Mixing Memory

i-2057262052849ced0db10e0ef8318a77-eyeswatching.jpgIf you were hanging around ScienceBlogs yesterday, you probably came across this post at Pharyngula. In it, Dr. Myers links to an article on a study by Bushman et al.1 purporting to show that people are more aggressive after reading passages from the Bible in which God sanctions violence than after reading passages that don’t involve sanctioning violence. In the study, two sets of participants, one from Brigham Young University, and the other from Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam, were told that they would be participating in two seprate studies. After being asked a few questions about their religious beliefs (their religious affiliation, whether they believe in God, and whether they believe in the Bible), they completed the first “study,” in which they were told was on Middle Eastern literature. This first task involved reading a passage from the Bible (Book of Judges, Chapters 19-21), which involves a man taking revenge for the rape and murder of his wife. In one condition, participants were told that the passage came from the Bible, and in a second condition, they were told that it came from a scroll discovered in the Middle East in 1984. In each of these conditions, half of the participants read a version of the story that contained this verse:

The Lord commanded Israel to take arms against their brothers and chasten them before the Lord.

The other half read the story without that verse. It doesn’t appear, from the paper, that the participants had to do anything but read the passage.

After reading the passages, participants were told that they were to participate in an unrelated study in which they would compete against other participants in a reaction game. In the game, two participants (one actually a confederate) were told that they would be competing to see who could press a button faster on 25 consecutive trials. The slower participant would be punished with a noise in their ears. Participants were then asked to set the decibel level of the noise that their competitor would hear if he or she was slower. Presumably, more aggressive participants would choose higher decibel levels. The prediction, then, is that participants who were told that the story they read was from the Bible, and who read the the version with the verse in which God sanctions violence, would choose higher decibel levels than participants who were told that the passage was from a recently discovered scroll, or read it without the violence-sanctioning verse.

Bushman et al. then compared the number of trials (out of 25) in which participants in the different conditions chose the highest decibel levels. As predicted, in both sets of participants (BYU and Vrije Universiteit), participants who were told that the passage was from the Bible chose the highest decibel levels on more trials than those who were told that it was from a recently discovered scroll (though this difference only approached statistical significance for the Vrije Universiteit participants). Participants in both sets who read the version with the verse about God sanctioning the violence in the story also chose the highest decibel levels more than those who read the version without that verse. In the BYU sample, virtually all of the participants believed in God in the Bible, but in the Vrije Universiteit sample, only 50% indicated that they believed in God, and only 27% said they believed in the Bible. So in the Vrije Universiteit sample, Bushman et al. also looked at differences in aggression (decibel levels) as a function of belief. Overall, believers chose the highest decibel levels more often than non-believers, but this was largely due to the greater influence of the Bible passage on believers than non-believers. That is, while both believers and non-believers were more aggressive after reading the passage containing the violence-sanctioning verse, and told it was from the Bible, than after reading the passage and being told it was from another source, this difference was greater for believers than non-believers.

What conclusion should we draw from this study? Well, Bushman et al. write:

This work also supports theories proposed by religious terrorism scholars who hypothesize that exposure to violent scriptures may induce extremists to engage in aggressive actions (e.g., Juergensmeyer, 2003). Of note here is that we obtained evidence supporting this hypothesis in samples of university students who were, in our estimation, not typical of the terrorists who blow up civilians. 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 violence.

Except, well, I don’t know. For one, in no condition in either of the samples did participants tend to choose the highest decibel levels on even half the trials (the highest mean, for any condition in either sample, was 8.7 trials out of 25), and the increase in aggression from the non-sanctioned to violence-sanctioned conditions ranged from around 2 trials to 4 trials out of 25. So it’s not like reading the passage suddenly made people crazed terrorists. It may of course be true that repeated exposure to violent religious passages, and only the violent ones, can lead to sustained and practically significant changes in aggression levels, but that’s not what this study shows. Instead, it shows that reading that God sanctions retributive violence makes people a little more aggressive temporarily.

