A Psychoanalytic Exploration of Religious Terrorism
This is a work in progress. It may look like a finished academic
paper with its text bristling with citations and references, but
that is an illusion—in Freud’s sense. It is a wish—a wish to be
done with this terrible topic. Over the summer of 2001 a book
of mine was completed titled Terror and Transformation: The Ambiguity
of Religion in Psychoanalytic Perspective (Jones, 2002). Because
it had the word Terror in the title and came out a few
months after 9/11, I have been swept up into a vortex of discussions
about religion and terrorism, a topic I find extremely foreign
to my experience and very aversive. Also, like many in the
New York metropolitan area, I find that 9/11 still casts a longer
shadow over my life (in ways that I still find hard to talk about)
than the World Trade Center towers ever cast when they stood
erect over lower Manhattan. As much as I want to escape from
these discussions, I have been unable to.
I am writing as a clinical psychologist of religion, interested
in the psychological dynamics involved in religion and especially
in religiously motivated violence and what that might contribute
to the psychology of religion. I am not proposing a general theory
of terrorism but rather asking what a psychological, primarily
psychodynamic, exploration of religious terrorism might tell
us about that phenomenon and about the psychology of religion
in general. Reading the literature on this topic I am struck by
the paucity of discussion of both of these factors—the psychodynamics
of religious terrorists and the religious aspect itself. In
part that is because most of the mainstream, scholarly literature
is written by social psychologists, not clinicians, and political scientists
rather than by scholars of religion or psychologists of reli-
Psychoanalytic Review, 93(2), April 2006 2006 N.P.A.P.
168 JAMES W. JONES
gion. This paper is one small contribution to filling in that gap
in the discussion.
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 (Gilligan, 1996; Miller,
1993). 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 (Abi-Hashem, 2004;
Davis, 2003; Hassan, 2001). 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” (Davis, 2003, p. 154). A Palestinian psychiatrist reports
that “humiliation is an important factor motivating young suicide
bombers” (quoted in Victoroff, 2005, p. 29). 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 (Post, Sprinzak, & Denny, 2003, p.
173). Hassan reports: “Over and over I heard them [militants]
say, ‘The Israelis humiliate us. They occupy our land, and deny
our history’” (p. 38). Like many New Religious movements, the
Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo—some of whose members released
sarin nerve gas in a Tokyo subway and also murdered several
people—regularly engaged in rituals of shaming and humiliation
of its members. Members were often harangued by the guru,
kept in isolation, or made to wait hours for their leader to appear
while chanting over and over, “Master, please appear” (LifWHY
DOES RELIGION TURN VIOLENT? 169
ton, 2000; other, even more horrific acts of humiliation are described
in Reader, 2000, pp. 137–141).
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 (McNish,
2004; Pattison, 2000). 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.
In addition, many writers have noted the connection between
feelings of shame and disgust with the body and embodiment.
As many authors have commented, a classic example in
the West is St. Augustine, who virtually single-handedly made
the doctrine of original sin central to the Western Christian understanding
of human nature. It is not coincidence that this proponent
of the idea that we are born sinful and impure continually
(in his book the Confessions) expresses revulsion at anything
associated with his body. But such a theological linkage of the
body with feelings of shame is (unfortunately) not unique to Augustine
but can be found in the traditional texts of many religions.
One of the Muslim leaders of the 9/11 attacks wrote some
years earlier in his will that no woman or other unclean person
should touch his body and that his genitalia be washed with
gloved hands. Even the very secular, science-fiction-based “Heaven’s
Gate” cult in the United States—most of whose members
committed ritual suicide in 1997—recommended castration for
all the men involved.
If it is the case, as much research suggests, that there is a
linkage of shame, humiliation, and violence, one way that religion
can contribute to terrorism is by creating and/or reinforcing
and potentiating feelings of shame and humiliation, which
170 JAMES W. JONES
in turn increase the likelihood of violent outbursts. And this increased
potential for violence needs to be channeled in socially
approved ways. By fomenting crusades, dehumanizing outsiders,
and encouraging prejudices, fanatical religions provide ready, religiously
sanctioned, targets for any increase in aggression. While
much of the humiliation that fuels certain acts of terrorism
might begin in social and cultural conditions, fanatical religions
may build upon that and establish a cycle wherein their teachings
and practices increase feelings of shame and humiliation,
which intensify aggressive feelings, as well as then providing targets
for that aggression.
