## Religion and Probability

If only people were better at mathematics in general and probability in particular, we may not have had religion

Last month I was showing my mother-in-law the video of the meteor that fell in Russia causing much havoc, and soon the conversation drifted to why the meteor fell where it did. “It is simple mathematics that the meteor fell in Russia”, I declared, trying to show off my knowledge of geography and probability, arguing that Russia’s large landmass made it the most probable country for the meteor to fall in. My mother-in-law, however, wasn’t convinced. “It’s all god’s choice”, she said.

Recently I realized the fallacy in my argument. While it was probabilistically most likely that the meteor would fall in Russia than in any other country, there was no good scientific reason to explain why it fell at the exact place it did. It could have just as likely fallen in any other place. It was just a matter of chance that it fell where it did.

Falling meteors are not the only events in life that happen with a certain degree of randomness. There are way too many things that are beyond our control which happen when they happen and the way they happen for no good reason. And the kicker is that it all just doesn’t average out. Think about the meteor itself for example. A meteor falling is such a rare event that it is unlikely to happen (at least with this kind of impact) again in most people’s lifetimes. This can be quite confounding for most people.

Every time I’ve studied probability (be it in school or engineering college or business school), I’ve noticed that most people have much trouble understanding it. I might be generalizing based on my cohort but I don’t think it would be too much of a stretch to say that probability is not the easiest of subjects to grasp for most people. Which is a real tragedy given the amount of randomness that is a fixture in everyone’s lives.

Because of the randomness inherent in everyone’s lives, and because most of these random events don’t really average out in people’s lifetimes, people find the need to call upon an external entity to explain these events. And once the existence of one such entity is established, it is only natural to attribute every random event to the actions of this entity.

And then there is the oldest mistake in statistics – assuming that if two events happen simultaneously or one after another, one of the events is the cause for the other. (I’m writing this post while watching football) Back in 2008-09, the last time Liverpool FC presented a good challenge for the English Premier League, I noticed a pattern over a month where Liverpool won all the games that I happened to watch live (on TV) and either drew or lost the others. Being rather superstitious, I immediately came to the conclusion that my watching a game actually led to a Liverpool victory. And every time that didn’t happen (that 2-2 draw at Hull comes to mind) I would try to rationalize that by attributing it to a factor I had hitherto left out of “my model” (like I was seated on the wrong chair or that my phone was ringing when a goal went in or something).

So you have a number of events which happen the way they happen randomly, and for no particular reason. Then, you have pairs of events that for random reasons happen in conjunction with one another, and the human mind that doesn’t like un-explainable events quickly draws a conclusion that one led to the other. And then when the pattern breaks, the model gets extended in random directions.

Randomness leads you to believe in an external entity who is possibly choreographing the world. When enough of you believe in one such entity, you come up with a name for the entity, for example “God”. Then people come up with their own ways of appeasing this “God”, in the hope that it will lead to “God” choreographing events in their favour. Certain ways of appeasement happen simultaneously with events favourable to the people who appeased. These ways of appeasement are then recognized as legitimate methods to appease “God”. And everyone starts following them.

Of course, the experiment is not repeatable – for the results were purely random. So people carry out activities to appease “God” and yet experience events that are unfavourable to them. This is where model extension kicks in. Over time, certain ways of model extension have proved to be more convincing than others, the most common one (at least in India) being ‘”God” is doing this to me because he/she wants to test me”. Sometimes these model extensions also fail to convince. However, the person has so much faith in the model (it has after all been handed over to him/her by his/her ancestors, and a wrong model could definitely not have propagated?) that he/she is not willing to question the model, and tries instead to further extend it in another random direction.

In different parts of the world, different methods of appeasement to “God” happened in conjunction with events favourable to the appeasers, and so this led to different religions. Some people whose appeasements were correlated with favourable events had greater political power (or negotiation skills) than others, so the methods of appeasement favoured by the former grew dominant in that particular society. Over time, mostly due to political and military superiority, some of these methods of appeasement grew disproportionately, and others lost their way. And we had what are now known as “major religions”. I don’t need to continue this story.

So going back, it all once again boils down to the median man’s poor understanding of concepts of probability and randomness, and the desire to explain all possible events. Had human understanding of probability and randomness been superior, it is possible that religion didn’t exist at all!

## The Value of Fatwas

With random ulemas here, there, everywhere (and maybe nowhere) issuing fatwas left, right and centre, I wonder if the value of the fatwa hasn’t gone down.

The thing with religion is anyone who is mildly religious will try to follow as much of the traditions and customs are possible. However, if one puts way too many restrictions, there is the chance that the follower might “do a ramanamurthy” * and just snap and decide to not any of the customs. AS long as you keep things reasonable, though, there is a good chance that the follower will continue to follow.

Now that the context has been set, I reiterate my question as to whether there isn’t a law of diminishing returns for fatwas. Things I suppose were fine when the fatwa was a rare entity. For example, twenty years ago when someone issued a fatwa to kill Salman Rushdie, it was a rare event (the fatwa) and hence got taken seriously and Rushdie has to go into hiding.

But look at the kind of fatwas that are being issued nowadays and I would be really surprised if these are getting taken seroiusly. For example, read this article (HT: Nitin Pai). There is a fatwa against buying insurance. There is a fatwa against working in banks. There is a fatwa against families accepting income earned by female members. And so forth.

Don’t the ulema understand that there exists a law of diminishing returns, and so people are not likely to take fatwas seriously if too many of them are put in place? Ok I suppose they don’t teach economics in Madrassas. Or is it that Islamic society is still in the part of the curve where slope is significantly positive ? (imagine a curve with the total “degree of acceptance” on the y axis and “number of religious restrictions” on the X axis. You would expect that the curve initially rises and then flattens out, and if you stretch things too far maybe even bend downwards).

All religions and all sects of all religions have their share of loonies. People who come up with random fundaes and then claim it’s part of the teaching of that particular religion and everyone should follow it. But I suppose that most other religions are decentralized enough that loonies are treated as just that, and people go on leading their lives without taking cognizance of the loonies.

PS: Check out this hilarious essay from The Dawn about this bunch of guys who tried to take along a Maulvi to Afghanistan to fight Russians.