Interestingly, another recent study (which, I might add, you won’t find discussed on Pharyngula) presents evidence that religion may have the opposite effect as well. That is, religion may increase prosocial behavior. One of the long-standing theories of the origin and purpose of religion is that, in large groups that are not held together by kinship relationships and reciprocal altruism necessitated by close physical proximity, religion serves to promote prosocial behavior and discourage cheating. In a recent version of this theory, Ara Norenzayan and his colleagues have hypothesized that religions achieve this function by activating our hair-triggered agency detectors, which thereby activate “reputational concerns.” That is, when we feel like someone’s watching, we don’t want to cheat, because it will harm our reputation in the community. Religions almost always include supernatural agents that are omnipresent, and can see what you’re doing even if you can’t see them. In other words, we’re being watched, and that activates our reputational concerns, causing us to act in more prosocial ways.

To test this hypothesis, Shariff and Norenzayan2 conducted two studies. In the first, they first had participants complete a scrambled sentence task. This task, which previous research has shown can implicitly prime concepts (i.e., prime concepts without participants being aware of them), involves having participants read scrambled sentences with one extra word, like “felt she eradicate spirit the,” and asking them to put the words in the correct order, leaving out the extra word. Thus, from “felt she eradicate spirit the,” participants should get, “she felt the spirit.” Each participant unscrambled ten sentences. For half of the participants, five of the sentences contained words that prime God concepts (“spirit,” “divine,” “God,” “sacred,” and “prophet”) while the other half unscrambled sentences that didn’t prime any single concept. After the priming task, participants were told that they were going to participate in an unrelated experiment involving the “Dictator Game.” The instructions for the game were as follows:

You have been chosen as the giver in this economic decision making task. You will find 10 one dollar coins. Your role is to take and keep as many of these coins as you would like, knowing that however many you leave, if any, will be given to the receiver participant to keep. (p. 6)

Since the amount of money that the receiver gets is entirely up to the giver, and since the participants were always the givers, Shariff and Norenzayan could measure the effect of priming God concepts on prosocial behavior by comparing the difference in the amount of money participants gave depending on whether they’d unscrambled the sentences with God-related words or only neutral sentences. As their hypothesis predicted, participants primed with God-related words gave more on average ($4.22) than those who unscrambled the neutral sentences ($1.84). Furthermore, more than half (64%) of the participants in the God-prime condition gave at least half of the money to the receive, while only 12% of the participants in the neutral condition gave half or more. Interestingly, they found that activating God-concepts increased the amount of money participants gave to the receivers regardless of whether they were theists or atheists.

The second study involved the same tasks (the scrambled sentence task and the Dictator Game), but used a more diverse group of participants (larger age and income ranges), and included a third scrambled sentence task condition. In addition to the neutral and God-concept conditions, they also included a condition in which five of the sentences contained words that primed secular moral concepts (“civic,” “jury,” “court,” “police,” and “contract”). As in the first study, participants gave more, and were more likely to give half or more of their money, in the God-concept condition than in the neutral condition. The same was also true in the secular moral prime condition. Participants who unscrambled the sentences with secular words gave more than those in the neutral condition. The difference between the God-prime and secular-prime conditions was not significant. In this experiment, atheists in the God-prime and neutral condition gave the same amount of money (very little; friggin’ selfish atheists), in contrast to the first study. Shariff and Norenzayan believe that this difference between the two studies was the result of stricter criteria for determining whether participants were classified as atheists in the second study.

So, activating God concepts causes people to behave in a more prosocial fashion. While this isn’t direct evidence for the agency-detection theory of Norenzayan and his colleagues, it is suggestive. The fact that secular moral concepts had the same effect on prosocial behavior could be a result of similar processes, with the government or its agents (e.g., the police) replacing supernatural agents.

