Is faith essential – even if you don’t believe in the supernatural?

The FTC Building in Washington, D.C.
The FTC Building in Washington, D.C.

Yuval Noah Harari’s book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind covers an enormous range of topics in 400 plus pages. But one (of many) ideas that got me thinking is his claim that we all believe in things that aren’t objectively real.

Money is a cultural myth.

Take money. Why do we think a green piece of paper is so valuable? By itself it has no practical use (though you can exchange it for things, such as food, that do have a practical use). A dollar is backed by the United States of America, and that’s good enough for us.

But why do we trust the US government? It’s faith.

On page 117 Harari writes that “an objective phenomenon exists independently of human consciousness and human beliefs.” The subjective is dependent on the “beliefs of a single individual.” But the inter-subjective “exists within the communication network linking the subjective consciousness of many individuals.”

Money is inter-subjective. It’s a cultural myth.

We as a society believe that a little green piece of paper is valuable. But if society lost faith in the backing of the United States then the dollar would become worthless overnight.

Not so with an apple. An apple can provide nutrition even if you don’t believe it can.

Human rights don’t exist objectively.

Harari also argues that human rights don’t exist objectively like an apple does. Human rights are a cultural belief, and a relatively new one at that.

But this doesn’t mean that human rights aren’t real. This mythos is real because it serves not only a practical, but an essential, purpose in human societies.

The “cognitive revolution,” as Harari calls it, occurred when humans evolved the ability for abstract thought. Abstract concepts are mental tools just as spears are physical tools. We need to conceptualize our world, and shared concepts are essential for cooperation and cohesion in a society of more than a hundred or two hundred people.

The gods, and later the one God, are also social constructs. Zeus no longer exists because too few people believe in him. But the God of the Bible does still exist (as a human construct rather than an objective reality) because many people do believe in him.

A lot of people see religious diversity (especially atheism) as a threat to social cohesion because diversity and disbelief mean that society loses the uniting mythos of the one true God.

The faith that science will save us is mistaken.

How does this bode for the atheist quest to rid the human race of faith?

From Harari’s point of view, reason also is a human construct with no objective reality. Though reason has been immensely useful as a cognitive tool.

But the belief – the faith – that science will save us is mistaken. On page 253 Harari states that, “All modern attempts to stabilise the sociopolitical order have had no choice but to rely on either of two unscientific methods.”

One is to “declare that it [a scientific theory] is a final and absolute truth.” The Nazis did this with biological claims, and Communists did it with economic claims.

The other is to reject science in favor of “a non-scientific absolute truth.” This is what evangelicals and Islamic fundamentalists do.

A casual look at the progressive/conservative divide in America today reflects these options. Conservatives deny climate change and want biblical myths taught in science class rather than the theory of evolution. And some progressives (particularly radical left-wing students) insist that their theories about social justice must be believed and not debated.

The 1950s mythos will not reassert itself in the long run.

As such, today’s culture war (like all culture wars) represents a rejection of the established mythos and an attempt to have a new mythos dominate.

The 1960s and ’70s saw the rejection of the 1950s mythos. The 1980s through the early 2000s saw the new mythos’s quest for mainstream acceptance, which was accomplished through cultural relativism. Demanding dominance would have failed, but asking people just to think about the new mythos as one set of beliefs among many gets your foot in the door.

Today we see a demand for ideological dominance among progressive students at private colleges (and some state universities). Where this will go is hard to say.

There are several possibilities. Progressive students might see their mythos dominate within three or four decades. Or, mainstream culture might adopt some ideas that today are considered radical (much like gay marriage was radical twenty years ago) while retaining some traditional ideas. Alternatively, a third as yet undefined mythos could emerge (though that’s highly unlikely).

But the 1950s mythos will not reassert itself in the long run. Donald Trump wants to make America great again, implicitly invoking the 1950s of the Silent Generation’s young adulthood, Baby Boomer’s childhood, and Generations X’s imagination. But even if Trump becomes president the older cohorts that elect him will eventually age out of the political system.


We are a tribal species. But it doesn’t have to be our downfall.

Us vs. them is human nature. Human rights, equality & democracy are the answers.

Us versus them is one of the most common themes in politics, history, IMG_0472sports, business, music – in human nature in general. But people also can be amazingly generous, compassionate, and cooperative.

