Terrorism, religion and the group dynamic…

I spent much of today talking about terrorism. This is not usually part of what I do, but I was asked to attend a local awareness session. In the end it was rather fascinating.

What we tried to think about was the sorts of processes and relationships in our communities that might draw people into extremism, and right away, we people of faith have to concede that one of the most common drivers for this in the world at present is religion.

Many people would have in their mind a stereotypical terrorist, and they well be Muslim, male and aged around 25. There are real problems with these kinds of stereotypes of course, as I have spoken about previously here. There is also a real possibility that we exaggerate the potential threat, and this plays into all sorts of paranoid murky politics.

However, we now know that even our sleepy rural county of Argyll has been touched by terrorism. Several extremist groups have used outdoor centres/outward bound courses up here to breed team spirit, and the bombers who attacked Glasgow Airport a few years ago did so from a holiday home base in our area.

What brings people to the point of being able to justify the use of extreme violence? Of course this is not a new thing, and many would regard the drivers of inequality, imperialism and oppression as fertile breeding grounds. However, today we talked about some of the societal/group pressures that might draw people in;


The need to be ‘saved’ from an old life, and released into a special calling, as part of an enlightened elite. So we see some people drawn into extremist groups out of situations of isolation, confused identity, drug addiction and poverty.


People often see themselves as on a special mission, to right injustice and to live to a higher calling. There is an exclusiveness to this, and a tendency to see others as weaker, more contaminated, sinful, outsiders to the truth.

Narrowed world view

Extremists are united by a compelling narrative, often focussed on a single issue and simplified to black and white kind of thinking. In this narrative, there will be good guys and bad guys, those on the inside, those on the outside, and a call to fight back.

The drive to proselytise

The need to be bigger, more powerful, to convince others of the rightness of your cause, and to win converts. All other things are secondary and this end justifies all means.

Powerful, manipulative leadership

Leaders who convince, who have elevation over others and able to use hyper emotionality and  charismatic manipulation to bring cohesiveness and common purpose.

Distortions presented as fact

Leaders like this often present historical and theological perspectives, or downright distortions as fact. They emphasis certain aspects (for example eschatology, judgement, Jihad) over others (for example, forgiveness, grace, peace.) People are not encouraged to think for themselves, to test and debate issues, rather they are expected to achieve correct belief.

Removal and isolation

Before every act of violence, there seems to be something in common- a time of removal, sequestration. People are removed, or remove themselves from wider society, and focus on the purity and certainty of their cause, and the need for their final act.

Here is the challenge then- I invite those of you who have been involved in Christian churches to consider this list from that perspective. Those of you familiar with charismatic or fundamentalist denominations may find this list rather familiar. The point is, the group dynamics of religion that distort faith and breed a kind of hatred and destruction do not just belong to the other, they arise from who we are as humans.

Jesus seemed to understand this very clearly, and anyone who knows his teaching would see it as the antidote to all of the above. He seemed to reserve his anger almost exclusively for the kind of religion that valued the law (or religious understandings of the law) over people.

And yet we stand in the shadow of two thousand years of repeated examples of where the group dynamic within our churches has become toxic and released all sorts of hatred, judgementalism and even death as a result.


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