Friday, September 22, 2006

Dawkins the Dogmatist?

After reading Richard Dawkins’s new book, The God Delusion, Andrew Brown asks “who would have thought him capable of writing one this bad?” Are Dawkins’s ideas as daft as Brown suggests?

People are, quite obviously, driven to all sorts of acts for all sorts of reasons. People kill people for monetary gain, to eliminate competing sources of power, to exact revenge, and even to advance political causes that the killers think are just (this encompasses not just individuals but also governments that wage ‘just wars’ that will inevitably lead to the deaths of many people).

Brown’s review throws up the usual range of questions about the relationship of religion, and atheism, to behaviour, and the causal power of religion (or atheism) to induce people to acts of suicide and murder. Religion isn’t a necessary ingredient for these actions – but does that mean it’s irrelevant? And what about the role of atheism in motivating murderous behaviour? If religion is such a potent force in driving human behaviour, isn’t atheism just the same?

Brown writes:
Dawkins is inexhaustibly outraged by the fact that religious opinions lead people to terrible crimes. But what, if there is no God, is so peculiarly shocking about these opinions being specifically religious? The answer he supplies is simple: that when religious people do evil things, they are acting on the promptings of their faith but when atheists do so, it's nothing to do with their atheism. He devotes pages to a discussion of whether Hitler was a Catholic, concluding that "Stalin was an atheist and Hitler probably wasn't, but even if he was… the bottom line is very simple. Individual atheists may do evil things but they don't do evil things in the name of atheism."

Yet under Stalin almost the entire Orthodox priesthood was exterminated simply for being priests, as were the clergy of other religions and hundreds of thousands of Baptists.
Dawkins is suggesting that the motivation for certain ‘evil’ acts (not a word I like, but I think it’s clear that Dawkins means act that most of his readers would consider morally unacceptable) is sometimes religious belief, but that atheism does not have similar effects. Of course, this doesn’t mean that atheists don’t act immorally – presumably, according to Dawkins, when they do act in such a way it is not motivated by their atheistic commitments, nor is carried out in the name, or to advance the cause, of atheism. Brown responds with the line about Stalin killing the priests and the clergy. But what does this fact alone demonstrate? That an atheist committed mass murder – which tells us what? I’m no expert on Stalin’s reign, and so I don’t know what motivated his actions, but is Brown suggesting that his atheism per se was a decisive or contributing factor? It would seem so, when he writes “The claim that Stalin's atheism had nothing to do with his actions may be the most disingenuous in the book”. But what does Brown base the conclusion about the role of atheism in Stalin’s stunning inhumanity on apart from a correlation? If there is evidence that it atheism was a driving force, where is the evidence?

And there seems to be a bit of a double standard here. Brown seems irritated at Dawkins’s suggestion that religion can lead to terrible behaviour, but then tries to counter it with by showing that atheism can lead to bad behaviour. If it’s too simple to blame religion for bad behaviour, as Dawkins supposedly does, it should also be too simple to blame atheism, as Brown implies.

Brown also takes issue with the suggestion that religious fundamentalism is a causal factor in producing terrorist bombers:
[T]he definitive scientific study of suicide bombers, Dying to Win, has just been published by Robert Pape, a Chicago professor who has a database containing every known suicide attack since 1980. This shows, as clearly as evidence can, that religious zealotry is not on its own sufficient to produce suicide bombers; in fact, it's not even necessary: the practice was widely used by Marxist guerrillas in Sri Lanka.
Whenever people want to illustrate the lack of efficacy of religion in producing suicide bombers, they always cite the Tamil Tigers, who are inspired by a Marxism rather than an explicit religious agenda (indeed, may Tamils might be atheists). Again, we have to ask what this shows. Imagine that someone wrote a book on the dangers of smoking, and reviewers pointed out that not all smokers get cancer, and that non-smokers also get cancer. Would we say “See, smoking isn’t dangerous after all”. Of course not. The fact that smoking is neither necessary nor sufficient for getting cancer isn’t the point. Smoking can still be an important cause of cancer – even the most important cause of cancer (I’m not saying it is) – even if people get cancer for other reasons. And so when people tried to get smoking banned in public places, or taxes increased to put people off smoking, we wouldn’t be entitled to say “But look, there are some other know causes of cancer, so leave smoking alone!”. It would still be appropriate to single smoking out, critically discuss it, and definitely withdraw government support for it (if there were, say, smoking academies).

