Is religion just a matter of taste?

In our religiously plural society, faith has become become a source of identity -- and therefore of

How sweet are thy words unto my taste! yea, sweeter than honey to my mouth!
Psalm 119

This might be literally true. According to research reported on in the Boston Globe, Christians were more likely to rate a soft drink favourably after copying out a passage from the Bible. The same researcher, Ryan Ritter (a graduate student in psychology) found that less congenial passages left a nasty taste in the mouth.

In one experiment, Christian volunteers were asked to rate a mildly bitter lemon drink. Next, in what they were told was a different study entirely, they were asked to copy out pieces of writing. They were then asked to taste and rate another drink. Those who had been engaged with the Qu'ran and Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion found the second drink more unpleasant than the first one. Those exposed to a neutral piece of writing (an extract from a dictionary) had a less negative or even a positive reaction. In fact, it was exactly the same drink.

In Ritter's other experiment, Christians who had copied from the Qu'ran, but washed their hands afterwards, rated the drink more favourably than those who had not had the opportunity to "cleanse" themselves from contact with the rival religion's scripture. But when they had been copying out a passage from the Bible, the effect of washing their hands was to make them less favourable to the drink. In the latter case, it was almost as though the positive religious vibes from the Bible transmitted themselves through the glass and into the drink -- provided they hadn't been washed away first.

In his paper, Ritter suggests that "these results provide evidence that contact with a rejected religious belief elicits disgust and that both negative and positive moral contagions can be removed through physical cleansing. "

Experiments like these, involving a small sample and carried out under conditions of extreme artificiality, can only ever be indicative, of course. Nevertheless, it does fit in with a growing body of research into the psychological basis of morality.

Psychologists such as Jonathan Haidt have previously suggested a close connection between physical and moral aversion -- that the moral sense works mainly on the level of gut feeling rather than of rational analysis. Things believed to be transgressive or immoral -- such as sexual practices condemned by the prevailing social mores -- are often perceived as being physically disgusting.

Disgust has an obvious biological function: it helps keep us from ingesting toxic or contaminated food or coming into close contact with contagious disease. Likewise, the disgust-response is a powerful means of drawing and maintaining moral boundaries. If just thinking about something makes you feel physically uneasy you're less likely to go ahead and do it.

And of course religion and morality, though far from identical, are closely bound up together. Religious leaders claim expertise in moral matters; many would go further and claim that God is the source of morality, that being good is largely a matter of obeying divine commands. Even where religious precepts aren't explicitly moral in themselves -- as in the case of dietary or dress codes -- transgressing against them may be seen as immoral and certainly evokes the same reactions.

Ryan Ritter's suggestion is that exposure to ideas that challenge one's religious identity -- either by critiquing it directly (as Dawkins does) or offering something in its place (the Qu'ran) -- has a similar effect. It's easy to see how this could be an effective way of keeping people within the fold and unwilling to question traditional beliefs.

But in the modern world, with members of different faiths rubbing up against each other, such visceral attachment to the doctrines and symbols of a religion has obvious dangers. "Can we ever have peace between groups that are fundamentally disgusted by each other?" Ritter asks.

Inter-faith activists pin their hopes for a more harmonious world on members of different religions getting together and realising how much they have in common. They stress that different outward forms and theological structures matter less than what all faiths share -- compassion for others as expressed in the "Golden Rule". Mr Faith himself, Tony Blair, urged a conference in 2009:

Love your God; love your neighbour as yourself. These simple admonitions are the guiding light of our faith. They give us the possibility of 'A Common Word.' When we lose our way, Christians or Muslims, this is the light by which we re-discover our true path.

But it's perhaps misleading to find the common core of religion in moral precepts that religious people share equally with humanists. Religion's deepest appeals are irrational, and they reside in strong feelings of belonging and attachment to particular stories and to fellow believers. Religion isn't just about being generally nice and loving one's neighbour. It's also about the claim that particular beliefs are true, and (just as importantly) about other beliefs not being true.

As society has become religiously plural, faith has become increasingly become a source of identity -- and therefore of division. To be both loyal to one's own traditional beliefs and accepting of others' different (perhaps incompatible) beliefs is the liberal interfaith ideal. But if Ritter is correct, such idealism may run counter to the very nature of faith.

It's a pity, perhaps, that Ritter did not try his experiment out on convinced atheists. Would they have reacted to a Biblical passage as negatively as the Christians reacted to Dawkins? I suspect that they probably would.

Nelson Jones runs the Heresy Corner blog. He was shortlisted for the 2011 Orwell Prize for blogging.

Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear