The Problem Of Apostasy

post by Raw_Power · 2012-07-19T10:27:37.541Z · score: 11 (33 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 123 comments

So I have been checking laws around the world regarding Apostasy. And I have found extremely troubling data on the approach Muslims take to dealing with apostates. In most cases, publicly stating that you do not, in fact, love Big Brother (specifically, that you do not believe in God, the Prophet, or Islam), after having professed the Profession of Faith being adult and sane (otherwise, you were never a Muslim in the first place), will get you killed.

Yes, killed. It's one of the only three things traditional Islamic tribunals hand out death penalties for, the others being murder and adultery. 

However, interestingly enough, you are often given three days of detainment to "think it over" and "accept the faith". 

Some other countries, though, are more forgiving: you are allowed to be a public apostate. But you are still not allowed to proselytize: that remains a crime (in Morocco it's 15 years of prison, and a flogging). Though proselytism is also a crime if you are not a Muslim. I leave to your imagination how precarious the situation of religious minorities is, in this context.

How little sense all of this makes, from a theological perspective. Forcing someone to "accept the faith" at knife point? Forbidding you from arguing against the Lord's (reputedly) absolutely self-evident and miraculously beautiful Word? 

No. These are the patterns of sedition and treason laws. The crime of the Apostate is not one against the Lord (He can take care of Himself, and He certainly can take care of the Apostate) but against the State (existence of a human lord contingent on political regime). 

And the lesswronger asks himself: "How is that my concern? Please, get to the point." The point is that the promotion of rationalism faces a terrible obstacle there. We're not talking "God Hates You" placards, or getting fired from your job. We're talking fire range and electric chair.

"Sure," you say, "but rationalism is not about atheism." And you'd be right. It isn't. It's just a very likely conclusion for the rationalist mind to reach, and, also, our cult leader (:P) is a raging, bitter, passionate atheist. That is enough. If word spreads and authorities find out, just peddling HPMOR might get people jailed. And that's not accounting for the hypothetical (cough) case of a young adult reading the Sequences and getting all hotheaded about it and doing something stupid. Like trying to promote our brand of rationality in such hostile terrain.

So, let's take this hypothetical (harrumph) youth. They see irrationality around them, obvious and immense, they see the waste and the pain it causes. They'd like to do something about it. How would you advise them to go about it? Would you advise them to, in fact, do nothing at all?  

More importantly, concerning Less Wrong itself, should we try to distance ourselves from atheism and anti-religiousness as such? Is this baggage too inconvenient, or is it too much a part of what we stand for?

123 comments

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comment by gjm · 2012-07-19T11:05:30.546Z · score: 19 (23 votes) · LW · GW

Like it or not, serious rationality tends to erode religious belief, just as it tends to erode belief in astrology. It tends to erode blind obedience to other authorities too. If "word spreads and authorities find out", enthusiastic participation in any sort of rationalist community is liable to mean trouble in repressively religious communities, whether Eliezer is a raging bitter passionate atheist or not.

In any case, I'm having trouble imagining what the LW community could actually do to "try to distance ourselves from atheism and anti-religiousness as such" even if we wanted to, that would have any appreciable impact on the safety of being a serious rationalist in the sorts of countries you're talking about. Go back through the LW archives and delete every post that says unkind things about religion? Forbid discussion of religious topics? It seems absurd to respond to the threat of oppression by meekly oppressing ourselves; and besides, I bet it wouldn't work. There's too much other stuff on LW that would be offensive to those regimes.

What it comes down to is this: A rationalist in a sufficiently repressive irrationalist regime is going to have to pretend not to be a rationalist. That's very bad, but having rationalists everywhere else pretend half-heartedly not to be rationalists about everything won't solve the problem.

comment by Xachariah · 2012-07-19T20:55:49.355Z · score: 6 (10 votes) · LW · GW

We probably could distance ourselves from atheism very easily. We just have someone who is high status post about how "religious/anti-religious discussion is the mindkiller" and encourage people not to talk about it.

We've already done this with a topic. At risk of breaking the taboo (I'll try to stay meta), I would like to remind people that that for the vast majority of LW readers there are at least two major political parties they can support and choose from. These parties do not base their platforms on reality equally nor do their platforms give equal expected utility towards LWers should they be voted into power. A sequence saying " political party is the rational choice and this is why" could be done, yet we choose not to. Not only that, but we actively prevent discussion on it.

We could do it for religion as well if we really wanted to. I don't think the trade-off would be worth it and I think our current system of 'not talk about politics, talk about athiesm' is fine. However, we shouldn't pretend it's something immutable. These things are within our control. We choose the trade-offs we make, and we accept this trade-off.

comment by gjm · 2012-07-19T23:59:41.415Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

We (for some value of "we") could do that. But it wouldn't erase all the past discussions on LW (and OB before that) that have touched on religious topics, and in practice it probably wouldn't stop LWers discussing religious topics, still less casually assuming things that are incompatible with conventional religious beliefs. (Even if explicitly religious discussion were strictly forbidden somehow, LWers would still be looking for natural causes and simple explanations, treating evolution as an important fact rather than an anti-God conspiracy, etc., etc., etc.) So it wouldn't do much to make LW readers in oppressively religious regimes safer or happier.

comment by Viliam_Bur · 2012-07-20T08:31:19.830Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Actually, we could be detected as atheists just by never saying that we "pray for someone's rationality" or "hope that God will help us create a Friendly AI" etc. Speaking about important topics and never mentioning religion, especially when we speak a lot about morality, is suspicious enough.

comment by Xachariah · 2012-07-20T00:41:12.781Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

It's just a matter of how much we're willing to give up for it. If it was decided to be truly worth it, we could use regular expressions to wipe out any post or comment with theism/religion/god/jesus/allah in it.

The question isn't if it's possible or not. It's always possible. The question is "do we want this bad enough to be willing to use regular expressions?"

Just kidding, I mean censorship.

comment by gjm · 2012-07-20T08:53:41.041Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Even further off-topic: even better regular expressions link.

comment by AspiringRationalist · 2012-07-22T00:02:22.016Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

We probably could distance ourselves from atheism very easily. We just have someone who is high status post about how "religious/anti-religious discussion is the mindkiller" and encourage people not to talk about it.

Not discussing religion would be a lot more difficult than not discussing politics, because religion is much closer to the main topic of discussion. Unless you work in politics, your political views probably have very little impact on your day-to-day life, nor on most major decisions you make (barring extreme views). On the other hand, for most people, religion has a major impact on both their daily lives and on their epistemology.

comment by CarlShulman · 2012-07-25T20:07:42.921Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

On the other hand, for most people, religion has a major impact on both their daily lives and on their epistemology.

What do you mean with respect to daily lives? Attendance at religious services? Restricting marriage prospects to candidates within the religion? In the US, and moreso in Europe, most people don't attend services very often and there is a lot of intermarriage. On a global scale, the impact of religion is higher, and there are subcultures where it is of quite high importance, but I'm not sure what you had in mind.

comment by DanArmak · 2012-07-19T22:07:07.993Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

There's too much other stuff on LW that would be offensive to those regimes.

Frankly, using Internet forums is offensive to some regimes.

comment by Raw_Power · 2012-07-19T13:11:04.332Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW · GW

That is the conclusion to which I had come, though I was hoping for an alternative. Now the question remains:

How can a rationalist pretending not to be a rationalist help spread serious rationalism without them and the people they inluenced getting caught (in early stages) or triggering a witchunt (supposing they were somewhat successful)?

comment by mwengler · 2012-07-19T16:05:49.272Z · score: 11 (11 votes) · LW · GW

You pick the people you want to influence, and you make yourself like them in all ways EXCEPT a carefully chosen few that are your most important targets of change. You might seriously consider publicly espousing a moderate version of Islam no matter what you believe if you are committed to the Islamic people of Morocco. You could even do it pretty honestly I think, isn't the essence of Islam submission to the will of Allah (as opposed to a believe in Allah)? If you made this choice couldn't you honestly say "I have deliberately and rationally chosen to submit myself to the will of Allah as do so many others in my country. And I will work tirelessly to advance science and freedom in Morocco as I am told by Allah to do so."

Whether it is admitted or not, This is what successful politicians must be doing. It is implausible that people so well informed as politicians, and some of them are incredibly intelligent, could truly back so many stupid policies as they do. They pick their battles and happily admit defeat on the battles they have not picked.

