“Yuck! Your religion leaves a bad taste in my mouth!”: Disgust and multi-faith engagement

Over the years I’ve been reminded many times about the evangelical concerns for doctrinal purity and syncretism. The issues related to syncretism as understood in evangelical circles arose from 18th century Protestant missions overseas. In some religio-cultural contexts anxieties arose as missionaries brought the gospel into contact with local cultures and religions. The fear was an inappropriate blending of Christianity and other religions. This concern among evangelicals continues today. I’ve noticed that this is particularly strong in relation to certain religious groups that seem to elicit concerns and fears more than others. Here I have in mind Mormonism (at least in the recent past), as well as Paganism, Satanism, and Islam.

I’ve continued to reflect on this so as to understand the phenomenon better in relation to my work in multi-faith engagement, particularly as it relates to the development of right emotions or orthopathy toward others. My recent discovery of research in social psychology and social neuroscience sheds some very interesting light on this.

One example is an article by Ryan S. Ritter and Jesse Lee Preston titled “Gross gods and icky atheism: Disgust responses to rejected religious beliefs” from the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. They begin their essay with a discussion of the importance that purity violations play in keeping us healthy, and that disgust is connected with this. When we are disgusted with something it can be connected to something harmful that may make us ill. This concern for purity and related disgust is also found in religion where certain practices and moral concepts are considered clean or unclean. In relation to this, Ritter and Preston set up a series of experiments to test their hypothesis that “people may become literally disgusted by contact with an out-group religion,” and that just as disgust works in connection with purity violations in other contexts, “contact with rejected religious beliefs may be perceived as a threat to one’s spiritual self and so be rejected by the same intuitive emotional mechanism.”

In order to test their prediction, Ritter and Preston set up three experiments involving pre-screened, self-identified Christian volunteers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Their first experiment will suffice for us to make connections to multi-faith engagement by evangelicals. Participants were told that they were going to be a part of marketing study to rate two different kinds of drinks. In connection with the taste test they were also asked to copy down a religious text as a task unrelated to the drink testing. The participants were then asked to sample two drinks (unknowingly the exact same drink each time), and alternatively write down texts from the Qur’an, atheist Richard Dawkins’ book The God Delusion, and something from a dictionary (a control text). The result was interesting: 

“As predicted, participants in Study 1 showed an increased disgust response following contact with rejected religious beliefs (i.e., Islam and Atheism) but not a neutral text. Other ratings of the drink (e.g., sweetness, sourness) were not as strongly influenced by writing the passage, indicating that the effect was limited to disgust responses and not taste in general. … In sum, Study 1 provided evidence that contact with outgroup religions elicit disgust, by violating the symbolic spiritual purity of the self.”

Similar results were found in two additional experiments where slight modifications were made to the initial test. 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.”

In the concluding general discussion about the experiments the researchers reflect on whether the disgust was caused by simply thinking about another religious tradition, or whether some action in connection with them (writing the texts) was the trigger. The former provides greater optimism for multi-faith engagement than the latter. As Ritter and Preston put it, “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?”

Ritter and Preston go on to state near the end of the paper that they “expect that the effect is moderated by the degree of perceived threat presented by the out-group religions.” There may be something to this in that evangelicals tend to have stronger negative reactions toward certain religions versus others, as I’ve mentioned above.

Another insight from social psychology comes through a paper by Craig Anderson at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He argues that people moralize what they understand to be the right beliefs, and that “[p]eople have emotional and visceral reactions to claims that the ‘wrong’ beliefs are true.” He discusses “the clash between religions” as an example of this morality, and says that a group’s strong emotional attachments to right beliefs help reinforce in-group moral foundations, including concerns for purity. His paper also theorizes that moral emotions may have become tied to ideas about truth “through the emotion of disgust.” This would help bind in-group members together, and set them apart from out-group members who elicit negative emotions because they hold to the wrong beliefs. Anderson’s idea needs further research, but it seems applicable to evangelicals where right beliefs (orthodoxy) is certainly a part of their social identity, and which may also function as a significant moral foundation. In the context of multi-faith engagement, “religious others” are understood as holding to wrong beliefs which results in disgust as they violate concerns for group purity.

What does all of this mean for evangelical multi-faith engagement? Let me try to connect some dots.

First, this helps us better understand why evangelicals have such strong negative reactions toward certain religious groups. Social psychology tells us that conservatives tend to value purity as a moral foundation, and when there is the perception of threat by the beliefs of other groups it can lead to feelings of disgust. The psychological and neurological data indicates that we can be repulsed by the beliefs of others. It is not a stretch to consider the possibility that in turn we are also disgusted by those who hold these beliefs as well. If we are to love our neighbors and enemies we must account for this.

Second, given the disgust response and concerns for purity, this then explains the emphasis on doctrine as a boundary marker for evangelicals, and a related fear of syncretism.

Third, this research might also provide us with an opportunity for critical self-reflection. A desire for purity can be a healthy thing, but also unhealthy too at times. When we are disgusted by things that might bring us physical or spiritual harm, then this response functions as a mechanism that maintains our health. But when we obsess over it and it becomes the norm in how we engage the world, then it shifts from maintaining our health and functions as a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder where we constantly fear contamination from our neighbors in a multi-faith world. If we want to engage in a reality check, we might ask ourselves whether it’s possible that at times our fear and disgust of other religions takes place in unhealthy ways (e.g., not only obsession, but also bigotry, and leveling unwarranted charges of syncretism against other Christians in ministry to Muslims).

This kind of research demonstrates the importance of a multidisciplinary approach to the development of theologies of multi-faith encounters. In addition to more familiar disciplines like systematic theology, missiology and philosophy, our theologizing should be in dialogue with various scientific disciplines like social psychology and social neurology. These can provide us with additional tools in developing our orthopathy.

John Morehead