Perhaps the message to take home from these two sets of studies (the Bushman et al. and Shariff and Norenzayan studies) taken together is that religion, like any other social institution, can cause good and bad behavior, depending on the context and the ways in which it is used. Overall, religion and similar secular institutions may serve to promote prosocial behavior, but when individuals focus on certain parts of a religion’s or government’s message, aggression and violence can also result. As is usually the case in the social sciences, the role that religion plays in society and the individual psyche is complex and messy.


1Bushman, B. J., Ridge, R. D., Das, E., Key, C. W., & Busath, G. M. (In Press). When God sanctions killing; Effect of scriptural violence on aggression. Psychological Science.
2Shariff, A., & Norenzayan, A. (In Press). God is watching you: Supernatural agent concepts increase prosocial behavior in an anonymous economic game. Psychological Science.

“The Eyes Are Watching You” photo from here.

Comments

  1. #1 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    February 27, 2007

    Does religion make you meaner or nicer?

    One’s own religion, or the religion of others?

    One of the long-standing theories of the origin and purpose of religion is that, in large groups that are not held together by kinship relationships and reciprocal altruism necessitated by close physical proximity, religion serves to promote prosocial behavior and discourage cheating.

    I took the liberty of highlighting a phrase. What about behaviour towards people outside the group? Religion may bring people in a group together, but it may be at the expense of society as a whole. I’m sure you realize I could pick one of numerous examples from the headlines to back this up.

  2. #2 Pat Mathews
    February 27, 2007

    Almost 40 years ago I came to the conclusion that strongly believing Christians seemed to come in three flavors: truly sweet, sour, and saccharine; depending, I suppose, on their temperament and how they interpreted the scriptures. The sour ones are those who internalized the wrathful God full of “Thou shalt not”s and were convinced their God was just waiting to destroy us for tolerating any violation of His rules. The sweet ones actually practiced the love and charity enjoined by the Gospels. The saccharine ones were adctually, really trying to be sweet, hoping to fake it till they made it, but if you ask me were terrified that God would see through the facade of respectability to their ‘wicked’ souls within.

    This study seems to be pinpointing the ‘sour’ vriety of believers. I have every reason to believe my quick & dirty analysis applies to other faiths as well, especially (almost certainly) to Islam and other highly dualistic religions.

  3. #3 Jonah
    February 27, 2007

    Thanks for the very insightful post. I’m inherently suspicious of these sorts of experimental oversimplifications, which promise to reduce complicated cultural phenomenon into simple chains of cause and effect. I continue the discussion over at my blog.

  4. #4 Kevembuangga
    February 28, 2007

    Supporting “Mustafa Mond” views.
    BOTH pro and con studies lack the distinction in-group/out-group with respect to the meaner v/s nicer attitudes, no matter the size of the groups.

  5. #5 Chris
    February 28, 2007

    Since the “nicer” study was designed to test an hypothesis that specifically concerns in-group relations, I don’t think the lack of out-group scenarios is a problem.

  6. #6 Gavin
    February 28, 2007

    They say that the passage from Judges is “relatively obscure and unrecognized”, but part of religion is knowing your scripture. I’d be worried that some of the participants who self-identified as christian might recognise the passage even if they were told it wasn’t from the Bible, and might know the violent bit even if it was left out.

  7. #7 jessica
    February 28, 2007

    When are researchers going to realize that reading a bible is NOT the same as religion??
    I’m appalled at how many biologists, psychologists, think that they are experts on theology and religion.

    (For the record, I’m a psychologist).

  8. #8 Clark
    February 28, 2007

    Well that’s true Jessica but it does seem to test for how people react to God. Which is close enough.

    The issue isn’t really formal religion or theology.

  9. #9 Chris
    February 28, 2007

    (Disclaimer: Although my name is the same as the blog owner’s, I am not him and don’t intend to pretend to be.)

    I think you’re missing the point of Mustafa Mond’s criticism: one man’s “prosocial behavior” is another man’s massacre. Literally, in far too many cases.

