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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.

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.”


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New research may clarify the relationship between religious indoctrination and violence, a topic that has gained renewed notoriety since the September 11th terrorist 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 conducted experiments with undergraduate students at two universities: Brigham Young in Provo, Utah, where 99% of students report believing in God and the Bible; and Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam, where just half report believing in God, and 27% in the Bible. Partici pants 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 partici pants were told that the passage came from the Old Testament; the other half, that it was an ancient scroll unearthed by archaeo logists. In addition to this, half the partici pants 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.” Partici pants were then placed in pairs and instructed to compete in a simple reaction game that measures aggression. The winner would get to “blast” his or her partner with a noise that could 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 that the passage they had previously read was from the Bible rather than a scroll, the researchers found. Likewise, partici pants 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, the scientists added. Although the 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 findings shed light on the possible origins of violent religious fundamentalism, the researchers said, and fits with theories holding that exposure to violent scriptures may 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.”