Religion has been a thread that runs constant throughout our world’s history. Wars have been fought, lives have been lost and heinous acts of violence have committed in the name of religion. But religion has also prompted acts of mercy, kindness, and benevolence. How is it that religion can motivate such different behaviors? Kathryn A. Johnson of the Department of Psychology at Arizona State University wanted to find that out. In a recent study, Johnson looked at how an individual’s conception of God, which is flexible and fluid across religions, affects a person’s behavior.
Johnson interviewed Catholic and non-Catholic Christian college students and asked them about their God concepts. She conducted three separate studies in which she provided God images that were authoritarian, benevolent, or forgiving. She assessed how these images influenced the participants’ behavior, specifically looking at pro-social behavior or aggressive behavior. Johnson found that all of the participants associated an authoritarian and punishing God with aggressive behavior and a benevolent and merciful God with altruism and volunteerism. However, non-Catholic Christians were more likely to forgive others when they viewed a benevolent God concept, and were less likely to forgive when they saw a punishing God. Also, images of an authoritarian God decreased willingness to engage in altruistic or charitable acts.
Because these God concepts exist across nearly every religion, these results are compelling indeed. Johnson believes this study shows that God concept a person holds directly influences their behavior. Although this study only looked at varying God concepts among Catholic and non-Catholic Christians, it gives us a glimpse into the positive and negative impact of religious concepts. Johnson hopes that this study, which looks at behavior toward others, will prompt other researchers to examine the internal influences of the many God concepts held by different religious groups and across various cultures. “Future research should focus on how concepts of a benevolent God might interact with self-identity, moral obligations, and intrinsic motivations leading to increased pro-social behaviors,” Johnson said.
Johnson, K. A., Li, Y. J., Cohen, A. B., and Okun, M. A. (2012). Friends in high places: The influence of authoritarian and benevolent god-concepts on social attitudes and behaviors. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0030138
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