It could well be that given your values, this is the rational way for you to go.

comment by gjm · 2012-07-19T15:55:24.915Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

They probably can't. Living in a seriously oppressive society is, well, seriously oppressive. Sometimes it really does get in your way.

They might be able to chip away a little at the edges here and there. That's probably about it, unless they want to change tack and start a revolution. In which case they'll probably need a cause with more popular appeal than rationalism.

comment by Eugine_Nier · 2012-07-20T05:40:29.375Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Paul Graham discusses some ideas in this essay, granted he's mostly thinking about the western world, where the worst that's likely to happen to you is being shunned and possibly fired, but some of the advise still applies.

comment by mwengler · 2012-07-19T14:07:20.761Z · score: 16 (18 votes) · LW · GW

More importantly, concerning Less Wrong itself, should we try to distance ourselves from atheism and anti-religiousness as such? Is this baggage too inconvenient, or is it too much a part of what we stand for?

I think it would be a mistake to distance ourselves from these. A tool the religious use is to pretend disagreement with them is crazy. Countering this idea is CENTRAL to rationality. Being afraid of being sent to hell for eternity is no more "evidence" that god exists than is being afraid of tigers evidence that there is one in your back yard. A central reason why the scientific method has succeeded so remarkably is that it automatically enforces the rule that just because you want something to be true doesn't make it true, and indeed is not even evidence for its truth. If anything, it is evidence that you need to be more skeptical of the idea if you want to get it right to counteract your own bias.

In my opinion, the best advantages rationality can gain is a totally reasonable intelligent well spoken blond woman wearing sleeveless dresses smiling and explaining with devastating clarity just how much sense atheism makes. The reason this makes the mullahs want to spit at her and kill her is because it is a threat to what they are selling, which is precisely why rationalists should keep doing it.

comment by Raw_Power · 2012-07-19T14:12:52.656Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW · GW

Being afraid of being sent to hell for eternity is no more "evidence" that god exists than is being afraid of tigers evidence that there is one in your back yard.

That was beautiful.

In my opinion, the best advantages rationality can gain is a totally reasonable intelligent well spoken blond woman wearing sleeveless dresses smiling and explaining with devastating clarity just how much sense atheism makes.

That was oddly specific.

comment by mwengler · 2012-07-19T15:11:00.462Z · score: 15 (17 votes) · LW · GW

I am a "typical" american grew up in New York. When I was 18 and my sister was 17, my sister and I visited my father for a few weeks who was working in Esfahan. The shah was still in charge, it was the late 1970s.

My sister was a beautiful young woman with blond hair. Despite being warned by other non-Iranians that when we went in to see Esfahan she should dress modestly, she went out in a sleeveless dress because it was warm and sunny. Angry old men spat at her (at least one anyway) and the young men brushed up against her and copped feels.

The idea that you can manage the strong sexual and social urges men feel in the presence of attractive women by keeping the women uneducated, locked away, and covered when they are out is ludicrous, wasteful of more than half of the human resources a society has, plus pretty crappy for the women. Providing even the slightest respect towards this call for "modesty" is a strategic mistake. Well, maybe the slightest respect, an attractive dress wtih a moderate amount of cleavage showing is a better idea than a thong and a push-up bra for our rationality spokesmodel.

Plus I enjoy being oddly specific. It feels livelier to me than stilted generalities.

comment by Raw_Power · 2012-07-19T17:04:52.718Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

More like, after a certain point, it just gets impractical. Both "modesty" and "immodesty" (also, what a crappy word, synonymous with humility, which is not what this is about, right? well, except for Medaka-chan, but she's kind of special).

comment by DanArmak · 2012-07-19T21:56:52.124Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

In my opinion, the best advantages rationality can gain is a totally reasonable intelligent well spoken blond woman wearing sleeveless dresses smiling and explaining with devastating clarity just how much sense atheism makes.

Possibly, but...

The reason this makes the mullahs want to spit at her and kill her is because it is a threat to what they are selling, which is precisely why rationalists should keep doing it.

To achieve that all you need is "a [cut] blond woman wearing sleeveless dresses smiling [cut]".

comment by Raw_Power · 2012-07-19T13:23:27.190Z · score: 12 (12 votes) · LW · GW

Speaking in long term terms, what is the mechanism by which societies secularize themselves, and are there ways to trigger it? For instance, the Jews too have a very explicit, canonic policy of stoning proselytizing apostates to death. When did they stop doing that, and why?

comment by APMason · 2012-07-19T14:22:40.322Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW · GW

I don't think that question's going to give you the information you want - when in the last couple thousand of years, if Jews had wanted to stone apostates to death, would they have been able to do it? The diasporan condition doesn't really allow it. I think Christianity really is the canonical example of the withering away of religiosity - and that happened through a succession of internal revolutions ("In Praise of Folly", Lutheranism, the English reformation etc.) which themselves happened for a variety of reasons, not all pure or based in rationality (Henry VIII's split with Rome, for example) but had the effect of demystifying the church and thereby shrinking the domain of its influence. I think. Although it's hard to interpret the Englightenment as a movement internal to Christianity, so this only gets you so far, I suppose.

comment by DanArmak · 2012-07-19T22:03:37.584Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

when in the last couple thousand of years, if Jews had wanted to stone apostates to death, would they have been able to do it?

Unless we're talking about apostates who converted to Christianity (or Islam etc.) and claimed that society's protection, then Jews could probably have stoned apostates at any point until civil rights were granted to Jews. Which happened in different European countries at any point between, offhand, 15th and 20th centuries.

comment by Viliam_Bur · 2012-07-19T21:25:05.805Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

when in the last couple thousand of years, if Jews had wanted to stone apostates to death, would they have been able to do it? The diasporan condition doesn't really allow it.

You sure about this? I don't know much about this topic, but I remember reading somewhere that 200 or more years ago Jews were often allowed to give punishment to their own people within diaspora. They couldn't stone a Christian/Muslim from the majority population, but they could stone (or otherwise kill, or otherwise severely punish) one of their own -- unless the given sinner already converted to Christianity/Islam and left their community. So converting to majority religion could be safe, but converting to atheism or some heresy within Judaism would not.

comment by Eugine_Nier · 2012-07-20T05:59:10.188Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW · GW

There are cases of children of Jewish parents who were baptized in secret by Christian maids, and then taken away by the Christian authorities to be raised Christian when the maid informed said authorities of this.

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2012-07-20T11:23:36.949Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Cite?

comment by fubarobfusco · 2012-07-20T23:15:00.396Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

It happened, and was a significant international scandal ... in 1858.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edgardo_Mortara

comment by APMason · 2012-07-19T21:32:06.578Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

You sure about this?

Nope, not sure at all.

comment by TimS · 2012-07-19T23:58:06.483Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Baruch Spinoza is probably the most famous available piece of evidence. He was shunned (cf. excommunication), not executed. Not sure what conclusion to draw, given the Enlightenment era.

comment by torekp · 2012-07-21T12:16:10.323Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Internal revolutions, i.e. schisms, are key in my understanding too. I suspect that all the wars of the Reformation had a lot to do with the re-invention of the concept of religious toleration and its eventual spread across Europe. But perhaps even without soaking a continent in blood, schism can do its work. Exposure to a variety of religions seems likely to make people skeptical of enthroning any one of them.

Thus, atheism is only marginally relevant to freedom from religious oppression. The real key is alternate religions. If you would free people, underwrite the books or broadcasts by the next Erasmus or Luther or Rumi.

comment by fubarobfusco · 2012-07-21T18:12:30.056Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Thus, atheism is only marginally relevant to freedom from religious oppression. The real key is alternate religions. If you would free people, underwrite the books or broadcasts by the next Erasmus or Luther or Rumi.

The "next Luther" was, arguably, Hitler. Fortunately, Lutherans today do not think very highly of Luther's On the Jews and Their Lies or the frankly obscene Vom Schem Hamphoras.

See also: Yvain's "A Parable on Obsolete Ideologies".

comment by CronoDAS · 2012-07-20T00:48:14.564Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

In Europe, it took decades/centuries of religious wars.

As for the Jews, I think they stopped doing it because they were conquered.

comment by mwengler · 2012-07-19T14:30:04.760Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW · GW

There is no single mechanism by which realization of the overwhelming economic and technical advantages of intellectual freedom seeps in to other societies. The angry old religious man spitting at the girl who doesn't have her head covered seems to be a fact of human life. But so is the not-so-angry young family, learning technical truths by staying in the west for a few years, and even if they go back home and have some religion, never really resonating again with the reactionary backwardness of violently enforcing stupidity.

