I’ve written before in this space about the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt and his work on moral intuition and the differences between liberals and conservatives. See here and here for background — really, if you’ve never seen this stuff, it’s well worth your time. I’m not going to post on the basics of Haidt’s ideas again. But there’s a new piece on him in the Chronicle of Higher Education, and it contains something I hadn’t seen before. Keep in mind that Haidt identifies as a political and cultural liberal, and an atheist. Excerpt:

Meanwhile, though Haidt still supports President Obama, he chides Democrats for a moral vision that alienates many working-class, rural, and religious voters. Though he’s an atheist, he lambasts the liberal scientists of New Atheism for focusing on what religious people believe rather than how religion binds them into communities. And he rakes his own social-psychology colleagues over the coals for being “a tribal moral community that actively discourages conservatives from entering” and for making the field’s nonliberal members feel like closeted homosexuals. (See related article, Page B8.)

“Liberals need to be shaken,” Haidt tells me. They “simply misunderstand conservatives far more than the other way around.”

But even as Haidt shakes liberals, some thinkers argue that many of his own beliefs don’t withstand scrutiny. Haidt’s intuitionism overlooks the crucial role reasoning plays in our daily lives, says Bloom. Haidt’s map of innate moral values risks putting “a smiley face on authoritarianism,” says John T. Jost, a political psychologist at NYU. Haidt’s “relentlessly self-deceived” understanding of faith makes it seem as if God and revelation were somehow peripheral issues in religion, fumes Sam Harris, one of “the Four Horsemen of New Atheism and author ofThe End of Faith.

“This is rather like saying that uncontrolled cell growth is a peripheral issue in cancer biology,” Harris e-mails me. “Haidt’s analysis of cancer could go something like this: ‘Sure, uncontrolled cell growth is a big concern, but there’s so much more to cancer! There’s chemotherapy and diagnostic imaging and hospice care and drug design. There are all the changes for good and ill that happen in families when someone gets diagnosed with a terminal illness. … ‘ Yes, there are all these things, but what makes cancer cancer?”

I think Harris is being inaccurate and unfair — and, as I will shortly explain, the grounds for my saying that undermines something I would prefer to believe.

I used to believe that the theoretical part of religion was a lot more important than it actually is in the lives of religious people. In fact, I think Harris and I would probably agree, as unlikely as that sounds, that it ought to be. This is why I’m always going on about the curse of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. Whatever it is, it’s not authentic Christianity, not by the historical and doctrinal standards defining orthodox (small-o) Christian belief. If we Christians declare that tradition is not binding on us in any meaningful way, that we are free to believe about our faith whatever “works” for us, then we are theologically bankrupt. I find it easier in some ways to understand the atheist who believes it’s all nonsense than the self-described Christian who takes what he wants but ignores the rest, especially the hard stuff. To be clear, I don’t believe that only saints are authentically Christian. I sin. We all sin. I struggle to understand many of the teachings of the faith. But I don’t decide, on my own authority, that I don’t have to believe this thing or that thing, because it’s too difficult, or it doesn’t “work” for me. I am not a good Christian, but I can make that judgment because I have a clear standard of what a good Christian is — a standard that exists independent of my own preferences and moods.


I have come to understand that religion as it is lived in the real world is a far less propositional phenomenon than I used to think. I mean, I have come to understand that the heart of religion has less to do with propositions than I believed. The great sociologist of religion Robert Bellah, in an interview about his landmark book “Religion in Human Evolution,” had the following exchange with me last year:

TR: Your discussion of “enactive representation” — the idea that you have to do a thing to learn about it — suggests that religion can only really be understood from the inside, through its practice — this, as distinct from trying to grasp it as a set of propositions. Is this why secular-minded people have such trouble understanding the religious mindset today? And, if religious truth can only be essentially grasped through enactive representation, doesn’t that mean that there is a limit to what can be communicated across religious traditions?

RB: When I said above that religion is a way of life more than a way of knowing, I was suggesting the importance of embodied practice, in the beginning ritual, as the most basic form of religious action. The emergence of language led to narrative or, if some scientists are right, the need for myth as a comprehensive story of the general order of existence led to language, so myth joins ritual as a fundamental component of religion. When theoretical inquiry joins the mimetic and mythic culture of earlier ages in the religions that develop in the Axial Age, it does not reject ritual and myth but only criticizes inadequate forms of them and makes possible the rituals and narratives of all the great traditions. This has led some religious people and many secular people to think that religion is only another form of theory alongside philosophy and science. But while understanding the theoretical achievements of the great traditions is important we will not really know what they are about unless we make the imaginative effort to see how the world might seem if we lived in the embodied practices and narratives of these traditions, a difficult but not impossible task. Indeed it is the joy of the study or religion to undertake this imaginative task.

