First place: Brian Bolton graduate student college essay contest by Candace Kotulski

The role of religion in terrorism

FFRF awarded Candace $3,000.

By Candace Kotulski

The motivation behind religious terrorism is complex, rooted in the psyche of the individual and the society they are born into. In America, we find it comforting to acquit religion as a potential source of such violence and death. We whitewash the contents of holy books and their history to fit our concept of religion as peaceful and positive at best, harmless at worst. We attribute religious terrorism to the twisted minds of lunatics.

But there is no force in the world as potent as religion in the minds of its followers. From the passages that condone slavery and genocide to the social norms created in churches and temples worldwide, the very fabric of religion is woven to encourage atrocities in its name.

Despite the American view of religion as loving and peaceful, there are many passages contained in the texts of the Judeo-Christian religions that call for the destruction of all other belief systems. Referring to a town of foreigners with different beliefs, a verse such as Deut. 13:13-19 NLT states that “you must attack that town and completely destroy all its inhabitants, as well as all the livestock.” This passage, and many others like it, shows that Judeo-Christian holy books directly order the decimation of those who do not follow their particular deity. Even Jesus states, in Matthew 10:34, “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.”

Directives to kill the nonbelievers are powerful, but the psychological aspects of religion hold the key to understanding the foundations of religious terrorism. For many, indoctrination into a religion begins at a young age, when the person is incapable of distinguishing fact from fiction or thinking in a logical and analytical manner. Children are regaled with stories of their deity designed to instill awe and terror in order to ensure obedience. Stories such as Noah and Jonah provide a framework of cognition designed to discourage dissension.

Religion exploits the human tendency toward in-group/out-group mentality. We prefer to think of the world in terms of “us” and “them.” This tribal mentality served us well in our evolutionary past, but the vestiges of it are seen in the fierce loyalty people feel toward the groups they associate with and the hostility they express toward opposing groups.

Though the Christian bible lists several out-groups, the group with the most mandates for violence are nonbelievers and followers of other religions. This is seen in blatant calls for violence, but it is also present in the stories and parables peppering the text.

Stories such as that of Noah contain an underlying theme that those who do not serve God are deserving of death. This binary and simplistic worldview easily dehumanizes and demonizes entire groups of people.

Central to Judeo-Christian religions is the notion that our lives are followed by another life, one that is pleasant for the in-group and full of pain and misery for the out-group. This preys on people’s fear of death and causes the believer to strive toward attaining their admission into the nirvana of the afterlife, regardless of cost.

If the purpose of this life is to please a deity in order to secure a place among the privileged few, it is meaningless for the nonbeliever and useful only in a utilitarian sense for the believer. Thus, the ending of this life is significant only as the transformation from the human world to the ethereal world of the divine. Rather than being a solemn and final act, death becomes trivialized and ending it becomes far more palatable.

Unquestioning submission

The power in religion to fuel terrorism lies largely in its message that people are merely an instrument of God. A verse such as “Give yourselves completely to God, for you were dead, but now you have new life. So use your whole body as an instrument to do what is right for the glory of God” (Romans 6:13) is saying that a person must completely surrender their will to God because they owe him for the “new life” they enjoy. This creates an entire population of people who are groomed from a young age to submit unquestioningly to a religious leader chosen by “God.” All that is needed is a charismatic leader to take the wheel and transform that group from average people to terrorists convinced of their divine mandate to kill.

One of the staples of Judeo-Christian religion is that it holds a unique truth that no other religion or belief system can hold. There are no concessions for other worldviews or even other versions of the same belief system. This stance of holding a mental monopoly on “truth” and being threatened by any contradictory idea results in devotees who do not understand concepts outside of their own belief system and actively fight against anything foreign to them.

These facets of modern religion coalesce into an environment in which religious terrorism flourishes. A person raised in this environment is taught from birth that the out-group deserves torture and death and there is divine justification for punishing evil.
Throughout their lives, knowledge is denigrated as wicked and blind faith is encouraged. They believe life on this planet is something fleeting and insignificant in the grand scheme of a promised blissful eternity. This person is a tinder box. All it takes is a spark to ignite the fire that religion has carefully cultivated.

From a massive strike like that of Sept. 11, 2001, to an abortion doctor who is gunned down outside his or her office, the act of violence may be the choice of the individual, but the predisposition and justification for it emanate directly from religion.

“I am a 30-year-old student at Arizona State University about to graduate with a B.A. in psychology. I belong to the local chapter of the Secular Student Alliance. I currently live in Cottonwood, Ariz., but I was born on Sept. 26, 1984, in Alabama. I am fascinated by the psychology and sociology of religion and I hope to investigate the roots and appeal of religion as a social institution. I would also like to investigate the psychology of religious leaders, particularly those who lead violent religious groups, as well as the psychology of their followers. Understanding the roots of these movements will assist psychologists in helping those who are attempting to disentangle themselves from such groups.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation