Evidence for appealing to the divine as a means of influencing behavior

Evidence for appealing to the divine as a means of influencing behavior


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Appealing to the divine is a convenient way of making the subjective, objective.

For example:

Person A: You should never commit adultery.
Person B: But adultery is perfectly acceptable to me. That is just your opinion.
Person A: No. God tells us it is wrong.
Person B: Ah. OK.

Is there any evidence that the elite of any early civilisation subversively co-opted religion as a means to influence societal behavior for their own ends (for the benefit of wider society or no)?

Acceptable evidence could be documentary of such a plan.


I think that ultimately this question is opinion based, but it is interesting and has already generated one good answer so we should leave it open.

I think the premise in the first line is unsupported, "Appealing to the divine is a convenient way of making the subjective, objective."

There are a number of ways to answer the question - the best is the test that @Semaphore suggests - a textual artifact indicating that the results of a divination are unacceptable for political reasons. I believe there are multiple examples of that happening. If I recall correctly, the Roman campaign against Hannibal featured several battles that were delayed because the general rejected the augury and sent the augur back for another try. Was that the result of the generals subverting the divine process, or was that the action of a devout general who would not reconcile the augury with the tactical situation. Every divination involves some interpretation, and should always reject interpretations that are at odds with observed reality.

Henry IV's quote "Paris is worth a mass" might fit into the category, although he wasn't attempting to influence society through religion, he was abandoning his fidelity in favor of political objectives. But I cannot say for sure that his comment was completely cynical.

The Chinese dictum of the "Mandate of Heaven" could be invoked - I'm not a Chinese scholar, but I understand this to be a principle that can only be applied ex post facto - the ruler has the Mandate of Heaven, and the only people who can be shown to not have the Mandate of Heaven are deposed and failed rulers. Is this subversion, or a sincere belief that heaven favors the king?

Henry VIII of England, Defender of the Faith, abandoned the Roman Catholic faith because of a contradiction between his duty to his dynasty and his duty to his faith, as interpreted by the political decisions of a religious authority. Was that subversive, or a sincere conversion?

Constantine fought under the symbol of the cross, but delayed conversion to Christianity for years. Some claim that was an example of subversion, others insist that it was a sincere conversion but mediated by political realities.

There are many who assert that the Salem witch trials were an example of young girls living in an oppressively religious household subverting the numinous for practical reasons. Lord Bragg's recent podcast on the subject seems to argue that Tituba subverted her experience with the supernatural to fit a social narrative, influencing them away from killing her.

The conversion of Egypt under Amenhotep and the subsequent recidivism has also been posed as an example.

Similar accusations have been levelled against Pope Urban VIII whose condemnation of Galileo may have been based on the will of God or on the good of the church.

I've read so many narratives that I've lost track, but the last dozen times I encountered writings on the Delphic Oracle, the narratives have assumed that the utterances of the Oracle were bent to fit political realities.

Ultimately all religious leaders act in a nebulous area between faith, pragmatics and inspiration. They make choices that are probably sincere - it would take an act of spectacular arrogance to document ones own heresy.


The elites of several early civilizations co-opted religion for their own purposes through the deification of royalty. One of my personal favorites is Caligula, just because in general he took megalomania to a whole new level :-)


Socrates' Divine Sign: Religion, Practice and Value in Socratic Philosophy

Pierre Destrée and Nicholas D. Smith (eds.), Socrates' Divine Sign: Religion, Practice and Value in Socratic Philosophy, Academic Printing and Publishing, 2005, 192pp, $26.95 (pbk), ISBN 0920980910.

Reviewed by Nickolas Pappas, The City University of New York

Ten papers from a conference on Socrates' daimonion (Brussels 2003) assess what is known today about that piece of the Socrates puzzle and debate a range of still unsettled issues. The chapters are written by Luc Brisson, Mark L. McPherran, Gerd Van Riel, Thomas C. Brickhouse and Nicholas D. Smith, Pierre Destrée, Roslyn Weiss, Mark Joyal, Michel Narcy, Louis-André Dorion, and Aldo Brancacci.

The Socrates depicted in Plato's dialogues spoke of a daimonion signal that came to him. That word daimonion is an adjective meaning " daimôn -ish" -- divine, or maybe what the English of earlier centuries called "weird."

Anyway the sign came as some kind of voice and Socrates claimed to have heard it since childhood. It was apotreptic rather than protreptic, never commanding Socrates to act some way but only making sure he heard the discouraging word whenever he chanced to embark on a harmful action (Apology 31d).

Xenophon's Socrates heard a somewhat different voice, one that did not hesitate to endorse one action over another. Plato consistently presents an inhibiting divine agent.

Xenophon and Plato agree however that the divine sign of Socrates needs specially to be discussed in connection with the trial at which Socrates defended himself with such famous unsuccess. In Plato's account of the trial, Socrates remarks on having heard no spooky peep that day either on his way to the courts or during his (impromptu, haughty) defense speech. He accepts the news of his death sentence with equanimity and even good cheer on the grounds that since the daimonion did not stop him, the death that will follow his behavior must not be a bad thing ( Apology 40a-c).

(Xenophon offers a variation on this last argument but likewise depicts the divine sign practically speeding Socrates along to a happy death.)

As far as the Platonic Socrates is concerned, Plato's Apology contains all the essential general information about the divine sign. Other mentions occur in five dialogues: Euthydemus, Euthyphro, Phaedrus, Republic, and Theaetetus . There is also the Alcibiades , not widely accepted as a genuine work of Plato's, and the Theages , not at all considered genuine. The additional mentions amplify or illustrate what the Apology says, so that for Plato's readers the daimonion amounts to a couple of odd characteristics touched on in two handfuls of passages.

For the past half century the topic of Socrates' divine sign has been mostly neglected, whether because there is so little evidence to go on or because the subject of religion embarrassed Plato's commentators. After all, Socrates was committed to rationality. If that sign he received were real it would have had to be compatible with what his reason told him. No point treating it as something besides the voice of reason.

The present volume exists however because the daimonion question will not remain on the sidelines of Socratic scholarship. For the same reason, Nicholas D. Smith, one of this volume's co-editors, was also recently a co-editor of another collection that covered somewhat similar ground: Smith and Paul B. Woodruff (eds.), Reason and Religion in Socratic Philosophy (Oxford University Press, 2000).

Impossible to figure out or not, the divine sign is relevant to the larger picture of who Socrates was and what he did. Was the man in fact what moderns call rationalistic? Did his commitment to reason make him an atheist?

Also: Given that only Socrates appears to have heard a divine signal, did Plato see him as something unique, or was his life instead a possibility available to all humans? (Does one only philosophize with a daimonion ?)

