Jonathan Haidt and the New Atheists

Will Saletan has written an excellent review of Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind for The New York Times.  It includes the advice, with which I heartily agree, that the book is well worth reading.  Saletan also draws attention to one of the more remarkable features of the book; Haidt’s apparent rejection of rationalism.  As he notes in the review:

Haidt seems to delight in mischief. Drawing on ethnography, evolutionary theory and experimental psychology, he sets out to trash the modern faith in reason.

But to whom is Haidt directing his advice? If intuitions are unreflective, and if reason is self-serving, then what part of us does he expect to regulate and orchestrate these faculties? This is the unspoken tension in Haidt’s book. As a scientist, he takes a passive, empirical view of human nature. He describes us as we have been, expecting no more. Based on evolution, he argues, universal love is implausible: “Parochial love . . . amplified by similarity” and a “sense of shared fate . . . may be the most we can accomplish.” But as an author and advocate, Haidt speaks to us rationally and universally, as though we’re capable of something greater. He seems unable to help himself, as though it’s in his nature to call on our capacity for reason and our sense of common humanity — and in our nature to understand it.

The “unspoken tension” is definitely there.  I also found myself asking why, if Haidt really has no faith in reason, he would bother to write a book that appeals to reason.  Nowhere is this rejection of rationalism and embrace of “social intuitionism,” which he portrays as its opposite, more pronounced than in his comments on religion.  He begins by drawing a bead on the New Atheists.  Noting the prominence among them of Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens, he writes,

These four authors are known as the four horsemen of New Atheism, but I’m going to set Hitchens aside because he is a journalist whose book made no pretense of being anything but a polemical diatribe.  The other three authors, however, are men of science.

My “moral intuition” on reading that was a loud guffaw.  “Men of science” indeed!  Is such unseemly condescension “scientific?”  Were not the legions of behavioral scientists who swallowed the palpably ludicrous orthodoxy of the Blank Slate for several decades also “men of science?”  I certainly didn’t always see eye to eye with Hitchens, occasional Marxist/neocon that he was, but I never doubted his brilliance and originality.  Prof. Haidt is still apparently unaware that things that are both useful and true do not necessarily have to be written in the stolid jargon of academic journals.  Perhaps he would benefit by a re-reading of E. O. Wilson’s Consilience.  In any case, what he objects to in the three remaining authors he deigns to admit into the sacred circle of “men of science” is their rationalism.  As he puts it:

The New Atheist model is based on the Platonic rationalist view of the mind, which I introduced in chapter 2:  Reason is (or at least could be) the charioteer guiding the passions (the horses).  So long as reason has the proper factual beliefs (and has control of the unruly passions), the chariot will go in the right direction… Let us continue the debate between rationalism and social intuitionism (bolding mine) as we examine religion.  To understand the psychology of religion, should we focus on the false beliefs and faulty reasoning of individual believers.  Or should we focus on the automatic (intuitive) processes of people embedded in social groups that are striving to create a moral community.  That depends on what we think religion is, and where we think it came from.

This begs the question of whether such a thing as a “debate” between rationalism and social intuitionism really exists and, if so, in what sense.  If it is true that there is no God, as the New Atheists claim, and it is also true that social intuitionism is an accurate model for describing the origins and continuing existence of religious communities, then there can be no “debate” between them, any more than there can be a “debate” over whether a large, black object is large on the one hand or black on the other.  It makes no more sense to “focus” on one truth or the other, either, if both of them are important and relevant to the human condition.

We must read a bit further to find what it really is that is sticking in Prof. Haidt’s craw.  In a section of Chapter 11 entitled, “A Better Story:  By-Products, then Cultural Group Selection,” he cites the work of anthropologists Scott Atran and Joe Henrich to the effect that religious beliefs originated as “by-products” of the “misfiring” of “a diverse set of cognitive modules and abilities” that “were all in place by the time humans began leaving Africa more than 50,000 years ago.”  As opposed to the New Atheists, Atran and Henrich have many nice things to say about the value of religion in “making groups more cohesive and cooperative,” and “creating moral communities.”  In other words, as Haidt puts it,

The very ritual practices that the New Atheists dismiss as costly, inefficient, and irrational turn out to be a solution to one of the hardest problems humans face:  cooperation without kinship.

He then goes Atran and Henrich one better.  Whereas they claim that religion is a cultural by-product, Haidt insists that it has also been directly shaped by genetic evolution.  Even more intriguing is the type of evolution he claims is responsible; group selection.  In the very next section, Haidt praises the work group selection stalwart David Sloan Wilson on the evolutionary origins of religion, noting that,

In his book, Darwin’s Cathedral, Wilson catalogs the way that religions have helped groups cohere, divide labor, work together, and prosper.

