A little while ago I was reflecting on the Karl Marx quote, “religion is the opiate of the masses”. It got me to thinking about cognitive biases in religion and faith and specifically – Conjunction Fallacy: The conjunction fallacy is a formal fallacy that occurs when it is assumed that specific conditions are more probable than a single general one (Link)

In 1983 researchers Kahneman and Tversky asked a question that is now called as the “Linda Problem”. A variation of the original question goes like this:

At a dinner party this weekend, a friend introduces you to a woman named Genevieve.  He tells you that Genevieve recently graduated from Bryn Mawr College with a B.A. in Philosophy, where she was active in the Occupy movement and edited a literary magazine.

You’re interested in talking to Genevieve about Hegel, the subject of her senior thesis, but your friend jumps in and asks you to rank the following statements about Genevieve in order of their probability:

(1)Genevieve is a feminist.

(2)Genevieve is looking for a job as a sanitation worker.

(3)Genevieve is a feminist who is looking for a job as a sanitation worker.

Given what you know about Genevieve, rank the statements from most likely to least likely.  

The Answer (Taken from this Link):

This tests how well individuals reason using probability theory. In Kahneman and Tversky’s 1983 study, 85 percent of subjects got it wrong. Your answer was incorrect, too, if you ranked statement (3) in the first or second position. Logic dictates that (3) is the least likely scenario: two conditions being true (Genevieve is an ardent feminist + Genevieve is looking for a job as a sanitation worker) is always less probable than only one of these being true.

If you got this one right — it doesn’t matter whether you put (1) or (2) first, just that you ranked (3) last — congratulations. If not, you’re in good company: only 15 percent of Stanford business school students who had received training in probability theory got it right.  

Basically, people make conjunction fallacies when more information provided confirms their prior biases. So how does this relate to matters of faith, religion and specifically morality. 

Take this example below extracted from

When Jack was young, he began inflicting harm on animals. It started with just pulling the wings off flies, but eventually progressed to torturing squirrels and stray cats in his neighbourhood.

As an adult, Jack found that he did not get much thrill from harming animals, so he began hurting people instead. He has killed 5 homeless people that he abducted from poor neighbourhoods in his home city. Their dismembered bodies are currently buried in his basement.

Now, knowing what I have just told you about Jack, is it more probable that Jack is: A) A teacher. Or B) A teacher who does not believe in God?

If you answered “B”, you would not be alone. An average of 50 percent of people in a recent suite of experiments gave the same answer. The wrong answer.

Wrong not because Jack believes in God – we have no way of knowing what Jack believes. B is necessarily incorrect because the entirety of group “B” the teachers who don’t believe in God, are also members of group “A”, the teachers. It is impossible for B to be more likely than A, but it is likely that a great many people in group A do not belong to B.

The article goes on to eloquently describe how people are able to use the conjunction fallacy to correlate lack of faith (or belief in God) to lack in morality. Even in the political landscape, this extrapolates to the fact that there is little or no chance for for an atheist to become the President of this country. Even though this country is built on “Separation of Church and State” there is always an overt suspicion that having no faith means lacking moral values.

While I personally have no skin on what faith (or lack thereof) a person needs to be, to be a good and moral person, I am more interested in the thought process behind the conclusion – “lack of faith equates to lack of morality”. 

Cause that is simply not true and here are the reasons why:

  • Most religious people and people of faith are already “arbitering” their morality. There are references of ” homosexuality being evil, how to treat slaves and how to control women” in most of our good books. But we sidestep those and choose the passages and verses that talk about love, charity, and kindness to organize our lives i.e. we are already cherry picking our morality from the religious texts.
  • There are material differences in what constitutes as morality between the major faiths.
  • There has not been a knock-down philosophical argument to counter Plato’s Euthypro’s Dilemma – Is a “good deed” good because the deed itself is good or because God deemed it was good. This creates two “horns” that question either  Omnipotence or Omnibenevolence. I realize that there have been multiple apologist counter arguments including the proposing of a “third option” (from William Lane Criag) i.e. God simply is good and it is God’s nature to be the ultimate good. However, these arguments have been repeatedly refuted from a philosophical standpoint.
  • We have so many examples of BOTH, institutions and individuals who do not conform to any faith, who are doing yeoman’s work in helping the world to be a better place – Oxfam, Doctor’s without Borders, Gates Foundation, Amnesty International to name a few i.e. leading a moral life of love, charity and kindness.

Hitchens Morality Challenge – name one ethical statement made, or one ethical action performed, by a believer that could not have been uttered or done by a nonbeliever. And here is my second challenge, think of a wicked statement made, or an evil action performed, precisely because of religious faith? The second question is easy to answer, is it not?

  • Finally, it plain doesn’t make sense.
    • If religion is the ONLY thing that is keeping you from being a horrible immoral person then could it be you are a horrible immoral person?


