Thursday, September 5, 2013

Haidt on religion

In Part 3, Haidt notes the grouping instincts of humans. In times of crisis, such as after 9/11, people act less selfish and pull together as a group. This groupish behaviour can act as a barrier to understanding others and is parochial, but Haidt argues that there are ways to increase group cohesiveness in ways that are not necessarily harmful to outgroups. We should be looking for ways to trigger this cohesiveness.

To illustrate this, Haidt dedicates a chapter to religion, the ultimate in groupish behaviour. He argues that religion is an evolved cultural trait, not a maladaptive meme, as religion binds people into groups, suppresses freeriding and supports cooperation (he even goes as far as putting religion into the group selection basket, but I will also save that issue for my later post). It is not an argument that will win fans among the new atheists.

I really found this portion of the analysis striking. Many in the circles in which I work are hostile toward religion. Higher ed is characterized by a strong liberal, interventionist ideology and I have found it troubling that many of those in my profession, acquaintances and family members focus on the costs of organized religion and minimize or deny the benefits. In thinking about the importance of social capital and the role played by institutions it seems to be short sighted to minimize the positive role played by religion over time. This is not to minimize the costs, rather to argue that over time the benefits and costs of this institution are important to consider.

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