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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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder