The Dimension of Divinity

I just finished reading The Happiness Hypothesis, a book by Jonathan Haidt, who’s a professor in the new science of “positive psychology” at the University of Virginia. Most of the book is a straightforward distillation of scientific research on what truly brings happiness and contentment in life, illustrated with quotes and references to famous philosophers and sages of the past who taught similar lessons. There’s nothing to object to about this – I think it’s a laudable thing for science to study what makes people happy and helps them flourish, rather than focusing solely on disease and dysfunction. And I even learned a few interesting tidbits – the chapter on moral hypocrisy, and why we have a much easier time noticing it in others than in ourselves, was particularly good, as was the chapter on ways that advertisers and proselytizers influence us and trick us into doing what they want, rather than what genuinely makes us happy. That’s the kind of information that should be much more widely disseminated.

However, near the end of the book, the argument took a surprising turn. Haidt himself states that he’s an atheist, and is careful to note that secular people as well as religious people can experience feelings of transcendent awe and wonder (he calls it “elevation”). But in the last few chapters, he has some unexpected praise for the importance of religion and the allegedly vital role it plays in human community:

…my research on the moral emotions has led me to conclude that the human mind simply does perceive divinity and sacredness, whether or not God exists. In reaching this conclusion, I lost the smug contempt for religion that I felt in my twenties.

This chapter is about the ancient truth that devoutly religious people grasp, and that secular thinkers often do not: that by our actions and our thoughts, we move up and down on a vertical dimension… An implication of this truth is that we are impoverished as human beings when we lose sight of this dimension and let our world collapse into two dimensions. [p.184]

If the third dimension and perceptions of sacredness are an important part of human nature, then the scientific community should accept religiosity as a normal and healthy aspect of human nature… If religious people are right in believing that religion is the source of their greatest happiness, then maybe the rest of us who are looking for happiness and meaning can learn something from them, whether or not we believe in God. [p.211]

I wasn’t sure what to make of this, until I read past the end to the acknowledgements:

I am deeply grateful to Sir John Templeton, the John Templeton Foundation, and its executive vice president, Arthur Schwartz, for supporting my research on moral elevation and for giving me a semester of sabbatical leave to begin the research for this book.

That explained a lot. (If you didn’t know, the Templeton Foundation is a group founded by a billionaire evangelical Christian whose major purpose is to pay scientists to say nice things about religion. See Jerry Coyne or Sean Carroll for more.)

In these chapters, Haidt speaks of the “ethic of divinity”, which he says is tied to human concepts of sacredness and holiness and which runs along a continuum from purity to disgust. As an example, he discusses his research in the Indian city of Bhubaneswar, where Hindu priests from the Brahmin caste have an elaborate system of rules, similar to orthodox Jewish laws, to maintain the purity of their temples: when to pray, what to eat, what to wear, how to touch others, who is allowed to enter which rooms, and so on. He contrasts this with the Western “ethic of autonomy”, that people should be free to do whatever they want as long as it harms no one.

Though Haidt recognizes the value of autonomy in a modern, melting-pot society, he has some praise for this ritualistic ethic of purity and contamination as well:

When people use the ethic of divinity, their goal is to protect from degradation the divinity that exists within each person, and they value living in a pure and holy way, free from moral pollutants such as lust, greed, and hatred. [p.188]

Haidt further explains that the goal of this system is not just to follow arbitrary rules, but that these practices have “a deeper relationship to virtue and morality… If you know that you have divinity in you, you will act accordingly: You will treat people well, and you will treat your body as a temple. In so doing, you will accumulate good karma” [p.190].

It all sounds very noble and elevating. But there’s another, darker side to the ethic of divinity, one which Haidt mentions only in passing. Lost in all the pious rhetoric about maintaining the purity of one’s body and accumulating good karma is this: In every society which has that vertical dimension of divinity, it’s possible to move down as well as up. When an entire society is structured around the distinction between clean and unclean, holy and unholy, these ritualistic rules inevitably end up labeling not just actions as unclean, but people.

