On "Moral Psychology and the Misunderstanding of Religion" By Jonathan Haidt

Responses by David Sloan Wilson, Michael Shermer, Sam Harris, PZ Myers, Marc D. Hauser

Doing science as if groups existed: Jonathan Haidt replies to David Sloan Wilson, Michael Shermer, Sam Harris, PZ Myers, Marc D. Hauser


DAVID SLOAN WILSON: Alas, even the best minds can fall under the spell of a cherished cause, and so it is with the new atheists. Jonathan Haidt's article has special force because he is a scientist at the forefront of the study of morality and religion. His critique therefore represents the scientific process in action—scientists holding each other accountable for their factual claims. [...more]

MICHAEL SHERMER: Although I have been actively (and emotionally) involved in combating some of these religious intrusions into social life (e.g., the teaching of intelligent design creationism in public school science classes), I find myself in agreement with Haidt in his conclusion 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."[...more]

SAM HARRIS: 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. [...more]

PZ MYERS: I entirely agree with Haidt that many religious people are good people, that religion has incorporated moral systems that contribute to people's well-being, and that there are kernels of wisdom in religious thought. Where I disagree is that I see the superstition and dogma and error of religion as separable from those desirable elements — that religion is not synonymous with morality and is actually an unfortunate excrescence of the human condition that does not have to be and should not be respected. [...more]

MARC D. HAUSER: The experiment is a bad one:  do religious people give more because of religion or because they would have given more anyways? Perhaps the people who join a religion would have been bigger altruists even if they had never entered the church, synagogue, or mosque. We simply can’t tell from such data. Dennett may be wrong, but Haidt isn’t correct in his interpretation of such results.  Fortunately, the kinds of insights that Haidt has brought forward in this domain means that we need not rely on armchair intuition to resolve such issues. We are in a new period of empirical enlightenment. Let the science of morality guide the way brother jon. [...more]

JONATHAN HAIDT: 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 (as Shermer and Harris noted). 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. (This is exactly the sort of ambiguous dataset from which it is so easy to cherry-pick evidence in favor of one's desired conclusion.) I am motivated neither to convict nor to acquit, but if religion is to be subject to trial by science, I want the trial to be fair. Until we acknowledge a latent prejudice, however, we will have trouble understanding the accused. [...more]


DAVID SLOAN WILSON [9.13.07]

Religions are not the only belief systems that can become detached from reality. Political ideologies, intellectual movements, and even scientific theories can also distort the facts of the world to promote a cherished cause. The only reason that science is less vulnerable to distortion than other belief systems is because scientists are expected to hold each other accountable for their factual claims.

The new atheism has no legitimacy whatsoever unless it is grounded in scientific reason and evidence. To the average observer, this legitimacy might seem to be assured by the credentials of proponents such as Daniel Dennett, an eminent philosopher, and Richard Dawkins, an eminent spokesperson for science and evolution. Alas, even the best minds can fall under the spell of a cherished cause, and so it is with the new atheists. Jonathan Haidt's article has special force because he is a scientist at the forefront of the study of morality and religion. His critique therefore represents the scientific process in action—scientists holding each other accountable for their factual claims.

The issues at stake go beyond religion per se to include the nature of all moral systems. According to Haidt, moral systems are inherently about the functional organization of groups. This might seem so obvious that it can't be new, but what was obvious to Durkheim and his peers was widely rejected during the 2nd half of the 20th century, in the social sciences in addition to evolutionary biology. Only now are we beginning to explain in formal scientific terms how large-scale cooperation can evolve by genetic and cultural evolution. In his crusade against religion, Richard Dawkins also distorts his own home field of evolution by ignoring this literature and claiming that "From a Darwinian point of view, human super-niceness is just plain dumb."

For the rest of this commentary I will focus on how the new atheists respond to scientific criticism, which indicates the weakness of their position. Major questions that need to be answered about religion include: 1) Is there any empirically verifiable evidence for the existence of supernatural agents? 2) If not, how can we explain the phenomenon of religion in naturalistic terms? 3) What are the impacts of religion, good or bad, on human welfare? 4) How can we use our understanding of religion to advance the goals of a stable and peaceful society? The new atheists have much to say about all four questions, not just question 1. Yet, in response to critiques of The God Delusion, Dawkins has protested that his only interest is in the literal existence of God, whatever the answers to questions 2-4 might turn out to be. This is like a debater leaving the debate after the opening round. Dawkins and the other new atheists need to be held accountable for everything that they say about religion and morality. I hope that other contributors to this Edge conversation will join Haidt in helping to correct the all-to-human tendency for scientists to become true believers in their own right.


