Believers Who Overestimate Their Religious Knowledge Like Violence the Most June 9, 2020

Believers Who Overestimate Their Religious Knowledge Like Violence the Most

A fascinating question, and an intriguing study, come to us via University of Nevada Reno psychologist Daniel Jones and four co-authors. The team looked into the tension between the Golden Rule that is considered to be at the heart of most religions, and the savagery that millions of believers are so clearly capable of.

In the words of Psychology Today,

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?

Jones and his colleagues hypothesized that the answer lies, in part, in “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.

To get at the truth, the researchers asked respondents to indicate how familiar they were with

… 73 items purportedly from the Bible, with 0 meaning “never heard of it” and 6 meaning “very familiar.”

This is where the real fun begins. Daniels and his colleagues took events and stories from the Bible, and mixed them with foils that sounded Biblical but were in fact made up. Participants in the study thought they were being tested on their Bible knowledge. In reality, they took part in

… an assessment of religious overclaiming.

So next to Cain and Abel and Thomas doubts Jesus, respondents saw make-believe Bible references — things like the amphora of the Twelve; the footprint of Calvius at Marcar’s tomb; the righteous ointment of the Shibolites. (I made those up, not team Daniels — because it’s fun, and for reasons that’ll become clear when you get to the addendum at the end of this post.)

Those who know their religious teachings well should mark these [foils] as completely unfamiliar, but those with a tendency toward religious overclaiming should mark them as familiar.


… 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 result:

Those who tended to overclaim their religious knowledge, such as by claiming they were familiar with [the fake stories], 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.

In addition, the researchers discovered,

Prayer was positively and significantly associated with supporting religious aggression, whereas church attendance and religiosity were not.

An “unexpected finding,” the authors say.

And they ponder if

… it may be the case that knowledge, in any domain, is a deterrent for aggression-related outcomes. Such assertions are consistent with findings that exposure to rational secular arguments decreases intrinsic and extrinsic religiosity. Further, [diminished] ability for critical thinking seems to coincide with extremist positions. Thus, to the degree that education helps individuals think thoughtfully and rationally, individuals may be less likely to endorse extreme religious positions.

The full study was published recently in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.


P.S.: Here’s the list of 73 Bible items that Daniels and his fellow researchers presented to study participants. Thirteen of these are made up (no points for stating the obvious — that, in a way, they almost all are). Do you know which ones are impostors, foils, contrivances?

1. Pentecost
2. Boaz marries Ruth
3. Judas betrays Jesus
4. The prophet Haggai
5. The siege of Jerusalem
6. Cain and Abel
7. Tobit’s song of praise
8. The last seven plagues
9. The cast of Nissius
10. Jesus calms the seas
11. John the Baptist
12. Stephen’s martyrdom
13. Victory over Lysias
14. Noah and the ark
15. The decree of Darius
16. The journey of Aruk
17. The second book of Samuel
18. The prodigal son
19. The book of Judges
20. Soren’s Temple
21. Menelaus of Jerusalem
22. The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah
23. The crime of Amnon
24. The Ten Commandments
25. The servants of anointment
26. Manna from the heavens
27. To touch his cloak
28. King Herod
29. Roman injunction of Paulhus
30. The exodus of Egypt
31. The book of law
32. Daniel in the lion’s den
33. The second plague
34. Moses parts the Red Sea
35. Parable of the tenants
36. The book of Baruch
37. Peter, James, and John
38. From Egypt to Sinai
39. Cardinal law of the prophecies

40. The Maccabean revolt
41. The sins of Solomon
42. The reply to Caspar
43. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob
44. Flight to Horeb
45. The book of Zechariah
46. The four horsemen
47. Peter denies Jesus
48. Barabus the murderer
49. The cave of Durban
50. David and Golliath
51. Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane
52. Leadership of Judas Maccabeus
53. The curse of Levenson
54. Visit of Queen of Sheba
55. The worshipers of Baal
56. The Army Seventeen
57. Laws concerning Nazirites
58. Death of Abijah
59. Four horns and four blacksmiths
60. The last supper
61. The altar of Khartoum
62. The second royal decree
63. Count of the twelve tribes
64. The book of Amos
65. Thomas doubts Jesus
66. Invasion of Sennacherib
67. The Bottle of Eli
68. The story of Amorelus
69. The day of atonement
70. Achior in Bethulia
71. Jesus curses a fig tree
72. The book of Job
73. The book of Nehemiah

I’ve posted the answers here.

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