Community, unbelief, and the rise of secularism

One of the things that losing full use of a limb causes, is that everything takes four times as long as it used to. So I haven’t blogged due to my being very busy, tired, or both. Sorry. I promised to reflect out loud on the Global Atheist Conspiracy Convention, but haven’t been able to find time to think. It’s Saturday in the Favoured Nation, so here goes.

This was the first time I attended such an event. I didn’t quite know what to expect. I have been to many ideology-based conferences, events and happenings over the years and one thing that they all have in common is attempting to build a sense of community. Indeed, that is what my friend and Good Twin PZ Myers spoke on. We had lunch the day before his talk and I noted a few things I’d like to share with you now.

First of all if you want to build a community you have to have a set of shared values, rituals and practices. These are, if you like, the nature of the community. Since atheism is defined in various ways, that is difficult, and PZ tried to define the atheist community in terms of truth, autonomy and community. The problem is, these are values also held by many other communities, and they are not the very same communities. I know many liberal religious folk who also value science, truth and personal autonomy, and many atheists who do not. So while I applaud his picking these values, he hasn’t quite picked out the identifier and community builders of an atheist community.

What does achieve this? Well, we can look to other successful community building traditions. One of the most obvious is, of course, religion. What is it that makes religion so socially persistent and able to withstand thousands of years of change? My answer, the one I gave to PZ, was the Costly Signalling hypothesis: what makes a religion stable and causes social cohesion is not the ideas they share, but the absurd and contingent flags they carry. The reason why, for example, a Baptist can go anywhere in the world and find a community among any ethnicity, language, or class, is that what unites Baptists everywhere are a set of practices and beliefs so silly that one can only share them with other Baptists. That is, by the way, why creationism is so socially adaptive: the only folk you can share it with in practice are those who are in your community. Everybody else just laughs at you (yes, Xenu. I’m looking at you).

The Costly Signalling Hypothesis (CSH) is based on work done by evolutionary theorist Amotz Zahavi, who proposed that apparently handicapping traits like the peacock’s tail serve as honest advertisements. They show the virtues of the organism by signalling in ways that cannot be faked. This has been taken up as an explanation of social facets of religion, as the costly signalling hypothesis of religion promoted by Joseph Bulbulia. What makes one a member of the community is that one is advertising in costly ways that one is a member.

Crucifix

Even such apparently easy things as crossing oneself is costly, because the signalling is to be automatic (and in the right direction: orthodox do it the opposite way to Catholics), and it takes a lot of time to make it so. Learning catechisms, going to services, saying rosaries and so forth all take an investment of time and effort, and as time and effort are scarce resources, the result is that one is not able to easily fake being a member of that community.

Atheist badge

Add to this tithing, sacrifices, volunteering in burial societies and charitable work, and so forth, and to be a member of a community like this is not for the dilettante. Atheism has nothing comparable. At best it has the wearing of the Atheist “A” or t-shirts with the relevant slogans. Its charitable work tends to be state run through local government and health agencies. It is hard to identify community when the community is not definable in terms that are positive, and atheism counts as “unbelief” in other people’s defining views.

Now I have argued before that there are many senses of atheism (I am a functional atheist, in that I do not live my life on the basis of the possibility of gods existing; I am a philosophical agnostic in that I do not rule all deities out. Go read my arguments). A positive atheist has a costly belief in our present social context: to positively disbelieve in a deity is to mark oneself out as a baby-killing oath-breaker. But many people, like me, are atheists only in the sense that they happen to lack a belief in a deity. What are our costly signals?

Why this matters is in part due to the very reasons why the social aspect of religions evolved in the first place. In traditional societies, which were small, you knew every person, their relatedness to you (according to some social conventions), and whether you were equals, or one was subordinate to the other. This sets up a “working memory” constraint – we can only track these relationships for a certain number of people (possibly Dunbar’s Number, or about 150 individuals plus or minus). This matters because you need to calculate (or intuit – I’m not supposing that you actually do a computation) the coefficient of relatedness to work out to whom you owe, and from whom you are owed, mutual aid. This is known as reciprocal altruism. I owe my family more aid than I owe someone I am more distantly related to (Haldane’s quip about sacrificing one’s life for two siblings or eight cousins illustrates this). We evolved through kin selection, but when we get into larger societies, that breaks down.

