Religion As a Community Social Structure

There are not many things that pull people together quite like religious beliefs. Sports pull us together when our kids are on the same team, when we are all in a stadium, or when two of us are wearing the right hat on an airplane, but those don’t make for strong ties that are lasting and uniting. Religion offers an entire worldview and set of corresponding behaviors that do create lasting ties between people who otherwise wouldn’t have much in common and wouldn’t likely interact for any significant time. Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler look at religion in their book The Elephant in the Brain to understand the ways that religious signaling, behaviors, and beliefs operate in ways that often go unnoticed.

 

They quote a few authors in a short section that stood out to me:
“Religion,” says Jonathan Haidt, “is a team sport.”
“God,” says Emile Durkheim, “Is society writ large.”

 

Simler and Hanson go on to explain what this community and larger social aspect of religion means given that we tend to think of religion more as a private belief system:

 

“In this view, religion isn’t a matter of private beliefs, but rather of shared beliefs and, more importantly, communal practices. These interlocking pieces work together, creating strong social incentives for individuals to act (selfishly in ways that benefit the entire religious community. And the net result is a highly cohesive and cooperative social group. A religion, therefore, isn’t just a set of propositional beliefs about God and the afterlife; it’s an entire social system.”

 

Religions typically encourage pro-social behaviors that get people thinking more about a cohesive group than about selfish motives. By pursuing these prosocial behaviors, people can gain more status and prestige in society. For selfish reasons then (at least to some extent), people pursue the religious dictates of their society in their own personal lives. As they do this, positive externalities may arise and may create a society that is more cohesive and supportive all around. This might not always happen, but having a shared system of understanding the world, our places in the world, and the stories about who we are and why we exist help to create the social fabric and social capital to further encourage cooperation and social cohesion. In a weird way, our selfish motives encourage religion, even if we don’t acknowledge it and assume that religion is entirely about personal beliefs.

Beliefs Are Not Always in the Driver’s Seat

I am not a religious person. I can explain to you all the reasons why I don’t believe there is a deity who created the universe or interjects into our lives, but according to Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson, that might not be a particular meaningful thing to try to communicate. If I set out to explain what I believe about the world as a rational for the beliefs that I hold, I might be missing a more fundamental but less appealing reason for my atheism. I don’t come from a religious family, and to be a good part of my familial group and our friend groups, I adopted their beliefs and have found justification for those beliefs through the years. I may think those justifications are sound, but that doesn’t mean I should ignore the part of my brain that set me down the path I am on.

 

In The Elephant in the Brain, Simler and Hanson write, “as we’ve seen throughout the book, beliefs aren’t always in the driver’s seat. Instead, they’re often better modeled as symptoms of the underlying incentives, which are frequently social rather than psychological. This is the religious elephant in the brain: We don’t worship simply because we believe. Instead we worship (and believe) because it helps us as social creatures.”

 

Hanson and Simler explain the ways in which both theists and atheists approach religion following a belief-first model. In this model, we develop beliefs about the world and universe from what we see and experience and then we adjust our behaviors to align with those beliefs. This is the model, the authors suggest, that is at work in debates between most theists and atheists. This is why we argue over the veracity of religious claims and the implications of ever growing scientific understandings of the universe.

 

But what might really be going on, and this is a view you might see from an anthropologist but might not hold front and center in your views, is that religious views help us be part of a social group and community of people who cooperate, share common values, and can provide support to one another. Religion has social values that can draw people toward it, and increasingly today, atheism seems to have many of  the same social qualities.

 

I have been in very religious contexts and circles though I am most comfortable among atheists. In both groups I have noted a tendency to characterize the other group as deviants. Religious people are mocked as morons while atheists are scoffed at as selfish and amoral trouble-makers. Both groups use the other as an out-group of villains to create more cohesion internally.

 

There is surely a part of religious beliefs that is driven by our experiences and how we think about and understand the world, but whether we want to admit it or not, a large part of our religious identity is shaped by our relationships and social groups surrounding the idea of religion. We can use religion as a model and a guide for our lives that provides us with social connections and social benefits, and we can also use our lack of religious beliefs to do the same. The true nature of the universe and the reality of the world around us often come second, and that is part of why it is so hard to change someone’s religious beliefs and why we tend to hold the same beliefs as our parents and family.

