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Attending Services Linked to Support for Suicide Attacks

What turns a person into a suicide bomber? Surprisingly, the answer does not seem to be intense personal religiosity, according to new research that analyzes data from seven nations.
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Personal religious devotion, as measured by how often one prays, is unrelated to support for suicide bombings, according to a study just published in the journal Psychological Science. But support for such attacks apparently does increase with regular attendance at religious ceremonies.

This suggests the relationship between religion and support for suicide attacks is a byproduct of the power of group rituals to increase commitment among believers.

The researchers, led by psychologist Jeremy Ginges of the New School for Social Research in New York City, looked at four different sets of data. Two of them were taken from surveys of Palestinians in 1999 and 2006, which compared frequency of prayer, frequency of mosque attendance.

In both surveys, “devotion to Islam, measured by prayer frequency, was unrelated to Palestinian support for suicide attacks,” the report states. “In contrast, frequency of mosque attendance strongly predicted support for suicide attacks.”

To compare Israeli attitudes, the researchers conducted a telephone survey of Israeli settlers in the West Bank and Gaza. All were asked their views on the well-known Israeli suicide bomber Baruch Goldstein, but some were first quizzed on their synagogue attendance, while others were asked about how often they pray.

Among those who first talked of their synagogue attendance, 23 percent called Goldstein “extremely heroic.” However, only 6 percent of those who spoke first of personal prayer expressed that belief. This suggests those who had group worship on their minds were more receptive to the notion that suicide bombing could be a positive act.

The researchers also looked at data from a 2003-04 survey of Indonesian Muslims, Mexican Catholics, British Protestants, Israeli Jews, Indian Hindus and Russian members of the Russian Orthodox Church. Although support for suicide attacks was not specifically addressed, those who regularly attended religious ceremonies were substantially more likely to adhere to the twin set of beliefs the researchers link to such attacks: a willingness to die for one’s beliefs, and the conviction that people of other faiths are to blame for much of the trouble in the world. There was no link between those beliefs and frequency of personal prayer.

“Of course, economic and political conditions may contribute strongly to support for suicide attacks,” the researchers note. But they note that more than 70 percent of such attacks carried out since 2000 were motivated by religion, or some combination of religious and political goals.

The report sadly implies that the phrase “it takes a village” also applies to the darker side of human nature. As the researchers conclude: “It appears that the relation between religion and suicide attacks is a function of collective religious activities that facilitate popular support” for such actions.