Thursday, September 14, 2017

Is There a Culturally Evolved Prejudice against Atheists as Immoral?

Can we be good without God?  If not, should we fear atheism as promoting immorality?  Is atheism contrary to our evolved natural desire for religious belief? 

I have written about this in a previous post, which includes links to other posts.

Now we have new research by Will Gervais and his colleagues indicating that people around the world have a culturally evolved prejudice against atheists (Gervais et al., "Global Evidence of Extreme Intuitive Moral Prejudice against Atheists," Nature Human Behaviour 1 (2017): 1-5).

Here's the abstract:
"Mounting-evidence supports long-standing claims that religions can extend cooperative networks.  However, religious prosociality may have a strongly parochial component.  Moreover, aspects of religion may promote or exacerbate conflict with those outside a given religious group, promoting regional violence, intergroup conflict, and tacit prejudice against non-believers.  Anti-atheist prejudice--a growing concern in secular societies--affects employment, elections, family life, and broader social inclusion.  Preliminary work in the United States suggests that anti-atheist prejudice stems, in part, from deeply rooted intuitions about religion's putatively necessary role in morality.  However, the cross-cultural prevalence and magnitude--as well as intracultural demographic stability--of such intuitions, as manifested in intuitive associations of immorality with atheists, remain unclear.  Here, we quantify moral distrust of atheists by applying well-tested measures in a large global same (N = 3,256; 13 diverse countries). Consistent with cultural evolutionary theories of religion and morality, people in most--but not all--of these countries viewed extreme moral violations as representative of atheists.  Notably, anti-atheist prejudice was evident even among atheist participants around the world.  The results contrast with recent polls that do not find self-reported moral prejudice against atheists in highly secular countries, and imply that the recent rise in secularism in Western countries has not overwritten intuitive anti-atheist prejudice.  Entrenched moral suspicion of atheists suggests that religion's powerful influence on moral judgments persists, even among non-believers in secular societies."
Their sample was drawn from 13 countries on 5 continents, which included highly secular societies (for  example, Netherlands, Finland, and China) and highly religious societies (for example, United Arab Emirates, Mauritius, and India) with diverse religious histories (including countries with Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and secular majorities).

Gervais, Ara Norenzayan, and their colleagues have defended a cultural evolutionary model of religion--arguing that the transition from small foraging bands to large agrarian states required extended cooperation of strangers that was made possible by the emergence of religions with moralistic Big Gods, who enforced social cooperation by rewarding the good and punishing the bad in an afterlife.  People who live in large cities need to have norms enforced among strangers by third party punishment, and God is the ultimate third party punisher.  This most recent research was to test one of the predictions from this theory--that human beings around the world should have an intuitive fear of atheists as immoral.

In this research, participants were asked about this scenario:
"When a man was young, he began inflicting harm on animals. It started with just pulling the wings off flies, but eventually progressed to torturing stray cats and other animals in his neighborhood."
"As an adult, the man found that he did not get much thrill from harming animals, so he began hurting people instead.  He has killed 5 homeless people that he abducted from poor neighborhoods in his home city.  Their dismembered bodies ae currently buried in his basement."
"Which is more probable?
"1. The man is a teacher.
"2 (a). The man is a teacher and does not believe in any gods.
"2 (b). The man is a teacher and is a religious believer."
Half of the participants were given 2 (a), and the other half were given 2 (b).  They were also given other kinds of questions to distract them from noticing that this was an experiment to test for stereotyping and prejudice.

In asking the participants to judge probability, bias is indicated if they commit the "conjunction fallacy."  The conjunction rule for the qualitative law of probability states that the probability of a conjunction--the probability of 1 and 2--cannot exceed the probability of its constituents--the probability of 1 or 2.   (That so many people commit the conjunction fallacy was seen by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman as an example of the illogical heuristics of the human mind.)  If the participanats cannot see that the man being a teacher is more probable than the conjunction, they are showing an illogical bias--a bias either against atheists or against religious believers.

