms are less likely to take over your life. Most drug users are not addicts, and most amateur tennis players, as far as I can tell, enjoy that without it taking over their lives either. Can you be more specific about your threshold for ‘ruining your life’?

      [Edited to add: my point is that people vary widely in the degree to which their enthusiasms take over their lives; some people are wired to take whatever they end up doing much more seriously than others, and I’m not sure that there is any significant weighting of the non-religious enthusiasms towards the take-things-very-seriously end of the spectrum]

      • hawkice says:

        Yeah, I think we are on the same page. I used those examples because those are some of the bigger examples in Infinite Jest, taken from different angles.

        I’m not saying all drugs or all tennis is a religion that will ruin your life. I’m saying that there is a tendency for the human heart to fixate on one thing, the leading digit of our emotional preferential sort, if you will. When that’s tennis, when tennis is what your life is about, that will screw you up pretty hard. So will drugs, if they are the center of your personal attempt at meaning. Most things will. It’s not like tennis is super-evil (drugs are a tad more complex than tennis, but in a largely irrelevant way). It’s merely that if you select a random thing as the focus of your life, it will very likely destroy you.

        That’s my concern with making up a new ritual, a new focus to satisfy that human impulse. Beauty, tennis, drugs, money, pleasure… we look at the world and see that these are bad choices. But no one is proposing a way to tell the ones that will ruin your life from the ones that won’t. Say what you will about Mormonism (and there is quite a lot to be said about how hard a sell that ritual must have been), but that is a ritual-set doesn’t ruin your life.

      • peterdjones says:

        Other secular religions: rock n roll, stand up comedy.

    • Muga Sofer says:

      Liberalism seems like the classic example of a “secular religion” – see claims that Communists weren’t “really” atheists (on the theory that atheism and religion are mutually exclusive somehow.)

      I think it’s possible that what we’re seeing here is liberalism converting the members of already liberal-influenced churches, rather than liberal-influenced churches inevitably dissolving into nothing in a why-our-kind-can’t-cooperate fashion.

      The same almost certainly happens with conservatism, but it’s better at maintaining cover – see people talking about how the Constitution was “divinely inspired” and how Big Government is an agent of the Antichrist. Many conservative “Christian” groups are better understood as simply “conservative groups” that happen to use xian iconography.

      • cassander says:

        >I think it’s possible that what we’re seeing here is liberalism converting the members of already liberal-influenced churches,

        this is precisely what we’re seeing. there is a direct line of descent, both political and genetic, from puritans to patriots, abolitionists/unionists, social gospel/christian socialists, and finally to progressives. and Moldbug was hardly the first to point this out

      • RCF says:

        It’s not so much that communists weren’t atheists, but that putting communists and atheists in the same category is rather like putting the US and NK in the same category of “demotic”.

  6. Frog Do says:

    For the “atheists have no morality” meme, I would then assume the proper interpretation of this belief is that religious people view atheists as religious people shirking their obligations. I would expect the secular Northern European countries have strong norms about obligations us Amerikaners don’t recognize as religious.

    • Eli says:

      For the “atheists have no morality” meme, I would then assume the proper interpretation of this belief is that religious people view atheists as religious people shirking their obligations.

      More simply, what they mean is that “atheists have no Divine Command meta-ethics”, which, well, they don’t. Religious people just play rhetorical games to pretend that Divine Command is the only viable meta-ethical position capable of yielding anything we could label “morality”.

      • drunkenrabbit says:

        More simply, what they mean is that “atheists have no Divine Command meta-ethics”, which, well, they don’t. Religious people just play rhetorical games to pretend that Divine Command is the only viable meta-ethical position capable of yielding anything we could label “morality”.

        Yes, that’s true. But I wouldn’t say it’s a rhetorical game, divine command theory is the only solid basis for robust moral realism. Unless you want to argue for the existence of a Platonic form of the good, but that’s not something people typically do.

        • Protagoras says:

          In what sense does divine command constitute robust moral realism? It’s just another kind of subjectivism, with a specific choice of whose preferences matter.

          • drunkenrabbit says:

            Because God isn’t an arbitrarily selected human, or even an old man in the sky, but rather the ontological basis of reality, who created humanity with the telos of learning to follow his will. The theory makes perfect sense from a traditionalist perspective and none and all from a modern one, as explained by Scott.

          • Protagoras says:

            I doubt there are any more people who understand divine command theory in the esoteric way you suggest than there are who accept something like a Platonic form of the good.

          • peterdjones says:

            Why can’t objective morality be fixed by an ontological basic reality of a kind that is completely impersonal, in a way that is nothing like a command?

          • Anonymous says:

            That position is pretty standard theology, it’s basically my understanding of Aquinas and co. That said, most laymen don’t really get into theology, “God wants me to do X therefore I do x” is about as far as it goes. Which is perfectly adequate when it comes to actual practice.

            I suppose it could, Neoplatonists certainly thought so. I think CS Lewis had some objections to the idea but I can’t recall off the top of my head.

          • Protagoras says:

            You may be right about Aquinas (some of his views seem completely incoherent to me, so I find it hard to comment on him), but he is hardly all theologians; plenty of theologians reject divine command theory (often for the reason I mentioned). And as you note, most religious believers aren’t theologians. I continue to think that there are more believers in something like Platonic moral forms than believers in the variant of divine command theory you mention. Far more numerous yet are the Kantians, who don’t seem to me to make any less sense or have any less solid a base for their moral realism than the Thomists (not that that’s saying much).

          • Anonymous says:

            No theologians hold divine command theory. Many defend the naive divine command theory of the commoner as the truth seen through a glass.

          • h says:

            This is from me, houseboatonstyx.

            From Lewis’s Reflections on the Psalms, I think.

            “There were in the eighteenth century terrible theologians who held that ‘God did not command certain things because they are right, but certain things are right because God commanded them.’ To make the position perfectly clear, one of them even said that though God has, as it happens, commanded us to love Him and one another, He might equally well have commanded us to hate Him and one another, and hatred would then have been right. It was apparently a mere toss-up which He decided on.”
            (quoted secondhand)

          • RCF says:


            “Because God isn’t an arbitrarily selected human, or even an old man in the sky, but rather the ontological basis of reality, who created humanity with the telos of learning to follow his will.”

            That’s nonsense.


            “That said, most laymen don’t really get into theology, “God wants me to do X therefore I do x” is about as far as it goes. Which is perfectly adequate when it comes to actual practice.”

            If someone doesn’t understand something, then it’s not their morality. If someone just follows what their priest tells them Divine Command theory says, then they aren’t following Divine Command, they’re following their priest, in which case they ARE following what some arbitrarily selected human says.

        • Illuminati Initiate says:

          Heres the main thing I have with moral realism of any sort: I don’t see why I should care.

          I don’t think the idea of an objectively correct preference makes any sense anyways, but lets give that and say that the “ontological basis of reality” “thinks” something is evil that I don’t have a problem with, or “thinks” something is good that I do have a problem with? Why should I care? That doesn’t change my preferences. I suppose that then makes me “evil”, but if so then I am evil and I am proud.

          I suppose I might care in the same way I would care what Stalin thinks if I lived in Soviet Russia in 1950. But I wouldn’t care in the sense of it wanting to make me change my opinions.

          • suntzuanime says:

            “You should care” is just what moral realism means. If you don’t see why you should care you have not actually grasped the hypothetical of moral realism, you are just saying “given that moral realism is false, assuming moral realism is true doesn’t seem to make much sense”.

          • fubarobfusco says:

            Heres the main thing I have with moral realism of any sort: I don’t see why I should care.

            Philosophers talk about this problem as well — they ask whether morality is motivating. That is, if you believe that doing X is good, does that entail your being more likely to do X?

            Compare this with other sorts of motivations and related beliefs. If you are hungry, and you believe that F is food, you are more likely to eat F than if you were unsure if it is food or not. Knowing that it is food entails being more likely to put it in your mouth when you want nourishment. The belief is linked — causally! — to action.

            Some people report that they have moral beliefs that are not effectively motivating. “I know it would be good to tithe to charity, but I don’t do it because I am not that good.”

            For me, thinking through things consequentially is a big part of the motivation to do things that people call “good”. It’s not that the act of sending a big check to Against Malaria Foundation has a “good” XML tag on it. It’s that I have a model of the world in which there are fewer little kids in Africa shivering in the throes of malaria if I donate than if I don’t.

            I prefer the world with less malaria in it to the world with more malaria in it. And it seems that we have an effective way of achieving that result.

            Since it doesn’t matter if I “am good” or not, the argument “I’m not that good, so I shan’t donate” doesn’t hold water. The only question is, “Given the world as it is … what do I prefer?”

            And that’s a lot more motivating.

          • RCF says:

            “you are just saying “given that moral realism is false, assuming moral realism is true doesn’t seem to make much sense”.”

            No, II is saying that they don’t see how moral realism makes sense. Asserting that one does not understand the basis of a claim is not circular reasoning.

          • Anonymous says:

            I believe in moral philosophy there are concepts called “motivational internalism” and “motivational externalism.” Motivational internalists hold that morality is intrinsically motivating, and that if you understand the ontological-universal-Platonic-morality you will be motivated to care. Externalists believe that moral knowledge is not intrinsically motivating, and that you need something extra, (such a a moral conscience) to motivate you to care.

            I believe the reason there is so much confusion around this area is that a lot of Internalists have the same attitude that Divine Command Theorists do, they are so full of themselves that they identify their position with morality itself. A lot of Internatlists seem to believe that if motivational internalism is false, moral realism is false. So you often hear people make the argument that failure to be motivated by a moral argument is an argument against moral realism.

            As you have probably figured out, I am a Motivational Externalist and think Motivational Internalism is stupid. My answer to the “Why should I care?” question is “If you have a conscience you already do, if you don’t you’re a sociopath and I hope we can incarcerate you before you hurt anyone.”

            Sociopaths exist. There are people who know an action is wrong, and don’t care. That isn’t an argument against moral realism, that’s just an argument against Motivational Internalism.

          • blacktrance says:

            Motivational internalists hold that morality is intrinsically motivating, and that if you understand the ontological-universal-Platonic-morality you will be motivated to care.

            That’s one form of motivational internalism, but not the only one. Another is that morality is constituted by whatever is internally motivating, and that the causal direction goes not from understanding morality to being motivated by it, but from having already existing motivations to constructing morality out of them.

            A lot of Internatlists seem to believe that if motivational internalism is false, moral realism is false.

            And with good reason. If morality is what we ought to do, there should be some connection between that and what we find motivating, or at least would find motivating in an ideal rational state. Otherwise, we can rationally reject being moral, in which case the truth of morality is highly questionable.

            “Why should I care?” is the most important question for morality, and if it’s to have a content that can provide an answer that’s not “You shouldn’t”, then it must follow from the agent’s motivational reasons. It’s not enough to say “You already care”, because different people care about different things to different degrees, and it’s misleading to label some subset of that as “caring” when it’s so different from person to person.

          • Illuminati Initiate says:

            For the record, not a sociopath. I do have a “morality”, or utility function, or whatever you want to call it. I just see it as a personal preference rather than objective truth (note: this won’t stop me from trying to force it on others. People act on their preferences. Moral preferences are no different).

            But if I found out that the universe itself has a different value system than I do (whatever the hell that would even mean), that would not cause me to switch value systems. I would still advocate and follow my preferences for the state of the universe. Thus the “then I would be evil and proud” thing.

      • RCF says:

        Religious people also play rhetorical games pretending that Divine Command necessitates God.

  7. Pseudonymous Platypus says:

    So is Giving What We Can a lifetime commitment? This is something I could not determine by looking at their website, but it sounds like Scott is saying it is. I really like the idea of it, but giving 10% of my income for life is a very big commitment that I’m not sure I’m ready for.

    • Its for life or until you retire. The text is

      I recognise that I can use part of my income to do a significant amount of good. Since I can live well enough on a smaller income, I pledge that for the rest of my life or until the day I retire, I shall give at least ten percent of what I earn to whichever organisations can most effectively use it to improve the lives of others, now and in the years to come. I make this pledge freely, openly, and sincerely.

      • Pseudonymous Platypus says:

        Thanks. I will need to ponder on this, because in truth, that length of commitment makes me feel much less comfortable with the prospect. But… it shouldn’t, should it?

        By the way, I read some of your blog posts, and they’re quite good; especially the one about your mother (my condolences). Incidentally, I happen to be in the Seattle area, but unfortunately I did not realize that there was a Secular Solstice meet up nearby. Perhaps in the future I can become involved in this community.

  8. The real question is why you want a religion-substitute. Judging from this post, it seems like the main reason is to create a community. But what kind of community? “A group of people highly devoted to a set of teachings about the nature of the universe, morality, and how to live one’s life who meet up about once a week” already describes the LessWrong sphere. (In fact, I would argue that LessWrong already represents a fairly logical “religion for atheists”.)

    One thing I always thought was nice about church is that once you’re married with kids it seems like a nice way to meet people and hang out with other families fairly regularly in a space where everyone feels at least a bit of pressure to be kind to each other. It seems to me like it’s hard to make and maintain friendships in middle-age, and church seems like it would be a good way to at the very least feel like part of a community. I could almost see myself at some point in my life going to church just for the companionship. It would be nice if there was a secular equivalent of such a thing. But I’m not sure how possible this is to create.

    But in the end, that’s just the side benefits of religion. The real benefits are the internal (I accidentally typed “eternal” here, which is also fitting) ones – a sense of security, a sense of meaning in life, fears of death alleviated. Can an atheist religion provide that?

    I guess the question is what do you imagine your atheist religious community looking like?

    And also: if we’re going to have rules, what should they be?

    • llamathatducks says:

      I guess I have something of an answer to “what would the point of an atheist religion substitute be” since I am an atheist who has recently been feeling like I would really benefit from having something like church in my life.

      I have been to maybe three church services in my life, so I’m not really qualified to talk about this, but in my understanding, what happens on Sunday in (good) churches is that people take time out of their day to work on being good people and on understanding how to live in the world. It’s a designated time and place for going to the meta-level and pondering how one might do better in the daily object-level tasks of life. It’s a way to get some grounding, to develop one’s sense of right and wrong and hopefully some inner strength.

      So in a sense, one secular church-“equivalent” is therapy. (Which is also something I’d benefit from!) But there seem to be some important differences. Therapy is focused on your particular problems, which is great but potentially limiting. Therapy is kind of intense – it requires your active participation. You can’t just sit and listen and think like you might at a church service. And therapy (usually?) lacks the sort of sense of wonder and inspiration that I think (many?) churches strive for.

      And yeah, church can provide community, and it’s a particular kind of community – it’s a community with people who share some core values and who have probably had some more or less profound experiences together. So in theory people in this community may be quite likely to get along better with each other than with people they meet in some other way.

      So part of my wish to find a secular church-equivalent is that I feel like I would benefit from systematically taking time to think about life and morality in a directed way.

      Another is that I sometimes, despite not believing in any god, have a strong desire to pray. Which is a really weird feeling. When I — give in to it, or imagine myself doing so? not sure which — I get a feeling of relief and comfort. I’ve decided I can kind of get around the dissonance by just letting some part of my brain be the “God module” – I can (sort of) pray to the construct that is my idea of “God”, and perhaps it begins to approach the kind of effect that people who believe in God achieve. It’s weird.

      I’m not sure how or whether a secular church-equivalent would solve that. But that’s where I’d be most likely to meet some other people who have similar feelings. Maybe they have some some useful thoughts I might benefit from.

