Take any religion that claims to be about peace and it will have a violent history. And while Islam is the most violent religion claiming to be peaceful today, Christians commit plenty of hateful acts - and Buddhists have extremists in their ranks as well.
Extremists against religion are exploiting tragedies like the Paris and California terrorist attacks for their own ends, arguing that faith-based beliefs that consider themselves the right way are going to motivate aggressive behavior due to group loyalty and devaluing non-believers. But that is too simplistic, argues a new paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), which has increasingly became the premier place to read sociology and psychology instead of science. Scholars 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 Islam. Surveys found that Muslim-Palestinians believed that Allah preferred them to value the lives of Muslim-Palestinians, Muslim-Israelis 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 or Muslim. 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 lives, they believed that Allah preferred them to value the lives of members of both groups more equally. 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.