theories of religious violence

Theories of Religious Violence

How does religious violence occur? How do different ideologies justify violence? What is it about religious violence that seems to make it more violent?

Read Part I here.

While religious ideology is no more prone to violence than other ideologies, it cannot be denied that acts of violence have been committed in the name of religion. Though there are many facets of and explanations for religious violence, this essay argues that the politicization of religious ideology — in combination with psychological factors and social implications — is what ultimately leads to religious violence.

Though violence in the name of religion is not contested in regards to its existence, religious violence, like most forms of violence, is elicited from the interaction of various ideologies (e.g. political and religious or psychological and religious). Depending on the conflicts between or the combination of specific ideologies, different types of religious violence will occur.

The intermixing of political and religious ideologies (in the case of Shari’a Law, for instance) create the potential for religious violence in the combination’s insistence on infiltrating a particular group’s entire way of life. In regards to facets of religious violence, two examples — suicide bombing and martyrdom, and apocalyptic cults — present two ways in which different kinds of religious ideology are used to justify violence.

Apocalyptic Cults

In Robert Jay Lifton’s Destroying the World to Save It: Aum Shinkrikyo, Apocalyptic Violence, and The New Global Terrorism, he applies a psychological perspective to historical problems to understand the religious violence of apocalyptic cults. In the chapter titled, “Megalomania, ” Lifton provides a psychological assessment of Shoko Asahara, the cult leader of the Aum Shinrikyo, to address the intersection of psychological trauma, religious ideation, and the desire for apocalyptic violence.

Though many religious theorists would argue for a distinction between cults that adopt religious ideology and a religion, there is no doubt that the Aum Shinrikyo and Asahara utilized religious ideology as justifications for the apocalyptic violence they desired for the world. Within the functional “megalomanic ” personality, Lifton states that “self becomes world. The megalomanic self lacks limits and boundaries; it resists or denies restraints of any sort. ” (165).

Within the arrangement of a cult, the “disciples become more and more immersed in the guru’s megalomania, both endorsing it and realizing their own megalomanic potential ” (166). Like any ideology’s ability to create an inclusive group comprised of a common history, language, and traditions, the psychological function of the megalomanic cult serves to create a unified group system, whereby all members thrive off of the “mutual ecstasy and shared sense of absolute truth. ”

Unlike other religious ideologies, cult mentality has a shorter lifespan, whereby the leader’s self-destructive tendencies cause a fracturing and fragmenting of the collective megalomanic group identity. Both before and after the eventual psychological breakdown of the cult leader, violence is justified and understood within the broader religious ideology.

Before the psychological breakdown of the leader, violence is normalized through the collective group identity, whereby it is rationalized as it being necessary for the greater good. For instance, on his chapter titled, “Killing to Heal, ” Lifton discusses the doctors recruited to Aum Shinrikyo whose behavior resembled that of the Nazi doctors in their replacement of healing with killing for the cause. The Aum doctors were so engrossed within the cult’s ideology and theology, that their previous noble beliefs were molded until it fit Asahara’s desire for torture and murder.

Essentially, Lifton argues that that “Aum put forth a medical ideology that claimed radical ethical advances ” (138). In the interconnection of various ideologies (e.g. medical, religious, political, psychological), Asahara concocted a cult mentality primed for violence.

As Asahara became increasingly fragmented, the disciples remained loyal to the collective dynamic of the cult. In his chapter titled, “Crossing the Threshold, ” Lifton outlines the central characteristics of apocalyptic cult ideology that serves to turn religious ideology into violence. First, he argues that the cult was “totalized guruism…paranoid guruism and megalomanic guruism, ” whereby he was the cult’s only source of “energy ” (203).

Second, the vision of an apocalyptic world event infiltrated their cult ideology; this myth became inseparable from the megalomanic guru as well as the cult’s function. Third, the ideology of “killing to heal, of altruistic murder and altruistic world destruction ” infiltrated their cult ideology and provided “noble ” justifications for violence in the name of the religiously-altruistic cult ideology (204). Fourth, the altruistic mass-murder depended on “the relentless impulse toward world-rejecting purification ” such that Aum’s ideological imperative was to cleanse the world of its negatives, failures, and filth.

