The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt

There are three things you should never talk about at dinner: money, politics, and religion. In The Righteous Mind, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt shares his recent research findings on human morality and applies them to two of these three forbidden topics: religion and politics.

The Righteous Mind explains America’s growing partisanship divide and the benefit of religion to society using Haidt’s three principles of moral psychology:

  1. Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second.
  2. There’s more to morality than harm and fairness.
  3. Morality binds and blinds.

Consider the author’s second principle – there’s more to morality than harm and fairness – which has clear implications for evangelism and for understanding the current culture wars. Many here in Princeton – WEIRD people (from Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic countries) – ground their moral reasoning on principles of harm and fairness. However, Haidt’s research identifies a total of six moral foundations: care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, sanctity/degradation, and liberty/oppression. Christian morality includes all of these foundations, but emphasizes authority/subversion (the authority of God’s word) and sanctity/degradation (holy living). So to successfully share the Gospel with WEIRD people, it’s important to understand where they are coming from and to widen their moral matrix. Otherwise, saying “the Bible is the Word of God” will mean very little, when they just want to know if Christians do harm and are fair. 

In applying his second and third principles to politics, Haidt finds that each political ideology rests on different moral foundations. Liberals rest on three foundations (care/harm, fairness/cheating or equality/inequality, and liberty/oppression) while conservatives rest about equally on all six moral foundations. Due to their reliance on different foundations, though, both sides are blind to the value of the other’s policies and thoughts.

Unfortunately, the book itself falls victim to this third principle: morality binds and blinds. We cannot think clearly about an issue once we’ve joined a moral team. The secular Haidt demonstrates this, as he cannot think clearly about religion. He upholds the benefits of religion for human flourishing. Yet, he sees very little difference between gathering on Sunday for worship and attending a UVA football match. Haidt may give religion a fairer treatment than Richard Dawkins, but he is blind to the truth of the Gospel.

The Rightous Mind has changed how I think about those dreaded dinner discussions about politics. The problem is not a lack of data. Sharing more information is not going to change anyone’s minds. The same applies to evangelism. Understanding my own moral matrix and those of others enhances how I share and defend my faith. For these reasons, I recommend reading The Righteous Mind.

Reader be warned: the book includes some morally outrageous stories that you may want to skip.

Published by Pantheon, 2012.

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