      • So in a sense, one secular church-“equivalent” is therapy. (Which is also something I’d benefit from!) But there seem to be some important differences. Therapy is focused on your particular problems, which is great but potentially limiting. Therapy is kind of intense – it requires your active participation. You can’t just sit and listen and think like you might at a church service. And therapy (usually?) lacks the sort of sense of wonder and inspiration that I think (many?) churches strive for.

        Also, importantly, therapy is expensive.

      • Wirehead Wannabe says:

        Therapy is also usually only between you and a therapist. If there is a group, it’s often anonymous, and you rarely meet outside of sessions. being able to talk about deeply personal and philosophical topics with people without worry of judgment is one of the things I miss most about my old youth group. Also, as GBM indicated above, something that draws me to the rationalist community, despite my current inability to attend meetups.

    • Eli says:

      And also: if we’re going to have rules, what should they be?

      Just for weirdness’s sake, I nominate the Ten Pledges of the God Tet:

      All bloodshed, war and pillaging is forbidden. (This includes any kind of violence or violation of rights, like physical injuries, rape or an Armor-Piercing Slap.)
      All conflicts will be resolved through games.
      Each party involved in a game must bet something that both sides agree is of equal value. (The wagers can also be non-material, so long as both side agree to it being equivalent.)
      As long as it doesn’t go against Pledge 3, the things that are wagered and the rules of the game will not be questioned.
      The challenged party has the right to decide the rules of the game. (This also includes the right to refrain from the game.)
      Any bets made in accordance with the Oaths must be upheld.
      Conflicts between groups will be conducted by designated representatives with absolute authority.
      Being caught cheating during a game is grounds for an instant loss.
      In the name of God, the previous rules may never be changed.
      Everyone must have fun playing together!

      • Ooh, I like that.

        My friends and I tried a few times to play this game Morton’s List, where basically you roll a die a few times and it tells you what your activity for the day is. You’re supposed to perform a ritual of sorts before you play so that the game is more binding – i.e. people don’t say “that’s too hard” or “let’s do something else” or “can we roll again” or “that doesn’t sound like fun” or whatever. However in reality, this is almost always what happens, and the group ends up sitting around bored just like they were before.

        I think if you’re going to have arbitrary binding rules that everyone has to follow, a great way to use them would be in the interest of fun. Solve the co-ordination problem of “everyone is sitting around bored as hell but no one wants to put in the effort to get something started”.

      • suntzuanime says:

        That works out a lot better when it’s actually enforced by omnipotent divine power instead of being something you’re asking people to unilaterally abide by.

        That’s something I always liked about Tet; he doesn’t passive-aggressively tell people what to do to give them a chance to disobey him so he has an excuse to subject them to torments, he just enforces the conduct that he wants from people with his own power. Seems a lot more honest.

      • Deiseach says:

        What happens when Pledge 2 (“all conflicts will be resolved through games”) and Pledge 5 (“the challenged party has the right…to refrain from the game”) conflict?

        Is pledge 2 a “must” – the only method of conflict resolution is through games, so if you want your conflict resolved you have to play – or a “one selection out of several” – if you refuse to play, you can go to law or have the oldest granny in the village make the decision or see what square the sacred chickens peck the grain from?

        And if the challenged party can refrain from the game, does that mean they can continue on with their behaviour until or unless the conflict is resolved, e.g. Ig challenges Uz because he says Uz is stealing his gooseberries from his bushes when they ripen; Uz refuses to play the game Ig selects; stalemate and so Uz keeps robbing the gooseberries, making jam, and selling it at the farmers’ market for a tidy profit?

        • suntzuanime says:

          I believe that gameplaying was only meant to replace physical conflict, changing the final argument of kings from war to chess. Arguing about the proper outcome in court is fine, except that when the officers of the court come to enforce their judgment against you and you resist, they’ll use a deck of cards instead of a club.

          I believe seeing what square the sacred chickens pick the grain from would be considered a game of chance, so it would be available by mutual agreement.

          I don’t recall the right to refrain from playing a game being in the rules when I read them and it does seem to defeat the original purpose of replacing all violent conflict. I think that may have been an error? You could maybe make it work with some really sketchy divinely-enforced property rights, but I think the system only works if you can force people to acknowledge the game system. Otherwise it isn’t any more of a final argument of kings than just arguing is.

          • Deiseach says:

            Mmm – well, I’m hopeless at cards, so if I’m in Ig’s position, I’m screwed. All Uz has to do, as challenged party, is go “Excellent! Let us settle this dispute with a hand of poker! Or 45! Or Snap?”

            He gets all my gooseberries and becomes a jam magnate and I’m toast.

          • Anonymous says:

            The right to refuse challenges was there, it’s the main flaw of the system. But then Tet is around to cause ripples whenever the war gets too cold for his tastes.

            Remember how at the end, when they wanted to challenge the beastmen, they had to tip their hand, hint that they know about their cheating game, bet many times more compared to what the beastmen were betting, and still play the beastmen’s game where they knew they would be cheated, just because otherwise the beastmen won’t accept?

          • suntzuanime says:

            I just remember there were bandits in the first episode, and it seems like banditry is pretty hard in a world where all force is voluntary.

            It seems like there are two possibilities. One, you’re replacing force with games, which doesn’t solve Deiseach’s issue of losing games, but you can just as easily lose fights as you can games, and at least games are less negative-sum if somebody has to lose. Two, you’re providing for divine enforcement of voluntary contracts related to gambling, and simultaneously/unrelatedly creating a forceless libertarian utopia. This seems less interesting and possibly more destructive.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      “The real question is why you want a religion-substitute. Judging from this post, it seems like the main reason is to create a community. But what kind of community? “A group of people highly devoted to a set of teachings about the nature of the universe, morality, and how to live one’s life who meet up about once a week” already describes the LessWrong sphere.”

      I want it because I think government right now is pretty suboptimal. You can’t have *fewer* rules than the government, because that means breaking their rules and getting arrested. But you can have *more* rules than the government. From a game theory perspective, the best way to get more rules is to have an insular group of people who promise to follow more rules when dealing with other people who also follow the same rules. And that’s pretty much what a religion is. I would like to see a bunch of new religions forming a competitive governance climate.

      Here are some examples:

      – a group where everyone in the group agrees to become organ donors. Members of the group agree to preferentially direct their donated organs to other members of the group. This solves the poor governance issue of no current incentive to become an organ donor.

      – a group that has rules about what you can and can’t post on social media in order to prevent outrage spirals, so that people whose friends are mostly within the group will have an environment mostly free from them.

      – a group that has norms that remove some of the ambiguity around romance and asking people out. I won’t make them go all the way to the Gale Shapley algorithm.

      – a group that contains some provision for mutual aid, like the Elks or the Knights of Columbus or whatever.

      – a group that encourages its members to do moral or productive things that they want to do anyway, by making them binding group rules and encouraging them to check up on each other. Giving What We Can falls into this category, but I could also imagine something like “we’ll all read one book per month.”

      A friend wrote this up today, and although I think she’s wildly underestimating the ability of the world to prevent perverse edge cases and the burdensomeness of things like “learn one new thing every day”, it’s not entirely unlike what I was thinking of.

      • Jaskologist says:

        How does this differ from good old-fashioned American federalism, as originally conceived complete with state(not country)-established churches?

      • Oh, okay. So really, it’s not about the rules’ effects on group solidarity, it’s about the rules themselves.

        the best way to get more rules is to have an insular group of people who promise to follow more rules when dealing with other people who also follow the same rules. And that’s pretty much what a religion is.

        I disagree, I think most people would not identify the central character of religion as “a group of people who all follow the same rules”. I think a more likely answer would be “the question of man’s relationship to the eternal” or “a rigidly dogmatic belief system”.

        Also: how effective are real world religious groups at enforcing a code of conduct to live by? My impression is that while people will go to church and pay lip service to kindness and charity and morality, there isn’t really any sort of mechanism of enforcement – it’s pretty much up to each member to live up to the code and the only penalty is a bit of guilt. I imagine that some fundamentalist religions are pretty good at this, but they also have the advantage of being able to convince their adherents that if they don’t follow the rules they will face an infinite amount of misery in the afterlife.

        So for these reasons, while I agree that a society of rationalists who all adhere to a code of conduct seems like a desirable thing to exist, I don’t think religion is at all the right word to use for it. (You could maybe call it a brotherhood, but this has undesirable gender connotations.) I also think this society to be effective would not look very much like religion, as it would have to rely on a different enforcement mechanism for its rules.

        • David Hart says:

          You could maybe call it a brotherhood, but this has undesirable gender connotations

          The problem, really, is that our gender-neutral term for people who are born of the same parents, is ‘siblings’, which is both twee and awkward to make into compound words. The Germans have ‘geschwister’ and seem a lot more comfortable using it than we are with using ‘siblings’. Probably wouldn’t catch on though if we tried to just uplift their word directly.

          Also, you note that

          My impression is that while people will go to church and pay lip service to kindness and charity and morality, there isn’t really any sort of mechanism of enforcement – it’s pretty much up to each member to live up to the code and the only penalty is a bit of guilt.

          This seems to be mostly true in the West and other high-tech industrialised places, but these are generally the places where religions have lost the right to use violence to compel the code of conduct, or lost the ability to get their idiosyncratic codes of conduct enforced as part of the secular law. Where those still hold, you still get things like blasphemy laws (the most salient example at the moment is probably Pakistan, which has for all practical purposes not just the death penalty for blasphemy, but also the death penalty for even quesioning whether there ought to be a death penalty for blasphemy), or the criminalisation of even medically-necessary abortion procedures (the Savita Halappanavar case in Ireland and the Beatriz case in El Salvador spring to mind). But then, I suspect that ‘enforcing laws that are perfectly reasonable and necessary for civilisation’ is what ‘imposing a bunch of horrible theocratic rules’ would feel like from the inside, so if a community of rationalists actually was able to enforce rules over and above the general law, we’d better make damn sure to do a lot better.

    • Doug S. says:

      It seems to me like it’s hard to make and maintain friendships in middle-age, and church seems like it would be a good way to at the very least feel like part of a community. I could almost see myself at some point in my life going to church just for the companionship. It would be nice if there was a secular equivalent of such a thing. But I’m not sure how possible this is to create.

      Try your Local Game Store, where you can hang out with people every Friday and play Magic: the Gathering. (Or something similar on other nights.)

  9. J says:

    Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon faith, is well known within the church as having said, “Let us here observe, that a religion that does not require the sacrifice of all things, never has power sufficient to produce the faith necessary unto life and salvation.”

    I proposed the idea of a committed rationalist “religion” to a prominent LWer a few years back, and he characteristically responded “What we need are *five* religions.”

    It used to be that everybody (this source claims half the US population: ) was a Mason or an Elk or an Eagle or an Oddfellow, etc., and that has dwindled to almost nothing. So if you’re really into team spirit, your choices these days are pretty much athletics, religion or the military, which seems concerning to me.

    • The notion of five atheist religions makes me curious what atheist heresy would look like. Observing that atheists are only united by a rejection of dogma doesn’t leave much room for the brand of betrayal that heresy implies. The only atheist betrayal is to become a theist of any type. When an atheist consequentialist and an atheist deontologist disagree, I don’t see them play the heretic card. We won’t see atheism come into its own until a Vedic atheist can argue with a Platonist atheist while an Objectivist waits in the wings to rhetorically finish off the winner and each party is firmly convinced it’s an existential conflict.

      • Richard Metzler says:

        “Observing that atheists are only united by a rejection of dogma doesn’t leave much room for the brand of betrayal that heresy implies.”
        Ha. Yeah. You’d think so, but then you’d be underestimating the capabilty of people to attach bullshit dogma to anything (including the rejection of dogma), and demanding adherence to it.
        If you want your innocence shattered, go and google “atheism plus”. WARNING: only do this if you are prepared and willing to spend the rest of the day bashing your head against the wall muttering “Aarrgh! Humans!”
        On that note… merry Christmas, everyone.

        • Deiseach says:

          Let me add my best wishes for an enjoyable time of the season to all of you, however you choose to celebrate or not celebrate it, religious, secular, or “it’s just another day at work”.

          It’s been very enjoyable interacting with all of you and I hope we continue to do in the new year!

      • peterdjones says:

        ” The notion of five atheist religions makes me curious what atheist heresy would look like. ”

        I really must get a gravatar.

      • Irenist says:

        Well, South Park had that episode with atheist heresies based on different interpretations of the historical record about the life of the great Dawkins. (Stupid premise, but one of the classic Cartman-centric episodes, IMHO, even now that most of them are Cartman-centric.)

        Marxism had a bunch of atheist heresies. If Atheism+ got to be as big as Marxism, I imagine that history would repeat as farce: the heresiarchs would be offering disapproved SJW theories instead of whatever disapproved Marxian thing Trotsky was allegedly sullying Stalinist orthodoxy with.

        Not that Marxism was primarily about atheism, of course. Just that any “atheist heresy” would presumably be about the non-atheist add-ons, since atheism itself is pretty simple.

        Possible, super-implausible exception: most vocal atheists today are pretty reductionist. But there are emergentist and neutral monist naturalisms, too. If some sort of socioeconomic tribal stakes got contingently attached to whether you were a Dennet-style reductionist atheist or a Russell-style neutral monist atheist, I guess that could get a heresy-style squabble going. But it’s no more likely than South Park’s silly Dawkins thing.

      • Doug S. says:

        The notion of five atheist religions makes me curious what atheist heresy would look like.

        The Star Wars film trilogy, or the Lord of the Rings film trilogy?

      • MugaSofer says:

        >The notion of five atheist religions makes me curious what atheist heresy would look like.

        It would look like all those accusations that LessWrong is a cult.

        Theism doesn’t mean “dogma”, it means “believing in (a) god”. It’s quite possible for there to be multiple conflicting dogmas and nary a god in sight.

        Heck, many secular humanists would vigorously argue that atheistic Buddhist sects are an entirely different category, because they’re religious. It’s commonly claimed that the atrocities committed by the USSR and CCP were not carried out in the name of atheism – much to the surprise of the participants – because they were following a cult of personality, which makes them not true atheists (they rejected the doctrines of Equality and Democracy, which means they are heretics and have strayed from the true faith.) The Atheism Plus movement and Elevatorgate claimed that Feminism was a core doctrine of Atheism and those who rejected it should be excommunicated as heretics. Etc etc.

        • Anonymous says:

          >It’s commonly claimed that the atrocities committed by the USSR and CCP were not carried out in the name of atheism – much to the surprise of the participants

          Hmmmm. The atrocities of the USSR (et cetera) were mostly not carried out _in the name of atheism_, but in the name of Marxist communism (which required atheism).

          It’s like saying that a conservative Republican’s no-new-taxes pledge was carried out in the name of the second amendment, or that a Sesame Street character’s reciting the alphabet was done in the name of numeracy.

    • fubarobfusco says:

      Fraternal organizations once served purposes that are now fulfilled by institutions of capitalism, such as life insurance and group health plans.

      A man’s lodge brothers would provide for and protect his widow and orphans. And through the early 20th century, lodges hired doctors to care for their members — they literally had doctors on payroll. This was called lodge practice.

      Medical associations hated lodge practice — it was collective bargaining wherein a large number of patients (lodge members) struck a deal with one or a few doctors; and this drove the rates down. The history of its abolition seems like a pretty good example of political power as the right to collective action.

  10. As long as we’re going to discuss rationalist substitutes for religion, I might as well bring up “Church vs. Taskforce”.

