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Tuesday, February 2, 2010


Would Eliminating Religion Mean the End of Fundamentalist Violence?” (Answer: No)

Atheists strenuously argue that the world would be a much better place without religion. I am of the mind that religion is so inextricably intertwined with history that it is virtually impossible to understand what a “world without religion” would actually look like.

In the New Atheist conception of history, articulating a secular utopia is easy. New Atheists merely subtract everything “religious” from world history and, voila, they have a “world without violence” because in the atheist mindset religion is the cause of all violence in human history. What could be more simple?

That is the conclusion one easily comes to when reading Dawkins, Hitchens and other New Atheists. In this essay, I will discuss a hypothetical world without religion, assessing specifically its impact on fundamentalist violence. This is an area where even many religious devotees are convinced faith is the cause of much sectarian conflict. But as we will see, the fundamentalist equation is more complicated than that.

I am not going to deny that religion plays a role in fundamentalist violence. But I am going to argue that religion is just one of many factors contributing to group violence - and is rarely the primary factor. Thus, if we eliminated religion, the number and severity of group conflicts will not appreciably decline.

Organizational Dynamics and the Sources of Group Conflict

The pre-eminent question to ask is not why religion becomes violent, but why people resort to collective violence at all. Much of this violence may appear to be religious in nature, but the reality of fundamentalist behavior is actually a complex interplay among individual psychology, group dynamics, and a mixture of cultural and political forces. In truth, radical elements can exist in any ideological group; religion by itself plays a relatively modest role in the fundamentalism process.

The militant atheist lament that religion is the foremost source of the world’s violence is contradicted by three realities: Most religious organizations do not foster violence; many non-religious groups do engage in violence; and many religious moral precepts encourage non-violence. Indeed, we can confidently assert that if religion was the sole or primary force behind wars, then secular ideologies should be relatively benign by comparison, which history teaches us has not been the case. Revealingly, in his Encyclopedia of Wars, Charles Phillips chronicled a total of 1,763 conflicts throughout history, of which just 123 were categorized as religious. And it is important to note further that over the last century the most brutality has been perpetrated by non-religious cult figures (Hitler, Stalin, Kim Jong-Il, Mao Zedong, Saddam Hussein, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, Fidel Castro, Slobodan Milosevic, Robert Mugabe -- you get the picture). Thus to attribute the impetus behind violence mainly to religious sentiments is a highly simplistic interpretation of history.

The purpose of this essay is to examine the central radicalizing forces that contribute to collective violence and fundamentalist behavior of all types. While this essay is not meant to be an all-encompassing study, it will clearly show that religion is just one of many factors in a highly complex process.

The need for group affiliation and identity is an integral part of what it means to be human. Indeed, one need go no further than a political rally, a World Cup soccer match, or an anti-war protest march to see how powerful group processes can be.

There’s Identity in Numbers

Group affiliation is often criticized by sociological observers who see it as a violation of one’s individuality and authenticity. But rather than surrendering our true selves, involvement in a group context paradoxically helps to constitute that very self. The problem is when those group affiliations become extremist affairs.

Arthur Koestler had some penetrating words to say about the dangers inherent in extremist group behavior: "The continuous disasters in history are mainly due to an excessive capacity and urge to become identified with a tribe, nation, church or cause, and to espouse its credo uncritically and enthusiastically. No historian would deny that the part played by crimes committed for personal motives are quantitatively negligible compared to those committed out of the self-transcending devotion to a flag, leader, religious faith or political conviction."

As Koestler is noting, there is a huge difference between individually motivated violence, typically an expression of self-assertive and defensive tendencies, and collective violence, which is most frequently an expression of self-transcending and group-identification impulses.

In the modern world, major conflicts are based on four modes of collective affiliation: religious, nationalist, ethnic, and socio-economic. Further, each instance of group conflict is structured as an in-group/out-group dynamic: the individual has a positive relationship with the in-group (affiliation, obedience, conformity) and a negative relationship with the out-group (differentiation, discrimination, opposition). This polarization is accentuated by the individual member’s isolation from outsiders and total submersion in group ideology.

Individuals in cohesive groups do not exhibit a personal conscience. Rather, they have a collective center of gravity where some higher purpose becomes the driving force for unity and action. Often group identity becomes more important than one’s individual autonomy. This is vividly expressed by a soldier’s experience in battle. Philip Caputo writes in A Rumor of War: "I have attempted to describe the intimacy of life in infantry battalions, where the communion between men is as profound as any between lovers. Actually it is more so devotion, simple and selfless, the sentiment of belonging to each other."

The influence of group identity on extremist behavior is often underestimated. Regarding Islamic terrorism, for example, the majority of casual observers attribute participation in jihadist movements to aversive factors such as the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, America’s presence in Islamic countries, economic deprivation, and disaffection with government leaders -- when it is attractive factors within the group that are actually more influential in bringing together and convincing members.

Scott Atran, an academic, and Marc Sageman, a former CIA operative, found that the biggest determinant of which people go on to become terrorists from among millions of potential warriors is group dynamics rather than religious, economic, or societal factors. They found that some 90 percent of terrorists were influenced by friendship and/or kinship in joining groups through which they derived a powerful sense of belonging and purpose. Indeed, for such terror-group members, often community is more important than ideology in the radicalizing process. And frequently the commitment of individual members can become so passionate that group goals justify almost any means, including violence.