There is no magic bullet. The religious whackos are right. If you don't suppress rationality entirely, it will eventually supplant all the whacky ideas you are violently pushing on people. A big part of the way it does that is by simply starving the religious whackos of the fruits of the labor of intelligent not-too-whacky people.

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2012-07-19T14:30:03.079Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

That's a good question. I have no idea how much or if that law was enforced.

comment by RichardKennaway · 2012-07-19T11:01:41.068Z · score: 10 (12 votes) · LW · GW

More importantly, concerning Less Wrong itself, should we try to distance ourselves from atheism and anti-religiousness as such? Is this baggage too inconvenient, or is it too much a part of what we stand for?

No. It is indeed too much a part of it.

As for the hotheaded young rationalist, the only general advice I can think of for the hypothetical case is, consider the situation around you and do what you think will actually work.

Hotheadedly running out into the street screaming "Stop being irrational!" is unlikely to be it, even in places where it won't get you shot. If their well-considered decision gets them killed, well, shit happens. I expect Richard Dawkins gets death threats, and Salman Rushdie certainly does, but they carry on anyway.

comment by Raw_Power · 2012-07-19T13:20:06.489Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Now that you mention Rushdie, another topic comes out: how not to appear to be a Westernized sellout? I don't know much about Rushdie himself, but the image I got of him from popcultural osmosis is that of a professional traitor attacking Islam for the sake of getting accolades from Westerners. Regardless of how much of that is true, this is obviously an image one needs to avoid at all costs.

I would compare it to the amalgamation of "Socialist" and "Servant of the USSR" that took place during the Cold War.

People can have interesting perspectives on the topic of religious conversion. I remember a Muslim apostat getting asked, in all innocence, whether they'd be converting to Christianity next, as if it was the logical next step. Yet another argument for "people actually think of religion as a tribe, not as a set of metaphysical beliefs with moral prescriptions attached"

comment by mwengler · 2012-07-19T15:03:33.988Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I fear that finding a way of attacking fundamentalist Islam while not being villified as one form of evil (sellout) or another (apostate) may not be possible.

And if it is not possible, then all your efforts at accomplish it will prove wasted efforts. Efforts that could have been spent working on something that is possible.

There are PLENTY of people who work against fundamentalist islam, some from within moderate islam, some from a position that abandoning islam is the only reasonable choice. I think you would do better finding good information about your choices for resisting by studying these people and what they do and how they do it and what they say. As a non-believer, I still find I have great respect for BOTH believers and non-believers who work against fundamentalist stupidity, violent oppression of non-believers, non-education of women, crappy education of men. I have worked with many believers who I respect greatly as good people and good scientists, enough to know that the moderate believer is not an an enemy of rationality the way a fundamentalist is. And I reach this conclusion as a non-believer.

comment by Raw_Power · 2012-07-19T17:52:46.525Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I agree with you on all points here.

comment by FiftyTwo · 2012-07-20T00:18:37.753Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW · GW

I think the analogy with treason is good but not in the way you mean, the fear of apostasy is not really that of a single unbeliever but that it might spread. Even if we ignore the group cohesion and self interest reasons for not wanting this, there are good altruistic reasons.

Imagine there is a drug that is pleasant in the short term but causes extreme suffering in later life, because individuals don't rationally calculate the effect of it at the time your society has banned it. If you know an individual is using it you might try and persuade them to stop personally, but if they start using it publicly, or worse telling others how awesome it is and that they've suffered no bad effects you would want to take stronger action for the good of others. (Imagine someone telling your kids to its cool to smoke.) All that seems perfectly rational. Now multiply the harm of "disease in later life" to that of "eternity in hell" and you can see why well intentioned people might support apostasy laws, especially if they allow people to publicly recant, at best sincerely and saving themselves, at worst insincerely but limiting the harm.

The problem is not that apostasy laws in themselves are irrational, if hell existed a lot of things would be justified in preventing it, its that they''re based on a flawed premise.

comment by Raw_Power · 2012-07-20T06:42:45.935Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Thank you for helping me remember what it felt like to think that way. The Dark Side Will Make You Forget indeed... :P

comment by Douglas_Knight · 2012-07-19T15:26:59.719Z · score: 6 (10 votes) · LW · GW

So I have been checking laws around the world regarding Apostasy... the approach Muslims take ... will get you killed.

Laws are extremely weak evidence about what will happen to you. I strongly advise you to avoid looking at laws, and not just for this project.

comment by Raw_Power · 2012-07-19T17:02:10.008Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

That's a very puzzling comment... care to elaborate?

comment by jimrandomh · 2012-07-19T17:35:16.261Z · score: 13 (13 votes) · LW · GW

Many countries have laws which are widely broken and selectively enforced, or which are easy to frame people for. In those cases, whether you are targeted and punished is a judgment call made by certain people in power, which in practice means that it depends mainly on not pissing off or threatening the wrong people, and on how effectively you would be expected to defend yourself (ie wealth and connections).

comment by FiftyTwo · 2012-07-20T00:21:09.519Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Many countries have laws which are widely broken and selectively enforced,

For example lots of Iranian people drink, have casual sex and there's a surprisingly active gay scene. The laws are only ever enforced when they need an easy way to crack down on protesters. That doesn't indicate any sincere belief on the part of the regime in the moral seriousness of those crimes, any more than if someone you disliked sent the health inspectors round.

Edit Better example: If you looked only at law you would think the vast majority of the American public massively disapproved of recreational drug use. Whereas they are widely tolerated, socially accepted in many contexts and the laws are enforced selectively.

comment by Raw_Power · 2012-07-19T18:05:09.618Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Well, I absolutely agree with all that you just said. But still, knowing what sentences the judge can dole out is important. The problem with mob-rousing stuff such as apostasy... or Frankenstein-monster raising, or being Black, or a Hugonot, or an adulterer, depending on context... is that you could easily be subjected to "mob justice", and there would be impunity for your murderers: Pontius Piwatus keeps his hands cwean, and evewyone is happy (the dead can't compwain).

comment by DanArmak · 2012-07-19T21:53:30.637Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

evewyone is happy (the dead can't compwain).

I would be a wot happier if this dead had staid dead and uncompwaining...

comment by Douglas_Knight · 2012-07-20T03:23:49.383Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

The law does not even bound what the judge can do. It's just words.
If you have a good model of the role of the law, knowing it is valuable, but I think your model is so bad you are made worse off by studying the law. I am very certain in this example, but I was completely serious when I said it in general.

An exercise: (1) make lists of the ways the law might under- and over-estimate the punishments for apostasy; (2) research what actually happens to apostates.

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2012-07-19T14:36:23.103Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Possibly of interest: The Young Atheist's Handbook-- an account of becoming an atheist by a man who grew up in a Bangladeshi neighborhood in London.

I agree that getting out is the best option for someone who lives under a violently religious government, but that getting out may not be feasible or may be a long term project. I assume we're going to have some martyrs.

comment by Raw_Power · 2012-07-19T14:43:14.382Z · score: 5 (7 votes) · LW · GW

Martyrdom's outcomes are chancey, and, while sometimes it can trigger outrage and change, most of the time it's just a senseless loss. It is a loser's save roll. Rationalists are not losers.

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2012-07-19T14:50:07.291Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I'm not saying that rationalists will deliberately martyr themselves. I believe that some atheists will get caught because of bad luck or insufficiently careful precautions.

For example, it can be hard to be sure whether government policies will change, so that being publicly atheist might only have social costs one year, but be a deadly risk the year after.

comment by Grognor · 2012-07-19T22:29:06.134Z · score: 4 (8 votes) · LW · GW

So, let's take this hypothetical (harrumph) youth. They see irrationality around them, obvious and immense, they see the waste and the pain it causes. They'd like to do something about it. How would you advise them to go about it?

Donate to CFAR. There's no good reason to demand a local increase in rationality.

[...]should we try to distance ourselves from atheism and anti-religiousness as such? Is this baggage too inconvenient, or is it too much a part of what we stand for?

We don't stand for atheism; we stand by atheism, prepared to walk away at any time should the proper evidence come about. (Of course, it won't.) In any case I think we should talk about atheism less because it is preaching to the choir and because the psychological principle of social proof makes people update on "a bunch of rationalists have all decided there's no god!" which is double-counting evidence.

comment by Nick_Tarleton · 2012-07-19T22:32:01.245Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Donate to CFAR. There's no good reason to demand a local increase in rationality.

