Does reading violent scripture make people violent?

March 24, 2007 | By | 4 Replies More

Haven’t we heard this argument before, at least in the context of television violence?  Does exposure to violence breed violence? Many people would suggest a connection, but here’s a twist: a study that considered the effect of exposure to violent scripture.

In the March 8, 2007 edition of Nature (this article is available online only to subscribers), researchers asked 500 students to read a violent Bible passage.  The story concerned a mob from an Israeli tribe that captured, raped and murdered a concubine.  Half of the participants were allowed to read the conclusion to the story (based on a real passage from the Old Testament): members of other Israeli tribes leveled several cities of the Israeli tribe (whose members killed the concubine), after they were asked to engage in this violence by God himself.

About half of the students came from a religious university in the United States, while the other half came from University of Amsterdam.  Only 27% of the latter group believed in the Bible.  After reading the passages, the students participated in a lab exercise designed to measure aggression.  The results?

For both groups-whether the students were based in the Netherlands or the United States, and believed in God or not-the trend was the same: those who were told that God had sanctioned the violence . . . were more likely to act aggressively in the subsequent exercise.

The authors of the article (to be published in Psychological Science) commented that the origin of religious violence has been a taboo subject until recently, though recent world events “has pushed negative uses of religion to the forefront.”

The study does not show that religious people are more aggressive than nonreligious people. Researchers conclude, however, that “people respond more aggressively to a depiction of violence that they feel is justified.” 

Sociologist Mark Muergensmeyer of the University of California, Santa Barbara, says his research has also pointed to the motivational power of scriptural violence, but that the context of the message is key.  “If violence is presented as the authoritative voice of God, it can increase the possibility of more violence . . . but everything depends on how it is presented.”  The same passage placed in a nonthreatening historical context might not promote aggression, he argues.  “When scriptural violence is used to promote hostility, it is extremely effective.”

In the Nature article, Sociologist John Hall comments that people often choose to ignore the violent side to religion, and dismiss those who commit religiously inspired violence as members of the fringe. “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.'”


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Category: Psychology Cognition, Religion, War

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (4)

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  1. Ben says:

    " Religion has lost respectability as a result of the atrocities committed in its name, because of its clamouring for an undue slice of the pie, and for its efforts to impose its views on others.

    Where politeness once restrained non-religious folk from expressing their true feelings about religion, both politeness and restraint have been banished by the confrontational face that faith now turns to the modern world.

    This, then, is why there is an acerbic quarrel going on between religion and non-religion today, and it does not look as if it will end soon. "

    AC Grayling

  2. Vicki says:

    The ease with which people can be persuaded to commit acts of violence because some authority figure tells them to is indeed troubling. In the famous Milgram obedience experiment, between 61% -66% of participants were willing to administer what they believed to be possibly fatal electric shocks to another human being because an authority figure – a scientist in a white coat – told them it was necessary.

    "The subjects believed that for each wrong answer, the learner was receiving actual shocks. In reality, there were no shocks. After the confederate was separated from the subject, the confederate set up a tape recorder integrated with the electro-shock generator, which played pre-recorded sounds for each shock level. After a number of voltage level increases, the actor started to bang on the wall that separated him from the subject. After several times banging on the wall and complaining about his heart condition, the learner gave no further responses to questions and no further complaints.[1]

    At this point, many people indicated their desire to stop the experiment and check on the learner. Some test subjects paused at 135 volts and began to question the purpose of the experiment. Most continued after being assured that they would not be held responsible. A few subjects began to laugh nervously or exhibit other signs of extreme stress once they heard the screams of pain coming from the learner.[1]

    If at any time the subject indicated his desire to halt the experiment, he was given a succession of verbal prods by the experimenter, in this order:[1]

    1. Please continue.

    2. The experiment requires that you continue.

    3. It is absolutely essential that you continue.

    4. You have no other choice, you must go on.

    If the subject still wished to stop after all four successive verbal prods, the experiment was halted. Otherwise, it was halted after the subject had given the maximum 450-volt shock three times in succession."

    The rules for psych experiments with human subjects have been changed so this type of experiment would not be allowed today. But it was replicated several times with similar results.

    It’s also interesting that violent depictions of the crucifixion, execution of martyrs, passion plays, etc. are associated with religious violence. One would think that such graphic depictions of suffering of beloved saints would make people less likely to harm others, but not so apparently. I wonder how many people who went to see Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ made any parallel with Abu Ghraib for example

  3. Dan Klarmann says:

    The Milgram experiment gets regular mention on this blog (like here or here).

    The explicitly depicted violence toward martyrs is always trotted out as done-to peaceful Christians by others, not as a good Christian thing to do. However, there is a tendency to do unto "them" what you feel they've already done unto you and yours.

    The mind is a malleable instrument. It reprograms itself to handle changing circumstances all the time. Regular exposure to particular ways of thinking or actions reinforced by positive attitudes will foster a positive attitude toward that way of thinking or acting.


    Regular depictions of violence reinforced with pleasure (as in slasher movies) inevitably associates violence with pleasure. I'd postulate that Biblical violence portrayed in juxtaposition with the "Yay for the good guys!" attitude of any congregation of Chosen People helps make such atrocities more acceptable, should an occasion come up.

  4. Erich Vieth says:

    Footnote: Did God or Satan kill more people in the Bible? Here's the answer in graph form:

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