Why Does Religion Turn Violent? (Part I)
by James Jones
Part I of James Jones’ paper (condensed and edited) appears below.
Click here for the complete paper with references.
For a complete list of Library of Social Science’s essays and papers, please click here.
James W. Jones, PsyD, Ph.D., Th.D.,is a Professor of Religion and an Adjunct Professor of Clinical Psychology, Rutgers University. He is also a Senior Research Fellow, Center on Terrorism, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and a licensed clinical psychologist.
Book by James Jones
Blood That Cries Out From the Earth: The Psychology of Religious Terrorism

Oxford U. Press (2012)

A factor that is virtually always cited by social psychologists and political scientists writing about religiously driven terrorism is the experience of shame and humiliation. For years, forensic psychology has emphasized the connections between shame, humiliation, and violence.

Forensic psychologists cite numerous studies correlating conditions of shame and humiliation with increases in violence and crime, especially for males. For example, a psychiatrist working in prisons reports on a study that suggests that every act of violence in the prison was preceded by some humiliating event in the life of the prisoner (Gilligan, 1996).

Statistics show that in the United States, at least, increases in crime follow exactly increases in the number of unemployed men. Feelings of humiliation on the part of Arab populations have been one of the most frequently cited “root causes” of the turn to fundamentalist Islam. One Palestinian trainer of the bombers has said, “Much of the work is already done by the suffering these people have been subject to. Only 10 percent comes from me. The suffering and living in exile away from their land has given the person 90 percent of what he needs to become a martyr”.

A Palestinian psychiatrist reports that “humiliation is an important factor motivating young suicide bombers”. By one estimate, over 90 percent of the recruits to militant Palestinian groups come from the villages and camps suffering the most from the Israeli presence, where the humiliation is greatest and the struggle is most intense. Hassan reports: “Over and over I heard them [militants] say, ‘The Israelis humiliate us. They occupy our land, and deny our history’”.

While often rooted in social and political circumstances, shame and humiliation are profoundly psychological, and often spiritual, conditions. By holding out an absolute and perfect ideal—whether it is a divine being or a perfect guru or master or sacred text—against which all mortals inevitably fall short and by insisting on the “infinite qualitative difference” (in the words of Soren Kierkegaard) between human beings and the ideal, religions can easily exacerbate and play upon any natural human tendency toward feelings of shame and humiliation.

I would suggest the more a religion exalts its ideal, or portrays the divine as an overpowering presence and emphasizes the gulf between finite human beings and that ideal so that we must feel like “worms, not human” (in the words of the Psalms), the more it contributes to and reinforces experiences of shame and humiliation.

One common belief, which many commentators mention, of fanatically violent religious movements is their apocalyptic vision of a cosmic struggle of the forces of the all-good against the forces of the all-evil. Virtually all religious terrorists agree that they are locked in an apocalyptic battle with demonic forces, usually, that is, with the forces of secularism. The late Rabbi Meir Kahane, whose Jewish Defense League was responsible for numerous attacks on Muslims in the United States and Israel, said bluntly, “Secular government is the enemy”.

Kahane’s arch enemy, the founder of Hamas, Sheik Ahmed n Yassin, told a reporter, “There’s a war going on” not just against Israeli occupation but against all secular governments including the Palestinian authority because there “is no such thing as a secular state in Islam” (Juergensmeyer, 2000/2003). Asahara, the founder of the Aum Shinrikyo cult is reported to have shouted again and again at his followers, “Don’t you realize that this is war” and to have insisted that his group existed “on a war footing”.

The Reverend Peter Hill, who shot and killed a physician in front of a family planning clinic in the United States, justified his actions to an interviewer as being part of a “great crusade conducted by the Christian subculture in America that considers itself at war with the larger society, and to some extent victimized by it”.

Juergensmeyer (2000) concludes his investigation of religiously sponsored terrorism around the globe, Terror in the Mind of God, with the comment that “what is strikingly similar about the cultures of which they [religious terrorists] are a part is their view of the contemporary world at war”. Klein, Fairbairn, and others have written about the obvious psychoanalytic antecedents to this splitting of the world into all-bad, all-good camps.

Violently apocalyptic movements not only split the world into irreconcilable opposites of good and evil, they also look forward to the climatic end of history, when evil will be violently eradicated. Apocalyptic religion is not only about dividing the world, it is also about purifying the world. In the apocalyptic mind-set, purification is almost always bloody.

Rather than envisioning a spiritual process through which the unholy is transformed into something holy, apocalyptic religions are full of fantasies and images of violence, warfare, and bloodshed in which the unholy is destroyed in the most gruesome fashion imaginable. Here purification becomes linked with violent death. We must explore the psychological dynamics involved in this linkage of purification and violent death.

The theme of purification is often linked to themes of death and rebirth, appears central in virtually every major religious tradition. Some, like Durkheim (1965), have argued that the split between the pure and the impure, the sacred and the profane, is the defining characteristic of the religious consciousness. Certainly this seems especially true of fanatical religions at war with the impure and unrighteous world around them.

The traditional sectarian response has been to withdraw from the sinful world and create islands of purity separate from it (for example, the Amish people). Religious terrorists are not content to simply withdraw and protect their purity; they seek to actively transform and purify the surrounding world. Asahara is described as developing a “vision of an apocalyptic event or series of events that would destroy the world in the service of renewal”.

In many religions the theme of purification is linked with the theme of sacrifice. The Latin root “sacri-ficium” means to “make holy.” Sacrifice is a way of making something holy, of purifying it. Sacrifices are offerings to the divine and to the community. But they are a special kind of offering in that what is given is destroyed. But something is not only destroyed, it (or something related to it, like the religious community) is also transformed. Something is offered; something is made holy.

The practice of sacrifice may go back to the very foundations of religion. The early Vedas in India center around various sacrificial rituals, and much of the Hebrew Torah is taken up with instructions for conducting sacrifices. Of course, Hinduism later gave rise to the Upanishads with their elaborate metaphysical discussions as well as to a wide range of yogic, meditational, and devotional practices. Furthermore, the Hebrew prophets and later writings came to ridicule the idea that God requires bloody sacrifices, insisting instead on a “broken and contrite heart” (Isaiah) and “justice, mercy, and humility” (Micah).

But the theme of sacrifice did not die out entirely. It was taken up by some strands of Christianity that continued to insist, with the author of the Letter to the Hebrews (apparently a conservative first-century Jewish convert to Christianity), that “without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness of sins.” One of the burdens of this paper will be to attempt to unpack the psychology behind this connection between purification or redemption and the shedding of blood, since that theme appears so central to so much religiously motivated violence.