Fifth, the combination of ultimate weapons was bound up with the action prophecy that ultimately led to the idealized conceptualization of Armageddon. Sixth, there was a collectively shared state violence, whereby all the disciples hoped to become the guru’s clone and have the potential to partake in the destruction that the guru desired for the world.

And seventh, the cult ideology argued for the inaccuracies of the claim of ultimate scientific truth, wherein Aum’s collective mentality replaces the inaccuracies of culture. Thus, through these seven characteristics, cult ideology became synonymous with every individual member of the cult so that the ideology created true believers who justified killing in the name of preserving their ideology and group dynamics.

The apocalyptics of cult ideology utilizes psychological manipulation of individual people’s previous religious or political ideologies so that there is a loss of individualization; violence is therefore justified through the lens of manipulated religious and political ideology.

Another example of religious violence is that of suicide bombing and martyrdom. Similar to how cult ideology infiltrates every individual so that collective unity and loyalty bond the group together and creates justifications for mass murder and violence, suicide bombing creates an ideological worldview whereby committing suicide — and taking as many others with them as possible — is the only solution.

Theories of Suicide Bombing & Martyrdom

There are essentially three theories of suicide bombing that attempt to explain the ideological justification for suicide-murder as the only means for establishing a meaningful life. The first theory articulates that there are certain religions that are more prone to violence and suicide bombing than others, due to the priming of the religion. Thus, theory one posits violence to be the fault of religious ideology. For instance, Muslims are more likely to commit suicide bombing due to the greater prevalence of this idea within their religious worldview[59].

Al Masjid an Nabawi, Medina, Saudi Arabia

The second theory argues that religion is a cover for political discontent, such that violence enacted in the name of religion is really due to political ideology. Further, the individuals who commit suicide bombing are viewed by the politicized lens of Islam to be unsuccessful in the “advancement of human history, ” and are thus expendable due to the political ideology that infiltrates politicized Islam.

Lastly, the third theory regarding suicide bombing argues that it has nothing to do with religious ideology or political ideology, but is instead due to the psychological issues of each individual suicide bomber. Essentially, this theory argues that suicide bombers, in general, are more psychologically disturbed, which makes them susceptible to be used in the name of a religious or political ideology for violence.

Similar to the group mentality of a cult, whereby individualization is destroyed and group-think destroys individual understandings of right and wrong, the psychological mentality of a suicide bomber is primed to view themselves as unimportant unless they commit violent acts in the name of a politicized religious ideology.

Thus, this essay argues that the last theory is most accurate when understanding suicide bombers, since religious violence utilizes a combination of ideologies to justify violence.

To illuminate the third theory of suicide bombers, Adam Lankford in The Myth of Martyrdom: What Really Drives Suicide Bombers, Rampage Shooters, and Other Self-Destructive Killers, argues “all suicide terrorists are suicidal. ” He explicates this by demonstrating that all suicide bombers experience depressed and suicidal behaviors, which serves his ultimate point that the psychological nature of these individuals was manipulated by religious or political ideology in the justification of violence.

Thus, Lankford argues that suicide bombing is not the fault of the religion or of the politics that underlie religions, but is the fault of the manipulation of psychological distress within all suicide bombers. Lankford outlines a few behaviors that all suicide bombers experience: suicide ideation; suicide-like gestures; diffuse, risky lifestyle; suicide plan; non-serious suicide attempts; serious suicide attempt; and completed suicide.

Though there is a misconception regarding suicide bombers — and suicidal people in general — claiming them to be “crazy and irrational ”—Lankford outlines how this misconception is unhelpful and a distortion of reality (31). Lankford states that “suicidal people often appear to be rational actors who behave in calculated and premeditated ways, ” who are not “born with some inherent mental flaw ” (32). Instead, these individuals have been marginalized from society in some way, disconnected from their original family or any kind of social support system.

