Islam: Day 25 – It’s risky to not be religious

A friend of mine passed along this article titled Religion, Heuristics, and Intergenerational Risk Management, written by one of my favorite authors and thinkers, Nassim Taleb.

The main idea Taleb and co-author Rupert Read promotes is that religion is valuable because it acts a transmitter of risk-management heuristics. Religion, through its teachings, act as counterweights to our overconfident nature, helping prevent small errors from becoming big errors.

The authors use the example of the 2008 financial crisis, which was precipitated by the insane levels of debt carried by major financial institutions. Modern risk forecasting models didn’t do much to prevent this accumulation of debt.

They compare modern “scientific” beliefs about debt that to religious teachings about the accumulation of debt and the practice of usury.

“In the matter of debt, religions have been potent in the prevention of debt accumulation…Except for Protestantism, every Abrahamic branch has had some interdict against ‘lending with interest’.

Compare the near-universal  religious caution, even exhortation, against debt to the Modigliani-Miller (1958) result establishing that a firm’s debt-equity ratio does not matter for valuation, which invited an entire generation of economists to endorse debt, or at least not caution against it.”

They also make a number of other important points that eloquently explain the reasons why I’m doing this project:

“Restaurants get you in with food to sell you liquor; religions get you in with belief to sell you rules (e.g. avoid debt). People can understand the notion of God, not unexplained rules, interdicts, and categorical heuristics.”

This is an important point. It suggests that the importance of religion is in the rules, not in the belief. The belief is just there to get you to follow the rules.

I’m shortcutting the process with this project by practicing the rules, and then learning about the beliefs, which I think is more appropriate for a modern audience. But first, you have to accept that the rules are what contain most of the value, not the beliefs.

“It is misguided to focus on the competition between ideas – and their survival – as an end product. What matters is the survival of the populations that have such ideas. Those with the right risk-management heuristics make it, even if their system of belief does not appear ‘rational.’”

This is an improvement on the idea that the “the best idea will win.” Instead of saying if Idea A is better than Idea B, so Idea A will survive while B will not, it says that people who hold Idea A are more likely to survive than people who hold Idea B, therefore the people with Idea A will survive along with the idea.

This is important because it shows that there must be some intrinsic value for beliefs that have survived thousands of years, because the people that hold these beliefs have survived thousands of years.

It’s also important because it addresses a common criticism of the ancients, which is that because they had some bad ideas, we should be distrustful of their entire belief and ethical system.

For example, someone could say, “well the Bible implies that it is ok to have slaves, but we now know that’s wrong therefore Christianity is obsolete.”

If you take the view that Christianity has some value because it helped billions of people survive over a thousand year period, you will understand that there must be something helpful about it, even if there are some bad ideas thrown in there.

The idea that people with ideas survive, not ideas themselves, allow for improvement and refinement of religious and philosophical systems, rather than wholesale dismissal.

“It is not just that religion is a helpful source of sound heuristics for resisting gambler’s ruin and similar hazards. More strongly, we should say that that we humans actually don’t know  whether humans beings can live sustainably without something like religion. Modernity in this sense is a dangerous, uncontrolled experiment. The amount of historical time that any significant number of humans have lived without religion is infinitesimal compared to the sweep of history…it is a symptom of chronic short-termism and over-optimism that people now assume that living in such a way is sustainable.”

It is actually more risky to live without something like religion, as religion is time-tested. Modernity is not.

The authors emphasize the civilization-wide impact of abandoning religion, but the state of civilization ultimately comes down to the beliefs and practices of individuals. As a result, I think it is personally risky to live without something like religion.

And the crazy thing is, I think all of us want religion. We may not admit it. And we don’t necessarily want it in the form of Islam or Judaism or Catholicism, but we do want it. How else could you explain the popularity of self-help gurus and lifestyle designers? They promote a certain world-view with a set of rules and guidelines for achieving success in this life, which sounds very much like what religion does.

There’s nothing wrong with this desire. It’s natural and human. It is just short-sighted and risky to trust a single person’s experience vs. the time-tested, collective experiences of religion.

Perhaps we should trust that praying five times or going to Mass or observing Shabbat will help us survive and flourish. We don’t need to believe, in the modern sense, that these will help us, but I think our belief, in the ancient sense, will grow stronger.

“One needs to think of religious ‘belief’ as closer to a form of trusting, as a form of action, or a willingness to take action, and most crucially of all, as a set of interdicts upon action.”

“The sacred is not open to ‘rationalization’, — what we don’t understand is not necessarily irrational, and it might have reasons that can be probed only across generations of experiences and experimentation.”

Modernity is risky; dismiss religion at your own peril.

  • Arisa

    My problem with religion is mostly it’s unwillingness to adapt and grow.
    It is not flexible and holds to outdated standards that don’t apply anymore.
    My second problem is with this whole believe thing and that religious people see themselves as “better” than anyone outside of their religion.
    Also the whole “you must convert to my believe system or else” mentality.
    Then again, the last two things bother me about atheism as well.

