What’s an atheist scientist like me doing writing good things about religion? I didn’t start out this way. As a teenager, I had contempt for religion. I was raised Jewish, but when I read the Bible, I was shocked. It hardly seemed to me like a good guide for ethical behavior in modern times, what with all the smiting and stoning and genocide, some of it ordered by God. In college, I read other holy books, and they didn’t make me any more positive toward religion.

In my 20s, I obtained a Ph.D. in social psychology and began to study morality. I ignored religion in my studies. We don’t need religion to be ethical, I thought. And yet, in almost every human society, religion has been intimately tied to ethics. Was that just a coincidence?

Watch Jonathan Haidt’s TED Talk

In my 30s, I began to study the emotion of “moral elevation.” That’s the warm, fuzzy feeling you get when you see acts of moral beauty. When you see someone do something kind, loyal, or heroic, you feel uplifted. You can feel yourself becoming a better person — at least for a few minutes.

Everyone who has watched an episode of Oprah knows the feeling, but there was absolutely no scientific research on this emotion. Studying moral elevation led me to study feelings of awe more generally, and before I knew it, I was trying to understand a whole class of positive emotions in which people feel as though they have somehow escaped from or “transcended” their normal, everyday, often petty self.

TED.com: Jonathan Haidt on the moral roots of liberals and conservatives

I was beginning to see connections between experiences as varied as falling in love, watching a sunset from a hilltop, singing in a church choir, and reading about a virtuous person. In all cases there’s a change to the self — a kind of opening to our higher, nobler possibilities.

As I tried to make sense of the psychology of these “self-transcendent emotions,” I began to realize that religions are often quite skilled at producing such feelings. Some use meditation, some use repetitive bowing or circling, some have people sing uplifting songs in unison.

Some religions build awe-inspiring buildings; most tell morally elevating stories. Some traditional shamanic rites even use natural drugs. But every known religion has some sort of rite or procedure for taking people out of their ordinary lives and opening them up to something larger than themselves.

It was almost as if there was an “off” switch for the self, buried deep in our minds, and the world’s religions were a thousand different ways of pressing the switch.

TED.com: Robert Wright on optimism

Read more and watch more on CNN

Published On: April 2, 2012

Jonanthan Haidt

Jonanthan Haidt

Jonathan Haidt (pronounced “height”) is a social psychologist and professor in the Business and Society Program at New York University’s Stern School of Business. He studies moral psychology, with a particular interest in the moral emotions, such as moral disgust and moral elevation. He is the author of two books – The Happiness Hypothesis, and The Righteous Mind. In his current work he is examining businesses as complex multi-level organisms that have cultural and institutional features that can be more or less hospitable to ethical and unethical behavior.

2 Comments

  • JOHN JACOB LYONS says:

    Jonathan Haidt is right. We may well love to lose ourselves in religion, in the grandeur of nature, in music or in feelings associated with common endeavor. These are all ways in which we, sometimes, manage to transcend the ‘self’. However, there is nothing particularly admirable about religion in this regard. In fact, one could point out that religion shares this possible characteristic with both the camaraderie of battle and the bigotry of the football terraces. There is no evidence here that is relevant to either the reality, or otherwise, of super-empirical concepts or the evaluation of the good, or otherwise, of religious belief. He is wrong to imply otherwise.

    Robert Wright is correct to point out that, globally,  we need to encourage the recognition of ‘zero-sum games’. He is also correct to imply that the source of all such games is, ultimately, self-interest. Whether or not more-altruistic groups have ever been selected over less-altruistic ones, we would be misguided to attempt to ‘sell’ altruism using the group effectiveness ‘hot-button’. The most persuasive argument for altruism is, and always will be, mutual self-interest.

  • Michael Blume says:

    Among the interesting things to add is the fact that Robert Wrights next book after those about “Non-Zero” sum games has been about “The Evolution of God”. He rightfully acknowledged that shared beliefs in superempirical agents thought to observe and judge behaviors had the potential to enhance in-group trust and cooperation. This evolutionary assumption, which had been formulated by Charles Darwin, too, has found great empirical support i.e. in studies by Jesse Bering and Ara Norenzayan.

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