Personal Medical Decisions?

A couple weeks back my grandma sent me a message on Facebook that was a picture of two very obese individuals eating a giant pizza and drinking soda. A caption on the photo read, “This is why I don’t want to pay for your healthcare.” As a person who is interested in and taken classes about public health and health policy, I actually think about these things all the time. I recognize the importance of making smart health choices, but I also understand that health outcomes can be a result of a complex web of social determinants of health. There are factors that are beyond our control in regard to living healthy, and there are some factors that seem like easy decisions to some people, that are monumental challenges to others. Despite the amount of time I spend thinking about these things, I don’t have a clear answer in my head for when people need a tough love kick in the pants versus compassion, and when a given outcome is generally more the result of poor individual decisions and habits or more the result of uncontrollable social determinants of health. There likely is no clear answer to this question, and I think it is reasonable to say, “I have thought about this a lot and I don’t know.”

 

This leads me to another factor that compounds the complexity of healthcare decisions: What choices, decisions, and behaviors are personal, and which ones should be considered public? If I chose to smoke, is that a personal decision even though there may be public consequences if I die early, have poor health overall, and require more emergency medical care which ultimately drives everyone’s healthcare premiums up? Do I have to exercise every day to stay healthy as a public good and not just as a private good? If I go get an x-ray on the ankle I sprained to make sure it isn’t broken, is that going to take time away from medical professionals who could help someone that really needs it when all I likely need to do is ice it a little bit?

 

In the book The Elephant in the Brain, Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson write about Steve Jobs and his decision to forgo cancer treatment as recommended by the American Medical Association’s best practices. Jobs is an interesting case because the fortunes of a company that many people love rested on his medical decisions. Beyond just his own health and the considerations of his family, people felt that they had their own money on the line if they owned apple stocks. If Jobs lived and survived his illness, it would be good for Apple, but if he denied standard treatment and died, what did that mean for the public?

 

“The point here,” write Simler and Hanson, “is that whenever we fail to uphold the (perceived) highest standards for medical treatment, we risk becoming the subject of unwanted gossip and even open condemnation. Our seemingly personal medical decisions are, in fact, quite public and even political.”

 

The kind of medicine we pursue and the lifestyle we live are never going to be restricted to just ourselves. We will at the very least be judged by others for our health and medical decisions. Our choices may or may not have major financial implications for other people, but that doesn’t mean that we can make our choices in a vacuum.

 

What is important to remember here is how complex the line is between personal and societal responsibility. Our individual decisions can have bigger impacts than we realize, and it is hard to keep something just within our own bubble. Added to that are questions about liberty and the authority of the state. It is not an easy question to ask if your diet should be controlled by anyone other than yourself, or if you should be forced to exercise and sleep a certain amount. Approach questions about healthcare understanding that these questions don’t have clear answers, and whichever choice we make is going to have strange consequences as a result of these complex inter-dependencies.

A Simple Quid Pro Quo

Have you ever thought about how we treat people who are sick? We have an entire economic system (trillions of dollars in the US) set up around treating people who are sick. When we have family members who are ill we often take time off work, help make sure their pillows are comfortable, and make them hot tea or soup. We will put ourselves at risk of catching whatever illness they have, or if it is not contagious, we will sacrifice large parts of our lives to be there in support. I’m not suggesting that caring for the ill is a bad thing, but it is curious that humans would develop a drive to help those who are sick at great personal risk and cost to oneself.

 

In The Elephant in the Brain authors Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson suggest that helping those who are sick is actually less about helping the sick person, and more about making sure we will have someone to help us if we are in a similar situation in the future. There is a quid pro quo taking place where we make a sacrifice so that others will sacrifice for us if we get sick.

 

The authors write, “in part, it’s a simple quid pro quo: I’ll help you this time if you’ll help me when the tables are turned. But providing support is also an advertisment to third parties: See how I help my friends where they’re down? If you’re my friend, I’ll do the same for you. In this way, the conspicuous care shown in our medical behaviors is similar to the conspicuous care shown in charity; by helping people in need, we demonstrate our value as an ally.”

