Religious violence and aggression
Linking inter-personal violence with
studying a violent passage in the Bible
About the study:
Particularly since 9-11, some psychologists have been studying the relationships
between religious beliefs and religiously-motivated violence.
Psychologist Brad Bushman of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor,
MI headed a team that studied whether violence sanctioned by
God in religious holy books -- like the Torah, Holy Bible or Qur'an -- can increase anger and aggression among
their readers. 1
Their study stated:
"Religiously inspired aggression, like the
attacks of Christian right-wing extremist Timothy McVey in Oklahoma, Jewish
reactionary Baruch Goldstein in Israel, and fundamentalist Islamic leader Osama
bin Laden in the United States and elsewhere, has produced renewed scholarly
interest in why people commit violence in the name of deity. ...
"... we hypothesized that exposure to a biblical description of
violence would increase aggression more than a secular description
of the same violence. We also predicted that aggression would be
greater when the violence was sanctioned by God (high justification)
than when it was not sanctioned by God (low justification). We
tested these hypotheses using both religious (Study 1) and
nonreligious (Study 2) participants. We expected the effects to be
larger for participants who believed in God and in the Bible than
for those who did not. 1
It is unclear what believing in the Bible involves. We suspect that it means
that the students regard the Bible as authoritative and the
word of God.
Two groups of students were compared in separate studies:
Study 1: This involved 248 undergraduates (95 men & 153 women) from Brigham Young University (BYU) in Provo, UT.
99% of the students reported that they believed in the
Christian God and the Bible. 97% identified
themselves as members of The
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints -- the Mormon denomination
centered in Salt Lake City. This appears to be a
representative sample of students at the university, because, according to
Wikipedia, 98% of the students at BYU are Mormons. 2
Study 2: This involved 242 undergraduates (110 men; 132 women) at Vrije Universiteit
(VU) in Amsterdam, Holland, where
50% reported belief in God; 27% believe in the Bible. Among those listing a
religious affiliation, 18% were Catholic, 11% Protestant, 12% Muslim, 8%
Christian, 2% Hindu, 1% Jewish, and 8% other.
The subjects were asked to read a passage from the King James Version of the Bible
-- presumably from Judged 19. It
describes the brutal gang rape and murder of a woman concubine, and her owner's later revenge on her attackers.
All of the reviews of this study appear to identify the couple as husband and
wife. But it was actually a male owner and his property -- a female concubine --
who were the main individuals involved.
Half of the students were told that the passage came:
... from the Bible and half were told that it was from
an ancient scroll from an archaeological dig [in ancient ruins near Wadi Al-Murabba
'ah] in the Middle-East. In
addition, half of the students in each country were given an additional
portion in which God 'commanded Israel to take arms against their brothers
and chasten them before the LORD'." 3
About the selected biblical passage:
The passage appears to have come from Judges 19-21 in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament). This is one example of a theme that runs
throughout many parts of the Bible: the punishment of
the innocent for the sins of the guilty. It involves a nearly
complete genocide of the tribe of Benjamin that
left only a few hundred men and no women or children alive:
Judges 19 describes how an unspecified number of men -- a mob of perhaps a
dozen -- from the tribe of Benjamin, living in the town of Gibeah,
raped and murdered a concubine owned by a visiting Levite. The Levite later
butchered the concubine, divided her body into twelve pieces, and sent each
piece to one of the tribes of Israel.
Judges 20 describes that, as punishment for this murder, an army
from the remaining 11 tribes attacked the tribe of Benjamin, killing "all
the city with the edge of the sword." This implies that they murdered
all of the elderly, women, children, infants and newborns in all of the Benjamite
cities. Most of the men were also killed. The towns were burned to the ground.
Judges 21 notes that the 11 tribes realized that only a few hundred
Benjamite males survived, and that they had no wives or children. The remaining Hebrews
had earlier vowed that they would not give their daughters in marriage to
the Benjamites. At the time, Hebrew men were forbidden to marry non-Hebrew
women. Thus, the surviving males could not re-marry or have children. The
entire tribe would eventually die out.
To preserve the tribe's existence, they had to find a few hundred Hebrew
women who could be given to the Benjamites as wives. They observed that no
soldiers from Jabesh-gilead had taken part in the slaughter of the
Benjamites. So they killed "the inhabitants of Jabesh-gilead with the
edge of the sword," again including the children." (Judges 21:10) They
killed "... every male, and every woman" who was a non-virgin,
sparing only four hundred young female virgins. (Judges 21:11) These were
kidnapped, and were given to the surviving Benjamite men as wives. This
prevented the complete extermination of the tribe.
