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Jonathan Haidt at TED: A Moral Psychologist Grapples with Religion
From Long Beach | March 01, 2012

Jonathan Haidt at TED: A Moral Psychologist Grapples with Religion

This week, David Lavin is in Long Beach, at the annual TED conference, where he gave a special workshop for TED Fellows. We'll also be highlighting the Lavin speakers who are presenting at TED 2012.

Moral psychology speaker Jonathan Haidt returned to TED this week, and asked the audience, “How many of you think of yourselves as religious?” This echoed his first TED talk, from 2008, in which he polled audience members on whether they considered themselves liberal. Between his two TED talks, Haidt has explored both politics and religion—topics that are also discussed in his new book, The Righteous Mind. Subtitled “Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion,” the book is earning praise for its bi-partisan political implications in this election year. But in his TED keynote, Haidt focused on religion—or, more specifically—why humans seek "self-transcendence.”

While religion is the most historically dominant manifestation of our search for self-transcendence, an increasingly secularized population has also looked more recently to meditation, psychedelic drugs, and even dancing in the quest for higher consciousness. Haidt explains the phenomenon through metaphor: "Think about the mind as being like a house with many rooms, most of which we're very familiar with...but every now and then, it’s like a door appears from nowhere. The door opens, we go through it; we find a secret staircase. We climb the staircase and we enter an altered state of consciousness.” Buy why do we crave this feeling?

The TED Blog picks things up:

So now the million-dollar question: is this so-called staircase a feature of our evolutionary design, or is it a bug? Many scientists see religion as memes that get in our minds and make us do crazy things. How could that ever be good? And, how could it ever be good for an organism to overcome self-interest? Haidt has a theory. Darwin noted that when tribes were in competition, always ready to aid and defend each other, that tribe would always succeed: “Selfish and contentious people will not cohere.” We should think of this as multi-level selection, Haidt suggests. While on a rowing boat, the slowest guy is the weakest guy, when the competition expands to other rowers, there becomes no choice but to cooperate. They’re literally all in the same boat. It might sound trite, Haidt says somewhat heatedly as people laugh, but this is fundamental.

Haidt is making the case that the search for something bigger than ourselves is, in fact, an evolutionary tool. Our species, from our very origins, relies on cooperation for survival. As organized religion—one of the most galvanizing forms of cohesion in human history—declines in the western world, Haidt argues that our "modern secular society has been built to satisfy our lower, profane self." Haidt isn't arguing for religion, only that the purpose mass religion used to serve is an important one. Only by better understanding our own motivations and innate biological cravings can we recognize the importance of cohesion to the success of our species. His goal, which he describes as "purely descriptive," is to open up the study of "a big part of human nature that no one is talking about." After receiving a standing ovation at TED, Haidt has made sure that people will be talking about it now.
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