A Backhanded Compliment from Jonathan Haidt

by Aug 15, 2014Culture

righteous mindI’m finally nearing the end of a book I’ve been wanting to read for quite some time, Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind. Haidt first came to my attention as that rare bird: a card-carrying liberal who was permitted by other liberals to talk extensively about morality, and to complain that liberal morality was deficient. Haidt has done some valuable work using the tools of science (particularly of psychology) to think critically about human morality. His idea of moral foundations is genuinely insightful, I think.

Haidt actually differs from the crusading atheists—the four horsemen, they’re sometimes called—who believe that religion is the result of evolutionary adaptation gone wrong. The atheists’ argument is that “hypersentivity to agency” explains religion. Animals are very conscious, in other words, of the difference between movement caused by wind or water and movement caused by an agent—a being that can move under its own power, and therefore may pose a threat (or an opportunity). Animals, including us, are hypersensitive to agency.

Atheists like Dawkins and Dennett argue that humans, because of this capacity, started seeing supernatural agency behind purely natural phenomena. Religion is, in other words, one huge evolutionary mistake.

Thankfully, these atheists have transcended the cause-and-effect determinism to which we poor religionists are still subject, and they have seen that true light which lighteth every homo sapiens. They have made us aware that there is probably no god, so we can all stop worrying and enjoy life. Religion is one big platypus. Evolution goofed. Sorry, Middle Ages.

Haidt offers a more positive assessment of religion, one more consistent with classic liberalism: religion is, in his view, a group-level adaptation. Intra-group moralities help restrain group-harming impulses among individual members. When everyone follows the moral rules, the group works together and grows, beating out rivals. Survival of the fittest is “multi-level.”

Do you see the backhanded compliment? I find this incredibly condescending, though no-doubt well meaning. Once again, I as a religious person am stuck missing a lot of perfectly good NFL pre-game shows because I simply haven’t achieved the nirvana afforded by science. Surely there is some less costly way to be moral, one which doesn’t involve being so uncool. Haidt offers us this way.

And I won’t take it. If Christ has not been raised, we are of all men most to be pitied. If Christianity isn’t true, it’s not the best way to spend a life. Or even a Sunday morning. Just read C.S. Lewis. The naturalist-materialistic, “scientistic” (I call it) worldview doesn’t work, and Lewis knew it before you were born. It doesn’t explain morality, either, as Lewis has demonstrated with his characteristic verve. Only an absolute Person explains the morality our consciences press upon us (Rom 2:14–15) and the world we see around us (Rom 1:19–20).

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