The Situationist

With God on Our Side . . .

Posted by The Situationist Staff on March 29, 2007

Bob Dylan opened his famous 1963 song with these words:

Oh my name it is nothin’dylan-album.jpg
My age it means less
The country I come from
Is called the Midwest
I’s taught and brought up there
The laws to abide
And that land that I live in
Has God on its side.

Oh the history books tell it
They tell it so well
The cavalries charged
The Indians fell
The cavalries charged
The Indians died
Oh the country was young
With God on its side.

 

An article published in the March issue of Psychological Science provides some new evidence confirming that old hypothesis — there exists a causal relationship between certain types of religious indoctrination and violence. The University of Michigan’s Brad Bushman and his colleagues conducted laboratory tests in which exposure to scripturally sanctioned violence tended to incresase violence, particularly among believers. A press release included this basic description of the research:

Mark Bryan, Holy Wars, available at www.sdgallery.com/catalogs/bryan/recent/index.htm

The authors set out to examine this interaction by conducting experiments with undergraduates at two religiously contrasting universities: Brigham Young University where 99% of students report believing in God and the Bible and Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam where just 50% report believing in God and 27% believe in the bible.

After reporting their religious affiliation and beliefs, the 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 of the participants were told that the passage came from the Book of Judges in the Old Testament while the other half were told it was an ancient scroll discovered in an archaeological expedition.

In addition to the scriptural distinction, half of 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.”

The participants were then placed in pairs and instructed to compete in a simple reaction task. The winner of the task would be able to “blast” his or her partner with noise up to 105 decibels, about the same volume as a fire alarm. The test measures aggression.

As expected, the Brigham Young students were more aggressive (i.e. louder)//www.psychologicalscience.org/media/ with their blasts if they had been told that the passage they had previously read was from the bible rather than a scroll. Likewise, participants were more aggressive if they had read the additional verse that depicts God sanctioning violence.

At the more secular Vrije Universiteit, the results were surprisingly similar. Although Vrije students were less likely to be influenced by the source of the material, they blasted more aggressively when the passage that they read included the sanctioning of the violence by God. This finding held true even for non-believers, though to a lesser extent.

The research sheds light on the possible origins of violent religious fundamentalism and falls in line with theories proposed by scholars of religious terrorism, who hypothesize that exposure to violent scriptures may induce extremists to engage in aggressive actions. “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,” writes Bushman “one might expect to see increased brutality.”

According to Bushman and colleagues, the results do not indicate that religious people
are more aggressive than nonreligious people, nor do they mean that reading the scriptures leads to aggression. “Violent stories that teach moral lessons or that are balanced with descriptions of victims’ suffering or the aggressor’s remorse can teach important lessons and have legitimate artistic merit. But taking a single violent episode out of its overall context, as we did in these studies, can produce a significant increase in aggression.”

Others have studied the significance of context for such messages. In this month’s Nature, Sociologist Mark Juergensmeyer of the University of California, Santa Barbara, summarizes some of his research as follows: “If violence is presented as the authoritative voice of God, it can increase the possibility of more violence. But everything depends on how it is presented.” The article continues:

The same passage placed in a non-threatening, historical context might not promote aggression . . . . Nevertheless, when scriptural violence is used to promote hostility, it is extremely effective, Juergensmeyer adds. Invoking religious justification allows a political leader to believe in promises of immortality and spiritual rewards that can be powerful motivators. “Religion is not the problem,” he says. “But it can make a secular problem worse.”

Solutions won’t be easy. According to the article in Nature, Theologian Hector Avalos of Iowa State University,

has proposed a radical solution to theologically inspired violence — cut the violent passages out of the scripture. It’s a wildly controversial idea that ought not to be, he says, because spiritual leaders effectively do that on a regular basis. “A lot of churches have a series of passages that they read during the year,” says Avalos. “And usually they don’t choose the passages involving genocide.”Michelangelo’s God

Cutting out portions of the scriptures does seem controversial, which brings us back to the simpler solution that Dylan imagined:

So now as I’m leavin’
I’m weary as Hell
The confusion I’m feelin’
Ain’t no tongue can tell
The words fill my head
And fall to the floor
If God’s on our side
He’ll stop the next war.

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5 Responses to “With God on Our Side . . .”

  1. With God on Our Side . . .

  2. […] Situationist’s latest post, With God On Our Side, addresses some empirical findings that map nicely onto my own past sociological investigation. […]

  3. […] Situationist (29 Mar) comments on recent research that links violence and religious indoctrination, and points to other research on religious messages and […]

  4. […] Results of a study published in Psychological Science support the hypothesis that religious indoctrination increases violent tendencies. The study involved reading a violent scripture to students at Brigham Young University where 99% report a belief in God and the Bible, and to students at Vrije Universiteit where 50% report belief in God and 27% in the Bible. Some were told that the passage originated from the Bible. Others were told that it originated from an ancient scroll. […]

  5. […] For some related Situationist posts, see “Attributing Blame — from the Baseball Diamond to the War on Terror,” “March Madness,” “Our Soldiers, Their Children: The Lasting Impact of the War in Iraq,” and “With God on Our Side . . ..” […]

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