Not Believing

Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.”  –Voltaire

I didn’t plan on making a scene. All I wanted to do was to eat lunch with limited social interaction. The refectory, also known as a cafeteria to non-theological nerds, at Wesley Theological Seminary, was the center of social life on campus. It was there where we ate, studied, argued, and often slept. It was my favorite place on campus, but it was also the place that I most dreaded going. I planned on eating quickly and leaving without talking to anyone outside of a handful of friends. I ended up with an audience. As much as normal social interaction terrifies me, an audience I love. Arguments, I love. Being outnumbered, that’s even better. That day, I got all three.

I was quietly eating when someone casually mentioned their thoughts on a subject that had come up in class. The poor soul said, “I just don’t understand why anyone is against the minimum wage!” I misunderstood the statement completely. What was an expression of frustration made toward a group of people who the poor soul assumed were like-minded, I mistook for “I want someone to tell me why I should be against the minimum wage.” And I did. It involved graphs.

For anyone who knows me, what unfolded next was a predictable, yet manic, series of events. I went from calmly saying, “I think that the minimum wage is likely to depress employment or have mixed affects across various groups” to furiously drawing graphs, proposing alternative ideas, and accusing others of harming the poor until people started to slowly slip out the side exit.

After talking for about 15 minutes, I ripped out a piece of paper from my notebook and began to draw. The following, From Tyler Cowen’s and Alex Tabarrok’s Marginal Revolution University series on Principles of Economics: Microeconomics, is a more clear representation of what I was trying to do:


I drew out the graph and explained what the assumptions were, and I showed why, given these assumptions of the standard model, a minimum wage would increase unemployment. Someone objected. I got excited. And I began share with them how the simplistic standard model did not always achieve the expected results. There were numerous explanations and exceptions. I began to draw them, as well.

As I was drawing more graphs and talking about why the standard model didn’t always work in the real world, the crowd around our table began to grow. People who I would always avoid, began to sit down at our table. It’s not that I didn’t like them. It’s that new people terrify me. I get weird around them. But, I love an audience. It also meant I was now arguing with 10 people as opposed to 5.

To sum it up, I argued that the minimum wage has a negative effect on employment, but that it isn’t the case in every situation. Sometimes, particularly where there a limited number of employers, minimum wages could possibly increase pay and employment. But, when applied nationally, and especially with dramatic increases to minimums, the negative effect towards employment was likely to be widespread and would likely harm those who suffered from the most labor discrimination. It was also likely that the effect wouldn’t be seen in a reduction in total employment but instead, a reduction in hours worked, benefits received, or new hires. I proposed alternatives, like a wage subsidy, arguing they would be far superior to the basic minimum wage.

After I finished, there were only a few people left at the table. They weren’t there at the beginning of the conversation. I didn’t even know who they were. My friends had left long ago. I can only imagine what was said about me after they left.

I thought I made a convincing case. Theoretical models, empirical data, scholarly consensus. It didn’t matter. I didn’t convince anyone. No one believed, and I was more sure than ever that I was right. The next time I visited the refectory, I decided to eat alone.

If you have been in as many arguments as I have, and particularly if you often find yourself woefully outnumbered, you may notice a strange phenomenon. The more people argue, the more they become convinced of what they already believed in the first place. “People” also includes you (and me). Our beliefs matter a great deal to us and we take pleasure in the fact that we believe a certain way. Belief can even define our identity. As a former pastor, I can say with certainty that religious belief and a belief in my own role in that religion defined who I was. It defined my relationships. It defined my career. Belief wasn’t just a result of the information I had in front of me. Belief mattered independently of what happened as a result of holding that belief and independently from the manner in which I came to hold it.

Bryan Caplan, in The Myth of The Rational Voter, argues that we have “preferences over beliefs” meaning that given our ideology or worldview, we prefer one set of beliefs over another independent of the evidence. We believe something to be true, because we really like believing it.

This may sound obvious, but it’s actually controversial in economics as one of the discipline’s common assumptions in its economic models is that people are “perfectly rational,” which means that people act in ways which maximize their utility. But, how can people act in ways which “maximize their utility” when they also hold onto beliefs that have little evidence and negative results? Just imagine all those people in the opposite political party who oppose your ideas. How can they advocate for policies that harm their best interests? How is this rational?