    The idea that God is watching them may encourage people to behave according to the precepts of the religion, but while that’s just fine when the precept is generosity, when the precept is “smite the unbeliever” or “believe whatever the Pope says” or “cut off part of your childrens’ genitals shortly after birth” the “beneficial” effect of religion is not so beneficial. (From a worldly standpoint, at least.)

    I think once you correct for this problem (assuming that’s even possible without a truly objective definition of good and bad behaviors) you’re going to end up with nothing better than “Benevolent religious teachings encourage people to behave benevolently”, and since most of the common religions in the world are a very mixed bag under the best of circumstances, it’s not much of a plus in religion’s column.

    P.S. Feel free to email a link to the second study to PZ, rather than merely sniping at him behind his back.

  10. #10 Chris
    February 28, 2007

    First, I never snipe behind backs. I always do so publicly. The point of this particular snipe, of course, was that people tend to select the research they discuss based on their pre-existing biases. I seriously doubt, based on knowledge gained from two years of reading him, that PZ would post the Shariff and Norenzayan study, even were he aware of it (and he probably isn’t), unless someone called him on it. So feel free to email it to him yourself, and if he posts it, good.

    As for Mustafa’s criticism, I think my answer still stands. Prosocial behavior has a fairly specific definition (it’s a term used to avoid some of the issues associated with the word “altruism”). Given the theory the experiments were designed to test, I see nothing wrong with its use in a discussion of these experiments. That said, I’m pretty sure that at the end of this post, I pointed out that the uses and effects of religion are complex and “messy,” and that trying to make general claims about the aggressive or prosocial tendencies of the religious (or that are caused by religion) from studies like these is silly. I’m not sure what more you’re looking for. An acknowledgment that the religious tend to be mean to out-group members? Well, they’re human, and humans tend to be mean to out-group members. Would you also like me to point out that oranges are fruit?

  11. #11 Jason
    February 28, 2007

    Religion is not merely “God concepts,” and the second study therefore has little to say about the effects of religion as opposed to mere philosophical theism. Theistic religions not only assert the existence of a god or gods but make particular claims in their sacred writings about the nature and wishes of those Gods. The scriptures of the two overwhelmingly dominant theistic world religions, Christianity and Islam, are full of descriptions of God condoning, ordering or perpetrating acts of violence and persecution, as in the passage from the Book of Judges used in the first study. So it seems to me that the first study is far more relevant to the question of whether religion makes you meaner or nicer than the second study.

  12. #12 Chris
    February 28, 2007

    At this point, I really don’t know what to say. Apparently “religion is complex” is not enough to satisfy people. Nor is pointing out that neither of these studies should be used to draw generalized conclusions about religion or the religious. I’m not the one doing so. You’ll have to visit some other ScienceBlogs to get that.

    Of course, Shariff and Norenzayan chose God concepts because supernatural agents are present in just about every religion (even in the so-called atheistic religions, in practice, supernatural agents show up). The passage from the Book of Judges is about a revenge killing. I’m not sure how ubiquitous revenge killings are in scripture, but if you want to make revenge killings more central to religion than supernatural agents, that’s fine with me.

  13. #13 Jason
    February 28, 2007

    My point is that the first study is more relevant to the question you ask (“Does religion make you meaner or nicer?”) than the second study, because the first one addresses the effect of exposure to a religious teaching and the second does not. The second study addresses only the effect of exposure to words referring to nebulous supernatural concepts with no clear connection to any actual religion.

    You could argue that the scripture used in the first study is not representative or typical of the teachings of actual religions, but I think you’d have a hard time making that case. Have you looked at the Old Testament lately? It’s largely a catalog of atrocities commanded or perpetrated by God.

  14. #14 Chris
    February 28, 2007

    It’s been a while since I last read the Old Testament (or the new, for that matter), but I’m pretty sure that it’s full of much, much more than that.

