Monthly Archives: January 2016

The Hidden Values of Religion: health and diet

Before I begin, I ought to note that it’s not my goal to trivialize or dissect anyone’s religious believes in this post. Rather, I’m examining an idea proposed by a writer, N. N. Taleb, that I find interesting. His idea gets me thinking about religions in a new and useful way. I’m hoping to open doors and foster discussion with this post, rather than belittle or antagonize anyone’s beliefs.

N.N. Taleb writes about the value of religion for regulating one’s diet in a section of Antifragile called, “If it’s Wednesday, I must be vegan.” He describes using the Greek Orthodox Church’s calendar of fasts and feasts as a heuristic to regulate one’s diet, ensuring that he eats a variety of foods. His thinking behind this idea is that Greek Orthodox Christianity has been around for about 1700 years or more, and since there are millions of followers in the world, there must be something that is successful about their way of life, in terms of evolutionary biology. Therefore, if I follow their calendar of fasts and feasts, I can be confident that I am eating in a manner that is healthy for people over the long-run because the people who have been following this religious system have reproduced and continued to follow the religion. I believe there is a familial tie to this religion for Taleb, but if one substitutes any belief system that has survived as long, or longer than, Greek Orthodox Christianity, a similar heuristic obtains.

Taleb is looking for ways to make decisions in a world that we cannot completely understand, and I find his use of religious systems as stores of practical knowledge, separated from the ideological tenets of the associated religions, fascinating. Religion and food have always had close ties. Whether we’re talking about Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam, or Christianity, food metaphors abound in their scriptures, as do dietary prescriptions. Generally, I think Taleb’s idea is useful, but there are some problems with his approach: how does one choose a religious system to use for dietary guidance? What is the definition of fitness that one is working under: fitness for an individual, fitness for a population, or another definition? Taleb has these questions answered by his family history, but if one is not raised in a particular religious tradition, then these decisions need answers for this religious dietary heuristic to be useful.

First, what is a heuristic? This term has confused people with whom I’ve discussed it, so it needs an introduction. A heuristic is a solution to a problem that has loosely defined rules and is often arrived at by trial and error. For example, “Don’t get into a stranger’s car”, or “Don’t eat meat from animals with cloven hooves”. Heuristics are the kinds of solutions that we often call ‘common sense’, or we don’t even have names for them because they’re so engrained in society: for example, beds in Industrialized Western countries are typically raised off the floor there are a number of useful reasons for this that wouldn’t obtain in other climates, where sleeping on the floor or outside is sufficient.

The variety of dietary prescriptions found in various religions is an interesting problem for Taleb’s heuristic. Religious dieting ranges from strict Jaina diets of fruit and other foods that naturally require no harvesting and don’t harm the organism that produces them, to more mainstream Buddhist and Hindu ovo-lacto vegetarianism, to Jewish and Muslim restricted omnivorous diets, and reformed Christian unrestricted omnivorous diets. Moreover, each of these religions has been around for at least 1500 years, many of them much longer. Without considering additional reasons to adopt a religious diet, such as other aspects of the religion, what one currently eats, or how one wants to eat in the future, it is difficult to choose simply based on the prospective menu.

Another difficulty in choosing a religion as a dietary heuristic is what one wants to achieve: long life? As many descendants as possible? A maximum of longevity and descendants? Often, the religions that attend these dietary heuristics provide guidance on the kind of life and children one ought to expect. However, this post is talking about choosing a religion based on its dietary heuristics, rather than following the dietary guidelines of one’s chosen religion. This is important because it changes how one looks at a religion’s relationship with food: how long do followers of a particular religion live? How many kids to they have? What kinds of food do these believers eat? Do I like that diet? How do I want to live? Do my expectations match with the diet of a particular religion? These questions don’t matter to a believer because they’re already answered, but to a person who is looking for the best heuristics to guide their life, these questions matter quite a bit.

With these difficulties, is it possible for someone to eat the diet of a particular religion without accepting some of the other tenets that follow that menu? I think in some cases, it is possible, but I think most agnostics or atheists would lack the reasons to continue eating like a Christian, Jew for more than a few months. Those reasons can come from medicine journals, health magazines, or any useful source, but it’s not sufficient to eat in a manner that has worked for millennia without having further justification for doing so — just ask anyone who was a meat eater and failed to become a long-term ovo-lacto vegetarian. What do you think of Taleb’s idea? Have you ever tried to “convert” your diet? If so, how did it work for you?

The Hidden Values of Religion

“Where there is the tree of knowledge, there is always Paradise”: so say the most ancient and the most modern serpents.”

“Insanity in individuals is something rare – but in groups, parties, nations, and epochs it is the rule.”

— Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, aphorisms 152 and 156.

I find it fascinating that there is such a publicly hostile relationship between scientific atheism and vocal proponents of popular religion (primarily Christian religion). The commonality between both groups’ arguments is what fascinates me. At their core, both groups want to know what the Truth is about the world. Both believe that “the Truth is out there” in a Realist sense, and we have to somehow uncover it. Their disagreements seem to stem from  differing interpretations of what that truth is and how we can know it: atheists found their epistemology on scientific ontology, and the religious group founds theirs on their particular religious ontology. Religious proponents generally believe that knowledge can come through some empirical experience of faith in addition to using “man-made” epistemic processes such as those developed in the sciences, while scientific atheists deny that method of knowing and only allow the various empirical and a priori scientific methods developed in the various sciences. Whether faith, or mystical revelation, is a valid way of gaining knowledge seems to be the root of the disagreement between these groups, since mystical revelation is what founds the difference in epistemology and ontology between religious and atheist groups. Because these ontological and epistemological interpretations of the world are contradictory in many ways, conflict arises.