The results showed a greater prejudice against atheists than against religious believers: there was an overall conjunction error rate probability of 0.58 for atheist targets, but only 0.30 for religious targets.  So, people were roughly twice as likely to view extreme immorality--being a murderous psychopath--as representative of atheists relative to believers.

The most surprising result was that even people who identified themselves as atheists showed this same prejudice against atheists as being inclined to extreme immorality!

There is one anomaly in this research, however, that is left unexplained.  Of the 13 countries represented in this study, Finland and New Zealand do not show any bias against atheists.  For Finland, the atheist error rate is .28, and the religious error rate is .26.  For New Zealand, the atheist error rate is .38, and the religious error rate is .29.  Finland shows no bias, and New Zealand very little.  So what goes here?  Are the people of Finland and New Zealand just better in understanding the logic of probability?  Or are they unusual in being free of the global prejudice against atheists?

So is it really unfair to assume that atheism promotes immorality?  The answer from Gervais and his colleagues is complicated.  On the one hand, their evolutionary theory of moralistic religion as necessary for securing large-scale cooperation beginning with the Neolithic transition to agrarian states assumes that religious belief does support morality.  On the other hand, they say that the intragroup cooperation secured by religious belief also promotes distrust of those outside the group, so that religious believers are thrown into conflict with those who do not share their religious beliefs, as shown by religious persecution and religious wars.

Moreover, they argue that as modern societies become ever more secularized, we can see the religious support for morality as a ladder that can be kicked away once we have climbed to the top.  We can see this in highly secularized societies like Denmark and the Scandinavian countries that are highly cooperative and peaceful, although fervent religious belief has almost completely disappeared.  We can explain this as showing how morality can evolve from natural moral sentiments without any necessity for religious belief in a moralistic God.

And yet their research suggests that even in many highly secularized societies, there is still some bias towards believing that morality requires religious belief; and so cultural evolution away from this might be slow.  Norenzayan has suggested an analogy to the cultural evolution of literacy.  For 99% of human evolutionary history, humans have had oral language, and so learning to speak is naturally easy for them.  But writing is a relatively recent invention, and for most of its history, writing and reading were restricted to a small educated elite.  Only in the past two centuries, has modern education spread literacy to the great majority of human beings around the world.  Similarly, he suggests, religious morality has been central to our cultural evolution for thousands of years, and it is only recently that secular morality has begun to prevail in some societies.  We might expect this evolutionary trend to eventually prevail.

As an example of this evolutionary trend, consider a point that came up in my posts on Tom West's book on the American Founding--the debate over religious tests for holding public offices.  One way for legally enforcing religious morality is to have a religious test for public office.  Originally, all of the state constitutions except for Virginia and New York had such tests.  For example, members of the Pennsylvania state legislature had to swear: "I do believe in one God, the creator and governor of the universe, the rewarder of the good and punisher of the wicked, and I do acknowledge the scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be given by divine inspiration."

The argument for religious tests was that religion supports morality.  A speaker at the Massachusetts convention for ratifying the U.S. Constitution condemned the "no religious test" clause of the Constitution: he argued that no religious tests "would admit deists, atheists, etc., into the general government; and, people being apt to imitate the examples of the court, these principles would be disseminated, and, of course, a corruption of morals ensue."  So here we see the very prejudice against atheists detected by Gervais and his colleagues.

But why then did the founders at the Constitutional Convention vote unanimously and without any controversy for "no religious tests" in the Constitution?  And why did all of the states with religious tests abolish them during the founding period, thus following the example of the national constitution?

To explain this, West says that Chris Beneke "rightly notes" that in "founding America . . . libertarian principles . . . repeatedly triumphed over local prejudices and discriminatory laws."

So now it seems that the "founding consensus" turned to "libertarian principles" dictating that the legal enforcement of religious belief is not necessary to avoid a corruption of morals.  Is this an example of the cultural evolution towards secularized morality expected by Gervais and Norenzayan?

