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How we make decisions, and why it matters

The Righteous Mind

Penguin 2012

RRP $19.99

Reviewed by Rob Sandilands

Anti-abortion or pro-choice? For or against the ordination of homosexual people? Infant baptism or believer's baptism?

These are some of the political and religious divisions that can occur in society and the church. There are times when you can have a mix of all of them within the same congregation, making pastoral care and preaching much like walking a tightrope.

The Righteous Mind by Jonathon Haidt investigates this social phenomenon and looks at the reasons why people from similar socio-economic backgrounds can develop and express widely disparate religious, political, moral and ethical positions. His treatise helps to explain how people develop their positions and their reactions to opposing views.

One of the more interesting assertions is that despite the fact that most of us believe that our religious, political, moral and ethical positions are the result of deep reasoning, human beings tend to make instant judgements and then bring in an "inner lawyer" to justify their positions.

The book is a heavy read as it's actually a text book on moral psychology with references to testing, questionnaires, sampling and lots of graphic illustrations, but it also uses some down-to-earth explanations to help those of us whose training or reading in psychology is either basic or out-of-date.

Despite its title, it is not a book which focuses on the particular application of the subject to matters of faith or religion.

Looking back to 1974, when I was first accepted as a preacher in my old Methodist Circuit, I find it a little easier to understand the advice given to me by one of the older experienced lay preachers: "Don't ever preach on politics, and never, never, never, under any circumstances whatsoever, preach from the Book of Revelation!"

I now understand a little more about why this particular gentleman gave me this advice. My next preaching appointment was just before a State election, and I found what I considered to be an appropriate text in Revelation which was a call for both sides of politics to smarten up and work for the people they represented rather than their own self-interests. I acted on my own position and belief with regard to these matters.

Haidt's explanation of the process of moral psychology has helped me to understand why I did what I did.