Religious dogma as group identity

post by uzalud · 2011-12-28T10:12:25.545Z · score: 7 (8 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 20 comments

I was reading the "Professing and Cheering" article and it reminded me about some of my own ideas about the role of religious dogma as group identity badges. Here's the gist of it:

Religious and other dogmas need not make sense. Indeed, they may work better if they are not logical. Logical and useful ideas pop-up independently and spread easily, and widely accepted ideas are not very good badges. You need a unique idea to identify your group. It helps to have a somewhat costly idea as a dogma, because they are hard to fake and hard to deny. People would need to invest in these bad ideas, so they would be less likely to leave the group and confront the sunk cost. Also, it's harder to deny allegiance to the group afterwards, because no one in their right minds would accept an idea that bad for any other reason.

If you have a naive interpretation of the dogma, which regards it as an objective statement about the world, you will tend to question it. When you’re contesting the dogma, people won’t judge your argument on its merits: they will look at it as an in-group power struggle. Either you want to install your own dogma, which makes you a pretender, or you’re accepted a competing dogma, which makes you a traitor. Even if they accept that you just don’t want to yield to the authority behind the dogma, that makes you a rebel. Dogmas are just off-limits to criticism.

Public display of dismissive attitude to your questioning is also important. Taking it into consideration is in itself a form of treason, as it is interpreted as entertaining the option of joining you against the authority. So it’s best to dismiss the heresy quickly and loudly, without thinking about it.

Do you know of some other texts which shed some light on this idea?

 

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comment by CharlieSheen · 2011-12-28T19:00:37.326Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW · GW

Religious and other dogmas need not make sense. Indeed, they may work better if they are not logical. Logical and useful ideas pop-up independently and spread easily, and widely accepted ideas are not very good badges. You need a unique idea to identify your group. It helps to have a somewhat costly idea as a dogma, because they are hard to fake and hard to deny. People would need to invest in these bad ideas, so they would be less likely to leave the group and confront the sunk cost. Also, it's harder to deny allegiance to the group afterwards, because no one in their right minds would accept an idea that bad for any other reason.

If you have a naive interpretation of the dogma, which regards it as an objective statement about the world, you will tend to question it. When you’re contesting the dogma, people won’t judge your argument on its merits: they will look at it as an in-group power struggle. Either you want to install your own dogma, which makes you a pretender, or you’re accepted a competing dogma, which makes you a traitor. Even if they accept that you just don’t want to yield to the authority behind the dogma, that makes you a rebel. Dogmas are just off-limits to criticism.

Public display of dismissive attitude to your questioning is also important. Taking it into consideration is in itself a form of treason, as it is interpreted as entertaining the option of joining you against the authority. So it’s best to dismiss the heresy quickly and loudly, without thinking about it.

My heretical by LW standards/scary/worst possible world idea on this is that society needs such dogma. It needs it badly, because coordination is hard. Weak evidence in this direction is that no society ever seems to have existed without it.

That's not the scary part. The scary part is that screwy metaphysical entities like say a God here or there or Reincarnation may in fact impose lower costs on a society than a dogmatic adherence to a particular interpretation of say "justice" or "fatherland" or "the dictatorship of the proletariat".

It would seriously suck to live in that world.

Fortunately, being a rock star from Mars, I live in the world of happy dust and goddesses.

comment by uzalud · 2011-12-28T22:23:27.204Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Somehow I feel compelled to bring up my childhood in Yugoslavia.

Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs there look the same and speak very similar languages. Religion is one exception: I have yet to meet a Muslim Serb or an Orthodox Croatian. Unsurprisingly for a socialist regime, people were not very religious back then; but when the nationalism grew in 1990, so did the religious affiliations. Religion was a very practical means of national identity.

BUT, these affiliations were not expressed through dogmatic/theological differences. It was more about symbols, culture and stereotypes. So, we transitioned from a society who based its identity on one political-economic dogmatism to another that based its identity on symbols, cultural details and history.

comment by hamnox · 2011-12-28T21:20:53.239Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I never thought I'd see the day that I agreed with Charlie Sheen haha :-)

I often catch myself thinking that there could hardly be a less trivial thing to base a tribal community off of than believing in a man-in-the-sky who doesn't have much visible effect on our world anyways. It's nice to see that I'm not the only one. If you build communities around locality or ideas or policies then those things are not up for discussion. No chance for improvement. No matter how wrong and damaging they are.

But is it an optimal solution for bringing people together? I doubt it. Most of our current versions come with much too extra baggage.

comment by mwengler · 2011-12-28T18:51:33.384Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Do you think lesswrong.com has a dogma which is somewhat complex and engenders a group identity? Cryonics anybody? Religious tolerance around here consists of a truce between the one-boxers and the two-boxers. I was told just the other day that if I didn't think sentience arises from the operation of a turing machine that I was probably in the wrong place.

