ReligionSkepticism

Afternoon Inquisition 10.29.08

Many find psychological solace in religion. The tenets offer a tangible moral code, and answers to life’s toughest questions, such as:

– Why am I here?
– What happens when I die/when my loved ones die?
– Will those who get away with wrongdoing on earth ever be brought to justice?

And often people equate this alleged peace of mind with a more peaceful existence.

The University of Southern Mississippi performed a study to test that idea – to find out if an increase in religious activity correllates with a decrease in aggression. The participants were asked to administer electric shocks to opponents in response to shocks given to them, after performing religious activities such as reading bible verses, praying, and meditating. The control group performed no religious activities. The intensity of the retribution shocks from both groups was compared to guage the level of aggression. What do you think the results were?

Does religion reduce aggression?

(Will post the results of the study after some discussion)

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77 Comments

  1. Stacey, can you teach a seminar on how to post good AI questions? You keep raising the bar.

    Umm . . . I wanna say that in the ciontext of the experiment, religion did reduce aggression, but in general (regular life experiences), I don’t think it does.

    Course, I know very little of psychology of the religious.

  2. I’m curious about what the “religious activities” were. Prayer is in many ways akin to meditation, and if any such activity were to relax people, meditation as a relaxation exercise seems like the best shot.

    But I have a hard time seeing that as the most likely outcome overall. So my guess is no statistically measurable difference. No increase and no decrease.

  3. I would expect it to depend a great deal on the particular “religious activity”. If it is reading some kind of religious text, are we talking about Leviticus, or the Tao Te Ching? Also, the control group performed “no religious activity”, but what did they do? Were they idle for an equivalent period of time? Were they reading The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy?

    Regardless of the details of this particular study, I would expect that religion does not reduce aggression. But I eagerly await the revelation of more details of the study.

    I am a Hedge

  4. @TheCzech:

    I would think any calming or stress -reducing activity would lead to less aggression; at least for the time immediately after the activity. I know that after I’ve had a good workout, for example, I’m always a lot more easy-going, and would be less likely to retaliate aggressively. But then, after an hour or two, I’m just as big a jackass as anyone.

  5. To judge from after-church driving around here, I’d guess the religious activity led to more aggression. Couple of possible reasons… A feeling of ‘God agrees with me!’ might make people more vindictive when they feel slighted (or shocked). or after going to the ‘happy place’ of prayer/meditation/etc, people may have less patience with the little annoyances of daily life, like traffic jams from 500+ people leaving church at the same time… or electric shocks.

  6. @Sam Ogden: Ive just always suspected that relaxation exercises are one of those thing that feel effective to participants but actually are not. This is all guesswork on both our parts, so who the hell knows.

    @Myxini: There are also people who don’t drive very much except to church. So you are not necessarily seeing the same people.

  7. I would guess that the religious activities helped reduce the aggression in the experiment by making people more aware of what they were doing and for the meditative reasons mentioned above.

    In the world at large though, I think that religion tends only to reduce the aggression within the particular religious group, and enhance it towards outsiders. This is true for any well defined social group – fraternities, fans of sports teams, school cliques, etc. It defines a hard, Us vs. Them mentality and isolates people from one another, creating a breeding ground for stereotypes and prejudice. Add that to the fact that some people’s interpretations of religion create a perceived persecution (real or not) and they tend to act out against outsiders.

  8. “reading bible verses, praying, and meditating”
    Well I think it’s fair to say that meditation isn’t a solely religious activity.

    What is meditation? Cheap and quick google search defines it as “an internal state of relaxed awareness” …the key word there being RELAXED… :)
    (i.e. Meditation= Less bitchiness!)

    In society in general religion is a catalyst for all sorts of extreme aggression based on the believer’s often absolute trust in their particular brand of faith, e.g. the westboro baptist loonies and their picketing of soldier’s funerals.

  9. My guess would be that while overall there is little difference, the religious group has more extremes. Some would have increased increased their aggression by a feeling of self-righteousness or a feeling of unjustified entitlement. Others would have decreased their aggression by feeling less harmed or a stronger feeling that someone is watching what they’re doing.