MICHAEL SHERMER [9.13.07]

Is religion a force for good or evil? Yes. And with the confirmation bias firmly ensconced in our brains—where we look for and find confirmatory evidence for what we already believe and ignore disconfirmatory evidence—it is simply a matter of scanning the social landscape and picking out examples to support whatever answer you have already formulated to this question.

On the good side, there is Arthur C. Brooks' data in his 2006 book Who Really Cares, showing that religious conservatives donate 30 percent more money than liberals and nonreligious people (even when controlled for income), they give more blood and log more volunteer hours; religious people are four times more generous than secularists to all charities, 10 percent more munificent to non-religious charities, and 57 percent more likely than a secularist to help a homeless person. Those raised in intact and religious families are more charitable than those who are not. In terms of societal health, charitable givers are 43 percent more likely to say they are "very happy" than nongivers, and 25 percent more likely than nongivers to say their health is "excellent" or "very good."

On the evil side, there is Gregory Paul's 2005 data published in the Journal of Religion and Society demonstrating an inverse correlation between religiosity (measured by belief in God, biblical literalism, and frequency of prayer and service attendance) and societal health (measured by rates of homicide, suicide, childhood mortality, life expectancy, sexually transmitted diseases, abortion, and teen pregnancy) in 18 developed democracies, where the U.S. scores the highest in religiosity and the highest (by far) in homicides, STDs, abortions, and teen pregnancies.

In his thoughtful Edge essay Jonathan Haidt wrestles with this problem, correctly demonstrating that the response by atheists and secularists toward the insurgence of extreme religionists in American politics is more emotional than it is rational. Although I have been actively (and emotionally) involved in combating some of these religious intrusions into social life (e.g., the teaching of intelligent design creationism in public school science classes), I find myself in agreement with Haidt in his conclusion 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."

As a social primate species we evolved moral emotions that set up a tension between within-group morality (where we tend to be pro-social and cooperative with our fellow group members) and between-group morality (where we tend to be xenophobic and tribal against out-group members and other groups). Informal means of behavior control work well when group numbers are small and groups are spread out. When tiny bands and tribes coalesced into large chiefdoms and states over the past 10,000 years, however, two social institutions evolved to codify and enforce the rules of social cooperation: government and religion. For many millennia both have had a monopoly on how humans should live with one another in large state societies. The Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution are only a couple of centuries in development and thus we have our work cut out for us to convince the vast majority of the world that reason and science can and should be employed to enhance our moral emotions to reinforce the values our reason leads us to choose.


SAM HARRIS [9.13.07]

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.


PZ MYERS [9.13.07]

Jonathan Haidt has written a complicated article on moral psychology and the misunderstanding of religion. I'm going to give it a mixed review. The first part, on moral psychology, is fascinating and a good read that I think clarifies a few ideas about morality. The second part, though, where he tries to apply his insights about morality to the New Atheists*, fails badly. I can see where he has thought deeply about morality, but unfortunately, he hasn't thought clearly about the New Atheism (and perhaps that isn't entirely his fault. We're "New", after all, and I don't think the structure and goals of these New Atheists have quite gelled yet.)

Haidt makes the case with some sophistication that emotion and experience play a greater role in morality than has typically been credited—we don't make decisions about what is right to do by cooly and objectively weighing evidence and alternatives, but instead make judgments rapidly and intuitively. Often the reasoning part of our morality comes after the fact, as an attempt to cobble together an intellectual justification for a moral position we've already taken on the basis of deeper biases. And finally, that morality is a tool that may very well have strong adaptive value in binding individuals in a society together and fostering cooperation.

He also provides a clear, simple definition for morality that I like very much.

Moral 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.

That covers about half the essay. Unfortunately, then he tries to bring these ideas about morality to bear in a criticism of the New Atheists, and there … well, the linkage simply disintegrates. Haidt makes many assumptions that he doesn't justify (although this essay is obviously much shorter than his book; maybe the justifications are there) about both religion and the New Atheists that make his criticisms feel peculiarly irrelevant to me.

