What is filling the hole left by religion?

post by Philip Dhingra (philip-dhingra) · 2020-08-04T06:48:13.388Z · score: 12 (14 votes) · LW · GW · 14 comments

Contents

  Norm-gatherers
  Example: dating and relationship norms
  From Holy Book to Holy Wiki
None
14 comments

Self-help books represent the next step in the evolution of our collective consciousness. It might sound like a stretch, but if we consider that religion was once how society told its story to itself, then the recent erosion of religion is creating a new kind of story.

Norm-gatherers

Believers often defend religion with this rhetorical question: Without religion, how will people know right from wrong? But the standard rebuttal, as trumpeted by prominent atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, is that everybody already has an innate understanding of right and wrong. Hitchens said that religion gets its morality from humans and that every society has forbidden perjury, theft, murder, and rape.

But notice what transgressions he cites: perjury, theft, murder, and rape. These are heinous wrongs that are obvious even to children. Obviously, lying is bad. Obviously, hurting others is bad. So to knock down religion for reiterating obvious morals comes across as straw-manning.

Another tactic that atheists use is to mock low-level norms, such as the Mormon practice of wearing Temple garments or the Orthodox Jewish ritual of Kapparot where you grab a live chicken by the shoulder blades and move it around your head three times.

Religious norms, therefore, receive attacks on two fronts: high-level norms, such as "Don't steal," "Don't lie," etc., have been rightly deemed redundant by modern, civil society; and, low-level norms, such as dietary restrictions, seem redundant thanks to modern inventions, such as refrigerators.

But there is still this vast middle zone of norms, which may be the most crucial normative output of religion. For example, respect for the elderly is a norm that has to be taught. Look at any teenager, and you can tell they "innately" don't care for old people. Or consider adultery. In some cultures, the practice is taboo, in others, it's a cause for being executed, and still, in others, it's just something not talked about in polite conversation, but definitely practiced in private. What should be the rule be about adultery? The answer isn't self-evident.

Example: dating and relationship norms

The way we establish norms today is a simulation of how norms were established in the past. Instead of Sunday mass, we have the podcast. Instead of the priest, we have the therapist. And instead of one holy book, we have self-help books.

Self-help books, just like holy books once were, are probably the most tangible artifact representing our society's norms. If you visit any bookstore, you'll see that the largest section of nonfiction is self-help.

You might be scratching your head at comparisons between the Bible and self-help books, but you can take any aspect of modern society and anchor it to ideas first popularized in self-help. For example, modern dating and relationships are heavily mediated by self-help. Books like The Five Love Languages or any book about the Myers-Briggs personality test are the lens by which single people view dating today. Case-in-point: on popular dating apps like Hinge and Coffee Meets Bagel, two of the most common prompts are: "What is your love language?" and "What is your personality type?"

Once you begin a relationship, you may shift to viewing it through the lens of books like Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus or Codependent No More. I remember my mom bought a copy of Men Are from Mars and then dog-eared and highlighted passages for my dad to read. In a different era, she would have taken her husband to church and squeezed his hand and nodded in his direction during parts of the sermon that applied to their marriage.

Even if you don't read self-help books, we all take cues from observing our peers, many of whom have filtered ideas from those same books. So, for better or worse, the self-help bookshelf is now a physical manifestation of our norms.

From Holy Book to Holy Wiki

It's not just norm dissemination that has been taken over by self-help. Self-help is now being used to answer deep questions that were once the mainstay of religion, questions such as, What should we do with our minds, and what should we do with our lives? For this generation, the answers are found in books like The Alchemist, The Secret, and Man's Search for Meaning, which are some of the best-selling books of all-time. One of these books or a book like them may out-sell the Bible by the end of the century.

So, while I started this essay with a specific, but cute, example of how self-help books have molded modern dating norms, it was meant to illustrate a broader point, that the decentralized bookshelf of ideas has disrupted the old technology of centralized holy books.

Society is now being molded by our individual choices, much like a wiki. Every time you pull a self-help book from that bookshelf, you implicitly increment its attention in the global soup of ideas. And just as Wikipedia is now a visible manifestation of our evolution in collective consciousness, so too is self-help.

(Cross-posted from Philosophistry)

14 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by G Gordon Worley III (gworley) · 2020-08-04T16:51:22.437Z · score: 6 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think you're basically right, secular people are using self-help books to get one of the things that religious people get from their religions.

This isn't the whole picture, though. Religion offers a lot beyond life advice and norm coordination. For many it also helps with finding meaning or purpose in life and with finding community. Self-help might touch on these a bit (things like processes for finding purpose or "a passion" and advice for how to make friends), but it doesn't in itself offer the broader containers religions often provide to offer those things.

Put this way, self-help is a bit like just doing something in the space that religion covers with texts and talks, but not covering its other functions.

