Comment Rescue, Purity Edition

Tod Kelly

Tod is a writer from the Pacific Northwest. He is also serves as Executive Producer and host of both the 7 Deadly Sins Show at Portland's historic Mission Theatre and 7DS: Pants On Fire! at the White Eagle Hotel & Saloon. He is  a regular inactive for Marie Claire International and the Daily Beast, and is currently writing a book on the sudden rise of exorcisms in the United States. Follow him on Twitter.

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68 Responses

  1. Marchmaine says:

    Well, it’s hard to comment contrary to the word to Tod, but two items that stand the test of time are Slavery and the dignity of Women. I recognize that these things will not sit well among some here, but the interesting thing about Haidt’s work is that some of conclusions may be shared (some not), but the moral reasoning to get there may be different. So, for a certain set of folks (conservatives?), the Sanctity of the Person is the foundational argument against slavery and for the dignity of women; not fairness and not liberty.

    What I have found interesting about Haidt’s moral foundations is that even if it’s taxonomy incomplete (or even wrong), it certainly helps to illustrate some of the reasons why we can all agree on certain principles, like, say, the dignity of the human person, but because the foundations upon which we base the conclusion are so varied, we can look across the aisle and see nothing but wrongness.

    Haidt’s story of Messrs. Meiwes and Brandes, though macabre in the extreme, should at least tickle the Sanctity sentiment that we all possess, perhaps illustrating why a notion of human liberty/dignity based solely on fairness/freedom might be different than a notion of human dignity/liberty informed by sanctity.

    And that’s all I have to say about that.Report

  2. Kolohe says:

    Does opposing Prohibition count? Or do the particulars of that case make the Progressives the ‘purists’?Report

    • LeeEsq in reply to Kolohe says:

      There were plenty of socially conservative, not very progressive people that supported Prohibition. The Prohibition movement consisted of a wide range of people ranging from Anglo-Protestants in small town America, the foot soldiers and officers of the Prohibition movement, and Progressive types that provided some of the intellectual backbone along with Protestant Pastors. The Wets included a wide-range of people to from immigrant radicals to conservative Anglo-Americans.Report

  3. zic says:

    I’m thinking of useful institutions that didn’t use to exist. Public schools and public libraries, for instance, are built on a sort-of purity notion; the value of education for all children and the value of reading and education for the general population.The subsidization of newspaper delivery by the US Postal Service.

    But this really depends on what you mean by ‘purity,’ and typically it’s used for racial/religious/cult purposes or anti-commercialism dirty-hippies and unwashed food purposes.Report

    • zic in reply to zic says:

      Suffrage is a good purity movement, and one that’s typically applauded unless you start looking at the voting margins of a specific election where you’ve got a dog in the race.Report

    • Brandon Berg in reply to zic says:

      The opposition to school privatization strikes me as very much purity-based, although I don’t see that as a good thing, and those who do may not acknowledge that it’s purity-based.Report

      • Tod Kelly in reply to Brandon Berg says:

        I think that makes the purity label far too watered down to have any meaning.

        The way I understand is (someone correct me if I’m wrong?), a purity-based objection would to privatized schools would require liberals to be anti-private schools and a wish for public polices that made it so that people who had gone to private schools not be allowed to, say, hold certain jobs. But the liberal objection to privatization has more to do with a distrust that certain disenfranchised populations would be well served.

        I think in order to have any meaning at all, a purity test has to have a consequence that the impure are deigned outside of the tribe and treated by public policy accordingly.Report

  4. trizzlor says:

    I still don’t quite get how “purity” differs from other moral axioms. My guess is if you asked an average moral scold why they stigmatize women who have sex, they would tell you that it’s because promiscuity is a sign of poor decision making, lack of self-worth, giving in to basic urges, etc. and that “purity” is just a shorthand for those character traits.

    Anyway, to your question, I can think of the land conservation movements of the early 20th century as being successful purity-based policy. Much of those campaigns explicitly referred to unspoiled or virgin land, which must be kept clean and free of private influences. In hind-sight, I think most people are grateful for the abundance of open natural spaces, and see the alternative of selling those spaces to the robber-barrons and monopolists of the time as a terrible fate we were lucky to avoid.Report

    • Guy in reply to trizzlor says:

      I don’t think that’s the answer you’d get from a typical moral scold. I expect you would, in fact, get either something couched in the purity language that was appropriated to some extent by environmentalists* or a discussion of poor decision making, etc, but you would not be told that purity is a shorthand for those things, because it isn’t. You could probably, if you pestered them enough, get your generic scold to fall back one way or the other (ie, they might give up the purity argument and go to decision making, or give up decision making and go to purity, if you questioned them hard enough), but you wouldn’t get one claiming that the two arguments are the same, at least not directly, and the purity argument is certainly not subservient to the other argument.

