(This article is also available on Edge, along with some other rebuttals to and affirmations of Haidt’s piece.)
Jonathan Haidt has a complicated article on moral psychology and the misunderstanding of religion on Edge. I’m going to give it a mixed review here. 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.)
Let me do great and horrible violence to the part of his essay that I enjoyed; I’m going to abbreviate it savagely, just so I can move past it to the bits I want to argue with. 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, although Haidt does of course discuss it in considerably more depth. Read the whole thing, as they say, it’s worth it for his expertise in moral psychology.
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.