Friday, April 18, 2008

Objectivism & Religion, Part 3

“One of the greatest distortions [of social analysis] views [historical phenomenon] as the consequences of certain logical interpretations of scripture or other reasonings of the kind.”

—Vilfredo Pareto

Influence of religious doctrine on conduct. All kinds of contradictory behavior find justifications in religious ideas, often even from the same religion. There are Christian pacifists and Christian warriors (e.g., Cromwell’s ironsides); there are Christian apologists for slavery and Christian abolitionists; there are Christian socialists and Christians for the free market. And it is not merely the case that people who identify themselves as Christians fall on either side of these questions; that their Christianity, in other words, is entirely fortuitous. Not at all; they all justify their positions by claiming that they arrived at it by reading scripture. Slave owners claimed that slavery is defended in the Bible; abolitionists claimed that, since each individual is made in the image of God, Christianity demands the end of slavery. It is truly amazing how every position under the sun can be justified by the New or Old Testament. Even entirely contradictory positions!

Christianity is not alone among religions in having this curious power. Indeed, many belief systems, whether religious or secular, seem to share this kind of flexibility, as was noted by Vilfredo Pareto in his immensely fascinating Mind and Society. Pareto made a point of studying the extent to which explicit belief systems, whether religious or metaphysical or ethical in nature, actually determine conduct. Pareto, in his researches, could discover little if any causal connection between explicit belief systems and conduct. People engage in conduct and then use casuistry to defend this conduct on the basis of their stated convictions. After observing this, Pareto decided that it would be foolish to regard the conduct as being merely a logical consequence (or practical application) of the beliefs. Since the same conduct can spring from diametrically opposed beliefs, the beliefs can hardly be regarded as the cause of the conduct. Christianity hardly caused both slavery and the abolition of slavery! So some other causative agent or motivational complex must be at work here. Pareto believed that the primary cause of conduct was innate psychological states (sometimes referred to as “sentiments”) which he called “residues.” The belief systems which were used to justify these residues Pareto called “derivations.” Pareto contended that residues were the primary causes of conduct, particularly “non-logical” conduct, which he studied in great detail. Deriviations were, in comparison, much less important. As he wrote:
The main error in the thinking of the plain man, as well as in metaphysical thinking, lies not only in an inversion of terms in the relationship between derivations and human conduct—the derivation being taken, in general, as the cause of the conduct, whereas really, the conduct is the cause of the derivation—but also in ascribing objective existence to derivations proper and to the residues in which they originate. [1689]

Pareto did not deny that derivations can affect behavior as a secondary cause, by, for example, intensifying the underlying residues. But he would have regarded the Objectivist conviction that the social order is caused by philosophy as hopelessly naive.

In the light of the historical facts illustrated by Pareto’s theory, what are we to make of the actual, real world influence of a religion like Christianity in contemporary America? If we dislike Christianity, we will tend to focus every bad thing done by Christians or in the name of Christianity. If we like Christianity, we will tend to commit the opposite error of focusing on all the good things done by Christianity and Christians. Neither approach does complete justice to the facts, because neither attempts to separate that which is caused by the residues (i.e., religious sentiments) from that which is caused by the derivations (i.e., Christian doctrine).

The situation is rendered even more thorny and complex by the type of relationships that exist between Christian doctrine and Christian conduct, that is, between residues and derivations, sentiments and rationalizations. It is not simply one-to-one causation, but reciprocal causation, with influences running back and forth, springing forth a befuddling web of mutual interdependence. This makes it very difficult to determine precisely how much Christian doctrine actually influences conduct.

You might think this problem can be solved by comparing Christian behavior with, say, Islamic behavior. But this doesn’t work because all the other factors aren’t equal. Christians in the West are influenced by the secularization of the West, and are therefore a breed apart from Moslems, many of whom have not benefited at all from three hundred years of enlightened secularization in the West.

Now Rand and her orthodox followers make the mistake of assuming that Christian conduct follows Christian theory. That is one of the central themes of Leonard Peikoff’s “Religion Versus America.” Peikoff quotes several of the derivations made on behalf of religious sentiments and then makes the gratuitous assumption that religious conduct is merely a logical deduction from these derivations. Hence he quotes several incendiary statements about faith and then assumes religious people are going to derive all their conduct from beliefs gained “in the absence of evidence.” Now if this how religious people in fact determined their conduct in all aspects of life, they would long ago have disappeared from the earth. The fact that they are still around and flourishing suggests that their conduct is based on more substantial grounds.