In the 1970s E.O. Wilson proposed sociobiology to explain this contradiction. We’re a super social species, and just as adaptations to the environment drive our physical evolution, adaptations to the demands of our social group drive psychological evolution. In other words, our social behavior has biological roots.

Today’s social groups are like the tribes of the past.

But this social behavior has its limits. In The Social Conquest of Earth Wilson notes, “We have created a Star Wars civilization, with Stone Age emotions, medieval institutions, and god-like technology.”

Social skills are key to human survival. The most socially cohesive tribes surpassed less adept tribes. And today’s social groups are like the tribes of the past. But cooperation, while valued among members of the ingroup, is valued far less with the outgroup. Often there’s violence.

And we mustn’t forget about competition within a tribe for power and social status. Psychologist Jonathan Haidt likes to quote a Bedouin saying: it’s me against my brother; me and my brother against our cousin; and me, my brother, and our cousin against the stranger. The more distant our connection the less you matter to me.

This is why Wilson tells us that human beings seem to be of two minds: self-sacrificing and viciously selfish, altruistic and self-interested, peacemakers and warriors, empathic and uncaring, and so on.

The more distant our connection the less you matter to me.

I don’t think argue pure altruism exists. Evolution ultimately is about the perpetuation of an individual’s genes, so it all comes down to self-interest. But there’s narrow self-interest, or competition, which is win-lose; and there’s broader self-interest, or cooperation, which is win-win.

Both cooperation and competition can be good. But narrow self-interest is our default. And this can be problematic. Our shared humanity (and shared DNA with other species) means we’re closer to others than we often think. But failing to realize this leads us to think that others don’t matter, and we can do whatever we want to them. This is how rape, murder, genocide, torture, and any number of horrible things happen.

Human societies have tried to solve these problems. It took us thousands of years, however, to figure out that democracy, equality, and universal human rights are essential to mitigate the dark side of human nature.

Religion fuels tribalism, but atheism is just another tribe.

And we can do better still. Religion fuels tribalism, but atheism is just another tribe to contend with. What can we do about this? Wilson suggests:

  • Challenging the claims of those in power that they speak for God, are God’s special representatives, and have exclusive knowledge. This includes challenging the alleged special status of the pope and even the Dali Lama.
  • Acknowledging that we are solely responsible for our actions, which includes how we treat others, animals, and the earth.
  • Accepting that science is the best method we have for discovering objective truth about the world.

To this I would add that we should try to figure out what encourages cooperation, and what encourages competition. After all, competition is often good. Competition drives us toward something better. But competition can get out of hand. Where is the line, and what leads to us crossing it?

We need democracy on a global scale, and a universal bill of human rights.

We need democracy on a global scale. There are still too many undemocratic countries. And most corporations are not democracies even though there’s no reason why corporations can’t be run more democratically.

I don’t advocate a strong world government, however, because that would be too big of a temptation for a would-be dictator. But we could have a universal bill of human rights that we would strive for all nations to amend into their national constitutions.

Lack of Diversity in Social Science Research

In college, friends majoring in biology told me I should switch majors because social science isn’t real science. It’s too subjective. Your personal biases will cloud the data.

They had a point. But researchers from a wide array of backgrounds can question each other’s assumptions, which can mitigate personal bias somewhat. Over the past 50 years universities have done a laudable job of trying to encourage more women and minorities to enter white male dominated fields. And while fields such as physics still lack diversity, 60% of biology degrees go to women, and psychology has an even larger number of women.

But contrarians say we’ve overlooked something. What about political diversity? Yet, academia has spent the past half century trying to purge conservatives, or even those who are not die hard liberals.

Does social psychology really prove that conservatives are unethical dullards? Can we trust the objectivity of a field that has almost no non-liberals? (Non-liberal because not every alternative viewpoint is conservative, or even libertarian.) Imagine for a moment that almost all social scientists were evangelical Christians, and their research found that atheists really are nasty people. Would you think something is amiss?

Jonathan Haidt writes that a century ago, the social sciences were almost evenly split between liberals and conservatives. But the gap started to widen, slowly at first, but then rapidly after 1990. Today, the ratio of liberals to conservatives is almost 14 to 1.

