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Sunday, August 23, 2009

the voting paradox and god-belief

One of the objections I have encountered to my unbelief is that religion, properly deployed, provides a basis for morality, which in turn is quite helpful to society. These objectors argue that if God doesn't exist, then god-belief is highly unique in that it is the only known false belief which is actually beneficial on a large scale. Therefore, they continue, god-belief is made more rational than it would otherwise be.

Two immediate problems stand out in this argument. First of all, it's not at all clear that people need a religious basis for morality. In fact, many unbelievers making their way in the world are living proof that, at the very least, not everyone requires such a basis. Secondly, the argument is invalid. Even if god-belief is unique as contended, that in no way suggests that some god exists.

Although I might be willing to grant for the sake of argument that religion is beneficial as described by Christians and other theists, I am quite satisfied to point out the invalidity of the argument. Indeed, religions are unique in many respects, both individually and as a category; yet it simply does not follow from observing that, say, Buddhism is highly unique, that therefore Buddhist beliefs are true. Still, god-believers often demand exemplary arguments. So, wouldn't it be great to respond by citing a demonstrably false belief which improves society in one way or another? If we can find such an example, we shall have yet a third objection to the afore-mentioned argument.

Watching a taped economics lecture a few days ago, I was reminded that self-interests often interfere with healthy social operation, and invite suppression from various agencies. While in most cases this takes the form of offering real incentives, thus creating a sort of artificial, indirect self-interest for individuals, at least one special case is addressed by false education.

That case is the voting paradox. In a democratic government, where officials are elected by citizens, and for districts in which voters number in the thousands or more, each individual voter has close to a zero probability of affecting the outcome of the election. So, unless he has some additional incentive to vote, a rational citizen will not expend his precious time and effort for an essentially non-existent payoff.

We should note that in many cases people do have additional incentives. For example, I consider it a fascinating experience to vote, and to know that I am just one tiny cog in an immense machine. So in my case, I just happen to enjoy the process. Yet I don't think everyone shares my abstract perspective. In most cases, I should think, people vote because they believe their vote actually makes a difference, when it clearly does not.

Numerous educational programs encourage this false belief. In October 2007, for example, Roy Hanson, Jr., the director of Private & Home Educators of California, an organization providing informational assistance to parents homeschooling their children, wrote, "Ignoring our responsibility to vote is, by default, to vote for tyranny" (source). His sentiments are shared by many across all kinds of demographics. Consider also Citizen Change's infamous "vote or die" slogan from the 2004 United States Presidential election, which falsely cautioned that declining to vote was fundamentally dangerous.

Those false messages, however, if believed, result in positive results for society. Democracy really does work better with higher voter turnout. In short, this is a great example of a false belief which benefits society, just as religion is claimed to do uniquely.

Any time we have a conflict between individual interests and social interests, false beliefs may potentially play some helpful role. However, they do not come without cost. For, on some level, we also value honesty, and false beliefs, no matter how helpful in other respects, will always conflict with truth.

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