People will always kill in the name of God, as they have for millennia—so goes the tired old refrain anyway. A new study of Muslim Palestinian teenagers suggests otherwise: Asked whether God would want to sacrifice even a single Muslim life to save multiple Jewish Israeli children, the teens often say "yes."
"Religious belief is often thought to motivate violence because it is said to promote norms that encourage tribalism and the devaluing of the lives of nonbelievers," write Jeremy Ginges, Hammad Sheikh, Scott Atran, and Nichole Argo today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. "We find that whereas a large proportion of participants were more likely to endorse saving Palestinian children than saving Jewish Israeli children, this proportion decreased when thinking from the perspective of Allah."
"Our findings cast doubt on the notion that there is something special about religious faith ... that invariably favors promotion of violent intergroup conflict."
To hear Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens, or Bill Maher talk about it, religion is basically a force for evil. To be sure, religion has been used to justify a whole lot of killing over the years, but that view is "complicated," Ginges and his coauthors write, by the fact that religion also motivated efforts that showed great respect for human life, such as the movement to end slavery in the United States. (Quakers, for example, were among the earliest abolitionists, though some were also prominent slave traders at one time.) But debating religion's relationship to violence, the researchers argue, "is unlikely to yield a clear answer."
Better to do an experiment, they figured, so they posed philosophical questions to 555 Muslim Palestinian kids between the ages of 12 and 18. Each question was a variation of the trolley problem. In the most dramatic version, a man named Hadi must decide whether to push "a very large Palestinian" off the bridge, likely killing him in order to stop the truck and save five children, who were identified as either Palestinian or Israeli. (This is, if you can believe it, a serious philosophical question known as the "fat man problem.") The researchers then asked their participants what they would do—and what they thought God would want.
Although a substantial minority of the Palestinian teens said they'd save Palestinian and not Israeli children, 55 percent showed no signs of bias—that is, they responded to the philosophical quandary the same regardless of whether the children were (implicitly) Muslims or Jews. And God? Two-thirds of the participants said God would want Hadi to do the same thing regardless of the endangered children's ethnic and religious identity.
"Humans will fight, kill, and die for a variety of abstract beliefs or entities, including national rights and ideological doctrines of many types," the team writes. "[O]ur findings cast doubt on the notion that there is something special about religious faith, including Islamic belief, that invariably favors promotion of violent intergroup conflict."
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