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

Flipping the Bird is fine in England

Written by: on April 4, 2019

I need to say right at the beginning; there is a difference between the American version of Jonathan Haidt’s, The Righteous Mind, and the UK option published by Penguin.[1] The English version has a different cover and it’s special! It makes you wonder what’s inside and precisely who is ‘flipping the bird‘ to whom? Rather enticing, I thought.

A bunch of years back, the British-German Neuro Psychologist John-Dylan Haynes took aim at the concept of free-will from a scientific perspective. His research led him to conclude that conscious free-will is something the brain doesn’t allow us. By and large, our brains have already chosen a path before our consciousness has caught up.[2] Another brain guy called Frank Tong backed up this conclusion with his research at Vanderbilt University by giving specifics: our brains are 10 seconds ahead of our consciousness. It doesn’t sound like much, but it is, in fact, a very very long time.[3] Allow me an illustration to put those seconds into perspective. A computer science friend informed that 10 ten years ago, the time it took for a computer CPU to process a software instruction by comparison to how long the CPU then had to wait for an older Hard Drive to deliver the next instruction, was about ten human years (given that 1 nanosecond is 1 billionth of a second). That’s a very long wait, and our brains, in real terms, are much faster.

All that preamble backs up the point that Haidt is making in his book: the reason why people have such divergent views on things like politics, religion, fairness and justice are much more complicated than simple rational decision making. There is a large body of subconscious reactions that are well underway by the time our rational mind has caught up.

I enjoyed the book because I enjoy learning about how people think rather than merely interpreting what they say. Given that Haidt is a social and cultural psychologist having spent some 16 plus years researching what makes people happy,[4] he then moves on to the more negative understanding of why people have such trouble discussing religion, and why we can’t, in his own words, “make conversations about morality, politics and religion more common, more civil and more fun.”[5]

To do so, Haidt applies his Elephant metaphor (from The Happiness Hypothesis), to morality and politics using the neuroscience described above. If consciousness is the rider, then the brain is the Elephant. That being the case, our interactions with each other are processed by the elephant and not the rider, because the automatic responses are not rational, they are reactive.[6]

Haidt claims that just as we have the evolutionary taste receptors of salt, sweet, bitter, and so on, so we generally work on five basic moral receptors: those pertaining to caring, fairness, loyalty, authority and sanctity. However, these instincts are not equally distributed. The brute force of our social evolution determines which receptors hold greater value at the expense of others. Liberals are big on fairness and caring but light on sanctity, while conservatives tend toward the reverse. But that bugs our conscious mind. We like the idea that we choose based on rational determinants; we can move from one position to another if the details point in that direction. However, Haidt has a point; we cannot be reminded enough that we tend to shape or select the evidence in order to justify our (Elephant) convictions;[7] a habit that Jennifer Berger called Retrospective Coherence.[8] To see the other person’s point of view is not a bad thing. However, does anyone ever really mean it when they say: “When the facts change, I change my mind”? In reference to this, I refuse to comment on Haidt’s example of Clinton and Obama as fabulous examples of speaking to Elephants via a “broad moral palate”.[9] There’s no point in me creating unnecessary conflict with American Elephants.

I think what makes the book accessible is Haidt’s use of his own journey of moralistic discovery and demonstrating how his own assumptions could be challenged and knocked down; I like a bit of self-deprecation in Americans authors. Also, his style makes difficult topics easier to digest. Fundamentally, Haidt is just trying to work out why we all can’t just get along, by seeing things from someone else’s perspective, which of course we read about in Meyer’s The Culture Map.[10] So, in that sense Haidt’s hopes are nothing ground-breaking. Yet what he does psychologically is useful because he describes why it it’s so problematic and hard to achieve.

From a Christian perspective, missing is the work of the Holy Spirit. That old nugget from Romans 12:2 comes to mind, “….be transformed by the renewing of your mind…”, or 2 Cor 10:5 “take captive every thought and make it obedient to Christ” and again Phil 2:2-5 “…then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” I’m not so naïve as to think that verses are silver bullets against the Elephants that Haidt speaks of. However, I have seen and experienced the powerful transformation of elephants over the years, and God’s work cannot be discounted. Like all things in the life of faith, God works quickly with open minds while labouring lovingly in the softening of hardened hearts.



[1] Jonathan Haidt. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion. (London: Penguin, 2013), Kindle Edition

[2] Chun Siong Soon; Marcel Brass; Hans-Jochen Heinze; John-Dylan Haynes (Apr 2008). “Unconscious determinants of free decisions in the human brain”. Nature Neuroscience. 11: 543–545

[3] Tong, Frank (March 2003). “Cognitive Neuroscience: Primary visual Cortex and visual Awareness”. Nature Reviews Neuroscience 4 (3) 219

[4] Jonathan Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis: Putting Ancient Wisdom to the Test of Modern Science (New York: Arrow, 2007-04-05).

