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.”
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.” 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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
 Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (New York: Vintage Books, 2012), 287.
 Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (New York: Vintage Books, 2012), 292.
 Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (New York: Vintage Books, 2012), 299.
 Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (New York: Vintage Books, 2012), 303.
 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, http://web.b.ebscohost.com.georgefox.idm.oclc.org/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=3&sid=a8d005a4-0f26-489f-885c-cdfb20e8f5ec%40sessionmgr104 (accessed April 5, 2018).