Religion and faith have always been both to broad and too narrow a target. What we should be opposing is ideology.
With regard to suicide bombers who have no connection whatsoever to religion, you must take into account the ideology that is motivating them. Most secular ideologies that support extremism come complete with pseudo-religious memes—and all-powerful force aiding them, and a devil to oppose. Communism was rooted, via Marx, to the philosophy of Hegel—which is more properly considered a work of theology. The Marxists replaced the God of religions with the God of History, and created the mythology of Historical Inevitability (you can hear this in Khruschev’s claim that “History is on our side,” and in the argument of Francis Fukuyama in “The End of History and the Last Man.” Stalin, who was educated at a seminary, deliberately worked Christian tropes into Communist ideology, making Communism even more religious. As late as the 1980’s children in Russia were being told that “Lenin is the friend of all little children.” Note the present tense. Lenin was in no condition to be anybody’s friend; he was the deadest man in Russia, because you could actually go to Red Square and view the body. For the Communists, the devil was the Capitalists and counter-revolutionaries. Faith in the ideology proved so strong that many of Stalin’s fellow party members actually supported him even as he killed them in his purges, making it much easier for him to do so.
Atran’s distinction between secular and religious motivation hinges on a rather slippery argument: if the religion does not expressly call for the actions of extremists, then their actions were not motivated by religion. But by this same argument, the Inquisition had nothing to do with Christianity, and the Gulag and the killing fields had nothing to do with Communism. What Atran does not seem to realize is that for extremists, the religion serves as an elaborate system of rationalization and support, without which they would be unable to do what they do. The mythology of martyrdom, even if they do not believe in their 77 virgins, assures them of their 15 minutes of fame after they die rather than the outburst of contempt that they deserve. That suicide bombers are hopeless nihilistic narcissists is really not the issue here. But there is no shortage of those in our society, and we do not have suicide bombers. The issue is that there is an existing system of preparation, support, and deployment, and this could not exist without totalist ideology of Islam. To ignore this is simply wishful thinking.
Much of the literature that claims secular motivations for terrorism ignores the obvious, and though I admire most of Atran’s work, he is more determined to ignore the elephant in the room than almost anyone I have ever heard of. Why are these young men politically and culturally powerless? Islam. Why is there really no future for a scientist or engineer in the Middle East? Islam—1.2 billion people, 2 Nobel prizes for science (the Jews, with 15 million, have won 185.) Why is the culture that these men belong to so sterile that it holds virtually no influence in the rest of the world, so that they see nothing of themselves in the flood of foreign media that now comes by internet? Islam. What holds their society in an arrested medieval state, where a young man has virtually no chance of asserting himself against the princes and mullahs? Islam. The religion of Islam has a dire impact on the secular world as well, so even secular reasons cannot be considered apart from it’s influence. The religion must be taken into account in any consideration of real political, cultural, economic, and social challenges that motivate extremism, and that this is not being done I find highly tendentious, if not outright dishonest.
Atran also seems to be genuinely naive about the strategies of the Islamist movement. Former members of Islamic extremist groups report that their leaders would brag about misleading westerners about the root causes of their discontent, complaining about Iraq, Afghanistan, troops in Saudi Arabia, the situation in Israel, and so on—and then would go on to say that none of this matters. Their real purpose, they proclaimed, was Jihad, and all the other claims were merely attempt to distract the West and get us to back down. Islam divides the world into Dar al Harb and Dar al Islam—the World of War and the World of Islam. What this means is that if you aren’t a Muslim, your life is forfeit. Most Muslims don’t subscribe to this view because they want more out of life than perpetual warfare, but to frustrated young men, there can be no better justification for acts of wanton violence. The point isn’t victory. The point is just to continue the war.
Well this has been an interesting thread. I have followed somewhat the difference of opinion between Atran and Harris.
To me it seems that the root of the phenomenon of deliberate suicide bombers is related to the need to believe and to belief in belief itself. I don’t see a lot of point in parsing out the cultural/religious/political reasoning is that important.
I do agree with Sam that when people, (mostly very young men, back their speech with the fact of suicide, we should be inclined to take them at their word rather than second guess their professed beliefs.
I also disagree with Atran when he suggests that the real and somehow more pertinent grouping in which these young men find themselves in their soccer clubs. I don’t know how playing soccer together supports suicidal thoughts but Atran seems to think it’s constitutes important research findings, where the common belief in life after death is unimportant.
I complete disagree that suicide bombers are suicidal before they join religious / cultural / political groups and are only attracted to those groups as a mean of committing suicide. That’s absurd. I understand that most actual suicides are committed by those suffering from depression which is a clinical disease that does not really dispose itself to violence towards others, or outrageous suicidal political expression. Depression is found in people across a broad spectrum. An organic, treatable disease is not the same as a willful, offensive, and directed act of violence towards “others”.
