Why the name?

"Holy Conversation" does sound like an exceptionally pious name, even for a parish blog. And we can't guarantee that everything here will meet the high standard the name implies. But the phrase comes from the story of our patron saint, and we think it fits. Here's why.

St. Scholastica was a sixth-century abbess who, according to the Dialogues of Pope Gregory I, used to meet once a year with her brother, St. Benedict. On the last occasion they were together, they spent their time "satisfying each other's hunger for holy conversation about the spiritual life."

We hope that this blog can become a place where the members of our parish can find a taste of the companionship and conversation that Scholastica and Benedict enjoyed so much. Welcome!

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Faith & Politics, Part 2

The second session of our Faith & Politics series was probably the most challenging for the twenty or so participants.  Once again, we tried to "think about our think" in order to gain a new perspective on why good people often disagree about religion and politics.

This time, we used the perspective of moral psychology.  The session was titled, "The Righteous Mind: Evolutionary roots of the human mind."  After a Candlemas prayer, I spent the first part of the session presenting ideas from moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt, from his book The Righteous Mind. The presentation was accompanied by PowerPoint slides, a few of them below.

Haidt argues from social science research that we do not tend to use our rational minds to search for truth.  Rather, we form quick, intuitive judgments and use our minds to justify our actions or those of the team we belong to.

An image Haidt uses is to describe our minds as like an elephant and rider.  The rider represents our conscious reasoning; the elephant represents the many mental processes that occur outside our awareness. 

We like to think that the rider is in charge but--at least initially--that does not seem to be the case.  Our animal minds evolved to size up situations quickly with lightning judgments.  Once these judgments are made, our conscious mind tends to act like a press secretary by justifying the things we have already done to others.

Haidt also asserts that different cultures (and groups within cultures) have built their moral outlooks on certain basic "moral foundations" that evolved as humans began to live in communities.  These moral foundations include the following:

When Haidt and his colleagues published a "Moral Foundations Questionnaire"  online, self-described liberals tended to show a different pattern of attention to the moral foundations than self-described conservatives did.  In short, liberals placed more emphasis on the Care and Fairness foundations, while conservatives tended to attend to all five, including the Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity foundations ( the Liberty/Oppression foundation was formulated after this research).

So, conservatives tend to have a political advantage because they more naturally address a greater number of the moral foundations.

Three members of our group had taken the Moral Foundation Questionnaire online, and our responses are shown in the chart below.

The green bar represents my responses.  The blue bar represents liberals, the red bar conservatives.  The gray bar is the compiled response of the three members of our group who took the survey before the session.

At least two of our group respondents are self-described political liberals, so the results are a bit surprising.  We show a pattern more typical of conservatives.  I wonder whether Catholic liberals might have a greater appreciation for the Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity foundations than other liberals?

Finally, in a third metaphor, Haidt argues that our minds are 90% chimp and 10% bee.

We possess in or minds a mechanism that Haidt dubs the "hive switch."

Experiences  that lift us out of the everyday--experiences of nature, for example, or of charged group gatherings like a rock concert or NFL football game--trigger this switch and make a deep impression on us.

Is there hope for us, with our minds designed by evolution for "groupish righteousness"?  Haidt thinks so, under certain circumstances.

After a break, we watched two more videos on Catholic Social Teaching from Catholic Relief Services and the U.S. bishops.

Which of the two videos do you think would appeal most strongly to political liberals?  to political conservatives?

Finally, in groups, we considered the following quesions:
How do you make everyday decisions?  By rational consideration, or by feeling-based intuition?  Are larger lifestyle decisions different?
            • If Haidt is generally correct, what does that imply for how we treat differences among us?

There is much more that could be said.  Certainly Haidt's naturalistic explanation of our moral frameworks is a challenge to Catholic Christian approaches to morality.  Our moral tradition tends to assume that  the rational mind is in--or ought to be in--control of our decision-making.  Still, the doctrine of original sin allows room for a great deal in our human natures which may make it difficult for us to behave according to our ideals.  And the Christian spiritual tradition--or better, traditions--would not think it strange that we had many mental processes that we are not in control of.  Those processes, too, are redeemed in Christ.

We ended the evening with a "hive"-type prayer by chanting the "Our Father" together.

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