Evangelicals, heretical disgust, and purity of mind

Sometimes seemingly different questions have common answers. Consider these: Why are evangelicals so viscerally opposed to syncretism? Why do many evangelicals practice defensive and apologetic rather than hospitable approaches to those like Mormons and Muslims? Why do evangelicals tend to label those involved in hospitable approaches to other religions as syncretists or compromisers? I believe a significant key to answering all of these questions can be found in the conservative emphasis upon purity as a psychological moral foundation.

You may recall that previously I've written quite a bit about the importance of bringing social psychology into conversation with theology. One of the important benefits of this is learning the psychological elements that often undergirds our theology. One of the insights of social psychology comes in the form of moral foundations theory. As I've discussed before, conservatives and liberals emphasize different moral foundations. For their part, conservatives tend to emphasize authority, loyalty, and purity, with an emphasis on the latter. Related to purity is a concern that exposure to various contaminants will result in compromise of moral health, and when this possibility threatens then a disgust reaction often takes place. Our disgust causes us to either flee from the potential contaminant, or to remove or destroy it to stay healthy.

I believe this dynamic takes place among evangelicals in relation to other religions. In a previous post I discussed some of this in relation to a research paper written by Ryan Ritter and Jesse Lee Preston titled “Gross gods and icky atheism: Disgust responses to rejected religious beliefs” from the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. Ritter and Preston conducted experiments among Christians to determine whether thinking about aspects of other religions would trigger disgust by literally leaving a bad taste in test subjects' mouths. Interested readers can click the link above to read my longer discussion of that journal article, but I'll copy a relevant excerpt from the conclusion below:


In their concluding discussion Ritter and Preston note the connection between disgust and intuitive moral judgment, and “that contact with moral impurities or immoral actions may literally leave a bad taste in the mouth.” This is because interactions with such beliefs are understood to have the “potential to undermine a given sacred order.” 

This week I came across another article by Ritter and Preston, who were joined by Erika Salomon and Daniel Relihan-Johnson. This one comes from the journal Cognition and Emotion, and it is titled "Imagine no religion: Heretical disgust, anger and the symbolic purity of mind." This article builds on the experiments mentioned above in the "Gross gods" article. In a series of experiments involving Christian students, the researchers sought to discover whether "mere contemplation of heretical thoughts (i.e., ideas contrary to one's closely held religious beliefs) elicit disgust?" Ritter, Preston, Salomon, and Relihan-Johnson argue that "people treat the content of mind as contaminable and experience disgust when contemplating ideas that threaten spiritual purity." The study used to test their hypothesis is somewhat involved, and I'll refer those who want the details on the experimental process to track down the journal article. For the purposes of this post, these psychologists concluded after their testing and reflection on the results "that disgust produces harsher moral judgments [about religious ideas contrary to their own from other religions] in part due to subjective feelings of contamination, suggesting that people actually conceptualize their thoughts as being unclean" (emphasis in original). They go on to state that, "For the strongly religious, heretical thoughts take on a special meaning, characterized by feelings of disgust, contamination and moral disapproval." This research indicates that it doesn't take physical interaction with someone from another religion to trigger disgust. Instead, "people can feel heretical disgust by merely contemplating ideas contrary to religious beliefs" (emphasis in original). 

The negative implications of these psychological realities are strong for multi-faith engagement. As Ritter and Preston wondered previously in "Gross gods," “If purity is compromised upon merely contemplating ideas that conflict with one’s own sacred beliefs, this suggests a bleak potential for peaceful intergroup relations. How can religious groups hope to overcome their differences in culture and beliefs if they are also divided by gut-level disgust that repels them further apart?”

This represents a serious challenge for evangelicals seeking to relate to those in other religions in Christlike ways that reflect love of neighbor and the example of Jesus. The words of the Apostle Paul come to mind in fresh application here: "Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will" (Romans 12:2). For those evangelicals who want purity of mind, we must draw upon the power of the Spirit so that our minds might be renewed in ways that help us overcome our heretical disgust and fears of contamination. 

John Morehead