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 (Juergensmeyer, 2000; Kimball, 2002;
Wessinger, 2000). 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” (Juergensmeyer, 2000, p. 55).
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, p. 76). 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” (Lifton, 2000, p. 56) and to have insisted that his group
existed “on a war footing” (Lifton, 2000, p. 60). 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, p. 36). 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
WHY DOES RELIGION TURN VIOLENT? 171
a part is their view of the contemporary world at war” (p. 151).
Klein, Fairbairn, and others have written about the obvious psychoanalytic
antecedents to this splitting of the world into all-bad,
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 underlying theme of death and rebirth is common in
virtually all the world’s religions. Virtually all the traditions say
that some process of dying—to self-centeredness, to a false self,
to antispiritual cravings—is central to spiritual transformation.
Apocalyptic religion takes this theme and historicizes it. Death
and rebirth are now something that can and must happen within
history, in real time. Another theme that runs through this material
is the increasing spiritual and moral decline of the world,
which is often pictured as sinking rapidly into moral and spiritual
oblivion, a world heading for disaster. One Aum Shinrikyo
member reports feeling that “the world was getting worse, pushing
itself towards Armageddon with its increasing evil” (Lifton,
2000, p. 93). Rottenness of the world is just crying out for purification
to set things right. Things are getting so bad that only a
drastic intervention can turn things around. Lifton (2000) describes
Aum Shinrikyo, in a phrase that could equally well be applied to
many religiously motivated terrorist groups, when he writes that
they were driven by “the relentless impulse toward world-rejecting
purification” (p. 204).
We should note that, while Aum Shinrikyo is often mentioned
in books on religiously motivated terrorism because of its
roots in the syncretistic Japanese religious milieu, Lifton’s ac172
JAMES W. JONES
count makes clear that the cult relies as much on science, science
fiction, and the idealization of high technology as on religion
(see also Reader, 2000, pp. 185–187). In that sense Lifton links
it with the “Heaven’s Gate” UFO cult. Both groups would have
been impossible apart from a milieu saturated by popular science,
science fiction, video game culture (with its merger of science
and violence), and the idealization of technology. Yet in
popular accounts of Aum Shinrikyo, religion is featured and science
and technology ignored. But the themes of apocalyptic violence
and rebirth through death are hardly absent from popular
science-fiction culture, both in the United States and Japan.
Apocalyptically historicized or not, the theme of purification,
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” (Lifton, 2000, p. 203).
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 metaphysiWHY
DOES RELIGION TURN VIOLENT? 173
cal 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.
The theme of sacrifice often appears central in the larger
religious context from which “human bombers” emerge.1 For example,
the leader of the 9/11 attacks called on his comrades to
“purify your soul from all blemishes” and spoke to them of “offering
sacrifices and obedience” in “these last hours” (Atta, n.d.,
Last Letter, discussed later in this paper). There he also refers to
those whom they will kill as animals being ritually sacrificed. It
underscores the sacrificial, that is to say, religious, nature of
these actions. The terrorist is sacrificing both himself and his
In reference to this theme of sanctification by self-sacrifice,
Strenski (2003) writes that “The ‘human bombers’ are regarded
as ‘sacred’ by their communities of reference. They have been
‘made holy’ in the eyes of the community that ‘accepts’ them
and their deed. They are elevated to lofty moral, and indeed,
religious levels, as sacrificial victims themselves or as kinds of
holy saints” (p. 8). For example, Hassan (2001) reports that in
Calendars are illustrated with the “martyr of the month.” Paintings
glorify the dead bombers in Paradise, triumphant beneath a
flock of green birds. The symbol is based on a saying of the
prophet Mohammad that the soul of a martyr is carried to Allah
in the bosom of the green birds of paradise. . . . A biography of a
martyr . . . tells of how his soul was borne upward on a fragment
of a bomb. . . . [An imam] explained that the first drop of blood
174 JAMES W. JONES
shed by a martyr during jihad washes away his sins instantaneously.
