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Kosher Schmosher! April 7, 2015

Posted by ubi dubium in Humor, UbiDubiKids.
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Tonight I went to call my oldest daughter down from her room to dinner.

“Come eat, we’re having homemade matzoh ball soup and leftover ham.”

From behind her door there was a pause, and then “You can’t DO that!!”

“Of course I can!  Happy Passover!”

MatzohballsTN Connections Winter 2008/p. 9

It’s so much fun to be able to ignore religious rules and play around with traditions!

Of course our family is as WASP in background as they come.  I just like to cook dishes from other cuisines, probably because our only “ethnic tradition” is British food, and apart from scones and tea there isn’t much special there.  You should see my spice cabinet!

Unexpected Connection April 6, 2015

Posted by ubi dubium in Wow.
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I recently spent a weekend in New York City, and had quite a bit of free time, just on my own.  So I was able to do something I don’t get enough of, and that’s wandering at my own pace in a great museum.  In this case I picked the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It looked lovely from the outside in the snow:

Met with snow

Since the last time I was there I had pretty thoroughly done my favorite part (Ancient Egypt) I started this visit with Greece and Rome.  I had no idea there were so many Grecian Urns still in existence, and my eyes started to glaze over after room after room of of black on red and red on black.  But then I found an atrium full of Roman Statuary.  And tucked along a side wall was this:


Not a spectacular statue.  A smallish Funerary Altar, where someone could make offerings on behalf of the deceased.

What struck me first was the carved relief.  Not a powerful statesman, or a noblewoman with elaborately styled hair.  No, this is a small boy.  A pudgy little boy with funny ears that stick out, and he’s playing with his dog.  I had to stop and look more.

The inscription reads:

Diis Manib


L Ivlivs Gamvs Pater Fil Dvcissim

I had four years of high school Latin, and still remember enough that I didn’t need to read the guide on the pedestal to translate this.  To the spirit of Anthus.  L. Julius Gamus, Father.  Sweetest Son.

Oh, man.  I just stood there for a few minutes because this hit me so hard. Then I moved on, but stopped and went back again.  No political statement here, just the grief of a parent who lost a beloved child.  I was connecting emotionally to an unknown parent who lived a couple thousand years ago.  Someone who wanted to preserve an image of his son just the way he remembered him.  And now I can remember him too.

Later that day I spent some time in the galleries of the Old Masters.  And here is Vermeer, making an ordinary moment into something luminous and amazing.

I realized then that I was the only person in that room of the gallery.   Vermeer painted this over 400 years ago, and for a brief moment I was the only person in the whole world looking at this painting.  Across time, one human connecting to another human.  Something so simple, but so much more meaningful than all the religious claptrap I have ever sat through.  Wow.


Advance Book Review: Faith vs Fact March 29, 2015

Posted by ubi dubium in Books.
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I was fortunate enough to win an advance copy of Jerry Coyne’s upcoming book, Faith vs Fact, from Goodreads.  Jerry Coyne is a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago, the author of the book Why Evolution is True, and blogs copiously at his wordpress blog, likewise named Why Evolution is True.

The full title of the book is Faith vs. Fact, Why Science and Religion are Incompatible.  Spoiler – Fact wins!  (Although, if you are familiar with Coyne’s writing at all, that’s not really a spoiler. Regular readers of Coyne’s blog will find no surprises here.)  This book is a clear and carefully constructed outline of the conflicts between science and religion, written from the point of view of a strong advocate for science. (more…)

Thoughts on “The Black Swan” March 8, 2015

Posted by ubi dubium in Books.
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I’ve finally finished plowing through The Black Swan.  No, not the movie about ballet dancers, this is the book by Nassim Nicholas Taleb about the influence of improbable events.  I’ve seen mentions in other books that the ideas in this book were influential on other thinkers whose work I really like.

As much as I was hoping that I could recommend this book as a good read, I really can’t.  There’s some important ideas in it, enough to fill a longish magazine article, or maybe a much shorter book.  But there’s not enough real substance to fill 300-ish pages, and it’s interspersed with digressions and ranting to the point that it interfered with my ability to follow his points, or stay absorbed in reading it.  It took me months of picking it up and putting it back down to finally get through it.

