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Biology, Culture, and Religiously Motivated Suicide Terrorism: An Evolutionary Perspective


From an evolutionary perspective, religiously motivated suicide terrorism constitutes a subset of a broader trend of suicide among adolescent males marginalized by ongoing urban globalization. Social ambiguity, role conflict, and cultural dissonance during a vulnerable period of brain development constitute proximate causes; ultimate causes include inter-group competition and the relative expendability and powerlessness of adolescent males. The use of religion by terrorists to recruit and indoctrinate vulnerable adolescents distinguishes suicide victims from suicide terrorists and underscores the efficacy of religion in creating adolescent social identity and fostering cultural values that create highly cohesive, internally cooperative groups.


Biology, Culture, and Religiously Motivated Suicide Terrorism: An Evolutionary Perspective


On Christmas Day, 2009, twenty-three year old Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab boarded Delta-Northwest Flight 253 in Amsterdam en route to the United States with 80 grams of explosives sewn into his underpants. Twenty minutes prior to the flight’s scheduled landing in Detroit, Michigan, he attempted to detonate the explosives. Fortunately, the quick response of fellow passenger Jasper Schuringa and Abdulmutallab’s own ineptness thwarted the jihadist’s martyrdom, thereby saving the lives of 278 passengers (Hosenball et al. 2010).

Abdulmutallab was neither poor nor desperate. The son of a wealthy Nigerian banker and former economics minister, Abdulmutallab had studied at the best international schools and lived in 2 million pound London flats. Nor did he display any obvious psychopathic tendencies. Fellow classmates at University College London described him as “quiet and unassuming” (Johnson and Dugan 2009).  Yet, in the days prior to the attempted bombing of Flight 253, Abdulmutallab’s own father had warned U.S. Embassy officials of his son’s terrorist tendencies (Hosenball et al. 2010). What caused this affluent young engineer to turn his back on both a promising future and his own family to become a suicidal jihadist? From a rationalist perspective there would appear to be no benefit to trading a comfortable present and promising future for either humiliating imprisonment if your bomb fails to implode, or sure annihilation, if it succeeds. From an evolutionary perspective blowing oneself up would seem counterproductive to inclusive fitness.

Who Becomes a Suicide Terrorist?

A growing body of research indicates that Abdulmutallab was not atypical of contemporary suicide terrorists worldwide (Atran 2003, 2004, 2006, 2009; Krueger 2007; Shafiq and Sinno 2010). Although many Western stereotypes view such terrorists as either desperate or deranged, “study after study demonstrates that suicide terrorists and their supporters are not abjectly poor, illiterate, or socially estranged” (Atran 2004:75). Nor is there a distinctive “suicide terrorist” psychological profile or personality (Hudson 1999). Like nearly all suicide terrorists, Abdulmutallab was young, male and unattached. He was also relatively well educated. He had attended University College in London where he received a degree in Mechanical Engineering. Interviews with university peers suggest that Abdulmutallab was a quiet loner who “did the bare minimum of work and would just show up to classes” (Johnson and Dugan 2009). Described by both former teachers and peers as a devout Muslim, Abdulmutallab frequently went off to pray during study sessions. Although Abdulmutallab was clearly religious, neither family members nor fellow students viewed his religious beliefs as either radical or dangerous. Following his graduation from University College London, however, this changed dramatically. His family became increasingly alarmed following their son’s trips to Egypt, Dubai, and Yemen.

When did Abdulmutallab’s radicalization begin and why? Certainly there were opportunities for radicalization during his time in London. Abdulmutallab allegedly attended an East London Mosque that was a known recruiting point for a number of radical Islamic groups, including Hizb ut-Tahrir (Marquand and Quinn 2009). Maajid Nawaz, a former leader of the radical group, reports that he originally joined the movement “out of disaffection with the racism and discrimination that poisoned his teenage years in southeast England” (Rice-Oxley 2008). For Nawaz, the organization’s secret meetings, conversion missions, and evangelistic forays to university campuses and foreign countries created a sense of importance, community, and purpose.  According to Mamoun Fandy of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London “There are basically two meccas. There’s a Mecca that Muslims should visit, and the mecca of jihad that is London. There remains in London a problem of assimilation for outsiders. The society is closed. The city is open, but the people are not” (Marquand and Quinn 2009). A Pakistani expert on militant Islam echoes this sentiment. “I’ve felt for a long time that if radical Sharia law comes to the rest of the world it will start on the streets of London…Young Muslims are smart, raised as British citizens. If they come from abroad, many have great hope and are often disillusioned. They live between worlds, in the cracks. When they go home to their families they are often more radical than their friends” (Ibid). Anthropologist and terrorist expert Scott Atran reports “more than 80 percent of known jihadis currently live in diaspora communities, which are often marginalized from the host society and physically disconnected from each other” (2006:135). In his governmental report, The Sociology and Psychology of Terrorism: Who Becomes a Terrorist and Why? author Rex Hudson concludes “Terrorists are generally people who feel alienated from society and have a grievance or regard themselves as victims of an injustice” (Hudson 1999:50).

Over the past two decades suicide terrorism has not only increased; it has become more globally pervasive, increasingly virulent, and predominantly religiously motivated. While a total of 188 suicide attacks occurred in the twenty years between 1980 and 2001 (Pape 2005), more than 300 such attacks occurred in the three years from 2000 to 2003, killing more than 5300 people in 17 different countries. In contrast to the majority of earlier suicide bombings, at least 70% of these more recent attacks were religiously motivated (Atran 2004).

