Why Religion Is Natural and Science Is Not

A naturalist examines the cognitive and cultural foundations of religion, science, and more

Social Solidarity and Support for Suicide Bombings

Testing Hitchens' Hypothesis

Deadly Attack in Kabul

Yet another deadly attack a few days ago in Kabul, Afghanistan at a Lebanese restaurant popular with foreigners has reminded a weary world of the frequency over the past decade of suicide bombings as a means for pursuing political ends. What has left many people, including many religious people, puzzled is the assurance these suicide bombers and their supporters have about the religious justification for these acts – even when they result, as was the case in this recent Kabul incident, in the deaths of unarmed, innocent civilians.

All of this appears to fly in the face of the common association many people assume holds between religion and morality. For most people who think that religious conviction is the fundamental basis of humans’ moral sensibilities, these attacks are baffling, since they are suicidal and often target defenseless noncombatants. 

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Many thinkers, however, maintain that religion is just as capable of fomenting conflict and violence as it is of ameliorating or preventing them.  In his thought-provoking new book, entitled Big Gods:  How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict, Ara Norenzayan notes that religion is routinely, as he puts it, both the arsonist and the fire department. 

Of course, some of religion’s most outspoken recent critics, such as Christopher Hitchens, have advanced an unequivocally negative view, declaring that “religion poisons everything.” In his book, however, Norenzayan observes that because these questions have received so little systematic scientific scrutiny, he and his colleagues set out to examine empirically the relationship between religion and violence and between religion and support for suicide attacks, in particular.

Costly Ritual or Fervent Belief?

In my previous blog post I discussed the empirical studies of Richard Sosis and his colleagues, which suggest that participation in costly collective rituals has a galvanizing effect on the cooperativeness of religious groups. Inspired by such findings, the social solidarity hypothesis asserts that the same means – primarily ritual means – that make for social cohesion within the group can also make for exclusion and antipathy toward those outside the group. Norenzayan compares this position with the religious belief hypothesis, which looks to the contents of religious beliefs to explain participants’ support for suicide attacks. If, for example, a religion’s doctrines proclaim it to be the sole route to God, non-believers are suspect at best, if not outright obstacles to the heavenly kingdom – obstacles that must be eliminated.    

Although praying and attending religious services correlate with one another fairly well, they are not always associated. Norenzayan compared mosque attendance with reports about the frequency of personal prayer in a population of Palestinians in the West Bank, proposing that the former was a measure of the impact of participation in (somewhat) costly public rituals, while the latter was at least a rough measure of personal belief. Those who attended mosque frequently, compared with those who attended rarely or never, were more than twice as likely to support suicide attacks against Israelis. By contrast, once the researchers controlled for mosque attendance, they found that frequency of personal prayer was unrelated statistically to support for suicide attacks. 

 Islam?  Judaism?  Any Religion?

Two further studies provided additional support for the social solidarity hypothesis. Since the state of Israel has a standing army, Israelis have little need to carry out suicide attacks. Norenzayan and his colleagues studied the support of Israeli settlers on the West Bank for one such incident that occurred in 1994, while encouraging participants to reflect either on their personal prayer activity or on their synagogue attendance. While reflection on synagogue attendance increased the probabilities that participants would approve of this 1994 attack, the first condition decreased the probabilities of support for such attacks. Contrary to Hitchens' view, religion appears to not quite poison everything.

Although avid enthusiasm for the in-group, to the point of support for suicide attacks against out-group members, was evidenced by some Palestinians and some Israelis, perhaps this pattern was just a function of the longstanding conflict in the Middle East? Norenzayan and his co-workers carried out a broader study of six different religious groups in six different nations around the world. In short, they got the same pattern of results. Routine participation in religious services with group members, in contrast to frequent personal prayer, forged in-group solidarity and hostility toward out-groups, including greater support for suicide attacks.

The problem for the religious belief hypothesis about support for suicide attacks is that Norenzayan’s team found that these findings stood even after controlling for a host of variables such as support for Islamic law and for groups that sponsored terror attacks. Also telling was the fact that respondents regarded personal prayer habits as a more critical consideration than participation in religious services as an indication of the significance of religion for a person’s life. 

Robert N. McCauley, Ph.D., is the author of Why Religion Is Natural and Science Is Not. He is William Rand Kenan Jr. University Professor of Philosophy at Emory University. more...

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