Richard said...

"and then assumes religious people are going to derive all their conduct from beliefs gained “in the absence of evidence.” Now if this how religious people in fact determined their conduct in all aspects of life, they would long ago have disappeared from the earth. The fact that they are still around and flourishing suggests that their conduct is based on more substantial grounds."

You are now reduced to abject idiocy in your transparently fruitless campaign of context dropping and concept DISintegration.


john said...

I started to write my own response to this bizarre argument but I see that richard has already said everything needed.

Perhaps this essay is an exercise to see if every new logical fallacy identified by Ayn Rand can be enacted and run simultaneously in one piece of writing.

Meanwhile, I can't WAIT to hear if the 'more substantial grounds' is a 'higher way of knowing' that in fact will be proffered as evidence, or that religious people are still around because they don't actually practice their religion.

John Donohue

Anonymous said...

Let me see if I got this straight. He is saying that religious doctrine does not influence conduct, and his proof is that because the West basically abandoned religion ("secular"), its conduct is a lot different from that of the Islamic world, which hasn't. Did I read that right? Oh yeah, this is rich.

Ellen Stuttle said...

I hadn't ever read Leonard Peikoff's "Religion Versus America" Ford Hall Forum talk prior to last night. It was published in The Objectivist Forum, to which I was subscribed, but I often didn't read that publication.

The talk was delivered 22 years ago tomorrow (on April 20, 1986). It comes from a time when IMO Leonard Peikoff was still worth hearing; it was prior even to the break with David Kelley. Ironically, the Ford Hall Forum at which the talk was delivered must have been (from the year) the same Ford Hall Forum appearance when Peikoff was asked in the Q&A about Barbara Branden's The Passion of Ayn Rand -- which had either just been published or was pending publication -- and he gave a reply which has lived in infamy.

The speech itself, though, I think is very good, quite well organized and presented. Further, I agree with the main thesis: that Christian morality is not the source, or the proper, or at all the necessary foundation for the American idea of individual rights (despite the unfortunate "endowed by their Creator" in the Declaration of Independence), that Christian morality, taken seriously, is indeed "versus" America.

Picking up on something Neil Parille posted on the "Objectivism and Religion, Part I" thread -- sorry, I don't know how to do a tiny url, or how to embed a link on this blog:

Neil wrote:

"Metaphysically, as a result, Greece was a secular culture. Men generally dismissed or downplayed the supernatural; their energies were devoted to the joys and challenges of life."

Where does Peikoff come up with most of his ruminations on intellectual history? Maybe he should read some books by Robert Parker or Nilsson on Greek religion. Religion pervaded almost every aspect of ancient Greek life.

This reminds me of Peikoff's DIM lectures. If Peikoff likes someone (such as Descartes), he becomes a secular thinker.

Neil, I think your point and query, just taking that statement from Peikoff out of the context of the total thesis of his talk, is pertinent: Yes, religion, the Greek variant thereof, "pervaded almost every aspect of ancient Greek life," and, yes, Peikoff did even then, with his talking in terms of what he saw as the "essentials," leave out a whole lot of detail which would complexify contrasts. (He's apparently gotten worse and worse about this over the years; I haven't listened to any of the DIM lectures, but judging from excerpts and reports I've read, they sound like simplistic caricatures.)

Still, I think the broad outline of the contrast he's making in the talk between the Greek ethos and the Greek pantheon, on the one hand, and that of the Christian ethos and God of at least Augustinian Christianity on the other is a valid contrast. (Another way in which he leaves out complexifying detail is to speak as if the "middle ages" were a uniform period of bleak other-worldliness; nonetheless, at least the Augustinian brand of Christianity presents a strong contrast with Greek attitudes.) The Greek gods were human archetypes writ large and amongst them had all the foibles and failings of humans. So many of the Greek myths are tales involving sexual jealousies and vengeances. The Greek gods are like humans only more so. The Greeks weren't focused on a supernatural realm by comparison to which the world in which we live was a realm of evil to be scourged and despised. In that respect I think his description of Greece as "a secular culture" "metaphysically" is talking about a real attitudinal characteristic.

Correcting a misstatement I made in a post on that same thread ("Objectivism and Religion, Part I").

I wrote, to Greg:

The quote you cite comes from Leonard Peikoff, in current times, a quarter century after her death. Taking his words today as having her imprimatur is a mistake.