Preventing religiously motivated suicide terrorism is a national priority for the United States and many other nations throughout the world. Yet, in order to prevent such terrorism we must first deconstruct it and understand it on both proximate and ultimate levels. This entails answering several basic questions: (1) What are the root causes of global terrorism? (2) Why does anyone choose to become a suicide terrorist? (3) Can we identify genetic, biological, cultural, and/or social predisposing factors? (4) What role does religion play in motivating such terrorism? (5) How can we effectively prevent and combat religiously motivated suicide terrorism? We do not yet have the answers to all of these questions, but ongoing research, particularly in relation to human brain development, is providing important insights into each. The discussion that follows examines each of the constituent elements of suicide terrorism in relation to this research and proposes a model of religiously motivated suicide terrorism that suggests why culture is biological and why human biology is cultural, as well.

Suicide Terrorism, Intercultural Contact, and Industrial Globalization

The recent shift in the prevalence, lethality, and religiosity of suicide terrorism coincides with a dramatic global change that has occurred over the past several decades as advances in technology have fostered both ongoing urbanization and industrial globalization. The first wave of culture contact initiated by these processes resulted in the extermination, fragmentation and marginalization of traditional cultures and lifestyles throughout the world. The second wave of global urbanization has generated a diaspora of young people from these fragmented traditional cultures into industrialized urban environments in both developed and developing nations.

Intercultural contact is certainly not new; social and cultural changes initiated by such contact constitute a dominant theme throughout human history (Wolf 1982). What is new about the advent of global industrialization, however, is the scope and rate of change it has initiated. Social change introduced by industrial urbanization has been identified as a major factor in the global health transition (Flinn 1999, Flinn and England 1995; McDade 2000; McDade et al. 2002, WHO, 2001). Increased blood pressure, elevated cortisol levels and changes in cortisol profiles, as well as escalated EBV antibody levels have been documented in populations worldwide as they are integrated into a global industrial economy (Dressler and Bindon 2000; Flinn 1999; Flinn and England 1995; McDade 2002; McDade et al. 2000).   These markers all indicate activation of the body’s “stress system”.  Although adaptive as a short-term response to immediate environmental threats, long-term activation of this system can be deadly (Sapolsky 1996). Escalating rates of depression, schizophrenia, and other psychoses, (Krabbendam and van Os 2005; McGrath et al. 2004; Sundquist and Sundquist 2004; van Os 2004; van Os et al. 2010) as well as an unprecedented incidence of suicide, particularly among adolescents, have all accompanied the urban industrial transition (Desjarlais 1999; WHO 2001). The World Health Organization reports that mental and neurological disorders make up 11% of the global disease burden and are expected to rise to 14.6% by 2020 (WHO 2001).   Depression, a precursor for 80-90% of all suicides, is currently among the top ten causes of death in most countries that report rates, and among the top three causes of death in the population aged 15-34 years (WHO 2001). These escalating rates of depression, schizophrenia, and suicide within urban environments are particularly pronounced among adolescent males.

Cross-cultural research has shown that social ambiguity, status incongruity and inconsistency, (McDade 2000; McDade et al. 2002), interethnic stressors (Handwerker 1999a,b), and cultural dissonance (Dressler and Bindon 2000) are all contributory factors for stress in “westernizing” populations throughout the world. Urbanization fosters these conditions on an individual level; globalization introduces them on a cultural scale. In Canada, a highly industrialized developed nation, the 2001 suicide rate for the marginalized native Inuit populations was 135 per 100,000, more than 11 times higher than the overall Canadian rate of 12 per 100,000 population (Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami 2009). Within the native Inuit population adolescent males comprised the vast majority of suicides. The annual average suicide rate for males aged 14-24 among the Nunavit Inuit of Canada between 1999 and 2003 was 280 per 100,000 (Ibid.). Similarly, in 2004 adolescent males between the ages of 15-19 in American Samoa, an unincorporated overseas territory of the United States, exhibited a suicide rate of 41.5 per 100,000 (SPRC 2009), approximately four times higher than the national U.S. suicide rate for males aged 15-24 in the same year (CDC 2007). Within the United States itself, Native Americans 19 years and younger exhibit death rates resulting from motor vehicle crashes, pedestrian events, and suicide that are 2 to 3 times greater than rates for whites the same age (CDC 2007). In all of these instances it is adolescent males of marginalized cultures within highly developed industrialized nation-states that exhibit the highest suicide rates.

Anthropologist Thomas McDade (2000) conducted research in American Samoa in order to identify root causes of adolescent suicide. He found that physiological markers of stress exhibited an inverted U-shaped correlation with degree of acculturation among the youth he surveyed. Adolescents who lived in either westernized urban, or rural traditional environments and identified with either the urbanized Western culture or the traditional Samoan culture, respectively, exhibited the lowest rates of physiological markers for stress. Those adolescents who were geographically and socio-culturally “in the middle” exhibited the highest rates of stress markers. For these individuals social ambiguity, role conflicts, and status inconsistencies and incongruities were identified as sources of sustained and ongoing stress (McDade 2000; McDade et al 2002).

