Field of Science

Is The God Delusion more disgusting than the Koran?

Ever wondered why we get disgusted by things that taste bad and also by things that are morally outrageous? Well, it seems that they really are connected in a very deep way - moral disgust seems to have evolved as an extension of physical disgust.

And that means you can play a neat trick: you can measure moral disgust indirectly by looking to see how it affects our physical sense of disgust.

Ryan Ritter and Jesse Lee Preston at the University of Illinois have been doing just that. The basic set up was to get students to taste-test a drink as part of what supposed to be part of a marketing survey. They tasted two drinks - although of course they were actually the same drink (made up of 1 cup of lemon juice in 1 gallon of water - rated as 'moderately disgusting'!).

In between the two tests, they did some filler tasks (to allow their taste buds to clear, you see). To start with, they had to copy out a passage of text - it just so happened that some had to copy out a passage from the Bible, some a passage from the Koran, and some a passage from Richard Dawkins' book The God Delusion.

Oh, and did I tell you that they specially recruited only Christian students?

On the second taste test, the students that had to copy a passage from the Koran or The God Delusion rated the beverage as significantly more disgusting (even though it was identical). Their moral disgust at having to write out this stuff translated into physical disgust.

Both the Koran and The God Delusion are equally disgusting to Christians, by this measure at least.

In another twist, Ritter and Preston got their students to do another marketing test - after copying out the passages but before the second taste test. This time, they had to rate some handwipes - you know, those moist, antiseptic wipes that come in a plastic packet.

Half of them had to rate the wipes by just looking at the packet, but half were asked to actually wipe their hands.

Well, what do you know. The simple act of wiping their hands made the second drink seem less disgusting. It wiped out the effect of copying out the Koran or the God Delusion, and those lucky Christians who were tasked with copying out the Bible and then wiped their hands seemed to have positively enjoyed the second drink! You can see how the different groups rated the second drink compared with the first in the graph.

This ties in nicely with some earlier research showing that hand washing seems to link cleanliness with morality. Cleanliness really is next to godliness!
Ritter, R., & Preston, J. (2011). Gross gods and icky atheism: Disgust responses to rejected religious beliefs Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47 (6), 1225-1230 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2011.05.006

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.


  1. I wonder how copying a Math text would work? (maybe it was aversion [a little broader than "disgust"]). I wonder which passages were chosen? (there had to be big bias there).

    Very fun study but now we need Atheists reading these. My guess is that irrational "disgust" will be seen in Atheists who like to pride themselves on rational evaluations. What do you think.

  2. PS, you may want to switch out Darwin for Dawkins in the Atheist tests in that some Atheists are averse to Dawkins but almost 100% worship Darwin. :-)

  3. How about "atheists" being forced to copy the Bible vs. the Bhagavad Gita?

  4. I just have to say, this is an awesome little experiment. And yeah, like Sabio and Gillimer, I can think of a bazillion other variations I'd love to see. Cool stuff!

  5. This is a debasement of science and whoever endorses this farce of the scientific method should have their credentials revoked.

  6. The moral effect of handwashing gives some insight on handwashing as OCD behavior.

  7. This is a debasement of science and whoever endorses this farce of the scientific method should have their credentials revoked.

    Heh, dude, you're going to have to be more specific. What specifically do you see as the problem here?

    I do see the lack of a control group as a problem (they should have had a group just read some crap from a math book or something) but the fact that it shows a differential effect is interesting in itself. I suppose one could question the validity of the metrics they are measuring, but I see no evidence of a "fishing expedition" here, or of other techniques that tend to give spurious results (e.g. not having fixed sample sizes, etc.). While it's difficult to say with certainty what effect precisely they are measuring, it seems fairly clear there is some effect being measured.

    Really, you just sound like a drive-by troll. You can't just say, "That's shit" without elaboration, or else you're the shit.

  8. If you believe Jonathon Haidt, we have 5 fundamental moral domains and religious people (or, at least, a certain kind of religious person), find the 5th (purity/sancitity) to be particularly important.

    In other words, one reason atheists are atheists may be that they don't din these kinds of scenarios disgusting!

  9. @Tom,
    First, I am not sure I what I think of Haidt -- I went back and looked at your past posts again.
    Many folks stop being religious -- do they give up purity intuitions -- do their temperaments change?

