Science on Religion

Exploring the nexus of culture, mind & religion

The myth of martyrdom, part 1

Car on FireIn the secular West, people can only wonder in confusion when they witness martyrs or suicide bombers. The notion that a person would sacrifice their own life for the sake of religion makes little sense. In the case of terrorist suicide bombings, most scholars have agreed that social and situtational factors adequately explain suicide bombings. Adam Lankford (University of Alabama) disagrees. He argues that this standard line of reasoning misses the critical link between terrorists who commit suicide and the general psychological make up of anyone who commits suicide.

Lankford addresses several of the most common reasons as to why people believe nothing links terrorist suicide with general suicide. First, famous past studies had seemed to demonstrate that regular people will go to violent lengths merely when pressured by an authority. In one such study, scientist placed subjects in front of a dial which the subjects believed controlled electric voltage. As they increased the voltage, they heard human moans and screaming, meaning that they thought they were electrocuting someone. Instintively, they might stop, but by the suggestion of the scientist, were told to continue to up the voltage to what the dial said was lethal. Applied to suicide terrorists, various scholars concluded that social pressure and religious authorities could wield equal influence, leading some even to suicide.

Lankford responds by noting the difference between persuading people to harm others and to sacrifice their own lives. While it may be the case that authorities can convince people to inflict harm and kill others, this finding does not necessarily translate into suicidal terrorism.

To further his case, Lankford looks at interviews of terrorists conducted in 2007 and 2010. In these, when asked if they had considered executing a “martyrdom operation,” the majority of terrorists answered no. Lankford argues that one should take this response very seriously, because lying usually occurs when it benefits the liar. In this case, a terrorist who admits never having considered martyrdom seems also to admit a lower level of commitment than what might be demanding from the group’s leader, and at the very least a concession that they lack the strength of a hero. In short, they have no motive to lie about not thinking about martyrdom.

Second, many scholars think that suicide bombers have normal mental health because of interviews of the suicide bombers’ families and friends. According to loved ones, suicide bombers did not have any of the common factors associated with suicide, factors such as low education, poverty, simple-mindedness, or depression. Not only this, but their reports suggest “no evidence of brainwashing, coercion, or psychological problems.”

Lankford doubts the reliability of these interviews. Similar to how terrorists who confessed to have never thought of being a martyr likely are telling the truth because this confession works against their own self-interest, the testimony of family and friends about the health of a beloved who became a suicide bomber is not necessarily trustworthy. More bluntly, family and friends have a strong motive to preserve the dignity of the deceased. Of particular interest to Lankford, much of their testimony echoes terrorist propaganda – indicating an ulterior motive.

Lastly, Lankford tackles head on findings that directly confirm the psychological health of terrorists, including suicide bombers. These findings found zero rates of depression among terrorists. And that’s what precisely concerns Lankford: how could there be zero depression anywhere? According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 5% of the population is in fact depressed, and, as Lankford calculates it, the chances of none of the 462 suicidal terrorists having depression is 1 in 19,574,665,823.

Needless to say, Lankford is far from convinced that there is no link between terrorist suicide and general suicide. However, he needs to do more than refute other people’s positions – he must also make his case. His case will be made in part 2.


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