June 24th, 2008

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A Most Fascinating Article on Moral Reasoning, Contractual Societies, and the "New Athiests."

I commend for those looking for some good reading on moral reasoning, evolution, and atheism this essay by Jonathan Haidt called "Moral Psychology and the Misunderstanding of Religion." Haidt, an atheist and professor of Social Psychology at U Va, presents a practical and interdisciplinary approach to the study of morality. As an atheist, he begins with a belief that there is no "higher power" and that the answer to why religion persists in society and what it contributes in the broader question of morality and formation of a moral society must lie in the natural sciences and be subject to study. At the same time, he notes that the "new atheists," such as Dawkins fall into the trap of "normal thinking" rather than "scientific thinking," e.g., using reason in support of one's emotional conclusions rather than attempting to separate emotional cognition from rational cognition. (Read the article for what he actually says, I'm trying to summarize here and he says it clearly and better, so don't bother to quote my description of what he says as evidence against his arguments.)

His piece covers a modern history of the study of morality as a cross-disciplinary effort. He makes what are to me some rather self-evident points about the role of religion in society (but which I gather are overlooked by the literature generally) with regard to the value of religion in creating societies bound together by purpose and willing to engage in mutual support behavior for no obvious quid pro quo reward -- without regarding this as a negative or anti-rational thing (as with any behavior that persists broadly, it has advantages and disadvantages). I do not necessarily agree with everything he says, but it seems to me he does a very good job explaining in layman's terms a complex area of study that all too often generates more heat than light.