Studies undertaken by Donald Rubinstein in Micronesia resulted in similar findings. Micronesia, now an independent nation, includes a small group of islands in the Pacific Ocean set up as part of the U.S. Trust Territory following World War II. In the 1960s Micronesian suicide rates, particularly for males aged 15-24, escalated dramatically, achieving “the tragic distinction of being among the highest in the world” (Rubinstein 2002:33).  Between 1978 and 1987 the island of Truk exhibited a suicide rate of 206.6 per 100,000 for males aged 15-24. During this same period the island of Yap experienced a male youth suicide rate of 140.6 per 100,000, while Palau’s rate reached 70.6.  Although these rates have since fallen, the male youth suicide rate on Guam for the period 1998-2002 was 48.4 per 100,000 compared to a U.S. 2002 rate of 9.9. As McDade found with regard to stress markers in American Samoa, suicide rates in Micronesia are lowest in the most rural areas and outer islands, somewhat lower in the most urbanized town areas, and highest in the peri-urban fringe areas (Ran 2007). Rubinsteins’ research found the typical suicide victim to be “a young man, aged 20 or so, living at home with his parents. Generally these young men appeared normal in terms of their health, mental condition, and behavior…(with)…no obvious patterns of physical or psychological illness among the suicide victims. In fact, many appeared to be obedient sons who were well liked by their friends. Certainly these young men were generally not identifiable as rebels or outcasts” (Rubinstein 2002:37).  Nor were they psychotic. While 90% of U.S. suicide victims present with psychiatric disorders, only 10% of the Micronesian victims exhibited such disorders (Ran 2007). “Most of the victims have had no serious delinquency problems, psychological abnormality, or psychosis. Only a small percentage of suicide victims (Micronesia, 10%; Palau, 34% to 37%) showed any evidence of psychopathology. No obvious patterns of physical or psychological illness were found among the suicide victims. Among the victims with serious mental disorders, many of them were diagnosed with schizophrenia” (Ran 2007:83). Most suicides studied in both American Samoa and Micronesia  “appeared to be very impulsive acts rather than premeditated or planned actions” (Ibid:84). Dominant triggers were anger and depression.

The stressors identified in American Samoa, Micronesia, and marginalized cultures throughout the world also occur in urban environments. Interethnic stressors, social ambiguity, role conflicts, status inconsistencies, and cultural dissonance are all common to large Westernized urban environments and become more pronounced with increasing immigration and urbanization. Adolescent males are particularly likely to experience such stressors since the need to seek educational and employment opportunities often require them to migrate from traditional, rural settings to Westernized urban areas. Moreover, the role and status conflicts such males experience are frequently greater than those confronted by females who are more likely to define themselves and be defined in terms of traditional caretaking roles and statuses, even in urban environments. Those who appear to be at greatest risk are individuals who must continuously shift between divergent and often dissonant values, worldviews, and roles of traditional and industrial urban cultures. In small-scale societies, such as American Samoa and Micronesia, these stressors are correlated with geography (McDade 2000; Rubenstein 2002). Urban environments, particularly in large, heterogeneous, high immigration cities such as New York and London, generate these same stressors. Such stressors are likely to be particularly pronounced in Westernized cultures that highly value individual freedoms since these values are more likely to clash with the socially-oriented value systems of many migrants’ traditional cultures. It is not surprising that increasing urbanization is significantly correlated with depression, schizophrenia, and other psychoses even after controlling for such known stressors as poverty, low educational attainment, and poor family environment (McGrath et al. 2004; Sundquist et al. 2004; Krabbendam and van Os 2005; van Os et al. 2001). Nor is it surprising that migrant status increases the risk for these conditions (McGrath et al. 2004).

The incidence of depression, suicide, schizophrenia, and other psychoses in urban environments is not uniform across urban neighborhoods; some neighborhoods exhibit much higher rates than others (Krabbendam and van Os 2005). Research indicates “cognitive social capital, aspects of the degree of mutual trust, bonding, and safety in neighborhoods, exerts a developmental impact on the mental health of the children growing up in these environments” (Krabbendam and van Os 2005:798). This finding suggests that individuals at greatest risk for schizophrenia, depression, suicide, and recruitment into suicide terrorism will be those who “live between worlds in the cracks” lacking the mutual trust, bonding, and safety that confers resilience. Biological factors further escalate these risks. Being male and being adolescent are two such factors.

The Vulnerable Adolescent Brain

Any parent who has ever lived with a teenage son or daughter knows that adolescence is a time of high impulsivity and emotional extremes. Adolescents react more quickly and with greater intensity to environmental stimuli than either children or adults and they perceive events as relatively more stressful than individuals at other life stages. During adolescence risk-taking and novelty seeking escalate, particularly in males, and human sensation seeking scores peak (Steinberg 2007). At the same time, mental processing speeds increase, the ability to focus on task-relevant information improves, and abstract, symbolic reasoning develops (Dahl 2004; Kwon and Lawson 2000). Social behaviors shift focus from predominantly kin to non-kin interactions as peer relationships, romantic interests, and sexual motivations become increasingly important. Biologist Norbert Sachser notes that among mammalian species in general “the time around puberty seems to be essential for the acquisition of those social skills needed to adapt to unfamiliar conspecifics in a non-stressful and non-aggressive way” (Sachser 1998:891).

