Tag Archives: Jonathan Haidt

What Believers and Atheists Can Learn From Each Other (co-written with Sam McNerney)

Rabbi Geoffrey Mitelman: It’s inherently challenging for believers and atheists to have productive conversations. Discussing topics such as belief and nonbelief, the potential irrationality of religion, or the limits of scientific knowledge is difficult since each side often ends up more firmly entrenched in their own worldview.

But one bright person interested in broadening the conversation is Sam McNerney, a science writer who focuses on cognitive science and an atheist interested in religion from a psychological point of view.

I found Sam through his writing on ScientificAmerican.com, and started reading his blog Why We Reason and his posts on BigThink.com. We discovered that even though we approached religion from different perspectives, we had great respect for each other.

So as two people with different religious outlooks we wondered: what can we learn from each other?

Sam McNerney: There are many things we can learn. Let’s take one: the role of authority.

A recent New York Times article points out that secular liberal atheists tend to conflate authority, loyalty and sanctity with racism, sexism and homophobia. It’s not difficult to see why. Societies suffer when authority figures, being motivated by sacred values and religious beliefs, forbid their citizens from challenging the status quo. But a respect for authority and the principles they uphold to some degree is necessary if societies seek to maintain order and justice and function properly. The primatologist Frans de Waal explains it this way: “Without agreement on rank and a certain respect for authority there can be no great sensitivity to social rules, as anyone who has tried to teach simple house rules to a cat will agree.” (Haidt, 106)

Ironically, atheists’ steadfast allegiance to rationality, secular thinking and the importance of open-mindedness blinds them to important religious values including respect for authority. As a result, atheists tend to confuse authority with exploitation and evil and undervalue the vital role authority plays in a healthy society.

Geoff: You accurately bring up one aspect of why organized religion can be so complicated: it is intertwined with power. And I’m glad you note that authority and power are not inherently bad when it comes to religion. In fact, as you also say, a certain degree of authority is necessary.

To me, the real problem arises when religion adds another element into the mix: certainty. It’s a toxic combination to have religious authorities with the power to influence others claiming to “know” with 100% certainty that they’re right and everyone else is wrong.

One thing I learned from several atheists is the importance of skepticism and doubt. Indeed, while certainty leads to arrogance, uncertainty leads to humility. We open up the conversation and value diverse experiences when we approach the world with a perspective of “I’m not sure” or “I could be wrong.”

Recently, astrophysicist Adam Frank wrote a beautiful piece on NPR’s blog 13.7 about how valuable uncertainty can be:

Dig around in most of the world’s great religious traditions and you find people finding their sense of grace by embracing uncertainty rather than trying to bury it in codified dogmas…

Though I am an atheist, some of the wisest people I have met are those whose spiritual lives (some explicitly religious, some not) have forced them to continually confront uncertainty. This daily act has made them patient and forgiving, generous and inclusive. Likewise, the atheists I have met who most embody the ideals of free inquiry seem to best understand the limitations of every perspective, including their own. They encounter the ever shifting ground of their lives with humor, good will and compassion.

Certainty can be seductive, but it hurts our ability to engage with others in constructive ways. Thus when religious people talk about God, belief or faith, we have to approach the conversation with a little humility and recognize that we don’t have a monopoly on the truth. In the words of Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, we need to realize that another person doesn’t have to be wrong for us to be right.

This doesn’t mean believers and atheists will agree on the role of religion in society, the validity of a particular belief system, or even the very existence of God. In fact, believers and atheists will almost certainly continue to vehemently disagree about these questions. But we have to remember that not all disagreements are bad. Some arguments are quite beneficial because they help us gain a deeper understanding of reality, encourage clearer thinking, and broaden people’s perspectives.

The Rabbis even draw a distinction between two different kinds of arguments. Arguments they call “for the sake of Heaven” will always be valuable, while arguments that are only for self-aggrandizement will never be productive (Avot 5:20). So I’m not interested in arguments that devolve into mocking, ridicule, name-calling or one-upmanship. But I’d gladly participate in any discussion if we are arguing about how we make ourselves and this world better, and would actively strive to involve whoever wants to be part of that endeavor, regardless of what they may or may not believe.

Sam: You are right to point out that both atheists and believers under the illusion of certainty smother potentially productive dialogue with disrespectful rhetoric. What’s alarming is that atheism in the United States is now more than non-belief. It’s an intense and widely shared sentiment where a belief in God is not only false, but also ridiculous. Pointing out how irrational religion can be is entertaining for too many.

There’s no doubt that religious beliefs influence negative behavioral consequences, so atheists are right to criticize religion on many epistemological claims. But I’ve learned from believers and my background in cognitive psychology that faith-based beliefs are not necessarily irrational.

Consider a clever study recently conducted by Kevin Rounding of Queen’s University in Ontario that demonstrates how religion helps increase self-control. In two experiments participants (many of whom identified as atheists) were primed with a religious mindset – they unscrambled short sentences containing words such as “God,” “divine” and “Bible.” Compared to a control group, they were able to drink more sour juice and were more willing to accept $6 in a week instead of $5 immediately. Similar lines of research show that religious people are less likely to develop unhealthy habits like drinking, taking drugs, smoking and engaging in risky sex.