    What if you just don't like something, it sets down the pleasure reading in the other senses.

    Restaurants capitalize on this -- food tastes better if you like your atmosphere.

    I am not convince that "disgust" is the necessary way to go.

    Good try, though. :-)

  10. Re: The Haidt/disgust thing... First, I share Sabio's skepticism about Haidt's model. It's an interesting model and seems to have a lot of applicability, but I always reserve some skepticism for a model that's just sort of "made up" like that. It does seem to be useful, though.

    Moreover, I literally feel like spitting when I read some of the sick shit done in the name of religion (e.g. I didn't realize until yesterday afternoon that a non-trivial number of religious people believe the jumpers on 9/11 are going to burn in hell for committing suicide... that seriously puts me off my lunch). So I don't think it's necessarily the case that atheists don't have that moral disgust sensation.

    I agree with Sabio that I think if you repeated this experiment with a bunch of atheists, and selected appropriately chosen Bible passages, you'd get similar results. I disagree somewhat with his phrasing -- I don't think that there is any contradiction between experiencing irrational disgust vs. priding oneself and rational evaluations. Hell, the epitome of rationality is to be cognizant of the limits of one's own ability to be rational, ain't it?

  11. Well, I take your points (James and Sabio). But Haidt's 'disgust' domain is more to do with purity/sanctity, rather than moral revoltion in general. I think that people who are are 'disgusted' by the idea of mixing two different categories (ethnicities, genetics) or by crossing 'normal' boundaries (homosexuality)are also more likely to be religious. That's because they are more likey to view things (people, animals, objects' as having an 'essence' that characterises them.
    So the reason these christians are digsuted in this situation is that you are playing with their sense of what is natural and right. It's not that they are disgusted by the Koran, per se. It's more that they are being forced to something that attacks their essence (because they are writing out the koran), and that disgusts them.

    Atheists are more likely to be open to experience, which I believe is probably linked to relatively lower 'essentialist' beliefs. They're not choscked or disgusted by mixing things up and playing with with nature (or 'playing God', even). All speculation, but it's what I think!

  12. Now you're speaking my language... it's not so much Haidt's purity/disgust thing, but rather essentialism. (Bruce Hood would have a field day, eh?) I agree that it is probably the case that atheists are a lot less likely to strongly hold to an essentialist belief in many circumstances -- though we all behave like we believe in essentialism quite often, of course, but I think this is weaker in atheists and we are more willing to recognize that we are making an essentialist error.

  13. @ James Sweet
    you said, "but I think this[essentialism] is weaker in atheists and we are more willing to recognize that we are making an essentialist error.'

    That is an empirical claim which would be fun to test.
    "Are Atheist less likely to make essentialist mistakes?"

    Atheism is just a belief in no gods (or some definition close to that), not all atheists are prideful rationalists nor do they train themselves in reason. Many still believe (even half-heartedly) in good luck and such. And when it comes to understanding their own selves, I can't imagine they are any less self-deceived as any theist.

    I think this self-righteous "We are more Rational" notion among atheists needs to be tempered, because it is wrong.

    Even if a study showed some difference on some focused task, I doubt (1) it could be generalized (2) the lack of 'clinical' significance may outstrip and p-value of the statistics.

  14. Well, the religious tend to be more likely to be against things like cloning, which suggests stronger essentialism. And there is some evidence that Orthodox Jewish kids have stronger essentialism.

    I was watching an antiques show today (I know, rock and roll, eh?) and marvelling over the prices. It's a kind of essentialism of course. I wonder if atheists are willing to pay more or less for antiques than religious people? Should be something that would be easy to test!

  15. I am curious if there are Atheists who are born without a tendency toward essentialism ("Natural Atheists") and others who have strong essentialism delusions but someone fight their way out of essentialist faiths for other reasons and though still having those tendencies of the mind, resist them with other cognitive skills. (Ex-Religious Atheists)

    I think I am more in the later category. That is one of many reasons Atheists don't understand each other at times, I think.

  16. It works the other way around, too. People who feel dirty or who are in dirty surroundings are more judgemental (Canadian spelling).

  17. It doesn't tie in nesciently, ocsýmòron.

    "..christians are digsuted in this situation is that you are playing with their sense of what is natural and right."

    What of dominion over everything on Earth? And what has God or soul to do with the natural?


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