A Religion Is Any Set Of Rules That Claims To Define Moral Vs. Immoral Human Actions

May 22, 2018 · 16 min read

Religions are invented belief systems that express their members’ fundamental ideas about what are the right and wrong ways to do things like please God, operate a government, or organize an economy.

By David Grace (www.DavidGraceAuthor.com)

Religion Is Fundamentally A Belief System About Right & Wrong

People who don’t think about God very much assume that religion doesn’t play a material role in their lives.

Those people are wrong. Religion does not merely involve rules about God.

Religions are emotional, subjective collections of rules that somebody invented about what is right and what is wrong, what is fair and what is unfair, what is moral and what is immoral. Those subjective rules were made up as first principles.

Sometimes the religion’s rules relate to individual conduct:

  • Sex outside of marriage is wrong.
  • Drinking alcohol is wrong.

Sometimes they relate to economic conditions:

  • One person having vastly more wealth than another is unjust and wrong.
  • Taking any of a person’s wealth without their voluntary agreement is stealing and wrong.

Some religions are belief systems that pretend to answer the question:

  • What must man do to please God?

Other religions pretend to answer the questions:

  • How should governments be fairly operated and how should economic systems be fairly organized?

Capitalism, Communism and Socialism are economic religions that pretend to answer the question:

  • What is a fair and moral economic system?

Communism, Anarchism, Conservatism, Liberalism, Libertarianism, and Socialism are all political religions that pretend to answer the question:

  • What is a fair and moral system of government?

All religions invent their answers these questions based on their members’ subjective, philosophical notions about right and wrong, fair and unfair.

A Religion’s Rules Are Made Up, Not Designed

Religious systems are not the product of research, planning and study. They are not empirical, scientific or pragmatic.

At their core, religions are expressions of the emotional and ethical philosophies of their founders as made-up first principles.

Somebody gets up one day and says, “God came to me in a vision and revealed to me these rules that all humans must follow in order to please God” or “I’ve been thinking about how terrible/unfair this or that situation/activity is and here are the rules I come up with that all governments/economies must be based on in order to fix this terrible problem.”

Then, after they’ve made up the rules that they subjectively think are fair, moral and right, they try to find other people to whom their philosophy appeals. It doesn’t matter how crazy they may seem to others. There will always be some people who will be attracted by them.

A religious system starts with inventing its rules and ends with trying to justify how, if adopted, those rules will make society more moral and fair. Not more efficient or prosperous or free. Just more “fair.”

A pragmatic system starts with an examination of human conduct and ends with rules designed to channel that conduct toward specific, announced goals — innovation, prosperity, personal freedom, low violence, social and economic mobility, etc.

Religions Don’t Care If Following Their Rules Causes More Problems Than It Solves

A religious system may start with the rule:

“Drinking alcohol is evil and wrong” and then declare that drinking alcohol, being a sin, must be made illegal.

If the religion succeeds in making alcohol illegal, it will then claim that society is now much better off with people being fined and arrested for producing or drinking alcohol.

No matter what problems arise from this policy, the religion’s true believers will not admit that its rule (drinking alcohol is evil) was wrong or that its solution (make alcohol illegal) was a bad idea.

Instead, they will point to the claimed benefits flowing from making alcohol illegal and argue that all the problems resulting from that rule were the fault of the people who didn’t follow it, all the corrupt people who allowed others to break the rule, all the politicians who didn’t provide the resources needed to enforce the rule, etc.

At its foundation, the “Alcohol Is Evil” religion wouldn’t really care about how much damage the rule did because, by definition, alcohol was evil and therefore the rule was right and moral, and all the bad effects that flowed from making alcohol illegal were a necessary price that had to be paid as the cost for prohibiting evil conduct.

A pragmatist would ask, “What are the negative consequences of drinking alcohol?” Then he/she would ask, “Is there a way we can reduce those consequences without doing more harm than good?”

The pragmatist might come up with educational programs, alcohol treatment programs, drug or genetic research that reduced the craving for or the enjoyment of alcohol, or some other solutions to the “alcohol problem.”

The pragmatist would not try to make alcohol illegal because study would show that prohibition would be ineffective and would cause more harm than good.

The pragmatist would never be able to convince the religionist that prohibition was a bad idea because the prohibitionist would view banning alcohol as a moral necessity in and of itself .

Religions have huge effects on all of us because the goal of the religions’ True Believers is to force everyone to live under the set of rules that they’ve arbitrarily decided are fair, right and moral.

Religions Never Admit Their Rules Cause More Problems Than They Solve

The True Believer will say anything and make any argument, no matter how obviously flawed, to defend the claim that following the religion’s rules is a good thing.