People with a desire to improve things generally have a very strong desire to spend some of that effort contributing to and seeing local improvements.

comment by Grognor · 2012-07-19T22:33:03.287Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Do you see that as a good thing?

comment by Raw_Power · 2012-07-21T23:15:49.597Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Seeing improvements in ways that are immediately tabgible is very encouraging and motivating.

comment by Nick_Tarleton · 2012-07-20T18:15:55.246Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I see it as a true thing, and thus something to cooperate with. Normatively, I see it as instrumentally bad, but related to something I want to protect.

comment by Grognor · 2012-08-05T23:11:18.573Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Perhaps it was imprudent, but I assumed that someone trying to promote rationality would herself be rational enough to overcome this parochialism bias.

comment by Nick_Tarleton · 2012-07-20T18:14:20.632Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

No, as a true thing.

comment by blogospheroid · 2012-07-20T03:19:26.124Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I think that in the long run, donating to sens might be a better idea, right? Nothing would dilute religion more than the prospect of a very long life on earth. Looking at westerners and east asians with a little grudging envy because they are rich and happy is probably an order of magnitude less worse than the realisation that they are going to be like that forever, while you die, your sons die and their sons die.

comment by buybuydandavis · 2012-07-21T02:36:01.271Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

So, let's take this hypothetical (harrumph) youth. They see irrationality around them, obvious and immense, they see the waste and the pain it causes. They'd like to do something about it. How would you advise them to go about it?

I think math, science, and engineering education is likely very corrosive to religious belief. Seeing that things behave the way they do regardless of what anyone important thinks, and that you can figure it out, is likely a huge blow to religious thought (and intellectual authority in general). The world is no longer run by a magical will, it is a mechanism that runs according to its physical regularities. I don't think it is a coincidence that the enlightenment and the deistic clockwork universe came hand in hand.

On the authority point, I think it was Ian Hacking in The Emergence of Probability that traced out the changing meaning of "probable". Long ago, it meant something like "attested to by an authoritative source", and then changed to meaning "supported by evidence". That's a significant jump in my mind.

Teach people science and math, and they'll be able to figure out the rest. God is the explanation when you lack a better one.

comment by Raw_Power · 2012-07-21T23:14:30.273Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

People do have an astoundingly aggravating ability to compartimentalize these things, though: see "Outside The Laboratory".

comment by mwengler · 2012-07-19T14:01:01.669Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

It seems to me the best way to market any idea is to associate with people who support the idea and enhance their success. It is NOT to stay in an environment where that idea is rejected as evil and you risk your life. So for example, the west has primarily promulgated its brands of economic freedom and intellectual freedom by being an example to the rest of the world. It may be that a Saudi does more to liberalize Saudi Arabia by moving to the west and just simply having regular contacts with her family and friends back in Saudi Arabia than she could actually manage by taking off her niqab and carrying a placard in Riyadh.

I see this same result in other intellectual areas that are not so much life and death. In a company with one R&D group, many ideas are rejected because "John did a little study of that 4 years ago and said it won't work." LOTS of times John didn't really get it right, and it is a lot easier to do something wrong and have it not work than it is to do it right and have it work. In a company with a few competing R&D organizations, if org. A drops an idea because it won't work, there is a good chance someone in org. B will give it a try. This not only improves the result for the company, which misses fewer good ideas, it actually causes org. A to be a lot more careful about dropping ideas permanently on insufficient evidence.

I realize as I write this that I am talking about a version of market competition in ideas. As long as a country punishes people who think outside the orthodoxy, they will have a drain of such people. I am sure when Chinese officials saw Chinese people making a great success in the U.S. it was part of the information they needed to relax their restrictions. The same thing can happen (and probably already does to some extent) in other countries.

comment by TheOtherDave · 2012-07-19T13:26:37.331Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

So, let's take this hypothetical (harrumph) youth. They see irrationality around them, obvious and immense, they see the waste and the pain it causes. They'd like to do something about it. How would you advise them to go about it?

My advice would be, roughly: "When you infer opportunities to reduce waste and pain, and the expected cost of taking those opportunities is one you are willing to pay, and the expected value of those opportunities is positive, take them."

Which is also the advice I would give to pretty much everyone else who wants to do something about waste and pain.

More importantly, concerning Less Wrong itself, should we try to distance ourselves from atheism and anti-religiousness as such? Is this baggage too inconvenient, or is it too much a part of what we stand for?

It seems unlikely to provide any benefits, and the costs (in terms of disrupting local interactions) seem high.

comment by Raw_Power · 2012-07-19T13:43:53.898Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

So they should avoid having their Real Life personas being linked to LW in any way, shape, or form. This might be difficult if LW grows famous and their influence in the secret apostate is too obvious... How would one go about being a rationalist "with the serial numbers filed off".

comment by TheOtherDave · 2012-07-19T14:33:59.446Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Yes, if I'm in an environment where being associated with LW is potentially costly, I ought to avoid having my real identity linked to LW. The same goes for pretty much every other website and organization in the world.

How would one go about being a rationalist "with the serial numbers filed off".

My first suggestion would be to drop the whole formulation of "being a rationalist," which is more about identity than practice. I find that when I think about X as an identity rather than a practice, it starts to feel important that I express my affiliation with X, that I associate with other X-identifiers, that I talk about myself as an X, and so forth. In an environment like you describe, that's counterproductive. (Personally, I find it counterproductive in general, but YMMV.) Relatedly, our hypothetical hotheaded youth should take care not to indulge in the impulse to declare their superiority to the people around them by virtue of their greater rationality.

My second suggestion is basically the one I gave before: when I infer opportunities to achieve my goals, and the expected cost of taking those opportunities is one I am willing to pay, and the expected value of those opportunities is positive, I should take them.

comment by mwengler · 2012-07-19T14:17:19.644Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Keep in mind the idea that Rationalists Win. Rationalism is a collection of methods for knowing more and using that knowledge to get more of what you want. If you learn that greeting the local police with "Allahu Akhbar" will lower your chance of being arrested, then all other things being equal, it is quite rational to greet them that way.

Extending that, unless you have a particular plan in mind, you should not put yourself in danger merely to avoid "lying" about your connection to or sympathy with or hatred of certain ideas.

Personally, I am a big fan of getting out of there. Every country whos intelligent youth leaves in noticable numbers is being sent a message that is received at some level by both the populace and the government of that country. Either that society fixes itself and its intelligent people stay, or it whithers and has smaller and smaller impact on the world as a whole, but at least the steady flux of intelligent people out of it provides an "infrastructure" that future intelligent youth can use to get out more efficiently.

Over the last 40 years, the west has made tremendous inroads against the communist oppression. Soviet Union is GONE. Communist China is a capitalist success story. Defectors and then later students leaving to study were a tremendously valuable part of that process.

If you need to stay in an evnironment where wearing a vertically striped shirt might get you killed, by all means wear a horizontally striped shirt. That is the rational choice.

comment by Raw_Power · 2012-07-19T14:31:46.240Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Many of those governments ardently desire their intelligent, rational people leaving, and will even facilitate that movement. They get in the way of a stable tyranny.

More importantly, the more they appropriate a foreign culture, the more the locals will see them as "foreign". A "Return of the Elites" might not be welcome: see Iran after the Shah was deposed,

Capitalism as the source of a nation's prosperity might also be a red herring: notice how America and Africa are full of perfectly capitalist, utterly miserable nations.

comment by mwengler · 2012-07-19T15:28:29.561Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I will argue against you, but let me first tell you that your exposure to this stuff means there is a lot of stuff you know that I don't know. I'll argue against to perhaps provide some support for some alternative approaches that might give a good idea when considered.

Many of those governments ardently desire their intelligent, rational people leaving, and will even facilitate that movement. They get in the way of a stable tyranny.

Unfortunately, there is probably no winning in the short term. Cuba is a case American's no something about. The US Gov't has tried starving Cuba (by embargoing trade) and their brains have been highly drained. Even so, Cuba persists in a very non-free state even as its dictator is old and weak.

It SEEMS to me that the community of rich and effective Cubans in the United States do much more towards putting pressure on the Cuban government than do any "dissidents" who stay behind and operate with few resources, and quietly enough to avoid arrest. I certainly don't know for sure.