When societies become cosmopolitan, which is effectively to say when they become sedentary, territorial and agricultural, there are too many people to track. You need to know who you owe reciprocal altruism to, and who you do not, and this is an urgent issue. There are too many people to help all the time, or else your resources will become exhausted as parasites exploit you. You need also to know who can be relied upon to help you or your children and family in hard times. In urbanised society, that is a nontrivial issue.

So honest signalling is a way of ensuring this sort of conformity and reciprocality. And atheists do not have it. Anyone can wear the badge or t-shirt, and there is no exclusion of defectors, apart from nasty comments on a blog. Something is needed that is not universally attractive, so that it doesn’t also include humanists, liberal progressives, communists, existentialists, and all the other ideologies in play in the same general intellectual stream.

My experience of the Convention was that most there were pleased to be in a majority of like-minded people (not, I hasten to add, identically-minded people), but this led sometimes to the other side of social cohesion: exclusion. Those who disagreed with the majority view were sometimes sneered at, sometimes mocked and sometimes made the objects of hatred outright. I was very disappointed with the general tendency to demonise Muslims, as if the tribal imamism of the Taliban was comparable with the urbane Islam of a Turkish or Pakistani scientist or public intellectual. The extreme stereotyping was almost laughable in its viciousness, if not for the fact that this was the community that was, according to the slogan of the convention, celebrating reason.

A socially cohesive group that defines an in-group by definition defines out groups as well. You can call them “sheep”, “fools”, or worse, “inhuman”, the traditional way to justify treating the out group badly. Many tribal societies call themselves something like “the people” and outsiders something like “ghosts” or “demons”. We see this more subtly when Christians state as fact that atheists themselves cannot be fully human (because they are immoral, deny their spiritual side, or fail to have the full range of emotions like love).

Atheists, lacking much in the way of a “nature”, seem to find most of their in-group identification in terms of defining the out-group. This makes sense if the movement is defined by the rejection of someone else’s views. This is why I spent so much time trying to identify what the term means in my “Atheism, agnosticism and theism” series. If we can find a set of views that atheists, and only atheists hold, and they are costly and hard to fake, then we have a chance of a community developing. My fear is that there is no such signal. Perhaps we could invent one (maybe rituals involving the reading of famous atheist writings at meetings), but I think that unless it happens more organically, the hope for an atheist community, complete with reciprocal aid, is pretty forlorn.

As I sit in my bedsit, unable to move, I find it interesting that atheists and agnostics have not banded together to come to help me. Instead, I was helped by two people: someone who was raised in Christian virtues and someone who is a secularised Jew. Both are irreligious, and both are atheists, but they are not helping me qua atheists, but as friends, and had I no friends here in Melbourne, I would have been alone. This would not have been the case if I were a Baptist still. Most of the assistance I have got comes from the Catholic hospital I went to in the first place.

I have often complained about the tribalism of atheism. I still do, because I identify myself largely as a humanist rather than an atheist (there’s a set of values for you!). But it should be said that PZ is right: atheists need a community. Religions, along with political movements, sporting clubs, and hobby associations, all have worked out how to do this. Atheists should perhaps observe this and work out how to do it too. Just don’t build cathedrals to atheism, okay, unless you are prepared to fund science in them.

56 thoughts on “Community, unbelief, and the rise of secularism

  1. Cristian: This is a rich set of assertion, and it’d be very hard to answer to each of them. Induction is a philosophical problem, not a scientific one. Science makes experiments, builds theories and models to explain the outcome of those experiments. It can’t say that everywhere, all the time the theories that it built are, will and were valid. Our intuition tells us that if a rock fall today it will also fall tomorrow.

    But our intuition can be wrong sometime. Just because I would just off a building, doesn’t mean that I have to accept that the laws of physics as we know them have always been in place. That’s just an untenable assumption.

    You’ve misread the argument. If you are positing that the universe was different in the past or will be different in the future, it’s a useless conjecture unless you describe what way. Just merely saying “it could have been different” and “you can’t say that it wasn’t” misses the point of how the models work. Which parts of the model change? How do they change?

