Is demand for religious fundamentalism inelastic?

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.


6 Responses to “Is demand for religious fundamentalism inelastic?”

  1. Dan M Says:

    Hello, I am a citizen of Washington and have enjoyed reading many of your columns. I came across your blog and find these questions interesting.

    I think I would agree that most religious folks would not be irrational at all costs, when making decisions in the real world. It also seems important to ask whether or not religion and even religious belief is inherently irrational, as Dawkins and others argue, let alone inherently dangerous and unpredictable.

    While thinkers such as Dawkins and Hitchens are valid many of their criticisms, many of their statements seem unsettling. For instance, the statement from Hitchens, “I would never give up the claim that all religions are equally false,” above seems quite extreme. Religion is quite a vast phenomena–with today’s major ones each having numerous branches and of course counting millions or billions of followers. Some are monotheistic while others have no such theistic requirements. Some even hold the science and reason as their creeds (if you consider secular humanism a religion) for instance.

    In this very pluralistic world of ours, it seems crucial that we try to find values and commonalities between different perspectives when working to solve our problems. There are many who find value and work to communicate to people in multiple cultures and perspectives. For instance, E.O. Wilson has worked to communicate with creationists in an effort to try and save biodiversity.

  2. Andy Hallman Says:

    It also seems important to ask whether or not religion and even religious belief is inherently irrational, as Dawkins and others argue, let alone inherently dangerous and unpredictable.

    I think it’s fair to call religious people irrational to the extent they believe things without evidence or in spite of evidence. Caplan summarizes what makes religion irrational here.

    For instance, the statement from Hitchens, “I would never give up the claim that all religions are equally false,” above seems quite extreme.

    I think what Hitchens is saying is that if all religions are an invention of the mind and not grounded in the outside world, there is a sense in which they’re all equally delusional. You might believe in an invisible pink unicorn. I might believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Maybe my delusion is more elaborate than yours, but they’re still both delusions nonetheless.

    Regarding E.O. Wilson, I learned of his work when I read Steven Pinker’s book “The Blank Slate.” Pinker defends the idea that biology determines much about a person, and how this idea has come under fire in the past century. He mentions how Wilson was shouted down and even physically harassed when he gave lectures about sociobiology in the 1970s. I was impressed with Wilson’s ideas, at least as they were related by Pinker.

    I’m certainly in favor of working with people I disagree with to reach a common goal. I would have no problem working with creationists to improve the environment.

  3. Dan M. Says:

    Caplan’s argument is very compelling. I would agree with Caplan as well about people behaving differently in the real world rather than following certain ideas.

    One of Caplan’s points I found interesting was that many “accept religious beliefs without studying competing views.” It got me to thinking about how it is often the case to also hold one’s view as more superior than another, noticing more faults in the other and missing the flaws inherent in one’s own.

    I should expound more on E.O. Wilson’s book “The Creation.” I have not read it entirely, but a main argument he makes as that it does not matter as much where life and biodiversity came from, but that we must do what we can to save it. I shouldn’t say it’s meant just for creationists because many religious make the i.d. argument or accept evolution. Another great work of his is “The Diversity of Life,” which makes a strong case for saving biodiversity as well. I’m not as familiar with his sociobiology, but he also has written “Consilence” about uniting various academic disciplines, which I’m hoping to read.

  4. Andy Hallman Says:

    It got me to thinking about how it is often the case to also hold one’s view as more superior than another, noticing more faults in the other and missing the flaws inherent in one’s own.

    Good point. In his book, Caplan also discusses survey results that indicate that each of us thinks of ourselves as being self-lessly motivated but everyone else as having selfish motivations. What is most interesting is that this applies even to people who vote for the same candidates we do. For instance, if you ask a liberal why he voted for the democratic candidate, he will tell you how the candidate will make society better off. If you ask him, “Why do you think so-and-so voted for the Democrat?” he will respond “because it’s in his own interests to do so.”

  5. Dan M Says:

    Wow, it’s been a little while since I commented to this post. Hoping it is not too late to post a new comment.

    In the meantime since, it’s become good to become somewhat better acquainted with some of the new atheists’ work and arguments. I find it interesting how Sam Harris writes of a science-based spirituality, and also for science-based morality. He proves to be articulate and well-argued in debates such as this one:

    I also have come across Dawkin’s work Unweaving the Rainbow. Very informative of some general science and pleasurable to read. Among many of the greats from scientists reminding readers that science can enhance our sense of wonder about the world.

  6. Andy Hallman Says:

    Thanks for the comment, Dan.

    Dan links to a debate between the team of Sam Harris and Michael Shermer and the team of Deepak Chopra and Jean Houston. I guess it was supposed to be a debate between atheists and theists, but the theists make no effort to defend traditional religion and instead defend the idea that when they say they believe in “God” all they are saying is that they believe in “pure energy” or a mysterious “life force” or something unintelligible.

    I don’t think I’ve ever seen a debate where one side so readily concedes to the other.

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