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Religion, Morality, and Ideology: Different Names for the Same Underlying Element of Human Nature

Religion, morality, and ideology, all, are manifestations of a single underlying evolutionary, anthropological, and psychological phenomenon; human groupishness, aka “hivishness,” aka our “tribal mentality.”

It’s long been taken for granted that humans are selfish. As Haidt describes in The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion

Political theorists since Marx had long assumed that people chose ideologies to further their self-interest. The rich and powerful want to preserve and conserve; the peasants and workers want to change things (or at least they would if their consciousness could be raised and they could see their self-interest properly, said the Marxists). (pp. 322-323)

But, as it turns out, even if that was true at one time, it is not true any longer:

But even though social class may once have been a good predictor of ideology, that link has been largely broken in modern times, when the rich go both ways (industrialists mostly right, tech billionaires mostly left) and so do the poor (rural poor mostly right, urban poor mostly left). And when political scientists looked into it, they found that self-interest does a remarkably poor job of predicting political attitudes. (pp. 322-322)

What the political theorists overlooked is the very strong human proclivity for groupishness. Indeed, the tendency is so ubiquitous that it hides in plain sight. As Haidt points out:

…our ability to work together, divide labor, help each other, and function as a team is so all-pervasive that we don’t even notice it. You’ll never see the headline “Forty-five Unrelated College Students Work Together Cooperatively, and for No Pay, to Prepare for Opening Night of Romeo and Juliet. (pp. 229-230)

Understanding this is key to understanding why morality, politics (i.e., ideology), and religion are just different manifestations of our evolved, underlying, groupishness. It is not insignificant, by the way, that Haidt often mentions these three things together. In the book’s title, for example, and in the summary on the back cover, which says that Haidt “challenged conventional thinking about morality, politics, and religion.” (emphasis added) They are “birds of a feather.”

Chapters 9 and 10 of The Righteous Mind describe how evolution shaped humans to be selfish and groupish at the same time. Here’s Haidt, introducing the idea of groupishness and its importance to our understanding of morality, politics (i.e., ideology), and religion (emphasis added):

We love to join teams, clubs, leagues, and fraternities. We take on group identities and work shoulder to shoulder with strangers toward common goals so enthusiastically that it seems as if our minds were designed for team work. I don’t think we can understand morality, politics, and religion until we have a good picture of human groupishness and its origins.

When I say that human nature is selfish, I mean that our minds contain a variety of mental mechanisms that make us adept at promoting our own interests, in competition with our peers. When I say that human nature is also groupish, I mean that our minds contain a variety of mental mechanisms that make us adept at promoting our group’s interests, in competition with other groups. (p. 221)

The “mental mechanisms” of selfishness and groupishness evolved because natural selection favors not only individuals who can out compete other individuals, but also groups of people who can collectively out compete other groups:

Life is a hierarchy of nested levels, like Russian dolls: genes within chromosomes within cells within individual organisms within hives, societies, and other groups. There can be competition at any level of the hierarchy, but for our purposes (studying morality) the only two levels that matter are those of the individual organism and the group. When groups compete, the cohesive, cooperative group usually wins. (page 224)

With time, those mental mechanisms became religions, moralities, and ideologies.

According to Tomasello, human cognition veered away from that of other primates when our ancestors developed shared intentionality. At some point in the last million years, a small group of our ancestors developed the ability to share mental representations of tasks that two or more of them were pursuing together. For example, while foraging, one person pulls down a branch while the other plucks the fruit, and they both share the meal. Chimps never do this. Or while hunting, the pair splits up to approach an animal from both sides. Chimps sometimes appear to do this, as in the widely reported cases of chimps hunting colobus monkeys, but Tomasello argues that the chimps are not really working together. Rather, each chimp is surveying the scene and then taking the action that seems best to him at that moment. Tomasello notes that these monkey hunts are the only time that chimps seem to be working together, yet even in these rare cases they fail to show the signs of real cooperation. They make no effort to communicate with each other, for example, and they are terrible at sharing the spoils among the hunters, each of whom must use force to obtain a share of meat at the end.

They all chase the monkey at the same time, yet they don’t all seem to be on the same page about the hunt.