More broadly: Why was Socrates tried and executed? In what way and for what reasons did his experience of his divine sign lead to his conviction and death?

Because Socrates cannot be understood until his weird voice has been, the first priority is therefore to determine what that voice is and how it works. The ancient testimony is not incomprehensible and not all that contradictory, but it does pose questions that have not yet been treated with the thoroughness they deserve, certainly not given definitive answers.

For example: What kind of experience was Socrates referring to with words like "a voice"? Who sent that message? Did it wear its meaning on its sleeve or did it stand in need of explanation? Is "No" all it said?

One can grow suspicious too. Why did Plato and Xenophon take special pains to talk about the sign and what it did or didn't say in their respective versions of the trial? Maybe they had thought of Socrates as magically protected by his infallible warning system, only to watch as he stumbled heedless into the viperous courtroom, where the plain talk that had humbled and elated Athenians in the agora merely offended the jurors. Had they been wrong about the sign and was Socrates just an ordinary man? If that anxiety goaded Plato and Xenophon, their complicated appeals to the sign and explanations of why Socrates saw his death sentence as a happy ending may have been after-the-fact rationalizations for the voice's apparent failure.

These specific questions about the voice and its message occupy the contributors to Socrates' Divine Sign. The eleven authors sift through the available Platonic evidence for new insights about the divine sign, hoping to use what they learn to understand Socrates.

What divides the authors of these articles, as is only appropriate, are the contentious issues surrounding the divine sign -- whether the sign comes from a god or rather speaks from within Socrates whether it attests to Socrates' uniqueness among humans or on the contrary makes him a paradigm for all others to follow. With plenty of space for the positions on both sides of these debates and others, the collection brings its reader up to date on a thriving and significant discussion.

Perhaps philosophers who do not study ancient philosophy will find the anthology too focused. And despite perennial interest in Socrates, the microsurgery with which the authors dissect these passages almost guarantees that the general reader will not come to the book, or not persevere with it. Still it will have its influence. Almost everyone who teaches Plato and Socrates in college is bound to be operating under assumptions about the daimonion that articles in this collection challenge. Those scholars ought to read this book having read it they will surely speak of Socrates in new ways. It is good to have such a book available.

Moreover it is good to know that such a book can come out today, a heartening sign of the times bespeaking welcome change in studies of ancient thought. For thirty years or more the serious assessment of Greek religion has made ancient beliefs and practices look worthier of study than they had been. The names of Walter Burkert and Jean-Pierre Vernant are only the most prominent of many in this enterprise. Still philosophers have a hard time responding to fifth- and fourth-century Athenian thought as other than the work of "free-thinkers." You can blame Thucydides and his role as every modern's guide to the fifth century: Thucydides with his impatience for oracles can make Socrates' Athens seem as atheistical as a philosophy department in America today.

But Socrates was not a man in the Athenian crowd enslaved by intellectual fashions of the day. The Platonic Socrates talked about hearing and heeding dreams (Apology , Crito , Phaedo ) and about obeying the Delphic oracle ( Apology, Republic ) he spilled wine to Zeus in the Symposium. In several other dialogues ( Ion, Phaedrus ) he attributed poetry to divine inspiration. The voice he heard was part of a life that included divinity, and theories about Socrates will be incomplete if they pretend otherwise.

Thus when Thomas Brickhouse and Nicholas Smith refute Gregory Vlastos's reductionist reading of the divine sign -- the voice as a rational hunch -- they are helping to bring a suppressed side of Socrates back into the picture (44-49). Socrates' experience was genuinely religious -- which as Brickhouse and Smith also point out does not make it irrational (61-62).

Mark McPherran too has worked to expand the prevailing interpretation of Socrates' rationality. It stands to reason that he should be part of this book: He played a major role in the Smith-Woodruff volume, and his own The Religion of Socrates (Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996) argued at length for the compatibility between Socrates' piety and his philosophical enterprise.

McPherran is a typical contributor in some ways, for these tend to be widely recognized names in Socrates-studies, knowledgeable and clear-thinking but also imaginative scholars. He stands out in one respect that is worth drawing attention to: He keeps himself apprised of contemporary research into Athenian religion and incorporates his research into his assessment of Socrates.

Although McPherran's book contains the most numerous examples of how he uses knowledge about Greek religion, there are some here too. His article in Socrates' Divine Sign vivifies references to the voice by exploring it as a relationship between Socrates and Apollo (26-30). McPherran juxtaposes Socrates' trust in dreams to the skepticism Aristotle voices in On Divination in Sleep 464a, to offer some cultural lens through which to see Socrates (13-14). These are hardly detailed inquiries into Greek religion, and yet they exceed what one finds in the book's other articles. Most proceed without reference to how Socrates' contemporaries practiced their religion and especially without reference to what recent research into the subject has discovered.

To put the point another way: It is true that all claims about the Socratic divine sign have to rest on fewer than a dozen passages. But reviewing these few passages can have the effect of excluding questions about the background of classical Athenian religious practice. Only a few phrases in this book even allow room for consideration of the religion of the day (e.g. 31-32, 62, 72, 85, 109, 148). More often than not such mentions only raise more questions.

Take Pierre Destrée who writes of the scholarly consensus that Plato does not want to confuse the divine sign "with some traditional religious way of considering a daimôn as a personal guardian" (62). Destrée later resists this consensus, invoking "the popular view of the daimôn as attached to each person from birth" (72) either way he contents himself with sparse and ambiguous references where the discussion would profit from detail. Just what tradition or popular view of the daimôn does he mean?

For well before Christianity arrived the Greeks could think of a daimôn as a source of malevolent activity. See most generally Burkert, Greek Religion (Harvard University Press, 1987), 180-81. In Odyssey 5.396 illness is a "hated [ stugeros ] daimôn, " while Pindar with superstitious indirection refers to an "other daimôn " ( Pyth. 3.34). Indeed the "good daimôn " to whom Aristophanes' characters pour propitiatory libations ( Knights 85, Wasps 525) may only have been called agathos as a euphemism, part of the effort to placate him.

Even if the evidence for malevolent daimones does not preponderate over references to "personal guardians," the existence of that evidence opens up the question of what Socrates might have been alluding to, or how he might have been heard by his contemporaries. It should not go without saying, as it is permitted to here, that Socrates' language drew on "traditions" about personal helpers.

In another paper Gerd Van Riel emphasizes the privacy of the divine sign, and rightly so. The political import of Socrates' "religiosity" must indeed have to do with his privileged access to a moral touchstone removed from anything his fellow citizens say.