One deep flaw in his argument is an implicit shift in the target. He makes a good general definition of moral systems; religion is simply assumed to be a moral system; Dawkins and Harris criticize religion strongly; now, suddenly, Haidt starts treating the New Atheist arguments as an assault on moral systems. This is simply wrong. I'm all for moral systems, and I suspect both Dawkins and Harris would agree that a good moral system, especially as defined by Haidt, is essential. The argument is much narrower. Is religion a good moral system? (Our answer is no.) Are there significant aspects of religion that do not represent a moral system at all, and actually make social life more difficult? (Yes.) And can we erect a better moral system that is stripped of the supernatural and much of the pathological baggage that afflicts religion? (Yes, optimistically, but the implementation remains to be done.)

Haidt doesn't even seem to recognize the possibility of these questions, let alone try to argue for different answers. He seems to have made them vanish, reducing them to tautologies, by equating religion with moral systems. This section reads like an unconscious echo of the tired canard that atheists are amoral — it lacks any appreciation of the fact that these New Atheists are all espousing moral behavior in a framework that simply rejects the false virtues of faith. This is especially odd since Haidt is also an atheist; it must be just the New Atheists who are the immoral ones.

We also get another familiar trope, that the New Atheists are just another religion with heresies and orthodoxies and unscientific thinking. I'm beginning to get the feeling that the New Atheists are really just the new outgroup, the bad Other on which the Old Atheists can now turn the same old tired arguments that theists used against us all, once upon a time. The sins are to be concentrated upon a vocal few, who may then be safely cast out.

Haidt's argument in this case is particularly weak. It seems to rest largely on the fact that Dawkins dismissed the possibility of group selection favoring religion in The God Delusion. But Dawkins spent several pages discussing group selection models in the book, and is far from dogmatic in rejecting it: he says, "Those of us who belittle group selection admit that in principle it can happen. The question is whether it amounts to a significant force in evolution." He also doesn't merely dismiss it, but gives several reasons why he rejects it, with examples…it is false to claim as Haidt does that he dismisses "a credible position without reasons". Now I'm certainly more sympathetic to the idea of group selection than Dawkins, but I'm also going to provisionally reject it here for another good reason that Dawkins discusses at some length — we don't have any evidence that religion is adaptive in any way! If anyone wants to present the supporting evidence for group selection, it is most definitely not going to be using religion as an example. It's too complicated, it's too nebulous, we don't even have good evidence that it's a heritable attribute, and it's all in a species that isn't easily subject to testing.

If that part of the case is weak, though, the conclusion is monumental in its flabbiness, and collapses completely. Its ignorance of what the New Atheism is about is absolute.

Here's the argument: Haidt says that "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," and then makes the case that we ought not to dismiss religion—it might well have something useful to tell us.

I've heard that same story often, and it does not convince. Note that the US is currently suffering the social and international consequences of its recent domination by the religious right, and that atheists are, if not an actively oppressed minority, a minority that is urged to be silent. I would be absolutely gobsmacked if surveys showed that we were happier than Christians about this state of affairs.

We also tend to be more isolated — how often have you heard the phrase, "I thought I was the only atheist around here!" — and we know that community is important to human health. There is no reason to assume that religion itself enhances health, or that atheism itself is a detriment: the difference lies in the minority status of one versus the other.

Similarly, atheists may not give as much for a very good reason divorced from the essence of their lack of religious beliefs: who are they going to give to? I am surrounded by requests for charity, and most of them are for religious organizations that I do not trust. There is a great deal of charitable giving that is assessed in these surveys as a moral virtue, but that I consider a moral detriment: why should I contribute to the construction of church buildings, the employment of priests, or the sending of missionaries to Africa? I question whether we should consider those charities at all; rather, they seem to be self-serving propaganda and oppression efforts.

These surveys that Haidt believes are evidence of a virtue in religion actually have a different meaning. They state that scattered individuals who are excluded from communities do not receive the benefits of community, nor do they feel willing to contribute to the communities that exclude them. It is community that benefits people, not religion. Unfortunately, in this same essay, Haidt apparently deplores the efforts by Dawkins to engage in consciousness raising and the building of a community of atheists, precisely the thing that I suspect would reveal the hollowness of those surveys and would give the godless those benefits of which we are mostly currently deprived.

