Religions: cheat-sheets of useful behavior

I finished reading The Year of Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs. In a sentence, it’s about a guy trying to follow the rules of the Bible literally. Many folks tell him this is impossible, but Jacobs sees a personally and culturally instructive lesson to this task. Some parts of the book struck me as naïve or superficial, such as his tithing and “caning” his son, other parts were observant or insightful, like his praying and honestly talking with a broad spectrum of different Christian and Jewish groups. Despite my criticisms, it is one of the best concluded books I’ve read in a long time. The last few pages show that, despite what others think of his Year, A.J. Jacobs gained something meaningful from it. He says, starting on page 328:

“There’s nothing wrong with choosing (the parts of the Bible that one wants to adhere to)…. The key is in choosing the right (parts)….*

“Now, this does bring up the problem of authority. Once you acknowledge that we pick and choose from the Bible, doesn’t that destroy its credibility? … Why should we put stock int he Bible? “…Let me offer two interesting ideas from (A.J. Jacobs’ spiritual advisers during his Year):

“Try thinking of the Bible as a snapshot of something divine. (i.e. not a perfect portrait, but an aid to job memory or thought about the subject.) “…(W)e can’t insist that the Bible marks the end of our relationship with God. Who are we to say that the Bible contained all wisdom? … You can commit idolatry on the Bible itself. You can start to worship the words instead of the spirit….

“…I’m now a reverent agnostic…. Life is sacred.”

Jacob’s conclusion to his Year is interesting. He didn’t convert to any brand of Christianity or Judaism, although he was raised and is culturally Jewish, but he found meaning in some Biblical activities despite his lack of faith. N. N. Taleb has come to similar conclusions about Christianity. I’ve discussed his views about following the Greek Orthodox calendar of feasts and fasts for dietary and health benefits, and he claims in Antifragile that religions provide useful heuristics that help people make decisions, regardless of the religion’s metaphysical or ontological presuppositions. Taleb claims that these religions have survived because practitioners of these religions have survived to teach the religion to their children, and he argues, if these traditions have survived millennia, perhaps there’s something to be learned from them. Note, in Taleb’s view, it does not matter whether one believes in the existence of gods. What matters are the commandments of the religion about how one ought to organize their daily activities.

In part, Taleb’s point is similar to Jacob’s Year: because Jacobs didn’t believe in the Bible’s divinity, he was simply trying to follow the rules stated in the Bible. Some of the Biblical rules dictate that one believe in a particular type of God, but by the end of Jacobs’ book, the rules that stuck were not that metaphysical or ontological rules about God: they were rules about the actions one ought to take, such as “give thanks”, “don’t lie”, “don’t steal”, “don’t work on the Sabbath”. After ending his Year, Jacobs’ feels like he has too many decisions to make, which is similar to the point that Taleb makes about heuristics, including religious ones, that people use to navigate the ocean of decisions we make each day. These millennia-old cultures can give us systems that simplify our daily lives: we may not know why these systems work, since they may be based on simply doing it, but these systems have kept people alive and socially interactive for a very long time. There is something of value to be gleaned from the practical behaviors outlined by religions.

However, warnings about false prophets are apt here. Scott, the writer of Sceptic Meditations, makes a good point that some folks use religious traditions to take advantage of others, and we ought to be on guard against those who would abuse religious practices simply to make money or control others. I don’t advocate that we ought to follow a religious tradition blindly because it’s apparently worked for others. Rather, I think that secular people can learn something from religious traditions. The Enlightenment, Renaissance, and Modernity did wonderful things for individual freedoms, but these historical movements also lead to an emphasis on an individual’s decisions over acting in the interest of a collective, which leads to a problem of which decisions one ought to make and where one ought to find guidance on those decisions. Some behavioral psychologists, such as Dan Ariely, Daniel Kahneman, and Amos Tversky, have noted that there is a problem in having too much choice: people don’t know how to choose when our choices multiply.

The tradition of Rational philosophers, such as Plato, Descartes, and Adam Smith, were wrong about people being Rational agents. Humans aren’t rational in the way that some Modern philosophers want us to be: we often behave irrationally, and consistently so. But somehow despite our inability to make the “right” decisions, Religions and ancient cultures that have survived to the present are a sort of cheat-sheet to simplifying some of life’s difficult decisions.

I think the recurring popular interest in Stoicism relates to folks’ desire to simplify, or get guidance on, some of life’s myriad decisions. Stoicism is an ancient tradition that happens to have several writers whose works have survived to the present. Additionally, one can read the Stoics in an agnostic way, without reference to the influence of dieties: combine that with the old-world guidance that writers like Seneca provide, and it’s easy to see why Stoicism appeals to folks who don’t already follow an “ancient behavior tradition”, for lack of a better term. And I think that’s what people are looking for: a guide for how to behave, rather than a guide about what to believe.

* To save space, I have to substitute the tenor of a complicated metaphor Jacobs builds in this paragraph.


1 thought on “Religions: cheat-sheets of useful behavior

  1. SkepticMeditations

    I agree we can learn much by studying religions, not necessarily in taking all their propositions seriously. Religions often fulfill many people’s psychosocial needs: community, control, meaning, purpose. Though there are other ways people can fulfill these needs without relying on mythological stories and religious frameworks.

    Thanks for your honorable mention of my website.


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