The Influence of Ethnic and Religious Prejudice on Moral Judgement

There is a study done by Israeli psychologist Georges R. Tamarin on in-group mentality, particularly the effects of religious teachings and outlooks in children on their ethical and moral judgments—”the effect of uncritical teaching of the Bible on the propensity for forming prejudices (particularly the notion of the ‘chosen people,’ the superiority of the monotheistic religion, and the study of acts of genocide by biblical heroes)”. He posed the story of Joshua in Joshua 6:20-21 and 10:28-32 to nine groups (N=1066, boys = 563, girls = 503) of students aged between 8-14 (grades 4 to 8) with diverse socio-economic backgrounds. Then asked the children whether they think the acts committed in these stories were right or wrong and why. Also he asked if in our times the Israeli army conquered an Arab village, would it be right or wrong if they acted the way Joshua acted and why. The students had three choices ‘A’ total approval, ‘B’ partial approval or disapproval, and ‘C’ total disapproval. Plus their explanations for their choices. 
The Form presented to students:

Form 1
You are well acquainted with the following passages of the Book of Joshua: “So the people shouted when the priests blew with the trumpets: and it came to pass, when the people heard the sound of the trumpet,and the people shouted with a great shout, that the wall fell down flat, so that the people went up into the city, every man straight before him, and they took the city. And they utterly destroyed all that was in the city, both man and woman, young and old, and ox, and sheep, and ass, with the edge of the sword.” (Joshua 6:20-21) “And that day Joshua took Makkedah, and smote it with the edge of the sword, and the king thereof he utterly destroyed, them,and all the souls that were therein; he let none remain: and he did to the king of Makkedah as he did unto the king of Jericho. Then Joshua passed from Makkedah, and all Israel with him, unto Libnah, and fought against Libnah: And the Lord delivered it also, and the king thereof, into the hand of Israel; and he smote it with the edge of the sword, and all the souls that were therein; he let none remain in it; but did unto the king thereof as he did unto the king of Jericho. And Joshua passed from Libnah, and all Israel with him, unto Lachish, and encamped against it, and fought against it:And the Lord delivered Lachish into the hand of Israel, which took it on the second day, and smote it with the edge of the sword, and all the souls that were therein, according to all that he had done to Libnah.” (Joshua 10:28-32)
Please answer the following two questions:
1. Do you think Joshua and the Israelites acted rightly or not? Explain why you this as you do.
2. Suppose that the Israeli Army conquers an Arab village in battle. Do you think it would be good or bad to act towards the inhabitants as did Joshua towards the people of Jericho and Makkedah? Explain why.

Questions A (total approval) B (partial approval or disapproval) C (total disapproval)
1 66% 8% 26%
2 30% 8% 62%

66% of school children approved of Joshua and Israelites’ actions (genocide and destruction of peoples), while 30% approved of similar hypothetical actions carried out in modern times by Israeli Army. Students’ explanations for ‘why’ are fascinating.

A (total approval):

– Joshua and the Israelites did not act well, as they could have spared the animals for themselves.
– Joshua did good because the people who inhabited the land were of a different religion, and when Joshua killed them he wiped their religion from the earth.

C (total disapproval): Here there are some good rebukes of genocide on universal terms, but some other reasons for disapproval come not from universal humanistic views but from (selfish) game theoretic considerations.

– It’s not good to treat humans as Joshua did, but to take them into a=captivity and to treat them as people and not like wild beats—to kill and exterminate.
– I think it would not have been right to act like that. A nation which had acted in this manner would have been sneered at by the other nations, and viewed as an uncultured and unethical.