Do we lose anything in moving from religious morality to secular morality?  West thinks that the American founders thought that something would be lost.  In Kantian language, secular morality is a morality of hypothetical imperatives, while religious morality is a morality of categorical imperatives.  A religious morality allows us to see natural rights as sacred.  A secular morality allows us only to see those natural rights as conducive to the pursuit of happiness.  The sacredness of God-given rights is lost in the move to secularized natural rights as instrumental for human happiness (West, The Political Theory of the American Founding, 95).

Michael Egnor seems to be making the same point in his response (published by the Discovery Institute's "Evolution News") to the debate over Gervais' article. (Egnor is a neurosurgeon who teaches at Stony Brook University.)  Can you be good without God?  Egnor's answer is that you cannot be good if God doesn't exist; but if God does exist, you can be good even if you don't believe God exists.

If God exists, Egnor explains, then as Moral Lawgiver, He can provide the cosmic transcendent standards of good and evil.  And insofar as that Moral Law is a natural law "written in our hearts" (Romans 2:15), atheists can intuitively feel the transcendent weight of that Moral Law, even though they deny the divine source of that Law.

But if God does not exist, as the atheists say, then there can be no such thing as good and evil.  There are only human opinions about what serves human welfare, about what we happen to like.  But what we like or dislike gives us only hypothetical imperatives about what serves the needs of human nature, human culture, and human individuals.  This cannot give us the categorical imperatives woven into the cosmic order by the Moral Lawgiver.

I have defended the hypothetical imperatives of natural goodness here and here.  All natural law reasoning depends on hypothetical imperatives that have a "given/if/then" structure: Given what we know about the nature of human beings and the world in which they live, if we want to pursue happiness while living in society with each other, then we ought to adopt a social structure that conforms to human nature in promoting human happiness in society.  So, for example, given what we know about human vulnerability and human propensities to violent aggression, if we want to pursue happiness, peace, and prosperity in our society, then we ought to have laws against murder, rape, assault, and theft.  Consequently, the laws against murder, rape, assault, and theft are natural laws.

The biblical theist will say that this natural law has been "written in our hearts" by God.  The atheist will say that this natural law belongs to our evolved human nature.

Although Egnor criticizes the atheist for not recognizing the metaphysical ground of morality in God's command, Egnor seems to concede that as a practical matter, this intellectual mistake does not prevent the atheist from living a morally good life.

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

Trump and the Political Scientists

Beyond my participation on a panel on Tom West's book on the American founding, my main goal at the convention of the American Political Science Association in San Francisco was to attend as many of the panels on Donald Trump as I could, so that I could hear what the political scientists are saying about his surprising electoral victory and his unusual presidency. 

The fact that most political scientists failed to predict Trump's victory is embarrassing for the profession, and so it's not surprising that there were many panels on Trump that attracted large audiences.  Two of the panels I attended had over 150 people in the audience, which must be at least four or five times the average attendance for panels.

The panels sponsored by the Claremont Institute were generally dominated by right-wing pro-Trump supporters.  The panels sponsored by organized sections of the APSA were generally dominated by left-wing empirical political scientists who were anti-Trump.

There were three kinds of questions raised at these panels.  First, who voted for Trump, and why did they do so?  Second, how did the Trump voters prevail in the election?  Third, if Trump is judged unfit to be President, is there any constitutional means to remove him from office?

To the second question, the obvious answer is the Electoral College.  Despite losing the popular vote, Trump won in the Electoral College.  Why?  Some political scientists suggested that what this shows is that the Electoral College increases the weight of the white voters and voters in rural areas who voted for Trump.  One can argue that this is not what was intended by the framers of the Constitution, who hoped that the Electoral College could prevent the election of demagogues like Trump.  The Constitution says that "Each state shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature therefore may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress."  Many state legislatures have chosen to bind the electors to vote for their party's nominee, and the selection of electors is by a "winner-take-all" principle, so that the candidate with the most popular votes in a state wins all of the electors of that state.  This creates a weighting of votes that favored Trump over Clinton.  Clinton lost overwhelmingly in white and rural areas of some key states (like Wisconsin) that led to her defeat in the Electoral College, despite that fact that she led in the popular vote total by almost 3 million votes.

