I am a bit past due in mentioning a podcast in a post in a while. I want to share one that I really think has some application in the church. The podcast is “On Being” by Khrista Tippett. It is the October 19th episode titled, “Jonathan Haidt – the Psychology of Self-RighteousnessJonathan Haidt – the Psychology of Self-Righteousness“.
I really find Jonathan Haidt’s work intriguing and it seems to explain some behaviors/attitudes/actions quite well. I already did a post on his book “The Righteous Mind” and even mentioned his work a bit another post.
In this interview Jonathan Haidt expands on some of the topics he has covered before. Several parts of this discussion felt like they explain quite a bit within the LDS church today, especially when it comes to the conservative leanings of the church.
I have transcribed a few portions of this as I know many will not have the time and/or inclination to listen to the podcast. I will start at just under the 19 minute mark on the podcast:
Krista Tippett You are a not a religious person, but you as a social physiologist very much value, see a value in, in religion in society.
Jonathan Haidt Yes. Absolutely. And that makes me not unique. There are other social scientists who do, but it makes me in the minority. And I used to be very hostile to religion. Then in doing this research on moral physiology and coming to see conservative perspectives and THEN looking at the social science evidence on the effects of religion well it is pretty clear, it’s a little mixed – there are some mixed findings, but the lit reviews generally find that religion in the United States, and it may not be true in other countries, but in the United States where we have a competitive marketplace and religions compete for adherents they are really nice and warm and open and they create moral communities that encourage people to not just focus on themselves.
And so a wonderful book, American Grace by Putnam and Campbell is the ultimate authority on this. What they find is that it doesn’t matter what religion you are and it doesn’t matter what you believe. If you are part of a religious community then on average you are a better citizen, you give more to charity. Religion does bring out the good in people. Now secularly people could be perfectly good too, but on average they give less and they give less of their time. So I would like to think that I simply as an secular atheist scientist followed the evidence and it showed me that I was wrong in thinking religion was evil.
Krista Tippett then brings up that religions have done good and evil, such as morally justified violence and asked how Jonathan explains this contradiction.
Jonathan Haidt: It is easy. If you think morality is being nice and kind to people then yep it sure looks like a paradox. But if you go with me that morality is these many things and a lot of is “are you a good group member?” or are you perusing your own interest. And those group interests are often about inter-group conflicts. So if you think about religion as a function to bind groups together, then there is no paradox. A lot of that is nasty stuff.
Jonathan then goes on to say how once he was a
self-righteous, conservative hating, religion hating secular liberal and in doing this research over many years and in forcing myself to watch Fox News as an anthropologist would, as “I’ve got to where I understand this” and over time realized they are not crazy, their ideas make sense, they see things that I didn’t see. The feeling of losing my anger was thrilling. It was really freeing. When you get people to actually understand each other and they let down their guard and they learn something new.
I do see that many members that leave the church often become atheist and even sometimes anti-religious. It is interesting that Haidt at some point held that anti-religious position and via scientific inquiry and looking at differing views came to see that religions on the whole as a positive.
Jonathan Haidt goes on to say
Each side can’t see the flaws in its own matrix, there is a symmetry here and the left and right are similar in some ways.
One of the clearest differences philosophically between left and right is that the left is generally Universalist, almost to a fault, and the right is parochial, often to a fault.
And what I mean by parochial isn’t just narrow minded and dumb. […] We have a survey at yourmorals.org where we ask “how much do you care about, or think about, or value people in your community, people in your country, people in the world at large and you know conservatives value people in their nation and community more than people at large. An you might say, “well OK, that is parochial”. But what do liberals do? Liberals on our survey actually say they value people at the world at large more than people in their own country, more than people in their community. Liberals are so Universalist that they often don’t really pay much attention to their own groups. As my mother said about my grandfather as a labor organizer, “He loved humanity so much he didn’t have much time to care for his family.”
This hit home for me. As I have gone through my faith transition I must agree that my focus has really turned from “my ward” to MUCH bigger groups. At times I felt that Mormons spend way too much time focused on their own group and not helping or even being aware of other groups in need. But Mormons do the “group thing” about as good as can be done. I know of 4 families younger families, each with 1 or 2 kids, that have just moved into the ward in the last few months. They all have been instantly absorbed into the young families in the ward. And even a more middle aged family with teens have found good friends within just a few weeks. Community – it is what Mormon’s do.
During the question and answer section at the end of the podcast, a person asked Johnathan Haidt:
Shouldn’t moral authority be based on the morality of the leader? There is a difference between Lincoln and Hitler.
Jonathan starts to answer by talking about students. Some that come from the south and call him “Sir” and didn’t like to call him by his first name, but some students from the New York were from families that had no issue calling out an uncle when it said something stupid – something the first group considered quite rude.
