Is Religion the Ultimate Milgram Experiment?

The Milgram experiment: The experimenter (E) p...
The Milgram experiment: The experimenter (E) persuades the participant (T) to give what the participant believes are painful electric shocks to another participant (L), who is actually an actor. Many participants continued to give shocks despite pleas for mercy from the actor. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

update (2015) – this post was included videos and references to those videos. The videos have been removed so I’ve replaced it with another one. I’m not changing the references, however.

Note. The experiment is done in the name of science.

In 1961, during the trial of a notorious Nazi, a scientist set up a test to determine the morality of people in light of the many who participated in the Holocaust. His question was simple: “Was it that Eichmann and his accomplices in the Holocaust had mutual intent, in at least with regard to the goals of the Holocaust?” Rather “Was there a mutual sense of morality among those involved?” For me, simply, the Milgram Experiment and it’s results indicate that individuals will surrender their morality if they feel that another will take the responsibility of their actions.

The legal and philosophic aspects of obedience are of enormous importance, but they say very little about how most people behave in concrete situations. I set up a simple experiment at Yale University to test how much pain an ordinary citizen would inflict on another person simply because he was ordered to by an experimental scientist. Stark authority was pitted against the subjects’ strongest moral imperatives against hurting others, and, with the subjects’ ears ringing with the screams of the victims, authority won more often than not. The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation.

Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority. (Milgram, Stanley. (1974), “The Perils of Obedience.” Harper’s Magazine. Abridged and adapted from Obedience to Authority.)

One of Milgram’s ‘teachers’ would later write to him, saying,

While I was a subject in 1964, though I believed that I was hurting someone, I was totally unaware of why I was doing so. Few people ever realize when they are acting according to their own beliefs and when they are meekly submitting to authority… To permit myself to be drafted with the understanding that I am submitting to authority’s demand to do something very wrong would make me frightened of myself… I am fully prepared to go to jail if I am not granted Conscientious Objector status. Indeed, it is the only course I could take to be faithful to what I believe. My only hope is that members of my board act equally according to their conscience…

Milgram would partially conclude with something he termed the agentic state theory which ‘is the essence of obedience consists in the fact that a person comes to view himself as the instrument for carrying out another person’s wishes, and he therefore no longer sees himself as responsible for his actions.’ Once this critical shift of viewpoint has occurred in the person, all of the essential features of obedience follow.’ (See here)

In 2009, the experiment was re-conducted:


Amazingly enough, the results were the same; however, in this rather small sampling size, it went from Millgram’s 65% to 75% of participants who went to the full level of shock.

Recently, we have seen a charismatic man in New Zealand, Brian Tamaki, arise, appointing himself everything he could, and ask for allegiance from 700 men in his megachurch. Further, we know from recent history that charismatic men – Jim Jones, David Koresh to name the most well known – have risen up to sway a large number of followers to commit suicide.

But, beyond that, we have large numbers of religious followers – of all religions –  which daily surrender their morality, their responsibility, to another because they believe that this person has the authority to tell them what to do in every aspect of their life, or even just the one, religion. Daily people give up their own abilities to read, to study, to learn, to someone else who for some reason or other is felt to be ‘God’s man’. In the third video (.53) the woman answers the question ‘Why’ with ‘the man behind me told me…’. So often, we find that people will do exactly what the preacher says, because he is seen as an authority figure. Never questioning, never thinking for themselves. They just simply do it.

Those who do question, are generally shunned.

We often assume that only the depraved will commit depraved acts, or that only the dullards among us will be sheep, yet time and time again, humanity never fails to prove itself as a race which will give up its individuality – morality, responsibility – so someone else, perhaps for reasons such as ‘the greater good.’ We fear everyone else, but rarely do we examine the hidden darkness of our own nature. Is it dark? Perhaps. Perhaps, however, those who have formally participated in the Milgram Experiments – even in docile England – are no more depraved or dullard than the rest of us. Perhaps, then, we are all a part of an eternal Milgram Experiment.

Who will walk away before it is too late?

Paul wrote that those who have been made free by the Son are free indeed; we have liberty where the Spirit of the Lord is. How many of us, however, experience that freedom and how many of us will simply do as we are told because the man behind us, or rather in front of us, told us to do it.

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