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
Photo: Martin Whitfield
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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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