      *Good catch on the environmentalists. I thought of hippies & such, but environmentalism was (and to some extent still is) largely predicated on purity ideas and was later shown to be a pretty good idea. Similarly literal cleanliness (in terms of food preparation and personal hygiene) was rooted in religious or cultural purity ideas in some places long before germ theory was popular.Report

  5. Mad Rocket Scientist says:

    I’d add in the profane axis as well. Is there something we found profane & had a good outcome with the banning of it (absent obvious criminal activity that results in real harm)?Report

  6. Murali says:

    While we may not have many purity taboos which we in retrospect thought was a good idea, I can think of at least one thing which we can in retrospect wish we had a purity taboo about. Feeding cattle meal derived from the slaughter of other cattle.

    • Brandon Berg in reply to Murali says:

      Taboos against human cannibalism probably arose for similar reasons, or due to risk of spreading disease in general. There’s a cannibalistic tribe somewhere that has high rates of a very similar prion disease, kurukuru, that’s spread by eating the brains of infected victims.

      No one ever thought to apply it to cattle, though.Report

      • DavidTC in reply to Brandon Berg says:

        Taboos against cannibalism also arose because, frankly, people have *enough* reason to murder each other already, and anything society can do to try to reduce that is probably going to be an evolutionary positive for that society. 😉Report

    • The DEA in reply to Murali says:

      @Murali Mad Cow Disease was my immediate thought as well. One quibble though: I would suspect that feeding cows protein supplements made from other cows provokes a knee-jerk response of discomfort and disgust in most people. But most folks don’t know/think/discuss where their food comes from, so the purity response against modern agricultural methods hasn’t been particularly strong. I’m still a meat eater myself, but I increasingly find that I search for ethically produced food rather than just the cheapest stuff.Report

  7. Brandon Berg says:

    Many, if not most, purity norms serve or served some important purpose.

    There are many purity norms around feces, which I think most would acknowledge are a good idea even now.

    Purity norms around premarital sex don’t make as much sense now that we have reliable contraceptives, but they made a lot of sense when contraception was dodgy and an unintended pregnancy be a ruinous financial burden.

    HIV made taboos against sodomy look at least somewhat reasonable in retrospect.

    Many purity norms around food served us well in the days before good refrigeration and quality assurance.

    Purity norms about incest guard against inbreeding.

    Xenophobia is a purity norm of sorts, and look what contact with foreigners did to the aboriginal people of the Americas.

    Most purity norms are based on risk of disease or pregnancy, and made at least some sense when those things were much less manageable than they are today.Report

    • Mike Schilling in reply to Brandon Berg says:

      Incest as well, long before anyone understood the genetic hazards. It’s interesting, to me at least, that incest taboos were relaxed most among royalty, where first-cousin marriages were common and uncle-niece not at all unheard of. Of course it made sense for superior people to marry other superior people, rather than contaminate their blood by mating with the unclean. It’s an example of duelling purities.Report

      • Stillwater in reply to Mike Schilling says:

        ALso, marrying in the fambly inspired confidence in a long(er) life.Report

      • Road Scholar in reply to Mike Schilling says:

        Fun fact I didn’t know until reading up on this stuff: In a relatively isolated population of decent size (100’s of thousands) reproductive fitness, as measured by number of grandchildren, peaks at a consanguinity of between third and fourth cousins. While everyone understands the dangers of inbreeding, few appreciate the potential biological hazards of excessive outbreeding, at least to traditional cultures.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to Mike Schilling says:


        If you could provide a source for that information at some convenient time, I’d be appreciative. I’d never heard that and it sounds really interesting.Report

      • Murali in reply to Mike Schilling says:

        First cousin marriages and uncle niece marriages are still very common among Indians. There is a reason why in many villages, wives call their husbands uncle. I’m pretty sure that my parents each have a second or third cousin who married a first cousin. About the only truly universal incest taboo is sibling marriage and marrying a direct ancestor/descendant.Report

      • Murali in reply to Mike Schilling says:

        Also, my mom’s grandmother and my dad were second cousins. Consanguinity rules among Indians are at least partly about property management, given how the rules differ based on whether someone is your cousin on your dad’s or your mom’s side.Report

      • Glyph in reply to Mike Schilling says:

        “the potential biological hazards of excessive outbreeding,”

        What would these be? The introduction of novel infectious agents for which the ingroup has not developed immunity, I guess?Report

      • Road Scholar in reply to Mike Schilling says:

        @james-hanley : I’ll give you the citation from the bibliography and hopefully you can do something with it with your academic access.

