Monday, January 19, 2009

My Problem With Religion: A Quantitative Inquiry

A common objection to the unique value of any particular religion is that all religions essentially teach the same things. This is deeply mistaken. For example, Christians are trying to gain eternal life, while Hindus teach that they have eternal life and are trying to get rid of it. In so many ways, the major religious world views could not be more different. But there is a sense in which I resonate with this objection. There does seem to be a basic ‘religious’ way of looking at the world (that many hold regardless of whether or not they actually believe in a cosmic god figure). It goes something like this: the ultimate outcome in this life or in eternity is the result of your moral achievement in this life. Religions differ wildly on what constitutes a good outcome and what constitutes moral achievement…but this is not my point here.

Computing Goodness

I’d like to look carefully at this basic line of thought: ultimate outcomes are based on our temporal moral achievement. I think the first interesting question is how does a god score morality? Let’s assume that it would be some sort of equation of the form:


Where A, B and C are weighting factors, the sum of which would be 1 and
X, Y and Z are certain moral behaviors or transgressions (in which case the weighting factor would have a – sign).

For example, if Muslims are right, if X=eating pork, A = a significant, negative multiplier. However, if Hindus are right, if Y = give grain oblations to Ganesh, then B = a non-trivial positive multiplier. And if yuppie liberal Christians are correct, if Z = driving a Prius then C = close to 0.9

But would every one use the same equation? Would there be a constant added for overcoming poor environment or propensity genetics? A degree of difficulty multiplier if you will?

Setting the Grades: To Curve or Not to Curve

But let’s assume that a god is good at math and can come to a univariate quantitative evaluation of our lifetime moral performance. Let’s assume that global, historic morality is normally distributed.[2] So below, I have plotted an arithmetic scale of human goodness (from 1 to 0, with 1 being the best person ever and 0 being the worst) versus the rate of occurrence of each of these moral states.

So, how does god decide where the cut
off is between the positive religious outcome and the negative religious outcome? Does he/she/it grade on a curve? Does he have a percentile that he is shooting for? If so, does it suite me to sabotage the moral state of others in order to augment my relative position? Or, by helping those close to us (say, those in our church/mosque/synagogue/neighborhood) pursue moral goodness, are we damning others by allowing those we care about to surpass them? It doesn’t make much sense to me that God would grade on a curve.

So maybe God has an absolute standard for a positive cosmic outcome. But where is it? Most people place it above Hitler, Stalin, Sadam and abortion clinic bombers, and conveniently below themselves. Consider any placement of the demarcation[3] that is neither 100% nor 0%. Let’s place it at 50% for argument (i.e. ‘heaven’ is a lot like lake Woebegone). Consider someone who comes in at the 50.000001 percentile and someone who comes in at the 49.9999999 percentile (represented by the small circles in the plot below). These people lived remarkably similar moral lives. The difference between them would be a single lie or a single malicious thought or eating a single doughnut during Ramadan or buying a car with slightly worse gas mileage, yet there is a dramatic non-linearity in consequence for a minor difference in achievement.[4]

Two Attempts to Smooth the Outcomes

Purgatory is a doctrine that was developed that seems to mitigate the non-linear outcome. There is a zone of graded consequence between the good and bad outcomes, such that consequence is more of a smooth function of lived morality. But purgatory doesn’t really work on a number of levels. It only appears in Christian sects and is so foreign to the Christian worldview that even the sitting Pope doesn’t accept a classic version of it.[5]

Reincarnation is another form of mitigating the non-linear outcome. But I find it morally deplorable and politically dangerous to suggest that people deserve their lot in life because of unseen, presumed moral failures from previous existences.[6] Shoot, I don’t even believe that someone’s lot in life is entirely (or even mostly) the result of the moral choices they made in THIS life.

A Stochastic Approach

The Muslim worldview handles this differently. They say that the sovereign will of Allah is not predictive in this way. Righteousness is a factor in who goes to paradise and who does not. In fact they get quite quantitative about it. For example, some teach that prayers during Ramadan are 30X more valuable than prayers offered at other times. In an honest moment one of my Muslim friends admitted to me that he spent a significant amount of time worrying about if his life was sufficient to avoid hell.

But in the final analysis Allah can do whatever he wants so it is more of a stochastic approach. Your goodness can only buy more balls in the proverbial NBA lottery.[7]
Being higher on the moral continuum increases your chances of ‘getting in’ but it is not a deterministic function. It is more like a quantum state than a Newtonian mechanic. So you could, theoretically get a situation like the one below (where the yellow dot indicates a good comic outcome and the red dot indicates a bad one).