One answer is that people aren’t being irrational. They’re being rationally ignorant (Caplan). Rational ignorance is the result of how little an individual gains from holding correct beliefs and how much it may cost to counter incorrect beliefs. If you were to gain nothing from changing from an incorrect to a correct belief and the cost of acquiring the information or evidence was high, you’re unlikely to change. Instead, you’ll remain ignorant about the subject. This would be perfectly rational.

Rational ignorance is readily applied to politics as the cost of informed beliefs about policies is usually incredibly high. How does one come about the “correct belief” regarding banking regulation or United States foreign policy? The cost in personal effort is enormous. And, what benefit does one gain from holding the “correct belief” when in a large democracy the power of a single vote is so small and the choices are so limited? The chance that your vote will change the result is effectively zero. Voters know this. Ignorance is a rational choice. There’s no reason to pay a high cost when the benefit is so low.

Rational ignorance doesn’t tell the whole story as it doesn’t account for the value of the belief itself. If a belief is the beneficial result itself and not just a means to a beneficial result, then holding a particular belief, even in the face of contrary evidence, may also be rational. What happens if you highly value a particular belief and receive a high level of utility from holding it but encounter evidence that opposes your belief? People don’t just change their minds and abandon old cherished beliefs. They ignore the new evidence or find a creative way to undermine it. Alongside rational ignorance, we also display rational irrationality (Caplan). This is why intelligent people often hold and defend ridiculous positions. It takes a lot of brainpower to remain that wrong.

I’m an optimistic sports fan. I always believe that my team is better than they really are. Bad games are an aberration, and good games are the norm. Players on our team are good kids whose good deeds are to be celebrated and held up as the standard, and when they display immaturity or make mistakes, that’s something to be forgiven. Johnny Manziel is a good kid who will figure it all out one day. He was treated unfairly in Cleveland and played far better than his critics claim.

I enjoy believing this. Sports are safe place where we can project our fantasies and illusions without any real cost. So, if I encounter opposing evidence that Johnny Manziel really is a terrible guy (no evidence of that!), then I can easily shrug it off. This is why so many sports fans are quick to defend or ignore the indefensible, including terrible behavior by players, coaches, and programs. It costs them nothing. (That’s also why you think your spouse and children are so wonderful and exceptional. Believing it and being wrong is often more beneficial than not believing it and being right.)

This isn’t being rationally ignorant. It’s being rationally irrational. The belief itself matters. The belief is often so valuable that we’re willing to jump through mental hoops, ignore evidence, and be incredibly hypocritical to protect it.

If people find value in their beliefs and people hold them because doing so maximizes their utility as ends in and of themselves, then belief can be measured in economic terms as a downward sloping demand curve, just as one would measure a demand for products, services, or labor.

Caplan claims that it’s not just belief that can be measured, but irrationality itself. Because people want to believe irrational things and because people abandon irrationality only with great cost, irrationality has a demand curve too. The quantity of irrationality demanded increases as the price of irrationality decreases and vice versa. When irrationality is cheap, when consume a lot of it. Irrationality is in demand.


(Caplan, Kindle Lct 2283)

“Preferences over beliefs” helps to explain how rational irrationality can function among people who are otherwise normal, rational people. Caplan describes how in the economics classroom, new students often reject the idea that a minimum wage could possibly suppress employment. Some students go further than just rejecting the idea. They are outraged. Caplan claims that the students are expressing “preferences over beliefs” rather than looking at the evidence in front of them. Instead of being simply irrational, students are displaying rational irrationality. The idea that minimum wages work and help people who really need it is important, and because there’s no real cost for holding the belief, they can choose to believe according to preference rather than evidence. First year economics students are not equipped to analyze the evidence of the effectiveness of minimum wages in the first place. That’s what an economics degree teaches them.

However, when Caplan’s students are faced with personally paying a cost for this belief, a student’s actions do not always match their stated beliefs. When these students apply for jobs and fill out a job application, they have to put a number down for “desired salary”. When faced with this question, what do the students do? What is their strategy for choosing a “desired salary”?

Students don’t want to choose too high of a number because they fear that the high price would hurt their chances for employment. Students know this, so they put down a salary number that is competitive with the market price. Despite their claims otherwise, when faced with personally paying, they act as if a high cost of a labor reduces the quantity of labor demanded just as the standard model predicts.

The tables however, are easily turned. Those who support the minimum wage, can easily point to an inconvenient fact for many minimum wage opponents. The results predicted by the standard model – a proportional decline in employment following an introduction or increase of a minimum wage – has little to no empirical support.