As I said at the outset, people are motivated to action by all sorts of things, such as political, social and economic inequalities, and the clash of cultures and values (although this is easy to overplay, and can be become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy). In the absence of any commitments to a supernatural being or, alternatively, fully naturalistic worldview, people will continue to rape, pillage, murder, wage war and carry out genocides. Similarly, if everyone stops smoking, some people will still get cancer. The question is whether religion is a causal factor in organised acts of terrorism and other condemnable actions, such as the killing of abortion doctors (and also whether atheism has similar effects) – which is like asking whether smoking causes cancer, regardless of whether other things do too.

This is not just about whether certain beliefs and actions are present together. I think we have to pay some attention to explicit reasons people give for their actions (though I appreciate this is far from the whole story – we’re often blind to the non-conscious psychological processes that mould our behaviour). When soon-to-be suicide bombers record their farewell messages, they usually cite a complex of factors that have driven them to this point. Often top of the agenda is a sense of social, political and cultural injustice. Their actions are designed to make a point on behalf of a particular group of people (today most usually a religiously defined community: Muslims). But there is also an undeniable religious component to their actions, which is evidenced by the very language in which their justifications are couched. Pro-lifers that kill doctors in abortion clinics are not shy in citing their faith, and the moral commitments it entails, is support of their deeds. Can we really dismiss as a motivating factor what the people whose behaviour we’re trying to understand actually tell us? Why would we want to?

As the Tamil Tigers show, you don’t need religion to be a suicide bomber. The psychology of human coalitions is complex and can clearly be affected by a number of inputs, from favourite football team to familial, ethnic, national or religious affiliation. Ingroup/outgroup hostilities can be bred by all kinds of symbolic badges, behaviours and beliefs. But this simply does not mean that religion should not be discussed as an important cause of strife and conflict. If religion was not such an important causal factor in suicide bombers, why were none of the 9/11 or 7/7 bombers non-religious? Why does religion feature prominently in the video messages the bombers recorded? Why, when a play is put on in Birmingham, do Sikhs in particular, and not the local community generally, stage threatening protests? Why, when the Pope quotes a 14th century writer, do Muslims burn effigies, make calls for capital punishment for those who insult their prophet, and turn up with placards saying “Jesus is a slave to Allah” and “Islam will conquer Rome”? In contrast, why don’t atheists turn up every time there’s a religious speech with banners saying “Behead believers!”? When have you heard of a group of people getting together and killing another group, and then saying “We did this because they believe in a God and we don’t”? If religion isn’t an important factor in motivating suicide bombers, why aren’t atheists, many of whom agree with the political complaints of many of the bomber, equally represented among the bombers?

The capacity for humans to commit the most atrocious acts on the fellow humans is strong enough without the moral support of a religious framework. Of course conflict in the world wouldn’t disappear if religions evaporated. No would cancer if people stopped smoking. But that doesn’t mean religion, or smoking, isn’t harmful. Why is it, then, that people are so eager to try to get religion off the hook, and not criticise its potentially dreadful effects? Even if Brown is right to say that a thorough-going atheism is unnatural to humans, that doesn’t equate to support for maintaining religions, or the funding of religious schools by the government.

Dawkins might oversimplify the link between religion and murder and immorality (I haven’t read the book, so I’ll suspend judgement), but in response his critics tend to go too far in trying exculpate religion for its negative consequences. The reality is more complex than perhaps either suppose.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Tenacious Neanderthals

Neanderthals, our closest relatives in the fossil record, might have survived for longer, and co-habited with modern humans more extensively, than previous studies have proposed, suggests a paper recently published online by Nature.

