Righteous Mind #3 – Our Religious Nature

In the second blog inspired by the Righteous Mind, I extracted the use of “elephant and rider” model to create a parallel model of the therapeutic relationship, as well as advice for therapists and anyone to be more open to the why someone else’s beliefs are valid even if they seem irrational – reason is slave to the passions, rather than vice versa. This is the elephant/rider model – the rider of reason is the advocate of the intuitive elephant and justifies intuitions after the fact.

This next blog concerns Haidt’s view of religion – a topic that I find thoroughly fascinating and more pragmatically, I believe it is through the spiritual/religious/nooetic dimension that psychological healing is possible. Why do I feel this way? I have both experienced and observed that being able to step outside myself into a realm that is removed from the chaos of my transactions with the world , reactivity to it’s phenomena and its disappointments in terms of my idealized future, my perspective becomes broader and more compassionate.

Despite my admiration for Christopher Hitchens’ wit (who was a journalist therefore his opinions are in a way forgivable) – the New Atheists have always unnerved me intuitively. My elephant feels that their target (fundamentalism) is just too simple and their view just wrong. The New Atheists (a group of Hitchens and 3 men of science who wrote anti-religious books after 9-11) have a Platonic conception of religious belief – and its metaphor is the charioteer and the horse. The Charioteer is reason, the horse passion, and when reason prevails, as they are adamant that it should – the charioteer takes hold of the reins and steers the horse on the straight and narrow. The New Atheists remain highly influential, especially with millennial men, and their rationalist/materialist worldview is still undergirds much moral and academic thinking.

Haidt argues against the New Atheists, who claim that religious thinking isn’t just a destructive mistake, or “parasitic meme” that uses people to perpetuate itself, has no real purpose, is in fact “wasteful” and destructive, and needs to be eliminated through reason. Instead, he thinks that religion serves to facilitate and maintain the main factor that contributes to human beings being the most successful as a species – the capacity to cooperate with people who are not kin. Religion is something that deeply coheres a group.

Genetic tendencies for the religious mind likely co-evolved as societies became larger and the Gods became more moralistic. The capability act of stepping outside oneself and into the bigger picture is what Haidt and others call “self transcendence”. He often expresses himself through the work of Emile Durkheim who referred to “homo duplex” – a creature whose mind works on 2 levels and is capable of both profane (lower) and (elevated, transcendent) states of being. The sacred can be observed when people can become caught up in a mutual “circling” or focusing on a “sacred” object. This can be a crucifix, a football, a flag – or just through synchronized movements. The individual can access this domain through practices such as meditation, or communing with the awesomeness of the natural world. This strongly implies that human beings have a religious nature.

Practical application

One of the main points of Righteous Minds is to bridge the communication gap between members of different moral systems. I am presupposing a desire to communicate with others and to cease division as one of the highest values, and that quality of life can be enhanced greatly the more a person is able to achieve this. Therefore, as a practical application, our goal of this material is to help us increase communication and understanding

If humans indeed have a religious nature, and that this nature co-evolved with the increasing complexity of society to allow for cooperation, than dismissing it or “explaining it away” in New Atheist style runs the risk of being misinformed at the foundation. By accepting that religiosity is part of human nature, then some seemingly irrational desires and behavior make more sense.

When it comes to assessing someone else’s behavior, whether it’s attending church or attending sporting events, just because we personally can’t understand the appeal of a particular activity, and the irrationality and “wastefulness” of it may even annoy us, perhaps Haidt’s information can lead us to be more understanding of the impulse behind it.

So next time your partner becomes enraptured in the final minutes of a football game, rather than doing his chores, understand that this is a transcendent experience and a human need. You likely express this need in a way the he or she thinks is equally irrational. Seeing the process rather than the content of this need as important and binding with a higher state, and often with others, rather than how this is achieved can help a lot with understanding and accepting someone else.

Implications for therapy

When self-transcendence is not engaged, a patient can be nihilistic and hopeless and not see meaning in life. A patient does not have to be religious in any way to access the higher level of his “duplex”. When encountering a patient whose depression manifests in a sense of meaninglessness, it is likely the access to what Victor Frankl called the nooetic dimension is barricaded.

The increasing tendency to inhabit a virtual and disconnected world, we can become out of touch with some of the ways Haidt names as ways to access the transcendent: meditation, connection with nature, and synchronous or circling movement with others around a flag, religious symbol or sports team. Yet that religious impulse remains, as does a need for the transcendent. Without accessing the transcendent, I believe we are not whole.

Not every therapist will agree with Haidt – there are many therapists and patients who would be more inclined to side with the New Atheists, and thoroughly believe that reason is the ways to health and wholeness. This division may very well have a strong temperamental elements; perhaps to do with the big 5 trait, “openness to experience” (novelty). You can hear this division played out during Sam Harris’ (likely the most popular of the New Atheists) podcast on which Haidt was his guest, and during which they do not attribute the same value or even validity of the religious mind .

Obviously, It is not my place to determine which way of thinking is wrong or right, and personality probably has a lot to do with which way your elephant will lean. However, speaking for myself, my observations, and the way I practice, I believe that guiding patients to access their transcendent dimension is critical for helping them live a complete and meaningful existence. Haidt’s proposal that the religious mind is both culturally and genetically evolved has only increased my sense of its holistic importance.

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