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Unclean - That’s Disgusting: Christian Values and Disgust Psychology Sutton Review


Meditations on Purity, 

Hospitality, and Mortality 


Richard Beck

Reviewed by
Geoffrey W. Sutton

My connection to Unclean

By the time I found the book Unclean, I had spent the better part of two years writing a book about moral psychology and Christianity (A House Divided). It just so happened that philosopher, Doug Olena who co-leads a group I attend, chose Unclean for our discussions and as is usual in our group, Doug asked for volunteers. I ended up with a couple of chapters but I quickly read the entire book and found a lot of overlap with the literature I had been reading on disgust psychology—that’s a good thing because it shows Beck was in touch with the research supporting his thesis.

The hook

“Imagine spitting into a Dixie cup. After doing so, how would you feel if you were asked to drink the contents of the cup? (p.1)”

Beck opens with this classic example of disgust on page 1. It comes from experiments by “Dr. Disgust” who is Paul Rozin. I’ve used the example when giving talks on moral psychology—and it works. People wrinkle up their nose in a classic disgust pattern.

What we learn from Beck and other researchers is the power of disgust to influence things we reject or expel because we count them unclean, disgusting, and revolting.

Key strengths of Unclean

Readers will get an easy to read and thorough overview of disgust psychology and the relevance of various experimental findings to show how we generalize from basic disgust responses to considering various activities and people as disgusting.

Disgust is an important emotion because it protects us from germs.

Because disgust is an emotional response with automatic reactions- thoughts and behavior – we may not realize how we reject people in need of care.

The importance for Christians and the church at large is recognizing how this emotional response can reject people who are social outcasts- those people considered “unclean.” We see the problem in Jesus’ day. And we see how the church rejects people today.

A common source of disgust for Christians has to do with people who do not follow church teachings about sexuality. In fact, sex (at least some forms of sex) has a long history of being labeled as dirty.

An awareness of the metaphors we use may help recognize our treatment of social outcasts—people in need of help. Holiness and purity metaphors are associated with being up and above compared to certain people linked to their behavior and considered down and dirty.

Beck recognizes the contribution of Haidt and his colleagues to moral psychology.

Beck explains that every culture has its monsters- people become scapegoats. The classic modern example is the actions of the Nazis toward the Jews.

The answer to the problem of being governed by disgust psychology is the Christian virtue of hospitality. From Abraham to Jesus, Christians have examples of God’s desire to entertain “strangers.”

Godly love leads to loving our neighbors.

What I would add to Unclean

Beck does make the point that godly love overcomes disgust. I think I might make it stronger and focus attention on the research derived from attachment theory. Ironically, Beck developed a useful measure of Attachment to God, which I have used in more than one research study. It’s a good scale. In a study published after Unclean was published, some colleagues and I found attachment to God was linked to forgiveness and compassion (Sutton, Jordan, & Worthington, 2014).

Although Beck mentions the work of Haidt on moral psychology, I don’t think he takes this far enough. There’s a lot of relevance in the moral justifications discovered by Haidt and his colleagues. The richness of considering multiple causes of rejection rather than disgust can help point to a richer sense of how we might promote a greater concern for others. For example, Haidt points to the strength of concern for harm and fairness as common moral impulses. These can and do overcome disgust in many contexts.

Cite this blog post

Sutton, G. W. (2016, January 28). That’s Disgusting: Christian Values and Disgust Psychology.
[Web log post]. Retrieved from 

The book I reviewed

Beck, R. (2011). Unclean: Meditations on purity, hospitality, and mortality. Eugene, OR: Cascade.

About the author

Richard Beck is Professor of Psychology and the Psychology Department Chair at Abilene Christian University in Texas. He is an author and researcher who speaks at churches and conferences. I have heard Richard speak at a meeting of the Christian Association for Psychological Studies and can recommend him as an informative and entertaining speaker. Here’s a link to his blog with contact information.

I did not receive a free book or compensation for this post.

My related book

It turns out we have the same publisher (WIPFandSTOCK owns both Cascade and Pickwick).

A House Divided: Sexuality, Morality, and Christian Cultures

Buy from Pickwick at WIPFandSTOCK

New from WIPFandSTOCK


Facebook  Geoff W. Sutton
Twitter  @GeoffWSutton 

Website: Geoff W. Sutton


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