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Do Religious Texts Inspire Violence?

Today’s blog may take a few extra minutes to read, but it covers an important scientific study. Let me explain. I was perusing some online media conglomerators (Drudge, Zero Hedge, Breitbart, etc.), and I ran across a mention of a scientific study that addressed this very topic. The researchers claim that their research is the first to explore the connection between religious scripture on attitudes towards religious violence in the three Abrahamic religions. The study is entitled “Scriptural legitimization and the mobilization of support for religious violence: experimental evidence across three religions and seven countries.” The researchers are Ruud Koopmans, Eylem Kanol, and Dietlind Stolle, and the study was published in the Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, volume 47, issue 7, 2021. The study is available on the internet, and I would urge everyone to read it. This study is so important because it opens the door to determine if religion causes violence.

No Western government or group wants to admit an institutionalized religion causes violence because our values put freedom of religion as such an essential part of individual rights. If a specific religion causes violence and is proven to do so, a government will have to act against that religion. We see that transformation occurring now in the French government as they ban the hijab and deal with Islamic-based terrorism.

The holy books of the three Abrahamic religions, Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, contain verses and stories that make violence a legitimate part of that religion. For example, the Qur’an has the “Sword” verse. The Sword verse reads like this: ‘When the [four] forbidden months are over, wherever you find the polytheists, kill them, seize them, besiege them, ambush them’ (9:5). The Bible and Torah also have stories of violence. In Judges 4:16-21, Jael kills the Philistine warlord Sisera driving a spike into his temple while he slept. In Numbers 25: 1-9, Eleazar, Moses’ nephew, kills an Israelite man sleeping with a Moabite woman by driving a spear through his body into hers. Violence, back in the days of Muhammad and back in the days of Moses, was a necessary way of life. Is that still the case now?

Mainstream religious adherents, like myself, think that violence is contrary to religion. What would make people conduct, condone, and accept violence in the name of religion? Some of the variables tested were religious observance, such as how often you went to the church, synagogue, or mosque and participated in the services how much religious knowledge you possessed, and the level of fundamentalist interpretation you believed. Other variables such as gender, age, and education were also examined. Of the demographic and socioeconomic variables, age was significant as older people tend to be less supportive of violence. The findings of religious observance and religious knowledge were moderate, but religious fundamentalism was the most important.

So here is the survey: one group of Christians, Jews, and Muslims are asked, “What do you personally think? Should people who cause mischief and do evil in the eyes of God be killed?" The answer is graded on a 5-point Likert-scale ranging from “completely agree” to “completely disagree.”

Another group of Christians, Jews, and Muslims are read a scriptural verse found in the Bible or Torah (Deuteronomy 17:2-5) or Qur’an (5:33). For the sake of brevity, I’m not going to post those passages, but they are similar in that they suggest defilers of religious laws should be killed. After the participant reads the verse, the same question as above is asked. And again, the response is graded on a Likert-scale survey.

The study surveyed approximately 8,000 Christians, Jews, and Muslims across seven countries. The results were: 9% of Christians supported violence without reading any scriptures versus 12% who read the Bible verse. For Jews, 3% supported violence without reading any scriptures versus 7% who read the Torah verse. For Muslims, 29% supported violence without reading the Quranic scripture versus 47% who did read the verse.


The study identifies “fundamentalism” as the critical variable most associated with the support of religious violence. The study’s authors write, “We find that it is primarily fundamentalists who are strongly swayed by attempts to legitimize violence by way of scriptural references.” The survey found that 32% of Christians, 16% percent of Jews and 49% of Muslims in the sample met the criteria for fundamentalism. Whether that percentage holds in the general population remains to be seen in future studies. The study indicates, “fundamentalists” typically view the holy scriptures of their religion literally. They consider the teachings and principles of their faith to still be completely valid in present-day society. (italics added by author). In my unpublished manuscript, Muslim Mechanics, I address the doctrine of innovation as a cause of Muslim fundamentalism. Muslim theology interprets innovational change as a novelty, heretical doctrine or heresy. Thus, the same religious teachings that prevailed while Muhammad was alive are still in place today.

Another finding is that socioeconomic variables have very little to do with the high propensity for violence. Religious causes and motivations can inflame tensions and Imams who know their Qur’an and hadith can inspire followers to do things in the name of the Prophet that people would not naturally do. The suicide bombings recently conducted in Somalia and Iraq are examples of motivating fundamentalist Muslims with religious texts.

One conclusion the researchers mentioned is worth a repeat. Extremist religious movements cannot be defeated if their spiritual roots and the motivational power of scriptural justifications for violence are not taken seriously.

The next step is to replicate and expand on this type of study. The basis of scientific inquiry is that the outcome is repeatable and different variables can be controlled and measured. While this study claims to be the first to determine if religious scripture causes violence, the importance is that the door has been opened to study this phenomena. The cure for a problem is to recognize that there is a problem. This study is that recognition. Once scientific studies begin, answers start to evolve.

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