Wednesday, November 11, 2009

"God" as a Contentless Loyalty Signal

I frequently argue that the reason no one can define "God" is that it's a contentless word, kind of like "ouch" but with more social signaling utility. Whereas "ouch" (or a stronger monosyllable) correlates with, but doesn't literally semantically mean, "I've just experienced acute pain and I'm letting people around me know I'm unhappy about this", using "God" in earnest means "I submit my critical thought and moral code to the will of group theological authority". (It helps the argument that in at least one case, the literal meaning of the religion's name is "submission". This came to me only after I had finished the blog post - interesting, yes?)

Robin Hanson cites other writers asking questions about building group solidarity through "inward-directed apologetics". We all know how effective religious screeds are when we read posts on atheist discussing groups quoting scripture with every sentence; that type of rhetoric is most effective on people who are already religious, though they're literally preaching to the choir. What Hanson speculates is that the more unreasonable the rhetorical contortions people show themselves going through to their coreligionists to submit to the will of Allah or L. Ron Hubbard, the more loyalty they're demonstrating. (Remember the guy in Eddie Murphy's coming to America? "If lovin' the Lord is wrong, I don't wanna be right-tah!") In fact this strongly echoes something Dennett argues in Breaking the Spell, where he compares the increasingly over-the-top declarations of theists to those of lovers declaring their undying romance for each other.

Between the convergence of these arguments and fMRI studies like the ones Sam Harris has been doing, is it possible we're building a neurology of religion? What are we going to do with this information?

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