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Reading Jonathan Haidt as a “New Atheist” December 5, 2012

Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Religion.
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A week ago I wrote a quick post about how I was reading Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, and quoted a bit from early on in the book.  I am nearly done the book (I have one chapter left), and although I liked much of the early book and think that some of what he thinks about the relationship between our moral instincts and subsequent rationalizations of them are worth reading, I must conclude that i am not on-board with Haidt’s approach to religion, especially his criticisms of the “New Atheists.”

In chapter 11, Religion is a Team Sport, Haidt tries to deconstruct the new atheist approach, following on his anti-worshiping of reason from earlier in the book, and says we need to address religion for what is is (a group selected set of community-building institutions) rather than what it is not (a set of beliefs, ideas, etc).  He thinks that our attention to beliefs as motivators for action is too simplistic, and points out that “belonging” has to be placed along with belief and action, in the matrix of religious behavior.

Well, yes of course it does!

I don’t need to get into the details of what is wrong with the book, at least in terms of the criticism of the new atheists, because that has already been done:

Sam Harris has some thoughts about Haidt’s treatment of morality, as well as how beliefs inform our actions.

PZ Myers has thoughts about Haidt’s relationship to the Templeton Foundation, and thus to accommodationism in general.

Als0, Helian has a good critique which points to another good critique from the New York Times by William Saletan.

I agree that there are parts of the book which are quite worth-while.  I did just get it from my local library, after all, and didn’t spend a cent to read it.  If you are interested in moral psychology, evolutionary psychology, and group selection (whether or not you agree with any of those research areas specifically), then I suggest reading at least the first several chapters.

But what was most telling was that Haidt kept on talking about the difference between what makes a group work well and what does not.  His conclusion is that religion makes groups work well, at least for members of the group.  Atheists who ask us to leave religion, as individuals or as a species, risk losing what Haidt sees as the glue that can hold us together.

Haidt is seemingly unfamiliar (due to lack of mention) with any new atheist thoughts past 2007 or so (the book was published in 2012).  Perhaps the problem is that he is unaware that many atheists have been working, especially in the last 2-3 years, on building up an atheist community.  No, we may not have anything sacred (not even science), but we are working on creating a sense of what it means to be skeptical, non-religious, and living in a world with potential for beauty and terrible atrocity.

Religion is not the only force for group-cohesion, even if it has the advantage of having sacred spaces, authority, and thus loyalty (what Haidt identifies as primarily conservative values).  I believe that care, a concern for fairness/ justice, and a sense of liberty (what Haidt identifies as what liberals tend to prioritize) are means to creating community as well.  We do not need to give up a concern for what is true (a value Haidt does not list, interestingly, especially because it is a high value for many new atheists, including myself) in order to create shared group identities.

Haidt, an atheist himself, is not connected to the atheist community.  Perhaps if he was, then his arguments would not be so poor.  Perhaps we should invite him to the party?