On the Day of Judgment, he will face no reckoning. On the
Day of Resurrection, he can intercede for several of his nearest
and dearest to enter Heaven. . . .” (p. 39)
Scholars familiar with the hagiographic traditions of the world’s
religions will see many common themes here—for example, the
images of Christian saints and Buddhist Bodhisattvas borne up
to paradise and ensconced in the highest heavens where, purified
and sinless, they can intercede for others. By their offering
and sacrifice, the human bombers and other martyrs have indeed
become holy. Along this line, a Palestinian militant said, “It
is attacks when a member gives his life that earn the most respect
and elevate the bombers to the highest possible level of
martyrdom” (Post et al., 2003, p. 179). Likewise, the Tamil Tigers
describe call their suicide bombings in Sri Lanka by a world that
means “to give oneself.” Their actions are “a gift of the self.” In
joining the Tigers one takes an oath in which “the only promise
is I am prepared to give everything I have, including my life. It
is an oath to the nation” (Strenski, 2003, p. 22). A Palestinian
questioned by Post and his colleagues angrily rejected their appellation
of suicide and told them, “This is not suicide. Suicide
is selfish, it is weak, it is mentally disturbed. This is istishad (martyrdom
or self-sacrifice in the service of Allah)” (Post et al., 2003,
p. 179). It must be noted that this understanding of martyrdom
and self-sacrifice is not traditional in Islam, and it has been condemned
by many leading Muslim clerics and scholars around the
world (for references see Strenski, 2003; Davis, 2003). Rather, it
represents a major theological innovation on the part of the radical
Islamicists like bin Laden.
That “martyrdom operations” are understood by their participants
as religious acts is made clear by the rituals that surround
them. Mohammed Atta, the leader of the 9/11 terrorists,
left for posterity a letter, the major themes of which are obedience,
prayer, union with God, and sacrifice. Atta calls on his
comrades to engage in devotions as preparation for their mission:
Remember the words of Almighty God. . . . Remind yourself of
the supplications. . . . Bless your body with some verses from the
Qur’an. . . . . Pray the morning prayer in a group and ponder the
great rewards of that prayer. Make supplications afterward, and
WHY DOES RELIGION TURN VIOLENT? 175
do not leave your apartment unless you have performed ablution
before leaving. . . . Read the words of God. (Atta, n.d., Last Letter)
Such religious ritualizing was not unique to the 9/11 cell; it is a
normal and crucial part of the human bomber’s mission:
Just before the bomber sets out on his final journey, he performs
a ritual ablution, puts on clean clothes, and tries to attend at least
one communal prayer at a mosque. He says the traditional Islamic
prayer that is customary before battle, and asks Allah to forgive
his sins and bless his mission. He puts a Koran in his left breast
pocket, above the heart, and he straps the explosives around his
waist or picks up briefcase or a bag containing the bomb. The
planner bids him farewell with the words, “May Allah be with you,
may Allah give you success so that you achieve Paradise.” The
would-be martyr responds, “Inshallah, we will meet in Paradise.”
Hours later, as he presses the detonator, he says, “Allahu akbar”—
“Allah is great. All praise to Him.” (Hassan, 2001, p. 41)
Atta’s letter goes on to stress the need for continual supplication
throughout the 9/11 hijacking and the assurance of divine protection,
favor, and reward: “Everywhere you go, say that prayer
and smile and be calm, for God is with the believers. And the
angels will protect you without you feeling anything,” Atta writes
to his comrades. There are few references in his letter to anger
or revenge: rather, the driving motivation is reunion with God.
The letter makes it clear that the terrorists were not seeking political
or social goals but rather that they “are heading toward
eternal paradise.” A leader of Hamas said “Love of martyrdom
is something deep inside the heart. But these rewards are not in
themselves the goal of the martyr. The only aim is to win Allah’s
satisfaction. That can be done in the simplest and speediest manner
by dying in the cause of Allah” (Hassan, 2001, p. 36).
The same attitude emerges from an interview with a Palestinian
suicide bomber who survived a failed attempt and a gun
battle with Israeli troops. Like Atta he describes his preparation
for his “martyrdom operation” as a spiritual discipline.