 

We all want people to see us as nice, generous, caring individuals. To make sure people see us that way, we seize upon opportunities to demonstrate those qualities in the real world, even if there is a cost to us. The authors would argue that it is precisely when there is a cost to us that we are most likely to be charitable or to help those who are ill, at least if there is a sufficient audience. It often feels like we are just doing something nice for another person out of the goodness of our heart, but often there is another layer at play that is more self-interested than we would want others to see. We hide that part of ourselves and make an effort to not see that part of ourselves in who we are, or in the people we care about. That part of ourselves is the elephant in the brain which is dictating a lot of our interactions with the world, even though we won’t acknowledge it.

Signaling Work Potential

“In 2001, the Nobel Prize was awarded to economist Michael Spence for a mathematical model of one explanation for these puzzles: signaling. The basic idea is that students go to school not so much to learn useful job skills as to show off their work potential to future employers. In other words, the value of education isn’t just about learning; it’s also about credentialing.”

 

The quote above is from Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson’s book The Elephant in the Brain when the authors talk about why we go to school and what purpose education is serving for our society and for us as individuals. Education costs have been rising and we continue to encourage everyone to go to college. Several presidential candidates on the Democratic side have even put forward plans for free tuition. The idea at play as college tuition rises, as we push everyone toward college, and as our candidates outline plans for everyone to be able to afford college is the idea that higher education is all about learning useful and valuable knowledge that will help every individual and our entire society become more productive and better functioning. We want smart people with extensive education to drive our society forward, and college is the way to make that happen.

 

However, if much of our education is about signaling, then what will happen if we push everyone to go to college? Some students will learning useful information, important skills, and will develop in ways that they could not if they hadn’t pursued higher education, but will it benefit all students? If much of our higher education is about attaining credentials to stand out and show off, then won’t we simply diminish the status and credentials of those who do go to college? There are arguments to be made for and against free college tuition and it is important to understand what is happening with each to develop a better argument and discussion around higher education.

 

First, we must admit that sometimes college is just about signaling and getting a piece of paper to check a box on a job application. By acknowledging that piece, we can start to move forward and think about what opportunities we want to help provide to people. It seems to me that everyone should have a chance to move forward and pursue the education benefits we applaud, but it also seems reasonable to say that we should not overly subsidize what is often just signaling behavior.

 

For those who simply want the credential and don’t care much for the knowledge opportunities along the way, perhaps a greater development in training and education specific to a technical trade or craft would be a better option. Perhaps a less costly signal that focuses more on doing than learning is a valid alternative to the standard higher education model. With an alternative avenue in place, perhaps we can appropriately decide what level of subsidy should be provided to those who do want to go the traditional college rout. Perhaps existing colleges can also adjust to make their signals stronger, while also encouraging more learning as a side goal.

 

I’m not sure what a perfect path forward looks like, but I know we won’t move in the right direction if we believe that education is only about learning and growth. Some of us will learn a lot and demonstrate clear growth in college, but many of us will simply lose time as we strive for more credentials and attempt to signal to future employers that we are the kind of person they should hire.

The Argument That College Isn’t About Learning

In The Elephant in the Brain, Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson make an argument that we create stories and narratives around how our world operates that make us look as good as possible. We have systems and structures in place that provide us with convenient reasons for behaving the way we do. These convenient reasons are socialable, put us in the best possible light, and make us feel good about ourselves. Simler and Hanson argue that below this surface lie our true reasons and our hidden motives for our behaviors.

 

One area they look at is education. Nominally, we tell everyone that we are going to school to learn something, to prepare ourselves for the future, to build new skills, to make new connections, and to gain new experiences. What we don’t say is that we are going to school to check a box, to gain a credential, and to simply look more impressive to other people. Education is supposed to be about learning and information, not about padding a resume and trying to simply gain something in a personal and selfish manner. Their argument about education relies on a lot of research that is also discussed in Bryan Caplan’s book The Case Against Education, which I have not read but is referenced in The Elephant in the Brain and who I have heard on several podcasts. To suggest that education is about something other than just the learning we are supposed to do, the authors write,

 

“Consider what happens when a teacher cancels a class session because of weather, illness, or travel. Students who are there to learn should be upset; they’re not getting what they paid for! but in fact, students usually celebrate when classes are canceled. Similarly, many students eagerly take Easy A classes, often in subjects where they have little interest or career plans. In both cases, students sacrifice useful learning opportunities for an easier path to a degree. In fact, if we gave students a straight choice between getting an education without a degree, or a degree without an education, most would pick the degree-which seems odd if they’re going to school mainly to learn.”

