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Why People Kill in the Name of God

The role of self-enhancement in religious aggression

All of the world’s major religions share a basic tenet, namely some form of the Golden Rule, which tells us to do unto others as we would have them do unto us. Many religious believers find peace of mind in the teachings of their faith, which gives them solace in times of distress and guides them through life’s difficult passes. Yet many others are fomented by their religious zeal to support or commit heinous acts against humanity.

Every major religion has a bloody history. Islam was spread by the sword across Africa and Asia in the eighth century, and in modern times plenty of young Muslims have been incited to kill “infidels,” often at the cost of their own life as well. Likewise, the past and present of Christianity has been just as violent. Catholics and Protestants have been murdering each other since Martin Luther challenged the authority of the Pope in 1517, and the killing has continued into recent history in places such as Northern Ireland.

Christianity in the United States often takes on a particularly militant tone. There are fundamentalist Christians who sanction violent acts against “sinners,” such as bombing Planned Parenthood clinics or assassinating doctors who perform abortions. Other times, the militaristic attitude is more symbolic, as for example when Christians call themselves “soldiers of Christ.”

Given that the central message of religion is peace and love, how is it then that the faithful can be incited to acts of violence? This is the question that University of Nevada Reno psychologist Daniel Jones and colleagues explored in a study recently published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.

Jones and colleagues begin by considering other instances of violence toward members of an out-group. For people who are high in a personality trait called social dominance orientation, society is naturally organized as a hierarchy. On this view, which rung on the social ladder you belong to is determined by obvious identifiers such as gender and race.

Those who view themselves as members of the socially dominant class can treat their “underlings” with a modicum of dignity as long as those people “know their place.” However, they also respond violently to any perceived challenge to their privileged status. The rash of hate crimes and racial violence in the US in recent years is no doubt a reaction to improving political and economic circumstances for women and minorities.

A common characteristic of people high in social dominance orientation is self-enhancement, which is the tendency to see yourself in an overly favorable manner. Such people feel driven to engage in acts that support their superiority or protect their delicate but overinflated egos.

For example, although many such people are quite ignorant of history, science, or even the basic facts of the world, they’re unwilling to admit what they don’t know. As a result, they’re highly susceptible to the “false facts” of government propaganda and entertainment media masquerading as news networks. They also tend to engage in overclaiming, that is, asserting that they know certain patently false concepts to be true.

Jones and colleagues started their research with the observation that some people use their religion as a means of self-enhancement. That is, they derive a sense of superiority for themselves because of their faith, especially as compared to non-believers. The researchers then wondered whether those who advocate for religious violence would also overclaim their knowledge of the teachings of their religion.

The researchers recruited over 400 Americans via a service known as Amazon’s Mechanical Turk to complete a series of online questionnaires. First, respondents indicated their familiarity with 73 items purportedly from the Bible, with 0 meaning “never heard of it” and 6 meaning “very familiar.” Some of the items, such as “The Ten Commandments,” were known to almost everyone, but some were quite obscure such as “Tobit’s Song of Praise.”

While this survey was presented as a test of Biblical knowledge, it was in fact an assessment of religious overclaiming. This is because the researchers also included realistic sounding items, such as “Soren’s Temple,” that are in fact not part of the Bible. Those who know their religious teachings well should mark these as completely unfamiliar, but those with a tendency toward religious overclaiming should mark them as familiar.

Second, participants responded to a series of questions intended to assess their support for religious aggression. While few actually commit acts of violence in the name of God, many more voice their support for such aggression. Items included statements such as:

  • I swell with pride when a member of my religion uses violence to get our message across.
  • I feel ashamed when someone acts aggressively in the name of God.

Respondents indicated their degree of support for each statement, where 1 meant “strongly disagree” and 5 meant “strongly agree.”

The results were in line with predictions. Those who tended to overclaim their religious knowledge, such as by claiming they were familiar with the fake story of Soren’s temple, also tended to support acts of violence in the name of their religion. However, those who displayed a deep knowledge of their religion’s teaching by correctly rejecting the fake stories also showed little support for religious violence.

To test whether this finding would hold across cultures and religions, Jones and colleagues replicated this study in the Muslim country of Iran. This time, of course, respondents were tested on their overclaiming of knowledge about the Quran, with fake stories intermixed with familiar and obscure ones, just as in the first study. The results were essentially the same.

It seems that people who understand their religion’s message of peace and love adhere to it in their lives. Others, however, use their religion for status-seeking, and their knowledge of its teachings is superficial. Because they see “infidels” as a threat to their perceived superiority, they are quick to advocate violence in the name of their faith.

Religion is one of the most complex and enigmatic of all human institutions. It is an instrument of love and peace on the one hand and a vehicle for hatred and violence on the other hand. This study by Jones and colleagues has at least found one piece of the puzzle.


Jones, D. N. et al. (2020). Religious overclaiming and support for religious aggression. Social Psychological and Personality Science. Advance online publication. DOI: 10.1177/1948550620912880