St. Peter and St. Petersburg Paradox: Faith as a Gamble

This post uses the general idea of the St. Petersburg Paradox to explain faith. The paradox can be summed up like this: How much should a person be willing to wager in a lottery with a potential payout of infinity dollars? The answer is infinity dollars (minus one). Of course this is not the answer people give. Most people would not be willing to wager more than a meager sum because the probability of winning that lottery is essentially zero, despite the actual expected value of the lottery being much, much higher than fathomable.

If this idea is extrapolated to the promises of many religions, this modified version* of the paradox might be settled. How much of your life would you be willing to wager to participate in a lottery with a potential payout of infinite life? The answer is any amount necessary up to infinity minus one.

When we talk to our devoutly religious brother and sisters, I think we can see this line of reasoning. Despite the probability of winning this lottery being essentially zero, many devoutly religious people find no discrepancy between how much they are willing to wager and how much they expect to win. A wager of an entire lifetime is a very low price to pay for an expected value of ∞, and most would be willing to wager as many lifetimes as necessary to achieve the expected payout.

The new paradox—if this is true—is, however, the discrepancy between how much they are willing to pay for this lottery and how much they are willing to pay to play numerous identical lotteries. A Christian is not going to wager anything in the Islamic lottery, despite an identical expected value of playing, and a Muslim is not going to wager anything in a Christian lottery. Etc., etc.

In other words, faith might be seen as a wager in a specific lottery where the longer you play the more likely you can win, despite the odds being almost infinity to one against winning.

So why don’t non-believers play this lottery? Because until someone can show us the money, we’re not going to risk what little we have on a fabled payout.

*This modified version assumes there are only two payouts (0 and ∞). In the real lottery there is an infinite number of possible payouts. My version does not perfectly reflect the logic behind the original lottery.

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The Rise of Secularism and the Fall of Christianity: Google Books N-Gram Analysis

Google Books’ Ngram allows users to search for the frequency of terms appearing in books in Google’s database of printed material. The results show how often those terms have appeared in print over the years. Today I was messing around with the search tool and discovered something rather interesting. First, the word “secularism” appears in print more often than the word “Christianity” each year during the last ~75 years. This is illustrated below.


And second, beginning in the early 1700s “Christianity” appears in numerous books, peaking at about six books in every thousand. This surge and its peak took place during the scientific revolution, which is understandable (see Thomas S. Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific RevolutionsWiki page here). But subsequently Christianity began a rapid decline into obscurity (relatively speaking) to well fewer than one mention per 1,000 books by the American Civil War. This decline took place during the Age of Reflection, a paradigm shift away from reductionism and towards more complex explanations of natural phenomena.

And third, the rise of the appearance of “secularism” began somewhere between the two World Wars, but by the 1950s, when fighting wars the traditional way literally meant human extinction, “secularism” dwarfed “Christianity.” “Secularism” might very well be correlated with the threat of nuclear war. The European response, for example, to the Second Thirty Years’ War and the proliferation of weapons capable of destroying the planet was to break down the walls between states, integrate into a single community, and reveal its own vulnerabilities as confidence building exercises with former enemies. To do any of these while maintaining sectarian differences would have been the suicide of the emerging post-modern system. Religion, particularly Christianity on the European continent, was compelled to shrink and give space to secularism. I imagine the word overtaking Christianity for this precise reason (although I admit there could be a plethora of other reasons).

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Official Non-Secular Songs in the Military

As a veteran of the US Navy, I’ve always respected the secular nature of the branches of the American armed forces. Maintaining a secular position about religious matters is not only compelled by law, it’s also necessary for logistics purposes. An organization made up of people from every religious background would find itself less cohesive and coherent if it picked and promoted one of those religious positions over all the others. But there’s one tiny, insignificant, official, and non-secular position. It’s the official songs of the armed forces.

The Coast Guard’s “Semper Paratus” is the only completely secular song of the bunch. The rest mention god in one way or another. Let’s break it down one by one.

The Air Force sings a song simply titled “The U.S. Air Force.”