    Not that I have anything in particular to say about it, other than that it’s always been one of my favorite Less Wrong posts and really resonates with me. I just thought it should be brought up.

    • Deiseach says:

      That piece by Mr(? Am I addressing him correctly? Has he a title I should be using instead?) Yudkowsky made me think two things in connection with the following paragraph:

      (Y)ou might have a big building that could be used for the occasional wedding, but it would be time-shared for different communities meeting at different times on the weekend, and it would also have a nice large video display that could be used for speakers giving presentations, lecturers teaching something, or maybe even showing movies. Stained glass? Not so high a priority.

      (1) He certainly has no experience of modern megachurches – they’re all about the sound system and video display. Or modern church architecture in general; these days we’re not getting stained glass, we’re getting 60s Brutalist architecture and cathedrals that win architectural awards and garner nicknames like Our Lady of Maytag

      (2) He seems to have little notion of, or use for, beauty. You could make the same argument about an art gallery: why waste all that wall space on outdated old – literally hundreds of years old, in some cases – objects where people smeared ground-up minerals in an organic suspension on cloth or wood in a futile attempt to represent reality? Isn’t that what cameras are for? Instead we could have nice shiny video displays that showed movies! The Hangover Part III yes, Botticelli? Not so high a priority.

      His dislike of the shocking wastefulness of stained glass makes me think of the exchange between Miss Bingley and her brother in “Pride and Prejudice”; doubtless improving lectures on wall-projected video displays would be very good and edifying for me, but they’d not be nearly as much like beauty. Some of us would like roses with our bread 🙂

      “By the bye, Charles, are you really serious in meditating a dance at Netherfield? — I would advise you, before you determine on it, to consult the wishes of the present party; I am much mistaken if there are not some among us to whom a ball would be rather a punishment than a pleasure.”

      “If you mean Darcy,” cried her brother, “he may go to bed, if he chuses, before it begins — but as for the ball, it is quite a settled thing; and as soon as Nicholls has made white soup enough I shall send round my cards.”

      “I should like balls infinitely better,” she replied, “if they were carried on in a different manner; but there is something insufferably tedious in the usual process of such a meeting. It would surely be much more rational if conversation instead of dancing made the order of the day.”

      “Much more rational, my dear Caroline, I dare say, but it would not be near so much like a ball.”

      • Irenist says:

        “Much more rational, my dear Caroline, I dare say, but it would not be near so much like a ball.”

        Yeah, but Scott is trying to figure out how to have a Rationalist Ball. IOW, a rationalist nomic in-group would have to satisfy the inner Caroline Bingley and the inner Charles Bingley. In principle, that ought to be somewhat doable. Look at us Catholics–we have gorgeous cathedrals and EF Masses for Charles, but we also have plenty of dry, abstruse Scholasticism for Caroline to read. Scott’s cohorts already have the reading material (much of it very fine) but Scott, at least, is noticing the dearth of cathedrals.

        • Deiseach says:

          But if Eliezer is to be followed, there won’t be any cathedrals, just lecture halls and video projectors that may, perhaps, allow the busy masses to unwind with popular entertainment before they go back to presentations and teaching and time-sharing with other worthy groups – but no play of light through coloured glass to enjoy and uplift and soothe the weary eyes and tired brain.

          No useless beauty! Knowledge must earn her keep!

          • Charlie says:

            Well, if stained glass turns out to be a great idea on its own merits (e.g. “to enjoy and uplift and soothe the weary eyes and tired brain”), then sure let’s all have some.

            But if it’s because of a religious signalling game (a reason sadly absent from your arguments for stained glass), then when making a community gathering space one can omit it.

        • “Yeah, but Scott is trying to figure out how to have a Rationalist Ball.”

          Well, what are the motives for a ball? It’s an organized mass flirtation, driven by desires like play (the dancing), sociality (wanting to see some relatively new faces), and sexuality (it would be good if a lot of the new faces were attractive and of a suitable sex).

          What are the motives for going to church? It seems to me the motives being discussed are, in fact, desires for the side-effects of church. Churches are not primarily about promoting healthy communities, in their own view or in the view of the hard-core parishioners. (And the hard-core ones are the ones giving vigor to the whole endeavor, according to Scott’s post.)

          No, the hard-core parishioners are there to connect to the divine. You may think this motive on their part is a trick of evolution that has favored group selection or whatnot, but that’s not how it appears to them.

          So, if you want to build a rationalist equivalent, for the nice social side-benefits, in order to follow the equivalency, you are going to have to find a similar motivation. You may congratulate yourselves if you think the motive is not as illusory as the pursuit of the divine, but you’ll still need the motive.

          To supply that motive, you must answer the question, “What would a rationalist give their soul to?”

          Answers are possible, and some have been tried. But my point is that I think Scott is longing for some benefits that are secondary things accruing to something more primary. Aim for just the secondary things and you get a limp, withering thing like the mainline churches. Aim for a suitable primary (“suitable” being a very important qualification), and you may get the secondary things thrown in, but only may.

      • David Hart says:

        Reading it again myself, it doesn’t sound like he’s flat-out refusing to allow room for architectural decorative features, merely stating that if a community has a limited budget, then making their communal building useful for many functions, including educational functions, is a more important use of funds than decoration – and certainly a more important use than all of the different religious groupings within a community going to the expense of building a separate building just for their specific choice of religion.

        But then, maybe he just doesn’t get much out of stained glass as a medium, in the same sort of way that I don’t get much out of watercolour paintings.

        Incidentally, I’m not much of a connoisseur of churches, but I think my favourite instance of use-of-stained-glass-in-a-religious-building is the Metropolitan Cathedral in Liverpool. And that’s definitely a building that is aesthetically pleasing an spacious enough that it ought to be used as a venue for lots of things; it seems a bit of a wasted opportunity if it just gets used for doing religion. (Also, hot damn, they’ve really put the effort in with translating their website into all the languages – there was at least one there that I’d never even heard of).

        But I’m not sure whether you’d like that one for its stained glass or dislike it for its arguably Maytag-ish exterior.

        • Deiseach says:

          Well, I realise I’m probably breaking a butterfly on a wheel here because stained glass was not the point of his article, but it stuck in my mind because that was the contrast he put up: stained glass versus video projectors.

          Why not co-opt stained glass for your rationalist halls of culture and education? The reason churches have stained glass, amongst other reasons, was that as building technology developed (particularly during the Gothic architectural period), windows could be larger and more elaborate. Instead of plain glass, coloured glass was used because the windows had a didactic as well as artistic purpose – in a sense, stained glass is Yudkowsky’s video display – see the Poor Man’s Bible.

          I realise he’s probably using shorthand thought process of “stained glass = associated with religion = dislike of religion = dislike of stained glass”, but it does come off as a dislike of the arts and a preference for technology.

          Surely the answer is to make stained glass secular, rather than to smash all the windows?

          And I think beauty is an important function for humans to be humans; for the poor, the only chance to see much beauty (outside of nature) was the art in churches. People scraped together pennies to build and beautify these buildings not alone for status signalling but because they wanted satisfaction of the senses as well. Slapping up a plain concrete box for a community with limited resources may be more impoverishment in the long run, as what you save on ‘useless’ decorative frills means that the users of your facility are starving for beauty and this does hurt them in subtle ways.

          Roses with the bread, remember? 🙂

          Hearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread, but give us roses!

  11. Anon256 says:

    1) You seem to suggest that the fact that communities with more onerous pointless rules tend to be tighter-knit and better at retaining members, is a reason to create or join communities with more onerous pointless rules. But couldn’t it also be seen as a reason to avoid, fear and fight such communities? Both as vectors of memetic disease, and as potential shelters for abusers etc.

    2) Is the trend in the graph primarily due to the higher barriers to entry in more conservative groups, or the higher barriers to exit? Conservative groups are more likely to shun apostates, so leaving one may mean losing your friends and family, while members of liberal groups are more likely to maintain ties with former members. So of course liberal groups are more likely to shrink and shrink faster. But it seems even harder to paint pressures that keep people in a group they’d prefer to leave as positive.

    • Fadeway says:

      People want atheist churches so they can get the tight-knit high-trust community of a church without having to do the bits related to religion. Or so I’ve heard, since I’ve never gone to church, religious or otherwise. Apparently, you can’t get a tight-knit high-trust community without actually requiring the commitments that atheist churches were created to avoid in the first place.

    • Deiseach says:

      members of liberal groups are more likely to maintain ties with former members

      I suggest you try Googling “Anglican Wars” or the various lawsuits going on in The Episcopal Church (90 at present count) re: departing congregations, to see hair-pulling and name-calling by both sides.

      For those not aware of the nuances, The Episcopal Church is the variant of Anglicanism in the U.S.A. in the shape it took after the American Revolution of 1776 and the break with Britain (including the state church of Anglicanism). The Presiding Bishop is the head of the church, more or less, and TEC is positioning itself as liberal, tolerant, inclusive and welcoming.

      From a Time magazine article of 2008 on one of the 90+ lawsuits TEC has going on suing departing parishes/dioceses over properties and the rights to the ‘brand name’ of being Anglicans in the U.S.A.:

      As a sizable minority of conservative congregations leaves Episcopalianism, the struggle over who gets hundreds of millions of dollars of church property is becoming more and more intense. Passions range so high that the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts-Schori, the head of the national Episcopal body, in effect indicated during discovery in the Virginia case that she would rather see the churches sold and deconsecrated for secular purposes than passed on to the departing congregations.

      Determination not to sell property to former, conservative, congregations is so firm that in one case in a New York parish, after successfully suing to keep property for the purposes which former Episcopalians acquired, built and funded it, the diocese then sold the deconsecrated church building to a Muslim group which has now turned it into a Muslim awareness and educational centre.

      In this instance, at least, exit barriers from a liberal church are very high, running the risk of being personally named in lawsuits suing for assets.

      Besides, of course, being labelled sexist, racist, homophobic, culturally insensitive, planet-abusing doctrinal dinosaurs 🙂

      As the bishop said in an interview when she took up office in 2006:

      How many members of the Episcopal Church are there in this country?

      About 2.2 million. It used to be larger percentagewise, but Episcopalians tend to be better-educated and tend to reproduce at lower rates than some other denominations. Roman Catholics and Mormons both have theological reasons for producing lots of children.

      Episcopalians aren’t interested in replenishing their ranks by having children?

      No. It’s probably the opposite. We encourage people to pay attention to the stewardship of the earth and not use more than their portion.

      Now you know who to blame for the state of the world – it’s we uneducated Catholics (and our Mormon counterparts) who are having tons of kids and gobbling up the resources! 🙂

      • suntzuanime says:

        That doesn’t sound like a risk of leaving a church so much as it sounds like a risk of misappropriating church assets. If you are running a church and you decide to leave the church, why would you expect to get to keep the church, any more than you would expect to be allowed to keep the McDonalds you were managing after you quit your job?

        I mean sure, the new french fry recipe is a heresy and in some sense your doctrine is more true to the original spirit of the McDonalds faith, but that’s not your call to make. Or rather, it is your call to make, but those aren’t your fry cookers to make it with. Go start your own fast food restaurant with your own money.

        • drunkenrabbit says:

          If you are running a church and you decide to leave the church, why would you expect to get to keep the church, any more than you would expect to be allowed to keep the McDonalds you were managing after you quit your job?

          Because in fact, most of those congregations had been using their own money to maintain and improve their church buildings for generations, while the national Episcopal Church had contributed little or nothing.

          • suntzuanime says:

            That sort of reminds me of all the people who Kickstarted the Oculus Rift and were pissed when it sold out to Facebook. Sorry guys, if you give someone your money, they’re just going to take your money. You don’t automatically get ownership of their enterprise out of it.

          • drunkenrabbit says:

            That’s probably true, although it can’t have been quite that simple if there was enough of a case to take the Episcopal Church to court. The real difference here was that Katharine Jefferts-Schori wouldn’t even let local dioceses sell church buildings to departing congregations who wanted to buy their own churches as they left. I’m sure that’s perfectly legal, but was bizarre and deeply spiteful.

        • Deiseach says:

          Oh, I’ve had great fun watching this from the outside. TEC had a high old time lecturing the rest of the Anglican Communion about how it, unlike the rest of them, had a democratic polity; gave laypeople equal voice and weight with clergy; didn’t impose from the top down, and in general was not like the mean old hierarchical churches.

          Until the lawsuits started, and then all of a sudden it was a hierarchical church with a top-down management structure and laypeople were bound to obey their bishop whether or which 🙂

          Some of the dioceses in the disputes actually pre-dated the official foundation of TEC (or The Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America as it was when it started out) and voted to join. They maintained that if they were free to vote to join, they were equally free to vote to leave.

          Also, a lot of the property was bought by the members themselves, and owned by the parish in question, unlike the Catholic Church, where dioceses are a corporation sole and the diocesan bishop owns the property (this is why in the sex abuse cases, the diocese could be sued even if Bishop Smith had been in charge at the time and had since died and now it was Bishop Jones: continuity of identity of the entity). The Dennis Canon was introduced in 1979 by TEC to more or less say “Now the national body owns all church property and this claim is backdated”, and in the lawsuits there are disagreements over “does this bind us if our diocesan convention never adopted this into our bylaws?”

          In some cases, the official body sued down to keeping retention of the prayerbooks and hassocks, in case the departing congregations would make off with things they had fundraised money to buy five years earlier.

          So it’s been a nasty split, it’s ongoing, and the attempts by TEC to impose on congregations who are otherwise happy to disassociate, leave the property and funds behind, and set up as new independent churches that “You can’t call yourselves Anglicans; we own the Anglican franchise” has been a very sore point for many.

          Sure, if I leave McDonalds I can’t keep the building; but what if it was my own chicken restaurant before I took on the franchise? Do I have to hand it over to McDonalds when I give up the licence?

          • suntzuanime says:

            They maintained that if they were free to vote to join, they were equally free to vote to leave.

            You’d think that in the Former Confederate States of America, they’d realize that argument isn’t going to work out for them.

          • Deiseach says:

            You’d think that in the Former Confederate States of America, they’d realize that argument isn’t going to work out for them

            Or they may have thought that the leaders actually meant what they said when they were finger-wagging at the rest of the Anglican Communion re: gay bishops: “Well, we have to agree to his consecration; his diocese selection committee voted for him as bishop and we’re bound by the rules of National Convention that say that dioceses are self-governing and can decide these things for themselves!”

        • Pablo says:

          The main reason for the lawsuits, so far as I understand it, is that legal title to the church/piece of land the church is on would sometimes be in the name of the local congregation, and sometimes in the name of the Episcopalian diocese or the national church organization. (Or sometimes maybe it is held by some third party in the form of a trust or some other arrangement, but I haven’t heard about any specific cases like that and would guess that the first two things I mention are the vast majority of cases.)

          So in the case where the local congregation is the name on the deed, the local congregation says “hey, our name’s on the deed, we own this thing, end of story,” and the Episcopal Church will have to argue about how it has a hierarchical episcopalian body and how bishops tell congregations what to do and therefore even though the congregation owns it, it should act like it holds the property in trust for the overall church. In the cases where the larger church body owns it, they have the benefit of the “we’re a hierarchical body” argument along with the benefit of the “we own it” argument.
          Of course, a lot of cases will depend on the exact details of the deed and the history of the property and so on and so forth et cetera. But this is basically what the issue resolves to, in my understanding, and I am not a lawyer or an Episcopalian or an expert in any way other than being somewhat interested in law and in religions.

          I did read somewhere that this sort of thing can’t happen or is a lot less common in the Church of England, because there are laws about how ‘it’s the friggin state church dude you’re not taking its property to some other denomination.’