Black Swan

One of his main ideas is defining a “black swan” event.  The source of the name goes back to when people in Europe knew that all swans were white. The phrase “black swan” was used to mean something extremely unlikely.  Once black swans were actually discovered in Australia, this unexpected event changed that certainty.  However, Taleb uses “black swan” to mean an unforseeable event that has an unexpectedly large effect on society.  Something along the lines of 9/11, or a stock market crash or the rise of the internet.   (So, the discovery of black swans wasn’t actually a “black swan” event by his definition!)   This kind of event can’t be directly prepared for, since there’s no way to anticipate what the next one will be.

Another good concept he has is separating “mediocristan” from “extremistan”.  Mediocristan refers to situations where statistics fall into nice neat bell curves, and outliers are not of great influence.  As an example, suppose you were to take a random group of 1000 people, and chart their weight distribution on a histogram.  You’d probably get a nice bell curve distribution with only a few outliers.  Perhaps you might get one extremely heavy person in your sample, but if you look at the total weight of the group, that person would not represent a substantial fraction of the total weight of the group nor would their addition to the group throw off the averages very much.  There’s just limits on how much range of variability there can be for some measurements.

In extremistan that’s not the case.  Instead of weight, let’s try charting wealth.  Again, take a sample 1000 people and you might get a nice bell curve, with a few poorer people, a few richer ones, and most falling in the middle, with only a few outliers.  But suppose that one of those outliers in your sample happened to be Bill Gates.  Now if you look at the overall total wealth of the group, or the average wealth, that one outlier has an overwhelming effect on the numbers.  Since the range of wealth doesn’t have the same constraints as a variable like weight, the same statistical methods aren’t applicable, because a single unexpected outlier can overshadow everything else.  A large part of the book is spent talking about how people, particularly statisticians and economists, act like we live in mediocristan instead of extremistan, and how we are blind to the possibility of unexpected, influential, outlier events.

He also spent a lot of time on logical fallacies and cognitive biases, which was certainly relevant to his subject. Although I have read better discussions of these elsewhere, I was glad to see them included.  Understanding that humans are naturally crappy statisticians, and prefer a good story to what the data actually says, helps explain why we are so bad at anticipating black swan events.

OK, good stuff so far.  I was hoping there would be a substantial part of the book devoted to “OK, now what?”  I wanted some discussion about the author’s proposals for the best ways to approach living in extremistan, and the best ways to structure society’s institutions so as to be able to bounce back from or adapt to the next black swan event.  But there was very little of this.  He talked about a specific investment strategy that he uses to guard against financial black swans, but otherwise largely ignored this important part of the discussion.  (A caveat on this point – I see that in the second edition of the book there is an additional 100-page essay that looks like it may cover these points.  That was not included in the e-book edition I read, so I can’t comment on its contents here.  It may resolve the problem I have with the lack of “now what?” discussion.)

Instead he spends a lot of the book railing against the economists and financial professionals who do not take his ideas seriously.  He calls financial forecasters, or anyone who uses a gaussian bell curve in their analysis, a bunch of dunderheads and idiots.  He laments that Nobel prizes in economics are only going to “experts” whose ability to predict market movements is no better than chance.  He seems to hold a lot of resentment toward those who are most respected in the field of finance and economics, and he lets it show.  He seems more concerned with people recognizing that his ideas are brilliant than he is in having brilliant ideas.  With this kind of arrogance in his approach, I’m not surprised that the industry would be slow to pay him much attention.   If you are trying to change someone’s mind, starting out by calling them “stupid” is a poor strategy.

Another drawback to the book is the way it jumped around from point to random digression to different point to – hey look, a chicken!  Reading this book was like listening to someone with ADD. (And a huge ego!) He would make conclusions that didn’t follow from his premises, use jargon that had yet to be defined, and refer to concepts that wouldn’t be discussed until later chapters. He could really have used a good editor to tighten this up and make it more readable.

There are books I have read and loved, that present innovative ideas and take the reader step by step logically and clearly to the author’s conclusions.  I would name On The Origin of Species, Relativity,  The Selfish Gene and Thinking Fast and Slow as wonderful books of this type.  And there are the few gems that do this while also enthralling and entertaining the reader.  Gödel, Escher, Bach is such a treasure of a book.  I was hoping that I would be able to add The Black Swan to this collection, but sadly it just doesn’t reach that level.




