Monday, September 14, 2009

On Scott Atran's "Religion, suicide, terrorism, and the moral foundation of the world"

If the Defense Department had its act together and its priorities straight it would find a way to put Scott Atran on the payroll.  I do not know what he thinks of the US or the current administration, but he seems to have a good handle on the latest and greatest research about suicide terrorism.  In his "Religion, Suicide, Terrorism, and the Moral Foundation of the World" (in Vilarroya and Argimon (eds.) <i>Social Brain Matters: Stances on the Neurobiology of Social Cognition</i>) he has an interesting discussion of the socio-biology of suicide terrorism.  

Atran begins by noting that religion survives because it is beneficial.  Supernatural agents contribute to that by assuring cooperative trust and trustworthiness of followers.  In general, we thus find that the more one is committed to the religion the more he is trusted.  

As yet, neuroscience does not really have a grasp on normal religious behavior.  Apparently even suicide bombers have no discernible psychopathology or socio-economic disadvantages as a group.  They do tend to have a rather acute sense of the grievances and needs of their own group.  

However, the root causes of suicide terrorism have been very misunderstood in the west.  Political leaders often construe suicide terrorism as the work of depraved individuals or as the product of an unfortunate social or economic situation.  But neither seems to be the case.  Organizational factors play a large role in explaining terror networks and their appeal.  Most Muslims who support suicide terrorism and bin Laden favor elected government, personal liberty, economic choice and educational opportunities.  Their support of terrorism generally correlates with the US support of weak or failed corrupt states.  And finally, the fact that in places where suicide terrorism thrives the societies tend to be more communal and less individualistic.  

A possible connection between suicide terrorism and religion might involve the role that ethnic religious groups play.  Religious groups which can take over important social functions when the expected opportunities that the youth have for for their future are not met, can find recruits willing to make extraordinary altruistic sacrifices for the welfare of future generations.  

Also, we must note the key role of the organization in suicide terror.  Suicide terrorism is almost never perpetrated by a lone terrorist.  And, although an individual commits a suicide bombing, it is not an individual choice.  

If we want to figure out a way to stop suicide terrorism, Atran seems to be the man to talk to.  Psychologists, sociologists, economists, and intelligence collectors have amassed a lot of data about suicide terrorism.  Scientists are starting to understand the reasons and socio-cultural mechanisms by which individuals are recruited, trained, and turned from ordinary people to suicide terrorists who transcend their genetic programming and kill themselves. His work merits further study if this phenomena is to be stopped.  

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