Why they kill: Male bonding + religion = disaster


Religion kills. From the ancient Egyptians to the Roman emperors who declared themselves gods, to the death of Christ to al Qaeda to Beslan to beheadings, religion has been a catalyst or an excuse for killing.

Of course, like the gun lobby, religious leaders can say "religion doesn't kill people; people kill people." But religion is unique to man, a cultural construct, a product of human minds. And men– the males of our species– have evolved to bond together with other men and kill, often in the name of religious beliefs.

Maybe that's why religious fundamentalists prefer to reject evolution: When you do the math and combine evolution with religion, you come to a sum that equals 9/11 or Beslan Middle School No. 1.

The September 11 Commission missed the fundamental causes of that day's tragedy. Religious belief now imperils the safety of the world. If we want to understand the genesis of terrorism– including September 11– we must confront the horrors of our evolutionary history, the murderous legacy it has left in men, and the violence that lurks at the core of religion.

The terrorists who hijacked four planes on September 11, 2001 and began the most recent madness were 19 young men bound together by their faith in Islam and their loyalty to al Qaeda.

War and terrorism, martyrdom and religion– they twine together like strands of DNA. And the bond between them is just as ancient. Anthropologists have a name for attacks like those of 9/11, a name, in fact, for war itself.

It's called "male-bonded coalitionary violence with lethal raiding against innocents," and it's part of human nature, specifically male human nature. It has been continuous, in some form or another, for some seven million years of hominid evolution. And religion has often been its catalyst.

Religion is a product of human minds. But it contains a fatal design flaw that allows religious leaders to hijack an ancient, violent propensity of men in coalitions and use it to serve political ends in the guise of serving a god.


Finding the weakling

 In lethal raids, a party of allied males collectively seeks a vulnerable neighbor, assesses the probability of success, and conducts a surprise attack. This coalitionary violence has been favored by Darwinian natural selection. Even during the brief 150,000 years of Homo sapiens' history– 90 percent of which they spent as hunter-gatherers– men have been ruthlessly violent. Males evolved brains that allow them to assess and seek opportunities to impose such deadly violence. This complex behavior arose in our ape ancestors prior to the chimp/human split.

In 1974, a field worker in Jane Goodall's preserve in Africa watched a group of male chimpanzees– a species with whom we share 98 percent of our DNA– come together and with coordination, stealth, and surprise, move through a neighboring community to find and kill a lone victim. Since then, such violent raids have been observed repeatedly. Chimpanzees do not engage in one-on-one killing: All murderous violence occurs in male-bonded coalitions. This behavior offers the strongest evidence that murderous violence existed in our common ancestor and has remained in the two separate developmental trajectories, chimp and man, over the next five to seven million years.

Lethal raids reflect the essence of primitive war; 20 to 40 percent of male deaths in the few still-remaining hunter-gatherer societies are at the hands of other men. The equivalent death rate– if the world's population were still hunter-gatherers– would be two billion war deaths in the 20th century alone.

Why? What's happened? How could such deadly behavior ensure or enhance survival? Why would that be part of human nature?

It is, literally, a long story.


A violent history

 Adaptations always deal with fitness, the ability to pass genes to later generations. As man evolved, lethal raiding permitted males to successfully attract or secure reproductive-age females, weaken neighbors who might compete for those women, inspire fear, protect themselves from incursion, expand their safe borders, and– by attacking in groups– incur very little risk.

Through the few existing hunter-gatherer tribes, we can see into deep time and catch a glimpse of how we lived for most of our evolutionary history as fully formed Homo sapiens. Constant tribal warfare, in the form of male-bonded coalitionary violence with lethal raiding, characterizes life.

A study of one such remaining hunter-gatherer society, the Yanamamo of South America, reveals that such murderous behavior is adaptive, even to the present day. Men who have killed have more wives and far more children. Traits that promote reproductive success are the ones that proliferate in a population. As Steven Pinker says, the mind is what the brain does. The psychological mechanisms that provide survival and reproductive advantages– and the behaviors they initiate– become embedded in the human brain.

The fossil evidence is overwhelming. Violent death at the hands of other men speaks out through the skeletal fractures, the frequency of cranial trauma, the presence of arrow wounds, the predominance of male skeletons, and the rate of left-side wounds, a sign of being struck by a predominantly right-handed species.

Across all cultures, the spontaneous play of boys centers on the techniques of primitive war: male-bonding, coalitions, and surprise attacks on "enemies." We may not like to admit it, but the propensity resides in male brains, and men start to practice it when they are just boys.

