I have begun reading Richard Beck’s book Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and Mortality and I’m already enjoying it immensely. For those of you unfamiliar with his blog, Experimental Theology, Beck is a Christian experimental psychologist who studies the intersection of theology and psychology. When I’m done with Unclean I will try to write a more complete review of it, but I had a discussion recently on some things in the book and wanted to jot down some notes.
One of Beck’s main ideas is that our sense of morality is psychologically intertwined with our sense of disgust. This might seem like a superficial similarity at first, but consider the metaphors we use when we talk about morality in religion – baptism washes our sins away, as though it is literally taking a “sin bath.” We want to go before God spotless (without sin). The Law of Moses deals with clean and unclean animals and how to avoid “defiling” yourself with unclean things. If a person has low morals, we use words like “slimy,” “grimy,” and “icky.” The prophet Alma taught in the Book of Mormon that sinners are unclean, and “no unclean thing can inherit the kingdom of God.” When we view something morally offensive we joke that we want to take a shower to feel cleaner. In fact, Beck gives laboratory examples that when we physically clean ourselves, we feel less guilty of moral sins.
The interesting thing about Jesus eating with sinners in the New Testament is that somehow Jesus’ critics felt that the uncleanness of the sinners was contagious – that it would somehow stick to Jesus if he came into physical contact with them. Jesus was subverting this perception, because he implied that his own grace or virtue was the thing that was contagious. But our minds aren’t wired that way – the “good” cup of ice cream doesn’t impart its goodness onto the roach, the “badness” of the roach infects the surrounding ice cream.
Our psychological sense of disgust is incredibly useful, by protecting us from things that are harmful. However, it is also quirky and follows its own logic – even when it doesn’t make rational sense. For instance, one of the things that disgusts me ever since I moved to the American South is the huge cockroaches, and any of you who are familiar with these nasty little things knows what I’m talking about. So imagine if I had a hypothetical glass of water, and I placed a dead roach in it. Would you drink it? Universally I’m sure you would all say no. But what if it’s a pitcher full? Would you drink a glass of water poured from a pitcher that had a dead roach in it? Again, universally you would probably say no. Now keep increasing the size of the container. A gallon. Several gallons. Something the size of a bathtub. A tanker. A small lake. How big of a container would it have to be before you’d feel comfortable drinking the water? Most people would answer that they would feel uncomfortable drinking from any size of container if they knew it had a dead roach in it somewhere (if roaches don’t really gross you out for some reason, imagine that instead of the roach, it’s a drop of human urine – does that get the message across?). A single unclean thing ruins the entire batch, even if it’s so small that it doesn’t make a logical difference.
This “uncleanness metaphor” has real-world consequences. Take the recent issue of same-sex marriage. Now I try to avoid directly commenting on this issue because it’s so volatile, but that’s part of what makes the issue so interesting. I know the methods of estimating the prevalence of homosexuality are notoriously difficult, but let’s just get a quick figure from Wikipedia. A 2010 survey found that 7% of women and 8% of men identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual. Now consider the percentage of these people who actually wish to get married to a member of the same sex in the United States. Even smaller.
This percentage seems quite small compared to the amount this issue has been blown up in religions, politics, and the media. It’s just hard for me to think that such a small amount of gay people in American society getting married can even have a statistically significant effect on anything. The most fear-inducing rhetoric of same-sex marriage opponents, to me, seems rather disproportionate – same-sex marriage will ruin the institution of marriage, will forever alter the foundations of families in the country, etc.
However, in the light of our discussion of disgust, this reaction actually does make sense. Especially considering research that has shown that people whose internal sense of disgust is more sensitive are also more intuitively disapproving of homosexuality. In other words, if homosexuality triggers your psychological sense of disgust, it may trigger your moral sense of “disgust.” And if something disgusts you, then any amount of it in society will “ruin” society in your mind. The “ickiness” of homosexuality will somehow “infect” society like a disease and spread, possibly to you and your family. If there is an entire movie theater full of couples, and one of them is gay, it “ruins” the experience for you. If you’re walking down the street and you see a gay couple holding hands, you feel like it’s an “intrusion” on you and your way of life that will somehow get on your or stick to you. With this mindset, even a tiny percentage of gay married couples somehow “ruins” marriage for everyone.