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Jonathan Haidt - The Righteous Mind
Posted: 19 March 2012 02:26 PM   [ Ignore ]
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Host: Chris Mooney

Why is it that some of us are religious, some of us not… some of us liberal, some of us not?

If you’ve been paying attention, then by now you might have noticed that this doesn’t really have a lot to do with the intellectual validity of religious, or irreligious, or liberal, or conservative ideas.

So what causes it? And why can’t we all get along?

To get at this, Point of Inquiry invited on a scholar and thinker who has become famous for his scientific approach to this question—Jonathan Haidt, author of the new book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.

Jonathan Haidt is a professor of social psychology at the University of Virginia, and a visiting professor of business ethics at the NYU-Stern School of Business. Haidt’s research examines the intuitive foundations of morality, and how morality varies across cultures. He is the author of The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom, and he and his collaborators conduct research at the website YourMorals.org.

http://www.pointofinquiry.org/jonathan_haidt_the_righteous_mind/

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Posted: 22 March 2012 04:59 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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Chris,
Thank you for another excellent interview with an important and thought-provoking guest.  I think to provide a balance you should really invite one or more of the so-called “new atheists” back to POI, in part at least to respond to some of the claims made by J. Haidt in this podcast.  For my money, Sam Harris might be best owing to his work in, well, “the moral landscape,” which was in large part the focus of this show.

A query or two for any and all:

First, other than Rebecca Goldstein (wasn’t that Ms. Goldstein and her husband seated behind J. Haidt in his recent Ted talk?), have any of the widely known public intellectuals who have critiqued or criticized or proffered theories regarding religion in the last decade or so had significant personal backgrounds in religion? Any of the “new atheists? I think not.  Atran?  Haidt? Even the host of this show, Mr. Mooney? 

It seems to me that to have the perspective necessary to really comprehend the thinking and behavior of religious adherents, it would be a tremendous advantage to have such personal experience (and to have subsequently gained some distance and for some time to have passed) while on the other hand to lack any significant personal religious history would by default create a serious deficit in perspective.
As things stand now, it has long seemed to me that the “new atheists” engage in some excess hyperbole for the simple reason that they have no direct experience with, and fail to recognize,  the great good - and profound emotional satisfaction incidental to, or separate from,  their god beliefs -  that religious communities offer both their individual members and society at large, not least people in dire need.
And similarly, the “neo-new atheists” (nyuk!) like Mssrs. Haidt and Atran as well as people like Mr. Mooney tend toward rather Pollyanna-ish views and theories about religion and to ill-considered criticism of the “new atheists” usefulness because they have no direct experience with, and cannot recognize,  the astounding breadth and depth of religious pathology.

I’ve wished on a number of occasions that each of the “new atheists” had spent a few of their earlier years in a progressive UCC or Jewish or even Methodist congregation.
Even more so, I tend to think that the theories of Mr. Haidt, the research emphasis (if not results) of Mr. Atran, and the attitudes of Mr. Mooney might be rather different today had they grown up in, say, conservative Catholic or Mormon or Pentecostal, or Muslim worlds, or as Jehovah’s Witnesses.  Or perhaps in the church of Dennis Terry…

Of course, there is a catch 22 in my wish for this sort of thing, at least for the “neo-new” folk, because had they grown up in such environments, the probability that they could accomplish the sort of work they do today is extremely remote.  Ms. Goldstein, at least, had the good fortune of coming from a religious world, however backward and reactionary in general, with a tradition of valuing intellectual capacity - though not necessarily in females. 

Second query:

Is there a book or standard reference of some sort that effectively makes the case that natural selection works precisely the same way in social and cultural realms that it does in the biological worlds?
Isn’t this what Mr. Haidt seems to believe?  Is that now also E.O. Wilson’s view? 
If so, aren’t the spandrels awfully large?