Strangely, Haidt wants to claim that the New Atheists have been trying to close their eyes and deny the results of surveys that show the religious as happier and healthier. Note that I do not. I think the results of those surveys are weak and biased, and tend to be over-interpreted to favor the virtues of religion, but I'll readily concede that yes, the Christian majority in America tends to be happy with its dominance and that they do have institutions to care for their own. I will also point out that Dawkins concedes this point as well, and adds an important caveat: "I wish it were not necessary to add that such beneficial effects in no way boost the truth value of religion's claims." And there we have a critical point, one that Dr Haidt overlooks entirely.

This is not an argument about whether the faithful are happier, or longer-lived, or more moral (I should point out, too, that Haidt's own definition of moral systems that I liked so much does not include happiness or longevity in its terms). It's about the truth of their claims. It's about whether we should trust social institutions that are both founded on falsehood and lack mechanisms for correcting error.

I attended graduate school in Oregon at the time the Baghwan Shree Rajneesh had his commune in the state. On the news, we'd often see video of the smiling hairy guru going for his morning drive in one of his fleet of Rolls-Royces, and his acolytes would line the road, waving joyfully as he went by. They were ecstatic. If we are to judge the value and virtue of a "moral system" by the happiness of its followers, then the Rajneeshis were contesting for the pinnacle of radiant glee; interviews would always have them gushing over the Baghwan, and I'm sure that any survey would have shown them far exceeding the happiness quotient of us sullen, gloomy, miserable atheists.

Shall we assess the merits of any social institution by the professions of happiness of its followers? Is that what we want?

By my side right now, I have a small plush animal. If it were conclusively shown that beliefs in a god or religion were definitely beneficial in and of themselves, that humans needed this little kernel of worship in order to thrive a little better, and I said that my toy octopus was a god, lord and savior of us all, and if only you believed in him, you would gain an empirically demonstrable extra year of life and a quantifiable increase in your happiness, what would you do? Would you abandon one little piece of rationality and bow down before the toy? Would you even be capable of that level of credulity?

I would say that the New Atheists definitely would not, not even for an extra year of life (I don't know about the rest of you; I'm beginning to be suspicious.) We couldn't. I would also say we shouldn't. There is more to our lives than the raw quantity of it, and bliss isn't the ultimate goal of our existence — I think even the American religious who are the subject of those surveys might be a little aghast at the idea that the purpose of their belief was to help them cling to a life of hedonism for as long as possible. I would sacrifice a little happiness to know the truth, and I would find no consolation in a lie, no matter how cheerful that lie might be. I'm sure there was a time when I was extremely happy about Santa Claus, but that was long ago, and I have no desire to return to that state of blissful ignorance. I grew up. Most of us do.

Haidt closes his essay with another trite accusation. The New Atheists might help advance the cause of atheism, but it muddles up science with "moralistic dogma" and damages the "prestige of science" — we're hurting the cause, that tiresome old whine. Oh, please, do buck up. The New Atheism isn't about throwing away moral systems or introducing a new dogma, it's about opening up a protected realm to inquiry and sweeping away old cobwebs, refusing to allow people to hide absurd ideas from criticism behind the foolish plea of faith. It's much more compatible with the spirit of science to question the follies of the priests than to argue that because priests hand out charity, we should overlook the fact that they also claim that gods speak to them and tell them who is naughty and who is nice, and that the good boys and girls will receive magical rewards.

I entirely agree with Haidt that many religious people are good people, that religion has incorporated moral systems that contribute to people's well-being, and that there are kernels of wisdom in religious thought. Where I disagree is that I see the superstition and dogma and error of religion as separable from those desirable elements — that religion is not synonymous with morality and is actually an unfortunate excrescence of the human condition that does not have to be and should not be respected.


*I have in the past, and will continue to object to the label "New Atheism" for many reasons. It's becoming clear, though, that the label is going to stick, appropriate or not, so I'll use it under protest. It's sure going to look silly in 2050, though, when it's the Old Atheism.


MARC D. HAUSER

Jon Haidt is certainly one of our most creative and influential social psychologists today. His views on morality, and especially moral intuitions fueled by emotions, have opened a new wave of research.  In fact, if it hadn’t been for Haidt’s important conceptual work in the early 2000s, most of us, myself included, would not be doing the kind of work we are doing today.  Since several commentators have already discussed Haidt’s critique of the new atheists, I would like to take a different approach here, and pick on a few points that come up in his essay.  In brief, though there is much to admire in Haidt’s psychological perspective on morality and religion, there is much lacking in his evolutionary theorizing.

