Sunday, September 6, 2009

Religion, Politics and Identity.

I do not recall where on the web I found this essay but it has stuck with me. Paul Graham, who wrote this essay ponders why politics and religion often take on a uniquely unscientific feel.

[Speaking of politics, from what I have picked up from the many testimonials is that one of Ted Kennedy's personal and professional strengths was that he did not let it get it personal. He seemed quite capable of being a liberal stalwart/leader while being friends with counterparts on the Republican side. In a 2006 interview with Terry Gross on Fresh Air he said that one of the most corrosive aspects of the modern political scene is money. Senators spend half their time raising money for their next election campaign. The answer: public finance for all elections. Why does this not happen? Incumbents have the money advantage so it's not possible to get meaningful campaign finance reform passed (McCain-Feingold is a failure). I have thought about this before and will again (each time taking it more seriously) the next time my party or my candidate asks for a contribution.]

Getting back to this essay - there is something about religion, politics and identity that seems to contain a common thread.

PS. I think foot note # 2 states the thesis well.

By Paul Graham

February 2009

I finally realized today why politics and religion yield such uniquely useless discussions.

As a rule, any mention of religion on an online forum degenerates into a religious argument. Why? Why does this happen with religion and not with Javascript or baking or other topics people talk about on forums?

What's different about religion is that people don't feel they need to have any particular expertise to have opinions about it. All they need is strongly held beliefs, and anyone can have those. No thread about Javascript will grow as fast as one about religion, because people feel they have to be over some threshold of expertise to post comments about that. But on religion everyone's an expert.

Then it struck me: this is the problem with politics too. Politics, like religion, is a topic where there's no threshold of expertise for expressing an opinion. All you need is strong convictions.

Do religion and politics have something in common that explains this similarity? One possible explanation is that they deal with questions that have no definite answers, so there's no back pressure on people's opinions. Since no one can be proven wrong, every opinion is equally valid, and sensing this, everyone lets fly with theirs.

But this isn't true. There are certainly some political questions that have definite answers, like how much a new government policy will cost. But the more precise political questions suffer the same fate as the vaguer ones.

I think what religion and politics have in common is that they become part of people's identity, and people can never have a fruitful argument about something that's part of their identity. By definition they're partisan.

Which topics engage people's identity depends on the people, not the topic. For example, a discussion about a battle that included citizens of one or more of the countries involved would probably degenerate into a political argument. But a discussion today about a battle that took place in the Bronze Age probably wouldn't. No one would know what side to be on. So it's not politics that's the source of the trouble, but identity. When people say a discussion has degenerated into a religious war, what they really mean is that it has started to be driven mostly by people's identities. [1]

Because the point at which this happens depends on the people rather than the topic, it's a mistake to conclude that because a question tends to provoke religious wars, it must have no answer. For example, the question of the relative merits of programming languages often degenerates into a religious war, because so many programmers identify as X programmers or Y programmers. This sometimes leads people to conclude the question must be unanswerablehat all languages are equally good. Obviously that's false: anything else people make can be well or badly designed; why should this be uniquely impossible for programming languages? And indeed, you can have a fruitful discussion about the relative merits of programming languages, so long as you exclude people who respond from identity.

More generally, you can have a fruitful discussion about a topic only if it doesn't engage the identities of any of the participants. What makes politics and religion such minefields is that they engage so many people's identities. But you could in principle have a useful conversation about them with some people. And there are other topics that might seem harmless, like the relative merits of Ford and Chevy pickup trucks, that you couldn't safely talk about with others.

The most intriguing thing about this theory, if it's right, is that it explains not merely which kinds of discussions to avoid, but how to have better ideas. If people can't think clearly about anything that has become part of their identity, then all other things being equal, the best plan is to let as few things into your identity as possible. [2]

Most people reading this will already be fairly tolerant. But there is a step beyond thinking of yourself as x but tolerating y: not even to consider yourself an x. The more labels you have for yourself, the dumber they make you.


[1] When that happens, it tends to happen fast, like a core going critical. The threshold for participating goes down to zero, which brings in more people. And they tend to say incendiary things, which draw more and angrier counter-arguments.

[2] There may be some things it's a net win to include in your identity. For example, being a scientist. But arguably that is more of a placeholder than an actual labelike putting NMI on a form that asks for your middle initialecause it doesn't commit you to believing anything in particular. A scientist isn't committed to believing in natural selection in the same way a biblical literalist is committed to rejecting it. All he's committed to is following the evidence wherever it leads.

Considering yourself a scientist is equivalent to putting a sign in a cupboard saying "this cupboard must be kept empty." Yes, strictly speaking, you're putting something in the cupboard, but not in the ordinary sense.

Thanks to Sam Altman, Trevor Blackwell, Paul Buchheit, and Robert Morris for reading drafts of this.


  1. i have often thought that political opinions are almost a matter of taste... aesthetics, if you will. As the essayist above says about the bronze age, it has more than once occurred to me that people today find history fascinating without judging its major figures. Oliver Cromwell, for instance, was at once a revolutionary figure for a nascent democracy, and a hard-line puritan. As a leader, he needed to compromise, so he was considered a turncoat by the more intense puritans, but considered a horrible purtian by the "liberals." If he were a contemporary figure our rightwing and leftwing idealogues would be tearing out their hair in anger but today we all just consider Cromwell a fascinating and complex figure.... no one judges him anymore because it is the distant past, and has become part of the infinitley complex fabric of history... but this will happen to compemporary figures too, so why do we hate or revere them so much? We all act as if our own time is the only really important time because we are living in it and we fail to consider the past or that int the future any figure will be seen as emblamatic of our time.
    Most people form their political identities by the time they are in their twenties and it is usually as a consequence of agreeing with their parents or rebelling against them.... just like with religion. It becomes part of their identity and their faith, just like religion, and if questioned by one of opposite faith, it usually brings out a spirited defense of the posttions held..... unlike a true scientist who is open to changing his/her mind/

  2. Dear Anonymous, I think you and Paul Graham (who founded Yahoo by the way) are in agreement.- RF

  3. Dear Rough Fractals:

    Everything in the multiverse is a fractal including yourself. Please see my blog on Politcs Religion and Everything taboo discussing Fibonacci, Mandelbrot, and the fractalling conscious and physical universe.

    Thank You

  4. Ruzlh: thank you for your comment. Can you send me your blog address so that I can see it? Thanks - Rough Fractals.

  5. Germain

    Just google or ruzlh..



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