    If we take the gravity example, in what sense would it be to say that gravity has changed? It doesn’t matter if you personally see the intuition in not jumping, but it doesn’t change that general relativity has the capacity to explain (and to quite a precise detail) what would happen if you were to drop a rock off there. Again all you’re doing is taking a model that has had a lot of empirical and conceptual work put into it and trying to dismiss its validity without any how or why the model would change. While we have a model that works, saying “things could have been different” doesn’t actually add anything. How?

    Cristian: Firstly, I’m still waiting for an evolutionary explanation for religion, of other type than a simple ‘just so’ story. For me saying that we evolved abstract thinking because it was beneficial to us as a species is really a ‘just so’ story, no better than the God made us with abstract thinking because it was better for us to have abstract thinking.

    But even if it is a “just so” story (these are put to the test in a variety of ways, the hypothesises), we still have a difference in that evolutionary mechanisms are known while God is an unknown unseen force that’s said to acted in. Evolutionary mechanisms have been extensively researched and tested, it’s different in that respect no matter how much you try to push their equivalence.

    Cristian:Secondly, there’s a problem with what you ask: you ask details about how God did what it did. Since you can’t rule out the possibility that actually a God created the world, you just prefer the evolutionary explanation because you say more about the how.

    I can’t rule out the possibility that the universe came into existence 5 minutes ago, complete with all memories of the past. The mere possibility of something says nothing for its tenability as a meaningful explanation. To take the example above of the missing jewellery, following your logic it would be mere preference to think someone else stole it because we can’t rule out supernatural thieves.

    Cristian: But here lies the problem: you’re adding a supplementary criterion to the problem of truth. Not only has the explanation to be true, but it also has to have ‘explanatory power’. You want details. Otherwise it’s magic (a term that I have a hard time understanding in the atheist slang). What’s the problem with magic??? Does it offend us that we don’t how it was done?

    It’s useless when we don’t know how something is done, not something to get offended over. I, myself, am sympathetic to what Kurt Vonnegut wrote in Cat’s Cradle where he put into the mouth of a dictator: “science is magic that works.” Or Arthur C Clarke’s third law “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” The problem is that if you take explanation out of assessing something’s potential truth value, then what are you left with? Saying magic tells us nothing about what happens, and worse that giving it the label “magic” can give the illusion that we know what’s going on. It’s just a placeholder for that which we don’t understand.

  2. Cristian:
    It means that a computer simulation/extrapolation into the past doesn’t really tell you if that past really existed. It’s only on paper.

    But how does that negate them in any way? The models would still be a success in that they can predict what we see now. That we can’t be certain that the Flying Spaghetti Monster didn’t design animals to have genetic sequences that look like as if it had evolved unguided doesn’t negate the explanatory power that evolution has. The model still works, it still has a capacity to explain that isn’t matched by superficial ad hoc invocations to unknown unexplained agency.

    Cristian: It took me a while to understand that there’s no problem of regression. We can’t say that Universe is uncreated, and we can’t say that there’s no creator God. And we can’t say that yet another God didn’t created the first God. It may be up to one level of creation ‘ex nihilo’ (one uncreated God), it may be two levels, three etc. We just don’t know for sure and we can’t check, and we can’t rule out possibilities. Things are the way the are and although they may seem to be different, our subjective view doesn’t a matter too much. We just have to accept things the way they are, or their possibility of being one way or another.

    The problem of regression that I put forward was that the qualities that God is said to have are qualities that when applied to us scream for an explanation. If God can be like us but more powerful, then doesn’t God demand an explanation in the way we demand for ourselves? The explanations of process, that our qualities come from something other than like ourselves solves this regression problem, meanwhile if we use God as the grounding we get a regression that gets more difficult to explain!

    Cristian: My point is simply that the created God can not be ruled out. Thus it’s a probabilistic problem.

    We can’t rule out Last Thursdayism either, that we can’t rule God out says nothing of God being a probable option (pushing Pascal’s Wager says nothing for the validity of the belief itself, only one’s reason to believe in it). Probabilistically, we’re left with gods being an invention of mankind in the same way that we would consider fairies or unicorns. Is it reasonable to believe in unicorns on the basis of how cool it would be to ride one? I don’t think so. I’d at least want some unicorn droppings as evidence first…

  3. Kel: But how does that negate them in any way? The models would still be a success in that they can predict what we see now.

