About Rationally Speaking
Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.
Monday, April 16, 2007
If god says so, murder is ok
Bushman asked 500 college students to read one of the typical stories of violence and mayhem from the Old Testament. Half of the students also read an addendum stating that the featured tribe of the moment asked god for advice on what to do; they were told to go out and slaughter their brothers in the name of the Lord. Half of the students in the sample came from the religious Brigham Young University in Utah, the other half from the secular Free University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands. The participants were then subjected to a series of tests measuring aggression. The results were remarkable in that they were independent of where the students were studying, and of whether they believed in god or not: if they had read the additional passage about god inciting his people to violence, they were significantly more likely to display aggressive behavior.
It is important to understand that the study does not show that religious people are more aggressive than non religious ones, but rather that an authoritative endorsement of violence makes people more aggressive, regardless of their religious background. This is nothing new in psychology, where for decades researchers have known that people can be driven to commit otherwise unthinkable acts if they think they are doing so with the approval of an authority figure (see, for example, the recent book by Philip Zimbardo, The Lucifer Effect). God just happens to be the highest and most frequently invoked authority of them all.
When interviewed by Nature magazine (8 March 2007 issue) for a story on Bushman's paper, University of California-Davis sociologist John Hall commented that “There are built-in cultural lenses that we use to dissociate religion from violence. When we see religious movements that are prophetically inspired and engaged in violence, there's a cultural tendency to say 'oh, they're not really religious.'” But Iowa State theologian Hector Avalos (yes, please notice that he is a theologian), adds: “People who choose the violent interpretation are no less arbitrary than those who choose the peaceful one. A lot of churches have a series of passages that they read during the year, and usually they don't choose the passages involving genocide.” As my priest at catechism used to say: “parole sante” (saintly words).