Suicide bombers are obviously willfully committing suicide because of their sociopathic beliefs. Most religions allow for a great deal of antipathy towards other religions so these beliefs are pressed in service whenever possible.
Gott mit uns!
It has been argued that Harris’ position can be falsified by arguing against the point that they are moved to suicide solely by religion. Harris demonstrably doesnt hold this position. The logical conclusion of that position, if he held it, would that he would argue deleting religion would delete suicide.
Also people are conflating suicidal tendencies with suicide terrorism. All humans can do suicide and I’m sure a lot have suicidal tendencies. This is an evolved mechanism. It just happens that some human made constructs are good at mobilising those tendencies. So are better than others. Its said that you can use any ‘holy book’...but the word ‘holy’ doesnt mean anything. A holy book is just a book. Its not like there are book and holy books with magical properties. Books logically fit on a spectrum of viability for indoctrination into suicide terrorism. The same is true of ideologies.
But actually, to flip the discussion. Lets say that religion did catalyse suicide bombing and Islam was good at it. What exactly would you expect to see?
If islam systematically promoted suicide bombing…islam would be gone overnight.
To me it is very elegant to think of religion as a parasite (as is music). It uses things already in us to propel itself. For example: decoupled cognition. Each religion has different DNA but they all have a common ancestor. If this organism promoted suicide in its host it would be dead. But promoting suicide in a specific way can be used very effectively to further the organism’s DNA.
The ant climbs the grass because a parasite in its brain wants it to let a bird eat it. But the ant had the capacity to climb blades of grass all along! The trouble with religion is that its very hard to tell if someone is “infected”.
Suicide bombers (SB) are essentially a poor man’s “smart bomb.” They are inexpensive to program and construct; they can be launched from a safe distance; they are “fire and forget” weapons; they are very hard to stop; they cause considerable loss of life and property; there is little or no warning; they disrupt social organization and they elicit a great deal of fear and anxiety. There have been well over 1,000 cases of suicide bombings in the Mideast over the last 8 years. SBs are instruments of war that are used by less powerful people against people with more military, economic and political power. In that sense, it is a defensive weapon. They are used not so much to capture territory or people, or to promote a way of life, as they are to visit destruction and chaos on people who’re perceived as being a threat to the SB’s culture and way of life.
It has been said that that SBs “do not care about life.” That is not true. SBs, like most of the human race, care a great deal about some specific categories of people, but people outside of those categories are not accorded that same consideration.
I have reviewed a number of published studies on the topic of the psychological characteristics of suicide bombers. What follows are my conclusions and impressions from those studies. Almost all of the research into the psychological characteristics of people who deliberately strap on explosives to their body and detonate them around others is circumstantial. Obviously, it is difficult to interview successful suicide bombers, and their relatives or friends are also not dispassionate or uninvolved in the cause(s) being expressed.
In reviewing the published material, there are a number of conclusions with varying degrees of certainty attached. There is no single “profile” that reflects all of these cases.
It must also be understood that it takes a combination of a number of cultural and personal characteristics before the likelihood of a Suicide Bomber increases. At most, some published research offers a predictive statistic of about 63%, given the right combination of known factors.
It is likely that very specific characteristics are known to exist, but these are not available to the general public nor published.
It should also be realized that Suicide Bombers are created by very cold, deliberate and calculating people. Suicide Bombers are not somehow spontaneously born. They are very much a disposable instrument of political interests. A fair amount of training and support is required for any Suicide Bomber, even given the requisite cultural and individual characteristics.
Although this essay deals with suicide bombers as we have seen in the last few years in Iraq and other regions of the mid-east, human history as many examples of similar behavior, such as the Kamikaze pilots of WW-II, who also acted as instruments of their culture in a war-time situation. It seems fair to say that almost all of these instances of deliberate self-destruction for the purposes of killing others occur in the context of a militarily weaker group attacking a stronger group. Given any choice, people prefer to kill others without killing themselves in the process.
Note: I have made a distinction between “cultural” and “individual” characteristics. This is not always a clear distinction, and the “dividing line” may be arbitrary. There may be some utility in doing so, although any one person does not come conveniently packaged that way. It’s sort of blended together. Behavior can be explained as being a function of (1) genetics and physiology, (2) conditioning and learning, (3) the social or cultural environment in which the person lives; (4) immediate stimuli and (5) the interaction of these variables. I do not know how much the concept of “choice” has any useful predictive value apart from these above variables.