    Here’s where you seem to miss my point. Maybe I don’t make myself sufficiently clear. I don’t deny the validity of theories and models in the present. I just put under doubt their validity in the past. It doesn’t prove anything in particular, but it says something about the epistemological status of sciences about the past.

    Plus, we take the existence of the world as it is for granted. We don’t ask ourselves if it exists by itself, thus it’s ontologically independent, or some other entity upholds it into existence. There’s really no way we can tell one from the other.

    Kel: If God can be like us but more powerful, then doesn’t God demand an explanation in the way we demand for ourselves?

    I made a different distinction. Created-Uncreated (ontologically dependent-independent), not powerful/more-powerful. We don’t have the power to created something from nothing, hence an entity that has that power is not just more powerful than us, is also ontologically on a different level. You can admit that an uncreated entity may create an entity capable of creating from nothing other entities. But since something exist, it was either created by something else and has existed since for ever. A materialist atheist will think it’s best to believe that the Universe is uncreated. I don’t believe that.

    Kel: I’d at least want some unicorn droppings as evidence first…

    There’s no evidence there’s life after. Is there life after death? Just because you, and I, don’t believe in Unicorns, Zeus, or Elvis, doesn’t put you, or me, in a better position regarding our deaths. Death is a certain thing. Asking evidence from me, logical proofs, or whatever, is pretty much useless. I will not die your death, and you will not die my death. We’re pretty much on our own, and responsible for ourselves. Death isn’t a game of logic. It’s a brute, real fact.

    As for the concept of evidence, I have the feeling you’re using it wrong. Evidence is fact+interpretation. There’s ton of facts out there. Chances are you are misinterpreting them, concluding that ‘there is no evidence’. I haven’t heard one good possible ‘evidence’ and atheist would expect from God, with a good reason for God to actually do so. Except silly stuff like what Lawrence Krauss said: “align the stars to say ‘I exists'”.

  4. Cristian: Here’s where you seem to miss my point. Maybe I don’t make myself sufficiently clear. I don’t deny the validity of theories and models in the present. I just put under doubt their validity in the past. It doesn’t prove anything in particular, but it says something about the epistemological status of sciences about the past.

    But why would the models not be valid in the past? Your lack of confidence in applying the models to the past doesn’t make for an argument against its application to past events. You really need an argument as to why the models would suddenly become invalid when taken out of the present. What would make the present point X in the universe special that previous point W would not be? And if there are certain factors that are contingent at X that are different at W, then why can’t the model take into account those factors?

    I’m sorry, I just can’t seem to grasp what you’re saying.

    Cristian: There’s no evidence there’s life after. Is there life after death? Just because you, and I, don’t believe in Unicorns, Zeus, or Elvis, doesn’t put you, or me, in a better position regarding our deaths. Death is a certain thing. Asking evidence from me, logical proofs, or whatever, is pretty much useless. I will not die your death, and you will not die my death. We’re pretty much on our own, and responsible for ourselves. Death isn’t a game of logic. It’s a brute, real fact.

    Agreed, but life and death aren’t inexplicable non-scientific notions. By understanding what life is and what process death takes into it, it’s not like we’re completely lost on comprehending what death means. Yes, death is a brute fact. But it’s not really mysterious.

    Cristian: As for the concept of evidence, I have the feeling you’re using it wrong. Evidence is fact+interpretation. There’s ton of facts out there. Chances are you are misinterpreting them, concluding that ‘there is no evidence’. I haven’t heard one good possible ‘evidence’ and atheist would expect from God, with a good reason for God to actually do so. Except silly stuff like what Lawrence Krauss said: “align the stars to say ‘I exists’”.

