Binding and Blinding

It is not uncommon to hear someone say: “All religions teach good principles.” Our response may be an outwardly, yet reserved, nod. But, internally we may be saying: “Yeah, but they don’t have all the truth like we do.” Or, silently append the platitude with “… but, they won’t be saved.”

When we are confronted with different morals, we may reflexively condemn them as ignorant or evil. News of celebrations of female floggers that dispense punishments to other women, seem both extreme and inherently wrong. Nevertheless, the practice is righteous and moral to them. Why the difference? Are they brainwashed … or are we?

What are the essential elements of religion that bind us together in one case and yet, at the same time, cause us to marginalize and reject others?


I’ve been wanting to address a subject that is more devotional than technical. This isn’t it. But, I promise to keep it short.

From the Audience: “Yeah, right. Where’s the exit? I need a …  ah … donut.”

The Righteous Mind

I recently finished The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt. (Page numbers in the quotes are from the book.) It is a fascinating look at the development of our understanding of moral foundations, the “moral taste buds” around which the morality of our groups, parties, cultures, and nations operate. The research of Haidt and others has identified six moral foundations.

  • Care/harm
  • Fairness/cheating
  • Loyalty/betrayal
  • Authority/subversion
  • Sanctity/degradation
  • Liberty/oppression

These serve as a basis for moral principles and practices of our respective groups that bind us together and differentiate insiders from outsiders; who is loyal, clean, and a contributor to our cause.

The Church Hive

In addition to moral senses, we also have a “hive” switch, a desire to be unified with our group. Historically, this has been at odds with natural selection theory, which only allows for selfishness (with the possible exception of kin). However:

In recent years new scholarship has emerged that elevates the role of groups in evolutionary thinking. Natural selection works at multiple levels simultaneously, sometimes including groups of organisms. (p 254)

In other words, the best, most cohesive, and most moral groups of individuals were most likely to survive conflict, competition, and avoid disease. They are also more effective at converting resources into children.

Churches are generally effective at using moral principles as well as evoking “hive” triggers that make us feel unified and give us a sense of awe. I’ll list some of these later, but one of these is just meeting together.

As an introvert, large meetings are often more triggering to my anxiety than awe, but Haidt identifies one practice that I do find fulfilling:

Emerson and Darwin each found in nature a portal between the realm of the profane and the realm of the sacred. Even if the hive switch was originally a group-related adaptation, it can be flipped when you’re alone by feelings of awe in nature, as mystics and ascetics have known for millennia. (p 264)

Awe opens people to new possibilities, values, and directions in life. Awe is one of the emotions most closely linked to the hive switch, along with collective love and collective joy. People describe nature in spiritual terms–as both Emerson and Darwin did–precisely because nature can trigger the hive switch and shut down the self, making you feel that you are simply a part of a whole. (p 264)

Often churches will combine outdoor experiences, such as retreats, campouts, and hikes, with worship activities, thus creating a multi-modal hive-triggering experience. The Boy Scout organization was very effective at this.

Changing Church

Our institutions, especially churches, form a healthy, stable, and natural foundation for our cultures (see Haidt, p 282-283). Richard Rohr, in Falling Upward, points out that churches offer stability for the followers and well as for the rebels; you are a rule keeper or a rule breaker. But, the fact that there are rules serves to create moral capital that is beneficial for everyone. Consequently, our churches must be wary of change.

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. This, I believe, is the fundamental blind spot of the left. It explains why liberal reforms so often backfire, and why communist revolutions usually end up in despotism. It is the reason I believe 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, and fail to see the need to change or update institutions as times change. (p 343)

In this tumultuous time where social morals are competing with church morals, change will occur. But, caution must be used if churches are to retain credibility for their positions.

Group Blindness

When a group of people make something sacred, the members of the cult lose the ability to think clearly about it. Morality binds and blinds. The true believers produce pious fantasies that don’t match reality, and at some point somebody comes along to knock the idol off its pedestal. (p 34)

Before you atheists and anti-religionists go off and point to all of the blindness of religious fools, take a look in the mirror. “Cults” can be political and social. Scholarly communities often have their sacred blind spots. In academia a euphemism for sacred may be “consensus.” Specific schools or research institutions become temples with chief priests and priestesses that must be shown deference through citation.

Businesses will also have their sacred blind spots, often around authority, policy, or a mission statement. The employee handbook becomes the sacred text. Competitors are evil. Loyal customers are praised for their piety or condemned for heresy if they switch from Apple to Android.  

