I think everybody probably knows someone like this: the person that, in their everlasting quest for shortcuts, ends up taking obscure, winding routes to “avoid traffic” or stoplights or whatever, and goes several kilometers further than necessary, often taking longer to do so as well. I’ve certainly known more than a couple. My brother-in-law once decided, when the winter weather turned ugly, to dodge the Baltimore-Washington Expressway and cut through the Virginia mountains, because when the roads get treacherous, it’s always better to avoid the one highway in the country guaranteed to remain plowed and instead take the route with lots of inclines and curves…
Some decision-making shortcuts are this way. In all honesty, we use shortcuts all the time. Every time we use a credit or debit card, especially online, we usually have no idea if the process is truly secure, or even how to determine this other than a websearch. When we see a new food item or pharmaceutical in our local stores, we not only assume it’s safe, but effective as well. And all I really have to do is mention the word, “politics”…
In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins relates a test given by psychologist George Tamarin to Israeli adolescents, just some simple questions. Presented with the scriptural account of god commanding Joshua’s followers to wipe out an entire city (but keep the valuables for god), the children were asked if such actions were actually moral, or ‘right’; it is perhaps unsurprising, yet still disturbing, that a majority considered genocide okay, largely because it was commanded by god. This is a pattern that is often repeated in discussions of religious morality with adults as well: it is moral because god commands it. When such statements are put to the test, a significant number of religious folk admit that yes, they would kill someone if commanded by god.
The interesting twist was presented to a different group of kids from the same background, where the situation was identical except for changing the circumstances to a Chinese general in ancient China. Now, however, the answer was different: a larger majority said that the actions were immoral and wrong.
The key difference here being whether god decrees it or not. So, suppose we change it from the classic ‘god/allah’ of Abrahamic scripture (‘yahweh’ or ‘YHWH’ if that helps,) to another deity: baal, or vishnu, or xuan wu, or !xu? Do the actions related within the scriptures now sound rather barbaric? Does, for instance, the complete drowning of all life on earth, save for a select breeding population, because of the sins of humans (and one must presume that it certainly could not have been all humans save for Noah’s immediate family) sound like a petulant and psychotic action, from a deity with some serious issues? Does the idea of someone who sacrifices his daughters to a horny gang to spare two total strangers the same fate sound like rewardable behavior?
The argument, when such scenarios are presented, is that god is the one true god, and god is good. But how do we even determine that? “Well, it says so right there in the scripture, which is the word of god.” That’s what we call a circular argument, exactly the same as my typing, “Al is absolutely correct in everything that he says.” No one would buy this for a second, and quite frankly, I’m glad. Yet, they build their entire lives around it when it comes to religion.
If we bother to apply just a smidgen of thought to it for a second, we find that there seems to be two definitions of ‘good’; one that deals with treating people with respect and mutual beneficence, and one that says, “what god wants,” regardless of the affect on people, even those too young and naive to understand any adult issues. As hard as this may be to believe, there are people (a lot of them) unthinking enough to hear a simple statement like, “god is good,” and actually accept that as an infallible rule over everything that common sense tells them. Imparted to them long ago as “truth,” there was never a reason to revisit it and seek support.
Isn’t that cool? All you really have to do is repeat something, especially if you call it “traditional” or “virtuous,” and you have no need to do silly little things like establish a line of reasoning or a body of evidence. It doesn’t matter how fucked up the statement really is, just keep repeating it. For good measure, tell someone that they’re good if they believe it. Start early, or course, before the child learns that adults have a tendency to lie; that way, you might be lucky (the odds are, fortunately, in your favor) and the child won’t ever revisit the statement with a thinking brain.
There are some snags, of course – you have to take the good with the bad (a ha ha.) For example, it works even with such ludicrous concepts as islamic terrorism, Irish nationalism – well, nationalism of any kind, really – and come to think of it, racism, sexism, classism, tribalism, brand loyalty… gosh, it pops up a lot, doesn’t it?
Leaving behind the sarcasm for a second, I have to point out two interesting things about this post. The first is, it’s been in draft form for a while because it wasn’t coming out as I liked; meanwhile, I had the visitor that I mentioned here, and I thus had the opportunity to bring it up with her. It’s also the reason why I make no distinction between moderate and extremist faith, regardless of what affect they seem to be having. When the primary support for a belief system (religious or not) is based upon some assertion or assumed value, then the system has a critical, fatal flaw. Moreover, there’s the bit where anyone with an agenda can manipulate people as desired, because all it takes is a new assertion. Can you say, “splinter sect?”
Worse, however, is how often this actually is recognized, not only by priests and evangelists, but by political parties in the US. Have you noticed the frequency with which the religious card is played? This is only because it is widely known that people drop all pretense of rational thought when it comes to religion, so it’s an automatic win. The candidates don’t have to worry about their policies, past record, future goals, or anything else – just mention their fealty to god, regardless of how little this has to do with the office they’re proposing to fill, and more than enough unthinking automatons will start salivating like Pavlov’s dogs. Barnum had it all wrong: there’s a sucker baptized every minute. Even among those that, as preposterous as this sounds, might have actually thought about whether merely mentioning god is sufficient, far too often this thought gets pushed away by the realization that they would then exempt themselves from being able to flash their own ‘good’ card.
It’s not just religion that exploits this trait (though by far it’s the worst offender) – the same might be said for appending the word “spiritual” to something, or “holistic,” or even “natural.” Many things are natural, including snake venom and poison ivy, salmonella and brain tumors. Yet when applied to food, for some reason, it changes definition to indicate “healthy.” Even more interesting, the very application of any of these words seems to automatically imply, to a majority of people, that anything not bearing such adjectives must therefore be unnatural, unhealthy, or some other unsavory attribute.
However, if we decide that the definition of ‘good,’ to return to the original example, reflects how we get along with one another, then distinguishing good from bad might require something more than skin color or nationality, or allegiance to a god or sports team or city where one was born. It would require seeing that some action was, oh, I don’t know, beneficial in some way. Admittedly, this is a very difficult thing to determine, and might require the consumption of three calories in thought. Here’s a wild and crazy idea to entertain, though: if someone cannot spare the effort, maybe they shouldn’t be making any decisions in the first place?
What becomes clear is that decisions are a process, a process that probably should be followed all of the time for every situation, rather than seeing if some variable factor can be jammed into a category with predetermined characteristics. Not every shortcut is a benefit; not every rule can apply to every situation, nor every pattern free from inconsistency. In the centuries that we’ve been expanding our scientific knowledge, we have only a handful of steadfast rules that appear unbreakable, most applying to physics reactions and ratios. Not one, ever, has been found to apply to human behavior – hell, we can’t even count on perfect consistency with evidence-based medicine, the kind that brought us anesthetics and decongestants. No political party could be said to be composed solely of morons, hippies, communists, or corporate shills; no scientist can ever be said to be right all of the time.
In fact, consistency and rules are so rare that it could almost be said that any time some distinct assertion is offered, it is certainly wrong. While we’d really like something dependable that never requires examination, some shortcut to save us even a tiny smidgen of time or effort, such things almost never exist – we’re better off knowing how to avoid such crutches and applying a judicial eye to everything instead. Not only does it lead to better decisions, it can save us from being pawns or schmucks as well. Even natural ones.