Science on Religion

Exploring the nexus of culture, mind & religion

The myth of the myth of martyrdom

Terrorist eyesAdam Lankford has argued that the likely cause behind suicidal terrorism is the suicidal tendencies of the terrorists rather than religion. He claims to have found strong links between a general disposition to suicide and the actual acts of terrorist suicide. However, not everyone agrees. Psychologists Yael Sela and Todd Shackelford (both of Oakland University) counter that it really is religious, not psychological, factors that motivate suicidal terrorism.

Sela and Shackelford have several objections to Lankford’s thesis. First, they point out his inconsistent use of testimony. On the one hand, Lankford distrusts the testimony of the family and friends of a suicide bomber, yet on the other hand he continues to trust their testimony when it fits his thesis. For instance, Lankford appeals to Wafa’s (the first known Palestinian suicide bomber) personal circumstances (especially her miscarriage and divorce) but neglects to mention her explicit desire to kill Jews. Additionally, when family testimony does not agree with his hypothesis, Lankford chalks it up to terrorist propaganda. Those who disagree with him either do not know what they’re talking about or are victims of propaganda.

Second, Sela and Shackelford argue that religious ideology plays a vital role in motivating suicide terrorists, but that blaming religion has become politically incorrect, and thus many scholars shy away from saying such things. Religion provides the necessary psychological justification for why someone would take their own life: the promise of an afterlife. The promise of a better life makes easier the ending of this current life. To support their case, Sela and Shackelford appeal to the testimonies of the terrorists themselves: “There are countless examples of suicide terrorists announcing their goal: kill many infidels, incidentally sacrificing their physical bodies, to reach paradise.”

Third and finally, these psychologists flat out disagree Lankford’s assumption that, through his research methods, he can gain a better grasp of a terrorist’s psychology than the terrorists themselves. In other words, the psychologists want to refute Lankford’s claim that his pieced together motives of a terrorist (suicidal tendencies) outweigh a terrorist’s explicit motivation (religion). They argue that Lankford’s approach runs counter to modern psychology. One cannot imagine oneself as someone else because of the very many contextual factors involved. The situation worsens if Lankford is correct: if these terrorists are mentally abnormal, then the odds of guessing their thought pattern and reasoning become slim to none.

Sela and Shackelford agree with Lankford that understanding the motivations behind terrorists will help society deter future attacks. Obviously, they disagree as to what these motivations consist in. For Sela and Shackelford, religion is the main culprit: “A failure to acknowledge religious beliefs as motivationally causal to suicide terrorism may place innocent people at risk of murder in the service of political correctness and multiculturalism.” They note that Islamic beliefs currently account for most terrorist suicide by giving its extremists the courage and will to follow through on suicide attacks (again, because of the promise of paradise). So whereas Lankford would suggest that any terrorist group would find success in the US because of the rate of suicide, Sela and Shackelford retort that only a religious group could motivate people to kill themselves, and to ignore the religious aspect of terrorism is to put society in danger “...because political correctness favors pandering to religions, especially those easily offended.”

Regardless of whether one agrees with Lankford or with Sela and Shackelford, the question as to how to best understand the psychology of terrorists, as well whether society is ready for the answer, is still in need of taking seriously.

For more see, “The Myth of the Myth of Martyrdom” in the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences.


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