Studies also suggest that religious and spiritual people, especially those living in the developing world, are happier and live longer, on average, than non-believers. Religious people also tend to feel more connected to something beyond themselves; a sentiment that contributes to well-being significantly.

It’s unclear if these findings are correlative or causal – it’s likely that many of the benefits that come from believing in God arise not from beliefs per se but from strong social ties that religious communities do such a good job of fostering. Whatever the case, this research should make atheists pause before they dismiss all religious beliefs as irrational or ridiculous.

Geoff: It’s interesting — that actually leads to another area where atheists have pushed believers in important ways, namely, to focus less on the beliefs themselves, and more on how those beliefs manifest themselves in actions. And to paraphrase Steven Pinker, the actions that religious people need to focus on are less about “saving souls,” and more about “improving lives.”

For much of human history the goal of religion was to get people to believe a certain ideology or join a certain community. “Being religious” was a value in and of itself, and was often simply a given, but today, we live in a world where people are free to choose what they believe in. So now, the goal of religion should be to help people find more fulfillment in their own lives and to help people make a positive impact on others’ lives.

It’s important to note that people certainly do not need religion to act morally or find fulfillment. But as Jonathan Haidt writes in his new book The Righteous Mind, religion can certainly make it easier.

Haidt argues that our mind is like a rider who sits atop an elephant to suggest that our moral deliberations (the rider) are post-hoc rationalizations of our moral intuitions (the elephant). The key to his metaphor is that intuitions comes first (and are much more powerful) and strategic reason comes afterwards.

We need our rider because it allows us to think critically. But our elephant is also important because it motivates us to connect with others who share a moral vision. Ultimately, if we are striving to build communities and strengthen our morals, we cannot rely exclusively on either the rider or the elephant; we need both. As Haidt explains:

If you live in a religious community, you are enmeshed in a set of norms, institutions and relationships that work primarily on the elephant to influence your behavior. But if you are an atheist living in a looser community with a less binding moral matrix, you might have to rely somewhat more on an internal moral compass, read by the rider. That might sound appealing to rationalists, but it is also a recipe for…a society that no longer has a shared moral order. [And w]e evolved to live, trade and trust within shared moral matrices. (Haidt, 269)

Since religion is a human construct, with its “norms, institutions and relationships,” it can be used in a variety of different ways. It can obviously be used to shut down critical thinking and oppress others. But as you mention, religion has positive effects on well-being, and religious beliefs correlate with a sense of fulfillment. Perhaps the job of religion, then, should be giving us a common language, rituals, and communities that reinforce and strengthen our ability to become better human beings and find joy and meaning in our lives.

Ultimately, we don’t have to agree with someone in order to learn from them. As Ben Zoma, a 2nd century Jewish sage, reminds us: “Who is wise? The person who learns from all people.” (Avot 4:1) When we are willing to open ourselves up to others, we open ourselves up to new ideas and different perspectives.

Indeed, I have come to believe that our purpose as human beings – whether we identify as a believer, an atheist, or anything in between – is to better ourselves and our world. And any source of knowledge that leads us to that goal is worth pursuing.


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How Much Do We Value Our Values?

A friend of mine — an ardent environmentalist — just had a baby. She was trying to decide whether she would buy cloth diapers, which would be much friendlier to the earth, or go with disposables. She naturally started with cloth, but within a couple of weeks of washing and reusing and washing and reusing and washing and reusing, she gave in and bought disposables.

“I love the environment,” she said. “Just not enough.”

Very often, when we talk about values, we want to talk about simple right and wrong — we should be good stewards of the earth, or remember that we have a responsibility to help those in need, or ensure that every human being has certain rights. But while some values are about simple right and wrong, in truth, the vast majority are actually about costs and benefits.

Indeed, even one of the greatest scholars in Jewish tradition realized that doing the right thing often has a cost — and doing the wrong thing sometimes has a benefit. In Pirkei Avot, a collection of rabbinic sayings, Rabbi Judah had suggested that we should “calculate the loss of doing a mitzvah against its gain, and the gain of a transgression against its loss.” (Avot 2:1)

And yet there is something unsettling about thinking about moral values in terms of gains and losses. After all, each of us has certain core beliefs — sacred values that define who we are and that we would never compromise on.

But as my friend realized, we don’t always know how much we value our values. So when do we look at values in terms of right and wrong, and when do we look at them in terms of costs and benefits?

Two Different Ways of Looking at Values; Two Different Parts of the Brain

A recent study at Emory University showed that when we think about our principles, our mental processes lead us to think differently about the values that we hold most dearly and the values that we are more willing to compromise on.

In this study, as participants were placed in an fMRI, they were presented with 62 pairs of two contradictory statements, such as “you support gay marriage” and “you oppose gay marriage.” They then had to choose which one they agreed with.

After people decided on which side of the fence they fell, the experimenters gave them an option: if they agreed to sign a statement that was the opposite of what they believed, they could “auction off” that value, and receive up to $100. But if they truly felt strongly about a particular moral tenet — what the researchers called a “sacred value” — participants could refuse the money.