Haidt states "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."  This is bad evolutionary reasoning, and the kind of speculation that ultimately led Gould and Lewontin to have a field day with loose just-so stories. But there is more.  Just because there is variation doesn’t mean it will be selected. It has to be heritable variation. One has to show that the belief systems are genetically passed on in some way, or one has to argue for cultural selection, which is an entirely different affair, at least at the level of mechanism and timing of change. I don’t see any evidence that the observed variation in beliefs is heritable in a genetic sense.

Haidt states "…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 scientific thinking."

The main reason many biologists, Dawkins included, have classically rejected group selection thinking in favor of individual or gene level selection is because of both the explanatory power of the latter, as well as the predictions that follow from thinking about the world from a gene’s eye view. In particular, as soon as Hamilton, Williams and Trivers turned our attention to the level of the gene, the empirical torrent that followed was overwhelming. There were, and continue to be, literally thousands upon thousands of confirmatory papers on insects, fish, reptiles, birds, and mammals, humans included. Much, much less can be said of the "new" group selection, and this includes work on humans.  So Dawkins’ rejection is anything but facile, though it may appear so in a popular book which doesn’t really have as its main target, these kinds of details.

Haidt states, following a quote from Dennett’s "Breaking the Spell" that "I have 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." 

Brooks’ result is of interest, but perhaps a more fundamental question is whether religious background influences moral judgment? This kind of question attempts to distinguish issues concerning the evolution of morality as a biological faculty that guides our intuitive judgments of right and wrong from the ways in which cultural factors, including religion, can alter what we do in explicit cases.  Though the results are only beginning to emerge, my sense is that the effects of religious background are small or non-existent when it comes to aspects of our intuitive judgments, especially when we move away from familiar and well rehearsed cases. Consider a classic fantasy dilemma in moral philosophy, first articulated by Judy Thomson—the so-called violin case. 

Thomson’s interest at the time (circa 1970) was the debate over abortion.  In particular, she wanted to explore the claim, often assumed without argument, that the fetus has an obligatory right to the mother’s body. In her hypothetical case, a woman wakes up one morning to find a man, lying unconscious, next to her. Another man introduces himself and says "I am from the Society for Music Lovers. The man lying unconscious next to you is the world’s most famous violinist. He is in kidney failure.  While you were asleep, we plugged him into you. If you stay plugged in for the next nine months, he will survive. But if you unplug now, he will certainly die."  In one version of the story, the woman unplugs immediately; in a second version, perhaps approximating current cases of abortion more closely (i.e., restrictions on when it is legally permissible to abort), the woman unplugs after two months.

If you ask atheists and people with a religious background about the violin case, and especially the version that involves a 2 month period of staying attached, our results suggest no effect of religious background on judgments about the permissibility of detaching from the violinist.  That is, though it would be nice of the woman to stay plugged in for nine months, she is not obliged.  And whether you are an atheist or religious, you see things in the same light. What is important about this case, and others, is that it reveals a core difference between our evolved moral psychology, part of what I consider the core of our species’ moral psychology, and the cultural principles that are handed down for specific cases by specific institutions such as religion and government.

Haidt states: "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."  Why morally superior? Perhaps they are better rule followers, worried about God’s lightening bolt! Perhaps they are better conditioned by their religious institution? 

The experiment is a bad one:  do religious people give more because of religion or because they would have given more anyways? Perhaps the people who join a religion would have been bigger altruists even if they had never entered the church, synagogue, or mosque. We simply can’t tell from such data. Dennett may be wrong, but Haidt isn’t correct in his interpretation of such results.  Fortunately, the kinds of insights that Haidt has brought forward in this domain means that we need not rely on armchair intuition to resolve such issues. We are in a new period of empirical enlightenment. Let the science of morality guide the way brother jon.


JONATHAN HAIDT [11.30.07]

Doing science as if groups existed: Jonathan Haidt replies to David Sloan Wilson, Michael Shermer, Sam Harris, PZ Myers, Marc D. Hauser

A few weeks after the comments of Wilson, Shermer, Harris, Myers, and Hauser were posted, I had the great fortune to attend a conference at the Salk Institute with four of them (all but Hauser), and with Dan Dennett too. The conference, "Beyond Belief 2," had a provocative subtitle: "Enlightenment 2.0." The theme was that Enlightenment 1.0, which threw off the mental shackles of religion and launched the scientific revolution, was a good start. But in true enlightenment spirit, if we think well, draw on the best available research, and place no idea off limits, we can make it better. We can re-invent and re-invigorate the Enlightenment for the difficult and still-religious century we now face.

