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The Righteous Mind and My Emotional Doubt

The Righteous Mind and My Emotional Doubt August 21, 2014

When I was in graduate school, I read Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolution. That book probably influenced my thinking of how we accumulate knowledge more than any other book other than the Bible. Basically Kuhn argued that science operates in paradigms that inhibit competing ideologies and theories. Only when it is fairly clear that these paradigms are inadequate to answer the research questions they are supposed to address are they replaced by a new paradigm which answers the challenges the old paradigm was unable to answer. However, this new paradigm will also inhibit competing ideologies and theories. There goes the notion that scientists engage in an open search of truth. Scholars work towards reinforcing the current paradigm dominating the field rather than engage in an investigation that looks for answers wherever they may be.

It remains to be seen whether The Righteous Mind, by Jonathan Haidt, will have the sort of impact on my thinking as The Structure of Scientific Revolution. But it is the first book in a long time that has a chance to have such an impact. The research question in Haidt’s work concerns how we develop our moral framework. We like to think we carefully consider moral issues and only after we have thought through those issues, do we construct our moral framework. Haidt convincingly shows us that this is not the process by which this happens. Rather, we instinctively are drawn towards certain moral values and propositions. Once we have those values and propositions, we use our intellect to construct cognitive defenses for our moral beliefs. In other words, we believe that we have logically arrived at our moral conclusions when in reality we have emotionally derived those conclusions and only use our logic to address cognitive attacks on those conclusions.

The Righteous Mind also looks at the different moral values of conservatives and liberals. Haidt points out that liberals tend to concentrate on the norms of fairness and taking care of others. But conservatives have a more varied set of moral values that includes fairness and taking care of others (although conservatives do not value them as much as liberals) but also includes values of loyalty, authority and sanctity. The different sets of moral values are not indications that one group is more rational in their approach to moral issues than their political opponent. Rather both conservatives and liberals have an instinct of what they see as moral and they then find “logical” rationalizations for their moral assertions.

I have observed how individuals from different positions in the political spectrum go out of their way to find rational justifications for their moral beliefs. This is also true for those with different religious beliefs. Both Christians and atheists assert that it is rational to make their assertions about reality and the moral implications that come from those assertions. An honest person has to wonder if either group truly recognizes how much their assertions are based upon their instincts or even their possible loss of social position due to renouncing their religious or irreligious ideals.

The social position of individuals undoubtedly reinforces their emotional inclinations to hold to certain political and/or religious values. I know that it would be costly for me to renounce my faith at this point of my life. Doing so would jeopardize my standing among my Christian friends, problematize my marriage to my Christian wife and create confusion with my previous writings. It is fair to assert that I have social pressure to remain a Christian. But that pressure is no less so for the atheist. What would Richard Dawkins lose if he renounced his atheism? At least as much as I would. Those who may not have public pronouncements connected to their religious orientation still have plenty to lose if they change their orientation due to loss of friendships and status, not to mention the psychological discord that may come with making such a change.

It is fair to assert that at certain times of our lives there are social pressures as well as moral instincts driving our religious or irreligious assertions. I am at one of those times. If I want to have some confidence that my beliefs are not merely the result of the social and psychological pressures I face, I have to ask if there is a way for me to know if my rationale for those beliefs is based upon logic instead of instinct or possible loss of social position? As I consider that question, I go back to Haidt’s work. His assertions are not new but it is a new angle of what I have known since graduate school. That is the idea that we are not as rational as we claim to be. Yet his discussion of instinct overriding our logic does produce a different dimension for me. It tells me that emotional desire often predicts our moral and spiritual beliefs. We have an emotional desire to see something as true and then we look for evidence for its truth. If I have emotional and personal reasons to hold onto my Christian faith then I can never be certain that I am holding on to that faith because I have rationally come to the conclusion it is true or because I want it to be true to meet my social and emotional needs.

That assertion provides a way to explore our own presuppositions. We can explore them by asking the question of whether there has ever been a time in which we emotionally wanted our current beliefs to be untrue. This means that I have to ask the question of whether I wanted my faith to be untrue. If during my entire life I have never wanted my current religious belief to be untrue then I cannot be sure if I have that belief due to my desires or my assessment of the evidence around me. Haidt’s work forces me to ask the question of whether there has ever been a time in which I did not have the social conditions that support me in my beliefs and that I actually did not want my Christian beliefs.