The experimenters weren’t interested in which particular values people held; instead, they were wondering how those values were processed in the brain. And the results were striking.

Gregory Berns, the author of the study, explained that “the brain imaging data showed a strong correlation between sacred values and activation of the neural systems associated with evaluating rights and wrongs (the left temporoparietal junction) and semantic rule retrieval (the left ventrolateral prefrontal cortex), but not with systems associated with reward.” In other words, depending on whether a particular value viewed as “right and wrong” or as “costs and benefits,” a different part of the brain was activated.

Not only that, when it came time to decide whether they would pay money to give up their sacred values, the participants’ amygdalae were aroused, which happens only when there is an emotional reaction. As Berns noted, “Those statements…would be expected to provoke the most arousal, which is consistent with the idea that when sacred values are violated, that induces moral outrage.”

So perhaps surprisingly, we think about our values in two very distinct ways. Some are dispassionately calculated in terms of gains and losses, while others are emotionally charged and are felt to be inviolable.

The question is, what causes us to think about values through one frame or the other?

Perhaps not surprisingly, religion plays a big role in that answer.

Religion and Values

There was one other intriguing result from the Emory study: people who were more connected with groups had stronger activity in the parts of the brain that correlate to sacred values. Berns posited that “[o]rganized groups may instill values more strongly through the use of rules and social norms.”

Organizations with a purpose, therefore, can help us internalize values. They not only give us a common language to talk about what we hold most dear, their social nature also reinforces those ideas.

And “organizations with a purpose” is a textbook definition of religious institutions.

Jonathan Haidt is an expert on the psychology of morality, and has an upcoming book entitled “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Religion and Politics.” And as an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education notes:

A big part of Haidt’s moral narrative is faith. He lays out the case that religion is an evolutionary adaptation for binding people into groups and enabling those units to better compete against other groups. Through faith, humans developed the “psychology of sacredness,” the notion that “some people, objects, days, words, values, and ideas are special, set apart, untouchable, and pure.” If people revere the same sacred objects, he writes, they can trust one another and cooperate toward larger goals.

So while humans certainly don’t need religion in order to be moral, religion brings people together around a shared sense of mission and purpose. And perhaps the greatest impact religion has had on the world is that it helps us move the discussion of values from “costs and benefits” to “right and wrong.”

A Unique Moral Code

The most well-known statement of religious values is, of course, the Ten Commandments. We may think that the reason they continue to inspire and to resonate is because they outline a moral code, or are simple to understand, or because “ten” is an easy number to remember.

But biblical scholar Dr. Joel Hoffman has a different idea. What makes the Ten Commandments unique, he believes, is that the five commandments surrounding interpersonal relationships — don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, don’t bear false witness, and don’t take your neighbor’s possessions — were designed to focus on “right and wrong,” and not on”costs and benefits.” As Hoffman explains:

The entire body of [legal] code in America doesn’t make any distinction between right and wrong. It never says, for example, that killing someone is wrong. All it says is, “If you do, here’s what happens…”

Here’s an example: let’s suppose you’re a 16-year-old boy, a high-school dropout, and you have no future in front of you except for flipping burgers. Fortunately, you have caught the eye of a very, very wealthy 55-year-old woman. Being 16, you think that 55 is “almost dead,” and so you marry her. Then you realize that she might live for a long time…And so what you do is take your wife’s money, put some of it in an off-shore account and then you kill her. And you figure you’re going to get a good defense and you’re going to out in 7-12 [years]. So at the end, you’ll be thirty years old, single again and wealthy and you say to yourself, “It’s worth it.”

There is nothing in the entire body of American law that says you are not entitled to make that calculus. Nowhere does it say that even if you’re willing to do the time, you shouldn’t do the crime.

That’s why the Ten Commandments are so important. The Ten Commandments are a list of things that are wrong even if you are willing to pay the punishment. They are unlike any legal code, unlike anything I can see in America.

Every society has laws. But those laws are almost always about the consequences of violation. In contrast, the section of the Ten Commandments that govern human interaction — the ones where we would be most likely to see consequences listed — don’t even mention costs and benefits. While the writers of the Torah didn’t have access to modern neuroscience, the Ten Commandments seemed to have been intentionally written in order to activate the “right and wrong” part of our brain, and not the “costs and benefits” part.

How Should We Talk About Values?

We don’t often realize that we categorize values in two different ways. Some are experienced emotionally, while others are computed more rationally. So our task is one that is at the same time very simple and very complicated — namely, to recognize when we are moving from one system to the other.

On the one hand, we often forget how hard it is to be rational when we are emotionally charged about something, and that rational evidence never convinces anyone (even ourselves) when we are riled up.

On the other hand, as my environmentalist with the baby friend realized, sometimes the values we hold most dear are actually the result of a cold cost / benefit analysis, and we often forget that doing the right thing has a cost.

So the real question isn’t, “What do we value?” That’s a comparatively easy question to answer — we all talk about things like justice, peace, and fairness. The real question is, “How are we experiencing this particular value?” Are we deliberately calculating, or emotionally reacting?

Because only by answering that question can we learn how much we truly value our values.


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