Psychologist Jonathan Haidt has written a thought-provoking essay for Edge which charts the recent revolution in the psychology and neuroscience of moral reasoning and suggests that the current critiques of religion have mischaracterised its true nature, based on these new findings.
Haidt summarises the main tenants of the new science of morality as four main principles:
1) Intuitive primacy but not dictatorship. This is the idea, going back to Wilhelm Wundt and channeled through Robert Zajonc and John Bargh, that the mind is driven by constant flashes of affect in response to everything we see and hear.
2) Moral thinking is for social doing. This is a play on William James‘ pragmatist dictum that thinking is for doing, updated by newer work on Machiavellian intelligence. The basic idea is that we did not evolve language and reasoning because they helped us to find truth; we evolved these skills because they were useful to their bearers, and among their greatest benefits were reputation management and manipulation.
3) Morality binds and builds. This is the idea stated most forcefully by Emile Durkheim that morality is a set of constraints that binds people together into an emergent collective entity.
4) Morality is about more than harm and fairness. In moral psychology and moral philosophy, morality is almost always about how people treat each other. Here’s an influential definition from the Berkeley psychologist Elliot Turiel: morality refers to “prescriptive judgments of justice, rights, and welfare pertaining to how people ought to relate to each other.”
The essay then goes on to discuss how the recent findings in then area apply to the ongoing debate between the ‘new atheists‘ (Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and the like) and religion.
In particular, Haidt suggests that the recent criticisms of religion don’t always reflect the best psychological understanding of what are primarily social, rather than ideological, institutions, and notes research findings showing that religious people tend to be happier and more altruistic than others.
As a self-professed non-believer and high-profile social psychologist, Haidt makes some interesting points that are bound to cause controversy.
Link to essay ‘Moral Psychology and the Misunderstanding of religion’.