Monday, 23 February 2009

Going to Church Can Cause People to Kill

A new study out of New York and BC suggests that the single greatest correlative factor between suicide bombings is regular attendance at religious gatherings. It is not devotion, or piety, or prayer, but participation in corporate worship. This was true for both Jews and Muslims. Among groups that lack traditions of suicide bombings, like Hindus and the three largest branches of Christianity, the same underlying principle was found- those who regularly attended places of worship were more likely to display parochial altruism- willingness to die for your group combined with a strong negative perception of "the other".

What am I to make of this study? Obviously, it is not accurate to say that when you attend a mosque or church you have to be concerned that someone in attendance is likely to blow themselves up or support others blowing themselves up, nor was this study suggesting that. Rather, it was stating that the best single indicator of this willingness or support was attendance at corporate worship.

There are so many questions, that remain unanswered, that we would need further study for. I want to know to what extent do good things result from this tendency, like feeding the poor. It is harder to have major social justice action when you are on your own. I'd like to know how this tendency to view the world as us vs. them, or to kill people by killing yourself, compares to membership in other corporate entities, like clubs, political groups, or the military. And I wonder to what extent this study is simply revealing one aspect of how we are more likely to get things accomplished, positive or negative, when we are part of a group. Perhaps it is that one can more easily get fired up for a cause, for good or bad, when you're part of a group- which kind of makes sense.

Perhaps the study reveals that a small subset of those who are more inclined to groups are more willing to get fanatical if they are part of a group, and those who are not inclined towards groups but are inclined towards violence, we call loners who go on shooting sprees in colleges. This could be particularly true when you consider the inherent biases towards individualism that scientists from Canada and the US would hold, as opposed to the group-think present in most of the world. Thus it may be the presuppositions of the scientists themselves that are expressed here, as individualistic Western societies tend to see less value in working with groups, and tend to fear any coherent group as a cult.

Perhaps more disturbing than the tendency to suicide oneself is the tendency to look down on other groups. It is one thing to be willing to die for your group, and perfectly understandable. It is a good thing to die for a cause greater than oneself, to do something far, far better than one has ever done before, to go to a place far, far better than one has ever known. In Christianity, it is to follow in the way of its founder, and to do it with love of one's enemies and murderers, without harming another- this is the way of true martyrdom.

But when this laudable attitude is combined with hatred or mere dislike of another group, it is a dangerous attitude indeed. It may therefore imply that any religion or group that does not have embedded in its very core a love for enemies - perhaps, if the Parable of the Good Samaritan is any indication, an even greater love for one's enemies than one's friends- is inherently dangerous. For such a belief system, that values one's group over that of the other, when combined with the power and motivation the group can create, is a dangerous entity in this world. Of such a way lies the Crusades, countless jihad, and every nationalism the world has berthed.

And perhaps we need to pay attention to the aspect of prayer. For the study juxtaposed those who prayed regularly (as a definition of fervor in religion), with those who regularly attended religious services. Thus those who pray regularly did not correlate with support for suicide bombers; attendance at the mosque regularly did. And perhaps for some, the rituals of corporate worship in any faith come to supplant the intimate, direct relationship in prayer, something possible individually or corporately. The study didn't measure the amount of non-ritualistic intimate prayer of those who do or do not attend public services. But it is this direct relationship with God that allows us to learn to depend on him, and to be able to forgive the insults and attacks of others, most notably by definition our enemies. It is this dependence that allows us to know God's love for us, and therefore to truly love the other with the love that God had for them before the world began.

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