This year marks the sesquicentennial of the discovery of the fossilised remains of an individual that would become the prototypical, or type, specimen of a new species of human, Homo neanderthalensis. In 1856, lime quarry workers in the Neander Valley in western Germany recovered a number of fossils, including fragments of the cranium, of a human skeleton that was initially thought to be a diseased modern human. Later, as similar remains were found in other parts of Europe, the Neanderthals, as they were named in honour of their place of discovery, became accepted as a distinct, and extinct, type of human.

Neanderthal bones or their associated technology (including hand axes fashioned out flint) have since been found across Europe and into western Asia. Fossil remains bearing at least some of the distinctive features of Neanderthals are seen in bones 600,000 years old, although the full range of Neanderthal features don’t come together into the ‘classic’ Neanderthal form (such as the type specimen found in the Neander Valley) until about 100,000-200,000 years ago. The ancestors of Neanderthals (and of modern humans), H. heidelbergensis, lived in Africa, and about 600,000 years expanded into Europe and western Asia. This can be inferred from the trail of artefacts that they left across the newly inhabited continent. Stone tools, such as hand axes, first appear in archaeological sites around 1.7 million years ago in Africa, but then 500,000 years ago are seen all over the place in large areas of Europe. These technology-wielding people in Europe subsequently evolved into the Neanderthals (the stone tools used by the Neanderthals are called ‘Mousterian’ after the Le Moustier site in France).

The early humans that remained in Africa after the diaspora that led to the colonisation of Europe and the emergence of the Neanderthals later ventured out of Africa themselves, and into the Neanderthals’ range, sometime around 40,000-60,000 years ago. Anatomically modern humans had evolved in Africa roughly 160,000 years ago, but these later pioneers were also recognisably behaviourally modern, and the artefacts they made suggest a more complex culture and sophistication than either previous humans or Neanderthals. In fact, the presence of modern humans, or Cro-Magnons, in Europe is often inferred from the sorts of artefacts that are found in archaeological digs (and the same goes for the Neanderthals – it’s not just about bones). By about 45,000 years ago, modern humans lived in Europe and Asia.

Then something dramatic happened. Sometime within the past 35,000 years, after a good evolutionary innings, the Neanderthals stepped out of the evolutionary game, and modern humans went on, at least temporarily, to become masters of the sport of global dominance. Why the Neanderthals failed where the Cro-Magnons succeeded is a matter of intense debate. Potential explanations include a genocide by the Cro-Magnons against the Neanderthals, hostile climate, and the cultural superiority of the Cro-Magnons that gave them an edge in competition for resources and habitats. The notion that climate was the decisive blow to the Neanderthals has been re-asserted recently, but a problem with this idea is that Neanderthals seemed to have coped pretty well with climatic conditions that varied widely over a geologically rapid time frame (as quick as 1,000 years), and which could rapidly change glacial regions in to much warmer environments. Neanderthals managed with the challenges of climate for perhaps 30,000 years, so why did they stop coping after modern humans turned up?

One important issue to look at in exploring these explanations is whether Neanderthals and modern humans co-habited, and what the effects were of living together. The Neanderthals certainly disappeared after modern humans arrived on the scene, but how long was the overlap? A long period suggest that the modern humans didn’t suddenly wipe the Neanderthals through mass murderer, and could suggest that another factor did them in.

Like practically every question in human palaeoanthropology, this is a vexatious issue. Depending on which dates you rely on, and which sites you look at, the speed at which Neanderthals died out ranges from just 2,000 years in some places to 10,000 in others. These estimates are derived from the age of the earliest modern human remains (bone or artefact) and the latest Neanderthal in a similar location – both of which have potentially significant error bars. This makes the discovery of Neanderthal remains that are younger than previous finds very interesting, because it suggests that the Neanderthals persisted for longer and therefore died out more slowly – and so perhaps modern humans weren’t such a potent force after all (although you could perhaps draw the same conclusion about climate, and assume that any Neanderthals that survived later coped with the climate until modern humans came along).

Writing in Nature Clive Finlayson and colleagues report just such remains – of Mousterian artefacts, if not bones, in Gorham’s Cave in Gibraltar that they claim are at most 28,000 years old, and perhaps as young as 24,000 years. As the authors admit, this only allows a reasonable inference that Neanderthals inhabited the cave. But if this assumption is correct, and the dates accurate (which is contentious), then these findings push the date of the most recent Neanderthals a couple of thousand years nearer the present. The authors interpret this as evidence that Cro-Magnons were not such a potent evolutionary poison to the Neanderthals.

