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.
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.
The participants read a parable adapted from a relatively obscure passage in the King James Bible. It describes 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.”
Courtesy Association for Psychological Science and staff