We were in a constant state of worship. We told each other that
if the Israelis only knew how joyful we were they would whip us
to death. Those were the happiest days of my life. . . . We were
floating, swimming, in the feeling that we were about to enter
eternity. We had no doubts. We had made on oath on the Koran,
176 JAMES W. JONES
in the presence of Allah. . . . I know there are other ways to do
jihad. But this one is sweet—the sweetest. All martyrdom operations,
if done for Allah’s sake, hurt less than a gnat’s bite. (Hassan,
2001, pp. 36–37)
On a similar note, the killer of a doctor outside a family planning
clinic in the United States says he was comforted by reading
the Psalms on his way to commit the murder. One of the perpetrators
of the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center is reported
to have told a journalist that secular Americans will never
understand why he did what he did because they miss “the soul.
. . . The soul of religion, that is what is missing” (Juergensmeyer,
2000, p. 69).
Hence, the 9/11 attacks were not a political act; they were
a religious act. Therefore, the psychology involved here is that
of religion. Although humiliation and relative deprivation clearly
play a part in much of the terrorism in the Middle East, the
unusual sociological variables—poverty, lack of education, and
the like—often appear to play little role and provide little predictive
value. One of the best predictors is religiosity. The Singapore
Parliamentary report on captured members of terrorist cells in
Southeast Asia emphasizes this connection: “These men were not
ignorant, destitute, or disenfranchised. All 31 men had received
secular education. . . . they held normal, respectable jobs. . . . As a
group, most of the detainees regarded religion as their most important
personal value” (quoted in Atran, 2003, p. 1537).
One of the most extreme examples of the linkage of death
and purification is Asahara’s doctrine of killing a person in order
to save them (called poa), which became increasingly important
as Aum felt more threatened by surrounding society. Such
a doctrine, based on Asahara’s reading of esoteric Tibetan Buddhism,
clearly provides the kind of sanctification of killing found
in every case of religiously sponsored terrorism. In addition, this
doctrine supports an inability to empathize with victims, thereby
easily promoting what the social psychologist Waller (2002) calls
their “social death.” Many of Aum’s remaining members do indeed
express an astonishing lack of empathy for the victims of
their group’s actions. The most extreme is the Aum member
who responded to Reader’s (2000) mention of the subway attack
with “Wonderful, wasn’t it?”—because of the attention it brought
WHY DOES RELIGION TURN VIOLENT? 177
to Aum (p. 222; see Maekawa, 2001, for many more examples of
this lack of empathy for the victims).
Shimazono (2001), to some extent, and Watanabe (1998,
2005), more strongly, lay much of the blame for Aum’s crimes
on Asahara’s doctrine of poa. This would be another example of
the idea of sacrifice (either of oneself or others) leading to one’s
sanctification that is central in much religiously sponsored terrorism.
But in the case of Aum, psychologically we need to ask,
why does such an extreme doctrine as poa take root in some
people’s minds? Is it primarily, as Shimazono and Lifton seem
to imply, because of their extreme devotion to guru Asahara? Or
is there a deeper, psychological reason that inclines people to
accept the idea of sanctifying oneself (and the other, too, in the
case of poa) through death?
Once again we are back to the psychodynamic linking of
holiness and purification with death that also is found in many
examples of religiously sponsored violence. The theme of purification
was central in Asahara’s message virtually from the beginning;
his techniques were supposed to enable individuals to rid
themselves of “bad karma” and other impurities. Themes of purity
and purification are central in Japanese Shinto, and thus
were surely present in Asahara’s consciousness and that of his
disciples. But such themes are present in some form in virtually
every religion. They not in the least unique to Shinto, Aum, or
violent religious groups. Again, psychologically it is not the
themes of sanctification or purification that are at issue. Rather,
it is their linkage with violence and death that matters in the
psychology of religiously motivated terrorism. This theme of sacrificing
one’s self and one’s victim in order to sanctify or purify
both becomes more and more prominent in Asahara’s religious
rhetoric as Aum Shinrikyo turns more violent and Asahara seeks
to justify the group’s murderous actions (Shimazono, 2001;
Watanabe, 1998, 2005).