Adolescence has been termed a “chronic state of threatened homeostasis” (Dorn and Chrousos1993:685). During the teen years circulating cortisol levels peak (Spear 2000) and a cascade of hormonal changes initiates the development of secondary sexual characteristics with the onset of puberty. The brain undergoes a myriad of changes, as well, particularly in those structures and functions related to social (Blakemore 2008) and moral behaviors (Moll and de Oliveira-Souza 2007). In early and mid-adolescence our temporal and prefrontal cortices, responsible for facial and gestural recognition, music and language processing, social interactions, and executive functions, attain their greatest volumes through processes of dendrite growth and synapse proliferation (Paus 2005; Spear 2000). The amygdala, the emotional processing center of the brain, also attains its greatest volume during adolescence, and amygdala activation in response to social stimuli peaks (Adolphs 2002).  In late adolescence and early adulthood neuronal pruning occurs in all of these structures as infrequently fired synapses are eliminated while those more frequently fired are retained and strengthened (Kolb et al. 1998; Paus 2005; Spear 2000). Since synapse firing occurs in response to the processing of stimuli, the experiences of the individual play a critical role in this process (Kolb et al. 1998; Murphy 2003). It is the daily thoughts, interactions, and experiences of the individual that determine the retention of neurons, the strengthening of synapses, and the shaping of associational neural networks. In later adolescence the experientially-sculpted neural networks that remain are sheathed in myelin, resulting in faster and more efficient information flow. Thus, what began as a neuronal roadmap densely packed with numerous streets, alleys, and seldom-used footpaths is slowly transformed into a highly integrated and streamlined system of streets, highways, and autobahns that reflect both the frequent and emotionally salient journeys of the individual.

These changes in brain structure occur in conjunction with a shift in the dopaminergic (DA) systems of the adolescent brain (Spear 2000). Dopamine, a neurotransmitter that relays, amplifies, and modulates signals to other neurons, is central to motor function, reward processing, motivation, and cognition. When dopamine is released in the nucleus accumbens (NA), the brain’s “pleasure center”, it makes us feel good and initiates approach responses. The NA assigns incentive value to stimuli. We are genetically programmed such that some things, such as food, sex, music, and psychoactive drugs hold intrinsic reward value and naturally stimulate the production of dopamine in our brain’s reward circuitry.  Other stimuli that do not automatically activate dopamine production in the NA can acquire inherent reward value through a process of reinforcement learning. Brain imaging studies of cocaine addicts show that, over time, even previously neutral stimuli associated with cocaine use, such as places and paraphernalia, can independently initiate dopamine production in the NA even in the absence of cocaine (Daw 2007). The NA is linked to emotional and memory processing structures in the brain through the DA system. According to neuroscientists Alison Wismer Fries and Seth Pollack the “connection between the nucleus accumbens and hippocampal-amygdalar complex creates a neural network whereby associations and memories activated by attended emotion cues are able to directly influence the enactment of a motor response.” (Wismer Fries and Pollack 2007:344). In other words, stimuli that have acquired either reward value or emotional meaning can activate behavior through the DA system (Daw 2007; Dehaene and Changeux 2000).

The dopaminergic (DA) system encompasses a network of neural pathways that transmit dopamine from one region of the brain to another. One of these pathways, the mesolimbic, transmits dopamine from its production site in the midbrain ventral tegmental area (VTA) to the nucleus accumbens via the hippocampal-amygdalar complex. A second pathway, the mesocortical, transmits dopamine from the VTA to the prefrontal cortex (PFC). During adolescence the mesolimbic DA pathways linking the NA and the hippocampal-amygdalar complex undergo extensive synaptogenesis and subsequent pruning (Paus 2005; Spear 2000). Simultaneously, the ongoing maturation of the PFC and its associated mesocortical DA pathways initiates a “shift” in the relative dominance of these two DA systems. According to Fries and Pollack, “(T)he DA [dopaminergic] system appears to be critical for linking the PFC [prefrontal cortex] to other networks tied to emotional behavior regulation” (2007:344). As the PFC matures the DA pathway linking it with reward and emotional processing structures becomes increasingly important in impulse inhibition, social judgment, and emotional regulation (Paus 2005; Spear 2000).

The brain changes that occur during adolescent development drive the social and sexual behaviors of the teen years (Dahl 2004; Steinberg 2007). The higher impulsivity, increased risk-taking and enhanced novelty seeking of adolescent males are related to the changes occurring in the dopaminergic pathways of the brain. From an evolutionary perspective, the resultant behaviors motivate adolescent males to move from the security of kin networks to the less predictable and more competitive arena of non-kin interactions. Unfortunately, adolescent changes in the DA system also increase vulnerability to drugs of abuse, and have been implicated in depression (Pitchot et al. 2001; Ryding et al. 2008), suicide (Kawanishi et al. 2009; Pitchot et al. 2001; Ryding et al. 2006, 2008), schizophrenia (Sisk and Foster 2004), and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ibid), as well. Both acute and chronic stress has been shown to exert a detrimental effect on the normal function of the DA system (Pani et al. 2000), and to alter the PFC (Oquendo and Mann 2001). Sex-related differences in the development of the DA system have been documented in non-human species and are likely to account for the higher incidence of dopamine-related disorders in human males, as well (Sisk and Foster 2004).

The changes that occur in the DA system in adolescent males are likely to have ultimate adaptive value by increasing the potential reproductive success of risk-taking, novelty-seeking individuals. Yet, they also appear to increase vulnerabilty to the types of stressors encountered in marginalized and urban environments (Iwalani et al. 2007; McGrath et al. 2004; Ran 2007). As brain development proceeds through adolescence, however, the DA shift from mesolimbic to mesocortical  dominance creates an opportunity to “provide protection against psychotic symptoms, as dopamine activity in the prefrontal cortex increases, thereby suppressing limbic dopamine transmission” (Pani et al. 2000). Maturation of the prefrontal cortex and its associated mesocortical pathways is central to this protection. These pathways are, in turn, shaped through the individual experiences of the adolescent. Increasing dominance of the prefrontal cortex over limbic dopamine transmission provides an opportunity for socio-cultural and symbolic stimuli to play a central role in activation and suppression of the DA system (Beer 2006; Dehaene and Changeux 2000). This intimate interconnection between adolescent brain development and social/cultural experiences increases adolescent vulnerability to stress-related disorders. It also, however, creates a unique window of opportunity for shaping our “social” (Blakemore 2008) and “moral” (Moll and de Oliveira Souza 2008) brains through the association of socio-cultural symbols with both reward value and motivational meaning.