Because the Enlightenment is defined by its rejection of religious authority, religion has always had a special place in the hearts of Enlightenmenters. The evils and stupidities of religion are our raison d'etre, and our raison d'etre raisonnable. But if we hope to update the Enlightenment and increase its appeal in a world where religion still holds a bigger market share, then we must do more than examine religion rationally and scientifically, as was done in Enlightenment 1.0. For Enlightenment 2.0 we must also examine ourselves examining religion, and we must lay bare our own motives and biases. People are extraordinarily good at reasoning their way to any conclusion they want to reach, so long as there is some ambiguity in the evidence. And when we want to reach a conclusion for moral reasons — when we are analyzing people or institutions that we think are evil — we are likely to conduct biased reviews of the evidence and reach incorrect conclusions about the motives and methods of our opponents. The commentators seemed to accept my portrayal of moral psychology as a generally passionate affair in which reasoning often follows intuition, and so I take it that we all agree that those who write about religion while angry about religion should have their work checked carefully by others.

It is now clear to me that we all agree on these major points as well:

1) The New Atheists take as a primary goal the debunking of the historical and cosmological claims of the major religions.

2) The historical and cosmological claims of the major religions are in fact almost all false (as far as we can tell from historical and scientific research).

 3) The New Atheists have primary goals beyond debunking; they also want to show that religion is pernicious and that its net effects on human welfare are overwhelmingly negative. (As Hitchen's subtitle puts it, "religion poisons everything").

4) Religions do in fact have many pernicious effects on human welfare, particularly when they foster cross-group conflict and a willingness to kill (as in Harris's examples of human sacrifice).

5) The explanation for widespread human religiosity lies partly in the biological evolution of mental and emotional mechanisms that get activated by culturally evolved religious practices and institutions.

I listed these five points to make it clear that I do have some idea what the New Atheists are about, so my ignorance cannot be "absolute," as Myers charged. I also 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 (as Shermer and Harris noted). 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. (This is exactly the sort of ambiguous dataset from which it is so easy to cherry-pick evidence in favor of one's desired conclusion.) I am motivated neither to convict nor to acquit, but if religion is to be subject to trial by science, I want the trial to be fair. Until we acknowledge a latent prejudice, however, we will have trouble understanding the accused.

The social sciences have spent far too long under the spell of a belief system that helped us for a while to understand the world and cope with the unknown: methodological individualism. As Don Campbell wrote in 1994, in a critique of psychology: "Methodological individualism dominates our neighboring fields of economics, much of sociology, and all of psychology's excursions into organizational theory. This is the dogma that all human social group processes are to be explained by laws of individual behavior." I believe, with Campbell, that it is high time we broke this spell and allowed social scientists and evolutionary theorists to start looking again at groups as emergent entities that have unique properties and regulatory mechanisms.

In reading the five commentaries on my essay, it seems to me that most of the major points of disagreement go back to this difference in paradigm: Myers, Harris, and Hauser are all committed to methodological individualism, whereas Wilson and I are committed to multi-level analyses of social phenomena. Shermer, as I found out upon meeting him, is committed to nothing in advance of a full hearing. (He is the most open minded person I have ever met.) Rather than responding point by point to all five reviewers, I will raise three questions on which we seem to disagree because of our differing paradigms.

1) Can group-level adaptations evolve?

We all agree (with Dawkins and George C. Williams) that multi-level selection is possible in principle. Genes can spread either because they help individuals outcompete their within-group neighbors, or because they help groups outcompete other groups. The question is whether group-level selection ever happens in fact. Williams considered dozens of putative cases among a variety of animal species and concluded that it does not. A fleet herd of deer is really just a herd of fleet deer. Fast-runners outcompeted their slower neighbors; fast herds did not outcompete slow herds. Is the situation the same with humans? Are cooperative groups really just groups of cooperators, who inherited genes and cultural variants that let them beat out their less cooperative neighbors? Or was it generally the case, in our long tribal past, that cooperative groups were on average more successful economically, militarily, politically, and reproductively, than less cooperative groups? Stated in this way it is obvious that cooperative tribes are very different from herds of fleet deer, and that tribes really do compete. But if that was my whole argument for group-level selection then Hauser would be right to join Gould and Lewontin in their ridicule of "just-so" stories. I need to add two additional claims: 1) the variation in cooperation must be heritable (Hauser is right that I should have said this) and 2) some mechanism must exist for solving the free-rider problem — for suppressing the emergence of uncooperative variants within cooperative groups.