 

Sometimes we do learn useful things in school. Sometimes we really do gain new perspectives, have new and meaningful experiences, and grow though our coursework. But students don’t seem as focused on the learning in most areas (some technical degrees at the university level might be different) as simply getting through and getting a diploma. Education includes a lot of signaling aspects that are just as important (if not more important) than any learning we might do.

 

Education tells people we are the kind of person who can earn a degree. Good grades tell potential employers that we are the kind of people who can figure out what is demanded of us, and we are the kind of people who will then do what is demanded. Much of what we learn we will forget, and once we get on the job we will be expected to do a lot of training to learn how to do the actual thing we were hired to do based on our education. We learn a bit in school, but we also signal a lot about ourselves in the process.

A Final Thought on Charity

One of Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler’s closing thoughts in their chapter about charity in The Elephant in the Brain reads, “The forms of charity that are most effective at helping others aren’t the most effective at helping donors signal their good traits. And when push comes to shove, donors will often choose to help themselves.”

 

We human beings are not that great at being altruistic. We are social creatures, and we know that what we do is always being judged by our social tribe in a complex context. It is not just about what we do, but who we are, what kind of people we want to associate with, how we choose to use our time and resources, and what we try to do in the world. Charity, and any altruistic behavior we engage in, fits into this larger narrative about the person we are or try to be.

 

We cannot separate our charitable behavior from our individual self-interest or from the larger context of our live. As a result, charity is something that we use as a signaling mechanism. It is often about helping others, but it is just as often about telling people something about ourselves. This is where Simler and Hanson’s quote comes from.

 

We can use our charity to primarily do good in the world, or we can get the benefits of doing good while primarily showing people how generous we are. We can use our money and extra time to do something meaningful for others that also benefits us with social rewards and accolades, however, the personal benefit from charitable behaviors can be so great that it can take over and become the driving force behind our decisions.

 

This certainly doesn’t happen for everyone and doesn’t apply in every situation, but for a bulk of our charitable behaviors it is a factor at play. It is important to recognize so that we understand what is pushing us to make our donations, and to reshape those pressures so that we use our charitability in the best way to really make the world a better place. We should also acknowledge it so that we can encourage others to do something generous and to help others receive a positive social reward, but only if their charity is also the most effective that it can be.

Marginal Charity – An Opportunity for Big Business

Big businesses strive for efficiency. If something can be reduced, eliminated, streamlined, and automated then at some point it will be. Each tiny advantage can be huge at scale, and can mean the difference between growing and laying off employees. Flaunting success, hiding failure, and maximizing at the margins are standard business operating procedures, but they create a void that could be filled for companies to do meaningful things that can be viewed in a charitable light. In The Elephant in the Brain, Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler talk about “marginal charity” an idea that you can do something that economically doesn’t add much cost to your own life, only marginally diminishes your efficiency, but provides a big element of charity to the business you are already doing.

 

In the book, the authors consider a high rise apartment building. Say 10 floors is the height to shoot for in order to achieve maximum efficiency. There may be situations where adding one more floor would not increase the cost by a significant amount, but would reduce the efficiency that the building owners and property developers expect from the complex, especially if the final floor was developed to allow for more low-income/affordable housing. Adding this extra story doesn’t make sense in a pure efficiency model, but if you are trying to add a touch of charity to the business you are already engaged in as the developer, you can do a lot of good by providing many additional affordable housing units with little marginal cost to yourself.

 

Hanson and Simler write, “In terms of providing value to others, marginal charity is extremely efficient. It does a substantial amount of good for others at very little cost to oneself. (In other words, it has an incredible ROD [Return on Donation]).” Finding a way to add a little extra while taking away from your own individual efficiency may make the entire system a bit more equitable, and a bit more efficient as a whole. Small tweaks to how to do things and create the systems that shape our lives can help provide for greater long-term benefit even if they slightly limit what is possible for us now.

