Why Do We Fight, Again?

Why Do We Fight, Again? February 25, 2015

According to the theory formulated by Terror Management Theory, we fight because of self-esteem. Self-esteem creates a buffer against our innate anxiety of death. This seems rather ironic, doesn’t it, because it would seem that fighting wars is not a good way to avoid death. However, we (nations, factions, people running from home and surreptitiously crossing  borders to join apocalyptic and brutal sects like ISIS) get sucked into battle because we (or they) buy into cultural worldviews or ideologies that promote certain immortality beliefs and it is those ideologies and immortality stories / promises which can make us feel invincible when otherwise we might have felt invisible; lonely, scared, vulnerable and of little or no value in a world with little or no meaning. As an important book on TMT (In the Wake of 9/11: The Psychology of Terror) puts it, the mere existence of an ideological or religious other creates a sense of anxiety in us:

Encountering people with different beliefs and accepting the possible validity of their conceptions of reality necessarily undermines (implicitly or explicitly) the confidence with which people subscribe to their own death-denying conceptions and, in so doing, threatens to unleash the overwhelming terror normally mitigated by the secure possession of one’s existing beliefs (29).

The surest way to get rid of the tension and anxiety caused by the presence of the Other is to get rid of them. No more Other. Our Iraqi Freedombeliefs are secured. But what happens when our beliefs are not certain or secure, or when the beliefs we hold seem shaky, or when they do not provide the self-esteem necessary to navigate the world? Then we can convert to another religion or ideology that offers more existential and / or physical security–more meaning and significance in a world otherwise lacking it.

Conversions to other religious ideologies primarily happens, according to TMT,  because of a lack of self-esteem and a sense that the other, alternative worldview holds more promise for providing existential and physical security in a world otherwise devoid of meaning:

On occasion, people react to encounters with alternative conceptions of reality by conversion to these alternative worldviews…Conversion occurs primarily when, for one reason or another, the person is not attaining self-esteem and meaning from his or her own worldview, and consequently he or she becomes alienated from it and searches for other avenues for emotional security. The infamous American Taliban member John Phillip Walker Lindh provides a quite rare but clear example of someone shifting worldviews. As an alienated 16-year old boy, he gravitated toward Islamic fundamentalism, culminating in his joining the Taliban and accepting a worldview quite antithetical to the one within which he was raised (Tyrangiel, 2001). Consistent with a terror management account of such behavior, research (Paloutzian, 1981; Ulman, 1982) has found that just before a religious or political conversion, fear of death is high and self-esteem is low, but that fear of death decreases and self-esteem increases immediately following such conversions. (30)

As a Christian theologian, I have to say that I am uncomfortable leaving the story just there. I don’t think religious conversion can simply or merely be reduced to a problem of self-esteem. However, I am also fine with this being a natural, sociological, and psychological explanation of what is happening with religious conversion–and certainly with what is happening with religiously motivated violence.


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