On Religion

"Religion is exactly the same kind of thing as astrology": A. C. Grayling
"Only 7 percent of the country’s top scientists (defined for this poll as the members of the National Academy of Sciences) professed a belief in God, while almost no Nobel laureates are religious. A mere 3 percent of the eminent scientists who are members of Britain’s Royal Society are religious. Moreover, meta-analysis has shown a correlation among atheism, education, and IQ. So there are striking differences within populations, and it’s clear that degree of atheism is linked to intelligence, education, academic achievement, and a positive interest in natural science. Scientists also differ per discipline: Biologists are less prone to believe in God and the hereafter than physicists. So it isn’t surprising that the vast majority (78 percent) of eminent evolutionary biologists polled called themselves materialists (meaning that they believe physical matter to be the only reality). Almost three quarters (72 percent) of them regarded religion as a social phenomenon that had evolved along with Homo sapiens. They saw it as part of evolution, rather than conflicting with it."  D. F. Swaab: We Are Our Brains

To be clear, here are my definitions:

  • Religion according to Sam Harris is failed science. It spreads beliefs for which there is no evidence: these beliefs include god, devil, soul, after-life, original sin, heaven, hell, the literal truth of the bible,  the 5000 year old flat-earth, and also can include denial of evolution, climate change,  and more. Some of it might be allegory, but many think it is literally true.
  • Science is also a set of beliefs for which there IS evidence:  to verify the results there is a peer-review process, continual refinement. Over the centuries we have learned a lot and benefited in many ways: better medicine, smart technology. We are poorer in that there is much more destructive war, and massive pollution including massive additions of greenhouse gas to the atmosphere.

These are not the only basis for beliefs though:

  • There are politicians, academics, and others who will support any set of beliefs for pay. These are people who are largely responsible for our dysfunctional institutions, including government. For want of a term, we could call them shills. As Lawrence Lessig points out so well in his book Republic Lost, Congress responds to money.
  • There are many people who believe what they hear without verification: they trust what they hear from their neighbors, internet, news groups,  mass media, or even from Fox news.  Payment for belief is the basis for extreme expense in political campaigns. It can create grass-roots activists for the tobacco industry, the NRA, or even climate denialists. It is the reason for the existence of the very profitable advertising industry. The Supreme Court's Citizens United opinion assures massive flows of cash and its accompanying corruption.,

Reality will win. Science is our best view of reality and is usually our best predictor. The climate doesn't care what we think. Because we have burned too much fossil fuel, Earth will warm, the glaciers will melt, the arctic ocean will be ice free, there will no longer be fresh drinking water from the melt, the land will dry, fires will rage, forests will disappear, the waters will become acid, many species will go extinct, food will get too expensive for most.  Population will have to shrink to a level the earth can support. This will be accompanied by mass migrations, social unrest, and most likely wars. As a result, the economy will be destroyed.

Using these definitions: Economics is a religion when there is no attempt to base it on facts. If, however, there are people who carefully study the evidence, and propose policy solutions based on the best available knowledge, I would argue that they aspire to be scientists and should be respected as such. Economics has both kinds of people. Voodoo or supply-side economics has long been discredited, but carries on as religion. Nobel prize winning economists, like Joe Stiglitz or Paul Krugman, deserve respect as scholars and scientists. To say this is also to take sides in the politics. It is usually best to side with people with deep knowledge of their subject, not the ones who refuse to accept science.

That said, I also think that views on the economy need to be reframed.

The economy is a human-designed artifact that should serve the people. It doesn't now. It serves the wealthy, it is extremely unfair, it undermines democracy, it causes immense suffering,  It needs reform.

Our economic measures should reflect the well-being of the people.

We should deal with some of the obvious problems: the casino of speculation, the boom and bust cycles, the too-big-to-fail corporations, the lack of democracy in the work place, the corporate welfare bought and paid for in our coin-operated Congress, the obscene CEO compensation, the  corporate governance, the shredded social safety net, the offshore tax havens, the deregulated externalities (pollution), the prison-industrial complex, the military-industrial complex, the insane weapons expense, the drive for world-dominating empire, and so on.

In our system, paid work is mostly required for life support. But we have massive unemployment because the 'free' market does not need a large fraction of the workforce. High unemployment translattes to productivity lost forever. As accelerating advances in technology replaces people in jobs, people should have more freedom, shorter work weeks, and a social safety net that guarantees life support. Health care should be a right, not a for-profit commodity.  If the private sector is incapable of providing jobs, then the government should be the employer of last resort. FDR created the WPA for this and we still have many assets to show for it. Since there is always plenty of work to do, we should guarantee a job to anyone who wants one. Our infrastructure needs massive repair, interest rates are low, and it would be a good investment to fix it.

Republicans, since their only value is money, oppose all of this. If they have their way, we are doomed.


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