Since the human bombers and the members of Aum Shinrikyo
are offering a religious sacrifice, Strenski (2003) argues,
their actions are not primarily motivated by “a utilitarian or
pragmatic calculus” (p. 26). One important and perhaps unhappy
practical conclusion of this situation is that it is mistake
to seek to understand religiously motivated terrorists using the
178 JAMES W. JONES
game theoretic or rational choice models so prominent in the
social sciences these days (for relevant reviews, see Victoroff,
2005, as well as Moghaddam & Marsella, 2004). 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.2
Virtually every report on militant Muslims stresses the reward
of entering paradise as a major motivator for their actions
(Davis, 2003; Post et al., 2003; Hassan, 2001). 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,” (Hassan, 2001,
p. 37). 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” (Hassan, 2001, p. 40). 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” (Hassan,
2001, p. 40).
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
WHY DOES RELIGION TURN VIOLENT? 179
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
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.3
The God that demands sacrifice as the means of purification
is an angry, punitive God. Here the psychologist of religion
can contribute to the discussion by pointing to some of the correlates
of such an image of God. There is research that suggests,
at least for religiously committed populations, that punitive and
wrathful images of God are associated with external locus of control,
anxiety and depression, and less mature object relations
(Brokaw & Edwards, 1994; Spear, 1994) The reverse has also
been found to be true, that a more benevolent internal representation
of God is associated with more mature psychological development
and the capacity for more mature object relations. A
believer’s capacity for object relations encompasses his or her
religious expressions (Jones, 1991). Thus it makes theoretical as
well as empirical sense that a person who envisions God as
180 JAMES W. JONES
wrathful or punitive would also be inclined toward more rigid
splitting and have less capacity for empathy—traits that appear
to characterize many religiously motivated terrorists.
So sacrifice and redemption, bloodshed and spiritual transformation
become linked when the deity to be appeased by sacrifice
is humiliating and punitive. But there was no transcendental
deity in Aum. As Watanabe (n.d.) astutely points out, when Asahara
had his vision anointing him with a messianic vocation, the
result was not a religion of devotion to that god—as is usually
the result in the history of religions—but rather a cult based on
devotion to Asahara himself. So did Asahara himself serve as a
humiliating but sacred Other that had to be appeased by abject
submission and by sacrificing oneself and others? We can surmise
so, but we do not really know. We can suggest that whatever
is the psychological connection between purification and
the shedding of blood, which seems operative in so much religiously
motivated violence, it was probably present in at least
some Aum members as well.
From a clinical standpoint, what appears most salient in the
turn toward violence on the part of religion are the themes of
shame and humiliation, the apocalyptic splitting of the world
into all-good/all-evil camps, the wrathful, judgmental image of
God, the drive for purification, and the authoritarian concern
with submission and prejudice against outsiders (Altemeyer &
Hunsberger, 1992). Research suggests that shame and humiliation
may be crucial elements in most religiously sponsored violence.
Religion can become involved with humiliation-driven
violence in one or both of two ways. One, people may be humiliated
by the circumstances of their lives (Palestinians under Israeli
occupation, Chechens under Russian occupation, Iraqis under
American occupation), and their religion may play upon that
humiliation, potentiating it and channeling it for its own purposes.
We should note that religion may also mute and transform
that humiliation rather than reinforce it, as the Dali Lama
is trying to do with the Tibetans under Chinese occupation and
as Martin Luther King attempted to do with the humiliation of
African-Americans in the face of American racism.
Second, religions may directly evoke and exacerbate feelings
of shame and humiliation. Images of a wrathful punitive
WHY DOES RELIGION TURN VIOLENT? 181
deity, a revered master or leader who harangues and humiliates
his disciples, or a sacred text read in a way to aggravate shame
and condemnation are all ways that religions can intensify those
feelings. Here we can begin to see some of the connections
among these themes often found together in religiously motivated
terrorists, that is, their punitive image of God or some
other religious object and their humiliation-driven turn toward
violence. 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.4 In addition, research done with religious believers
in North America suggests that such punitive images of God
tend to be associated with an external locus of control, a lack of
empathy for others, a tendency toward psychological splitting
and less self-esteem. Again, there may be connections between
the punitive experience of the divine, authoritarian personality
traits, and the appeal of an apocalyptic polarization of the world.