Add to that embedded, male bonded murderous trait the cultural construct religion, and you have the potential for explosion.

Central to understanding religion's role in human groups is what is called our naïve sociology, our "groupishness." One of humanity's weaknesses is the inability to appreciate groups as groups of individuals. If you arbitrarily divide a roomful of people into two groups and give each group tasks, competition inevitably ensues. Individuals quickly feel loyalty towards their group, idealize it, and devalue the capabilities of the other group.

We easily use group tags and explain complicated groups in a singular, reductionist way: "The French are rude..." or "the Russians think that...."

We all need enemies and allies. That explains what we all believe to be true: The groups to which we belong are superior. Religious leaders prey upon this groupishness to insure loyalty to the faith and to co-religionists. Religion historically has served as one of the crucial tags that instantly distinguish a group, dividing the world into us and them. Throughout recorded history, in the Beslan school, on September 11, and in today's and tomorrow's terrorism, religion has served as an identifying marker for death-deserving enemies. Once identified as an infidel, you are the target for a lot of scripturally sanctioned hatred.


Tyranny of the messenger

 Groups can grow cumbersome. What happens to the dominant male in a successful social group that becomes too large to be effectively managed? Our more cunning ancestors discovered the power of a declaring that one was a "mere messenger," a representative of a higher power– a divinity immune to challenge.

As a divinity's representative, the messenger gains authority without the risk of full responsibility and without the need to respond to challenges from other males who are not "messengers." Such challenges might even be punished as heresy. Defeat is never the leader's failure; it is God's will.

Two of the many "mere messengers" who currently plague our world are Osama bin Laden and Moqtada al-Sadr.

Osama bin Laden himself lives freely and speaks out, urging Muslims to continue Jihad. Americans still live in the shadow of September 11, yet look away from its root causes.

We now witness the rise of another Osama in Iraq. In April, surrounded by thousands of followers, part of his Mahdi army, the radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr hid in the holiest shrine of his sect, the Imam Ali mosque. As the leader of the resistance to the new Iraqi government and the American occupational forces, he has inspired millions of Shiites. Hundreds of them died in the Wadi al-Salam cemetery in suicidal combat as al-Sadr aspired to outright power in a future Iranian-like Islamic Iraqi republic. An ayatollah negotiated a deal that permitted al-Sadr, who is wanted for the murder of another cleric, to escape and his followers to blend into the pilgrims who could come again to the Imam Ali mosque. That will hardly be the last we hear of al-Sadr and his holy warriors.

Anbar province and the cities of Fallujah, Samarra, and Ramadi, just west of Baghdad, now suffer under the control of Islamic militants. A Sunni cleric, Abdullah al Janabi, leads the militants from a mosque in Fallujah and rules in Taliban style with public lashings and beheadings. Suleiman Marawi, a battalion chief of the American-trained Iraqi National Guard, was beheaded August 13 to the accompaniment of chants from the Koran that ordain death to those who "make war on Allah." The videotape of the atrocity sells for 50 cents in the Fallujah marketplace.

On September 20, American contractor Eugene Armstrong was beheaded after his masked executioner read a statement announcing to President George Bush, "Now you have people who love death just like you love life. Getting to your soldiers and allies are their happiest moments, and cutting the heads off the criminal infidels is implementing the orders of our lord." The following day, Jack Hensley suffered the same fate.


Religion's reach

 September 1, 2004: The children assembled in the schoolyard, accompanied by parents and brothers and sisters to begin the school year. Just as the first graders were to be introduced, armed gunmen burst in yelling, "Allahu Akhbar"– God is great.

The deadliest terrorist attack since September 11 left over three hundred dead in Beslan, mostly children, with more expected to die from their wounds. Faith-based suicide terrorism showed a new, more horrible face: direct assaults on children.

The Islambouli Brigades, a little-known group connected with al Qaeda, claimed responsibility for destroying two Russian planes and for the fatal Moscow subway bombing that occurred in the same week as the attack in Beslan.

Religion's power derives from its ability to utilize mental mechanisms designed for other tasks: our attachment to parental figures, our wish for help in distress, submission to authority, our sensitivity to hierarchies, our love of kin, and our inclination to see human-like intention as the explanation for any unknown.

Religions are cultural mechanisms that facilitate terrorism and war. By promising an afterlife, religions devalue this life. They permit the takeover of groups by disenfranchised men. Belief in an afterlife and a reward for dying in a holy war help minimize the fear of death. Religious adherence can turn off mechanisms of compassion and turn on and maximize dehumanization.