    But my point is this: virtually all religions involve supernatural concepts, and in the everyday practice of religion, supernatural concepts are much more central than scripture. In fact, scripture plays a relatively minor role in the everyday practice of religion, and in the structure of everyday religious beliefs (if you don’t believe me, read some of my past stuff on religion, or check out the work of people like Atran and Norenzayan on religious cognition). These practices and beliefs are, instead, centered around some fairly common concepts and rituals, within which supernatural agents are central.

    Of course, there is a lot of violence in the Bible and, if I’m not mistaken, most religious texts. Much of this violence is in fact sanctioned by God (or other supernatural agents). The irony in your position being, of course, that in order for that violence to be central, the supernatural agents have to be even more central, so that every time you make your point, you elevate its counter a notch higher. But leaving irony aside, I think you’d be hard pressed to find religious communities that focus primarily on the violent aspects of their religion. Islamic fundamentalism or extremism provides a nice example of the focus on violent aspects of a religion, but in doing so, it contrasts quite starkly with the religious practices of the majority of believers in the world’s major religions, and thereby ends up being the exception that highlights, if it doesn’t prove, the rule.

  15. #15 Jason
    February 28, 2007

    But my point is this: virtually all religions involve supernatural concepts, and in the everyday practice of religion, supernatural concepts are much more central than scripture.

    You’ve got to be kidding. The mere concept of god, which is all the second study addressed, has almost nothing to do with religious practise. The religious practises of the theistic religions are almost entirely a product of particular traditions, writings and authority figures that make particular assertions about the nature and desires of their god or gods.

    I also don’t know where you get the idea that Islamic fundamentalism or extremism “contrasts quite starkly with the religious practices of the majority of believers in the world’s major religions.” The vast majority of believers are not rich, liberal, western Christians, but poor and uneducated third-worlders whose religious practises involve such lovely things as persecuting homosexuals, oppressing women and censoring heretics. This is true throughout almost all the developing world, among Christians, Muslims and Hindus alike. In this, they are very much like the majority of western Christians until the very recent past.

  16. #16 Chris
    March 1, 2007

    Jason, I thought a little bit about how to respond to your last comment, particularly your assertion that supernatural agent concepts have nothing to do with the practice of religion, and then realized that I simply have nothing to say to someone who holds that view. It’s not simply counterintuitive, it’s has no basis in empirical reality. I’d point you to some anthropological literature, but at this point, I don’t think it’d do you any good.

  17. #17 Kevembuangga
    March 1, 2007

    I’m not sure what more you’re looking for. An acknowledgment that the religious tend to be mean to out-group members? Well, they’re human, and humans tend to be mean to out-group members. Would you also like me to point out that oranges are fruit?

    OK, then it is “great” that religions condone the natural tendency of humans to be mean to out-group members, that makes for “good” group selection may be?

  18. #18 Chris
    March 1, 2007

    It probably does, but not being a biologist, I’m not really in a position to say. I can say that most religious behavior seems to be in-group directed, but that’s neither surprising nor nicely amenable to the “religion is evil” position that some people seem hell bent on arriving at data in hand.

  19. #19 Kevembuangga
    March 1, 2007

    but that’s neither surprising nor nicely amenable to the “religion is evil” position that some people seem hell bent on arriving at data in hand.

    There are more and more people to think that “religion is evil” and justifiably so.
    At best, religion used to be a “good” group selection device in that it enforced artificial barriers between groups allowing each to develop OTHER features which would come into play in group competition, thus favoring the emergence of “good” features competitiveness-wise.
    But in an ever more overcrowded world with looming problems like global warming, nasty pollutions and ressources shortages (most especially energy shortages) competitiveness isn’t likely the best policy, competition is EXPENSIVE and WASTEFUL and it serves only a handful of “winners”.
    In any case, just like “our genes are not our friends” our memes are not our friends (religious or otherwise) and religions have NEVER been fully beneficial to their own followers.
    Defending the meme takes a heavy toll on most individuals and benefits only a minority.
    This is concealed by the “survivors bias”, the ones we can see to have benefited are the ones who “made it thru”, the deceased and downtrodden are invisible or less visible.