No matter how much evidence you amass showing that a religion’s rules are false or irrational or that they lead to damaging results, the True Believer will try to explain away those facts because True Believers don’t really care about whatever bad results flow from following their rules.

They’re only interested in having the rules followed because the True Believers are sure that those rules define a fair and moral society.

If you’re a libertarian, to you it’s only fair that you keep all your money and power not gained from outright crime and unfair that the government should take any of that money or power away from you no matter how toxic the society built on that rule becomes. Any downside is worth it because the rule is an expression of what you think is fair, right and just. End of discussion.

If you’re a communist, to you it’s only fair that money and power should be taken away from the few and shared among the many and it’s unfair that some people should be fabulously wealthy while others starve no matter how disastrous the resulting society becomes. Any downside is worth it because the rule is an expression of what you think is fair, right and just. End of discussion.

When confronted with evidence of the damage flowing from his rules, the True Believer will tell you that sometimes people have to suffer in order to do the right thing, that it’s inevitable that there will be collateral damage when you are doing the right thing, but that harm is a small price to pay in order to achieve the good that comes from following his system of moral values.

To them their theory isn’t wrong. It’s the people who don’t live by their rules who are responsible for any bad results.

Communists will find a dozen reasons why the failure of communist economies is not due to flaws in the communist system. Libertarians will invent endless arguments why defective products, consumer fraud, monopolies, discrimination, and massive poverty are not the fault of the rules of the libertarian system.

In every case of anarchism, socialism, communism, libertarianism, liberalism and all the other flavors of political and economic religions, the response of the true believers is always the same:

Unbelievers are the problem. If my religion was only more thoroughly imposed, more perfectly followed, if the bad people who resisted the rules set out in my catechism were only gotten rid of, then everything would work great.

Religions Are Concerned With Fairness, Not Effectiveness; With Morality, Not Prosperity

The problem is that fairness and morality are subjective and mean vastly different things to different people. What is eminently fair to a communist is totally unfair to a libertarian.

Also, fairness is a very different thing from effectiveness; morality is a very different thing from prosperity.

Effectiveness, efficiency and prosperity are objective and can be measured against a defined goal. Morality and fairness cannot.

Morality & Human Nature Are Often Diametrically Opposed

Any system whose goal is to create a subjectively fair society instead of a society that is pragmatically designed to be widely prosperous and socially and economically mobile will not work well.

One of the main reasons that religious systems (as opposed to pragmatic ones) yield bad results is that religious systems often seek to impose conduct that is contrary to human nature.

Sex, gambling and alcohol are often religiously forbidden but are so widely desired by human beings that the religious systems that seek to ban them are doomed to failure. Those religions’ rules are inherently fighting a losing battle with human nature.

The basic idea in the communist political religion is that everybody will work hard while being paid roughly the same amount no matter how much or how little economic value their effort produces and no matter how much or how little talent their job requires. That idea is totally contrary to how most humans think. Most people are not and never will be altruists.

Any system based on the communist principle is bound to fail.

If you have an industrial economic system that’s producing hundreds of millions of units of critical products like medicine, food and machine components for hundreds of millions of people you need a system whose products are 99.9% or more safe and reliable.

A libertarian system that is based on self regulation is doomed to failure because there is a material percentage of human beings who are unreasonable risk takers, who will cheat to get more money, who will pursue short-term gain even though the consequence may be long-term loss, who will misjudge the probabilities of getting caught cheating and will misjudge the severity of the punishment.

The libertarian system is based on the idiotic notion that every seller will self-regulate themself in the hope of receiving a long-term gain even though a large portion of humanity inherently pursues short term rewards. Human nature dooms that ridiculous notion to failure from day one.

To a religious person, their notion of fairness is everything.

To a pragmatist, anyone’s notion of fairness is unimportant to the extent that it interferes with effectiveness.

Pragmatically Designing An Effective System

When you’re designing a human system, you have to figure out:

  • In priority order, what are the results you want from your system?
  • What are the rules you think will most effectively achieve those goals?
  • What percentage of the population would have to be non-compliant with those rules in order to break the system you’re proposing?
  • How likely is it that at least this number of people will, in fact, fail or refuse to follow those rules?
  • In summary, will your rules produce materially more good than harm or harm than good?

Human Nature

In answering these questions you need to keep in mind some basic truths about human beings:

Human Responses Are A Continuum

The responses of a large group of people to a situation will follow a normal curve. The center of that curve can be shifted left or right, the slope of the curve can be made steeper or shallower, but there will always be people at both the extremes.

For example, people want ice cream that is safe and healthful.

If there are no rules some brands of ice cream will be very clean and some will be very dirty. Most brands will be someplace in the middle with various levels and types of contaminants.

If you publish a set of standards you will shift the curve somewhat to the right and the majority of the brands will meet the minimum standards but some will not and others will exceed them. And others will lie about meeting them.

