Friday, February 10, 2012

Religious In-Group/Out-Group Dynamics

I’ve been reading the spectacular Richard Dawkins. Along with Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, his book The God Delusion, is a necessary contribution to the atheist discourse on religion, religious violence and the psychology and philosophy of religion itself.

In chapter 7, The ‘Good’ Book and the Changing Moral Zeitgeist, he summarizes a study done by Israeli psychologist George Tamarin, who presented more than a thousand Israeli school children, ages eight to fourteen, the story of the battle of Jericho in the book of Joshua:

“Joshua said to the people, ‘Shout; for the LORD has given you the city. And the city and all that is within it shall be devoted to the LORD for destruction…But all silver and gold, and vessels of bronze and iron, are sacred to the LORD; they shall go in the treasury of the LORD.’ … Then the utterly destroyed all in the city, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and asses, with the edge of the sword…and they burned the city with fire, and all within it, only the silver and gold, and the vessels of bronze and iron, they put into the treasury of the house of the LORD.”

Tamarin asked the children a simple moral question: ‘Do you think Joshua and the Israelites acted rightly or not?’ They had three choices: A (total approval), B (partial approval) and C (total disapproval). Sixty six percent gave total approval and 26 percent total disapproval, with eight percent giving partial approval.

Here are three examples of a typical answer from the total approval (A) group:

1.    In my opinion Joshua and the Sons of Israel acted well, and here are the reasons: God promised them the land, and gave them permission to conquer. If they would not have acted in this manner or killed anyone, then there would be the danger that the Sons of Israel would have assimilated among the Goyim.
2.    In my opinion Joshua was right when he did it, one reason being that God commanded him to exterminate the people so that the tribes of Israel will not be able to assimilate amongst them and leanr their bad ways.
3.    Joshua did good because the people who inhabited the land were of a different religion, and when Joshua killed them he wiped their religion from the earth.

The reasoning for the massacre was religious in every case. Surprisingly, some in category C (total disapproval) did so for backhanded religious reasons. For example, one girl, disapproved because in order for Joshua’s to conquer Jericho he had to enter it: “I think it is bad, since the Arabs are impure and if one enters an impure land one will also become impure and share their curse.” Two others disapproved because Joshua destroyed the animals and property rather than keeping some as spoils for the Israelites:

1.    I think Joshua did not act well, as they could have spared the animals for themselves.
2.    I think Joshua did not act well, as he could have left the property of Jericho; if he had not destroyed the property it would have belonged to the Israelites.

These children are young and innocent. These savage views must come from somewhere else such as their parents or the cultural group and context in which they’ve been brought up.

Tamarin ran a fascinating control group. A different group of 168 Israeli children were given the same scenario and text but with some key changes: Joshua’s name was changed to ‘General Lin’ and ‘Israel’ replaced by ‘a Chinese kingdom 3,000 years ago.’ This group yielded entirely opposite results. Only 7 percent approved of General Lin’s behavior, and 75 percent disapproved.

Simply put, when their loyalty to Judaism was removed, the majority of children would agree with the moral judgments of most modern humans. However, it looks drastically different from a religious point of view. Religion made the difference between children condemning genocide and condoning it. And this is its immense power: to divide people and foster historic enmities and hereditary vendettas. More to come...

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