Atheists aren’t shrill — just disgusting?

By Ken Perrott 14/09/2011 2


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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2 Responses to “Atheists aren’t shrill — just disgusting?”

  • I’ve had a quick read of the entire article (with a great title). Participants were all uni students in Illinois (av age 19), 2/3rd female and only 82 in all. This limits the ability to generalise.
    Also, only one passage from Bible/Dawkins/Quaran was used – obvious bias here (difficult to remove bias, but in a large enough sample they may have been able to account for frequency of pejorative adjectives for example).
    The experiment also failed to do what I thought would have been the obvious and take a bunch of atheists and see if they expressed disgust after reading the religious passages. (i.e. your last sentence may apply to atheists washing hands too – perhaps if both sides of any disagreement washed hands first we’d have a much more harmonious world?).

    • I agree, kiwiski, that this is a limited experiment (and in an area which is not very easily objective). However, I do think the results fit in with current ideas about the role of emotions and intutions in thinking and rationalising.

      I agree that it would be nice to extend the work beyond just a group of Christians. And, yes, a group of non-religious would be interesting. Surely these workers must have considered extending their work this way.

      From other studies (eg. Jonathan Haidt’s work comparing conservatives and liberals) I suspect that intuitions related to purity and disgust may be less involved in the reactions of non-religous. But I am sure emotional/intuitive reactions would be involved and it would be interesting to elucidate which one’s are.

      So I am not sure that washing hands is a universal solution – but it’s interesting to speculate on what sort of activity could promote better harmony in a pluralist group.

      One thing I am sure of – pre-meeting Christian prayers (commonly done now in Parliament and councils) would not work.

      Haidt’s work suggest some readings, ceremony, etc., stressing human dignity and human rights could work.