Why Does Religion Turn Violent? (Part III)
by James Jones
Part III 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)

Counterterrorism policies based on either appealing to the religiously motivated terrorists’ self-interest or frightening them into surrendering by an overwhelming show of force will probably have little success. The religious drive to sacrifice and make holy one’s life and one’s cause transcends and subsumes any pragmatic or purely self-interested motivations. Knowing themselves to be engaged in religious acts of sacrifice—and understanding the West’s orientation away from the spiritual and toward the pragmatic—is one of the reasons why militant Islamicists insist over and over that the West will never understand them.

Virtually every report on militant Muslims stresses the reward of entering paradise as a major motivator for their actions. In Western accounts, often this is accompanied by descriptions of scores of beautiful virgins waiting to welcome the adolescent male martyr home, even though most traditional Islamic scholars insist that the delights of paradise are not erotic. But clearly the desire to be with God is a powerful motivation at work here.

A Palestinian militant, when asked about his motivation, replies, “The power of the spirit pulls us upward”. Atta tells his fellow hijackers: “You should feel complete tranquility, because the time between you and your marriage (in heaven) is very short. Afterward begins the happy life, where God is satisfied with you and eternal bliss” (Atta, n.d., Last Letter).

A Palestinian recruiter said of his methods of recruitment, “We focus his attention on Paradise, on being in the presence of Allah, on meeting the Prophet Muhammad, on interceding for his loved ones so that they too can be saved from the agonies of Hell”. A Palestinian arrested by the Palestinian Authority before he could carry out his mission said of Paradise, “It is very, very near—right in front of our eyes. It lies beneath the thumb. On the other side of the detonator”.

Clearly this is not unique to fanatical religious. Quite the reverse. The desire for an experience of union with a transcendental or divine reality appears as fundamental in virtually every religion, whether it is the universal, nameless primal Source of the Upanishads, Neo-Platonic Christian mysticism, and much Mahayana Buddhism, or the personally beloved Other of devotional Hinduism, pietistic Christianity, or Tibetan guru yoga, or the divine Creator of traditional Judaism and Islam. This desire for spiritual reunion may well be the beating heart of every living religion.

What is unique to fanatical religions is the linkage of the desire for spiritual reunion with violence, especially the violence of sacrificial killing or apocalyptic purification. It may be this linkage of a well-nigh universal and powerful spiritual desire with the themes of bloody sacrifice and purification through violence that turns spiritual longing into terrorist action. Psychologically speaking, why is the shedding of blood experienced as necessary for redemption?

Clearly it seems connected to the image of God that is at work here—the image of a vengeful, punitive, and overpowering patriarchal divine being. The believer must find a way to relate to an omnipotent being who appears to will the believer’s destruction. The believer must humiliate and abject himself, feeling himself profoundly worthless and deeply guilty.

Furthermore, the punitive, omnipotent being must be appeased, placated. A bloody sacrifice must be offered. So we return again to the combination of a wrathful, punitive image of God, the insistence on purification at any cost, and the theme of bloody sacrifice. The God that demands sacrifice as the means of purification is an angry, punitive God.

My suggestion is that when the divine, the revered master, or the sacred text is experienced as a source of humiliation and shame, the possibility of violence increases. Previously I argued (Jones, 2002) that idealization was central to religion and to religious violence (and also to religious transformation, hence the subtitle of my book The Ambiguity of Religion). Here I am revising that thesis to say that it is not idealization alone that is central to the psychology of religious violence—but an idealized object that is also a source of shame and humiliation.

The psychodynamic connection to something sacred that results in religious violence is not just a tie to an idealized object but, in addition, to an idealized humiliating or overpowering object. Perhaps that is why Buddhist and Hindu religions, whose devotees also have ties to idealized objects—pantheons of divine beings or enlightened masters—less often produce violent actions. These objects, while idealized, are rarely humiliating and persecutory. When they do turn punitive and humiliating (as perhaps in the case Aum Shinrikyo or the devotees of Kali), then these groups do turn violent.

The drive for reunion with, by submission to, this humiliating but idealized object sublates all other human desires. The desire for God overwhelms all connections between human beings. The result is a detachment from empathic connections between human beings and their replacement by a totalizing connection with God alone. By identifying with God and what is supposed to be God’s perspective, other human beings appear small and insignificant.

As opposed to those religions that see each human spirit as infinitely precious, created in God’s image, terrorist forms of the religious imagination envision individual human beings as insignificant in the larger context of God’s eternal plan. This is a religion focused on obedience, submission, purification, and earning divine favor. One might call these the central themes of a patriarchal religion. Although there are women martyrs in Palestine and Chechnya, the 9/11 action was an all-male rite. Indeed, most of the fanatical religious groups are clearly male dominated. So part of the psychology involved is the psychology of patriarchal religion.

Freud’s analysis of religion points to the deep psychodynamic connections between patriarchal cultures, paternalistic deities, and guilt engendering religions. Such connections, common in the history of religion, are not accidental, but can be explained by the Oedipus complex understood not as biological necessity but as cultural expression. Exploring oedipal dynamics reveals the ways males in a patriarchal culture identify with the father and internalize the motifs of dominance and submission, detached impersonal experiences of power, and the need for distance.