Mental Models and the Human Brain

Humans are born with relatively large brains; the human brain is proportionally larger in relation to body size than that of all other primates. Perhaps more important, however, is the fact that of all the primates our brain is the least developed at birth. Chimpanzees are born with brains approximately 40% of their final size at maturation. In contrast, humans develop 75-80% of their total brain volume post-natally. By the second year of life only about 50% of human brain development is complete. The human brain does not reach its maximum volume until some fifteen years later. Thereafter our brains are actually reduced in size through processes of neuronal elimination and synaptic pruning (Hublin and Cogqueugniot 2006).

As humans we spend roughly the first two decades of our lives learning about the world. This learning is interactive; it involves the ongoing construction and refinement of “mental models” that filter and shape how we perceive, process, and react to subsequent experiences. These models are not Platonic chimera; they are instantiated in neural networks, or “Hebbian engrams” that create the associational pathways of our brains (Lynch et al. 1990; Murphy 2003). These networks build upon basic evolved neurological templates, – our brain’s “hard wiring”, – including our own idiosyncratic genetic predispositions, but they also incorporate the neural impacts of our experiences as we navigate the physical, social, and cultural worlds around us. Associational pathways are strengthened, expanded, or eliminated as a result of the frequency and emotional salience of our experiences (Kolb et al. 1998). The mental models that are constructed throughout our lives are both cumulative and developmental. The neural networks that instantiate these models build upon pathways previously shaped through emotionally salient experiences and adaptive solutions to problems and challenges we have confronted, both as a species and within our own personal lives. The mental models created in this ongoing, iterative process filter, focus, organize, simplify, and make sense of the ongoing stream of sensory and social inputs that constantly bombard us. As a result, successive iterations simultaneously encompass and are shaped by the networks that preceded them.

Construction of the neural networks that comprise our mental models begins at conception and continues throughout our lives. Since human brain development is not uniform, this process is developmentally constrained. Just as there is a developmentally sensitive time to integrate the neural networks that allow us to crawl, walk or talk, there is also a sensitive period for sculpting the associational pathways relevant to social, sexual, and moral behaviors (Kolb and Whishaw 1999; Kolb et al. 1998). Each of these sensitive periods is intimately related to patterns of human brain development. Neuroscientist William Greenough (1986) has coined the term “experience expectant” to describe developmental periods during which the experiences of the individual are particularly important in shaping brain structures undergoing maturation. Infancy is an important developmental period for emotional learning and attachment, while childhood is critical for the development of neural structures related to language acquisition. It is during adolescence and early adulthood, however, that the neural pathways fundamental to our adult social, sexual, and moral behaviors fully mature (Blakemore 2008; Dahl 2004; Paus 2005; Spear 2000).

The maturation of emotional, social, symbolic, and executive processing regions of the brain during adolescence constitutes an experience expectant period for the experiential sculpting of sociocultural models capable of motivating individual behavior. These models not only reduce stress by providing frameworks of expectancy for non-kin social interactions; they also generate culturally-appropriate algorithms that guide choices, impact judgments, and shape behaviors within a shared cultural system.  These sociocultural models incorporate the values, symbols, and significant concepts of an individual’s culture. Recent neuroimaging research has shown that even the collective representations of our cultures, — such amorphous concepts as religion and cosmology, — “can have well-defined cortical representations” (Turner and Whitehead 2008).

Religion and the Adolescent Brain

Throughout human history and across the vast majority of cultures throughout the world, religion has been the preferred means of shaping our social and moral brains and adolescence has been the preferred life stage for doing so (Alcorta 2006, 2009).  Children everywhere hear the narratives and witness the rituals of their culture’s sacred beliefs, and adults convert to new faiths, but it is adolescents who are initiated into “the sacred” (Eliade 1958).

Nearly three-quarters of societies studied by anthropologists conduct adolescent rites of passage for the explicit purpose of transforming children into socially responsible adults (Lutkehaus and Roscoe 1995). There is considerable cross-cultural variation in the composition, timing, duration, and intensity of adolescent rites of passage from culture to culture (Lutkehaus and Roscoe 1995; Paige and Paige 1981).  For some societies, such as the Yamana and Halakwulup of Tierra del Fuego, these rites consist of little more than the oral transmission of sacred knowledge from elder to youth (Eliade 1958).  In other cultures, such as the Ndembu and the Elema of Africa, adolescent initiation rites involve “kidnapping” of initiates, months of sequestered seclusion, and subjection to ritual ordeals that include dietary restrictions, sleep deprivation, physical pain and genital mutilation (Eliade 1958; Turner 1967, 1969; Paige and Paige 1981; van Gennep 1961). Yet, in every culture in which these rites occur, including our own, the transformation of children into adults requires the ritual transmission of sacred knowledge.