Unless one believes that rural white voters deserve to have their votes weigh more than the votes of urban non-white voters, one has to wonder about how to change this.  One way to do this could be carried out by the state legislatures.  They could legislate that all the Electoral College votes of the state would be allocated to the winner of the national popular vote.  Or they could legislate that the Electoral College votes of the state would be divided up proportionally to the popular vote, so that it would no longer be "winner-take-all."  Another way, of course, would be to amend the Constitution to abolish the Electoral College.

To the third question, there are three possible answers.   If Trump is clearly unfit--morally and intellectually--to be President, then the Congress could impeach him, or the threat of impeachment could persuade him to resign, or he could be declared (under the 25th Amendment) to be "unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office" by the Vice President and a majority of the Cabinet.  If the Vice President and the Cabinet were to declare Trump unable to fill his office, but Trump disagreed, then a 2/3 vote of each House of Congress would be required to up the judgment of disability.

According to some interpretations of the impeachment power of Congress, the 25th Amendment (ratified in 1967) was unnecessary, because the Congress's impeachment power was intended to allow the Congress to remove a President judged to be unfit to fill the presidential office. 

At the APSA convention, John Yoo made this argument on one of the Claremont panels.  Yoo made the same points that were summarized a few months ago by Greg Weiner in an op-ed article in The New York Times.  According to the Constitution, impeachment applies to "Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors."  It has been commonly assumed that "high Crimes and Misdemeanors" means that only criminal acts by the President are impeachable.  And thus, we now have a lot of discussion about whether Trump has committed a criminal "obstruction of justice," for which he could be impeached.  But as Yoo and Weiner have argued, persuasively I think, this mistakenly sees impeachment as a legal judgment rather than a political judgment.  As Hamilton indicated in Federalist Number 65, impeachment applies to offenses "of a nature which may with peculiar propriety be denominated POLITICAL, as they related chiefly to injuries done immediately to the society itself."  At the Constitutional Convention of 1787, Madison explained the purpose of impeachment, saying "that some provision should be made for defending the community against the incapacity, negligence or perfidy of the Chief Magistrate."  If the Congress judges Trump unfit to be President, the Congress should impeach him, because his unfitness will inflict a great injury on the American community.

The first question--who voted for Trump and why--elicited a variety of answers at the convention.  Most of the people on the Claremont panels answered with Trump's own rhetorical answer to that question:  the country is divided by a battle between the interests of the Ruling Elites (including Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives) and the interests of The People, and Trump is on the side of The People.  Of course, this is the usual rhetoric of the demagogic populist who contrasts the "people"--the virtuous majority of the community--with powerful elites and minority groups who aggrandize themselves at the expense of the people.

The obvious problem with this simple dichotomy--The Elites versus The People--is that The People is divided between Trump opponents and Trump supporters, and Trump's loss of the popular vote and his unpopularity today indicate that his opponents outnumber his supporters.  When I made this point in the question and answer period for one of the Claremont panels, I did not hear a clear answer.  The only answer I can think of is that the Trump opponents among the People have been fooled into sacrificing their own interests in serving the interests of the Elites and minority groups.

Unlike the Claremont political scientists, the empirical political scientists think that the political sociology and psychology of Trump's supporters cannot be explained with a simple dichotomy of Elites versus the People, because the interests of the People are diverse.  Here is where I see the political sociology and psychology of evolved human nature.  The 20 natural desires include the desires for social status, political rule, and property.  Most of the explanations of Trump's supporters by the empirical political scientists depended on one of those three natural desires.

