A Brief Look at Moral Foundations Theory and Xenos-Dwell

Moral Foundations Theory, as proposed by Jonathan Haidt and others, is a social psychological theory which offers an explanation for key dimensions of moral reasoning as grounded in human social evolution particularly in hunter-gatherer tribes. In his book, The Righteous Mind, Haidt seeks primarily to explain the liberal-conservative divide through comparison of each group's relative emphasis on core drivers of moral value. Though, his argument pertains largely to political ideology, especially as it exists within the United States, it can easily be extended to understand the religious divide between the moral foundations of Dwell Community Church and the surrounding community.



The chart above demonstrates the five moral dimensions identified in Haidt's research and graphs their relative importance in moral decision-making as reported by individuals across the American liberal-conservative spectrum. What is readily evident is that conservative groups maintain that all five moral dimensions are generally equal in value, whereas liberals dramatically discount ingroup loyalty, authority, and purity in favor of harm and fairness. Though, Xenos-Dwell does not necessarily propone a conservative political ideology, it is clear that the moral intuition of the group falls on the conservative end of Haidt's spectrum, with the church placing relatively high moral importance on ingroup loyalty, authority, and purity as compared to the wider community that they inhabit.


Of course, this isn't really surprising in and of itself; what is surprising is Haidt's claim that we all behave in a manner that renders us morally blind to alternative interpretations of moral value, unless we make a conscious effort to understand opposing perspectives. Moral values are not derived so much from rational reasoning as they are from emotional feeling, as they are based in the stories we tell ourselves to make the world meaningful and understandable. Part of the reason that there is so much tension between the political left and right in America today is a lack of empathetic understanding of the moral intuition and narrative which is held to be of sacred importance in the opposite group. Each group shouts emphatically from their end of the spectrum how the other group has violated moral and sacred values of great importance without understanding the nature of the abyss between them.


What we believe, drives what we perceive.

Jonathan Haidt


This is certainly the case as it exists today between Dwell Community Church and the surrounding community in the Columbus area. Critics decry the deep harm caused to individuals who have suffered emotional and psychological abuse at the hands of church authority in pursuit of ridiculous purity standards, believing the actions of the church to violate fundamental moral principles of harming and unfairly treating the vulnerable (see the left side of the spectrum). Xenos-Dwell responds with the claim that it has not harmed or controlled individuals (or maybe just a little in order to preserve the other moral values), that its group seeks the highest levels of purity before God and does what's best to protect its flock of believers from the threats of a dangerous and sinful world, while also offering a special community to anyone who recognizes the life-changing nature of their beliefs (see the right side of the spectrum). Both sides have valid claims but cannot see beyond their own moral, emotional narrative.


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. Empathy is an antidote to righteousness, although it’s very difficult to empathize across a moral divide.

Jonathan Haidt


Haidt's solution? Empathy. Never a bad solution to a whole host of problems in the world today, empathy forms the cornerstone of mature human belief - and not the kind of empathy that is purely a feeling, but rather the empathy that is founded as intellectual knowledge capable of comprehending another perspective. This empathy is not a commentary on moral rightness or wrongness, nor a surrender to moral relativism, rather it helps to bridge the gap between ancient tribalism in favor of a more inclusive society that can work together to solve problems of extreme importance to us all. Empathy is needed on both sides.


Members and leadership at Xenos-Dwell truly believe that they are acting in a manner consistent with their deeply held moral values of care, fairness, loyalty, community, and purity. And yet, hundreds of stories of significant emotional abuse and psychological harm have been shared across the community. I can personally speak to the lingering effects of trauma leftover from my interactions with Xenos-Dwell almost two decades ago, and I can testify that this pain is not a fiction of Satan or a result of miscommunication and interpersonal relationship conflict. Though difficult, I can hold at once the understanding that members of Xenos-Dwell acted out of great love and yet their actions were horribly unloving; they desired to help me and yet their actions were terribly harmful. My hope is that members and leadership at Xenos-Dwell can empathize with this emotional complexity and recognize its validity. My hope is that this recognition will lead to change. My hope is that no one will have to experience what I and hundreds of others have had to suffer as the result of a very distinct set of moral intuitions held by Xenos-Dwell.


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