Two Types of People

Another approach would be to group the ‘goodness’ data the same way a college professor would group academic achievement. Professors often look for achievement ‘groupings’. There is a cluster of 3 students at the top, they get the A’s. The next cluster gets the B’s. You can’t do this if the data is normally distributed, but, since there are only two consequences, you could do it with a bimodal distribution (below). This is actually a surprisingly common view of the world. One republican friend said to me once ‘the world is full of good people and bad people.’[8] This is the polemical approach taken by ‘The Dark Knight[9].’ Heath Ledger’s brilliantly disturbing turn as the Joker was simply described as a fundamentally different mode of human existence.

It is common to look at crass villains and say, ‘whew, I may do occasional bad stuff, but at least I’m a good person’. Even Imus, after the Rutgers basket ball team debacle claimed ‘I’m a good person who did a bad thing.’ But repentance is the burden of the self aware. My response to my republican friend was ‘I am bad people.’ I reject this idea of a bimodal distribution. We all carry the divine image and the scar of a cosmic corruption. Plus, even with a bimodal distribution, you have the same problem in the shared ‘tail’ (see enlargement in the figure above). You still have the non-linear consequence for the incremental difference.
The Special Cases of 1 and 0

So let’s finally consider the two special cases. You can put the line at 0 saying that all surpass it (universalism) or you can put it at or above 1 saying that none achieve it (the gospel). Both of these approaches get away from the problem of non-linear consequence for incremental differences in morality. I prefer both of them to religion. Many people find the former (see figure below) to be more palatable, more just. They tend to be comfortable suburban westerners who have never had a cause for vengeance.

Consider what Miroslov Volf says about the idea that a just God would finally accept all and judge none: “If God were not angry at injustice and did not make a final end to violence-that God would not be worthy of worship…The only means of prohibiting all recourse to violence by ourselves is to insist that violence is legitimate only when it comes from God…My thesis that the practice of non-violence requires a belief in divine vengeance will be unpopular with many in…the west…(But) it takes the quiet of a suburban home for the birth of the thesis that human non-violence (results from a belief in) God’s refusal to judge. In a sun scorched land, soaked in the blood of innocents, it will invariably die…(with) other pleasant captivities of the liberal mind.”[10]

Volf grew up in Croatia and experience the violence of the Balkan crisis. He will not worship a God who does not judge the horrible atrocities of human villainy. And neither will I. I will not worship a God who embraces evil…including mine. Only a God who judges me and my dark heart and wicked propensities with those of Hitler, Stalin, St Francis and Mother Teresa can be completely other…what the Bible likes to call Holy.

So I am left with the final alternative. I, with Jesus and Paul, put the line light-years to the right. That we each are good and valuable beyond measure but are also vial beasts unworthy of God’s presence. This is why Christianity does not teach moral performance…heaven as a cosmic reward for moral performance …it teaches unilateral, cosmic rescue. It teaches grace and mercy and, in this way, is not, fundamentally, religious.

[1] I suspect it would be far more complex than a simple multi-variate linear regression (which I am not even quite doing)…but you’d stop reading if I went into some sort of anthropological dimensional analysis or set up a big old matrix.
[2] Scientists are famous for assuming phenomena are normally distributed. I suppose I could use a Gumble or Lévy distribution (I’d love to hear someone make a case for either of these), but the argument would progress in the same way, so let’s just assume a normal distribution for now.
[3] Based either on a curve or an absolute standard.
[4] This, somewhat comically, disintegrates into the BCS/Playoff debate from college football. The debate invariably goes like this: “Let’s just have a 4 team playoff.” “Well what about that year when the best team in the nation was #5.” “Ok, lets have an 8 game playoff.” “Yeah, but this team had one fluky loss and was playing really well. Do you really want them out of the playoff?”
[5] See NT Wright’s Surprised by Hope
[6] This comes up from time to time in a careful watching of ‘My Name is Earl.’ They have trouble navigating this consequence of their Karmic vision that everyone deserves their current state because of past actions. But it is still a hilarious show.
[7] To discourage teams from tanking their season for draft position the NBA decides draft position by a lottery. But they still want to give the worst team the best shot at drafting good players. So all of the teams that did not make the playoffs get balls in the lottery. The worse you are the more balls you get. So badness increases the chance of a good outcome but does not assure it. This strikes me as similar to Islam where goodness increases your chances of a good outcome but does not assure it.
[8] Why are the bad people bad? Is it the result of poor moral choices on their part? Is it a big loss in genetics roulette? Assigning culpability for innate badness is fundamentally problematic.
[9] Incidentally, Leger’s role was the single redeeming quality of this epic train wreck. Let me be the first one on the internet to say ‘This movie sucked.’
[10] From Tim Keller’s Reason For God


Corrie said...

I think this might be my favorite post. Call me a sucker for graphs.