In contrast, when early humans began to share intentions, their ability to hunt, gather, raise children, and raid their neighbors increased exponentially. Everyone on the team now had a mental representation of the task, knew that his or her partners shared the same representation, knew when a partner had acted in a way that impeded success or that hogged the spoils, and reacted negatively to such violations. When everyone in a group began to share a common understanding of how things were supposed to be done, and then felt a flash of negativity when any individual violated those expectations, the first moral matrix was born. (Remember that a matrix is a consensual hallucination.) That, I believe, was our Rubicon crossing.

Tomasello believes that human ultrasociality arose in two steps. The first was the ability to share intentions in groups of two or three people who were actively hunting or foraging together. (That was the Rubicon.) Then, after several hundred thousand years of evolution for better sharing and collaboration as nomadic hunter-gatherers, more collaborative groups began to get larger, perhaps in response to the threat of other groups. Victory went to the most cohesive groups – the ones that could scale up their ability to share intentions from three people to three hundred or three thousand people. This was the second step: Natural selection favored increasing levels of what Tomasello calls “group-mindedness”-the ability to learn and conform to social norms, feel and share group-related emotions, and, ultimately, to create and obey social institutions, including religion. A new set of selection pressures operated within groups (e.g., nonconformists were punished, or at very least were less likely to be chosen as partners for joint ventures) as well as between groups (cohesive groups took territory and other resources from less cohesive groups).

Shared intentionality is Exhibit B in the retrial of group selection. Once you grasp Tomasello’s deep insight, you begin to see the vast webs of shared intentionality out of which human groups are constructed. Many people assume that language was our Rubicon, but language became possible only after our ancestors got shared intentionality. Tomasello notes that a word is not a relationship between a sound and an object. It is an agreement among people who share a joint representation of the things in their world, and who share a set of conventions for communicating with each other about those things. If the key to group selection is a shared defensible nest, then shared intentionality allowed humans to construct nests that were vast and ornate yet weightless and portable. Bees construct hives out of wax and wood fibers, which they then fight, kill, and die to defend. Humans construct moral communities out of shared norms, institutions, and gods that, even in the twenty-first century, they fight, kill, and die to defend. (pp. 238-240).

Haidt summarizes, at the end of Chapter 10:

We evolved to live in groups. Our minds were designed not only to help us win the competition within our groups, but also to help us unite with those in our group to win competitions across groups. (Page 283).

Chapter 11 is about Religion; how it came to be, and the function it serves in society. Everything in that chapter applies equally to morality and to ideology.  For example, if the word “religion” were to be replaced by the word “ideology” in the following quote it would be equally accurate:

Religions are social facts. Religion cannot be studied in lone individuals any more than hivishness can be studied in lone bees. Durkheim’s definition of religion makes its binding function clear:

A religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden-beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them. (p. 287)

It is important to note that sacredness does not mean religious. In fact, the concept of sacredness, as Haidt uses it, applies to secular moralities and ideologies as well as to religious ones. In earlier chapters, Haidt explains:

And if you think, as I do, that one of the greatest unsolved mysteries is how people ever came together to form large cooperative societies, then you might take a special interest in the psychology of sacredness. Why do people so readily treat objects (flags, crosses), places (Mecca, a battlefield related to the birth of your nation), people (saints, heroes), and principles (liberty, fraternity, equality) as though they were of infinite value? Whatever its origins, the psychology of sacredness helps bind individuals into moral communities. When someone in a moral community desecrates one of the sacred pillars supporting the community, the reaction is sure to be swift, emotional, collective, and punitive. (p 174)

By “sacred” I mean the concept I introduced with the Sanctity foundation in the last chapter. It’s the ability to endow ideas, objects, and events with infinite value, particularly those ideas, objects, and events that bind a group together into a single entity. The process of converting pluribus (diverse people) into unum (a nation) is a miracle that occurs in every successful nation on Earth. Nations decline or divide when they stop performing this miracle. (page 193)

Since we’re on the topic of sacredness, this is a good time to bring up another aspect of human nature that is common to religion, morality, and ideology. That concept is “morality binds and blinds.” This is the third principle of moral psychology, and it is the message of the third (of three) sections of The Righteous Mind. Since it’s covered in detail in the book I won’t spend much time on it, other than to offer these quotes as a summary. The first quote is from Chapter 11, in which Haidt discusses religion. The second quote is from Chapter 12, where he discusses ideology (i.e., politics) and ties together all the themes of the book (emphasis added).