God is mentioned in the second verse:

Minds of men fashioned a crate of thunder
Sent it high into the blue
Hands of men blasted the world a-sunder
How they lived God only knew!
Souls of men dreaming of skies to conquer
Gave us wings, ever to soar!
With scouts before And bombers galore.
Nothing can stop the U.S. Air Force!

The Army rocks out to “The Army Goes Rolling Along.” 

Faith in God is mentioned in the third chorus:

Men in rags, men who froze,
Still that Army met its foes,
And the Army went rolling along.
Faith in God, then we’re right,
And we’ll fight with all our might,
As the Army keeps rolling along.

The Marines belt out the “Marines Hymn”

Heaven is mentioned in the third verse.

 Here’s health to you and to our Corps
Which we are proud to serve;
In many a strife we’ve fought for life
And never lost our nerve.
If the Army and the Navy
Ever look on Heaven’s scenes,
They will find the streets are guarded
By United States Marines.

And the Navy chants “Anchors Aweigh”

Faith and God are mentioned in the third verse.

Blue of the Mighty Deep; Gold of God’s Sun
Let these colors be till all of time be done, done, done,
On seven seas we learn Navy’s stern call:
Faith, Courage, Service true, with Honor, Over Honor, Over All.

While none of these songs are explicitly Christian or other, they do make the assumption that everyone in the military believes in one god or another. This is incredibly frustrating as an atheist, but it’s even more frustrating as a veteran, someone who took an oath to protect the constitution.

But to be honest and perhaps blunt, I don’t think it’s even worth trying to change the lyrics. It would take tremendous effort, and it would probably definitely fail. These songs are so ingrained in military culture that I bet even atheists sing the verses without giving them a second thought.

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Boulding’s “Skeleton of Science”: And What Complexity and God Mean to Knowledge

This post is a quick introduction to a field in engineering management and modeling and simulation called systemic science. The author of this field, a Quaker, captures beautifully how god plays into the way we think about complex problems.

In 1956 Kenneth E. Boulding published “General systems theory: The skeleton of science.” This piece identifies nine levels in the hierarchy of complex systems in the study of systems science. These levels elucidate the level at which empiricism is possible. Each level becomes more complex, reducing the ability to empirically study a phenomenon. Hard science dominates the first four levels; this is followed by less precise sciences, such as social and psychological fields where empiricism is less probable, and eclectic measures are often taken to approach explanation. These levels keep me gainfully employed! At the ninth level empiricism is impossible, but speculation and questions remain. Here’s a quick rundown.

The Hierarchy of Complexity

Level 1: Level of “frameworks,” or “static structure”

  • Stuff the universe is made out of
  • Ex. Crystal structures

Level 2: “Simple dynamic system with predetermined, necessary motions”

  • Clockwork systems
  • Ex. Motion of the solar system

Level 3: Closed loop control mechanisms

  • The maintenance of equilibrium in a system
  • Ex. A thermostat

Level 4: Structural self maintenance in an open system

  • “The level at which life begins to differentiate itself from not-life.”
  • Ex. A biological cell

Level 5: The genetic-societal level

  • Low-level organisms with functional parts, growth, reproduction
  • Ex. A plant

Level 6: Animal level

  • Brain to guide movement, learning, behavior
  • Ex. A cat

Level 7: Human level

  • Self-consciousness, knowledge, symbolic language
  • Ex. A human being

Level 8: Sociocultural systems

  • Norms, values, cultures, roles
  • Ex. The nation

Level 9: Transcendental systems

  • “Inescapable unknowables”
  • Ex. God

Boulding beautifully sums up the ninth level (p. 136):

To complete the structure of the systems we should add a final turret for transcendental systems, even if we may be accused at this point of having built Babel to the clouds. There are however the ultimates and absolutes and the inescapable unknowables, and they also exhibit systematic structure and relationship. It will be a sad day for man when nobody is allowed to ask questions that do not have any answers.

