Author Jonathan Haidt has written one of the most intriguing, and potentially helpful, books that I have come across this year. The title intrigues me instantly: The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (New York: Random House, 2012). I published a comment about this book, along with a clip from NPR, on my Facebook page several months ago. Finally I began to read the book yesterday. It is, so far, everything I hoped for and more.

Jonathan Haidt is a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and a visiting professor of business ethics at New York University’s Stern School of Business. He is the author of a previous popular book, The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom. But Haidt is not just interested in psychology as science but in what he calls “moral psychology.” He says people who study something often come to the conclusion that their object of fascination is the key to understanding everything. Books have been recently been published on the transformative role of cooking, mothering, war . . . and even salt. Haidt says that though these all may have a place in our human development (some much more than others) they surely are not in the range of what is most important. “I study moral psychology, and I’m going to make the case that morality is the extraordinary human capacity that made civilization possible. . . . I’m going to take you on a tour of human nature and history from the perspective of moral psychology” (The Righteous Mind, xii). This is exactly what he does for 419 pages.

By the end of Haidt’s tour he intends to show the reader a new way to think about two of the most vexing and divisive topics in all of human life: politics and religion. (I can still remember the childhood wisdom I was given more than a few times. Never talk about politics and religion because you can never solve a thing and no one will ever completely agree!) But Haidt believes that we can and must talk about politics and religion. He suggests that to do this well we must drain the swamp of heat, anger and divisiveness. We must replace them with awe, wonder and curiosity. If that doesn’t intrigue you then you have completely closed your mind and would likely never profit from a book like The Righteous Mind. It is also likely that you have closed your soul too but that is an even deeper subject for another day’s dialogue.

Haidt adds, in his well-written Introduction, “My hope is that this book will make conversations about morality, politics, and religion more common, more civil, and more fun, even in mixed company. My hope is that it will help us get along” (xii). This book could have been titled, says the author, “The Moral Mind.” Just as we do language, sexuality and music we also do morality. His thesis is that the human mind is not only “intrinsically moral” but that “it is also moralistic, critical and judgmental.” Read that again. If this is true then a lot of the teaching and life story of Jesus could potentially come alive to us in a whole new way. Righteous people were inherently unable to hear him, or relate to him. Why? They were stuck in a moralistic, critical and judgmental position, a position that is inherent to their normal way of thinking about their choices and actions. Somehow, they must be moved out of this stance and Jesus came to empower them to do it.

This big bang of an idea is followed by an intriguing discussion of the meaning of the word righteous in language, especially in the Hebrew Bible. Our righteous minds made it possible for us to produce groups, tribes and nations that have become the glue of kinship and cooperation. Haidt’s book is then laid out in three parts. Intuitions come first followed by strategic reasoning. Second, there’s much more to morality than harm and fairness. And third, morality both binds and blinds. I can’t wait to explore these big ideas.

I have just really begun this intensely fascinating book. I am already glued to it and expect to read it in a few days. I’ll keep you posted but I think this is likely to be a most important book for all leaders, especially at this point in our culture. We need to understand what makes people so able to turn moral positions into judgments that divide and destroy both people and cultures. Why are we so unable to be civil and respectful, on both sides of religious and political debates? Surely the average local church could stand to think about this danger given how unhealthy and divided most of our congregations are at the most basic human level of our life together. If you’ve already read this book please respond with comments. If not then join me and let me know what you think in the course of the next few days. I believe this could well be one of the more important reads of the year, at least for me personally.

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  1. Joe Schafer July 13, 2012 at 6:26 am

    John, I got the book last month and couldn’t put it down either. There are so many insights about human nature from so many different angles. I agree with you. This is a book that Christian leaders and thinkers really need to digest and discuss. It has so many profound implications for how we do evangelism and apologetics and missions and how we deal with doctrinal differences and cultural conflicts.

    For me, one of the most fascinating parts of the book is where he relates moral reasoning to brain centers of taste and smell. It explains how behaviors that people classify as immoral can arouse feelings of disgust. This really made me think about the laws of Leviticus in a new light. Leviticus, as you know, makes no distinction whatsoever between laws that are moral/ethical versus cultural and ceremonial. The OT legal system seems designed to create subconscious, instinctive and deep emotional reactions of disgust toward behaviors that were deemed wrong. Haidt draws upon a wealth ok knowledge from psychology and brain science, sociology and (gasp!) evolutionary biology. These are fields that many Biblical scholars know little about and are suspicious of. If students of the OT and NT read Haidt’s book with an open mind, it will stimulate their thinking and deepen their understanding of the Bible at many levels.

  2. Marty Schoenleber, Jr July 13, 2012 at 10:06 am

    Thanks for this. I’m intrigued and will go to Amazon in a moment and order it. having just written a book on a similar theme but from the perspective of a responsible Christian voter, I’m very interested. I look forward to your continuing thoughts on the Righteous Mind.

  3. gregory July 13, 2012 at 12:42 pm

    Having read Daniel Kahneman’s: Thinking, Fast and Slow amazingly insightful book gives me high hopes for this title. Understanding the subconscious biases we all bring to the table and the fight that is necessary to overcome them is instructional to say the least. Why do I think what I think? And why?? Is it true? Or have I internalized a deception?? I have never been disappointed by one of your reading recommendations.
    Thanks for the lead!

    • admin July 13, 2012 at 2:51 pm

      Remember Greg, and everyone else, I have only read the first third but so far I am enjoying the book immensely. It has some incredibly important insight into how and why we respond the way we do to arguments.

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