But again there is an appeal to "tradition" whose vagueness allows only diffuse light to fall on Socrates. "The link between Socrates and his daimôn is absolutely exclusive, which is never the case when it comes to the intervention of traditional divinities" (35). Never? Van Riel cites no evidence for this assertion (though his sentence sounds as if it could have come from Robert Garland: See Introducing New Gods [Cornell University Press], 149). It would have helped to know, Private as opposed to what? This worry about an exclusive link "to the personality of the recipient" (35) needs to be fleshed out with the help of particular contrasts.

What about oracles, for instance? In Socrates' time it was increasingly individuals who solicited their judgments, Delphi's earlier prediction that Persia would triumph having damaged the oracle's credibility among governments (Burkert 116). Doesn't the divine message to a private client count as an exclusive intervention?

Or consider this personal touch. Before Socrates the Pythagoreans spoke of daimones whom they -- and evidently no one else -- could see (Aristotle, frag. 193). What's the difference between that and Socrates' exclusive access to his daimonion voice? Van Riel's focus on privacy surely has to be right, but his cause is not helped by generalizations about Greek practice.

An article by Asli Gocer in the Smith-Woodruff anthology had already warned against categorizing Socrates' "religiosity" in the absence of better evidence about Athens as a whole ("A New Assessment of Socratic Philosophy of Religion"). To call Socrates a nonconformist, says Gocer, one needs much better historical information about what he would have been conforming to (123-125).

Gocer could go further. Not only where Socrates stood by comparison with his fellow Athenians, but even what they understood him to be saying to them, remains indeterminate in the absence of a distinct picture of his fellow citizens' religion. When Socrates uses the adjective daimonion , he presumably wants to communicate something about the message he has been getting. So what is it? What is daimonion in pre-Platonic Athens and how is it spoken of?

The history of Greek religion will never substitute for scrutiny of every Platonic passage that mentions the divine sign. The contributors to this anthology are right to bring tough questions to bear on the passages they cite. Asking questions has not ceased to be the philosopher's job.

But if the philosopher is bent on hearing an answer, the historian of philosophy is meanwhile trying to over hear a distant answer to a now nearly inaudible question. This is where the study of religious practice comes in. To make out what the Athenians were muttering to each other or what Plato said back to them, today's eavesdropper needs to know how the conversation had already been going before Socrates ever arrived to join it.


1. Conceptual Framework for the Debate

Psychological egoism is a thesis about motivation, usually with a focus on the motivation of human (intentional) action. It is exemplified in the kinds of descriptions we sometimes give of people’s actions in terms of hidden, ulterior motives. A famous story involving Abraham Lincoln usefully illustrates this (see Rachels 2003, p. 69). Lincoln was allegedly arguing that we are all ultimately self-interested when he suddenly stopped to save a group of piglets from drowning. His interlocutor seized the moment, attempting to point out that Lincoln is a living counter-example to his own theory Lincoln seemed to be concerned with something other than what he took to be his own well-being. But Lincoln reportedly replied: “I should have had no peace of mind all day had I gone on and left that suffering old sow worrying over those pigs. I did it to get peace of mind, don’t you see?”

The psychological egoist holds that descriptions of our motivation, like Lincoln’s, apply to all of us in every instance. The story illustrates that there are many subtle moves for the defender of psychological egoism to make. So it is important to get a clear idea of the competing egoistic versus altruistic theories and of the terms of the debate between them.

A. The Bare Theses

Egoism is often contrasted with altruism. Although the egoism-altruism debate concerns the possibility of altruism in some sense, the ordinary term “altruism” may not track the issue that is of primary interest here. In at least one ordinary use of the term, for someone to act altruistically depends on her being motivated solely by a concern for the welfare of another, without any ulterior motive to simply benefit herself. Altruism here is a feature of the motivation that underlies the action (Sober & Wilson 1998, p. 199). (Another sense of “altruism”—often used in a fairly technical sense in biology—is merely behavioral see §4a.) To this extent, this ordinary notion of altruism is close to what is of philosophical interest. But there are differences. For instance, ordinarily we seem to only apply the term “altruism” to fairly atypical actions, such as those of great self-sacrifice or heroism. But the debate about psychological egoism concerns the motivations that underlie all of our actions (Nagel 1970/1978, p. 16, n. 1).

Regardless of ordinary terminology, the view philosophers label “psychological egoism” has certain key features. Developing a clear and precise account of the egoism-altruism debate is more difficult than it might seem at first. To make the task easier, we may begin with quite bare and schematic definitions of the positions in the debate (May 2011, p. 27 compare also Rosas 2002, p. 98):

  • Psychological Egoism: All of our ultimate desires are egoistic.
  • Psychological Altruism: Some of our ultimate desires are altruistic.

We will use the term “desire” here in a rather broad sense to simply mean a motivational mental state—what we might ordinarily call a “motive” or “reason” in at least one sense of those terms. But what is an “ultimate” desire, and when is it “altruistic” rather than “egoistic”? Answering these and related questions will provide the requisite framework for the debate.

B. Egoistic vs. Altruistic Desires

We can begin to add substance to our bare theses by characterizing what it is to have an altruistic versus an egoistic desire. As some philosophers have pointed out, the psychological egoist claims that all of one’s ultimate desires concern oneself in some sense. However, we must make clear that an egoistic desire exclusively concerns one’s own well-being, benefit, or welfare. A malevolent ultimate desire for the destruction of an enemy does not concern oneself, but it is hardly altruistic (Feinberg 1965/1999, §9, p. 497 Sober & Wilson 1998, p. 229).

Similarly, despite its common use in this context, the term “selfish” is not appropriate here either. The psychological egoist claims that we ultimately only care about (what we consider to be) our own welfare, but this needn’t always amount to selfishness. Consider an ultimate desire to take a nap that is well-deserved and won’t negatively affect anyone. While this concerns one’s own benefit, there is no sense in which it is selfish (Henson 1988, §7 Sober & Wilson 1998, p. 227). The term “self-interest” is more fitting.

With these points in mind, we can characterize egoistic and altruistic desires in the following way:

  • One’s desire is egoistic if (and only if) it concerns (what one perceives to be) the benefit of oneself and not anyone else.
  • One’s desire is altruistic if (and only if) it concerns (what one perceives to be) the benefit of at least someone other than oneself.

It’s important that the desire in some sense represents the person as oneself (or, as the case may be, as another). For example, suppose that John wants to help put out a fire in the hair of a man who appears to be in front of him, but he doesn’t know that he’s actually looking into a mirror, and it’s his own hair that’s ablaze. If John’s desire is ultimate and is simply to help the man with his hair in flames, then it is necessary to count his desire as concerning someone other than himself, even though he is in fact the man with his hair on fire (Oldenquist 1980, pp. 27-8 Sober & Wilson 1998, p. 214).

