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God and disgust

God and disgust
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First Published: Thu, Jun 02 2011. 03 31 PM IST
Updated: Sat, Jul 02 2011. 05 25 PM IST
Are you Christian?”
This was the first question my wife and I faced as we spoke to a landlord in Bangalore, where we have just moved.
We looked at one another, then at the landlord. “No, we are not,” we said, dodging his question the best we could. The landlord put forth his concern.
“You’re not Muslim, no?” the landlord asked.
Noticing our irritation, he hastily continued, “You see, this has always been a Christian locality, and the neighbours want us to find a Christian, if possible.”
He paused and screwed up his face, his antipathy evident. “But not a Muslim. They are not like us at all.”
It’s hard to escape religious polarization and deepening religious feelings, not just in emerging India, but all over the globe. Like magnets pulling in iron filings, mega-churches, mega-mosques and mega-temples inexorably draw masses of people, sharpening religious differences and setting up an era of dogma, distrust and multiple clashes of civilizations.
In an ancient time, when a flashlight might have been a portent of divine power, Prince Siddhartha Gautama—whom we know as the Buddha—said of religion, “Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books.”
About 2,500 years after the Buddha’s warning, as scientific discovery ranges from the interiors of the atom to the depths of space, religious books and organized religion appear to have a greater hold on the human mind than ever before. This is not to say humans do not question everything. They do—except what they believe in.
In an age supposedly of reason, when new truths should expand the pantheon of human belief, there are more people who believe there is only one truth, that they are in possession of it and that other beliefs are so abhorrent so as to be physically repulsive. It now emerges there is a scientific basis to this growing disgust.
A new study, published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, indicates that such moral disgust can affect even physical senses, such as taste. In one experiment, religious Christians who wrote down passages from the Quran or Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion—a 2006 best-seller that dismissed the idea of a creator—reported that a sharp-tasting lemon drink tasted “more disgusting” after they performed their writing tasks. But those participants who were allowed to wash their hands after copying “objectionable passages” reported no taste difference, an indication that physical cleansing symbolically restored spiritual purity, said Ryan Ritter and Jesse Lee Preston, both psychologists at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in the US.
Such acts, the scientists said, constitute a violation of what their ilk have previously called the ethic of purity and divinity, acts that defile the mind and body and violate, in the minds of believers, the natural order of things. They say that religious beliefs are associated with feelings more than reasoning.
There is no better time for the scientific study of morality. As human morals are stretched by those who consider themselves liberal or irreligious, an opposite reaction is arising from those who find the new, open world an alarming, dangerous place.
Though disgust and moral purity is a relatively new area of interest, scientists have coalesced centuries of moral theory and research to suggest that our minds are equipped with five sets of foundations. These foundations are harm/care; fairness/reciprocity; ingroup/loyalty; authority/respect; and purity/sanctity. These foundations underpin our moral judgements and form the “first draft” or our moral mind, researchers say. Each foundation formed as a result of problems that our ancestors faced; together they make up what is called Moral Foundations Theory.
It is the purity/sanctity foundation that is relevant to the study I mentioned above. Its origins, scientists say, lie in the threats first posed by disease, expanding to a socio-moral context to drive the desire for a spiritually clean and pure life. The intuitive, moral emotion for this foundation? Disgust.
Disgust, repulsion, antipathy—whatever you call it, the emotion is a moral match for the general public mood of the second decade of the 21st century. It is expressed when a landlord does not want to give you a house because you belong to a particular religion. It is expressed when some US citizens refuse to believe their president is an American and would rather he burn in hell. It is expressed in every form of modern media, in the hate spewed at you on Twitter, in the intolerance shown by some television anchors. It is expressed—and this is the greatest irony—most strongly by those who believe in a god and in religion.
As Jonathan Swift, the Anglo-Irish writer of Gulliver’s Travels, observed in the 17th century: “We have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one another.”
Samar Halarnkar is editor-at-large, Hindustan Times and Mint. This is a fortnightly column that explores the cutting edge of science and technology.
Comments are welcome at frontiermail@livemint.com
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First Published: Thu, Jun 02 2011. 03 31 PM IST