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Are Suicide Bombings Really Driven by Ideology?

The surprising anthropology of group identity.


Harvey Whitehouse doesn’t like how New Atheists like Richard Dawkins make religion out to be a mere “set of propositions” amounting to a “failed science.” In a 2013 YouTube video, Whitehouse—the director of the Institute of Cognitive & Evolutionary Anthropology at the University of Oxford—strolls through a park and says, “Clearly religion is not just that.”1

The point of religion is not to produce a rational understanding of nature, according to Whitehouse. It is “more about building cohesion and cooperation in groups, among other things,” he recently told Nautilus. He does realize that, taken literally, religious tales are implausible or just plain wrong, “and that can be irritating to people like Dawkins.” But the reason people “dig their heels in” against Dawkinsian criticism of their beliefs isn’t necessarily because they’re irrational—it’s because those beliefs help bond them with other religious people. “When you challenge those beliefs,” he said, “you’re not really getting into a debate about what’s true but are just offending people by attacking their identities.”

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Dawkins and other New Atheists want to challenge religious beliefs, especially extremist ones, with a mix of rational critique and ridicule. But Whitehouse is skeptical. He suggests another strategy for undermining extremism, based on an understanding of the social cohesion that it can produce.

Nautilus caught up with Whitehouse earlier this month.

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How did you become interested in group cohesion?

It started for me when I began as a Ph.D. student conducting research in quite a remote part of Papua New Guinea that had never been studied by anthropologists before, and whose language had never been written down. I was training to be a social anthropologist, and that involved immersive long-term field work where you essentially go native, become part of the group that you’re studying. I was really interested in economic anthropology, so I was asking people questions about production, consumption, exchange of goods. But the truth was people didn’t really get excited by that line of questioning. They really enjoyed talking to me about their religious beliefs and practices and rituals. Eventually I gave up that original topic and accepted that the topic was going to be religion. I became fascinated and ended up writing a book about it.2

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What happens when we identify with a group?

Identification is a depersonalizing form of group alignment. A lot of the groups we belong to consist of us adopting identity markers—beliefs and practices and flags and sports scarves and what have you—that are socially acquired from other people, and that don’t necessarily engage our personal identity at all. So, if I identity with the English football team Arsenal, for example, and you remind me of this by having me wear an Arsenal scarf, I will temporarily become less aware of my personal identity as Harvey, and think of myself just an an Arsenal supporter. Conversely, if you make my identity as Harvey salient, I will be less likely to think of myself as an Arsenal fan. This has been described as a “hydraulic” relationship between personal and group identity—making one salient makes the other less so.

Because rituals are puzzling, they provoke a search for deeper symbolic meanings.

What’s the difference between identifying with a group and fusing with it?

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Fusion is very different from identification. Identity fusion—a construct originally developed by group psychologist Bill Swann at the University of Texas—is very much about the personal self, but an expanded version of it that includes the group as well.3 Fusion makes the boundary between your personal identity and your group identity somewhat porous. When the group is made salient for a fused individual, they don’t lose sight of their personal identity—it makes their personal identity as accessible as ever it was before. It’s a very intense form of cohesion that can be a force for incredible good, because it can motivate people to put the group before themselves in ways that are peaceful and ethical and frankly, in ways that most people would admire and respect and applaud.4

How does identity fusion happen?

One way to do it is to go through very intense rituals. Once you experience something with other people that changes you permanently, and you believe that other members of your group have gone through the same thing, both the group you’re a member of and your personal self become defined by that experience. We can measure the level of fusion indirectly by how people perform on a test of their willingness to suffer for the group, for example. It might be wall-sitting or a cold pressor task, where you put your hand into freezing cold water and see how long someone will keep it in there to do something to help or protect the group.

Why do intense collective rituals foster fusion?

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It’s a combination of at least two things. First, people you trust feel it’s important for you to go through it. Second, since ritual procedures don’t make much sense in causal or instrumental terms, they are intrinsically puzzling. We call them causally opaque behaviors. There is nothing in the action sequence, in other words, that is explainable in terms of reasoning about cause and effect like with more instrumental behaviors, where you do one thing in order to make another thing happen. Because rituals are puzzling, they provoke a search for deeper symbolic meanings that becomes not only a salient memory of the episode itself, but a process by which you are aware of personally figuring out its meaning, as opposed to acquiring the knowledge socially from other people. Most mystery cults, and any kind of religious tradition that involves emotionally intense and grueling ordeals, prompts a lot of reflection from participants over the months and years that follow the experience.5

Is identity fusion an evolutionary adaptation?

It looks like an adaptation because it could contribute to survival of genes that can be passed on if people stick together when the going gets tough. If it is a good marker of your genetic relatedness then yes, that would allow us to explain the evolution of fusion as an outcome of kin selection, though I know that this is a little bit controversial. We’ve also got other models that we’ve published that suggest that there are other evolutionary histories that could produce fusion: It doesn’t necessarily have to have evolved in genetically close individuals in kin groups. It could have evolved in groups where people were more distantly related.

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Is there evidence that identity fusion can explain extreme behavior, like suicide attacks?