          • Deiseach says:

            What makes it even more interesting in the case of TEC is that it’s not another denomination; the departing parishes/dioceses are either seeking oversight from other Anglican churches which are sister churches to TEC, or setting up as ‘branch’ Anglican/Episcopalian churches themselves. It’s not like they’re walking out to become Methodists, Baptists or Presbyterians (ironically, TEC recognises and practices full communion with some other denominations).

            So they’re not changing or switching denomination, they’re seeking to be recognised as fully Anglican as other members. It’s really a heresy hunt within TEC, even though they technically have no such things as heresy trials and people such as Bishop Spong can still call themselves bishops in good order.

  12. Richard Metzler says:

    A couple thoughts:
    The one atheist religion substitute that I came across that IMO does a good job of making a positive mission statement and guidelines that could inspire emotions is the Church of Reality. If there were a branch near where I live, I’d probably join… but unfortunately, they don’t seem to be exactly thriving.

    What I’m surprised Scott didn’t mention was that there’s the psychological flip side of strong in-group coherence, namely disdain for the out-group. That seems to be really hard to avoid, and probably gets worse the more sacrifices you demand for acceptance to the in-group, and the more sacrifices the competing groups demand from theirs. When I read the Sunday Assembly commandments, I see not a failed attempt to create a strong in-group, but a conscious attempt to avoid this anti-out-group dynamic. Considering that it’s easy to get people to beat each other up over trivial things like soccer teams, and seeing how fast things can turn vitriolic even within a thriving community once part of the community demands adherence to certain ideas, that may actually be the best way to proceed, even if it comes at a price.

  13. Emile says:

    The biggest atheist religion-substitute I know of is Sunday Assembly.

    How about Communism? Or specifically, the Chinese Communist Party?

    From Wikipedia:

    To become a probationary member, two current CPC members must recommend the applicant to the local party leadership. The recommending members must acquaint themselves with the applicants, and be aware of the “applicant’s ideology, character, personnel records and work performance” while teaching them about the party’s program and constitution, as well as the duties and responsibilities of members.


    According to Article 3 of the CPC constitution, a member must “conscientiously study Marxism–Leninism, Mao Zedong Thought, Deng Xiaoping Theory and the important thoughts of Three Represents, study the Scientific Outlook on Development, study the Party’s line, principles, policies and resolutions, acquire essential knowledge concerning the Party, obtain general, scientific, legal and professional knowledge and work diligently to enhance their ability to serve the people.”

    • Multiheaded says:

      …today’s CCP is hugely, notoriously corrupt and venal – to the point that not even the occasional public executions seem to be helping much. (Pretty sure that, in some way and to some degree, it has been Deng’s intent.)

      (Note that the CCP from the Long March up until 1949 did seem to be unusually ideologically pure, with the commitment and devotion of rank-and-file members appealing to the public and even to the foreign observers – in sharp contrast to Chiang’s KMT.)

      • Anonymous says:

        >(Note that the CCP from the Long March up until 1949 did seem to be unusually ideologically pure, with the commitment and devotion of rank-and-file members appealing to the public and even to the foreign observers – in sharp contrast to Chiang’s KMT.)

        the CCP’s popular perception in that period benefited immensely from relative distance, the KMT’s associations with fascism in the 30s, and the fact that they were never in charge and thus burdened with the responsibilities (and access to corruption) that being in charge meant. Probably more important than all of those, though, was the indirect benefits they got from USSR’s immensely successful pro-communist PR campaign waged through Comintern.

        It’s worth mentioning that the KMT came close to beating the communists twice, and both times only outside intervention saved the CCP.

    • Doug S. says:

      I think the North Korean rulers are doing this more effectively than China.

  14. vV_Vv says:

    If you are looking for a secular religion substitute, then Marxism, and its SJW grandchildren, are the most obvious examples. Doesn’t look pretty, does it?

    Why do you want a religion substitute? I can imagine that high-commitment communities could be beneficial in societies without welfare state and continuous fighting between rival clans and enemy tribes. But what is the point of having high-commitment communities in a modern developed country?
    (I know that the US has less welfare and personal safety than most other developed countries, which I guess is the reason why the US is more religious. But it seems to me that the ideal solution should be to increase welfare and personal safety, not to instill religious-like thinking even among atheists).

    High-commitment communities have high costs and failure modes: signaling costs can spiral out of control due to holier-than-thou status games, they are often ridden with negative-sum internal politics, and they strongly reinforce cognitive biases and fallacies (appeal to authority, bandwagon effect/groupthink, appeal to tradition, in-group/out-group bias, etc.) Can they really provide benefits that outweigh these costs in a modern society?

    For instance, take your Giving What We Can example: Suppose that you got into the Effective Altruism movement because you were really convinced that donating part of your income to help other people maximized your preferences, and that donating them to charities evaluated according to the EA criteria was the most efficient way of doing it.
    But what happened after you signed your pledge to tithe to GWWC?
    Now your social standing depends to your continued donations to their lists of approved charities. If tomorrow you become convinced that these charities aren’t doing very well, or that the EA gatekeeper organizations have become incompetent or corrupt, or that there is a more effective use of your charity money, you can’t withdraw your donations without taking a status hit.

    • Roxolan says:

      “The Pledge commits you to giving at least 10% of your pre-tax income until retirement to the charities you believe will do the most good in the world. It does not commit you to donating to the charities Giving What We Can recommends, although we believe that our research is an extremely useful tool in determining the most effective charities.”

      There are a bunch more words on their page and FAQ, but the tl;dr is that it’s a psychological trick, not restricted in any way, and not checked or enforced beyond the pledgers’ own conscience.

      • vV_Vv says:

        It there is no mechanism to punish fake signalers then it doesn’t work as a credible signal of commitment.

        • Drew Hardies says:

          The signal would be signing the paper *plus* telling one’s family + social group about their pledge.

          Once someone does that, they’d face a loss-of-status for backing out and an even bigger one for getting caught lying.

        • RCF says:

          Signalling in the sense of signalling theory, yes. Signalling in the more general sense of something that provides information, no.

      • Scott Alexander says:

        They ask you each year to list your donations. You could lie about those, but that’s a much bigger deceitful step than just saying you’re going to do it and not doing it.

  15. Albipenne says:

    I hadn’t read your post on archipelago before, but it was eerily striking how much it resembled the political philosophy of Roberto Unger in his book The Left Alternative.

    From what I can recall when reading it, he argued that one of the things that have made modern more liberal states successful is that it has freed people up to experiment in new spaces full of low hanging fruit. He claims that one things that has never been done is creating a society wherein the basic structure of the economy is liberated and different groups can experiment and try out different solutions. He argued for something akin to radical city / state rights but with a central federal government that would enforce freedom of movement.

    He often argues about what he calls the two left. The problem he sees where on one hand you have radicals who are willings to be authoritarian in pursuit of their virtues, and who want to rebuild social institutions with an all or nothing mindset, and on the other hand the rest of the left just wants to keep tweaking the existing institutions without any major structural changes.

    He wants to see more of a third choice, nudging existing social institutions towards more modular structure, and then experimenting in compartmentalized components without ever tearing down and rebuild the institutions themselves. He sees this as the only viable way to do structural change.

    I’d really recommend you check his stuff out, and see how it compares to your own meditations on the relevant topics.

    • Hari Seldon says:

      That is an incredibly popular meme among conservative and right/libertarian groups. Restrict the federal government to the original enumerated powers (prior to the everything-is-commerce interpretation of the commerce clause) and let the states do as they see fit. As long as freedom of movement is allowed, natural competition should result in some clear winning and losing policies.

      It isn’t without problems, but it’s an interesting approach that can appeal to both sides of the political spectrum. The result would be Brandeis’ “laboratory of democracy” writ large.

      • Multiheaded says:

        It isn’t without problems

        Did you mean: MOLOCH

        • Noah Siegel says:

          I don’t know if we’re working with the same definition of Moloch, but I define it (very broadly) as “the tendency of individual optimization to lead to group failure.”
          I don’t think that a strong central government necessarily suffers from this problem less than a Nozickian world. A strong central goverment, especially in a democracy, is composed of many Parts (individuals and factions), who are all seeking to optimize in ways that might ultimately destroy the Whole.
          Also, IIRC, Scott’s Archipelago has a coordinator who enforces rules designed to prevent certain multi-polar traps.

          • Anonymous says:

            I imagine Multiheaded means that, if states are competing for citizens, then they are incentivized to try and acquire citizens rather than necessarily make good policy. (If not, then I mean it.)

            Even in Scott’s utopian-hypothetical Archipelago, the winning strategy is to produce as many children as possible, create “child” communities from your excess population, and take over the (democratic) central government. Which, of course, means that the Archipealos will evolve over time into the best possible form for producing new citizens and new Archipegalos, with no regard for human values beyond what is necessary for brainwashing; assuming no one group manages to co-operate long enough to have the central government give them an unbeatable advantage and establishes an unbreakable dictatorship over the others.

          • Anonymous says:

            Even in Scott’s utopian-hypothetical Archipelago, the winning strategy is to produce as many children as possible, create “child” communities from your excess population

            This is true in our current world as well, and has always been true. In fact the process is expedited by the fact that in our world you can use those extra children to go out and actually conquer your neighbours instead of having to wait to out-vote them, and yet, somehow, we don’t live in an unbeatable global military dictatorship or some horrible cross-over between 1984 and ancient sparta.

            Somehow Moloch is being stopped here and, perhaps I am being to optimistic, but I think part of it is that most people are not perfectly rational group power maximisers, even the people who would actually be running the dictatorships/armies etc. So that when Moloch shows up and says “Sacrifice everything you love in return for power!” Most people say “no thanks” and go and do other stuff. And Moloch’s implicit threat of everyone else accepting Moloch’s offer and then destroying you with the power fails to materialise because hardly anybody else did accept Moloch’s offer. Sometimes this does go horribly wrong – ask Muhammed II of Khwarezm – but most of the time it works out somehow.

          • Fazathra says:

            Damn. The second anon reply was me

        • gattsuru says:

          To some extent, though not much more than the alternatives.

          The more oft-cited issues revolve around unnecessary expansion of necessary limitations on freedom of movement (ie, prison wars), and the high cost of transportation, especially for low-income or low-asset peoples.

          Which have the unpleasant negative of being even worse than Moloch.

    • Eric Hamell says:

      The model proposed by some socialists is not to tear down existing institutions first but rather start constructing new ones now that can serve as nuclei of a new social structure at some point in the future: for instance, trying to regenerate a rank-and-file-led labor movement that, building energy and competence in struggles over pay and working conditions, at the same time prepares workers to go beyond capitalist social relations and transform their unions into organs of working-class power in the event of a revolutionary crisis.

  16. Anon256 says:

    Is Giving What We Can more cohesive and tighter-knit than Sunday Assembly?

  17. Kaj Sotala says:

    It’s worth noting that arbitrary rules aren’t the only way to signal commitment, though. Visibly working for any common cause that the members believe in also works. E.g. successful start-ups will be quite cohesive, even if they consist of atheists.

    That suggests that if we want to give people replacements for religion, we can also do stuff like encourage them to join start-ups or other organizations that work hard for some goal. (GWWC kind of qualifies.)

    The main value in religion-as-a-social-group seems to be that it gives a “default” group that e.g. all family members can belong to, even if they don’t happen to be very committed to building the next Facebook or anything, and which is easy for everyone to enter. In this light, it’s interesting to note that the strength of religion as a social group is a combination of low barriers to entry combined with high barriers to entry in the form of arbitrary rules.

  18. Anon, thanks says:

    I don’t think the value of the rituals is solely about signalling commitment.

    There’s something intrinsically valuable to personal development about self-discipline in a group context.

    I have a fairly anti-authoritarian personality and friends, and generally don’t really identify with groups, so this isn’t an insight someone like me would usually come to. I got it through participating in a number of ayahuasca ceremonies (for depression and general brain unfucking.) I came to realise that there was a lot more power in strict Santo Daime ceremonies, where you make an effort to sit still and sing in Portuguese no matter what your brain is doing, than in more relaxed “shamanic” ceremonies with fewer rules. The power comes out of the discipline, and the “energy” or whatever of the group supports the discipline.

    Blue Tribe people typically undervalue that. But maybe people creating religion substitutes could start to include a sacrifice/discipline component if that can be rationally justified as good for personal development before you join, and then after you join you have the spiritual/surrender language as the motivator and social glue. Or maybe the way to do it is to start building gyms in churches and demanding exercise rituals and high protein breakfasts of all worshippers. I think I would join a gym-church. It should include a confession sacrament.

    (Maybe this isn’t just idle speculation. I think the Red Pill dickheads on Reddit have evolved a kind of gym-church. They have some seriously overblown and flowery language about lifting. And it does seem like the cult-like aspect of it is very motivating to them- most of their advice is instructions on how to abuse your partner, or masturbatory fantasies about how to meet girls. The remainder like “go to the gym” or “be confident” is just common sense. But it seems like some of them had to join a repulsive misogynist cult before they could actually act on the common sense parts. I wonder if a non toxic way to leverage that effect is possible.)

    • Anonymous says:

      Or maybe the way to do it is to start building gyms in churches and demanding exercise rituals and high protein breakfasts of all worshippers. I think I would join a gym-church. It should include a confession sacrament.
      What seems to happen quite a bit is that gyms evolve into churches (or rather, cults). Crossfit has been suspected of displaying cult-like behavior on different occasions; also, some martial arts (Aikido, Wing Chun, Bujinkan Budo Taijutsu, to name some better-known ones) have elements of cults or religions. Unfortunately, they tend to adapt the bad memetic aspects of religions – disdain for outgroups, schisms over pointless dogma, detachment from reality – more than the positive aspects.
      Also, generally speaking, the martial arts that are more prone to religious behavior are much less effective for fighting, getting fit, and general self-improvement than those that don’t make any pretenses at being a spiritual endeavor.
      There might be a generalizable lesson here. Then again, maybe not.

      • Anonymous says:

        >generally speaking, the martial arts that are more prone to religious behavior are much less effective for fighting, getting fit, and general self-improvement than those that don’t make any pretenses at being a spiritual endeavor.

        The same goes for Crossfit. Much of it is less-effective and more injury-prone than “traditional” training, and seems to be made different solely for the end of being different.

  19. One thing I’ve noticed that certain religions do quite well is the discussion and teaching of moral virtue. They often tell parables and discuss related ethical issues. In terms of indirect benefits for people and society, I think this is one that we’d be most likely to miss. There’s not many other accessible institutions centred around discussion of morality. If there’s going to be a non-religious alternative, maybe it ought to include basic rules around being virtuous or maybe discussing virtue? Donations are good, but giving them a context could make them feel more purposeful and less arbitrary.

    I’ve got a brief discussion of virtue from my Technonaturalist perspective, but I don’t consider it to be exactly my best work and I’d be interested to know what others thought on the issue?

  20. Handle says:

    How does Liberal Mainline Protestantism (LMP) ‘demand less’ than Conservative Evangelical Protestantism (CEP)?

    Last time I checked, LMP demanded – and constantly encourages – charitable alms too, and tends to favor the causes Givewell favors. Your premise is that requiring alms to Givewell could make secular atheism spiritual substitutes thrive. But LMP does that, and it’s imploding. So your conclusion does not rationally follow from the evidence you’ve presented here, which is an odd way to make a pitch for Givewell.