[ Edited: 22 March 2012 05:46 AM by Trail Rider ]
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Posted: 22 March 2012 02:13 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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Trail Rider - 22 March 2012 04:59 AM

Second query:

Is there a book or standard reference of some sort that effectively makes the case that natural selection works precisely the same way in social and cultural realms that it does in the biological worlds?...
quote]

Trail Rider,

“In cultural selection, behavior is selected and maintained by a social environment.
Not only do humans acquire behavior by observing the behavior of others; they do so
selectively. In early human history, those who could learn by observation how to make
stone tools or fire or garments presumably had survival advantages over those who
could not ...” Charles Catania

http://www.ijpsy.com/volumen1/num2/19/three-types-of-selection-and-three-centuries-EN.pdf

The process of selection in social and cultural realms is analagous to biological natural selection.  In biological natural selection, genes are selected by the reproduction of an organism that has survived to reproduce.  Cultural practices are passed on socially and selected through social processes, but cultural practices are selected also by the advantages that they give a given cultural group to survive and thrive.


TimB

[ Edited: 22 March 2012 02:18 PM by TimB ]
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As a fabrication of our own consciousness, our assignations of meaning are no less “real”, but since humans and the fabrications of our consciousness are routinely fraught with error, it makes sense, to me, to, sometimes, question such fabrications.

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Posted: 22 March 2012 07:55 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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Thank you, TimB, for the on-point reply.  This is a subject area I want to learn much more about.
I’ve printed out the article you linked and will read it shortly.

I’d like to learn whether the ideas of Jon Haidt and EO Wilson and David Sloane Wilson in this area are about the same, and also more about the arguments contra those ideas.

In his last Ted talk, Haidt says, IIRC, that the main argument against social/group selection has been the “freeloader problem.”  He then showed a sort of pac man animation that purported to illustrate how the objection was false.  While I know computer simulations based on math projections can be great evidence, Haidt’s explanation and illustration seemed like a “just so” story to me.  But it’s entirely possible that it was just way over my head, too…

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Posted: 23 March 2012 04:18 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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What Tim (Catania) describes here is not analogues with natural selection. It is natural (biological) selection. Those who “could learn” by observing others could do so for biological reasons. Assuming “being able to learn” was advantageous (when compared with those who “could not learn”), it let to a higher fitness, turning the trait of “being able to learn” into an adaptation.

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Posted: 23 March 2012 05:07 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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Brad,

There is a new book that just came out a few weeks ago you may find interesting (I still haven’t read it): Wired for Culture: Origins of the Human Social Mind by Mark Pagel.

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Posted: 23 March 2012 05:51 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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Thank you, George.  That looks like a really interesting book.  I’ve made a note to check it out further.  And I hope to read the Catania article linked by Tim by the end of the day.

So far, it still seems to me like it could be an error to say that cultural changes, i.e., changes in groups, always operate like biological / genetic selection.  That’s why I’d like to hear on POI from Harris, or maybe even better from Dawkins, on this.

I can certainly see how biologically generated increases in learning ability increase fitness.  Otherwise, for example, we humans wouldn’t be tapping keyboards on the www, would we?
And biological traits may certainly be related to behavioral traits, and behavioral traits that lead to group survival would tend to further individual survival, and some (at least) of those would inevitably be carried forward into future generations.  Mr. Wilson’s ants, for example.
But isn’t that a different kettle of fish than claiming “group selection,” as Haidt does, for example, with religion?

Could it be that some or all of the folks pressing the idea of “group selection” are making a sort of labeling or category error, using the language of biological evolution rather than terms like “acculturation,” which as the book you recommended may describe, can exert tremendous power over life over long periods, but which may be different in kind from biological evolution?

Of course, using terms like “acculturation” would give credence to the meme theory, ala Dennett and Dawkins, which some folk really do not care to do.  One thing Haidt was definitely right about in the podcast, is that over time it’s best to trust in science, but not necessarily in individual scientists, who all have biases and a variety of motivations.  One hopes Mr. Haidt includes himself in that number…

On a different but related subject, I’d love to hear (maybe someone can ‘splain to me?) how Mr. Haidt’s new theory, or that of Mssrs. Wilson x 2, perhaps, explains the Khmer Rouge or the Nazis.

