Is Religion Rational?
The Economics of Faith
Wed. Nov. 16, 6:30 pm George Mason University
Bryan Caplan vs Larry Iannoccone
Wednesday saw the much anticipated debate between Bryan Caplan and Larry Iannaccone, and the event exceeded expectations. A packed crowd filled the front ballroom, and was treated to the thoughtful exposition of two of Mason's most innovative and entertaining Professors. I'm fortunate to have classes with both speakers this semester, and the entire evening demonstrated why our economics department is so dynamite.
I'll try to provide a brief overview of what I considered the two arguments were, and offer a little commentary.
Larry's main point is that religion is massively important, it's therefore rational to study it, and it's rational to use rational choice theory to do so. He pointed out how assumptions of irrationality render analysis hopeless, and it is the duty of Public Choice scholars to take religion seriously. As he challenged Gordon Tullock "I can give you a better explantion of why people go to church, than you can explain why they vote".
Bryan accepted this, but argued a deeper point- that it's irrational to believe in religious doctrine. He pointed out how people accept religious beliefs with little (or conflicting) evidence and on the grounds of emotional comfort rather than intellectual judgement. Hence "Forming non-religious beliefs in a religious way is irrational because forming any beliefs in a religious way is irrational."
Bryan used his concept of rational irrationality.doc to show how people will be irrational about an event if the costs are low (since rationality is a normal good), but Larry responded by saying that religious people go to great cost to do what they believe in.
The act of participating in religion can clearly be rational - as both speakers agree - when people receive social (or club) goods, as an act of coordination, or if is consistant with the desire for a particular ends. If rationality is picking a Nash equilibrium, then religious activity is rational.
This leads to the definition of religion - which has to be belief in the supernatural as portrayed within a specific doctrine. Consequently we must distinguish between going to church and going to Goodison Park. Is it objectively rational to believe in the legitimacy of The Bible? Bryan did well to shift the burden of proof, and adequately destroyed the validity of Pascal's wager. Even if there's a slight change God exists, it's not rational to devote time to religious activity if there's also a slight chance that a different God exists, who really hates the Christian God. Amidst uncertainty, the rational strategy is to not offend anyone!
Larry made the point that by definition, a miracle is very very unlikely, and logically impossible. Bryan's response depends on two things: probability analysis and the power of scientific inquiry. Pete Boettke asked the question "What piece of evidence would make you change your opinion about the resurrection?" and Caplan's response was "credible evidence of another resurrection". But the whole point is that the resurreciton was a single event, and since it's not part of a probability set Caplan is forced to admit that there can be no evidence that would make him change his mind.
The debate ended on a sombre note, as Larry pointed out that the only society that has systematically treated religion as irrational were the Communists. Bryan's response was to claim that Maxism is a substitute religion - but then so are other systems of thought. This admission returns to Larry's original point that religion is everywhere, faith is ubiquitous, and to quote Vincent Ostrom:
“We have the potential then of those who reject religion becoming the prophets of new secular religions"
When Larry quoted from Hayek he expressed what i'll call Irrational Rationality - an over optimism of the power of rationality. Scientism in modern economics - as manifested in central planning - is an example of Rationalism that contradicted empirical evidence, and systematically produced results inconsistant with the desired ends. Rationality can be irrational.
I am suspicious of any claims of irrationality. Ignorance is everywhere, and is a sensible strategy in most situations ("Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking of them"-- Whitehead). Irrationality only really applies when an action is persitantly costly, or when the cost of action outweighs the benefit (which includes comfort value).
If you walk into a restaurant and see customers smashing their plates on the floor, you'd be forgiven for thinking they were acting irrationally. But if it's a Greek restaurant, it'd be expected. Any observed irrationality is tricky because the observer does not possess the same knowledge as the actor. We are all humans, however, and must imagine that their action is consistant with some unobservable ends. Nick Schandler and I were discussing this last night in the Johnson Center, and a girl walked passed and dropped her tray of food all over the floor. How irrational, I said, I don't understand why she'd think dropping her food will alleviate her hunger. Needless to say, on her second trip she was more careful, but what if she'd dropped it again? I'd have assumed that her ultimate aim was not to eat the food, but to get attention, or create a mess, or maybe she was just Greek...
Is it rational to study religion? Yes
Is it rational to study it by assuming religious people are rational? Yes
Is religious activity rational? Yes
Is belief in religious doctrine rational? Depends on whether you believe it...
The issue hinges on definitions of rationality and religion, but is underpinned by uncertainty and subjectivism. Both speakers made excellent points, and contributed a great deal to prompting thought and entertainment. But neither disuaded me of my priors:
- Rationality is best understood as a subjective phenomena, tied to expectations, rather than an objective judgement about proximity to evidence and fact
- A literal interpretation of the Bible is highly dubious, and lacks any real evidence or geniune inquiry
- Faith pervades science, and we can't condense aesthetics (or single events) to probability theory
A great thank you to both speakers: my respect and admiration for both of them has grown immensely. I also extend appreciation to Alex Tabarrok who moderated with wit and authority, and I encourage similar events in the future.