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.

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About Adam Lee

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