I think there are problems and benefits with the epistemological and ontological models used by both groups in this disagreement, and I hope to discuss that in future posts. In this post, I want to explore the “hidden” values offered by religion, those values that have nothing to do with what one’s spiritual, ontological, eschatological, or other religious tenets are.

There are some beneficial social practices that arise from group religious practice that are hard to replicate outside of a religious group. The shared experience that religious practice offers to people, regardless of creed, creates a tendency — even a necessity — for those people to help each other in many ways: financially, emotionally, socially, etc. People who go to the same church, synagogue, or temple cook for each other, entertain each other, and help care for each others children, among other shared experiences. Without this shared religious experience, atheists need to replicate this social support group through other means, which can be difficult because atheists don’t have the inherent shared religious experience to draw on, although it can certainly be done.

However, it seems to me that the Materialist, non-spiritual worldview that attends an scientific atheist’s epistemology lends itself more to an individual relationship with others, rather than a cooperative relationship with others. In other words, it seems to me that an atheist is more likely to purchase social services rather than rely on their social support group to provide those services, and there is generally an increase in businesses that provide social services in countries with declining religious attendance. Child care, elder care, many types of insurance, and meal delivery are some examples of this change. I want to emphasize that both systems can be useful and successful for the people who use them: purchasing the services you need is not worse or better than having your church congregation provide those to you. However, purchasing services is generally more expensive than getting those services from a social support group, and that is a difference I find interesting.

What I’d like to see is a collaboration between religious groups and atheists to learn how to build social support groups that can help people, rather than debating about epistemological and ontological differences. I think the latter is devisive and trite. The former can actually help people who need it, while saving people money and introducing us to people in our communities, and I think that is a social benefit  we can all agree on.

If shared religious experience is the foundation of a congregation’s social support group, what shared experience can atheists draw upon to create similar social support groups?

Why do people want what they can’t have?

David, the author of Raptitude, wrote an interesting blog post recently. He offers his thoughts about achieving one’s goals, specifically those related to fitness. His point is that people often approach long-term goals like fitness or debt reduction with the mindset of sacrifice or conflict, which puts the goal at odds with one’s current activities, offering little short-term gain from the goal and lots of frustration though struggling to achieve it. His solution to this problem is to find something about the goal that one can appreciate immediately, in addition to anticipating the larger, long-term reward of achieving the goal.

There’s an interesting corollary to David’s post that he briefly mentions: people often choose ambitious or vague goals that are difficult, if not impossible, to achieve. To put it pessimistically, people want what they can’t have — this formulation is unfair, of course, but without a plan to achieve the goal  it is the likely result of most of our desires.

A personal maxim which relates to this problem is: we don’t study what we are good at. In other words, “we want what we don’t have.” (But if you’re a good student, you ought to improve through incremental exercises.) We want to be experts in subjects that challenge us, not what we can already do well enough.

What’s more, there is a similar vein to most religions that teach some sort of salvation or liberation. In these religions, people often want what they can’t have in this life — the after-life, moksha, nirvana, etc. — and they spend years working towards that unattainable goal or desire. What’s more, the path to fulfill this goal is often clouded by mystical practices that can’t be clearly defined in terms of incrementally attaining a goal, like you can with incrementally saving $100,000. Of course, there is a promise of fulfilling this wish, but it is often founded on something that is out of the wisher’s control, which is where faith enters the picture. My point isn’t to attack religious salvation or New Year’s resolutions. Rather, I want to explore idea that people regularly choose goals that are far out of reach, if not impossibly so. And I’d like to urge folks to reconsider how they choose their goals, whether they involve religion, health, finance, etc.

In his post, David draws on a trope that people often apply to peculiar practices that humans do. I call it the “Visiting Alien Fallacy”. It goes like this, in David’s words, “Visiting aliens would be confounded that we appear to worship this particular quality yet don’t usually embody it.” There are some hidden assumptions about these aliens that David, and others don’t spell out for us. The most important one is: these aliens are supposed to be perfectly rational, like Dr. Spock. The folks who commit this fallacy clearly didn’t watch enough sci-fi before writing about aliens because most aliens aren’t like Dr. Spock. In Star Trek, Star Wars, and countless other tales, aliens often make the same logical mistakes that people do. They also probably have the intergalactic equivalents of body image problems and credit card debt, just like we do.

A more interesting possibility is, perhaps our persistent fascination with unobtainable goals is only paradoxical to us, the ones who do it? When we observe others struggling with unrealistic goals, it is often clear to the observers why they fail to achieve their goals.

It’s useful to note that what we do defines our lives more than what we want. I can want to be a millionaire until I die, but unless I figure out how to make more money than I spend and save the surplus, I’ll die first. Consequently, it’s more important to define what you do in a day than what you want to achieve over a longer length of time: by defining your actions during a day, you can make small achievable steps towards a goal, like going to the gym every other day or saving $10 every day, and the large goal takes care of itself through the habit. Making small activities part of one’s daily routine is much easier than staring at a seemingly unattainable goal of losing 25 lbs. or saving $100,000. And this is why I think people want what they can’t actually have: we’re famously bad at translating our large goals into daily routines — find a small step you can take towards your goal every day, the rest takes care of itself.