Additionally, Tamarin posed an edited version of the story. Instead of biblical heroes he inserted the Chinese names to another group (N=168, boys = 86, girls = 82). This group consisted of two subgroups—one subgroup got the biblical version of the story (Form 1, presented above), the other got the edited Chinese story (Form 2, below):

Form 2
General Lin, who founded the Chinese Kingdom 3000 years ago, went to war with his army to conquer a land.They came to some great cities with high walls and strong fortresses. The Chinese War-God appeared to General Lin in his dream and promised him victory,ordering him to kill all living souls in the cities, because those people belonged to other religions. General Lin and his soldiers took the towns and utterly destroyed all that was therein, both men and women, young and old, and ox, and sheep, and ass, with the edge of the sword. After destroying the cities they continued on their way, conquering many countries.
Please answer the question: Do you think that General Lin and his soldiers acted rightly or not? Explain why.

60% of students who got Form 1 (Joshua story) approved of the acts of genocide by Joshua and Israelites in contrast to 7% of students who got Form 2 (the edited Chinese version of the story).  Basically, students approved of genocide when it was done by in-group, and strongly disapproved (that’s 75%) when it was committed by the out-group. Which Tamarin concludes by saying ‘These results demonstrate most conclusively the influence of ethnocentrism on moral judgement’.

A (total approval) B (partial approval or disapproval) C (total disapproval)
Form 1 60% 20% 20%
Form 2 7% 18% 75%


Why I am talking about this one study? It’s not that I think this study is flawless, though I’m sure the effects are real—you just have to look into opinion polls. It’s because this study shows something that some people are reluctant to accept—the roles of specific beliefs for causing specific actions and judgments and failure of intellectuals to take religious beliefs seriously. I always get frustrated when political commentators, public intellectuals, academic scientists and philosophers talk on matters of nature of religious beliefs. When some academics talk on this matter, what they say is totally alien to my experience and every religious person I know. Some people even go as far as saying that religious beliefs are different from other beliefs about the world, and because of this they are not prone to conventional analysis. And claim that religious beliefs are not held as explanations of the world, hence they can’t have the tangible consequences in actions of believers. Some of these same academics argue that religion played a big part in cultural evolution and was one of the foundations on which the civilization was build (with which I agree), while at the same time refusing to accept that religion has any power over individuals and their actions today. Others criticize critics of religion by claiming that religion plays major cohesive force in society, which implies that religion has big sway over people’s actions, while at the same time denying that any bad actions are caused by specific religious beliefs. These sorts of arguments seem to me to be contradictory, unless they are implicitly assuming that religion only has good consequences. Because these people never were ‘really’ religious and grew up in secular societies they can’t comprehend the mind of a believer. And try their hardest to explain all bad actions that are consequences of religious beliefs in terms of politics, economics, etc. and dismissing the testimony of the believers. Because by stripping religion of its causal powers, they have nothing left to do but to ascribe these behaviors to social factors. Of course environmental conditions play a big role in people’s behaviors, but what kind of behaviors are expressed depends on fundamental world-forming religious beliefs. As Bernard Lewis put it:

“The medieval European, who shared the fundamental assumptions of his Muslim contemporary, would have agreed with him in ascribing religious movements to religious causes, and would have sought no further for an explanation. But when Europeans ceased to accord first place to religion in their thoughts, sentiments, interests, and loyalties, they also ceased to admit that other men, in other times and places, could have done so. To a rationalistic and materialistic generation, it was inconceivable that such great debates and mighty conflicts could have involved no more than ‘merely’ religious issues. And so historians, once they had passed the stage of amused contempt, devised a series of explanations, setting forth for what they described as the ‘real’ or ‘ultimate’ significance ‘underlying’ religious movements and differences. The clashes and squabbles of the early churches, the great Schism, the Reformation, all were reinterpreted in terms of motives and interests reasonable by the standards of the day—and for religious movements of Islam too explanations were found that tallied with the outlook and interests of the finders.” 

Bernard Lewis, Islam in History: Ideas, People, and Events in the Middle East

P.S. It’s hard to find out much about Tamarin. Apparently he was fired from his university (Tel Aviv University). I don’t know for what. A shoddy webpage claims that it was because of his research and criticism of Israel, so take this claim with a grain of salt. He was a critic of Judaism and Israel

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