How about the academic world of PhD physicists? Their dogma is not expensive because it is "wrong" but rather it is expensive because it requires great and specialized skills and knowledge to manipulate it. It results in people who characteristically have different opinions than their complementary group, and who tend to trust each other in certain arenas more than they would trust non-phd physicists.

I suspect that this affiliation through agreed-upon dogma is more a feature than a bug, more a mechanism for creating larger more complex creations through uniting the efforts of many people. For the groups we agree with we prefer not to notice that they have some real features in common with the groups we don't agree with, but I submit that our tribe dogma should include a recognition of that fact (and actually, I think it mostly does.)

comment by gwern · 2011-12-29T02:17:03.609Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Cryonics anybody?

Definitely not. Look at the surveys.

comment by _ozymandias · 2011-12-28T23:25:48.611Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I think the distinction is not between logical and illogical ideas, but between high-cost and low-cost ideas.

Illogical ideas are generally high-cost, for the reasons outlined in the OP, unless you live in a society in which everyone accepts the high-cost idea (for instance, Creationism in the American South). Cryonics is a high-cost idea: it may be right, but it is also deeply weird and unlikely to find acceptance among non-transhumanists. PhD physicists have high-cost ideas because of the time and effort required to understand them. Even jargon might count as a high-cost idea because of the price you pay in ease of communication, especially jargon that those outside the group tend to understand differently than those inside the group (for instance, feminists tend to use patriarchy to mean "the system of institutionalized societal sexism", while most non-feminists interpret it as meaning "all men oppressing all women").

Of course, all this is purely speculative. And the causation might go the other way: instead of adopting a high-cost idea signalling one's membership in the group, it might be that high-cost ideas tend to create groups, because low-cost ideas tend to be adopted by large numbers of people.

comment by mwengler · 2011-12-29T16:50:14.208Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Of course, all this is purely speculative. And the causation might go the other way: instead of adopting a high-cost idea signalling one's membership in the group, it might be that high-cost ideas tend to create groups, because low-cost ideas tend to be adopted by large numbers of people.

My thinking is that the discussion of high cost ideas being dopey and primarily for signalling membership in a group is only partially correct, only a part of the story. In the case of physics, engineering, more applied parts of math and computer science, and probably many forms of understanding of management, politics, and "social engineering," these high cost ideas have high benefit in terms of what you can manage to do.

Also I would imagine the causation does go both ways what with these being natrualistic systems. Nature has never been shy about exploiting valuable causalities just to keep the story simple, it seems to me.

In general, I think a lot of the signalling arguments tend to overstate things, staring so excitedly at the secondary effects of group cohesion and definition and missing the intrinsic value that many of these signals have. If spending 7 years getting a phd in physics (I enjoyed myself, I wasn't in a rush, that's my story and i'm sticking to it) is signalling my membership in a group I very much want to be in, it has also created in me a bunch of very valuable capabilities in terms of mastering the physical world around me and mastering the intellectual (social political) world around me in certain narrow ways. I guess I feel as though the REASON I want to be in this group is because the people in this group can do stuff I want to be able to do. THat is, I'm impressed by their wizards and want to learn some of their magick.

See what I mean? Religious jargon of signalling and membership seems one way when you are talking about something that you think is BS but an entirely different way when talking about something that you "believe in." But it is the same human stuff. Its a tool that we benefit from using every bit as much as do the people in other groups. Indeed, if we are to "win", we better be benefitting from it more than they are.

comment by _ozymandias · 2011-12-29T19:06:06.758Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I'd suggest that high-cost ideas are generally high-benefit, or at least high-apparent-benefit (see: love-bombing in cults), in order to incentivize people to believe them.

I definitely think it's important to recognize that almost all group beliefs are both signalling and something that people actually believe and that has effects on their life. The PhD's role as a signal of membership in the Physicist Conspiracy doesn't conflict with the PhD's role of learning interesting things about physics; in fact, they're complementary. (However, it's certainly possible to imagine someone who can signal "being a physicist" without having learned interesting things about physics (fake PhD) or vice versa (extremely skilled autodidact), which why I think they're probably two separate but related functions.)

comment by mwengler · 2012-01-03T16:12:20.134Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

(However, it's certainly possible to imagine someone who can signal "being a physicist" without having learned interesting things about physics (fake PhD) or vice versa (extremely skilled autodidact), which why I think they're probably two separate but related functions.)

I think the Physicist Conspiracy in which I am a member with my PhD and all does NOT require a PhD to join. Freeman Dyson for example is clearly accepted in the club despite never bothering to get a degree beyond B.A.