India, after all, still has its Untouchables. It still has its widows who, by tradition and custom, are confined to a lifetime of silence and isolation – even child widows who never met their arranged husband before his death. In medieval Europe, the ethic of divinity and Christian concerns about blood purity led to vicious anti-Jewish persecution – the inquisitors called it limpieza de sangre – and Hitler’s racial-purity-obsessed Final Solution was the last and most bitter fruit of that evil tree. In America, it led to slavery and segregation, and still fuels opposition to marriage equality, still motivates Catholic priests who wield the Eucharist as a political weapon. In the Torah, the uncleanness of the Canaanites is invoked as a motivation for genocide by the conquering Israelite army. Ultra-Orthodox Jews assault outsiders who enter their neighborhoods and women whom they believe aren’t dressed properly in public. Islam, of course, has its own purity concerns which perpetuate the barbaric practice of female genital mutilation, which suffocate women under veils and burqas, and which imprison them at home and prevent them from getting an education or visiting a doctor.

At the beginning of the chapter, Haidt quotes this line, allegedly spoken by Mohammed:

God created the angels from intellect without sensuality, the beasts from sensuality without intellect, and humanity from both intellect and sensuality. So when a person’s intellect overcomes his sensuality, he is better than the angels, but when his sensuality overcomes his intellect, he is worse than the beasts.

But he fails to notice the implication – that people who follow the dictates of “sensuality” are worse than animals – and, presumably, can be treated accordingly. And the long and bloody history of religion offers all too many examples of exactly that.

Haidt may wax rhapsodic about purity laws, but if the choice is between the ethic of autonomy and the ethic of divinity, it should be more than obvious to any thinking person which one to keep and which one to jettison. No one was ever murdered, enslaved, or tyrannized in the name of autonomy. We can get by without superstitious concerns about divinity, but a society that lost its concern for autonomy would soon be plunged into a new Dark Age – as, indeed, many modern theocracies are. And he may claim that us smug, contemptuous secular thinkers have a lot to learn from the religious about purity and sacredness, but I’d turn that formula around: Before they deserve to be listened to, religious fundamentalists ought to come to us and learn from our teachings about why they need to respect the autonomy and human rights of others. Only once they’ve absorbed that lesson and put it into action in their own cultures do they deserve to be granted any consideration about what they might have to say to the rest of us.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Johan

    “If the third dimension and perceptions of sacredness are an important part of human nature, then the scientific community should accept religiosity as a normal and healthy aspect of human nature… If religious people are right in believing that religion is the source of their greatest happiness, then maybe the rest of us who are looking for happiness and meaning can learn something from them, whether or not we believe in God.”

    That’s one way of looking at it. One could also look at it from Epicurus’ view, and note that fear of the divine are among the greatest obstacles to happiness.

  • Rick M

    We witness this obsession with purity in the secondary virgins movement recently brought to attention by Bristol Palin.

  • Caiphen

    A brilliant post which is completely true. From my long experience in the Seventh Day Adventist Church I can tell you anyone who dared to break the Levitical food laws was looked down upon. When I think about it I feel like weeping for those whom I know in that church.

    To mention something else very relevant to the thread. Today in the news in Australia there was talk about our Federal Finance Minister encouraging Islamic banking institutions becoming more main stream. The news also spoke about how they would decline transactions on one of their credit cards if you were to dare purchase something like liquor. This sounds like they’re wanting a lack of autonomy of their customers to me.

  • BJ Marshall

    It’s sad to see a piece of work start out well and turn into something so full of fail.

    [T]he human mind simply does perceive divinity and sacredness, whether or not God exists.

    Don’t you love it when the refutation of a statement lies within the statement itself? I don’t see how one can perceive the divine if there’s no god/higher power.

    “ancient truth that devoutly religious people grasp, and that secular thinkers often do not” really bothers me.

    I haven’t read the book. Does he state on what grounds this “truth” is verifiable, or is this just some “I know it’s true because I feel it” thing?

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Purity Of Essence.

    I don’t see how one can perceive the divine if there’s no god/higher power.

    Simple: the perception is an illusion. Think of the many perceptual illusions which cause you to perceive motion in a still image, for example.

    ancient truth that devoutly religious people grasp

    I would call that a misuse of the word “truth.”

  • Dan

    Sounds to me like the so-called “positive psychologists” would benefit from reading some of the research done on cognition and affect.