In Need of Neologisms March 8, 2015

Posted by ubi dubium in Brain Glitches, Questions.
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How many words are there in the English Language? The OED has over 600,000 words defined, so that’s a good approximation.  You’d think that would be enough, but so often lately I can’t find exactly the word that I need to express a specific idea.

In recent years I’ve learned some really good new words from my readings:

Patternicity – the human tendency to see patterns in random data.

Pareidolia – the tendency to see familiar images, especially faces, in random images.

Agenticity – the tendency to attribute anything that happens to the actions of an intentional agent.

Deepity – a saying that sounds deep at first, but really isn’t.

Groupishness – the tendency to root for members of your own group, and against outsiders, even in a randomly selected grouping.

and of course –

Meme – an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture.

But there are words that I’m looking for, and can’t find.  Perhaps they exist and I just haven’t heard them yet.  And perhaps they need someone to coin them.  A new term, like the words above, should preferably be simple and yet evoke the basic ideas of the concept in the word itself.

So here’s some of the ideas that I’m wanting a word for.  I’ve mentioned some of them in previous posts, but I want to collect them all in one place:

  • A replacement for spiritual that does not have any connotations of belief in the supernatural.  It should mean “filled with awe and fascination at the immensity of the universe and filled with appreciation to be a part of it.”  I’d use it this way: “You know how some people say ‘I’m not religious, but I’m spiritual’?  Well I’m not spiritual.  But I am ________.”  I want a really good word here, one where the word itself conveys the idea without having to use a lot of further explanation.  And I want a work that hasn’t already been hijacked by the newage woo-woo pushers.
  • A term for that thing that you do that is personally very demanding of your time or money or effort, and is basically pointless in itself, but you are doing it to be accepted and trusted by another individual or group as a person who is loyal and committed.  The word could either be a noun to describe the thing that is done, or a verb to describe doing it.  Examples of this kind of thing could be Mormon missions, gang tattoos, snake handling, or giving expensive engagement rings.  I went to a talk from Andy Thomson recently, and he called this “hard to fake, costly, honest signals of commitment.”  That term captures the meaning, but there’s got to be a shorter catchier way to say it.
  • A term for the tendency of people to need to mark their “turf” with visible signs that their group holds dominance. Things like gang tags, or christians putting the ten commandments on courthouse lawns or “in god we trust” on money.
  • And, referencing my last post, here, a term for the confusion between a mental model of a thing and the thing itself. 

Success!  While I was working on this blog post, for the last item I happened upon the very word I’ve been looking for.  It’s the Reification Fallacy, or the Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness.  I like the word “reification”, because it comes from the Latin roots “res” meaning “thing” and “facere” meaning “make” or “do”.  So it’s the fallacy of making a thing out of something that is not actually a thing.  That’s exactly the kind of word I was wanting.  Any ideas on the others?

Use-Mention Errors, or, My Close Personal Relationship with Pinkie Pie February 5, 2015

Posted by ubi dubium in Brain Glitches.
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 I remember reading a discussion from Daniel Dennett some time ago about the idea of a Use-Mention Error.  I don’t remember where that was, or I’d link to it.  This idea has been whirling around in my mind lately because of several discussions I’ve seen.  The most recent was a lengthy attempt by a theist caller to philosophize a god into existence on a recent episode of The Atheist Experience, but I’ve also read many theist comments about how, even though some particular dogma doesn’t make sense, they still have a close personal relationship with god in their hearts.  And I just want to scream “BAD ARGUMENT!” at them.

The easiest version of the Use-Mention Error is when somebody confuses a thing with the term for that thing.   Daniel Dennett’s example goes something like this: (more…)

Misspelled Memes December 6, 2014

Posted by ubi dubium in Humor.
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Some years ago (about seven, I think) Hemant had a humor contest on Friendly Atheist.  The challenge: create a Demotivational style poster based on a slight misspelling of a religious term.  I took a stab at it and got a couple of winners in the results, which was cool.   I realized the other day that I hadn’t posted them on this blog yet, so here they are:

Blond Faith


(Since I’m blond myself, I think I can get away with the blond joke.)

