Does believing that "God is on our side" make it easier for us to inflict pain and suffering on those perceived to be our enemies? If we think God sanctions violence, are we more likely to engage in violent acts?
The answer to both those questions, according to new research, is a resounding "yes," even among those who do not consider themselves believers.
Social psychologist Brad Bushman of the University of Michigan led an international research effort to find answers to these questions, and said he is very "disturbed" by the results, though he found what he had expected. Bushman has spent 20 years studying aggression and violence, especially the impact on human behavior of violence in the media, but most previous research has focused on television and movie violence, not such things as scriptures and texts held sacred by many.
He wanted to take it a step further and see if simply exposing someone to a text that implies God sanctions violence would increase their level of aggression.
"I think many people use God as their justification for violent and aggressive actions," Bushman said. "Take the current conflict in Iraq as an example. Bush claims that God is on his side. Osama bin Laden claims that God, or Allah, is on his side."
History is replete with other examples of wars fought in the name of God, involving nearly every religion on the planet.
To find his answers, Bushman assembled teams of researchers at two very different universities, Vrije University in Amsterdam, Holland, where he also holds a professorship, and Brigham Young University in Utah.
Only half of the students who participated in the study at Vrije reported that they believe in God, and only 27 percent believe in the Bible. At Brigham Young, 99 percent said they believe in God and the Bible.
Here's the fundamental issue the researchers addressed, as stated in their study published in the current issue of Psychological Science:
"We hypothesized that exposure to a biblical description of violence would increase aggression more than a secular description of the same violence. We also predicted that aggression would be greater when the violence was sanctioned by God than when it was not sanctioned by God."
Because violence in a classroom is a bit hard to justify, the researchers relied on a widely used tool to measure aggression. Students in the study were not initially told its true purpose. Instead, they were told they were participating in two separate studies, one on Middle Eastern literature, and one on stimulation of reaction time.
Each student competed against another student in the reaction time phase. Those who pushed a button first won the competition and could punish the loser by blasting him or her through a set of earphones with a loud noise.
The volume of the noise was controlled by the winning student. Those who hit the loser with a mild blast were considered less aggressive than those who gave the loser the loudest blast -- approximately the volume of a siren.
"The noise is very, very unpleasant," Bushman said. "It's a combination of somebody scratching their fingernails on a chalkboard and screaming and sirens."
The idea behind the test, used widely in laboratories, is that only someone who feels very aggressive would blast someone else with the loudest screech, about 105 decibels.
Before the blasting phase, the students read a description of the beating and raping and murder of a woman in ancient Israel. Half of the students read a version of the story that included an assertion that God commanded the friends of the woman to take revenge. The other half read a version that did not mention God sanctioning violence. Half of the students were told the account came from the Bible, and half were told it came from an ancient scroll.
"What we found is that people who believed the passage was from the Bible were more aggressive [than those who did not know it came from the Bible], and when God said it is OK to retaliate they were even more aggressive," Bushman said. "We found that both at Brigham Young, which is a religious school, and at Amsterdam, where only half believe in God.
"Even among nonbelievers, if God says it's OK to retaliate, they are more aggressive. And that's the worry here. When God sanctions aggression, when God says it's OK to retaliate, people use that as justification for their own violent and aggressive behavior."
When asked why nonbelievers would become more aggressive, Bushman suggested that perhaps some nonbelievers are not all that sure that there is no God. However, nonbelievers did not show as much of an increase in aggression as believers when told violence was sanctioned by God.
At the end of the interview, I intruded into Bushman's own religious feelings and asked if he is a believer.
"Yes, I do believe in God, and I do believe in the Bible," he said. "In fact, I read it every day."
So it's a personal, as well as a professional, search for Bushman.
"What worries me is when people use God as a justification for their violence. There are scriptures that say you should not take God's name in vain. This is the most extreme version of taking God's name in vain," he said.
Yet his own research shows that whether people consider themselves believers or not, they are more likely to be aggressive, perhaps even willing to start a war, if they think God is on their side.