In addition, the self-aggrandizement that Juergensmeyer (2000)
argues comes with being a part of the army of the righteous may
have a special appeal to those whose self-esteem needs bolstering.
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 be182
JAMES W. JONES
tween 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 (Lawrence, 1989). So part of the psychology
involved is the psychology of patriarchal religion.
Freud himself provides one of the most profound analyses
of patriarchal religion in his book Totem and Taboo (a fuller discussion
of Totem and Taboo can be found in Jones, 1996). Here,
instinct-driven ambivalence is the key to understanding the genesis
of religion and culture. At first the sons of the primal horde
hated their father, who stood in the way of their boundless desire.
But they loved and admired him too. After murdering him,
their affection for him, which they had had to deny in order kill
him, reappeared as guilt and remorse. This is how guilt, on
which all religion depends, originated (Freud, 1913, p. 143).
The murderous sons of the primal father, the harbingers
of culture and religion, had to make peace with their returning
repressed guilt. A substitute father had to be found. Like Freud’s
phobic child-patient little Hans—who projected his fear of his
father onto an animal—the guilty sons projected their feelings
onto an animal, and totemism, and with it religion, was born.
Totemism is the beginning of religion; patriarchal theism is the
end. Freud (1913) remains convinced that the root of every religion
is a “longing for the father” (p. 148). The first religious
object, the totem, could only be a surrogate father. As time went
on and the primal murder faded into unconsciousness, an object
entered consciousness that carried a more complete resemblance
to the lost father—a god “in which the father has regained his
human shape” (p. 148).
The oedipal legacy of patriarchal religion becomes the lens
WHY DOES RELIGION TURN VIOLENT? 183
through which Freud (1913) sees all religious history. “The god
of each of them is formed in the likeness of the father, his personal
relation to God depends on his relation to his father. . . .
at bottom God is nothing other than an exalted father” (p. 47).
Freud, convinced that the murder of the father and its continual
replay in fantasy and culture is the hinge on which history turns,
can easily read religious development forward or backward from
The original theory of the process of internalization in Mourning
and Melancholia implies that the boy should internalize an
image of his mother, because she is the lost object. But in the
third chapter of The Ego and the Id, Freud complicates the earlier
theory (for example, by invoking the category of bisexuality) in
order to argue that in dissolving the Oedipus complex the males
of the species, the creators of culture, simultaneously renounce
their attachment to their mother and internalize an image of
their father. For it is the internalized image of the father, as egoideal,
that is the foundation of culture and religion. In the resolution
of the male Oedipus complex the connection to the
mother is displaced by an identification with the father.
The same displacement of the feminine influence by the
masculine takes place in psychoanalytic theorizing, as the preoedipal,
mother-dominated period is downplayed in favor of the
developmental centrality of the oedipal, father-dominated stage.
Keeping to the parallel between individual and cultural development,
Freud (1913) confesses he can find no place “for the great
mother goddesses, who may perhaps in general have preceded
the father gods” (p. 49). This oversight surely parallels the fact
that he can find no place in his theory for the preoedipal, maternal
period in human development except its displacement by
a normative patriarchy. With the coming of the oedipal period
individually and prehistorically, the normative ethos of patriarchy
returned. “With the introduction of father deities a fatherless
society gradually changed into one organized on a patriarchal
basis. The family was a restoration of the former primal horde
and it gave back to fathers a large portion of their former rights”
(Freud, 1913, p. 149).
In a letter to Freud, responding to The Future of an Illusion,
Freud’s friend Romain Rolland, a student of Hindu religion and
184 JAMES W. JONES
biographer of Ramakrishna and Vivekenanda, proposed a preoedipal
origin to religion in a “feeling of something limitless, unbounded-
as it were, oceanic . . . a purely subjective fact, not an
article of faith.” Freud, having firmly committed himself to the
centrality of the father, the father God, the oedipal struggle, and
the masculine gender, must deny Rolland’s claim that religion
arises from preoedipal, maternal dynamics. The only definition
of religion Freud will consider is a patriarchal religion of law
and guilt built around the father God.
Freud’s analysis of religion depends on a specific image of
God. The patriarchal God of law and conscience is the only religion
Freud will countenance. If he were to give up that paternal
representation of God as normative, his argument would lose
much of its force. Freud reproduces the exclusive, patriarchal
monotheism of Western religion in his theory of the exclusively
oedipal and paternal origins of culture, religion, and morality.