Religions can be fatally effective at guiding in-group morality and out-group hatred, providing leaders the ability to assess and maximize followers' commitments to dangerous tasks. Oaths have the imprint of psychic terror and serve as costly advertisements, broadcasting the superiority and commitment of those who swear allegiance.

Religions prepare for war to exterminate out-groups and guarantee warriors their share of the spoils. Promises of rewards such as 72 virgins in paradise for those who die "martyr" deaths help bond and manipulate disenfranchised young men. The body count of human history, September 11, the cycle of violence in Israel and Palestine, now Moscow and Beslan, the Sudan, and the Najaf cemetery stand as blood-soaked proof.

On September 11, 2001, such a coalition of young men, bonded together in the name of Islam, attacked the United States and murdered 3,000 people. The widespread cheering in the Islamic world reverberated for all to hear, even though many Islamic leaders decried this twisted use of their faith.

Religious moderates wish to avoid submitting to the full implications of their faith but then tolerate the worst irrationalities and violence of their fundamentalist coreligionists.

In Pakistan the number of fundamentalist Islamist madrassa schools has grown from 3,000 to 40,000 since 1978. For the first time since the 13th Century, Muslim assassins killed fellow Muslims and Crusaders to purify Islamic lands. The year 2003 witnessed more suicide attacks (98) than any year in modern history.

In the first three months of 2004, three dozen Muslim suicide attackers struck in six countries, killing 600 and wounding thousands. Between February 1 and March 2 of this year, 10 suicide bombers killed more than 400 people in Iraq, more than any single country for any 31-day period since September 11. In one morning rush-hour attack in April, 68 people were killed– including 10 kindergarteners and a similar number of older students incinerated in their school buses.

Although it is tempting for Westerners to point the finger at Islam, it behooves us to remember that the cross has accompanied the sword everywhere, including into the Arab world of the Middle Ages. Parts of the Old Testament are blueprints for murder and genocide. Deuteronomy 20:16 instructs those entering the cities promised to them by God to "leave alive nothing that breatheth."


Face the truth

 Meanwhile in our own country, the two principal presidential candidates compete to display their piety. Michael Peroutka, the current candidate for President of the United States representing the Constitution Party, runs a "divinely inspired" campaign to remake the U.S. into a Christian state, one that no longer adheres to the First Amendment separation of church and state.

Will we ever face the truth? Will we ever acknowledge that we are risen apes, not fallen angels? There is no heaven. This life is all we have. It is far too precious to throw away for those who would exploit our vulnerabilities and violent passions with supernatural fantasies and non-existent eternal worlds.

Can we any longer afford the luxury of tolerating religion and its deadly supernatural beliefs? Does its diplomatic free-pass, the deference we pay, deserve to be revoked?

If we could only realize that all humans are truly brothers and sisters. We are all each other's keeper on this fragile planet. Our different races and ethnicities hide an essential truth. We are all Africans, all siblings, descendants of a small group of hunter-gatherers who arose in Africa less than 200,000 years ago and conquered the world. Maybe that awareness would give us pause. But as long as we tolerate the divisive pretensions of religious belief, especially those of the three great Abrahamic faiths, we will all be in the line of fire.

J. Anderson Thomson Jr. is a psychiatrist and assistant director of the Center for the Study of Mind and Human Interaction at the University of Virginia School of Medicine. He is the author of a paper, with Max Harris and Vamik Volkan, "The Psychology of Western European Neo-Racism." Clare Aukofer provided assistance for this piece.


New York firemen hose down the smoldering wreckage of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, destroyed by al Qaeda zealots on September 11, 2001.


Officials begin to identify the remains of 322 people, including 155 children, killed September 3 at Beslan School #1 by terrorists linked to al Qaeda.


An Iraqi Shiite militiaman aligned with radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, joins other militia members April 19 brandishing weapons in the southern Iraqi city of Diwaniya.


After US troops killed three men who attacked Mosul's city hall, an escaping member of the insurgents carries a rocket propelled grenade launcher down a back street April 9.



The author of this essay, J. Anderson Thomson Jr.






Will we ever face the truth? Will we ever acknowledge that we are risen apes, not fallen angels? There is no heaven. This life is all we have.


Addressing President Bush, the executioner said: "Now you have people who love death just like you love life. Getting to your soldiers and allies are their happiest moments, and cutting the heads off the criminal infidels is implementing the orders of our lord." – statement by terrorist at the September 20 beheading of American Eugene Armstrong