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.
A well-known effect in psychology is that if you try to suppress a thought, ironically this can make the thought all the more salient – known as the “rebound effect“. What are the implications of this effect for highly religious teenagers who have been taught to believe that sexual thoughts are taboo? Before now there has been little research on the rebound effect in this context, but in a recent paper in The Journal of Sex Research, Yaniv Efrati at Beit Berl College, Kfar-Saba, Israel, presents evidence that the rebound effect could explain why orthodox Jewish teens have more compulsive sexual thoughts and fantasies than their secular peers. What’s more, his results suggest this mental dynamic might be responsible for the religious teens’ lower scores on self-reported wellbeing.
Psychologistshave already established that minority groups are particularly likely to endorse conspiracy theories that involve them. For instance, the idea that AIDS was concocted in a lab to plague black people or that birth control is black genocide have been shown to have particular traction within African-American communities. It’s thought this is because members of disadvantaged groups find comfort in explanatory frameworks that appear to account for the various factors that beleaguer them. But new research from VU Amsterdam and published in Applied Cognitive Psychology suggests that belonging to a minority identity, in this case being Muslim in the Netherlands or a member of an ethnic minority in that country, doesn’t merely lead to a belief in conspiracy theories related to that specific minority identity, but stokes an appetite for conspiracies in general.
When, in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Marc Anthony delivers his funeral oration for his fallen friend, he famously says “The evil that men do lives on; the good is oft interred with their bones.”
Anthony was talking about how history would remember Caesar, lamenting that doing evil confers greater historical immortality than doing good. But what about literal immortality?
While there’s no room for such a notion in the scientific worldview, belief in an immortal afterlife was common throughout history and continues to this day across many cultures. Formal, codified belief systems like Christianity have a lot to say about the afterlife, including how earthly behaviour determines our eternal fate: the virtuous among us will apparently spend the rest of our spiritual days in paradise, while the wicked are condemned to suffer until the end of time. Yet, according to Christianity and many other formal religions, there’s no suggestion that anyone – good, bad or indifferent – gets more or less immortality, which is taken to be an all-or-nothing affair.
This is not how ordinary people think intuitively about immortality, though. In a series of seven studies published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Kurt Gray at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and colleagues, have found that, whether religious or not, people tend to think that those who do good or evil in their earthly lives achieve greater immortality than those who lead more morally neutral lives. What’s more, the virtuous and the wicked are seen to achieve different kinds of immortality.
For many, their religion is a core part of their identity, the meaning they find in life, and their social world. It seems likely that changing this crucial aspect of themselves will have significant psychological consequences. A devout person would probably predict these will be unwelcome – increased emotional distress, isolation and waywardness. A firm atheist, on the other hand, might see the potential positives – perhaps the “deconvert” will grow in open-mindedness and thrive thanks to their newfound free thinking and spiritual freedom.
A new study in Psychology of Religion and Spirituality is among the first to investigate this question systematically and over time. The findings, which are focused on Protestant Christians, paint a complex picture. At least for this group, there is no single pattern of changes associated with losing or changing one’s religious faith, and the predictions of both the devout person and the atheist are, to some extent, accurate.
Imagining ourselves as no longer existing is, for most of us, terrifying. Buddhism may offer some reassurance. A central tenet of the religion is that all is impermanent and the self is actually an illusion. If there is no self, then why fear the end of the self?
To find out if the logic of the Buddhist perspective eliminates existential fear, Shaun Nichols at the University of Arizona and his colleagues surveyed hundreds of monastic Tibetan Buddhists (monks-in-training) in exile in India, as well as lay Tibetans, Tibetan Buddhists from Bhutan, Indian Hindus and American Christians and atheists.
To their astonishment, the researchers report in Cognitive Science that fear of the annihilation of the self was most intense among the monastic Buddhists, and that the monastic Buddhists were less willing than any of the other groups to sacrifice years of their own life for a stranger.
Of course, there are examples of extremely intelligent individuals with strong religious convictions. But various studies have found that, on average, belief in God is associated with lower scores on IQ tests. “It is well established that religiosity correlates inversely with intelligence,” note Richard Daws and Adam Hampshire at Imperial College London, in a new paper published in Frontiers in Psychology, which seeks to explore why.
It’s a question with some urgency – the proportion of people with a religious belief is growing: by 2050, if current trends continue, people who say they are not religious will make up only 13 per cent of the global population. Based on the low-IQ-religiosity link, it could be argued that humanity is on course to become collectively less smart.
Terror attacks by Muslim extremists tend to provoke hate crimes in response. After the London Bridge and Borough market attacks in 2017, and the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, for example, there was a spike in the number of reports of verbal and physical attacks on innocent Muslims. Two weeks after the London Bridge attacks, a British non-Muslim man even drove his van into worshippers leaving the Finsbury Park Mosque in London, killing one and injuring 11.
“People have a tendency to hold groups collectively responsible for the actions of individual group members, which justifies ‘vicarious retribution’ against any group member to exact revenge,” note the authors of a new paper in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin that explores how to short-circuit this cycle of violence.
In what the researchers dub an “interventions tournament”, they tried out various methods of reducing the collective blaming of all Muslims for attacks by individual extremists. Most failed. But there was one clear winner: an intervention that encouraged non-Muslims to see the hypocrisy in blaming all Muslims for the appalling actions of a few individuals, but not all Christians for the violent actions of an extremist few.
Why are some people willing to risk their own lives – and even their children’s lives – to fight an enemy? An extraordinary study involving interviews with frontline fighters against the Islamic State, as well as IS fighters, finds that three crucial factors are at play. The most important was the strength of commitment to a “sacred” or deeply-held value or idea – but not necessarily a religious one. The findings “may help to inform policy decisions for the common defense,” wrote Ángel Gómez and his colleagues in theirnew paper inNature Human Behaviour.
Even the most scientifically trained among us have an instinct for mystical thinking – seeing purpose in nature, for example, or reading meaning in random coincidences. Psychologists think this is to do with the way our minds work at a fundamental level. We have evolved to be highly attuned to concepts relevant to our social lives, things like intentions and fairness. And we just can’t switch off this way of thinking, even when we’re contemplating the physical world.
This may explain the intuitive appeal of the Buddhist and Hindu notion of karmic justice – the idea, essentially, that you get what you deserve in life; that the cosmos rewards those who do good (variations of this idea are also spread by other religions). Indeed, in a new paper in Developmental Science, psychologists at Yale University have shown that children in the US as young as four are inclined to believe in, and actively seek, karmic justice, regardless of whether they come from a religious family or not.
“We conclude that, beginning early in development, children expect that life events are not purely random occurrences, but instead that they happen for an intended reason, such as rewarding people for their good behaviour,” said the study authors Konika Banerjee and Paul Bloom.