More importantly, the more they appropriate a foreign culture, the more the locals will see them as "foreign". A "Return of the Elites" might not be welcome: see Iran after the Shah was deposed,

This is something you "fight" against by not fighing against it. Appropriate the foreign culture and stay connected to your friends and relatives back home. Be a "reasonable" non-Muslim. Give them all the reason in the world to see that a non-Muslim is not the devil creature they think. But it will take a long time, and there is probably no getting around that. Another path would be to pretend to be a moderate Muslim. Certainly many westerners pretend to a level of christianity that is so weak as to be nearly non-existent, because it doesn't cost much to do so and gains you some benefits. I would probably do that if I had to, I don't perceive the price I pay for being atheist-agnostic to be even vaguely high enough to make faking it worthwhile, but I live in California, not Morocco.

Capitalism as the source of a nation's prosperity might also be a red herring: notice how America and Africa are full of perfectly capitalist, utterly miserable nations.

I believe a consistent practice of rationality will move you away from dogmatic fights. Of course you are right, places that could reasonably be called capitalist do not all do equally as well by any means. There are other principles at play that are important. In my opinion, having read a lot, markets are very important. Better to have relatively open economic competition in markets with few or no government granted monopolies. WHen the government does intervene, MUCH more efficient to intervene in a way that preserves markets (charging for licenses to emit pollutants instead of mandating certain levels of pollution or certain non-polluting technologies for example).

But of course the big thing is the extent to which the government picks winners and losers. If a friend of the king is getting rich in business, the less bad part is that his money is coming from overcharging the people, the more bad part is the overall drag this kind of interference creates reduces productivity to fractions of the levels achieved in western countries. Western countries certainly have problems picking winners and losers, but it is done from a baseline of so many openly competitive markets that its impact, while bad, is simply not on the same scale as what happens in a third world country.

The west's advantage is not ideological it is technical. Markets WORK to find optima and get the most out of all the economic inputs, that is a technology. To the extent that a call for Capitalism sounds like an ideological call, it is totally rational to resist it. Just don't replace it with an even worse ideology, an ideology that promotes the use of way inferior technologies.

comment by Raw_Power · 2012-07-19T17:41:31.104Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Argue against? I can't find a single thing here that I disagree with. Except the bits where you argue in favour of mercantilism, but I never argued against that. I would (mostly along the lines of "freemarkets need specific cultural memes specific social and political infrastructures to function well: it's a great engine but you can't put it in just any car or in the hands of just any driver, otherwise people will die, and even in the right conditions it's still massively dangerous, but it's just so much more awesome than other crappier engines..."), but I reserve judgement until after I've read the classics and grown more familiar with the meme-space's historical evolution.

"Reasonable Muslim" does seem to be a good approach, what with learning not to be a smug idiot and such. One would want to practice it, if only because one would know how painful and confusing a paradygm shift can be in that domain, and wouldn't wish to inflict it on people who don't explicitly seek it out. Though, the law being the way it is, even people who are struggling with religion should be left alone to have their own epiphanies.

The "No True Scotsman" fallacy (or, more specifically, the "This Scotsman Who Went And Was Educated In England And Has All The Mannerisms And Accents And Beliefs Of Our English Overlords Is No True Scotsman") is an authentic problem. I have seen a west-educated boy from country X who, hearing another X-educated X boy who complained that meeting parties in the international organization they worked in were too focused on "disgusting" alcohol and pig. The "western" boy told the "genuine X" boy that he could drink alcohol-free beer or even a soft drink if he so wished, and that there was a sufficient selection of non-pigful food, including vegetarian food if he worried about Halal. The "genuine X" boy flat-out told the "westen" boy that he was "NOT X". He did not look like he was from X, he did not speak X-ian as well as X, he did not dress like an X, move like an X, and he was waaaay too comfortable with pig and alcohol for his taste. He did so more with the tone of someone who is making an observation that frightens them than with a tone of censorship or condemnation. The "western" boy exused himself politely then spent the afternoon being very, very pissed off and profoundly offended, though that confused him: he thought he had outgrown something as irrational as "nationalism", "group identity", and "the desire to belong", but, he said to me later, he was deepy hurt by that.

There really is a point after which cultural difference becomes so gaping that, while one may have a passport from X, one will be treated exactly as a foreigner by the "authentics", especially in extremely uniform, totalitarian societies, with a rather sharply defined collective identity. How to reach them, then? Should one even try?

comment by mwengler · 2012-07-20T04:06:02.594Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

It must be incredibly frustrating to be told you are not X.

How to reach them, then? Should one even try?

If the US went to crap and I was able to move to Australia or New Zealand or France or UK, I think I would. I actually think the flow of people from worser places to better places is a feature, not a bug. That it provides a great deal of useful feedback in the world, and reallocates human resources to places where they will be way more useful and possibly happier as well. But it is a personally painful thing for the individual to face.

comment by bogus · 2012-07-19T23:03:53.704Z · score: -2 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Capitalism as the source of a nation's prosperity might also be a red herring: notice how America and Africa are full of perfectly capitalist, utterly miserable nations.

I would not describe crony-capitalist, corrupt societies as "perfectly capitalist". Mind you, a lot of nations are sliding down that path, including the United States (see TARP, Cash for Clunkers, Obamacare etc.)

comment by mwengler · 2012-07-19T15:48:16.884Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

How would one go about being a rationalist "with the serial numbers filed off".

There is plenty of support for rationality science and math in Arab history. There is probably plenty of support for rationality in the koran. While in Morocco, there is no reason to flaunt your atheism or disdain for much of what religion concludes: this is the shiny tip of the iceberg to a rationality you are developing whose real benefits are from the much more massive rational workings under the surface. So you could learn the support for rationality in the koran and the islamic traditions, and in any discussions cite these as support for a more rational position.

Just an idea that occurred to me.

comment by [deleted] · 2012-07-19T11:05:37.775Z · score: 1 (5 votes) · LW · GW

My advice in the case of Morocco specifically would be to work towards the instrumental goal of getting those laws changed, rather than the final goal of promoting rationality. Morocco is a semi-democratic country but with extremely low levels of political participation by the citizens. That means one could have a disproportionate effect even by registering to vote (most Moroccans aren't registered), let alone by joining a political party. I'd suggest joining Movement Populaire or Union Constitutionelle, after a few minutes' googling. There's just about enough give in the system that one could make a difference in overall freedom there.

In a country without even that tiny amount of pressure one can put on the levers of power, like an outright theocracy like Iran or hereditary dictatorship, it would depend on whether the budding rationalist considered hir death a reasonable price to pay for increasing overall rationality. If yes, then supporting whatever underground opposition groups exist would make sense. If not, then just doing whatever they could to get somewhere with a saner polity would be the sensible thing to do.

comment by Raw_Power · 2012-07-19T13:05:13.376Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW · GW

Oh. So it does work, the propaganda.. Morocco is only a consitutional monarchy on paper. The power resides in the Palace, and it is absolute. Parties have been proven, time and again, to be utterly impotent before the King. That is why people don't even bother to vote. That is why you will often spot people sleeping during parliament sessions: those simply don't matter.

People have picked up on this. Now, when they make protests, they address the King directly, ignoring the Ministers. Their tone is very deferential, but that's one fuse that's burned out.

And the most popular contenders, were the regime to change, are the Islamists...

comment by mwengler · 2012-07-19T15:53:33.975Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

And the most popular contenders, were the regime to change, are the Islamists...

Wow. Even more reason to want to get out now and enjoy your life among people who think in a way you consider valuable.

Consider it from the democratic point of view. Morocco DOESN'T WANT to be what you want to live in. It is not because of the evil king, it is not because of the evil Islamists. (Well at least not entirely). The people are not looking for the kind of rationality you are looking for.

It might be a nice democratic move to "live and let live." To let Moroccans (or at least the bulk of them) do what they want to do and to go someplace where people do what you want to do.

To me "live and let live" may be a statement of the most basic rational precept ever. It lets you win and it lets them win.

comment by TheOtherDave · 2012-07-19T16:29:24.991Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW · GW

To me "live and let live" may be a statement of the most basic rational precept ever. It lets you win and it lets them win.

Sure. The trick is not to confuse it with "live and let suffer and die."

comment by Raw_Power · 2012-07-19T17:43:21.429Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

That is, indeed, the bit that I am worried about.

comment by [deleted] · 2012-07-19T13:13:36.576Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

And speaking in long-term terms, secularism tends to correlate with an increase in the perception by the individual that they have the ability to alter their circumstances. There are exceptions (the US is really weird in being something like a functioning democracy but still having a ridiculously rabid level of religiosity) but in general democracy and social mobility seem to lead to higher levels of secularism, though they're not a panacea.

comment by Raw_Power · 2012-07-19T13:35:38.180Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Democracy and social mobility... and the ability to alter one's circumstances.... What if those were red herrings?

