Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Faith Wars 2012

The name of this sermon is Faith Wars 2012:  Religion and Politics in the USA.   I decided on that topic about a month ago because it seemed that every time I read or saw the news – that’s what I saw.  Faith Wars. 

Now I was expecting to hear and read about politics of course.  This IS an election year.  But there seemed to be a whole lot about religion and faith all mixed in with it.   

And I have two confessions to make here.

First, I had thought, “There’s so much going on with religion and politics and being written about it now.  So this should be an EASY one!”

And the second confession is:  I’m a FOOL.

Speaking of fools….
Here’s a short clip you may have seen with Alexandria Pelosi interviewing folks in rural Mississippi.  Now I’m not trying to make fun of these folks.   Hey, they could be my relatives.   But I want you to see how much their FAITH seems to be connected to their political views. 

Now to be fair – Pelosi interviewed inner city folks the following week who made statements that fit the stereotype of freeloaders.  But I’m not going to show that because, unlike their rural southern white counterparts, they did NOT use their faith in the rationalization of choices.  Indeed, conservatives have been much more effective in using faith as motivation. 

I’ve decided that this “Faith Wars 2012” topic would be a great one for one of our 3rd Sunday night Philosophy Group sessions.  But it was not the best pick for a 15 to 20 minute Sunday Sermon. 

Nevertheless, I have been trying to gain some understanding.  Actually – I’ve been trying to ameliorate this concern for a long time.  For many years, it really bothered me so much that the extreme right seemed to have taken ownership of faith – and used faith, religion, or God to support their agenda.  And I – being a good religious liberal – felt that was wrong.  Indeed, its one reason I answered the call to become a Unitarian Universalist minister.  I wanted to be able to stand up as a recognized person of faith on some of these issues.  And I felt that it was important in the Bible Belt for folks to HEAR a liberal voice from a religious leader, especially a liberal religious voice spoken with an authentic southern accent! And I, along with many of you, have been trying.

After I announced this topic, I saw that a new book was coming out on March 13 that might help.  I pre-ordered it and the book arrived on March 15. 

This thick book by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt is called:  The Righteous Mind:  Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion.  And due to my inability to do some other preferred activities because of my recent injury, I WAS able to read this entire book.  It’s heavy laden with reviews of social and moral psychology and philosophy – throwing in some biology as well – with carefully analyzed research by the author and others.

It’s a good book.  But I do NOT recommend it as good healing therapy.  I would have been better off watching old chick flicks, I think.  But I did accumulate some knowledge that may – at least – help us understand our more conservative neighbors, and perhaps ourselves.

Haidt divides the book into three major sections with three or four chapters in each.  And each section presents one major principle of moral psychology.  I’m going to attempt to give you a glimpse of these today – and perhaps we can explore more later.

Part I is about the first moral principle –
“Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second.”

Haidt says:
“Moral intuitions arise automatically and almost instantaneously, long before moral reasoning has a chance to get started, and those first intuitions tend to drive our later reasoning.  If you think that moral reasoning is something we do to figure out the truth, you’ll be constantly frustrated by how foolish, biased, and illogical people become when they disagree with you.  But if you think about moral reasoning as a skill we humans evolved to further our social agendas – to justify our own actions and to defend the teams we belong to – then things will make a lot more sense.  Keep you eye on the intuitions, and don’t take people’s moral arguments at face value.  They are mostly post hoc constructions made up on the fly, crafted to advance on or more strategic objectives.”

“The central metaphor (of this section of the book) is that the mind is divided, like a rider on an elephant, and the rider’s job is to serve the elephant.  The rider is our conscious reasoning – the stream of words and images of which we are fully aware.  The elephant is the other 99 percent of mental processes – the ones that occur outside of awareness but that actually govern most of our behavior.”

Haidt likens the rider to the press secretary or the politician’s spokesperson – who provides all the rationale for the words of decisions that have been made by the politician.  Of course, sometimes the spokesperson can make things worse – like in the “Etch a Sketch” analogy made by one of Romney’s folks.  In any case, the conscious mind is not really doing the steering!  Haidt provides numerous research studies that he and others have done to back this up.  We think we are objectively using conscious reasoning to make our decisions, but usually – for most of us (even we UU’s who tend to worship reason) – we use our conscious reasoning to convince ourselves that the decision we want to make based on other more intuitive factors – IS logical. 

The second part of the book emphasizes this principle of moral psychology.
“There’s more to morality than harm and fairness.”

Haidt says that the righteous mind is like a tongue with six taste receptors.  Secular Western moralities are like cuisines that try to activate just one or two of these receptors – either concerns about harm and suffering, or concerns about fairness and injustice.  But people have so many other powerful moral intuitions, such as those related to liberty, loyalty, authority, and sanctity.

Haidt explains how politicians on the right have a built in advantage when it comes to cooking meals that many voters like – because they prepare meals that activate all of these receptors, while liberal politicians focus on one or two. 

Part III of the book is about this third principle:  Morality binds and blinds.

Haidt’s central metaphor for this principle is that human beings are 90% chimp and 10% bee.  He states that “human nature was produced by natural selection working at two levels simultaneously.  Individuals compete with individuals within every group, and we are the descendents of primates who excelled at that competition.  This gives us the ugly side of our nature, the one that is usually featured in books about our evolutionary origins.  We are indeed selfish hypocrites so skilled at putting on a show of virtue that we fool even ourselves.”

“But human nature was also shaped as groups competed with other groups.  As Darwin said long ago, the most cohesive and cooperative groups generally beat the groups of selfish individualists….   We’re not always selfish hypocrites.  We also have the ability, under special circumstances, to shut down our petty selves and become like cells in a larger body, or like bees in a hive, working for the good of the group.  These experiences are often among the most cherished of our lives, although our hivishness can blind us to other moral concerns.”  

