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Understanding How the Privileged Become Violent Fanatics


  • Scott Atran

    () (IJN - Institut Jean-Nicod - ENS Paris - École normale supérieure - Paris - EHESS - École des hautes études en sciences sociales - CNRS - Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique)


The great British biologist J.B.S Haldane counted monotheism's creation of fanaticism as one of the most important inventions of the last 5,000 years. Call it love of God or love of group, it matters little in the end. Modern civilizations spin the potter's wheel of monotheism to manufacture the greatest cause of all, humanity. Before missionary monotheism, people did not consider that all others could be pigeonholed into one kind. The salvation of humanity is a cause as stimulating as it is impossible to achieve. Nevertheless, all modern missionary "-isms," whether religious or in their secular post-Enlightenment guise, preach devotion unto death for the sake of humanity, including allowance for mass killing for the mass good. "The imagination and the spiritual strength of Shakespeare's evildoers stopped short at a dozen corpses. Because they had no ideology," wrote Alexander Solzhenitsyn in The Gulag Archipelago. Especially for young men, mortal combat in a great cause provides the ultimate adventure and glory to gain maximum esteem in the eyes of many and, most dearly, in the hearts of their peers. By identifying their devotion with the greater defense and salvation of humanity, they commit themselves to a path that allows massive killing for what they think is a massive good....

Suggested Citation

  • Scott Atran, 2010. "Understanding How the Privileged Become Violent Fanatics," Post-Print ijn_00505428, HAL.
  • Handle: RePEc:hal:journl:ijn_00505428
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