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preaching to the taste buds – rhett snell

Everyone’s got an opinion.

Whether it’s climate change, Trump, Israel, or just about any hot potato of an issue, our social interactions are coloured by the positions we take.

Social media has only made us more adept at publishing our opinions for the world to see, and I’m certainly not immune to that.

All of which made Jonathan Haidt’s recent book The Righteous Mind an eye-opener for me.

Haidt is a social psychologist working at New York University.

He argues that our opinions (and how we receive the opinions of others) are often intuitive and subconscious. When we encounter something which challenges our preconceptions, we respond intuitively first, and rationally later.

In other words, we think we’re weighing arguments in a detached, balanced way, but the truth is that our gut has decided already and our brain has to race to not only catch up, but then justify our position.

Those intuitive responses are triggered, Haidt suggests, by our “moral taste buds.” In his research, he’s identified five such taste buds.

Care/harm: we have an aversion to suffering, and an urge to protect the vulnerable from harm.

Fairness/cheating: we are drawn to people or movements which show signs that they can be trusted, and feel disgust when people or movements cheat or take advantage of us, or others.

Loyalty/betrayal: we’re inherently tribal, so we value loyalty to our group and react strongly to threats, and at worst, people we perceive as traitors.

Authority/subversion: we have a stake in maintaining order and preventing chaos. But we are also sensitive to the misuse of authority.

Sanctity/degradation: perhaps the most complex of the taste buds, this one relates to the repugnance we feel when the things we regard as sacred are violated or degraded (this varies from culture to culture).

Liberty/oppression: we react against aggressive, controlling behaviours, and often respond with righteous anger.


So, how do the moral taste buds relate to preaching?

When I was learning to preach, I was told to be aware of my congregation, and to listen to my own sermons with their ears.

I learnt this practically when I went from preaching to a congregation of mostly 20 and 30-somethings, to preaching to a congregation on my Summer pastorate who were significantly older. Suddenly, my pop-culture references and illustrations drawn from the latest TV shows didn’t work!

Well, just like I try to think about the context of my congregation when preparing a message, I’ve been wondering what would happen if I thought about these moral taste buds when preparing my sermons.

In his book, Haidt points out how political parties actually do this (some better than others); they attempt to trigger our moral taste buds in how they frame issues. For example, a party on the left may appeal to our care/harm taste bud in selling the idea of higher taxes on the rich in order to help the vulnerable in our society. A party on the right would appeal to the taste buds like liberty/oppression and authority/subversion in arguing against big government.

People’s moral taste buds are already being triggered by what we say when we’re preaching. It happens intuitively. I think that being aware of that, and seeking to “preach to the taste buds” in a positive way, could be incredibly helpful.

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