C. Ultimate/Intrinsic Desires

The reason for the focus on ultimate desires is that psychological egoists don’t deny that we often have desires that are altruistic. They do claim, however, that all such altruistic desires ultimately depend on an egoistic desire that is more basic. In other words, we have an ulterior motive when we help others—one that likely tends to fly below the radar of consciousness or introspection.

Thus, we must draw a common philosophical distinction between desires that are for a means to an end and desires for an end in itself. Instrumental desires are those desires one has for something as a means for something else ultimate desires are those desires one has for something as an end in itself, not as a means to something else (see Sober & Wilson 1998, pp. 217-222). The former are often called “extrinsic desires” and the latter “intrinsic desires” (see e.g. Mele 2003 Ch. 1.8.). Desires for pleasure and the avoidance of pain are paradigmatic ultimate desires, since people often desire these as ends in themselves, not as a mere means to anything else. But the class of ultimate desires may include much more than this.

D. Relating Egoism and Altruism

There are two important aspects to highlight regarding how psychological egoism and altruism relate to one another. First, psychological egoism makes a stronger, universal claim that all of our ultimate desires are egoistic, while psychological altruism merely makes the weaker claim that some of our ultimate desires are altruistic. Thus, the former is a monistic thesis, while the latter is a pluralistic thesis (Sober & Wilson 1998, p. 228). Consequently, psychological egoism is easier to refute than the opposing view. If one were to successfully demonstrate that some—even just one—of a person’s ultimate desires are altruistic, then we can safely reject psychological egoism. For example, if Thomas removes his heel from another’s gouty toe because he has an ultimate desire that the person benefit from it, then psychological egoism is false.

Second, the positions in the debate are not exactly the denial of one another, provided there are desires that are neither altruistic nor egoistic (Stich, Doris, & Roedder 2010, sect. 2). To take an example from Bernard Williams, a “madman” might have an ultimate desire for “a chimpanzees’ tea party to be held in the cathedral” (1973, p. 263). He does not desire this as a means to some other end, such as enjoyment at the sight of such a spectacle (he might, for example, secure this in his will for after his death). Assuming the desire for such a tea party is neither altruistic nor egoistic (because it doesn’t have to do with anyone’s well-being), would it settle the egoism-altruism debate? Not entirely. It would show that psychological egoism is false, since it would demonstrate that some of our ultimate desires are not egoistic. However, it would not show that psychological altruism is true, since it does not show that some of our ultimate desires are altruistic. Likewise, suppose that psychological altruism is false because none of our ultimate desires concern the benefit of others. If that is true, psychological egoism is not thereby true. It too could be false if we sometimes have ultimate desires that are not egoistic, like the madman’s. The point is that the theses are contraries: they cannot both be true, but they can both be false.


Defining grey literature

The Grey Literature Report defines grey literature as literature which is produced by all levels of government, academics, business and industry, but which is not controlled by commercial publishers (Grey Literature Report n.d.). It includes reports, theses, conference proceedings, and official documents not published commercially.

The potential range of grey literature that could have been consulted for the purposes of this paper is vast. Among others, I made use of reports and publications produced by international organizations, NGOs, think tanks, foundations, consultancy organizations and individual experts working primarily in fields such as international development, human rights, and political and policy advocacy—some specifically focused on research uptake. Some sources are hybrids—organizations and experts who also publish in peer reviewed journals, or non-peer reviewed resources produced by university-based or independent research centres. As a grantmaker at the Open Society Public Health Program concerned with learning how best to support colleagues and grantees in advancing evidence-based policy, my primary interest has been in identifying publications that offer information I and others can put to use. Thus for the purposes of this article, I began with organizations and sources familiar to me from my own work in the field or recommended to me by respected colleagues, and branched out to additional resources referenced and referred to in the initial group. This cannot claim to be a comprehensive survey but is intended to present a sample of some of the rich resources that are available.

The resources I gathered seemed to fall into two main groups. The first grouping, mostly concerned with evidence informed policy in the global North, focuses on cognitive and psychological factors impacting the way in which individual policymakers make decisions (see for example Baron, 2010 and Bales, 2015a). These resources draw on recent research in fields such as cognitive science and neuropsychology, and explicitly make a link between such research and the ways in which stories take advantage of what we know about human decision-making. The second group, focused largely on evidence-based policy in the context of international development, tends to pay more attention to the political and organizational context and group dynamics within which policy processes take place, and the institutional processes by which decisions are reached (see for example, see Smutylo, 2005 Young and Mendizabal, 2009 and Young et al., 2014).


Defendants may move to suppress evidence obtained by police or prosecutors in violation of their constitutional rights, including the Fourth Amendment right against warrantless searches and seizures, the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, and the Sixth Amendment right to an attorney in a criminal case. Evidence obtained in violation of a defendant’s rights is known as “fruit of the poisonous tree.” See Silverthorne Lumber Co. v. United States, 251 U.S. 385 (1920). The rule requiring suppression of such evidence, known as the exclusionary rule, applies in all federal and state cases, according to the Supreme Court’s ruling in Mapp v. Ohio, 367 U.S. 643 (1961).

The Supreme Court has narrowed the scope of the exclusionary rule in recent years. However, proponents argue that the exclusionary rule deters police from conducting illegal searches.


Disturbing Divine Behavior: Troubling Old Testament Images of God

A dangerous book - but probably in the best possible way. I came away thinking, &aposOh wow, you mean I don&apost have to believe that God actually commanded the Israelites to commit genocide against the Caananites?&apos Of course, for some people, they may feel like this book is crumbling the foundations of their faith - if their faith is built on the Old Testament being completely true, ethically and historically. (Even the bits which don&apost agree with the other bits.)

Seibert brings the conclusions of cont A dangerous book - but probably in the best possible way. I came away thinking, 'Oh wow, you mean I don't have to believe that God actually commanded the Israelites to commit genocide against the Caananites?' Of course, for some people, they may feel like this book is crumbling the foundations of their faith - if their faith is built on the Old Testament being completely true, ethically and historically. (Even the bits which don't agree with the other bits.)

Seibert brings the conclusions of contemporary scholarship to the problem of the troubling divine images of God in the Old Testament historical narratives - images of God committing genocide (the flood) or demanding the Israelites commit genocide. He argues from historical, archaeological, theological and textual perspectives that divine behaviour which contradicts God revealed in Jesus Christ did not happen. A gap exists between the textual God and the actual God.

There are a lot of questions I need to ask about this book, and I'm working on a lengthy review for my blog. He doesn't say anything particularly new, but he articulates in a systematic and readable way things not enough of us dare say about the troubling nature of the Old Testament and possible approaches to it. He comes from an evangelical Anabaptist background and deals sensitively with issues evangelicals will be wrestling with, but he certainly doesn't maintain a conventional evangelical understanding of the authority or nature of scripture. . more

This book promises much but delivers nothing.

