Carnegie Mellon University
January 07, 2016

Religious Beliefs Don’t Always Lead to Violence

Study Shows Thinking From God’s Perspective Can Reduce Bias Against Others

By Shilo Rea / 412-268-6094 /
Middle East

From the Christian Crusades to the Paris attacks, countless conflicts and acts of violence have been claimed to be the result of differing religious beliefs. These faith-based opinions are thought to motivate aggressive behavior because of how they encourage group loyalty or spin ideologies that devalue the lives of non-believers.

However, new research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) reveals the opposite: religious beliefs might instead promote interfaith cooperation. Researchers from the New School for Social Research and Carnegie Mellon University examined how Palestinian youth made moral choices, from their own perspectives and from the perspective of Allah. The results showed that Muslim-Palestinians believed that Allah preferred them to value the lives of Palestinians and Jewish-Israelis more equally, raising the possibility that beliefs about God can mitigate bias against other groups and reduce barriers to peace.

“Our findings are important because one precursor to violence is when people believe that the lives of members of their group are more important than the lives of members of another group. Here, we show that religious belief — even amidst a conflict centered on religious differences — can lead people to apply universal moral principles similarly to believers and non-believers alike,” said Jeremy Ginges, associate professor of psychology at the New School for Social Research.

For the study, 555 Palestinian adolescents between the ages of 12 and 18 were presented with a classic “trolley dilemma” that involved a Palestinian man being killed to save the lives of five children who were either Jewish-Israeli or Muslim-Palestinian. The participants responded from their own perspective and from Allah’s perspective.

The results showed that although Muslim-Palestinian participants valued their own group’s lives over Jewish-Israeli lives, they believed that Allah preferred them to value the lives of members of both groups more equally. In fact, thinking from Allah’s perspective decreased the bias toward their own group by almost 30 percent.

“Beliefs about God seem to encourage an application of universal moral rules to believers and non-believers alike, even in a conflict zone. Thus, it does not seem to be beliefs about God that lead to outgroup aggression,” said Nichole Argo, a research scientist in engineering and public policy and social and decision sciences at Carnegie Mellon.

“There may be other aspects of religion that lead to outgroup aggression. For instance, other work done in conflict zones has identified participation in collective religious rituals and frequent attendance at a place of worship to be associated with support for violence. This study, however, adds to a growing literature on how religious belief can increase cooperation with people from other faiths,” Argo said.

In addition to Ginges and Argo, the New School’s Hammad Sheikh and ARTIS International’s Scott Atran participated in the study.

The National Science Foundation, Office of Naval Research and the Social Sciences Research Council funded this study.

Read "Thinking from God’s perspective decreases biased valuation of the life of a nonbeliever."