        P.P.G. Bateson, “Optimal Outbreeding,” in Mate Choice, ed. P.P.G. Bateson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), pp. 257-77.

        BTW, that’s a PITA on Android. Stupid phone constantly trying to be “helpful.” ; PReport

      • Road Scholar in reply to Mike Schilling says:

        Argh. Even worse, I gave you the wrong citation (although it’s related).

        A. Helgason, S. Palsson, and D. F. Guthbjartsson, “An Association between the Kinship and Fertility of Human Couples,” Science 319, no. 5864 (2008): 813.


      • Road Scholar in reply to Mike Schilling says:

        @glyph , there’s a couple of different mechanisms in play. Having kids with immune systems that are tuned to the wrong set of environmental challenges is one. Another is a mismatch between the maternal and fetal blood groups and immune systems that can lead to severe, sometimes even fatal, issues for either or both.

        Sometimes it can be a simple physical incompatibility. For instance, the size and shape of teeth is strongly heritable. So is the size and shape of the jaw. Problem is, they’re independently determined. So you can get a mismatch with the teeth literally too big for the jaw reducing the fitness of the child. Or maybe a small female mates with a large male, producing a baby that tears up the mother at birth.

        Fortunately, medical science can deal with a lot of this stuff now but it exerted strong selective pressures in our past.Report

      • Glyph in reply to Mike Schilling says:

        @road-scholar – thanks, interesting. That would never have occurred to me.Report

    • Tod Kelly in reply to Brandon Berg says:

      “HIV made taboos against sodomy look at least somewhat reasonable in retrospect.”

      Considering that such taboos existed hundreds of years before the 1970s and HIV can be transmitted through vaginal intercourse, I would say you have to really, really, really be wanting to find that respectability.Report

      • Glyph in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        Eh, then look at HIV, specifically, as simply a modern twist on the actual root health risk – anal sex (particularly if vigorous) sans good lubrication can rupture the tissue in and around the rectum/colon/anus. This tissue is thinner than that of the vagina, does not produce its own lubrication as does the vagina, does not heal very quickly, and if ruptured can facilitate the passage of other STIs, as well as fecal matter/intestinal bacteria (which can make you very sick or kill you, if you get enough of it in your abdominal cavity; and in any case can cause the ruptures to become infected).

        I don’t know how *common* such injuries were, pre-modern condoms and lube (and hospitals/antibiotics if needed), but the fallout from them can be quite severe; I find it quite plausible that observation of this could be the origin of the taboo (why, thought Og and Zog, would you do ever want to do something that carried such risk, and did not even produce offspring?)Report

      • Murali in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        Not to mention that repeated ruptures and healing of the membrane would have increased the likelihood of tumours in that region.Report

    • Roger in reply to Brandon Berg says:

      I think Brandon Berg answered the question.

      Purity norms have been essential for societies. Like all our moral senses, they evolved via natural selection within a social species. In this case, helping us to resist unwanted pregnancy, disease, out-group transgression and inbreeding. To demean these as “bigotry” is itself tribalistic sophistry of the worst kind.

      The problem with these taboos and norms is when they are translated into laws or regulations. It behooves us to understand the purpose behind these norms translated into modern conditions rather than sanctify them as transcendent moral truths.Report

    • DavidTC in reply to Brandon Berg says:

      Many, if not most, purity norms serve or served some important purpose.

      Yes, but the question is: What purity norms that have been dismantled actually turned out to serve a useful purpose at the time they were dismantled?

      Some of them are justifiable historically as rules of thumbs to make society work, and have been modified a bit. (Did you know that we expel feces *in our house* now? Which we can do because we understand sanitation.)

      Some of them were justifiable but aren’t anymore. We know how to cook shrimp.

      The question is, which ones were justifiable at the time but we stupidly dismantled anyway?

      Purity norms around premarital sex don’t make as much sense now that we have reliable contraceptives, but they made a lot of sense when contraception was dodgy and an unintended pregnancy be a ruinous financial burden

      Purity rules around premarital sex were almost *entirely* about controlling women and being able to verify paternity.

