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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Who is responsible for an austerity violating human rights? Look to New Labour

Labour's record had started to improve under Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell. 

The UN has made it clear the Government’s austerity programme breaches human rights. This is not because of spending cuts - it is because because those spending cuts target women and disadvantaged groups, particularly disabled people and asylum seekers.

The degree of injustice is staggering. The Coalition Government used a combination of tax increases and benefit cuts to reduce the net income of the poorest tenth of families by 9 per cent. The cuts faced by disabled people are even more extreme. For instance, more than half a million people have lost social care in England (a cut of over 30 per cent). Asylum seekers are now deprived of basic services.

The injustice is also extremely regional, with the deepest cuts falling on Labour heartlands. Today’s austerity comes after decades of decline and neglect by Westminster. Two places that will be most harmed by the next round of cuts are Blackpool (pictured) and Blackburn. These are also places where Labour saw its voters turn to UKIP in 2015, and where the Leave vote was strong.

Unscrupulous leaders don’t confront real problems, instead they offer people scapegoats. Today’s scapegoats are immigrants, asylum seekers, people from ethnic minorities and disabled people. It takes real courage, the kind of courage the late MP Jo Cox showed, not to appease this prejudice, but to challenge it.

The harm caused by austerity is no surprise to Labour MPs. The Centre for Welfare Reform, and many others, have been publishing reports describing the severity and unfairness of the cuts since 2010. Yet, during the Coalition Government, it felt as if Labour’s desire to appear "responsible" led  Labour to distance itself from disadvantaged groups. This austerity-lite strategy was an electoral disaster.

Even more worrying, many of the policies criticised by the UN were created by New Labour or supported by Labour in opposition. The loathed Work Capability Assessment, which is now linked to an increase in suicides, was first developed under New Labour. Only a minority of Labour MPs voted against many of the Government’s so-called "welfare reforms". 

Recently things appeared to improve. For instance, John McDonnell, always an effective ally of disabled people, had begun to take the Government to task for its attacks on the income’s of disabled people. Not only did the media get interested, but even some Tories started to rebel. This is what moral leadership looks like.

Now it looks like Labour is going to lose the plot again. Certainly, to be electable, Labour needs coherent policies, good communication and a degree of self-discipline. But more than this Labour needs to be worth voting for. Without a clear commitment to justice and the courage to speak out on behalf of those most disadvantaged, then Labour is worthless. Its support will disappear, either to the extreme Right or to parties that are prepared to defend human rights.

Dr Simon Duffy is the director of the Centre for Welfare Reform