(None of this is to say that religions don't sometimes do bad things, etc. etc., because I know someone will read my comment and be like "but what about this bad thing this religion did to me/others". Or that you can't live a fulfilling life without religion. But it's worth admitting that for many people, myself included, religion serves an important role in their lives, and it's worth considering how secular people meet those same needs that religious people meet via their religion.)

comment by Philip Dhingra (philip-dhingra) · 2020-08-04T23:11:42.351Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

None of this is to say that religions don't sometimes do bad things

Furthermore, self-improvement has a lot of potential for harm too.

comment by shminux · 2020-08-04T15:56:51.538Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Morality is what prevents social animals from defecting in the one-shot PDs. Society is what prevents social animals from defecting in iterated PDs. So morality is an evolutionary adaptation. In higher animals like primates and whales, where culture is essential, morality is largely learned (including by reading books). In lower animals, like dogs and bees, it is largely innate. The cultural behavioral norms are malleable and depend on the society, thus theft/violence/murder can be acceptable in some cases and prohibited in others, there are no absolutes.

Everything else, like religion, is just elaborate fluff on top.

comment by jmh · 2020-08-04T23:51:07.021Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm not sure that is as sound as suggested. Just when are we really in a one-shot PD setting? In the, I might argue, rare cases where we are, is it really morality or merely habit of thinking that set our behavior?

comment by shminux · 2020-08-05T02:02:20.728Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)
Just when are we really in a one-shot PD setting?

Any situation where the defection would not be uncovered, can be treated as one-shot PD. Theft, slacking off, you name it.

comment by jmh · 2020-08-08T01:28:45.227Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes, but when is that really the case. Perhaps it's a case of my just not seeing the setting as that of pure isolation. So while we might call it morality perhaps it is potential impact in other games we also play that are not one-shot.

For instance, I see someone drop $10,000 (or $100 if you want) and not notice they did. I let them walk out of site and notice no one else is around and quietly pick it up and put it in my pocket.

Later I'm out with friend having lunch or drinks and offer to pick up the tab. In generally we all tend to pay our own way as none generally had a lot of money to just throw around. They start asking why so how do I explain?

Or perhaps my child has been asking for a special toy that was not in the budget. Suddenly I can buy it. How do I explain that to my spouse and child?

The idea being the lives we live is not one with the degree of separability implied by the one-shot assumption, so the game setting is really a repeated game but not always with same players.

Perhaps that is just explaining why morality might emerge and so your point holds but I'm not sure.

comment by shminux · 2020-08-08T05:39:35.142Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)
They start asking why so how do I explain?

Then it's no longer pure one-shot, I agree. But there are plenty of cases where defection can be done with impunity, and personal conscience is all that is keeping one from it. I doesn't have to be financial, either.

comment by Raemon · 2020-08-09T05:31:21.162Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I agree with many of the suggestions here and in other comments. I want to note: another major thing filling religion's hole is fandom. And as much as I love (trans)humanist ritual, I think fandom might be the healthiest religious substitute by virtue of not looking plausibly-real, or getting in the way of other epistemic updates. (If you join the Blue / Red / Grey Tribe or Communist civic religions, you may have to contend with your views of economics or science being bound with your identity. But, if you join the Harry Potter Fandom, less so)

Most fans have a superficial relationship with their fandom. But, many go to meetups, conventions, forums and games that make up a lot of their social life. Meanwhile they create art that does at-least-sometimes rise to the level of religious inspiration.

Often I think they do get at least some morality from (Star Wars / Harry Potter / Buffy the Vampire Slayer).

comment by Raemon · 2020-08-09T05:31:27.854Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

(One of the most boggling moments was the Twitch Plays Pokemon phenomenon, which came with self-organized factions, music, and weird narrative)

comment by CellBioGuy · 2020-08-09T02:38:18.009Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

So-called 'civil religions'. They are manifold and varied and spring up repeatedly across history. Now is no different.

Old-school 19th century nationalism flared as the Christian religion began really losing its grip. Modern political mythologies hinging on national/ethnic/party purity or personality cults or idealizing moral progress have similar roots today.

Marxism was blatantly postmillennial Christian eschatology with the nouns swapped out, and a grand purpose presented for the faithful. Ayn-Randian fantasy is the satanist-equivalent inversion of this religion, uncritically accepting its flawed framework of the way the world works while inverting the value judgements in a way that very much does not lead to anything more functional.

Singulatarianism is similarly a blatant rehash of Christian eschatology, doctrines of redemption form original sin, and afterlife mythology, with different currents within it with isomorphisms to different schools of thought within Christianity. It is of course a far more niche interest than any of the aforementioned civil religions. Softer versions of talking about the Grand Destiny of Humanity Among the Stars are also related and more common.

Eventually all civil religions fail as they are limited by the rigors of the physical world and fail to provide the transcendence contained within mundane history they implicitly promise in the absence of more explicitly theological religions, which have more long-term staying power.

comment by Charlie Steiner · 2020-08-05T05:05:33.630Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Dancing.

comment by romeostevensit · 2020-08-04T20:24:14.429Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Moral entrepreneurship.

comment by Yoav Ravid · 2020-08-04T18:57:48.226Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think you might enjoy John Vervaeke's series, Awakening from the Meaning Crisis

comment by Stuart Anderson (stuart-anderson) · 2020-08-04T16:25:35.090Z · score: -3 (14 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)
What is filling the hole left by religion?

