PSYCHOLOGY AND THE MISUNDERSTANDING OF RELIGION
study morality from every angle I can find. Morality is one of
those basic aspects of humanity, like sexuality and eating, that
can't fit into one or two academic fields. I think morality is
unique, however, in having a kind of spell that disguises it.
We all care about morality so passionately that it's hard to
look straight at it. We all look at the world through some kind
of moral lens, and because most of the academic community uses
the same lens, we validate each other's visions and distortions.
I think this problem is particularly acute in some of the new
scientific writing about religion.
When I started graduate school at Penn in 1987, it seemed that
developmental psychology owned the rights to morality within psychology.
Everyone was either using or critiquing Lawrence Kohlberg's ideas,
as well as his general method of interviewing kids about dilemmas
(such as: should Heinz steal a drug to save his wife's life?).
Everyone was studying how children's understanding of moral concepts
changed with experience. But in the 1990s two books were published
that I believe triggered an explosion of cross-disciplinary scientific
interest in morality, out of which has come a new synthesis—very
much along the lines that E.
O. Wilson predicted in 1975.
The first was Antonio
Damasio's Descartes' Error, in 1994, which showed
a very broad audience that morality could be studied using the
then new technology of fMRI, and also that morality, and rationality
itself, were crucially dependent on the proper functioning of emotional
circuits in the prefrontal cortex. The second was Frans de Waal's Good
Natured, published just two years later, which showed an equally
broad audience that the building blocks of human morality are found
in other apes and are products of natural selection in the highly
social primate lineage. These two books came out just as John Bargh
was showing social psychologists that automatic and unconscious
processes can and probably do cause the majority of our behaviors,
even morally loaded actions (like rudeness or altruism) that we
thought we were controlling consciously.
Furthermore, Damasio and Bargh both found, as Michael
Gazzaniga had years before, that people couldn't stop themselves
from making up post-hoc explanations for whatever it was they had
just done for unconscious reasons. Combine these developments and
suddenly Kohlbergian moral psychology seemed to be studying the
wagging tail, rather than the dog. If the building blocks of morality
were shaped by natural selection long before language arose, and
if those evolved structures work largely by giving us feelings
that shape our behavior automatically, then why should we be focusing
on the verbal reasons that people give to explain their judgments
in hypothetical moral dilemmas?
In my dissertation and my other early studies, I told people short
stories in which a person does something disgusting or disrespectful
that was perfectly harmless (for example, a family cooks and eats
its dog, after the dog was killed by a car). I was trying to pit
the emotion of disgust against reasoning about harm and individual
I found that disgust won in nearly all groups I studied (in Brazil,
India, and the United States), except for groups of politically
liberal college students, particularly Americans, who overrode
their disgust and said that people have a right to do whatever
they want, as long as they don't hurt anyone else.
These findings suggested that emotion played a bigger role than
the cognitive developmentalists had given it. These findings also
suggested that there were important cultural differences, and that
academic researchers may have inappropriately focused on reasoning
about harm and rights because we primarily study people like ourselves—college
students, and also children in private schools near our universities,
whose morality is not representative of the United States, let
alone the world.
So in the 1990s I was thinking about the role of emotion in moral
judgment, I was reading Damasio, De Waal, and Bargh, and I was
getting very excited by the synergy and consilience across disciplines.
I wrote a review article called "The Emotional Dog and its
Rational Tail," which was published in 2001, a month after Josh
Greene's enormously influential Science article. Greene
used fMRI to show that emotional responses in the brain, not abstract
principles of philosophy, explain why people think various forms
of the "trolley problem" (in which you have to choose
between killing one person or letting five die) are morally different.
Obviously I'm biased in terms of what I notice, but it seems to
me that the zeitgeist in moral psychology has changed since 2001.
Most people who study morality now read and write about emotions,
the brain, chimpanzees, and evolution, as well as reasoning. This
is exactly what E. O. Wilson predicted in Sociobiology:
that the old approaches to morality, including Kohlberg's, would
be swept away or merged into a new approach that focused on the
emotive centers of the brain as biological adaptations. Wilson
even said that these emotive centers give us moral intuitions,
which the moral philosophers then justify while pretending that
they are intuiting truths that are independent of the contingencies
of our evolved minds.
And now, 30 years later, Josh Greene has a paper in press where
he uses neuroscientific evidence to reinterpret Kantian deontological
philosophy as a sophisticated post-hoc justification of our gut
feelings about rights and respect for other individuals. I think
E. O. Wilson deserves more credit than he gets for seeing into
the real nature of morality and for predicting the future of moral
psychology so uncannily. He's in my pantheon, along with David
Hume and Charles Darwin. All three were visionaries who urged us
to focus on the moral emotions and their social utility.
