The Purity Psychology of Progressive Christianity: Scrupulosity

After my posts from last week I continue to have a lot of conversations about how purity psychology affects various impulses within progressive Christianity. My original post is here which has a link at the bottom to some follow-up reflections.

In light of the analyses I shared in those posts, a very interesting connection with Catholic moral theology was pointed out to me yesterday by Leah Libresco who blogs at "Unequally Yoked" for the Patheos Catholic channel.

Specifically, Leah pointed out some similarities between my descriptions of the purity psychology at work among progressive Christians and the Catholic notion of scrupulosity.

According to Catholic moral teaching scrupulosity involves persistent worries about being in a state of sin. These worries can be due to a lot of things, from being extraordinarily conscientious to having a very sensitive or tender conscience to something that is more pathological (like Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder or Generalized Anxiety Disorder).

Psychologically speaking, I think Leah is right in connecting scrupulosity to intrusive thoughts and even to what the Eastern Orthodox call logismoi, evil or tempting thoughts. For the Orthodox logismoi are intrusive mental temptations such as lust and greed and pride. In scrupulosity the intrusive thoughts are persistent and nagging worries that we've done something wrong.

In Catholic moral teaching scrupulosity has generally been connected to worries about committing a mortal sin and falling out of a state of grace. Mortal sins are, generally speaking, severe or chronic failures of piety.

But what is interesting for our purposes is how Leah has observed scrupulosity at work in issues related to altruism. That is to say, among compassionate Catholics scrupulosity can manifest in worries about how to do the right or best things for others. Paralleling my analysis, Leah traces this wanting-to-do-good scrupulosity to a purity psychology.

In her post "Purity, Anxiety and Effective Altruism" Leah focuses on the worries many of us feel about making sure the monies we send to charities are being used effectively and with minimal waste. We want our money, most if not all of our money, to get into the hands of those who need it. But when we start evaluating the effectiveness of charities and how best to use our money in alleviating suffering worldwide we can fall down a rabbit-hole. In wanting to do the right thing and the best thing we can encounter, to use Leah's words, "analysis paralysis." Regarding all these worries about trying to do the right thing Leah writes:
...I came up with a speculative hypothesis about what might drive this kind of reaction to Effective Altruism. While people were sharing stories about their friends, some of their anxious behaviors and thoughts sounded akin to Catholic scrupulosity. One of the more exaggerated examples of scrupulosity is a Catholic who gets into the confessional, lists her sins, receives absolution, and then immediately gets back into line, worried that she did something wrong in her confession, and should now confess that error.

Both of these obviously bear some resemblance to anxiety/OCD, period, but I was interested in speculating a little about why...
Taking a cue from the psychologist Jonathan Haidt, Leah traces this altruism-related scrupulosity to purity psychology: "My weak hypothesis is that effective altruism can feel more like a 'purity' decision...". Wanting to optimize our altruism, to make it more effective, can, in Leah's words, "trigger scrupulosity."

What is interesting here is how Leah is connecting scrupulosity less with a fear of doing a bad thing (committing a mortal sin) than with the keen desire to do a good thing, the desire to reduce suffering in the world. And as the scope of this scrupulosity expands from domain to domain, to eventually inhabit every facet of existence, we begin converging upon the "everything is problematic" mindset and a sort of moral paralysis sets in.

Of course, the objections here are now familiar. While scrupulosity is definitely an unpleasant neurotic experience, scrupulosity is still focusing upon the actions of individuals and is still centering feelings, generally the feelings of privileged people.

But the answer here wouldn't be for those privileged people to have less scruples or to check their scruples or de-center their scruples. Without scruples the privileged people wouldn't really care or worry about being privileged. Without scruples you'd never check your privilege.

So the scruples are necessary, vital even. The trick, it seems, is having those scruples--and in spades--but rejecting "the will to purity" that curdles into scrupulosity.

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17 thoughts on “The Purity Psychology of Progressive Christianity: Scrupulosity”

  1. Cf. what William James called "pedantic scruples": "Get but that 'peace of God which passes understanding', and the questions of the understanding will cease from puzzling, and pedantic scruples be at rest."

  2. Fascinating. Just riffing a bit on Leah's insight, I wonder if another reason this kind of scruplousity may be more common among progressives is because they are more likely to accept or adopt some form of moral consequentialism. Consequentialism is a name for ethical theories that hold the rightness of action can be evaluated solely in terms of consequences or results. Consequentialism, including effective altruism and utilitarianism, is sharply opposed to deontology, which typically insists certain actions are always right or wrong, regardless of the consequences.

    Many progressives are attracted to consequentialism because it promises to dispense with long lists of do's and don'ts in favour of a single principle, like "the greatest happiness for the greatest number." Unfortunately, there's no way to measure happiness empirically, and so consequentialists have the paralysis of everything being permissible plus trying to integrate multiple incommensurable values, such as economic growth, preserving the environment, promoting equality and diversity, etc. And given the global scale of these problems and our general inability to predict the future accurately, it's impossible for any one individual to feel confident they've made the correct choice.

