The New Synthesis: Thoughts on The Righteous Mind & Atheist Spirituality

I’ve often wondered why there seems to be a universal understanding of what is ‘liberal’ or ‘progressive’ and what is ‘conservative’, why all nations seem to have left- and right-wing parties despite the terms being Franco-centric and how do these inform national party policies. Why in the UK we talk about ‘big C’ and ‘little C’ conservatism? As wikipedia puts it ‘There is general agreement that the Left includes: anarchists, anti-capitalists, anti-imperialists, autonomists, communists, democratic-socialists, feminists, greens, left-libertarians, progressives, secularists, socialists, social-democrats and social-liberals. There is also general consensus that the Right includes: capitalists, conservatives, fascists, monarchists, nationalists, neoconservatives, neoliberals, reactionaries, right-libertarians, social-authoritarians, theocrats and traditionalists.’ How did these agreements come about? Why are conservatives usually pro-capitalist in Western nations despite capitalism being progressive by definition? Note I will be using ‘liberal’ as shorthand for all things Left-wing and ‘conservative’ as Right-wing throughout.

The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt is a book about the psychology of morals but by explaining them he solves my conundrum and explains the relation between psychology, politics and religion at the individual, national and global scales. He does this by introducing his moral foundation theory, the idea that there are six major areas the human brain is wired to care about:

  1. harm/care,
  2. fairness/justice,
  3. authority/respect,
  4. ingroup/loyalty,
  5. purity/sanctity,
  6. liberty/oppression.

These are the categories of our moral emotions; things pertaining to them trigger our feeling that something is right or wrong. Due to a combination of genes, neurology and environment different people have moral emotions triggered by different things. It’s the combination of what and how strongly these 6 foundations are triggered by that gives rise to all our political dimensions, with the vast majority of people falling into two broad groups based on what causes their sympathies and judgements. The graph below shows how the liberal-conservative spectrum informs the first five of these traits. The foundations hold true across cultures, suggesting they are universal to humankind; we are probably born with a predisposition to be one point on the spectrum based on our personality, with some leeway to change the point as our brains develop in life. They are a definition of liberal and conservative at their most basic psychological level. The political and everyday meanings, at the national or cultural level, (are you ‘left-wing’ or ‘right-wing’, Republican or Democrat?) in turn map onto the foundations; a local event impresses upon our psychology producing a moral emotion in us; we then use this to decide policy.

Moral Foundation Scores & Their Relationship to the Liberal-Conservative Spectrum (Haidt, The Righteous Mind, Figure 8.2)

Moral Foundation Scores & Their Relationship to the Liberal-Conservative Spectrum (Haidt, The Righteous Mind, Figure 8.2)

Liberals put high importance on harm/care and fairness/justice, but low importance on authority/respect, ingroup/loyalty and purity/sanctity. Conservatives give equal value to all 5 of those foundations, so they put lower importance on the first two than liberals and higher on the last three. Fairness/justice is of high value to both with the wrinkle that liberals expect rights and access to resources to be available equally to everyone, conservatives see them as due to everyone in proportion to them earning the right (e.g. people should only be given benefits if they have earned them through ‘a hard day’s work’). This is why conservatives tend to support capitalism in Western countries, liberals socialism.

It also explains why conservatives are far more likely to be attracted to religions, which tend to be deeply embedded with a sense of authority, loyalty and sanctity, and why liberals are more likely to non-religious, not only because they simply aren’t concerned by these things, but because the emphasis on them actively puts them off (they are also more likely to be ‘spiritual but not religious’). Neither of these ways of sympathising with the social world is inherently ‘correct’, they are just ways in which brains are wired. Surprisingly, neither systems of morals make one a nicer person either. High concern about avoiding harming people does not make liberals necessarily any more likely to act caringly; there is only a slight correlation with liberalism and the personality trait for agreeableness, which is the personality trait associated with behaving selflessly, although it might change how they express kindness. It does make them prone to be disproportionately alarmed by anything that might have been associated with causing harm, regardless of whether those fears are justified, such as nuclear power, vaccinations or GMOs, it is also what makes them tend to care intensely about the environment.

