Religion and Terrorism: The Truth of Self-Deception


From Mark Chironna

Psychologist Tori DeAngelis asserts, “the psychology of terrorism is marked more by theory and opinion than by good science”. Nevertheless, there are researchers in the field of psychology as well as psychology and religious studies that have offered insights worthy of consideration. James Jones, Professor of Religion at Rutgers is also a Senior Research Fellow at John Jay’s College Center On Terrorism. Jones notes that “religiously driven terrorism” has its roots in “shame and humiliation” which leads to extremely violent acts. Forensic psychologist James Gilligan in work done with prisoners asserts that there is a correlative condition that is established with violent acts when shame and humiliation are present. Yet shame and humiliation, while valid in terms of reasons for violence and terrorism do not tell the entire story.

Triandis invites us to recognize that as human beings we are all quite susceptible to “self-deception”. Self-deception is no respecter of persons, races, ethnicities, genders, or classes.

Triandis makes a case for our ability to all too easily fool ourselves and for our need to become more self-critical. In his own words, “To become self-critical we need to ask if our beliefs might be consistent with our needs, hopes, wishes, and desires”.

If indeed our beliefs are consistent with our needs, hopes, wishes, and our desires, Triandis says we need to be quite suspicious because we may be engaging in self-deception and personal fantasy and self-aggrandizement. Such engagement when mixed with a conviction that the approval of divinity is upon it is a recipe for disaster regardless of the individual or group that holds to such. Triandis uses the example of Ho Chi Minh, when he predicted in 1950 that by the dawn of the new millennium the United States would become Communist. In essence, Ho Chi Minh was not self-critical and therefore made a fool of himself. Another striking example in recent history would be the rise of Adolf Hitler in Nazi Germany, who used Martin Luther’s strong German nationalism to unite Germans and Luther’s own Anti-Semitism to justify his political ideology and his violent, terroristic acts against the Jews.

The goal for world domination by way of oppression is not a new ideology. History is replete with megalomaniacs, whose bloodlust drove them to commit merciless acts of violence and terror to satisfy their need for power.

When it comes to religion, the need to blame God for one’s self-deception is the very height of self-deception and evil itself, and not an indication of either divine approval or an accurate and sane hermeneutical approach to a sacred text.

Tori DeAngelis. Understanding Terrorism, Monitor on Psychology,
November 2009, Vol 40, No. 10, p.60

James Jones. Why Does Religion Turn Violent? A Psychoanalytic Exploration of Religious Terrorism, The Psychoanalytic Review (2006), 93(2), 167-190.

James Gilligan. Violence. (New York: Random House, 1996).

Harry C. Triandis. Fooling Ourselves: Self-Deception in Politics, Religion, and Terrorism, Contributions in Psychology, Paul B. Pedersen, Ed., (Westport / London: Praeger, 2009)