Carson Holloway presented a paper on how Aristotle's account in the Politics (book 5) of the sources of factional conflict in a regime might explain Trump's appeal.  At the most general level, Aristotle claims, factional conflict arises from disputes over equality and inequality: some people engage in factional conflict because they aim at equality, and they think they have less than they deserve, because others have aggrandized themselves unfairly; and other people engage in factional conflict because they aim at inequality, thinking that they deserve to be above others. 

According to Aristotle, this battle over equality and inequality is commonly over either profit or honor: factional conflict arises when people think they have less wealth or honor than they deserve.  This can be seen in Trump's rhetoric, Holloway observes, in that he criticizes the American Elites for taking more wealth and honor than they deserve, and he promises that he will overturn this unfair inequality by increasing the economic wealth and social status of the People and reducing the unfair privileges of the Elites.

Are the Trump supporters motivated by economic issues?  Are they mostly members of a white working class who are economically disadvantaged?  Trump's rhetoric about creating and protecting jobs for the working class suggests this.  But some of the political scientists doubted that Trumpism can be explained by economic interests.  Most of those who voted for Trump are in the top 50% of Americans in income.  And in average income black Americans are generally much worse off than white Americans.

In her speech in August of 2016, when Hillary Clinton warned against the "Alt-Right" support for Trump, she quoted from the Wall Street Journal as describing the Alternative Right as a movement that “rejects mainstream conservatism, promotes nationalism and views immigration and multiculturalism as threats to white identity.”  Some of the political scientists who study the political psychology of "white identity" present evidence that Trump's appeal depends on "white identity politics."  White Americans who believe that they are threatened by non-white racial and ethnic groups were much more likely to vote for Trump than for Clinton.  For these Trump supporters, the motivation is not interest but identity--their identity as white Americans, who have long been the majority in America, but who now fear becoming the minority as more non-white immigrants enter the country.

Three of the speakers at the convention--John Sides, Michael Tesler, and Lynn Vavreck--have written a forthcoming book about this--Identity Politics: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America.  They make two general points about how political scientists can explain Trump's appeal, which have been summarized in a couple of articles (here and here).  First, most voters are not ideologues: they don't organize their political beliefs through some coherent political theory such as liberalism, conservatism, or libertarianism.  It should not surprise us, therefore, that Trump could appeal to many republican voters even though he has no consistent commitment to the conservative or libertarian ideas that are thought to characterize the Republican Party.

Their second point is that instead of being motivated by any intellectual ideology, the Trump supporters are indeed motivated by white identity.  This is not the same as white supremacy, because white supremacists are only a small minority of the Trump supporters.  Rather, what moves most of the Trump supporters is a sense that white Americans are losing their dominant status in America--that they are being discriminated against by policies like affirmative action, that they are losing jobs to nonwhites, and that the immigration of nonwhites into America will soon make white Americans a minority.  Through survey research, Sides, Tesler, and Vavreck have shown that while fewer than 5% of white Republicans who think that their racial identity is not important supported Trump, 81% of white Republicans who think their white identity is very important voted for Trump.  Although most of these "white identifiers" are not white supremacists, the Alt-Right can appeal to their sense of white identity.

In some previous posts (here and here), I have argued against the Alt-Right supporters of Trump who appeal to the defense of "ethnic genetic interests" as rooted in human evolution.  I am persuaded that evolved human nature is inclined to tribal thinking, so that we naturally categorize people as us and them, and we naturally favor our group over others.  And while the social conditions of life have often predisposed people to make this in-group/out-group division along racial and ethnic lines, there is no evidence that this predisposition is an innate adaptation of the human mind.  On the contrary, there is lots of evidence that while we are innately inclined to look for cues of coalitional affiliation, the content of those cues depends on social learning; and people in multi-racial and multi-ethnic societies can learn to be cooperative without regard for racial or ethnic boundaries.

Aristotle observed: "Dissimilarity of race is also conducive to factional conflict, until a cooperative spirit develops" (1303a25).  I agree.  Racial differences often divide a country.  But the liberal culture of an open society can promote a multiracial cooperative spirit.

