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RELIGION vs ATHEISM: Religious people are largely atheists…

RELIGION vs ATHEISM: Religious people are largely atheists, depending on the domain & why the discussion is largely flawed.

Some philosophy now. One brilliant contribution by economists is the concept of “cheap talk”, or the difference between “stated preferences” (what you say) and “revealed preferences” (from actions). Actions are louder than words: what people say (in opinion polls or elsewhere) isn’t as relevant, as individuals reveal their preferences with hard cash or, more generally costly action, or even more generally risky action (which, invariably, brings us to *skin in the game*). This is why opinion polls are considered largely BS. I also believe that the notion of “belief” is largely misunderstood.

Likewise I consider the difference between “believer” and “atheist” as mere verbiage unless someone shows difference in action.

In Chapter 1 of SILENT RISK, the notion of “probability” is shown to be verbalistic and empty (probability maps to “degrees of belief” mathematically, is ~ belief), largely INCOMPLETE, while revealed preferences via decisions is what matters (more technically probability is something deeply mathematical, useless on its own, an integral transform into something larger, and cannot be “summarized” in words). And decisions and decisions ONLY can be a metric for RATIONALITY. [Footnote 1]

In our paper Rupert Read and I wrote that the “belief” content of religion is epiphenomenal (“pisteic” not epistemic), it is merely like believing in Santa Claus makes Christmas a more colorful event.

Belief is cheap talk (to oneself). Western society, particularly the U.S., has managed to marry deep religiosity (in talk) with total atheism (in words). What matters in the West, is the action by the state never impacted by religion. In rational decision-making it has a small cost.

If you want to know if someone is a believer in words not in action, just observe whether he relies on some supernatural force to get him out of trouble or if he’d rather rely on the laws of physics and the logic of biology. An individual who goes first to the doctor and as a mere luxury to the priest (without paying for immediacy) is technically atheist though nominally a religious believer. So it looks like religion is something left to the spiritual, socio-ritualistic.

The idea hit me when I saw a joke of a cleric who said “I throw charity money in the air, letting The Lord take what share He wants and I keep the rest”. People have adapted to the idea for millennia.

Finally “Christianity” has evolved since the Middle Ages to become “atheistic in decisions and Christian in beliefs”.

Some unrigorous journalists who make a living attacking religion typically discuss “rationality” without getting what rationality means in its the decision-theoretic sense (the only definition that can be consistent). I can show that it is rational to “believe” in the supernatural if it leads to an increase in payoff. Rationality is NOT belief, it only correlates to belief, sometimes very weakly (in the tails).


[Footnote 1] See in Silent Risk the paradox of the trader who makes a bet against the “probable” though he believes it will eventually happen.



via RELIGION vs ATHEISM: Religious people are… – Nassim Nicholas Taleb.


  1. Bradley wrote:

    I think the problem with this idea is that you see the supernatural and the natural as operating in similar realms. I go to the priest for spiritual healing not physical. There is no increased material payoff for my belief but presumably, at least to a believer, a spiritual one. I am not a believer to “get out of trouble” but for the goods outside of the natural realm.

    Tuesday, October 28, 2014 at 9:07 am | Permalink
  2. Bill wrote:

    A deeply religious person has an infected toe that develops into gangrene and the infection begins to travel up the leg. Lots of prayers and offerings later the infection continues to progress. As a last resort the leg is amputated saving a life.
    Rational explanation: prayer and offerings were useless. Only a medically proven procedure worked.
    Irrational (religious) explanation: the amputation was the answer to all the prayers and offerings.

    Tuesday, November 25, 2014 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

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