Interfaith Insight - 2021

Permanent link for "Can we share a morality during division and polarization?" by Doug Kindschi on December 7, 2021

“Whether or not you believe in God, religions accomplish something miraculous: They turn large numbers of people who are not kin into a group that is able to work together, trust each other, and help each other. They are living embodiments of e pluribus unum (from many, one).” These are the words of Jonathan Haidt, leading author, social psychologist, and Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University.

Now whether that working together leads to establishing hospitals and schools, feeding the poor and peacemaking; or whether it inspires division, polarization, and even terrorist activity, is a topic in our current discussion.  Most religious traditions include a minority whose religious fervor can become extreme and even violent.  This religious devotion, however, is often, and in fact, usually directed toward constructive goals. It is our task to direct the power and energy of religious commitment to working together for the common good. 

Jonathan Haidt has written two very popular and best-selling books, The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom, and The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.  In both books, he is not seeking to evaluate the truth of various religious claims, but to understand how religious and moral beliefs form the way in which the human mind evaluates the competing claims.  Religion and morality are no longer the exclusive domain of the philosophers and theologians. Cognitive scientists, psychologists, political scientists, biologists, and social psychologists are now bringing experimental and scientific findings to the topic. 

Haidt’s own work identifies five basic dimensions that are built into the emotional and intuitive sense of most humans' needs, and are more basic than just rational analysis of morality. The dimensions of avoidance of harm and justice as fairness often predominate. The other three factors are also important, namely loyalty, reverence, and respect.

We address the emotional and intuitive side of a person as the way to introduce dialogue and further discussion.  Haidt quotes a successful businessman as saying, “If there is one secret of success it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from their angle as well as from your own.”  It is a good lesson for anyone interested in interfaith understanding or in addressing political division.

When it comes to religion Haidt admits, “I used to be very hostile to religion. And then, in doing this research on moral psychology and … looking at the social science evidence on the effects of religion, well, it’s pretty clear… In the United States, where we have a competitive marketplace and religions compete for adherence … they create moral communities that encourage people to not just focus on themselves.”

In an interview with Krista Tippett, he explains how his research led him away from a polarization that led to anger.  “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, and they see humanity in someone that they disliked or hated or demonized before, that’s really thrilling. And that, I think, is one of the most important emotional tools we have to foster civility. Because once you get it started, it’s kind of addictive.”

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in his book Morality also seeks to recover a communal sense of morality. It can be based on our various religious values, but also on a deeper realization and awareness of human dignity.  Knowledge, travel, and communication have expanded our world, and our society becomes more diverse. We are also increasing our awareness of how there are a variety of ways we can be moral. Likewise, there are multiple visions of the ethical.  There can be an ethics of duty, often seen in cultures of the East. Ethics of honor are often found in Mideastern cultures and religions. In the Judeo-Christian cultures we find an ethics of love. In classical civilizations we observed a civic ethics which is focused on service to the city-state, with an emphasis on virtues like wisdom, prudence, and courage.

Sacks urges that we respect the variety of moral understandings, but that a commitment to one’s own moral sense is important. While liberal democracies in the West provide assurances of “freedom from” various abuses, morality seeks a “freedom to.” That is, to do what is right, keeping in mind our responsibility to what is beneficial to others and their well-being.   

This has been our mission for interfaith understanding and it has taken many forms. Yes, there have been conferences and educational programs, but we have also fostered dinners, visitations to other places of worship, and the developing of personal relationships around common interests.  Haidt urges us to “do the long, slow work of getting people to have something of a human relationship — and especially, sharing food is a very visceral, primal thing. Once you’ve eaten, shared food with a person, there’s a deep psychological system that means, ‘We are like family.’”

While our continual struggle with the pandemic has limited the ability to engage lots of personal interaction and especially eating together, we can still seek the understanding and acceptance for all who share our human family. May this be on both the rational and emotional level as we seek to love our neighbor.

Posted on Permanent link for "Can we share a morality during division and polarization?" by Doug Kindschi on December 7, 2021.

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