February 11, 2011 / Mediation, Uncategorized
In 1991, the Academy Award for Best Picture went to the disturbing psycho thriller, The …
October 1, 2011
A few years ago some psychologists performed an experiment to see if college students who read a violent story would display more aggression afterward if they were told that God sanctioned the violence than if they were told the story was merely from an “ancient scroll.” The story they chose was from the book of Judges, chapters 19–21: nothing unusual for the Old Testament, just a nip of city-razing and total massacre. I can imagine Alex of Clockwork Orange enjoying it very much. Here’s how the authors of the study describe their study and its results:
Violent people often claim that God sanctions their actions. In two studies, participants read a violent passage said to come from either the Bible or an ancient scroll. For half the participants, the passage said that God sanctioned the violence. Next, participants competed with ostensible partner on a task in which the winner could blast the loser with loud noise through headphones (the aggression measure). . . . In Study 1, aggression increased when the passage was from the Bible or mentioned God. In Study 2, aggression increased when the passage mentioned God, especially among participants who believed in God and in the Bible. These results suggest that scriptural violence sanctioned by God can increase aggression, especially in believers. “When God Sanctions Killing: Effect of Scriptural Violence on Aggression,” Bushman BJ et al., Psychological Science 18:3, 204–207.
David beheading Goliath.
A few things stand out about this passage. Its first sentence seems to me to reveal, or at least encourage, an assumption that religious violence is a particularly common or baneful sort of violence. But in what sense do violent people “often claim that God sanctions their actions”? What fraction of people convicted of violent crimes, for example, claim divine sanction? How many perpetrators of domestic violence say they’re carrying out God’s orders? Over the last century or so, how many soldiers have uttered any version of the Crusader’s cry, Deus vult (“God wills it”)? I don’t know the numbers, but my sense is that we’re talking about a relatively infrequent “often.” Most personal violence, so far as I can tell, is not carried out by people who claim divine authorization. Nor was God-talk central to the perpetration of World War II, the greatest spree of violence in human history, which killed perhaps 60 million people. Stalin’s officially atheist regime killed anywhere from 9 to 60 million or more (estimates vary widely). Religious violence is a real problem for religious believers and everybody else, but one whose scope, nature, and relative frequency are worth examining closely.
Second, what is the connection between the sort of low-grade “aggression” demonstrated by the Bushman et al. study and actual violence? Is the one is really a precursor of the other? Bushman et al. juxtapose mention of actual violence with God-pumped “aggression” of the headphones-blasting sort, but neither assert nor deny any causal link between the two, leaving one to perhaps be surmised or assumed by readers. That there is such a link is plausible, but its existence surely cannot be assumed.
Nor can we simply assume that such a link, if it does exist, is strong compared to others that might be traced—say, between nationalism and violence, or team sports and violence, or between reductive materialistic accounts of human nature and violence. For example, what if the subjects of the experiment had been told that authority figures other than God sanctioned the violence — presidents, generals, scientists, overwhelming democratic majorities? Might we have seen similar results? Is the study measuring a God effect, an authority effect, or some of both?
We can question if religion is a net inspirer of violence at all: whether religion in general, or which religions, or which variants of which religions at which times and under which circumstances, offset their aggression-promoting tendencies with injunctions of peace and benignity and their diverse and complicated other effects. In short, what if religious people, even Bible-readers, are not more violent than others? There is ground for caution: higher frequency of attendance at religious services is correlated with lower rates of domestic violence, for example.
Finally, the category of “violence” itself can be held for questioning. Human “violence” ranges from fistfighting to nuclear bombs lobbed by nation-states. We might distinguish psychological and physical violence, individual and group, military and domestic, systematic and spontaneous, personal and remote-control, violence against persons versus violence against objects or nature. Some people would include carnivory. “Religion,” too, is a word of many meanings. To examine with scientific rigor the relationship of “religion” to “violence” might be a very complex task.
As so often, conclusion-jumping is an obvious temptation. I don’t say that the authors of the Bushman et al. paper made any explicit claims that their paper didn’t cash out, but Nature, reporting on the study (448:8, 114–15 ), skimmed quickly from the limited form of low-stakes aggression actually examined to “the violent side of religion.” That’s a big leap. It even cited a theologian, Hector Avalos of Iowa State University, as advocating the removal of violent narratives from the Bible to make the world a more peaceable place.
One problem with sanitizing the Bible is that there would be so very little of it left. Droog Alex, now that I think of it, even got off on the Crucifixion. As the screenplay has it,
I read all about the scourging and the crowning with thorns and all that, and I could viddy myself helping in and even taking charge of the tolchocking and the nailing in, being dressed in the height of Roman fashion.
So we’d probably have to ditch the Cross, too, to completely purge Christianity of aggression triggers. We might be allowed to keep abstract stained glass, “Jesus Loves the Little Children,” the word “love,” and fish magnets.
Or perhaps there is another way. We might recommence from the possibility that deep compassion is closely linked with an awareness of one’s own capacity for evil. To purge the texts would, in that case, be to rob compassion of the mirror in which it discerns its own identity.
Larry Gilman started growing up in West Orange, New Jersey, in 1962. Since the fifth grade he’s lived in other parts of New Jersey, in Chicago, and in Vermont, where he and his wife now hunker in the hills. He was trained as an electrical engineer but has since opted for a life of freelance writing and editing. He is Episcopalian.