Seibert&aposs main thesis is that Jesus is the ultimate revelation of God, and so any portrayal of God that appears to be different must of necessity be false. This sounds reasonable and fair.

However, Seibert proposes a "Christo-centric" hermeneutic, which depicts Jesus as and was a man of peace and love, and then uses this approach to review the validity of portrayals of God in both Old and New Testaments.
In this way Seibert concludes that most of the O This book promises much but delivers nothing.

Seibert's main thesis is that Jesus is the ultimate revelation of God, and so any portrayal of God that appears to be different must of necessity be false. This sounds reasonable and fair.

However, Seibert proposes a "Christo-centric" hermeneutic, which depicts Jesus as and was a man of peace and love, and then uses this approach to review the validity of portrayals of God in both Old and New Testaments.
In this way Seibert concludes that most of the Old Testament descriptions of God are clearly false, explaining them away as either myth or misconception. Seibert even dismisses the New Testament teaching of the Final Judgement asserting that a loving God could never send anyone to hell.

The problem is that Seibert has been very selective in the texts he has used to build his portrayal of Jesus. Seibert has chosen to ignore Jesus own teaching on the Final Judgement and heaven and hell. Jesus described hell as a terrible place using terms such as blackest darkness where there is gnashing of teeth. He also ignores times when Jesus was clearly angry, and exercised direction action to right evil practices, such as the tuning over the money changers tables and driving out the money changers with a whip.

And so Seibert has actually constructed an unscriptural caricature of Jesus, and has used this to construct a false god in his own image.

Moreover, Seibert does not consider the ultimate result of the false god he has created. He does not seem to understand that a truly good God MUST punish evil. We can illustrate this by considering an earthly court room. Imagine what would happen if a person found guilt of child abuse, rape and mass murder appealed to the goodness of the not let restrict his liberty with a prison sentence, but rather release him. The judge is never going to consent, but because the judge is a god man he will ensure that the crimes are punished, and that the man's freedom is restricted so that he can commit no further crimes.

The same is true with God. God is good. There are two sides to this first it means that God is love but it also means that God is just and righteous, and hence must of necessity punish evil.

Seibert misses the point that many of the Old Testament prophecies emphasise both God's love and righteousness. Hosea is a perfect example of this, where God is pictured as a spurned husband who clearly longs for reconciliation with his adulterous wife, and yet ultimately will take action to close the relationship when all notion of reconciliation is exhausted.

This book, then, is academically lightweight, building an image of God which is not based on a sound analysis of the evidence, but rather ignores most of the evidence in order to support a god of Seibert's creation. . more

Readers of the Bible expect to encounter stories of human beings behaving badly, but they are sometimes taken aback by stories depicting God behaving badly. In the Old Testament, there are approximately 1,000 passages that speak of Yahweh’s anger, threats, punishments, revenge, and killing. “No other topic is as often mentioned as God’s bloody works.”

Eric Seibert, an associate professor of Old Testament, calls the troubling or dark side of God “disturbing divine behavior.” Some Christians who vi Readers of the Bible expect to encounter stories of human beings behaving badly, but they are sometimes taken aback by stories depicting God behaving badly. In the Old Testament, there are approximately 1,000 passages that speak of Yahweh’s anger, threats, punishments, revenge, and killing. “No other topic is as often mentioned as God’s bloody works.”

Eric Seibert, an associate professor of Old Testament, calls the troubling or dark side of God “disturbing divine behavior.” Some Christians who view God’s character as immensely merciful, just and compassionate find it troubling when they encounter God who could also be so merciless, vengeful, violent, not to mention unjust in the mass killing of children for the sins of their parents.

This book was written for those who are perplexed by and struggle with the apparent contradictions in God’s character, while those who see no such contradictions probably wouldn't enjoy it. Seibert wrote the book to make sense of the contradictions and “to help people think as accurately as possible about God.”

“Who are you to second-guess God?” say those who believe in Biblical inerrancy. Seibert believes Christians should be encouraged, not discouraged, to ask hard questions about God. The Old Testament provides a model of questioning God, with Abraham, for instance, debating with him about destroying Sodom. “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” Abraham asks when arguing that innocent should not be killed along with the guilty. (Gen 18:25) Moses also argued with God about destroying Israel after Aaron made a golden calf, and God changed his mind. (Ex 32:11-14) In short, “there’s nothing inherently wrong with raising questions about God’s behavior in the Old Testament.” Nor is questioning the accuracy of some parts of the Old Testament inconsistent “with affirming scripture’s inspiration and authority.”

Seibert provides a long description of disturbing divine behavior. Many readers already know about the genocide the Lord ordered the Israelites to commit on the seven nations in the Promised Land, “utterly destroying anything that breathes. Show them no mercy.” (Deut 7:1-2) Joshua reports carrying out the divine orders. (Josh 10:40)

The rationale given for this genocide is that “so that they may not teach you to do all the abhorrent things that they do for their gods.” (Deut 20:18) At least a few readers might find genocide to be a disproportionate and extreme response to this perceived threat. In addition to genocide, there are many other examples of divine behavior that can lead readers to ask what the behavior says about the character of God:

+ God reportedly gave Moses 613 laws, with death required for fortune telling, cursing one’s parents, adultery, homosexual acts, bestiality and blasphemy, among other things. One man found out the hard way that picking up sticks on the Sabbath also meant death. He was brought before Moses. “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘The man shall be put to death all the congregation shall stone him outside the camp.’” Which is exactly what happened. (Num 15:32-36)

+ Yahweh personally executed individuals on three occasions: two sons of Judah, Er and Onan, whom He had found to be “wicked” and “displeasing” (Genesis 38) two novice rabbis – Nadab and Abihu - who committed a single ritual offense of making an “unholy fire” (Leviticus 10:1-2) and a man named Uzzah who had reached up to steady the ark of the covenant when it was being transported he was instantly struck dead by God. (2 Sam 6:7)

+ Yahweh also engaged in mass killing, most notably when the great flood wiped out nearly all of humanity, when Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed by a rain of sulfur and fire, when all the firstborn children in Egypt were killed to punish the Pharaoh. (Ex 12:29), during 40 years in the wilderness, when Yahweh sent plagues that killed hundreds of thousands of Israelites (Numbers 26:65 21:6 16:46, 49 14:36-37), and when the Lord sent a pestilence in Israel to punish King David for taking a census, killing 70 thousand. (2Sam 24:15), even though God had incited David to take the census.