  20. #20 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    March 1, 2007

    Since the “nicer” study was designed to test an hypothesis that specifically concerns in-group relations, I don’t think the lack of out-group scenarios is a problem.


    As for Mustafa’s criticism, I think my answer still stands. Prosocial behavior has a fairly specific definition (it’s a term used to avoid some of the issues associated with the word “altruism”). Given the theory the experiments were designed to test, I see nothing wrong with its use in a discussion of these experiments. That said, I’m pretty sure that at the end of this post, I pointed out that the uses and effects of religion are complex and “messy,” and that trying to make general claims about the aggressive or prosocial tendencies of the religious (or that are caused by religion) from studies like these is silly. I’m not sure what more you’re looking for. An acknowledgment that the religious tend to be mean to out-group members?

    I did not mean to imply that the study is invalid, only that to overgeneralize from a specific result, as your thread title explicitly does, is invalid.

  21. #21 Chris
    March 1, 2007

    Yeah, like I said to Jason, there’s nothing I can do if you choose to focus on particular negative aspects of religion. It’s a social institution, one that has been used as a tool of domination for millenia, but one that also has obvious and undeniable positive effects. Traditionally, even the most strident critics of religion have noted this, but there’s a particular breed of critics of religion to day, the anti-religious bigots, who seem incapable of admitting this, or of accepting any empirical finding that might even imply it.

    Religion is a social institution buoyed by shared personal beliefs and practices that co-opt mundane cognitive and social structures. There’s nothing inherently good or evil about that. It only becomes so in its use and abuse, and as is the case with any social institution (including science and technology, which have replaced religion as the most effective tools of domination), you won’t have to look hard to find good and bad.

    There’s another aspect of the anti-religious bigots’ criticisms of religion that I think needs highlighting. As I believe Razib has said in the past, religion is so effective at utilizing our cognitive and social makeup that we might even say it falls naturally out of them. Because of that, there’s no reason to believe that religion is going to go away, ever, or that getting rid of religion is possible. As social critiques go, anti-religious bigotry is thus worthless. We’d be better off recognizing that the contents of religions, aside from the basics (like, say, the existence of supernatural agents, and rituals designed to promote social cohesion, etc.) vary with the spirit of the times and culture, and that to change religion — to make it less hostile to life, for example — we should focus on changing that spirit. It seems that, at least in some parts of the world, and during some historical periods, people have been very successful at that. In the United States, not so much so (at least in the last 200 years), and I think the attitude and focus of some of the more zealous secularists is partially to blame for that.

  22. #22 Chris
    March 1, 2007

    Mustafa, the thread title was meant to be ironic and satirical (hence the shrugging, “Inquiring minds, etc.”). I hope that the last paragraph of the post made that clear, or at least made it clear that I wasn’t trying to make any broad generalizations from these studies. Instead, the contrasting of the two studies was meant to show that there is no pretty picture of religion, its cognitive underpinnings, or its role in the social process, to be gleaned from one study, two studies, or a hundred studies. These studies don’t provide enough material to make value judgments, and anyone who thinks they do is kidding him or herself.

  23. #23 Jason
    March 1, 2007

    Chris,

    particularly your assertion that supernatural agent concepts have nothing to do with the practice of religion, and then realized that I simply have nothing to say to someone who holds that view. It’s not simply counterintuitive, it’s has no basis in empirical reality.

    But I didn’t say that. I said the “mere” concept of god has almost nothing to do with religious practise. That is, the concept of god alone, unelaborated by the doctrines of particular religions that attribute to their god(s) particular natures and desires, have almost nothing to do with religious practise. I have no idea why you would find this counterintuitive, let alone unsupported by empirical evidence. In fact, if you can find a single example of a religious practise that is derived from the mere concept of God alone rather than from the doctrines of a particular religion then I should very much like to know what it is.

