Saturday, April 26, 2008

Haidt's awkward position

Having commented here recently with a reference to Jonathon Haidt, I spent a bit of time reading this Haidt article in which he critiques ''the new atheists''. Basically he uses his moral intuition findings to argue that such public advocates of atheism as Dawkins and Harris are so strongly guided by an intuitive sense of the wrongness or immorality of religious belief that this clouds their judgment when it comes to the possible benefits of such belief. Haidt has little to say about whether beliefs in supernatural forces are true - which is, to say the least, a weakness in his argument - but what he has to say about benefits is worth reflecting upon. He quotes some lines from Dennett's Breaking the spell about the morality of unbelievers v believers:
"Perhaps a survey would show that as a group atheists and agnostics are more respectful of the law, more sensitive to the needs of others, or more ethical than religious people. Certainly no reliable survey has yet been done that shows otherwise. It might be that the best that can be said for religion is that it helps some people achieve the level of citizenship and morality typically found in brights. If you find that conjecture offensive, you need to adjust your perspective. (Breaking the Spell, p. 55.)
Here's Haidt's commentary on the above:

I have italicized the two sections that show ordinary moral thinking rather than scientific thinking. The first is Dennett's claim not just that there is no evidence, but that there is certainly no evidence, when in fact surveys have shown for decades that religious practice is a strong predictor of charitable giving. Arthur Brooks recently analyzed these data (in Who Really Cares) and concluded that the enormous generosity of religious believers is not just recycled to religious charities.

Religious believers give more money than secular folk to secular charities, and to their neighbors. They give more of their time, too, and of their blood. Even if you excuse secular liberals from charity because they vote for government welfare programs, it is awfully hard to explain why secular liberals give so little blood. The bottom line, Brooks concludes, is that all forms of giving go together, and all are greatly increased by religious participation and slightly increased by conservative ideology (after controlling for religiosity).

These data are complex and perhaps they can be spun the other way, but at the moment it appears that Dennett is wrong in his reading of the literature. 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.

Assuming this is true, and though I haven't independently examined the evidence, I suspect that it is, it needs to be accounted for. Not only that but, as Haidt suggests, we need to tap into this force for helping others that appears to be driven by religion, and utilise it for a secular society.

So what is so socially cohesive and happiness-making about religious belief, and do all religious beliefs have this tendency? How does Judeo-Christianity compare with the Dreamtime beliefs of Oz Aborigines in this regard?

To stick with Christianity, I think Haidt is right in saying that the beliefs of modern Christians are more complex and eclectic than some atheists give them credit for. Most of them don't read the Bible, and aren't familiar with it except through the many and various interpretations of priests whose sermons mix Bible stories with everyday modern observations, homespun homilies and more or less sophisticated treatment of current political and social issues. Bible passages are dealt with selectively and according to changing attitudes. Some quietly fall out of favour, as do whole religious concepts, such as the concept of hell. Some atheists think that, because the Bible is a fixed document - at least since the Council of Trent - Christian morality must also be fixed, in the time those texts were written, but this is plainly not so [in spite of what Christian leaders themselves say about eternal verities]. Certainly it's a largely conservative morality, which drags behind progressive secularism in terms of reform, but there's no doubt that it's always changing, just as today's conservative political parties don't support the institution of slavery, as they once did.

Haidt makes a distinction between contractual society and the beehive society, the first being more individualist and egalitarian, the second being more authoritarian and rigid. The first requires constant adjustment to balance individual and social needs against each other, the second requires constant vigilance against enemies from without and within. And although Haidt generally plumps for the contractual society, he seems to feel that the alternative shouldn't be contemptuously dismissed, but studied and learned from. Whether this is itself mere liberal posturing is hard to say. His main argument against the new atheists is that they're more driven by commitment to a cause than reason, and that their reasoning is heavily skewed by that commitment. It's an important point, of course, but it needs to be pointed out that new atheism has also grown out of a serious threat to scientific autonomy and scientific education, in the USA at least, coming from creationists and their very vocal fundamentalist supporters. It's also a response to the growing power of Islamism, to the violence of militant religion, and to the real danger posed by the politicisation of religious views. There really is something of a battle being waged here, and aren't we right to be concerned that not enough people are speaking up? And they should do so with carefully crafted, evidence-based arguments, as well as an awareness of where they're coming from, and of the dangers of bias.

I enjoy some of the rhetoric of the new atheists, but not all of it. I'm more interested in solid argument, such as those used by scientists to refute the anti-evolution claims of believers, arguments that are painstaking, patient and comprehensive, arguments that themselves promote science as a discipline for producing results, knowledge and insight. The effectiveness of the practice of science is always its best argument.

Science needs to turn to religion in the same spirit, to seek to explain it. Haidt touches on this when he refers to the work of Boyer and Atran and the exploration of religion as an evolutionary byproduct. He himself wonders whether religion isn't an adaptation, that's to say, a much more successful evolutionary product than is given credit for, though it must be hard to sustain that view as a secularist who seems, personally, to have no need of religion. He points out that anthropologists are much less interested in the truth of religious beliefs than in the social functions attached to ritual and ceremony, but this seems to me rather to fudge the issue [and functionalism in the social sciences has been criticised for just this reason].

The bottom line is that Haidt is trying to defend religion while not believing in it. It's an awkward position to take, and to some it might look like a patronising one. The only real defence he has provided for religious beliefs is that that they seem to make people more happy and more generous. The first claim can be dealt with along 'ignorance is bliss' lines, the second one may look a bit more difficult to deal with, but I would say that if you are a regular church-goer you would be constantly the target of sermons touching on civic responsibility. Helping the poor, helping those in need, caring for children and the elderly, loving sinners, if not the sin, and encouraging and reinforcing the bonds of community everywhere. It's also quite likely the case that you're drawn to churchy organisations because you want your sense of community and civic responsibility strengthened. It fulfils a need in you. But let's not pretend that there aren't other things that go along with these positives - the myths about gods and faith, the fear and loathing of the godless and such. And there are particular truth-claims, reiterated again and again, the central one being the existence of and the need to constantly worship a supernatural entity. There's no getting around that one, either it's true or not.

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At 11:41 pm , Anonymous AV said...

I just noticed this, Stewart, and I'll have to mull it over before commenting further . . .


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