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In the Name of God: The Neuron Bomb of Terrorism

by Michael Shermer, Jan 12 2010

Nothing fuels religious extremism more than the belief that one has found the absolute moral truth. Islamic terrorism, for example, has gradually shifted from secular motives in the 1960s to religious motives today. A 2000 study by the state department that resulted in the publication Patterns of Global Terrorism, found that in 1980 there were only two out of sixty-four militant Islamic groups whose mission was religiously based. In 1995 that figure had climbed to nearly half. The figure is undoubtedly higher today. (

It is a type of fuel that can lead to what Clay Farris Naff, Executive Director of the Center for the Advancement of Rational Solutions in Lincoln, Nebraska, cleverly calls the “neuron bomb,” after its cold-war counterpart, the “neutron bomb,” designed to kill people while leaving buildings and infrastructure in tack. A schematic of the neuron bomb looks like this:

  • 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

As Naff explains, the arming device is difficult to defuse: “Unlike the cold war stability brought on by MAD—the doctrine of mutual assured destruction—in this situation we cannot count on knowing whom to blame. We cannot negotiate treaties with them. We cannot count on their will to live. There is simply no limit to what some people will do in God’s name.”

Salman Rushdie minced no words in his analysis of the problems between India and Pakistan, two religiously-based political systems poised intermittently on the brink of nuclear holocaust:

The political discourse matters, and explains a good deal. But there’s something beneath it, something we don’t want to look in the face: namely, that in India, as elsewhere in our darkening world, religion is the poison in the blood. So India’s problem turns out to be the world’s problem. What happened in India has happened in God’s name. The problem’s name is God.

To be more accurate, India’s problem—and the world’s—is extremism in the name of God, even in the industrial and democratic West. “All faiths that come out of the biblical tradition—Judaism, Christianity and Islam—have the tendency to believe that they have the exclusive truth,” writes Rabbi David Hartman of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. “When the Taliban wiped out the Buddhist statues, that’s what they were saying. But others have said it too.” (Quoted in Kristof, N. D. 2002. “All-American Osamas,” The New York Times, June 7, A27.)

And it’s not just an Islamic problem. Listen to the words of the current Pope, who when he said them in August 2000 was Cardinal Ratzinger: “With the coming of the Saviour Jesus Christ, God has willed that the Church founded by Him be the instrument for the salvation of all humanity. This truth of faith … rules out, in a radical way…the belief that ‘one religion is as good as another.’” (Quoted in Kristof, cited above.)

Yes, some religions are better than others, and some are worse. How can we tell the difference? Here’s a test: if I am not a member of your religion, or if I don’t believe in your God—indeed if I don’t belong to any religion or believe in any gods—will my liberties or my life be taken away from me? If your answer is “no,” then your religion is better than any religion who encourages or insists that it’s members deprive nonbelievers of life or liberty.

Better according to what standard? Is there a moral standard that stands above all the world’s religions that is based on some transcendent source? There is. And it isn’t supernatural.

52 Responses to “In the Name of God: The Neuron Bomb of Terrorism”

  1. Tom says:

    Excellent diagnosis, Doc. What’s the cure?

  2. Hamilton Pabblenark says:

    I think I roughly agree with the proviso that a lot of religions that say “no” very much did “yes” when they could get away with it. Let’s not forget that.

  3. I’d extend the concept beyond god based religions. Atheists tend to have the idealistic notion that removing theism will create a better world; removing theism merely pushes the human tendency to believe in a “higher power” into the secular plane. I think it’s clear that the more radical fringes of the environmental movement can be just as motivated. And a look at the history of communism is very instructive in this regard as well…

  4. Chris Howard says:

    Excellent post!
    For anyone interested in an in depth understanding of the belief in cosmic struggle, infallible truth and the motivation for radical zealotry, and violence I would suggest Dr. Mark Jurgensmeyer’s “Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence.” Updated Edition with a New Preface (Comparative Studies in Religion and Society). It follows a more “narrative” format, much like that of anthropological writings, so it’s easy to read and makes some very valid points.

    I really like the tolerance test, if I may I’d like to use that one.

  5. Beelzebud says:

    If I wanted to read trueslant, I’d go there instead of here. Might I suggest posting your entire article here, and not solicit us to go to a 3rd party website to read the rest of it?

    • TJ says:

      agreed. It’s really uncalled for to stop mid article and make us visit another website in order to read the rest of what you have to say…

    • JVW says:

      Gee, that’s a bit cranky isn’t it? I clicked the link, read the other article. Didn’t have to pay a dime or anything!

    • Steve M says:

      Because clicking a link is so utterly exhausting?

      • Beelzebud says:

        It’s not exhausting, it’s rude. I come here to read articles, not true/slant. If I wanted to read the articles there, I would just go there and skip this place. It shows a lack of respect for this site and–

        –visit my blog for the rest of this post!

  6. Majority of One says:

    How about to the Christian: test: if a person doesn’t follow your religion are they going to burn in hell for all eternity? If you answer yes, your religion isn’t as good as some of the others.

  7. Jim Shaver says:

    Beelzebud, click the link and read Dr. Shermer’s article (“Why Not Ask God for Moral Guidance?”). It’s succinct, logical, and easy to understand.