+ Yahweh was an afflicter. Saul sinned, for example, and “the spirit of the Lord departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the Lord tormented him” (1Sam16:14). When the Israelites tried to flee Egypt, God repeatedly hardened the Pharaoh’s heart so he refused to allow the departure, while God inflicted 10 plagues on the land. Job was “blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil,” yet was subjected by God to horrible afflictions. After Job suffers one tragedy after another, God says, “He still persists in his integrity, although you incited me against him, to destroy him for no reason.” (2:3)

What kind of God destroys an innocent man and kills his children and servants “for no reason”? How does one reconcile the God of the Old Testament with loving enemies, turning the other cheek, and doing unto others as we would have them to do us? Those who would deny any conflict don’t want to see it.

There are two ways Christians can deal with the contradictions: 1) We can simply say, “when God does it, that makes it moral,” even though we think bashing babies heads against the rocks is grossly immoral any other time, or 2) We can decide we cannot accept a literal reading of the Bible and still worship God, so we discard literalism. After carefully considering the alternatives, Seibert opts for the second option.

We shouldn’t have to defend genocide and mass killing of children to punish their parents. It’s appropriate we know war crimes are wrong. We are correct that the hyper-violent depiction of God conflicts with our image of who God is. The questionable passages are likely war propaganda, written generations after the purported events. Seibert contends the Old Testament descriptions of genocide are historically inaccurate. Archeological evidence and biblical passages indicate the Canaanites were not annihilated the way Joshua claims.

So how can Christians know what God is really like? The New Testament tells us that in Jesus, we get the “image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15), and a revelation of God that surpasses anything offered in the Old Testament (Heb 1:1-3). Jesus said, “anyone who has seen me has seen the father.”(John 14:9)
What about the extreme, punitive violence by Jesus described in Revelations? Seibert responds “that the God Jesus reveals is known though Jesus’ life and teachings while on earth, not descriptions of Jesus’ supposed behavior at the end time.”

Consequently, Seibert recommends that Christ-followers rely upon the forgiving, non-violent image of Jesus to understand the character of God. It means applying a “christocentric hermaneutic” to problematic passages, by which violent depictions of God are rejected. There are still useful, constructive lessons to be learned from disturbing passages by discerning readers.

The author understands that a believer’s view about God’s role in writing Scripture determines how that individual perceives disturbing divine depictions. Those who see God as the author, and writers as simply the instruments, usually accept that everything in the Bible must be accurate. Those who see God’s role as inspiring, rather than dictating to, the writers, find it easier to recognize that human error was inevitable.

In sum, Disturbing Divine Behavior explains why Christ-followers should not redefine evil as good in trying to justify behaviors that are grossly immoral. One need not agree with everything in this book to recognize Seibert’s careful scholarship and clear analysis about how to know divine character. ###

Disturbing divine behaviour is a well thought out book. It is very concise and easy to understand what the author is trying to say. Eric is clearly knowledgeable and we&aposll researched on this topic. It takes quite a while to get to the point as Eric chose to use the first 2/3s of the book to explain the issue of troubling portrayals of God in the OT and why they can be disturbing. He also spends a lot of time speaking to some of the other views that people hold. It never feels like the author is Disturbing divine behaviour is a well thought out book. It is very concise and easy to understand what the author is trying to say. Eric is clearly knowledgeable and we'll researched on this topic. It takes quite a while to get to the point as Eric chose to use the first 2/3s of the book to explain the issue of troubling portrayals of God in the OT and why they can be disturbing. He also spends a lot of time speaking to some of the other views that people hold. It never feels like the author is trying to shove his opinions down your throat, but is it quite evident what Eric believes and he does a good job of backing up his point. The book is very scripturally based and doesn't have too much meaningless hand-waving to explain things away.

I would recommend this book to anyone who is searching for answers to the troubling war-like depictions of God in the OT, though I would not give this book to a new Christian or someone who is not able to discern the scripture well for themselves. Though Eric gives all the different views, he quickly tries to shoot them full of holes as well as plug the holes in his own theories. I would encourage this to be on the reading list with other books of varying opinions but it is not to be read by itself. The views of the author can be a stumbling block for those weak in their faith or easily manipulated.

Eric stretched my faith and caused me to question some of my own beliefs about the wars in the OT. Though this was a good thought exercise, I am not convinced that Eric has hit the mark. In fact I think he is troubling too far out in left field. Regardless, I am encouraged by his desire to wrestle with the text and come up with an answer to this problem that works for him, and probably many others. There is not enough discussion on the troubling portions of the OT, and too many people ignoring the beauty that this Testament has to offer to the Christian today. . more

Provocative book I wouldn&apost necessarily recommend starting with this if you haven&apost read something How to Read the Bible for All it&aposs Worth. I was talking to my nine year old nephew about the Old Testament, and I was amazed at how quickly he has developed a theology (all of which will cause him problems when he starts asking questions). So like a good uncle, I gave him some easy questions to chew on, and I told him it&aposs ok to ask questions because God wants a deep and real relationship with us Provocative book I wouldn't necessarily recommend starting with this if you haven't read something How to Read the Bible for All it's Worth. I was talking to my nine year old nephew about the Old Testament, and I was amazed at how quickly he has developed a theology (all of which will cause him problems when he starts asking questions). So like a good uncle, I gave him some easy questions to chew on, and I told him it's ok to ask questions because God wants a deep and real relationship with us this is the thesis for DDB.

I read this much slower than I have read other books because I was challenged in every chapter. I had to keep wrestling with whether or not I could accept the claims being made, and if not, why not. Ultimately there was nothing in the book that didn't settle with me. If anything, I was challenged to think differently and for that, I can see some ways already that my relationship with the Trinity will be significantly improved. I desire a deep and meaningful, authentic relationship with the Creator, and in doing so, we should feel free to ask difficult questions, one of my favorites is whether or not scripture is divinely inspired, and while I have made some conclusions about that in the past, I see a new perspective, one that allows for a more open interpretation.

Some places I would have liked more information:
1) other lenses other than a Christ0centric lens by which to understand the OT. Perhaps eliminate other possible lenses, such a legal lens, or a Jewish/Israel-centric lens, etc. The prophets for example haven't seen or known Christ, so they would not understand a Christocentric story. If God's nature is love, we should be able to see the love of God without knowing Christ, and I think the Bible can be read in such a way.
2) When discussing the first testament, I'd like more sources to be from Jewish scholars frankly I see wide gaps in Protestant (maybe all Christian) scholarship in seeing every story from a Christological perspective. I want to know what Jewish scholars have to say about the warrior God or whether or not they see love as God's primary nature. To reiterate my previous point, God reveals a loving nature through the law/judges/prophets, it's just more difficult to see through the lens of the New Covenant.
3) Some apologetic discourse: Seibert states a few ways in which he may or may not ask questions of a pastor or someone else that teaches/preaches from a systematic theology that largely ignores the divine violence, but I think that section should be a bit longer: how to talk to Catholics/Jews/Muslims/Calvinists/Wesleyans etc about interpreting scripture would be helpful. I recognize that work is up to the reader, but I think each category of believer will respond differently, and for that, some preparations should be provided maybe.

