Religion: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly


Jonathan Haidt’s analysis so far does not mean religion is an unmixed blessing. But it does mean religion does some good—some significant good.

Haidt paid attention to scientific work by R.D. Putnam and D.E. Campbell and their fascinating research into religion. That research has revealed some surprising things about religions. One thing it has led to is the conclusion that religion has produced large surpluses of social capital that has benefitted not just religious adherents, but outsiders as well.

Jonathan Haidt has argued, that religions are sets of cultural practices that coevolved with the minds of humans by the process of multi-level natural selection. He has pointed out that to the extent that group-level selection occurred, we can expect religions and religious minds to be parochial. In other words, human minds concentrate on helping the in-group of humans. Yet, this is true, he argues, “even when a religion preaches universal love and benevolence.”

That may be not be intuitive, but Haidt argues that “Religiosity evolved because successful religions made groups more efficient at “turning resources into offspring.” As a result of that Haidt argues, “Religion is therefor well suited to be the handmaiden of groupishness, tribalism, and nationalism.” While those are not entirely benign forces, they can be aligned with beneficial results too. He gave the example of suicide bombing. Based on work by Robert Pape who created a database of every known suicide bombing in the last 100 years which showed that “suicide bombing is a nationalistic response to military occupation by a culturally alien democratic power…It’s a response to contamination of the sacred homeland.” Haidt asks us to look at it as if it were a fist punched into a beehive and then left in for a long time. That is rather a graphic image.

Yet it is admittedly true that most military occupations don’t lead to suicide-bombing because they don’t affect the right ideology that can rally the support of fanatical young men. Not every one is willing to die for a sacred cause. Shiite Muslims were the first to demonstrate that suicide bombing can work, as they used it to drive the United States Marines out of Lebanon in 1983. What does all this have to do with religion? Well according to Haidt,

“Anything that binds people together into a moral matrix that glorifies the in-group, while at the same time demonizing another group can lead to moralistic killing, and many religions are well suited for that task. Religion is therefore often an accessory to atrocity, rather than the driving force of the atrocity.” Either way, that is not so good.

Haidt analyzes the religious enterprise like this:

“…if you look at the long history of humanity and see our righteous minds as nearly miraculous freaks of evolution that cry out for explanation, then you might feel some appreciation for the role religion played in getting us here. We are Homo duplex.[1] We are 90 percent chimp and 10 percent bee.[2] Successful religions work on both levels of our nature to suppress selfishness, or at leas to channel it in ways that often pay dividends for the group. Gods were helpful in creating moral matrices within which Glauconian[3] creatures have strong incentives to conform. And gods were an essential part of the evolution of our hivish overlay;[4] sometimes we really do transcend self-interest and devote ourselves to helping others or our groups.[5]”


According to Haidt, if a person lives in a religious community, he or she has a set of norms, relationships, and institutions that work intuitively to influence your behavior without really thinking about what you are doing. An atheist does not have the benefit of that. If one is an atheist one might have a looser community with a less binding moral matrix that requires you to think through an issue. It is not intuitive. It is not automatic. To many, like me, that might actually sound appealing, but it is recipe for a society without a shared moral order. According to Haidt, we have evolved to implement our norms and to live, trade, and trust within shared moral matrices. As Haidt explains, “When societies lose their grip on individuals that allows them to do as they please, and although that sounds pleasant, it actually leads to individuals being less happy and actually leads to increases in suicide. I remember a philosophy professor of mine who use to say John Stuart Mills’ “liberty” is Emile Durkheim’s “suicide.”

As a result, Haidt argues that societies that forgo religion over several generations will suffer. He says we don’t really know that yet since atheistic societies are a relatively new phenomena so we don’t yet have the empirical evidence to back it up, so Haidt is speculating. But it is certainly interesting speculation.

So religion leads to happier lives Haidt argues. Such societies will be better or more efficient at turning resources into offspring and hence will be more successful than atheistic societies. And remember, Haidt is an atheist.

In my view, this is all very interesting speculation. I am not sure I agree, but it is worth thinking about.

[1] this is what Haidt refers to humans as. By that he means that humans are creature who exist at 2 levels: as an individual and as members of a larger society (group)

[2] by that Haidt means in simplified terms that we are 90% selfish individuals and 10% social members of a group

[3] Glaucon was Plato’s brother who argued that people are only virtuous when they are worried about the consequences of being caught

[4] the bee in us

[5] Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind, (2012) p. 312-313

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