Religious Indoctrination Linked To Violence

Those of you who are religiously inclined may get uncomfortable when you read this. Or you may just laugh it off, I won’t guess which.

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.

The students then participated in an exercise designed to measure aggressiveness in which they attacked each other…not with weapons but with noise (I guess the researchers didn’t feel like reproducing a Kill Bill scene in the lab that day). The study found that students who were told that the scripture they had heard came from the Bible, especially the students at Brigham Young, were more aggressive in their noise blasts. Follow the link for more details.

Pretty interesting, eh? Note that the study does not suggest that religious people are more violent than nonreligious people or anything of the sort. Rather, it indicates that when a scripture of a violent nature is read to a person who believes in a God who sanctions violence, that belief presumably overrides whatever part of the brain is supposed to serve as a check on these impulses.

It may sound like a condemnation of religion, but I would suggest that what causes a person to carry out violence without restraint has less to do with trust in God per se than with trust in authority of any kind, which is something we’ve known for a long time. In fact, you would expect stronger results in a case like this than in the Milgram experiment, as subjects in the latter were asked to act against their own conscience.

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2 responses to “Religious Indoctrination Linked To Violence

  1. Yours is a fairly even-handed analysis of the study, and I would agree that it’s easier to give into aggressive impulses when authority in one form or another is brought to bear, either to shift responsibility or to actually encourage. What interests me more, however, is not the novelty of the study and its scope of inquiry, but its familiarity. If my Sunday School serves me correctly, the scriptures themselves warn against bad guys quoting scripture for their own purposes. In fact, you’d probably be hard-pressed to find any sort of authoritative voice that, if widely ascribed to, can’t be used to justify wrongdoing on a big-ish scale. Personally, I’ve heard the Bible quoted in support of rather benign behavior (having integrity, playing with my kids, avoiding credit card debt, etc.) a lot more frequently than I’ve ever heard it quoted in support of violent aggression, but I doubt we’ll hear much coverage regarding the positive effects of religious persuasion anytime soon. It’s understandable that in this age of holy terrorism the public (and even scientific) focus on religion is more interested in what Browning called “the dangerous edge of things”–all that is paradoxical, ironic, or unconventional–but there’s a danger in assuming that this edge typifies the general experience. Such pointed inquiries, for better or worse, are likely to find what they’re looking for.

  2. Great comments, Scott! (or maybe I should be saying “Great Scott, comments!”)

    The dangerous edge of things…a useful term. Whatever the issue in question we’ve come to expect focus on the dangerous edge of things from the media. It shouldn’t surprise us, I suppose, to find it in science as well.

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