Johnathan Haidt goes on to give his answer at about 33 minutes into the podcast:
But many people think in a world which children can say “shut up” to their parents […]. A lot of conservatives are horrified at the chaos, disorder, and disrespect in liberal families. There often is a need for some sort of order especially if a group is going to try an accomplish something. Conservative values are effective at keeping the group together and making it effective. Liberal values are more effective at getting justice within the group.
I think it is hard to argue that when Mormons put their mind to something, they can get stuff done. More than most voluntary organizations (maybe excluding the military) Mormons get stuff done when they decide they want to do it.
I have several coworkers that have come from the military. They have commented that in a military setting, they don’t value justice as much as being effective. Jonathan then mentions that he saw the occupy wall street group. It tried to be so inclusive that they couldn’t figure out what they were and were not and it made them less effective.
Haidt goes on to say:
Complete rejection of authority leads to chaos, leads to ineffectiveness, and ultimately leads to the group disappearing.
People who identify as conservative tend to like order and predictability. They are not attracted to change for the sake of change. Whereas people who identify as liberal they like variety and diversity. We have a study where we have dots moving around on a screen. Conservatives like dots moving around in lock-step. Liberals tend to like it is all chaotic and random. Liberals keep their rooms messier than conservatives.
I was reminded how I have seen Mormon’s love to have order. I just read a blog earlier this month about conformity and how someone was mildly scorned for not sitting in the “right” place in Relief Society.
I also remember attending a meeting where the speaker had taped all the doors going into the chapel except one and taping the entrance to all but a few of the pews so he could force everyone to sit crammed at the front few pews. Now that I think about that one it might not have been the same issue as I think that was the case of a flat out control freak.
Does this mean that in a church that embraces more status quo, that conservatives are going to feel more at home and liberals more uncomfortable and thus have tendencies pushing it to be conservative?
If so, is this inevitable?
I love Jonathan Haidt. Thank you for the recommendation. I just went an listened to the entire podcast. It’s such an interesting problem, that of liberal brains vs conservative brains.
From Haidt’s way of explaining it, the church’s conservative outlook/organization gives it the foundation for so many of the things we all value (community and service especially). At the same time, the church’s conservative outlook/organization alienates the more liberal members who are looking at a bigger picture of community and service (especially the younger generations) and don’t value patriarchy, etc.. So can the church make a place for liberals while keeping steady to what it is good at for conservatives? Right now, I don’t think it can. Those not born with conservative brains (going with Haidt being right about there being a genetic component to value systems – which I agree with but put the burden of proof on him) have a really tough time sticking it out.
I loved the woman asking about the foundation of who has moral ‘authority’ (Hitler vs. Lincoln) and see this as hugely relevant to the discussion in the church. The church claims moral authority via priesthood authority. But when it comes to the virtue of justice (so important to liberals) the church feels like it sides more with Hitler than Lincoln (speaking metaphorically, not with specifics) and loses all authority for liberals.
“But many people think in a world which children can say “shut up” to their parents […]. A lot of conservatives are horrified at the chaos, disorder, and disrespect in liberal families. There often is a need for some sort of order especially if a group is going to try an accomplish something. Conservative values are effective at keeping the group together and making it effective. Liberal values are more effective at getting justice within the group.”
I loved this too. My liberal self feels really strongly that God doesn’t really care all that much about how well we organize our in-groups. I don’t know that he cares all that much about group goal accomplishment (I mean do we as individuals get blessings based on how well the church is fulfilling it’s four-fold mission? Does the Q12? Does the prophet?) At the same time, I don’t know that God cares about justice within the group (certainly he didn’t put a stop to BY discriminating against black members). God cares about individuals, individual journeys, individual salvation. Or he cares about the ‘group’ as defined by the entire human race.
How do we then have the church reflect what God does / does not care about? How do we have a church that it set up to support individuals rather than what we have now, which is individuals sacrificing to support the church?
Out of curiosity, would a conservative agree with how I defined what God does/doesn’t care about? (genuinely curious – since I will admit that even as a ex-(voter anyway)conservative, I don’t get the way of conservative thinking.)
People are complex by nature and nurture. I am a liberal who can’t tolerate a messy room. My brain functions better with organization. I really care about details–in everything. I haven’t heard ,nor would be in favor, of children calling their parents by their first names. I was a strict and soft-hearted parent. I will tell you “God will not be mocked” — that He is charge and I am to follow even when I don’t understand why. I’m not a fan of rules because I can think sensibly. If I don’t know ,it won’t occur to me to call Salt Lake and ask. But I’d be the first to ask when it really matters. My heart usually cries out for mercy because justice is important to me.
I am liberal in somethings and conservative in others, as I should be.
Your invitation to talk about conservative views caught me. I too like Haidt and I feel like he helps us understand why different groups behave in certain ways, especially groups within the church. I’m glad to see liberals like his work too.
