DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Binding and Blinding

Written by: on April 5, 2018

There is a memorable scene from the movie “Good Will Hunting” that takes place in a bar near Harvard University. A beautiful young college student named Skylar comes up to talk to Will Hunting, a young man who is trying to figure out how to use his extraordinary gifts in the larger world.

After chatting, she gives him her phone number and says, “maybe we can go out for coffee sometime.” And he replies, “yea, or maybe we can just eat a bunch of caramels… when you think about it, it’s as arbitrary as drinking coffee.”

In his rich and stimulating book, “The Righteous Mind”, Jonathan Haidt explores a version of this same idea. Haidt’s purpose in writing is to survey the divide within America today around religion and politics, and to seek ways for both the “left” and the “right” to find mutual understanding. The book is divided into three main parts, and I will focus on the 3rd of these, which has to do with the idea that “morality binds and blinds.”[1]

In these later chapters of the book Haidt is arguing against the so called “New Atheists” who see religion as “time-consuming, wealth-consuming, hostility-provoking… anti-factual, counterproductive.”[2] Over against their views, he describes the way that self-sacrifice for the good of others, which is a regular feature of religious communities actually helps them not only survive, but be a positive force in the world. He writes, “sacredness binds people together, and then blinds them to the arbitrariness of the practice.”[3]

This is the connection with Good Will Hunting. There’s a way in which going out on a date to drink coffee, is really just a placeholder for all the things you really want to do: have a chance to talk, be together, get to know each other, and have shared experiences. It could just as easily be “made sacred” by eating a bunch of caramels. The point is, that it takes some centering experience, or ritual, whereby the meaning of the event can be drawn out. Even if it can seem arbitrary, as some religious practices might, the point is to draw people together around the center in God.

Haidt gives the example of dancing around a maypole. This is an ancient tradition from Northern Europe, where young boys and girls dance in a circle, in opposite directions around a maypole, while holding ribbons that are attached at the top. As they move, these ribbons become intertwined, and the people involved, “bind themselves together as a community by circling around them.”[4]

This circling around the center, this binding ever closer together, these shared sacred experiences are what make a religious community so cohesive and powerful. It is instructive that Haidt is arguing against the claims of the “new Atheists” because he himself is a self-proclaimed “atheist”. In describing his own background, he talks of moving from being a “combative” atheist with a “negative” stance in regard to religion, to being someone who really “likes” religion and sees it more in sociological and psychological terms.

People of faith, like myself, might not want to merely see religion this way, but Haidt is helpful in unearthing and lifting up some of the ways that our faith communities actually function, how they are helpful to those who are members, and the way that religious faith can move us out into the world.

One reviewer writes, “From his observation and caveat that morality binds and blinds, he writes passionately to remove barriers to civility from his readers’ vision and broaden understanding for opposing viewpoints. Haidt offers a readable, positive, and well-structured account of his ideas written in the style of a friendly mentor.”[5]

Of course, along with the way that being part of a faith community “binds” people together in a sacred way, it can also “blind” people to the needs or differences of others. This is always a challenge with any “tribe” or “hive” or cohesive group of any kind. The tension that can arise between those who are “insiders” and those perceived to be “outsiders”.

In my own tribe and tradition, of mainline Presbyterians, we don’t struggle so much with allowing for differences or letting people be themselves. The struggle for mainline churches of every stripe, is how to adapt or utilize the resources of our tradition in a way that invites, welcomes, includes and incorporates those who are currently “outside”. As the culture changes around us, this will be increasingly important, so that it isn’t enough to bind ourselves together as an ever-shrinking group, but we must learn where we are blind, which keeps us apart from others we are called to be in relationship with.

In a magazine article some years ago, Pastor Corey Widmer describes what he calls the “75% Rule” for Sunday worship. “When we gather together on Sundays, everyone should be happy with no more than 75% of what is happening during the worship service. Why such a strange rule? Because we realize that in our culturally diverse congregation, if you are happy and comfortable with more than 75% of what is going on, it most likely means that your personal cultural preferences are being dominantly expressed.”[6]

Religious faith, especially within the context of a church, a congregation or a group, has the potential to “bind and blind”. Here is the power and the predicament of seeking to live out our faith together.  While we want to be with and for others, we are often held back by our own personal preferences and patterns.  The 75% Rule is one way of helping to break out of that trap.

Jonathan Haidt’s book gives so much food for thought, that it is worth sharing with others, and then inviting them out for coffee to talk through what it all means. Of course, eating a bunch of caramels would probably work, just as well.