[ Edited: 23 March 2012 05:58 AM by Trail Rider ]
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Posted: 23 March 2012 07:08 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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Trail Rider - 23 March 2012 05:51 AM

So far, it still seems to me like it could be an error to say that cultural changes, i.e., changes in groups, always operate like biological / genetic selection.  That’s why I’d like to hear on POI from Harris, or maybe even better from Dawkins, on this.

Two things here: First, the cultural shift will happen only if a predisposition already exists. This is why dogs and cats still don’t know how to read—although they have been exposed to our culture for thousands of years—or why dyslexic people have hard time reading or writting. Second, not everybody within a given population has to be biologically adapted for a certain trait for cultural shift to take place. Maybe 49% of population is not sufficient but 51% is. This is where I believe the illusion of cultural change happening within a short period of time comes from.

[ Edited: 23 March 2012 07:12 AM by George ]
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Posted: 23 March 2012 12:34 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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George - 23 March 2012 04:18 AM

What Tim (Catania) describes here is not analogues with natural selection. It is natural (biological) selection. Those who “could learn” by observing others could do so for biological reasons. Assuming “being able to learn” was advantageous (when compared with those who “could not learn”), it let to a higher fitness, turning the trait of “being able to learn” into an adaptation.

Of course, being able to learn is an adaptation common to (essentially) all organisms… and being able to learn by observing others is an adaptation in social species. 

However, humans ability to learn (while a product of phylogeny and limited by that phylogeny), is so broad that within an individual’s lifetime one is capable of learning an extraordinarily broad range of behaviors based on ontogenic experiences.  Cultural practices are learned within a given lifetime.  Take a newborn infant from anywhere in the world and raise him in a given culture.  The child will learn the cultural practices to which he/she is exposed.

Thus overly focusing on the role of phylogeny is not helpful in understanding the development of cultures.  Yes, there are phylogenic influences, but it is most apparent (not illusory) that experiences within one’s lifetime have a predominant selecting effect on the cultural practices that one develops.  Denying the impact of ontogenic experiences leads to the simplistic, erroneous, and impractical conclusion that the consequences that one experiences in life are inconsequential.

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As a fabrication of our own consciousness, our assignations of meaning are no less “real”, but since humans and the fabrications of our consciousness are routinely fraught with error, it makes sense, to me, to, sometimes, question such fabrications.

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Posted: 23 March 2012 01:11 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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TimB - 23 March 2012 12:34 PM

Take a newborn infant from anywhere in the world and raise him in a given culture.  The child will learn the cultural practices to which he/she is exposed.

I don’t think that’s necessarily true as is evident from those with dyslexia as I already mentioned above. And just an anecdote, but I have a friend who is an Ashkenazi Jew and who grew up in Venezuela who never learned how to dance Salsa, for example (and Zeus knows he tried). Or look at the example of David Reimer, who was born as a male and later sexually reassigned and raised as female. No, as I already said before, if the genetic predisposition is not there, culture has no effect.

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Posted: 24 March 2012 02:53 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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Wow.  Where to start with all the nonsense spewed in this interview?

First, Haidt doesn’t seem to understand evolution (in the Darwinian sense of the term).  He appears to believe that evolution is like a rolling snowball, that’s going to keep speeding up (or at least rolling) because of some kinetic momentum.  It doesn’t work that way.  Evolution occurs when a trait gives its possessors a survival advantage.  People don’t need their appendices anymore.  But, we’re never going to lose them unless not having an appendix proves to be some kind of survival/reproductive advantage.  As medical technology makes appendicitis a pretty simple problem to solve, it’s one defect that may simply never disappear. 

The statement about religion evolving?  Are you serious?  The Christian fairy tale is still the same as it was 2000 years ago, and if you pay any attention to history, you’d know that the Jesus story is a complete ripoff of other middle-eastern mythology that’s even older.  And, religions are not competing against one another.  Does this guy not know how people choose religions?  Little children, too immature to evaluate complex topics, are steered into a religious choice by their parents, who were steered that way by their parents.  Sure, some people as adults make small changes (like going from Baptist Christians to Methodist Christians).  Gary Coleman tried out being a Jew on Different Strokes once.  But, the majority of the decision making (certainly the God vs. No God choice) has nothing to do with people picking the most desirable choices in a marketplace of ideas. 