    And all this has to be taken with a ton of salt, given the support of Templeton. This is akin to medical research on a drug which is supported by the manufacturing drug company. Shame on Haidt for taking the money.

  • BJ Marshall

    Reginald,

    I think I got hung up on semantics, but I understand the difference now – thanks for the example. I was reading “perceive the divine” and thinking about the difference between “appearing to perceive the divine” and actually perceiving the divine. The former is an illusion like you mentioned – perceiving a series of still photos may give the appearance of motion; the latter involves perceiving something that’s really there. Given that the divine is not really there, I hope you can see where my confusion came from.

  • http://protostellarclouds.blogspot.com/ Mathew Wilder

    I’m on my mobile so I don’t feel like spending the time looking up the url, but PZ has shredded Haidt on religion before, in regards to his “five pillars” (I think that’s how he phrased it) of morality. Haidt apparently thinks conservatives and liberals (in the US meaning of the terms) are simply focusing on different aspects of morality. Of course liberals, atheists, humanists, etc will deny that the pillars of morality that conservatives (and religious) focus on are part of morality in the first place.

    Have you read Jennifer Michael Hecht’s The Happiness Myth? It’s a very interesting read, although it focuses more on philosophy and history than psychology.

  • Devin

    Mathew, could you please post a link when you have the time? I’ve read Haidt, or at least someone who thinks very much like him, and it was very disturbing.

    And Ebonmuse, this is a great blog. ^_^ I got here from Ebon Musings, although I can’t remember how I got there. I’ve read almost all of your essays, and they’re excellent.

  • http://generalnotions.talkislam.info Ergo Ratio

    Representing our relationships within a spatial framework is just how our human minds work. I don’t see that ever changing. There will always be analogues to “left” and “right” and “front” and “behind” and “up” and “down”, and they will probably always refer to “better”, “same/peer”, and “worse”, irrespectively. So the question isn’t whether we should or should not think that way with regards to our relationships with other humans, but what variables should go into that equation. Oh, and that evaluation should always have a context, such as “I am a better programmer than 98% of everyone else” rather than “I am a better person than 98% of everyone else”.

  • Andrew G.

    Here is a link to PZ’s takedown of an article by Haidt

    I’ve actually used arguments based on Haidt’s work in arguing against theists elsewhere; but it’s important to remember (as Haidt himself appears to forget) that the fact that something is natural does not make it moral; “moral emotions” may explain why some cultures have an ethos which supports immoral practices like genital mutilation (which Haidt inexplicably defends), but it does not justify those practices in any rational ethical system.

  • http://lenoxus.pbworks.com Lenoxus

    This is an excellent insight into the religious moral mind: if one has a purity ethic, that can be a difficult thing to let go of, no? Being asked to tolerate unclean people (gays, untouchables, the damned, whatever) is almost like being asked to eat vomit — it’s that visceral. (This connects with the Malaysia incidents described in a recent post here — the use of the boars’ heads was obviously deliberately calculated to disgust Muslims, although any of us would be shocked as well; it’s all on a continuum.)

    Perhaps the “purity” thing is the best example of a way in which religious thinking derives partly from naturally-evolved mental modules. For my money, the most fascinating emotion is disgust, in part because it correlates very roughly with our actual scientific understanding of how to avoid disease (so many “disgusting” things are excretions, for example).

    So at the “ground level”, belief in evil illness-causing spirits, for example, can get you to a good place in terms of hygiene, although it’s not nearly enough. Ultimately, to be maximally healthy (and hence happy, among other things!) you have to accept a lot of powerfully counter-intuitive notions, like the injection of small inert versions of diseases, and the intentional carving and rearranging of the human body. The intuition against that feeds into a lot of alt-med, much of which literally consists of a purity model (all diseases are caused by uncleanliness).

  • http://lenoxus.pbworks.com Lenoxus

    Oh, i just re-read my first sentence there and realized I was sort of praising myself. I meant that the OP was the excellent insight, and I just meant to add a little bit to it.

  • Devin

    Thank you, Andrew.