Ford said...

Thanks for taking the time to put this down. This is a great resource. The visual aids are a real plus. I am looking forward to reading future posts with such detail, clarity and precision.

As far as The Dark Knight goes, I know on my end I was guilty of the overenthusiasm characterized by the group of people that critics unfavorable to the film have labelled with the epithet "fanboys." I have yet to watch it again since my initial ardor wore off, so I will wait until at-home-viewing before pronouncing my final thoughts on the film. I still don't think I could ever rate this movie as sucking, however. For me that term is reserved for the likes of Indy 4, Mummy 3, and Hancock.

Ian said...

Awesome post Stan! It looks like a philosopher's post to me!
The ideas here are actually reminiscent of a paper called "Hell and Vagueness" by Ted Sider (super famous metaphysician and nice guy who mailed my jacket back to me after I left it at his house during a party in NJ). Sider's thesis is that faiths that believe that some go to Heaven and some to Hell and that God chooses based on some criteria run into trouble with vagueness. So suppose you think that God lets everyone into heaven who believes that marshmallows are the most perfect food ever designed - and everyone else goes to hell. The problem, according to Sider, is that belief is vague - there are clear cases where one might believe something and others where one just "sort-of" believes it or "almost" does or "not quite". There is a smooth continuum between clear cases of belief and clear cases of non-belief. Hence, like you say in your "Setting the Grades: To Curve or Not to Curve" section, there is no non-arbitrary cutoff point between those who are IN and those who are OUT. Sider then pushes the line that any criteria that might be chosen are going to turn out like this.
He doesn't consider, of course, the cases where the cutoff is nonarbitrary because it is placed on one or the other absolute end of a linear, finite scale. Some Christians have (I think) convincingly argued that saving faith might be sort of like this - so long as you have it to any degree whatsoever, you're in (there've been other good responses too).
Aside from all of this, however, he admits that his arguments won't have any traction with certain sorts of Calvinists who maintain that God doesn't use criteria in this sort of way. Certain Arminian or non-Calvinist models of how salvation works I think could also escape the arguments.
Regarding Purgatory, it doesn't really smooth things out enough to actually work, despite what it might do initially. After all, the idea of classical purgatory is that after a finite amount of "doing time", the trapped souls are released into heaven forever. So even those in purgatory ultimately get an infinite amount of good compared to those who do not even make it that far. If you add something like the medieval's Limbo, however, you start to get something with a bit more of an evenly distributed set of consequences, though it's not clear this will ultimately work either.
Also, you have to be careful about what notion of purgatory you are working with. The basic idea is just that one is being "purged" of bad stuff prior to entering a really good state. This can be cashed out in a number of ways - some of which I think are perfectly Christian and actually fit well with certain ways of thinking about things like hell and salvation (ways which cut across Arminian-Calivinist or Catholic-Protestant controversies). I actually think a Protestant version of purgatory is fairly plausible once you get rid of any notion that purgatory is of a retributive rather than restorative nature (I have some older posts in my blog where I talk about this sort of thing).
Lastly, I still like the terms "religious" and "religion" - I'd rather not define these things narrowly so that proper Christianity ends up not really a religion and faithful Christians all end up being by definition non-religious. That perhaps matches up with one use of these words (which phrases like "It's a relationship, not a religion" latch onto), but in wider usage I think such words are perfectly appropriate. But that's just a preference of mine.

JMBower said...

wonderful post. It does, however, leave me trying to picture the graph for a polytheistic belief system....

I think it would be 3 dimensional.

or maybe a pie chart. a quantum pie chart.

stanford said...

Corrie, I think it might be my favorite too.

Ford, thanks for checking the blog out. I am afraid that this is about a standard deviation above the mean (to continue the metaphor of the post) of my ability to be clear and precise…but I hope you find future posts helpful.

Ian, The idea that you would consider this similar to a philosopher’s post is a startling compliment. Thank you. I really appreciated your comments on Ted Sider. As soon as faith becomes a work it is subject to the same weaknesses. I wonder if that makes me a Calvinist (e.g. grace proceeds faith and is the actual active agent in salvation).

Justin, GREAT comment. I took a shot at a polytheistic plot. I figured it would look like a pinwheel with goodness in the center and axis radiating for each god…but…I am reading Augustine’s City of God with a group of guys (and since the 1000 page tome is dominating much of my reading time, I predict that the supply of Augustine posts on my blog will soon outpace the demand.). Augustine makes the point that in polytheistic religion, the demands of a particular god (what constitutes goodness) is often in competition with the demands of another god. So goodness is not an absolute linear scale…it is some sort of weighted function. Variables x, y and z in the equation would be cast:

X= Sum (from i=1 to n=# of Gods) (Relative importance of god*
relative relation to behavior)

So, take the behavior ‘consumption of marshmallows’ (in honor of Ian’s excellent comment)

Lets say:

Jupiter is very important (30% important) and thinks marshmallow eating is good and very important (40% important)
But Zeus is more important (40% important) and thinks marshmallow eating is bad but not important (-10%)

The weighted X for these two gods is:
making marshmallow eating of mild positive importance.

