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Perhaps the common hostile reaction to the so-called “new atheists” (or gnus) is more a matter of the disgust in the eye or brain of the beholder than any “stridency” or “shrillness” on the part of the atheist. Well, that’s what the recently published work of Ritter and Preston suggests (see  Gross gods and icky atheism: Disgust responses to rejected religious beliefs).

They used groups of Christians as subjects in two experiments to test the effect of reading material from their own group (bible) and outgroup (Muslim and atheist) sources on feelings of disgust. This was evaluated by rating  responses to  a drink before and after copying a passage from these sources.

From the paper’s abstract:

“In Experiment 1, Christian participants showed increased disgust after writing a passage from the Qur’an or Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, but not a control text. Experiment 2 replicated this effect, and also showed that contact with an ingroup religious belief (Christians copying from the Bible) did not elicit disgust. Moreover, Experiment 2 showed that disgust to rejected beliefs was eliminated when participants were allowed to wash their hands after copying the passage, symbolically restoring spiritual cleanliness. Together, these results provide evidence that contact with rejected religious beliefs elicits disgust by symbolically violating spiritual purity.”

I guess this explains this strange knee-jerk effect I have observed among Christian apologists. Just the mention of the word “Dawkins” in any discussion sends them off at a tangent. The reactions are clearly emotional, and not rational. So it does seem logical that these emotional responses utilise common intuitions or feelings – and disgust is the obvious one.

Now, I don’t suggest this phenomenon is restricted to only Christians, or even just the religious. (Although i suspect religious believers may be more prone to emotions related to purity and disgust).  I think we are all prone to react emotionally rather than logically when encountering anything conflicting with our beliefs. So I think the authors are right to conclude that disgust plays a role in the protection of beliefs, especially beliefs which hold moral value.

This paper is discussed in more detail by  Tom Rees at Epiphenom (see Is The God Delusion more disgusting than the Koran?). His discussion includes figures from the paper.

Perhaps next time I find a Christian apologists getting distracted by Richard Dawkins and The God Delusion during a discussion I should recognise they are suffering from disgust, rather than producing any logical argument. Maybe I should then suggest they go away and wash their hands before continuing our discussion.

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