Spiritual Pollution, Part 12: Purity Logic Case #4, Doctrine

Our fourth and final example of how purity logic complicates church life is the metaphor of “Doctrinal Purity.”

Growing up in the Churches of Christ, the “Doctrinal Purity” metaphor structured a lot of our conversations about doctrine. And there is a price to be paid for using that metaphor. Specifically, working with the purity structure, unorthodox views were metaphorically understood to be pollutants to the faith. Thus, disgust psychology was harnessed to monitor and maintain the borders of orthodoxy. As such, “Doctrinal Purity” became a very powerful sociomoral regulatory mechanism.

Let me illustrate. Any doctrinal deviations from the “pure faith” would, according to the metaphorical structure of “doctrinal purity,” be experienced as pollutants. And given the logic of purity, where dose insensitivity is a factor, there are no such things as minor pollutants. As quoted in Rozin and Fallon (1987): “A teaspoon of sewage will spoil a barrel of wine, but a teaspoon of wine will do nothing for a barrel of sewage” (p. 32). Thus, even minor doctrinal disagreements evoked major emotional reactions. Any contamination results in the entire “barrel of wine” being polluted by the “sewage” of false doctrine. Thus, doctrinal disputes became zero-sum encounters.

Basically, as hinted at in the last post, when “Doctrinal Purity” structures doctrinal debate a big truth gets lost. Specifically, there are “greatest” commandments, “weightier” matters of the law, and things of “first” importance. Purity metaphors, due to their “logic,” make all issues, even the most trivial, equally central and vital. And that is a recipe for conflict and division.

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2 thoughts on “Spiritual Pollution, Part 12: Purity Logic Case #4, Doctrine”

  1. Perhaps there's some empiric status to disgust theology enforcing the logic of purity.

    One can always look introspectively at personal case examples of disgust avoidance motivating compliance on purely ideological grounds (if such exists): the time you had the chance, but didn't smoke that stogie in secret behind the barn, the time you could have, but didn't accept more change than deserved at the grocery, and so on – curtailed behavior for fear that a little impure leaven would leaven the otherwise whole pure ideological lump.

    Beyond personal introspection and personal story telling, aren't the actual effects of disgust avoidance (as a means of preserving ideological purity) a little murky? – in light of well known phenomena like church and denominational switching, plain old dropping out of church altogether, or more subtly, just hanging out at church as a social club for friendship while keeping silent about one's secret judgments that ideological purity is the domain of hypersensitive neurotics and officious intermeddlers?

    Erik Erikson characterized excessive focus on ideological purity as one means of creating pseudospecies, and one might characterize his judgment as impressionistic, save for the fact that pseudospecies rely on consent and voluntary association for the survival of the subspecial population (compare, denominational switching). Erikson, here, is merely exemplary, not authority.

    There are hard metrics describing kin selected reciprocal altruism and its fading effects down a lineage. But, these metrics are special (and conspecific), not pseudospecial.

    Analytic studies of religious conviction show a murky lack of metric when religious conviction is tested across a population (not ad hoc, in individuals) for how it translates into such things as political choice (Kent Greenawalt, "Religious Conviction and Political Choice), and, attribution studies show a murky lack of correspondence between religious conviction and causal attributions of observable events (e.g., Weeks, M., and Lupfer, M. B. (2000). Religious Attributions and Proximity of Influence: An Investigation of Direct Interventions and Distal Explanations. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 39(3), 348-363).

    Wouldn't an "experimental theology" need to ground the empirical status of the deterrent (i.e., disgust avoidance) effects of ideological purity in more than ad hoc introspective testimonials? -- or, is it adequate to assume such effects axiomatically?

  2. Ehud,
    I agree there is a lack of extensive empirical evidence in this area. There is a literature building concerning sociomoral disgust, but that literature has yet to connect fully with psychology of religion research. My hope is that my forthcoming paper on this topic will be one small stimulus for empirically-minded researchers to test the formulations mentioned here. In my own laboratory we are beginning studies in this area to move from the axiomatic to the empirical. In my defense, I’d argue that you can’t get to issues of operationalization and hypothesis-testing before some theoretical and qualitative work lays the groundwork. I’m trying to lay some of that groundwork for future ventures in “experimental theology.”

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