Group involvement, rather than personal religious devotion, determines whether or not an individual approves of suicide attacks.
Since the events of 9/11, the links between suicide attacks and religious groups, particularly Islamic ones, have been firmly ingrained in the western consciousness. Scholars and pundits have debated the aspects of religion
, from personal devotion to group worship, that could convince people to sacrifice their own lives to take those of others.
But so far, their arguments have hinged on mere speculation.
, of the New School for Social Research in New York, decided to examine the issue with an objective scientific eye. By studying a wide variety of cultures and faiths, he has found that a person's stance on martyrdom has little to do with their religious devotion or any particular religious belief. Instead, it was the collective side of religion that mattered – those who frequently attended religious rituals or services were most likely to back suicide attacks. These group rituals, be they in a church, mosque or synagogue, can invoke a powerful sense of shared identity to the exclusion of outsiders. Strong communities are the positive result of this group loyalty; suicide attacks are its ugly dark side.
Ginges and his colleagues have analysed (pdf)
two separate surveys of Palestinian Muslims, looking at their religious beliefs and behaviour. He found that people who attended daily mosque services were two to three times more likely to support suicide attacks or believe that such attacks were required by their religion. This was not a mere reflection of propaganda, for Ginges saw the same effect whether or not the students empathised with Israelis. Nor did it matter if they supported Hamas or Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
In contrast, personal religious devotion, as measured by how often they prayed, had nothing to do with their support for martyrdom. The use of prayer as a proxy for devotion is perhaps contentious, but Ginges confirmed that people who felt their religion was most important to them also prayed most frequently.
So these surveys support the idea that the communal aspect of religion, rather than personal devotion, affects support for suicide attacks. This pattern extends far beyond Islam
. Ginges found the same trends in Indonesian Muslims, Mexican Catholics, British Protestants, Russian Orthodox Christians, Israeli Jews, and Indian Hindus.
Since suicide attacks are rare or non-existent in many of these faiths, Ginges asked their adherents if they were"willing to die for [their] God/beliefs" and whether they "blame people of other religions" for the world's troubles. As before, people were twice as likely to agree if they regularly attended a mosque, church, synagogue or temple. Prayer frequency did not affect their answers, and all six groups showed the same pattern. This time, Ginges confirmed that prayer frequency was a stronger indicator of religious devotion than actual attendance at religious services.
Finally, Ginges backed up his theory with a simple experiment. He asked Jewish settlers in Gaza either often they prayed or how often they visited a synagogue. Their answers were irrelevant; Ginges simply wanted to plant the notion of prayer or synagogues in their heads. When they were later asked about the Cave of the Patriarchs
attack, 23% of those who had synagogues on their minds described the event as "extremely heroic". However, only 6% of those who were asked about prayer did so, while 15% agreed when neither thought was planted. This was the most powerful result yet – simply priming people's brains with the idea of a religious service made them more likely to support such attacks. Contemplating prayer actually dulled their fervour.
This research clearly suggests that of belief and belonging, the latter is the chief driving force behind religiously motivated suicide attacks. By themselves, personal beliefs, doctrine and devotion do not boost the odds of people martyring themselves. Instead, collective rituals are far more influential. They strengthen an individual's loyalty to a community at the risk of hardening their hearts against outsiders.
While this study focused on religion, there are clearly many other factors that affect support for suicide attacks, including economic and political ones. Regardless, Ginges's work highlights the value of throwing some peer-reviewed, objective evidence into a debate where conjecture and opinion are the norm.
The big danger is in drawing naive and reactionary interpretations from them. Clearly, not everyone who attends religious services will become suicide bombers, or are even likely to. These services have important benefits, particularly in building strong communities. Only rarely, in specific political and cultural environments, does this group-building ethos turn sour, providing the twisted foundations of suicide attacks.
There are also many ways for secular groups to create the same mentality, including youth groups and military parades. The non-religious Tamil Tigers use exactly such techniques to recruit support for suicide attacks. Ginges himself wants to see if the same links between religious group activities and martyrdom apply to secular communities.
Ed Yong is an award-winning science writer based in London. He blogs at Not Exactly Rocket Science.