Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Why Christians Have Problems Loving the "Unholy"


Like most children, I loved to visit zoos. One day my dad took me to the Philadelphia zoo. It was a lot of fun until dad had a disgusting experience. A massive tiger faced us. Then, with front paws raised, it soaked dad in urine.

At church, a group of us are looking at Richard Beck’s book titled, “Unclean.” Philosopher, Doug Olena introduced the topic in the last two weeks. Our impulse is to avoid the unclean and expel that which is disgusting. But Christians are called to serve people that society considers unclean.

Beck draws heavily on disgust psychology. In psychology, “Dr. Disgust” is Paul Rozin of the University of Pennsylvania. Rozin has studied disgust for decades. It’s fascinating for many reasons. Disgust is of course an emotional response with a recognizable facial expression. Though the classic disgust face can be seen in babies rejecting anything distasteful, infants soon learn more about that which is distasteful, yucky, gross, and unclean in their culture. And of course, infants soon learn that some people are considered unclean—folks you should not associate with.

Disgust Prompts Avoidance & Rejection

Many religions focus on living a holy life. Writings, places, and people are sacred, holy and set apart from that which is unclean and unholy. Christians are encouraged to be pure in heart and avoid immoral conduct, including association with immoral people. But Christians are also called to be merciful, love neighbors, and touch the lives of those deemed unclean.

Here’s the tension—how do you love the unclean? 

Must people be washed—baptized—before their lives are worthy of being touched?

It’s not hard to find religious people who act more in accordance with disgust-avoidance patterns than with love-approach patterns. Perhaps worse, disgust also prompts people to actively reject those considered unclean and immoral. It’s love— that overcomes disgust. And love is a key ingredient I would add to Beck’s thoughtful analysis.

The smell of burned bodies was a particularly disgusting image that remained in the memory of one Vietnam Veteran who kept an angry distance from the love of others for years.

Fear of losing employment keeps some clergy inline as one protestant leader warned his denomination against saying anything supportive of gay marriage. The language of disgust peppers the online Christian discussions of same-sex relationships.

The callous reference to body parts in a video of a Planned Parenthood worker evoked powerful disgust responses by many--especially those who find abortion abhorrent (WP story).

In the language of science, an understanding of love comes from studies of attachment. Like a fetus attached to mother by an umbilical cord, most children attach to their mothers for years. You can almost see the length of the emotional cord when you watch toddlers explore a new playground. There’s some walking back-and forth as children figure out what’s a safe distance.

Attachment continues into adulthood. Homesickness hits college students after parents head for home. Loving couples miss each other when separated—especially if outside of texting range. Great marriages are built on a strong and secure attachment or bond of love.

Love Conquers Disgust

Loving parents change dirty diapers—often considered disgusting! Health care workers learn to suppress a disgust response—even a vomiting response—when presented with horrific injuries (I’ll spare the graphics).

Christians find in the gospel stories a consistent pattern of Jesus touching those considered unclean. Many, like Mother Teresa, have been inspired to devote their lives to those who’ve been rejected. Images of Pope Francis hugging people not fitting images of cultural beauty circulate on the web. Many sponsor the needy through programs like World Vision.

The disgust impulse is a powerful force separating some people from others who appear different or threatening. And love is a powerful force that brings people together as if they were part of the same family and deserved care and respect.

Read more about sexuality, morality, and Christian cultures in A House Divided available from the publisher PICKWICK and other stores e.g.,  AMAZON


Sunday, September 20, 2015

What Factors Influence Attitudes Toward Religious People?

Psychology, Memory, and Religious Narratives

Pope Francis is in the Americas and will soon be welcomed by the U.S. Congress. What a difference 500 years can make! Attitudes toward Catholics have changed in recent years. Pope Francis offers words of hope to the disenfranchised.

I’m focused on the dynamic of human memory and religious struggles--memories that appear so malleable and responsive to revised narratives.

To some degree, we each control our own narrative. We tell the story others hear. We explain how religious and secular events fit into our personal history.

Together with others, we also tell a collective history of our religious tribe. We share how we related to other religious and irreligious groups. And we forge new narratives when we act in the present.


In terms of human history, it wasn’t long ago that Catholics and Protestants were at each other’s throats. The church-state connections in Europe along with the attendant animosity, traveled with the adventurers, colonists, soldiers, and clergy to the Americas. The year 1492 doesn’t just mark the Spanish venture to the Americas; it also represents the year Islam was expelled from the Spanish kingdoms. Catholicism was on the rise.

