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Religious Tolerance logo

Religious violence and aggression

Linking inter-personal violence with
studying a violent passage in the Bible

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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:

bulletStudy 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
bulletStudy 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 and violence."

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.

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The test:

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 violence."

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 account." 3

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.

References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. B.J. Bushman et al., "When God Sanctions Killing: Effect of Scriptural Violence on Aggression," Psychological Science, 2007-MAR.
  2. "Brigham Young University." Wikipedia, as modified at 2007-MAR-26, at: http://en.wikipedia.org/
  3. Ojus Doshi, "Agression [sic] Increases in Those Who Believe God Sanctions Violence," The Journal of Young Investigators, Volume 16, Issue 3, 2007-FEB.
  4. "When God sanctions killing, the people listen," News Release, Association for Psychological Science, 2007-FEB-23, at: http://www.psychologicalscience.org/
  5. "When God Sanctions Killing, The People Listen," Science Daily, 2007-FEB-24, at: http://www.sciencedaily.com/
  6. Diane Swanbrow, "When God sanctions violence, believers act more aggressively," The University Record Online, University of Michigan, 2006-MAR-16, at: http://www.umich.edu/
  7. Greg Laden, "Religious belief leads to violence, aggression," 2007-MAR-13, at: http://www.gregladen.com/
  8. Ed Stoddard, "Violent scripture may increase aggression-study," Reuters, 2007-MAR-06, at: http://www.alertnet.org/

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Copyright © 2007 to 2009 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2009-NOV-15
Author: B.A. Robinson

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