Saturday, April 28, 2007

Faith and Force as Proven Corollaries

Brian Schwartz, via FRODO (Front Range Objectivist Discussion Online), points to a recent study aimed at finding out whether or not religious sanction of violent actions leads to aggressive nature in individuals.

The article, entitled "When God Sanctions Killing: Effect of Scriptural Violence on Aggression", describes how they first split the hundreds of participants into two groups. The first group came from Brigham Young University where 99% stated they believe in God and the Bible. The second group, made up of Dutch students from Vrije University, included 40% non-religious affiliation and the rest consisting of 18% Catholic, 11% Protestant, 12% Muslim, 8% Christian, 2% Hindu, 1% Jewish, and 8% other; 50% said they believed in God, and 27% said they believed in the Bible.

Beforehand the students had read a passage from the Book of Judges in the Old Testament. One half was told it came from Judges while the other half was told it came from an ancient archaeological scroll found in 1984. The students where told a story in which a mob had raped and beaten to death a woman. As a result, the town had to decided what was to be done to those who committed this crime. Inserted in the story for the first half was a passage whose basis came from the Judges passage telling the town to kill those responsible. Thus the students read that God had sanctioned violence against the murder of the woman. The other half were not given this part of the story. Their story simply continued with the town decimating the neighboring town and killing all its inhabitants with no mention of religious sanction.

To test the students response to this reading they were told they were to participate in a time task in which they and their partners would have to press a button as fast as possible. The slower of the two would receive a blast of noise through headphones at a specific level prescribed beforehand by their respective partner ranging from 60 to 105 dB.

Overall, the most aggression was shown by those students who read the bible passage that included God sanctioning violence, and furthermore, among that group, it was those who said they believed in God and the Bible who were most aggressive.

"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."

The study, however, fails in regards to the information one can take away from this experiment. In its non-judgmental approach it cites The Atlantic Monthly when it states:

Does this ultimately mean that one should avoid reading religious canon for fear that the violent episodes contained therein will cause one to become more aggressive, or that individuals who read the scriptures will become aggressive? Not necessarily. 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 (e.g., Stossel, 1997). [citation on study page, added link to May 1997 contents page at The Atlantic Monthly]
The Stossel citation deals with George Gerbner and his work on television and violence. Why is this important? Because, citations like these fail when they forget to make clear the main distinction between the information entailed in the citation and the information detailed in the study itself, thereby blurring one's understanding. The study's main focus was on finding if there was a link between violence and religious sanction of that violence. In other words, does faith necessarily lead to force?

In her article "Faith and Force: The Destroyers of the Modern World", Ayn Rand described mysticism, i.e., faith, as follows:
Mysticism is the acceptance of allegations without evidence or proof, either apart from or against the evidence of one's senses and one's reason. Mysticism is the claim to some non-sensory, non-rational, non-definable, non-identifiable means of knowledge, such as "instinct," "intuition," "revelation," or any form of "just knowing." [emphasis original]
She goes on to explain later in the article:
I have said that faith and force are corollaries, and that mysticism will always lead to the rule of brutality. The cause of it is contained in the very nature of mysticism. Reason is the only objective means of communication and of understanding among men; when men deal with one another by means of reason, reality is their objective standard and frame of reference. But when men claim to possess supernatural means of knowledge, no persuasion, communication, or understanding are possible. [emphasis original]
As the study shows, out of context references to religious sanction can lead to aggression and violence. However, this should not be used to whitewash religion as benign since you can pick out anything you want from the Bible because it so so contradictory. On the question of religion's fundamental nature this is something that psychology could not attempt to explain. Understanding fundamentals in the field of ideas is the realm of philosophy and can only be explained by reference to a rational standard. Since religion denies such a reference and makes claim to the supernatural it will inevitably lead to violence if practiced consistently as Ayn Rand illustrated.


Jennifer Snow said...

I'd consider the findings of this study more convincing if they had included other groups that read stories sanctioning violence, such as "state-sanctioned violence" or "philosophy-sanctioned violence", as it is they haven't necessarily shown a parallel between religion and aggression but between *sanction* and aggression.

Studies of this type really deserve to be taken with a grain of salt: correlation is not causation, after all.

Michael Caution said...

I'm not sure such a study would even be possible. If there were to be groups who read a passage and were told it came from a government official or a philosopher is that any different than an archaeological scroll? If you're testing the source of authority, all three are from man and are no different when compared to one that is supposedly from a higher authority.

If we were to take out religion altogether and just have those three we would be able to see which worldly source people thought sanctioned violence most. But you have to ask, would that tell us anything substantial? People's common idea of philosophy is so mixed and undefined that to make anything of its results would be troubling. Not to mention that any form of political system rests upon a country's philosophical underpinnings. I think people's understanding of religion as something outside of this world is well established and is what this study presupposed.

Such a possible scenario for a study seems troubling to me.