I recently summarized this new synthesis in moral psychology with
1) Intuitive primacy but not dictatorship. This is the
idea, going back to Wilhelm Wundt and channeled through Robert
Zajonc and John Bargh, that the mind is driven by constant flashes
of affect in response to everything we see and hear.
Our brains, like other animal brains, are constantly trying to
fine tune and speed up the central decision of all action: approach
or avoid. You can't understand the river of fMRI studies on neuroeconomics
and decision making without embracing this principle. We have affectively-valenced
intuitive reactions to almost everything, particularly to morally
relevant stimuli such as gossip or the evening news. Reasoning
by its very nature is slow, playing out in seconds.
Studies of everyday reasoning show that we usually use reason to
search for evidence to support our initial judgment, which was
made in milliseconds. But I do agree with Josh Greene that sometimes
we can use controlled processes such as reasoning to override our
initial intuitions. I just think this happens rarely, maybe in
one or two percent of the hundreds of judgments we make each week.
And I do agree with Marc
Hauser that these moral intuitions require a lot of computation,
which he is unpacking.
Hauser and I mostly disagree on a definitional question: whether
this means that "cognition" precedes "emotion." I
try never to contrast those terms, because it's all cognition.
I think the crucial contrast is between two kinds of cognition:
intuitions (which are fast and usually affectively laden) and reasoning
(which is slow, cool, and less motivating).
2) Moral thinking is for social doing. This is
a play on William James' pragmatist dictum that thinking
is for doing, updated by newer work on Machiavellian intelligence.
The basic idea is that we did not evolve language and reasoning
because they helped us to find truth; we evolved these
skills because they were useful to their bearers, and among
their greatest benefits were reputation management and
Just look at your stream of consciousness when you are thinking
about a politician you dislike, or when you have just had a minor
disagreement with your spouse. It's like you're preparing for a
court appearance. Your reasoning abilities are pressed into service
generating arguments to defend your side and attack the other.
We are certainly able to reason dispassionately when we have no
gut feeling about a case, and no stake in its outcome, but with
moral disagreements that's rarely the case. As David Hume said
long ago, reason is the servant of the passions.
3) Morality binds and builds. This is the idea
stated most forcefully by Emile Durkheim that morality
is a set of constraints that binds people together into
an emergent collective entity.
Durkheim focused on the benefits that accrue to individuals from
being tied in and restrained by a moral order. In his book Suicide he
alerted us to the ways that freedom and wealth almost inevitably
foster anomie, the dangerous state where norms are unclear and
people feel that they can do whatever they want.
Durkheim didn't talk much about conflict between groups, but Darwin
thought that such conflicts may have spurred the evolution of human
morality. Virtues that bind people to other members of the tribe
and encourage self-sacrifice would lead virtuous tribes to vanquish
more selfish ones, which would make these traits more prevalent.
Of course, this simple analysis falls prey to the free-rider problem
Williams and Richard
Dawkins wrote so persuasively about. But I think the terms
of this debate over group selection have changed radically in the
last 10 years, as culture and religion have become central to discussions
of the evolution of morality.
I'll say more about group selection in a moment. For now I just
want to make the point that humans do form tight, cooperative
groups that pursue collective ends and punish cheaters and slackers,
and they do this most strongly when in conflict with other groups.
Morality is what makes all of that possible.
4) Morality is about more than harm and fairness.
In moral psychology and moral philosophy, morality is almost
always about how people treat each other. Here's an influential
definition from the Berkeley psychologist Elliot Turiel:
morality refers to "prescriptive judgments of justice,
rights, and welfare pertaining to how people ought to relate
to each other."
Kohlberg thought that all of morality, including concerns about
the welfare of others, could be derived from the psychology of
justice. Carol Gilligan convinced the field that an ethic of "care" had
a separate developmental trajectory, and was not derived from concerns
OK, so there are two psychological systems, one about fairness/justice,
and one about care and protection of the vulnerable. And if you
look at the many books on the evolution of morality, most of them
focus exclusively on those two systems, with long discussions of Robert
Trivers' reciprocal altruism (to explain fairness) and of kin
altruism and/or attachment theory to explain why we don't like
to see suffering and often care for people who are not our children.
But if you try to apply this two-foundation morality to the rest
of the world, you either fail or you become Procrustes. Most traditional
societies care about a lot more than harm/care and fairness/justice.
Why do so many societies care deeply and morally about menstruation,
food taboos, sexuality, and respect for elders and the Gods? You
can't just dismiss this stuff as social convention. If you want
to describe human morality, rather than the morality of educated
Western academics, you've got to include the Durkheimian view that
morality is in large part about binding people together.