It wasn’t long until England "divorced the Vatican" and King Henry the VIII established himself as head of the Church of England (1534). Also in the 1500s, Martin Luther challenged Catholic practice. The rise of non-Catholic Christians exploded.

Meanwhile, colonial expansion in the Americas proceeded at a rapid pace. Spanish, French, and British fought each other. And they fought against people in local tribes. For the Europeans, crosses and flags staked out new lands. In the "early years" (1492-1783) religious intolerance appeared to be more common than tolerance.

It’s hard to find much love when war litters the landscape with human life.


In the 1960s, the U.S. discovered a Catholic man could be elected president. Attitudes had changed. In the privacy of the voting booth, John F. Kennedy’s faith did not matter to the majority of the electorate.  But his Catholic faith was an issue for some. People wondered aloud if Catholics would be listening to the Pope in Rome for advice. But when he was assassinated, Protestants joined with Catholics in mourning and a show of respect. JFK helped change the narrative.

From time to time, clergy attract attention for their sins. Nothing makes headlines more than a sex scandal. Protestants had their fallen stars. More recently, the Catholic Church garnered pervasive attention for the sexual abuse of children by so many clergy. Not only was this abuse horrific, but the response of the leaders was even more reprehensible as offenders were in positions where they could re-offend. Sexual abuse is one sure way to destroy faith in faith.

There have been many apologies and settlements. But victims and their families do not forget sexual abuse. Neither do those who left the church in disgust. However, the society at large appears to have moved on.


By all accounts, Pope Francis has had a significant impact on how people in the Americas view the Catholic Church.

Most Catholics report liking Pope Francis’ leadership of the church (79%). His favorability is at 41% among all Americans and only 8% hold an unfavorable view. (CBS Poll)

The Pope can’t change doctrine but he can change attitudes. Women still cannot be priests. Marriage remains limited to one man and one woman. Divorce is still a sin as is abortion. And birth control is not compatible with church doctrine.

So what’s different? There have been apologies for sexual abuse. People have been removed from office for their role in the abuse. Compensation has been paid to some. 

There are some examples that lavish living will not be tolerated by the Pope. And there’s a consistent effort to reach out with forgiveness toward those living lives contrary to Catholic teaching. So now it's easier for Catholics to remarry by having the first marriage annulled. And priests are encouraged to offer forgiveness to women who repent of having an abortion.

But there’s more. Pope Francis represents that curious admixture of strong leadership and humility rarely seen in religious leaders. He's out among the people. He seems to care. And U.S. news reporters smile a lot when they are near this pastoral Pope.

Pope Francis has changed the narrative once again.


It’s hard to know how long the current era of goodwill will last. Western cultures promote tolerance of behavior considered sinful by Catholics and a substantial number of other Christian groups. For now, Catholic views on some social issues fit well with the views of many (but not all) U.S. Evangelicals.

Most Christians obviously support killing in official or semi-official wars. But U.S. Christians remain divided over global warming, social programs, and same-sex marriage. Equality and ideas of helping the disadvantaged is ok—up-to-a-point—but few will sacrifice their jobs or entry into a prestigious university.

For now, abortion supporters are on the ropes—Planned Parenthood is the current poster portrait for disgust. But birth control use isn’t likely to change much. However, as I said above, the views of the Catholic Church on sex-linked social issues fit well with U.S. Evangelical positions.

Human memories are short and malleable. As long as humans lead religious groups, sex and money scandals will surely continue. Christians can hope that their leaders have learned long-lasting lessons of how much victims suffer when sin runs rampant amongst the clergy. But it will take persistent effort to remind each new generation of the sins of the past.

There are other social forces at work that can limit goodwill. Following are some questions. How long will the U.S. continue to support clergy and religious organizations with special tax exemptions? How long will a western society think it is fine for women to be treated differently than men in hiring practices? How long will a western society think it is fine for churches to discriminate against same-sex couples? And what about Spanish-speaking immigrants, citizens, and illegal aliens—will the Pope’s use of Spanish promote tolerance or evoke rejection?

Perhaps of higher risk for lasting goodwill is the potential for the Pope to go too far left in his support of social values that may seem close to advocating socialism (or even communism). Any narrative is subject to modification by the press, cultural leaders, and of course the rest of us.


For now, we can expect favorable and constant coverage of Pope Francis’ visit to the U.S. His six-day tour begins Tuesday 22 September when he meets President Obama. There are some firsts. The Pope will hold a canonization mass in Spanish. And on Thursday, the mostly Christian (92%; 2015, CNN) U.S. Senate and House will open their doors to a Pope’s message for the first time in history.

