Thursday, November 30, 2006

Joshua vs General Lin

Oh boy, Dawkins is everywhere isn't he? Here I am going to talk about him again, but only briefly! Anyway, I was watching on youtube his book reading of 'The God Delusion" at Randolph-Macon Woman's College (you can see it here there's also an additional Q&A portion found here) and he mentioned an interesting study made by George Tamarin, an Israeli psychologist, back in the 60s and 70s. This is what he found (as reported from here):

The Israelites' campaign to carry out their god's commandment to commit genocide against the native inhabitants of Canaan-cum-Palestine took several generations. It began with Joshua's massacre at Jericho. Contrary to the Christian song "Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho," according to scripture there was no battle at all. It was a siege, at the end of which all of the city's inhabitants were killed except Rahab the prostitute (she and her family were spared in exchange for helping Joshua plan his strategy, Joshua 6:16-17, 19, 21, 24, RSV):

Joshua said to the people, "Shout; for the LORD has given you the city. And the city and all that is within it shall be devoted to the LORD for destruction . . . But all silver and gold, and vessels of bronze and iron, are sacred to the LORD; they shall go into the treasury of the LORD." . . . Then they utterly destroyed all in the city, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and asses, with the edge of the sword . . . And they burned the city with fire, and all within it; only the silver and gold, and the vessels of bronze and of iron, they put into the treasury of the house of the LORD.

The half-life and penetrance of such cultural legacies are often under-appreciated. Some 3,000 years after the fall of Jericho, Israeli psychologist George Tamarin (1966, 1973) measured the strength of residual in-group morality. He presented Joshua 6:20-21 to 1,066 school children, ages 8-14, in order to test "the effect of uncritical teaching of the Bible on the propensity for forming prejudices (particularly the notion of the 'chosen people,' the superiority of the monotheistic religion, and the study of acts of genocide by biblical heroes)." The children's answers to the question "Do you think Joshua and the Israelites acted rightly or not?," were categorized as follows: "'A' means total approval, 'B' means partial approval or disapproval, and 'C' means total disapproval." Across a broad spectrum of Israeli social and economic classes, 66% of responses were "A," 8% "B," and 26% "C." The "A" answers tended to be as straightforward as they were numerous (Tamarin, 1966):

-In my opinion Joshua and the Sons of Israel acted well, and here are the reasons: God promised them this land, and gave them permission to conquer. If they would not have acted in this manner or killed anyone, then there would be the danger that the Sons of Israel would have assimilated among the "Goyim."(6)

-In my opinion Joshua was right when he did it, one reason being that God commanded him to exterminate the people so that the tribes of Israel will not be able to assimilate amongst them and learn their bad ways.

-Joshua did good because the people who inhabited the land were of a different religion, and when Joshua killed them he wiped their religion from the earth.

Tamarin (1973) noted that:

"C" classification [total disapproval] was accorded to all answers formally rejecting genocide, either on ethical or utilitarian grounds. This does not mean that all "C" responses reveal non-discriminatory attitudes. For example, one girl criticized Joshua's act, stating that "the Sons of Israel learned many bad things from the Goyim." . . . Another extremely racist response is that of a 10 year old girl disapproving the act, stating, "I think it is not good, since the Arabs are impure and if one enters an impure land one will also become impure and share their curse."

Other misgivings included (1966):

-I think Joshua did not act well, as they could have spared the animals for themselves.

-I think Joshua did not act well, as he should have left the property of Jericho; if he had not destroyed the property it would have belonged to the Israelites.

In contrast to the established difference between boys and girls in propensity toward violence and approval of violence in general, with regard to biblically commanded genocide Tamarin found that "Contrary to our expectation, there was no difference, concerning this most cruel form of prejudice, between male and female examinees" (1973). Less surprising, but more alarming, nearly half of the children who gave "total approval" to Joshua's behavior also gave "A" responses to the hypothetical question: "Suppose that the Israeli Army conquers an Arab village in battle. Do you think it would be good or bad to act towards the inhabitants as Joshua did towards the people of Jericho?" Tamarin (1966) received such responses as these:

-In my opinion this behavior was necessary, as the Arabs are our enemies always, and the Jews did not have a country, and it was necessary to behave like that towards the Arabs.

-It would have been good to treat the Arabs as Joshua and his soldiers did, as they are Arabs; they hate and retaliate against us all the time, and if we exterminate them as Joshua did, they won't be able to show themselves as greater heroes than we.

-I think it was good because we want our enemies to be conquered, and to widen our frontiers, and we should kill the Arabs as Joshua and the Israelites did.

Some respondents disapproved of Joshua's campaign (answer "C"), but approved of similar acts if committed by Israeli soldiers. One girl disapproved of Joshua "because it is written in the Bible, 'don't kill'," but she approved of the conjectured Israeli Army action, stating "I think it would be good, as we want our enemies to fall into our hands, enlarge our frontiers, and kill the Arabs as Joshua did."

As a control group, Tamarin tested 168 children who were read Joshua 6:20-21 with "General Lin" substituted for Joshua and a "Chinese Kingdom 3000 years ago" substituted for Israel. General Lin got a 7% approval rating, with 18% giving partial approval or disapproval, and 75% disapproving totally.

The most revealing of the above is not so much some the horrible moralizations given by the schoolchildren, but that the whole issue is an instance of special pleading since the children were hardly as likely to see General Lin in as ethical a light.


Baal Habos said...

>As a control group, Tamarin tested 168 children who were read Joshua 6:20-21 with "General Lin" substituted for Joshua and a "Chinese Kingdom 3000 years ago" substituted for Israel.

Brilliant test. And the results are not surprizing.

Anonymous said...

The answers of Israeli schoolchildren, I assume, were given in Hebrew and translated (by Dawkins?). Consistently, Joshua's nation is "Sons of Israel," while "Goyim" is left in the pejorative term. Aren't the numbers able to speak for themselves without the disingenuous cheap shots?

Orthoprax said...


Yeah, actually I did notice that myself. You're right.

Anonymous said...

you also don't mention wether these children were from religous or secular schools. if they were all from religous shools, an interesting control group would have been secular israeli school children.

also, I'm not sure how the experiment plays ou in larger society. if he had asked the same children the same thing five to seven years later, would their answers have changed? or had he simltaneously asked ppl five to seven years older of similar background the same thing. my point with this is that it's very common for hildren of all backgrounds to think in simplistic and sweeping generalizations, but once they get to be a litle older, their thought processes are a little more complex.

Orthoprax said...


"you also don't mention wether these children were from religous or secular schools"

I don't know that information. It would be interesting to find out though.

"my point with this is that it's very common for hildren of all backgrounds to think in simplistic and sweeping generalizations, but once they get to be a litle older, their thought processes are a little more complex."

That is true, of course. But the fact that these kids statistically voted one way for General Lin and another for Joshua clues us in to some obvious biases. It also tells us that these kids are not getting a very good moral education if they pick moral favorites based on ethnicity or religious persuasion.

As adults, would more of these same children see Joshua's act in a less accepting light? Very possibly. But do you know of adults who would still defend the act - giving similar reasons as these children? Sure you do.

Ben Avuyah said...

Very interesting, although it may be as much a critique on the inherent human bent towards tribalism as anything else. Wether or not these attitudes come from lessons learned from religion or just hardwired clan/group favoritism is hard to tell...I think at least we can say that this story of Joshua's , like many bible stories, reminds us that it is difficult to see the bible as a moral book in almost any light. And teaching it noncriticaly should not be looked at as having inherent moral or educational value.