From a review of the anthropological and evolutionary literatures,
Craig Joseph (at Northwestern University) and I concluded that
there were three best candidates for being additional psychological
foundations of morality, beyond harm/care and fairness/justice.
These three we label as ingroup/loyalty (which may have
evolved from the long history of cross-group or sub-group competition,
related to what Joe Henrich calls "coalitional psychology"); authority/respect (which
may have evolved from the long history of primate hierarchy, modified
by cultural limitations on power and bullying, as documented by
Christopher Boehm), and purity/sanctity, which may be
a much more recent system, growing out of the uniquely human emotion
of disgust, which seems to give people feelings that some ways
of living and acting are higher, more noble, and less carnal than
Joseph and I think of these foundational systems as expressions
of what Dan
Sperber calls "learning modules"—they are evolved
modular systems that generate, during enculturation, large numbers
of more specific modules which help children recognize, quickly
and automatically, examples of culturally emphasized virtues and
vices. For example, we academics have extremely fine-tuned receptors
for sexism (related to fairness) but not sacrilege (related to
Virtues are socially constructed and socially learned, but these
processes are highly prepared and constrained by the evolved mind.
We call these three additional foundations the binding foundations,
because the virtues, practices, and institutions they generate
function to bind people together into hierarchically organized
interdependent social groups that try to regulate the daily lives
and personal habits of their members. We contrast these to the
two individualizing foundations (harm/care and fairness/reciprocity),
which generate virtues and practices that protect individuals from
each other and allow them to live in harmony as autonomous agents
who can focus on their own goals.
My UVA colleagues Jesse Graham, Brian Nosek, and I have collected
data from about 7,000 people so far on a survey designed to measure
people's endorsement of these five foundations. In every sample
we've looked at, in the United States and in other Western countries,
we find that people who self-identify as liberals endorse moral
values and statements related to the two individualizing foundations
primarily, whereas self-described conservatives endorse values
and statements related to all five foundations. It seems that the
moral domain encompasses more for conservatives—it's not
just about Gilligan's care and Kohlberg's justice. It's also about
Durkheim's issues of loyalty to the group, respect for authority,
I hope you'll accept that as a purely descriptive statement. You
can still reject the three binding foundations normatively—that
is, you can still insist that ingroup, authority, and purity refer
to ancient and dangerous psychological systems that underlie fascism,
racism, and homophobia, and you can still claim that liberals are
right to reject those foundations and build their moral systems
using primarily the harm/care and fairness/reciprocity foundations.
But just go with me for a moment that there is this difference,
descriptively, between the moral worlds of secular liberals on
the one hand and religious conservatives on the other. There
are, of course, many other groups, such as the religious left and
the libertarian right, but I think it's fair to say that the major
players in the new religion wars are secular liberals criticizing
religious conservatives. Because the conflict is a moral conflict,
we should be able to apply the four principles of the new synthesis
in moral psychology.
In what follows I will take it for granted that religion is a part
of the natural world that is appropriately studied by the the methods
of science. Whether or not God exists (and as an atheist I personally
doubt it), religiosity is an enormously important fact about our
species. There must be some combination of evolutionary, developmental,
neuropsychological, and anthropological theories that can explain
why human religious practices take the various forms that they
do, many of which are so similar across cultures and eras. I will
also take it for granted that religious fundamentalists, and most
of those who argue for the existence of God, illustrate the first
three principles of moral psychology (intuitive primacy, post-hoc
reasoning guided by utility, and a strong sense of belonging to
a group bound together by shared moral commitments).
But because the new atheists talk so much about the virtues of
science and our shared commitment to reason and evidence, I think
it's appropriate to hold them to a higher standard than their opponents.
Do these new atheist books model the scientific mind at its best?
Or do they reveal normal human beings acting on the basis of their
normal moral psychology?
1) Intuitive primacy but not dictatorship. It's
clear that Richard Dawkins (in The God Delusion)
Harris (in Letter To A Christian Nation) have
strong feelings about religion in general and religious
fundamentalists in particular. Given the hate mail they
receive, I don't blame them. The passions of Dawkins and
Harris don't mean that they are wrong, or that they can't
be trusted. One can certainly do good scholarship on slavery
while hating slavery.
But the presence of passions should alert us that the authors,
being human, are likely to have great difficulty searching for
and then fairly evaluating evidence that opposes their intuitive
feelings about religion. We can turn to Dawkins and Harris to make
the case for the prosecution, which they do brilliantly, but if
we readers are to judge religion we will have to find a defense
attorney. Or at least we'll have to let the accused speak.
