Note from CM: This is our final meditation on Jonathan Haidt’s book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.
Soon, we will take a look at Richard Beck’s book, Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and Mortality, as a complement to this series.
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We evolved to live in groups. Our minds were designed not only to help us win the competition within our groups, but also to help us unite with those in our group to win competitions across groups.
• Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind
In the final section of Jonathan Haidt’s book, The Righteous Mind, he covers a lot of ground to focus on some important aspects of how people think morally.
The big point is that people have evolved to not only develop individual moral thinking, but also to come together in groups — humans “are products of multilevel selection, which turned us into Homo duplex” (p. 367). Or, metaphorically, we are a lot like chimps (autonomous, selfish individuals) who sometimes transcend our individualism and function like bees (cooperatively, with a hive mentality).
In this chapter I presented the hive hypothesis, which states that human beings are conditional hive creatures. We have the ability (under special circumstances) to transcend self-interest and lose ourselves (temporarily and ecstatically) in something larger than ourselves. I called this ability the hive switch. The hive switch is another way of stating Durkheim’s idea that we are Homo duplex; we live most of our lives in the ordinary (profane) world, but we achieve our greatest joys in those brief moments of transit to the sacred world, in which we become “simply a part of a whole.” (pp. 283-284)
This has impact on how we view such human realities as religion and politics. For example, Haidt is critical of the so-called New Atheists, who misunderstand religion primarily in terms of individual beliefs which must be answered, rather than as “social facts. Religion cannot be studied in lone individuals any more than hivishness can be studied in lone bees” (p. 287).
This “tribal” religious instinct is and has been a double-edged sword. On the one hand, religion is “well suited to be the handmaiden of groupishness, tribalism, and nationalism” that can act violently to defend and advance its interests. On the other hand, Haidt quotes studies which show that: “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.”
In like manner, Haidt describes how we have developed political tribes, each with its own vision of “the good life” and what it takes to achieve that.
- Some people, in modern politics, gravitate toward the “left” (valuing the first two moral foundations primarily, being more open and welcoming to change and innovation, and distrustful of institutions that have at times oppressed and marginalized people and groups).
- Some find themselves on the “right” (valuing all six moral foundations — with some differences in definition — valuing order and stability, convinced that there are threats to moral capital from certain kinds of change).
This section is most interesting in that it reveals Haidt’s own personal transformation from a committed “liberal” to one who learned to appreciate the moral vision of conservatism.
The “groupishness” of human life leads Jonathan Haidt to develop his final point about morality:
Morality binds and blinds. It binds us into ideological teams that fight each other as though the fate of the world depended on our side winning each battle. It blinds us to the fact that each team is composed of good people who have something important to say.
…This book explained why people are divided by politics and religion. The answer is not, as Manichaeans would have it, because some people are good and others are evil. Instead, the explanation is that our minds were designed for groupish righteousness. We are deeply intuitive creatures whose gut feelings drive our strategic reasoning. This makes it difficult—but not impossible—to connect with those who live in other matrices, which are often built on different configurations of the available moral foundations. (pp. 366-367)
Learning to get along, then, is a rather monumental task. It involves recognizing our own individualistic and groupish tendencies to fight instinctively for our values and our team and to dismiss those from other teams. It also means learning to listen, beyond the rhetoric, to the underlying moral foundations and moral vision of others as they promote their way. It means seeing the “enemy’s” point of view, deeply, intuitively, even sympathetically.
As Tim Keller said in the video we posted yesterday, if we really embrace the teaching of our faith and the example of our Savior, Christians should be well-equipped to respectfully engage our neighbors with love, kindness, respect, and appreciation.
But I will be the first to acknowledge that log-removal surgery (Matt. 7:1-5) is a daunting prospect. It would be great if many of us would set aside our fears and sign up for the procedure.