      The idea society made rules to stop women from getting a ‘ruinous financial burden’ at the same time society *deliberately ruined the life of women who got were caught having premarital sex* is a bit surreal.

      It’s akin to taking people who overextend their credit card debt, or who just might have done that but actually didn’t…and firing them into the sun. Whatever reason we’re doing that, it’s probably not to *help* them.

      For your claim to be true, rules about premarital sex would have had to show up in 1955 or something.Report

    • Chris in reply to Glyph says:


      Negativity bias is one of the more prominent features of depression. I wonder if people are more conservative when depressed.Report

      • Glyph in reply to Chris says:

        I hesitate to say this, because I can’t locate where I read it (the obvious search terms keep leading me to suicide risk evaluation pieces) and I may be recalling it incorrectly and/or drawing the wrong conclusion, but IIRC there was a finding not too long ago that depressed people more accurately assess risk, which certainly sounds related; but of course could cut the other way, making it sound like conservatives, at least the depressed ones, are right when they say gay marriage will doom Western Civ.Report

      • Chris in reply to Chris says:

        There is a well-studied, though still somewhat controversial (and certainly not fully understood) phenomenon called depressive realism. I’m not sure which specific finding you’re thinking of.Report

      • Glyph in reply to Chris says:

        “Depressive realism” certainly sounds like what I remember the takeaway being. Non-depressed people overestimate their ability to complete a task or project and underestimate the difficulties; depressed people are supposedly better at looking with a gimlet eye and saying “that’ll never work”.

        Because why even start and expend limited energy on something you know will fail? I think Eeyore actually said that.Report

      • Chris in reply to Chris says:

        Eeyorean realism would sound better.

        Maybe you’re thinking of this one:,%20Murphy,%20Simpson%20%26%20Kornbrot%20(2005).pdf

        My favorite, because it fits with my own experience of depression, is the one about time perception:

      • Chris in reply to Chris says:

        Also, in case it’s not clear, I didn’t mean to imply that depressed people are conservative or conservatives are depressed (I seem to remember a study a few years ago showing that conservatives are actually happier, in general), but to wonder whether people are more conservative when they’re depressed than when they’re not (that is, a within-subject comparison), if increased negativity bias is associated with both conservatism and depression.Report

      • Glyph in reply to Chris says:

        No, I got that, and I am always extremely wary of people drawing links between people’s mental states and/or predispositions and their political preferences; I’ve seen a lot in the last few years from the left, saying things like “conservatives are so because they are genetically-predisposed to be more scared/hold to primitive value systems that we no longer need in the modern world”.

        The right often says similar things about the left, but in slightly different terms – I mean, “nanny state” is kinda just “Oedipus complex” writ large, and often they just go with the more simple “Lefties are crazy.”

        It’s not that no links can be drawn, it’s just that of course we like to read things that confirm our beliefs about our opponents (and/or help explain their inexplicable inability TO JUST SEE THINGS AS I DO DAMMIT).

        I also hate seeing things (even “ideology”, or “tribalism”, or “resistance to change”) always and forever dismissed as vestigial and maladaptive in the modern world (even if they are often so). It’s possible these things are the cultural appendixes of the modern world, but again it’s convenient to believe so when they are standing in your way. For all humanity’s many flaws, we are the most adaptive animal this planet has yet seen (well, maybe excepting the cockroach or tardigrade) and these traits played a role in getting us here. I’m not ready to throw them out of the boat yet.Report

      • Chris in reply to Chris says:

        Yeah, I didn’t think you would, but I was imagining a comment later with, “Some people here think conservatives are depressed,” and figured I’d better clarify what I was saying.Report

    • DavidTC in reply to Glyph says:

      If you listen to people on the right-wing news, or to right-wing pols, you will constantly be told you should be disgusted about one thing or anything. I don’t know of a study, but I’d bet real money that if one existed, and compared the words that the left and right use, ‘disgust’ and variants would show up a lot more on the right than the left.

      But I find it odd that the article seems to take it for granted that such things are ‘hardwired’ in. Correlation does not equal causality. If you’re constantly *told* certain things are disgusting, than not only will you believe it about those things, but you’ll start *framing other issues* that way inside your head.

      And the opposite applies, obviously. If you’re told to be tolerant in specific examples, you will be more tolerant in general to random disgusting things.Report

      • DavidTC in reply to DavidTC says:

        If you listen to people on the right-wing news, or to right-wing pols, you will constantly be told you should be disgusted about one thing or anything.

