Sunday, January 10, 2010


"Those Guys Are Really Smart, Except For That God Stuff"

I don't remember the exact quote, but in C.S. Lewis' Surprised By Joy he was explaining his conversion from atheism. He said that the writers/thinkers he respected the most just happened to be Christian, and of course Lewis (when he was still an atheist) thought they were fantastic "except for their Christianity." Naturally this struck Lewis as ironic/funny when he was looking back on the period, after he himself had become Christian.

I had a similar experience. Even though I referred to myself as a "devout atheist" for a certain period in my life (which included undergrad, I can't remember how early it started), the people/art I respected the most were Christian. (Two give two examples, I was incredibly impressed by the physical pipsqueak of a pastor of the church at the school where my mom taught, who would peacefully protest at abortion clinics and kept getting arrested. He was such a nuisance that the bishop had him relocated to a predominantly black church in an area of town where [I think?] I normally would have been afraid to visit. The other example was the subplot of Valjean's redemption in Les Miserables, which is blatantly Christian though read this for nuances.)

Anyway it is with this background that I am amused to see atheists explaining the "ironic" success of apparently superstitious mumbo jumbo (my words). Here are three examples in the last month:

* David Friedman has a fascinating series of posts at his blog discussing Jewish law. For example in this one, he gives a theory for the purpose of onerous Jewish customs. Only a true believer would go through all the rigamarole that orthodox Jews are expected to obey, but then when there are legal disputes the other religious Jews will be impressed if you take on oath affirming your testimony. (If you are a true believer then you would fear God's wrath for taking an oath falsely.) I suspect that if modern scientists went back and understood the exact conditions the ancient Israelites faced, then all of the "crazy rules" in Deuteronomy etc. would make sense.

* In his new book The Big Questions, Steve Landsburg spends a good portion bashing theism (and "bashing" is a completely accurate term) before explaining the incredible discoveries of the Jewish legal theorists. I don't have the book in front of me so I don't want to batch the details, but it has to do with things like how to divide an estate among various creditors. Landsburg refers to some recent papers by game theory whizzes in Israel who show that these ancient scholars somehow hit upon very elegant solutions, although of course in their expositions they didn't give a proof showing existence and uniqueness theorems, they just said, "This is how you would divide the estate in this situation."

* In this fascinating paper [.pdf] Pete Leeson analyzes the medieval practice of settling certain legal questions by ordeals, where (e.g.) you would dunk your hand into a cauldron of boiling water to fetch a ring, or the priest would dunk the accused in a pool and determine his guilt or innocence by whether he floated. Leeson argues that these practices--which seem unbelievably barbaric and superstitious to us--were actually effective in determining guilt. (Note that I have no idea about Leeson's religious views, but the above link was from Tyler Cowen and I'm pretty sure he is a modern free thinker.)

So anyway I think these modern reconstructions of how faith "works" are very interesting. From my perspective, it's obviously not surprising at all that, say, old-school Jewish legal scholars would "happen" to stumble upon a very deep and elegant way to settle disputes; they were in daily meditation with the author of mathematics and justice.

If you are openminded and truly a free thinker, you just may find that a lot of the "stupid" beliefs of religious people are actually quite pragmatic. Yet rather than merely saying, "Ah, so that explains their persistence in evolutionary-meme terms," I would go farther and say, "Right, this is yet another piece of evidence that there is a God who wants to help His children navigate through the world He designed."

Leeson needs to learn the difference between an abstract and an introduction. Hint: an abstract isn't just a copy of the first two paragraphs of your introduction.

I really hate when people can't summarize, especially their own work
What are you saying with respect to Leeson's ordeals, Bob? Surely not that they actually worked according to their stated principles. So then if you're making a similar argument to one you made explicitly about Jewish law, then do you think that the Christians who practiced ordeals were actually getting inspiration from God?
I just realized I met Peter Leeson at Hillsdale College for some summer program. He knew who you were, I guess you had just graduated at the time. I recall him showing me his supply/demand tattoo and relating a story about his debating days in which he allegedly responded to a pro-Communist argument by saying "I don't debate communists, I shoot them." He said the President of Hillsdale gave him some honor for that.

Interesting fellow.
"If you are openminded and truly a free thinker, you just may find that a lot of the "stupid" beliefs of religious people are actually quite pragmatic."

In this case could we not say, oh, that those beliefs weren't actually divine in some way but were influenced by emergent behaviour of acting human beings?
A suggestion: go read what the Bible has to say about sound money, debt and usury.

Pragmatic indeed. Maybe Jesus was the original Austrian economist. ;)
Unfortunately, the M.O. of many "devout atheist[s]" consists of just throwing out an insult or three, without ever learning the counter-arguments to their "faith".

@Silas, your nit-picky point about Leeson is oh-so true! I was hoping to catch a quick synopsis without reading the entire paper. :(
@Daniel_Hewitt: Thanks! I was going to read the paper and then school him (and give everyone a good lesson) on how to summarize, but I eventually found better things to do.

I got about halfway through, though, and here's what I got:

"Trial by ordeal works because its cost is more palatable to the innocent than the guilty, so the former are more likely to try it. When the guilty do take trial by ordeal, priests, by design, have significant leeway to fix the outcome based on their belief in guilt or innocence, which is constrained by the possibility of being disproven later."

No need to thank me; the experience of schooling Yet Another Serious Academic on how to explain his work to others is thanks enough.

@Bob: Look at my above summary of the paper. Is that really a mechanism you want to defend as wise or devinely inspired?
terry: "Visualize Laissez-Faire: What Would a Libertarian Recalculation Look Like?"

Actually, I think it was Moses.
Yes, I have actually remarked this before - a lot of the laws in the OT actually make "non-religious sense", so to speak.
@Silas Barta

Well, you got a lot further than I did. The reality is that I am not going to read a paper that long....not with what I have in front of me on my "reading list".

@Bob Murphy

Is Silas misrepresenting Leeson's premise? This seems to be very bizarre rationale, IMHO. And your response to Silas' question???


Thanks for linking to your post. Now that is some good solid rationale that a simpleton like me can follow and agree with.

Maybe Jesus was Austrian, and maybe he was Keynesian. His method of paying the temple tax did add to the money supply....sounds somewhat Keynesian to me! ;)
I suspect that if modern scientists went back and understood the exact conditions the ancient Israelites faced, then all of the "crazy rules" in Deuteronomy etc. would make sense.-----> NOPE !

Great argument. I'll never forget how you so elegantly but powerfully laid the argument to rest.


One word was all it took.

How's Bob to come back from that?

Let me try for him:

"Uh huh!"

Oh snap.
Daniel: "His method of paying the temple tax did add to the money supply....sounds somewhat Keynesian to me!"

That's funny!
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