Angry God, Angry People

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Angry God, Angry People

Angry God, angry people

Feb. 28, 2007
Courtesy Association for Psychological Science
and World Science staff

New re­search may clar­i­fy the re­la­tion­ship be­tween re­li­gious in­doc­tri­na­tion and vi­o­lence, a top­ic that has gained new no­to­ri­ety since the Sept. 11 at­tacks.

In the stu­dy, psy­chol­o­gist Brad Bush­man of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mich­i­gan in Ann Ar­bor, Mich. and col­leagues sug­gest that vi­o­lence sanc­tioned by God in scrip­tures can in­crease ag­gres­sion, es­pe­cial­ly in be­liev­ers.

A detail from Michelangelo's frescoes in the Sistine Chapel.
The find­ings ap­pear in the March is­sue of the re­search jour­nal Psy­cho­log­i­cal Sci­ence.

The au­thors worked with un­der­grad­u­ate stu­dents at two uni­ver­si­ties: Brig­ham Young in Pro­vo, Utah, where 99 per­cent of stu­dents re­port be­liev­ing in God and the Bi­ble; and Vrije Uni­ver­si­teit in Am­ster­dam, where just half re­port be­liev­ing in God, and 27 per­cent in the Bi­ble.

Par­ti­ci­pants read a par­a­ble adapted from a rel­a­tively ob­scure pas­sage in the King James Bi­ble de­scrib­ing the bru­tal tor­ture and mur­der of a wom­an, and her hus­band’s sub­se­quent re­venge on her at­tack­ers.

Half the par­ti­ci­pants were told that the pas­sage came from the Old Tes­ta­ment; the oth­er half, that it was an an­cient scroll un­earthed by ar­chae­o­lo­gists.

In ad­di­tion, half the par­ti­ci­pants from both the Bi­ble and the an­cient scroll groups read an ad­justed ver­sion that in­clud­ed the verse: “The Lord com­manded Is­ra­el to take arms against their broth­ers and chas­ten them be­fore the LORD.”

Par­ti­ci­pants were then paired up and in­structed to com­pete in a sim­ple re­ac­tion game that meas­ures ag­gres­sion. The win­ner gets to “blast” his or her part­ner with a noise that can be about as loud as a fire alarm.

The Brig­ham Young stu­dents were more ag­gres­sive—that is loud­er—with their blasts if they had been told the pas­sage they had read was from the Bi­ble rath­er than a scroll, the re­search­ers found. Like­wise, they were more ag­gres­sive if they had read the ad­di­tional verse that de­picts God sanc­tion­ing vi­o­lence.

At the more sec­u­lar Dutch school, the re­sults were sur­pris­ing­ly sim­i­lar, the sci­en­tists said. Al­though the stu­dents were less like­ly to be in­flu­enced by the source of the ma­te­ri­al, they blast­ed more ag­gres­sively when the pas­sage they read in­clud­ed God’s sanc­tion­ing of the vi­o­lence. This held true even for non­be­liev­ers, though to a less­er ex­tent.

The find­ings shed light on the pos­si­ble ori­gins of vi­o­lent re­li­gious fun­da­men­tal­ism, the re­search­ers said, and fit with the­o­ries hold­ing that vi­o­lent scrip­tures help lead ex­trem­ists to ag­gres­sion.

“To the ex­tent re­li­gious ex­trem­ists en­gage in pro­longed, se­lec­tive read­ing of the scrip­tures, fo­cus­ing on vi­o­lent ret­ri­bu­tion to­ward unbe­liev­ers in­stead of the over­all mes­sage of ac­cept­ance and un­der­stand­ing,” wrote Bush­man, “one might ex­pect to see in­creased bru­tality.”

Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful. - Seneca

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