Demon rum: Study finds alcohol may release aggression in religious individuals

Mixing religion and alcohol may be dangerous to other people’s health.

A new study of religion, alcohol and violence revealed that religious folks who were not under the influence were the most likely to turn the other cheek.

However, the researchers also found that religious individuals who were intoxicated were the most likely to display aggression, administering higher and longer levels of electric shocks to opponents in a laboratory experiment.

The study by the University of Kentucky’s Aaron A. Duke and Peter R. Giancola, published in the latest issue of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, adds new insight into the complex relation between religion and aggression.

Religious beliefs and practices in general are associated with more compassionate behavior toward others. A review of the scientific literature by Duke and Giancola found that a majority of survey studies showed religion was associated with lower levels of aggression. In particular, some studies indicated religious individuals are less likely to commit crimes, and that faith may be associated with lower rates of domestic violence.

But there are also times when religion is linked to more aggressive behavior. For example, biblical admonitions warning parents that if they spare the rod, they will spoil the child appear to be associated with higher rates of corporal punishment among religious conservatives.

In the alcohol study, too much booze appeared to not only negate, but to reverse the positive effects of religion in limiting aggression.

For some highly religious people, “maybe alcohol … releases the beast within,” said Giancola, director of the University of Kentucky Alcohol Research Laboratory and a leading researcher in the field of alcohol and aggression.

Shocking finding

Alcohol abuse is a powerful predictor of potential violence, but little work has been done on the role of religion in relation to alcohol and aggression. In their work, Duke and Giancola analyzed data from a five-year University of Kentucky study of 520 healthy social drinkers, 251 men and 269 women. The research was supported by grants to Giancola from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and the National Center for Research Resources.

Participants were divided into two groups, with members of one group receiving a placebo beverage and those in the other group being given enough alcohol to induce intoxication. Participants were told they would compete against an opponent (in reality a computer program) who was also intoxicated in reaction-time games where the winner would give the loser an electric shock of the time and intensity of their choosing.

The expectation that religion would be associated with less aggression held true for the sober participants. The more religious participants were in their faith and practices, the lower the length and intensity of the shocks they delivered after winning a game.

But it was the opposite for intoxicated participants. Each step up the scale of religiosity resulted in longer and more painful shocks delivered to opponents.

Alcohol not only diminished the self-regulatory behavior of religious individuals, but actually made them more aggressive.

“That was the biggest surprise for me,” Duke said.

In their paper, Duke and Giancola speculated that the reason why religion may be a risk factor for aggression in heavy drinkers could be the result of several factors, from ideological zeal to guilt and anger over violating self-imposed limits.

The findings present a challenge to religious communities.

“We uncovered a darker, more counterintuitive, side of religiosity’s influence on aggression — its tendency to increase violence when combined with alcohol,” Duke and Giancola concluded.

Spare the drink

The almost universal religious teaching against alcohol abuse makes a difference. Research shows people who are active in their faith are much less likely to be problem drinkers.

Some 100 studies have suggested religion has a positive effect on preventing alcohol-related problems, researchers Christopher Ellison, Jennifer Barrett and Benjamin Moulton noted in an article in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion on “Gender, Marital Status, and Alcohol Behavior: The Neglected Role of Religion.”

But the clearly stated prohibitions against drunkenness also make it difficult for many believers struggling with alcohol addiction to admit they have a problem and seek help.

Shame lies at the heart of addiction, says Robert H. Albers, the author of Shame: A Faith Perspective.

“Denial and the conspiracy of silence are no mystery when it comes to addiction. The power of shame shackles all of the people who are adversely affected by addiction,” Albers wrote in an article in the Journal of Ministry in Addiction & Recovery.

Yet silence benefits no one, neither the religious individuals who could find help with their alcohol problem in caring religious communities nor the people who are the victims of their aggression when they are drinking.

Duke and Giancola said their study findings indicate Paul’s biblical letter to the Romans urging them to “walk … not in rioting and drunkenness” is targeted to the right audience.

To fulfill their mission as peacemakers, religious groups apparently need to balance spreading that message with one of compassionate outreach that moves members beyond shame and guilt over alcohol abuse to seek help to tame “the beast within.”

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