Freud must insist that religion is essentially patriarchal, for that
is the only religion that fits within the frame of the oedipal
drama and that can easily be derived from the instinct theory.
In tying morality tightly to the Oedipus complex so that “religion,
morals, society converge in the Oedipus complex,” Freud
(1913, p. 157) is insisting that morality consists mainly of rules
and prohibitions. Freud’s tendency to limit morality to a set of
prohibitions, like his restriction of religion to patriarchal theism,
follows naturally from the centrality of the oedipal period in his
theory. Again, the importance of the preoedipal, maternal period
has been forgotten. Just as forms of religion may be rooted
in preoedipal, maternal dynamics, so likewise with morality.
Along with a postoedipal, paternal morality of law and authority,
there may well be a preoedipal, maternal morality of connection
and relationship. An appreciation of the integrity and centrality
of preoedipal dynamics might point to an ethic of relatedness in
which the maintenance of connections between people is more
central than the imposition of rules. Such an ethic has been
taken up by many feminist writers. Such a relational, feminist
approach to moral reasoning parallels the relational view of human
nature found in contemporary psychoanalysis.
Freud’s analysis points to the deep psychodynamic connections
between patriarchal cultures, paternalistic deities, and guiltWHY
DOES RELIGION TURN VIOLENT? 185
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
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” (p. 65). 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
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 split186
JAMES W. JONES
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” (p. 67).
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. It is not coincidence that this research
has found the more fanatical groups are also the most
racist, homophobic, and anti-Semitic (Altemeyer & Hunsberger,
1992). Thus the psychological appeal of what Juergensmeyer
(2000) calls satanization. Such a denigration of the other, an almost
inevitable result of the moral defense with its overidealization
of an object and the splitting of the world, makes the denigrated
other a ready victim of terrorist violence.
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 selfdeprecation
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
WHY DOES RELIGION TURN VIOLENT? 187
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.
1. Neutral designations are almost impossible here. Muslims, even those who
reject the appeal to martyrdom, reject the designation of “suicide bombers,”
since these individuals have none of the psychological characteristics of
those who commit suicide, and, furthermore, suicide is condemned in the
Koran. While I regard them as terrorists, and as hard as it is for me personally,
I feel that stance should not dominate a scholarly text. I will follow the
convention of Raphael Israeli (quoted in Strenski, 2003) and refer to them
most frequently as “human bombers.”
2. Examples of this assertion are found throughout, the works by Davis (2003)
and Hassan (2001). Post et al. (2003) conclude that, in contrast to the West,
in Middle Eastern Muslim communities “liberation and religious freedom
are the values that define success, not necessarily academic or economic
success” (p. 175).
3. Ruth Stein (Stein, n.d.-b, p. 6) proposes a very helpful model of a linear
progression of psychological stages in the process of transforming sacrifice
into suicidal terrorism:
1. Stage 1 involves the differentiation of the pure from the impure and a
desire to safeguard what is holy and pure.
2. Stage 2 is the elicitation of more vigorous activity, for example, more rigid
adherence to ritual, if the need to separate the pure from the impure
grows more intense. This may intensify into attempts to go beyond segregating
the impure and unholy to eliminating them, violently if necessary.
Here the wish to please God and the wish to kill begin to merge.
3. Stage 3 represents the transition of this attitude into martyrdom, where
one not only sacrifices the enemies of God but also seeks to purify oneself
by self-sacrifice as well.
4. In a series of papers, 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, n.d.-b, p. 6). Stein calls this “vertical desire,” which is
188 JAMES W. JONES
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.” (p. 10)
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” (p. 10). There
is little overt expression of self-hatred in the recorded interviews with religious
terrorists. However, given the extreme judgmentalism and intense superego-
driven morality in many religious terrorists, it is reasonable to suggest
that masochism and self-hatred may lurk below the surface. Stein is
arguing that fundamentalist religion transforms this masochistic self-hatred
into a love for the father God who calls on devotees to hate and despise
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. (Copies of Koenigsberg’s
other relevant papers are available from Psy.BC online.)
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.
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