  • http://www.WorldOfPrime.com Yahzi

    I think a quote from Thomas Paine is appropriate here (with suitable modificatoin):

    It is always to be taken for granted, that those who oppose an equality of rights propose a set of purity laws never mean the exclusion limitations should take place on themselves. — Thomas Paine

  • http://uncyclopedia.wikia.com/wiki/User:Modusoperandi Modusoperandi

    Caiphen “The news also spoke about how they would decline transactions on one of their credit cards if you were to dare purchase something like liquor. This sounds like they’re wanting a lack of autonomy of their customers to me.”
    Yes, it’s daft, but the customer there has the “autonomy” to bank elsewhere instead. “Autonomy” includes the right to do things that others find silly (which is why I put up with Shriner’s and their infernal tiny cars) and to join organisations or give companies that promote the same their business (which, due to their hiring practices, is why I don’t give the Salvation Army my business). Limiting one’s own options is tolerable (indeed, it must, with limits, be so in a pluralist society. The fun part is deciding where the limits are). If the IslamaBank forced other banks to follow their example by, say, criminalizing or torching ApostiBank, then it’d be a problem.

  • Alex Weaver

    moral pollutants such as lust, greed, and hatred.

    One of these things is not like the others. This is not a case where two out of three is not bad. >.>

  • Chris

    the scientific community should accept religiosity as a normal and healthy aspect of human nature

    Normal, certainly, but isn’t “healthy” a value judgment? And the recognition that it is normal, i.e. common, in humans shouldn’t be considered an *endorsement*, as such. It’s *normal* for subscribers to ideologies that define a purity dimension to commit acts of aggression and sometimes violence against people they consider impure, but that doesn’t mean I have to accept it as healthy.

    If religious people are right in believing that religion is the source of their greatest happiness, then maybe the rest of us who are looking for happiness and meaning can learn something from them, whether or not we believe in God.

    If only their happiness didn’t so often come at the expense of inflicting unhappiness (and worse) on others, this argument might be a little more persuasive. Frankly, I don’t care *how* happy Torquemada was with his faith, I still don’t endorse the actions he took in the service of his beliefs, nor do I want to learn and imitate the source of his happiness.

    I think discussing this issue in terms of “religiosity” is somewhat misleading. There are several ideologies that use purity ethics that are not, strictly speaking, religions — all forms of fascism I can think of, for example, are/were fond of describing their political enemies as diseases, vermin, garbage, or other disgust-invoking metaphors, and sometimes treat them just as badly as the Untouchables (or even worse). If a belief system uses the purity axis and includes gods, the gods will probably be described as highly pure (and the demons, if any, as impure), but that shouldn’t be allowed to obscure the connection between religious and ideological forms of purity.

    Obviously, the disgust response most likely evolved in order to avoid *actual* parasites and pathogens often found in substances like excrement and pus. The ability to transfer that response to certain of our fellow human beings is a spandrel — and in view of its history, a quite dangerous one. And there’s no reason to suppose it isn’t just as misleading as pareidolia, or overapplication of the intentional stance to mindless phenomena, or overapplication of the brain’s pattern-finding ability to random phenomena (all of which come from brain functions that are often quite useful, but occasionally counterproductive and self-deceiving).

    It’s in light of that history that I consider appeals to the purity axis (for anything other than actual infectious organisms) to be dangerously misguided and, in general, invoked precisely because there is no reasonable way to reach the same conclusion.

  • ambrosia

    This sounds like fun. Let’s play!
    “This chapter is about the ancient truth that devoutly religious people grasp, and that secular thinkers often do not: ”
    • the earth is the centre of the cosmos, which is an overturned bowl with stars on it
    • owning slaves is perfectly natural
    • human sacrifice is appropriate to appease the god(s)
    • solar eclipses are caused by a dragon eating the sun

    ancient beliefs =/= truth simply by virtue of being ancient

  • TEP

    If religious people are right in believing that religion is the source of their greatest happiness, then maybe the rest of us who are looking for happiness and meaning can learn something from them, whether or not we believe in God.

    If serial killers are right in believing that kidnapping people and chopping them into little pieces is the source of their greatest happiness, then maybe the rest of us who are looking for happiness and meaning can learn something from them, whether or not we believe that killing is acceptable.

