Vol. 14 No. 4
Spring 2005

Religion and science share a common failing: Neither has succeeded in reducing the rate at which human beings commit atrocities. Perhaps Christianity has an explanation in believing that our species is inherently sinful. A similar conclusion may be reached from scientific research. James Waller, a professor of psychology at Whitworth College, makes this summation in a recent study of genocide: “Perpetrators are, quite simply, a representative cross-section of the normal distribution of humans.”

But this is where religion and science appear to part company. The former generally attributes acts of evil to evil people, whereas empirical evidence suggests that we may all be capable of committing atrocities under the influence of social circumstances. For example, in his now legendary “Stanford Prison Experiment,” psychologist Philip Zimbardo found that ordinary college students rapidly resorted to barbarism when randomly assigned to the roles of “guard” or “prisoner” in a mock prison in which close supervision was lacking.

A real-life example of this has been documented by historian Christopher Browning in his study Ordinary Men: Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland. Browning found that in March 1942, two-and-a-half years after the Nazis invaded Poland, over 80 percent of Polish Jews were still living. But only 11 months later, most of them had been killed. This was, of course, the result of efficient mass murder, but just how it was carried out was initially puzzling to investigators as the German Army was otherwise occupied on the Russian Front. How did the Nazis accomplish the horrific feat of carrying out genocide in Poland? It seems the death squads were composed of elderly family men, too old to be drafted into the army. They were recruited and sent to Poland without benefit of any police or military training. Yet, in just a few months they managed to exterminate some 40,000 men, women and children, while rounding up and sending another 45,000 to the death camps.

There are those who have concluded that such behavior must represent a flaw in the German character, but Browning makes this observation: “If Serbs, Croats, Hutus, Turks, Cambodians and Chinese can be the perpetrators of mass murder and genocide, implemented with terrible cruelty, we do indeed need to look at those universal aspects of human nature that transcend the cognition and culture of ordinary Germans.” Consistent with this observation, Waller offers these sobering statistics: “In the midst of all of our progress in the 20th century are well over 100 million persons who met violent death at the hands of their fellow human beings. That is over five times the number from the 19th century and more than 10 times the number from the 18th century.”

What are those “universal aspects of human nature” that make our species so prone to committing atrocities? Despite its moral flaws, the “Nuremberg Defense” appears to offer a psychological explanation, as there is considerable research evidence that shows people are prone to suspending both moral judgment and sense of responsibility in carrying out orders when they view themselves as subordinate to those in positions of authority. Yet this explanation has obvious limitations in understanding atrocities perpetrated outside a “chain of command.”

The late Princeton philosopher Walter Kaufman identified what may be a more general explanation. He saw it in terms of susceptibility to an infection, “The Virus of Mani.” He was referring to Manicheanism, the early belief that reduced the moral universe to binary categories ruled by two deities: the gods of Light and Darkness. The theology is long gone, but the proclivity to frame human conflict as a struggle between “good” and “evil” remains fundamental to our secular society as well as to religious scripture. It is melodrama masquerading as morality, as multidimensional humanness is reduced to stereotypes, allowing “good” to destroy “evil” without compunction. Hence, when “The Axis of Evil” meets “The Great Satan,” there can be no alternative to mutual hatred and annihilation.

In his study of the psychology of evil, Zimbardo quotes Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn: “The line between good and evil lies at the center of every human heart.” It is a truth that humanity will surely have to absorb if we are ever to stop dehumanizing one another and put an end to atrocities and the absurdity of war.

—Calvin R. Petersen BS’65 MS’69 PhD’71 has been an assistant and an adjunct professor of psychology at Utah State University and is currently affiliated with Lifespan, LLC, a private practice group in Logan, Utah.

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