Boulding’s hierarchy provides us with a blueprint to identify where the gaps in our knowledge rest. As empiricism becomes increasingly more unlikely at each level, the gaps should become wider. These continuously fuel the scientific community with deeper questions. The gap in the “God” level is infinitely wide, fueling society with an endless array of unanswerable, but interesting, questions, which might explain why humans are so want to debate what a god is, what its intentions are, and how we should worship one (or many).

Each level becomes more and more complex until, ultimately, complexity is all that remains. The “God” question is therefore rather interesting, despite its relative meaninglessness to all other debates, where empiricism at least maintains a fighting chance.

On the flip side to this I could change Boulding’s assertion: It will be a sad day when nobody is allowed to ask questions because we already have all the answers. Thank God for complexity!

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The Question of Atheist Charity: Less Diffusion of Responsibility?

Checking out the Friendly Atheist’s blog, I’ve come across an absolutely fascinating story. To summarize, an atheist organization wanted to give a charitable donation of $100 to a non-profit with religious ties that helps children. The non-profit refused the money because of the source, so the atheist organization started raising more money to force the non-profit to accept a donation. Ultimately the non-profit refused to accept well over $20,000, strictly because they don’t want to be associated with non-believers. This compelled a Christian man to start his own fundraising campaign to get non-atheist-tainted money to the non-profit. When atheists started donating to that one, the gofundme campaign was cancelled. Holy crap! What a crazy story!

In the end all is well. The money will be donated to a secular organization, and the Christian-linked charity will get a sizable donation anonymously. (The fundraiser is still ongoing. If you’d like to donate click here).

But it got me thinking, and it also reminded me of another story from the Friendly Atheist from five years ago. Basically there was a question about whether or not a secular organization was being discriminated against by the American Cancer Society. I went back to that article, and then something hit me.

Per the article, on the micro lending website Kiva, as of 2011 the group called Atheists, Agnostics, Skeptics, Freethinkers, Secular Humanists and the Non-Religious have donated far more money than any other group, including Kiva Christians. In fact, I just checked and this is still the case. The atheist group has raised almost $28 million, $2.5 million more than Kiva Christians.

The Question

Why is it we hear time and time again that atheists and other secular organizations are really, really good at charity, often outperforming religious institutions? To really exemplify this question, when the Catholic Church turned its back on freezing nuns, refusing to raise the money needed to provide the nuns with heat in the middle of the winter, a group of atheists came to the rescue to replace the nun’s boiler.

In this piece I offer no answer, but rather I seek to offer a hypothesis. That is, during times of charitable need, atheists cannot rely on the diffusion of responsibility through their social structures.

Non-believers, no longer belonging to the religious communities of their childhoods, feel a part of the non-religious community. And because that community is so small, the burden of responsibility is greater on each member, compelling them to do something they might not otherwise do for the greater good. The pressure to give is smaller if we know that millions of others are going to give. The pressure to give is greater if we know there is only a small handful of people capable of giving.

So my hypothesis is:

Atheists and non-believers often outperform religious charity due to a greater feeling of responsibility as part of a smaller social group.

At least, this is my hypothesis, and if I phrase the question differently it’s certainly a scientific question.

But there might be competing hypotheses. Non-believers might feel a need to prove themselves in a world usually hostile to non-belief. That is, some teachings insist that atheists have no moral barometer (to steal a phrase from Steve Harvey), and the non-believer feels compelled to prove those teachings wrong.

Another hypothesis might be that as personal income increases, religiosity decreases. And as personal income increases, charitable giving increases. In this case a single independent variable affects two dependent variables, but religiosity has no effect on charitable giving. Atheists outperform religious people strictly because they have more disposable resources.

Whatever the answer may be, the observation does not change. Although not always, secular charitable giving often outperforms sacred charitable giving (feel free to inundate the comments with instances that contradict this point).

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No Christianity, Many Hospitals: A response to Catholic News Service article

Today I read an article titled “No Christianity, No Hospitals: Don’t Take Christian Contributions for Granted,” on the Catholic News Service’s website. In the article author John Stonestreet praises the Catholic contribution of hospitals to society. Without the invention of Christianity, he notes, hospitals as we know them would not exist. I’d like to take a minute to go through the article, line by line, and offer some feedback.