That's an easy question to answer: generally more religion.

If you don't believe there's a modern non-theistic authoritarian religion in the Anglosphere, simply post some wrong-think on twitter and watch the witch hunters come for you and your family. Try something like "Trans women aren't women" or "Men and women aren't equal".

Other responses to an absence of religion are social fracture in the absence of a unifying force, hedonism as sedation or distraction, nihilism, and a few people that look for answers in study and labour (ie. when you live in a world where you must make your own meaning, you must make your own meaning. Turns out, that's work and most people are lazy shits).

Without religion, how will people know right from wrong?

By what gets their asses kicked. This is nothing more than cause and effect.

... everybody already has an innate understanding of right and wrong.

Everybody has an innate understanding of altruism versus self interest. Everyone figures out when to cooperate and when to defect. Everyone tries to get away with something they shouldn't be doing. Some people even learn from their mistakes.

These are heinous wrongs that are obvious even to children. Obviously, lying is bad. Obviously, hurting others is bad. So to knock down religion for reiterating obvious morals comes across as straw-manning.

Is now a good time to talk about how they eat Albinos and rape children to 'cure' AIDS in Africa? Obvious isn't obvious, it's just familiarity with your own environment's rules.

Consider single mothers in the West. We have mountains of concrete research that single mothers are literally the worst thing you can do to children short of abandoning them to be raised by wolves. The obvious solution would be to either stop women having a choice about dissolving relationships with offspring, or to remove children from their custody when they do. So you tell me why we aren't doing the obvious thing here?

There's no concrete right or wrong, there's what's permitted and hopefully a discourse that advances the discussion in a positive direction. Slavery was once permissible in the West, now it isn't. What was once right is now wrong. Parts of Africa never evolved their ethics to that point, and neither have parts of the Islamic ummah. Slavery is perfectly okay in those cultures. That doesn't make slavery right for them, it just makes them less civilised than us. In the case of the Islamic ummah they are disgusted by Western sexual degeneracy, and if we are being objective there's probably some merit to that position.

All that being said, I'm no cultural relativist. I'm very much on team Western liberal democracy simply because life's a competition and everyone else can get fucked.

Another tactic that atheists use is to mock low-level norms

Who doesn't mock their rivals?

I'm an atheist and I think the appropriate stance is to simply not care. As long as the chicken isn't harmed then why should I give a fuck that you're waiving it around your head? It's not my business, and I've got better things to do than get into some pointless shit fight over how your unprovable beliefs differ from mine.

Frankly, I find theology interesting on the grounds it is part of history, law, ethics, art, etc. I don't believe but I'm not about to ignore such foundational texts because of that.

high-level norms, such as "Don't steal," "Don't lie," etc., have been rightly deemed redundant by modern, civil society; and, low-level norms, such as dietary restrictions, seem redundant thanks to modern inventions, such as refrigerators.

Stealing is clearly socially and legally censured, and lying can be too depending on context. I don't understand what you're saying.

As for dietary restrictions, we're all stuck at home because some Godless Chinese couldn't go five minutes without eating bats and every other diseased animal they could get their hands on. As I said, I'm an atheist, but when the Old Testament tells you not to eat bats that seems like solid advice to me. Still, the Chinese have yet to master basic hygiene and sanitation, so perhaps forbidden meats are farther down the list of issues than things like that are.

Look at any teenager, and you can tell they "innately" don't care for old people.

What do they respect? The role of teenager is a Western invention, and part of that is that we let them be assholes.

What should be the rule be about adultery?

Don't do it. That was easy.

All actions have consequences. I don't have any problem with people being sluts, I just have a problem with irresponsible people offloading their crap onto everyone else and expecting to get away with it. Be a slut with my blessing, but don't lie about it or subject minors to the consequences of your lifestyle and expect me to be okay with that.

... it was meant to illustrate a broader point, that the decentralized bookshelf of ideas has disrupted the old technology of centralized holy books.

What killed off the Church was the printing press. What killed off traditional paradigms of relationships was the contraceptive pill. What's killing off the past is an omnipresent communications infrastructure combined with filter bubbles and dark patterns.

The web is a self adapting dopamine dispenser and we're all well and truly hooked at this point. The internet is a Skinner box that figures out what stimuli hooks you the most and then offers you it in abundance. Society isn't being molded by our choices so much as it is being molded by our biology intersecting with the technology. This is lizard brain stuff. We have never lived in a safer and more prosperous time than at any point in history, and we are surrounded with wonders and opportunities that our forebears could barely have conceived of, yet people are ungrateful and miserable. We have walked into an unconscious optimisation of technology for our negativity bias. Consciously choosing to walk out of that is going to be a goddamn nightmare for almost everyone (consider how you felt the last time your internet went down. We now live in a world without silence or boredom and when that's forced onto people they behave exactly like withdrawing addicts).