Save for the author’s ardent commitment to Darwinian evolution, there is much to learn and appreciate from Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. I also wished he addressed an important corollary of his project, namely, the grounding of morality. But that may be exclusively in the realm of philosophy and theology, which he does cover. However, the subjects he addresses are signifiant, backed by thoughtful research and metaphors, that there is enough to take in and digest. The subtext is indeed provocative, especially in our current politically charged climate in which civility is a foreign concept to many in the modern world.
Why are good people divided by politics and religion? Why is the common aphorism, “Do not discuss politics and religion in polite company.” true in many cases? Why do we tip-toe around hot topic issues, i.e., abortion, immigrant, welfare, etc.? Haidt makes a compelling case and he starts out by affirming a guiding moral principle: “Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second.”1 If nothing else is learned from reading Haidt, this sole principle is sufficient to help explain why so many are frustrated and angry about our incivility toward each other. We try to persuade through the head while forgetting to speak to the heart.
Still operating under the Enlightenment’s overreach, educational institutions, non-profit organizations (including the church) and the like remain unconvinced to instruct in ways that give due credit to the arts and other “soft sciences.” Even the perceived differences between the “hard” and “soft” sciences is telling of how much work is needed to bridge the two. The study of chemistry and physics is considered more academically rigorous in our society today than the study of music and Shakespeare for instance. The former provides facts, and the latter supports feelings. Studies show both are necessary to produce whole individuals.
Haidt provides a helpful metaphor to understand the power of emotion. Our minds operate like a rider on an elephant. Emotion’s relationship with cognitive processing was not understood until the 1980s.2 Emotions, as it turns out is not dumb. In fact, according to Haidt, the rider’s job is to serve the elephant. This realization might be unsettling, especially to educators who pass over opportunities to teach and affirm what the heart already knows. Blaise Pascal once said, “The heart has its reasons which reason does not understand.”3 In an age where the primacy of reason was nascent Pascal knew the proper roles reason and emotions each had.
How is Haidt’s work relevant for Christian leaders today? Are there principles we can adopt to help stem the decline of Christian influence? Too many churches today extol conversionism4 to the exclusion of other sanctifying activities. Reports of the numbers of those praying the sinners prayer, “receiving Christ as personal Lord and Savior” are always at the top of Christian leaders’ agendas, with little care on follow up and discipleship.
I have been wondering lately how church might look like if we entertained the idea of the gospel being more than just the conversion of the soul? Sure, this is the first step in anyone’s journey to salvific faith, but as we are learning, this is just the first among many toward a full life Jesus promised to those who follow and obey him. Could church include more activities that excite and challenge not only the mind, but the heart as well? How do we infuse more art and beauty5 in our congregations to help them see we belong to a rich history that created and celebrated those values?6 For centuries, up until the modern period, Christians have been the purveyors of great art, music and literature. One only has to visit our museums today to appreciate this fact.
Could the church be the space for all this? It could be and so much more. Haidt sees a lot of similarity between what happens in college football games and the weekly gathering of the religious devout, also known as the church. In a game, winning is the objective, but research shows that something else is happening. Haidt identifies this as the “hive switch.”7 Just like bees in a hive, like-minded people choose cooperation, cohesion and helping each reach mutually beneficial goals. This sounds like an ideal church—not a bad observation coming from an atheist. Furthermore, studies have shown that certain activities such as dancing and singing aid in binding groups together.
Haidt may have likened a college football game to church. But I think church is more akin to a rock concert. All the singing, dancing, dress codes, shared interests, etc. are examples of what Barbara Ehrenreich calls “biotechnology” which promotes binding groups together, which apparently was a part of the early church until it was suppressed in the Middle Ages.8 Dancing during Sunday morning services might be too avant-garde for some. But is there anything inherently wrong with it? So why can’t church be more exhilarating like concerts, more exuberant like football games, or a place of discovery like museums; and sometimes silent and solemn like a monastery? Why can’t church be like the pub in the 1980s television sitcom Cheers “where everybody knows your name” or like The Corner Store in San Pedro CA, a small neighborhood variety store that remains open during Thanksgiving and Christmas to provide a place for the local community to, if nothing else, just be together?
If the gospel is to be lived out and properly understood as good news, Christian leaders must work harder to develop programs that cater not just exclusively to the head, but to the heart as well.
1 J. Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (New York: Pantheon Books, 2012), 55.
2 Ibid., 51.
3 Blaise Pascal and T. S. Eliot, Pascals Pensées (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1958), 210.
4 David W. Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s (London: Routledge, 2005), 20.
5 Ross Gregory Douthat, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics (New York: Free Press, 2013), 291.
6 For a good introduction to aesthetics, see Roger Scruton’s Why Beauty Matters, a BBC British documentary released in 2009.
7 Haidt, 258.
8 Ibid., 259.