religion violence crusades
Religion violence crusades (220 x 207) | via Wikimedia

Last week, we looked at the complex interactions of genes, brain circuits, hormones, psychology, and culture in forming the mass killer’s persona. But keep in mind, most killers don’t have genetic or anatomical defects that we know about, although some new ones may be discovered in the future.

Obviously then, psychology and culture must be playing a major role in the seemingly unprecedented wave of violence we are experiencing. Unprecedented? Not quite.


Scriptural violence

Here are a few choice nuggets from the Bible:

  • Lot, a pious man living in Sodom, took into his home some traveling strangers who stopped for the night. No sooner than did the men retire for the night, a rumor spread around town that the men were homosexual. The enraged Sodomites assembled in front of Lot’s house and demanded that he surrender his guests. When he refused, they forced their way in and, well, sodomized them. The first recorded anti-gay crime. But unlike today, the punishment was swift and terrible: God rained fire and brimstone on the town and obliterated it off the face of the earth. Don’t worry about Lot. God warned him to leave immediately.
  • Moses, who spoke to God himself, transmitted His injunction to “wipe the Amalekites off the face of the earth”. Who are those terrible Amalekites that deserved what we call today “genocide”? They apparently were a nomad tribe in the desert who raided the Israelites as they made their way to the Promised Land. In fact, Moses was denied entry to Canaan, according to a later biblical exegesis, after leading his people in the desert for forty years, because he failed to completely annihilate them.


The story of the concubine in Gibeah: An academic study

There once was a man and his concubine from the tribe of Ephraim who were traveling in the land Benjamin, another Israelite tribe. As the couple dined in the city of Gibeah, a mob assembled outside and pounded on the door. The mob captured the concubine, then raped and beat her to death. The man collected her corpse the next day and traveled home. The other tribes of Israel were outraged at the crime, assembled an army, and razed several Benjaminite cities, killing every man, woman, child, and animal they could.

Brad Bushman, a social psychologist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, is the lead author of a study, “When God sanctions killing: Effect of scriptural violence on aggression,” published in the March issue of Psychological Science (vol. 18, pp. 204-207; 2007). He had about 500 students read the tale about the tribe of Ephraim in order to study the role of “higher authority” in the propagation of religious violence. For half the students, he added another passage:

When the man returned home, his tribe prayed to God and asked what they should do. God commanded the tribe to “take arms against their brothers and chasten them before the Lord”.

The students then took part in an exercise designed to measure aggression. About half of the study participants were from Brigham Young University, and almost all of them were religious Mormons. The other half were from the Free University Amsterdam. Of the Dutch group, only 50% believed in God, and 27% in the Bible (astonishingly high percentages, for Europeans).

But for both groups, regardless whether they lived in the U.S. or the Netherlands, or whether they believed in God or not, the trends were the same:

Those who were told that God had sanctioned the violence against the Israelites were more likely to act aggressively in the subsequent exercise.


What does the study mean?

First, what it doesn’t mean: One cannot conclude that religious people are more aggressive than non-religious people. But it does suggest that people are more prone to aggression when they feel that it is sanctioned by some higher authority, be it God or his clergy.


Jihadist terrorism and the silence of religious authorities

One could quote passages from the Bible and the Koran that would make it sound like these were manifestos of some violent cults. In fact, modern religion tries to de-emphasize the violent aspects of the scriptures. The story of the Amalekites was edited out of many versions of modern Hagaddahs, and in others, its violent message is softened with an injunction to be charitable to the stranger among us. But with the notable exception of a few courageous Moslem women, there is a deafening silence coming out of the religious community. The feeble voice of moderate Moslem clergy and intellectuals is almost invariably accompanied by their loud protestations of American aggression or Western social permissiveness.

Western clergy and intellectuals, being “sensitive” and “politically correct”, are not much better—they are experts at diffusing the responsibility: It is not the religion and its leaders that are at fault; it is the “root causes” whatever they are; it is poverty, or Western cultural imperialism, or insensitivity and intolerance toward other cultures. It fell to a Saudi security official to state, after reporting the foiling of a vast Al Qaida plot and the arrest of 172 young jihadists, to add: “unless we change the ideology (of religious extremism), more young people will fall prey to terrorism“.

If we ever needed rigorous academic proof that religious authorities can, and sometimes do, propagate aggressive and violent behavior, we now have it in the study by Bushman and his coworkers.

It is time to speak up and tell the unvarnished truth—a culture that justifies violence in the guise of religion is intolerable in the 21st century. Religious leaders need to raise their voices against this perversity.

Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD
Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD loves to write about the brain and human behavior as well as translate complicated basic science concepts into entertainment for the rest of us. He was a professor at the University of California San Francisco before leaving to enter the world of biotech. He served as the Chief Medical Officer of biotech companies, including Aphton Corporation. He also founded and served as the CEO of Madah Medica, an early stage biotech company developing products to improve post-surgical pain control. He is now retired and enjoys working out, following the stock market, travelling the world, and, of course, writing for TDWI.