If you set a fine for failing to meet the standards but the fine is small and is rarely imposed the curve will only move a bit farther to the right.

If you set a heavy fine and sometimes impose it, the curve will shift even farther to the right.

If the punishment for selling substandard ice cream is a very high fine and jail time for the responsible executives, the curve will move very far to the right, but nothing will completely eliminate occasional cases of contaminated ice cream.

There will always be people who will break the rules and there will always be people who will follow the rules and the distribution of the people between the two extremes will depend on the size and probability of benefits and punishments they anticipate will be imposed.

When making rules you have to determine if the benefits derived from the rule — moving the curve in the desired direction — are worth the costs of making and enforcing the rule.

That decision depends on the frequency and intensity of the damage that will flow from not making the rule.

If a hundred million units of the product are used each year and failing to follow the rule will kill ten percent of consumers of the noncomplying products then a 1% noncompliance rate will result in 100,000 deaths which is an unacceptable number, and you’ll need to impose even stronger penalties in order to force as many producers as possible to follow the rule.

Self-regulation is not a viable option.

Many People Pursue Short-Term Gain Far More Than They Avoid Long-Term Loss

A large number of people do not consider the long-term consequences of their actions. Moreover, a large number of people do not properly calculate the probability or severity of a potential future loss.

Any system that depends on a high percentage of people carefully considering the potential negative consequences of their actions months or years in the future is doomed to failure.

A substantial portion of humanity’s event horizon is less than a week or two. Every day people take drugs, drive drunk, cheat on their spouses, steal, and lie when the damage they will suffer from those actions in the next few days, weeks or months far outweighs the fleeting benefits they enjoy.

They do it because they inherently think in the short term and inherently underestimate both the likelihood of punishment and the severity of the punishment.

Any system that requires long-term, accurate evaluation of potential loss is doomed to failure.

Most People Do Not Act Based On Logical, Intelligent, Financial Self Interest

Human motives are a continuum and are not purely one thing or another, but rather a mixture of motivations. People act from a combination of emotion, personality, and financial considerations.

Most people most of the time make most decisions for emotional and personality reasons coupled with defective estimations of the probabilities of the possible results.

Most of the time people do or don’t do things based on fear, anger, jealousy, pride, ego, insecurity, aggressive or passive nature, ignorance, stupidity, greed, laziness, apathy, lust, pain, pleasure, and more.

Actions coldly and analytically based on accurately-calculated predictions of long-term financial gain or loss are very far down the list of why people do and don’t do certain things.

Any system of rules that depends on a majority of the population making a rational, intelligent, informed choice in the pursuit of long-term financial gain will fail.

For deeper insights into human behavior, I recommend the work of Daniel Kahneman, winner of the 2002 Nobel Prize for Economics and Richard Thaler, winner of the 2017 Nobel Price in economics.

Here is a link to Daniel Kahneman’s best seller, Thinking, Fast And Slow

and Richard Thaler’s best seller Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness

and Thaler’s Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics

Religions Can Be Designed To Work With Human Nature Instead Of Against It

I wrote a Wilaru story, A God For All Channels, in which a group of venture capitalists have figured out that organizations are a new and largely unexploited growth sector. This Wilaru story and the follow up one, You’ve Got To Keep The Customer Satisfied, were published in The Wilaru Chronicles available on Amazon.

Here’s an excerpt from A God For All Channels:

— — — — — — — — * — — — — — — — -* — — — — — — * — — — — — — — —

“Would you have any problem working for a religious organization, Mr. Wilaru?”

“Absolutely not,” I replied instantly. “After all, I am a professional.”

Apparently that was the right answer as Zoo and Flatland broke into smiles.

“Excellent,” Flatland said aloud. “You see, Mr. Wilaru, our product is a new religion, a religion for modern times and modern society. You’ve heard of start-up companies. Well, this is a start-up religion.”

“Interesting,” I said for want of a better response. “And you gentlemen are . . . . pastors?”

Zoo laughed out loud.

“Good gracious no,” Flatland said, chuckling. “No, Mr. Wilaru, we are VO’s, Venture Organizers.”

“It’s a new profession,” Zoo broke in. “Venture Capitalists, VC’s, invest money to fund new business enterprises. Venture Organizers invest in the establishment of start-up organizations.”

“I didn’t realize that there was such a thriving market in new religions.”

“Oh, not just religions, Mr. Wilaru. Any kind of organization. For example, my first project as a VO was the Anna Nichol Smith Fan Club. Not earth shattering, I know, but a solid success nonetheless.”

“A pity she died so young.”

