Saturday, September 29, 2007

Not All Evolutionistary Athiests Like Dawkins Either

A friend recently sent me a really interesting article by Jonathan Haidt of the University of Virginia, Moral Psycology and the Misunderstanding of Religion.

Not being a social psychologist, and so approaching Haidt with little to no baggage, I've found his ideas to be quite interesting, and the points he is currently trying to win in the public forum to be somewhat alligned with my own.

In this article one of his goals is to take people like Richard Dawkins out of the current debate on how morality and religion fit/don't fit into evolutionary theory. I'd rather talk with Haidt than Dawkins. With Dawkins, you are forced into proving religion isn't a gene mutation gone bad, which is certainely possible to do, but you really end up debating his premises, and when you win you've accomplished nothing productive. With Haidt--whose premise is: secular western liberals have only two moral categories, whereas conservatives and basically the rest of human society circa all time have at least five--you can argue over the conclusion: whether or not secular liberals are therefore the pinnacle of evolutionary development, or are they the evolutionary blip. This is a conversation that I do want to have. Thus, the end of this NYT article, you have Haidt basically saying "if secular liberals take over our society we're in real trouble." (Obviously he also thinks the opposite is true.) Note also, that in Haidt's own article, he is using his system to point out that Dawkins and friends are using non-scientific, not exclusively "scientific" thinking systems, to point out problems with religion, but rather are relying on the other three moral categories Haidt identifies as traditional/conservative intuition. Very clever, funny and true.

Another interesting idea Haidt has: change the categories on the debate about the role of that "gut reaction" in moral thinking. For instance, the old survey where people are confronted with two piles of laundry and have to make an instant decision about which they prefer and are "proven" to use emotive reactions over reason/cognition, is shown to be falsely construed. With Haidt's categories he gets to say, because moral cognition encompasses more than reasoned altruism and fairness, its still moral thinking to have a gut reaction to people having sex in the middle of the street and to base your decision upon that reaction--he is putting moral impulses like that in the realm of "intuition" and so saying, look, they are reasonable too.

He also has the sense to pick his head out of the petri dish and make broad, reasonable suggestions based on general, common sense observations to his fellow evolutionary athiests such as this:
"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."

As well as this:

"... 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. Most of these effects have been documented in Europe too. If you believe that morality is about happiness and suffering, then I think you are obligated to take a close look at the way religious people actually live and ask what they are doing right."

I'm not going to be sending Haidt donations or anything, but I think he's trying to change the conversation in really interesting ways, I appreciate his fairness and level headedness, and I hope he becomes widely accepted enough to be an important part of the public debate on religion for a while.

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