 

Since we are not all property developers, we won’t all have this type of chance to make a big difference through small actions in a business context. But we can think about marginal charity in our own lives and try to set up systems and structures that help us default toward charitable behavior. I don’t think this looks like donating a dollar to the thing the grocery store check-out system asks you to donate to (I’d recommend saving that money and making a single larger donation to a charity featured on GiveWell), but it may look like picking up bottles or trash along the street you already walk down every day. It may look like increasing your recurring donation by an additional $5. It may look like making personal choices that add a little extra cost, but reduce energy use, plastic use, or single use item consumption. We can think about charity on a marginal level, encourage others to do so, and that will help build a spirit of looking for those marginal charity wins. They may not change the world, but they might help set up a culture and system that will.

On Charity, Evolution, and Potential Blind Spots

“Spontaneous generosity may not be the most effective way to improve human welfare on a global scale, but it’s effective where our ancestors needed it to be: at finding mates and building a strong network of allies.” Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson include this quote in their book The Elephant in the Brain when looking at our typical behaviors for donating money and the excuses we have for making donations. Our behaviors don’t always match the expectations we might have if we were donating money for the reasons we claimed to be donating.

 

At its base, the argument is that making donations is about impressing others to increase our own status and make it more likely that we will attract a mate and pass along our genetic information. The main thesis of the book is that we deceive ourselves with the reasons for our actions, and actually act in much more self-interested ways than we would like to admit, so that we can have a better chance of finding a mate and continuing our genetic line.

 

Like charitable giving, where sometimes we really do make donations to help the world, the stated reasons for doing what we do are sometimes legitimate and accurate, but often times they don’t account for the whole story. We claim to make donations to improve the world, but we often just make small donations impulsively when people are watching. We want to impress them with our generosity and resources, and we want to raise our social status and attract a mate.

 

If there is one thing that I would say I am most likely to be wrong about, it is the extent to which I believe our tribal ancestry shaped our evolution (especially our cognitive evolution). I look at most things and consider how they made sense and how they may have originated in small tribal groups. This seems to work well when considering charity, but I may be overly reliant on this explanation and miss other factors. For now, however, with backing from research presented in books like The Elephant in the Brain, self-interested behavior emerging from small tribal groups will be the basis from which my theories of human behavior and interaction begin.

Well Known Charities

Another interesting consideration about charitable giving addressed in The Elephant in the Brain has  to do with which charities we chose to donate large sums of money to. If part of our charitable donations is intended to impress other people and show them how generous and caring we are, then we want to make sure everyone understands how good our donation is.

 

As an example, I have an automatic recurring donation set up with the Against Malaria Foundation. If I wanted to tell someone about the charitable donations that I do and convince them that what I was doing was meaningful, I would have to convey to them what exactly malaria is, what the foundation does, and why it is effective. Just saying that I donate to the Against Malaria Foundation may not resonate with people the way that me telling them that I was donating to the Children’s Leukemia Support Network would. Malaria is not common in the United States and most people probably don’t understand how debilitating yet preventable it can be. Many people in the United States have heard, however, about Leukemia and probably know it is a type of cancer. Many people also probably have experience in their families of cancer (of one form or another), and know how devastating it can be. Attaching our donations to a terrible disease that people have experience with and trying to support a population such as children is a much easier sell in some regards than convincing people to donate to a charity aimed at malaria which impacts people living far away.

 

Simler and Hanson write, “Original research generates private information about which charities are worthy, but in order to signal how prosocial we are, we need to donate to charities that are publicly known to be worthy.” This leads us to donate to the Children’s Leukemia Support Network, even though the charity’s entire existence is a scam, rather than the Against Malaria Foundation which GiveWell identifies as one of the most effective charities.

 

The important thing is that we don’t really do much background with our donations and set out primarily to make big donations to well known charities that tackle things that we think we, or people close to us, might face directly. We want to feel a warm glow about our donations, and we want people to see our donations and immediately recognize what a positive difference we are making. Smaller but more effective charities that address less well known causes are left behind in favor of the bigger more well known charities, even if we could have a bigger impact on the world by making a donation to the smaller charity that people don’t immediately recognize.