  10. I would think it would depend on the particular religion and the specific activities. I can see some activities having a calming or pacifying effect. Other activities might inflate the subjects’ feelings of personal entitlement. Seems like a difficult experiment to perform objectively.

  11. @Gabrielbrawley: Ok!

    According to the study, the answer is no. Both groups administered equivalent levels of electrical shock to their opponents. Mark Leach (from USM) said that, “Most people in the first two groups reported feeling more connected to a higher power after [performing the religious activities]”. But that “feeling” didn’t make any difference in the level of their retribution.

    The article also mentions that the study’s authors looked at their subjects’ religious orientation.

    “Those who claim to practice religion in the service of God are no more peaceful than the rest of us, [but] they believe they are. Meanwhile, those who say they’re religious for personal gain (e.g., relief and protection) give themselves higher aggression ratings… – and indeed back it up in the lab.”

    So, what do you think…do you agree with the results? Were the methods of the study valid to answer the question?

  12. I think it would depend on whether the people tested are fundamentalists or have a more open interpretation, I don’t think it is the verses read that would make a difference, after all the church existed hundreds and hundreds of years before the Bible was written.

    If they were Fundamentalists then they may behave like they are right no matter what they do. Which is clearly wrong.

  13. Not sure if the study was really the best way to try to answer this question.

    Maybe if they looked at rates of violent crimes or bad driving or abusive situations and correlated that with people who identify themselves as “religious” people…

    I am sure this has been done actually. Will go see if I can find info.

  14. Well, that was anti-climatic … I’m not sure that I buy the method of testing and quantifying the results in the study.

    In any case, I wonder if there are differences between religious classifications (e.g., are Buddhists less aggressive than others?)

    Also, I have always wanted to learn more about the historical/empirical role of religion upon the incidence of war. It seems like the popular conception (or perhaps misconception) is that many wars were based on religious differences. To be sure, religion can be a powerful source for fostering an “us v. them” mentality. But I wonder how much religion becomes window-dressing for more base motives (e.g., greed).

  15. If no one else has mentioned it (I try to read all the comments to these, but…), I think this question leads to an example of an argumentative fallacy that is hard to find. That is the “No True Scotsman” fallacy. If you find evidence of religious people committing heinous crimes, the religious can merely “answer” the evidence by saying that an act of violence makes one non-religious. The same goes for the high divorce rate, drug use, rape, etc…

    One is “religiousy” when one does good, and when one is not doing good they aren’t “religiousy” anymore. Religions are practically built around encouraging this fallacy (among many, many others). When you are doing good, you are “filled with the Holy Spirit”, when you are swigging JD and boning underage girls in a trailer by the airport “The Devil took over…”

    To the devout, the answer is always the same: We need more religion. Because they simply redraw the line when some behavior falls out of the virtuous camp.

  16. @TheSkepticalMale: Has poor Stacey even had a say in that? :P

    *cough* best man *cough*

    @ronstrelecki: Good point! It’s especially infuriating when proponents of religion equate godlessness to “evil”, i.e. the idea that evil is merely an absence of god. I mean in some cases we atheists can be little devils but the nice ones just don’t deserve such abuse! :(

  17. Ahem.

    I’m surprised by the results. I would have expected meditation (at least) to have a measurable effect on retribution.

    Could you link to details of the study so we could look at the methods used?

  18. TSM and Stacey. Our randy skeptics.

    USM should try the experiment with fundamentalists and atheist but told the person on the other side is another fundie, or an atheist, or a muslim, and see how the results would differ.

  19. @Stacey: Seconded! :D
    I think the invisible pink unicornists may be in trouble though as they don’t have a 2000 year old book to wave about as they garble about truth! :)

    I guess that AI could lead to all sorts of related topics… what type of meat are the Spaghetti monster’s great meatballs actually made of? What exact SHADE of pink is the unicorn if you do manage to prove that you “know”?
    I’m partial to a hot/barbie pink myself :)

  20. @Kimbo Jones: Pfft! Your unicorn logic makes no sense!
    The unicorn is pink when it decides to show itself, but invisble…well…when it decides to be invisible!

    Come judgement day when the IPU finally reveals itself, heathens like you will see the truth!

