Anthropologist Tanya Luhrman has a great essay in Today’s NYT, explaining the difference between the secular liberal approach to morality (based on care, given by government) and the evangelical approach (based on self-improvement, carried out within the family and the congregation):
When secular liberals vote, they think about the outcome of a political choice. They think about consequences. Secular liberals want to create the social conditions that allow everyday people, behaving the way ordinary people behave, to have fewer bad outcomes.
When evangelicals vote, they think more immediately about what kind of person they are trying to become — what humans could and should be, rather than who they are. From this perspective, the problem with government is that it steps in when people fall short. Rick Santorum won praise by saying (as he did during the Values Voters Summit in 2010), “Go into the neighborhoods in America where there is a lack of virtue and what will you find? Two things. You will find no families, no mothers and fathers living together in marriage. And you will find government everywhere: police, social service agencies. Why? Because without faith, family and virtue, government takes over.” This perspective emphasizes developing individual virtue from within — not changing social conditions from without.
As I tried to explain in chapter 8 of The Righteous Mind, the utilitarian individualism of the secular left turns off most voters. The thicker, more binding morality of social conservatives is more broadly appealing. It may even be a better recipe for producing more virtuous, self-controlled citizens, who end up creating the best consequences for the nation as a whole. This is what I was trying to describe in chapter 11 as “Durkheimian utilitarianism” — it’s a way of maximizing overall welfare that takes human nature into account.
Here’s a short essay I wrote for CNN on how I went from being an angry young atheist to being a psychologist who thinks that religion was a crucial part of our biological and cultural evolution for morality.
CNN also shows this short video interview with me, done at TED 2012, on tribalism in our political lives:
Robert Wright (author of Nonzero, and The Evolution of God), interviews me about the book. We largely agree about the evolution of religion, and about the New Atheists being fundamentalists. Bob is dubious about group selection. He acknowledges it could exist, but tries to come up with individual-level explanations for human groupishness. Bob and I co-taught a class at Princeton. We are on very friendly terms, and this allows our disagreements to be vocal without any risk of it descending into anger. Relationships help open-minded thinking and civil disagreement.Read More
I spoke at TED 2012, on the reason why people have so many ways of achieving self-transcendence. My goal in the talk was to illustrate visually some of the most complex ideas in my book — chapters 9 and 10 on multi-level selection and hive psychology. If you read those chapters, the video will make even more sense. If you watch this first, those chapters will make even more sense.
The basic idea is that our ability to lose ourselves and become “simply a part of a whole” (as Durkheim put it) is an adaptation, not just a fluke of crossed neural wiring, and the New Atheists would have it. It’s a mental ability that is of little use for helping individuals beat their neighbors in competition, but boy is it useful for helping teams bond together to out-compete other teams.
In other words, I’m siding with Charles Darwin, E. O. Wilson, and David Sloan Wilson on this issue, and against the dominant (but fading) view in evolutionary biology that group selection never happened.
[Be sure to watch this video full-screen, for the video effects]