        Oh, and to clarify, I don’t just mean things that actually *could* be ‘disgusting’. I hear news media on the right call *voting fraud* ‘disgusting’…whereas the left would be ‘outraged’ if they were running the same story. The right often seems to use ‘disgusting’ as a synonym for ‘bad’. This is *not* a coincidence.Report

  8. Tod Kelly says:

    I can’t tell if I’m misreading the “purity” test or if others here are, so I’ll ask guidance from someone who has read Haidt.

    My understanding of the purity test is that it is a way to identify in-tribe/out-tribe, not do/don’t do. So for example, humans learning not to touch fecal matter over time doesn’t count as a purity test in the same way that we are not “purifying society” when we collectively don’t touch a hot stove.

    So, to take an example I feel is closer (but still not quite on the mark) from @brandon-berg: It might well be that anal sex has a greater risk of transmitting infection than vaginal intercourse — and @murali might be right that anal sex causes cancer in a way vaginal sex doesn’t. I don’t know whether either of those statements is true, but let me allow those statements as a given. It still leaves a question of what do you do as a society with people who engage in anal sex.

    The way that it was often done in the past was to declare people born gay ‘outside of the tribe,’ and to make laws prohibiting the actual people, the actual sex, the behaviors associated with people who were gay, or some combination of all three. Now, my guess is that there were tons of other things people in those same cultures did that were risky but not entirely necessary: hunting boars instead of deer, for example. People were allowed (sometimes encouraged) to engage in those risky behaviors without being declared out-tribe.

    DavidTC’s question about purity test and public policy then, as I see it, is not satisfied by any of the answers I’m seeing given here. In order to answer his question with a yes, I think you have to pick out a situation where people within a community were exiled to some degree by law, and say that even by today’s standards, they were absolutely right in doing so. (The only example I have been able to come up with on my own is people in less scientifically advanced cultures exiling those with catastrophic infectious diseases.)

    I suspect that your answer to DavidTC’s question says a lot to do about the degree to which you are a True Believer in whatever political philosophy you are a True Believer in. I suspect that Saul and Tim will be able to find “yes” answers that satisfy them (and indeed I think each occasionally write advocating purity for certain purity test), and I suspect Jaybird and Russell will not.Report

    • Roger in reply to Tod Kelly says:

      I suspect you are redefining purity as in group signalling and conformance. Here is the real definition:

      “5) Sanctity/degradation: This foundation was shaped by the psychology of disgust and contamination. It underlies religious notions of striving to live in an elevated, less carnal, more noble way. It underlies the widespread idea that the body is a temple which can be desecrated by immoral activities and contaminants (an idea not unique to religious traditions). ”

      Brandon has answered the question, just not according to your (mis?)interpretation of the issue.

      To answer your original question,

      “Is there a non-conservative “purity” that drive liberals at this point, and if so what would that be?”

      I would point to sanctity around nature and the environment, genetic modification, radiation, and the word organic.Report

      • Pinky in reply to Roger says:

        “Is there a non-conservative “purity” that drive liberals at this point, and if so what would that be?”

        There were a few things that came up in that last thread. I’ve also been thinking about this since then. I’ve forgotten which ones have been mentioned already, but here are a few things that seem to qualify:

        guns (impure)
        science (pure: to invoke it is to be infallible, whether or not you practice it)
        government (pure)
        profit (impure)

        Related to purity: any n+1 cultures are superior to any n cultures, regardless of cultural content. I could shorten that and say that multiculturalism is seen as pure, but I suspect the longer form carries more information.

        Also: anything that’s happened in the past is assumed to be impure, meaning that any change is an improvement as long as it’s not “turning back the clock”. This hints at an answer to the second question: any decision that was made in the past is met with an instinctive disapproval, whatever the decision’s basis.Report

      • Marchmaine in reply to Roger says:

        Haidt makes available the entirety of Chapter 7 from his website.Report

      • Pinky in reply to Roger says:

        I forgot two biggies. To the modern liberal, sex is pure. Any inclination, any age, as long as there’s consent. You could consider this part of fairness, but it’s worth noting that no prior society ever has.

        And closely allied with that, religion is thought of as impure. It’s not absolute, but the working assumption is that you have to apologize for it or distance yourself from it. It’s as if the roles of sex and religion have switched – one is public and unifying, the other is private and somewhat shameful.