Given the results of studies over the last few decades, it is obvious that the actual effect on employment as a result of a minimum wage is far more complicated than previously assumed leading to stark shift in the economic consensus. Despite the clear lack of empirical evidence in support of negative employment effects, opponents of the minimum wage still make the argument based on the standard model. Econ 101 fundamentalists using such an argument are just as rationally irrational as those who claim that a rise in price cannot effect the quantity demanded of labor. Sadly, most people who care about this issue fit into one of these two categories. Economists are nuanced. Citizens are radicals. For the economist, being correct pays. For the citizen, being wrong is free.

Rational irrationality’s real world applications go beyond politics and are easily connected to other beliefs – like religion. Caplan quotes Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding:

In all ages, men in whom melancholy has mixed with devotion, or whose conceit of themselves has raised them into an opinion of a greater familiarity with God, and a nearer admittance to his favour than is afforded to others, have often flattered themselves with a persuasion of an immediate intercourse with the Deity, and frequent communications from the Divine Spirit.”

This pretty much describes me exactly. It describes nearly every ordained minister I’ve ever met. But, I think Caplan and Locke miss out an even more important aspect of the religious when it comes to religious devotion: money.

It’s not polite to say so, but a minister’s livelihood is dependent on the minister’s faith. A strange and disheartening realization fell upon me the day that I left the church. “I’m trained for nothing else.” What was I supposed to do when this was all I had ever considered? I didn’t know. I still don’t.

In order to be an ordained minister, one thing is required above all else – you have to be called by God to ordained priesthood. More precisely, you have to believe that you were called by God to ordained priesthood. And even more precisely, the ordained people who do the ordaining have to believe that you were called by God to ordained priesthood. How do they know this? They were called to know, of course! The entire system is built on the clergy’s belief and the church’s acceptance that certain people are called to be ordained and those people are to be encouraged, equipped, and sent into leadership in the church. I believed that too. I based my whole life on that belief.

Until the day I didn’t. I saw the church reject people they should have never rejected and I saw them accept people they should have never accepted based upon the silliest of reasons regarding people they barely knew. But worse, I saw people fake it through the process. And when they came out the other side, they ended up believing what they had been faking the whole time. I know that because other ordinands told me so, because we were taught in school what to say to ordination committees in order to pass, and because I was faking it too. I not only learned the right things to say to an ordination committee, I also fiercely believed them. I ended up paying a cost. That cost was hypocrisy, cynicism, and depression. Until I paid that cost, I was a believer, but paying ended that fantasy fairly quickly.

The ordination process in the church is not an exercise in discernment either by the ordinand or by the church. It’s an exercise in rational irrationality that effectively weeds out those who do not completely buy in and, unintentionally, enforces conformity on key beliefs. The church can accept a measure of doubt or uncertainty over a number of issues. But it cannot accept any uncertainty over whether or not someone is called to ordination. Strong belief, bordering on fanatical, is mandatory.

When a job is at stake, those who once expressed doubt in a life in the priesthood all become convinced, seemingly by magic, that they actually believe. The magic transition is the same process by which Caplan’s economics students automatically write a competitive salary on a job application when they previously expressed outrage at the idea that higher prices could suppress the quantity demanded of labor. Paying a price or receiving a benefit drastically changes the quantity of irrationality that we consume.  This change happens automatically and without making a conscious decision.

Remember, when irrationality has no costs, the quantity demanded of irrationality will be enormous. But in the case of ordination, the belief isn’t just cheap, the belief pays. Without the belief, you cannot continue in your career. Without the belief, you’ve spent years in school paying thousands of dollars for nothing. You only learn what you’re supposed to believe after years studying and after paying thousands of dollars. And with the belief, in the UMC at least, you get a guaranteed job at a guaranteed salary with guaranteed benefits, with guaranteed high social standing, and you get it guaranteed for life.

If the quantity of irrationality demanded is enormous when the belief is cheap, what happens when the belief pays? What happens when the belief doesn’t just have intrinsic value, but high material value?

I don’t believe it anymore. I no longer believe that I was called to be ordained clergy. I also don’t believe that anyone else is called to ordination, including the ministers that I know, love, and respect. I think the belief is self-serving. I think it sends a message that really wanting to believe something is reason enough to actually believe it. I think it necessitates, willingly or not, that ministers bullshit themselves and others. I think it is without biblical and theological merit. I think it’s counter-productive to the mission of the church.

And, I think that it’s rational.

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