2) Moral thinking is for social doing. This is
where the scientific mind is supposed to depart from the
lay mind. The normal person (once animated by emotion)
engages in moral reasoning to find ammunition, not truth;
the normal person attacks the motives and character of
her opponents when it will be advantageous to do so. The
scientist, in contrast, respects empirical evidence as
the ultimate authority and avoids ad hominem arguments.
The metaphor for science is a voyage of discovery, not
a war. Yet when I read the new atheist books, I see few
new shores. Instead I see battlefields strewn with the
corpses of straw men. To name three:
The new atheists treat religions as sets of beliefs about the
world, many of which are demonstrably false. Yet anthropologists
and sociologists who study religion stress the role of ritual
and community much more than of factual beliefs about the creation
of the world or life after death.
b) The new atheists assume that believers, particularly fundamentalists,
take their sacred texts literally. Yet ethnographies of fundamentalist
communities (such as James Ault's Spirit and Flesh)
show that even when people claim to be biblical literalists,
they are in fact quite flexible, drawing on the bible selectively—or
ignoring it—to justify humane and often quite modern responses
to complex social situations.
c) The new atheists all review recent research on religion and
conclude that it is an evolutionary byproduct, not an adaptation.
They compare religious sentiments to moths flying into candle
flames, ants whose brains have been hijacked for a parasite's
benefit, and cold viruses that are universal in human societies.
This denial of adaptation is helpful for their argument that
religion is bad for people, even when people think otherwise.
agree with these authors' praise of the work of Pascal
Boyer and Scott
Atran, who have shown how belief in supernatural entities may
indeed be an accidental output of cognitive systems that otherwise
do a good job of identifying objects and agents. Yet even if belief
in gods was initially a byproduct, as long as such beliefs had
consequences for behavior then it seems likely that natural selection
operated upon phenotypic variation and favored the success of individuals
and groups that found ways (genetic or cultural or both) to use
these gods to their advantage, for example as commitment devices
that enhanced cooperation, trust, and mutual aid.
3) Morality binds and builds. Dawkins is explicit
that his goal is to start a movement, to raise consciousness,
and to arm atheists with the arguments they'll need to do
battle with believers. The view that "we" are virtuous
and our opponents are evil is a crucial step in uniting people
behind a cause, and there is plenty of that in the new atheist
books. A second crucial step is to identify traitors in our
midst and punish or humiliate them. There is some of that
too in these books—atheists who defend the utility
of religion or who argue for disengagement or détente
between science and religion are compared to Chamberlain
and his appeasement of Hitler.
To my mind an irony of Dawkins' position is that he reveals a kind
of religious orthodoxy in his absolute rejection of group selection.
David Sloan Wilson has supplemented Durkheim's view of religion (as
being primarily about group cohesion) with evolutionary analyses
to propose that religion was the conduit that pulled humans through
a "major transition" in evolutionary history.
Dawkins, along with George Williams and most critics of group selection,
acknowledge that natural selection works on groups as well as on
individuals, and that group selection is possible in principle. But
Dawkins relies on Williams' argument that selection pressures at
the individual level are, in practice, always stronger than those
at the group level: free riders will always undercut Darwin's suggestion
that morality evolved because virtuous groups outcompeted selfish
Wilson, however, in Darwin's Cathedral, makes the case that
culture in general and religion in particular change the variables
in Williams' analysis. Religions and their associated practices greatly
increase the costs of defection (through punishment and ostracism),
increase the contributions of individuals to group efforts (through
cultural and emotional mechanisms that increase trust), and sharpen
the boundaries — biological and cultural — between groups.
Throw in recent discoveries that genetic evolution can work much
faster than previously supposed, and the widely respected work of
Pete Richerson and Rob Boyd on cultural group selection, and suddenly
the old consensus against group selection is outdated.
It's time to examine the question anew. Yet Dawkins has referred
to group selection in interviews as a "heresy," and in The
God Delusion he dismisses it without giving a reason. In chapter
5 he states the standard Williams free rider objection, notes the
argument that religion is a way around the Williams objection, concedes
that Darwin believed in group selection, and then moves on. Dismissing
a credible position without reasons, and calling it a heresy (even
if tongue in cheek), are hallmarks of standard moral thinking, not
4) Morality is about more than harm and fairness.
In Letter to a Christian Nation, Sam Harris gives
us a standard liberal definition of morality: "Questions
of morality are questions about happiness and suffering… To
the degree that our actions can affect the experience of
other creatures positively or negatively, questions of morality
apply." He then goes on to show that the Bible and the
Koran, taken literally, are immoral books because they're
not primarily about happiness and suffering, and in many
places they advocate harming people.
