Tag Archives: disgust

Atheists aren’t shrill – just disgusting?

Perhaps the common hostile reaction to the so-called “new atheists” (or gnus) is more a matter of the disgust in the eye or brain of the beholder than any “stridency” or “shrillness” on the part of the atheist. Well, that’s what the recently published work of Ritter and Preston suggests (see  Gross gods and icky atheism: Disgust responses to rejected religious beliefs).

They used groups of Christians as subjects in two experiments to test the effect of reading material from their own group (bible) and outgroup (Muslim and atheist) sources on feelings of disgust. This was evaluated by rating  responses to  a drink before and after copying a passage from these sources.

From the paper’s abstract:

“In Experiment 1, Christian participants showed increased disgust after writing a passage from the Qur’an or Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, but not a control text. Experiment 2 replicated this effect, and also showed that contact with an ingroup religious belief (Christians copying from the Bible) did not elicit disgust. Moreover, Experiment 2 showed that disgust to rejected beliefs was eliminated when participants were allowed to wash their hands after copying the passage, symbolically restoring spiritual cleanliness. Together, these results provide evidence that contact with rejected religious beliefs elicits disgust by symbolically violating spiritual purity.”

I guess this explains this strange knee-jerk effect I have observed among Christian apologists. Just the mention of the word “Dawkins” in any discussion sends them off at a tangent. The reactions are clearly emotional, and not rational. So it does seem logical that these emotional responses utilise common intuitions or feelings – and disgust is the obvious one.

Now, I don’t suggest this phenomenon is restricted to only Christians, or even just the religious. (Although i suspect religious believers may be more prone to emotions related to purity and disgust).  I think we are all prone to react emotionally rather than logically when encountering anything conflicting with our beliefs. So I think the authors are right to conclude that disgust plays a role in the protection of beliefs, especially beliefs which hold moral value.

This paper is discussed in more detail by  Tom Rees at Epiphenom (see Is The God Delusion more disgusting than the Koran?). His discussion includes figures from the paper.

Perhaps next time I find a Christian apologists getting distracted by Richard Dawkins and The God Delusion during a discussion I should recognise they are suffering from disgust, rather than producing any logical argument. Maybe I should then suggest they go away and wash their hands before continuing our discussion.

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Scientific investigation of morality

Modern science can advance a reasonable theory of the origins of human morality. And its an area receiving research attention.

A recent paper in Science (In Bad Taste: Evidence for the Oral Origins of Moral Disgust) outlines findings indicating a link between moral disgust and more primitive forms of disgust related to toxicity and disease.The researchers found a “similarity in the facial motor activity evoked by gustatory distaste (elicited by unpleasant tastes), basic disgust (elicited by photographs of contaminants), and moral disgust (elicited by unfair treatment in an economic game).”

The research suggests that physical and moral disgust have the same root. A newspaper report of the work (Injustice leaves bad taste in mouth) describes the results as suggesting:

“the powerful emotion of disgust was co-opted to drive morality, as systems of ethical standards became advantageous to human societies.

A disgust response is a powerful incentive to avoid behaviour that might induce it and people who make you feel revulsion. This would have promoted fair and co-operative behaviour by making people disgusted with themselves when they transgress and by imposing a social cost on those who break moral rules.

“Unfair offers may be received like a plate of spoilt food,” the researchers wrote. “This turning away or rejection of unfair actions may also extend to later avoidance of transgressors.” “

Coincidently the most recent Philosophy Bites podcast includes an interview with Julian Savulescu of Oxford University. In this he discusses the relevance of revulsion to our moral judgements. The direct download is: Julian_Savulescu_on_the_Yuk_Factor.MP3.

Isn’t science fascinating? These ideas give us a much better lead into understanding morality that the tired old “God did it” explanations offered by religious apologists.


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