Regardless of the group, sacred pillars are the sources of identity and vulnerability. It is where you are vulnerable because that is where the blindness is concentrated. These are areas where scandals and controversies occur and where personal faith is tried.

So, be careful what you make sacred. This was the point in my last post, Distinguishing Doctrine and Practice.

Diversity (not) Required

If the objective of a group or church is to create a comfortable space for believers, then moral tools can be used to enforce orthopraxy and orthodoxy. Churches can restrict participation by using the formal methods of the faith tradition, but human nature to gossip, judge, and shame will probably have a more direct and profound effect. One way to ensure harmony is through the selection of only “faithful” people for leadership positions. If everyone agrees, contention is avoided.

If, however, the goal is to seek truth and provide the greatest good, then diversity of viewpoints, backgrounds, and personality types is necessary:

Each individual reasoner is really good at one thing: finding evidence to support the position he or she already holds, usually for intuitive reasons. We should not expect individuals to produce good, open-minded, truth-seeking reasoning, particularly when self-interest or reputation concerns are in play. But if you put individuals together in the right way, such that some individuals can use their reasoning powers to disconfirm the claims of others, and all individuals feel some common bond or shared fate that allows them to interact civilly, you can create a group that ends up producing good reasoning as an emergent property of the social system. This is why it’s so important to have intellectual and ideological diversity within any group or institution whose goal is to find truth (such as an intelligence agency or a community of scientists) or to produce good public policy (such as a legislature or advisory board). (p 104-105)

If a church wants to find truth, they cannot do so in an echo chamber of protected consensus.

Leveraging Sacrifice

For religious communes, “costly sacrifices” like “giving up alcohol and tobacco, fasting for days at a time, conforming to a communal dress code or hairstyle, or cutting ties with outsiders” increases the longevity of the group. However, this is not the case for secular communes. (more on p 298-299)

Why doesn’t sacrifice strength secular communes? Sosis argues that rituals, laws, and other constraints work best when they are sacralized. He quotes the anthropologist Roy Rapaport: “To invest social conventions with sanctity is to hide their arbitrariness in a cloak of seeming necessity.” But when secular organizations demand sacrifice, every member has a right to ask for a cost-benefit analysis, and many refuse to do things that don’t make logical sense. … Sacredness binds people together, and blinds them to the arbitrariness of the practice. (p 299)

The following, oft cited, quote from Joseph Smith sanctifies the very act of sacrifice and fits it tightly within the moral fundamentals of loyalty and liberty for personal achievement.

“A religion that does not require the sacrifice of all things never has power sufficient to produce the faith necessary unto life and salvation.” (Lectures on Faith, 1985, 69)

Religious Giving

The expectation of sacrifice in religion and the close relationships that they develop motivate and empower people to give more to their own faith and more to civic causes.

Whether you believe in hell, whether you pray daily, whether you are a Catholic, Protestant, Jew, or Mormon … none of these things correlated with generosity. The only thing that was reliably and powerfully associated with the moral benefits of religion was how enmeshed people were in relationships with their co-religionists. It’s the friendships and group activities, carried out within a moral matrix that emphasizes selflessness. That’s what brings out the best in people. (p 311)

Requirements for a Strong Religion

So, why are some religions strong(er), more effective in their proselyting, or have better retention?

The following may be some characteristics to consider.

1 – Unique Faith Message

First (This was not a principle discussed by Haidt, but is a marketing principle.), the religion must address a need not met by existing organizations. Often this may be by identifying a new problem or leveraging an existing problem that is not addressed by extant faith traditions. It is only through innovation that new organizations can become established.

2 – Culturally Meaningful

Second, the religious message must be proximate to the local cultural morals. “Weird” religions that differ markedly from the established norms will only appeal to a small number of people. In other words, churches must be relevant and meaningful in a way that is relatable to the audience.

This also means that religion must adapt its message over time in order to remain meaningful in a shifting culture. Incorporating divers perspectives in church leadership will help this process.

3 – Six-legged Moral Stool

Third, it is tempting to speak to love, fairness (universal salvation) and liberty (personal autonomy). But, in order to provide the most satisfying experience and broadest appeal, church morals should represent all six moral fundamentals. (See Haidt’s chapter eight, The Conservative Advantage)

4 – Effective Hive Triggers

The fourth high-level property of a strong religion will be the implementation of practices that engage a communal sense of awe and cooperation. Since this is a fleeting feeling, it must be engaged repeatedly through meetings, rituals, music, and other communal and personal experiences.