Unchecked biases degrade the quality and validity of research. Chief among these biases are negative presuppositions and confirmation bias (failing to critically examine or search for contradictory evidence for something you already believe). This can lead to “mischaracteriz[ing] liberals and conservatives alike.”

This doesn’t affect most aspects of social science research, such as personality theory or the psychology of decision making. But these biases are notable with areas of liberal concern, such as sex and gender, race, inequality, and moral and political psychology. And it can leave unexamined areas outside of liberalism’s concerns.

In the social sciences, the narrative of liberal progress is like water to a fish – it’s everywhere but often goes unnoticed. But this can lead to misinterpretation of non-liberal value statements. For example, social scientists might label someone unethical for not siding with a coworker who has filed a sexual harassment claim. But without someone to question the assumption of misogyny, the judgment of moral inferiority is unexamined.

In a previous post I wrote about a friend who received a sexual harassment complaint for using the phrase “OMG.” I think her claim was frivolous. My reasons are that I think a person is innocent until proven guilty (and the burden of proof is on her), and her failure to present any evidence other than her personal opinion is not sufficient evidence. But my perspective contradicts the liberal notion that an alleged victim must always be believed. This is not misogyny, however. Due process is a human right.

Too often people present statistics from dubious sources or which lack context, often arguing that numbers don’t lie. But numbers do lie. Ever made a math error? And too often someone will cite one study as if that seals the case, failing to question the researcher’s methodology, possible biases, and (most of all) failing to understand that studies must be replicated numerous times before being accepted as true.

Social science has a significant blind spot, and any research findings with political implications should be approached with a healthy dose of skepticism.

Can A Moralistic Attitude Lead to Violence?

Sounds like a dumb question. Everyone knows that violent people are immoral. They lack empathy, are selfish, and some are even psychopaths.

But what if the research doesn’t support these assumptions? Harvard professor Steven Pinker, giving a talk for the Economist, says we need less moralizing. He says that most murders happen for moralistic reasons: someone done me wrong, stole my stuff, slept with my wife, cut me off in traffic.

On a larger scale, Hitler saw himself on a moral quest to defend victimized Germans against Jewish perfidy, Communists slaughtered millions of evil bourgeois capitalists, and the Catholic Church’s medieval Inquisition was done in the name of a perfectly good God to defeat the powers of Satan.

The good news, according to Pinker, is that the world today is far less violent than the past. This also sounds counter-intuitive, but in The Better Angels of Our Nature (which he summarized in a Ted Talk) he notes that the scale today is larger because the world’s population is larger. In Roman times there were probably only 50 to 60 million people on the entire planet, but today there are over 7 billion people.

However, per capita violence is far lower today. Pinker says there were about 100 murders per 100,000 people in medieval Europe, but in some European countries today the murder rate is down to 1 per 100,000. And, as a percent of the population, wars today also kill far fewer people.

Further, violence that was not only socially acceptable in the past but even promoted is considered repugnant human rights violations today. Pinker points to the Bible (Numbers 31) where God commands the Israelites to take vengeance on the Midianites, killing all the men, boys, and non-virginal women, sparing only female virgins (presumably to be raped). Were Moses around today he’d be reviled just as we revile the men of ISIS, and he’d be tried as a war criminal.

Writing for Aeon, Tage Rai claims that the primary reason people commit violence is because their moral code demands it. Often it comes down to revenge.

And extreme violence, as with Islamic terrorists, can emerge when people find their way of life threatened – such as modernity, with its ideals of equality, encroaching on Islamic cultures that are based on ancient ideologies.

Giving up one’s vigilante quest to defend personal honor in favor of allowing the state to adjudicate the situation, and accepting the verdict even if it’s not guilty, has done much to reduce violence. Equality also promotes peace because much violence has to do with regulating social relationships, which can mean violent consequences for those who resist subordination.

Social pressure from one’s peers is also huge. Rai describes

a Chicago program known as ‘CureViolence’. The program hinges on getting trusted members of the community to intervene with moral appeals that focus on social-relational consequences, before retaliatory violence can erupt. A study of the program found that it reduced shootings by 16-28% in the areas where it was implemented.

However, he cautions that

It isn’t easy to change a culture of violence. You have to give people the structural, economic, technological and political means to regulate their relationships peacefully. Social groups have to learn to shame and shun anyone who hurts others. But it can be done. It has been done in the past, and it is happening as we speak.