Seibert's argument is solid and well-researched. Prior to reading this book, I have tried to talk about the good, the bad, and the ugly honestly, but I feel that I have a greater tool in this book to use for those conversations.

The greatest use of this book for me is to help people understand that they cannot use scripture to justify/promote/cause violence. In fact, this book helps me to repent on behalf of the history of the Christian church. We should be so moved. Our wrong interpretations are dangerous and damaging, especially to LGBTQ+ people, American Islamophobia, and mistreatment of women and minorities.

I'm already looking forward to reading this book again. . more

I am giving this book 1 star because I find Seibert’s approach to Biblical interpretation seriously flawed. He argues that we do not have to accept any verse in the Bible as true if it might give the impression that God is anything less than perfectly good. While he tries to use a number of approaches to justify his selectivity, I was not convinced by any of them. I find he is overly influenced by liberal, postmodern approaches to scripture which attempt to preserve some “meaning” in scripture w I am giving this book 1 star because I find Seibert’s approach to Biblical interpretation seriously flawed. He argues that we do not have to accept any verse in the Bible as true if it might give the impression that God is anything less than perfectly good. While he tries to use a number of approaches to justify his selectivity, I was not convinced by any of them. I find he is overly influenced by liberal, postmodern approaches to scripture which attempt to preserve some “meaning” in scripture while simultaneously saying it does not accurately record real historical events. Yet this runs counter to any viable idea of Biblical inerrancy and authority.

Seibert has a preconceived picture of what God is like, which leads him to selectively choose which Bible verses he accepts as authoritative and which he tries to explain away. His argument is not based on any real evidence other than “this verse doesn’t match the Jesus I believe in”. But how do we truly know what God is like unless we accept all of His self-revelation in the Bible? Who is Seibert to say that some verses are inaccurate in their picture of God simply because he can’t understand how God can act in certain ways and still be good? I think he forgets that God is also holy and is just when He judges sin, whether that is historically or eschatologically.

One example of Seibert’s flawed approach is his argument from silence which says that Jesus rejected problematic portrayals of God in the Old Testament because Jesus did not teach or preach from these texts. But he forgets that the gospels represent only a small glimpse of Jesus’ life and ministry (John 21:25), and thus not everything that Jesus said is recorded for us today. So just because we don’t have a record of Jesus endorsing some specific troubling passage in the Old Testament does not mean Jesus thought it was an inaccurate portrayal of God’s character. Indeed, Jesus himself discusses many “disturbing” images of God in his parables, criticisms of the Pharisees, and warnings of future judgement. Yet Seibert rejects these words of Jesus as well! So if Seibert is trying to base his picture of God on Jesus, he is being unfairly selective with what texts he accepts as truly revealing Jesus.

He also claims archaeological evidence proves there was no historical Exodus and subsequent conquest of Canaan, and so we should not take these stories literally. Yet as pointed out in the excellent documentary “Patterns of Evidence: Exodus” by Timothy P. Mahoney, there is plenty of archaeological evidence for both the Exodus and Joshua’s victories in Canaan, yet this evidence is rejected simply because mainstream archaeologists say it occurs in the wrong time period. If the Exodus and conquest really did happen, then we need to take these “disturbing” stories and what they reveal about God seriously, which undermines Seibert’s entire argument.

Throughout the entire book, Seibert only mentions the right of God to finally judge sin a handful of times, and never explores this theme in-depth. While he reluctantly admits that the final judgement is real, he still argues that God never judges anyone in historical times. I fail to see why if God has the right to judge eschatologically why he cannot judge historically and still be good and just. If Seibert believes annihilation to be the best interpretation of God’s final judgement, then why does he exclaim so many times throughout this book that God is unjust when He instantly kills certain people?

I find Seibert’s discussion of Biblical inerrancy dangerous. While I agree that we might not want to always take a word-for-word approach, his argument is circular. He says that the presence of the difficult portrayals of God in the Bible proves that God did not exercise meticulous control over Biblical inspiration. But that rests on his previous argument that these passages do not accurately reveal God’s character. Yet if these texts do reveal God’s true character, then a more meticulous theory of inspiration becomes likely. So Seibert wants to throw out the traditional understandings of Biblical inspiration in order to make his own theory acceptable, rather than accepting that the Bible is inspired and inerrant which would make his theory impossible.

Once we start labelling parts of the Bible as uninspired, then we lose all objectivity and cannot be sure which parts of the Bible are inspired (if any). Any claim for Biblical authority would rest on only our personal preferences and judgements (as Seibert does in this book), which destroys any confidence we can have in the Bible as God’s revelation to us, and also destroys any power the Bible has to convict of sin and the need for faith in Jesus. If one takes this approach, then why not also get rid of anything else we don’t like in the Bible? Or why not just get rid of the Bible altogether and let everyone live according to their own preferences and judgements? That is the direction that Seibert’s proposal is leading, and therefore anyone who cares about the Bible having any authority at all should be extremely cautious of Seibert’s approach in this book.

There are many more criticisms I could offer here, yet I think anyone who has some spiritual discernment and common sense could see that Seibert’s approach is defective. While Seibert may indeed be trying his hardest to make sense of what the Bible reveals about God’s character, and I applaud his effort to try to uphold God’s goodness, there are many better approaches which take the Biblical text seriously and are still able to justify God as good (for example, see Merrill, Gard, and Longman in Show Them No Mercy: Four Views on God and Canaanite Genocide, or perhaps extend William J. Webb’s hermeneutical approach in his book Slaves, Women, & Homosexuals to include the problem of divine violence as well).


The Spark Of Divine Love For The Divine

This spark of divine love for the Divine in and through and as you has brought you here. And soon it will open the spiral and set you on the mystical path. This spark is the same spark of love that called Moses, Mirabai, Rumi, Francis of Assisi, Kabir, Teresa of Ávila, Hildegard of Bingen, Paramahansa Yogananda, and all the mystics through time. And now it is calling you, as it has been calling you your entire life.

Welcome to your first adventure on the sacred spiral. On this loop you will feel that divine spark of love and respond with a sacred desire of your own heart. You will meet your guides and companions, consider the wonders of the spiral, and finally, enter the spiral and experience it for yourself. To help you open to all the beauty and possibility of this first spiral walk, I offer you six deep soul explorations. Each exploration begins with something to read, followed by several sensory, imaginal, and soul writing activities. Think of these offerings as a spiritual smorgasbord. Taste all that look appealing and experiment with others. This is your sacred spiral adventure listen to the guid­ance of your soul and follow where she leads.