    Another example: if LMP demands that you are tolerant of homosexual marriage and CEP demands that you are not, then they are both making demands. If you are going to mention Iannaccone’s premise as if it explains the decline/thrive observation shown above, then you should explain that the set of requirements of CEP is somehow qualitatively more demanding that those of LMP. I don’t think that’s clear at all.

    Instead, what is much more likely, is the LMP is now so close to secular progressivism that there is just not enough difference between them to hold people together in some sub-community, because people find their social circle outside the church has the same values as those inside, and there’s no compelling reason to make a special congregation.

    The point is that you, and I think Iannaccone too, are misinterpreting the function of the demands, which is not just to demand something difficult or arbitrary, but to demand something completely different from the main external group. The outsiders can’t also be aspiring to your in-group’s special demand. They should think it weird or strange or ‘going overboard’.

    So the very example you cite would argue not for imitation and Givewell, but for radical differentiation from the dominant mainstream positions of ordinary secular progressivism. Would any ordinary progressive not immediately applaud you for giving to Givewell? Of course they would. So that’s not going to do it.

    • Anonymous says:

      Great response! Thanks.

    • emr says:

      Along these lines: A major appeal of joining a subgroup is the promise of a separate status hierarchy. Pursuing non-mainstream status necessarily looks “more demanding” from the perspective of a mainstream-status-loving person, (who naturally overlooks the sacrifices he makes in pursuit of mainstream status), but it’s not clear that non-mainstream status seekers actually perceive their own lives as more burdensome.

      Example 1: As a recent post demonstrated, many liberals perceive themselves as shouldering a burden that conservatives blissfully ignore. So what is it? Is conservatism or liberalism the more demanding ideology? How does the doom and gloom of conservatism compare to the various neurosis of the left?

      Example 2: With a few exceptions, the actual demands of many religions are decidedly human-sized. In fact, most religions offer several different levels of masochism, so that each person can choose to suffer just as much as he feel he must in order to feel relieved, or enlightened, or purified. So a typical Mormon seems to make mostly low cost sacrifices (no caffeine, wear boring clothes, pray), some moderate-cost sacrifices (tithe), and possibly one high cost (a mission trip) sacrifice, but in return will feel more psychological secure in their decision to opt out of various mainstream status games.

      Finally, some of the identified demands of a group might not be experienced as demands in any direct way at all. Believing that some ridiculous thing happened ages ago has no great psychological cost for many people. Going to church might seem demanding to us, but for many people it’s a net positive trade of a bit of boredom for socializing after the sermon.

    • MugaSofer says:

      >Another example: if LMP demands that you are tolerant of homosexual marriage and CEP demands that you are not, then they are both making demands.

      But it’s significantly harder to oppose gay marriage in today’s society than to support it. And, in fact, they only acquired this “obligation” to support gay marriage when public opinion made not doing so actively difficult. Your examples are not symmetrical.

      • Handle says:

        Oh come on. It’s been hip to be pro-gay, and square to be anti-gay, for many decades now. Same for atheism. The social pressures don’t flip like a switch for everyone simultaneously; it depends a lot on age and class.

        Scott’s premise is that CEP’s are thriving because they demand some sacrifice, whereas LMP’s aren’t, because they don’t.

        And then he says that charitable alms are a sufficient demand to achieve a thriving community.

        But then we looks at LMP and CEP, and we see that they both demand sacrifices in the form of charitable alms, but LMP is still imploding, so his conclusion is clearly untrue, but his logic is fine, thus his premise is clearly untrue. That’s, ‘rationality’.

        To account, therefore, for the disparity, I propose an alternative premise, which is that what holds a minority ideological community together is its steadfast commitment to principles which are clearly distinct from the current position and expected future direction of the mainstream, and which adherents of the mainstream would not want to imitate, at the very least.

        If LMP’s always cave and switch positions to align with mainstream progressivism, then there is not enough distinction, and that’s why they are imploding.

        This matter is especially important for people like Scott, who want a thriving, growing atheist religious substitute, but don’t want to conspicuously signal that it is at odds with mainstream progressivism, for a variety of reasons. My point is that this is impossible. You can sustain a tiny baseline congregation of fringe outliers, but no more than that.

        And indeed, it is precisely this observation of a tiny-numbered-and-going-nowhere community about which Scott is complaining and proposing a remedial reform that, purely coincidentally, happens to be a pitch for Givewell.

        Making a pitch in a clever way is a good way to win plaudits and gain status amongst those who already hold the activity in high regard. But it’s not a good way to build a community, the erroneous proposition of which was the cleverness he employed to make his pitch.

        • RCF says:

          Prior to 2012, no one had ever gotten elected president while openly supporting SSM. No had even been nominated by the major parties while openly supporting SSM. So, no, I don’t see there being an obligation to support SSM for decades. And as for atheism, no major presidential candidate has endorsed equality for atheists, and I would bet ten to one against either of them doing so in 2016.

          • Handle says:

            What are you talking about? Joe Lieberman as VP candidate said gay marriage was just fine with him as far back as the 2000 debates.

        • Eric Hamell says:

          You can signal being at odds with mainstream progressivism without being conservative. You can do so instead by raising issues and challenging taboos that most people across the ideological spectrum aren’t yet willing to confront. This wouldn’t necessarily mean taking unpopular positions. It could be achieved simply by making a point of discussing them: inviting their advocates as speakers, holding debates, etc.

          • Handle says:

            “You can signal being at odds with mainstream progressivism without being conservative.”

            It’s possible in theory, but nearly non-existence in practice. There’s a big difference between being a few standard deviations away from the mean, while remaining on the same axis, and being any distance away on an orthogonal axis.

            “Extending the Struggle” by moving in the direction of already-existing momentum and applying abstract values that are already high-status in progressivism to novel contexts is not signalling being ‘at odds’ with progressivism, it is status signalling within progressivism, and playing the competitive sanctimony rat race game.

            Policy space has a huge number of dimensions, and there are countless ways to select a set of positions that are orthogonal to the current factional axis, and yet 99.99% of what people believe, say, and do politically – in nearly every human society ever studied and especially our own – lie on the same axis.

            Stepping a little farther out on that axis does not accomplish the ‘at odds’ goal of forming a cohesive coalition which owes its cohesion to its rivalry and its opposition to the current vector of social change.

            And worst of all, because the social momentum vector is pointing that direction anyway, it’s only a matter of time before the mean intellectual fashion catches up, which would erode whatever ‘at odds’ cohesion one can derive from a group prior position in the ‘fringe’ and also the status advantage of signalling that you’re ahead of the curve.

            All that does is create a perpetual arms race to ratchet and keep moving further and further out on the increasingly extreme fringe on a particular political axis, until one inevitably reaches positions that are unreasonable and delusional as they prioritize conformity to ideological abstractions and drift away from anything that is a good fit for the many non-ideal ugly truths of human reality. And, as we usually observe, it’s only a matter of time before criticism of those abstractions becomes effectively prohibited and unspeakably taboo because of the likely negative social consequences.

            Eventually, that civilization is hampered by irreversible commitments to ideas that cause significant amounts of unpleasantness and social dysfunction and pathology. We’re already there, and it’s getting worse.

  21. Joshua Fox says:

    At LessWrong meetups, you have to be prepared for long discussions on quantum mechanics and reflexive decision theory. Talk about demanding signaling mechanisms that only the committed few can handle!

    • Charlie says:

      True, but for mass market appeal, we want to minimize the prerequisites outside of commitment.

      • Handle says:

        If you lower the standards, your movement won’t amount to much, and wont be able to accomplish its stated purposes. There is no logical optimum for a balanced trade off, and you cannot serve two masters, so you have to pick. Growth for its own sake is the ideology of a cancer cell, and you can’t control and won’t like the mutations required to sustain it. You don’t just look into the abyss, it looks back at you, and takes over.

        If you become attractive to low-status or less-competent people, your movement will lose reputation, which is counterproductive and self-defeating.

        At the very least, what will happen is that you get a lot of people who aren’t genuinely up to the task, but don’t know, and end up doing a lot of parroting and cargo-cult mimicry of the rituals of rational discussion and behavior, but who are actually not able to apply it consistently or originally in new circumstances.

        Thus they will inevitably end up succumbing unwittingly and without self-awareness to a lot of the same emotional and irrational biases the movement was purported to minimize, rationalizing high status beliefs instead of using rationality to arrive at accurate beliefs, even if contrarian and low-status.

        And through typical status-seeking and conformity-driven behavior, as well as evaporative concentration of boiling off or purging the disappointed old-timers, the newcomers will create just another epistemically closed ideological echo-chamber where the social positive feedback mechanism takes over and suppresses criticism and where they can’t even tell anymore how far their beliefs are drifting away from reality anymore, or distinguish between mere fashionable opinions and ‘universal truth’.

        The ugly truth is that you have to pick between small numbers or low quality. There is no alternative. The strongest bias of all is that there just might be a way to square this circle. There isn’t.

        Indeed, Scott is trying to take advantage of this delusion, by making a pretty feeble showing of its accuracy, in order to make a pitch for tithing to Givewell, and for which I’m sure he has his reasons.

        Still, exploiting bias is a pretty odd thing to do in a rationalist community. It is even more odd to be applauded for it by so-called fellow rationalists.

        But you see, that’s my point, because this phenomenon already happened to this community. A fellowship of the like-minded has lost sight of this bias altogether, as such communities will tend to do.

  22. Deiseach says:

    To cheer you up a little, on the other hand, the Society for Ethical Culture has managed to last 150 years and is still going strong enough that it was able to host the Secular Solstice. How many movements, groups and organisations that were big in their day, or hoped to be world-shaking, world-changing, have fallen by the wayside in that space of time? Religions take centuries to grow, give atheism/secular humanism a bit of time too!

    The trouble with things like “secular ten commandments” and suchlike ideas is that, as you point out, they’re fuzzy to the point of meaninglessness. They boil down to “let’s be nice” and really, who can disagree with that? Who can define what “being nice” is?

    Besides which, grand statements such as We are based on a philosophy of loving acceptance and all are welcome here regardless of beliefs and we don’t tell anyone how to live or what to do are often contradicted in practice: great! You’ll take me just as I am? How wonderful – hey, who here wants to join me in setting up a local branch of the KKK? I rather think I’d find myself shown the door in short order 🙂

    It’s not just religion that this applies to; a sports club where you play a mixed game of hockey/basketball/football/ice skating/water polo, with no strict rules, everyone can participate, and if you just want to sit on the sidelines and drink beer that’s fine, would (I imagine) not have a lot of participating members after a while. If I can sit on the sidelines and drink beer, I can just as easily do that in a pub with all my mates, so why do I turn up to mess about on a rink pitch and muddle around, when I can have all the fun and none of the bother elsewhere?

    If – according to your group’s statement of principles – I can commune with the Deity as I understand that concept every bit as well on a mountaintop or hiking through the forest as within the four walls of a building, why would I show up on Friday/Saturday/Sunday for the gathering in the place, at a time and location inconvenient to me, rather than having a lie-in, a leisurely breakfast, and a hike in the woods where I can commune away to my heart’s content?

  23. fermion says:

    Unpleasant initiation rituals seem to have some of the same effects in forming tight-knit communities–fraternities and hazing are the classic example, but there are also things like the Line-Crossing Ceremony for sailors and doubtless many others. Perhaps doing one very unpleasant thing once has the same psychological outcome as following slightly cumbersome rules over a long period of time. Some rationalist community should try adopting a hazing ceremony of carefully calibrated discomfort to increase community cohesion.

  24. DiscoveredJoys says:

    Now here’s a thought – *if* desire for ritual or ingroup significant behaviour has some genetic component (although culture obviously builds on this desire in different ways) then you would expect to find some people more desirous of “religion” and some people less so. Amplified or diminished by the culture around them.

    In which case people who self identify as atheists may *generally* have little or no predisposition to take part in “religious” activities and so the search for a religion substitute is likely to be generally unfulfilled.

    Perhaps the American separation into increasing Evangelicals and declining liberal Protestantism reflects the range of different genetic predispositions playing out in a changing social environment?

  25. LilaJ says:

    Yes, hazing can create greater group loyalty. That’s one of the many reasons why groups are scary.

  26. BD Sixsmith says:

    …our human make-up includes not only a sense of reverence, but a sense of irreverence; not only an appreciation of the numinous but an appreciation of the humorous. Organised worship, so long as you concede the possibility that a God exists, can never be wholly ridiculous; for, if the suspicion should prove true, that attitude is commensurate to the dignity of that which is worshipped. But – worship without a God? I am afraid even those “moments” would not really survive in the glare of publicity… – Ronald Knox, Broadcast Minds

    I think the good monsignor underestimated the extent to which religious impulses can be expressed through politics, lifestyles and material accumulation but coherent reverential philosophies are built around grand narratives and it is hard for nonbelievers to construct them without being ridiculous. I have assumed that this explains the science worship of Richard Dawkins and others but that seems like a lost cause given that their own writings tell us what a cold, harsh place the universe is.

    • Eli says:

      Actually, the only reason I don’t relentlessly make fun of everything “reverent” around me, up to and including this very group, is because people consider it jerkish and nasty. Some of us actually find Serious Business quite difficult to take seriously.

  27. Nikias The Random Blog Commenter says:

    This muscular social fabric, in turn, attracts more members, who are drawn to the benefits of a strong community – leading to growth for groups with strict membership requirements.

    I always thought it was the birth rates. More conservative religion, more demandingness is often correlated with more natalist memes and anti-contraception/abortion norms.

    Then if the brainwashing of the captive little “members” is strong enough, it will stick to enough of them into adulthood that there’s net growth of the community over time.

    • Anonymous says:

      It’s pretty disgusting when you see it in action. I’ve noticed there seems to be a correlation between how religious someone is and how many offspring they produce. Are there any solid statistics for that? Hahaha.

      • Jiro says:

        Sometimes I’ve wondered whether these sorts of groups act like stem cells in that they reproduce but a number of them will turn into other cells that don’t reproduce so much. If you assume a fixed percentage of the religious will leave, then at some point there will be a steady state where the attrition in the non-religious (due to less than replacement reproductive rate) is balanced by the increase in the nonreligious due to religious people leaving their religion.

      • MugaSofer says:

        >It’s pretty disgusting when you see it in action. Hahaha.

        See, guys, this is why you’re losing.

    • Paul Torek says:

      This. After all this talk about memes and evolution, you would think that the importance of reproduction would be a little more obvious.

    • MugaSofer says:

      >birth rates

      Surely someone has controlled for this?

    • Nornagest says:

      I’m always a little suspicious of this line of argument. Sure, it makes intuitive sense: the most reliable (if not necessarily easiest) way to produce a member of your preferred ideology is to physically make them, so have more kids than the other guys and you win in twenty years.

      Back in 2004 or so, for example, the going theory in US politics was that the GOP was building a permanent Republican majority on birth rates and geography: the younger generation might look left-leaning, but evangelicals had more kids and a younger population than any other American demographic of comparable size, and that was going to dominate everything else when the Sixties-influenced Boomers started dying off.

      Except it didn’t actually work that way. The Democrats swept both houses in 2006 — mostly thanks to Bush’s screw-ups, sure, but still — and Obama came to office not much later. Now it’s ten years later, and while the Republicans might be back in control of the legislature, their demographics look about as weak as I’ve ever seen them. The evangelical churches haven’t gotten much smaller, as we can see from the chart up top, but they haven’t gotten much bigger, either — and all the non-evangelical demographics they once drew on have gotten much weaker.

      My working theory is that ideology mutates too fast for this strategy to work.