We’ve got quite good evidence on which to base a whole theoretical framework that would explain how that can happen.6 It describes the causal chains that lead from emotionally intense collective experiences, via autobiographical memory and processes of reflection and self-transformation, to the belief that you share some kind of essence with the group, leading to fusion and family-like ties among group members. We have gathered evidence for this from a wide range of populations—including participants in extreme rituals involving ordeals by fire and immersion in freezing water to surviving terrorist attacks, such as the Madrid train bombings, or the sectarian violence in Northern Ireland. The process of fusion arising from such experiences does not require that people subscribe to an elaborated belief system that resembles a doctrine or religion.7

But isn’t extreme ideology responsible for suicide attacks?

If you take all those people who have adopted extremist beliefs, only a very tiny minority actually engage in extreme behaviors like suicide bombing. If the vast majority of people who believe extreme things don’t engage in extreme behaviors, why would we think that extreme beliefs are the best things to tackle to stop extreme behaviors? It seems to me like the wrong place to look. But I could be wrong about that. We’re still in the early stages of empirically evaluating the relative contributions of fusion and ideology. Generally I share with the 19th-century social theorist Émile Durkheim the intuition that, when things take on a sacred quality for people, somehow at the core of it is a group. If I subscribe to an ideology that symbolises the group and I’m also fused with that group, then attacking my ideology might feel like you’re attacking my group and, in that case, it could be perceived as a severe threat leading to the fight and die response.

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We have compelling evidence that losses on the football field are more likely to fuse participants than winning.

Don’t people hold doctrines dearly because they represent answers to deep questions about what is true?

If you’re a philosopher, or if you’re trying to pick apart what’s true. But I’m not sure that, in identity politics, what’s true matters very much to anyone. If you belong to a Creationist group in which a fundamentalist, literalist reading of the Bible is important to your group identity, then you’re going to argue with anybody who upholds the facts of evolution, not because the beliefs themselves matter particularly, or were arrived at through a process of reasoning, but because you and your group’s identity is wrapped up in it. I don’t think people can be reasoned out of those things, because they weren’t reasoned into them in the first place.

What do you make of current efforts to de-radicalize members of extremist religious groups?

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It may well be the wrong approach to try to challenge head-on a set of beliefs because, if I’m right in what I’m saying, then that is basically challenging their identity. And once you do that, you just become part of the problem. I am quite concerned about approaches in public policy that make disseminating unpleasant beliefs illegal. Anjem Choudary is serving a sentence in a British prison for his online lectures urging people to support ISIS. It just makes groups that subscribe to those beliefs feel more embattled and more threatened. I would far prefer to see initiatives that question how genuinely shared some of these self-defining experiences are. To what extent can we unpick some of the foundations of their personal identities and the way that they aligned those with their group identities? From there we might get them to reassess the extent to which they believe their groups are actually threatened. Also, most people would be comfortable with sharing their life events that have shaped who they are, as long as there’s rapport and empathy between themselves and the social workers they’re talking to. Those topics are key to changing their fusion levels.

Where else does identity fusion happen?

We have compelling evidence that losses on the football field are more likely to fuse participants than simply winning. The suffering caused by losing crucial matches is a more powerful basis for fusing with your fellow fans than the euphoria of winning a game, which is more fleeting and doesn’t go as deep in terms of the emotional impact and its consequences for memory. At least that may well be the best explanation for the finding that the losing teams have the more-fused fan bases. We see very similar processes among religious adherents. Fusion in football and religion really isn’t very different. It’s been quite an education, for me at least, to see the extent to which identity fusion among football fans is such a strong predictor of things like willingness to fight and die for your fellow club members, and to see how exactly it follows the same sort of psychological processes that we see among religious fundamentalists.

Why do humans perform rituals?

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No one really knows why. One theory on this front is that, essentially, if you, as a human, are prepared to trust other people not to teach you useless things—even if you don’t fully understand it at the time—that’s a really good way of spreading high quality and sophisticated technical knowledge, transmitting it across the generations. Whereas chimps will usually only copy something if they completely see how doing that action will produce this desirable outcome, human infants will copy whole sequences of actions even though they haven’t a clue what the value is of the thing that they’re copying. You could have quite elaborate and effective medical procedures, for example, and no one has a clue how they work. It could be that rituals also become widespread as a byproduct. If we’re the kind of species that will copy all kinds of causally opaque behaviors, then that would help explain why we get the profusion of ritual behaviors as well as instrumental behaviors that we don’t understand.

Brian Gallagher is the editor of Facts So Romantic, the Nautilus blog. Follow him on Twitter @BSGallagher.

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1. Whitehouse, H. New atheism, ritual and identity fusion. YouTube (2013).

2. Whitehouse, H. Arguments and Icons: Divergent Modes of Religiosity Oxford University Press, New York, NY (2000).

3. Whitehouse, H. & Lanman, J.A. The ties that bind us: Ritual, fusion and identification. Current Anthropology 2, 674-695 (2014).

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4. Swann, W.B., Jr., Jetten, J., Gómez, Á., Whitehouse, H., & Bastian, B. When group identity gets personal: A theory of identity fusion. Psychological Review 119, 441-456 (2012).

5. Whitehouse, H. Rites of terror: Emotion, metaphor and memory in Melanesian iniation cults. The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 703, 703-715 (1996).

6. Whitehouse, H. Dying for the group: Towards a general theory of extreme self-sacrifice. Behavioral and Brain Sciences (2018). Retrieved from DOI: 10.1017/S0140525X18000249

7. Whitehouse, H., McQuinn, B., Buhrmester, M., & Swann, W.B., Jr. Brothers in arms: Libyan revolutionaries bond like family. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 111, 17783-17785 (2014).

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