“Oh, an organization lives on long after the principal is gone. Why, Elvis’ fan club is bigger now than it ever was while he was alive. Mr. Zoo was one of the original founders of AAOP, The American Association of Old People. Not quite as successful as the AARP but doing well nevertheless.”

“You see, Mr. Wilaru,” Zoo cut in, “A start-up business is only as good as its product, and products can die out pretty fast. But organizations, well, they can last almost forever. Just look at the Catholic church, the Masons, the umm. . . .”

“The Hidden Government Council,” Flatland filled in.

“The Hidden Government Council?”

“Forget I said that,” Flatland snapped.

“Moving on,” Zoo said, giving Flatland a poisonous glare. “We feel that the future belongs not to the VC’s but to the VO’s. And we would like to offer you a place in that future.”

“Gentlemen, I must say, I am intrigued. What would be the tenets of this new religion? In short, what raw materials would I, as a top-level wordsmith, have to work with?”

“Well, first off, our new religion is designed to appeal to basic human needs and desires, to work with human nature, not against it.”

“Yes, that is a critical point. It’s always easier to empower people to do what they want to do rather than trying to force them to act contrary to their basic natures.”

“The man gets it, Bernie. I told you he would.”

“Can you give me a few more details?” I asked, turning to Zoo.

“Sure. First off, our number one basic tenet is Our God Is Better Than Your God. Now, that may sound — ”

“Please, Mr. Zoo!” I said, waving him into silence. “What good is a God that is inferior to other Gods? Why would anyone want to worship a loser when they could just as easily sign up with a winner? It’s like General Patton said: ‘Americans love winners and hate losers’.”

Zoo and Flatland favored me with another pair of smiles.

“So, I assume your other principal beliefs would be that people who believe in your God get what they want and people who worship other Gods don’t. And the second part of that would be that those who follow your God also get rewarded in heaven after they’re dead and those who worship inferior Gods are damned, or at least substantially inconvenienced, in the after-life.”

“Exactly, and — ”

“No, let me tell you. Your religion will have the usual list of forbidden behavior but that will only apply between members. Thou shalt not kill, another member in good standing. Thou shalt not steal, from another member in good standing. Everybody else is fair game. It keeps the organization tight, punishes nonbelievers, and rewards the faithful with the right to sin as much as they want as long as they confine their predatory acts to outsiders.

“Then you will have the normal incentives: members can do whatever they want so long as it’s for the benefit of the church. And if a member is killed in the church’s service, then he or she will be doubly rewarded in the afterlife. Members must help convert — ”

“No!” Zoo interrupted. “We’ve got a twist on the conversion of the unbelievers here.”

“Yeah, we’ve changed it up,” Flatland said. “People like being part of an exclusive club. It makes them feel that they’re better than the people who can’t get in. So, we’re going to limit membership, make them work for it.”

“Brilliant” I said. “That way they’ll value it more and work harder to keep from being kicked out. It helps keep them in line.”

“And they’ll be much more willing to pay the tithe,” Zoo cut in. “We’ll start at three percent and eventually move it up to ten percent of their net, right off the top.”

“And we’ve been thinking about doing a pyramid thing,” Flatland said, giving me an inquiring glance. “You know, if you propose someone for membership and they get in, we kick back twenty percent of their payments up the line to you and the people who brought you into the church.”

“The numbers get really staggering for the people on the top,” Zoo said with a level stare. “Once this thing gets rolling, we’re talking millions going to the people who were in at the beginning. People like you, Wilaru. Of course, you’d have to get the job done. It would be up to you to really sell this. We have to hit critical mass fast. If we lose momentum we’re cooked.”

“That shouldn’t be a problem as long as you’ve got enough seed money to get the ball rolling. You know. . . ,” I said, pausing a moment, “if we could get the mailing list of the people who bought that Secret book, you know, the one that says that you can get whatever you want by wishing for it hard enough, well, gee, those saps will buy anything. They’d be sitting ducks.”

“We’re way ahead of you,” Flatland said, a gleam in his eye. “We’ve already filtered their names out of the credit card files. One press of a button and they’re ours.”

“Excellent. No, gentlemen, I don’t think we should have too much trouble signing up believers. After all, you’re giving the people what they want. You’re not going to preach that ‘turn the other cheek’ stuff, are you?”

“Do you think we’re idiots? An eye for an eye, kick ass and take names. That’s the American way.”

— — — — — — — — * — — — — — — — -* — — — — — — * — — — — — — — -

The religion Wilaru was hired to design was planned from the beginning to take advantage of human nature. I’m sure, given how its tenets meshed with human proclivities, it would have been a big success.

– David Grace (www.DavidGraceAuthor.com)

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Graduate of Stanford University & U.C. Berkeley Law School. Author of 17 novels and over 200 Medium columns on Economics, Politics, Law, Humor & Satire.

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