It is not clear, however, how significant these dates are, even if accurate. Perhaps modern humans weren’t in this outpost of southern Europe at the time, and the Neanderthals were surviving there just as they had done elsewhere in Europe, against the slings and arrows of outrageous climate change (perhaps Gibraltatr was a more hospitable locale, and that’s why they went there), until modern humans arrived and spoiled the party. Even if the general pattern of modern human contact with Neanderthals was rapid extinction of the latter, it seems reasonable to suppose that some areas would remained free of modern humans for longer than others, and that the dynamics of elimination of Neanderthals would have differed from region to region and across time. And so this find, remarkable as it is, seems to be compatible with the general idea that the evolutionary death knell for the Neanderthals was sounded by modern humans.

Future work will have to resolve the dating issues (John Hawks has a detailed discussion of some of the technical aspects of the find here), and assess the validity of the conclusions tentatively drawn from this study. But the contents of Gorham’s Cave are likely to provide another chapter in the increasingly long and complex book of human evolution.

For another good article on Neanderthals, this time their genome, see here.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Soap For The Soul

The notion of spiritual and moral purification through rituals of physical cleansing such as baptism might be based on more than mere metaphor, suggests new research published in a recent issue of Science.

Religious traditions are rich with elaborate ceremonial rituals that the faithful undertake with deep symbolic reverence. Many of these rituals involve cleaning the body as part of the process of washing away moral stains on the soul. Perhaps the most obvious example in mostly Christian societies is the practice of baptism (which also forms part of the religious traditions of Sikhism and Mandaeanism).

If the ritual of baptism was just a metaphor for the remission and washing away of the sins of the soul, it wouldn’t much matter how the cleansing was achieved. But the different forms of baptism carry different symbolic messages: some baptism ceremonies merely demand that water be sprinkled onto the baptee’s head from above (representing the gift of remission from God above), whereas others go for full submission to denote the death and burial of Christ and his subsequent rise from the dead as the Holy Spirit.

At a theological level, the point of a baptism is not to give the recipient a good wash, nor is intended merely as a metaphor for washing away sins: it represents some of the core values and cherished beliefs of the religious community in which the ceremony takes place. But might there be deeper reasons why such cleansing rituals are so widespread at all? Could it be that actually getting cleaner during these acts of worship actually makes the recipient feel literally morally cleaner, and that’s why the idea of cleansing rituals so popular? The new study, by Chen-Bo Zhong and Katie Liljenquist, provide some tantalising results that we really do behave as if soap and water can wash away a moral transgression (without even bringing God into the picture).

How might this work? Well, a lot hinges on the role and function of the universal human emotion disgust. Disgust is a strange emotion in that it can be aroused by a both physical objects (rotting carcases, bodily fluids and waste products and so on) and also people’s behaviour (rape, paedophilia and so on), unlike, say, anger: it doesn’t make sense it be angered by a rock, even if you stub your toe on it (though I admit I’ve shouted at a fair few number of inanimate objects). Psychologists have suggested that disgust originally evolved as protective gateway to the mouth: a mechanism to prevent the ingestion of dangerous foodstuffs (people around the world produce the same sort of facial expression as part of the disgust response). Later, the domain of disgust enlarged to include the social and moral domains, such that moral disgust became a defence against contamination and corruption of the soul. This connection is partially revealed by the habit of using many of the same terms for physical states that elicit disgust (dirtiness) for those that arouse condemnation (dirty behaviour) as well.

In fact, experiencing physical disgust produces bodily responses, such as facial expressions, similar to those caused by considering an immoral act. Even overlapping parts of the brain are activated by the two types of disgust reaction. So if similar brain areas and psychological states are activated by moral transgressions and physical dirtiness, then perhaps the intensity of the former could be reduced by acts that reduce the latter.