I was mistaken in my assumption as to the time frame from which the Peikoff quote comes. It was from only about 4 years after her death. (She died March 6, 1982; the talk was delivered April 20, 1986.) I don't see anything in the talk to which I think she might have objected.

Nonetheless, the opening sentence, which Greg quoted as if it were expressive of Rand (“A specter is haunting America—the specter of religion"), isn't Randian style. Instead, as Peikoff explicitly goes on to say in the next sentence, it's "borrowing Karl Marx's literary style."


gregnyquist said...

Richard: "You are now reduced to abject idiocy in your transparently fruitless campaign of context dropping and concept DISintegration."

There are a lot of words that could be used to describe this passage, but rational is not one of them. As far as I can tell from the passage, I seriously doubt that Richard even understands the argument I advanced. If he did, he wouldn't have entertained us with such a weak response that involves little more than name calling. Since I will assume that Richard is more intelligent than this, I can conclude that his animus toward religion and this blog site has got the better of his judgment.

In dealing with these questions, we have to set our prejudices aside and let the facts lead us to the conclusion, rather than our pet ideas. The issue at stake here is really quite simple, and it's too bad John and Richard aren't able to grasp it. Peikoff says the essence of religion is faith, that is, believing in things without evidence. Let us assume this is true. Now if you have people who are basing their conduct on beliefs founded without evidence (i.e., on faith), where is that going to lead? Isn't that going to lead to failure? Perhaps there would be a few people who, through sheer luck, would blunder into success, but wouldn't most people who use blind faith to guide their conduct wind up enduring miserable, and perhaps even fatal, outcomes? Right? Isn't that reasonable? Isn't that something we can all agree on? But what do we find when we look at reality? Modern Christian belief should lead to disaster. People who are Christians, especially people who are serious and even "fundamentalist" in their Christianity and believe in rather singular, even cringe-worthy things, nevertheless do perfectly fine in life: run flourishing businesses, raise families, live to a ripe old age, etc. How are we to explain this anomaly? Well, the only rational explanation is that these people are not, when it comes to their conduct, relying solely on beliefs founded on blind faith. Otherwise they would have come to grief long ago.

Neil Parille said...

Don't Mormons and Seventh Day Adventists have high life expectancies? If life is the standard of value, they aren't doing too bad.

Anonymous said...

I find that different people interpret their religion differently.
Some Christians for example interpret some passages in the Bible as supporting the separation of church and state. "Render onto Caesar the things that are Caesar's and God, the things that are God's.

Sorry my Google Account is down and I can't get back in.


Damien said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jay said...


Objectivism does not say that all religious people act in strict accordance with their doctrines. My favorite Peikoff lecture, "Why Act on Principle?", concedes that many religious people "half-practice/half evade" their stated convictions.

I think the Objectivist view is that when religious people act religiously, it should be no surprise - and that this is often unhealthy/undesirable.

Cavewight said...

gregnyquist wrote: 'Hence he [Peikoff] quotes several incendiary statements about faith and then assumes religious people are going to derive all their conduct from beliefs gained “in the absence of evidence”. Now if this how religious people in fact determined their conduct in all aspects of life, they would long ago have disappeared from the earth.'

Not if their primary religious commandment is to be fruitful and multiply.

gregnyquist said...

Jay: "I think the Objectivist view is that when religious people act religiously, it should be no surprise - and that this is often unhealthy/undesirable."

What actually is this unhealthy/undesirable conduct that stems from the modern form of Christianity? Sure, we can go to more primitive religions and fringe cults and find unsavory stuff, like with Holy Roller serpent handlers and the whole "Christian Science" scene. But what about mainstream Christian fundamentalism? What does it mean to say that their behavior, when they act "religiously," is unhealthy/undesirable? Do you mean going to church? Not commiting adultery? Not bearing false witness against one's neighbor? Or is it that when a religious person does something religiously that is not unhealthy or undesirable, that he's not really acting religiously, but he just a half-practicer or half-evader?

Peikoff doesn't have a clue about religion. He doesn't know what happens in churches, what people say or do in a church-based community. He thinks he can determine Christian theory and Christian conduct by a selective reading of St. Augustine. This is not the approach to take. It's the approach of someone who has a strong bias against religion and has made up his mind ahead of time. This is not an approach compatible with the scientific study of the psychopathology of religion, where one examines both religious doctrine and religious conduct empirically and then draws one's conclusions from the facts based on extensive research.