Home/Rod Dreher/Purity, Piety and Place

Purity, Piety and Place

Over the long weekend, I finished I.B. Singer’s short novel The Penitent, which I recommend to you. It’s told as a monologue by one Joseph Shapiro, a Holocaust survivor who comes to America, puts his religion and culture behind him, and becomes a success in business. When his marriage falls apart owing to his own infidelity, and his wife’s, he is filled with self-loathing, and returns to God, eventually moving to Jerusalem and living there as a Hasidic Jew.

It’s not a great novel by any stretch, and in fact it’s fairly one-dimensional. But there’s truth in it, and I find that the tortured quest for purity inside Joseph Shapiro’s soul gave me a certain insight into why radical Islam appeals to some people. Indeed, much of Shapiro’s critique of the modern world strikes me as spot on, but what sets him apart is a burning anger at it. There is a certain strength and integrity to Shapiro’s life, certainly much more than in his old, secular, dissolute life, but it is difficult to find within him a sense of serenity, and of love. He loves the Almighty, and boy, is he mad about it. Yet Shapiro is an interesting character study (at least to me) because he gets so much right, even as his anxious longing for purity makes him potentially monstrous (not that Singer portrays him as potentially monstrous; though I know nothing about Singer’s other work, my sense is that he sympathizes with his character).

As I’ve said, I can see more than a little Joseph Shapiro in myself, both for good and for evil. When I took Jonathan Haidt’s Moral Foundations inventory — I strongly suggest that you go here and take the test — I found something very revealing, as I blogged about in 2011. First, an excerpt from Haidt’s explanation of Moral Foundations Theory:

Moral Foundations Theory was created to understand why morality varies so much across cultures yet still shows so many similarities and recurrent themes. In brief, the theory proposes that five innate and universally available psychological systems are the foundations of “intuitive ethics.” Each culture then constructs virtues, narratives, and institutions on top of these foundations, thereby creating the unique moralities we see around the world, and conflicting within nations too. The foundations are:

1) Harm/care, related to our long evolution as mammals with attachment systems and an ability to feel (and dislike) the pain of others. This foundation underlies virtues of kindness, gentleness, and nurturance.
2) Fairness/reciprocity, related to the evolutionary process of reciprocal altruism. This foundation generates ideas of justice, rights, and autonomy. [Note: In our original conception, Fairness included concerns about equality, which are more strongly endorsed by political liberals. However, as we reformulate the theory in 2010 based on new data, we are likely to include several forms of fairness, and to emphasize proportionality, which is more strongly endorsed by conservatives]
3) Ingroup/loyalty, related to our long history as tribal creatures able to form shifting coalitions. This foundation underlies virtues of patriotism and self-sacrifice for the group. It is active anytime people feel that it’s “one for all, and all for one.”
4) Authority/respect, shaped by our long primate history of hierarchical social interactions. This foundation underlies virtues of leadership and followership, including deference to legitimate authority and respect for traditions.
5) Purity/sanctity, shaped by the psychology of disgust and contamination. This foundation 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).


I took the test, and posted my own results. That image has disappeared from the post, but you can get the results from my discussion of them:

What you see above is how I scored on the test. The blue bar is the average score across the field registered by Liberals. The red bar is the average scored by Conservatives. The green bar is my own scores. When I first saw these results, I understood at a deep level why I had had the intense reaction that I did to the Catholic sex abuse scandals. Look at my Harm and Purity scores (“purity,” Haidt explains, is associated with concepts of sanctity), and look at my Authority score. I was confronted with the idea that the institution I most looked to as a guardian of Purity/Sanctity, an enemy of Harm, and the primary moral Authority, had acted in ways shockingly contrary to those concepts by facilitating and covering up the sexual violation of children. And — this is the key — I have a very low Loyalty score, much lower than the average conservative, and even lower than the average liberal. For whatever reason, the kind of deeply felt fidelity to the in-group simply isn’t present in my own psychology. I am far less anchored to the idea of loyalty to the in-group than most people, and my reactions to the violation of the principles of Harm and Purity/Sanctity were bound to be overwhelming. It’s no wonder, then, that I lost my Catholic faith and departed from the Church; staying put had become psychologically untenable. It’s hard for me to convey how depressed and poisoned I felt there at the end. I bring this up not to open that debate again — so don’t start — but only to explain the psychological foundations of my moral conclusions and actions.

I found these results helpful to me in understanding why I react to things the way that I do, and therefore in using reason to moderate my reactions. I thought about this last night while reading a 2000 book calledWhy Angels Fall: A Journey Through Orthodox Europe From Byzantium to Kosovo, by secular English journalist Victoria Clark. It’s not a book to read if you are a Western convert who sees in Orthodoxy an escape from the spiritual weakness and moral corruption in Western Christianity — and if only for that reason, I recommend it. Some of the book’s judgments are clearly made from the point of view of a secular person, and can be judged in that light. The picture she gives is mixed — some of these Orthodox she meets are saintly, others are awful, most are a mixed bag.

What I find striking is how compromised most of these people are. Their sins are different from the sins of Western churchmen, but sins they are. It doesn’t surprise me to read that Orthodox churchmen are sinful. The surprising part is learning the details. Orthodoxy is not on the radar of anybody in the West, so we rarely if ever hear about the goings-on of the Orthodox churches, in this country or overseas. I know some readers of this blog think that I rarely post on Orthodox corruption because I’m trying to downplay it, but the truth is, it’s so rarely in the news that I know about these things as much as you do.

The other day, a reader sent me a story from the Minneapolis Star-Tribune that jolted me:

One priest reported 200 sexual encounters, including some with students at St. John’s University and prep school.