  28. Emily says:

    It’s not much of a religion-substitute until you have adults who grew up with its rules and performing its rituals. It can’t just be converts forever. And for that to happen, it needs to give atheists some reason to reproduce. I don’t see that happening.

    • Kiya says:

      I know atheists who have reproduced. Deciding not to follow a god means you are under no obligation to be fruitful and multiply, but you can still reasonably choose to invest major time and energy in creating a new human like yourselves.

      You might get an effect where atheists feel uncomfortable indoctrinating their children in ritual from a young age, though.

      • Emily says:

        I’m not claiming atheists never reproduce. But it’s far enough below the replacement rate that it’s not going to work for growing a religion-substitute. To work, the religion-substitute will have to find a way to make its particular atheists reproduce more than atheists do in general.

    • fubarobfusco says:

      Some religious movements get more members via conversion of adults, and some get more members via having babies and raising them to stay in the religion.

      Scientologists, for instance, do have some babies; but Scientology doesn’t push baby-having in the way that Catholicism does — it pushes conversion and feeding money into the organization. And it does not appear to be doing a super great job at keeping Scientologists’ children in the church. The Amish on the other hand don’t do conversion; neither do the Yazidis or the Zoroastrians — they only get new members by having babies.

      We might think of conversion as the religious meme extending cooperation to individual seekers (“Come be part of our community and be fulfilled and happy!”) and fertility doctrine as the religious meme extending cooperation to the human genome (“Organisms in this population will have more offspring! They may be guilt-ridden and poor, but they will breed!”).

      • Doug S. says:

        Another thing to consider: in the long run, democracies end up being ruled by the descendents of the fertile. (In Israel, or so I’ve heard, certain Orthodox Jewish groups and certain Palestinian groups have “have as many children as possible, so our ethnicity is numerically dominant in the future” as a major goal…)

  29. Thomas says:

    What about hazing?

    Instead of a voluntary ongoing commitment of time to silly supernaturalism, organize a culture around a shared experience of pain or degradation.

    It seems to work *quite* well in criminal organizations (Hells Angels, famously) and fraternities, as well as aboriginal societies and the military.

    And i think you could be honest about it: “Today we’ll take turns pepper spraying eachother. It’ll hurt like hell, but we’ll leave feeling closer to eachother and think back upon this as a defining moment of our lives.”

    It’d be faster and more efficient by miles than praying 3 times a day, forever.

    • I think hazing and religion could be combined really effectively. Pledging in a fraternity involves being in the dark about a whole bunch of stuff and as such it sort of has a sense of mystery around it, which serves religion well. It requires dedicating a large portion of your life to the frat and also following a bunch of arbitrary rules, which could be spun as discipline. Also a lot of ancient secret societies had initiation ceremonies where the initiate would play the role of some sort of godlike being and pass through a series of trials, so you could make some sort of dramatic experience out of that. And then there’s the fact that a lot of religion involves fetishization of suffering in some way.

      I mean I guess this already happens since cults do in fact “haze” in a sense, but I think you could also have a healthy, non-brainwashing religion that uses hazing to a good end.

      • Thomas says:

        I would take it even a step further: i suspect that a group of rationalists who desire stronger mutual social ties could merely get into a circle and take turns hurting eachother one afternoon. They could enter the circle knowing full well that there will be no legitimate purpose served by the pain and *still* leave having found the community they sought.

        I further believe that understanding the psychological mechanics behind this type of hazing/decentralized Stockholm Syndrome would likely make willing participants *more* receptive, rather than less.

  30. On the topic of secular religiosity, I cannot help reposting this gem from Nick Land about the meaning of Santa Claus:

    A ritualized social training in disbelief seems ominously unprecedented, so one naturally wonders about the religious formation that commands this recently innovated power. If there is a disbelief that would set us free, the modern ceremony of Yule — celebrating the occult death of Santa at the Golgotha of secularism — doesn’t seem to be it. On the contrary, it represents a populist version of the Jacobin-Enlightenment Cult of Reason, symbolically purging infantile superstition to be reborn into an approved state of adult consciousness. The Death of Santa is mystery initiation into the New Church. Santa died to redeem humanity from the sins of attachment to Medieval unreason, and every year this sacrifice is ritualistically re-enacted to recall the new covenant. (Go on, tell me this isn’t the narrative.)

  31. Wes says:

    I don’t think any discussion of commitment should be had without mentioning Cialdini’s Influence. Cialdini explains exactly how extracting sacrifices from members strengthens communities. It’s not that only the most committed will make the sacrifices. It’s that the act of making the sacrifice turbocharges your commitment. You are heavily motivated to act and think in ways that retroactively justify your sacrifice (Cialdini calls it “consistency drive”). You will inevitably end up convincing yourself that your sacrifice was reasonable and worth it, even if you started out skeptical.

  32. Arthur B. says:

    Nomic is not a card game… it can devolves into using cards, or into anything really, but the original version only calls for a dice.

    I organized a Nomic game once for a less wrong New York meetup, I thought it was a lot of fun. That was before they started going to churches with the explicit (and documented – see mailing list archives) intent to learn manipulative techniques to grow the “following” of the group. Things like the winter solstice celebration you attended were born out of this explicit and deliberate intent to manipulate people and to become more cult like.

    Now you may believe this is all for the greater good and you may even have enjoyed the event but I don’t see how that would square with your post on “niceness, community, and civilization”.

  33. meh says:

    This seems to focus on the idea of the rules being a filter to committed persons, but they may also be the cause of it (

  34. Anonymous says:

    It’s getting more and more disturbing how enamored people are getting with successful religions’ tactics for social control.

    • B says:

      People probably feel the decline (even doctrinally panglossian types like OGH) and when the other option is chaos, all the kvetching about social control feels a bit gauche (which it, pardon the pun, is).

  35. Vivificient says:

    It’s too bad we’re supposed to be trying not to be a cult. Otherwise our religion-substitute could be something fun like giving 10% of our income to charity and then getting together and chanting “Death to Moloch! May Elua be raised!”

  36. moridinamael says:

    Look, just start the church already so we can all join it.

  37. Wirehead Wannabe says:

    It occurs to me that another thing missing from atheist/rationalist culture is a distinct aesthetic. You know what a church looks like when you drive by one, even if it uses more modern architecture. Similarly, you know what a fraternity, a tailgate party, a star trek convention, a BSDM dungeon, or a university look like. Atheism and rationalism, on the other hand, pretty much just look like a bunch of people meeting in a coffee shop or a convention center. I don’t have any experience with Sunday Assembly, but it sounds very much like they just try to copy the look and feel of liberal Protestantism. I don’t know what the solution is, since I’m not sure you can just go out and design a look without letting it happen organically. Maybe we just need facepaint or something.

    • Protagoras says:

      Modernism! It’s out of fashion, I know, but I think that’s a shame; philosophically, I’m more modernist than post-modernist (as is much of the rationalist community, as far as I can tell), so signalling it with the artistic style that was historically (admittedly very loosely) associated with the philosophies I approve of seems to me to make a great deal of sense. And some of the modernist stuff looks cool. Perhaps a revival is in order?

      • B says:

        Cali modernism, Googie, would actually be perfect: gee wiz optimism bordering on kitsch, a commitment to living in the future & friendly openness

        • Irenist says:

          Agreed, B. It would also play into the overall “Californian Ideology” vibe that’s already present.

  38. B says:

    I wonder whether giving for the benefit of people genetically remote to you is adaptive.
    The obvious arguments I can see:

    + a precommitment to “improving the world” will lead to optimism, since people like to impute effectiveness to their actions, leading to willingness to have children
    + charity -> status -> more chances to make children

    – time & effort & focus spent on strangers not abailable for own progeny

    • Paul Torek says:

      That’s funny. If status -> more chances to make children, then status (at least in the First World) is a classic “lost purpose” in the LessWrong sense.

      • Douglas Knight says:

        There’s definitely something broken in evolutionary terms, but it’s probably not as simple as status -> more children. Foragers probably are that simple, and thus probably don’t sacrifice quantity of children for status. But in the world of farmers, status leads to quality of children (eg, via inherited resources), and it may be right to sacrifice quantity for status, a heuristic now subject to superstimulus.

  39. Dain says:

    Related piece, “Secularists must concede the futility of attempts to find a substitute for god”:

    • Nornagest says:

      As a heuristic, I’ve found that articles titled with phrases like “must concede” are usually bullshit.

  40. cassander says:

    modern politics has all the features of organized religion. you have holy books that most of the believers haven’t read, doctrine in them that they’re usually only vaguely familiar with beyond the level of slogan (race is a social construct, guns don’t kill people, people kill people), and organized national churches complete with saints, martyrs, and prophets and a promise to take us all to heaven if we follow their teachings. most importantly, membership requires little more than profession of allegiance to a vague creed, and entitles one to feel superior to those heretics and heathens of other creeds. This development is not new, and I can’t even say if it’s getting better or worse, but it definitely isn’t a good thing.

    • Princess Stargirl says:

      I basically agree this is accurate. The whole thing even involves discrimination at least as bad as racial discrimination according to fairly reliable seeming studies.

    • onyomi says:


      Also, the founding fathers=old testament prophets
      Reconstruction=the new covenant

  41. Irenist says:

    Well, as a sympathetic Catholic observer, I can at least offer ecclesiological advice on how to go full phyg. We’ve been at it for a while. This is offered mostly tongue-in-cheek. For a lot readers, it’ll describe a dystopian failure mode. Nevertheless, it strikes me as weirdly plausible that something like this will crop up this century.

    an opt-in religion without beliefs or supernatural elements.

    “Without supernatural elements” is easy. But there have to be SOME beliefs. To wit, there have to be beliefs that make the nomic rules seem worth following. (AFAIK, plausible placebos work better than known placebos. I’m open to correction on that.) E.g., if a group were to adopt consequentialist veganism as a worthy signal, it would be because the group more or less agreed with a Singer-style analysis of why that was a good thing to do. That would be, IMHO, more effective than “we picked this random thing because it’s onerous enough to credibly signal commitment.”
    “Secularism” is too broad a category around which to gather a close-knit group: even some theists are “secularists” in that they strongly favor and lobby for strict separation of church and state. “Atheism” is helpfully narrower, but doesn’t in itself entail any beliefs, practices, political or ethical stances. (“Atheism+” was an attempt to tack on some SJW stuff, AIUI.)

    In contrast, LW/EY/SSC-style rationality seems to have enough distinctives (reductionism, consequentialism, Many Worlds, cryonics, Friendly AI as the key issue of our time, possibly polyamory) that it could easily form the nucleus of a high-commitment group. I’m going to add in consequentialist veganism because it showed up in the SSC comments recently, seems like a very plausible religion-style high cost nomic rule, and seems like a good complement to the less physically onerous nomic rules I can think off.

    But the point is, here’s an organization that has a very specific rule and demands you follow it. And even though their pledge form looked kind of like a tax return, signing that form was more of a sanctifying and humbling experience than any of the religion-substitutes that try to intentionally generate sanctification. Not because I was at some chapel where someone gave a rousing sermon overusing the word “community”, but because I was binding myself, voluntarily submitting to a higher moral authority.

    AA and other 12 Step groups seem to offer some of the structure you’re looking for—whatever their merits as addiction treatments, which is orthogonal to whether 12 step style meetings are good lattices with which to crystallize a group of people. They could perhaps be adapted so that the “higher power” was Rationality or something, and the “addiction” was to irrationality or whatever. I imagine the anonymity could be dispensed with.

    Someone on my blog a while back used the word “nomic” to refer to a subculture based on following a rule set, sort of like an opt-in religion without beliefs or supernatural elements. I looked to see if it was a real thing but couldn’t find any references other than the card game. But I find the idea interesting. If it contains mechanisms for treating subculture members differently than non-members,

    So what would a nomic rule set for a close-knit group based on LW/EY/SSC distinctives look like? Hmm. Well, they’d be broadly similar to the distinctives of transhumanist movements like Terasem or Cosmism, but they’d be a lot more Rationality-focused, and they’d have to (unlike those so-far miniscule and so presumably memetically underpowered groups) have some falsifiable demonstrations of nomic commitment. Here are a few ill-considered guesses:
    • Demonstrate (via a quiz of some kind) that you’ve read the Sequences
    • Demonstrate (via a different quiz) that you’ve mastered the Bayesian basics
    • Pass periodic check-up quizzes on the above
    • Do that Giving What We Can pledge, and stick to it.
    • Possibly related, try to help out MIRI with some non-phyg level but documented regular contribution
    • Dietary commitment: consequentialist veganism, soylent, something like that
    • Exercise commitment: keep yourself in fighting trim for Bayesian clarity and winning generally
    • Credibly commit to funding your own cryopreservation as soon as you’re able
    • Distinctive dress: maybe a cryonics bracelet or something should be worn at all times
    • Optional add-on for phyggy memetic virulence: commitment to have/adopt kids when able, coupled to exhortation to increase the (vital to FAI! or whatever) rationalist percentage of the population by making sure that more kids every generation are raised rationalist

    Now you need carrots and sticks. The chief carrots:
    • Getting to go to those 12-step style Rationality dojo meetings
    • Getting invited to Nomic Rationalist chatrooms.
    • Getting listed on LW or somewhere as a Nomic Rationalist (or whatever) in good standing
    • All that veganism and exercise would make you all even healthier than Mormons—that’s a HUGE selling point. Now you’re overcoming people’s dieting problems in that 12 step group, which is already a pretty popular social service

    Sticks would be that you have to verifiably keep up the nomic commitments, or you lose the LW listing and, like a Mormon disallowed from Temple ceremonies, the right to attend those 12 step groups and elite chatrooms. Or whatever. If you were going to borrow from Catholicism/Orthodoxy, you’d have some sort of “confession” analogue for people who lapsed on their Nomic commitments to do penance of some kind (or it’s not an effective stick) and get reinstated (or your community collapses whenever too many consequentialist vegans publicly give in to the temptation of bacon).

    it seems like an optional add-on module to government, and a strong candidate for the sort of thing that could develop into a healthy Archipelago.

    Yeah. That’s why I’m sympathetic. You LW types are all pretty neat, and the thicker a worldview you all can develop, the more the rest of us far away from you in the Lockean/Millean secular Archipelago can learn from it. Or, as the Vatican II documents on ecumenism put it, “add your biological and technological distinctiveness to our own.” (That *was* the Vatican, right?)

    ETA: Departing from the nomic inquiry, any phyg worth its salt needs pretty art. Some sort of encouragement to make Rationality-inspiring artworks (like Scott’s calligraphed 12 Virtues) might be offered.

    • Deiseach says:

      If they’re going to adopt consequentialist veganism as a dogma of the new non-church church, they can take on dietary restrictions of the Orthodox at their finest! 🙂

      Weekly Fast
      Unless a fast-free period has been declared, Orthodox Christians are to keep a strict fast every Wednesday and Friday. The following foods are avoided:
      Meat, including poultry, and any meat products such as lard and meat broth.
      Fish (meaning fish with backbones; shellfish are permitted).
      Eggs and dairy products (milk, butter, cheese, etc.)
      Olive oil. A literal interpretation of the rule forbids only olive oil. Especially where olive oil is not a major part of the diet, the rule is sometimes taken to include all vegetable oils, as well as oil products such as margarine.
      Wine and other alcoholic drink. In the Slavic tradition, beer is often permitted on fast days.

      The down(up?)side of veganism will be that all animal-derived drinks will have to be cut out, and only pure vegetarian/vegan drinks like beer, wine, sherry and so forth will be acceptable 🙂

      You will find me drinking rum,
      Like a sailor in a slum,
      You will find me drinking beer like a Bavarian.
      You will find me drinking gin
      In the lowest kind of inn,
      Because I am a rigid Vegetarian.

