Elephant in the Brain on Religious Hypocrisy
Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!
for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward,
but are within full of dead men's bones, and of all uncleanness.
Even so ye also outwardly appear righteous unto men,
but within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity.
--Matthew 23: 27-28
When Robin Hanson’s first book, The Age of Em, came out in 2016, we had an extended debate. Despite his genius and the value and originality of his topic, I saw (and see) this book as deeply mistaken. I’m pleased to report, then, that Robin’s second book, The Elephant in the Brain (co-authored with Kevin Simler), is vastly more convincing. My blurb calls it, “Deeply important, wide-ranging, beautifully written, and fundamentally right” – and I mean every word.
Though Hanson-Simler (HS) scrupulously avoid the word “hypocrisy,” the concept pervades the book. Since my objections are about the details rather than the basics, I thought it would be fun to just stroll through their chapter on an area of life where accusations of hypocrisy have been prevalent for millennia: religion. HS are in blockquotes; I’m not.
Religion. There’s perhaps no better illustration of the elephant in the brain. In few domains are we more deluded, especially about our own agendas, than in matters of faith and worship. When Henry VIII divorced his first wife under the guise of piety, or when religious leaders launch imperialist crusades, we can be forgiven for questioning their motives. But most of what people do in the name of God isn’t so blatantly opportunistic. And yet, as we’ll see, there’s a self-serving logic to even the most humble and earnest of religious activities.
The last sentence seems like a clear case of overstatement. What about hidden religiosity? Persecuted religiosity?
[R]eligion presents not one but two striking puzzles. In addition to the behaviors, we also have to explain the menagerie of peculiar religious beliefs. A quick tour of the these would include gods, angels, ghosts, demons, talking animals, virgin births, prophecies, possessions, exorcisms, afterlives of all sorts, revelation, reincarnation, transubstantiation, and superaquatic perambulation– to name just a few…
It’s tempting to try to collapse these two puzzles into one, by assuming that the strange supernatural beliefs cause the strange behaviors…
And yet, as we’ve seen throughout the book, beliefs aren’t always in the driver’s seat. Instead, they’re often better modeled as symptoms of the underlying incentives, which are frequently social rather than psychological. This is the religious elephant in the brain: We don’t worship simply because we believe. Instead, we worship (and believe) because it helps us as social creatures.
While this story is plausible, HS don’t really grapple with the strongest counter-arguments. Most obviously, arcane doctrinal disputes seem to be the sparks behind several major historical events. Take the Protestant Reformation. Yes, there’s plenty of realpolitik under the surface. But it’s hard to deny that Luther, Calvin, and other key figures did put beliefs in the driver’s seat: “Sola scriptura!” And without these belief-centric theologians, it’s far from clear that the century of violent realpolitik they inspired would have come to pass.
[W]e engage in a wide variety of activities that have a religious or even cult-like feel to them, but which are entirely devoid of supernatural beliefs. When Muslims face Mecca to pray, we call it “religion,” but when American schoolchildren face the flag and chant the Pledge of Allegiance, that’s just “patriotism.” And when they sing, make T-shirts, and put on parades for homecoming, that’s “school spirit.” Similarly, it’s hard to observe what’s happening in North Korea without comparing it to a religion; Kim Jong-un may not have supernatural powers, but he’s nevertheless worshipped like a god…
The fact that these behavioral patterns are so consistent, and thrive even in the absence of supernatural beliefs, strongly suggests that the beliefs are a secondary factor.
I struggle to see the logic here. Yes, the world’s leading religions have much in common with secular movements. But how does that suggest that what distinguishes these religions from secular movements is “secondary”? Indeed, doesn’t it suggest precisely the opposite conclusion – that supernatural beliefs are what makes leading religions special?
Nevertheless, we think people can generally intuit what’s good for them, even if they don’t have an analytical understanding of why it’s good for them. In particular, they have a keen sense for their concrete self-interest, for when things are working out in their favor versus when they’re getting a raw deal.