Moral Toolbox of Church

Requirement 3, is a subject that may merits some expansion. This is the really boring stuff. So, if you want to hang around, you can read the following.

From the Audience: “Wa…. What…. Is it over? Oh. Sorry, I nodded off there a bit.”

The following outline breaks down moral foundation theory and the application in a church environment.

I have tried to point out some ways group particiaption requires sacrifice and sanctity in each of the morals.

If you want to read LDS-specific applications, jump to the addendum.

Caring outreach to people in need

  • Sacralized
    • Love
  • Sacrificed
    • Time, money, pride in order to show love and relieve suffering
  • Sensitivity and support for marginalized. Rescue and aid for injured and suffering.
    • Implemented through communal programs of aid to poor, ill, displaced, disabled, and hungry.
  • Evangelization of unsaved.
    • Proselyting activities, billboards, and tracts to reach out to those who are in need of salvation and happiness.

Fairness and inclusion

  • Sacralized
    • Inclusion
    • Equal right to happiness, goods, and reward.
  • Sacrificed
    • Means or privilege in order to share opportunity
  • God’s grace, condescension and blessing.
  • Universality of salvation (no hell, or nuanced, concept of hell)
  • Inclusion of race, LGBT, homeless, women, refugees, and marginalized groups.
  • Political or social involvement
  • Evangelization and proselyting as a tool of inclusion.

Loyalty mechanisms

  • Sacralized
    • Group conformity practices, including monetary donations
  • Sacrificed
    • Donations of time, goods, and money to the organization or fellow adherents
    • Personal and independent expression in favor of affiliation
  • Overt signs of group affiliation
    • Clothing
    • Regular or recurring activities and practices
    • Verbal expressions
    • Induction rites or contract (baptism, marriage)
    • Recurring rites of assent
      • Communion, confession, Christian calendar events, LDS temple worship
  • Personal signs of group affiliation
    • Adherence to group morals in private (God is watching)
  • Promise of reward
    “Random” rewards are more powerful motivators than programmatically “earned” rewards. Since the following are not verifiably achieved, they function more like random rewards of uncertain magnitude, requiring ongoing “faithfulness” in order to ensure their effect.
    • Salvation/exaltation
    • Freedom from mortal bonds
    • Enlightenment
    • Elevation above peers
    • Progression
    • Relief from suffering
    • Granting of leadership responsibilities
  • Promise of punishment for violators, jeopardizing rewards
    • Denial or nullification of sacred rites
    • Probation
    • Excommunication
    • Shaming
    • Censure
    • Shunning

Authoritative leadership

  • Sacralized
    • Obedience
    • Deference to leaders
  • Sacrificed
    • Personal autonomy in favor of group cohesion
  • Clear hierarchy
  • Differentiation of leader authority
    • Skill, training, or enlightenment
  • Recognized path to leadership with rites of induction or ordination that differentiate leaders from lay members.
  • Enlightened distinction of leaders (God’s servants).
  • Judgment and oversight by leaders tied to divine authority.


  • Sacralized
    • Books, artifacts, stories, and practices
    • Principles of clean/unclean, righteous/sinful, good/evil, worthy/unworthy, right/wrong, holy/taboo.
    • Separation from outsiders.
  • Sacrificed
    • Normal activities and behaviors. This causes distress and services as a reminder of uniqueness
  • Cleanliness rules regarding diet, clothing, sex, hygiene,
  • Compelling foundational hero story is often sacralized
    • Founder begins from a place of deficiency, is enlightened (called) to perform a task, faces dramatic obstacles, and overcomes challenges. Now validated, the hero establishes a social or religious movement.


  • Sacralized
    • Personal autonomy, but within bounds
  • Sacrificed
    • Free rider tendency
  • Benefit from righteousness
    • Prosperity and blessings
    • Individual salvation
  • Individual agency
  • Limited empowerment outside of church authority

Hive Engagement

All of the above may define a group, but it is also necessary to bind a group by activating the “hive switch.”

