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Collective rituals spur support for suicide attacks: researchers

Acts of war by self-destruction seen as part of a larger psychological phenomenon

Feb. 19, 2009
Courtesy Association for
Psychological Science
and World Science staff

Re­li­gion plays a role in su­i­cide bomb­ings—but it’s col­lec­tive wor­ship, rath­er than lev­el of de­vo­tion, that fos­ters sup­port for such deeds, a new study con­cludes.

The anal­y­sis found that among Mus­lims and Jews sur­veyed in the Mid­dle East, how of­ten people at­tended a house of wor­ship better pre­dicted their back­ing for su­i­cide at­tacks than did pray­er fre­quen­cy.

Su­i­cide at­tacks—today most of­ten as­so­ci­at­ed with acts against Amer­i­cans or Is­raelis by Mus­lims—seem to be one as­pect of a wid­er phe­nom­e­non in which col­lec­tive re­li­gious rit­u­al fos­ters a mind­set known as pa­ro­chi­al al­tru­ism, ac­cord­ing to psy­chol­o­gists. Pa­ro­chi­al al­tru­ism is a com­bina­t­ion of neg­a­tive at­ti­tudes to­ward an­oth­er so­cial group and sac­ri­fice for one’s own.

Su­i­cide at­tacks would be an ex­treme form of pa­ro­chi­al al­tru­ism, said the psy­chol­o­gists who con­ducted the stu­dy, from the New School for So­cial Re­search in New York and the Uni­ver­s­ity of Brit­ish Co­lum­bia. And when forms of pa­ro­chi­al al­tru­ism oth­er than su­i­cide at­tacks were con­sid­ered, the re­search­ers found many cul­tures and re­li­gions fol­lowed the pat­tern iden­ti­fied in the Mid­dle East.

The scientists proposed that col­lec­tive re­li­gious rit­u­als and ser­vic­es cre­ate a sense of com­mun­ity among par­ti­ci­pants and thus en­hance ad­mir­ation for pa­ro­chi­ally al­tru­is­tic acts. But “only in par­tic­u­lar geopo­lit­i­cal con­texts” do su­i­cide at­tacks arise from this, the sci­en­tists wrote in the study, which ap­pears in the jour­nal Psy­cho­log­i­cal Sci­ence

The in­ves­ti­ga­tors sur­veyed Pal­es­tin­ian Mus­lims about their re­li­gious at­ti­tudes, in­clud­ing how of­ten they prayed and went to mosque. They found that de­vo­tion to Is­lam, as meas­ured by pray­er fre­quen­cy, was un­re­lat­ed to sup­port for su­i­cide at­tacks. But fre­quen­cy of mosque at­tend­ance did pre­dict sup­port for the as­saults. 

In a sep­a­rate sur­vey of Pal­es­tin­ian Mus­lim uni­ver­s­ity stu­dents, the re­search­ers found again that those who at­tended mosque more than once a day were more likely to be­lieve Is­lam re­quires su­i­cide at­tacks than less fre­quent at­ten­dees. 

The re­search­ers said they ob­tained par­al­lel re­sults from phone sur­veys of Is­rae­li Jews liv­ing in the West Bank and Ga­za. In this case, par­ti­ci­pants were asked about syn­a­gogue at­tend­ance, pray­er habits and wheth­er they would sup­port a per­pe­tra­tor of a su­i­cide at­tack against their Pal­es­tin­i­an foes. 

The psy­chol­o­gists al­so sur­veyed mem­bers of re­li­gious ma­jor­i­ties in six na­tion­s—Mex­i­can Catholics, In­do­ne­sian Mus­lims, Is­rae­li Jews, Rus­sian Or­tho­dox, Brit­ish Protes­tants and In­di­an Hin­dus—to see if the rela­t­ion­ship be­tween at­tend­ing re­li­gious ser­vic­es and sup­port for acts of pa­ro­chi­al al­tru­ism held up. These re­sults al­so in­di­cat­ed sup­port for pa­ro­chi­al al­tru­ism was re­lat­ed to at­tend­ance at re­li­gious ser­vic­es, but un­re­lat­ed to reg­u­lar pray­er, the sci­en­tists found.

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Religion plays a role in suicide bombings—but it’s collective worship, rather than level of devotion, that fosters suports for such acts, a new study concludes. The analysis found that among Muslims and Jews surveyed in the Middle East, how often a person attended a house of worship predicted people’s backing for suicide attacks better than prayer frequency did. Suicide attacks—today most often associated with attacks on Americans or Israelis by Muslims—seem to be one aspect of a wider phenomenon in which collective religious ritual fosters a mindset known as parochial altruism, according to psychologists. Parochial altruism is a combination of negative attitudes toward another social group and sacrifice for one’s own. Suicide attacks would be an extreme form of parochial altruism, according to the psychologists who conducted the study, from the New School for Social Research in New York and the University of British Columbia. And when other forms of parochial altruism than suicide attacks were considered, the researchers found many cultures and religions followed the pattern identified in the Middle East. The stuy appears in the journal Psychological Science. The investigators surveyed Palestinian Muslims about their religious attitudes, including how often they prayed and went to mosque. They found that devotion to Islam, as measured by prayer frequency, was unrelated to support for suicide attacks. But frequency of mosque attendance did predict support for the assaults. In a separate survey of Palestinian Muslim university students, the researchers found again that those who attended mosque more than once a day were more likely to believe Islam requires suicide attacks than less frequent attendees. The researchers said they obtained parallel results when they conducted phone surveys with Israeli Jews living in the West Bank and Gaza. In this case, participants were asked about synagogue attendance, prayer habits and whether they would support a perpetrator of a suicide attack against Palestinians. The psychologists also surveyed members of six religious majorities in six nations—Mexican Catholics, Indonesian Muslims, Israeli Jews, Russian Orthodox in Russia, British Protestants and Indian Hindus—to see if the relationship between attending religious services and support for acts of parochial altruism held up across a variety of political and cultural contexts. These results also indicated support for parochial altruism was related to attendance at religious services, but unrelated to regular prayer, the scientists found. Collective religious rituals and services create a sense of community among participants and enhance positive attitudes towards parochially altruistic acts such as suicide attacks. But “only in particular geopolitical contexts” do extreme forms like suicide attacks arise, the scientists wrote.