Jul 10, 2010

Religious Extremism and Anxiety

Crossposted from Reflections Journal.

The point that will almost definitely be missed in this story, probably because of the way it's being promoted, reported, and perhaps even in how the study was conducted, is that the extremism isn't strictly of the religious variety.

A series of studies published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that people who were asked whether they would die for their faith or support their country going to war in its defence were more likely to say yes when they were in anxiety-provoking situations.

The anxiety-provoking situations included being given complex mathematical problems, considering a dilemma in one's personal life, or mulling over uncertainties in a relationship. In all the studies, people who had been exposed to the anxiety-inducing scenario were more extreme in their religious convictions and more enthusiastically attached to their ideals than those who had been in neutral situations. [Emphases mine]

This will undoubtedly be used as fodder by those who wish to characterize all religion as a crutch for vulnerable people and a way to manipulate them. But it seems to me that stressed people turn to authority figures; to any person or institution they think can provide unity and protection. Religion is a kind of ultimate authority for many people but it's not the only such force. This is something we certainly saw here in the US after 9/11 when flags were ubiquitous and Bush was at 90 percent approval. And it's something Hermann Goering understood well enough.

Why, of course, the people don't want war. Why would some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best that he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece. Naturally, the common people don't want war; neither in Russia nor in England nor in America, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a Parliament or a Communist dictatorship.... voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.

I guess it's all in how you define "religion."

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