We humans have an extraordinary ability to care about things beyond ourselves, to circle around those things with other people, and in the process to bind ourselves into teams that can pursue larger projects. That’s what religion is all about. And with a few adjustments, it’s what politics is about too. In the final chapter we’ll take one last look at political psychology. We’ll try to figure out why people choose to bind themselves into one political team or another. And we’ll look especially at how team membership blinds people to the motives and morals of their opponents-and to the wisdom that is to be found scattered among diverse political ideologies. (p. 318)

Morality binds and blinds. This is not just something that happens to people on the other side. We all get sucked into tribal moral communities. We circle around sacred values and then share post hoc arguments about why we are so right and they are so wrong. We think the other side is blind to truth, reason, science, and common sense, but in fact everyone goes blind when talking about their sacred objects.

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. (page 364)

Getting back to the chapter about religion (Chapter 11), it is here where Haidt defines morality:

Not surprisingly, my approach starts with Durkheim, who said: “What is moral is everything that is a source of solidarity, everything that forces man to … regulate his actions by something other than … his own egoism. ” As a sociologist, Durkheim focused on social facts-things that exist outside of any individual mind-which constrain the egoism of individuals. Examples of such social facts include religions, families, laws, and the shared networks of meaning that I have called moral matrices. Because I’m a psychologist, I’m going to insist that we include inside-the-mind stuff too, such as the moral emotions, the inner lawyer (or press secretary), the six moral foundations, the hive switch, and all the other evolved psychological mechanisms I’ve described in this book. My definition puts these two sets of puzzle pieces together to define moral systems:

Moral systems are interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, technologies, and evolved psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate self-interest and make cooperative societies possible. (p. 314)

Chapter 12 is about ideology. As he did with religion, Haidt describes what ideology is, where it comes from, and how it functions in society. Everything in that chapter’s description of the nature of ideology, including its definition, applies equally to religion and to morality.

Here’s a simple definition of ideology: “A set of beliefs about the proper order of society and how it can be achieved.” (p. 322)

Ideology, morality, and religion, all, are sets of beliefs – moral matrices – about the proper order of society and how it can be achieved.

And they all come from the same place. As Haidt describes, still in Chapter 12:

To understand the origins of ideology you have to take a developmental perspective, starting with the genes and ending with an adult voting for a particular candidate or joining a political protest. There are three major steps in the process. (page 324)

Step one is “Genes Make Brains,” (emphasis added in the following quote):

Genes contribute, somehow, to just about every aspect of our personalities.

We’re not just talking about IQ, mental illness, and basic personality traits such as shyness. We’re talking about the degree to which you like jazz, spicy foods, and abstract art; your likelihood of getting a divorce or dying in a car crash;your degree of religiosity, and your political orientation as an adult. Whether you end up on the right or the left of the political spectrum turns out to be just as heritable as most other traits: genetics explains between a third and a half of the variability among people on their political attitudes. Being raised in a liberal or conservative household accounts for much less. (pp. 323-324).

Even though the effects of any single gene are tiny, these findings are important because they illustrate one sort of pathway from genes to politics: the genes ( collectively) give some people brains that are more (or less) reactive to threats, and that produce less (or more) pleasure when exposed to novelty, change, and new experiences. These are two of the main personality factors that have consistently been found to distinguish liberals and conservatives. A major review paper by political psychologist John Jost found a few other traits, but nearly all of them are conceptually related to threat sensitivity (e.g., conservatives react more strongly to reminders of death) or openness to experience (e.g., liberals have less need for order, structure, and closure) (p. 325)

Step two is “Traits Guide Children Along Different Paths.” The genes we inherit influence how we perceive and interpret the world around us, the choices we make, and the paths we follow in life.

Let’s imagine a pair of fraternal twins, a brother and sister raised together in the same home. During their nine months together in their mother’s womb, the brother’s genes were busy constructing a brain that was a bit higher than average in its sensitivity to threats, a bit lower than average in its tendency to feel pleasure when exposed to radically new experiences. The sister’s genes were busy making a brain with the opposite settings.