    Now, as Leah suggests, in charitable giving you can outsource responsibility to experts, such as GiveWell, but then you still must question why your happiness should be more important than anyone else's. Or as Leah puts it, "Once you start translating the objects and purchases around you into bednets, should you really have any of them?" In some societies the appropriate levels of altruism and indulgence are enforced through social norms and/or government taxation, but today it's left up to individuals, making the good life highly neurotic.

  3. Also, although conservatives are probably more guilty of this, scrupulosity around altruism in particular can be a kind of moral elitism. C.S. Lewis wrote this in 1962, but I think it's still relevant: 'It will not bother me in the hour of death to reflect that I have been
    “had for a sucker” by any number of impostors; but it would be a torment
    to know that one had refused even one person in need. After all, the
    parable of the sheep and goats makes our duty perfectly plain, doesn't
    it. Another thing that annoys me is when people say “Why did you give
    that man money? He’ll probably go and drink it.” My reply is “But if I’d
    kept [it] I should probably have drunk it.”' (Letters to an American Lady, p. 114)

  4. To be honest, AJ, I'm not sure. I have an ever-expanding list of "Great Quotes", taken from here and there (not necessarily from original sources, nor, I'm afraid, referenced) as a Word document. Richard's title flicked a mental switch, and I tracked this one down. I used to have a copy of The Varieties of Religious Experience in my study, but I reluctantly parted with it when, upon "retirement", I had to downsize my library -- so possibly from there. But hey, ask the Professor (who I pray will forgive me for jettisoning Varieties!).

  5. So I think I found it (and apparently I had read it before!). It's in his essay on "Reflex Action and Theism". What a gem!

  6. This is also fascinating. A lot of that consequentialism and utilatrianism is due to how progressive Christians are the children of the Enlightenment. I think a whole book could be written tracing out the Enlightenment impulses that run through progressive Christianity, for good and ill.

  7. This reminds me a little of a post you wrote about a year ago dealing with doubt. I think the comparison there was between genuine doubt and a deeper issue of emotional/mental health. I recall you stating that much of what passes for "doubt" in students you've dealt with looks more like low-grade depression in many cases.

    Being careful not to project my own experience onto others (I have a ruminating brain that can spiral into despair quicker than many people), I have also recognized some of the symptoms of anxiety or excessive rumination in the moral zeal of my progressive friends. Some of this has manifested itself in an overly serious demeanor; when life is a battle against evils, everything is grave (or problematic). Some of it has come out in addictive behaviors or numbing "soft rage" actions.

    We're all struggling, no doubt. But this particular sub-culture, often being the purveyors of such an uncommonly noble and righteous cause (this isn't sarcasm), seem to be less self-aware than any good Child of the Enlightenment ought to be.

    I mean, some of them called you Satan during this kerfuffle. That's almost unbearably poignant.

  8. N.T. Wright's Surprised by Hope has helped my to both affirm "everything is problematic" and move forward in that reality into action and hope. Understanding and meditating on the Christian affirmation of Christ's ascension and of the promise of bodily resurrection in the recreated new heavens and the new earth puts our interaction with this present life in context.
    Specifically helpful to me is Wright's use of the image of "building for the Kingdom". The ascended Messiah is building his kingdom now and will perfect it in the future. Our role is to offer ourselves to that project, not as authors of it but as workers in it. Our work will never, because it can never, be complete or sufficient; there will be, and needs to be, a second coming and a new creation. But scripture also affirms that the work we do toward justice, love, beauty is enduring, will endure and be an element in the fully realized Kingdom. Our work will be, as of couse it must be, refined and perfected, but each brick we fashion in building the kingdom will be integral to the new thing because the new thing has already begun. When I begin to ruminate or despair, I can release my blemished yet enduring offering to the one who makes all things new.

  9. And the bed nets sometimes end up being used as fishing nets, and doing serious damage to Lake Tanganyika (, so that's one more thing to go all scrupulous over. "The good that I would, I do not ... and the evil that I would not, that I do. ... "

    There is no escape, except to admit that we cannot get it right, and had better stop tormenting ourselves, and instead "sin boldly, and trust in the grace of God more boldly still."

  10. The Effective Altruists have definitely noticed the consequentialism connection. If this sort of thing interests you, I highly recommend you read some Slate Star Codex. I've linked to a relevant blog post.

    (A quibble, though: practically speaking, most consequentialism is concerned about the foreseeable consequences of an action. Virtually no one thinks you can be blame for consequences you could not have predicted.)

  11. Personally, as a non-consequentialist, I think even the foreseeable consequences of an action are secondary to what is intended. But I agree, my comment was unclear on that point. And I appreciate the link - I've read the blog but hadn't encountered that post.

  12. So you didn't call him Satan directly, but suggested that his post had the potential to do the work of Satan?

    I don't believe in Satan, so I don't really care, but it feels like you're at least correlating Richard's thoughts with something potentially diabolical and evil.

    You put the tweet out, and you stand by it, so what did you mean?

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