Elevation and Disgust

So...I'm wrapping up teaching Jonathan Haidt's book The Happiness Hypothesis.  By a fun coincidence, my class read the chapter about religion (Chapter 9) on a day when I headed for some religion myself.  Last night we went to the annual Hanukah celebration at my temple.

Haidt has an interesting theory about the emotions involved in religion.  Religion fosters experience along a dimension he calls "divinity."  If I understand him right, his view is that the "divine" and the "disgusting" are opposite ends of a single continuum.  In fact, religion deals with both ends--its job is to keep the disgusting at bay, and cultivate the experience of divinity.

Anybody, religious or not, can experience divinity.  It involves having a sense of elevation--possible within religious settings, and also outside of them. In fact, one study of elevation focused on subjects (lactating women, actually) watching people express gratitude on the Oprah show.  The study showed that the emotion of elevation correlates strongly with surging oxytocin.  It's not really surprising that elevation has a hormonal basis, since it has lots of physical manifestations--goose bumps, spine tingling pleasure, tears of joy.

At the service, I was on the look out for feelings of elevation.  Do I have them, despite being a total skeptic? I do indeed.  Starting about 10 years ago, when my kids were going to the temple's pre-school, I started attending kiddie services with them.  I was practically  dragged kicking and screaming, so I wasn't looking for elevation.  I was actually looking to guard them against indoctrination.  Surprise, surprise.  I loved these services.  I think Haidt captures what I felt and still feel: elevation.  What are the the triggers? I think it's the sheer feeling of being part of a group, but also perceived virtues in the group--like perseverance, reverence, and humility. 

At the opposite end of the spectrum (says Haidt) there's disgust.  Conservative religions imagine there's a lot to be disgusted by--menstruating women, mixing meat and milk, homosexuality, etc. Liberal religion is "all elevation, no disgust." Or rather, just ordinary disgust.  I was amused to find out what my students find disgusting (top secret!), but one example of mine is being seated right next to the bathroom in a restaurant. Let's do keep eating separate from excreting.

What I'm trying to figure out is why we ought to think the very same psychological system outputs both feelings of disgust and feelings of elevation.  Why see it that way?  What sort of evidence would show it was one system, not two?  Is it really?


Aeolus said...

How similar is Haidt's position to Mary Midgley's, I wonder. (I mentioned Midgley in a guest post in June.) She argues that, for humans, understanding involves teleology: reasoning from purpose -- in particular, grasping the role that something plays in a greater whole. Religion does this, but so does science, she says -- one difference being that scientists commonly mistakenly deny this or confuse meaning with simply piling up information. Getting "rid of all reverence, all belief in something greater than ourselves ... replaces reverence by such feelings as contempt, horror, resentment, fear, hostility, estrangement and the ambition to dominate."

Jean Kazez said...

That's interesting, because in places where people spend all their time bashing religion, there is a huge amount of energy put into contempt, horror, hostility, etc. You might even say the emotions are on the very same axis as religious emotions, just on the other end. Lots of disgust, no elevation.

I like Midgley's book about animals very much, so I've always meant to read more of her.

Faust said...

One view of why they might be tied together reasons from a view of human beings as a union of opposites:

On the one hand we are animals.

On the other we seem to be able to transcend our animality, minimally through our use of symbols, and more extensively in our creative use of those symbols to create extremely complex landscapes in a space known as "the human imagination."

The animal is base. The animal is what eats and excretes. It is what bleeds and aches. It is what lusts and rages. It is also what dies and rots.

Our symbol systems on the other hand show us how we can reach for more, a more that transcends our base animality.

They show us our ideals: our Gods and Saints, or scientifically speaking, "the true structure of reality;" our models of how the world works--allowing us to predict and control it, a bit like God used to.

We posit that these things are eternal (which makes them the "opposite" of our animality):

If there is a God then by aligning ourselves with God we can lift ourselves out of our base animal existence and reach for something beyond.

And if we understand "the mind of God" to use Hawking's phrase, we can align ourselves with something that lasts forever, that caused us, and will go on after us, even if there is "actually" no God thinking all those beautiful thoughts.

"If man were a beat or an angel, he would not be able to be in dread. Since he is a synthesis he can be in dread...man himself produces dread."