Mitt Romney's Mormonism as inspired a lot of discussion lately about whether we it is okay to vote against a politician because of their religion. As everyone knows, Mormons have beliefs that seem odd to non-Mormons. Now it turns out
that Herman Cain has an unusual supernatural-related belief as well: that the number 45 has a special significance in his life, often appearing as a "sign" of important events. Not too surprisingly, this has been discussed in the leftosphere
in posts with titles like "Herman Cain is Even Crazier than You Thought." Here
is a thoughtful discussion of whether Romney's religion is something we should care about.
Well, should we? I just want to make one point that hasn't been made yet in the discussions I have seen.
A lot of the discussion has been about how "wacky" the religious or supernaturalist
beliefs of Cain and Romney supposedly are. My point is this: I don't think that the "wackiness" of a religious belief matters at all. The simple reason is that, in my experience, it does not correlate with anything else, including wackiness
of non-religious beliefs.
As a senior in high school, I lived in a town (Santa Rosa, CA) that had a substantial Mormon community. I knew several Mormon teenagers and though I was already an atheist I even attended services in their church a couple of times. (No, I wasn't flirting with Mormon beliefs. I was flirting with a Mormon girl.)
These people, one and all, were as industrious, rational, well-adjusted and decent as anyone you would hope to meet. On the one hand. On the other hand, they believed things like -- that (some) people become gods when they die, that Satan is the estranged brother of Jesus, and that American Indians are descended from the lost tribes of Israel.
Facts of the latter sort seemed to have no effect on facts of the former sort -- unless it was a beneficial effect! .
I see a much more general phenomenon here. I have often noticed that distinctively religious belief, in general, not just the "wackiness
" of such beliefs, is curiously insulated from the rest of life, and in particular from beliefs about other things. (This is one of the things that inspired philosopher Georges Rey to write brilliant paper, Meta-Atheism: Religious Avowal as Self-Deception
I know scientists who are sincere religious believers, and those beliefs as often as not are as fuzzy and sloppy as their scientific work is clear and rigorous.
Religious belief seems to be a part of a person's life in which they get their crazies out. If this sounds offensive or nutty to you, just interpret it, for the moment, as a sort of thought experiment, as a thesis about religious beliefs different from your own. ... Does that help? Well, just as Romney's "magic underwear" seems wacky to you, so your belief that the Creator of the whole universe cares whether your marriage ends in divorce or not seems wacky to me. I have even heard tell of Christians praying to win at football -- as if the Great Mystery
would pick sides in a game!
Religions are full of goofball ideas, and yet that does not seem to cause people to have goofball ideas in other realms. Like those scientists, we use one sort of logic for religion and a completely different one for everything else.
I can think of two possible explanations for this:
This subject-matter is special. Religion is about invisible beings with inexplicable super-powers. It just feels natural to think about them in ways that are paradoxical, paralogical, evidence-free, and obviously wish-fulfilling.
Or how about this:
There are no consequences. If you think irrationally about the stock market and act on those thoughts, reality will punish you for it. But if you think irrationally about an invisible super-being -- making sure that these thoughts do not lead you to make predictions about the real world - reality will not punish you.
Anyway, I'm not worried about the wackiness of a politician's religious beliefs. Except for real-world implications (for instance, regarding abortion or gay rights) their religious thoughts can just run riot as far as I am concerned - which, as often as not, they will.