When God sanctions killing, people listen

New research published in the March issue of Psychological Science may help elucidate the relationship between religious indoctrination and violence, a topic that has gained renewed notoriety in the wake of the September 11th terrorist attacks. In the article, University of Michigan psychologist Brad Bushman and his colleagues suggest that scriptural violence sanctioned by God can increase aggression, especially in believers.

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) 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.”

From American Psychological Association


  1. Dov Henis
    Anonymous: “hye, i am unable to understand, what message(s) you want to convey with this article”

    – I wonder which one of the Anonymous posters you are…

    – Assuming that ‘your article’ is ‘my comment’, I have not tried to ‘convey a message’ but to furnish (anthropological) information. The number and nature of the ‘points’ of ‘my article’ depend on the extent and the nature of the cultural and informational backgrounds of the reader.


  2. Faith can be a great thing, giving inner strength to people in hard times, and magnamity in good times. However organized religion is something to watch for. Especially those religions which find their origin in the Middle East have a tendency to be inhospitable to teachings other than their own.
    This can of course be explained from the fact that natural resources are relatively scarce in the Middle East. Conflict over these was and is thus always around the corner. And using religion to bind groups of people together to fight over these resources is a politically, if not morally, logical step.
    Also organized religion is to be kept a close watch upon due to the possibility of misuse by dictators, states, etc.
    Marx was right about one thing: ‘Organized Religion is the opium of the common people’.
    Therefore it should be brought under the control of the DEA.

  3. don’t forget the american christian fundamentalism which is basically fighting a fight parallel to the islamic one.

    american fundies are authoritarian, violent, and dangerous.
    right here in the good old USA we see a “competition between Cultures, ways of life, values and attitudes”.

  4. Dov Henis
    “Terrorism, Fundamental Islam, and Darwinian Evolution”

    Sep 30, 2001 Dov Henis, in biologicalEvolution


    In spite of all assertions and explanations by its members, Islamic culture cannot and will not accept Western values, ethics, attitudes and Western social-political standards and practices. These are plainly and clearly competitive evolutionary threats to the survival of fundamental Islamic faith and culture, to the whole-hearted devotion to it. Western culture thus invokes Islamic terrorism, to counter this offensive threat to its survival and to its proliferation.

    Islamic institutions and orgasnizations, wherever they are, by inherent Islamic cultural devoutness, are either cooperative with fundamental centers or practically controlled by them.

    By basic evolutionary survival instinct Muslims declare and play-act tribute to things Western wherever/whenever they have to or when it gains them respite or an advantage. They rightly rely on the tragic naive mistaken assumption of Westerners who take it for granted that everyone, e v e r y o n e, thinks Western and believes Western and has Western morals/ethics….which is of course not the case.

    We are witnessing a classical Darwinian evolution scenario of groups’ survival competition between Cultures, ways of life, values and attitudes. At the present phase of the struggle Western Culture, off-guard in its pathetic and tragically naive relevant attitudes and assumptions, allows and enables the uncompromising competitive Fundamental Islamic Culture to take root and grow in its midst unsupervised and uncontrolled thus self-fostering its own clearly upcoming adversities.

    This threat will no more cease and disappear from Western Society than an unopposed cancer ceases and disappears from a functioning living tissue, and it would be even more painful and disrupting, socialy/economically, to overcome this threat than for a living tissue to overcome a cancer.



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