The Purpose of Religion Is to Mitigate Our Selfishness

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Skin in the Game" by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is the purpose of religion? How does religion differ from secular belief?

According to Nassim Taleb, the author of Skin in the Game, the ultimate purpose of religion is to offset the risks of societal ruin caused by humans’ self-serving instincts. When conceptualized in this way, religion is not too different from secular beliefs.

In this article, we’ll explore Taleb’s argument that the purpose of religion is to mitigate human selfishness.

Religion Is Society’s Expression of Loss Aversion

Religion is society’s expression of loss aversion. Just as each of us plays it safe in all the little areas of our lives to avoid cumulative ruin, religion ensures that as many people as possible live in ways that avoid contributing to the risk of destroying the human race.

This is why religions impose commandments on their adherents—these rules are a way for entire civilizations to hedge their bets against moral deviance. These rules are typically simple, without gray areas, and err on the side of restriction and safety. This makes them easy to teach, difficult to misunderstand, and more likely to avoid the risks of moral ambiguity. Consider the 10 Commandments. If a society is deeply, spiritually compelled to obey commandments like “You shall not steal,” “You shall not murder,” or “You shall not commit adultery,” it’s going to be a more stable, productive society.

A single small theft of one of your neighbor’s sheep isn’t going to have much of a harmful effect on society. But if everyone is constantly stealing every little thing they can get away with, society will suffer. A widespread, oversensitive aversion to these sins mitigates the cumulative damage to the collective.

Additionally, religion provides a visible sense of group identity that encourages collaboration and self-sacrifice. Taleb supposes that other benefits of religion that aren’t immediately apparent exist, too—most importantly, the fact that the vast majority of surviving human civilizations have formed lasting organized religions speaks to the efficacy of religious belief.

In Practice, Religious and Secular Beliefs Are Very Similar

When conceptualized in this way, Taleb argues, the purpose of religion is not too different from that of secular beliefs. To explain, Taleb distinguishes between two types of beliefs, which we’ll call Metaphysical Beliefs and Actionable Beliefs. Metaphysical Beliefs are those that explain how the world works and why, while Actionable Beliefs are those that dictate how people should act. For example, the idea that God created the world is a Metaphysical Belief, while the idea that you shouldn’t steal is an Actionable Belief.

Taleb asserts that religions are often judged based on their Metaphysical Beliefs, when they should be judged based on their Actionable Beliefs. The philosophical underpinnings of any worldview don’t matter—only the actions of its adherents have the power to help or harm. Additionally, the link between Metaphysical and resulting Actionable Beliefs isn’t as predictable as most would think.

Philosophies and religions that seem like complete opposites when considering their Metaphysical Beliefs often end up looking quite similar when you examine their Actionable Beliefs. For example, most modern Christians behave identically to atheists in important matters—they go to the hospital when they’re sick or injured and obey the laws of secular governments.

Similarly, atheists often do things that appear religious, revealing further overlap in Actionable Beliefs. Meditation and yoga are both popular among atheists, and nearly all atheists partake in rituals of some kind—weddings and funerals, for instance.

Additionally, Taleb sees no difference between the Metaphysical Beliefs held by religious people and the Metaphysical Beliefs held by atheists, in the sense that they both require faith in something you can’t see. For example, atheists often have faith in the efficacy of a complex government or the invisible hand of the free market—powers that you trust are working, even if you can’t see or fully understand them.

To summarize, Taleb asserts that everyone is similarly “religious” to some degree, so it would be hypocritical to immediately dismiss organized religion as irrational.

Religion is rational because it emotionally compels people to live with skin in the game, and as we’ve established, this is the foundation of an honorable, fulfilling life.

The Purpose of Religion Is to Mitigate Our Selfishness

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  • Why having a vested interest is the single most important contributor to human progress
  • How some institutions and industries were completely ruined by not being invested
  • Why it's unethical for you to not have skin in the game

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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