On the seventh day, the Pope will presumably rest on his return to the Vatican.


Nowadays, keeping goodwill alive requires constant positive press. Each person and each group must be on guard if they want to control the narrative of their lives. Memories are short- that can be good when you want to gain distance from bad events. But, short memories also mean it is important to keep working narratives that matter.

The six-day tour can surely build on the string of successes Pope Francis has accumulated. But just as contemporaries seem largely unaware of the centuries of strife and the horrors of clergy abuse, a new generation can forget the good feelings toward this Pope and any other charismatic leader—religious or secular.

Recall that in 1492, the Spanish drove the Muslims out of the Spanish peninsula. But Muslims are back in the news thanks to political candidates Donald Trump (Fox News) and Ben Carson (NBC story). Muslims have spoken out in response to the candidates. As with any religious group, leaders have an important role in controlling what narrative enters the memories of a given culture.

Saturday, September 5, 2015


Self-Forgiveness vs. God’s Forgiveness

Pope Francis made news when he said priests can forgive women who seek forgiveness for having an abortion.

The forgiveness of God cannot be denied to one who has repented," the Pope said, adding that he has met "many women" scarred by the "agonizing and painful" decision to have an abortion.”
The Catholic Church considers abortion serious enough that it can lead to excommunication. Ordinarily, only a bishop can reduce the penalty. (CNN)

To Christians, the story reveals the Pope’s compassion. But the statement can seem strange to evangelicals and secularists. And, as a psychologist I’m wondering about the importance of self-forgiveness and where Christians insert God into their views on forgiveness.

God, Priests, and Psychotherapists

Growing up in conservative protestant churches, it was a badge of self-righteousness not to call pastors “Father.” And we sure didn’t need to confess to a priest and learn from a priest that God forgives us.

Psychologists were below priests on evangelical’s righteous ladder. Despite Christian culture, I began counseling forty years ago. Over the years I have heard many confessions from Christians. Most were within the confidential setting of an office but some were blurted out during friendly conversations. 

I learned that many Christians needed to confess their wrongdoing. People need someone to hear their confession. And Christians often need to be re-assured that God had forgiven them.

I’m not one to mess with anyone’s theology—there are just too many theologies to keep up with. But I do see the value in confessing wrongdoing to someone. And if a minister is representing God to a confessor, then affirming God’s forgiveness at least makes psychological sense if not also making theological sense.

For people who have been carrying a load of guilt for decades, it can take courage to reveal the truth—not just to a priest or psychotherapist but to oneself. Confessing aloud allows people to affirm their decision to “come clean.” And in the presence of an empathic pastor or psychotherapist, guilty people can experience hope that God also views them in a loving and merciful way.

In addition to taking responsibility for one’s wrongdoing (sin in church language), hearing another say “God has forgiven your sins” creates a memorable event. I’m not saying God doesn’t forgive repentant folks when they ask in private prayer. I’m just saying that some people need an event that makes it clear, “God has forgiven me.” They are free from the mental burden that may have dogged them for years. The confirming words of another person grants a person “permission” to let go of the past.

Self-forgiveness and God’s forgiveness

Self-forgiveness sounds like a mind game. When people violate their moral standards they feel guilty. The solution would seem to be as simple as forgive yourself and move on. That would be a secular approach. And there’s evidence self-forgiveness works. The concern some of us have is that some people may let themselves “off the hook” too easily and just go on committing harmful acts.

Christians don’t view wrongdoing as violating personal moral standards. For Christians, wrongdoing is sin. And sin is an offense against God. So whether Christians hurt others or themselves, they still sin against God. Silencing the voice of conscience requires confession to God, committing to change (repentance) and receiving God’s forgiveness.

The Catholic teaching that some sins lead to excommunication can sound pretty harsh to an outsider. But it makes sense from the perspective that sin interrupts a Christian’s relationship with God. Many, if not most, Christians view abortion as a serious offense. But there is a way to restore the broken relationship and that’s forgiveness. Not just any forgiveness but accepting God’s forgiveness as sufficient.

I’m thinking that non-Catholic Christians may have a greater need for a process like confession or self-forgiveness than Catholics who can follow a prescribed procedure to obtain God’s forgiveness mediated through the agents of the church. For those Christians who want to skip a visit to their pastor or a psychotherapist, they may need to follow an organized process to make it feel genuine. One example can be found in Ev Worthington’s approach.

A book about forgiveness