  • Communal meetings
  • Strong music or rhythms
    • Organ
    • Contemporary bands with electronic or amplified instruments
    • Percussive instruments
    • Hymns, especially those with a strong beat or chorus
  • Muscular bonding of synchronized activities
    • Standing
    • Hand gestures, such as the cross among traditional Christians and temple ordinances for LDS
    • Bowing
    • Kneeling
    • Communal prayers, recitations, and congregational responses.
  • Mirroring (Activities that cause sympathetic individual mirror-neuron responses)
    • Sharing testimony and conversion stories
    • Sermons
  • Communal meals

Do you Feel Manipulated?

As I read The Righteous Mind, I began to feel manipulated, or at least manipulable, like I had lost most of my autonomy and agency. That special place inside that helps me make my decisions is too easily swayed by external forces. The research and evidence Haidt cites in support of the above (and  much more), revealed the sausage making of my own moral psychology.

From the Audience: “Ah. That’s why you used the sausage picture.”

In the end, pulling back the curtain on our moral foundations may gives us an opportunity to enhance our agency and understand others better. We all inherently want to be part of something greater than ourselves. And, we naturally want to live rightly in order to do so. As we understand more about what affects our intuition and moral judgements, we can be more discerning and aware of our post hoc (after the fact) reasoning and that of others.

On closing quote from Haidt:

If you really want to change someone’s mind on a moral or political matter, you’ll need to see things from that person’s angle as well as your own. And if you do truly see it the other person’s way—deeply and intuitively—you might even find your own mind opening in response. (p 59)


Great podcast on this subject: The Hidden Brain – Creating God

Addendum – Moral Binding in the LDS Church

Each church and religion will have doctrine, principles, and practices that bind individuals to the group and differentiate themselves from others. Outsiders, viewing from a different moral perspective, may perceive morals and doctrines to be irrational, coercive, manipulative, or illogical.

The following are some practices in the LDS church that I see as important for binding the community. 100’s more could probably be added.


  • Fast offerings and other care-specific donation mechanisms
  • Tithing
  • Proselyting missions
  • Humanitarian and service missions
  • Historic restoration projects and construction missions
  • Humanitarian projects for remote and local communities
  • Bishop’s Storehouse, canning, farming, and ranching projects
  • Clothing, food, services, and material donations to crisis areas worldwide


  • Unrestricted proselyting and humanitarian missions (all neighborhoods, everywhere)
  • Lay clergy and service callings
    • No formal education or training required
  • Near-universal salvation (through temple ordinances)
  • Financial subsidization of churches in poor areas, sot that all have equal access and benefits for membership


  • Weekly meetings
  • Mid-week activities, especially for youth
  • Covenant theology
    • Baptism
    • Priesthood ordination
    • Temple endowment
    • Temple marriage
  • Worthiness interviews questions touch:
    • Christian belief in God, Christ, Holy Ghost, and atonement.
    • Restoration (dispensationalism)
    • Assent to exclusive authority of hierarchy
    • Tithing
    • Chastity
    • Loyalty to church teachings
    • General honesty and Christian morals
    • Observance of Word of Wisdom
    • Current with obligations to former spouse and children
    • General confession
  • Tithing settlement interviews
  • Dietary code – Word of Wisdom
  • Testimony meetings
  • Standardized religious curriculum
  • Informal behaviors, such as Sunday dress, scripture study, and “Mormon stuff.”
  • Lay clergy assignments and other callings
  • Annual, public “sustaining” of local and general leaders
  • Punitive actions
    • Informal marginalization (shunning and shaming)
    • Disfellowshipment for sins
    • Excommunication for violation of covenants or combativeness to institution


  • Strict hierarchy of priesthood authority and administrative authority
  • Public calling and recognition of church leaders
  • Association of authority with superior enlightenment (revelation)
  • Seating of leaders on stage/rostrum during meetings
  • Deference to authority regardless of training or experience
  • Informal progression through hierarchy
  • Deference to and informal credentials of former lay leaders


  • Scripture
  • Modern church authorities
  • Foundational stories
  • Historical locations
  • Temples, chapels, and, to a lesser extent, other church properties
  • Ritual clothing
  • Dietary law (Word of Wisdom)
  • Personal sacrifice for cause of the church
  • Sexual purity and fidelity
  • Donations are considered sacred


  • High value on work ethic and proportional outcomes
    • Prosperity Gospel principles
    • Deference and honor given to social status and wealth (rich = blessed = righteous)
  • Lay clergy opportunities for faithful (achievement and advancement)
  • Praise of democratic processes and free nations
  • Emphasis on individual agency and accountability

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