Moral Psychology: The Beginnings of Religion

Hunter-gatherers—the guys who start off every good history book—experienced a lot of weird things while they were out picking berries in the forest. For instance, it’s not unimaginable that they heard a twig snap when there were no animals around, or perhaps they found a footprint but saw nothing in the immediate proximity that could make that print, or—as we’ve all experienced at some point—they found something in a different location from where they remember it being. Had strange occurrences like this happened to any other creature, they certainly would have been confused or even terrified, but not hunter-gatherers. Why?


The answer lies in a built-in feature of all humans: hypersensitive agency detection. This ability of ours is what makes it possible for humans to make sense of our weird experiences. By assigning them agency—determining that they had to have been done by someone or something—we give ourselves the chance to take the proper precautions (so the lion that created the footprints in the example above doesn’t get the jump on us). Hypersensitive agency detection is also, according to many moral psychologists, why humans are religious. We assign intelligent agency to things we can’t explain, even when in reality there was no agent.

And this contention is the only reason many religious people think twice about moral psychology: because it is a field that claims to know where religion and morality came from, and that they are both artificial.

The prospect of artificiality doesn’t sit well with most. If religion is man-made and not divinely conceived, then that would… well… negate the whole thing. It’d all be a lie (an innocent lie, perhaps, but a lie), and there’d be no reason to go on believing it.

But that’s not all; many would go further and say that not only is religion wrong, it is outright evil. This is the position of the New Atheists, championed by the notorious Four Horseman: Christopher Hitchens (God rest his soul), Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris. They believe that religion gives people wrong beliefs which lead them to even worse actions, actions that can hurt other people.


Yet not everyone agrees with their appraisal of religion. In The Righteous Mind, the book we’re exploring for this three-part series, Jonathan Haidt spends one of his final chapters defending religion (and note, Haidt and the bulk of the scholars he cites are atheist).

He begins by explaining why the New Atheist understanding of religion is fundamentally flawed. The New Atheists claim that religions produce bad beliefs in people which lead them to bad actions. But, according to Haidt, the relationship between belief and action has another factor: belonging, and these three exist in a symbiotic relationship. Our beliefs are determined by community and by our actions, our deeds determine our community and are themselves determined by that sense of belonging; it is not a simple one-way street. 

(As a side note, when we gain our sense of belonging from groups based on boundary or skin color or we make our religion about those things, we get the violence that’s been happening this last week.)

A common place to turn when describing the evils of religion is suicide terrorism. What else besides misguided religion could lead someone to kill themselves in attempts to harm others? If you’re like me, the only terrorists you know are religiously fueled and so this argument seems to hold water. However, Haidt cites the research of Robert Pape who made a database of all the suicide terrorist attacks since 1980. Haidt summarizes Pape’s conclusion as follows:

Suicide bombing is a nationalist response to military occupation by a culturally alien democratic power. It’s a response to boots and tanks on the ground—never from bombs dropped in the air.

Suicide terrorism is like the body responding to a disease—it recognizes the foreign substance and reacts violently, sometimes even damaging itself. That’s why it doesn’t matter if it’s an ideology, as with the Marxist-Leninist Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanks, or a religion, as with the Shiites who drove the U. S. out of Lebanon in 1983 (showing future generations how effective suicide terrorism can be).


For several decades, another way to attack religion was by demonstrating through psychology and economics studies that believers were no better than nonbelievers, that religious people were no more likely to help strangers. And for a while, the contest between believers and non seemed to be a draw; they behaved in nearly the same way.

But recently, psychologists have realized that they were expecting the wrong thing. Religious people never claimed to be unconditional altruists but rather parochial altruists (Judaism, in particular, verbalizes this focus on helping those within the fold). And with this understood, studies began to observe that religious people do much more service on average. One survey measured that while non-religious give 1.5% of their income to charity on average, the most religious demographic will give 7% to church sponsored charity. Supplementing this, another study showed that believers, by giving first to their churches, are still more likely to give to any charity. In addition to these, several other experiments have been done by Tan & Vogel as well as Richard Sosis demonstrating that religious individuals tend to do more good.

In The Righteous Mind, Haidt gives a few other examples in defense of religion. He argues that from an evolutionary standpoint that religion is clearly beneficial for humans because it helped people prosper in terms of group-level natural selection. He also cites studies of communes throughout the centuries which demonstrate that religious communities always fare better than their secular counterparts because religion is the solution to what Haidt deems the “hardest sociological problem.” Religion allows cooperation without kinship.


In the end, Haidt’s argument can be reduced to acknowledging that religion is a “moral exoskeleton.” Adopting the elephant and rider analogy from my last post, religion creates reins to help guide our instinctual elephant in moral living. Atheists who have no religion must simply rely more on their rider (i.e. reason) to lead them in the way they must go. This will certainly sound appealing to rationalists, but Haidt warns that this independence and moral-pluralism spawns anomie, Émile Durkheim’s term for “normlessness,” resulting in a decrease in happiness and increase in suicide. For all the problems Haidt and his peers see in religion, they cannot help but see an invaluable institution.


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