Religion in the Public Domain

In recent weeks, I’ve had a few posts about religion, and I’ve tried to apply economic concepts to them. This is another one. As before, I ask you bear in mind that I am trying to treat the concept with respect, and I ask that you do the same in comments. I note that this is the hardest of these posts I’ve had to write because a lot of this just doesn’t sound respectful to me no matter how I write it. Still, I think the question is worth discussing… its been raised by others before.

Today’s LA Times had a nice column by Tim Rutten about religion in the public sphere especially as it pertains to Romney. Rutten writes:

“Still, it’s been nearly half a century since our political journalism has witnessed anything quite as breathtakingly noxious and offensive as the current attempt to discredit Mitt Romney, a potential Republican presidential candidate, because the Massachusetts governor is a Mormon.”

Now, the likelihood that I would vote for Romney is very close to nil, but that is because I don’t trust what we already know about his economic policies. I don’t care if he’s a Mormon, Catholic, Southern Baptist, Methodist, Muslim, Jew, Atheist or whatever else, I am not voting for someone who brings on board the likes of Mankiw or Hubbard unless the other guy appears to be GW-incompetent.

Now, why would the fact that Romney is a Mormon be a problem for many voters? Well, I could think of several reasons:

1. If a Mormon has a false belief, it means that he/she doesn’t have the True Faith, whatever that might be. Presumably, those guided by the True Faith are more likely to make good decisions than those guided by false beliefs.
2. Some testable aspects of LDS doctrine do not appear to match what is observed in the real world. I understand, for instance, that genetic tests of Native American populations have proven to be a source of controversy within the LDS community as of late.

With respect to item 2, this is not unique to the Mormon faith. I would think it is not irrational to believe in the concept of a Deity; I don’t think we are anywhere close to being to formulate a testable hypothesis, much less prove that one exists or doesn’t exist. However, most Holy Books provide a lot more than a statement that a Deity exist – they provide some description of that Deity and of events that occurred. Some of those descriptions of events do provide testable hypotheses, and it seems every Holy Book has some aspect that is embarrassing and/or seems to contradict known facts.

Which is not necessarily a problem for faith (or Faith). Contradictory evidence may be an act of some adversary to the Deity, or a test by the Deity, or simply one of those things that is not knowable. But that presents the first problem with respect to faith in the public arena. If a person is willing to accept something that contradicts what is out there simply as a matter of faith, why not accept other things as a matter of faith? In fact, there are plenty of people like that in the field of economics already – the story tellers with the pretty theories that just don’t apply to the real world gain new adherents every day. Why is it acceptable to refuse to vote for someone because they believe, without any evidence or despite contradictory evidence, that cutting taxes beyond a certain point will lead to faster economic growth or humongous surpluses as far as the eye can see, when it is not acceptable to vote for them because they believe, without any evidence or despite contradictory evidence, that [insert favorite story from favorite Holy Book here]?

And we are also more accepting of beliefs that are held by many than beliefs that are held by a few. A person who states they believe the Universe was created 6,000 years ago, or that evolution is a myth is accepted by most voters. On the other hand, most of us feel that a person who states they believe the Universe was created 1,000 years ago, or 20,000 years ago, is just plain crazy. The difference between 6,000 years, and 1,000 or 20,000 is simply that many people accept 6,000. Similarly, a person who claims that the Universe is 6,000 years old, but not that it was created by a Deity called “God” is likely to be considered crazy as well; 6,000 years works for a Universe created by God, but not otherwise.

Put another way, if there were only 100 Mormons in the US it would be acceptable to make fun of Romney’s beliefs and to refuse to vote on him based on them. But that sentence could easily have been modified… the words Southern Baptist, or Muslim, or Jew might easily have appeared instead of Mormon.

An alternative reason for accepting faiths that somewhat contradict the existing data is that perhaps much of what is in the Holy Books is not intended to be taken literally. This too has a problem… if, as we do in this country, one accepts as rational the belief that God specifies that one should not eat cheeseburgers, should we also accept it as rational that its OK to each cheeseburgers because someone who used to persecute God’s followers decided that cheeseburgers was OK 2,000 years ago?

Then there’s the issue of True Faith versus false beliefs. Presumably, if one has a True Faith, it makes little sense to vote for someone with a different belief if a believer in the True Faith is running for office.

Anyway, I really don’t know where I’m going with this. Every place I can see this essay leading is very uncomfortable, and I’ve probably been sufficiently offensive so far, though it hasn’t been my intent. So perhaps its best to take a step back for a moment, and see what you all think. Please keep it respectful.