 Haidt notes that while our bee-like nature facilitates altruism and heroism, it also facilitates war and genocide.  (And you can’t help but wonder about the actions of the man in Florida who has probably sacrificed his own life now in his foolish and horrendous need to protect his “Hive” – his neighborhood.  And now a young man walking home from the store is dead as a result.) 

In any case, here’s where both religion and political parties also come into play.  Haidt concludes from his studies and others that “religion is probably an evolutionary adaptation for binding groups together and helping them to create communities with a shared morality.  It is not a virus or a parasite as some scientists (the “New Atheists”) have argued in recent years.” 

Additionally, “people bind themselves into political teams that share their moral narrative.  Once they accept a particular narrative (though), they become blind to alternative moral worlds.”

Now speaking of blindness – Haidt believes liberals (and he identifies as one himself) have a particular blind spot that has harmed our efforts.  He believes that we have failed to recognize and use moral capital.  Moral capital refers to “the degree to which a community possesses interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, and technologies that mesh well with evolved psychological mechanisms and thereby enable the community to suppress or regulate selfishness and make cooperation possible.”  And this is one way conservatives have an edge.

Haidt demonstrates in one chapter about communes that failed or survived.  Belief in gods and engaging in religious rituals turned out to be crucial ingredients of success.  But even without religion – those groups with a clear list of values and virtues printed and displayed throughout the commune did better than those who did not have these.  Communes who had some system whereby they could use these to suppress or regulate selfishness were more likely to endure.    

Now Haidt goes on to say that moral capital is not always an alloyed good. It does lead to the suppression of "free riders," but it does not necessarily lead to other forms of fairness, such as equality of opportunity.  "And while high moral capital helps a community to function efficiently, the community can use that efficiency to inflict harm on other communities.  High moral capital can be obtained within a cult or a fascist nation, as long as most people truly accept the prevailing moral matrix.  Nonetheless, if you are trying to change an organization or a society and you do not consider the effects of your changes on moral capital, you’re asking for trouble."

Haidt believes that this is the fundamental blind spot of the left…  It is the reason he believes that "liberalism – which has done so much to bring about freedom and equal opportunity – is not sufficient as a governing philosophy.  It tends to overreach, change too many things too quickly, and reduce the stock of moral capital inadvertently.  Conversely, while conservatives do a better job of preserving moral capital, they often fail to notice certain classes of victims, fail to limit the predations of certain powerful interests (like corporations), and fail to see the need to change or update institutions as times change.”

Yes, morality binds and blinds.

Well, what’s the SO WHAT of these principles?

Haidt gives us this advice in his last chapter.

“If you want to understand another group, follow the sacredness.  As a first step, think about the six moral foundations, and try to figure out which one or two are carrying the most weight in a particular controversy.  And if you really want to open your mind, open your heart first. (emphasis mine) If you can have a least one friendly interaction with a member of the ‘other’ group, you’ll find it far easier to listen to what they’re saying, and maybe even see a controversial issue in a new light.”

I’m very fortunate in that some of the people I love most in the world have very differing world views.  But I know they are good people.  And sometimes – knowing that – I can see where they are coming from.  And… the opposite occurs as well.

Why, just the other day my Mama, who identifies as social and fiscal conservative, was defending President Barack Obama in my kitchen.  I was sharing with her a little about Haidt’s views of our groupishness, and I said: “You know – I just get so frustrated that Barack Obama seems to end every speech he makes with ‘God Bless America.’  If he’s going to bring God into it – why not ask God to bless the whole world?”

And my Mama says --- “Well, I actually kind o like it when they say, ‘God bless us all.’  But Jane – let me ask you – who is Obama talking to in those speeches?  Is he overseas in some foreign country or at the United Nations?”

And I said, “No Mama – he’s talking to Americans.” 

So she says, “Well then that’s okay; because he’s just asking God to bless them.”

And I said, “Mama – I see your point.”

And can’t we all do a little more of that – not that we have to agree – but perhaps just try to see their point.

That’s all.
Amen, Blessed Be – and
God Bless the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Statesboro

Sunday, March 4, 2012


Look  Before You Leap!
Rev. Jane Page   

"How did it happen?" the nurse asked.   

"I fell down," I said.

"Well, how did you fall?" she asked again.
My sheepish reply was, "I was walking and I just fell."

That didn't sound like a good response, but it was the truth. I was just doing my morning walk and was on the last round of my walking path in the neighborhood on the other side of the pond when I fell; and I caught the fall on my left hand and broke my dang wrist - bad!

I saw the disappointment in her eyes.  This would not be an interesting story for her to share with family and friends.  Why couldn't it have been more exotic!

Then she could report something like, "This grandmother came into the Emergency Room after falling on her skateboard at the Statesboro Extreme Sports Expo.

But no, I suppose I've reached the stage in life of that little old lady on the life alert advertisement. I probably did sound like her when I called Greg and said, "Help... I've fallen and I can't get up."

I jokingly posted on Facebook that on "leap day," February 29, I leaped the wrong way. Since that time, I've tried to analyze why I fell and I think I've figured it out. I was beginning my last lap and I said to myself, "I think I will pick up the pace a bit." That's when I tripped and attempted to break the fall with my left hand. OUCH. I believe that my BODY by then was in a routine, in rhythm, in that natural dance, yes, in the flow or "the groove." My mind was switching gears but the message was not clearly getting to all the right body parts.

Yes, there is a life lesson in this for me - and maybe for others as well. Certainly there are times in our lives when we need to "shift gears" or "change the pace." But we need to do this with full attention and caution. When we are transitioning, we need more focus. Yes, we need to "look before we leap," even on leap day! Here's to lessons learned. Amen