Zhong and Liljenquist call the phenomenon of trying to reduce the negative feelings associated with threats to moral purity the ‘Macbeth effect’. Striving to secure the throne for her husband, Lady Macbeth kills King Duncan, and tries to frame his servants for the murder. Racked with guilt, a somnambulant Lady Macbeth attempts to wash imaginary stains off of her hands, crying “Out, damned spot! Out, I say!” – wash away the blood, and the guilt will cleaned away too. The results of Zhong and Liljenquist’s study raise the potentially unsettlingly possibility that Lady Macbeth might have had more success in easing her conscience than we would ordinarily credit.

In the first experiment, Zhong and Liljenquist explored whether a threat to our moral self-image prompts a desire for physical cleansing. Participants were asked to dredge up an instance from their biographies in which they had either acted ethically or badly, and to describe the experiences associated with those recollections. They were then presented with a world puzzle of six word fragments presented like a partially completed game of Hang Man. Three of the fragments could be filled in to produce a word related to cleaning (W_ _ H, SH_ _ER, and S_ _P can be completed as wash, shower and soap, as well as wish, shaker and step). Participants who recalled an unethical deed from their past were more likely to complete these three fragments to form the cleansing-related words.

Previous studies have shown that subtle priming of a topic, below the threshold of awareness of consciousness, can make other words, concepts and behaviour related to the prime more likely to surface by increasing the accessibility of these concepts and behaviour. The increased accessibility of cleansing-related words, primed by a threat to moral self-image, suggests that the protective Macbeth effect really does exist.

The second experiments further probed the Macbeth effect: does this increased accessibility to concepts related to cleanliness actually relate to an increased desire to clean oneself? (It’s possible that the effect of word recall would be unrelated to any actual behaviour.) After being instructed to hand-copy a short written story, in the first person, that depicted either ethical or immoral behaviour, participants had to rate a series of supermarket goods. Some of the items, such as shower soap, toothpaste and cleaning products, were related to cleansing, whereas others, including Post-It notes, fruit juice and batteries, were not. In line with the proposed Macbeth effect, copying out the unethical theory had the effect of making cleansing products more appealing.

But again, expressed preferences are one thing, actual behaviour another. So Zhong and Liljenquist looked at whether, after being put through the set up in the first experiment, participants would prefer as a free gift a cleaning-type product (antiseptic wipe), over something with no cleaning connotations at all (a pencil, which had previously been shown to be an equally attractive choice in a control condition). Overall, those that had recalled some of their unethical behaviour preferred the antiseptic wipe, which again points to the operation of the Macbeth effect.

But this isn’t the end of the story. If the Macbeth effect exists, it’s likely to have some function, one that is fairly obvious: to protect our moral self-image, often a crucial guide to navigating our social and moral worlds. Other research has suggested that we strive to restore our moral identity after ethical transgressions, spurred on by the emotional consequences produced by reflecting on our actions. Sometimes this takes the form of making up for a bad deed with a compensatory good one. There is also evidence that merely contemplating a threat to some cherished value produces a desire to act so as to reassert that value.

If moral threats and damage to our moral self-image can be deflected and thwarted in ways that either reaffirm our values or restore on moral selves, perhaps they can be averted and fixed by more symbolic means that exploit the overlap between the domains of physical and moral disgust. So a key question is whether the bodily cleansing induced by threats to our conception of our moral selves actually has the proposed effect of reducing the magnitude of the threat, and its unpleasant consequences. Zhong and Liljenquist capped off their study by addressing this central issue.

In the final experiment, participants were again asked to recall a bad deed from their past. Half then washed their hands with an antiseptic wipe while the others didn’t, and all were asked to fill out a form surveying their current emotional state. Finally, they were asked whether they would donate their time, free of charge, to take part in another study for a desperate graduate student.

The negative feelings aroused by contemplating behaviour which the participants were not proud of would presumably have led to a desire (conscious or not) to make amends by doing something that expresses the moral commitments they would prefer to see in their self-image, or to otherwise erase the stain of moral impurity through an act of cleansing. In this set up, the cleansing option was forced on half the study subjects, which had the effect of reducing feelings of the negative moral emotions of disgust, regret, guilt, shame, embarrassment and anger (non-moral emotions were unaffected). Mere hand washing also reduced the likelihood of offering help to the student in dire straits – if you’ve cleaned your conscience, there’s no defect in the moral self-image to fix.

