Martyrs and Heroes

An article by Doug Muder, 24 August 2006

I had to leave a lot out of my review of Sam Harris’ book The End of Faith in the Fall issue of UU World. I had three books to cover in 2000 words, so (as I explained to my wife at the time) “Many fish in that barrel remain unshot.”

In the published review, I focus on two issues: how Harris’ self-image of rationality masks the violence of his ideas, and his incomprehension of any form of religion other than fundamentalism. Another issue I want to address is the desire (widespread among a certain kind of Humanist) to interpret the ideas and actions of religious people as totally Other, rather than noticing the basic human impulses and experiences that religious and secular people share.

The religious type most Other to Harris is the Muslim suicide bomber. He pictures the aspiring Muslim martyr as an individualist trying to get to Paradise, who devalues his current life because of his insane religious worldview. Harris quotes a Muslim scholar denouncing the “craven desire to live, no matter at what price and regardless of quality, honor, and dignity” and finds nothing there but “suicidal grandiosity”.

But wait a minute. Aren’t there non-Muslims, people of every religion and of none, who lack a “craven desire to live”? Don’t Humanists also admire people who value something more than their own lives? People who would rather die than live without “quality, honor, and dignity”?

Of course we do. We call them heroes.

Western history is in fact full of stories in which people die willingly for a larger cause: Thermopylae, for example, or the Alamo. And while Patrick Henry in fact did not die rather than give up his liberty, we admire him for saying that he would. My own religious people, Unitarian Universalists, count among our ancestors Michael Servetus, who let John Calvin burn him at the stake rather than renounce his views.

And yet for some reason we judge Muslims to be insane because they refuse to act like homo economicus, the rational individualist postulated by economic theory. Economicus, as the theory has it,is trying to “maximize utility.” In other words, he’s trying to find a good deal, one where he gets as much as possible while giving up as little as possible. If you’re trying to understand shoppers at a mall, the economicus model works pretty well. Understanding a suicide bomber as homo economicus, however, requires some adjustments: He gives up his life and gets (as far as we can see) nothing in return. Why would he do that?

Well, the economists recognize another situation in which people give up something valuable in exchange for nothing: fraud. In other words, the rational process of homo economicus has gotten corrupted by false information. Somebody tells you that you’re buying the Brooklyn Bridge, you imagine the fantastic wealth you’re going to garner from charging tolls on it, and so you fork over your life savings. You give up everything and get nothing – like the suicide bomber.

In this framing, Heaven plays the role of the Brooklyn Bridge. Some mullah tells the prospective martyr that after he blows himself up he’ll be met at the gates of Heaven by 72 virgins. Such a deal! (I’m still trying to imagine the mindset of the mystic who had this vision. What kind of obsessive-compulsive counts the virgins?) Sam Harris explains it this way:

To see the role that faith plays in propagating Muslim violence, we need only ask why so many Muslims are eager to turn themselves into bombs these days. The answer: because the Koran makes this activity seem like a career opportunity. … Subtract the Muslim belief in martyrdom and jihad, and the actions of suicide bombers become completely unintelligible.

Or at least unintelligible to Harris. And not just Harris, who is echoing what the crusading atheist Richard Dawkins wrote a few days after 9/11:

Could we get some otherwise normal humans and somehow persuade them that they are not going to die as a consequence of flying a plane smack into a skyscraper? If only! Nobody is that stupid, but how about this – it’s a long shot, but it just might work. Given that they are certainly going to die, couldn’t we sucker them into believing that they are going to come to life again afterwards? Don’t be daft! No, listen, it might work. Offer them a fast track to a Great Oasis in the Sky, cooled by everlasting fountains. Harps and wings wouldn’t appeal to the sort of young men we need, so tell them there’s a special martyr’s reward of 72 virgin brides, guaranteed eager and exclusive.

And how does Dawkins think a sane person reasons? As an individualistic rational agent, of course::

If death is final, a rational agent can be expected to value his life highly and be reluctant to risk it.

