Required Reading: Are we all bigots now? Haidt’s Righteous Mind

Fundamentalists get called bigots a lot.  They don’t like it.  Since the 1920s, they have spent a lot of mental time and energy proving that they are, in fact, the side of openminded scientific inquiry.  For example, in the early 1920s fundamentalist intellectual Alfred Fairhurst complained that the teaching of evolution served mainly to close student minds.  “I am sure,” Fairhurst complained,

“that the teachers who would teach the subject are not fully prepared to present both sides as should be done when taught.  I believe that the teaching of evolution is mostly dogmatic, and that the result of teaching it is a new crop of dogmatists.  I am aware that there are those who hold that the subject of evolution greatly expands the mind.  I think that, as taught, it warps the mind and closes it against much truth.”

Generations later, in 1995, Duane Gish agreed that excluding creation science from public schools was nothing but “bigotry.”

Like the creationist activist Duane Gish, fundamentalists like to call their secular and liberal foes the true bigots.  As we have explored here at ILYBYGTH, fundamentalist activists such Bradley Johnson press the limits of fundamentalist free speech.  They provoke repression of their public religiosity in order to highlight the masked bigotry of hypocritical liberals.  Traditionalists point to foundational lefty intellectuals such as Herbert Marcuse as creeping totalitarians.  Marcuse and his minions, fundamentalists assert, are the ones who will not tolerate any disagreement.

I’m no fundamentalist, but I’ve seen this kind of anti-fundamentalist bigotry in action.  My academic research focuses on the history of fundamentalism.  While giving talks or discussing my research, I’ve often been surprised by both the viciousness and the ingenuousness of anti-fundamentalist bigotry.  I once had a very intelligent, well educated college student ask me how long it would take before religious people realized that religion was only for weak, ignorant people.  A colleague asked me once, regarding fundamentalists, “What’s wrong with these people?”  Another academic acquaintance suggested that the cure to the creation/evolution debate would be to “round up all the crazy white people” and force them to go through a rigorous de-theization education.  I like to think this last person was joking, but her comment elicited raucous cheers in the conference room.  All of these comments, fundamentalists would say with some justification, would never be tolerated about any other cultural group in our society.  Perhaps most egregious, the people making these comments tend to be almost entirely ignorant about fundamentalism.  They form their opinions based on vague stereotypes and in-group thinking, the very definition of bigotry.

So I sympathize with fundamentalist claims.  But I do agree there are limits.  I agree that fundamentalists often make these claims of victimization in order to promote a false moral equivalence between cultural sides.  For example, if we acknowledge the cultural legitimacy of creation science, do we give in to a strategic desire to muddle the issues in mainstream science and evolution?  (For an example of this debate, see the discussion at the US Intellectual History blog about the legitimacy of ILBYGTH’s fundamentalist-friendly forum.)

A new book casts a pox on all houses.  Psychologist Jonathan Haidt argues that most Americans decide first and come up with reasons later.  In The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, Haidt describes his conclusions from over 130,000 online morality tests he and his colleagues delivered.  Their website,, asks people an array of moral questions, from the mundane (Should teenagers listen to their parents’ advice?) to the bizarre (Is it morally acceptable to have sex with a dead chicken?).  For most people, Haidt argues, the moral answer is intuitive, not rational.  We do not start with principles and deduce the proper response.  Rather, we answer first and come up with justifications later.

If the nature of bigotry is to cling to irrational ideas demanded by ingroups and cultural cliques, then, according to Haidt, we’re all bigots now.  The moral answers we insist upon derive more from “groupishness” than from reason.

Not that both sides of America’s “culture wars” do everything the same way.  Haidt and his colleagues parsed morality into six fundamental notions: care, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority, and sanctity.  Most Americans are deeply moved by the first three of these.  Liberals, however, tend to “care” more.  Conservatives tend to be more concerned with “fairness.”  According to Haidt—who self-identifies as a recovering partisan liberal—American conservatives do a better job with loyalty, authority, and sanctity.  Haidt disputes the notion that conservatives somehow trick voters into voting against their economic interests.  Rather, Haidt thinks conservatives simply do better at speaking to all six of the fundamental moral notions people really care about.

The most compelling part of Haidt’s book, for ILYBYGTH readers, is his conclusion about the closedmindedness of liberal America.  Haidt conducted a survey of 2,000 Americans, asking them to predict the moral choices of those with whom they disagree.  Self-identified “liberals” fared the worst at this game.  That is, respondents who called themselves “very liberal” ended up being the worst able to guess what fundamentalists cared about.  For outsiders—non-fundamentalists—who are trying to understand Fundamentalist America, this must serve as a sobering warning.  Simply because the worldview of liberal America treasures such notions as inclusiveness, tolerance, openmindedness, and rationality, doesn’t mean that we naturally apply such notions to fundamentalist ideas.  Rather, liberals—at least in Haidt’s research—tend to be the least able to understand where their cultural rivals are coming from.

Haidt hopes that true humility about the bigotry of our own moral impulses might lead to a softening of America’s culture wars.  He argues that one way to overcome our “groupishness” is to spend time engaged with the moral understandings of those with whom we disagree.  He has established one web forum to do just that.  At, he and his colleagues have listed ways to help Americans of different moral backgrounds to work together more calmly and productively.

Such anti-bigotry is the goal of ILYBTGTH as well.  Acknowledging the pre-rational roots of our strong moral feelings does not mean simply throwing up our hands and embracing moral relativity.  But making an honest effort to understand someone else’s moral universe can’t help but move us along the spectrum to a moral society we can all live with.


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