Mark Twain and Nassim Nicholas Taleb on Religion: Two different lights cast on the diamond

Image by Jackie Ramirez from Pixabay, Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s pictures available for public use.

Mark Twain has some good zingers when it comes to a well-placed jab at organized religion. Although his eloquent critiques of doctrinal organization and dogma don’t completely aim to do away with religion, they do provide plenty of fuel to the fire for people who like to scapegoat religion as The Problem in the world. Consider the following:

“So much blood has been shed by the Church because of an omission from the Gospel: “Ye shall be indifferent as to what your neighbor’s religion is.” Not merely tolerant of it, but indifferent to it. Divinity is claimed for many religions; but no religion is great enough or divine enough to add that new law to its code.”

Mark Twain, A Biography


“Man is a Religious Animal. He is the only Religious Animal. He is the only animal that has the True Religion–several of them. He is the only animal that loves his neighbor as himself and cuts his throat if his theology isn’t straight. He has made a graveyard of the globe in trying his honest best to smooth his brother’s path to happiness and heaven….The higher animals have no religion. And we are told that they are going to be left out in the Hereafter. I wonder why? It seems questionable taste.”

Mark Twain, “The Lowest Animal”

Let’s spin this diamond slightly and view it in a different light. Mark Twain did not write in the Information Age but Nassim Nicholas Taleb does. I know I’m putting myself in his crosshairs and may be subject to a Intellectual Yet Idiot epithet. 

“I am most often irritated by those who attack the bishop but somehow fall for the securities analyst–those who exercise their skepticism against religion but not against economists, social scientists, and phony statisticians. Using the confirmation bias, these people will tell you that religion was horrible for mankind by counting deaths from the Inquisition and various religious wars. But they will not show you how many people were killed by nationalism, social science, and political theory under Stalin or during the Vietnam War.Even priests don’t go to bishops when they feel ill: their first stop is the doctor’s. But we stop by the offices of many pseudoscientists and “experts” without alternative. We no longer believe in papal infallibility; we seem to believe in the infallibility of the Nobel, though….”

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable


“Religion has invisible purposes beyond what the literal-minded scientistic-scientifiers identify— one of which is to protect us from scientism, that is, them. We can see in the corpus of inscriptions (on graves) accounts of people erecting fountains or even temples to their favorite gods after these succeeded where doctors failed. Indeed we rarely look at religion’s benefits in limiting the intervention bias and its iatrogenics: in a large set of circumstances (marginal disease), anything that takes you away from the doctor and allows you to do nothing (hence gives nature a chance to do its work) will be beneficial. So going to church (or the temple of Apollo) for mild cases— say, those devoid of trauma, like a mild discomfort, not injuries from a car accident, those situations in which the risk of iatrogenics exceeds the benefit of the cure, to repeat it again, the cases with negative convexity— will certainly help. We have so many inscriptions on temples of the type Apollo saved me, my doctors tried to kill me— typically the patient has bequeathed his fortune to the temple.     And it seems to me that human nature does, deep down, know when to resort to the solace of religion, and when to switch to science.*

*I am trying to avoid discussing the placebo effect; I am in the business of nonlinearities and it does not relate to the nonlinearities argument.”

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Antifragile:Things That Gain From Disorder

In a few aside references Taleb refers to himself as a Levantine Orthodox Christian (born in Lebanon). And while I believe he places more value for himself in the rituals rather than the deep spirituality, he does come to the defense of religion’s role in human life. One of his self-coined maxims is a twist on the Golden Rule he refers to as the Silver Rule: “Don’t do unto others what you don’t want them to do to you.” In this respect, he is like Twain. But I do appreciate Taleb’s mention of the bloodshed caused by nationalism. You don’t hear that much, but I think we need to be extremely vigilant in regards to what tears us apart as neighbors, locally and globally.

More on Taleb in later posts.
If you’d like to read more about him on your own, Malcolm Gladwell wrote a great piece on his career and thoughts as an investor for the New Yorker. It was also in his book that features a collection of his pieces called, What the Dog SawHere is a link to the piece which appears legitimate but I can’t promise you it is.

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