When what is sacred is encountered in the context of these masculine identifications, religion is experienced in terms of dominance and submission and transcendental power and control. Furthermore, when morality is worked out in this context, the result again is an ethics of moral principles and law backed up by sacred power and dominance. This develops a patriarchal religion of divine law and power in which submission to the law of the father is the primary moral imperative and guilt the main religious emotion.

Along with the dynamics of patriarchy, another psychodynamic element in much religiously motivated terrorism is this Manichean splitting of reality into all-good and all-evil, pure and impure, categories and groups. Fairbairn (1952) describes a clinical constellation that appears to map readily onto certain religiously motivated terrorist groups. In order to maintain the experience of the parents as “good,” the inevitably dependent child splits any experience of badness off from the parents and takes it on himself.

The child maintains an idealized view of the parents at his own expense, experiencing himself as bad and seeing the parents, on whose goodness he depends, as good. The child sanitizes the image of the parents at the cost of his own self-esteem and self-worth, protecting his idealization of them by taking the pain and pathology of their relationship into himself, bearing “the burden of badness”. Thus a dichotomy is created in the child’s, and later the adult’s, experience between an all-good, overly idealized, external parental object and an entirely bad self.

The person may then turn the experience of being bad against himself. Here religion may play a crucially facilitative role. In that psychological context, encountering an overly idealized other (perhaps God, or a religious teacher, text, or institution that claims divinity and perfection) inevitably invokes a split ting of experience into all-good and all-bad domains. Idealizing the other means inevitably denigrating oneself and everything connected to oneself.

This splitting is common in those religious communities that call upon their devotees to denigrate and demean themselves and bemoan their unworthiness in the face of some ideal other. It is not accidental that Fairbairn (1952) uses theological language to describe this clinical syndrome and the splitting that results from it, calling it “the moral defense against bad object” and saying “it is better to be a sinner in a world ruled by God than to live in a world ruled by the Devil”.

Another possibility, besides turning the burden of badness against oneself, is to expel the feeling of badness from oneself by projecting it onto the outside world. Here again, religion may facilitate such a move. Weighed down by this sense of badness, a person may identify with an idealized tradition or group and then project the sense of badness onto some outside person or group, thereby seeing some other group, race, or religion as evil.

The experience of badness that the individual has taken into himself is so painful that often it must be discharged by being projected onto a despised group. Religious groups that encourage this splitting of the world into all-good and all-bad camps often find others to demonize and carry this sense of badness. Research on religious fanaticism and terrorism provides countless examples of this dynamic.

In the face of an uncritical overidealized object, religious devotees experience shame and a sense of badness, which they turn against both themselves, in rituals and assertions of self-deprecation and impurity, and others, by demonizing them as impure and unrighteous. Such feelings of shame and humiliation may further provoke intense feelings of hostility, which can then also be discharged against the demonized others either in fantasies of apocalyptic destruction or, if they grow more intense, in actual terroristic deeds of world purification.

My suggestion in this paper is that universal religious themes such as purification or the search for reunion with the source of life can become subsumed into unconscious dynamics such as splitting and a Manichean dichotomizing of the world into all-good, all-evil camps, or into the drive to connect with and appease a humiliating or persecuting idealized patriarchal other. The result is the psychological preconditions for religiously sponsored terrorism and violence.


  • Ruth Stein has proposed that the tie to an idealized and overpowering or persecutory object results in a psychological state that she describes as “the libidinal and perverted relations between a certain kind of believer and his God, in which the libidinal and the violent come together”. Stein calls this “vertical desire,” which is the mystical longing for merger with the idealized abjecting Other. On this view the starkly opposing terms and polarizations with which fundamentalist thinking is suffused come to assume positions of higher and lower. Fundamentalism is not only a psychic mode of separation; it is also a psychic mode of inequality. Fundamentalism is about inequality, [including] the believer’s inequality to God.”

    Stein is proposing that religiously motivated terrorism is motivated by love, not hate—love and the concomitant desire for union with an abjecting primal father, under the guise of a god. So if religious terrorism is regression, it is a regression to the primal father, not the primal mother. She also argues that violent religiosity demonstrates a process “involving transformations of hatred (and self-hatred) into idealizing love, whereby a persecutory inner object becomes an exalted one.” Thus “coercive fundamentalism is based on a violent, homo-erotic, self-abnegating father-son relationship”.

  • Based on his research into the psychodynamics of the Nazi movement in Germany, Richard Koenigsberg (1975) argues that terrorism and genocide arise from a devotion to an idealized, absolute, and psychologically omnipotent object, be it the state, god, the party, and the like.

  • In another place (Jones, 2002), I have argued that the same dynamic can be found in Otto’s (1958) classic text, The Idea of the Holy. Otto’s description of the holy as a “mysterium tremendum” carries this same sense of an overwhelming and overpowering presence to which we can only submit ourselves. In different ways, then, Stein, Koenigsberg, and I agree that an idealized, absolutized, and humiliating or persecuting Other is implicated in acts of religiously motivated terrorism and genocide.