His arguments are just choc full of false equivalency.  We all don’t throw truth under the bus, as Haidt claims, when the thing we hold sacred is threatened.  For those of us in the scientific and also strongly atheist community, truth itself is what we hold sacred.  When truth is the thing you hold sacred, truth never has to get thrown under the bus.  To tie into a subject I agree with Haidt on, I don’t dispute politically incorrect IQ results, for exactly the same reason that I don’t pretend that God actually might exist.

Haidt’s statement about scientists making reason too sacred is utter garbage.  His research shows people are bad at reasoning.  Ok, no argument there.  That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be the principal focus of those of us who are intelligent enough, and well-trained enough, to use reason properly. 

And neither Haidt nor Mooney seem to understand what “New Atheism” is about.  We don’t necessarily take a blunt, abrasive tone concerning religion because we’ve done focus groups that suggest that this is the best way to change religious preferences.  We do it because religion is an intellectual farce, it’s a complete joke that grown adults believe in virgin births, and arks with two of each animal, 72 virgins in paradise, or any of the other fairy tales.  It’s not a PR ploy by New Atheists.  It’s a simple expression of what we believe to be truth: there is no such thing as God.  Journalists like Mooney are free to tinker with advertising game theory, but if you really believe in science, as many New Atheists do, then you don’t water down the truth just to make religious drones like us more.

There’s also the claim that both Haidt and Mooney are making that the blunt approach is obviously not going to work.  As I said, that’s not why I’m a New Atheist.  But, I don’t concede their point, either.  The reason it’s called New Atheism is that it’s relatively new that there have been so many atheists willing to harshly confront religion.  The approach Mooney takes isn’t new at all.  It’s been around since the days of atheists barely having the nerve to come out of the closet.  Old Atheism has been tried for centuries, and history shows that it doesn’t work (to convince the religious).  New Atheism might suffer the same fate, but it’s a joke for accommodationists like Mooney to talk about how the New Atheists don’t understand the futility of their approach.

Not that there’s ever a perfect comparison, but if you want another example of a New Atheism analog, look at smoking in the US.  We started by simply warning people that smoking wasn’t healthy .... not much success.  In recent years, it’s transitioned to full-fledged demonizing of smoking, and the tobacco industry.  It’s mainstream, and it is absolutely working.  Bluntly insulting the intelligence of smokers, and making them second-class citizens, is now accepted, and is getting results.  Is smoking the same as religion?  Of course, not.  But, to a smoker, it’s still a pretty fundamental part of their lives, and in addition to the cultural habit they’ve formed, nicotine adds a chemical dependency to the mix.  That we’ve been able to make headway against smoking recently, with the blunt approach, absolutely should be considered by people like Mooney, who seem convinced that bending over backwards to accommodate childish religious nonsense is going to get atheists anywhere.

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Posted: 25 March 2012 07:44 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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The smoking cf. religion example is interesting to me as a politically conservative atheist and skeptic. Political conservatives tend to be tolerant of smokers for intellectual-libertarian reasons. Intellectually, I can respect that as long as the smoking doesn’t harm anyone else, but where I draw that line will not be the same as where most smokers would draw it. Emotionally I dislike smokers for the unpleasantness and suffering their smoke has caused me in childhood and adulthood, the hedonism (I viscerally despise hedonists.), both the rebelliousness and the conformism it reflects, the irrationality, and the damage it has done to the image I wanted to have of people close to me in childhood. I can’t bring myself to have pity on a smoker and will come to a defense of his rights only in the most extreme cases and then pallidly. But I know what I’m doing and am honest about it. I see very little of such honesty anywhere on the left, much contradiction, only the most meaningless shell of conscience, ghastly intolerance, logic-twisting emotion everywhere, all packaged in pathological conceit. I’d far rather take my chances in a country ruled by actually and ostensibly Christian and Jewish people randomly chosen than in one ruled by the strident likes of n8rOn.