(Liberty/oppression was added later, it is not shown on the graph and I will not go into it here. It would fit as a horizontal line, both liberals and conservatives care about this equally, but like with Fairness it has a wrinkle as to how each view freedom. Both liberals and conservatives care about this extra dimension, as do libertarians, the only other majorly different group, who put emphasis on liberty over and above harm/care. Note that in the UK what Americans call libertarian we call liberal and what they call liberal we usually call simply left-wing, I will stick to the US terminology as it’s what Haidt uses and is standard in psychological research.)

The graph also explains why it’s easier for right-wing politicians to win votes from liberals than it is for left-wing politicians to win votes from conservatives; because right-wing politicians care about the care/harm and fairness/justice foundations they are more likely to make enough rhetoric about them that matches the moral feelings of liberals, left-wing politicians are unlikely to make concessions to sanctity, group loyalty or authority that would attract conservative voters, and although their campaigns will be focused on care/harm and fairness/justice liberals often promote these at the expense of the other moral intuitions important to conservatives.

This theory neatly explains a huge area of human life and answers my questions from the start of this post. It will come as no surprise considering the subject of this blog that I am firmly on the liberal end of the spectrum my moral emotions are mostly triggered by concerns for harm/care and fairness/justice. Despite, or more likely because of this, I recognise the importance of concerns for the other foundations to other people, I empathise with their moral emotions even if I disagree that they are worthy of concern or of guiding a moral system and can now understand better their concern for loyalty or authority, often when they themselves don’t consciously realise that’s the root of their consideration.

The book changed one fairly strong belief of mine, one that I think many New Atheists share and the guiding principle of the Skeptics movement, is that the evidence will set you free. If only conservatives or believers would look clearly at the evidence they would reason to the same position as me. Haidt argues that for humans most of the time reasoning comes after, in order to back up intuition triggered by the foundations. (Something called motivated reasoning, which can be read about in more detail in the book I followed up Haidt’s with, The Republican Brain by Chris Mooney.) However, the way atheism is set up at the moment conservatives will never get their fix of all the things they care about.

Therefore, I understand why atheism in its current form, which I understand to be more or less existentialism, without god we can define our own lives, will never be satisfactory to some people. This is doesn’t make me agree with believers to any greater degree, or apologise for them, their actions or beliefs (Haidt’s work is descriptive not normative), but it helps me understand them better. And understanding should be a moral obligation, from this liberal’s point of view at least! I used to believe that if only conservatives would see the light they would become liberal as well as become atheist. Although I still hope for that, Haidt’s book as helped me see why it is naive to expect it.

Where does this leave my stated desire: to bring to people an alternative to current religions based on unfounded beliefs and unregulated rituals? Well, the alternative we need to develop, as well as using only practices that have been empirically demonstrated to promote human mental health, needs to appeal to peoples’ authority, loyalty and sanctity foundations. Without these, in some form, a philosophically materialist religion that does not conflict with the findings of science, what I call a spiritual materialism, cannot work for a large proportion of humanity. Like many attempts to replace religion with something more secular it will only appeal to the liberals in the population.

The questions “Where do we come from? What Are We? Where Are We Going?” have no content, they have no scientific value (other than the obvious evolutionary connotations), they are vapid. But the fact that humans throughout history have asked and sought answers to these questions means… nothing more than we’re particularly prone to asking vapid navel-gazing questions! Science can, and is, learning what it is about our psychology that makes us do this. But individually those scientific answers won’t help people, at least not all of them, come to terms with the subjective emotions those questions inspire. They are the existential questions that religion and philosophy have talked about for centuries. Some people ‘answer’ them with art, literature, physical activity or community, the things that make people feel better about being alive and in their own skin. Science can still answer why these things make people feel better, but the how of making people feel better is the best of religion (its wheat) combines these qualities of inspiration, philosophy, mindfulness etc into something greater than the sum of it’s parts and places them in a community. This community of shared, powerful subject experiences provides the feeling of emotional satisfaction that results in believers consistently reporting higher levels of happiness. But, as a thorough study showed empirically, that happiness is due to the friendships forged in that community, it isn’t to do with beliefs.

