7 facts about religion and terrorism

Terrorism is on many people’s minds at the moment, and many connect it with religion.

Several years ago I wrote a page on this website about religion and terrorism, and it is one of the pages I have had to update most often, because of new understandings.

I have just updated it again, with new material from researchers and commentators. It leads me to 7 facts about terrorism and religion.

I believe killing is ugly and wrong in almost every case, and so I believe that terrorism is evil. But it is committed by people who have similar DNA to ours, and it is best we understand them as well as we can.

1. Terrorism is multi-faceted, complex, and changing.

Terrorism has become one of the terrible realities of the 21st century. Forms of terrorism were used by oppressive regimes such as Stalinist Russia or Nazi Germany, and taken up in almost 150 civil wars and uprisings in the 20th century. Suicide attacks began to be used more frequently from about 1980 onwards.

Experts have observed terrorism, interviewed terrorists and developed testable models of the behaviour of terrorist groups. They conclude that there is no single, simple cause of terrorism, and no simple profile of a typical terrorist. It is a complex phenomenon.

Moreover, things are changing all the time, and what was true a decade or two ago may not be true today.

We should be wary of anyone with a slogan or a simplistic explanation.

2. Terrorism has multiple causes and motivations

Terrorism may serve religious, ideological, nationalist, ethnic or personal goals, or several at once.

Terrorists may be personally motivated by a sense of humiliation, perceived injustice, or socioeconomic deprivation, and may be reinforced by seeking a sense of identity or belonging in a close group. Religion may play a part in these motivations.

3. Religion has not been the major cause of terrorism

The experts are generally quite clear. In the main, “People choose terrorism when they are trying to right what they perceive to be a social or political or historical wrong — when they have been stripped of their land or rights, or denied these.” (Amy Zalman PhD (Middle Eastern Studies), president of the World Future Society)

Even “Suicide terrorism is not caused by religion. ….. Suicide terrorists are motivated mainly by political goals.” (Amy Zalman)

UK security agency MI5 concluded after a study a few years ago: “Far from being religious zealots, a large number of those involved in terrorism do not practise their faith regularly. …. a well-established religious identity actually protects against violent radicalisation.”

In fact “most radical religious Muslims, Christians and Jews are nonviolent and apolitical.” (Eli Berman and David Laitin)

However things may be changing

While all this has been true of terrorism over the last 40 years, it may not be so true today. The recent rise of Wahhabi Islamic groups (Taliban, ISIL, al-Qu’aida and Boko Haram) has increased the incidence of terrorism with a religious motivation, in a few countries at least.

Globally, terrorism is still mainly a response to political conflict and injustice, which is often seen as humiliation, but the terrorism that most affects westerners is more religiously motivated than in the past.

Anthropologist Scott Atran, who has interviewed many terrorists and their families, says disaffection with life, whether in the war-torn Middle East or as ‘aliens’ in the west, has led many youth to look to live for a “thrilling cause”, and the new forms of militant Sunni Islam offers this. It is almost as if religion is being used as the means to the end.

4. There is no typical terrorist profile

The media sometimes portray terrorists as senseless psychopaths, but the reality is more complex.

Few terrorists are loners; many are family-oriented and altruistic and overall, they have been found to have an average level of mental health.

Some terrorists are well educated and relatively well off, while others are not. Most are part of a group that provides support, motivation and self esteem. Many terrorist groups provide strong social services to their community, particularly valuable if government services and law and order have broken down.

5. Religion can support terrorism

Although religion is not a primary cause of most terrorism, it can certainly provide support for those promoting terrorism.

Radical religious groups are more successful than most groups in retaining members. If a religious group has certain cult-like characteristics which help its members see the world in terms of Good vs Evil and Them vs Us, then it is more easily used to support violent actions.

“Religion is seldom the only cause of terrorism. The scholars agreed that while religion has been a major factor in recent acts of terrorism, it is seldom the only one. ….. usually ‘political and economic grievances are primary causes or catalysts, and religion becomes a means to legitimate and mobilize’.” (‘Root Causes of Terrorism: Myths, Reality and Ways Forward’ (2005). Ed Tore Bjørgo)

6. The rise of ISIS has multiple causes

Terrorism is on people’s minds in the west principally because of ISIS, which is seen by some as “a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse.” But other observers believe it is more political than religious in its motivations, and most Muslims appear to condemn the group.

The rise of ISIS is considered to be a result and a response to the western invasion of Iraq in 2003, which many Muslims saw as an unjustified external intrusion into the Middle East. The invasion increased instability in the region and created a power vacuum which ISIS has exploited.

7. The politicians don’t seem to be listening to the research

If the experts teach us anything, it surely is that we need to be more nuanced in our response to terrorism. Military responses may be superficially attractive, but may be counter-productive because they can increase recruitment. Last time (2003) when the US chose a military response, it made the situation significantly worse. The west needs to be carefully selective in its military responses.

But it seems the politicians and the media prefer their own analysis to that of the experts.


Religion, in itself, hasn’t been a major cause of terrorism. But some radical and cult-like forms of religion can support terrorism aimed at more political goals, and some contemporary Wahhabi Islamic groups are more religious and apocalyptic in their motivation.

Read my analysis of the expert research in more detail, and check out a bunch of references, in Does religion cause terrorism?

What can we learn from a prominent atheist’s views on “faith”?


  1. I agree with you, and I am reblogging it on my blog “paarsurrey” under the topic “Religion has not been the major cause of terrorism”as noted by you in your analysis.
    Thanks and regards

  2. “But some radical and cult-like forms of religion can support terrorism aimed at more political goals”

    Overall, your analysis is wrong-headed. Religion commands immoral behavior and rewards believers. The Reward is the big problem with religion:

    “If they do not abide in me…they shall be gathered and burned” – JESUS (John 15:6)

    We do not need to go to ‘radical cults’ or ‘extremists’ when the inventors of the religions are themselves quite extremist and radical.

  3. Hi Atheist Max, thanks for reading and commenting.

    I’m sorry you think my analysis is “wrong-headed”, but of course it isn’t my analysis, I am just reporting the analysis of experts who have studied this matter. I presume you think we should base our views on evidence and not on prejudice or what we tend to think?

    “Religion commands immoral behavior”

    This is an interesting statement. Do you really think that such a broad generalisation can be made about as broad a word as “religion” ? Surely at the least you should say “some religion”?

    ““If they do not abide in me…they shall be gathered and burned” – JESUS (John 15:6)”

    You do realise that this is a misquote, don’t you? In the correct quote, Jesus is using an analogy or a metaphor, saying that people can be like a branch that withers up, and such branches are thrown into the fire. He doesn’t say that people should be thrown into the fire, that is your assumption. It may be what he meant, and it may not be.

    So it may not be the inventor of the religion that is “quite extremist and radical”, it may have been you!! 🙂

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