Does religion turn weak groups violent?

January 16, 2014

Although David was famously successful at slaying Goliath, most people wisely avoid picking fights with more-powerful opponents.

But new research by a team of Arizona State University faculty has uncovered one factor that increases the likelihood that weak groups will engage in conflict with stronger groups, despite the likelihood of defeat. That factor is religious infusion, or the extent to which religion permeates a group’s public and private life. Download Full Image

“Under normal circumstances, weak folks don’t try to beat up on stronger folks,” says Steven Neuberg, a psychology professor at ASU and the lead researcher on the project. “But there’s something about a group being religiously infused that seems to make it feel somewhat invulnerable to the potential costs imposed by stronger groups, and makes it more likely to engage in costly conflict.”

Their findings are published in the January issue of Psychological Science, the highest ranked empirical journal in psychology. Their work was also written about in the Huffington Post last summer.

The study Neuberg and his team undertook, part of the Global Group Relations Project, spanned five continents and included nearly 100 sites around the globe. The countries included in the project together account for nearly 80 percent of the world’s population.

“Our sites include the most populated countries of the world – China, India, USA, Brazil – as well as a wide range of others,” says Carolyn Warner, an ASU political science professor and a co-principal investigator on the project. “This breadth and diversity is rarely the case in studies of religion and conflict.”

Most research on group conflict employs one of two methods – the case study, which closely examines a particular location or situation in which conflict occurs – or a quantitative analysis of data pulled from existing studies.

For this project, researchers recruited a large, international network of social scientists with expertise on the sites selected for study. These “expert informants” responded to an Internet survey, answering a wide range of questions on a host of social, political, religious and psychological variables about the groups being studied.

Neuberg and his team examined the data to learn how religion might shape intergroup conflict around the world. They focused on two factors known to increase conflict: incompatibility of values and competition for limited resources.

They found that religious infusion was an important factor in predicting conflict in both situations. In cases where two groups held incompatible values, the groups tended to exhibit increased prejudice and discrimination against one another only if religion permeated their everyday lives.

More surprising, however, is the finding on how religious infusion affects groups competing for limited resources and power. Only the disadvantaged groups that are religiously infused are more likely to engage in violence.

“That’s a surprising finding, because the advantages and power held by the other groups should deter the weaker groups,” says Neuberg. “Remember, these weaker groups are likely to get clobbered, at least in the short term.”

Disadvantaged groups, as defined in the study, are those lacking access to sufficient food, water and/or land, as well as political power and educational and economic opportunities.

Religious infusion is not tied to specific religions or sets of beliefs. Any religion can be highly infused in a particular society.

“What we don’t want people to walk away thinking,” says Warner, “is that religious infusion is always bad or always makes group relations worse. Not all religiously infused weak groups engage in conflict. And high-power groups, when they’re religiously infused, aren’t increasing their aggression against low-power groups.”   

So why would weak, religiously infused groups attack stronger powers? Some data from their project suggest that religious infusion may increase the motivation of weak groups to enhance their standing. Other data raise the possibility that religiously infused groups may have some advantages in mobilizing the resources they do have.

Warner and Neuberg will explore these possibilities, and the cause-and-effect relationship of their findings, in follow-up research.

“The amount of intergroup conflict in the world is costly and has huge and significant implications for national security and worldwide economic security,” says Neuberg. “To be able to better understand why this conflict occurs and predict it beforehand increases our chances of reducing its likelihood in the future. That should be important to all of us.”

The Global Group Relations Project grew out of an interdisciplinary faculty seminar series sponsored by ASU’s Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict, a research unit of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences that examines the role of religion as a driving force in human affairs. The center provided Neuberg and his colleagues with a seed grant to develop a proposal to the National Science Foundation, which funded the project.

Other faculty involved in the project included Ben Broome (Hugh Downs School of Human Communication), Roger Millsap (psychology), Thomas Taylor (School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences), George Thomas (School of Politics and Global Studies), Michael Winkelman (School of Human Evolution and Social Change), and Juliane Schober (School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies). Graduate students who worked on the project included Stephen Mistler, Anna Berlin, Eric Hill, Gabrielle Filip-Crawford, Jordan Johnson, Hui Liu, and Prasun Mahanti.