You could then plot that on the linear scale. Of course it may even go into a non arithmetic dimension…like a Fourier transform that must be deconvolved.

But many polytheists are functional monotheists. They select their primary theistic representative (i.e. in Augustine’s day you were a Zeus guy or a Jupiter guy, in Hinduism, one tends to align either with Shiva or Vishnu). So in that case, we are back to the linear scale with the contingencies of the requirements of the other gods and the second dimension. Or something like that.

Ian said...

Hey Stan, no that wouldn't necessarily make you a Calvinist. Non-Calvinists can also accept that "grace proceeds faith and is the actual active agent in salvation" - there are a number of non-Calvinist views to choose from which accept this and hence would avoid making faith a work (there's been some interesting work done on this by a number of non-Calvinist philosophers).
I should add that I really liked the parts in City of God where Augustine bashes on polytheism and paganism in general.

nic gibson said...

your math on Zeus and Jupiter was a little confusing since Jupiter is Zeus.

I couldn't resist.
I like the Dark night. Maybe I'm the only one that knows that you had a crush on Maggie Gyllenhaal from 'stranger than Fiction' and that her death could be motivating this lashing out at a mediocre story that was a pretty good action film.

This really was a useful post. I'm sure it took considerable time. From a talk?

stanford said...

Ian, Yeah, I was joking. Even Arminius believed that faith followed grace. But I would be interested in contemporary work wading through Sider’s conundrum, though. And I guess I have just aligned with Keller and Driscoll in abandoning the word ‘religion’ as mostly without value in describing Christianity…but I agree that that is just preference.

Nic, yeah, I noticed that after I posted it…it must have been a brain freeze. It works if you think about a Hellenistic Roman who has maintained loyalty to the Greek Pantheon and also embraced the Roman Pantheon, but sees them as distinct. (Sorry that is a stretch).

This was not based on a talk. If you could find an audience that would sit through it, I’d be happy to give it. It is actually based on a very old insight I had never shared. Senior year of high school…I was a new Christian but was struggling with the idea of free grace…I was driving the escort on the Kiser Road…and realized that the best person in hell and the worst person in heaven would be very similar if we earned our way to either.

…and crush is kind of a strong word. I just thought she stole every scene she was in and had the coolest last name of any movie character of all time.

(******spoiler alert******)

I think my disenjoyment (word?) of the Dark Knight is based primarily on the fact that I was not able to vest in any of the characters. They were all morally ambiguous to a heightened degree. Batman has been historically, I get that, but the film had me vested in Harvey Dent, and lost me when he became two-face. Also, my expectations had been set so high, and I’m not really into ‘action’, so the hype probably heightened my disappointment.

stanford said...

So I am finishing up by next post on the Decemberists and Rilo Kiley and got thinking that the Decemberists seem to be alluding to the same kind of bimodal, good person/bad person, anthropology described in the post and offered by ‘The Dark Knight’ in their brilliant track ‘The Shankill Butchers’:

They used to be just like me and you
They used to be sweet little boys
But something went horribly askew
Now killing is their only source of joy

The ‘bad’ are fundamentally different than us. It is a separate kind of humanness. And Meloy gives a mysterious but environmental mechanic to the distinction.

Dave Everson said...

Stan, I re-read and re-enjoyed this post after following the link in your latest. I hadn't seen yet your final comment about the Decemberists, and even though it's 14 months old, I'm going to respond because I'm at a convenient breaking point at work this afternoon.

I know you disagree, but I'm pretty convinced that the songs on the Crane Wife are all telling essentially the same story: that something is "horribly askew" in humanity, that this problem inevitably subjects all that is beautiful and good to corruption, and that all endeavors, relationships, and people are bound to sink deeper and deeper toward ruin until they either destroy or are destroyed or both. The solution is to run away and start again. But the "askewness" inevitably tags along and resumes its work.

I tried really hard not to buy into this interpretation, mostly because it's close enough to my own worldview to make it pretty suspect. But I finally gave up. It's either there, or I'm hopelessly biased. If it's real, though, the "something" that went horribly askew happened to humanity long before the Shankill Butchers were little boys. It happened before the injured Crane Wife was found, before the Captain and his daughter stepped foot on the island, before Vavilov planted his acres of asteraceae. They were all doomed before their own stories even started.