Pie! November 27, 2014

Posted by ubi dubium in Wow.
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Sometimes I get discouraged, reading all those great bloggers out there and seeing all their accomplishments, advanced degrees, and professional experience, and I don’t have any of that.  I don’t teach science to kids, I haven’t made a great discovery, I’m not an experienced speaker, sometimes my life seems pretty ho-hum.

But last night I made this, and it came out perfectly, and I’m feeling pretty pleased with myself right now.


Small triumphs.

Edit 11/30:

It sliced well too, and we served it with vanilla ice cream and whipped cream.  Needless to say, it’s gone now.


Basilica of the Shrine of Our Lady of Conspicuous Consumption November 17, 2014

Posted by ubi dubium in Rants.
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I spent part of this past weekend at an event at, get ready for it, the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. No expense has been spared in making this the most ostentatious show of piety possible.  This is one of the largest churches in the world, built in a Byzantine style with small windows and lots of domes,  and the interior is completely covered with expensive polished marble, and mosaics.

And not just your average mosaics, either.  For a lot of them, the background is done in clear glass backed by gold leaf, so that it glitters.  The place full of nooks and chapels, each of which has some statue or icon or glittery mosaic, and the open spaces are likewise filled with statuary and memorials.  (And places where you can pay to light candles.  In the center of the basement is a big rack where they ask $4.00 to light one candle.)  There are walls full of engraved names of the people who donated money to build this thing.

The people around me were Oooohing and Aaaahing about how pretty and impressive this place was.  Since I was a guest there, I did a good job of holding my tongue, but I just wanted to scream.  Or maybe hurl.  Or both.  Here’s a religion where the founder made a point of being humble, told his followers not to make a show of public prayer, and to sell all they had and give it to the poor, and this is what they build?  A monument to the wealth of their bureaucracy?  All the time I was there, I kept thinking “They could have spent a tenth as much, built themselves a really nice church, and then spent the rest on low-income housing.  Or feeding the poor.  Or buying a mosquito net for every person in Africa, with enough left over to, I don’t know, cure AIDS or something.”

Right at the front of the church is a huge mosaic of Jesus.  Not the normal catholic Dead Jesus on a Stick.  Not comforting Good Shepherd Jesus welcoming believers into paradise.  No, this is Angry Nordic Flaming Jesus!  This is what stares down on the congregation:

Grovel to me, or I will hurt you forever

Grovel to me, or I will hurt you forever

That mosaic can best be appreciated in context – here’s what it looks like from the seats:

Is this really necessary?

Is this really necessary?

Now my general opinion of gods is that they are projections of the human ego, ourselves – just bigger and more powerful.  That’s why they have wants and needs, and why their opinions line up so neatly with what their followers already think.  Then we build big pointy temples to them to glorify our egos, often as if we’re compensating for something.  The men (and I’m pretty sure it’s men in this case) who built this monstrosity certainly seem to have a lot to compensate for!

There was one mosaic that I didn’t completely hate.  I think they meant it as “The creation of the world”, or some such, but I’m going to call it “The FSM Drops the First Two Strippers into the Beer Volcano.”

Creation beer volcano

Jared Diamond on Religion October 25, 2014

Posted by ubi dubium in Books, Brain Glitches, Responses.
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You may be familiar with author Jared Diamond from his famous work Guns, Germs and Steel.  I love that book, and I think it’s a classic.  Well right now I’m reading his more recent book The World Until Yesterday –  What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?  In this book he looks at existing hunter-gatherer and tribal societies in some depth, with chapters on different aspects of how they function.  He then compares them to our modern culture, to see if there are any useful lessons we can take from them about how we might do those same things better.  He analyzes topics like child-rearing, violence, treatment of the elderly and language.

But what surprised me was the chapter on religion.  Hidden toward the back of this book is probably the clearest and most concise discussion of the phenomena of religion that I have ever read, and I’ve read quite a lot on this subject.  Since this chapter was so good, I’d like to try to present a summary of it here.  (Some of this summary is passages lifted directly from the book, some is my attempts to summarize and bring in ideas he presented in other chapters.)

He starts with the puzzle of religion, that all traditional societies appear to have it, or something like it, even though it sometimes incurs a large opportunity cost of time and resources that could have been devoted to other activities.  He posits that there must be some advantage to these societies in having religion, otherwise they would have been out-competed by other groups who didn’t have it.  So there must be some kind of useful function to religion, which is what he spends most of the chapter looking at.