Not surprisingly, the specific sacred knowledge transmitted differs widely from culture to culture (Sanderson 2009; Wallace 1966). The sacred totemic knowledge of the Australian Arunta is very different from the sacred ancestral knowledge of the African Kipsigi, or the polytheistic sacred knowledge of Hinduism. The sacred tenets of monotheistic Christianity, Islam, and Judaism differ from all of these, as well as from each other. Yet, in all of these religions sacred beliefs embody idealized social roles and relationships and prescribe corresponding cultural norms and values specific to their respective cultures (Johnson and Krueger 2004; Sanderson 2009; Sanderson and Roberts 2008; Sosis and Alcorta 2003; Swanson 1960; Wallace 1966). Sacred beliefs of the Mbuti pygmies of Africa were intimately bound up with the forest that surrounded, protected, and sustained them (Turnbull 1961). Sacred beliefs of such traditional pastoral groups as the Masai and the Kipsigi of Africa honor the patrilineal ancestors that define both social and moral obligations. In contrast, the sacred beliefs of large, stratified societies focus on moralizing gods that can counteract the problems of cooperation that escalate with increasing size and genetic diversity (Johnson and Krueger 2006; Sanderson 2009; Swanson 1960; Wallace 1966).

Although sacred beliefs vary considerably from culture to culture, the basic structure of these beliefs and the means by which they are communicated and validated are remarkably consistent (Alcorta and Sosis 2005). Sacred beliefs are universally metaphorical, minimally counterintuitive, and unfalsifiable. These features engage powerful subconscious processes, enhance memory, and insure longevity. Sacred beliefs are inculcated during adolescence, the developmental period when neural networks among emotional, social, symbolic, and executive processing regions of the brain are undergoing maturation.  The universal mode of inculcating and reaffirming sacred beliefs is music-based communal ritual. Our growing understanding of music and ritual suggest why this is so.

Religious Ritual, Emotion, and Sacred Beliefs

Music is a fundamental feature of religion everywhere (Bloch 1989). Throughout the world music is intimately interconnected with a sense of the sacred, the numinous, and the divine (Becker 2001, 2004). In traditional cultures the two are frequently inseparable.  Among the Igbo of Africa music and the sacred are so closely intertwined that a single word “nkwa” is used for both (Becker 2001).  Across cultures as diverse as those of Australian hunter-gatherers, African agriculturalists, and American capitalists, music remains a common element of religion. A nationwide survey of U.S. congregations conducted by sociologist Mark Chaves and his colleagues (Chaves et al. 1999) found music to be the single most consistent feature of contemporary worship across all faiths in the United States.  The indispensability of music to religion is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that even the most fundamentalist religious sects retain music as a central element of religious worship. As noted by cognitive scientists Scott Atran and Ara Norenzayan, “even the Taliban, who prohibited nearly all public displays of sensory stimulation, promoted a cappella religious chants” (2004:717).

Music has an extraordinary power to move us in inexplicable, ineffable, seemingly miraculous ways (Alcorta 2009). Recent neuroimaging research has shown that music, like food and sex, inherently engages the reward centers of our brains (Blood and Zatorre 2001; Levitin 2006; 2008; Menon and Levitin 2005). It increases dopamine production and makes us “feel good”. Music also elicits oxytocin, a neuropeptide that increases both trust and social bonding (Levitin 2008). The prosocial feelings and natural “high” induced by teen raves, commercial sporting events, and the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games all illustrate these effects. As with drugs of abuse, when music is paired with socioculturally meaningful symbols, the symbols themselves may take on emotional meaning. National flags, Red Sox Nation paraphernalia, and “Deadhead” memorabilia all represent this phenomenon.

Music makes us feel good, but it is also good for us. It enhances our immune response (Kuhn 2002; Hirokawa and Ohira 2003). Music also engages our autonomic functions, including pulse, heart rate, respiration, and galvanic skin response (Harrar and Harrar 1977). Humans are one of a few species capable of synchronizing to the beat of music (Patel et al. 2009). This ability to synchronize to music allows us to entrain our autonomic and emotional responses, as well. Coupling music with movement, as occurs during dance and in most communal religious ritual, further intensifies this entrainment (Becker 2001; 2004). Music’s ability to make us feel good, increase social trust and bonding, evoke emotions, entrain autonomic responses, and enhance memory make it a powerful social tool.

Music is a central element of religious ritual, but it is not the only element. Many elements of religious ritual further intensify the effects of music through the use of stimuli that evoke strong inherent emotional responses (Alcorta and Sosis 2005). Such things as darkened cathedrals, grotesque masks, bleeding statues, and the eating of “flesh” engage our agency detection and contagion systems, automatically evoking both conscious and subconscious emotional responses. Adolescent rites of passage, in particular, frequently incorporate intense, emotionally evocative stimuli. Initiates may be subjected to frightening and painful psychological and physical ordeals (Eliade 1958; Glucklich 2001; Turner 1967). Kidnapping, sleep and food deprivation, and circumcision are all elements common to many adolescent rites of passage. The association of these emotionally evocative experiences with socially salient sacred symbols invests the symbols themselves with emotional meaning. When this occurs within a communal context, the investiture of sacred symbols with emotional meaning is shared across a community of adherents. Music-based communal ritual momentarily bonds participants through the neurophysiological effects of oxytocin, dopamine, and entrainment. Religious music-based communal ritual further solidifies these bonds by investing socially meaningful beliefs and symbols with emotional meaning. Once invested with such meaning, these sacred symbols can themselves create a sense of community and motivate social behaviors.

The brain changes that occur during adolescence make this developmental period particularly receptive to the neurophysiological effects of music-based religious ritual. The heightened activity of emotional and reward processing structures and the concomitant shift in the dopaminergic system that occur during adolescence are likely to amplify the neurophysiological effects of both music and ritual. At the same time, ongoing maturation of the temporal cortex focuses interest and attention on social stimuli. Maturation of the prefrontal cortex provides opportunities to create associational networks linking these emotional and social experiences with symbolic representations. As a result of the increasing mesocortical dominance over DA systems these emotionally meaningful symbols can subsequently impact social judgment, impulse inhibition, and behavioral choices (Dehaene and Changeux 2000; Feenstra 2000).

