Religion as a Community-Bonding Fiction


Although religion and God-belief are in some sense an illusion for Jonathan Haidt, they are seen as an often salutary fiction insofar as they help people to overcome their self-centeredness and direct their efforts to a greater collective good. The first in a two-part series.

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Jonathan Haidt is that rare breed in academia—a genuinely independent-minded scholar who has displayed real courage in bucking the most harmful conformist trends in his professional field. A highly regarded professor of social psychology at the University of Virginia, Haidt (pronounced height) over the past several years has delivered one iconoclastic pronouncement after another. And remarkably, to the credit of his social psychology profession, his pronouncements have been taken seriously by many of his colleagues and he has not lost stature despite his often controversial views.

Five years ago he published a widely discussed article on "Moral Psychology and the Misunderstanding of Religion" that argued that the secular psychology profession, along with the so-called New Atheists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, had failed to grasp the more positive role that religion plays in human affairs. Though not a religious man himself, Haidt charged that many secularized Westerners, including most social psychologists, focused too exclusively on what were often the dubious scientific claims of the world's religions and their opposition to modern secular notions of fairness and justice. What they missed, Haidt said, was the important community-forming and morality-reinforcing function that religion often plays in human societies and its capacity to suppress human selfishness and other antisocial human inclinations. Religion tends to promote within-group cooperation and cohesion, he explained, and while this often may be accompanied by an intolerance of dissidents and a hostility toward outsiders, it is unquestionably true that there is a large positive side to religious belief in terms of concrete social benefits that all should acknowledge.

Drawing heavily from economist Arthur Brooks's study of Who Really Cares, Haidt laid forth some of the most important positive effects of religious belief and religious practice:

Surveys have long shown that religious believers in the United States are happier, healthier, longer-lived, and more generous to charity and to each other than are secular people. Most of these effects have been documented in Europe as well. If you believe that morality is about happiness and suffering, then I think you are obligated to take a close look at the way religious people actually live and ask what they are doing right … [Not only are religious people more charitable among themselves], religious believers give more money than secular folk to secular charities, and to their neighbors. They give more of their time, too, and of their blood … Atheists may have many other virtues, but on one of the least controversial and most objective measures of moral behavior—giving time, money, and blood to help strangers in need—religious people appear to be morally superior.

In a subsequent discussion of these claims, Haidt defended his view of religion, while making clear that he was just trying to be fair and in no sense denied the many harms that religion has brought to mankind:

I want to make it clear that I am not an apologist for religion … I used to dislike all religions, back when I thought of them as systems of belief that helped individuals understand the world and cope with the unknown. After reading Durkheim and D.S. Wilson I now think of religions first and foremost as coordination devices that bind people together into moral communities with effects that are mostly good for the members, although sometimes terrible for deviants and for neighboring groups. Whether the net effects of religion for humanity are good or bad is a complex empirical question, the answer to which varies by religion, by era, and by what terms we include in our cost/benefit analysis. I am motivated neither to convict nor to acquit [religion], but if religion is to be subject to trial by science, I want the trial to be fair. Until we [social scientists] acknowledge a latent prejudice, however, we will have trouble understanding the accused.

In his recently published book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, Haidt expands upon his view of religion and sees the differing appreciation of it as a major cause of the divide between the morality of social conservatives and that of those on the secular left. Secular liberals, says Haidt, see morality primarily in terms of three things: personal liberty and autonomy, caring behavior, and fairness. Social conservatives have some concern for these three values, too, but they add to them three additional values that leftists often see as potential vices or harms: a concern for the maintenance of traditional authority structures, loyalty to the group, and respect for the sacred. A decent, stable, cohesive society, Haidt believes, must draw upon all six of these virtues, even though they may be in tension with one another and may sometimes conflict. He clearly believes that conservatives, at least those of the more traditionalist and communitarian variety, have a richer repertoire of virtues than leftists, and, not surprisingly, that they usually have a better understanding of the secular left than the secular left does of them.

Haidt offers in his book intriguing biographical information about how he came to the views he now holds. Although earlier in his career he was a very conventional academic left-liberal (and an atheist then as now), his time spent researching in India convinced him that there was more to morality than the sorts of virtues so prized by secularized Westerners. Intimate contact with Indian families and Indian customs convinced him that social cohesion often depended upon a respect for traditional hierarchies and authority structures, loyalty to the group, and belief in the social bond as something sacred. His reading of the French sociologist Emile Durkheim reinforced this view and helped convince him that modern secularized Westerners were in a sense both parochial in the narrowness of their social imagination and unduly restrictive in their understanding of valuable human customs and beliefs. In his book he uses the revealing acronym WEIRD to describe the morality of the secularized West so prominent in the circles in which people like himself move: Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic. Haidt does not attack the moral virtues prized by secularized Westerners, but he sees them as inadequate to sustain group solidarity and cohesion.

Haidt's Indian sojourn clearly marked a turning point in his life in his appreciation of religious, communitarian, and traditionalist cultures, and it also seems to have played a role in his transition from his embrace of a Western, academic style of left-of-center politics to what he now describes as his political centrism and his heightened appreciation for the concerns of America's social conservatives. Even while extolling Hume's very unconservative theory about the relationship between reason and the passions, Haidt offers kind words in his book for the wisdom of Edmund Burke, and toys at one point with the possibility that "conservatives [might] have a better formula [than others] for how to create a healthy, happy society."

Much of The Righteous Mind is devoted to explaining Haidt's contention that evolution has produced a human nature that is mainly self-centered (like that dominant in chimpanzees, the closest living human relative), but also partly group-centered and conformist (like the behavior displayed by bees and other social insects). Human nature, he says, is homo duplex, being "90 percent chimp and 10 percent bee," and this dual nature reflects the fact that evolution has worked both on the individual level (survival of the individual's genes in interpersonal competition), and the group level (survival of the group's genes in group-against-group competition and warfare). The self-centeredness of human nature is modified, Haidt says, by the activation of what he calls the "hive-switch" that enables humans under suitable conditions to abandon their preoccupation with their own individual welfare and focus on the welfare of the larger group of which they are a part.

One particularly clear example of this switch to hive behavior—whereby the "I" is powerfully transformed into a selfless "we" that can triumph in group-against-group competition—is given by Haidt in an account by historian William McNeill of how combat veterans like himself often experience their wartime service:

Many veterans who are honest with themselves will admit, I believe, that the experience of communal effort in battle … has been the high point of their lives … Their "I" passes insensibly into a "we," "my" becomes "our," and individual fate loses its central importance … I believe that it is nothing less than the assurance of immortality that makes self sacrifice at these moments so relatively easy … I may fall, but I do not die, for that which is real in me goes forward and lives on in the comrades for whom I gave up my life.

Accounts like these are seen by Haidt as an example of how religious ideas and group-mediated experiences have been used to trick people into sacralizing their group and its needs, thereby endowing the parochial community with great awesomeness and prestige so that the individual's more selfish interest might be more easily subordinated to the group's collective needs and demands. In warfare this can mean the very survival of the group, while in more peaceful settings it means more charitable giving and what Haidt describes as "parochial altruism." Studies show that regular churchgoers give much greater proportions of their income to charities—especially church-based charities—and trust each other more. Although religion and God-belief are in some sense an illusion for both Durkheim and Haidt, they are seen as an often salutary fiction insofar as they help people to overcome their self-centeredness and direct their efforts to a greater collective good.

Russell Nieli is a lecturer in politics at Princeton University.

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