There is a fair number of Lesswrongers that challenge the notion that "Democracy is Good".

comment by mwengler · 2012-07-19T14:53:35.251Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

The cliche is that democracy is horrible and stupid, but it is better than all the alternatives.

Every time you have imposition by the few on the many, even if it starts with the few you agree with imposing the ideas you agree with, there is no mechanism to keep it that way. Indeed, the mechanism for gaining power within a system like that is probably quite different from the mechanism of having the kinds of ideas you agree with.

So what do we do when we have something that sounds good in theory, but sucks in practice? If we are rational we abandon it. Allowing the unwashed masses of fools and hypocrites to pick the policies of their nation by voting on them is a horrible idea. Its just better than forbidding it.

comment by loup-vaillant · 2012-07-24T14:39:10.275Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

There is a fair number of Lesswrongers that challenge the notion that "Democracy is Good".

That's not very surprising. "Democracy" isn't about democracy to begin with. The correct technical term for our political systems is "representative government". Today, that means choosing your next leaders among a select few that pass a number of filters, such as media exposure. The intention of such a system is to select an elite that is genuinely better at ruling us all than laypeople. Whether it actually works is another matter, especially if you look at the conflict of interest that went on in most constitutional processes: rulers writing the laws of ruling.

Democracy, on the other hand, is when the people rule directly. The most famous example of this it antique Athens (if we count women, slaves, and strangers as non-people). To be actually democratic, a political system's decisions must be sufficiently close to the (non-extrapolated) Coherent Volition of the set of people that live under it. Under this definition, representative government could very well be democratic. However, our western governments do quite differently. For instance, I'm sure there are a number of referendums that were subsequently not respected by the relevant governments. And I'm not even counting the times where there was no referendum in the first place.

By the way, I'm not even sure actual democracy would be very good. But it's the best I can think of, short of a Friendly AI.

comment by Raw_Power · 2012-07-24T22:53:34.335Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

You mean that "actual democracy" would be better than "representative government"?

comment by loup-vaillant · 2012-07-25T10:08:50.859Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Well, it would certainly be better than current representative governments. Maybe there's a way to make representative governments work even better, but I don't know how to prevent them to turn into oligarchies¹. A start would be gathering up a popular² constitutional assembly, which would exclude itself from the institutions it will create. Maybe it would come up with representative government anyway, but it may at least think of better checks and balances than what we have now.

[1] Two examples of oligarchy-like features:

  • If I recall correctly, the winner at an election is overwhelmingly determined by the sheer amount of money that has been thrown in the election campaign. And the one who got elected knows where this money came from, and how to make it come again for the next elections.
  • Current monetary shenanigans basically allow private banks to create money out of thin air, lend it, and perceive an interest. Since a few decades, states (US, EU, and others) basically stopped themselves from creating money for their own expenses, so that they have to borrow it (typically to the banks) at an interest. That suspiciously sounds like rich people are taxing everyone else. I think taxes, however low you want them to be, should be under the control of the state, which is at least supposed to be accountable in front of the people.

[2] By "popular", I mean basically the same thing as in "popular jury": you pick citizen at random, with a few precautions. You do not run an election.

comment by asr · 2012-07-25T15:12:19.943Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

[2] By "popular", I mean basically the same thing as in "popular jury": you pick citizen at random, with a few precautions. You do not run an election.

This is not how juries work in America. Really picking twelve people at random turns out to be unworkable -- the population of people who can comfortable afford to spend a week or more on a jury is a very biased sample -- it skews to the elderly and upper-middle-class in ways that would be politically intolerable. Also, since jury deliberations are secret and unmonitored, we go to elaborate lengths to avoid one juror having outside and un-compensated influence.

Courts routinely summon a hundred jurors to fill a panel of twelve. Only a small minority of potential jurors are actually suitable. Both sides of the case have extensive rights to reject jurors, both with and without cause.

It's not so much "pick at random" as it is "audition a lot of people in order to find 12 jurors who are mutually acceptable to the parties." I don't see how that would generalize to decision-making contexts where there aren't two clear predefined sides in a position to say yes or no to particular jurors.

comment by loup-vaillant · 2012-07-25T19:44:55.782Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Oops. I did not know the process was that selective. Quickly looking up the French Wikipedia, I see the French system is much less selective (it picks up "only" 3 times too many random candidates).

Now there are also other cases where random assemblies (a couple hundred people, I believe) were conjured to make important decision: election rules in one case (didn't work out the first try), and GMO in the other (the unanimous conclusion was "looks somewhat risky, and we don't see the benefits. No, thanks.").

By the way, we could imagine something between a fully random assembly, and a fully elected one. (This is totally not my idea) Run free elections, where everyone is candidate (no choice). Let people chose, say, 3 people they believe would be good at making the relevant decision (like writing a constitution). We can suggest criteria, such as being good, well tempered, can change one's mind… Now look how the votes are distributed. You can exclude the bottom fifth by assuming many people there are probably not so good. You can also exclude the top fifth to remove fame bias, and exclude authority figures (journalists, professional politicians…). Now you pick a couple hundred people at random among the rest, and propose them to participate in the assembly. Most will accept. Now let them write what they must, and if the decision is important enough (like a constitution), run a referendum, just to be sure. (People are overwhelmingly likely to accept it, but you never know.)

comment by TimS · 2012-07-25T13:09:09.430Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Current monetary shenanigans basically allow private banks to create money out of thin air, lend it, and perceive an interest.

Are you referring to fractional reserve banking? I agree that the concept is disconcerting at first glance, but banning it essentially requires banning interest on savings accounts because it bans lending money from savings accounts.

comment by loup-vaillant · 2012-07-25T15:04:57.697Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Yep. Credit default swap can also count when they go through tax havens.

Banning interests on saving accounts doesn't bother me (Edit: err, maybe it should). No one should harvest money merely because they already have some. Now there's inflation, but those who have little money are largely unaffected. That makes inflation a form of tax on accumulated wealth. I'm fine with that.

Now if you must protect the hard-working people who just want to save the little amount of money they have, just have the central bank open one special account per citizen that (1) will have an interest rate equal to the inflation, and (2) cannot hold more than some defined amount of money (in constant dollars). The interest rate would be paid by the state (with a mix of taxes and newly created money).

In such a world, it would be more difficult to have a rent. That's precisely the point. I believe rent seeking behaviour, while often a rational self-interest move, is generally detrimental to the rest of society. I'd rather discourage it.

comment by TimS · 2012-07-25T15:56:25.790Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

As a conceptual move, may I suggest removing the concept of savings accounts from your mind for the moment. Individuals have money that they aren't using this moment. So they loan it to brokers. The brokers find business who need loans, ad charge a higher rate of interest on the business loans than they are paying on the individual loans.

I suggest the brokers are not receiving rent. They are providing a valuable service, without which business loans would be much more difficult (and expensive) to maintain. Yes, the brokers (i.e. banks) make money on the interest rate spread, but they are entitled to earn something, right? Do we agree that making business loans is economically valuable and those who facilitate it are entitled to some reward for their work?

Fractional reserve arises out of the usual feature of the individual loans to the bank - specifically, those loans are due on demand rather than having a specific repayment schedule. In normal circumstances, the broker knows that most people will NOT demand their money back - but some will, so the broker needs to hold on to enough money to satisfy those demands while still making loans to earn the interest to pay the individual loans.


will have an interest rate equal to the inflation

I don't understand how you expect to pay for this (even in nomimal dollars) without printing money somehow. It doesn't seem like an economically coherent position.

comment by loup-vaillant · 2012-07-25T20:16:03.551Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

A possible system for broking is to pay the broker with something else than interest rates. I don't know, flat rates, maybe? There's also the problem of risks, and what you want to achieve with the investment (do you want the money returned at all? If you construct, say, a school, you may not want to, because the increase in public wealth may match the money you created for it). We need a way to sort out "bad" brokers from "good" ones, whatever that means.

Okay, that's difficult to do without interest rates. Maybe if I think about it for 5 minutes…

The problem I see with fractional reserve banking is that it lets yo wield far more money than you would otherwise control. Plus, earning all the interest you made of money that mostly isn't yours strikes me as unfair. (But if we fix this, we're back to saving accounts…)

As for paying for the public saving accounts, I expect the saving accounts to hold much less money than the whole economy. Refilling them will cause some inflation of course, but not so much that you cannot solve the equation.

comment by TimS · 2012-07-25T21:29:31.265Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

The analysis is totally different if we aren't trying to make a foreseeable monetary profit, so let's put that aside to focus on for-profit business lending.