But first, there is the initial problem of defining “religion”. He gives a list of 16 attempts at a brief definition, from dictionaries, Wikipedia, and various authors, none of which really agree and none of which seem to really do the job.  He then proceeds to do a much better job of defining religion by listing five attributes religions commonly have:

  • Belief in the supernatural
  • Shared membership in a social movement
  • Costly and visible proofs of commitment
  • Practical rules for one’s behavior (“morality”)
  • Belief that supernatural beings and forces can be induced to intervene in worldly life.

Not everything that we would classify as a religion has every one of these, but they all definitely must have most of these, and must have the second item to qualify.  One guy believing stuff all by himself does not make a religion. (I would have put that attribute first on the list!)

Here are the seven functions he identifies religion as having:

  1. Explanation
  2. Defusing anxiety
  3. Providing comfort
  4. Standardized organization
  5. Political obedience
  6. Codes of behavior towards strangers
  7. Justifying wars

Before I continue with this chapter summary, I need to backtrack a little.  In this book Diamond discusses four different types of human societies, and I need to define those briefly for the rest of the discussion to make sense.

  • Bands: Groups of a few dozen individuals, usually one or a few extended families.  Often nomadic, hunter gatherers, or perhaps garden farmers.  Low population densities.  Everyone knows everyone else, no formal leadership.  No formal political leadership or economic specialization.  Egalitarian.
  • Tribes: Groups of up to a few hundred members, but still small enough that everyone knows everyone else.  Usually farmers or herders, often sedentary.  Leadership is relatively informal, there may be a “big man” who functions as a weak leader, leading by persuasion and personality. Relatively egalitarian, only weak economic specialization.
  • Chiefdoms: Groups of up to several thousand, too many for everyone to know everyone else.  Formal leaders assisted by  non-specialized all-purpose officials. Economic specialization.  Institutionalized inequality.  Redistribution of resources (taxes).
  • Nation-States: Populations from tens of thousands up to millions. Food production only requires a small percentage of the population;  most people are specialists of some kind. Police, laws and moral codes. Formal leadership, specialized bureaucrats. Economic and social inequality.

I’ll try to sum up his discussion of each of the functions of religion, and include my comments.

1. Explanation:  This one’s pretty obvious.  Humans want causal explanations for everything, and if we can’t figure one out, we’ll make one up.  This is a byproduct of tour need for pattern recognition, and the need to assume an active agent when we don’t know the cause of something, because the cost of missing when someone means you harm is very high.  It’s very satisfying to think you have an explanation for everything, so once a supernatural belief becomes established it’s very tenacious.  As our society has progressed from bands to tribes to chiefdoms to states, and our ability to figure out the actual answers has increased, this function of religion has diminished.  (I don’t see how this function of religion could give an advantage to a group possessing religion over a group without it.  To me, this function is really more of mental malware, with no survival value.  It’s more of a reason why people personally like having religion.)

2. Defusing Anxiety: People turn to religion to deal with problems and dangers beyond their control.  By engaging in a ritual of some sort, people feel as if they have done something of use in a situation where they are actually helpless, and are able to suppress their anxiety and function more normally.  People almost never turn to ritual when it comes to everyday predictable things.  As an example, he talks about a fishing village in the South Pacific, where they fish both in the open ocean and in a quiet lagoon.  The lagoon fishing is safe, easy, and has predictable yields, while ocean fishing is dangerous and unpredictable.  These villagers do not invoke magic for lagoon fishing, but they do magic rituals before heading out on an ocean fishing trip.    This function has also decreased as our societies grew, because people were able to take control over more and more of their environment. (I can see how this function would confer a survival advantage to small groups.  A village full of confident people would certainly have an advantage over a village full of fear and anxiety.  Even if that confidence is unwarranted. )

3. Providing Comfort: Religion can function to provide comfort, hope and meaning when life is hard.  It lets people explain suffering and death, and attribute some meaning to all the crap that life throws at you.  This function may have increased over time: as people settled into agriculture and larger social groups, in many ways  life actually became harder.  Nutrition was worse, disease became more prevalent, family sizes grew, and leisure time decreased.  Even today the more marginalized and underprivileged modern social groups are, the more religious they tend to be. (This may also be part of the explanation of why women tend to be more religious than men – their lives are often less under their own control, and religion can give them the illusion that they are in control of something.  I think this function is possibly just a part of the Defusing Anxiety function above.)

