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When, Why Does Religion Lead to Violence?

April 10, 2014

We don’t yet have a complete answer to when the devout following of any particular religion leads to violence… or when the conflict of religions does so.  But now some serious, good science is at least being applied to this and related questions.  And we’re getting some “makes sense” answers.

I haven’t looked at the original research yet myself…. I’m sharing from a substantial summary and discussion of the project conducted by a team at Arizona State University under Dr. Steven Neuberg.

Basic project information and the Psychological Science article abstract are free, found here.  For a deeper look, an article by Connor Wood, writing for The Institute for the Bio-Cultural Study of Religion, here, summarizes its main points well… highly recommended!

According to Wood, the study found that “cultures with high levels of everyday religiosity are more violent and prejudiced against outgroups.” The “everyday religiosity” was more technically labeled as

“religious infusion: the permeation of everyday life with religious references, actions, and behaviors.”

Now, the United States is actually not a particularly “religiously infused” society, although it is more religious than much of the Western world.  Now, like most of us, you may know someone who does have religious thoughts and behavior infused heavily within their daily lives, even about minor decisions and circumstances (the classic – good parking place, etc.), or you may be such a person yourself…. It doesn’t mean they (or you) are necessarily more likely to be violent.  And when such people are in a public setting or one of secular employment, these factors are kept relatively private.  A complex of factors need to be present to kick up prejudicial behavior and more.

As a counter-example showing higher infusion, Wood refers to a fictive rural Mexican village

“… with public life and even casual spoken language positively shot through with references to God, Jesus, Mother Mary, the saints, and heaven.”  

One thing that is refreshing and encouraging about this research is that it is taking a more real-life approach.  In research and analysis, religion has generally been looked at as mainly a set of beliefs or clearly religious practices (church attendance, times of prayer, and such).  To properly study religion one must realize, as this project has, how it often is represented in and affects social organization, language and everyday thought, how we create and run communities, etc.  It’s an entire way of seeing and being in the world.  And all the more so for those in certain societies or localities, including sub-cultures within this country.

Yes, overall American society is not highly “infused” with religion.  But there are large numbers, in various groups, in which their own lives are.  Sometimes this includes communities they mainly orient around, even if they may live separately and work in the broader society.  This is the kind of setting, when combined with other factors, in which religiously motivated violence can arise.  Worldwide, it often does.  Here in the U.S., we are prone to think of the expression or threat of this as arising from other religions than Christianity, or our forms of it.

Unfortunately, our history doesn’t bear this out – followers of any religion can be swept up in violent social dynamics, and I’m sure (not stated in this research that I know) those involved see any violence they support or perpetrate as justified, if not ordered, by God.  It’s important to note that the research also examines prejudice and bigotry… various forms of mistreatment that amount to violence, even if we don’t always label them as such.

The research confirms what I’d consider a common sense view of balance in a relatively secular society, or one in which religious pluralism is at least tolerated, if not preferred by many.  We certainly hear and see a lot about “culture wars”.  We do have a clash of value systems (or at least differences in them perceived as radical) in our society.  While there is no reason to minimize or enjoy the tensions, should we not appreciate and hold onto the carefully achieved balance we call our “freedom of religion”, which results in a relatively healthy kind of “secularism”?  Note how Wood summarizes this positive-outcomes side of the research, in relation to “culture wars” situations and potential violence:

“Cultures boasting mutually incompatible value systems but low levels of public religiousness tended to behave more civilly toward (or perhaps just ignored) one another.”

I encourage you to read the summary from this very helpful and relatively new organization, the Institute for the Bio-Cultural Study of Religion.  Comment there, if you wish, and come back here to share your thoughts as well!


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