Again, this seems like a rash overstatement. For starters, if the religious order is stable and powerful, doubts are dangerous. HS’s own model suggests that the oppressed would develop pronounced Stockholm Syndrome. Why? To avoid social sanctions. The best way to convince your oppressor that you love him is to love him sincerely.
HS acknowledge their broader agenda in this chapter’s footnote 15:
In other words, we’re going to provide a functionalist account of religion…
This raises major ambiguities. Are they saying that religion is functional today – or only that it used to be functional? Are they saying that religion is functional for rank-and-file adherents, religious elites, the whole society, or what? But HS usually sound like they’re talking about current functionality for whoever belongs to the religion. Case in point:
Groups that are chock full of peaceful, rule-following cooperators are ripe for exploitation. In a religious context, cheaters can take many forms. Some people might put on a show of great piety, but then mistreat others whenever it’s convenient– like a wolf in sheep’s clothing, preying on the flock. Others will simply engage in the casual form of cheating known as free-riding. This might entail people taking advantage of church services without giving anything back, or perhaps seeking help from a religious group during their time of need, but then abandoning it as soon as they’re back on their feet. Even something as simple as reading email during a sermon could be construed as cheating.
To lock in the benefits of cooperation, then, a community also needs robust mechanisms to keep cheaters at bay.
Strangely, though, many of the leading religions loudly proclaim that they welcome everyone. And they live up to this rather naive promise to an amazing degree. I was raised Catholic for my first sixteen years, and can’t recall any anti-cheating mechanism more “robust” than collective scolding. Preaching blanket forgiveness swamped efforts to stamp out “exploitation.” Catholicism was plainly stricter before my time, but the modern Church didn’t invent unconditional love in the 1970s. It’s deeply embedded in the New Testament.
Time and energy are perhaps the easiest resources to waste, and we offer them in abundance. Examples include weekly church attendance, sitting shiva, and the Tibetan sand mandalas we saw earlier. This helps explain why people don’t browse the web during church. Yes, you probably have “better things to do” than listen to a sermon, which is precisely why you get loyalty points for listening patiently. In other words, the boredom of
sermons may be a feature rather than a bug.
Or not. Mega-churches led by charismatic preachers and packed with audience participation have been doing very well in the religious marketplace.
Consider the belief in an all-powerful moralizing deity– an authoritarian god, perhaps cast as a stern father, who promises to reward us for good behavior and punish us for bad behavior. An analysis of this kind of belief should proceed in three steps. (1) People who believe they risk punishment for disobeying God are more likely to behave well, relative to nonbelievers. (2) It’s therefore in everyone’s interests to convince others that they believe in God and in the dangers of disobedience. (3) Finally, as we saw in Chapter 5, one of the best ways to convince others of one’s belief is to actually believe it. This is how it ends up being in our best interests to believe in a god that we may not have good evidence for.
I’ve often heard economists make claims like this. But when you look at the real world, it’s far from clear that disobedience and belief in divine punishment are even negatively correlated. Luther and Calvin, the fathers of modern Protestantism, preached predestination with utmost clarity: Your salvation is absolutely beyond your control. Nevertheless, fundamentalist Protestants have long been known for strict adherence to the rules – especially compared to traditional Catholicism.
There’s also a peculiar omission in this chapter. HS barely acknowledge the massive gap between how religious people say they are and how religious they actually are. How many people announce, “God is the most important thing in my life,” yet don’t even bother to attend church or learn the basics of the Bible? On reflection, this is one of the world’s best examples of hidden motives. Since most religious people offer little more than lip service to their own faith, isn’t the simplest explanation is that the world is packed with subconscious atheists? If I were HS, I would have put this stark assertion front and center.
To repeat, Elephant in the Brain is a stellar book. Buy it; read it; live it. But HS could have done even better. They’re so excited about their own theory that they occasionally forget to be curious about the facts. And they’re so eager to show that strange behavior could be functional that they frequently forget to ask, “Functional when?” and “Functional for whom?”