4. Standardized Organization:  This isn’t really a function of religion for bands or tribes, they don’t need it.  They have no full-time specialists, and no surplus available to support full-time leaders or large public projects.  As Chiefdoms arise there is a need for such things, and religion is a useful tool for accomplishing this.

5. Political Obedience:  A necessary part of organizing a large society is collecting resources to use to support the full-time leaders, construct public works, or support armies.  How do you get the people to obey the rulers and give up part of their production?  Again, religion is a really good tool for this – if the King is chosen by the gods, or is related to the gods, or is a god himself, then with an organized religious system supporting him he can ensure obedience and payment.  This function has decreased in modern nation-states, politicians now don’t usually invoke a deity to get people to pay their taxes or obey laws.

6. Codes of Behavior Towards Strangers:  At the band and tribe level, everyone knows everybody else, and what their relationships with those people are.  Not only with members of his own tribe, but with the neighboring tribes as well. There’s no standardized moral rules, only a network of useful  relationships.   There is no standard as to how you behave toward people you don’t know, partially because meeting a stranger is very rare.  Any stranger is from outside a person’s circle of known relationships, and may well be an enemy, or at least a threat.  The response to a stranger may be to try to kill them or to run away.  But when chiefdoms emerge, a new problem arises:  there are now members of your group who you do not know, but whom you must not treat as enemies;  group stability depends on this.  So now it’s necessary to have a formal code of behavior for how you treat members of your own group.  So religion takes on a new function, with a code of behavior supposedly handed down by the gods, with divine punishment threatened for those who break them.  This function has also decreased in modern secular nation-states, our laws no longer invoke the wrath of god as a deterrent.

This is also the religious function that makes costly and visible proofs of commitment valuable.  Since you don’t know everybody in the kingdom, how can you tell who’s part of “us” and therefore must be treated well, and who’s part of “them” and can be safely mistreated?  Who can you trust to have your back and who might be a spy?  It’s useful if there’s some way to tell who’s a friend, and if it’s a way that’s unlikely to be faked so much the better.  Sure, an outsider might say a few prayers, but will he grow his hair, wear tassels, abstain from pork, make all the temple sacrifices and cut a piece off of each of his sons (ancient Hebrews)?  Will he wear magic underwear, learn secret handshakes, give 10% of his income and devote two years of his life to missionary work (Mormons)?  Other examples include permanent bodily mutilation, long expensive pilgrimages, and publicly espousing rationally implausible beliefs. (I think this idea of commitment badges is probably worth its own book, and I’ll probably be blogging more about it in the future.  For instance, I think that Ken Ham’s Creation Museum is an excellent example of believers making a costly and visible proof of commitment.)

7. Justifying Wars:  This is also a new dilemma faced by growing societies. In bands and tribes war is always personal, and religion generally does not come into it.  Each combatant knows exactly why they wish to attack the members of the other group, and there are no laws to restrain violence and retaliation.  But as chiefdoms develop this also must change.   A person spends their life being told that it’s not OK to kill strangers or steal their stuff, because the gods say so. How can a state persuade the population that “Thou Shalt Not Kill” actually means “Thou must kill, under the following circumstances” without getting its soldiers hopelessly confused and prone to kill the wrong people?  But by using religion, this can be resolved, by declaring that all other religions are wrong, and that it is just and right to kill their adherents.  Societies of religious fanatics are very dangerous to those around them, from biblical Old Testament genocides to modern terrorists.  The survival advantage of having an army who believes they are doing god’s work is very clear.  Modern secular states no longer need to invoke “god wants you to fight”, but in many societies today it’s still being used.

Diamond’s conclusion about the future of religion is that functions 1 and 4-7 are likely to continue to decrease, but that 2 and 3 are likely to persist.

I’m not sure I’ve done justice to this chapter (I’ve omitted his discussion of the relevance of the evolution of electric eels, for example), but the way he presents these ideas was just too good not to make an attempt.  I really recommend this book, and not just for this chapter.  I’ve been reading a library copy, but it’s going on my list of books I need to own.




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