But let’s think about some of the other people who died on 9/11 – the firemen who raced into the burning towers and perished when those towers collapsed. Were they rational agents maximizing their individual utility? Did they not value their lives? What was going on in their heads?

Undoubtedly many of them were religious, but I doubt they were running up those stairs in order to get to Heaven faster. I suspect that (if we could still ask them) they would give community-oriented justifications: “It’s my duty” or “Somebody needs to help those people” or some other variation of what rationalist icon Mr. Spock says before apparently sacrificing his life at the end of The Wrath of Khan: “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”

Homo economicus would never make a statement like that. Spock, Michael Servetus, the 9/11 firemen – they all failed to maximize their individual utility. They made really bad deals.

Or did they?

Maybe we need to recognize that the world of homo economicus is not the world we live in – or should live in. Maybe the only reason our society survives is that some people are willing not to maximize utility. If a secular worldview means becoming a rational individualist, if it means turning into homo economicus, then it’s not surprising that the Bin Ladens of this world think we’re all cowards. Because it’s true: economicus is a coward. It must give Bin Laden great confidence to see our Western writers praising the craven desire to live, and counting his people insane or deluded because they value something more highly than their own lives.

On the other hand, if Osama thinks much about those New York firemen, it might give him pause.

When Richard Pape studied suicide bombers in Dying to Win: the Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism, he found people very different than Harris and Dawkins would have us imagine. First, he did not find religion to be a determining factor. Secular nationalist movements like the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka also have had no trouble generating volunteers for suicide missions. The key belief is not in an afterlife or in religious martyrdom as a road to Paradise, but rather that the community faces annihilation. (Note carefully: not that the individuals in the community face annihilation. We’re not talking about genocide; we’re talking about the destruction of a way of life, a commodity homo economicus would not know how to value.)

And Pape did not find that the bombers fit the pattern Dawkins suggests: “testosterone-sodden young men too unattractive to get a woman in this world”. Nor were they depressed losers who had nothing to live for. Instead, Pape found that suicide-bombing volunteers tend to be relatively successful members of their communities: a little more educated than average, a little more affluent than average, and frequently husbands and fathers. (A notable exception are the “black widows” of Chechnya – adult women whose husbands and/or children have already died in Russian attacks. They are Muslims, but not young testosterone-sodden ones.)

In short, Pape concludes that within their communities suicide bombers often fit the hero profile: They look on themselves as leaders, and so are the first ones to step up when the community is endangered and a hard job needs to be done.

What’s “completely unintelligible” about that?

The Muslim suicide bomber is “unintelligible” only if we start, as Harris and Dawkins do, from the assumption that they must be totally unlike us. And since we – rational scientific Westerners – are the best kind of people the world has ever known, people unlike us must be bad. They must be deluded. They must be losers. They must be insane. They must be guys so desperate for a date that 72 virgins in the afterlife sounds like a really good deal.

But if we imagine that our enemies are working from the same basic human template we are, if we introspect and ask what possible impulse would make us willingly choose to die – then the answer is not so hard to find: They want to be heroes. They believe their way of life is in danger, and they are willing to sacrifice themselves to keep their community’s enemies at bay.

The delusion here, the misperception we need to fight, is that they can intimidate us with their sacrifice – because we in the West have completely forgotten what the heroic impulse feels like. Attacks like 9/11 make sense only if you believe that America is entirely populated with economici, and that the mere sight of men willing to sacrifice their lives for a higher purpose will cause us to run in horror.

In short, projecting Otherness onto Muslim suicide bombers does no one good, and makes it harder both for us to understand them and them to understand us. In fact, the impulse to sacrifice Self for Community is not Muslim or even religious – it’s human. Americans – even Humanist Americans, I hope – still feel it.

And if Bin Laden eventually gets his way, if understanding fails and the ultimate Clash of Civilizations begins, I can only hope that I too will find more in my soul than the craven desire to live.