Religion, Justice and The Just World Hypothesis

By Mark Esposito, Weekend Blogger

Can religious beliefs actually retard our intuitions for justice and fairness? Research seems to suggest it might well. The Christian religion has imbued Western thought with the fundamental belief that God presides over a just world – one where sin is punished and rightly-held beliefs and actions are rewarded. We see this attitude in every aspect of human interaction. Today, in some sparkling sports stadium an earnest athlete is bound to thank his deity of choice for the good fortunes that befell his team or his game changing performance. By extension, the loser ( a value loaded word if ever there was one) will decry his lack of luck. From the Book of Job to Pinocchio and Cinderella, this belief in what some psychologists call “immanent justice” or “The Just Word Hypothesis” seeks to explain our plight and our success. It also hardens our attitudes about the poor, victims of crimes and those folks either buoyed or sunk by pure chance.

The Book of Job gets us into the mindset. A saintly man if ever there was one as the Bible itself acknowledges, God allows Satan to test Job with all manner of suffering to determine his worthiness. Stripped of his wealth, prestige and power, Job then loses his children and ultimately his health and vigor. Still, Job endures and never ever curses his fate – or his God. He does consult his friends for some inkling as to the cause of his travails. Their answer, which comes like a thunderclap is: “Behold,” one of them declares, “God will not cast away an innocent man, neither will he uphold evildoers” (Job 8:20). Classic “Blame the Victim” mentality from this coterie of advisers.

Puzzled but resolute, Job however concludes that despite his worldly righteousness, he can never know divine justice and according to the story prostrates himself silent before his Master’s “Just World.’ For that, he is rewarded with the resumption of his wealth and status. He even replaces his children with seven new ones. The clear message to the world however is the same: God handles the world’s justice and we are powerless to exact our own except on only the most superficial level.

Jesus himself gets in on the act in the New Testament. Addressing the multitude in the Sermon on the Mount, he has two distinct things to say about justice and our expectations of it: Blessed are…..those who hunger and thirst for righteousness: for they will be filled. (Matt. 5:6) and Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matt. 5:10). In modern speak, “Don’t worry God will handle it in his own way and, if you let him do so, you’ll get the whole enchilada. The pearly gates, the mansions, those singing and harp-playing cherubim … you, my faithful believer, get it all.”

Job and Jesus illustrate the two transcending features of Just World Hypothesis: The world is just and if it isn’t in your opinion, it’s still not your problem. Grin and bear it and you’ll get rewarded. As for your neighbor’s suffering the words of that saying from India keeping ringing through my head, “ The tears of your neighbor are just water.”

The same notion has transcended the ages in everything from fairy tales to modern songs. Pinocchio is punished for his lies by the ever-growing nose. Cinderella is rewarded for her suffering. Not through her own works mind you, but through a deity stand-in –her fairy godmother – who whisks her off into a magical world of wealth and power that her tormenting family can never hope to achieve. In our own times, the belief in a Just World has musical accompaniment. Here’s country music star Craig Morgan telling us the value of suffering and what that our reaction to it should be: “It ain’t nothing,” he sings.

“So what?” you are probably asking. Nothing new here. Well, as author and observer to religion, Sam Harris is wont to remind us “Beliefs have consequences.” And research tells us that beliefs in a Just World promote negative attitudes towards victims and the poor and reinforce undesirable attitudes in those unafflicted including emotional callousness, indifference and victim blaming. In one shocking Florida case cited by researchers Claire Andre and Manuel Velasquez, a 22-year-old rape victim saw her confessed attacker exonerated by jury because according to the foreman “We all feel she asked for it [by] the way she was dressed.” Her provocation to the knife-wielding Georgia drifter who raped her twice? Wearing a white lace miniskirt, a green tank top, and no underwear.

Writing on the Santa Clara University website Ethics Page (here), Andre and Velasquez attempt to explain the phenomenon:

The verdict of the jurors in the Fort Lauderdale rape trial may have been influenced by a widespread tendency to believe that victims of misfortune deserve what happens to them. The need to see victims as the recipients of their just deserts can be explained by what psychologists call the Just World Hypothesis. According to the hypothesis, people have a strong desire or need to believe that the world is an orderly, predictable, and just place, where people get what they deserve.

Kimberly Guilfoyle
Kimberly Guilfoyle, Esq.

“Get what they deserve” is a ubiquitous rationalization in all manner of situations but most prominently in cases like the one unfolding in Ferguson, Missouri. “They” is the operative word as those using this corollary to  Just World Hypothesis always tend to distance themselves from the plight of the victim. Here’s one observer’s reaction to the gunning down of unarmed teenager Michael Brown by an overly-militarized police mindset. Former Prosecutor and Fox News’ Kimberly Guilfoyle offered this little piece of legal advice for those who want to avoid police shootings: “Don’t go out and commit crimes.” Less that insightful on the topic of carnage in the streets but revealing on the mindset of Just World Hypothesis.

We shouldn’t judge Kimberly too harshly. She has lots of company. In the seminal study published in 1966, psychologist Max Lerner observed student reactions to apparently painful electric shocks inflicted on fellow students. The students watching the agony were given the choice to “reassign” the victims to a “reward condition” – stopping the pain and pay a monetary award for the victims’ troubles. Virtually all of the students “jury”  voted to stop the pain and dole out the cash. But things changed dramatically when the student “jury” was told they could do nothing about the plight of the victims except watch. In the latter instance, the attitude toward the victim changed. When asked, the student “jury” rejected the suffering of the victim and suggested that the victim somehow deserved the punishment. Aversion reaction? Maybe. But more likely the “Just World Hypothesis” kicking in.

