Shared suffering, not religious dogma, may be the real cause of suicide attacks, argues Whitehouse


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The shared suffering and conflict of children by a large tank in Misrata Libya 2011

Conflict in Misrata, Libya 2011 (credit: Harvey Whitehouse)

Prof Harvey Whitehouse, a Seshat Founding Editor at the University of Oxford, questions the widely held belief that extreme forms of sacrifice such as martyrdom are a consequence of a virulent religious dogmatism. Citing new anthropological evidence from around the globe, Whitehouse contends in his recent article in the Pacific Standard that extreme Islamist teachings may not be sufficient to motivate acts of terrorism.

Instead, argues Whitehouse, every human being contains the potential for violent self-sacrifice. Experimental psychological evidence suggests that we humans have a powerful drive to save the members of our group. Bonding between individuals through group-building behaviors like painful rituals or a sense that others have suffered as we have suffered produce a strong desire to protect members of the group. When the group is threatened, we feel threatened, potentially motivating extreme forms of pro-group action. This effect is so strong that our affinity to protect our social group sometimes supersedes the bonds of family. Read Prof Harvey Whitehouse’s article in the Pacific Standard to learn more.

Whitehouse suggests that shared suffering is the real cause of extreme self-sacrifice

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