I’m going to interrupt the regular learned commentary on this site to propose a somewhat ridiculous thought experiment. What if we imagined a religious Milgram experiment? What if the experimenter coldly instructing a subject to punish a failing learner with electroshock had theological authority? What if his or her white lab coat were paired with a miter, claims of orthodoxy, and clouds of incense?

Of course, such an experiment shouldn’t take place. The real Milgram experiment was controversial as soon as it was conducted at Yale in 1961 and 1962. Unsuspecting subjects were deceptively told that they’d participate in an experiment on the effects of punishment on learning; after a rigged drawing, each was appointed “teacher” to an average-looking “learner” who would, in most variations, decamp to another room. The “teacher” was tasked with shocking the pretend “learner” with escalating voltages whenever a word-pair was missed.

In the first of twenty-five variations, the “learner” would bang on the wall at 300 volts, again at 315 volts, and finally go silent. In a second variation, the “learner” would cry and protest. The experimenter would “prod” the “teacher” to go on, saying at one point “there is no permanent tissue damage.” In the first variation, 65% of teachers, despite frequently showing what Stanley Milgram called “a degree of tension [that] reached extremes that are rarely seen in sociopsychological laboratory studies,” delivered 450 volt shocks, even pushing a switch labeled “XXX.” In the second variation, 62% of the “teachers” went to 450 volts.

File:Milgram Experiment v2.pngWhat of our ill-advised religious Milgram experiment? Before we continue our thought experiment, two things about the Milgram experiment should be noted. First, as Gina Perry writes in her fascinating, critical book about the experiment, Behind the Shock Machine, this might be less of an experiment than, as one negative journal editor put it, “a kind of triumph of social engineering.” For example, Stanley Milgram, always a creative type, carefully cast an “impassive” and “stern” science teacher as the experimenter and a “mild and submissive” man (not a science teacher) as the “learner,” and, even then, Milgram noted, “It took a tremendous amount of rehearsal.” Perry argues that Milgram wasn’t revealing what was “natural and universal,” but rather throwing his subjects into a very contrived “scenario,” not unlike reality television. Our religious Milgram experiment, then, can make full use of the force of religious ritual.


Second, it isn’t quite clear why the subjects obeyed the experimenter. Perry, following the Australian psychologist Donald Mixon, suggests that the subjects trusted the scientific expertise of the experimenter who told them that the shocks were not damaging. As Martin Orne and Charles Holland wrote back in 1968, “Despite the movie image of the mad scientist, most subjects accept the fact that scientists – even behavioral scientists – are reasonable people,” so the subject, while uncomfortable, “knows full well that everything is going to be alright.” Somehow.

In fact, those few subjects who argued against the experimenter deployed alternative sources of expertise – a subject who “teaches Old Testament liturgy at a major divinity school” spoke as an authority on ethics; an industrial engineer said, “I’m an electrical engineer, and I have had shocks;” a medical technician told the experimenter, “I think when shocks continue like this they are dangerous.” Obedience also fell when the experimenter was replaced with a non-expert “common man.”

We can further see the importance of trust in scientific expertise as Milgram successfully conducted part of his experiment away from Yale, in Bridgeport under the fictional name of “Research Associates of Bridgeport.” Otherwise, it would’ve been easy to suggest that subjects were reassured by Yale’s Ivy League reputation. In industrial Bridgeport, Milgram found that 47% of teachers still went to 450 volts. As Perry notes, the subjects trusted the “Research Associates of Bridgeport” because it still sounded scientific. (She also quotes an academic who points out that, in the previous decade, as part of Masters and Johnson’s sexual research, “some of the most respectable people in St. Louis” were willing to have sex in public “before someone wearing a white coat.”)

In Bridgeport, Milgram ran the most chilling condition – two volunteers would participate together, so that the “teacher” would assume that he was shocking someone he knew. One “teacher” got to 195 volts with a friend before stopping; he explained his rationalization, “Sometimes some people have a reason – for example, you’re working on your master’s, and working on an experiment, and you know an experiment may be valuable, and if it did stop something would be lost …” Perhaps, then, obedience can be secured with trust in expertise.[1] Our religious Milgram experiment will have to replace scientific expertise with some sort of religious expertise.