The politicized religious ideology of Islam, in particular, is attractive to their own psychological understanding of themselves, as it allows the individuals to serve a higher purpose. For instance, Lankford outlines the misconception surrounding the claim from other theorists that all suicide bombers are inherently motivated by the political ideology of the religion. Instead, Lankford argues that “suicide terrorists appear to carry out suicide attacks to kill themselves first, and to serve the organization second (if at all) ” (37).

Though he does not deny the suicide bombers’ alignment with the religious or political ideology, he argues that they commit this specific act of religious violence due to their psychologically-disturbed nature, whereby their desire to die is utilized and targeted by terrorist organizations for their own religious-political ideology. Therefore, Lankford presents a specific example of religious violence (i.e. suicide bombing) and describes its justification for violence to be a composite of religious and political ideology on the part of the terrorist organizations, and psychological trauma on the part of the individual suicide bomber.

The desire to die is not the only motivator for a suicide bomber, however. Lankford argues that suicide bombers—due to their suicidal nature—have a desire to become famous, to have fame and glory, and to have a sense of purpose; the only foolproof avenue to achieve both death and fame/purpose, is to die in a fashion that is destructive enough to take large numbers of innocent people with them.

Adam Lankford, 69

Martyrdom, as a religious ideology, is attractive to these individuals as it allows them to achieve a sense of purpose by partaking in the larger religious and political cause. Also, the concept of suicide—without any sense of purpose—is forbidden in most religions (specifically Islam), so, suicidal people are recruited to the religious and political cause of killing in the name of Allah in order to complete their ultimate desire to die in a shameless and glorifying manner.

Ayann Hirsi Ali discusses this phenomenon and argues that the idea that it is a sin to kill oneself must be done away with; if this facet of religious ideology is destroyed, then there would be less martyrs to take innocent victims along with them when they die. Ultimately, these two examples of religious violence, apocalyptic cults and suicide bombing, present the argument that violence is not necessarily inherent to religion, since the particular causes of these acts of violence are a composite of ideological features (i.e. political, psychological, and religious).

Concluding Remarks

Religious ideology, like other ideologies, has the potential for violence when combined with other ideological justifications for violence. Religion, itself, is no more inherently violent than any other ideology. Violence within the world is caused by humanity’s inherently violent nature, by which they utilize various human-constructed ideologies to justify their propensity towards violence.

By looking at theories from Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Hector Avalos and Dan Barker, it is clear that religious ideology has the potential for violence, just as any ideology does. Paul Copan and William Cavanaugh and their theories serve to highlight the inability for there to be such a thing as “religious violence. ” While this essay disagrees with the claim that there is no such thing as religious violence, it argues that religion is not any more prone to violence than any other ideology.

The specific examples of religious violence — suicide bombing and apocalyptic cults — provide a greater analysis of precisely how religious ideology is used to justify violence. For instance, religious ideology is utilized with a combination of other manipulated ideologies to serve the human desire to commit violence.

Thus, religious ideology that is politicized—cult ideology or the ideology of martyrdom—combines with the psychological factors of individual people, as well as their collective group mentality, to prime people for violence and claim that it is committed in the name of religion.

Within the contemporary global culture, whereby individual civilizations across the world are coming into contact with each other more frequently, it is necessary to understand where the potential for violence of conflict exists. Within an international political framework, religious ideology can be used to justify violence, just as economic or political ideology can be used to justify violence.

Thus, there are a variety of ways in which the increasingly interconnected global economy can contribute to a clashing of ideologies, or to the creation of a bond global culture. Understanding the ways in which various ideologies can be used to justify violence will greatly benefit international politics within the contemporary global culture. Therefore, there is a great need to continuously pursue the ways in which the phenomenon of globalization encourages the intermixing of, and sometimes the clashing nature of, different ideologies.

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