  • If you lead an amoral life of crime and debauchery, it seems a bit arbitrary that all you need to do is repent and ask for forgiveness prior to dying and you are at the same level as someone that lead a pious and moral life (in terms of reaping the afterlife benefits of religion).

If religion were the only durable foundation for morality you would suspect atheists to be really badly behaved. You would go to a group like the National Academy of Sciences. These are the most elite scientists, 93 percent of whom reject the idea of God. You would expect these guys to be raping and killing and stealing with abandon.- Sam Harris

Then there is the other often cited atheist fallacy argument. It goes something like this – In the 20th century, heinous atrocities were committed (by the likes of Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot) because these societies gave up faith and religion. This has been debunked by multiple folks including Hitchens and Sam Harris. As Harris puts it, most of these were cargo cults which ended up looking like a perverted version of a religion with a figurehead being worshiped as a God.

Morality is doing what is right, no matter what you are told. Religion is doing what you are told, no matter what is right. H. L. Mencken

We have a pretty good sense regarding how morality within social norms have evolved over the past 2000 years. Significant progress made in civil rights, women’s rights, and LGBTQ rights have been not because of adherence to religious morality but rather secular thought that began from the age of enlightenment, with philosophers such as Kant, Hobbes etc. More recently science is starting to make significant forays into this field.

So, the question to really ask is – Why would you base your morality on religious frameworks that are at most subjective; inconsistent and in many cases lack logic. Why not be good because it is the right thing to do, rather for an eternal reward?

You got to have Faith! Faith!

This topic has been a subject of study, debate and analysis since antiquity. My interest is NOT to examine if there is a positive merit to faith and religion. That is a vast and very contentious subject and can be deferred to another day. My specific interest is to understand whether Faith exposes the limits of Scientific Inquiry and if there is in fact an opportunity for coexistence in the scientific forum.

We are all painfully aware of the numerous struggles scientists had to go through, during the Middle Ages to be able to overcome religious dogmas and present conclusions about the universe that shattered religious world views. Neil Degrasse Tyson has an interesting article about Sir Issac Newton called The Perimeter of Ignorance.

Sir Issac Newton discovers, gravitation, optics, light spectrum, the laws of motion and on a “dare” invents Differential and Integral Calculus just so that he could explain the nature of planetary orbits. However, Newton cannot explain how adding objects to this gravitational law still keeps the solar system stable.

He is able to explain Moon and Earth, Sun and Earth all the two body gravitational models. However he is not able to account how the system is still stable with multiple bodies (Earth and Sun pulling but also Saturn pulling Earth, Mars pulling Earth and so on).
So Newton invokes Faith since he has reached his limit.  From Neil Degrasse Tyson’s article, “A century later, the French Astrologer and mathematician Pierre-Simon de Laplace confronts Newton’s dilemma of unstable orbits head-on. Rather than view the mysterious stability of the solar system as the unknowable work of God, Laplace declares it a scientific challenge and solves the issue using Perturbation Theory

Dr. Tyson provides a few more interesting examples of illustrious scientists who reach their limits and invoke faith only to have someone solve the issue later.

Let’s review the recent past where there have been a few specific cases where famous scientists such as Dr. Francis Collins (who let the decoding of the Human Genome Project) has been vocal about his faith, having written books and articles on this faith. By the way he is also the chair of the National Institute of Health. For a detailed analysis of Dr. Collins’ positions, Sam Harris’ article makes for good reading.

Harris asks a very germane question: Imagine: the year is 2006; half of the American population believes that the universe is 6,000 years old; our president had just used his first veto to block federal funding for the most promising medical research on religious grounds; and one of the foremost scientists in the land had that to say, straight from the heart (if not the brain).

What we have understood about ourselves and the universe around us in the last 100 years has been more than the previous 50,000 years combined. Science has debunked, defeated and demonstrated so many cherished myths, superstitions and beliefs which is all due to the “scientific inquiry”. Science continues to attack the “God of the Gaps” theory.

That isn’t to say there is no room for spirituality and faith. There has been numerous cases of sages and saints who have experienced great revelations via meditation, self inflection and contemplation. People use faith to cope with adversity, tragedy and loss.

That is however very very different from when posed with a limit of sceintific inquiry the answer is to outsource the explaination to a divine creator.

There is an alarming groundswell in this country where faith is now starting to be used to question the scientific process. This is going to have long term repercussions in our ability to continue to be a world leader in innovation.

Here is an example: If there is an argument on the quality of evidence regarding Evolution that is a worthy debate to have. If one comes to the stage with a book written a few thousand years ago about a world view from even far back it is not even worth having a conversation. It is like howling at the moon.

I am hoping that we will be able to improve the discourse where a sense of inquiry and reason guides our evaluation and not a reliance on bronze age literature and practices.