I follow Wilson in believing that religiosity, which makes little sense as individual-level adaptation for outcompeting one's less-religious neighbors, makes a lot of sense as a group-level adaptation for binding individuals together, solving the free-rider problem, and outcompeting less cohesive groups. And religiosity is indeed heritable. Dean Hamer may have gone too far in titling his book The God Gene, but twin studies clearly show that something in our genome strongly affects whether or not one will believe in God as an adult. It hardly seems absurd, loose, or "just so" to posit that genes that gave rise to more religiously-inclined minds co-evolved with cultural variations in beliefs, institutions, and practices that we now call religion. When new evidence (such as the heritability of religiosity) and powerful tools (such as our new ability to conceptualize gene-culture co-evolution) come along, it would be unscientific to say "oh, but the experts rejected this idea 30 years ago, let's not reconsider it now."

Hauser's main reason for rejecting group-level selection is that the gene-centered and individual-centered views have been so productive. There are "thousands upon thousands of confirmatory papers," whereas there is little empirical evidence, at present, on phenomena best explained by group-level selection. I don't doubt Hauser's numbers, but I find a close parallel to the situation in economics 20 years ago, when Robert Frank and others were trying to argue that human beings were not always selfish utility maximizers. Neo-classical economists mounted the same defense, that thousands upon thousands of studies generated by neo-classical economists supported the claim of neo-classical economics that people are rational agents who act to maximize their individual utility. But when Frank, Kahneman, Tversky, Thaler and others started looking in the right places (e.g., bargaining and ultimatum games), they found that people had moral motives as well as monetary motives. We now have a thriving field of behavioral economics. As we now start to look in the right places for group-level effects (e.g., mechanisms that bind people together and suppress free-riders), evidence for group-level selection is beginning to emerge. (This evidence is reviewed in D. S. Wilson and E. O. Wilson's recent paper in Quarterly review of Biology; see also recent work by Peter Turchin on historical dynamics, and by Martin Nowak on cooperation as one of the three basic forces in evolution, alongside mutation and selection).

Myers says that "we don't have any evidence that religion is adaptive in any way." But even for a methodological individualist, who insists that all selection occurs within groups, this is an odd claim. Religious people live longer, healthier lives and have more children than do non-religious people. What more direct evidence could there be of Darwinian adaptation? (I don't know that religious people have always been more fertile, but the modern case must count as some evidence.) And if we drop the individualist requirement and allow ourselves to look at groups as entities, then it's hard to find anything more adaptive than religion at binding large groups together and suppressing individual selfishness for the good of the group.

2) Are religious people really happier and more charitable?

Myers objects to my claim that religious people are happier and more generous than secular folk. He points out that, given the recent domination of America by the religious right, he would be "gobsmacked" if surveys found secular folk to be happier than believers. But surveys show that it doesn't matter which party is in power; conservatives and religious believers have been happier for as long as the surveys have been done. To the extent that circumstances matter for happiness, they are local circumstances mostly involving relationships, not geopolitical ones.
           
Myers further objects that atheists should not be expected to be as generous because it is hard for them to find non-religious charities. Most of the appeals he gets come from religious groups that he does not trust. He and I seem to have gotten ourselves on radically different mailing lists — I get no such appeals. But even if most atheists receive mostly religious appeals, as long as they also get a few each year from secular groups (Oxfam, United Way, SPCA) and have access to the internet, the lack of opportunities for charity cannot be used as an excuse for not giving.
           
Hauser joins Myers in questioning the interpretation of the religion-charity relationship. Hauser resists giving moral credit to religious givers: "Perhaps they are better rule followers, worried about God's lightening bolt! Perhaps they are better conditioned by their religious institution." For a methodological and moral individualist, these are valid concerns. In a contractually-based morality the individual is the only real unit of value, and moral credit for charity accrues to individuals primarily when they act 1) freely, with no social pressure 2) to relieve the suffering or oppression 3) of strangers. With these criteria, Hauser and Myers are right that most of the charity work of religious people should be excluded. But the really stunning point of Brooks's book is that even when we exclude all religious giving, religious believers still give more money to secular charities than do atheists. (I note that Brooks excludes giving to political causes, where perhaps atheists give more.)
           