Some of the pro-Trump political scientists on the Claremont panels scorned this idea of America as a multiracial open society, and they did so by appealing to their teacher--Leo Strauss. One of them was Michael Anton, the author of the famous "Flight 93" essay arguing that electing Trump was the only way to avoid the death of America through Clinton's election.  Anton now sits on Trump's National Security Council.  He cited Strauss's letters to Alexandre Kojeve as supporting the Trumpian claim that America must avoid the degrading effects of globalization by asserting its national identity as a closed society.  (Last February, The New York Times published a good article on the Straussian supporters of Trump.)

Similarly, Tom West suggested that protecting American identity might require closing the borders to all but white European immigrants.  As a standard, he quoted from the nation's first naturalization law of 1790, which restricted naturalization to "any alien being a free white person."  In his new book, West claims that "a policy welcoming non-European immigrants would have been rejected by all" during the American founding (267).  At the convention, West appealed to white identity politics by arguing that white Americans were victims of discrimination that favored the interests of minority groups and nonwhite immigrants.

The racial division between Trump voters and Clinton voters holds for both men and women.  At the convention, Jane Junn of the University of Southern California pointed out that the "gender gap" between the Democrats and the Republicans is actually a "racial gap."  Although Democratic presidential candidates usually win the majority of women voters, Republican presidential candidates usually win the majority of white women, which was true for Trump.  And in the case of Trump, white women were voting against a white woman!

Nonetheless, some of those who look to Trump as a defender of American identity seem to define that identity in non-racial terms.  One of the political scientists at the convention explaining Trump's appeal was Katherine Cramer, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who wrote The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker (2016).  In Wisconsin, she sees the supporters of Scott Walker and Trump as an us-versus-them resentment against the political elites, but rather than being based on a racial divide, the largely rural white citizens of northern Wisconsin feel resentful against the urban people in Madison and Milwaukee, who show no respect for rural Wisconsin.  Cramer recorded conversations among 39 groups of people in 27 small communities in northern Wisconsin over five years.  These people complained that Wisconsin's state government was controlled by people in the urban areas who favored their own interests, who used government programs to benefit lazy people, including state government employees who advanced their interests at the expense of the hard-working taxpayers.  These rural citizens were the ones who supported Walker's attack on state employee benefits and his efforts to reduce state government generally.  These were also the rural voters who gave Trump his victory.  (This was true across the nation--Clinton lost the rural vote to Trump by huge margins.  Similarly, the Brexit voting in Great Britain was much stronger in rural areas than in London.)

Cramer argues that while these white Republican voters show some evidence of racism--they refer to the highway dividing northern and southern Wisconsin as the "Mason-Dixon line"--their xenophobic resentment is based mostly not on racial differences but on their "rural consciousness" as set against the urban life of Madison and Milwaukee, where the Democrats are the majority.  Some of Cramer's critics have complained that she does not give a good explanation for the causes of this "rural consciousness," except to say that it has been passed down through families.  Some of the critics have suggested that she should have considered the influence of conservative talk-radio in Wisconsin.

So it seems that although the motivations for the Trump voters were complicated, the general pattern is clear: Trump prevailed through a demagogic rhetoric of populist resentment against arrogant exploitative elites.  The question now is what to do about the consequences of electing to the presidency someone who is unfit to fill the office. 

Remarkably, I did not hear any political scientist defend Trump's fitness for the office.  The only defense for the Trump presidency that I heard was the claim that some of the people appointed by Trump were well qualified to promote policies that would reduce the Administrative State, which is the goal of the Claremont folks.  But even on this point, some of the Trump supporters (for example, Stephen Balch of Texas Tech University) admitted that Trump's bad character might ultimately prove more damaging to American conservatism than anything that Hillary Clinton might have done as President.

So far, the harm that Trump can do has been mitigated by his incompetence.  But even an incompetent narcissistic demagogue can be so dangerous that we might hope for his impeachment, or (more likely) his resignation to avoid impeachment.