In a wide-ranging conversation, the distinguished economist Tyler Cowen addresses, among many other topics, religion and his own connections to an intellectual community of “rationalists.” A professed agnostic, Cowen is also a strong believer in the importance of religion and religious values in shaping human behavior, and believes that many of the virtues that have defined American society have religious roots. He has some thoughts about Judaism as well. (Interview by Lydia Laurenson.)
I once sat down as an exercise and tried to ask myself, “Of all the different classes of people I know, who are the most rational?” I think my answer was rabbis. Now, I’m not Jewish. I don’t intend [that answer] as religious commentary. Rabbis have people come to them all the time with their problems, and they have to give advice or help people solve those problems. That makes them very rational. You could say, “Well, rabbis, by a rational standard, have all kinds of beliefs that wouldn’t pass muster.” Maybe that’s true. I don’t even believe in God myself, but at the same time, isn’t it odd that rabbis are perhaps the most rational people as a class?
That kind of point, it seems to me, has not sunk in enough with the rationalist community. They think they are the most rational people, and somehow I doubt that. I’d love to see a study measuring the decisions people who identify as rationalist make in their romantic [and] personal lives, for example—how rational those decisions are, compared to other individuals. I suspect they’d come out slightly below average.
It seems to me there’s something about common-sense morality, and an understanding of the imperfections in real-world institutions, that should be refined in [religious] communities. In that sense, I’m more influenced by Adam Smith and David Hume. Tradition has embedded wisdom, even though you can’t always defend or justify it.