PROVO — Chances are, not many people in Utah would like to think of scripture as a violent medium that promotes hostility.

But a study of 490 students — 248 of them at Brigham Young University — suggests a correlation between exposure to scriptural violence that is condoned by God and increased aggression.

University of Michigan psychologist Brad Bushman, BYU professor Robert Ridge and three other researchers co-wrote "When God Sanctions Killing," which will appear in the March issue of Psychological Science magazine.

Although the study points to a correlation between scriptural violence and aggression, Ridge said the research is not meant to attack scripture study.

"We were not saying that reading the scriptures is bad, but we were pointing out that if a person was seeing that kind of (violent) literature, it could have some negative effects," Ridge said. "We weren't trying to find fault with religion or the scriptures or anything, but when you think about terrorists and they say, 'God will sit in judgment,' and they sometimes refer to a scripture, our question was, 'Could that really make a person behave more aggressively?' And the answer is, yes, it could."

About a year ago, Ridge recruited 95 male and 153 female students from BYU — a private university in Provo owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — to participate in the project. They were selected to represent a population of people who are strongly religious.

Ninety-nine percent of the students reported having a belief in God and the Bible. The students were given extra credit for their participation.

In addition to the BYU students, 110 male and 132 female students from Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, participated in the study. These students were chosen because they represented a more diverse population of people with different religious backgrounds. Of the group, 50 percent said they believe in God and 27 percent said they believe in the Bible.

To do the study, both groups of students were shown a passage of scripture from the Old Testament that contained tales of beatings, rape and murder.

Half of the students were shown an additional passage that included violent retribution as sanctioned by God. The other half was not.

The students who were not shown the additional passage were told the story came from an ancient scroll. The others were told it came from the Bible.

Members of both the religious and non-religious groups who were exposed to the additional verse responded with greater aggression in a subsequent test than did those who did not read the passage.

In the test, participants were placed in groups of two. Each person was given headphones and a "weapon" — a button that would produce a noise frequency that could be as loud as a smoke alarm.

The students each pressed a button as fast as possible for 25 trials and the slowest of the pair would receive a blast in the ears.

The winning button-pusher could choose how loud to make the sound in the other person's ears. Aggression was measured by the frequency with which the winning students blasted their partners.

The study indicated that those with a stronger religious background responded with slightly more hostility — and louder blasts — than those who were not as religious.

And Ridge says that indicates a correlation between aggression and isolated violent passages.

The correlation also mirrors studies that show the relationship between hostility and violent movies, music or video games. The key difference is that if scriptures are read as a whole and not taken out of context, the results can be the opposite, Ridge says, as the overall themes of the Bible, specifically, are peace and love.

"We're not saying that just in and of itself violent media is uniformly bad but oftentimes there is no redeeming context to it," Ridge said. "If one reads the scriptures with an understanding of context, both historical as well as with a (desire) to hear what God is trying to teach us, you can read it in a different way. But if a person dives into (a violent passage) without the context, you could probably get some increased aggression."

Daniel Judd, BYU professor of ancient scripture, who was not involved in the study, said he agrees with the importance of understanding scriptural context.

Taken by itself, a scriptural passage can wrongly rationalize negative behavior, he says.

"You can use scripture to justify anything you're looking for," Judd said.

Ridge received approval from BYU's institutional review board before he conducted his test, but the board only serves to make sure proposed research projects are scientifically sound, not politically correct. Ridge said he had some trepidation about how his report will be received, but he hopes people will read the study before making final judgment.

As a highly religious university with a scriptural curriculum requirement, the study is somewhat ironic in its setting. But BYU spokeswoman Carri Jenkins says she hopes people won't hear of the study and get the wrong idea.

"Our concern is with how people will perceive the conclusion," Jenkins said. "But like all research, it does need to be studied carefully."


E-mail: achoate@desnews.com