[5] Haidt, “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion”. Loc 86

[6] Ibid. 58

[7] Ibid. 105

[8] Jennifer Garvey-Berger and Keith Johnston. Simple Habits for Complex Times: Powerful Practices for Leaders. (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2015), Kindle Edition

[9] Haidt, “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion”. 181 & 189

[10] Erin Meyer. The Culture Map: Decoding How People Think, Lead, and Get Things Done Across Cultures. (New York: PublicAffairs, 2016), Kindle Edition




Garvey-Berger, Jennifer, and Keith Johnston. Simple Habits for Complex Times: Powerful Practices for Leaders. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2015. Kindle Edition

Haidt, Jonathan. The Happiness Hypothesis: Putting Ancient Wisdom to the Test of Modern Science. New York: Arrow, 2007.

———. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion. London: Penguin, 2013. Kindle Edition

Meyer, Erin. The Culture Map: Decoding How People Think, Lead, and Get Things Done Across Cultures. New York: PublicAffairs, 2016. Kindle Edition

About the Author

Digby Wilkinson

I am currently the Vicar of the Tawa Anglican Church in Wellington, New Zealand. I have only been in this role since February 2018. Prior to this appointment, I was the Dean of the Wellington Cathedral of St Paul, which made me the senior priest of the diocese working alongside the Bishop. I guess from an American perspective this makes me look decidedly Episcopalian, however my ministry background and training was among the Baptists. Consequently, I have been serving as pastor/priest for nearly thirty years. My wife Jane also trained for ministry, and has spent the last decade spiritually directing and supervising church leaders from different denominations. We have three grown children.

8 responses to “Flipping the Bird is fine in England”

  1. mm Rev Jacob Bolton says:

    Digby – this one sounded like a sermon, especially with your closing line. Thank you for the word!

  2. Hi Digby. Thanks for your thoughtful post. The cover of the UK version is provocative. You’re right, I do too wonder who is flipping whom?

    Also, how you end your post is refreshing. The Romans reference is helpful to remind ourselves that we can use Haidt rider/elephant metaphor as well. The verses talk about mind and body (habits) working together. Indeed, transformation only happens when we pay equal attention to the dual natures of our humanity.

  3. By the way, what do you think of Haidt’s ardent commitment to Darwinian evolution on the emergence of the mind?

    • Digby Wilkinson says:

      I’m pretty sure you and I could happily drive a bus through Darwinian evolution of the mind. However it wasn’t unexpected given Haidt’s clear humanism. Like you however, setting that aside, his book is really useful for a psychological understanding of actual human responses to community and the environment. I liked the way he took us in his own journey.

  4. Mario Hood says:

    Thanks, Digby for the awesome post. I love brain stuff so I’ll be checking out those resources for sure.

    It seems like humans are more open to changing their elephants (or at least direction) in the midst of a challenge or hard times. Even the author’s journey is spurred on by tragedy. While I don’t think we should spend all our times as leaders inviting tragedy I think we are missing major chances (especially in America) to speak to the culture because “Sundays” are happy days instead of a day to honor the Most High, no matter what our human condition is at the time.

  5. mm Sean Dean says:

    You mentioned computers, so that’s where my brain has gone. There’s a technique that has become popular with web browser manufacturers called pre-caching. Essentially they’ve built in a bit of machine learning that can guess where you as a user are likely to go next based upon the content of the page. The browser then starts to download the assets for the top rated guesses in the background, so that when you do eventually go to one of those pages they load faster. I wonder how much the Bible verses you quoted are a spiritual equivalent of pre-caching. It’s not about training the elephant as much as preparing ourselves for where the elephant is going to go based upon past experience and being ready to course correct.

  6. mm John Muhanji says:

    Thank you Digby for your great write up on Haidt’s writing. I was very mu encouraged by your scripture references towards the end that sums the Haidt’s works. Thank brother for your great insight of this book.

  7. Harry Fritzenschaft says:

    Thank you for reminding me and all of us that I and we are not alone with our thoughts, our feelings, and our elephants. The Holy Spirit is far more than a feeble rider on the back of the behemoth of our visceral reactions (I am thinking of the sandworms of Dune). Therefore He continues to tame and redirect the various elephants of our development, and has and continues to tame and redirect me. Thanks again, Friend, for being both a brilliant scholar as well as a pastor.

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