  • Valhar2000

    The ability to transfer that response to certain of our fellow human beings is a spandrel — and in view of its history, a quite dangerous one.

    I don’t see why it could not have been adaptive. Competition with other groups of humans must have been inevitable during our evolution, and co-opting feelings of disgust appropriate to excrement and pus could have been a way to makes us more effective at eliminating the competition.

    As Richard Dawkins might say, just another example of a time when we must use our thinking minds to overcome the tyranny of our genes in order to do what’s right.

  • Joanna

    I don’t understand what Haidt is talking about from your pulled quotes. The “third dimension” sounds new age-y and not scientific. From the quotes, it seems like Haidt is saying religion offers something unique and numinous that is directly related to happiness, but it sounds like this quality boils down to “lots of structure”. Is it something more than that?
    Also did you get new tags? I like that Awe and Wonder, and just noticed Optimism too.

  • http://she-who-chatters.blogspot.com D

    Oh, man. Things are almost never this easy. Let’s see…

    …the human mind simply does perceive divinity and sacredness, whether or not God exists.

    IS!

    In reaching this conclusion, I lost the smug contempt for religion that I felt in my twenties.

    OUGHT!

    A-good-god-damn, that felt good. I’m gonna do it again!

    If the third dimension and perceptions of sacredness are an important part of human nature, then the scientific community should accept religiosity as a normal and healthy aspect of human nature.

    …carry the one, and:

    If the third dimension and perceptions of developing cancer are an important part of human nature, then the scientific community should accept cancer as a normal and healthy aspect of human nature.

    I’ll be here all night.

    In all seriousness, whether or not something is coded into our genes does not matter, morally speaking. All that matters are the consequences, the effects that those things have on people. (By the way, everyone’s a consequentialist: deontologists simply care about the consequences of their precious duties being fulfilled or flouted, and virtue ethicists simply care about the consequences of their precious virtues being embodied or eschewed.)

  • http://stevebowen58.blogspot.com/ Steve Bowen

    By the way, everyone’s a consequentialist: deontologists simply care about the consequences of their precious duties being fulfilled or flouted, and virtue ethicists simply care about the consequences of their precious virtues being embodied or eschewed.

    This is cute and superficially true fo shiz. But there seems to me to be a qualitative difference: Deontologists would say “you got aids as a punishment becuz your gay”, a virtue ethicist would say ” you got aids because you didn’t respect the inherent risk in your lifestyle or take time to understand the hiv status of the person you slept with”. Both of which may be victim blaming, but one has more justification (though maybe no more compassion) than the other.

  • bbk

    That makes me mad, but spirituality seems to be a built-in feature of the positive psychology movement. Looking at it’s entry on Wikipedia, spirituality is mentioned prominently. It should be pointed out that many other disciplines study happiness, not the least of which is contemporary economics. We don’t necessarily have to rely on the latest fad in social science to tell us the meaning of life.

    On top of the greater social ills that ebon mentions, spirituality also has several other inherent problems. It does nothing to solve the underlying problems that can make us unhappy. It offers a single solution no matter what the problem is, whether it’s through prayer to one’s chosen god or the “smoothing” of wrinkles in energy fields by a touch healer. At the very least, these are placebos that do nothing but prolong the underlying problem and distract the individual.

    But what’s worse, the purveyors of spirituality themselves are a cause of unhappiness. A craven nutritionist may, for example, cause familial strife by convincing her client that a relative’s cancer would undoubtedly be cured if only they would adhere to the ying and yang energies of macrobiotics. A preacher may make a tough financial situation worse by advising his congregation to find ways of cutting spending so long as they continue to tithe. Or worse, he will tell them that the strength of their spirituality will see them through even as they take imprudent financial risks that lead to things such as foreclosure. The problem with spirituality is that by its very nature it leaves the believer unprotected from these abuses.

    Finally, within the mind of the adherent, spirituality itself can be a source of stress. When positive psychologists demonstrate that the constant upkeep required to maintain cognitive dissonance is a source of fun and relaxation, I’ll take a look. But I contend that it’s actually easier to be a critical thinker than to try to sweep all of life’s problems under the rug. I believe that many of our social ills – from failed marriages to combat related PTSD – stem from the spirituality of those individuals. Spirituality is the art of pretending that a problem doesn’t exist. It may be a neat little short-term get-me-up that puts a blip on therapists’ radars, but a lifetime of turning to it leaves people unprepared to deal with difficult problems.