    I find you write a really interesting blog about ancient wisdom. I just dislike that ancient wisdom from religion often comes with so much baggage and often a lot of negativity as well.

    It’s probably a matter of the bad being more vocal than the good.

    Either way, religion can probably benefit a lot from being more accepting and adapting to a new world and growing.
    Some ancient wisdom my be good, and definitely the virtues you are trying to build, just not all of it is good and I feel religion refuses to accept and grow from that.

    I mostly don’t bother much with it, I don’t even like to label myself as anything.
    I certainly don’t need religion to have a sense of what is right or wrong, or to understand that money is limited and debt is a problem.

    The problem is people. And it doesn’t matter whether they are religious or not, there will always be “rotten apples” among them. Unfortunately rotten apples are often clever enough to work themselves to high functions and cause chaos.
    Or at least they are loud enough that we mostly hear about them, and not all the other people religious or not that live morally and by higher values.

    • I don’t know if I’m just lucky, but I’ve never really encountered intolerant religious people.

      I’m not sure if your criticism is valid for religion so much as it applies to people. Take politics for example. I find people can be just as fanatical about their political beliefs as they do about religion (perhaps more so).

      So your critique of religion as being inflexible and coming with a lot of “baggage” are really just parts of human nature. You bring this point up in your last paragraph.

      I’ve actually found religion to encourage diverse thinking and healthy discussion. Many of the big questions are unanswerable, so questioning is the natural response. And I think religion does adapt significantly. They may be slower than some people prefer (for example, the Church’s position on gay marriage), but that’s just the nature of long-surviving institutions.

  • KW

    You write an interesting, thought-provoking blog of your explorations. It is a treasure. Thank you for writing and sharing your experiences. You ask an empirical question, whether religiosity (strength of belief, or frequency of attendance, of any declared religion) was associated total financial loss? It would be interesting to know these answers. People often look to higher power after losses, but beforehand, it is usually only in Vegas we hear this. Cheers.

    • Though studying financial outcomes of the religious would be interesting, I’m more interested in other indicators of well being and life satisfaction. Do the religious handle setbacks better? Do they suffer less from depression? Do they have better relationships?

  • traceyo

    When people start to discuss the pros and cons of religion, or try to argue for or against the benefits of religion in our society, I think back to how I felt when I first learned the origins of the word itself: “Middle English (originally in the sense ‘life under monastic vows’): from Old French, or from Latin `religio(n-)` obligation, bond, reverence; perhaps based on Latin `religare`meaning `to bind`.” (From the Oxford English Dictionary)

    A bond in reverence … a coming together in reverence … obligation … of the chosen and healthy sort. This is what I get from that and isn’t that a quality that we would wish to have in community with others? It suggests honor, trust, respect, safety & security, and a true sense of oneness. How beautiful.

    Is that what we think of today when we use the word ‘religion’? Does it create a sense of oneness, or does it draw lines in the sand between one ‘religion’ and another ‘religion’? Rather than fostering the oneness of all, members of one religion often define themselves against the other. It is separation.

    As children, we join clubs and congregate in little playground groups that help us
    define ourselves through camaraderie and competition. In our desire to fit in as children and adolescents, we tend to succumb to peer pressure and often do things that we never thought we would … in order to belong. It is separation.

    Just because something is long-surviving does not necessarily make it right; what should first be questioned is why it has survived, who has guaranteed its survival and how have they done so? The suggestion of longevity rendering something legitimate reminds me of what my parents used to say to me when I asked why I had to do what they commanded: “Because I said so.”

    Today, the hunger for a spiritual community is very apparent but what is also quite
    clear is that people are not as willing to participate in what often becomes ‘acts of separation’. Separation does not heal what are becoming deepening rifts of hatred and intolerance throughout the world, and it most definitely isn’t peaceful.

    The practices you are learning are, in and of themselves, beautiful for their combined
    simplicity and power. Every established religion has their own variation of them and I would never wish to disparage any of them. What I would be quick to challenge is the suggestion that traditional religion – as it has evolved to be what it is in the current day – holds the answers to our most perplexing problems.

    It simply doesn’t.

    It’s time to be grownups. As Paul the apostle writes to the Corinthians: “When I was
    a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” (1 Cor. 13:11)

    • I like your explanation of the origins of the word religion.

      Regards to your point about long-lasting doesn’t mean “good,” I agree with you. However, I think you overestimate the power of bad ideas or practices to stick around for a long time. Even in the cases where powerful countries impose a religion on a weaker one, the religions tend to outlast the regimes that impose them, which suggests to me that they must have some value to people.

      I also agree with your need for questioning rituals and beliefs. That’s part of the process of ensuring only the positive ones survive. The bad ones may stick around for longer than you like, but they won’t last forever.

      I would disagree that to “put away childish things” mean to abandon traditional religion however. I would suggest instead it’s probably better to attain a more sophisticated understanding of religion, rather than dismissing it entirely.

      Thanks for reading.