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Posted: 25 March 2012 11:41 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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n8r0n, a logical place to begin your criticism would be with a good-faith effort to understand what you’re criticizing.  Haidt isn’t stupid.

Keep in mind that religion has a far greater impact on human life than the appendix.  The leading New Atheists claim the impact has been remarkably anti-adaptive in some ways, unlike the appendix.

Christianity has changed a great deal in 2,000 years.  Religions obviously do compete with each other, even if the effect isn’t usually quick, wholesale change.

Haidt didn’t say you personally dispute scientific findings about IQ because they run counter to your ideological commitments.  Many scientists have done so, though.

On what rational basis do you hold truth or anything else to be sacred?  What Haidt particularly objects to in the worship of rationality is the view that rationality is the best way to achieve moral truth.  He gives considerable evidence that it doesn’t work as well in morality as is generally believed, that intuition/emotion is more essential to good morality than reason.

Haidt agrees with you that the New Atheists aren’t badmouthing religion primarily to convince others, though that’s what the leading New Atheists claim their goal is.  It’s plain that it’s largely an emotional response, as Haidt’s theory would predict.  A more rational approach wouldn’t give such one-sided analyses, so obviously the effect of confirmation bias.

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Posted: 28 March 2012 10:29 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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> if you really believe in science,

In my opinion, the notion of irony encapsulates the main lesson we need to inculcate concerning the relationship between human reasoning and the subconscious. I agree with you, n8on, on the importance of seeking truth, but I’m trying to recognize both the complexity and, in a certain sense, the impossibility of even understanding what truth means in some contexts, like that of religion. Implicit to your notion of truth around religion is really a circle of quite-specific truths, or a complex, that sweeps easily away most considerations of phylogeny, ontology, and anthropology in the name of a prescription- one framed, ironically, solely as a negative. Even gets a built-in waiver on “know your enemy”. Now that’s a really good deal: I’d like some of that, please. What do you call that again- logic? Nice! I’m going to use that every time from now on baby. Work it like mama works velcro, man- you go.

Your argument feels like a set of cattle chutes: I can see why you feel the way you do at the end of the line, but while I move through it, I keep thinking of other relevancies at each junture. It’s as if we’re looking at the entry for religion in the dictionary together when you launch, and I have to play catch-up while you’re talking, because first I have to figure out which of the 7 definitions you’re addressing, then which side of that particular argument, and from which party’s viewpoint, before addressing the logic. In this case, I think I have it, because it’s the common one:

1. Religion promotes silly facts, then uses them to blind followers, and abuse both them and others.
2. Religion is an offense to the pursuit of truth.
3. Like smoking, there should be a more earnest and explicit effort in society to usher in an age without it.

I think I agree with this, with an only-slightly nuanced version of the last phrase. But this argument against religion feels like an argument for following very specific chess advice- good as far as it goes, good in a certain bishop-knight conundrum (say, when discussing the implications of the Pope’s spread of child abuse prior to the scandal). But this kind of response is ironically unreasoned and emotional when set elsewhere in the constellation of issues around religion. That’s what I believe rg1 is sensing and reacting to, not the fairly reasonable logic. I mean, are you done with religion now? You seem anxious to move on to another of the many truth-deficient domains in need of your vorpal blade. I think, ironically, that your subconscious likes the sound of its blade going snicker-snack through this somewhat narrow, though important, aspect of religion- and it likes that sound much better than it likes the incoherence, cacaphony, and dissonance that precedes and clouds reasoned, nuanced discussion of something as intractable, as gorgeously multivariate as religion. Hence all the field work that seems to have been foisted onto your conscious mind, just to hear that gorgeous sound again.

