A New Way of Understanding Religion

Growing up Jewish and having a Bar Mitzvah, I always felt combative towards my religion. I imagined greener pastures and freedom from the boring services awaited me outside of the four Temple walls. These experiences with religion as a kid have influenced how I view religion today: stodgy, out of touch with reality, and a waste of time. Religion felt strange and unnecessary. I respected however people wanted to live their lives, but it wasn’t for me.

In fact, I could not fathom people devoted to religion . Was it because they were uneducated? Was it because they didn’t believe in science? Or maybe in parts of the US, tradition just kept its roots longer and more firm.

However, Jonathan Haidt’s book The Happiness Hypothesis, completely changed my mind on religion. It provided me a better understanding of the people who practice it, and opened my eyes as to why religion probably should make a come back and become a bigger part of people’s lives. I’d like to unpack all of these ideas to help people who’ve abandoned religion or who scoff at it.  You can see the perspective of deeply religious people, and maybe even change your mind about what religion is and why people devote themselves to it.

All of the major ideas below I borrow from Haidt, with some of my own thoughts or observations tossed in. First up to discuss: virtue and ethics.

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A Theory of Ethics and Morality

Haidt discusses a theory of ethics/morality that falls into three categories: ethics of autonomy, ethics of community, and ethics of divinity.

These theories of morality govern our modern society. The ethics of autonomy create a moral framework around personal freedoms and striving towards individuality. Anything that allows people to better express themselves (as long as they don’t hurt others in the process) falls into this moral structure. Think: choosing your sexual partners, getting tattoos or piercings, deciding what to learn or where to go to school, and what type of hobbies to engage in. The ethics of community focus on, clearly, the community. What’s good for the community is ethical. Think of utilitarianism, or providing food to a hungry neighbor, or scolding other people’s children when you see them do something unethical. The final one, ethics of divinity, focuses on a moral framework that Haidt describes as “the opposite of disgust.” To better describe the ethics of divinity, here’s Haidt:

Disgust makes us careful about contact. But the most fascinating thing about disgust is that it is recruited to support so many of the norms, rituals, and beliefs that cultures use to define themselves.

We want to move as far away on the psychological spectrum from disgust as possible, which actually shows an ethical framework of cultural norms. Haidt describes a third dimension (the first two being social hierarchies and familiar relationships) of human interaction (falling into the ethics of divinity category) that he calls elevation. Essentially, elevation describes the feeling of awe upon seeing a natural landscape.  It can also describe emotions you feel when you cry tears of joy at seeing people act with pure love and generosity towards each other. Elevation = a feeling of something bigger than yourself.

Now you can see why Haidt describes elevation as the opposite of disgust.

I’d like to focus on Haidt’s idea of elevation in the context of the three categories of ethics. Time to get slightly political now that we understand these three ethical frameworks.

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In general, liberals are focused on the ethics of autonomy (like individual rights).  Most conservatives are focused on community and purity and transcendence, falling into the community and divinity buckets. Both groups have trouble understanding each other’s moral frameworks for this reason. The opposing moral frameworks create today's "hot button" political environment.

Through this framework, Haidt showed me exactly how I completely misunderstood religion and generally the conservatives who use different ethical categories than me. A lot of what liberals get completely wrong about religion (that I definitely do/did) is that it’s not about believing fake stories that “allegedly” occurred thousands of years ago.  The point: to engulf yourself in a community of people focused on creating these “divine” and transcendental experiences, learning from virtuous people (the characters in the Bible, Upanishads, and other religious scriptures) who had what Haidt calls “peak experiences” where they felt so awash with awe (and a feeling of complete elevation) that it instantaneously changed their lives forever.

Haidt gives a great analogy using a book written in the 1880’s.  It describes a square living in "Flatland" in two dimensions, and coming into contact with a sphere. The square can only witness the two dimensions of the sphere no matter how hard the sphere tries to describer the third. The square laughs at the sphere’s ridiculous notion of a third dimension, until the sphere brings him to an area where the square instantly has its world changed forever.

In this way, the square entered the third dimension of elevated thought, understanding the world in a fundamentally different way than it did before. And to bring a long story short: Haidt argues that religious people understand this third dimension, and like our friend the square, us non-religious people find it impossible to even comprehend this third dimension if we’ve never been there ourselves. And here lie the societal benefits of religion. Haidt sums up the character of religion, and something that religious people know when he says:

For many people, one of the pleasures of going to church is the experience of collective elevation. People step out of their everyday profane existence, which offers only occasional opportunities for movement on the third dimension, and come together with a community of like-hearted people who are also hoping to feel a “lift” from stories about Christ, virtuous people in the Bible, saints, or exemplary members of their own community.

When this happens, people find themselves overflowing with love, but it is not exactly the love that grows out of attachment relationships. That love has a specific object, and it turns to pain when the object is gone. This love has no specific object; it is agape. It feels like a love of all humankind, and because humans find it hard to believe that something comes from nothing, it seems natural to attribute the love to Christ, or to the Holy Spirit moving within one’s own heart.

Such experiences give direct and subjectively compelling evidence that God resides within each person. And once a person knows this “truth,” the ethic of divinity becomes self-evident. Some ways of living are compatible with divinity — they bring out the higher, nobler self; others do not.

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We’ve lost the ethic of divinity here in the US. Haidt believes that our society misses something critical when we ignore this third dimension that the ethic of divinity covers. We lose our ability to transcend ourselves; to understand truths deeper than the self; to focus on agreed upon virtues and agreed upon ways of living and striving for common goals of goodness.

The focus in the US over the past 60 years has been on the ethic of autonomy, allowing more freedom to individuals and creating a diverse and thriving peaceful society. Despite this, we miss a lot of human potential and happiness by ignoring or even scoffing at the third dimension that conservatives generally embody. The obvious downside of the ethic of divinity manifests itself when society tends to push other people down the third dimension (i.e. oppression) to elevate themselves. Exhibit A: Nazis trying to purify Germany in order to elevate their own race.

Haidt, borrowing from both camps with clear reasoning, explains:

“Liberals are right to work for a society that is open to people of every demographic group, but conservatives might be right in believing that at the same time we should work much harder to create a common, shared identity.”

Something that I noticed in pop culture after reading Haidt: the liberal media (i.e. Vice, HBO, etc.) tends to demonize religion, or paint religion as archaic, inhumane, and intolerant. The hit HBO shows (for example) Silicon Valley and True Detective exemplify this. A gay startup founder in Silicon Valley fears coming out as a Christian more than he fears discussing his sexual orientation (they do this to more or less describes reality in San Francisco). The show communicates the sentiment that it’s egregious or undesirable to have and be proud of your religion.

True Detectives, with a darker perspective, paint religious people as child killers with satanic tendencies, on the wrong side between the struggle for good and evil, not morally “correct.” These are just two examples, but you can find these subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) digs at religion across the mainstream media spectrum. I think this shows how deeply ingrained an aversion to religion in the progressive parts of the US have become.

Overall, Haidt’s research into the psychology of ethics and religion have provided me a new and interesting perspective on religion. I have a deeper respect for the goals and moral frameworks of religious individuals, and admire the striving towards creating an elevated psyche, breaking through the third dimension of human interaction and experiencing nobility, virtue, and human experience itself in their highest forms.

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