Pro-abortion forces should be careful what they wish for, especially when it comes to Christian hospitals.

To be fair, everyone should be careful what they wish for, but this is a rather minor point. More important, what does this have to do with abortion?

recent poll by the Pew Research Center found that the percentage of Americans who “think” that religion plays a role in solving important social problems “has fallen significantly” in the past fifteen years.

In 2001, 75 percent of those polled said that religious institutions played such a role in our society. By 2016, the percentage had dropped to 58 percent.

Here we set up the is… Stonestreet has identified a fact of society.

Now what’s changed? There’s no evidence that religious institutions have reduced their efforts in addressing the problems around them. Pew suspects that the drop has something to do with the rise of the so-called “nones,” the religiously unaffiliated.

Yes, and I agree with Pew. The religiously unaffiliated view social issues as secular problems. But that’s not the point here. The point is that society views on social issues are becoming more and more secular. More on that after the next bit.

I think part of the problem is that the religious contribution to the common good is so woven into the fabric of American life that most people these days just take it for granted and never stop to think about how prevalent it really is.

That could be, but it’s not really all that surprising. We fully understand how as quality and quantity of life and lifespan increase, the role of the church decreases. It’s a natural social phenomenon that we can watch happening in practically real time (raw data is here). The thing is, however, that religious institutionalism really is losing its prevalence (at least in the developed world).

So today I want to talk about one such contribution: religious hospitals. As Wikipedia tells us “Greek and Roman religion did not preach of a duty to tend to the sick.” The idea of the hospital grew out of the “Christian emphasis on practical charity,” especially towards the sick.

As mentioned above, the role of the church over medicine is understandable in societies where disease and death were more common. But the author seems to think (from an unsourced Wiki page) that hospitals are the product of specifically Christianity. I’m assuming he read the Wiki page on hospitals or the history of hospitals, which—before any mention of Christianity—shows examples of Greek religious hospitals, Buddhist religious hospitals, secular Indian hospitals, Sri Lanken Buddhist/secular hospitals, and Roman emergency care facilities, most of which predate the Christian hospital. While the adoption of Christianity in modern day Turkey certainly helped propel the ancient Christian hospital, the hospital doesn’t owe its existence to the Christian church.

Thus, as historian Roy Porter wrote in his book “The Greatest Benefit to Mankind: A Medical History of Humanity,” “Christianity planted the hospital.” Or stated differently, without Christianity, there would be no hospitals, at least not as we understand the idea.

So what? Well, first see my above paragraph. But more to the point, if Christian hospitals had never existed, does the author think that modern medical science (an undoubtedly secular area of study) would have failed to produce the MRI machine? The Hippocratic Oath, which was written centuries before Christ? Penicillin? Of course, again this is not the point. I’m waiting for him to get to his first.

That’s why, again quoting Wikipedia, the Catholic Church is “the largest [non-governmental] provider of health care services in the world.” How large? “It has around 18,000 clinics . . .  and 5,500 hospitals, with 65 percent of them located in developing countries.” By one estimate, the Catholic Church “manages 26 percent of the world’s health care facilities.”

That’s remarkable. The Catholic church certainly provides a lot of health services worldwide. But does the author think that if those hospitals shut down tomorrow the market would not fill the void? If demand for medical services remained constant but the supply of medical services dropped by 16% in the US, don’t you think entrepreneurs would be fending each other off for the largest slice of that piece of pie? The stats on the scope of Catholic hospital charters doesn’t tell us that we owe our health to the Catholic church.

So unless folks don’t consider providing health care in the developing world as “an important social problem,” the 42 percent who answered Pew’s question in the negative could not be more wrong.

There it is. That’s the problem. Who says that? Who believes helping the sick is unimportant? No one, which is why the author immediately changes gears. Straw man #1.