Truths are easy to find and polish to a shine- it’s placing enough of them in an appropriate family of contexts that should keep us busy. Asking the right questions is much more important than having a fistful of ready answers. Not doing enough questioning, and hotwiring our way to answers generates axiomatically an ironic, nonconscious irrationality acting through reason, as designed. I mean, I don’t know about you, but if I was a subconscious, I’d look for guys that worship truth to hitch a ride on, so I could finally do my full court press with logic, per original spec. And I’d focus on really intellectual guys that refute the controversial ideas of thoughtful scientists with terms like ‘nonsense’ and ‘silly’.

Just a few points of maybe ten that I know many wrestle with on religion:

- religion addresses irrational needs/wants that atheism does not, and it does so in a well-honed set of patterns. Though the burden of a lack of that addressal is enthusiastically taken up by most atheists, for those of us raised religious, with a pavlovian link between our notion of good and our religious assumptions, there may be a lot of process required to, as Sting put so well, “take your father’s cross gently from the wall”. Is there such a process? Can you get me an 800 number, please- and one for my kids, too? I’m trying to address my unwitting plunge into nihilism, because the Lord didn’t leave a forwarding address: now I’ve got his job, no manual, and the alcohol’s wearing off again. Someone told me alcohol works for a statistically high count of you atheist guys, but it sucks for me and the kids. Maybe you can point me to a new drug.

- Ignoring the good that religion does- say, in well-being, or charity- is typically justified with what I call the “yeah, but” argument: “sure it does good, but whatever good it does is so dwarfed by the evils of [...] that you have quite the set of balls even mentioning the good part”. Or the fore-shortened “Don’t need it from religion, that’s a myth, it arises naturally.” Or, my favorite, the award-winningly common “Dude, that’s the beauty of getting rid of that shit- we’ll so figure that out when it’s gone, don’t even trip.” When these statements are voiced, I think we are supposed to hear the sound, as Mr. Smith said, of inevitability. But I don’t hear anything- maybe I need a better set of chutes, because I’m getting lost in irrelevant points.

- are there any lessons to take from the historic and current primacy of the religious experience in our lives- it’s evolution, it’s apparently custom-tucked addessal of moral impetus, the eccentric balance of rational and irrational needs, its brilliant/horrific handlings of the various cranial tensions- anything there, before we pack it up? No? OK. Just gonna scrawl, you know, a label on a couple of these crates real quick, be right there.

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Posted: 08 April 2012 03:29 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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Well this interview was interesting, thought provoking and fun to listen to. 

I thought Haidt said quite a bit worth considering, when it comes to trying to comprehend the breakdown in communication and civility these days. 
In fact, plan to listen to this one another time or two.

Thanks Chris, good interview.

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Posted: 11 April 2012 10:10 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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Thanks for the interview Chris.

I’m new to the forum but have been a listener to the podcast for the last couple of years.  I enjoyed the interview and found many interesting points.  One that really struck me was a statement made by J. Haidt that was something to the effect (paraphrasing here) that you can’t just pull religion out as that would leave a void, which will then be filled by utter chaos.  I’m not sure how this statement can be made and taken seriously.  That statement seems to imply that if a Christian becomes an atheist they suddenly lose all moral sense that they had as a Christian and would then go ‘willy nilly’ on a robbing or killing spree.  I think that many European countries that are primarily secular prove this point invalid.

I think the key to making religion and all superstitious belief a relic of the past is education and primarily education in critical thinking skills.  The emphasis being the idea that critical thinking skills should be applied to all aspects of life and not avoided like the plague when applying it might cause emotional discomfort as in the case of religion.  I think science education goes a long way in moving people out of the slumber like state of religious belief.  Like all areas of intelligence , one person may excel in math, another in writing, and yet another in music, I think some people excel in the ability to think critically.  I do understand that if the emotional needs of the religious believer are threatened to such a great extent by the loss of belief then critical thinking will be avoided in favor of emotional comfort.

I was raised Catholic and I’m so thankful I had a thirst for science and a curiosity that led me to read about the history and mythology of other cultures.  I think there is nothing more enlightening to begin the journey to disbelief then the reading about the myths of other cultures and to realize they are all stories told from ignorance, both moral and of the physical world.

Sorry if this strayed off topic.

[ Edited: 11 April 2012 10:15 AM by flyinfriend ]
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