Response to Jonathan Haidt

September 12, 2007

In his essay, “Moral Psychology and the Misunderstanding of Religion,”Jonathan Haidt worries that the “new atheists”—Dawkins, Dennett, and I—may be “polluting the scientific study of religion with moralistic dogma and damaging the prestige of science in the process.” According to Haidt, Dawkins becomes the Grand Inquisitor whenever the topic of group selection is politely raised; Dennett has misinterpreted the literature on religion and morality for reasons inscrutable; and for my part, I am merely waging war with straw men. As luck would have it, Haidt comes to this debate in the guise an increasingly familiar “straw man”—that of the liberal, atheist scientist who would deliver us to the threshold of moral relativism, if not across it, with the best of intentions.

Haidt concludes his essay with this happy blandishment: “every longstanding ideology and way of life contains some wisdom, some insights into ways of suppressing selfishness, enhancing cooperation, and ultimately enhancing human flourishing.” Surely we can all agree about this. Our bets have been properly hedged (the ideology must be “longstanding” and need only have “some” wisdom). Even a “new atheist” must get off his high horse and drink from such pristine waters. Well, okay…

Anyone feeling nostalgic for the “wisdom” of the Aztecs? Rest assured, there’s nothing like the superstitious murder of innocent men, women, and children to “suppress selfishness” and convey a shared sense of purpose. Of course, the Aztecs weren’t the only culture to have discovered “human flourishing” at its most sanguinary and psychotic. The Sumerians, Phoenicians, Egyptians, Hebrews, Canaanites, Maya, Inca, Olmecs, Greeks, Romans, Carthaginians, Teutons, Celts, Druids, Vikings, Gauls, Hindus, Thais, Chinese, Japanese, Scandinavians, Maoris, Melanesias, Tahitians, Hawaiians, Balinese, Australian aborigines, Iroquois, Huron, Cherokee, and numerous other societies ritually murdered their fellow human beings because they believed that invisible gods and goddesses, having an appetite for human flesh, could be so propitiated. Many of their victims were of the same opinion, in fact, and went willingly to slaughter, fully convinced that their deaths would transform the weather, or cure the king of his venereal disease, or in some other way spare their fellows the wrath of the Unseen.

What would Haidt have us think about these venerable traditions of pious ignorance and senseless butchery? Is there some wisdom in these cults of human sacrifice that we should now honor? Must we take care not to throw out the baby with the bathwater? Or might we want to eat that baby instead? Indeed, many of these societies regularly terminated their rituals of sacred murder with a cannibal feast. Is my own revulsion at these practices a sign that I view these distant cultures with the blinkered gaze of a colonialist? Shall we just reserve judgment until more of the facts are in? When does scientific detachment become perverse? When might it be suicidal?

Despite Haidt’s suggestion to the contrary, it actually matters what people believe. Most religious practices are the direct consequence of what people think is actually going on in the world. In fact, most religious practices only become intelligible once we understand the beliefs that first gave rise to them. The fact that some people have begun to doubt these doctrines in the meantime, while still mouthing the liturgy and aping the rituals, is beside the point. What religion, after all, is best exemplified by those who are in the process of losing it?

Haidt draws comfort from the fact that even biblical literalists occasionally yield to common sense and ignore their holy books. Of course they do: their holy books are not only bursting with ancient ignorance—they are actually self-contradictory. Is Haidt suggesting that there are no real religious fundamentalists out there at all, or that their numbers are negligible? According to a recent poll, thirty-six percent of British Muslims (ages 16-24) think apostates should be put to death for their unbelief. 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?

Haidt offers us a choice between “contractual” and “beehive” approaches to morality—the first is said to be the province of liberals like myself, who care only about harm/care and fairness/reciprocity; the second represents the social order imposed by conservative religion, which incorporates further concerns about ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity. The opposition between these two conceptions of the good life may be useful to talk about, and the data Haidt presents about the differences between liberals and conservatives is interesting, but is his interpretive scheme correct? I have my doubts. It seems possible, for instance, that these five foundations of morality are simply facets of a more general concern for harm/care.

What, after all, is the problem with desecrating a copy of the Qur’an or taking the Lord’s name in vain? Well, if a person really believes that the Qur’an is a sacred text or that God is listening, he almost surely believes that some harm could come to him or to his tribe as a result of these actions—if not in this world, then in the next. Examples of this sort of thinking should come so readily to the reader’s mind as to make any examples I provide superfluous (AIDS as a punishment for the sin of homosexuality? The Asian tsunami as repayment for idolatry? September 11th as the result of too little faith and too much tolerance for abortion and gay shenanigans?). A more esoteric reading might be that any person who blasphemes or desecrates will have harmed himself directly thereby: a lack of reverence might be its own punishment, dimming the eyes of faith. Whatever interpretation we favor, sacredness and authority have collapsed to the harm/care axis just the same. Perhaps Haidt’s thinking on this subject has been powerfully distorted by his own atheism, as he seems incapable of seeing the world as the faithful see it. We might well wonder, at this juncture, just which of us atheists are in danger of “misunderstanding religion.” At least Dennett, Dawkins, and I have made some attempt to understand what it might be like to actually believe what people of faith say they believe.

The same point can be made in the other direction: even a liberal like myself, enamored as I am of my two-footed morality, can readily see that my version of the good life must be safeguarded from the aggressive tribalism of others. When I search my heart, I discover that I want to keep the barbarians beyond the city walls as much as my conservative neighbors do, and I recognize that sacrifices of my own freedom may be warranted for this purpose. I even expect that conservative epiphanies of this sort could well multiply in the coming years—just imagine how we liberals will be disposed to think about Islam after an incident of nuclear terrorism. Liberal hankering for happiness and freedom might one day yield some very strident calls for stricter laws and tribal loyalty. Will this mean that liberals have become religious conservatives pining for the beehive? Or is the liberal notion of reducing harm flexible enough to encompass the need for order and differences between in-group and out-group?

Even if we accept Haidt’s “new synthesis” without caveat, we can ask whether any given culture is raising its children to have “bad” moral intuitions and to be incapable of the sort of moral reasoning that might lead to a more enlightened outlook. Are certain conceptions of morality especially good at binding a community together, but incompatible with modernity? What if certain cultures are found to be relying upon moral codes that look terrible no matter how we squint our eyes or jigger Haidt’s five variables and four principles? What if we find a culture that is neither especially sensitive to harm and reciprocity, nor especially cognizant of the sacred, nor especially conducive to human flourishing, nor especially astute in any other way? Would Haidt’s conception of morality allow us to then demand that these benighted people to stop abusing their children? Or would that be unscientific?

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.

Link to Article