The implications of the Macbeth effect, and this demonstration of its power to influence moral behaviour, is potentially alarming, and leads to a counter-intuitive thought. If is often supposed that observance of religious practices and rituals forms a core component of an ethically grounded life. But these results plausibly point to an entirely different conclusion. If threats to the moral self-image of individual religious adherents can be countered through cleansing rituals rather than actually amending the moral offence, and if such rituals make compensatory moral behaviour after an ethical blunder less likely, then a religious life could, all else being equal, make the devout less moral! This is another empirical question, and it is likely that other factors will feed into the overt moral behaviour we observe.

In any case, physical cleansing, even if intended as a symbolic offering of commitment, seems a rather cheap and easy route to moral rectitude. But at least it might help make sense of how many ostensibly morally upstanding and devout followers of various religions can also be capable of living with themselves and a range of moral misdemeanours and sinful behaviours, sexual and financial*. And the celebrity pages are replete with cases of decadent, immoral stars who have renounced their wayward pasts, and been born into the glory of God’s kingdom through the miracle of baptism, all beneficiaries of the Macbeth effect. Perhaps for the faithful cleanliness really is next to Godliness.

*Of course, the religious aren’t alone in such self-serving attempts to restore moral integrity with a quick fix. We can all imagine the ruthless, atheistic businessman who rips of poor nations left, right and centre and then makes a seemingly large but to him insignificant donation to charity (tax deductible, of course) to assuage his guilt, which might not even be consciously acknowledged.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid

I’ve just watched a trailer for the new documentary Jesus Camp, which charts the rising trend of recruiting children into ‘God’s Army’ and instructing them on their moral duty to wage a Christian war on their enemies. And who might these be? Well, a clue is provided by one woman who says “There are two types of people in the world: those who love Jesus and those who don’t”. Without seeing the film it’s not clear whether she means the enemy are people who don’t believe in a God or Jesus (let alone love either of them), or those that believe in a different God and reject Jesus as salvation.

In any case, such a ridiculously simplistic dichotomy of humans into an enormous ingroup of Christians and an even bigger outgroup of non-Christians is a recipe for disaster. I recently wrote about parochial altruism, or the tendency to be more lenient towards our ingroup and less forgiving of outgroup members. This proclivity can be pernicious enough when groups are differentiated on the basis of relatively meaningless symbolic markers, such as which football team you support (and therefore what shirt you sport), or other social or linguistic differences. Add a deeply held and powerfully inculcated moral dimension to this, and the degree of ingroup–outgroup hostility will only flare up. If you truly and dogmatically believe that you and your kind are on the one true path to salvation, that your group alone is acting according to the moral dictates of your God and saviour, then it is only natural to take a tough line towards anyone that threatens the beliefs of your group, by either denying the existence of your God or towing the line of a different one.

Commentators and theologians are not blind to the harmful effects of stressing differences between religious groups, and often try to downplay the inherent conflicts created when religious communities come into contact with one another. But ecumenical attempts to persuade everyone to just get alone always ring a bit hollow to me. If religious adherents sincerely believe in their chosen (or inherited) faith and implicitly assume the their sacred texts are inerrant and infallible guides to living a good life, then there really is a clash between different religions. Christians should view Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, atheists and so on with suspicion (and likewise). They should feel that other religions, or the rejection of religion, pose a moral threat to the fabric of society. It’s hard to find a middle ground between moral positions that are taken to set in stone, based on ancient codes that are absolute and unchangeable.

My preferred strategy is to be open about the often-irreconcilable conflict between different religions — and to use this fact as a starting point for keeping religiously motivated moral prescriptions out of the spheres of social and public policy (education, the law, medicine and the like). If we’re going to try to strike a balance between the competing demands of different religious groups, we can’t use the frameworks of any given religion to do so (that would be pretty unfair, and create much marginalisation). Instead, we will have to make recourse to rational, secular, non-religious principles – using reason, argument and evidence to advance our claims. Although this will get up the noses of a number of people, it seems the only defensible way forward.

