Sacrifice and Sacred Values: Evolutionary Perspectives on Religious Terrorism

Richard Sosis, Erika J. Phillips and Candace S. Alcorta

in The Oxford Handbook of Evolutionary Perspectives on Violence, Homicide, and War

Published in print July 2012 | ISBN: 9780199738403
Published online November 2012 | | DOI:

Series: Oxford Library of Psychology

 Sacrifice and Sacred Values: Evolutionary Perspectives on Religious Terrorism

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Evolutionary theories of religion and sacred values are essential for understanding current trends in terrorist activity. We clarify religion's role in facilitating terror and outline recent theoretical developments that focus on four cross-culturally recurrent features of religion: communal participation in costly ritual, belief in supernatural agents and counterintuitive concepts, separation of the sacred and the profane, and adolescence as the critical life phase for the transmission of religious beliefs and values. These four characteristics constitute an adaptive complex that evolved to solve problems of group cooperation and commitment, problems faced by all terrorist organizations. We examine how terrorists employ these features of religion to achieve their goals and describe how terrorists utilize costly rituals to conditionally associate emotions with sanctified symbols and signal group commitments. These sanctified symbols are emotionally evocative and motivationally powerful, fostering ingroup solidarity, trust, and cooperation. Religious beliefs, including promised rewards in the afterlife, further serve to facilitate cooperation by altering the perceived payoffs of costly actions, including suicide terrorism. Patterns of brain development unique to adolescence render this the ideal developmental stage to attract recruits, inculcate sacred beliefs, and enlist them in high-risk behaviors. We conclude by offering insights, based on our evolutionary analysis, concerning conflict resolution when sacred values are in dispute.

Keywords: cooperation; religion; ritual; sacred values; terrorism

Article.  16022 words. 

Subjects: Psychology ; Social Psychology

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