Anthropologists have long noted that in traditional societies adolescent rites of passage explicitly shape adult social values, expectations, and behaviors (Lutkehaus and Roscoe 1995; Paige and Paige 1981; Turner 1967). In modern nation-states adolescent religious participation is also positively correlated with pro-social behaviors (Donahue and Benson 1995; Regnerus et al. 2003; Smith 2005). A longitudinal study of Thai adolescents participating in Roman Catholic and Buddhist ordination programs found long-term changes in both psychological parameters and social behaviors of these groups (Thananart et al. 2000; Tori 1999). Sociological studies conducted in the U.S. have repeatedly demonstrated a significant positive relationship between adolescent religious involvement and dominant social values (Donahue and Benson 1995; Regnerus et al. 2003; Smith 2005).  Adolescents who regularly attend religious services are significantly less likely to engage in delinquent behaviors, use tobacco or alcohol, or abuse drugs (Donahue and Benson 1995; Regnerus et al. 2003). They are also less likely to engage in premarital sex and risky sexual behaviors (Miller and Gur 2002).

Adolescent religious participation also appears to impact other cognitive processes. In research conducted with American middle and high school students those who regularly participated in such religious activities as weekly worship services, youth retreats, and church-based community service projects were more likely than others in the sample to participate in non-church community service and less likely to ignore problems (Alcorta nd). Those who neither believed nor participated in religion reported nearly four times more difficulty concentrating than other teens in the sample, and teens who reported little or no participation in religious activities, regardless of their beliefs, had higher odds of getting angry quickly than other study participants. They were also four times more likely to have experienced school problems within the past year. These findings support previous research indicating beneficial psychological and social effects of religious participation (Nooney 2005).

Do Adolescents Need Religion?

Do adolescents “need” religion? Is religion necessary to shape our social and moral brains? One-quarter of societies throughout the world do not conduct adolescent rites of passage, and millions of adolescents in modern secular nations mature into well-adjusted and productive adults without ever having participated in any religious ritual. This suggests that religion is not necessary for normal adolescent social development. Indeed, if religion is an adaptation for achieving cooperation in non-kin groups, then we should not find expenditures of time and energy on religion in general, and adolescent rites of passage in particular, in those societies where this need does not exist. This includes small-scale kin-based societies, such as the Ache of South America, as well as large-scale nation-states able to achieve cooperation through educational, economic, and military means. Conversely, we would expect to see the greatest expenditures of time and energy on religion and adolescent rites of passage in large, non-state level societies that depend on cooperation for their continued existence, and among relatively disenfranchised groups within state level systems. When there is no need for non-kin cooperation, or when other institutions more efficiently or effectively meet that need, then religion and adolescent rites of passage should be absent or greatly attenuated since the time and energy costs these entail are not offset by the benefits religion confers. Research by anthropologist Richard Sosis and his colleagues supports this hypothesis (Sosis 2000,2003; Sosis & Bressler 2003; Sosis & Ruffle 2004; Sosis et al. 2007). Recent declines in religious participation in modern European nation-states suggest such a trend, as well. In contrast, the high mobility, economic inequality, and cultural diversity of the contemporary United States should, and does, promote religious participation, particularly among disenfranchised groups.

Medical and sociological studies of contemporary American adolescents indicate that those who regularly participate in religion experience less cognitive dissonance, lower psychological distress, and less depression than their non-religious peers (Donahue and Benson 1995; Nooney 2005; Regnerus et al. 2003). Research further shows that religiosity in teens is “inversely related to depression and suicide ideation” (Nooney 2005:341); suicide rates are significantly lower for American youth who regularly attend worship services than for those who do not.

Adolescents, Religion, and Suicide Terrorism

If religiosity in teens is inversely related to depression, psychological distress, and suicide, how are we to make sense of the emergence and growing incidence of religiously motivated suicide terrorism?

Scott Atran notes “Support and recruitment for suicide terrorism occur not under conditions of political repression, poverty, and unemployment or illiteracy as such but when converging political, economic, and social trends produce diminishing opportunities relative to expectations, thus generating frustrations that radical organizations can exploit” (2004:78). Such frustrations are likely to be most keenly felt by unattached male adolescents, particularly those who experience social ambiguity, role conflict, and cultural dissonance as a result of either marginalization or immigration. Radical organizations that are also religious are likely to be particularly effective in exploiting such frustrations. Religious symbols that engage associational networks with pre-existent social and emotional significance offer familiarity and comfort, while the ritually created “emotionally tight-knit brotherhoods” (Ibid) of these organizations provide a sense of identity and community often acutely lacking in the lives of these socially and culturally displaced adolescents. According to Atran, “charismatic leaders of terrorist groups turn ordinary desires for kinship and religion into cravings for the mission they are pitching, to the benefit of the manipulating organization rather than the individual manipulated. Therefore, understanding and parrying suicide terrorism requires concentrating more on the organizational structure, indoctrination methods, and ideological appeal of recruiting organizations than on personality attributes of the individuals recruited” (Ibid:80).

A number of researchers have argued that terrorists have political, not religious goals (Juergensmeyer 2003; Bloom 2005; Pape 2005). As I have argued elsewhere (Sosis and Alcorta 2008), religious beliefs, rituals, and institutions are effective proximate mechanisms for facilitating terrorist goals. Religion is an effective means by which terrorists translate a local political struggle into a cosmic war (Juergensmeyer 2003). This not only transforms a political struggle into a divine mission with moral legitimacy and eternal rewards that is worthy of self-sacrifice; it also extends the horizon of victory to divine time (Sosis and Alcorta 2008). “Religion’s most significant role in terrorism may be its incorporation of emotionally evocative and highly memorable symbols, myths, and rituals that serve to individually motivate and collectively unify diverse individuals under a common banner” (Ibid:108).