Of course, following such a course is no guarantee that everyone will get along. But that is not an inherent problem of a secular approach to structuring society; it would seem to stem more from the nature of the beliefs held by those in conflict. In any case, we already accept that the national policies adopted in democratic societies will leave a significant number of people with a grievance. For instance, British National Party members are no doubt annoyed that their views on immigration and the racial composition of the UK are not mainstream, and this has historically stoked conflict, but we don’t say “Well we’d better bring them to the table too, and incorporate their vision”. So too with religious groups. Just because they’ll be upset if society is run on secular line doesn’t mean they have the automatic right to be given power to influence the sort of societies we live in.

If people could be persuaded to drop some of the dogmatism of their belief, and accept that difficult social, cultural and political problems require open hearts and minds for their solution – essentially a rejection of the certainties and dogmatism to which they are accustomed – then perhaps a greater dialogue and understanding between groups could be achieved. This, no doubt, all sounds very ‘right on’, optimistic and perhaps even a bit naïve; but a greater understanding of the psychology underlying our moral judgements and social behaviour could provide our best hope for reducing the conflict endemic around the world, from the ‘Culture Wars’ of the US to the ongoing troubles in the Israel, Lebanon and the Middle East. We need to recognise that no one has the last word on how we should by virtue of adhering to the tenets of a holy book, and that different cultures and social groups can legitimately stress different aspects of the moral realm.

Cultural psychologists have suggested that moral issues cluster into at least three different realms: the ethics of autonomy (individual rights), the ethics of community (social codes) and the ethics of divinity (purity and sanctity*) [1]. It seems that at least some of the friction encountered when liberals clash with conservatives arises from the moral domains that they are most concerned with (the ethics of autonomy for liberals, and for conservatives an expanded domain that touches on the ethics of community and perhaps also divinity) [2]. Neither domain is necessarily better or more justifiable than the other, and recognising that our different cultural backgrounds may lead us further into one domain than another provides a jumping off point for truly trying to engage with the concerns and arguments of your ‘adversary’, whether liberal or conservative. Unless, of course, you’re absolutely certain that the morality you embrace is underwritten by God, the cosmic law giver, and that deviation from your moral path is an affront to your creator, a transgression punishable by eternal torment.

Productive conversations cannot take place between disputants that start from radically different and immovable moral positions. A bit more humility is required. We need to accept that we must listen to the arguments of other people, and possibly revise our stances in light of what they say. This cannot happen when two (or more) sincerely and held religious belief systems come into conflict (except perhaps for some very general claims, such as ‘killing is wrong’ – but you hardly need a religious basis for thinking that!). And this is why making children more fundamentalist -- more certain that anyone who thinks something different from them is an enemy to be thwarted, and certainly not persuaded by -- is a sure fire way to ensure that we all go to hell in a hand basket.

*The ethics of divinity are usually somewhat alien to many Westerners, especially of the non-religious variety, who typically occupy the two-dimensional plane created by the axes of ethics of community and ethics of autonomy. The ethics of divinity have been characterised in the following way:
“The ethics of divinity: divinity/purity violations. In these cases a person disrespects the sacredness of God, or causes impurity or degradation to himself/herself, or to others. To decide if an action is wrong, you think about things like sin, the natural order of things, sanctity, and the protection of the soul or the world from degradation and spiritual defilement.” [3]
1. Shweder, R. A., Much, N. C., Mahapatra, M. & Park, L. The “Big Three” of morality (autonomy, community, divinity) and the “Big Three” of suffering. In Morality and Health (eds Brandt, A. & Rozin, P.) 119–169 (Routledge, New York, 1997).

2. Haidt, J. & Hersh, M. Sexual morality: The cultures and emotions of conservatives and liberals. Journal of Applied Social Psychology 31, 191-221 (2001).

3. Rozin, P., Lowery, L., Imada, S. & Haidt, J. The moral-emotion triad hypothesis: A mapping between three moral emotions (contempt, anger, disgust) and three moral ethics (community, autonomy, divinity). Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 76, 574-586 (1999).