Combined with the recent findings of the mental health benefits of e.g. meditation and community, such as one finds in a church, I think there’s a good argument developing that for atheism to be more relevant to more people it needs to emphasize a secular spirituality, or as Eric MacDonald puts it, create a new synthesis. One that would provide the practical or emotional content that religion has been the purveyor of in the past for those who need them, but shorn of the unprovable claims about the nature of the universe. There’s no requirement to be part of it for atheists who don’t require such services or prefer to find them on their own.

The benefits provided by practices like meditation are easy enough to get with no known side-effects. How we go about getting hits for the foundations of loyalty, authority and sanctity without group-think, abuse of authority or the creation of things too sacred to criticise? Well I can’t answer that any better than anyone else at the moment; I do not know!

So, I hope you can see, this stance isn’t accommodationist, religion still has much chaff attached to it; the unprovable beliefs and dogmatism, especially regarding life after death, the rituals that have no health benefits or are even harmful to oneself or others, the in-group mentality, etc. And the chaff should still be separated out and attacked.

Until recently I held a utopian dream of humanity being set free by the truth of the evidence, all becoming liberal atheists who had no interest in feeling the delusions of respect for authority, sanctity and loyalty. In part this would make use of Sam Harris’ moral landscape to derive values from evidence. Haidt’s book helped change that dream. Whilst I still broadly agree that society should be governed using that landscape, it can’t necessarily be responsible for individual moral values, it doesn’t have the emotional pull, and human intuitions will lead others elsewhere. In that case we need something that fulfills the needs of those moral intuitions; of the type that religion has been used for in the past allowing it to become so synonymous with that it’s now a struggle to see them as separate. I still think liberals concern of harm/care and fairness/justice over the other foundations is morally superior, but can’t we create a new synthesis that is superior in its combination to either system separately? One that appeals to conservatives too, making them more likely to reject unfounded belief systems, and that improves liberal well-being. That new synthesis will still be based on the findings of science, but it won’t be found in science. At least it won’t for many people; the consolations of science, our improvement in knowledge and technology (particularly medical) often inspires in me the emotions that could be called spiritual. However, I no longer expect that to be the case for everyone.

– The Spiritual Materialist


12 thoughts on “The New Synthesis: Thoughts on The Righteous Mind & Atheist Spirituality

    • Cheers Jules! I’m not sure pluralism was a word I had in my vocabulary when I wrote this (another debt I owe to your book). But that was certainly what I was aiming for; a middle way between relativism and absolutism. I think it would get around the commitment and elitist/discrimination problems you discuss on your blog re: Alain De Botton’s religion for atheists, which I plan to discuss in a future post.


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  8. I like Haidt’s work, and I can see how certain highly polarized debates involve evaluating harm in different (and conflicting) realms. For example, abortion rights advocates cite harms to women from illegal abortion, while opponents cite harms to the unborn child (and they use that phrase, rather than ‘fetus’ in an attempt to more fully humanize it and magnify the harm they perceive).

    The GMO issue has become a perfect moral storm. I see the purity/sanctity moral driving most opposition, where the perceived transgression against nature (or God) is the intermixing of species that aren’t reproductively compatible. At some subconscious level this probably suggests bestiality, and the “you are what you eat” moralism greatly compounds the problem.

    On top of that the use of patent law to restrict saving of transgenic seeds violates the liberty/oppression and fairness/justice morals, with reaction found in the “food sovereignty” and “seed freedom” movements.

    The alleged harm from Monsanto lawsuits against farmers who violate their agreements (and fear this will become lawsuits over cross-pollination), and alleged harm to cotton farmers in India, also engages the harm/care moral.

    All of this produces a kind of tribalism, with some people strongly identifying with the organic/permaculture/non-GMO movement (there’s a counter-tribe but it’s nowhere near as visible). This tribe hitches up nicely to the engine of anti-corporatism and demonstrates how even on the left there’s an in-group/loyalty moral at work (even if you don’t understand biotechnology, you go along with the idea that corporate greed wrecks everything).


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