To answer your question, I think God absolutely cares about how well we organize our groups. Groups are the means to gain justice. I would argue that without an effective, cohesive group, attaining justice is impossible. As a result, God will make essential those things which create cohesion like sacraments or rituals, seemingly arbitrary rules (WoW), and clear lines of authority. So while I agree God values the individual, I think groups are a primary tool for helping (and saving) those individuals.
As a result, I respect but remain skeptical of some liberal approaches. I feel like the universalism which Haidt talks about undermines the ability to obtain justice and can sometimes lead to injustice. In-groups are inevitable and only by being conscious of our own in-groups can we prevent unhealthy tribalism. I often see liberals who talk about the problems of ‘othering’ go on to other people who don’t conform to their in-groups. This isn’t to say that conservative groups do better all the time (as US/Mormon history shows). I’m grateful for liberal sensitivities to injustice and respect their intellectual approaches. I just believe conservative approaches will ultimately lead to better outcomes in the long-run.
As more of a side note, I feel like Haidt’s analysis, while helpful, can only go so far. The problem is liberal and conservative are relative descriptors and actually tell you very little about what each group actually thinks constitutes justice. For example, if conservatives are afraid of change, why are so-called conservative Tea Partiers or Trump constantly trying to cause radical change in Washington? It’s because their ideology differs substantially from classical/actual conservatives (#nevertrump started with conservative intellectuals). Why are liberals found so often defending a suite of policies that date back to the 30s and 60s? It’s because those policies, despite being old, represent particular ideological priorities that aren’t going to change anytime soon. Psychological approaches can help describe the mechanics of ideological difference, but don’t tell you much about why particular differences exist. I feel understanding differences philosophically will help people get along a lot better.
Hanson, you wrote a better response than I could so I’ll just say amen. ReTx, I appreciate your sincerity in asking a right wing take. I would actually expand that to most of the regular left of center folks who comment. While you have all said things that have fired me up at one time or another I’ve always been impressed by everyone’s civil and open engagement of any comments of mine. And I certainly hope I’ve generally returned the favor with my comments.
Such a great conversation.
“So while I agree God values the individual, I think groups are a primary tool for helping (and saving) those individuals.”
Hanson, this paragraph really struck me. I can’t identify with it, but I can understand that conservatives (seriously need better labels than conserv/lib or ortho/prog, but I can’t think of any) do. It makes logical sense and describes the church.
For me though, the group aspect of the church is a HUGE obstacle to having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. I had to learn to let go of the group (a 15 year process that finally settled via 1 Cor 13, Adam Miller, and Buddhism) in order to find Christ. How does a conservative thinker view that? Can you place my experience of groups interfering with salvation within your worldview in a way that I am not inferior? (Can liberals accept that groups are necessary for the salvation of conservatives?)
And then if conservative/liberal thinking is innate and God-given (which I’d argue with 50% of the population falling on either side of a non-linear spectrum, it has to be) how does a conservative-thinking church set up its programs to satisfy the moral compass and needs of liberal members? Or even backing up from that, do conservative thinkers see liberal thinkers as having their very liberalness being a gift and tool from God?
I can accept that conservative thinking is a gift from God. I can see the benefits to society. I STILL struggle when faced with conservatives ideals to not fall into defensive I’m right / your’re wrong thinking. And I genuinely don’t want to be that way. I also absolutely agree that “I often see liberals who talk about the problems of ‘othering’ go on to other people who don’t conform to their in-groups.” This conversation is a huge learning process (especially about how to approach blog comments on divisive topics!)
I love the push/pull opposition-in-all-things pillar of divine design. Extremes on either end of the social spectrum are not healthy for consistent living, BUT it’s those extremes that awaken us to look beyond our cubby holes of comfort to consider Something More. I love how Haidt forced himself to listen to Fox through his anthropological eyes and came to understand viewpoints far different from his own—to the point of seeing value in those once-rejected views. We need some to see the forest, some to see the trees…..and some to see the content of air, water and soil…..flora and fauna…. And still others to see oceans, earth, and cosmos.
I’m grateful for all viewpoints so I can weigh ideas I might naturally shun to seek the good intended within. It’s taught me far more than I’d have bothered to consider from my cozy cubby hole. It’s led to greater knowledge, new friends, more love for others, more willingness to embrace a bigger and more remarkable world beyond my cubby village.
True listening is such a wonder, even a Key.
I love this post.
These are good and important questions. I honestly could think about them for a week and still not feel entirely comfortable with my answers them. I’m enjoying learning from this conversation.
“For me though, the group aspect of the church is a HUGE obstacle to having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.”… “how does a conservative-thinking church set up its programs to satisfy the moral compass and needs of liberal members?”