    Because the second study addresses god only as a philosophical concept and has nothing to do with the actual teachings of any actual religion, it has almost no relevance to the issue of the impact of religion on behavior.

  24. #24 Chris
    March 1, 2007

    Jason, again, I’d point you to the anthropological literature (or even the cog sci literature), but I just don’t think it would help. You’re dead set on taking a particular view on religion. The fact is, supernatural agent concepts are pretty damn consistent across cultures and religions, and they have similar effects as a result. Of course, theological concepts of these agents differ pretty widely, but theological concepts play a small role in everyday religion.

    If you read more of Norenzayan’s work (and his colleague, Atran’s work), you’ll find that one of the reasons he focuses on supernatural agent concepts is specifically because their content is so similar across cultures, making it a good avenue towards generalizations about the social and cognitive aspects of religion.

  25. #25 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    March 1, 2007

    It is clear that your continued apologia for religion has not made you nicer.

  26. #26 Chris
    March 1, 2007

    Mustafa, hah… sorry. That is a good point. I’m rather frustrated, at this point. I simply don’t know what to say to people who espouse positions, as Jason did, that are patently false, and who seem immune to any evidence that that is the case. But you’re right, I should tone it down a little.

    By the way, I’m not really trying to be an apologist for religion. Perhaps I should write a more detailed explanation of my own critique of religion, to make that clear (though the old atheism of suspicion post touches on that critique).

  27. #27 andy.s
    March 1, 2007

    I wonder what effect this experiment would have if the subjects had read one of PZ Myers’s spittle-flecked rantings against Christianity instead of the Bible.

  28. #28 Kevembuangga
    March 1, 2007

    there’s no reason to believe that religion is going to go away, ever, or that getting rid of religion is possible.

    Fully agreed!
    But THIS is the problem, in spite of this something has to be done against the deleterious effects of religion.
    The “Neville Chamberlain” option is of no help.

  29. #29 Chris
    March 1, 2007

    Kavembuangga, I agree 100% that something has to be done against the deleterious effects of religion. My solution (in the latest post and in the previous comment) is to force religion to change by changing society. If you make society more tolerant, religion has to become more tolerant (look at Europe). If you want religion to be less violent, society has to become less violent.

    The problem that the rabid anti-religious secularists have is their determination to see religion as a cause, rather than as a tool in the service of a cause. Religion doesn’t cause violence because religion is inherently violent. Religion causes violent because people and societies are violent, because there are conflicts between groups and individuals, and religion is an easy and ready at hand justification for that violence. Religion is a tool. It has always been a tool, and it will always be a tool. It has lost it’s ability, in western democracies at least, to effect domination in the way it once had. But it hasn’t lost its ability to be used to further the aims of dominance gained and maintained through other means (e.g., technology, economics, etc.). Once the anti-religious see religion as a tool, they will understand that in order to change how it is used, they have to change the hand(s) that weild it.

  30. #30 Jason
    March 1, 2007

    Chris,

    Still waiting for that example of a religious practise that arises from the concept of god alone, rather than from the particular doctrines of particular theistic religions.

    Remember, since this behavior comes from the mere concept of god, it would have to be associated with all varieties of theism, from Deism to Hinduism to Islam to Zoroastrianism to Christianity.

  31. #31 Jason
    March 1, 2007

    Chris,

    Religion doesn’t cause violence because religion is inherently violent. Religion causes violent because people and societies are violent, because there are conflicts between groups and individuals, and religion is an easy and ready at hand justification for that violence.