Extremist groups are transformative to the point that, paradoxically, while individual group members tend to be clinically "normal" people, the group exhibits psychotic behavior. This explains a surprising phenomenon: psychologists tell us that suicide bombers and other terrorists generally have unremarkable personalities. One observer cited in Walter Reich’s The Origins of Terrorism stated, "The outstanding common characteristic of terrorists is their normality." Another observer wrote, "The best documented generalization is that terrorists do not show any striking psychopathology." Yet terrorist groups are capable of the most heinous and horrific acts. Once together, group members tend to radicalize each other, the more strident leading the way, to the point where even martyrdom can become a symbol of success within a group context.

In one such instance, a 25-year-old Jordanian jihadist who had yet to die in combat lamented to a New York Times reporter that his martyred friends are the lucky ones.

The Political Corruption of Religion

Large-scale group conflicts are rarely about only one form of affiliation. Nazism, for example, was a combination of ethnic, nationalist, and political-social forms of group affiliation; religion technically played a minor role. Indeed, for more than two centuries from the American and French revolutions to the end of the Cold War, major conflicts had little to do with religion. Thus, to single out religious organizations for their political failings is unfair. In one amazing example, the former Yugoslavia has disintegrated into seven different countries, with economic conditions and ethno-nationalism playing a much bigger role than religion.

The more combustible religious conflicts emerge when other forms of group affiliation are involved, such as ethnic identification, state and economic interests, and nationalistic ambitions. I call this the political corruption of religion, where religion is essentially subordinated to non-religious objectives. Usually cultural observers unfairly emphasize religion’s contribution to these conflicts, while downplaying the political dimension. For example, religious differences are certainly part of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but the conflict is kept red-hot largely by nationalist and tribal-ethnic considerations. Further, sectarian conflicts in Nigeria (between Muslims and Christians) and India (between Hindi and Muslims) have been potentiated by tribalism and nationalism.

All this goes to show that dogma is not the exclusive province of religion, and secular political movements are just as destructive as religious ideologies. Every belief system has its hardened acolytes and its sectarian divisions. And it is clear that most modern examples of collective violence (such as between Serbs and Croats of former Yugoslavia; Hutu and Tutsi of Rwanda; Fatah and Hamas in Palestine) have had little to do with religion per se. In still another example, the Sudanese war in Darfur is considered more about ethnic and tribal tensions than religious identification. And Muslim citizens rioted in France but not in the U.S., suggesting that the tensions had more to do with social discrimination and economic integration than religion.

Further, the recent Tibetan convulsions in China were not about Buddhism, but were essentially an expression of a nationalist and ethnic liberation movement. This 60-year-old conflict is largely secular in nature. While the atheistic Chinese government is well known for its persecution of religious groups, it is not because China considers religion evil, but because religion is one organized ideology among others it considers competitive with the ruling communist party. Indeed, China’s nationalistic paranoia was recently on display when it banned Buddhist monks in Tibet from reincarnating without government permission. The real purpose of this decree is purely political: It prevents the Dalai Lama from being succeeded by someone outside China.

The Fundamentalist Personality

After World War II, a group of scholars developed the idea of a particular personality type to help explain the Holocaust and racial/ethnic hatred. Among other insights, the authors noted this individual’s inclination to "submit blindly to power and authority" -- hence the title of their now-classic study, The Authoritarian Personality.

I want to revise this theory for the contemporary world of collective violence. Contrary to what many believe, it was not primarily religious faith that inspired 10 Islamists to navigate two jets into New York’s World Trade Center, but a particular psycho-social type that I call the fundamentalist personality that applied to these men (note: they are most frequently men), but which did not apply to the tens-of-millions of other people exposed to the same religious and socio-political forces.

When we think of fundamentalism, religious fundamentalism immediately comes to mind. The term was first used by conservative Protestants in the nineteenth century who wanted to re-emphasize the "fundamentals" of the Christian tradition. And well respected books by Karen Armstrong (The Battle for God), Martin E. Marty (Fundamentalism Observed), and Malise Ruthven (Fundamentalism) have interpreted the issue entirely in religious terms. But that is unfortunate, because fundamentalism broadly defined can be found in all kinds of group affiliations, collective behavior, and belief systems. Fundamentalism is certainly not an exclusively religious phenomenon; secular fundamentalists must also be acknowledged.

Within every belief system or political movement, individual members exist on a continuum that ranges from pragmatic accommodation to uncompromising fanaticism, where some group members are more easily inclined to extremist behavior than others. I want to explain the characteristics that differentiate the extremist or fundamentalist personality from the majority of people who, despite similar experiences of oppression and victimization, are not radicalized and merely seek to live and let live.

The more we analyze belief systems of any kind, the more we understand that certain individuals are specifically attracted to extremist groups and are prepared to help radicalize any ideology. And religion is just one factor among many in the development of the fundamentalist personality. Indeed, fundamentalism doesn’t have to be of a religious nature -- any secular ideology will do. So if you happen upon a Christian extremist -- one who holds steadfastly to his belief, brooks no challenge, and is excessively critical of competing creeds -- it is a good bet that person was not made a fundamentalist by his religion. Rather, a number of genetic, experiential, and socio-political factors conspire to make a fundamentalist, especially one who is inclined towards collective aggression.
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