I feel like these are two related questions. The fact people struggle with group dynamics is something conservatives should appreciate, accept, and attempt to address. On a personal note, I often struggle with fitting in with ward members and feeling close to Christ because of group dynamics at church. I can identify with the personal process you describe, even if it seems I have come up with different answers in my own process.
I think the church should understand the journey to Christ in an intellectual and social category. Intellectually, people need to work out their own salvation. They need to understand and internalize what the Atonement means to them. This is something that in the end is an individual journey. People will go down various paths and the church should be ok with that. Being ok with diverse intellectual journeys is not something that the church, be that the institution or the average member, does particularly well. There is an insecurity which develops when it seems others don’t come to the exact same answers. That insecurity can be harmful, especially when acted upon.
I think that the church can feel secure with intellectual diversity and satisfy liberal moral compasses by having strong, ward-level social cohesion. If a person is willing to take the sacrament, befriend a ward member in need, or teach primary, then where they are intellectually in their journey to Christ is not as important. Ultimately, the outward sign of a conversion to Christ is the willingness to serve others. Mormon liberals and conservatives agree on this basic proposition, so the church should build on that shared foundation.
“do conservative thinkers see liberal thinkers as having their very liberalness being a gift and tool from God?”
I believe it’s absolutely essential to have liberal thinking in the church. There needs to be a willingness to change if the group is causing harm. I always tell my wife that liberals are excellent at identifying problems. However, I wouldn’t characterize liberal or conservative thinking as innate or a gift from God. I would certainly say both schools of thought are desirable and inevitable, but I have a book-length answer for how I’m uncomfortable with the amount of determinism innateness assigns to genetics and/or God, at least in this question of ideological proclivities.
I hope I answered your questions satisfactorily. I feel like I took good questions on accommodating liberals and answered by recommending more conservatism. If so, feel free to push back. I’m enjoying this back and forth.
Nice post, Happy Hubby, and I’m enjoying the conversation.
I’m someone who eschews labels. I understand they are a shortcut to describing something or someone, but we have to be aware of their limitations.
In my view, Jesus’ work was done for all: conservative, liberal, orthodox, heterodox – you name it. It is a dangerous thing indeed for one to step into the relationship between that person and God, foist their creeds/dogmas, and state that someone is in sin or cannot return to live with God because of X. The NT speaks of Jesus’ teachings. Anything else is grafted on by men at their own peril (and some stuff in there may be as well). I just don’t see why someone would take it upon themselves to subvert the role of Jesus in mediating a person’s relationship with God.
I love cross reading this with Andrew’s posts on class and status differences and how they impact what people need from a church.
Yes, but it has liberal ones, too.
Stephen, can you link to Andrew’s post? Sounds interesting.
I see this conservative v liberal thing as a continuum, I also think you can move with experience, but I agree there is a place for all in the Gospel, and should be in the church.
I was pretty far to the conservative end as a teenager, but the church undermined my faith in it progressiveliy, so I either left or had to adjust my understanding, to be more liberal.
Unless the church leadership becomes more aware, and open, it is going to cease growing. What is conservative in Utah is extreme in most of the rest of the world. We have just had programme on TV http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-11-13/malcolm-turnbull-circled-by-conservatives/9136960 that shows a group of extreme right people seeing mormons as a place to recruit. Conservative mormons see themselves as Utah Republicans transported.We even have members of our ward who want gun laws relaxed.
There is nothing coming from leadership that causes members to question whether this is
OK. If we are trying to spread Utah Republicanism this is good, if we are trying to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ, not so good, because we will only be able to talk to people willing to associate with extremists. Not all parts of Aus are like this. The part I live in is, and if I was not already a member I would not join.
Ideas that do not fit the conservative mould, are not welcome. Even the idea that there can be liberal members is not welcome.
For the future, I understand 20% of the rising generation are conservative, and this 20% are remaining active. If this is the future, we can look forward to 4million active members, which is not quite the vision we had for the church a few years ago(filling the whole earth). Was that the Lords vision too?
Unless there are some changes from the top, I think the church is doomed to be a diminishing club for ultra conservatives.
I agree Geoff….I think the church culture is smothering the gospel and by so doing those who would have been drawn to a our liberal-minded Savior are pushed out so the culture can reign supreme. It is driving too many wonderful people away from the gospel, or keeping them from wanting to join in.
A lot of the I’m-a-Mormon campaign featured members who don’t look like Utah Mormons. But every ward I’ve lived in (and it’s a lot) pretty much has a certain “type” that look and act like GA’s. Very few, if any, are outside the mold. I think some sort of divine help is going to have to come along to shake us up to open our hearts and minds to be more like Jesus and way less mormony.
just got around to reading this, but the post Stephen was alluding to might be this one: Seeing Mormon Faith Transitions As Social Class Movements
For this post, I’m thinking of a quote from J Bonner Ritchie in “The Institutional Church and the Individual”: