You and Your Righteous Religious Mind

Psychology has come a long way the last couple of decades. Instead of seeing us coming into the world with a mind like a blank slate, psychologists and cognitive scientists are discovering through cleverly designed empirical research that we are born with a preloaded mental operating system. It predisposes us to see the world like emotional, opinionated, tribal human beings rather than like rational, logical robots. You can get the whole story, with special emphasis on how moral systems and individual moral convictions are formed, in Jonathan Haidt’s new book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (Pantheon Books, 2012; publisher’s page; official book page).

I’m not going to try to summarize this well-organized and well-edited book in any detail. The roots of Haidt’s approach go back to the sociologist Durkheim (“social facts”) and the biologist Darwin (“group selection”). Haidt’s descriptive model of human morality draws on the results of many recent empirical researchers (cited and discussed in the text) as well as Haidt’s own research program.

In Part 1, Haidt establishes this simple proposition: Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second. He agrees with Hume’s view that reason is the slave of the passions. In Part 2, Haidt defends this claim: There’s more to morality than harm and fairness. Besides care/harm and fairness/cheating, concepts that in the individualistic West generally define our sense of justice or a just society, his research identifies four other moral axes that inform human moral convictions more generally: liberty/oppression, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation. [See Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory website for descriptions of each moral axis.] In Part 3, Haidt investigates why humans are so inclined to form groups, and finds that morality (and religion) play a functional role that he summarizes in this phrase: Morality binds and blinds.

Religion Is a Team Sport

That’s the title to Chapter 11, which is not necessarily a central chapter for the book as a whole but offers the best material for a T&S blog discussion. Haidt first reviews what the New Atheists (Harris, Dawkins, Dennett, and Hitchens) have said about religion over the last ten years: It is an irrational system of beliefs about supernatural agents that is bad because it impels believers to do harmful things. The New Atheists employ an evolutionary psychology model to explain why all societies and most individuals embrace religion of one form or another, but see religion’s effect as an unfortunate and maladaptive by-product of our mental apparatus that, unlike most evolutionary products, makes us worse off, not better off.

Haidt critiques that view as overly simplistic and as simply irreconcilable with emerging empirical data. Group selection is the key concept: Religion enhances bonding or belonging in communities and societies, and regulates social life. Religious communities and societies (so the theory goes) are more efficient and outcompete communities without a religion. So religion is a positive force in society, not a negative or harmful feature as argued by the New Atheists. Among other studies, Haidt discusses the Putnam and Campbell data showing that religious people are more generous and more charitable, and not only toward their fellow-believers:

By many different measures religiously observant Americans are better neighbors and better citizens than secular Americans — they are more generous with their time and money, especially in helping the needy, and they are more active in community life.

[The quotation is from Putnam and Cambell’s American Grace, p. 461.] While not an endorsement of the truth claims of any or all religions or denominations, Haidt’s chapter is at least an effective critique of the New Atheists. Here is Haidt’s pithy commentary and prognosis about the social effects of widespread unbelief; it almost sounds like something you’d hear in General Conference.

Societies that forego the exoskeleton of religion should reflect carefully on what will happen to them over several generations. We don’t really know, because the first atheistic societies have only emerged in Europe in the last few decades. They are the least efficient societies ever known at turning resources (of which they have a lot) into offspring (of which they have few).

A Mormon Summary

Here are a couple of Mo apps that pop out of Haidt’s discussion of religion. First, religion is much more than simply a set of beliefs about God (or gods) and the world. There are nontheistic religions. There are nonmoralistic religions. [See this prior post for discussion of the experiential, mythic, ritual, and ethical dimensions of religion.] Mormonism seems to offer a much thicker religious experience than its Protestant cousins — there’s just more meat in the Mormon religious sandwich. Haidt’s discussion helps remind us that religion is about a lot more than just a set of beliefs about God and the world. This might be a clue why Mormonism has been, on the whole, so successful since its inception in 1830, despite having an underdeveloped and sometimes simply incoherent theology.

Second, there is a tension in the Mormon psyche between seeing religion in general as a good thing, which leads us to cooperate with other denominations and say nice things about other religions, and seeing other religions and denominations as false and apostate institutions and belief systems, which comes from the One True Church doctrine. Seems like over the last twenty years we’ve been moving from the One True Church end of the spectrum toward the All Religions Are Good side. Some people advocate religious cooperation from strictly political motives, but Haidt’s analysis gives a broader social rationale for that approach. We’re not just on Team Mormon, we’re on Team Christianity and maybe even on Team Religion. Go team.

14 comments for “You and Your Righteous Religious Mind

  1. I first saw J. Haidt give a TED talk about the five channels of morality. That talk primarily addressed politics, but as I’ve read and watched him, I have grown to respect him immensely. He is one of the few social scientists out there who seem to both uncover something truly worthwhile about human society and do it without bias.

  2. Rah rah rah rah rah!

    Teams require opponents. Being on Team Christian or even Team Religion would have been silly when there were no credible alternatives. But atheism or secularism or indifferentism, pick a label, has a real presence in the West these days.

    My main concern with Haidt is the reductionist element, though the nuanced way he handles his own thesis is pretty acceptable.

  3. can you explain how you get from this….

    Religion enhances bonding or belonging in communities and societies, and regulates social life.

    …to this?

    So religion is a positive force in society […]

    have you not noticed that the means by which religions (with a few exceptions) enhance belonging for people is by excluding (if not alienating) some other people? how can such a system ever be a net positive for society? at best, it’s a wash.

    as for “regulates social life”, i’m not even sure what that is supposed to mean, but i can easily think of as many negative as positive ways in which our social lives can be “regulated” by institutions, religious or otherwise.

  4. We’re not just on Team Mormon, we’re on Team Christianity and maybe even on Team Religion.

    to my point, why not Team Human, Dave?

  5. “to my point, why not Team Human, Dave?”

    I am offended at the way you blithely exlude animals, vegetables, and minerals from the Grand Brotherhood of Things that Exist.

  6. palerobber, sounds like you would enjoy reading the book. I’m sure the author would appreciate a long, rambling email from you.

    Team Human has a nice ring to it, of course, but the productive dynamic of competing groups doesn’t get any traction if we’re all on the same team. The technical term that reflects the fact that altruism stops somewhat short of humanity as a whole is “parochial altruism” (discussed in the book).

  7. Dave, thanks for the reply. Haidt’s work certainly does interest me — i’ve found his 6 axis “moral foundations” theory very useful.

    i’m open to the suggestion that humans, by nature, need to group into opposing teams in order to get maximally motiviated to perform certain cooperative tasks (altruistic is a misnomer here because these arrangements are reciprocal).

    but what i propose is that, if we want what’s best for all humans, we would accept less maximal cooperative action in exchange for more universality and less group-tied enmity. this is the trade-off i was soliciting your opinion on.

  8. As both the Old Testament and Book of Mormon make clear, the default organizing principle of human societies is the tribe, a body of descendants of a common ancestor, such as Abraham, Isaac and Israel and the twelve tribes, and the seven tribes of Lehi’s group, which reemerge as the ,organizing principle of society after the government collapses in early Anno Domini. Most religions originated in association with tribes, including Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. When Christianity explicitly expanded its jurisdiction beyond the Jews, it was with specific terminology that reimagined joining Christianity as a new birth into a new tribe, with Christ as its patriarch.

    The adoption of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman empire blended it with the structures that had previously used worship of Roman gods and emperors to unify conquered nations into a super tribe, a model developed when the city state of Rome conqueted or otherwise absorbed the other tribal states of the Italian peninsula, including Etruscans, Italians and Latins.

    Mormons have been noted for our emphasis on Old Testament characteristics, such as patriarchal families (emphasized by polygamy) and the intentional linking through ancestors and the affiliation with the twelve tribes in patriarchal blessings. Mormons have been classified as almost an ethnicity, in spite of the diversity of our ancestral ethnicities. It is an extended family in the way we will sacrifice for each other even if we disagree over politics and many other subjects. As recognized in Orson Scott Card’s The Folk of the Fringe and other post-apocalypse science fiction, Mormonism is a survivor.

  9. This is a relevant post, Dave, specifically for Mormons. Many of us have been chowing down on this rather meaty sandwich, and enjoying its benefits it offers for human flourishing, even though this meaty sandwich also comes all dressed up with things like tomatoes and sauerkraut that some people really don’t like. According to Haidt et al, these benefits probably have more to do with the strong networks and ties and resulting unity, than the particulars of whatever doctrine it takes to get us there. But if some of those particulars seem inconsistent or unkind or unsustainable (such as the need for baptism for the dead of Jews, even the famous ones), we obviously have the knee-jerk response of wanting to shave those off. The list of “particulars” needing to be either de-emphasized or eliminated altogether can get really long! The meaty sandwich can slowly turn in to just a lot of meat and bread.

    So we need teams, but we want to prune them down. Hmmm, the whole idea that we humans are hard-wired to need teams in order to flourish seems to be rather bitter-sweet.

    As other commenters here have pointed out, teams almost by definition require exclusion of others. We can pick the “other” to be whomever we want it to be, but always having an “other” seems, in the end to be so…immoral. Yet interesting part is that once we’ve got the team (that other-excluding group!), then we’ve got the conditions that can produce rather moral behavior. And this moral behavior has all of those elements of what virtually all humans tend to consider to be moral, including (amazingly) a healthy dose of the ones that liberal people feel strongly about (harm/fairness).

  10. i just happened upon Pinker’s recent demolition of the theory of “group selection”, which Haidt utilizes, and thought people who’d read this thread might be interested.

    of course, even is “group selection” is garbage, it doesn’t necessarily invalidate the claim that, “Religious communities and societies (so the theory goes) are more efficient and outcompete communities without a religion,” it just means the reasons why they might outcompete have nothing to do with biological natural selection, but instead remain firmly rooted in anthropology and political science.

  11. Thanks for the comment, palerobber. E.O. Wilson just published a book (The Social Conquest of Earth) downgrading his earlier support for kin selection (based on mathematical modeling performed and published by himself and two colleagues) and arguing strongly in favor of group selection as an evolutionary mechanism. Wilson’s evolutionary credentials are beyond question — he’s actually a biologist, probably the preeminent evolutionary biologist of our generation (Pinker’s a psychologist). So Pinker’s opinion is just part of the ongoing discussion of group selection. It doesn’t demolish anything.

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