Story by Barby Grant 

Recommendations from ASU law professor become U.S. law

January 16, 2014

A set of recommendations made by ASU law professor Orde Kittrie in a January 2013 book chapter were signed into law on Dec. 26 by President Obama, as part of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2014.

The book, titled "U.S. Nonproliferation Strategy for the Changing Middle East," was co-authored by Kittrie and four other experts on preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East. In a statement introducing the provision, U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) thanked Kittrie and his coauthors for having “served as the inspiration for this legislation.” Download Full Image

Kittrie was lead author of the book’s chapter titled, “Cooperative Nonproliferation Programs Applicable to the Middle East.” In the chapter, Kittrie observes that many officials and experts in the Middle East and North Africa recognize the growing danger of extremists acquiring weapons of mass destruction, and are interested in strengthening regional cooperation – including across the Arab/Israeli divide. 

The chapter explains that while the need for and interest in such regional cooperation is growing, U.S. support for such cooperation has been shrinking. The chapter identifies several cooperative nonproliferation projects with a proven track record of success in the Middle East and North Africa that have recently been cut for lack of relatively small amounts of funding.

The book also characterizes existing U.S. cooperative threat reduction projects in the Middle East and North Africa as poorly coordinated, lacking in creativity and insufficiently results-oriented. The chapter states that “it is imperative for the United States to develop and implement a comprehensive nonproliferation strategy for the Middle East,” and includes specific recommendations for how such a strategy could improve coordination and ensure that programs are more effective and results-oriented.

In May, Shaheen introduced a bill to turn these recommendations into law. In her Congressional Record statement introducing S. 1021, the “Next Generation Cooperative Threat Reduction Act of 2013,” Shaheen described the purpose of her bill as “requir[ing] the president to establish a multi-year comprehensive and well-resourced regional assistance strategy to coordinate and advance cooperative threat reduction and related nonproliferation efforts in one of the most critical regions to U.S. national security interests: the Middle East and North Africa.” 

Shaheen’s Congressional Record statement introducing the bill also offered “special thanks to the co-chairs of the Project on U.S. Middle East Nonproliferation Strategy, including David Albright, Mark Dubowitz, Orde Kittrie, Leonard Spector and Michael Yaffe, whose report, ‘U.S. Nonproliferation Strategy for the Changing Middle East,’ served as the inspiration for this legislation.”

Shaheen’s bill was signed into law on Dec. 26 as section 1304 of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2014. Section 1304 is titled “Strategy to Modernize Cooperative Threat Reduction and Prevent the Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction and Related Materials in the Middle East and North Africa Region.”

In Section 1304, the new law requires the secretary of defense to establish a comprehensive nonproliferation strategy to advance cooperative efforts with Middle East and North African governments to “reduce the threat from the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and related materials.” The strategy and a plan for implementation of it must be submitted to Congress by March 31. Section 1304 also includes detailed requirements for the strategy, including how it must address gaps and improve coordination and effectiveness. 

Coincidentally, Section 1303 of the same new law, the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2014, extends by three years a different provision which professor Kittrie developed in 2008 as the sole attorney serving on a National Academies of Science commission, which recommended that provision in its report titled Global Security Engagement: A New Model for Cooperative Threat Reduction. Section 1303 is titled “Extension of Authority for Utilization of Contributions to the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program.” It provides special authority facilitating foreign contributions to cooperative threat reduction programs.

Kittrie is a leading expert on nonproliferation law and policy issues. Prior to joining the ASU law faculty, Kittrie served for 11 years in legal and policy positions at the U.S. Department of State. As the department's lead attorney for nuclear affairs, he participated in negotiating five U.S.-Russia nuclear nonproliferation agreements and a U.N. treaty to combat nuclear terrorism. From 2008 to 2012, Kittrie served as chair of the Nonproliferation, Arms Control and Disarmament group of the American Society of International Law. He has also testified on nonproliferation issues before both the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.