It turns out that group selection is essential to the ideas of both Wilson and Haidt on religion.  I was actually somewhat taken aback by a review of Dawkins’ The God Delusion Wilson wrote for The Skeptic back in 2007.  When I read the book I thought it was about the factual question of whether God exists or not.  Obviously, Wilson did not see it that way.  His review didn’t dispute the question of God’s existence.  Rather, it appeared to me at the time to be a long digression on Wilson’s favorite subject, group selection.  Now, I’ll admit to being as pleased as anyone to see Dawkins’ feet held to the fire over group selection.  He made the brash claim that Robert Ardrey, Konrad Lorenz, and Irenaus Eibl-Eibesfeldt, all of whom I happen to admire, were “totally and utterly wrong” because of their advocacy of group selection.  Occasionally it’s nice to see what goes around, come around.  However, I didn’t quite get Wilson’s point about the relevance of group selection to The God Delusion.  Now, having read The Righteous Mind, I get it.

I was looking at “is” when I should have been looking at “ought.”  Where Haidt and Wilson really differ from the New Atheists is in their “moral intuitions” touching on religion.  For them, religion is “good,” because it is ultimately the expression of innate traits that promote the harmony and well-being of groups, selected at the level of the group.  For the New Atheists, who dismiss group selection, and focus on “selfish” genes, it is “evil.”  Haidt makes it quite clear where he stands in the matter of “ought” in the section of Chapter 11 of The Righteous Mind entitled, “Is God a Force for Good or Evil.”  Therein he asserts, “The New Atheists assert that religion is the root of most evil.”  He begs to differ with them, citing the work of political scientists Robert Putnam and David Campbell to the effect that,

…the more frequently people attend religious services, the more generous and charitable they become across the board.  Of course, religious people give a lot to religious charities, but they also give as much as or more than secular folk to secular charities such as The American Cancer Society.  They spend a lot of time in service to their churches and synagogues, but they also spend more time than secular folk serving in neighborhood and civic associations of all sorts.

Haidt does admit that religion is “well-suited to be the handmaiden of groupishness, tribalism, and nationalism.”  However, then the equivocating and rationalization begin.  Religion doesn’t really cause bad things like suicide bombing.  Rather, it is a “nationalist response to military occupation by a culturally alien democratic power.”  Religion is “an accessory to atrocity, rather than the driving force of the atrocity.”  Right, and the Civil War wasn’t about slavery, either.  Just ask any Marxist or Southern Heritage zealot.  In keeping with the modern fashion among moralists, Haidt doesn’t trouble himself to establish the legitimacy of his own moral judgments as opposed to those of the New Atheists.  I rather suspect he doesn’t even realize he’s moralizing.  He concludes,

Societies that exclude the exoskeleton of religion should reflect carefully to what will happen to them over several generations.  We don’t really know, because the first atheistic societies have only emerged in Europe in the last few decades.  They are the least efficient societies ever known at turning resources (of which they have a lot) into offspring (of which they have few).

In short, after debunking Plato’s “rationalist” notion of “philosopher kings” earlier in the book, Haidt has now elevated himself to that rank.  Admittedly an atheist himself, he suggests that we must humor the proles with religion, or they won’t be moral or have enough children.  It seems we’ve come full circle.  Virtually the same thing was said by the stalwarts of the established churches in Europe back in the 19th century.  Read the great British quarterlies of the early 1800’s and you’ll find some of Haidt’s conclusions almost word for word, although the authors of that day arrived at them via arguments that didn’t rely on group selection.  I’m not as sanguine as Haidt and Wilson about the virtues of religion, nor as virulent as the New Atheists about its vices.  However, it seems to me we should “reflect carefully” about the wisdom of advocating what Haidt apparently considers white lies in order to promote good behavior and high levels of reproduction.  I am far from optimistic about the power of human reason but, weak reed that it is, it is the only one we have to lean on if we seek to approach the truth.  Haidt, for all his abhorrence of rationalism, has admitted as much by bothering to write his book.

5 thoughts on “Jonathan Haidt and the New Atheists”

  1. You wrote that Haidt “suggests that we must humor the proles with religion, or they won’t be moral or have enough children.” I don’t think Haidt would agree with this cynical reading. I think he meant that we all need an outlet for our groupish tendencies, or we end up alienated, unfulfilled, searching unhappily for meaning. Religion certainly provides an option, but not the only one.

  2. I don’t think Haidt would agree with this cynical reading, either. However, it does seem to me that he is embracing religion as an antidote to alienation, unfulfillment and searching unhappily for meaning, as you put it. As you can tell from my somewhat intemperate comment about the “proles,” this pushed one of my own “moral intuition” buttons. I have an aversion to embracing things that are not true because they seem to be useful.

  3. “I have an aversion to embracing things that are not true because they seem to be useful.”

    Have your reread William James’s essay, “The Will to Believe,” lately? He makes a powerful case for the usefulness of an idea being a measure of its truth. You might at least reconsider.

  4. I haven’t read him in some time, but I have a volume of his work sitting around somewhere. Maybe it’s time I refreshed my memory.

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