  21. @JamesBall: I must correct you. The Pink Unicorn walked this Earth once already, only to die a horrible death impaled by its own horn at the hands of the awful Gnomes who wear scull-caps and hoard money, so that we may be saved from our own inherent obsessions with knowledge, sex, and knowledge of sex, only to rise again as an Invisible Pink Unicorn (IPU) in the imaginations of the saved. Yes, the IPU will return again. But until then, I will eat the flesh of the IPU by partaking of cotton candy at the state fair every year.

  22. @JamesBall: Kudos. I find the Highway chapter all too easy… though I’m currently stuck on the far end of the bridge, having trouble avoiding flanking from the right. It’s been a few days since I turned it on, though.

    @Stacey: Could we have a link to the study, please? I would like to read the methods.

  23. @Wytworm: A slap to your face for that pun…because I didn’t get to type it first. :-D

    As far as the AI, my suspicion is that religion raises aggression against non-believers. So saith the FSM! Praise thy noodly appendeges!

    With Marinara, please! :-D

  24. 1st: these experiments are always done on psych 1 students, usually freshman, so bear that in mind.

    2nd: the control sounds wretched. “nothing” vs. “bible verses, praying, and meditating” which are three very different activities. Was this honestly pear reviewed?

    3rd: which bible verses? there’s lots of stuff in there about vengeful god.

    4th: are the people reading bible verses actually religious? It would aggravate most non-believers to spend time reading something they didn’t believe, especially if it was an annoying class requirement (see point 1). Again, per reviewed?

    Okay, I could go on, but the point is that, unless very carefully designed, such a study could easily be designed to demonstrate either outcome. Perhaps a different question could be “Can religious activity be used to reduce aggression,” In which case, you could select bible verses about forgiveness, acceptance, loving you neighbor, etc. This may improve things, but they’ve done “good Samaritan” studies in seminaries with the opposite result.

    Finally: a lot of people here seem to be saying that religion causes or catalyses violence. Just because it is used as an excuse for violence doesn’t mean it is the root cause.

  25. In most studies I’ve read about that look at societal violence, the trend seems to be the further away you get from hunter-gatherer societies the less personal violence you get (i.e. murder, etc.). To the extent that religions participate in the moderating of behaviors within societies, I’d have to say ‘yes’ they reduce violence.

    While you can claim that religions mostly channel violence from us to them, they arguably attempt to extend the definition of us. But in the end, we just get into a spiral of retrodiction.

    For those who are committed to being anti-religious, can I ask you in the name of good skepticism what experiments would you design to test whether various religions are a social blight or boon? Put up or shut up. If you can’t falsify a claim that this or that religion is bad (or good) for society, you are merely spouting ideology.

  26. I know some pretty religious people and they all seem peaceful. Thing is, I don’t associate myself with people who aren’t peaceful so I guess my first statement is worthless. You can take what you want out of a religious text. If you want to treat people as you would have them treat you then read Matthew 7:12, if you want to hate gays then read leviticus, if you want your wife to live outside when she’s on her period then read leviticus again and if you want to screw your head up then read revelations. My point is that if you’re peaceful and religious then religion can help you be peaceful. Conversely, if you’re a raving lunatic who hates gays and thinks you should knock down your house and bury it in unconsecrated ground when it gets mildew, then yeah religion can back you up there too. It’s all about the person rather than their religious convictions.

    Although I am slowly leaning towards atheism, I was brought up Catholic and a lot of what I was told in those years sticks in my head. I did learn some great lessons from priests, nuns and monks. However, I had to use my own judgement to filter out the nonsense. For instance I was told as a 14 year old boy at Catholic school that if I jerked off, I would go to hell since jerking off is a ‘mortal sin’. I’m smart enough now to know that that is complete bullshit. I was also told during one particularly fiery sermon that if my arm got in the way of my faith, that I should cut it off. Thankfully I knew better than to cut my own arm off.

    My point is that religion can help you be peaceful and un-peaceful. It can help you be homophobic and errrr un-homophobic etc etc (I nearly said homophillic, not sure which is right). It just depends how good an individual’s bullshit filters are.

    I would like to make clear that this is just opinion. I’ve got nothing to back this up, nothing. Meaning potentially that the last 10 minutes of typing were a complete waste of time.

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