The Faith of Our Fathers

[More disjointed musings that didn’t make the book. I cleaned em up as best I could. And blogged.]

Pick a sports team. It can be from a sport you love, or a sport you hate, or even a sport you never cared about before. Just make sure it’s a team that you don’t already love (or hate). Watch that team anyway. Resolve to cheer for them. Hang out with people who already cheer for them. Learn the players’ names and stories. Pick some favorites from among them. Read up on the team’s history and lore. Buy their merchandise.

Sure, it’ll start out feeling fake. But before long, it probably won’t be. You’ll really and truly love them. You will feel with them – their losses, their wins, their injuries and their rivalries. You will manufacture a feeling, and then that feeling will take over. After that, you won’t have to manufacture anything. You’ll just feel it, and it will feel… real.

The evidence is there for sports teams, which is one area of behavior that we can ethically and uncontroversially experiment on. Particularly if you’re a child, you learn to identify with the team that everyone around you already loves. That’s not because the team is objectively better. It would seem to be because there’s a built-in mechanism for devotion, and team sports trip that, and all it takes is a nudge from your family and friends in one direction or the other.

Religion works kind of like this too, I suspect. But it’s maybe a little harder to reprogram.

I don’t want to give out too many details of my private life, but many years ago I dated a guy who was (and is) a follower of an unusual religion. I was an atheist at the time, and I remain one today. But I did go to quite a few of that religion’s events. At first I just followed along out of curiosity, and out of wanting to give that particular relationship a chance. It seemed like maybe the religion was going to be a part of that.

Eventually I got to know some of the people. I came to care for the success of the community. More: I found myself wishing I could believe as they did, even about the bits that were decidedly not my cup of tea. Even about the bits — and all belief systems have them — that were flatly preposterous. I wanted to believe them anyway.

I remember thinking that at a certain point I’d crossed a line, and from then on, if I had actually converted, no one would have been too surprised, and really, the more surprising thing would have been if I didn’t convert.

I felt distinctly icky about that. It felt like I was dealing with them falsely, no matter what I chose.

In a way converting would have felt very nice, and not converting — which is what I ultimately did — felt very uncomfortable. It probably hastened the end of the relationship. When it was over, I wondered how I could have been drawn to the religion in the first place. I simply couldn’t fathom it anymore. I’d been reprogramming myself, and it had almost worked. (It had worked the previous time, when I had become an atheist.)

Conversion is rare. Anyone in developed countries can find access to practitioners of nearly any religion. Yet it’s well known that most people never leave the religion of their parents: They learned to feel at home in that religion long before they realized that such feelings could sometimes be rewired. Perhaps they never realize that they can be rewired at all. And for most of them, damn, my religion feels good. My religion feels like… certainty. Said everyone at once.

But it’s possible to rewire that feeling of certainty. It can be done. It’s just difficult – more so with religion than with sports, because religion at least purports to have implications about our ethics, our metaphysics, and all sorts of other things. It affects one’s peer group, which probably needs to be rechosen, and it implicates one’s former peers in having made a bad decision. (If people wanted to rewire themselves to be law-abiding, which religion should they pick? Islam, it would appear.)

Is it too cynical to say that reprogramming is a part of how love works? Defenders of arranged marriages point to a familiar phenomenon: The couple starts out by arrangement, and they come to love one another.

“But you didn’t love him when you started out,” says someone from a culture where marriages aren’t arranged. And that’s the politer form of the inquiry. The less polite form holds that arranged marriages look to us entirely too much like rape, or like sexual slavery.

And the answer to these qualms? Roughly: “No, we didn’t love each other at first. But he was a good match, and we love each other now. And anyway, why are you so concerned about the emotions of my former self? Here I am, and I love him. You claim that people should only marry for love, and that’s precisely what I did. I married, and then I fell in love.”


That’s a hard argument to answer. Defenders of arranged marriage are unlikely to care about the quibbles I’d bring up – feminist stuff about how women should determine their own life courses, no matter what age they are. Or what about those tragic arranged marriages in which one or more partners is gay or lesbian or transgender? I expect all good traditionalists to snort at that one, but I’m really glad I didn’t grow up in a culture that arranges marriages.

And – you knew I was going here, right? – then there is politics. As with religion, your parents are among the best predictors of your political affiliation.

That shouldn’t be surprising. If you follow politics, you’re following a team, which is your party. And it feels… magnificent, doesn’t it? It feels like certainty. Meanwhile, here’s what political team-following does to your reasoning:

Partisans in a polarized environment follow their party regardless of the type or strength of the argument the party makes. Moreover, when individuals engage in strong partisan motivated reasoning, they develop increased confidence in their opinions. This means they are less likely to consider alternative positions and more likely to take action based upon their opinion (e.g., attempt to persuade others). In short, elite polarization fundamentally changes the manner in which citizens make decisions … citizens turn to partisan biases and ignore arguments that they otherwise consider to be “strong.”

Politics makes you feel good while telling you lies.

You can reprogram yourself here, if you like, but it will be difficult. And it’s only likely to land you on another team, with other biases, which will perhaps be equally bad. (Consider, as you leave one party for another: Someone else at the very same moment is making the opposite move, and they feel just as certain, and it feels just as great for them….)

And even if you end up satisfied with your new team, you probably shouldn’t be. Unlike in sports, there is an ethical dimension to our choice of team to cheer for. And the likelihood of any one party or ideology getting it all right is very, very low. My own included.

Better is this, from Jeffrey Friedman. On the documented ignorance of the American electorate, political scientists have proposed what is termed rational ignorance theory. It holds that people do not inform themselves about politics because it doesn’t pay to do so – their vote is unlikely to matter anyway, so ignorance is rational. But Friedman points out a flaw in the theory:

The fact that voters vote despite the astronomical odds against their votes being decisive is what political scientists call the paradox of voting…. Voters who know that their votes are unlikely to matter should not only fail to inform themselves politically; they should also fail to vote. The fact that voters vote, along with the polls showing that they think their votes do matter, indicates that the premise of rational ignorance theory is false.

People vote because they think – mistakenly – that they know enough to make a choice that would be as good or better than the outcome of the election. And they think – also mistakenly – that their vote will make a difference in a nontrivial number of elections. They think they’ve got things all figured out, and that their vote matters. They’re almost certainly wrong on both counts.

This tracks common sense better than rational ignorance theory, even if it is consistently cynical. Most people clearly do think that voting matters, and most people do think that they know enough to make a good decision. Is it all just a tic of the human mind that leads them to it? Is it all simply the urge to cheer for a team, and the difficulty of reprogramming oneself? Is it all just that feeling certain feels really good?

That may be a part of it, but I think there’s something more to it than that. There would appear to be a belief in politics that the answers are easy, and indeed, that someone has already found them, and all that remains to be done is to apply them – simply and straightforwardly, like solving a long division problem. And we can do that. Let us all do it grandly, as part of a team, the team of our parents, the team of all good and reasonable people….

[Image credit.]

3 thoughts on “The Faith of Our Fathers

  1. You remembered! Hanley is to thank. I saw through his FB feed that you were blogging independently again. I couldn’t grok the size of the commentariat at The League, but I’ve never forgotten PL. So I had to come check out your new digs.


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