I’m currently reading The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist and well-known atheist, and he recites a fascinating study in the book:
“Tamarin presented to more than a thousand Israeli school children, aged between eight and fourteen, the account of the battle of Jericho in the book of Joshua:
Joshua said to the people, ‘Shout; for the LORD has given you the city. And the city and all that is within it shall be devoted to the LORD for destruction… But all silver and gold, and vessels of bronze and iron, are sacred to the LORD; they shall go into the treasury of the LORD.’… Then they utterly destroyed all in the city, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and asses, with the edge of a sword… And they burned the city with fire, and all within it; only the silver and gold, and the vessels of bronze and of iron, they put in to the treasury of the house of the LORD.
“[The children were asked if they approved of Joshua’s actions] The results were polarized: 66% gave total approval and 26% total disapproval, with 8% in the middle.
“Tamarin ran a fascinating control group in his experiment. A different group of 168 Israeli children were given the same text from the book of Joshua, but with Joshua’s own name replaced by ‘General Lin’ and ‘Israel’ replaced by ‘a Chinese kingdom 3,000 years ago’. Now the experiment gave opposite results. Only 7% approved of General Lin’s behavior, and 75% disapproved… Joshua’s action was a deed of barbaric genocide. But it all looks different from a religious point of view. And the difference starts early in life. It was religion that made the difference between children condemning genocide and condoning it.”
Me: I don’t think religion is the enemy per se so much as group identification. I think that a group of communist children could be induced to give similar results against capitalists, white South Africans against black South Africans, and Americans against the French. I suspect there is something genetic at work here. I would be surprised if you couldn’t reproduce these results with any culture on earth. I’ve heard this human tendency called in-group morality vs. out-group hostility. This sort of irrational group identification probably had a Darwinian advantage in our evolutionary past – it led to greater group cohesion and hence better group survival. But today these systematic “us vs. them” double standards, of which religions are the primary manifestations, are probably the single biggest barriers to peace in the world.