Suicide terrorism: U-M author explains what defenses will and won't work and why

March 06, 2003

ANN ARBOR, Mich---The first line of defense against suicide terrorism should be to prevent people from becoming terrorists---rather than to protect targets from being attacked, according to a University of Michigan researcher whose analysis appears in the current (March 7) issue of Science.

"Suicide terrorists are not crazed cowards who thrive in poverty and ignorance. In fact, most 'human bombs' have no appreciable psychopathology and are at least as educated and economically well-off as surrounding populations," said Scott Atran, an anthropologist and psychologist at the U-M Institute for Social Research (ISR), the world's largest academic survey and research organization.

"They don't act from rational self-interest, opting for paradise out of despair because they feel there is nothing much to lose in this world," said Atran, who is also affiliated with the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris. "Nor are they sacrificing themselves for what they see as the good of their group, even though they are fiercely loyal to their 'families' -- cells of fellow terrorists who take on the role of fictive kin. Instead, they are being deliberately manipulated by religious and political elites, who are pulling strings attached to deeply rooted, culturally universal human propensities to see the world in religious terms. Even secular groups that sponsor suicide terrorism draw deeply on these propensities.

"In much the same way," he said, "fast food companies and purveyors of pornography capitalize on innate human inclinations toward sweet, fatty foods and sex, tricking people into doing things that have no personal advantage."

In the Science article and in his recent book, "In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion," (Oxford University Press, 2002), Atran maintains that religion---defined as a community's costly and hard-to-fake commitment to a counterfactual and counterintuitive world of supernatural agents--- is not an evolutionary adaptation at all, as many neo-Darwinists argue, but an evolutionary by-product of early man's ancient emotional and cognitive terrain.

"From an evolutionary point of view, the reasons religion should not exist are patent," Atran said. "It is materially, emotionally and cognitively costly. As Bill Gates said, 'There's a lot more I could be doing on a Sunday morning.' Yet it is universal across human history and cultures. The question is why, and what accounts for the properties and practices common to all religions?"

One of these common practices, he notes, is a sacrificial display of costly commitment to supernatural agents that appears irrational but actually helps people deal with inescapable catastrophes in life for which there are otherwise no factual or logical solutions possible. Martyrdom (including suicide terrorism) is an extreme form of religious practice, the ultimate way to display devotion. "Evolution has made our emotions extremely powerful," said Atran. "With music, chanting and swaying in prayer and other forms of communion, religion evokes and coordinates that power, enabling people to collectively face vulnerability, deception, loneliness, injustice and even death."

Despite the deep roots of suicide terrorism in religious sentiments, which are deliberately parasitized and manipulated by political and religious elites, the first line of defense must be to reduce the receptivity of potential recruits who are mostly ordinary people, Atran said. The most effective ways to do this are not to try to educate or elevate the economic conditions of the populations from which suicide terrorists often spring, or to bombard them with self-serving information, he said. Instead, the U.S. and its allies should try to empower moderates from within the community and strengthen interactions between members of different religious and political groups, he said.

"Another strategy is to change our own behavior by addressing grievances and reducing feelings of humiliation, especially in Palestine, where media images of daily violence have made it the global focus of Moslem attention," Atran said.

Atran considers our current homeland security strategy of protecting targets as a last line of defense, since it is probably the most expensive to implement and the easiest to breach because of the abundance of vulnerable targets and would-be attackers.

"In the long run, our society can ill afford to ignore either the consequences of its own actions or the causes behind the actions of others. The cost of such ignorance is terrible to contemplate," he said.
Established in 1948, the Institute for Social Research (ISR) is among the world's oldest survey research organizations, and a world leader in the development and application of social science methodology. ISR conducts some of the most widely-cited studies in the nation, including the Survey of Consumer Attitudes, the National Election Studies, the Monitoring the Future Study, the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, the Health and Retirement Study, the Columbia County Longitudinal Study and the National Survey of Black Americans. ISR researchers also collaborate with social scientists in more than 60 nations on the World Values Surveys and other projects, and the Institute has established formal ties with universities in Poland, China, and South Africa. Visit the ISR Web site at for more information. ISR is also home to the Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research (ICPSR), the world's largest computerized social science data archive. The University of Michigan
News Service
412 Maynard
Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1399

March 4, 2003
Contact: Diane Swanbrow
Phone: (734) 647-9069

University of Michigan

Related Religion Articles from Brightsurf:

How religion can hamper economic progress
Study from Bocconi University on impact of antiscientific curricula of Catholic schools on accumulation of human capital in France during the 2nd Industrial Revolution could hold lessons on impact of religion on technological progress today.

CU Denver study looks into the connection between religion and equal pay
Traci Sitzmann, an Associate Professor at the University of Colorado Denver Business School, and Elizabeth Campbell, an Assistant Professor at the University of Minnesota, provide empirical evidence and an explanation into why religion perpetuates the gender wage gap.

How religion can heighten or help with financial stress
Researchers found that some people experience financial stress due, in part, to their religion's demands on their time and money.

Religion associated with HPV vaccination rate for college women
A survey of female college students finds 25% had not been vaccinated for HPV and religion may be a contributing factor.

Rise of religion pre-dates Incas at Lake Titicaca
An ancient group of people made ritual offerings to supernatural deities near the Island of the Sun in Lake Titicaca, Bolivia, about 500 years earlier than the Incas, according to an international team of researchers.

Sociologists study the impact religion has on child development
Do children raised by religious parents have better social and psychological development than those raised in non-religious homes?

Research: Religion affects consumer choices on specialty foods
People with strong religious beliefs are more likely to buy fat-free, sugar-free or gluten-free foods than natural or organic foods, according to new research that could influence the marketing of those specialty food products.

Drug use, religion explain 'reverse gender gap' on marijuana
Women tend to be more conservative than men on political questions related to marijuana.

UTSA researcher studies the impact religion has on sleep quality
Christopher Ellison, in The University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) Department of Sociology, Terrence D.

Some black and Latino Christians rely on religion for healing
Christians who are comparatively well-represented in the medical field, like Korean-Americans, understand the relationship between faith and health differently than those who are not, like African-Americans and Latinos.

Read More: Religion News and Religion Current Events is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to