Wednesday, 10 June 2020

Fundamentally Violent

Why People Kill in the Name of God | Psychology Today

Anyone who spends any time talking to religious fundamentalist on social media will be acutely aware of how quickly the conversations turns to abuse and threats of violence, especially towards those who challenge and dispute the claims of religious fundamentalist. Questioning their beliefs or presenting opposing arguments that threaten to undermine them, seem to provoke aggression instead of reflection and honest consideration.

The reasons for this were explained by a study led by Daniel N. Jones, of the University of Nevada Reno, published in the Sage Journal, Social Psychological and Personality Science last April.

Sadly, the paper is behind an expensive firewall but the conclusions are presented in an article in Psychology Today, by Professor David Ludden, PhD, a professor of psychology at Georgia Gwinnett College.

Professor Ludden explains:

Jones and colleagues begin by considering other instances of violence toward members of an out-group. For people who are high in a personality trait called social dominance orientation, society is naturally organized as a hierarchy. On this view, which rung on the social ladder you belong to is determined by obvious identifiers such as gender and race.

Those who view themselves as members of the socially dominant class can treat their “underlings” with a modicum of dignity as long as those people “know their place.” However, they also respond violently to any perceived challenge to their privileged status. The rash of hate crimes and racial violence in the US in recent years is no doubt a reaction to improving political and economic circumstances for women and minorities.

A common characteristic of people high in social dominance orientation is self-enhancement, which is the tendency to see yourself in an overly favorable manner. Such people feel driven to engage in acts that support their superiority or protect their delicate but overinflated egos.

Of special relevance, and something with which anyone who engages creationists on Twitter or Facebook will immediately recognise:

For example, although many such people are quite ignorant of history, science, or even the basic facts of the world, they’re unwilling to admit what they don’t know. As a result, they’re highly susceptible to the “false facts” of government propaganda and entertainment media masquerading as news networks. They also tend to engage in overclaiming, that is, asserting that they know certain patently false concepts to be true.

The researchers started from the observation that some people use their religion as a means of self enhancement by deriving a sense of superiority for themselves because of their faith, especially in relation to non-believers. They then tested for over-claiming knowledge of the teachings of their religion and correlating this with support for violence in support of their religion.

They did this by recruiting over 400 Americans via a service known as Amazon’s Mechanical Turk and giving them a questionnaire asking them to rank from 0 to 6 their familiarity with 73 Bible items, with 0 meaning "Never heard of" and 6 meaning "Very familiar". Some of these were items such as "The Ten Commandments", that all Christians should be aware of, and some were obscure like “Tobit’s Song of Praise.”.

However, the questionnaire was in reality a test for over-claiming as it included some items not in the Bible, such as “Soren’s Temple”. Those who were genuinely knowledgeable of the Bible should have been completely unfamiliar with these items and scored them zero, but those overclaiming knowledge would have marked these with a degree of familiarity greater than zero.

They then tested respondents for their support for violence in support of their religion, with statements such as:
  • I swell with pride when a member of my religion uses violence to get our message across.
  • I feel ashamed when someone acts aggressively in the name of God.
Respondents were asked to rank these statements from 1 to 5 where 1 meant "Strongly disagree" and 5 meant "Strongly agree".

The null hypothesis was that there would be no correlation between over-claiming and support for violence.

In fact, the data showed:

Those who tended to overclaim their religious knowledge, such as by claiming they were familiar with the fake story of Soren’s temple, also tended to support acts of violence in the name of their religion. However, those who displayed a deep knowledge of their religion’s teaching by correctly rejecting the fake stories also showed little support for religious violence.

The researcher then tested this across another religion - Islam - by conducting a similar study with Iranians and their familiarity with the Qur'an. The results were broadly similar to those found in American Christians.

So here we have an explanation for why fundamentalists tend to over-claim their knowledge of things like their religion, science, history, etc, and why they react violently to opposition and disagreement. They are using their religion and especially their pretence of expertise to try to justify their self-enhancement up some assumed social dominance heirarchy, an assumption reinforced by religion.

The authors concluded that religious over-claiming is a potentially fruitful area for further study as it may help identify those who may become aggressive in the name of God.

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