        This helps explain the modern liberal discomfort with black people. Not all of them – the educated upper-class ones are acceptable, and it’s great if they have a little bit of street in them, but you have to be careful, because they might have some gospel in them too. The poor ones vote right, and they’re to be praised, but they’re not to be encountered unless it’s unavoidable.Report

      • greginak in reply to Roger says:

        Pinky, you are bit off on both of those. On consent not that far, but plenty of societies, notably the ancient greeks and romans, were pretty fine with all sorts of sex. Lots of cultures were far less puritan that the US was or still is.

        You are really way off on religion mostly because their are actually plenty of liberal religious people. Certainly many actual black people are both liberal and church going. Ditto for Catholics. You are mostly applying a Mahar stereotype to all liberals.Report

      • Stillwater in reply to Roger says:


        I’m not sure I agree with you about your list (I don’t disagree either) but one thing it shows me is that all this talk about purity as a means to achieving political ends (or a means to strenuously object to someone else’s political ends) is just nonsense, pure and simple.Report

      • RTod in reply to Roger says:

        @stillwater Nonsense in what sense? Dumb thing to do nonsense, or doesn’t really exist nonsense?Report

      • Stillwater in reply to Roger says:


        It’s nonsense politically – which is I take the whole point of Murali’s post (scope of law and all that). What Pinky’s comment highlight’s to me is that one person’s sacred purity is another person’s perception of sacred purity for political ends. It’s hopelessly subjective. Hopelessly political.

        That’s not to say that a person who experiences a deep, felt commitment to a certain practice of goal or vision is being disingenuous, by the way. It’s just that the fact that they feel deeply about it ought not matter wrt to policy. Felt commitment isn’t a justification in any sense of that word.Report

      • zic in reply to Roger says:

        I think @roger has it on pretty accurately. I go back to my enlightenment-era notion of public education, as well. Even today, when kids are constantly bombarded with messages of how their schools suck, how education sucks, there’s some underlying message of the purity (and importance) of going to school, no matter who awful it might be.Report

      • RTod in reply to Roger says:

        I thought that was what you meant, but wanted to make sure.

        FWIW, I think that mirrors my own view pretty closely.Report

      • Pinky in reply to Roger says:

        Greg, a particular society may have had broader/narrower/different standards for acceptable sexual activity. In Ancient Greece, an adult catcher would be frowned upon, and oral sex was considered depraved. The Roman woman would have had minimal say in her sex life. In our society, any inclination is to be acted on if there is consent. It’s not just to be accommodated: sexual preference is something a CEO should be proud of. In Freud’s battle between desire and civilization, we know which one’s wearing the black hat.

        I’ve noted before that I watch a lot of anime. It can be fun, but it’s hard to miss one disturbing element of it. There’s a particular kind of pornography that can’t legally be made or imported, but it can be animated. It’s hugely popular. If you want to see a 14-year-old girl who looks like she’s 8 in pain from being sexually assaulted, well, welcome to anime. We can’t even formulate the thought that that is an urge that shouldn’t be stoked. We have no standards except for consent.

        As for religion, I’ve just had too many conversations with liberals to buy what you’re saying. Religion is mentioned in the form of an apology. It’s ok if a person knows about religion because he’s interested in studying it, or was raised in it, but that has to be stated up-front lest the listener think he’s dealing with one of those people. There are religious, liberal blacks, and Democrats are happy they vote, and maybe there’s even something interesting about the authentic black church experience if you quote Dr. King (as long as you don’t point out the text that Rev. King was reading from). Black churches are great for talking politics. But sometimes they talk religion, and the white liberal doesn’t want to hear that.

        This isn’t true of every single liberal, just as the conservative framework doesn’t forbid atheism. But secularism is a tribal marker at minimum, and religion is treated as borderline unclean precisely to the extent that it applies standards to sex.Report

      • Pinky in reply to Roger says:

        Stillwater, I hope that I wasn’t saying that purity is invoked for political purposes. I don’t believe that (although I’m sure there’s some cynics out there who do just that). Purity and the other moral foundations are genuine foundation, upon which a belief system is built. They may lead a person in a certain direction politically, but they are ends, not means to an end.Report

      • zic in reply to Roger says:


        I am an atheist. I don’t go around telling others that because they believe in God they’re immoral. But I’ve had plenty of people suggest that because I don’t believe, I cannot have a moral compass; I cannot be a good person. So I think you’re conflating a few vocal atheists atheists in general, and we are simply not that organized. Dawkins is not my spokesperson, any more than Miley Cyrus is the spokesperson for all twenty-something women or Jerry Falwell was the spokesperson for all Christians.