So, would a religious Milgram experiment work? We can leave aside electroshock, which now reminds one of Jack Nicholson’s McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (“Just bite down on it”). After the 1970s, the “XXX” voltage on Milgram’s meticulously constructed electroshock generator would also require renaming. But during the “scenario” of a retreat, or in the enthusiasm of a shorter if equally intense religious ritual, could a religious leader get subjects to calmly speak negatively of and ostracize others, commit to participation in contentious and costly legal actions, or write letters and sign harsh petitions to intentionally bring bad “learners” to professional (and financial) ruin? Could you get people to behave very badly, pushing aside inclinations and doubts, for the “good of the Church?” Other than scientific expertise, is religious expertise, with claims of either “orthodoxy” or spiritual discernment, the best way to get subjects to overcome empathy and, ironically, neglect Jesus’ difficult call to love those who “should” be punished?

Given the conventional wisdom that religion leads to self-destructive forms of obedience, I should explain my hopes for “no.” I suspect that we can start with Milgram’s experiment itself. As mentioned, the experimenter, if necessary, would give a series of “prods.” The third was “It is absolutely essential that you continue; the fourth and last was “You have no other choice, you must go on.” Those “prods” might have directly appealed to what subjects would have considered to be scientific necessity. In follow-up interviews, one subject said that he would jump off a bridge for science; another subject said, “I must have had a guilty conscience that I did go that far, but I felt I should because it was a scientific experiment…;” yet another, who had a child with cerebral palsy and spoke about the search for a cure, said, “I’m willing to do anything that’s, ah, to help humanity.”

In most contexts, though, we shouldn’t be able to speak of a theological “It is absolutely essential that you continue” or “You have no other choice, you must go on.” In his talk “Worship in a Violent World,” the theologian and Catholic priest James Allison makes a number of useful points. Here, I think that two are relevant. First, in an important sense, we cannot say that it is “absolutely essential” that we worship – of course, we should worship, but part of authentic worship is grasping that, as Allison states, “God has no desire for us to worship him for his sake; he needs no worship, no adulation, no praise, no glory.” He goes on, “No divine ego is flattered, stability maintained, nor is any threatened petulance staved off, by our worship.” Nobody can say, “You must attend this (manipulative) Mass or follow this (toxic) spirituality or else.” Or else what?

Second, Allison directs our attention to the “underrated” Feast of the Ascension, during which we are reminded that “Jesus took his seat forever at the right hand of God” (Heb 10:12), meaning that the real work of salvation has been finished. Unalterably. This means that worship occurs in the realization that “there is nothing left to achieve…The struggle is over; the kingdom has been inaugurated and obtained.”

Although the renown of Milgram’s experiment can be seen [PDF] in Cold War terms as echoing a fear of docility, the level of obedience might have been motivated by Cold War anxieties in the first place. Some male subjects would speak of the need for toughness in a time of existential struggle with the USSR: “We were not tough enough then (1947) and have a long way to go if we are to survive as a nation.” The specific role of science in the Cold War, less than five years after the launch of Sputnik, can’t be disregarded in securing obedience on the basis of trust in scientific expertise.

There shouldn’t be the same brittle, defensive need for the Church; Jesus is already enthroned forever. St. Paul can commend himself in “afflictions” and “hardships” and “constraints” and “vigils” alike (2 Cor 6:4-5), both victories and apparent failures. Nothing needs to be won or defended at moral cost. Often, we don’t have to perilously “go on” because we realize Jesus is, as Rowan Williams once put it, “just there.”

Paradoxically, then, religious authority might be most itself when it undercuts what might be popularly considered to be “religious authority”: when religious leaders can risk seeing God in other churches and religions, when they might even grasp the insufficiency of their own languages to describe an unexpected communion, when the Pope says about an “unexpected” brother, “he should and could be buried as a bishop.” A theologian might be a theologian when he or she accepts the limitations of theology itself, “the tragic stuff of which human existence, in its simultaneous grandeur et misère is fashioned” in place of premature synthesis. Religious authority might be most authentic when it refuses to say “It is absolutely essential” unless it really is “absolutely essential,” when it doesn’t construct “scenarios” to let it grasp for control or parade its own supposed expertise.

Can religious authority force obedience à la the Milgram experiment? I think so. I pray not.


The image above, “Lab Coats” (2007), is licensed under Creative Commons.


[1] See here for further discussion [PDF]; Milgram was apparently inconsistent in his interpretation.

About The Author

Neil Dhingra, a Roman Catholic, is a doctoral student in education at the University of Maryland.

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