    Then why do you advocate changing religion to emphasize the “good” doctrines like loving one’s neighbor and deemphasize (or eliminate) the bad doctrines like persecuting homosexuals and oppressing women? If religion itself has no causal effect on behavior, if it’s merely a vehicle or “tool” through which behavior with some other cause is expressed, changing religious doctrines will have no impact on ethical behavior at all. You can’t have it both ways. Either religion is itself a cause of good/bad behavior or it’s not. If it’s not, there’s no point in changing it.

  32. #32 Wes
    March 1, 2007

    (“spirit,” “divine,” “God,” “sacred,” and “prophet”)

    (“civic,” “jury,” “court,” “police,” and “contract”)

    For the religious prime words, all the words evoke holiness and preciousness.

    But of the secular words they chose, three invoke punishment (jury, court, and police), and two invoke binding duty (civic, contract).

    If they wanted this study to be unbiased, then they should have chosen corresponding words. For instance, if they wanted to stick with those secular words, they should have chosen “Hell, damnation, confession, Judgment Day, Ten Commandments” for the religious terms. Or if they wanted to stick with their religious terms, they could keep the religious words they chose and then prime with secular words like “tolerance, reason, compassion, fairness, human rights” or something like that.

  33. #33 Chris
    March 1, 2007

    Jason, I’m responding to you against my better judgment, but as I promised Mustafa in the other thread, I will try to remain calm. I have never claimed, nor will I claim at any point in the future, that religion is only god concepts without doctrine. I have claimed that supernatural beings are central to religion, and universal, and that they play a larger part in everyday (what some researchers call theologically-incorrect) religion than theological doctrines do. I say this not because I’ve arrived at that conclusion by reaching into my ass, pulling it back out, and seeing what comes out with it, but by actually reading the literature. If you want some actual data, google “Mixing Memory Atran,” or “Mixing Memory religion,” and you should get some of my old posts on the topic.

    Also, if I implied that I think we can make religion focus on the “good” passages in scripture, or the “good” parts of its theology, as opposed to the violent and bad ones, I apologize. My point (which I tried to make in the latest post on the topic) is that religious doctrines themselves change. Scripture is a collection of words; words that get interpreted differently depending on the social environment in which those interpreting them exist. The doctrines themselves change, dramatically at times, when society changes. This is true even if the scriptures that supposedly determine those doctrines contain the same words in the same order. I don’t want people to focus on certain parts of scripture. I want their fundamental doctrines to change. We’ve seen that in Christianity and Islam many times, historically. I think history shows that changing society is, in fact, the best way to change religion. This isn’t surprising, of course, because religion is embedded in social processes, and only makes sense in light of them. So the best way to change religion (as, say, in 18th century Europe and the U.S., or in contemporary Europe) is to change the society.

  34. #34 Decline and Fall
    March 7, 2007

    Why, oh why did I not read this comment thread before getting into it with Jason on the “religion and Social Critique” thread? It would have saved me so much trouble.

    Chris, you showed more tact than I was able to.

  35. #35 I.M.
    June 21, 2009

    A simple read of history is bound to show to everyone not wearing pink eyeglasses that religion is the cause of a great part of the violence and misery of humankind. And the remaining part, due to the greed for power-riches-land etc.., used religion – with the help of the priests – to make the poor ignorant folks go kill themselves thinking they are doing it for the glory of god. Most religions are intolerant of other religions. Even of other versions of their same religion. Just remember what they did to heretics in the Middle Ages and Renaissance: they put them between two wooden planks and sawed them alive and other niceties like that. I live in Greece and orthodox Christians there don’t really consider Catholics to be Christian. I know a Catholic man who had enormous trouble being allowed into Mount Athos, he had to go through almost a month of red tape, because of “being of a different faith”. And I’m not mentioning Islam, because we all know to what lengths of intolerance they have gone and are still going – in many things they are still in the Middle Ages. But don’t think that modern Christian missionaries are soft in their approach, they just do it with psychological violence, i.e. pressure and bribes of many kinds.

    Who can disagree that it takes religion to make a normally nice person violent? Or drugs. But then, isn’t religion “the opium of the masses”?