Field of Science

What are the religious disgusted by?

Religious people often seem to have strong taboos. Think of any religion, and there is usually some proscribed activities or objects, and an emphasis on purity. Maybe religion is connected to a heightened sense of disgust?

Uri Berger and David Anaki, at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, were looking to see how one questionnaire often used to measure disgust, the Revised Disgust Scale (DS-R) functioned across a diverse group of Israeli citizens. Most studies in the past have used students (and mostly women), but the 1427 participants in their study had an average age of 33, and only half were women.

The DS-R has 27 questions and, like others, Berger and Anaki found that they fell into three groups of closely related questions.
  • Core disgust: related to disease and eating
  • Animal reminder: related to sex, death, and hygiene
  • Contamination: related to, well, contamination
Overall they found that religion doesn’t really explain why some people are more easily disgusted than others. It only explained 1.4% of the variation – gender was ten times more important (women were more easily disgusted than men).

What was interesting is the relationship between religion and different types of disgust. Religious people were actually less disgusted by contamination than the non-religious, and only a bit more disgusted by ‘core disgust’.

But this was more than made up for by the disgust felt by the religious over reminders of our animal nature.

So it could be that religion changes the things that disgust us. Certainly it seems to affect the broad domains of disgust, but there’s probably more to it than that. As Berger and Anaki comment:
[It] may be that demographic elements do not modulate levels of disgust per se as much as they impact the context in which disgust is activated. For example, the dietary differences in Jewish and Hindi religions caused the variation in subjective disgust evoked in devotee’s response to a potential consumption of ‘‘forbidden animals’’; Jews who consume beef are repelled from pork consumption, while the vice versa applies for non-vegetarian Hindus. However, the level of religious devoutness may only slightly modulate the intensity of that subjective disgust.
Berger, U., &Anaki, D. (2014). Demographic influences on disgust: Evidence from a heterogeneous sample Personality and Individual Differences, 64, 67-71 DOI: 10.1016/j.paid.2014.02.016

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


  1. Wow, like we should need research money to 'discover' that women have greater levels of disgust than men? Heck, men are disgusting. Embrace your disgust!

    So am I right that the study concludes that religious folks do not have a hyper-vigilent disgust detector any for than the religious-free folks?

    1. Men are more disgusting? Speak for yourself :)

      It seems they they are not more easily disgusted. According to this study - other studies have found that conservatives are more easily disgusted, and I guess since a lot of religious folks are socially conservative there's probably a lot of overlap. But then this study would contradict that, so who knows!

  2. Apart from obvious things like Jews and pork or Hindus and beef, where there any differences between different religions detected? It would be easy to imagine, frex, that religions/sects that are big on ritual purity would breed higher sensitivity to contamination than ones that are less so.

    1. They didn't look at that, unfortunately (their study only included Jews). Sounds like a good idea for further study!

  3. I see Moms teaching their non-religious kids to fear germs by constantly using "wipies", anti-bacterial soap and handi-sanitizers. Argh. Yep, yuck-training heightens disgust in both seculars and religious.

    Heck, I am disgusted by Anonymous commentors and outlaw them on my site. :-)

    1. I read somewhere a study that looked into how kids tell the difference between supernatural beliefs and scientific beliefs. They looked at microbes specifically, because kids can't see microbes so have to take their existence on trust. Basically they found that kids can tell the difference, and it's down to how adults talk about the concepts differently (they are much more matter of fact and plain speaking about microbes).

      Damned if I can find it now.

  4. This isn't really surprising. Religion doesn't generate attitudes - it only justifies them.

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