ReligionWhat's a...

What’s Pollution?

Not like what happens when you toss trash onto the roads. I’m talking about the idea of pollution in a religious context. This is much more abstract, and we don’t see it emphasized nearly as much noawadays, but the idea still exists. It’s a very human thing, the idea of drawing lines between ‘clean’ and ‘dirty’ and what causes one or the other. But it extends beyond mere physical contamination; it encompasses the pollution of the mind, spirit, and moral character.

In many worldviews, human beings are susceptible to various forms of pollution. Preston states that “Concepts of pollution and purity are found in virtually all the religions of the world. While some religions recognize subtle distinctions of relative pollution, others place less emphasis upon the social and religious categories that determine pollution” (Preston, James J., 1987, 7503). He’s probably right. It is not limited to the physical realm; it encompasses the pollution of the soul, spirit, and moral character. It is a concept deeply ingrained in human consciousness, regardless of cultural or religious background. Often, it arises from negative emotions, unethical actions, or inner conflicts, leading to a sense of inner impurity.

The idea can be complicated because it’s often not as simple as “x is dirty, y is clean”. It’s contextual. As Mary Douglas notes “They can be relative categories. What is clean in relation to one thing may be unclean in relation to another, and vice versa “(9). It sounds strange, but even a completely secular setting can have it. Put some food on a plate. The food wasn’t dirty, but now the plate is.

Purity and pollution and the rules associated with it often have to do with the human body, with the things that come out of or go into it. Sometimes it heavily focuses on the lines between life and death. Some cultures consider corpses unclean to the point where they contaminate others. A lot of this can arise out of genuine hygiene issues but it’s also about lines and limits and “on the relation of order to disorder, being to non-being, form to formlessness, life to death. “(Douglas, 5)

And just as there are things that make one impure and polluted, there are rituals to make one clean again. For instance, in certain strands of Christianity, the sacrament of confession allows believers to admit their sins, seek forgiveness, and thus cleanse their moral slate. Rituals designed for personal purification often feature symbolic actions that represent the process of shedding impurities and rejuvenating the inner self. Washing is common. So are candles or incense.

So, what’s the point? Kinda depends on your perspective. Rules and concepts like this can be a crucial part of social cohesion but they can also be a source of abuse. Douglas notes that “Pollution ideas work in the life of society at two levels, one largely instrumental, one expressive. At the first level, the more obvious one, we find people trying to influence one another’s behaviour. Beliefs reinforce social pressures ”(Douglas, 3)

This (I’d argue) is one of those transcendent ideas. Not every culture or religion will have the same ideas about what causes impurity, but it’s a universal (at least, as much as anything can be). The concept of human pollution and the pursuit of ritual purity are inherent to the human condition. These things are how we draw boundary lines, how we view the concepts of the sacred and the profane. It goes beyond the body encompassing emotional, spiritual, and moral aspects.


Douglas, Mary. Purity and Danger. Routledge

Prestone, James J. (1987). “Purification” in Encyclopedia of Religion Vol. 11, Pg. 7503

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