I hope that the cynicism I reject in my own self-examination of my membership in my own church of rational physics engineering leads me to reject cynicism when trying to understand other people's churches. There ARE reasons people believe things and they are by no means all stupid reasons.

comment by _ozymandias · 2012-01-04T06:34:27.686Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I hope that the cynicism I reject in my own self-examination of my membership in my own church of rational physics engineering leads me to reject cynicism when trying to understand other people's churches. There ARE reasons people believe things and they are by no means all stupid reasons.

We're definitely in agreement there. And even the ones that are stupid may be psychologically reassuring or otherwise "make sense" even if they are completely irrational. While signalling arguments are important, I think it's unrealistic to consider them to the exclusion of other arguments.

comment by wedrifid · 2011-12-28T19:14:23.720Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I was told just the other day that if I didn't think sentience arises from the operation of a turing machine that I was probably in the wrong place.

Really? I would have just told you you were trivially and obviously wrong.

comment by mwengler · 2011-12-28T19:20:27.393Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

If this is an interesting point, it was actually Gwern telling someone named Chad in a thread I was participating in.

comment by Protagoras · 2011-12-28T18:41:33.882Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

There is certainly some plausibility to the idea that more blatantly silly beliefs make even better in group indicators; I suppose the question is how to test that hypothesis.

comment by [deleted] · 2011-12-28T20:40:46.599Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

There are slightly unethical ways to get some weak evidence on this.

Get two groups, assign one with a irrelevant but silly and the other with a irrelevant but not silly belief as their marker. Then have the two groups compete to try and recruit a limited pool of preselected people to their cause. Then set up a game where numbers help, but defection is possible and hurts the team quite a bit, and let people know this.

Its slightly unethical because it has some potential to go nasty as some previous experiments on blue vs. green have.

comment by hamnox · 2011-12-28T17:10:03.280Z · score: 3 (7 votes) · LW · GW

"Religious dogma as group identity" is such a tautological statement in my head I had to reread it to actually understand that it was supposed to mean something.

comment by [deleted] · 2012-04-01T03:33:41.056Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

You know, that actually explains a lot on how some people in my entourage reacted back when I complained that the current Islamic othodoxy was in fact contrary to both the letter and the spirit of Muhammad's teachings and revelations, and that they should be re-examined thoroughly, and that a new, better, more consistent morality should be extracted from them. I was told that wouldn't be Islam anymore, and that why don't I start my own sect I'm at it (said in tones of disbelieving indignation). That didn't make any sense to me back then, but now it all fits...

comment by CharlieSheen · 2011-12-28T18:53:58.439Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Religious and other dogmas need not make sense. Indeed, they may work better if they are not logical. Logical and useful ideas pop-up independently and spread easily, and widely accepted ideas are not very good badges. You need a unique idea to identify your group. It helps to have a somewhat costly idea as a dogma, because they are hard to fake and hard to deny. People would need to invest in these bad ideas, so they would be less likely to leave the group and confront the sunk cost. Also, it's harder to deny allegiance to the group afterwards, because no one in their right minds would accept an idea that bad for any other reason.

I more or less agree, I wrote something quite similar in "The importance of Not Getting The Joke":

Now, perhaps not so obviously, could it be people have some incentives to say and even believe or at least try to believe things that are obviously wrong even to people of their tribe (political/religious/ect. affilation)? Why would something like this arise? My mind at this point wandered to conspicuous consumption.

"Conspicuous consumption is lavish spending on goods and services acquired mainly for the purpose of displaying income or wealth."

Could there be such a thing as conspicuous wrongness?

"Look how much I identify with our group, I'm even willing to buy even if it dosen't do us much good. If I wasn't so virtuous I could never believe something this silly."

But why would sticking to the script when its blatantly false to others in the tribe boost your status and self-esteem? Well, sticking to it when its blatantly obvious to most people dosen'tcostyou anything now does it? Sticking to it when its merely uncertain only costs you the esteem of the out group (worthless in most cases)?

comment by atucker · 2011-12-29T07:54:31.026Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I think that a lot of people take assertions about facts as status claims.

Think of the dissatisfied rebellious youths who dislike their math teachers for telling them how things are. Or quite a few pop songs (King of Anything comes to mind).

comment by Raemon · 2011-12-28T17:50:07.044Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

This seems very likely to me. I would also like to read more on the subject from someone who's done some extensive research.

I'll be addressing this in one of my upcoming ritual articles.

comment by Thomas · 2011-12-28T13:20:50.752Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Nowadays, a religion dogma can serve in a way you described. But at the beginning of the dogma it was a dead serious matter. A precious truth. Still, it received a little respect in far away tribes, for they have some different spaghetti monster mythologia and you would be doomed there with your native tribe's tales.

So, you are right here. Therefore, one can best stayed at home. Except during a war, when he can spreads some genes across, if he was very lucky.