Referent Power

As the 44th elected president of the United States, Barack Obama has legitimate power. As commander-in-chief of the U.S. Armed Forces, he also has coercive power. His ability to appoint individuals to cabinet positions affords him reward power. Individuals differ on the degree to which they feel he has expert and referent power, as he received 52% of the popular vote in the 2008 election. Shortly after the election, he began to be briefed on national security issues, providing him with substantial information power as well.

Referent power Power that stems from the personal characteristics of the person such as the degree to which we like, respect, and want to be like them. stems from the personal characteristics of the person such as the degree to which we like, respect, and want to be like them. Referent power is often called charisma The ability to attract others, win their admiration, and hold them spellbound. —the ability to attract others, win their admiration, and hold them spellbound. Steve Jobs’s influence as described in the opening case is an example of this charisma.


Narrowing Our Options

These four observations provide us with a foundation from which to answer the question, “Why morality?” We need only determine the possible options, then ask which option best accounts for our observations.

A word of caution here. At this point our discussion gets personal, because the ultimate answer to our question has serious ramifications for the way we live our lives. It’s tempting to abandon careful thinking when conclusions that make us uncomfortable come into focus. Faced with a limited number of options, no one sits on the fence. When the full range of choices is clear, rejection of one means acceptance of another remaining.

Our options are limited to three. One: Morality is simply an illusion. Two: Moral rules exist, but are mere accidents, the product of chance. Three: Moral rules are not accidents, but instead are the product of intelligence. Which option makes most sense given our four observations about morality?

Some want to argue that morals just don’t exist. They’re nothing but illusions, useful fictions that help us to live in harmony. This is the relativist’s answer. This view is not an option for those who raise the problem of evil. Their complaint about the injustice of the universe is a tacit admission of morality. C.S. Lewis observed:

Thus in the very act of trying to prove that God did not exist—in other words, that the whole of reality was senseless—I found I was forced to assume that one part of reality—namely my idea of justice—was full of sense. Consequently, atheism turns out to be too simple. If there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark. Dark would be without meaning [emphasis in the original]. 2

Some take a second route. They admit that objective moral laws must exist, but contend they are just accidents. We discover them as part of the furniture of the universe, so to speak, but they have no explanation, nor do they need one.

This won’t do for a good reason: Moral rules that have no ground or justification need not be obeyed. An illustration is helpful here. One evening in the middle of a Scrabble game, you notice the phrase “do not go” formed in the random spray of letter tiles on the table. Is this a command that ought to be obeyed? Of course not. It’s not a command at all, just a random collection of letters.

Commands are communications between two minds. Chance might conceivably create the appearance of a moral rule, but there can be no command if no one is speaking. Since this phrase is accidental, it can safely be ignored.

Even if a person is behind the communication, one could ignore the command if it isn’t backed by appropriate authority. If I stood at an intersection and put my hand up, cars might stop voluntarily, but they’d have no duty to respond. They could ignore me with no fear of punishment because I have no authority to direct traffic. If, on the other hand, a policeman replaced me, traffic would come to a halt.

What is the difference between the policeman and me? My authority is not grounded. It doesn’t rest on anything solid. The policeman, however, represents the government, so his authority is justified. The state can appoint legitimate representatives to carry out its will because it is operating within its proper domain.

We learn from this that a law has moral force when it is given by an appropriate authority, one operating within its legitimate jurisdiction. If one violates such a law, he could be punished. The same is true of moral laws. They have incumbency—force to them—if there is a proper authority behind them. Moral rules that appear by chance have no such grounding.

Our second option fails because it doesn’t explain three important features we observed about morality. Chance morality fails to be a communication between two minds, and therefore, cannot be imperative. It doesn’t account for the incumbency of moral rules, nor does it make sense of the guilt and expectation of punishment one feels when those rules are violated.


Fear-Based Appeals Effective at Changing Attitudes, Behaviors After All

WASHINGTON — Fear-based appeals appear to be effective at influencing attitudes and behaviors, especially among women, according to a comprehensive review of over 50 years of research on the topic, published by the American Psychological Association.

“These appeals are effective at changing attitudes, intentions and behaviors. There are very few circumstances under which they are not effective and there are no identifiable circumstances under which they backfire and lead to undesirable outcomes,” said Dolores Albarracin, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and an author of the study, published in the journal Psychological Bulletin ® .

Fear appeals are persuasive messages that emphasize the potential danger and harm that will befall individuals if they do not adopt the messages’ recommendations. While these types of messages are commonly used in political, public health and commercial advertising campaigns (e.g., smoking will kill you, Candidate A will destroy the economy), their use is controversial as academics continue to debate their effectiveness.

To help settle the debate, Albarracin and her colleagues conducted what they believe to be the most comprehensive meta-analysis to date. They looked at 127 research articles representing 248 independent samples and over 27,000 individuals from experiments conducted between 1962 and 2014.

They found fear appeals to be effective, especially when they contained recommendations for one-time only (versus repeated) behaviors and if the targeted audience included a larger percentage of women. They also confirmed prior findings that fear appeals are effective when they describe how to avoid the threat (e.g., get the vaccine, use a condom).

More important, said Albarracin, there was no evidence in the meta-analysis that fear appeals backfired to produce a worse outcome relative to a control group.

“Fear produces a significant though small amount of change across the board. Presenting a fear appeal more than doubles the probability of change relative to not presenting anything or presenting a low-fear appeal,” said Albarracin. “However, fear appeals should not be seen as a panacea because the effect is still small. Still, there is no data indicating that audiences will be worse off from receiving fear appeals in any condition.”

She noted that the studies analyzed did not necessarily compare people who were afraid to people who were unafraid, but instead compared groups that were exposed to more or less fear-inducing content. Albarracin also recommended against using only fear-based appeals.

“More elaborate strategies, such as training people on the skills they will need to succeed in changing behavior, will likely be more effective in most contexts. It is very important not to lose sight of this,” she said.

Article: “Appealing to Fear: A Meta-Analysis of Fear Appeal Effectiveness and Theories,” by Melanie Tannenbaum, PhD, Kristina Wilson, PhD, and Dolores Abarracin, PhD, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Justin Hepler, PhD, University of Nevada, Reno Rick Zimmerman, PhD, University of Missouri, St. Louis and Lindsey Saul, PhD, and Samantha Jacobs, MPH, Virginia Commonwealth University, Psychological Bulletin, published online Oct. 23, 2015.

Dolores Albarracin can be contacted by email or by phone at (217) 224-7019.



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