Let's say Bob wants to open a restaurant. He's short $100 to buy the oven. Alice has $100 (for whatever reason), but totally lacks the skills to run a restaurant. Assuming Alice does not operate as a charity, she expects repayment if she gives the money to Bob.

You seem to suggest there is a moral difference between Alice saying "I'll give Bob $100, and
1) I want Bob to give in back, plus $20 in one year
vs.
2) I want Bob to give my $10 a month for the next year.

What's the moral difference between those positions? (Yes, I know the annual percentage rate of interest is slightly different - not important for this example, but I'm pretty sure (1) is a better deal for Bob)

And the only reason Alice has $100 is that she promised Charlie that she'd pay him $10 if he let her hold it, no questions asked, for one year. Fractional reserve is the inevitable consequence if Alice also promises that she'll give all or part of the money back to Charlie whenever he asks. (To make this work, Alice will need to find other Charlies).

If you ban this arrangement between Alice and Charlie, then Alice will not have money to give to Bob, and Bob's restaurant simply will never happen. I think that's a worse world than the one we live in.

To put it slightly differently, the way Alice adds value is by being good at finding Bobs and telling the difference between Bob and Billy Bankrupt-er. Holding Charlie's money is a cost to Alice, not a benefit. And none of this has anything to do with credit default swaps, which I agree are much less defensible.

Regarding the public savings accounts, your statement translates to "I'll need less money-from-nowhere than you originally thought." That's not reassuring. What exactly do you think I should be doing with the part of my money that I'm not using to buy something right this instant?

comment by loup-vaillant · 2012-07-25T23:21:36.693Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Fractional reserve is the inevitable consequence if Alice also promises that she'll give all or part of the money back to Charlie whenever he asks.

Under this scheme, fractional reserve banking is effectively unlimited. Yet many states do manage to put a limit (by making you guarantee part of your loans by money you actually own). They could, in principle, forbid it altogether without really affecting individual liberties.

To put it slightly differently, the way Alice adds value is by being good at finding Bobs and telling the difference between Bob and Billy Bankrupt-er.

Agree. That value must be tapped.

Holding Charlie's money is a cost to Alice, not a benefit.

Nitpick: Initial cost. She can have a net benefit if we account for the leverage the extra money give her. Though she does have to have the skills to exploit it. And it is a way to tap her value (though possibly not the only one).

And none of this has anything to do with credit default swaps, which I agree are much less defensible.

Of course. I merely talked about CDS because they are a way to create money.

If you ban this arrangement between Alice and Charlie, then Alice will not have money to give to Bob, and Bob's restaurant simply will never happen.

That is, assuming there aren't other ways to have or create money. We need to create money, but private money creation isn't the only way. States could print money, lend it to private banks, which would then lend it further (possibly with higher interests rates). (I'm not sure how this is different from fractional reserve banking. Maybe the state would have greater regulation power?) Or they could lend it directly (but then they need a way to find Alice). Or something.

Overall, I'm not sure usury is an unconditionally bad thing, or even a net bad thing. You made it quite clear it can do good. The key point I don't like about the whole system is the fact that most western states basically gave up control over money. Letting private banks create money is one step, and the last straw is to (mostly) forbid itself to print money. When a state borrows money, the money is created anyway. Why pay interest when your central bank's money is free? That's not in the interest of the people. That's in the interest of a few very rich people and corporations. Unless somehow their concentrating so much wealth is more beneficial to society. I don't trust states as effective charities, but right now I trust banks even less.

comment by Raw_Power · 2012-07-29T10:30:28.858Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

More importantly, it forces constant, exponential economic growth. Jormungard has to grow faster than he eats himself, or the world collapses.

comment by asr · 2012-07-25T15:09:05.051Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Banning interests on saving accounts doesn't bother me. No one should harvest money merely because they already have some. Now there's inflation, but those who have little money are largely unaffected. That makes inflation a form of tax on accumulated wealth. I'm fine with that.

I am doubtful that inflation preferentially hurts the well-off. If you're wealthy, you are in a position to put some of your wealth in foreign-denominated assets or commodities or the like. If you are not wealthy, you are really dependent on your employer or pension -- and those don't reliably adjust for inflation. Pensioners, particularly, tend to get clobbered.

Bear in mind that the net-present-value of even modest retirement savings or pensions can be many hundreds of thousands of dollars -- a denomination-limited savings account isn't a good way to store retirement savings. You just can't have "small savings account" as the main method of saving money.

Edit: It also occurs to me that banning interest on savings accounts will just move most individual savings into less-regulated forms. People will buy bonds and suchlike. You can ban banking, but the ability to "harvest money merely because they already have some" is almost the definition of investment. And I don't think you can run a major economy without some way to let people collectively invest their capital in larger projects.

I suppose you could hope to reduce the implicit government guarantee on investments by banning interest on bank accounts, but there's nothing magical about banks -- you can get inflation without fractional reserve banking if the velocity of money increases or if people start using other financial instruments as money substitutes.

comment by loup-vaillant · 2012-07-25T20:00:30.628Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Rising prices without a corresponding rise in income isn't true inflation, it's just squeezing your people to get their juice. But it does somewhat emulate inflation.

Yes, it would probably be a bad idea to ban investment. Note however than investment requires effort. Yes, having money makes it much, much, easier to invest, and accumulate even more, but "be able to make money because you have money" is slightly different from "make money because you have money". Though if you pay someone to invest your money…

It occurred to me that our fiscal an monetary systems are horribly complicated, and full of loopholes. For instance, many accounting schemes can reduce your taxes just because you cared to apply them. That's crazy, because there's an incentive to make effort for something that is basically useless for the society as a whole. I'd like to see simpler, more robust systems.

comment by asr · 2012-07-25T20:32:37.980Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Rising prices without a corresponding rise in income isn't true inflation, it's just squeezing your people to get their juice. But it does somewhat emulate inflation.

I suspect you'll find that you always have slightly different rates of increase for different prices and different incomes. There's no such thing as perfect lockstep increase across an economy. As a result, there will always be somebody who gets hurt. In practice, those people tend to be pensioners, not the middle-aged wealthy.

It occurred to me that our fiscal an monetary systems are horribly complicated, and full of loopholes.

Yes. But that's quite hard to avoid. The world has lots of complicated corner cases that have to be handled. This goes with the territory. When we apply a tax, we generally apply it to "the market value of" an asset or a gift or what-have-you. But "market value" is an abstraction that doesn't perfectly capture the underlying reality. So there are going to be corner cases where somebody profits from the modeling error. I don't see a way to avoid this. Mitigate when possible, yes. Solve, no.

comment by loup-vaillant · 2012-07-25T22:30:27.328Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I think I agree with what you say here.

Mitigate when possible, yes. Solve, no.

If only we genuinely tried that, it'd be really cool.

comment by [deleted] · 2012-07-19T14:49:26.811Z · score: -1 (5 votes) · LW · GW

I'm not arguing that "democracy is good" as such (though I would argue that it is a good in itself, but that's a separate argument). But more important is the feeling of power over one's own circumstances. When your life really is under the control of other intelligences, whose aims you don't know and which aren't the same as yours, then it makes an intuitive sense that everything is controlled by such an intelligence.

I don't know for sure that that's the mechanism -- I'm not an historian, though I do have a layman's interest in history, especially recent European history -- but democracy and secularism at least seem to correlate very strongly, and I've seen the above proposed as a mechanism, and it makes sense to me...

comment by [deleted] · 2012-07-19T13:09:38.193Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Oh, the propaganda definitely doesn't work. I said semi-democratic for a reason -- the forms of democracy are there, but they're not doing much of anything. They are a very, very, very weak form of pressure -- but that's not the same as no form of pressure at all. Tiny incremental changes (like the constitutional change last year which didn't change anything on the ground level but did remove the king's supposed divine status) can eventually add up. It's just that those add up on ridiculously slow timescales.

comment by Raw_Power · 2012-07-19T13:26:16.921Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I guess every drop of water counts in eroding the rock...

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2012-07-19T14:28:36.103Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I think we're seeing something of the sort in China, where having idealist laws and constitution eventually give people a little leverage against corruption.

comment by mwengler · 2012-07-19T15:59:47.063Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Yes! I think the essence of Ghandi's non-violent opposition to the British was to take the British at their word. To repeat (a carefully selected) bunch of their own ideas back to them. To make them realize if they wanted to think of themselves as "good" they were going to have to address the inconsistencies between what they said and what they did.

