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.