Posted by: Brad | April 13, 2008

Understanding Religion as a Morality Machine

A very interesting essay Moral Psychology and the Misunderstanding of Religion was written by Haidt and made the case that we should understand religion as a naturally emergent phenomena in our species. (This spurred some talk by the Reality Club in response.) More agreeable was the first part of his essay about his theories of morality, which I found very interesting.

Haidt goes over the functional qualities (Intuitive primacy but not dictatorship, moral thinking is for social doing, morality binds and builds, and morality is about more than harm or fairness) and psychological foundations of morality (harm/care, fairness/justice, ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity). The first two foundations he calls individualizing ones, and the next three binding ones. Interestingly, some research finds that the first two alone are the main pillars of a liberal political orientation, while all five are pillars of a conservative one. (Harris disputes the generality of the political foundations and whether the foundations are really mutually exclusive.) There are two ways cultures suppress and regulate selfishness. “The contractual approach takes the individual as the fundamental unit of value. […] The beehive approach, in contrast, takes the group and its territory as fundamental sources of value.” My personal opinion is that the contractual approach should be applied, while the beehive approach should just be a contingent utility to manage the so-called contractual ethics.

But after this fun theory on morality, Haidt goes on to say that the “New Atheists” (including figures Dawkins, Dennet, and Harris) should judge religion as an institution of morality. Haidt finds the atheist criticism of religion’s morality lacking in the good depth that would come with fully understanding morality. In effect, he advocates a scientific perspective on religion where we view it as a phenomena and then judge this phenomena’s positive benefit to society and human lives in terms of morality. To quote Haidt:

“Don’t dismiss religion on the basis of a superficial reading of the Bible and the newspaper. Might religious communities offer us insights into human flourishing? Can they teach us lessons that would improve wellbeing even in a primarily contractualist society.

You can’t use the New Atheists as your guide to these lessons. The new atheists conduct biased reviews of the literature and conclude that there is no good evidence on any benefits except the health benefits of religion.


My point is just that every longstanding ideology and way of life contains some wisdom, some insights into ways of suppressing selfishness, enhancing cooperation, and ultimately enhancing human flourishing.

But because of the four principles of moral psychology it is extremely difficult for people, even scientists, to find that wisdom once hostilities erupt. A militant form of atheism that claims the backing of science and encourages “brights” to take up arms may perhaps advance atheism. But it may also backfire, polluting the scientific study of religion with moralistic dogma and damaging the prestige of science in the process.”

This argument isn’t left untouched, however, when a page of responses pops up with rebuttals. (I linked to the page above.) Harris’ review I found best . . .

“When does scientific detachment become perverse?


Just how much exculpatory sociology is Haidt inclined to do in this area so as to get Islam entirely off the hook? When is a belief system not only false, but so encouraging of falsity and needless suffering as to be worthy, not merely of our understanding, but of our contempt?


Finally, I should mention that Haidt fails to acknowledge the central point of “new atheist” criticism. The point is not that we atheists can prove religion to be the cause of more harm than good (though I think this can be argued, and the balance seems to me to be swinging further toward harm each day). The point is that religion remains the only mode of discourse that encourages grown men and women to pretend to know things they manifestly do not (and cannot) know. If ever there were an attitude at odds with science, this is it. And the faithful are encouraged to keep shouldering this unwieldy burden of falsehood and self-deception by everyone they meet—by their coreligionists, of course, and by people of differing faith, and now, with startling frequency, by scientists who claim to have no faith. Even if Haidt’s reading of the literature on morality were correct, and all this manufactured bewilderment proves to be useful in getting certain people to donate time, money, and blood to their neighbors—so what? Is science now in the business of nurturing useful delusions? Surely we can grow in altruism, and refine our ethical intuitions, and even explore the furthest reaches of human happiness, without lying to ourselves about the nature of the universe. It is time that atheist scientists, above all people on this infatuated planet, acted as if this were so.”



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