Reading Harris is like watching professional wrestling or the Harlem
Globetrotters. It's great fun, with lots of acrobatics, but it must
not be mistaken for an actual contest. If we want to stage a fair
fight between religious and secular moralities, we can't eliminate
one by definition before the match begins. So here's my definition
of morality, which gives each side a chance to make its case:
systems are interlocking sets of values, practices, institutions,
and evolved psychological mechanisms that work together to
suppress or regulate selfishness and make social life possible.
research I have found that there are two common ways that cultures
suppress and regulate selfishness, two visions of what society
is and how it ought to work. I'll call them the contractual approach
and the beehive approach.
The contractual approach takes the individual as the fundamental
unit of value. The fundamental problem of social life is that individuals
often hurt each other, and so we create implicit social contracts
and explicit laws to foster a fair, free, and safe society in which
individuals can pursue their interests and develop themselves and
their relationships as they choose.
Morality is about happiness and suffering (as Harris says, and as
John Stuart Mill said before him), and so contractualists are endlessly
trying to fine-tune laws, reinvent institutions, and extend new rights
as circumstances change in order to maximize happiness and minimize
suffering. To build a contractual morality, all you need are the
two individualizing foundations: harm/care, and fairness/reciprocity.
The other three foundations, and any religion that builds on them,
run afoul of the prime directive: let people make their own choices,
as long as they harm nobody else.
The beehive approach, in contrast, takes the group and its territory
as fundamental sources of value. Individual bees are born and die
by the thousands, but the hive lives for a long time, and each individual
has a role to play in fostering its success.The two fundamental problems
of social life are attacks from outside and subversion from within.
Either one can lead to the death of the hive, so all must pull together,
do their duty, and be willing to make sacrifices for the group. Bees
don't have to learn how to behave in this way but human children
do, and this is why cultural conservatives are so heavily focused
on what happens in schools, families, and the media.
Conservatives generally have a more pessimistic view of human nature
than do liberals. They are more likely to believe that if you stand
back and give kids space to grow as they please, they'll grow into
shallow, self-centered, undisciplined pleasure seekers. Cultural
conservatives work hard to cultivate moral virtues based on the three
binding foundations: ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity,
as well as on the universally employed foundations of harm/care and
fairness/reciprocity. The beehive ideal is not a world of maximum
freedom, it is a world of order and tradition in which people are
united by a shared moral code that is effectively enforced, which
enables people to trust each other to play their interdependent roles.
It is a world of very high social capital and low anomie.
It might seem obvious to you that contractual societies are good,
modern, creative and free, whereas beehive societies reek of feudalism,
fascism, and patriarchy. And, as a secular liberal I agree that contractual
societies such as those of Western Europe offer the best hope for
living peacefully together in our increasingly diverse modern nations
(although it remains to be seen if Europe can solve its current diversity
I just want to make one point, however, that should give contractualists
pause: 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 too. 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.
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. Here is Daniel
Dennett in Breaking the Spell on whether religion brings
out the best in people:
a survey would show that as a group atheists and agnostics
are more respectful of the law, more sensitive to the needs
of others, or more ethical than religious people. Certainly
no reliable survey has yet been done that shows otherwise.
It might be that the best that can be said for religion is
that it helps some people achieve the level of citizenship
and morality typically found in brights. If you find that
conjecture offensive, you need to adjust your perspective.
(Breaking the Spell, p. 55.)
italicized the two sections that show ordinary moral thinking rather
than scientific thinking. The first is Dennett's claim not just
that there is no evidence, but that there is certainly no
evidence, when in fact surveys have shown for decades that religious
practice is a strong predictor of charitable giving. Arthur Brooks
recently analyzed these data (in Who Really Cares) and
concluded that the enormous generosity of religious believers is
not just recycled to religious charities.
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. Even if you excuse secular liberals from
charity because they vote for government welfare programs, it is
awfully hard to explain why secular liberals give so little blood.
The bottom line, Brooks concludes, is that all forms of giving go
together, and all are greatly increased by religious participation
and slightly increased by conservative ideology (after controlling
These data are complex and perhaps they can be spun the other way,
but at the moment it appears that Dennett is wrong in his reading
of the literature. 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 to secular folk.
My conclusion is not that secular liberal societies should
be made more religious and conservative in a utilitarian bid to increase
happiness, charity, longevity, and social capital. Too many valuable
rights would be at risk, too many people would be excluded, and societies
are so complex that it's impossible to do such social engineering
and get only what you bargained for. 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.