  • bbk

    FYI – Ebon – the AJAX edit box makes editing really difficult because the text skips around in my browser. I couldn’t get rid of the errant apostrophe in one of my its before I ran out of time.

  • Zietlos

    Positive thinking can have overall beneficial results on the human body. The mindset exists within psychology to alter our physical body by virtue of mental effort (which can release endorphins, adrenaline, et cetera as needed if you think hard enough), so there is a possible clinical upside to positive thinking, and knowing how to positively think properly can help you in a pinch if you need to overcome our body’s natural fear of self-destruction and pain holding us back.

    But as mentioned above by others, as a lifestyle, it isn’t good. A temporary thing, once in a while, some sort of meditation can be helpful. All the time, and you are taking a placebo for the real problems in your life, one that will eventually fail to work.

  • Dan S.

    The intuition against that feeds into a lot of alt-med, much of which literally consists of a purity model (all diseases are caused by uncleanliness).

    Just from what little I’ve seen of Haidt’s stuff, he often seems to miss this – at least in the various questionnaires and popular articles focusing on liberal/conservative differences, he seems to think about the Purity moral dimension from a very conservative/traditional stance, leaving about alt med stuff (which does often seem, sadly, more of a culturally ‘lefty’ sorta thing), eating organic, etc., etc. (Apparently he’s touched on this from time to time, though, so maybe I’m out of date here . . .)

  • http://she-who-chatters.blogspot.com D

    Well, Steve, on one hand you’re right: deontologists and virtue ethicists tend to talk differently. On the other hand, superficiality is all there is to it: go deep enough, and all ethics is a language game. Hedonistic utilitarianism is just the best game in town because it recognizes the phenomenological truism that “being happy is GREAT and being miserable SUCKS”. (I also want to say that Ebonmuse’s universal utilitarianism adds the marvelous tweak of focusing on reducing suffering more than increasing pleasure, because of diminishing returns and all that.) Oh, and bonus points for “becuz your gay”.

    As for placebos and positive thinking, I think it all comes down to a balancing act. The important lesson about placebo is not that people can be fooled, everyone already knew that. The important lesson is that the motions you go through can also have an effect all by themselves. If an anti-anxiety drug is more effective as a blue pill than as a red one, and if it is more effective when taken four times daily then twice daily, then we should use the drug that works best as compared to other drugs when taken as a blue pill four times daily.

    To avoid accusations of derailing, I want to say that I’m sympathetic to this best-of-all-possible-meanings interpretation of Haidt’s message (though he says it really dumb at some points – stupid crap for crap Templeton prize). If we have a penchant for perceiving sacredness and adhering to ritual and so forth, then we should use that instead of merely railing against it. We should supply good rituals, such as a periodic critical evaluation of one’s most cherished beliefs, and good candidates for sacredness, such as the deserved autonomy of every person.

  • http://stevebowen58.blogspot.com/ Steve Bowen

    On the other hand, superficiality is all there is to it: go deep enough, and all ethics is a language game.

    If this is true, aren’t we on a hiding to nothing? By this logic the “special case” of deontology; Divine Command, becomes as valid as [insert rationally derived ethical system of choice here]is.
    If a biblical literalist finds it moral to beat his wife, isn’t he behaving ethically by his own lghts? Even if we accept that “virtue ethics” are equally spuriously defined doesn’t your position close the door on potential alternatives.
    I have a problem with language. I spent a lot of time on another post (which I won’t link to ‘cos it still makes my brain bleed) arguing that words are meaningless without intent. Not that observers can’t be affected by language but that the effect is only “real” if there was a corresponding intent behind it.
    So, I think the way ethics are derived is relevant. It matters if you think someone got aids “becuz your gay” rather than the several other reasons divorced from who you are rather than how you express yourself.
    It may be true that, given a benign enough interpretation of the Bible a DC deontologist would be practically indistinguishable from a (e.g) humanist. But scratch the surface and the thought processes that led to their behaviour would be different.


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