Thursday, May 14, 2009

Cheering on (and Cheating) Your Team

I just checked out the Lesswrong user survey, and was interested in the religious afiliations. It's a rationality blog and only 4 out of 154 respondents described themselves as theists of any kind. Respondents were also asked about their family background - and here is the kicker. I filtered for Lutheran (the religion of my last religious ancestors - my grandparents) and found that there were 4 Lutherans. Hurrah! I shouted, noting that most of the other categories had only 1 or 2. Then I got to the Catholics, and found that they had more. Goddammit. (No comments from the peanut gallery Dan. Now hey. Settle.)

Why should I care that the Catholics beat the Lutherans? Beyond my (I hope) jesting school-colors tribalism that those labels trigger, was I secretly hoping that Lutheranism would be a good branch of religion that somehow post-demise prepares critical minds? If there were such a thing as a one-generation philosophy - one which was inherent nonsense and which through its contradictions was doomed to implosion within several decades, but which would invigorate future generations of critical minds, would it be morally acceptable? Were the Deleuzes and Derridas of the last generation secretly incubating a generation of rigorously critical thinkers? Jacques Derrida's nephew is, after all, a productive materials scientist!

I'll grant you that this particular thought experiment is maybe a little better suited for a science fiction story than a moral debate. But I do frequently think about the morality of an atheist relating to the religion that his or her family emerged from. So here's a better thought experiment, in part because it's one I would've conducted in reality, were it not for lack of materials. I'm starting med school in september. Med school is expensive. Wherever I can get someone else to pay for it, I do. So, being ethnically Lutheran, I looked online for Lutheran scholarships.

Now, I could honestly and without deceit declare in the application for such scholarships that I'm a baptized Lutheran. But - if you believe that religious institutions are on the whole harmful to humans beings (which I do - don't you?), and that the entire concept of G/god(s) is incoherent and therefore meaningless anyway (which I do - don't you?) - how can it be immoral for me to spew three thousand words of steaming B.S. into an essay? The word "God" is contentless. Ask a religious person to define God. But it does get a lot of airtime, so there must be some use, and there is - the word "God" is a noise that humans make when they want to signal membership in the same tribe and adherence to the same authority. So if I write about how much I love God, how I intend to spread His word, and how it's only through Christ that I've achieved success in life, how is that lying? After all, the Lord works in mysterious ways, and faith is an ineffable mystery in everyone's hearts, and only God will know if He is using me for some kind of performance art to test the faith of His children.

Of course, I concede that I would be signalling insincerely: a male peacock's huge tail shows the female that this male must be pretty good if he can still get away from predators, so she wants to reproduce with him, but meanwhile the tail is a clip-on that he leaves in the bushes when he's not cruising the savannah for mates. (Same goes for a pronghorn that can stot higher than all the rest but in actuality can't run worth a damn.) But is deceptive signalling the same as lying? And would the church be right to ask me for the money back once I "come out" to them, only after I carefully check that the deposit has cleared? As my very Austrian and very capitalist grandfather often said (quoting Ben Franklin), God helps those who help themselves - but then (adding his own wisdom) God help those who get caught helping themselves.

Now granted, posting something on the web with my real name announcing my intent to defraud the Lutheran church might be a limiting move in such an enterprise. In fact I wasn't able to find any such scholarships anyway, but you bet your ass I would have applied for any that I found. And written the best essay they'd ever seen. But I can anticipate that my moral reasoning might not be palatable to everyone; and it's useful to examine moral dilemmas that rational consequentialists disagree on, as I have before. So I open the floor to your arguments - would I be wrong to do so?


Dan said...

I wish I had some peanuts up here. I'd throw them at you.

I think our 2nd grade teacher told us both that cheaters only cheat themselves.

Take money from the Lutherans under false pretenses and you pay for it by giving a bad reputation to other atheists. We've got a big enough uphill battle in the whole "No Morality Without God" mess.

Also, I totally distrust Lutherans. They are way too nice to be real. I'm always waiting for them to unzip their skins and eat brains.

Michael Caton said...

Listen, if you had to choose between brains and lutefisk, do you know which side you'd come down on?

Aren't there cases of atheists serving as paid Lutheran ministers? Are they giving atheists a bad name?

Q: What do you call it when Martin Luther nails a bunch of crappy ideas to the door of a church?

A: The 95 Feces! Get it?

Thanks, I'm here all week. Don't forget to take care of the waitress.