  42. Jim Glass says:

    “The biggest atheist religion-substitute I know of is Sunday Assembly”.

    C’mon, as others have mentioned, hard-core 1930s-and-on classic Stalinist Communism and its follow-ups. There’s lots of academic analysis showing the similarities and samenesses of the mechanisms that held it together and drove it as per religion.

    Religion has been a universal across societies, playing a key adaptive role in organizing human social orders from earliest times (see Wright, Fukayama, Pinker and a lot of others) and has been tied at the hip to the emergence of state orders, which typically quite literally emerged out of religious orders.

    It’s pretty clear that the functions of religion are necessary for ordering human behavior in societies. We live in an interesting time when these very functions are beginning to be picked up piecemeal by groups that think of themselves as being secular or even anti-religion, for all that they function socially and cognitively so much as religions do.

    As long as this happens piecemeal and incrementally, this may itself be adaptive evolutionary social progress. But when an authoritarian attempt to suppress religion on the whole is made, a new ‘secular religion’ promptly will arise to meet the social order’s need for one, and being that it will not have evolved over generations to be adaptive, the results will be unhappy. Stalinism and its legacy is far from the only example, only the worst.

    Anyone who doubts Wilson, Pinker & Co on all this should just check out South Park’s Go God, Go! episode (on Hulu or wherever the heck they’ve moved it to), that’ll nail it for you.

    • onyomi says:

      I think anthropologists and the like have written a fair amount about North Korea’s “Juche Idea” as religion. It is basically a secular, vaguely Marxism-based cult of personality, though it also has a fair amount of Confucianism mixed in, including some quasi-supernatural “signs” of good rule, like the appearance of unicorns and rainbows. (Maybe this should also make us think twice before dismissing the idea of Confucianism as a religion).

  43. Kai Teorn says:

    On the decline of mainline protestantism:

    “…Another, symmetric, mechanism kicks in at later stages: as you approach domination, your opponents shrink but get louder and more militant, concentrate charisma, inflate their mindshare. The universal “backslide bias” motivates you to keep pushing even when your cause is winning; but resist the temptation to dismiss any regression as an illusory backslide.”

  44. Jeremy says:

    You put forth arguments about why conservative protestant movements are more appealing than liberal protestant movements, but all the arguments are absolute. What explains the relative decline in liberal protestants over time? Are the people who would once have been liberal protestants now atheistic and secular, or perhaps participating in even less cohesive vague spiritual movements?

    • Scott Alexander says:

      My guess is the increase of geographic mobility, corresponding decline of tight-knit communities, and emergence of “not religious” as an increasingly salient option.

  45. Bugmaster says:

    This may be a stupid question, but, objectively speaking, do we need strongly coherent social subgroups — such as churches and Giving What We Can ?

    As far as I understand, in the case of Giving What We Can, creating a strong subgroup is an instrumental goal. Their primary mission is to (roughly speaking) support poor people; and to do that they need to collect as much money as possible for charity; and in order to do that, they need some way of making people give them money (without using lots of coercive force, which they lack and which might be undesirable anyway). So, in this case, creating a strong social subgroups with built-in social norms that say, “give your money to charity”, is a good idea.

    But Scott’s post reads as though creating such social subgroups is a worthy goal in and of itself, and I don’t think that’s true.

    • Jadagul says:

      I get the impression that for a lot of people, strongly coherent social subgroups are a deeply felt need. It’s one I either don’t have or satisfy without some sort of external structure, but I think that’s the premise here.

      • Bugmaster says:

        That does make sense. I suppose I was falling prey to the Typical Mind Fallacy, even though my mind is highly atypical — i.e., I don’t have this “deeply felt need”, either.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I think for some people they fulfill a social need, but that’s not really what I’m interested in here. I’m interested in them as a way of cordoning off a group of people for social experimentation, sort of like gated communities. If you don’t have them, you revert to the global default, which depending on the global default can be either okay or terrible. If you do, you can create and maintain an area either better run than the global default, or at least an area more suitable for your specific kind of person.

  46. Another way of saying some of this is that secularism fails because it:

    * lacks psychic potency
    * starves the soul
    * lacks passion
    * lacks a mythos

    I wonder if psychologists have studied this, because it’s clear to me that there is something psychologically different about most atheists; they seem rather robotic, soulless and passionless compared to the religious. This can be very useful when you’re trying to build moon rockets, but for maintaining a vital civilization over the long term, there seems to be something lacking (see birth and suicide rates in secular societies).

    Is there some intangible, metaphysical “Force”, which by definition doesn’t exist to an atheist, which gives some people vitality, power and success beyond all reason? This is what I have noticed. There is an axis from the mundane to the magical, depending on how much of this “Force” you are tapped into, and I rarely meet an atheist who isn’t on the left end of this spectrum. Atheists are simply weak in the Force. Those who aren’t, like Carl Sagan, aren’t actually atheists at all, but prophets and disciples of religions that just don’t have names yet.

    • Anonymous says:

      > because it’s clear to me that there is something psychologically different about most atheists; they seem rather robotic, soulless and passionless compared to the religious.

      FWIW, I’m an atheist, and I rarely (if ever) experience that robotic feeling when talking to other atheists, or in fact any other people in general. I acknowledge that Christians can be quite robotic in certain specific circumstances (all the “Praise the Lord !” stuff in church), but when I talk to them under normal conditions, they respond just like other people.

      I suspect that the communication problem in your own case might lie within yourself…

    • FullMeta_Rationalist says:

      I sorta remember reading articles about an fmri experiment. They suggested theists are more likely to use parts of the brain associated with system 1/deontology. And atheists are more likely to use system 2/consequentialism. This is what I can find at the moment.

    • Eric Hamell says:

      The last sentence looks like the “no true Scotsman” fallacy.

  47. At the rationality/LessWrong meetup I attended last week, I told my friends there that I started attending a Unitarian Universalist Church as an experiment in becoming religious. I mention this here because Unitarian Universalism is so liberal a religion that others are disinclined to even acknowledge it as a religion. Additionally, Unitarian Universalist congregations are typically a mix of non-theists, and agnostic halfway connected to the religions they were raised with. So, it’s a bit of a blend between ‘religion’ and ‘religion-substitute’.

    On LessWrong, Yudkowsky once wrote that the ‘God-shaped’ hole in human hearts that organized religions use to draw congregants happens to be the same shape as the ‘rationality-shaped’ hole in human hearts. That is, he was making a joke to prove a point. Religions demand of their adherents, and they receive in return the benefits of community. However, Yudkowsky makes the point that with sufficient metacognition one can find suitable replacements for religion, to get all the social benefits, without suspending one’s rational faculties. So, religion need not be necessary to individual human fulfillment after all.

    I like this point. However, to figure out how to receive all the community benefits of religion without the religion, it helps to have a community. If the rationality movement is a subculture in which one would find that community, it helps to live in the Bay Area, or New York, where those communities are established. Will Eden wrote about all this in his original case study of the New York rationality meetup as a successful one. However, where I live, the rationality meetup typically doesn’t exceed more than ten people, meeting on an inconsistent weekly basis, to discuss what interesting academic papers or Reddit links we’ve read in the last week. That’s a far cry more interesting to me than a random group of people, but it’s not enough to build a religion-substitute.

    I’m also what one might call ‘spiritual’. So, I feel a particular need to seek fulfillment, for personal reasons. The part about Unitarian Universalism about being so inclusive, and allowing each of its adherents to construct their own theology, appealed to me. I was raised without religion, I’m averse to orthodox religion, and I’m frightened of how I would need to change to even ever become a devout and sincere believer in an ancient Abrahamic tradition.

    However, at the rationality/LessWrong meetup, a new friend was there, who described himself as a ‘weird’ Muslim. He pointed out to me that because Unitarian Universalism is so loose, and without restrictions, the social benefits of being part of it as a religious community wouldn’t be nearly as much were I to adhere to a stricter religion. Originally, I didn’t believe him, but it seemed plausible. In light of this blog post, I think he might be right.

    However, I’m also a supporter of effective altruism, and intend to join Giving What We Can in a few years when I have a steadier income. In between that, other subcultures, and Unitarian Universalism, I’m wondering if I can hack myself into a personalized and makeshift community that gives me the benefits. Even as a type this, I don’t believe this too much. I wonder if I’ll have to forge my own community of sorts to get what I want. I’m aware others reading this have done the same, so your perspective would be appreciated.

    • Lemminkainen says:

      How have your experiences with UU been? I also live in a non-rationalist-dense area, and I’ve been considering a similar experiment.

      • I joined a Unitarian Universalist congregation a couple years ago in part because of LessWrongian influence. Here are some observations:

        * It has often been emphasized that we get out of the community what we put in. The minister has strongly recommended various programs to become more involved; none of them are required of course.
        * In the times when I only went to the Sunday morning services, being UU did seem quite pointless. The only thing it specifically did for me was propose local charities to donate to and volunteer with, charities that had been pre-selected by the UU community as serving our values locally.
        * I love the music. YMMV. Last Sunday we sang a bunch of Christmas carols from our UU hymnals, and it was fun and nostalgic without any cognitive dissonance because our versions of the lyrics removed all the supernatural stuff.
        * The quality of preaching varies wildly. Two of our preachers are rousing story-tellers, avowedly secular, and give me much food for thought about my moral and practical choices. The third is borderline-theist and leaves me cold, but other people like her.
        * I’ve been involved with three small groups: the relatively young adult social/volunteering group, the D&D group, and a discussion group. None of these have become my closest friends, but the people have definitely become part of my regular social circle beyond church events. I’ve occasionally been tempted to go to the nighttime outdoors pagan services, but haven’t done so yet.
        * There are definitely a lot of cuckoo people at UU churches. Personally, I consider this a good thing in my life, as it lets me safely practice extending my “in-group” to friendly people I would otherwise be very inclined to keep in my “out-group”. YMMV.
        * UUism isn’t shrinking and isn’t growing. People come and people go very regularly. It seems to be a community that people feel they want or need at some times of their lives, and not at other times. Long-time UUs seem perfectly fine with providing that role, so I expect no one will give you a hard time if you try it, decide it isn’t (or is) for you, and leave (or stay). The risk is very low.

        Regarding the overall issue of Scott’s post, I think the lesson from Ethical Culture and Unitarian Universalism is clear: Don’t be a religion-substitute. Be a religion. Those organizations have lasted a long time in the face of social condemnation, all the while working together for their values. Of course, Scott considered them to have failed in some sense because they’re fringe elements of the culture. But EC and UU don’t want to grow; members often find the conversion-winning mindset to be repulsive.

        So Scott should start by getting together with a few like-minded people on occasion. When there are enough of them, they can hire someone with relevant skills/training to provide professional-quality services. If they need a system to reach some level of agreement on beliefs/rituals, maybe they can make an Android/iPhone app for managing a directly democratic futarchy.

    • Artimaeus says:

      I grew up in the UU community, and then I drifted away from the church as I grew older. My view is that, although I still have good feelings for the church, it doesn’t offer me that much at this point in my life. As a child/teenager, I gained a lot from the Church. I believe UUs do sex education better than any other organization, religious or secular. And their religious education is quite good as well. When I have kids, I would want to raise them as part of the tradition. But the problem is that, right now, I don’t feel like the congregation really offers me that much in the way of spiritual fulfillment (whatever you want to call it). Their motto is “it is a blessing that you were born, it matters what you do, your experience of the divine is true, and you don’t have to go it alone”, but I feel that I’m far more partial to “going it alone”, so to speak, finding spirituality through independent study, writing, and discussions with close friends, which I don’t really need the church for. But that’s just my point of view, and that might change when my own life settles down.

  48. JayMan says:

    It’s almost laughable to me that an atheist group would have a list of rules (and rules are rules, as wimpy as they are) and even gatherings in the first place. Why does an atheist need a religion-substitute? Unless it too is a religion.

    Many self-proclaimed atheists are rather religious (not this cat, though).

    Anyways, all that said, the general gist of what you’re saying is correct.

    As for this:

    liberal Protestantism is dying even as more conservative Protestant movements thrive. This seems counterintuitive in the context of society as a whole becoming less religious and conservative. So what’s going on?

    Where do you think these new-found atheists are coming from?

    In any case, American Whites are genotypically becoming more religious and conservative. Give it time for phenotypes to follow.

    • Luke Somers says:

      > Why does an atheist need a religion-substitute? Unless it too is a religion.

      This really, really doesn’t make sense. ‘Why does someone without cheese need a cheese-substitute? Unless cheeselessness is also a variety of cheese.’

  49. jseliger says:

    there are a lot of things that are like “You must be tolerant”. But in practice everybody thinks “intolerant” means “more intolerant than I am, since I am only intolerant of things that are actually bad,” so no one changes their behavior.

    This reminds me of Paul Graham’s comments on open-mindedness, in “What You Can’t Say:”

    A Dutch friend says I should use Holland as an example of a tolerant society. It’s true they have a long tradition of comparative open-mindedness. For centuries the low countries were the place to go to say things you couldn’t say anywhere else, and this helped to make the region a center of scholarship and industry (which have been closely tied for longer than most people realize). Descartes, though claimed by the French, did much of his thinking in Holland.

    And yet, I wonder. The Dutch seem to live their lives up to their necks in rules and regulations. There’s so much you can’t do there; is there really nothing you can’t say?

    Certainly the fact that they value open-mindedness is no guarantee. Who thinks they’re not open-minded? Our hypothetical prim miss from the suburbs thinks she’s open-minded. Hasn’t she been taught to be? Ask anyone, and they’ll say the same thing: they’re pretty open-minded, though they draw the line at things that are really wrong. (Some tribes may avoid “wrong” as judgemental, and may instead use a more neutral sounding euphemism like “negative” or “destructive”.)

    When people are bad at math, they know it, because they get the wrong answers on tests. But when people are bad at open-mindedness they don’t know it. In fact they tend to think the opposite. Remember, it’s the nature of fashion to be invisible. It wouldn’t work otherwise. Fashion doesn’t seem like fashion to someone in the grip of it. It just seems like the right thing to do. It’s only by looking from a distance that we see oscillations in people’s idea of the right thing to do, and can identify them as fashions.

    Though whenever I bring up comments like this in everyday conversation I tend to get weird looks.

    People are bad at realizing when they’re:

    * Tolerant

    * Open-minded

    * Intelligent

    And what else, I wonder?

    • Leo says:

      Good at admitting they’re wrong.

      We’ve all known (right?) the horrible butthead who can’t be persuaded even in the face of glaring evidence, who one day offhandedly mentions “I readily admit I’m wrong about something” – and whose view of course is completely unaffected by everyone around them bursting out laughing and shaking their heads at that statement.

  50. Anonymous says:

    I wonder, could this be used as an argument against poly relationships? Denying yourself romantic/sexual relationships with other people is a pretty big sacrifice.

    (I’m not saying I believe this; I’m just interested in hearing opinions about it. I was having a discussion with friends about polyamory, someone suggested that monogamy might be stronger because of sacrifice, and I was immediately reminded of this post.)

  51. Sophie Grouchy says:

    The Seven Commandments (because I can’t think of 10 for an atheist church that I would actually want to be a part of.)

    1. Donate 5% of your income to an effective charity.

    2. Attend at least one official meetup/assembly of the ingroup per month.

    3. Do service for the ingroup totaling at least 15 hours/year (being a greeter, running an event, maintaining the website).