Another recorded the names of dozens of boys he brought to a cabin, some of whom he sexually abused.

Another abuser was paid $30,000 by St. John’s Abbey to support him as he left the clergy.

These are among findings from the first batch of personnel files from St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville made public Tuesday. The abbey was required to release its internal files on priests credibly accused of child sex abuse as part of a lawsuit settled earlier this year. It marks the first time the abbey — implicated in clergy abuse cases for two decades — has opened its confidential files.

The files include the abuse accusations, abbey response, and psychological assessments of the men from roughly the 1960s to a few years ago. That includes a 2012 assessment of the Rev. Finian McDonald, who told a psychologist that he had about 200 sexual encounters as a priest.

McDonald reported that his youngest victims were 13- or 14-year-old prostitutes in Thailand, that he had 18 victims while serving as a prefect at St. John’s dormitories, and that he had acted out sexually and abused alcohol during most of his 29 years as a dormitory prefect. Sexual encounters also occurred with adults.

If I had read of this happening in a public school, say, it would have been appalling, but I would not have been filled with nearly the same degree of visceral disgust. It’s the purity thing: because this was a monastery, it was something much more gripping to me.

Last night I read in Clark’s book a description of how sexually corrupt the Orthodox monasteries on Mount Athos had been in the 1930s, and how that preceded a sharp decline in the population of the Holy Mountain until it hit its nadir in 1970. It was really horrible stuff, including things like at the Benedictine abbey. A new generation of monks dedicated to tightening up discipline began reforming the monasteries there in the 1980s, and have brought about a revival. It was a good reminder that Orthodoxy is no escape from any of that garbage, but also that institutions can be cleansed and revived by the faithful. May St. John’s Abbey experience this purgation and rebuilding.

I do wonder, though, why so many of us (including myself) require belief in a place where the way of life is pure. Very few of us would agree that utopia is achievable, yet so many of us, in one way or another, have naively idealistic ideas about certain places and ways of life. The impossibility of utopia is something I’m going to have to keep front to mind as I work on the Benedict Option book. Yet it is possible to go too far in the opposite direction, and believe falsely that because perfection is not possible, that any effort to build a better place to live is futile. In my own case, I have used Haidt’s work to build resistance within myself the urge to react so strongly in disgust to certain things that I become incapable of dealing with it, other than to turn away from it. In other words, to build up my capacity for Loyalty.

Here’s something interesting to think about. Haidt’s work has found that Western secular liberals are outliers in human experience, in part because they really don’t have a strong sense of purity. And yet, there is evidence that there is such a thing as “liberal purity,” which Haidt wrote about briefly five years ago. More recently, a liberal blogger wrote about examples of liberal purity, including:

  • Lefty spiritualism tends to make great use of the purity ethic; there is much talk of cleansing one’s self of toxins, and raw and non-meat foods are spoken of as cleaner than their alternatives (think “clean eating”). This is sometimes as narrowly applied to kale and quinoa, and sometimes as broad as not eating fast food or processed food. In either case, the higher, cleaner, greener things are purer than dirty, fatty, mass-produced food.

  • As in all political disputes, liberals speak of their opponents not only as wrong, but as disgusting. Bigotry and prejudice are dirty, and they tar anyone accused of them. This is by no means limited to liberals, but it certainly does not pass them by.

On that last point, my googling around about Haidt, liberalism, and purity brought me to a new column by the race-realist John Derbyshire, who, in his customarily provocative way, says that his getting fired by National Review over racial remarks is explainable using a modified version of Haidt’s theory:

It happens that I read Haidt’s book shortly after my own public shaming in April, 2012. Reading about those questionnaire scores, I was shaking my head at the book. It seemed to me that liberals are not so much light on regard for Sanctity, they just attach it to different objects.

To blacks, for example. The late Larry Auster said that blacks are sacred objects in the modern West. He was right. To say negative things about blacks, or to be thought to have negative thoughts about them, is a blasphemy.

It’s like someone in 13th-century Europe speaking ill of the Virgin Mary. The reaction is just the same. You have violated a sacred object.

That’s what [Nobel laureate] James Watson and I did.

This sacralization of blacks is lurking behind a lot of the campus shenanigans we’ve been reading about the past few weeks.

Like I said, Derbyshire’s language, and his claims, are provocative, but his point is worth considering. I would say that contemporary liberalism sacralizes not ideas, but identities — namely, those they identify as a minority victim of majority oppression. It is interesting to contemplate the extent to which SJW activism on campus this fall has been primarily about purifying the social space. Every time you see the term “safe space,” think “utopia”. And this raises some thorny questions:

1. If liberals have their own sense of purity, why do they find it so difficult to understand conservatives who have a very different sense of purity?

2. If we assume that conservatives do, more or less, understand the concept of purity, then do conservatives object to SJW puritans primarily because they reject what they hold sacred, or because they resent the left’s hypocrisy, i.e., claiming to reject the sacred while actually believing in it as a category? It’s one thing for a religious college to hold its students and faculty to certain standards of purity, but secular universities?

3. Purity claims are immune to secular rationality. To what extent can a liberal society, such as our own, tolerate radically opposed visions of the sacred within its institutions and communities?

4. Similarly, how far can you and I go, personally, to live with something we consider impure for the sake of being faithful to broader goals or institutions? In other words, how much defilement are we willing to tolerate in a specific situation, out of a sense of loyalty?

Seems to me one thing that the SJW activism and college administrators’ capitulation have proven this fall is that purity has become a strong and effective force on the cultural left.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

leave a comment

Latest Articles