Clean Hands And Dirty Deeds

Just as our aural imaginations supply the “right” notes (that we have not actually heard) so as to resolve musical dissonances (that don’t actually resolve), so too can what we may call our social imaginations supply the “right” facts and perspectives to enable us feel good about ourselves. Now, not everyone has a sufficiently powerful social imagination to make themselves come up smelling of roses no matter what they have done, so they may purchase cognitive-dissonance resolutions “off the peg” from the nearest religion.

Experiments have shown that washing their hands with soap and water makes people view unethical activity as more reasonable than they did before. Feelings of disgust apparently make people act more morally. It is intuitively plausible that fastidiousness is transferable from body-perception to the envisaged act; so that if you feel you are dirty, you may more easily feel that any act you desire at the moment to perform is also dirty, or wrong. That might explain why ascetics were so reluctant to bathe – it would make them less disgusted with themselves, ergo less self-critical. Contrariwise, ritual purification might be expected to produce a more relaxed attitude to morality; when my feet or hands or genitals are clean, then I am clean; and if I am “clean”, then it doesn’t much matter what I do.

If this is so, the next question we should ask is cui bono? If physical cleanliness serves to fool the conscience, religions based on ritual purification may be powered by the desire to feel clean while doing ethically dirty things. Even though he was probably not at all religious himself, one of our key pieces of religious symbolism has been furnished by Pontius Pilate. Or, as Augustine might have put it, “Wash, and do what thou wilt”.

Posted on February 8, 2010 at 11:13 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink
In: THE LONGEST CON, Religion As Emotional Tech

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