Religion, in this view, is more about what we do, and do in community, than what we think about what we do. This is not to devalue the value of ideas, and their role in shaping our practice. But it is to downplay them, at least a bit, and put them into a certain perspective. Myth is inadequate without ritual, and ritual is inadequate without myth. There is a dynamic interplay between the forces. And this is where I think Haidt has more insight into how religion works than Harris does. Haidt grasps, I think, that before we even consider certain ideas, they have to pass through an unconscious emotional sieve before we can rationally grapple with them. In a fascinating Templeton symposium on whether or not moral action depends on reason, the eminent neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga says:

Third (and perhaps most surprising to everyday experience), all decision processes resulting in behaviors, no matter what their category, are carried out before one becomes consciously aware of them. Whether driven by internally determined and evolved structures or by learning and experience, these behaviors are executed by the brain in an orderly and automatic way. Given this uniformity in moral choices and in brain processes, why, then, do experimental subjects supply such a diverse set of reasons for their behavior?

This question is answered by the fourth discovery. There is a special device, usually in the brain’s left hemisphere, which seeks to understand the rationale behind the pattern of behavior observed in others and/or oneself. It is called the “interpreter” and concocts a story that appears to fit the variable behaviors in question. It follows from this that, since everyone has widely different experiences upon which to draw, the interpretation one comes up with will vary widely as well.

Knowing that the brain carries out its work before we are consciously aware of an action does not and should not lead one to conclude that we are not to be held personally responsible for our behavior. The very concept of personal responsibility implies that one is participating in a social group whose rules can be learned. When our brains integrate the myriad information that goes into a decision to act, prior learned rules of behavior are part of that information flow. In the vast number of decisions that a brain makes, playing by the rules usually pays off.

So, the practices of our community and the stories we tell help our unconscious brains decide which propositions seem rational to us. Our emotional instincts — both inborn and learned — are bound to play a role too, don’t you think?

To refocus, I prefer to believe, like the atheist Sam Harris does, in a more or less rational correspondence between belief and behavior. But we humans are messier than that. If Jon Haidt is focusing more on religion as what people who call themselves religious do instead of what they believe (or say they believe), then his conclusions make more sense. Jesus Christ was not a theology professor. The other day, I was talking to a good friend who is one of the most serious believers I know. He works in a hospital, and sees a lot of suffering every day. He is also a very conservative Christian. He said (I’m paraphrasing from memory), “In the end, it’s all about relationships. Look at the Gospels. Jesus taught, but he always taught within the context of establishing a relationship with the people. He loved them, and he taught them. But first he loved them.”

As my longtime readers know, I’m deeply concerned about the loss, in the current era, of a sense of religious orthodoxy — that is, the belief that religion makes objective truth claims. If religion becomes imbalanced towards the relational and the therapeutic, it will lose its essence. This is the danger Moralistic Therapeutic Deism poses to authentic Christianity. As the sociologist of religion Christian Smith wrote:

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is also about providing therapeutic benefits to its adherents. This is not a religion of repentance from sin, of keeping the Sabbath, of living as a servant of a sovereign divine, of steadfastly saying one’s prayers, of faithfully observing high holy days, of building character through suffering, of basking in God’s love and grace, of spending oneself in gratitude and love for the cause of social justice, etc. Rather, what appears to be the actual dominant religion among U.S. teenagers is centrally about feeling good, happy, secure, at peace. It is about attaining subjective well-being, being able to resolve problems, and getting along amiably with other people.

Smith summarizes what, for the American teens he interviewed for his study, is the whole of religion: “Just don’t be an asshole.” That’s a far cry from what Jesus said is the whole of religion: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind [and] love your neighbor as you love yourself.” MTD is a simulacrum of Christianity, and therefore more dangerous than outright atheism. Better to have a thousand Christopher Hitchenses lined up against you than one gifted MTD pastor.

But, as Philip Rieff so brilliantly diagnosed nearly 50 years ago, we live in a therapeutic age, one particularly characterized by the power of emotion to determine human affairs. (Rieff also said in the book that there are worse ways to live; “Just don’t be an asshole” is better than many alternatives). The therapeutic mindset is deeply corrosive of the fundamentals of Christian faith, as Rieff showed. But like it of not, that’s the age we live in. This is why Haidt’s work is so illuminating, I think. Because emotions, not rationality, are so determinative of our thoughts and actions, it’s important to have a better understanding of the different emotional orientations that inform political and religious stances. This is not to supplant rationality, but to have a better understanding of its limits. If you wish to persuade people who disagree with you, and who do not understand or intuit the rules of rational discourse and argumentation — and that’s very many people these days, on the left and the right, as many of us will have experienced — you need to understand how they think. It seems to me that this is all Haidt is saying. Like other prominent New Atheists, Sam Harris has an almost autistic faith in the power and role of reason, and a corresponding hatred for those who don’t fit into the rigid rationalist frames he has fitted for them. I think of a story my mother tells about me, in kindergarten, standing inside the great room at Jackson Hall, overcome by anger and frustration when my classmates marched counterclockwise when I wanted them to march clockwise. This is a temptation intellectually-oriented people have: an urge to interpret the world as an expression of syllogism, theory, idealism, rationality. In fact, intuition and emotion are far more important than we prefer to think — especially in an era in psychological history that privileges intuition and emotion.

I hope I’ve been clear here: I am not dismissing rationality, or the importance of theory. If I were, I wouldn’t care about MTD, when in fact I think it’s the deadliest enemy of Christianity there is. I am only trying to convey why Jonathan Haidt’s work has been so important to me in helping me to understand how others think, and why others think what they do, in this era. And why I myself think as I do. And why liberals and conservatives today constantly talk past each other.