The “rites of passage” employed by radical religious groups utilize the same emotionally-engaging elements of adolescent rites of passage so effective in shaping the sociocultural models of adolescents in religions throughout the world. Pape notes, “[S]uicide terrorist organizations commonly cultivate ‘sacrificial myths’ that include elaborate sets of symbols and rituals to mark an  individual attacker’s death as a contribution to the nation” (Pape 2005:29). The use of such myths, as well as religious rituals and symbols sanctifies terrorist ideology and transforms suicide terrorism into martyrdom in the eyes of initiates.  As a result, suicide terrorists “are often wholly committed to what they believe to be devout moral principles” (Atran 2004:75).

Finding Solutions

How can we combat religiously motivated suicide terrorism? We must first appreciate the role of culture in general and religion in particular in shaping the neural networks that instantiate our mental models of the world. Understanding the impacts of global industrialization and urbanization on traditional cultures in general, and on adolescent males of such cultures in particular, is an important first step in identifying root causes of the problem. As in our non-human primate kin, adolescent males in human societies constitute both the peripheral “fringe” and front guard of the social group. From a reproductive standpoint, adolescent males are the most expendable group members. Whether migrants to foreign urban cities or military recruits, these young males most frequently constitute the “first wave” of intergroup contact. From a proximate perspective their greater propensity for novelty-seeking and risk-taking behaviors predispose them to assume this role, while their social powerlessness relative to older group males may compel them to do so (Thayer 2008). The social ambiguity, role conflict, interethnic stressors, and cultural dissonance that frequently result from both cultural marginalization and migrant urbanization may engender and/or exacerbate perceptions of powerlessness.

Reducing the impacts of social stressors and identifying and directly addressing perceptions of alienation and powerlessness in marginalized and displaced youth can reduce the vulnerability of these individuals to terrorist recruitment. Measures that increase neighborhood safety, reduce interethnic stress, and create and strengthen cooperative communities within urban areas are important elements in counteracting the effects of such stressors. The recruitment and proactive integration of “at risk” youth into mainstream school and community programs both in marginalized communities and urban environments may also reduce vulnerability.

On a deeper level, eliminating the root causes of powerlessness is necessary. While no correlation has been found between terrorism and per capita income, a correlation between terrorism and lack of civil liberties has been identified (Atran 2004). Atran notes “Terrorism and its supporting audiences appear to be fostered by policies of extreme political repression and discouraged by policies of incorporating both dissident and moderate groups responsibly into civil society and the political process” (2004:74). A three-pronged approach to fostering such policies in the Middle East has been proposed by political scientist Bradley Thayer (2008). Increasing women’s rights, particularly in education and reproductive decisions is the first element of this approach. Building democratic, liberal governments that insure the protection of individual rights is second. The third element is to combat the attractiveness of the terrorists’ message directly with a more moderate and inclusive Islamic message of peace.

Thayer’s third proposal recognizes the historical and geographical role of religion as the preferred institution for creating bonds of trust, and for inculcating the social models and cultural values that foster cooperation. Religion is particularly well adapted for this task with its music-based communal ritual, emotionally powerful sacred symbols, and metaphorical, memorable and unfalsifiable beliefs. Adolescents who migrate to Westernized urban areas from more traditional cultures are likely to bring with them motivationally meaningful religious beliefs and values. When such teen immigrants confront culture shock, alienation, and a religious void they are highly vulnerable to fundamentalist extremist groups more than willing to exploit this vulnerability. These organizations have been very effective in identifying such vulnerable youth and adroitly employing their own version of religion to create “bands of brothers” united through their emotional commitment to sociocultural models of morality that extol suicide terrorism. These organizations provide the kinship, community, sense of personal identity, and “higher” values missing in the lives of displaced and alienated youth. Atran observes that “individuals who opt for suicide attacks often seem motivated by values and small-group dynamics that trump rational self-interest….Adherence to sacred values…ultimately leads to perceived moral obligations that appear to be irrational, such as martyrdom. One is obliged to act ‘independently of the likelihood of success’…because believers could not live with themselves if they did not” (Atran 2006:138).

Religion is highly effective in creating such motivationally powerful values. Therefore, the most effective solution to religious extremist recruitment of vulnerable adolescents to suicide terrorism might be religion itself. Active recruitment of adolescent immigrants into moderate religious groups can address many of their issues and vulnerabilities. Such groups can create bonds of trust in a strange environment, offer a community of shared values, and afford a safe haven for comparing and reflecting on new social mores, cultural norms, and experiences. These groups also provide the means of integrating traditional sociocultural models within a broader urban context, thereby minimizing status ambiguity, role conflict, and cultural dissonance.

Religion has been a central and powerful force in human social life for at least 35,000 years. The rituals, beliefs, and symbols of religion are powerful human motivators and appear particularly well adapted for engaging and shaping the adolescent human brain. Our emerging knowledge of both religion and the adolescent brain has provided us with important tools to combat religiously motivated suicide terrorism. The ultimate solution to suicide terrorism is the integration of divergent sociocultural models in a shared global morality. Religion is a powerful tool in motivating suicide terrorism. Our challenge is insuring that religion is equally powerful in motivating its demise.


I thank Richard Sosis and Robert Storey for valuable comments on an earlier draft of this manuscript.


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