        There are three definitions for the word belief:

        1. Something that someone accepts as true.

        2. A religious conviction.

        3. Trust, faith, or confidence in something.

        So I believe (first definition) that there is a lot of confusion and misunderstanding because people conflate the different meanings of belief. It’s common, for instance, to see liberal belief in government (third meaning) conflated to religious belief (second meaning).

        You talk of consent here as if liberals hold it as a religious conviction; instead of a belief (first definition) that all people deserve the right to bodily sanctity, the right to say yes or to say no to sexual intercourse; and one that matters because despite the religious and legal restrictions against forced sex, forced sex is extremely common. It’s inaccurate to conflate this to some sort of purity standard.

        Science also presents similar misunderstandings. As a liberal, I do believe in science. But again, that’s not a religious belief, it’s a belief that scientific process works, and that we will, as we keep applying scientific process, develop better understanding and knowledge of how things work. It’s also a belief that this matters in helping us make the best choices we can as we look to leave a world still habitable.

        I wonder if in trying to understand liberal thought, liberal belief, you’re plugging far too much of it into the domain of religious belief? To @stillwater you say, purity and the other moral foundations are genuine foundation, upon which a belief system is built. That suggests that that the moral foundations underlay the belief system; that the system is an organized way to help people act morally without having to constantly puzzle out the morals of each individual action from scratch. But a belief system does not have to be a religious-belief system; it’s a system of thought — what we believe, first definition — as we go about our daily lives.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Roger says:


        For what it’s worth, I’ve seen the phenomenon that Pinky is talking about (and, in my youth, participated in). Dawkins isn’t a spokesperson but… he is someone who does a great job verbalizing on behalf of a lot of people who aren’t that good at putting their intuitions into complete sentences.

        And, then, of course, talking past people who don’t share his intuitions.Report

      • RTod in reply to Roger says:

        I think people here are confusing religious belief or non-belief with empathy.

        What Pinky and Jay its describe is actually entirely unrelated to religion; you can find those kinds of statements/actions with people of any degree of religious belief. It has nothing to do with what they believe, it has to do with how able they are to empathize with others who come from different places.

        And while i get why Pinky believes what he does about liberals, it too seems to miss the mark rather widely due to a lack of empathy.Report

      • greginak in reply to Roger says:

        Are there cranky, loud and dismissive athiests. Well hell yeah. Certainly in the past 10, maybe 20, its been more possible to be an Out atheist in the mainstream. Are their liberals who really don’t dig religion. Yup. Same with libertarians btw. However as an actual liberal i know many actual religious liberals. Democrats certainly aren’t all liberal, but it is notable that Jews, us muslims vote heavily D and catholics have up until the last couple cycles.

        It is just as ridiculous to say all liberals are dismissive atheists as it is to say all Christians are Falwells or Robertsons.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Roger says:

        Oh, is the problem that someone said that all atheists are something or other?

        Allow me to stand next to you and say “NO! It’s not the case that all atheists are something!”

        Awesome. We beat the crap out of *THAT* argument!Report

      • Pinky in reply to Roger says:

        I didn’t say “all atheists this” or “all liberals that”. I’m not talking about Dawkins and active hostility. I’m distancing myself from Jay on this, even though he was trying to stand up for me. (Sorry, dude.)

        This article came out of the Purity Taboos and the Profane, which was a response to the Lovely Wedding Conundrum, so this really started with the question of gay marriage versus religious rights. Commentary on the issue betrays a sense that religion is a private matter, as likely as not to be hateful. People who comment on it here seem obliged to note that they’re not religious, or not religious any more, or really really not religious.

        I may have distracted you by pounding too hard on tangential points. Sorry. But looking over what I said, I really don’t get where you thought I was talking about militant atheism. I’m not. I’m talking about the constant suspicion of religion, the need to mention every bad run-in with a zealot, the sense that religion is to be tolerated in the exact same way as a old person’s racism. To me, this all feels like a conditioned group gag-reflex, which parallels Haidt’s notion of purity.Report

      • zic in reply to Roger says:

        Commentary on the issue betrays a sense that religion is a private matter, as likely as not to be hateful. People who comment on it here seem obliged to note that they’re not religious, or not religious any more, or really really not religious.


        That willingness to openly admit to not believing is, I’d say, one of those purity norms that has shifted, too. And it goes hand in hand with recognizing that religious belief is personal; that one might, for instance, be raised in a religious family but not hold belief. Or an irreligious family and hold belief. It’s an openness to be honest about it instead of pretending to beliefs you do not hold and adhering to the social norm of belief (as did Thomas Jefferson, for instance). There’s a word for things that: deceit.