I did have such a time in my life. In the late 1980s, when I was in graduate school, I lost a romantic relationship with a good Christian white woman because her mom did not like the idea of her dating a black man. Her mother was not a Christian and in fact considered herself a radical feminist, so her assertions did not challenge my faith. But my ex-girlfriend’s Christian friends were happy to see our relationship end. It seems that they also were uncomfortable with the idea of interracial romance. These were supposedly good Christian people displaying this cruel racism which impacted my life. It forced me to question the worth of a religion that seemly encouraged others to accept racism. I was in graduate school and not engaged in any ministry at the time. I had quite a few non-Christian friends in my graduate school that did not seem to be tied to the ugly racism I was seeing. They would have been more supportive than my Christian friends. Putting together a narrative of having “grown” out of my faith due to what I learned in graduate school would have been quite acceptable to them. I could drop my faith with relatively little costs and with social networks among my friends in graduate school who were already prepared to support my planned apostasy.

Emotionally, I did not want to be a Christian at that point in my life. I wanted to find justification to leave my Christian faith and to gain freedom to chart my own course. The problem was that I had done quite of bit of reading from Christian intellectuals. If I had only been exposed to the arguments put forth by my non-Christian friends and in many of my classes, then I would not have any cognitive basis for keeping my Christian beliefs. But my previous readings forced me to not head in an emotional direction. Instead, I carefully considered whether I wanted to stay a Christian. Eventually, I came to the conclusion that remaining a Christian was the most logical thing I can do. Since I want to use this blog to concentrate on social science analysis rather than apologetical work, I will not discuss the arguments that convinced me, but they had to be powerful given my desire to leave my faith. Despite my emotional desires, the argument for what I believed was stronger than the arguments against those beliefs.

From that time, I have continued to develop in my faith. It was slow for a while after my time of doubt but eventually my faith has continued to emerge from that dark spiritual time. I have never been as open to leaving my faith as I was after that time of doubt. It is probably not realistic to continue living a state of doubt about what is important to us. We need to believe in something that is important if our lives are to have a sense of meaning and purpose. I am honest about my lack of motivation to leave my faith today; however, that does not take away from the fact that there was a time in which I doubted my beliefs, and ultimately that time help provide me comfort with the knowledge that I was willing at one point of my life and have tested my current belief system.

The fact that I was willing to test my religious beliefs is not an assurance that those beliefs are true. Naturally I believe them to be true or else I would not maintain them. However, being willing to test them at a time when I had emotional incentives to drop those beliefs provides for me an answer to the challenge embedded in The Righteous Mind. That challenge is some comfort that the moral system I have developed from my Christian presuppositions are not merely due to my instinct from the time I adopted them. If they were due only to emotional instinct then I certainly would have dropped those beliefs when I no longer had that emotional incentive. I was quite bitter at my ex-girlfriend, her mother and her Christian friends at the time of the breakup. Looking back now, I feel blessed by those events as they supplied the emotional energy to force me into the type of introspection that not everyone gets to experience. When I have doubts today, I can rely on that time when I was motivated to leave my faith to offer me reassurances. Ironically, having a time of real doubt can strengthen, instead of weaken, one’s confidence in his/her beliefs.

I like to think that we all have that experience in our lives. But I am realistic to know that individuals tend to work hard to avoid challenging their core presuppositions about reality. Confirmation bias is a powerful social factor and we too often underestimate its ability to rob us of our ability to be objective. That bias helps us maintain social networks of like-minded individuals, dismiss threatening arguments with a degree of rigor we do not use on supporting arguments, and devalue those who disagree with our core beliefs. We have a challenge to ask ourselves whether we have ever really interrogated our beliefs at a time when we emotionally wanted to let go of them. Or have we always relied on the initial instinctual sentiments we had when we constructed our current moral system?

To be sure there are some arguments by Haidt that I had a hard time accepting. For example, he points to evolution as the source of our moral development. I have a hard time using evolutionary theory in this way (And please I am not looking for a fight on evolution. I am not challenging biological evolution with that statement but rather evolution as a source for social mechanisms). The shortcomings of sociobiology make me quite uncomfortable with the evolutionary argument. Despite that shortcoming, Haidt forces us to question our ability to maintain our objectivity in much the same way that Kuhn did with his classic work. Perhaps those are the types of challenges which allow me to have an affinity for both academic pieces of work since they remind us of the importance to ask questions not only of others but most importantly of ourselves.


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