    4. Eat ethically. (for many, this would mean something like veganism).

    5. Read at least one non-fiction book per month.

    6. Become an organ donor.

    7. Participate in a ritual in which you publicly commit to these commandments.

    8. ???

    9. ???

    10. ???

    • Anonymous says:

      Becoming an organ donor is an interesting one because it relates to the conviction that it doesn’t matter what happens to one’s body after one dies.

      • Luke Somers says:

        It does matter – I positively want the functioning parts of my body being involved in keeping someone alive if possible; if not me, then someone else.

  52. kc says:

    These last few posts have inspired me to join Giving What We Can and take their pledge. FWIW, if anyone else is also inspired, it’s very easy to meet your pledge for 2014 since it’s calculated from the day you join. Not that it really means anything, since you’ve only donated a small amount, but it’s nice to see the little text that says you’ve met your pledge for the year and keep the motivation high.

  53. fubarobfusco says:

    Atheists often take religion to primarily be a creed, a group of statements to be believed. In order to “be religious”, you first believe in the creed, then do what the creed says to do. Religious behavior is evidence or consequence of belief.

    This is an unusually Protestant view of religion. It is “sola scriptura” and “sola fide” — your source of religious belief is the written word, which is a message from the divine to you; and you become a member of “the saved” by dint of your belief in the propositions of the creed, not by your actions or your community.

    A Catholic might say: In order to “be religious”, you first put your trust in the community that has the best relationship to the divine; then do what that community teaches you to do. Your faith is in the divine and in the church as a community and an organization. Creeds and catechisms are things the church created, on the strength of its relationship with the divine, in order to help you be closer to the divine. You believe the creed because you trust the church who teaches it.

    A Jew might say: In order to “be religious”, you first notice your membership in a group that the divine has made distinct from other people; then amplify and pursue that distinctness in various ways that group has done historically.

    (As may be obvious, I’m a little hazier on Jewish theology than on Christian theology. Correction invited.)

    Perhaps the way to have a more community-oriented secular movement is to put the community and history first, not the belief system. Identify with an existing community, learn its ways and history, and work within that system. Think Ethical Culture has something going for it? Join ’em. How about the Grand Orient Freemasons — the French Revolution branch, the one that admits atheists? Go for it.

    • Ecgwine Icling says:

      I was going to say, the original religion substitute was Freemasonry, established right back in the Enlightenment era (or even before). And it worked really well because they made it really hard to fake committment (being persecuted by the religious establishment also helped). Similarly, all “secret societies” and “fraternities”, down to the lamest college fraternity, do a better job at substituting religion than the rational atheist stuff going “don’t worry, enjoy your life and be nice to the community”. This kind of reminds me of the kind of people grimly insisting that “they can enjoy the party without drinking alcohol” — well, maybe, if you are a really extremely cheerful person or have a weird endogenous brain chemistry. For everybody else, alcohol is there precisely because if enjoyed in moderation, it will indeed make the party more enjoyable. Of course, if you get senselessly drunk, you will not only not enjoy the party but also wreck it for everyone else. This again is directly comparable to religion.

      • Anonymous says:

        I like that analogy. Also, good point about freemasons. I partially blame the welfare state for decline of such organizations (because people can rely on the state, rather than such organizations), though I don’t think it explains it entirely. I wonder what else has led to their downfall?

      • Luke Somers says:

        > This kind of reminds me of the kind of people grimly insisting that “they can enjoy the party without drinking alcohol” — well, maybe, if you are a really extremely cheerful person or have a weird endogenous brain chemistry.

        Well, if they’re insisting that *grimly*, then yes, that assertion is suspect. At a party, you generally need something to break the ice. Alcohol is one option, but there are many others, including the possibility that there isn’t going to be ice to break.

  54. onyomi says:

    I think it will be difficult–maybe impossible–to fully replace the religion “slot,” unless one is willing to accept “spiritual but not religious” pursuits, which are pretty indistinguishable from religious practice. I know a number of people who are really into Yoga, for example, both as a community and as a practice–including not just the postures, but the meditation, etc. and that seems to fill the slot admirably, though most of them tend to accept some Hindu metaphysics along with it.

    I don’t think one needs to find ONE activity or group that fills ALL the brain slots traditionally filled by religion, however. I, for example, am very into Yoga, meditation, fasting, etc. but not especially interested in doing any of those things as group activities. I am, however, interested in other group activities, like swing dancing. I think one can meditate to fill the “sense of transcendence and being connected to something bigger than yourself” slot and do something else to fulfill the “hanging out with likeminded people” slot

    The problem is, people have a “feeling of holiness/transcendence/connection/surrender to something bigger than oneself” slot than can be filled with religion or with other quasi-spiritual pursuits like meditation, but which can’t be filled by just hanging out with like-minded friends, imo.

    Also, atheism may be particularly weak as a focal point, as it is, in essence, a negative view. I am not at all interested in bungee jumping, for example, but I have no desire to join a club for “not fans of bungee jumping.” I think even anarcho-capitalism, my political view, suffers from this problem to a lesser degree: it’s hard to get people to rally behind “let’s dismantle political authority and see what fills in the vacuum!” People are more wired to pursue positive action.

    • Anonymous says:

      Do you know many people who use the phrase “spiritual but not religious”? presumably matched to what you said above? What do you think of David Chapman’s take?

      • onyomi says:

        Yes, I think a lot of my Yoga friends would describe themselves as such, and probably many would also agree to the principle of monism if pressed.

        I, personally, would not feel entirely comfortable with that label; I like to think instead that I ascribe to a kind of curious agnosticism. My feeling is that there are insights to be had through spiritual pursuits, but that I won’t be able to grasp them in any logicalish way until I have already achieved them through non-logical pursuits, like meditation.

        I feel this because I think my way of experiencing the world now is different than it was before I started meditating several years ago, but I also feel that if I were to try to explain just how it differed to pre-meditation me, I would not be successful. The differences are not entirely ineffable, but they would be very hard to explain in such a way as to give someone else who had not experienced them a clear sense of it.

        I don’t see any reason to “believe” anything metaphysical like “all is one” without experiencing it to be the case. But what I experience to be the case as a result of spiritual pursuits always seems obvious in hindsight–that is, a result of greater clarity and objectivity. Therefore, if, after many more years of meditating, I experience all to be one, then I will boldly proclaim “all is one,” though it may not be very helpful to those who aren’t meditating. Or, if I realize that all is not one, then I’ll say that. Or, perhaps more likely, things will continue to become clearer in various hard to define ways, but there will never be one, great, sudden revelation.

        I am interested to learn more about the “fourth option” the author describes, though I haven’t yet had time to dig through the site.

  55. Artimaeus says:

    I think the ideas in this article could also explain the way that political activism tends to bring extreme views to the top. If a political movement calls on its members to make significant social sacrifices, such as constantly re-blogging controversial opinion pieces, attend protests, and unfriend people who disagree with them, that political movement will be seen a a truer representation of the benefits of its in-group.

    To illustrate, imagine that there are two political movements that claim to represent the interests of [group X]. The first group broadcasts that members of [group X] need to stage rallies, hold protests, and do other radical things to ensure that the rights of [group X] are fairly represented in government. The other movement advocates more measured, moderate forms of political activism. If you are a naive member of [group X], which political movement do you think is more committed to representing the interests of your group? I imagine that, in most circumstances, I would want my interests in government to be represented by true believers who were willing to make personal sacrifices for the sake of their constituents. I might support this group, even if I myself wasn’t planning to participate in the costliest forms of political activism.

    In practice, this explains why controversial political messages are the ones that are most likely to be spread/reblogged. Sharing a controversial opinion is far costlier; it risks getting you into a fight with an outgroup member, take up time and emotional energy, and have social costs in the real world. But its costliness also makes it the best way to convince ingroup members that you are on their side and that your political movement has the most to offer its ingroup.

    • Eric Hamell says:

      Perhaps this is just a semantic distinction, but I find it odd that you describe protests and rallies as radical activities. Sure, they’re more visible than some other forms of advocacy, and perhaps require more personal investment, but how does that make them radical? To me, this word implies a challenge to the social order, like non-symbolic civil disobedience.

      I do identify as a radical, but that’s based on my political beliefs, not the fact that I attend demonstrations, almost all of them legal and permitted. And I’m sure many of the other people who attend them — especially the larger ones — would eschew the word radical to describe themselves in favor of some milder word like progressive or liberal.

  56. Dan Simon says:

    I think this post misses an important point about the nature of community and how it’s changed over time. Originally, religions didn’t define communities by themselves–rather, they bound people together who were already bound geographically and genetically, providing reinforcement to kinship-based ties to the local clan. Later, when nations became too large to call on kinship as a unifying force, religion complemented ethnic, rather than familial, bonds such as language and political institutions. And when multi-ethnic empires arose, universalist, proselytizing religions (Christianity and Islam) arose to help unify them.

    Because of this unifying role, religion’s personal spiritual dimension was always less important than its public, political aspect. Whether one believed in the religious rituals one performed was of little importance, as long as one demonstrated one’s commitment to the tribe/nation/empire through one’s religious observance. (Judaism still retains this pragmatic attitude towards faith, in fact.) Individual mystics and monastics were of course free to explore the full spirituality of their faith, but such devotion was not expected of typical adherents, who were instead assigned a tolerable list of specific strictures to follow (at least in public) to demonstrate outward fealty to the religion and (more importantly) its associated tribe/nation/empire, irrespective of their personal spiritual beliefs.

    In modern, pluralistic, democratic societies, however, religion is no longer asked to play this nation-binding role. Individuals who lack deep inner faith thus no longer have any reason to pay lip service to religious rituals they don’t believe in, since they no longer need to do so to demonstrate national loyalty. The result: people have been abandoning such lip-service-based religions (traditional Judaism, Catholicism, mainline Protestantism) in droves, while faith-based religions (evangelical Protestantism, ultra-Orthodox Judaism, radical Islam) have flourished by attracting the only people still interested in religion: those who personally feel genuine religious fervor.

    So while at one time, an atheist “religion alternative” that provided non-spiritual national bonding rituals might have made perfect sense (Confucianism, perhaps?), today’s secular alternatives to religion are not “atheist communities”, but rather non-sectarian political “tribes” such as political parties or nationalist/patriotic movements, which can demand outward manifestations of loyalty to a “nation” possibly worth sacrificing to belong to. What would an “atheist community” with no political or other tribal identity be able to offer members to justify their comparable sacrifice? The mere idea of “community”? Exemption from the threat of ostracism by fellow atheists?

  57. Abel Molina says:

    When thinking about religion substitutes in the US, it might be effective helpful to look at countries outside the US where religion has actually stopped being important. Then, one can try to examine what happens there in the parts of life where religion tends to be heavily involved in the US (would guess community formation, and values to some extent). Maybe some of it can be copied in the US.

  58. M Matthews says:

    I get it. We’re an ambivalent group of lemmings looking for meaning in life. As a reformed and repentant former Catholic, I struggle with the many “rules” different religions impose on their followers/members. We decided to introduce our children to many different religions versus forcing them to adhere to our religious legacy. We visited many different churches and participated in a variety of religious gatherings/ceremonies including baha’i, Jewish, Greek orthodox, Catholic, Buddhist and ethical humanist to name a few.
    All had a similar menu of rituals, icons, beatitudes, and shaking of sticks. I was especially surprised by the lack of innovation in method or style of worship.
    You are missing the point in this essay which is that religion is not the problem but instead the complete loss of meaning individuals are experiencing in this society. They are searching for guidance, leaders or anyone to tell them what to think, believe or even where to spend their money. I believe our educational system is to blame for this not the presence, absence or weak structure of religious institutions.

  59. Eric Hamell says:

    I once looked into joining the Unitarians and read that they require you to donate a percentage of your income (though significantly less than 10% IIRC).

    While purely atheist, explicit religion substitutes may typically have low membership requirements, some more ideologically specific “atheism plus” movements can be pretty demanding. For many years I belonged to one revolutionary socialist group or another, which typically expect monthly dues similar to other groups’ annual dues. They also expect a high level of personal discipline, especially if they’re in the democratic-centralist tradition. And, not coincidentally, people in these groups typically have a high level of identification with them, and a sense of special comradeship with fellow members.

    Although I know much less about it, I imagine a similar sociology may be characteristic of Objectivist groups. Many regard Rand’s personal following during her lifetime as a cult, and some kindred groups today, like Freedomain Radio, fit that description (as do some Marxist groups like the Spartacist League).

  60. Christian Kleineidam says:

    There’s a tradeoff between openness to outsiders and binding members.
    In you find ozziegooen saying that the sensitive topic of religion shouldn’t be addressed and that anti-deathism shouldn’t be prominent.

    Doing things that seem weird to outsiders binds people.

    • Anonymous says:

      The issue there is ambivalence about the choice of group. Saying weird transhumanist things is a way to bind transhumanists, but the NY Solstice is not just for LW, but for several groups.

  61. Jaskologist says:

    Scott should of course not feel at all bound by this request, but I would be very interested in him doing one of his deep-dive “more than you wanted to know” into the statistics on health/secular benefits of religiosity*. If you’re trying to replicate the benefits of religion, it would help to know what those benefits are.

    I have seen all of the following claimed at some point or another (most links would just be the first thing I found on google, but here’s a decent roundup):

    – Lower rates of heart disease; lower blood pressure
    – Longer life span (I’ve seen anywhere from 2 to 10 years)
    – Lower rates of depression
    – Lower crime rates
    – Lower unemployment rates
    – Higher graduation rates
    – Higher marital stability

    Most of those look very similar to me to the benefits of IQ, so now the following idea is tickling my brain: Religion as artificial intelligence. Increasing religiosity in your populace may be equivalent to boosting their IQ by a couple points. I would love to see if we could quantify a precise number of IQ points effectively gained.

    * As measured by church attendance. This is the standard measure, and I think it’s actually a pretty good one, since it is easy to define and measure, and it does keep turning up interesting correlations. Also, all the studies I know of are for the US, so they’re really only looking at Christian religiosity, not generic religiosity.

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  63. Phil Goetz says:

    Perhaps bronies and furries have such a strong community partly because they are so persecuted.

  64. John Stoner says:

    This brings to mind Burning Man. It’s less about following rules (the rules there are mostly common sense stuff like ‘don’t drive your car over five miles an hour in this very dusty environment in our city designed for walking and biking.’) But there’s the hardship aspect. You gotta go to the desert, bring all this water and stuff, survive a week, not injure or kill yourself, and do something artistic. And no one makes you do it, but if you’re obviously a ‘tourist’ people will give you shit.

    There are different ways to demonstrate commitment.

    • Anonymous says:

      It’s about rules, just not explicit rules.

    • Anonymous says:

      I think you’re right, and I think there’s a couple of angles to that. It works as a filter: if you can survive in this fantastically hostile desert for a week, you need to have your shit together or at least be accepted by a group that has its shit together, and any group can only tolerate a certain proportion of slackers (Burning Man jargon: “sparkle ponies”) before it implodes. That keeps the ratio of possible defectors low without needing to enforce strong norms against specific forms of defection. (Possibly the strongest Burning Man taboo is against men wearing nothing but a shirt [full nudity is fine], which speaks volumes about what doesn’t need to be tabooed.)

      But I think the other angle to it is that shared suffering forms a social bond all by itself, and all the moreso when it’s a form of suffering that most people haven’t experienced. This is basically how initiatory ordeals work, but Burners get it just by being there: if you meet another Burner, you can assume right off the bat that you have that in common and stuck through it anyway.

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