Zick Rubin of Harvard University and Letitia Anne Peplau of UCLA (here) have taken Werner’s work a step further to analyze the attitudes of the student “jurors.” Their findings, published in Journal of Social Issues in 1975, found subscribers to Just World Hypothesis tend to be religious, authoritarian, conservative and admire social institutions and authority figures. Further, the adherents to Just World Hypothesis harbor negative attitudes toward the underprivileged including the poor. They also tend to “feel less of a need to engage in activities to change society or to alleviate plight of social victims.”

These attitudes also shape the mindset of society’s privileged classes as terrific blogger Michael Spindell has written many times on this blog (here and here). The rich truly do think differently than the rest of us and we culturally reinforce the perception. Science proves it.  In an earlier study in 1965, Lerner had deduced that student subjects routinely equated success with virtue. In that study Lerner demonstrated this “perceptual link between reward and virtue. Subjects who learned that a fellow student had been awarded a cash prize as a result of a random drawing were likely to conclude that he had in fact worked especially hard. “

A recent article in Salon illuminates (here). Why do the headlines always remind us that rich people are different – and better. “What The Middle Class Doesn’t Understand About Rich People,” “9 Things Rich People Do Differently Every Day,”“15 Surprising Ways Rich People Think Differently” scream the banners. They are “better” aren’t they? They have to be in a Just World.

Study after study says “no”. Researcher Paul Piff finds those with more modest incomes are more generous, charitable, helpful and give a larger percentage of their disposable income to charitable causes than the wealthy. Other studies find that drivers of luxury cars are more likely to cut you off in traffic than drivers of less expensive models. The wealthy are more likely to endorse lying and cheating than their less well-heeled contemporaries reasoning that they are entitled to do so due to superior intellect or work-ethic. Just World Theory?

Zick Rubin and Letitia Anne Peplau say probably “yes” and the successful are prettier, too (here):

The converse of the tendency to blame the victim also seems to be common: Success is often taken as a sign of virtue. Newspaper features on state lottery winners frequently mention the winner’s hard work, good deeds, and admirable qualities, as if these characteristics helped to account for his or her purchase of the lucky ticket. Recent studies have documented people’s tendencies 68 ZICK RUBIN AND LETITIA ANNE PEP1AU BELIEF IN A JUST WORLD 69 to view physically attractive people as more sensitive, kind, and better-natured than less attractive people (Berscheid & Walster, 1974), suggesting that even the “reward” of beauty is often seen as deserved.

Even more perversely we tend to agree with our haughty, rich friends reasoning it must all happen for a reason and in a Just World its got to be merit and not mere happenstance. We are orderly beings despite what you see in other people’s houses on the next episode of Hoarders and we want to believe that merit makes the world go ’round.

What does all this mean? Seemingly,  religious culture and our intuitions for justice are at odds despite the seeming congruity. Conservative attitudes shape perceptions of justice and it takes some doing to overcome the “Blame The Victim” mentality. None of this bodes well for those hoping for a peaceful and just outcome for the Michael Brown case. When coupled with institutional racism, Just World Hypothesis takes on the pernicious role of divider along social-economic, racial, and ideological fissures.

Will we ever accept that we are responsible for social  justice and that “someone else will do it” just won’t work? As one of my favorite philosophers, Stevie Wonder, says; “Lord, Heaven help us all.”

Sources: See throughout

~Mark Esposito, Weekend Blogger

By the way and for better or worse, the views expressed in this posting are the author’s alone and not necessarily those of the blog, the host, or other weekend bloggers. As an open forum, weekend bloggers post independently without pre-approval or review. Content and any displays of art are solely the author’s decision and responsibility. No infringement of intellectual property rights is intended and will be remedied upon notice from the owner. Fair use is however asserted for such inclusions of quotes, excerpts, photos, art, and the like.


88 thoughts on “Religion, Justice and The Just World Hypothesis”

  1. This post interests me very much. Christianity borrows this concept among others from Judaism. Reward and Punishment are defining features in Judaism. However the Talmud says that there is no reward for good deeds in this world but rather after death in Paradise However this is only one opinion. Paradise.according to authentic Judaism is the soul basking in the light of the spirituality of God. I personally believe in Karma. The Talmud also believes in animism in that all living things including a leaf on a tree has an Angel watching over its life cycle. Additionally the Talmud says that every good deed creates a powerful Angel that watches over you. However every bad thing you do creates an Angel that argues to your detriment before God. According to Buddhism life is suffering. I would like to learn more about Buddhism it has always interested me especially meditation. If anyone has any pointers I would appreciate this.

  2. wow, you guys have a lot of time to spend on this. It seems to mean a lot, so does that become a religion by application? Thinking is fun, action can be to. I guess talking or typing can be as well, but I prefer the talking. It is easier as I don’t have to use my fingers. All I write is valid and can be an argument, but to what end. Who is convinced or changed. The common “thinker” is at a level that the thread is lost pretty quick, so why?

  3. I thought D’souza had already denounced Christian virtue when ,while married, got engaged to a married woman. Also the felony conviction.

  4. No not at all Olly, but anyone who takes Barton seriously should be expected to be mocked.

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