Defusing the Neuron Bomb

On learning that the suspect aboard Northwest Flight 235 on Christmas Day was a young Nigerian born to privilege and wealth, I again thought of a girl I once knew—I’ll call her Alice Kim. When I was a grad student in charge of a freshman dorm suite, Alice was the most promising student on our floor. She had wit, smarts, charm, and energy to spare. Her fellow froshies quickly elected her floor captain.

Everything went fine for the first few weeks. Then a fundamentalist cult got hold of Alice. Already a devout Christian (her father was a minister), she swallowed their bait whole. No more dining with suitemates—the cult would send a car to take her away for meals. No more hanging out in the hallway. Alice quit taking part in any dorm activities. Not long after, she stopped going to classes. I tried to reach her, as did other students, and even her parents came in to plead with her, all to no avail. Before the end of the semester, Alice was gone.

It’s unlikely she became a terrorist, but when the 9/11 attacks took place and we learned that many of those involved were neither impoverished nor oppressed but rather came from backgrounds of privilege, the sad episode with Alice came to mind. It stayed with me as I worked to distill the nature of religious terrorism. On the first anniversary of 9/11, insight dawned: the true threat we were facing was the “neuron bomb,” in which the immense pressures of modernity cause religious ideology to fuse into murderous belief. As illustrated, the critical element is the arming device.

The Neuron Bomb: A schematic

  • Arming Device: Belief that “God’s enemies” must be defeated or destroyed
  • Concealment: Can be implanted in any human mind
  • Cost: Practically nothing
  • Explosive Materials: Anything at hand
  • Destructive Potential: Unlimited

I wrote about this idea in the October 2002 issue of Global Spiral (an online publication of the Metanexus Institute), noting that while other threatening ideologies like Facism and Marxism have done terrible damage, only religion can promise its followers the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven, a walk in the Gardens of Allah, or a seat at the right hand of God. Only religion can make a martyr. The term neuron bomb has since gained some currency, thanks largely to Michael Shermer, who quoted it in his 2005 book, The Science of Good and Evil. More important, we’ve stopped merely framing terrorists as videogame bad guys and started pondering them as fellow human beings.

Unfortunately our policies haven’t much changed. We still combine massive military campaigns with vast expenditures on detection equipment. This approach is rather like taking a hatchet to a wasp’s nest. Momentarily effective, perhaps, but doomed to a painful end.

That may yet change. In a January 10, 2010, New York Times article, Sarah Kershaw described researchers’ attempts to further illuminate the psychology of suicidal terrorism. While no consensus has emerged, there is widespread agreement on several features. As with Alice, “groupthink” dominates the individual’s mind. A sense of striking back at oppression (whether or not it truly exists) through noble sacrifice often prevails. But it all begins with the inculcation of extremist beliefs.

Such beliefs may appear to invert the morality of religion but, to those caught up in extremism, they seem like its purest expression. The Times article quoted David C. Rapoport, UCLA professor emeritus of political science, as saying that many terrorists believe “the pathway to paradise is straight through hell.”

The suspect in the attempted Christmas airline bombing illustrates all this perfectly. As Britain’s Independent put it, “With his wealth, privilege and education at one of Britain’s leading universities, Abdul Farouk Abdulmutallab had the world at his feet—able to choose from a range of futures in which to make his mark on the world. Instead, the son of one of Nigeria’s most important figures opted to make his impact in a very different way.”

While much has been made of young Abdulmutallab’s loneliness and alienation, those are feelings shared by most teenagers. What made the difference was his indoctrination in radical Islam, and what made that possible was prior indoctrination in “ordinary” Islam.

But let’s not make the mistake of singling out Islam. Every major faith has produced its berserk killers in recent years, from Baruch Goldstein, who waged a suicidal attack on Muslim worshippers in Hebron, to Shoko Asahara, who directed his cult followers to release nerve gas in the Tokyo subway, to Scott Roeder, who was convicted on January 29 of murdering Dr. George Tiller in church last May.

Of course, the vast majority of believers in every faith will never become neuron bombs. Let me also note that we’ve experienced domestic terrorist attacks from people who weren’t acting from religion at all—the Unibomber or the Columbine and Virginia Tech shooters, for example—but rather from an egotistical grandiosity, warped perception of reality, feelings of alienation and isolation, or outright mental illness, or who perhaps felt an overwhelming need to literally go out with a bang.

But there is something in religion that creates a vulnerability in the minds of those who succumb to martyrdom. That something may be summed up as magical theism. There’s nothing more dangerous than the idea that God takes sides in human affairs, speaks to certain people, commands certain acts, and performs miracles to change history. It’s dangerous because it can generate an unquestionable belief in crazy ideas, such as the notion that God rewards mass slaughter.

Humanists may leap to the conclusion that if theism is the problem, atheism is the answer. Despite the appealing lexical symmetry here, such an idea is logically flawed. Theism of the sort described above constitutes only a fraction of religious belief (though a large fraction, to be sure). Some may wish to abolish religion altogether, but this is unrealistic and quite possibly undesirable. (It would surely be a mistake to assume that, absent religion, all people would become thoughtful, ethical humanists.)

The evidence suggests that religion is an evolved trait in human nature. (David Sloan Wilson is especially persuasive in arguing for its adaptive features.) Like many evolved traits, it probably serves multiple functions, not least of which is success in war. Few if any of us lack for successful warriors in our ancestry.

However, as salty snack eaters everywhere know, tendencies that evolved in our past are not always adaptive in our present. We need to promote the reform of religion to rid it of the tribalistic, authoritarian, magical beliefs that make it so dangerous today. Daunting though the task may seem, recent history shows that dangerous ideas can lose legitimacy fast. During World War II, most of the world believed in racism of one sort or another. Today, racism persists in the shadows, but it has lost its legitimacy nearly everywhere.

To eliminate the neuron bomb, we must make common cause with progressive religious thinkers and doers who share the view that, whatever may lie over the metaphysical horizon, the world we inhabit is best described by science and its future depends on choices we make. The time has come for an ecumenical campaign to achieve a sustainable religious ecology. It can and must be done.

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