The two siblings grow up in the same house and attend the same schools, but they gradually create different worlds for themselves. (page 3260)

By the time they reach high school and begin to take an interest in politics, the two siblings have chosen different activities (the sister joins the debate team in part for the opportunity to travel; the brother gets more involved with his family’s church) and amassed different friends (the sister joins the goths; the brother joins the jocks). The sister chooses to go to college in New York City, where she majors in Latin American studies and finds her calling as an advocate for the children of illegal immigrants. Because her social circle is entirely composed of liberals, she is enmeshed in a moral matrix based primarily on the Care/harm foundation. In 2008 she is electrified by Barack Obama’s concern for the poor and his promise of change.

The brother, in contrast, has no interest in moving far away to a big, dirty, and threatening city. He chooses to stay close to family and friends by attending the local branch of the state university. He earns a degree in business and then works for a local bank, gradually rising to a high position. He becomes a pillar of his church and his community, the sort of person that Putnam and Campbell praised for generating large amounts of social capital. The moral matrices that surround him are based on all six foundations. There is occasional talk in church sermons of helping victims of oppression, but the most common moral themes in his life are personal responsibility (based on the Fairness foundation, not being a free rider or a burden on others) and loyalty to the many groups and teams to which he belongs. He resonates to John McCain’s campaign slogan, “Country First.” (page 327)

Step three is that “People Construct Life Narratives.” Every moral matrix communicates its shared beliefs and sacred values through stories known as “life narratives.”

The human mind is a story processor, not a logic processor. Everyone loves a good story; every culture bathes its children in stories.

Among the most important stories we know are stories about ourselves, and these “life narratives” are McAdams’s third level of personality. McAdams’s greatest contribution to psychology has been his insistence that psychologists connect their quantitative data (about the two lower levels, which we assess with questionnaires and reaction-time measures) to a more qualitative understanding of the narratives people create to make sense of their lives. These narratives are not necessarily true stories-they are simplified and selective reconstructions of the past, often connected to an idealized vision of the future. But even though life narratives are to some degree post hoc fabrications, they still influence people’s behavior, relationships, and mental health.

Life narratives are saturated with morality. (page 328)

All narratives, secular and religious alike, rest on a “sacred core” of virtues and vices.

In the book Moral, Believing Animals, the sociologist Christian Smith writes about the moral matrices within which human life takes place. He agrees with Durkheim that every social order has at its core something sacred, and he shows how stories, particularly “grand narratives,” identify and reinforce the sacred core of each matrix. Smith is a master at extracting these grand narratives and condensing them into single paragraphs. Each narrative, he says, identifies a beginning (“once upon a time”), a middle (in which a threat or challenge arises), and an end (in which a resolution is achieved). Each narrative is designed to orient listeners morally-to draw their attention to a set of virtues and vices, or good and evil forces-and to impart lessons about what must be done now to protect, recover, or attain the sacred core of the vision. (page 330)

Haidt includes Christian Smith’s one-paragraph condensed narratives of conservatism and liberalism in The Righteous Mind. But, grand narratives need not be short. And if grand narratives are stories that identify and reinforce the “sacred core” of each moral matrix, then what is a grand narrative, if not The Bible?

And the Torah, the Koran, the Communist Manifesto, Mein Kampf, and Quotations from Chairman Mao?

Don’t all of these books (and doubtless countless others e.g., de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America,” Burke’s “Reflections on the Revolution in France,” Oakeshott’s “Rationalism in Politics,” Rawls’ “A Theory of Justice,” Hume’s “A Treatise of Human Nature,” and Rousseau’s “Discourse on the Origin of Inequality,” and “On the Social Contract”) qualify as “grand narratives,” because they all describe “a set of beliefs about the proper order of society and how it can be achieved”?


From an anthropological and psychological perspective, religiosity, ideology, and morality are, for all practical purposes, one and the same. What is true of one is equally true of the others.

They evolved together; all subject to the same evolutionary forces. They all rest on sacred values. They all serve the same purpose – that of helping to bind people together into moral communities. And they all can blind us to the merits and insights of views that are not our own.

Their definitions are interchangeable. All of them, equally, are: “unified system[s] of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden-beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community;” “interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, technologies, and evolved psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate self-interest and make cooperative societies possible;” and “set[s] of beliefs about the proper order of society and how it can be achieved.”

Religion, ideology, and morality are different words that refer to the exact same underlying element of fundamental human nature.

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