But what if we drop the methodological individualist criteria and just ask about the degree to which religion makes people divert their time, money, and attention away from themselves? The charitable imbalance between atheists and believers now becomes enormous (according to Brooks), and the analogy I and others have made between religious communities and beehives becomes more useful. All that time and money given to one's own church is like the "altruism" of bees who toil to build their common hive; all that time and money given to build churches in faraway lands is like the efforts of bees to found new colonies. Religions, generally speaking, work to suppress our inner chimp and bring out our inner bee. But methodological individualists, who deny group-level selection and shun group-level analyses, find it hard to believe that people could be happier or more generous when they live in bee-like ways than when they live on their own, outside of any hive.

3) Are beehive (binding) moralities good?
           
My academic path began in high school when, as a young atheist, I read Waiting for Godot and plunged into an existential depression. If there really was no God, then our lives seemed to me as meaningless as those of Vladimir and Estragon.

I have gained new respect for religion as I came to see it as a complex of co-evolved genes and cultural innovations for binding people together and imbuing them with a sense of community and collective purpose, immune to the sense of pointlessness and isolation that engulfed me in high school. To the extent that religions really accomplish this goal they are good, at least from a straight utilitarian human-welfare perspective. But whenever I speak or write about these good effects of religion, it is useful to have Sam Harris reminding us of the costs, which I cannot deny. If religion is in part an adaptation for successful intergroup competition, then the suppression of selfishness within groups is purchased by the increased likelihood of righteous nastiness across groups and toward internal deviants. Harris asks the important question: "Are certain conceptions of morality especially good at binding community together, but incompatible with modernity?" I agree with him that the answer is yes.

An important distinction I should have made in my essay is between fundamentalist and non-fundamentalist religions. Fundamentalism as I see it is about making one principle or small set of principles fundamental and sacred, and then applying these principles in an absolute, uncompromising, inflexible, I'm-sure-I'm-right and consequences-be-damned way to a complex world. On this definition the religious right and radical Islam are fundamentalist movements, and they are incompatible with modernity, democracy, and the ineradicable diversity of all Western societies. If I could wave a magic wand and have all fundamentalists converted into non-fundamentalists overnight, I would do so and be confident the world would become a better place.

But if I could wave that magic wand a second time and have all believers converted into atheists, would that be a good thing? The New Atheists say yes, and they hope that their books will be that magic wand. I'm more cautious. I used to wish that all fraternities and major sports teams would disappear from my university — I thought of them as tribal institutions that brought out the ugly and sometimes violent side of young people. But after talking with athletes, fraternity members, and fundraisers I realize that these institutions create powerful feelings of belonging which have enormous benefits for the participants while making them fiercely loyal and extraordinarily generous later on to the University of Virginia. Fraternities and sports teams contribute greatly to the strong school spirit at UVA, and to our rapidly growing endowment. All students benefit from these externalities.

My new view, drawing on work in cultural psychology, is that there are three basic ways of being and living: dependent, independent, and interdependent. We all agree that being chronically dependent brings out the worst in people — laziness, passivity, and hopelessness. But is it better to be independent or interdependent? I think we educated, mobile cosmopolitans idealize independence, which maximizes our freedom and creativity. We raise our kids to be as self-sufficient as possible. But when you don't expect to need others, you are less likely to be generous to others.

Religious communities, in contrast, idealize interdependence and try to raise their kids that way. They want them to be enmeshed in extended kin networks and congregations where everyone can ask for help from anyone, and everyone is expected to give such help. I believe this is why religious people are so much more generous than secular folk. Interdependence demands greater openness to others, greater willingness to put your own projects on hold and divert your efforts toward others. When hurricane Katrina struck, religious groups across the country organized quickly to send volunteers and supplies. Like fraternities, religions may generate many positive externalities, including charity, social capital (based on shared trust), and even team spirit (patriotism). If all religious people lost their faith overnight and abandoned their congregations, I think the net results would probably be bad, at least in America where (in contrast to European nations) our enormous size, short history, great diversity, and high mobility make it harder for us to overcome individualism and feel that we are all part of one community.

In conclusion, I believe that Enlightenment 2.0 requires Morality 2.0: more cognizant of the limitations of reason, more open to multilevel approaches in which groups are sometimes units of analysis, and more humble in its assertion that the individualist and contractualist morality of the scientific community is right, and is right for everyone.


Return to MORAL PSYCHOLOGY AND THE MISUNDERSTANDING OF RELIGION By Jonathan Haidt


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