Emotions, social psychology, and multifaith engagement

I'm involved in an ongoing research in multifaith engagement as an emotion. In my view, this is an important and undervalued aspect of multifaith engagement, and I'd like to share some thoughts from a book I finished recently, and why it's important for this work.

Jonathan Haidt is a social psychologist and author of The Righteous MindWhy Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion (New York: Vintage Books, 2013). There are two major takeaways for me in this volume. The first has to do with how we form moral judgments as well as the relationship between our emotions and reason, and the second has to do with the differing foundations we emphasize in our moral judgments.

We tend to think of ourselves as objective, rational agents who carefully consider arguments and evidences as part of a deliberate cognitive process in making decisions. This rational deliberation is in sharp contrast with our emotions. However, Haidt argues that this is "a prevalent but useless dichotomy between cognition and emotion." It's better to see them as different facets of how we use our brains. Instead, Haidt says "emotions are a kind of information processing", and further that "moral judgment is a cognitive process" where there are really "two different kinds of cognition: intuition and reasoning." In order to understand the relationship between the two, Haidt uses the metaphor of the elephant and its rider. The elephant is our emotions, and the rider is reason. The elephant really leads the way, and the rider rationalizes why the elephant is going in the right direction. As Haidt puts it, the first rule of moral psychology is "intuitions come first; strategic reasoning second." 

The second major takeaway from this book is the idea of Moral Foundations Theory (MFT). After doing surveys and research across various cultures, Haidt and his colleague discovered "universal cognitive modules upon which cultures construct moral matrices". In their initial research, MFT was comprised of five foundations of morality. This includes care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion and sanctity/degradation. Just as people have different tastes in food and use different taste buds, we also have intuitive "taste receptors" in our brains, if you will, that make up our righteous mind. Not only that, liberals and conservatives emphasize different moral foundations. This helps explain why they come to very different conclusions on the same issues and faced with the same data. Liberals emphasize care and fairness, whereas conservatives emphasize loyalty, authority, and sanctity.

Although Haidt tends to have politics and social issues in mind when considering moral intuitions, religion is my primary perspective. Let's apply this to how we engage others across religious traditions. In the U.S. at least, liberals are more drawn to interfaith approaches. Given their moral intuitions and emphases, they call for others to have care and fairness for others, particularly marginalized groups (e.g., Muslims, immigrants). When conservatives hear the perspective of liberals in such areas they tend to strongly disagree. Instead, they are concerned with protecting the country from immigrants who may be covert terrorists. Their desire is to protect the safety and integrity of the country. Conservatives hold this perspective contrary to liberals because they emphasize a different set of moral foundations. This is true of many evangelicals as well. In response to interfaith or interreligious dialogue, concerns for compromise are a typical reaction because evangelicals emphasize loyalty (to the Christian tradition), authority (of Scripture and Christ), and sanctity (the purity of the church and the country). They too value care and fairness, but these are secondary to other moral foundations, and when they are drawn upon it tends to be more toward others in our tribal in-group (other Christians, Americans) rather than the out-group (Muslims, Atheists, etc.).

When we take into account the importance and relationship between emotion and reason, and different emphases in moral foundations, we can then better understand and empathize with those that we strongly disagree with on some of the most important issues of our time. It also provides us with tools for helping others understand our perspective, and perhaps even persuade them to adopt it themselves. This is true whether we want to persuade more evangelicals to see the benefits of multifaith engagement, or within multifaith engagement as we speak with those in other religious traditions. Haidt says that "you can't change people's minds by utterly refuting their arguments." This is a bitter pill for reason and apologetics oriented evangelicals to swallow. But perhaps you've been in enough arguments and presented seemingly iron clad evidences, only to fail to persuade your "opponent" to know that this isn't off the mark. As we've seen above, that's because emotion and moral intuition is leading the way, and reason is legitimizing what is already intuited. Instead, Haidt suggests if we want to change people's minds we should "elicit new intuitions, not new rationales." We have to get the elephant of emotions turning toward us positively before the rider of reason will follow as well. This can be done by creating a context where the moral intuitions of others are accounted for and appealed to positively. A number of possibilities present themselves here, conversations that affirm and demonstrate understanding before raising critique, establishing trust in relationships, and working through differences through story. 

I hope you can see the importance of social psychology and Moral Foundations Theory for multifaith engagement. It's a promising tool for helping us understand, empathize, and persuade. I'm continuing my study in this area with Joshua Greene's book Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them (New York: Penguin Books, 2013). Greene is an experimental psychologist, neuroscientist and philosopher. His book should compliment Haidt's and provide another important perspective on how we can apply the insights of social psychology to multifaith engagement.  

John Morehead