    I’m sure I’m misinterpreting them, and that I’m thinking about things in the wrong way. It’s partly why I’m happier to discuss these things with people who disagree with me rather than who agree. That said, I can think of one evidence up front that would radically change how I think about the universe: showing something there’s causal and non-material to mind, i.e. show that the brain isn’t a closed system. I think that would go a long way to addressing my objections to believing in non-physical entities. Likewise, bringing forth a coherent definition of the supernatural such that God can become something by which we can theorise about the world with in non-circular terms. Or one could take what J.L. Mackie argued in The Miracle Of Theism and used a powerful case of the violation of nature to argue that someone outside nature must be intervening.

  5. Kel: You really need an argument as to why the models would suddenly become invalid when taken out of the present.

    I don’t know why the world is like it is right now, thus I have no reason to be believe it was not in any other possible way in the past. I’m not making a positive statement: I’m not saying that it was different or it was the same as today. I’m say that I don’t know if it was or not as today.

    If you’re making a positive statement that models that we use today have always worked, then you have to bring up an argument for that. Just because you feel like it’s the default option, the most simple and natural, doesn’t make a valid argument for its truth.

    It’s more like wishful-thinking, that you want the world to always be like it is, so you can explain it.

  6. Cristian:
    If you’re making a positive statement that models that we use today have always worked, then you have to bring up an argument for that. Just because you feel like it’s the default option, the most simple and natural, doesn’t make a valid argument for its truth.

    As I argued above, my argument for the validity of a model isn’t time-dependent. I’m not saying the model always works, the model is just the best attempt we’ve got currently in order to explain a particular set of phenomena. If the phenomena from a particular time don’t get explained by the model as it is now, then there would be no sense in continuing to use that model – something would need to give. Either the parameters in the model are incomplete, perhaps some factors weren’t considered, or perhaps some components of the model had changed. In any case, a model that works now isn’t to say that now is like any other point in the entirety of eternity, but that a model is a particular explanation for how a system behaves.

    If we’re modelling a different system (which if what you’re saying that things are different in the past) then the model won’t be of any use. But it doesn’t change the validity of using models, a model can make meaningful predictions about the past. Neil Shubin used evolutionary theory and geology to find a transitional fossil that was only the stuff of hypothesis in 385 million year old rock. There’s been fossil coral found that’s growth rings correspond to the age of the rocks it was found in based on the models of the gradual decay of the earth’s rotation.

    With each of these examples, the models are making predictions that don’t assume that everything’s the same as it always was but put the models to the test. So even if it was different at time W, our models developed at time X that try to measure the state at W haven’t been able to detect its difference yet. Meaningful predictions are being made and put to the empirical sword…

    I’m really not sure I’m following your point at all. My argument is that a model is as good as its ability to make claims about the world that can be meaningfully scrutinised. It’s not about past or present and whether they are the same, it’s about a model’s ability to make meaningful predictions about the world at whatever stage the model is being applied to. Would you be able to elaborate your point with a specific example? If possible, could you illustrate your point with how it would apply to the solar system?

  7. These thoughts come to mind: Do we need a community in order to achieve a majority? I don’t think so. And if we have a majority, and independently mostly vote the same when it comes to politicians who support science and separation of state and church, then won’t we achieve our goals? Then, will being an atheist matter that much when it comes to community? Won’t we be drawn to other communities, based on such things as marital status (singles clubs), sexual orientation (gay), race (minorities), intellect (book clubs), or hobbies (sports)?

  8. August: Can a person count on the members of their singles club, book club, hobby or sports association, ethnic association or other interest group to bring casseroles to a bereaved family? Watch the kids while mum/dad visits mum/dad (or dad/mum) in the hospital? I have known atheists who start going to church when they have kids in order to be able to participate in that kind of community.

  9. I want to respond to your statement of faith as being a functional atheist and a philosophical agnostic. It is an interesting stance to take, since one seems to cancel the other out. Ignorance is necessarily a part of the equation, as you are claiming that you are living a life that does not match up with your philosophical beliefs. If you base your life on the findings of science (which I inferred based on your statement at the end of the article regarding building cathedrals to science) how can you accept any untruth in your lifestyle? True science seeks out the modes in which the world works and then changes the lifestyle to conform to that. For instance, through science we understand that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. For this reason, you change your action so that you do not receive an unpleasant reaction (such as kicking a brick wall or jumping into a prickly bush). If you understand that there is a possibility that there might be a god or gods out there, why shouldn’t your life center around the search for them instead of the denial of them? So many who claim to hold to science ignore the findings of many. And yet, they still hold to science as the ultimate arbiter of truth! I feel that the life we live ought to be in line with how we believe.

