Religious terrorism: an evolutionary explanation

Connor Wood


Interest in the scientific study of religion has surged over the past decade. While this development is positive in many ways, it comes largely for an unfortunate reason – global terrorism, exemplified most clearly by the September 11th attacks of ten years ago. Since many terrorist attacks since then have been committed by hardline Muslim believers, researchers have put extensive effort into elucidating the complex relationship between religion and violent acts. Now, a team of investigators is applying the principles of evolutionary psychology to help explain why the two are so often entwined.

James R. Liddle, Lance S. Bush (both Florida Atlantic University), and Todd K. Shackelford (Oakland University, Michigan) argue in a new paper that, while many small-scale explanations for terrorism have been offered, researchers now should be looking for deeper explanations that tap into evolutionary motives. Their paper, published last month inBehavioral Sciences of Terrorism and Political Aggression, focuses specifically on suicide terrorism – a particularly thorny problem for evolutionary explanations (since it’s very difficult to successfully locate a mate and produce healthy offspring if you’ve just blown yourself up outside a café or embassy).

That is, since the driving mechanism of all biological evolution is the successful passing of genes into the next generation, how can an action like suicide terrorism – which makes it impossible to contribute anything to the next generation’s gene pool – make any evolutionary sense at all?

After explaining the basics of evolutionary psychology, Liddle and colleagues try to answer this question by appealing to explanations of religion. While a number of different hypotheses have been offered over the past decades to explain how religious phenomena could arise out of human evolution, Liddle et al. hint that the best of these is what the late evolutionary scientist Stephen Jay Gould called “exaptation.” An exaptation is a characteristic or behavior in an organism that was originally simply the byproduct of other adaptations, but which has come to fulfill an adaptive purpose of its own over time. Religion, then, may originally have come about because of other human cognitive adaptations, such as the tendency to “see” intelligent beings even where there isn’t anything but, say, the rustling of the wind in the trees.

Since then, however, religious practices and beliefs have actually become genetically useful in their own right. For example, a growing body of evidence suggests that religion boosts cooperation within groups and helps bond community members more strongly to one another. This means that human groups with strong religious practices are more likely to weather difficult times successfully and, thus, to survive over time than others. And since most members of any small tribal group are genetically related, a boost in survival rates for the group is good for the shared genes, even if it’s not always good for individual humans. So religion, while originally merely a random offshoot of other, unrelated cognitive adaptations, is now an adaptive function.

But what does this have to do with terrorism? Well, plenty – since religion increases ingroup prosociality, or the tendency to help other members of one’s own community, then religious language and imagery may very well help convince people to give their lives for what they take to be their religious “families.” It’s not such a great leap; the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all use familial language to describe their spiritual values, calling God “father” and other believers “sisters” and “brothers.” This type of language may encourage suicide bombers to behave in ways that will help the greater community, even at the cost of the individual terrorists’ lives.

Essentially, the authors assert, this model represents a “misfiring” of an evolved tendency to help members of one’s own family. Giving your life for your brother’s children actually helps your own genes, since those children share a substantial part of your genome. However, even though sacrificing yourself for a wider religious community doesn’t actually give you any such genuine genetic benefit, you still feel as if you’re doing the right thing because the evolved behavioral triggers have been activated by religious language evoking family and kin. In other words, suicide bombers are following an ancient, hardwired program that helps genes survive by encouraging individuals to sacrifice themselves for people who share their DNA. Extremist religion, it seems, just hijacks that program and uses it for a different purpose.

The authors note, in addition, that many families of Pakistani suicide bombers have been the recipients of significant death payments from Hamas and other Islamist organizations, making the link between religion, self-sacrifice, and benefiting one’s own family even clearer.

The second major part of Liddle et al.’s hypothesis is the promise of life after death. This conjecture is fairly straightforward: because religions like Islam claim that believers will be rewarded in paradise, the most obvious drawback to suicide terrorism – that the terrorists don’t live to tell stories about it down at the local barbershop – becomes less of an issue. Thus, when potential suicide bombers are weighing the costs and benefits of committing an act of terrorism, the specter of death seems far less forbidding.

Liddle and colleagues offer suggestions for future lines of research, including investigating whether psychological priming with kin-related words increases people’s support for suicide terrorism. While many of their proposals won’t seem particularly novel to students of evolutionary science and the scientific study of religion, these researchers are perhaps the first to explicitly posit a link between religion, evolutionary behavior, and terrorism in a publication geared toward a broader scholarly audience. Of course, terrorism isn’t only a religious phenomenon – a wide range of political, economic, and psychological factors are obviously also at play. But there’s no denying that extremist religion is a real player in modern terrorism, and evolutionary explanations may play a key role in understanding why.

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