[1] Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (New York: Vintage Books, 2012), 287.

[2] Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (New York: Vintage Books, 2012), 292.

[3] Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (New York: Vintage Books, 2012), 299.

[4] Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (New York: Vintage Books, 2012), 303.

[5] Andrew L. Pearson, review of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and ReligionMind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, by Jonathan Haidt, Religious Studies Review 40, no. 3 (September 2014): 168-69, (accessed April 5, 2018).

[6] Corey Widmer, “The 75% Rule,” The Presbyterian Outlook, June 19, 2013. (accessed April 5, 2018).


About the Author

Dave Watermulder

8 responses to “Binding and Blinding”

  1. Great post Dave! I have to say, I love the movie Good Will Hunting and thought that was a very clever part you picked out of the movie to apply to the text. Taking something meaningless and applying sacred meaning to it is exactly why people should be drawn to church. People don’t care what they do at church as long as they are participating in something that makes them feel they belong to someone or something greater than themselves. I pray we do much more binding than blinding.

  2. mm Jennifer Williamson says:

    Hay Dave, it seems like the binding and blinding conversation could be very relevant to you project/research. And I really like the 75% principal. If the number were lower for any one person, then they would probably have trouble feeling like a part of the church. But good to remember that if the number is higher for me, than it is likely much lower for another person, making that person feel like an outsider. I actually think that we can get numb, though. For example, the church has notoriously used sexist language for years, and most women raised in the church have had to choose to adapt to that. We took it as “normal” or “inevitable.”

  3. mm Dan Kreiss says:


    Unfortunately most of the PCUSA either does not or is not able to apply the 75% rule, particularly when it comes to diversity. Though nationally it seems they are making some efforts this is not reflected in the vast majority of the local congregations. 20% is the rule of thumb for diverse groups to be sustainable. Does your church have 20% of any once minority or group other than the culturally dominant one?

    Haidt’s Binding & Blinding makes good sense and the church should be at the center of being a positive force in the areas of injustice etc. in our society. Unfortunately I think we are too monocultural to really be the example we should be. What do you think and what about your situation?

  4. Chris Pritchett says:

    Princeton at its best! 🙂 I appreciated the clarity and focus and your pastoral tone throughout. I was wondering if you were leading to a discussion about Communion as one of our central “arbitrary practices” that forms us, for some, week in and week out. Not that you should have, but instead you went in a fascinating direction with Corey Widmer’s 75/25 rule of worship satisfaction. I’ve got us down to about 50/50, and I can tell you that’s too steep! 75% satisfaction for worship has got to be the correct, arbitrary number.

  5. mm Trisha Welstad says:

    Thanks for your perspective Dave. It is certainly different than some of our other cohort members and I assume that’s in part because of our different backgrounds and perspectives from each of our own tribes. Thankfully we seem to have fruitful conversations where we are learning to have our eyes opened to each other through our zoom sessions and these posts. I appreciate your insight on the 75% rule. I had not heard that but see the relevance for those who love and don’t love what’s happening in the worship service each week.

    How is your project coming? Are you finding the readings to fit into your research or be extra food for thought?

  6. Greg says:

    First of all…I can’t get a bunch of Caramels and would be happy to sit around and drink coffee with a bunch of them. Dave I was thinking of this 75% rule as well. I am currently sitting near a large church pastor and ask him about that. I said I wonder in America if people weren’t happy if they would just church hop. He smiled and said most people want more than 75% of what happens to fit into what they want. Do you find that academically we talk about creating a diverse worship experience but in reality we (people you work with) don’t want that?

  7. Dave,

    I like the idea of being in fellowship with a church where you don’t have 100% buy-in. That would be, like, heaven. Instead, we live with the mess, we live with the jarring dissonance, of belonging yet not agreeing 100% of the time. Accepting that we belong to the imperfect Body of Christ (ie. church) which is marred, wounded, and bleeding, and yet risen, glorious, and victorious, is where we can hang our hats. Thanks for your great post.

  8. mm Jay Forseth says:

    Hi Dave,

    I have not heard of this 75% rule. Very interesting!

    Unfortunately, as we have read often this year, “consumerism” would be a huge hurdle, especially in Western cultures. In fact, a good portion of our Western church attenders probably wouldn’t be happy if Moses himself showed up. Given enough time, his “approval rating” would easily dip below your 75% figure, and they would vote to throw him out.

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