    1. I cannot base my life on things I do not know, as there are way too many things that might be true but I have no reason to think they are. Gods are among that set. I have no reason now to think they exist, and in that respect they are like faeries, vampires and compassionate conservatives – possible entities for which there is no evidence to hand. So basing my life functionally on these possible entities, including seeking evidence of them, is a waste of time. Science, on the other hand, is replete with evidence even if some of it turns out to be misleading. So I should base my life on that positive knowledge. This is not about the authority of science, it is about the weight of evidence and the nature of knowledge. I know that, for example, pathogens cause diseases, not evil spirits, so the potential existence of evil spirits is not something I should pay any attention to in my daily life.

  10. “Costly Signalling hypothesis”

    I really do not see how that makes sense. I can understand it in a pejorative sense. Making fun of someone because of their religion.

    But, how and why would someone sacrifice their child, or allow someone else to sacrifice their child? I guess I could follow this better if you had shown that cannibalism is the natural state of humanity.

    Wayne

  11. As far-fetched as a compassionate conservative – nice one.
    Cathedrals of Science.
    I worry that science is on the way to becoming a religious belief in its own righteousness, rather than a rational one. – It’s an easy trap to fall into, called science is always right.
    Clicking John S Wilkin’s final link in the first post to this thread – ‘prepared to fund science in them’ – took me to The Natural History Museum site where I found the Scott’s Last Expedition Exhibition. (A dyslexic’s nightmare just writing it down.)
    This led me to – “After your exhibition visit, pick up fabulous books, prints, trinkets and toys inspired by Scott’s Last Exhibition. Buy gifts in the online shop.”
    I see. – ‘Line up ‘ere for your relics and rosaries – genuine finger bones of Oates himself – get your plastic spinning compasses – don’t go ‘ome on your knees empty ‘anded.”
    Is this a bad sign – or is it just, as one politician said a year or two back, “Shopping is the growth industry.”’ – Something like, profit is the way to see the truth and the light, I suppose.
    Christian asks about evolution and religion. From his profile picture, he seems young honest open and cheerful – clearly though J S W is a somewhat world weary Gorilla. – What am I to believe. – Are these genuine pictures of two writers? – I am inclined to believe that both really are true representations of the writer’s in question. – I would ask Christian if I am warranted in this belief.

    1. re trinkets & toys:
      Agreed that the schlock can get annoying, particularly when the routing of an exhibit dumps visitors into the special purpose-built gift shop at the end of the last corridor. On the other hand, I applaud the idea that the celebrity, fun, and coolness associated (for good or for ill) with the possession of “flair” associated with sports or entertainment stars can be extended to science and scientists.

  12. John, I hope you return to this subject again. C.H.S. does seem to be coming in for a hard time, not sure why. Been a long time since you discussed anthropology and belief and you are generally rather subtle and sophisticated with you’re use.

    My fav. part of what you write about.

    I find it difficult to disentangle the relationship between warlord and holy-man here, but then a lot of questions remain to be resolved. With regard to early med Northern Europe I feel the need to look at both together. Developing networks that result from the move from face to face, small scale society does seem to be the preserve of elites (they have the opportunity to move the most). Aside from the successes and growth of the monastery the other major question is the development of ethnicity. Its running along the same timeline and you can use C.H.S. for both, indeed I am more use to seeing it applied to the development of ethnicity among early med. elites than religion.

  13. “I was also disappointed by some of the anti-Muslim (as distinct from the anti-Islam) sentiment that was expressed.”

    I think this should go beyond disappointment and be noted as an alarming tendency with some serious historical form, as the attempt to put racist beliefs on an empirical basis using religious difference can be traced to the roots of early modern skepticism with regard to religion or in particular certain forms of religion belonging to ethnic groups with opposing political perspectives as particularly prone to error and forms of mental instability.

    Frankly I find it deeply disturbing given the tendency of some skeptics who do sound at times like escapees from a mid 17th cen. debate on belief or come far to close to creating such an impression.

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