Lost in this story of bloodshed
and murder in cold blood is the fact that the only persons actual guilty of
the assault and death of the concubine were a few men from Gibeah. When the
smoke cleared, thousands of innocent men, women and children from the tribe
of Benjamin and from Jabesh-gilead were slaughtered as punishment for the
acts of a few men.
Co-author Robert Ridge, Associate Professor
of Psychology at Brigham Young University, said:
"We thought it would be a good story to use. It had the elements we were
looking for in a violent episode; it had revenge killing, rape, aggression
It is also a rather obscure passage. The text is extremely violent and the near genocide is profoundly
immoral. For these reasons, this passage, and many more
passages from the Bible that are immoral by today's religious and secular
standards, are rarely discussed in church.
The story in Judges 19 would probably be unfamiliar to most of the test subjects.
After reading the biblical passage, the subjects were paired up with
researcher and asked to compete in a game. Each was told to press a button as quickly as
possible. This was repeated 25 times. Before the button pushing began, the
subject chose the level of noise that they would inflict on their partner if
they won. The noise would be via the use of earphones. The subject could choose
one of three settings: no noise, a soft noise level of 60 dB, or a loud noise
of 105 decibels -- about the level of a fire alarm. The loudness that was chosen was recorded as a measure of aggressiveness.
An Association for Psychological Science news release reports:
"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." 4
Lead author, Bushman, wrote:
"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,
one might expect to see increased brutality." 5
He also wrote:
"To justify their actions, violent people often claim that God has
sanctioned their behavior. Christian extremists, Jewish reactionaries and
Islamic fundamentalists all can cite scriptures that seem to encourage or at
least support aggression against unbelievers." 6
"Even among our participants who were not religiously devout, exposure to
God-sanctioned violence increased subsequent aggression. That the effect was
found in such a sample may attest to the insidious power of exposure to
literary scriptural violence." 7
"Violent stories that teach moral lessons or that are balanced with
descriptions of victims' suffering or the aggressor's remorse can teach
important lessons and have legitimate artistic merit. But taking a single
violent episode out of its overall context, as we did in these studies, can
produce a significant increase in aggression." 8
Co-author Robert Robert Ridge, Associate
Professor of Psychology at Brigham Young University said:
'Regardless of whether people believed in God, you got an elevation in
the level of aggression if they believed that God had sanctioned the
He also said:
"What's interesting is that the absolute levels of aggression were much
higher in European samples than in the American samples. It's interesting
because the Dutch and, for the most part Europeans, consider themselves to
be relatively pacifist and progressive."
"This work supports theories proposed by religious terrorism scholars who
hypothesize that exposure to violent scriptures may induce extremists to
engage in aggressive actions."
"I think policy makers shouldn't be surprised that people might claim that
their violent actions were done in name of a deity"
"Our results did not suggest that reading scriptures is bad for a person. It
suggests that if one were to selectively focus on only stories that are
violent in nature that don't have context surrounding them, then you could
see increased aggression as a result"
"It's not an indictment of religion or canonical text. I hope people will
try to examine the research itself instead of getting a second hand
It might be worth noting that the terrorists who
perpetrated the 9/11 attacks were instructed to read violent passages from the
Qur'an before starting their attacks.
The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above
essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.
- B.J. Bushman et al., "When God Sanctions Killing: Effect of Scriptural
Violence on Aggression," Psychological Science, 2007-MAR.
"Brigham Young University." Wikipedia, as modified at 2007-MAR-26, at:
- Ojus Doshi, "Agression [sic] Increases in Those Who Believe God Sanctions
Violence," The Journal of Young Investigators, Volume 16, Issue 3, 2007-FEB.
"When God sanctions killing, the people listen," News Release, Association
for Psychological Science, 2007-FEB-23, at:
"When God Sanctions Killing, The People Listen," Science Daily, 2007-FEB-24,
Diane Swanbrow, "When God sanctions violence, believers act more
aggressively," The University Record Online, University of Michigan,
Greg Laden, "Religious belief leads to violence, aggression," 2007-MAR-13,
Ed Stoddard, "Violent scripture may increase aggression-study," Reuters,
Copyright © 2007 to 2009 by Ontario
Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2009-NOV-15
Author: B.A. Robinson