American Samizdat

Monday, March 19, 2007. *
What Harm?
Cait Murphy, assistant editor of Fortune magazine, has writen an article called The Poverty / Terror Myth. "The idea that poverty breeds terror appears obvious; how could it be otherwise? [...] In fact, there is now robust evidence that there is no such link." Murphy delivers some of that robust evidence...

"Of the 50 poorest countries in the world only Afghanistan (and perhaps Bangladesh and Yemen) has much experience in terrorism, global or domestic. [...] Remember, most of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 were middle-class sons of Saudi Arabia and many were well-educated. And Osama bin Laden himself is from one of the richest families in the Middle East. [...] Asked whether there were "any circumstances under which you would justify the use of terrorism to achieve political goals," the higher-status respondents (merchant, farmer or professional) were more likely to agree (43.3 percent) than those lower down the ladder (laborer, craftsman or employee) (34.6 percent). The higher-status respondents were also more likely to support armed attacks against Israeli targets (86.7 percent to 80.8 percent). [...] 129 Hezbollah militants who died in action (not all of them in activities that could be considered terrorism) were compared to the general Lebanese population. The Hezbollah members were slightly less likely to be poor, and significantly more likely to have finished high school. [...] A study looked at the biographies of 285 suicide bombers as published in local journals, from 1987-2002. And this found that those who carried out suicide attacks were, on the whole, richer (fewer than 15 percent under the poverty line, compared to almost 35 percent for the population as a whole) and more educated (95 percent with high school or higher) than the rest of the population (almost half of whom went no further than middle school). A similar survey of terrorists in the Jewish Underground, which killed 29 Palestinians in the early 1970s, found the same pattern. A comprehensive study of 1,776 terrorist incidents (240 international, the rest domestic) by Harvard professor Albert Abadie, who was sympathetic to the poverty-terrorism idea at first, found no such thing. 'When you look at the data,' he told the Harvard Gazette, 'it's not there.'"

What is entirely unstated in this article is that what these terrorists have as a motivational force. They are all, every one, motivated by religion. Is there any evidence that when a person believes in an invisible monster that lives in the sky they are less sympathetic to their fellow human beings and more willing to cause harm to a stranger? Why, yes there is...

New research published in the March issue of Psychological Science may help elucidate the relationship between religious indoctrination and violence, a topic that has gained renewed notoriety in the wake of the September 11th terrorist attacks. In the article, University of Michigan psychologist Brad Bushman and his colleagues suggest that scriptural violence sanctioned by God can increase aggression, especially in believers. The authors set out to examine this interaction by conducting experiments with undergraduates at two religiously contrasting universities: Brigham Young University where 99% of students report believing in God and the Bible and Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam where just 50% report believing in God and 27% believe in the bible.

After reporting their religious affiliation and beliefs, the participants read a parable adapted from a relatively obscure passage in the King James Bible describing the brutal torture and murder of a woman, and her husband’s subsequent revenge on her attackers. Half of the participants were told that the passage came from the Book of Judges in the Old Testament while the other half were told it was an ancient scroll discovered in an archaeological expedition. In addition to the scriptural distinction, half of the participants from both the bible and the ancient scroll groups read an adjusted version that included the verse: "The Lord commanded Israel to take arms against their brothers and chasten them before the LORD."

The participants were then placed in pairs and instructed to compete in a simple reaction task. The winner of the task would be able to "blast" his or her partner with noise up to 105 decibels, about the same volume as a fire alarm. The test measures aggression. As expected, the Brigham Young students were more aggressive (i.e. louder) with their blasts if they had been told that the passage they had previously read was from the bible rather than a scroll. Likewise, participants were more aggressive if they had read the additional verse that depicts God sanctioning violence. At the more secular Vrije Universiteit, the results were surprisingly similar. Although Vrije students were less likely to be influenced by the source of the material, they blasted more aggressively when the passage that they read included the sanctioning of the violence by God. This finding held true even for non-believers, though to a lesser extent.

The research sheds light on the possible origins of violent religious fundamentalism and falls in line with theories proposed by scholars of religious terrorism, who hypothesize that exposure to violent scriptures may induce extremists to engage in aggressive actions. "To the extent religious extremists engage in prolonged, selective reading of the scriptures, focusing on violent retribution toward unbelievers instead of the overall message of acceptance and understanding," writes Bushman "one might expect to see increased brutality."

What harm does religion cause? Plenty.


posted by Trevor Blake at 5:27 PM
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