This is currently a hot political topic, but what does the science say?

I was thinking that a good experiment would take groups of people, and match them for alternate explanations: Age, gender, socio-economic status, level of education, nationality, occupation, cultural factors, political affiliation, immigration status, etc. (These are factors that many experiments control for when dividing subjects into groups, so is not unusual to do.) Then look for correlations, and see if particular religious affiliations (or non-believers), are more strongly correlated with participation in acts of political violence than are other factors.

I have not found such a study yet. There is a fair amount of research regarding attitudes towards violence, with mixed results (example, example, example, example), but these are generally not controlled for very many factors, and do not address any actual violence rates. There is also some research on actual violence rates (example, example), but again, few variables are controlled for, and the focus is on countries rather than people.

Is religious affiliation really a predisposing factor for people to actually commit acts of terrorism and politically-motivated violence?

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Too many confounds, its difficult to control for extra variables. Furthermore, it would be hard to make a definational distinction between political and religious beliefs. If anything, it would have to rely on self-reports, which comes along with its own issues. Lastly, on a similar note, there is the "the pope is an atheist" issue brought up by N. N. Taleb where there is a assymetry between what people explicitly state they believe and the manner in which those beliefs map to behavior. These potential limitations that could arise are based on my personal views - but could easily be mistaken. $\endgroup$
    – Vakalate
    Dec 16, 2015 at 6:09
  • $\begingroup$ The problem with such questions is that we assume that it is one single parameter (religious affiliation) which may or may not affect a certain output. But what if it is a specific combination of that parameter with other ones which does produce the output, while in other combinations, not producing it? Your whole questions contains the assumption that there could possibly exist a direct correlation between religious affiliation and political violence, but that assumption itself should be tested, too. $\endgroup$
    – drabsv
    Aug 9, 2020 at 11:34

1 Answer 1


A good, and very pertinent question. This speculative and blunt answer is based on the literature that I have studied as part of understanding behavior change. It is a simplification of the literature, but it should set a foundation that you could build on if you wanted to investigate further and develop a more nuanced view.

Is religious affiliation really a predisposing factor for people to actually commit acts of terrorism and politically-motivated violence?

I start with a basic assumption: As terrorists are people we can assume that they are motivated by the same things as people in general.

Based on this assumption it seems more than reasonable to expect that religious affiliation would influence behavior, and in some cases influence likelihood of violence and terrorism. In all that follows you can assume that I am contrasting one 'more benign' form of religious affiliation, such as atheism, with another form which is more easily used to justify violence, such as Christianity or Islam. The following are some reasons why having one type of affiliation rather than the other might affect behavior:

  1. Mental characteristics, such as values, attitudes, and beliefs, have a strong influence on behavior [e.g. 1]. Additionally, these mental attributes are influenced by information [e.g., 2], such as what might have been encountered in religious literature. Given this argument, it seems reasonable to assume that the religious literature that terrorists have read could have influenced their mental attributes, and in turn predisposed them, even if just to a small extent, to engage in terrorist behavior.

  2. Expected value has a strong influence on behavior [3]. Essentially, people are more likely to engage in behaviours that they believe will create value for them. For most of us, suicide is a pretty low value outcome but for certain religions, suicide to kill others is going to be rewarded by eternal life, along with a number of devoted companions. Likewise a war can be holy for some religious affiliations but not others. In light of this example, it seems reasonable to assume that religious beliefs that make a terrorist behaviour appear like it will be more rewarding, will in turn influence people with those beliefs,than those without, to be more likely to engage in that behaviour.

  3. Research suggests that most people generally require justifications for their actions to avoid congnitive dissonance [e.g., 4]. Those who have been raised by learning a religious scripture which presents many justifications for violence, would in turn have easy mental access to these justifications when thinking about how to act. Indeed, they might have access to the justification that a supreme, unquestionable, omnipent, ominpotent individual wants them to act in a violent way. Accordingly, it is reasonable to assume that individuals with these sets of justifications could use them to justify violence, while those not in possession of such justifications would not be able to.

I am happy to clarify, or add to this as you wish. I am sure I have oversimplified things in a few cases.


[1]Ajzen, I. and M. Fishbein (2000). "Attitudes and the attitude-behavior relation: Reasoned and automatic processes." European Review of Social Psychology 11(1): 1-33.

[2] Chaiken, S. (1980). "Heuristic versus systematic information processing and the use of source versus message cues in persuasion." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 39(5): 752-766.

[3] Wigfield, A. and J. S. Eccles (2000). "Expectancy-Value Theory of Achievement Motivation." Contemporary Educational Psychology 25(1): 68-81.

[4] Festinger, L. (1962). A theory of cognitive dissonance. Stanford, Calif., Stanford University Press.

  • $\begingroup$ You've a good pick of references and "applied" them nearly well. But, you couldn't have my +1 because you wrongly applied your built up theories on suicide bombings (point 2) without enough research. Acc. to point 3, people might easily justify their crimes of killing others based on religion, but not suicide. Many other factors come into picture when it is concerned about suicide bombings. Nevertheless, this is a good set of possible reasons one can have from what is is visible from the outside. $\endgroup$
    – azam
    Feb 15, 2016 at 16:13
  • $\begingroup$ Also, please note that, Islam is a very good religion which is open to interpretation. The same religion which is known to produce terrorists, can also produce nobel peace prize winners (perhaps from within the same environment where terrorists are produced). $\endgroup$
    – azam
    Feb 15, 2016 at 16:22
  • $\begingroup$ Furthermore to criticize point 2, i.e. the concept of eternal life is only hypothetical and is not much of a driving factor. You can know chocolate is tasty by hearing from others, but are certain and find chocolate rewarding once you tasted it. No one tasted eternal life yet. So, yes one might definitely be interested to taste it, but only after enough reasoning and calculation. So please do consider one's serotonin levels as a reason too, which could be a possible likelihood of for suicide bombings. $\endgroup$
    – azam
    Feb 15, 2016 at 17:58
  • $\begingroup$ I don't think cogsci.SE is a good place for debate. I did not vote this answer because it doesn't address the question (it does not provide reference to any study that compares people of different beliefs). It's easy to theorize explanations for a purported effect, but the effect should first be demonstrated, and then we can theorize about causes. $\endgroup$
    – Arnon Weinberg
    Feb 16, 2016 at 4:33

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