Suppose we agree that religion sometimes causes otherwise smart people to do silly things. The next problem to solve is predicting when a person will follow their religion or when they’ll revert to more reasonable methods of decision making.
Do they follow their religion’s teachings through thick and thin or do they jump off the bandwagon as soon as the going gets tough?
To put the question in economic terminology, is demand for religious fundamentalism perfectly inelastic? That is to say, does the willingness of true believers to carry out religious edicts stay constant as the material cost of carrying them out increases (inelastic, where demand is insensitive to changes in price), or do they shy away from religious purity as it becomes more costly (elastic, where demand plumets when price is increased only slightly)?
What got me thinking about this was listening to two different views on the subject of religiously-inspired irrationality. On the one hand we have famous atheists like Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris. These two seem to embrace the view that demand for religious fundamentalism is inelastic. People follow their religious convictions no matter what, which they argue can have lethal consequences for others.
In a conversation with other famous atheists Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett in 2007, Hitchens essentially argues that the behavior of religious people is unpredictable. They may look sane today, but tomorrow they could be waging a war to bring on Armageddon.
Hitchens: I would never give up the claim that all religions are equally false. They prefer faith to reason, and they are, latently at least, equally dangerous.
Dawkins: Surely equally false, but not equally dangerous.
Hitchens: Latently, I think so, because of the surrender of the mind…[and] the eagerness to discard the only thing that we’ve got that makes us higher primates, the faculty of reason. That is always deadly.
Later in the discussion, Harris chimes in with some observations on unforeseen consequences of irrationality.
Harris: You can almost never quite anticipate the danger of unreason. When your mode of interacting with others and the universe is to affirm truths you’re in no position to affirm, the liabilities of that are potentially infinite.
Take stem cell research. You don’t know, going in, that the idea that the soul enters the zygote at the moment of conception is a terrible idea. It seems like a benign idea, until you invent something like stem cell research, where it stands in the way of incredibly promising life-saving research. There’s something about dogmatism which you can almost never foresee, [such as] how many lives it’s going to cost. Its conflict with reality just erupts.
To Hitchens and Harris, there is evidently a “rationality” switch on everyone’s brain, and religious folk have theirs in the “off” position. Without reason to guide them, there’s no telling what religious fundamentalists will do. For Hitchens in particular, the “surrender of the mind” makes Quakers as potentially dangerous as Islamic jihadists.
Is it really true that believers throw logic and reason out the window, no matter the cost to themselves or other people?
George Mason University Economics Professor Bryan Caplan says “no.” Caplan believes a person’s willingness to forsake rationality and follow religious teachings is a function of how costly following those teachings is. When the cost of following your religious law is low, and the benefit in status or self-esteem is high, we should expect the law to be followed. As it becomes more costly to adhere to the law (in terms of material cost, for instance), the faithful will find excuses for deviating from the law.
In his 2007 book, “The Myth of the Rational Voter,” Caplan gives a few examples as evidence of his theory. He tells us of the Indian religion known as Jainism. The sage Vardhamana Mahavira, who founded the Jains, insisted that monks give up all worldly goods, including clothing.
As Caplan points out in his book, a religious split eventually developed between the northern and southern Jains. Jains in the northern, colder, part of India eventually split off from their southern brethren and donned clothing because nudity had become too uncomfortable in their environment (not to mention northern Jains had greater contact with clad peoples). In the south, where nudity was not so costly, Jains held firmly to the edicts of Mahavira.
I’m persuaded that Caplan’s analysis of religious irrationality is correct, although I’ll admit there is some difficulty explaining suicide bombers.
The Hitchens-Harris view, that religious folks renounce rationality at all costs, doesn’t seem consistent with the way religious people behave in the real world.