Spiritual Pollution, Part 4: Sociomoral disgust and religion

After two posts about the psychology of disgust and contamination we now move to the area of human relations.

To recap, “core disgust” refers to the basic disgust mechanism centered on food aversions. However, North Americans are known to show disgust across a variety of domains, many unrelated to food (for an empirical review see: Haidt, J., McCauley, C.R., & Rozin, P. (1994). Individual differences in sensitivity to disgust: A scale sampling seven domains of disgust elicitors. Personality and individual differences, 16, 701-713.)

These “domains of disgust” include:

1. Foods
2. Body products (e.g., feces, vomit)
3. Animals (e.g., insects, rats)
4. Sexual behaviors (e.g., incest, homosexuality)
5. Contact with the dead or corpses
6. Violations of the exterior envelope of the body (e.g., gore, deformity)
7. Poor hygiene
8. Interpersonal contamination (e.g., contact with unsavory persons)
9. Moral offenses.

Most of these make sense from a biological point of view, but some of these disgust elicitors are distinctly social and moral in nature. Disgust directed at persons or their moral offenses is therefore distinguished from core disgust in the literature and is called “sociomoral disgust.”

On a case by case basis, sociomoral disgust can apply to people we find “creepy,” “revolting,” “vile,” or “disgusting.” We find it difficult to tolerate these people when they are in close proximity to us. We want some distance between them and us.

Further, disgust properties can be applied to entire groups. Historical and current examples include Jews, Gentiles, the poor, the rich, homosexuals, “negros,” men, and women. This situation becomes theologically problematic when religions overtly or tacitly institutionalize sociomoral disgust. This is most clearly seen in the Hindu caste system, but all religions have their ways of separating the clean from the unclean.

This situation is ethically problematic in that sociomoral disgust is the first step in the process of dehumanization and demonization. To revisit the quote from Nussbaum (pictured here):

"Disgust is all about putting the object at a distance and drawing boundaries. It imputes to the object properties that make it no long or a member of the subject's own community or world, a kind of alien species of thing...Thus, throughout history, certain disgust properties—sliminess, bad smell, stickiness, decay, foulness—have repeatedly and monotonously been associated with, indeed projected onto, groups by reference to whom privileged groups seek to define their superior human status."

It is important for religions and religious people to hear Nussbaum's point: Disgust erects boundaries and is inherently dehumanizing. As I write this, I keep hearing and seeing in my mind scenes from Hotel Rwanda, where the Tutsi referred to the Hutu as "cockroaches." True, that situation was predominately ethnic and not religious in origin, but the latent themes of sociomoral disgust within Christianity have become overt at times, often with disastrous consequences. In sum, I think we have a problem in Christianity, or a least a vulnerable point in our theological mechanics. Specifically, sociomoral disgust is deeply embedded in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Yet, at the same time, sociomoral disgust is such a fundamentally inhumane force. How can we live with this beast within our walls?

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3 thoughts on “Spiritual Pollution, Part 4: Sociomoral disgust and religion”

  1. I'm glad you brought up the Rwandan genocide.

    I think that there was a deeply religious aspect to what happened 12 years ago.

    The brand of Christianity that was predominant in Rwanda (once called the most Christian nation in Africa) was one that did not teach enough love of neighbor that when the "disgust" factor came into play, their Christian identity was not strong enough to counteract that. When you look at the number of deaths that occurred in churches, sometimes at the hands of priests, you realize that we need to do a much better job of creating a Christianity, "theological mechanics" if you will, that can transcend these sociomoral boundaries.

  2. Greg,
    I was wondering about if there was a religious facet behind the genocide. Thanks for your insights. I'd like to visit further about this.

    And I agree, we need thinking about the "theological mechanics." Religion is the most powerful force on earth. More powerful than nuclear weapons. We need to know how to handle it. Personally, I'd like to volunteer to be a UN Religion Inspector looking for RMDs (Religions of Mass Destruction).

  3. I would definitely agree about the power of religion as a force.

    Not only does religion form powerful collaborative efforts of people who are lead by a sense of similar beliefs, but religion is also unbelievably powerful as a collection of beliefs and theories that can be overbearingly powerful over a human as a being. The basis of religion can have such a powerful control over an individual's life.

    Religion is a powerful source in more than one aspect.

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