By Jesse Singal
To many, the statement “Religion causes violence” seems intuitively true. After all, one can easily summon to mind a huge number of examples, from the Crusades to warfare connected with early Islam, to the September 11th attacks and sectarian warfare in the Middle East, and on and on and on. Some liberal-minded people, particularly those of an atheist bent, will rattle off these examples as clear proof that religion is a force for evil in the world.
But what if it’s more complicated than that? What if there’s less evidence than one might think that religion causes violence? That’s the provocative thesis of an upcoming new article in Contemporary Voices: St Andrews Journal of International Relations, a journal launched in April of 2018 (available as a preprint), authored by Joshua Wright and Yuelee Khoo at Simon Fraser University.
The paper is mostly dedicated to a literature review which summarises a wide array of findings about the supposed link between religion and violence. Overall, Wright and Khoo argue that the literature points in both directions, and that there’s little reason, at this relatively early juncture in understanding the connection between religion and behaviour, to believe that there’s something unique to religious ideologies that cause them to foster violence.
That said, there are certainly plenty of studies on the side of the ledger that suggest religion does cause violence. For example, the authors cite research showing that the more that people felt the September 11th attacks to be a violation of their sacred values, the more likely they were to “endorse … the use of nuclear and biological weapons in response.” Similarly, “The more Christians perceive Jews as desecrators of Christianity, the more prejudice they exhibit toward [them].”
However, the authors also highlight complexities that fog up the picture. For example, they cite one study by US psychologist Tammy Greer that found (in Wright’s and Khoo’s words) “greater frequency of church attendance and greater frequency of engagement in church activities was associated with less self-reported vengeance,” but at the same time that “a more consistent donation pattern was related to greater self-reported vengeance.” This suggests that, in some circumstances at least, asking slightly different questions about religiosity can yield answers pointing opposite directions.
Other studies, meanwhile, provide apparently unequivocal evidence against the “religion causes violence” argument, including one of “600 men in the Arkansas correctional system” for whom religiosity was correlated with “lower self-reported acts of actual violent behavior over one’s lifetime,” which lined up with the results of another study showing an inverse link between church attendance and crime in Sweden. And “Longitudinal work confirms the relationship between greater involvement in religious activities and less aggressive behavior across the lifespan,” say Wright and Khoo.
So the literature is clearly a hodgepodge. And even if religion can be linked to an increased susceptibility to violence, the authors point out that this is not unique to religion. “While threat perceptions toward individuals’ religious identities may institute aggressive or violent responses, these effects are a product of a general social psychological process of group behavior, rather than anything inherent to religion,” they write. That is, when ardent adherents of secular ideologies sense threat, they, too, often lash out at outsiders – what’s going on is a fairly universal aspect of social psychology.
There could have been many situations in which researchers, by only asking questions about religion, missed this bigger picture. For example, while attendance at religious services has been associated with increased hostility toward, and intentions to harm, outgroups, it could be that religious attendance is simply a proxy for people having strong in-group identification. It’s plausible that greater attendance at national, sporting or other secular ceremonies, might similarly correlate with hostility towards relevant outgroups – but if the only questions you ask are about religion, the only answers you get will be about religion.
In their conclusion, Wright and Khoo make a final point that should give pause to anyone who thinks the research literature, at present, offers a comprehensive look at the link between religion and violence. As they explain, “What makes religion unique … is a belief in the supernatural, the meaning of this belief to the individual and the group, and the internalization and integration of religious identity to the individual.” And yet “Direct study of supernaturalism is noticeably absent in the literature.” If the authors are correct, this means researchers have so far left out the single most important aspect of religious identity – leaving an incomplete picture as to whether it really does have a unique effect on the likelihood of violence or not.
—Empirical perspectives on religion and violence (the link is to a PsyArXiv preprint, however the paper has been peer-reviewed and is due for publication in Contemporary Voices: St Andrews Journal of International Relations. There was controversy around the publication process which Jesse wrote about for his newsletter Singal-Minded).
Post written by Jesse Singal (@JesseSingal) for the BPS Research Digest. Jesse is a contributing writer at BPS Research Digest and New York Magazine, and he publishes his own newsletter featuring behavioral-science-talk. He is also working on a book about why shoddy behavioral-science claims sometimes go viral for Farrar, Straus and Giroux.