Field of Science

Defacing Bible is 'disgusting', says Pope

An exhibition at Gallery of Modern Art in Glasgow is proving to be just a bit more controversial than the organizers had hoped for. One of the exhibits featured a bible, and a pen, and an encouragement homosexuals to write uplifting messages in the margins. Tragically, it seems that some homosexuals don't feel too warmly to the Bible and some of the comments were unkind, even going so far as to call the book "the biggest lie in human history".

All this has upset the Pope, according to the Telegraph:

The adviser to the head of the Catholic Church said the project was "disgusting and offensive".

It's an interesting choice of words, that. Offensive I can understand, but disgusting?

As luck would have it I've just been reading a new study on 'disgust'. The authors tackled a long standing problem on how to classify different types of disgust. The classical model, based on a study done by Jon Haidt, breaks disgust into three domains - core disgust, animal reminder disgust, and interpersonal disgust.

The problem with this is that it's hard to figure out what the functional value of these three domains is. What's the survival value - why would they evolve?

So the new paper proposes a revised model, based around three domains that are linked directly to evolutionary benefit. Now, the interesting bit is how they developed the model.

Basically what they did was to a group of 14 people to write down 15 different things that some people might think were disgusting. They whittled this down to 58 unique items, and asked a larger group of undergrads to rate them on how disgusting each was. Then they used a statistical technique (factor analysis) to see how the groups bunched up.

As they expected, they found that there are basically three types of disgust:

  • Pathogen disgust (things like "Standing next to someone who has strong body odour"), which helps to keep you free of infection.
  • Sexual disgust (e.g. "Having sex with a much older person"), which safeguards against bad reproductive decisions, and is much more powerful for women than for men.
  • Moral disgust (e.g. "Forging a signature"), which helps to stop you doing antisocial things, which could lead to you becoming ostracised.
So where does the Pope's disgust for the Glasgow exhibition fit into this list? You might think that it fits under 'moral disgust', but in fact all the examples in that category are about social interactions - lying, cheating, and stealing. They don't seem really to cover it.

Perhaps it's sexual disgust. The offending people were homosexuals, after all, and a lot of the scribblings that caused the ruction were sexual ("I am Bi, Female & Proud. I want no god who is disappointed in this”). What's more, another of the exhibits featured video of a woman tearing out pages of the bible and stuffing them into her underwear!

But my gut feeling says something different. I think that a lot of religious people experience 'sacred disgust'. They feel that certain objects and places have special, magical properties, and they react with disgust when these objects are violated in much the same way as they would when a person is violated.

If that's true, then the Pope's disgust is a form of moral disgust, but it's moral disgust transferred to objects, rather than people.

The problem with this idea is that the three domains of disgust (pathogen, sexual, moral) are supposed to have evolved because they provide a clear survival benefit. But what would be the survival benefit of moral disgust linked to objects?

Tybur, J., Lieberman, D., & Griskevicius, V. (2009). Microbes, mating, and morality: Individual differences in three functional domains of disgust. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 97 (1), 103-122 DOI: 10.1037/a0015474

Creative Commons LicenseThis work by Tom Rees is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.


  1. "But what would be the survival benefit of moral disgust linked to objects?"

    Consider that this flavor of "disgust" is most commonly found in people who identify with the most rigid forms of religion, while it is rare in those in more liberal religious traditions.

    Those who do not adhere to the rules of these rigid forms of religion risk ostracism. This 'disgust' protects those who have it from expulsion from their social group.

    It is probably comparable to the disgust that progressives and liberals articulate about things as diverse as prejudice, FGM, and puppy mills.

  2. Evolutionary psychology, taken to the extreme, is not disgusting. But it's very silly anyway.

  3. Tom, I wonder if we should put so much into his choice of words. Maybe saying 'disgusting' is more of a forceful way of expressing disapproval, than it is really a description of how he felt.

    Chris, I hear it often said with no further explanation that evolutionary psychology is silly. Would you explain what you mean and why?

  4. Well, from the description of the original research on disgust, I would not be surprised if there were not major gaps in the disgust 'spectrum'. From a group of just 14 people, limited to 15 topics and given the large number of things that we find viscerally disgusting, it is not surprising that this type of moral disgust was absence.

    With a different group of people, or one that primed to think in terms of sacrilege, the results would I suspect be different.

  5. What about aesthetic disgust? Where does that fit in?

  6. This could be an example of the disgust one feels when social standing is attacked. As an evolutionary strategy, the acquisition and retention of social standing should be a benefit. One way to acquire and retain social standing is to be a keeper of knowledge that the social group has come to consider as important, such as knowledge of the mysterious workings of the natural world and especially the invisible forces at work in the natural world.

    Religions have claimed this knowledge for a long time and the priests have attained great social standing from it. If the Bible is not a sacred text and not a legitimate source of important knowledge, then the priests must naturally lose social standing. It follows that the head priest of a large religion would be disgusted at this.

  7. I think I have heard something that goes like this.
    There is a part of the brain that manages taboo items. Taboo items that naturally occur here include feces and dead-rotting things. However, with evolution of consciousness, other items can culturally get dumped here and religious stuff has a huge affinity for this part of the brain/mind. This explains how psychotic breaks in different countries manifest in blatantly different manic streams of obscenities.

    I think one of the problem with "domains of disgust" seems to be that we are letting words trick us. Just because we use the same English word for revulsion or avoidance of certain things, "disgust", does not mean they share a great deal in terms of neural circuitry.

  8. @anonymous, I think that's a good point. But then why should revering the sacred be necessary for group membership? It could be that it's a 'costly signal' - "I value group membership so much that I am prepared to waste time & resources revering this icon". That would put it on a par with other tribal membership rituals (which are also often tied up with the sacred).

    @Bjørn, it's possible, I thought the same thing about 'moral' violations - I mean, is 'Lying during a business transaction' truly disgusting, or is it a figure of speech? They review that in the paper, and apparently these sorts of 'disgust' light up the same brain regions as more regular disgust (e.g. faeces). Also, facial expressions are the same.

    @jdhuey, yes, I suspect the same thing. I would want to see this repeated but with more diversity in the group of people who came up with the original list of 'disgusting things'.

    @Mike, I think that aesthetic disgust would fit under pathogen disgust - that's where the term 'Kissing someone you find physically unattractive' factored (rather than under sexual disgust). Basically, if something is mutant or weirdly odd, it's a pathogen alert.

    @anon2 - that's another good point. They didn't include any 'social standing' terms in their analysis, but it would make sense that they would fit under 'moral disgust'.

    @Sabio - see my reply to Bjørn. Although it seems bizarre, it seems they do share neural circuitry. So moral disgust does seem to be built on the foundation provided by pathogen disgust.

  9. Where might fear come into play?

    Having spent his life in a belief system, it seems to me that the Pope would have first and foremost experienced fear.

    Of course, he would not have been able to say the writing frightened him. Saying it was 'disgusting' would have put him in the 'one up' position.


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