1. Suicide bombers (SB) apparent Cultural characteristics:
1.1 SBs are deeply involved members of a “collectivist” society, more than a culture in which individualism is a significant value or ideal. It is fair to state that anyone who voluntarily kills themselves in order, in their minds, to further the welfare of others does so as a part of a highly cohesive group, be that group fellow soldiers or part of a religious or political culture.
1.2 In the culture(s) in which SBs live and die, they are considered by many in that culture to be heroes or heroines, and so honored as martyrs.
1.3 The culture or sub-culture of the SB is one in which there is a rigid vertical structure of dominant/submissive roles according to such issues as gender, religious status, and age.
1.4 Tradition plays a dominant role in influencing behavior of individuals
1.5 Individual variation from prescribed roles is not accepted
1.6 Individual skepticism or questioning of the established political or religious authorities is not acceptable.
1.7 There is a greater difference in financial affluence between a small number of people and the majority of the population than in democratic cultures, and it is not as possible for an individual to move up that ladder of affluence due to individual merit or accomplishments.
1.8 Religion is most often associated with SBs, and at the moment that is usually Islam. The point here is that SBs consider themselves to be acting as agents of their religion and/or culture, not by themselves, and there’s nothing that prevents any religion from being expressed or used in the same way in different circumstances.
2. Suicide Bomber’s Apparent Individual Characteristics:
2.1 Suicide bombers (SB) tend to be single men between the ages of 18 and 30. There are increasing instances of women, rarely children below the age of 14; and some reports of impaired people in wheelchairs or otherwise cognitively impaired. This kind of violent behavior tends to be more likely with young men than women. Almost all of the people incarcerated for crimes of violence are males, less than 30 years of age (Wisconsin DOC).
2.2 These SBs are above average in locally defined education, usually heavily influenced by religious indoctrination or content. Even the few more technically educated SBs have been intensively educated or indoctrinated before that in religious or cultural precepts, as with the 9/11 people.
2.3 They are above average in intelligence. Stupid people tend to make unreliable weapons.
2.4 They are rational and deliberate and are not incoherent or otherwise “crazy” or psychotic. No one seems eager to strap on a high-explosive vest to an unstable psychotic person who cannot be relied on to carry out their mission, preferably somewhere a long ways off. One writer noted: Suicide bombers are not psychotic. In their case, the created identity fits soundly with the external reality and, significantly, is approved by others
2.5 SBs do not behave as they do because they are “Depressed,” in the sense of wanting to end their lives. They consider, in a quite deliberate and non-impulsive manner that their lives are less important than those with whom they identify in their culture. They may believe they can expect to be rewarded in some kind of afterlife, but that is likely to be more than a solace rather than a motivation.
2.6 SBs are not psychopaths or sociopaths. These personality types are not at all inclined to care about others more than themselves.
2.7 SBs are not usually affluent in any Western sense of individually controlled wealth.
2.8 It has been said that SBs are “brainwashed.” There may be some merit to that argument, but that implies they have no choice and are somehow “driven” to self-destruction. It is also an argument used by Western commentators that is equally applicable to Western people who kill others and then themselves, if not by explosives but by firearms. Brain -washing is generally a dog that does not hunt well, dramatic as the term seems to be.
2.9 SBs consider that they, and/or the culture, religion or society with which they identify are victims of some more powerful culture, and that they are acting in self (or culture) defense. SBs do not consider that they are acting offensively, in order to convince others of the merits of their beliefs. Realistic or not, they’re behaving from a paranoid mindset.
2.10 SBs are “true believers,” in the sense of Eric Hoffer, who believe that they as individuals are of little or no value, except as members of some larger entity (religion, god, some political ideology).
2.11 SBs are usually single, but they are also off-spring of a tightly-knit and patriarch dominated family. They’ve also suffered from some real or perceived loss of some family member or other significant person due to actions ascribed to the target population. Anger and resentment are prominent personality traits.
2.12 The human targets of SB actions are depicted to the SB as some category of people that are subject to and deserving of death, and not entitled to any particular respect or value. “Demonizing” other classes of people is a traditional practice expressed by all human societies when engaged in conflicts; this is not exclusively a Mideast culture practice.
2.13 All reported cases of SBs are people who’ve been the subject or target of intense and specific conditioning (or training or indoctrination) by very influential and powerful leaders. These same leaders do not usually put themselves in line first to be SBs.
2.14 SBs are individual instances of a broader cultural conflict, they are not instances of individuals behaving to redress perceived slights or insults to them as individuals.
2.15 SBs have been isolated from interaction with members of the target population. They may live with them for a time, but they do not interact and share with that target population their values and beliefs and they have not worked cooperatively with them for any prolonged period of time. To do so, threatens the premises upon which they are willing to kill themselves and the target population.