Disgust sensitivity appears to play a role in religious fundamentalism, according to new research published in Frontiers in Psychology. The findings indicate that those who are more prone to feelings of disgust are more likely to feel anxious about committing a sin and express more fear of God.
“I was raised in a very religious Lutheran household, but upon moving from Minnesota – with its more egalitarian, independent Protestant ethos – to Florida, where I attended fundamentalist Christian schools, I entered into an authoritarian religious culture,” said study author Patrick A. Stewart, an associate professor of political science at University of Arkansas, Fayetteville.
“As someone who read, memorized, and studied the Bible on a daily basis, the sermons, lessons, and behavior of those Southern fundamentalists were at odds with the teachings of Jesus in the Gospels, and more coherent with the nation building in the Old Testament – which meant sorting people into ‘the people’ and everyone else (‘the damned’).”
“This started my interest in politics. As an outsider, I was in a position to see and experience things differently, especially how individuals used religion to increase their personal wealth and power. I was also able to see religion, with its organization of humans and rules regarding correct behavior, as distinct from faith, which is personal and seen in one’s behavior. The questions became: ‘Why is this the case?’ and ‘how does it benefit group members enough to put their self-interest aside?'”
“Studying the adaptive qualities of emotional response, both predispositions and contextual influences, has long been my focus; disgust – which is connected with many discriminatory behaviors – is one of those key emotions for understanding human behavior,” Stewart explained.
Stewart and his colleagues examined the relationship between disgust sensitivity and the fear of God using a scientific survey and an experiment.
The survey assessed religious fear, disgust sensitivity, anger, and anxiety in 523 participants who were recruited from a large southern American university. The researchers found that sexual disgust and pathogen disgust were associated with fear of sin and fear of God, respectively.
In other words, people who reported being more disgusted by the thought of casual sex or hearing strangers having sex were more likely to agree with statements such as “I am afraid of having immoral thoughts.” People who reported being more disgusted by stepping in dog poop or seeing mold were more likely to agree with statements such as “I worry that God is upset with me.”
To get a better understand of potential causal connections, the researchers conducted an experiment in which 175 participants either viewed three disgust-inducing images (dog feces, vomit, a cold sore) or three neutral images (a chair, a tree, a mushroom) before completing an assessment of religious fear.
Stewart and his colleagues found that participants who viewed the disgusting images tended to report significantly greater fear of sin (but not greater fear of God) compared to participants who viewed the neutral images.
Stewart told PsyPost he hopes the findings highlight the importance of the concept of the human behavioral immune system (HBIS), which “refers to a variety of psychological processes that serve to protect us as individuals and society from real or perceived pathogens.”
“Chief amongst these is the emotion of disgust, which helps to prevent the contact with and ingestion of things that might make us ill. Importantly, the human behavioral immune system influences a variety of social and political behaviors, including – as demonstrated in our paper – religious behaviors.”
“Specifically, we showed that the ease with which someone experiences the emotion of disgust, particularly in response to everyday contaminants (e.g., dog poop), is related to the degree to which a person endorses attitudes and behaviors related to excessive concern with right or wrong morality, sinful behaviors, and a fear of God (religious scrupulosity). We also showed that religious scrupulosity increased when disgust was provoked, suggesting that disgust may have a causal effect on some religious attitudes,” Stewart explained.
“Religion is behind some of most beneficial actions humans have engaged in to help their fellow human; it is also behind some truly horrific behaviors. Understanding the roots of these behaviors, and what might lead to both the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ of religion is important for those who want individuals to live their best lives.”
“Perhaps most important for right now, we live in a time where, as more people become sick with coronavirus, higher levels of disgust will likely be prevalent; understand the actions through the human behavioral immune system will be important in avoiding political predations such as those occurring in the wake of the Spanish flu in 1918 (e.g., the spread of fascism and communism – both authoritarian governing institutions),” Stewart said.
The study — like all research — includes some limitations. The participants were relatively young and an overwhelming majority identified as Christian.
“Our studies draw from populations that are geographically and economically limited; Arkansas, while a southern state with midwestern tendencies, is still rather poor in comparison with the rest of the United States and is also fervently religious in its culture in comparison with other parts of the country. As a result, engaging different regions and socio-economic backgrounds is important,” Stewart explained.
“Likewise, given religious extremism is not inherent to just Christianity – understanding the role of disgust in other cultures and religions will be highly important for avoiding the worst excesses of leaders who abuse people of faith’s trust.
“Disgust as an emotional response is rather broadly constructed. Different images, smells, scenarios provided might lead to different forms and levels of disgust; understanding the responses beyond the written word, such as through facial displays and/or behavior, is likewise important for better understanding its role in our lives,” Stewart added.
The study, “The Effect of Trait and State Disgust on Fear of God and Sin“, was authored by Patrick A. Stewart, Thomas G. Adams Jr., and Carl Senior.