Bad Religion

Accusing something of being like a religion is like a religion.

It’s a shared cultural practice, that reinforces a group’s confidence in the parts of their worldview that provide an order to existence, while facilitating dismissal of contradictory evidence.

Rob Wiblin

A couple of weeks ago Tyler Cowen accused the Rationality community of being a religion. I used to think that Tyler Cowen is a brilliant thinker™. After he said all that, I’m absolutely sure of it!

I initially read it as pure trolling: a lot of rationalists came from online atheist circles, and our “Holy Scripture” has a whole book about how to avoid becoming a religion. Calling rationality a religion is a cheaper shot than Jim Beam. See also: anyone with 10 karma on r/pol can free associate for 30 seconds and contrive a clever sounding argument why social justice warriors are the real racists. But calling SJW “racist” isn’t constructive criticism, it’s just what you say to get people riled up.

Tyler, however, knows exactly whom to troll. Accusing rationalists of anything whatsoever is great fun. People who dislike rationalists will retweet and comment “lol thos n3rds”, while actual rationalists will write long essays interpreting anything you say in the most charitable possible terms while suggesting that your disagreements lie merely in diverging readings of Plato’s Republic. Calling out rationalists is an enjoyable pastime, I used to do it myself on LessWrong!

But at the end of the day, Tyler actually loves the rationality community and wants us to be happy. With a single remark, he made rationalists bond together, rekindled our community pride, and provided all of us with something fun to blog about for a week.

Bravo, sir!

hats off.png
Credit: Marcia Hunter

There’s just one problem: someone will actually start in rationality hoping to find a religion, and they’ll be hella disappointed. Rationality is a crap religion.

The first job of any religion worth its name is to provide its followers with an outgroup that’s fun to hate. A religion that I am devoted to myself, Carolina Basketball, excels at this. We have our holy temple, our communal worship, our sixth coming. But really, the joy of the Tar Heel way is hating Duke. I don’t remember whom UNC lost to in my first year on campus, but I remember that Lehigh 75 – Duke 70 hapenned that year. The two best selling books in the student store in Chapel Hill are “Duke Sucks” and “To Hate Like This Is to Be Happy Forever”.

to hate duke

Rationalists really disappoint in the gratuitous antipathy department. The community’s biggest break with the online atheism community is when we decided that hating theists isn’t really productive, and it’s in bad taste anyway. We tried to work up a healthy animus towards a variety of potential outgroups: quantum collapse theorists, continental moral philosophers, and Vox. In the end, we couldn’t muster the energy to even hate Vox properly.

You’d think that the natural enemy of any religion would be the apostates hipsters who smugly declare themselves post-whatever-the-religion-is. For example, 500 years ago some Catholics decided they were going to be post-Catholics, and millions of people died in the ensuing centuries of bitter warfare. So, do we hate postrationalists? Most rationalists I know find them annoying for sure. Postrationalists keep complaining that rationalists don’t respect the power of rituals, so we invite them to rationalists rituals, and then they actually show up and bring cookies and wine. Seriously, we suck at making enemies.

But hating on an outgroup is just a small part of what religion does. The best take on what religions as a whole are about comes from my fellow Hebrew U alum, Yuval “Sapiens” Noah Harari:

In a way [virtual reality] is not completely new. You can say that for thousands of years humans have found meaning in playing virtual reality games which we just called religions.

Religion is a huge virtual reality game. You invent certain rules that exist only in your imagination, and you go through life and you try to gain points. You pray five times a day you gain points, you have sex with another man you lose points. If by the time you die you have enough points, you get to the next level.

Like religions, most video games have you doing things that by themselves don’t seem very pleasant (fighting orcs, not having sex with other men). The fun comes from the elaborate system of scoring and rules that govern play. There are rules about prayer, about clothing, food, speech, work and even thought. Like a good video game, a good religion doesn’t leave you without an opportunity to score or lose points for more than a few minutes at a time, even if you spend your day just grinding out five more wolf pelts / five more Hail Marys.




Rationality, in contrast, mostly lets you do your own thing. You don’t need Bayes’ Rule to figure out how to cross a street or what to get for breakfast. Rationality just runs in the background – a major rationality skill is just noticing the occasional moment when you actually need to turn your explicit rationality on. If our brains are the “corrupted hardware”, rationality is not a video game, it’s an update to the operating system.


This last point occasionally confuses people and makes them doubt the instrumental value of rationality. That’s because you very rarely do a “rationality thing” and get a “+10 points!” ping. Instead: you read the sequences, and you expect a lot of awesome things to happen at once, and they don’t happen at once, and you go back to living your life. But a few years later, you suddenly notice that you have more money in your bank account because you think clearer about saving and investing. And your blood pressure is lower because you stop getting dragged into hysterical culture wars online. And you’re about to marry an incredible woman because at a key moment you double-checked your gut with your brain.

Rationality is a really unsatisfactory religion. But it’s a great life hack.

10 thoughts on “Bad Religion

  1. It’s annoying that one (theoretical) benefit of religion is in cultivating good habits, and part of the rationalist art also lies in certain habits, but you can’t make it work the other way around (i.e. willfully immerse myself in a VR game where the DM God takes 10 points for every snack I eat). Or maybe I’m just not a good roleplayer.

    Love the almost-anagram :)


  2. The points-based version of religion is actually pretty contrary to how many religious traditions are supposed to work. The parable of the laborers in the vineyard comes to mind: Some laborers started early in the day, and some showed up just before sundown, but all received the same reward. That’s pretty opposed to the points-based view of salvation. Martha and Mary comes to mind as well, as a story that emphasizes that we should not run our own tally of virtue or just deserts. I do agree with you on the pitfalls of a points-based way of thinking, morally or in relationships – just think of the boyfriend who keeps a mental tally of how many times he (by himself, he would add –
    and on pasta night!) has cleaned the kitchen; that is not a sign of a loving relationship. But I don’t think it’s a general property or necessary part of religion.


    1. I don’t think we disagree: points-based thinking (aka mental accounting) is so natural to humans they apply it everywhere. This means that the official texts of religions have to explicitly direct people away from that (the parables). And yet, humans find a way to bring points back in (confession).

      You also have a good point about relationships. Points are a single player game: they’re only in your head. Counting points and expecting your partner to abide by them is silly. On the other hand, when there’s a big group of people and someone has to wash the dishes point become a good idea again as long as you make them very explicit.


      1. I’m glad we agree that this is a universal human tendency. But I’m a little confused on where you make the tie-in to religion? I know, religions are very different and it’s sort of silly to talk about religion in the abstract. But to talk to your specific examples, I disagree with you that confession and prayer are part of a piety-points system. They (ought to) be ways to break free from our own pride, and concede the burden of judgement to God. But you also find that it is easy to grab the nearest religious criterion of goodness and start applying it to everyone else, which is one way that religious people can be especially wicked. So to that extent I can see your point.


        1. I didn’t really aim to write a post about theories of religion per se, it’s not a subject I know much about from either formal research or personal experience. This post is about the rationality community and the meaning and value people can expect to find in it. I pulled in some takes on “religion” mostly because the recent conversation (by Cowen et al) made it a pertinent lens through which to look at the community.

          I’m actually looking at some data on religion and beliefs from the LessWrong and SSC surveys. I may find some interesting things to say about religion and rationality, but it will be based on actual data and not semi-serious theorizing about counting VR points.


          1. That’s fine. Like I said, religion in the abstract is so large a topic that it is almost impossible to make sensible arguments about it. Coming from a Catholic background myself, I feel compelled to defend it whether or not I am right. Thanks for taking the time to clarify your position, which I mostly agree with.


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