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How Sacred Values Influence Our Behavior

Watching the horrific behavior of ISIS-inspired violence is perplexing and unfathomable—as is the remarkable aggression perpetrated by many who claim to subscribe to a religious faith tradition. Yet all of the major religious traditions, from eastern as well as the western faiths, have had their moments in history that have resulted in horrific atrocities in the name of their religious beliefs. Many would thus conclude that religion is simply a blight on the planet.

The current terrorism brought about by ISIS in the name of Islam is just one of numerous examples. ISIS-inspired terrorism is frightening not only because of the shocking violence that they perpetrate, but also how successful they have been at exploiting the power of the internet—particularly through social media. The devastation wrought by their atrocities can be witnessed by so many and, so often, in real time.

what can motivate people to do such egregious and horrific behavior isn't necessarily mental illness or geopolitical conflicts, but rather a belief system of sacred values and motivations that sanctify their violence

Research by Professor James Jones at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, among others, has well demonstrated that what can motivate people to do such egregious and horrific behavior isn't necessarily mental illness or geopolitical conflicts, but rather a belief system of sacred values and motivations that sanctify their violence. They hold these religiously inspired values near and dear to their heart, thus justifying their violent behaviors even if they have to die for them. Feeling that their religiously inspired sacred values are being disrespected or defiled (e.g., desecrating sacred texts, land, holy sites, or important people) creates intense rage and violence in a way that geopolitical, racial, or ethnically-inspired sacred values, in general, may not.

However, those religious traditions that have had histories of violent destruction can also inspire positive sacred values and motivations as well. These might include the sacred values of compassion, graciousness, loving-kindness, forgiveness, and so forth. We have witnessed this following the church shootings in Charleston, South Carolina, where so many of the survivors and family members of the dead were able to articulate forgiveness and compassion toward the perpetrator. This was both remarkable and heartening to witness.

the more we can combat negative sacred values and motivations with positive ones, the more we will hopefully tip the scale in the direction of religiously inspired sacred values of peace, compassion, loving-kindness, mutual respect, and tolerance

So, from a psychological point of view, the more we can combat negative sacred values and motivations with positive ones, the more we will hopefully tip the scale in the direction of religiously inspired sacred values of peace, compassion, loving-kindness, mutual respect, and tolerance. This can be done in any of the faith traditions, as well as outside them.

Regardless of one's religious or spiritual tradition (or lack of one), there is great wisdom in the famous prayer attributed to St. Francis:

So, what do you think?


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*A version of this article was originally published by Psychology Today on Feb. 29, 2016.

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Illuminate, compassion, psychology, religion

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