But in the off chance that respondents interpreted the question to mean “important social problems” just in the U. S., well one in six hospital beds in our country is located in a Catholic hospital. In at least thirty communities, the Catholic hospital is the only hospital in a 35-mile radius. This doesn’t even take into account hospitals run by other Christian bodies such as Baptists, Methodists, and especially Seventh-Day Adventists.

I already addressed the hospitals-in-the-US issue. Oh and yes, it also doesn’t take into account Islamic health centers, Jewish hospitals, military hospitals, and, for the lion’s share, Secular private hospitals and clinics. The number of hospital beds by religious sponsorship tells us nothing of the level of care.

Now for many progressives, this is a bad thing since these hospitals do not, because of their “commitment to the sacredness and dignity of human life from conception until death” define “women’s health” in the same way they do. To them, the spread of Catholic hospitals just means fewer abortions, and of course, that’s bad.

Again, who says that? Who says that fewer abortions is a bad thing? Does Stonestreet really believe pro-choice people praise abortions? Straw man #2. What secular people lament is when a church has a dogma and tries to make everyone else live by it. It has nothing to do with getting excited over how many abortions a person has. It has to do with being free to live by our own morality, not church ethics.

For someone actually sick and in need of medical care, this is completely irrelevant, if not perverse.

Well, we can agree on one thing; this is completely irrelevant.

And speaking of perverse: many also have the strange notion that if Christian institutions got out—or as some would prefer, were forced out—of the health care business, government would just somehow pick up the slack.

Two things: First, no one is trying to force religious medical institutions out of business. Straw man #3. Second, I cannot speak on behalf of everyone, but perhaps some would like the government to pick up the slack, but as I stated earlier, the free market would pick up the slack. … oh god, I can feel it coming…

This highlights the foolishness of the pro-abortion ideological crusade against Christian professionals and organizations in health care. As we’ve talked about before on BreakPoint, Washington State is already forcing Christian pharmacists (who by the way got no help from the Supreme Court) to choose between their faith and their careers. If states or the federal government attempt to force Christian hospitals to perform abortions, and those hospitals close their doors, the results would be catastrophic.

Sigh… Straw man #4. Stonestreet furthermore forgets there’s a difference between forcing someone to choose between their faith… and asking them to do their jobs. But if everyone who can’t do their jobs wants to quit on sectarian lines, let them. Medicine is inherently secular, and just as we would not accept a male Muslim gynecologist to refuse to see female patients because it goes against his religion, we expect Christian doctors to provide for everyone, no matter religious beliefs. Doctors know what the job entails. For example, I’m vegan. If I choose to work at McDonalds I’d better be willing to serve hamburgers, no matter my moral position on meat.

As I said earlier, the Christian commitment to caring for the sick, and other acts of compassion, are such a part of American life they’re taken for granted.

Americans take for granted hospitals, because as a society we’ve decided that hospitals are important to have. That’s why we have so many of them. We no longer care what role the church played in providing those services in the past. All we care about is that when we need hospitals they will be there. And whether or not they will be there has nothing to do with whether or not Christianity has a seat on the board of directors.

This article was supposed to be about how important Christian hospitals are, but it spiraled into several irrelevant arguments against abortion. I’m not sure where they came from, but there they are.

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God’s Music (Part 2)

A while ago I posted about my favorite music ever written in praise of (mostly the) Christian god. Consider this part two.

Blind Willie Johnson (1897 – 1945), an almost preacher who picked up a cigar box guitar as a child, decided the life of the bluesman was preferable to a life of the cloth. Although he left behind god’s calling, his music was infused with faith, the cross, and revelation (for example, John the Revelator was one of his go-to hymns).

As I’ve stated before, I love gospel and praise music. The lyrics don’t affect me; it’s the melody, the emotion, and cadence. Most blues music is strictly secular (despite being played by a hugely religious demographic), but Blind Willie Johnson bucked that trend. Below is my favorite Blind Willie song, “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning,” and it’s chock full of explicit references to his lord and savior. Behold:

Also don’t forget to check out a more contemporary recording by the Tedeschi Trucks Band (song #1 in a 3 song set. The other songs are by Elmore James and Bob Dylan):

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