This has also been an important part of the advance of civil rights for racial minorities in the U.S. in my personal experience. It is hard to totally ignore someone who is spouting words you believe in and not simultaneously threatening you with violence.

Ultimately in the U.S. and the West generally, these experiences of accepting differences, of inclusion, have lead to a new ideology of a positive value associated with diversity, not just a "tolerance" of it. I don't know if you can live in the U.S. these days, with Thai restaurants and Indian and Chinese engineers, British rock stars and Polynesian beauties, and not recognize the great positive utility that diversity provides to the cooperative human enterprise.

comment by Eugine_Nier · 2012-07-20T05:51:01.538Z · score: 1 (5 votes) · LW · GW

I don't think Gandhi is a good model here. The only reason he succeeded is because the British already valued democratic ideals and thus his actions caused cognitive dissonance among the British public. The same applies to the U.S. civil rights movement. A government that didn't value these ideals would simply have executed Gandhi and MLK.

comment by Raw_Power · 2012-07-19T17:49:12.935Z · score: -2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

You wouldn't tell that by watching a Hollywood movie

comment by CronoDAS · 2012-07-20T00:44:46.659Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

That depends on the movie.

comment by [deleted] · 2012-07-19T14:40:41.162Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Exactly. You can't change social structures on your own, but you can make an appreciable difference.

comment by OrphanWilde · 2012-07-19T18:04:52.751Z · score: 0 (6 votes) · LW · GW

There are good arguments for why a rationalist should distance him or herself from anti-religiousness (distinct from atheism), but the irrationality of others isn't one of them.

Even if you start from the presumption that religion is a social evil, it doesn't necessarily follow that you should be anti-religious. If you start from the presumption that religion is a social evil, you should operate on the mechanisms that abolish religion, rather than the mechanisms which signal your opposition to religion. This may mean encouraging critical thought; it doesn't mean claiming critical thought will lead to atheism.

Presuming somebody is religious, at best, the claim that critical thought will lead to atheism is going to lead to their looking for flaws in your reasoning. People's ability to rationalize is directly proportional to their capacity for reason, so they'll probably find them, whether or not they exist.

comment by DanielLC · 2012-07-19T19:07:50.756Z · score: -1 (5 votes) · LW · GW

My advice would be to look for a really good charity and donate as much as you can to it. This is always my advice.

comment by DanArmak · 2012-07-19T21:51:55.207Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Do you have a high estimation of any charity being able to convert money into, what, decriminalizing apostasy in some countries? What would be their method of operation?

comment by DanielLC · 2012-07-20T04:32:45.085Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I don't know of any charity that does that. I suspect it's not cost-effective. You don't have to donate to a charity that helps with your problem. Donate to the one that does the most good for the least money.

comment by DanArmak · 2012-07-20T05:58:38.709Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

If charities can't help with the problems important to me, why would I give my money to charities? Even if they on the margin do good, if that's only with issues I don't care about much, it's not worth the money.

comment by DanielLC · 2012-07-20T21:53:50.383Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Why would decriminalizing apostasy be particularly important to you? It's something that happens to you, but if you're just worrying about yourself, no charity will be cost-effective, and you should just worry about having fun.

comment by DanArmak · 2012-07-21T13:03:15.860Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I don't understand what you're saying. Suppose I was (hypothetically, counterfactually) in danger of legal persecution as an apostate. That danger would be in the way of my having fun. Then I would want being an apostate to be legalized. Whether I achieved that by donating to a charity or any other way is instrumental.

It's incorrect that in general, donating to a charity is never useful to me personally. I have type 1 diabetes; I donated to the relevant Israeli charity, which lobbied the government, which included insulin pumps in the social security net (medications that every tax-payer has very cheap access to). I gained actual money compared to paying out of pocket for the pump (although I didn't do that), and I gained fun (using a pump is much more fun than manual injections).

Or: someone donates to SI; this increases the chance of successful FAI takeoff; they go on to have fun forever instead of dying of old age.

comment by DanielLC · 2012-07-21T15:33:31.414Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

If you could single-handedly legalize it, it would be a good idea, but you can't. You might be able to help, so that you add a tiny probability of success, or a tiny decrease in the time necessary. Since you're helping a lot of people, it makes a significant difference over all. If you're only worried about one person, it's not really worth doing.

In your personal example, multiply the amount you donated by the increase in probability in getting the insulin pump. The result is more than the total costs of the insulin pumps, but is it more than it costs for one?

comment by DanArmak · 2012-07-22T08:03:59.687Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

If you're only worried about one person, it's not really worth doing.

If I estimated my chances of being executed due to such a law were significant, it might be worth it to pay for even a small increase in the probability of it being repealed.

In your personal example, multiply the amount you donated by the increase in probability in getting the insulin pump. The result is more than the total costs of the insulin pumps, but is it more than it costs for one?

I couldn't afford to buy a pump privately before the law was changed. So the successful change in the law was for me mostly a change in quality of life rather than in ongoing expenses. It can make sense to pay for a small chance to improve quality of life sufficiently, because humans don't have a single utility function convertible to dollars, they have many competing ones.

ETA: I agree purchasing small increments in probability of a large payoff is problematic. We could view it instead as a coordination problem: estimate how much donated money was needed in total, use pledges/precommitments from many donators, and have everyone donate if enough pledges are collected. Like a Kickstarter for not-for-profit missions.

comment by DanielLC · 2012-07-23T02:54:20.278Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

If I estimated my chances of being executed due to such a law were significant, it might be worth it to pay for even a small increase in the probability of it being repealed.

You could probably reduce your chances more cost-effectively by fleeing the country or taking acting lessons.

I couldn't afford to buy a pump privately before the law was changed.

You could gamble.

ETA: ...

If you decide not to do it unless everyone pays, someone invariably will fail to pay. If you allow some people not to pay, everyone will want to be one of those people. If you just ask for people to pledge, everyone will just hope everyone else pledges.

comment by DanArmak · 2012-07-27T20:00:38.287Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

You seem to be right. I should rethink my position. I will update my reply later.

comment by Raw_Power · 2012-07-21T23:20:00.873Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Actually, starting a lobby with the goal of legalizing apostasy sounds like a good idea...

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2012-07-21T14:03:48.030Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

It seems like the sort of thing a general human rights organization (Amnesty International? though I think they support prisoners more than trying to change laws) might take on.

comment by DanArmak · 2012-07-21T14:45:27.072Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Try to, yes, but what's your estimation of their effectiveness in this regard?

To me it seems they can only rescue people from their local laws by making individual cases international celebrities, but this naturally limits the number of people they can rescue to the order of tens a year worldwide, which isn't worth much.

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2012-07-21T15:31:12.984Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

For what it's worth, Torture and Democracy has it that international surveillance has led to the development of no-marks torture. This seems like a real but modest victory.

Other than that, I don't have a strong opinion. I think that anything which works to convince governments that they don't have absolute ownership of "their" citizens helps.

comment by DanArmak · 2012-07-21T17:55:12.889Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

No marks torture may be somewhat more expensive to research and apply. I doubt that it is expirentially better for the person tortured, or that the requirement reduces the amount of torture done. It is better if tortured people retain intact bodies, but probably only if they then have a higher chance of being set free, and I'm not sure that is the case.

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2012-07-21T18:10:56.681Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

The research on no marks torture has been done, so that's a sunk cost. I'm not sure about an effect on the chances of being set free.

There's a non-obvious cost to no marks torture-- it's confusing. Someone who's been subject to it can be unsure that they were actually tortured, and the same goes for compatriots who are suspect they've been betrayed for no good reason.

Torture and Democracy is interesting but somewhat overwhelming. I got bogged down in the section on the development and spread of torture by electricity. I should probably just skip that section.

comment by Raw_Power · 2012-07-21T23:17:40.223Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

You mean in terms of Body Horror?

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2012-07-21T23:25:22.757Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I don't know what you mean.

comment by Raw_Power · 2012-07-24T22:54:27.379Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I got bogged down in the section on the development and spread of torture by electricity.

I thought it got too ugly for you and you just gave up in disgust at the senseless brutality.

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2012-07-25T01:20:28.156Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

The ugliness (there was a fair amount about the sort of torture which mutilates as well as no marks torture) was definitely a factor, but throwing in a lot of boring detail was the deciding factor.