        But that’s really the heart of the problem here; I don’t think I can make someone else not believe; and I would never try. But there are many people who think that I should believe, and if I don’t, I should keep quiet about it and pretend that I do believe. They would prefer I lie, that I deceive, than that I be honest.

        Do you think my honesty on my lack of belief is a value judgement of their beliefs? It isn’t. I don’t object if you, for instance, think premarital sex is sinful. Part of the notion of consent is that anyone has the right to consent in the context of their moral, spiritual, and religious beliefs; and that includes withholding consent until your wedding night.

        There was, beginning in the 1820s, a whole canon of religious doctrine that was developed to justify slavery; the argument was that it was the job of white Christians to perfect the black race to be fit for God. Arguments that one set of people’s beliefs justify the oppression of a whole class of people. When your beliefs restrain my brother’s right to his marriage to his husband, I’ve got a problem. When your beliefs are used to constrain my right to control my reproduction, I’ve got a problem. And I will speak out. That’s my right, too. Not to tell you you cannot exercise your rights in your life, but that you cannot impose them on mine.

        Belief is private. It’s what each person actually thinks; and what you think is your ultimate personal freedom. It can move you to public expression. But false belief — pretending to believe when you don’t — is not religious belief, it’s pretense to avoid social approbation. It’s a closet. And closets are really good for storing things in, but not so great for storing people.Report

      • Chris in reply to Roger says:

        My reaction to religion is occasionally one of disgust, I admit (sometimes it’s not; sometimes it’s even admiration). And that includes Dawkins’ religion.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Roger says:

        The (or “one of the largest, if not the largest”) problem with Dawkins’ religion is that he doesn’t know that his relationship to Christianity is similar to, oh, Protestantism’s relationship to Catholicism (circa, oh, 1650).

        On Twitter, he seems quite confused that his arguments that worked so well against Evangelical Christianity aren’t being received with anything even close to enthusiasm now that he’s wielding them against Islam. He probably has zero idea why.Report

    • DavidTC in reply to Tod Kelly says:

      In order to answer his question with a yes, I think you have to pick out a situation where people within a community were exiled to some degree by law, and say that even by today’s standards, they were absolutely right in doing so. (The only example I have been able to come up with on my own is people in less scientifically advanced cultures exiling those with catastrophic infectious diseases.)

      Not exactly.

      What I’m looking for would be something that used to be ‘standard’, but society, via either science or religious tolerance or something else, decided it *shouldn’t* be true anymore, and tried to change it. And it was fought back against with arguments of the purity type…and those arguments were *correct*, in the long term.

      I.e., has anyone who has stood atop history yelling ‘Stop’, and when asked ‘Why?’ was only able to reply ‘Because, ew, that’s nasty!’, *ever* been right?

      And you will notice that, almost by definition, the side rejecting the change is going to be ‘conservative’ (So there will be few left-side examples in modern history), but that’s not really the point here. Nor am I trying to claim that conservatives are always wrong…I’m trying to claim that any sort of political change that ends up being fought with ‘Ew’ has always been incorrect.

      I said purity rules are the last refugee of the bigot, but that’s not exactly right. What I actually meant is they are the last refugee of the *wrong*.Report

  9. LWA (Liberal With Attitude) says:

    Actually I agree with Roger’s points about liberals view of environmentalism being purity based, at least partly.
    The notion of fresh air, clean water, and healthy soil, and of eating foods untainted by noxious chemicals is powerful, because it is so hardwired into our senses.
    Its very easy to let these things go astray of course, and to unnecessarily cast something into taboo (like gluten).

    As for Pinky’s list, man, I think you are dealing with some Mallard Fillmore caricature of liberalism. Any sexual urge, anytime, anywhere? Where are these hippy chicks, and where can I find them?
    Seriously, you would need to go back to some Marin County commune circa 1972 to find anyone remotely on the left who was advocating radical sexual liberation.
    Consider the biggest sexual cause celebre of the left in the past few decades, which was same sex marriage.
    Not drug fueled orgies in the streets- the winning campaign was based on the argument that gay people were sober tax paying members of the PTA who were safe around the kids.

    I would go so far as to argue that it is the liberal wing of American politics that has taken up the banner of championing communal responsibility over private rights.

    In fact, your point about guns being impure has merit- most of us liberals DO view gun ownership with skepticism; less towards hunters but definitely towards open carry, where we favor the safety and security of the community to be more important than the individual right to carry a weapon.Report