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A Psychoanalytic Exploration of Religious Terrorism

by James W. Jones

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.


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


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


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


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,

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 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


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


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

Palestinian neighborhoods:

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


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


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,


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

that point.

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


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


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

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 split186


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


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


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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The Psychoanalytic Review

Vol. 93, No. 2, April 2006

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