    Majority of One, believing someone else will burn in hell for eternity for their noncompliance is one thing; believing you should personally accelerate their journey to such destination is another, entirely. But insofar as you are merely suggesting a means to score the relative ethics of competing religious philosophies, I agree with you.

  8. MadScientist says:

    “in tack” I presume should be “intact” – or are all the buildings and things performing a nautical maneuver?

  9. These questions, I think are possibly a way of shifting the whole debate. What is the measure of a religion? What is the measure of a god? In my book, The Dark Side, I argued that Christianity fails largely because its sacred texts and doctrines fail to correspond with the highest values of Christianity itself. But is there a conversation to be had about a set of external standards that can be used to evaluate many religions?

    The One Law For All campaign in Britain attempts to do this at a the level of civil liberties — to say that our rough agreements about universal human rights should trump Sharia or any religious law that violates those agreements.

  10. Mark. says:

    Religion is an opiate of the masses that requires an inability for rational thought in order to sustain it’s ability to control the actions of it’s followers.
    Given that logical thought process are no longer taught in the vast number of schools in both the developing and modern world, and that the delusion of an all powerful God permeates to the very office of the most powerful man in the world leads me to hold little hope for humanity.
    The contradiction that an extremist needs to commit atrocious acts on behalf of his all powerful supreme being to prove his worth to that being is so ludicrous as to be laughable…Except that it describes a proportion of humanity, both Muslim and Christian.
    What’s the answer? That my skeptical friends is the $64,000 question. My idea is for evangelical skeptics to gather in neighborhoods, science texts in hand and knock on the doors of Christians and Muslims and proclaim the good news. God doesn’t exist and you can sleep in on Sundays!!!!

  11. Bill Morgan says:

    Shermer’s criticizem of the Bible is tame. The Bible is a terrible book about a mean God who likes to punish and kill people. Best to put it on the dump heap of man’s tragic past. More people have been killed over religous beliefs than any other cause. Millions if not billions over thousands of years. I believe there is a God. Just not the evil God of the Bible who is a comic book joke.

    • Nathan says:

      Your statement brings up another issue. The greatest religions are the ones that rely the least on ancient texts or dogma of any kind, yet they tend to base their validity on these very texts. This leads to backlashes and fundamentalism. Sacred texts are things that people can give as reasons to believe in a god or gods. Without them, maintaining the belief is more difficult. Without believing in the bible, why do you believe in a god?

  12. Jeshua says:

    If memory serves me correctly (not always, for sure) i read once that this site would not tackle religious issues, but i’m glad to see you courageously tramping into this pit of briers. Religion has to be the oldest and cruelest woo woo scam known to man.

  13. Trimegistus says:

    Your attempt to draw equivalence among all religions fails. Right now only one global religion is engaged in bloody sectarian warfare wherever it comes into contact with others. Religion isn’t the problem. Islam is the problem and pretending that’s not so just makes the problem worse.

    Imagine how effective skepticism would be if it could work in parallel with Christian evangelism to roll back Islamic fanaticism.

    Now some idiot will bring up the Crusades, or find some nutjob somewhere who said Jesus made him kill someone. Don’t play those stupid games. Show me another world religion with an actual, scriptural commandment to kill unbelievers. Not Christianity. Not Hinduism. Not Buddhism. Show me another world religion which — in living memory — has inspired acts of terrorism on the scale of 9/11 or the Mumbai attacks. Surprise! You can’t. It’s all Islam, all the time.

    False moral equivalency is the path to self-destruction. Religions aren’t equally bad.

    Here’s a simple test: would you rather try to publish a skeptical journal in the most strongly Christian country we know of? Or in Saudi Arabia?

    • Max says:

      You’re not replying to Michael Shermer, are you?

    • TJ says:

      Trimegistus; here is a better challenge for you, show us where in the Koran it actually says anything about killing someone? In actual fact the Koran is quite clear about the fact that Muslims shouldn’t kill others.

      The problem isn’t the religions themselves here, it’s the power of individuals to distort what is taught in these religions of their own agenda. THAT is the problem and it has happened continually through-out history, be it bible inspired faiths like Christianity, Judaism or Islam or faiths to the east, religion and the power to pervert it has causes all manner of atrocities. It’s also a simple fact that some people take another person disbelieving in their faith as a personal insult toward them.

      I’d like to also mention to you that your clear xenophobia has lead you to be blind to quite a number of facts surrounding the 9/11 case and Islamic terrorism.

      As far as religious inspired atrocities go however I’d have to say the rapping, pillaging and general wanton destruction of our planet would have to rate as one of the highest. After all it is the west whom cause the major damage in this regard, and it is the west with their Christian belief whom are told the earth and all upon it were created for the benefit of humanity and we may do with it as we please without consequence.

      As for a good judge of a “better religion” I personally would measure it this way. Does your religion feel the need to “spread the word”? If your answer is yes then your religion is clearly bogus as it seems to me any truth about a supreme being “god” would have been ingrained on the entire human population of the planet from it’s inception. If these “gods” really existed then surely someone can explain to me the tens of thousands of years of alternate belief structures which came before them.

    • Marc Blackburn says:

      “But these enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, bring them here and slay them in my presence.”

      — Jesus Christ, Luke 19:27

    • Beelzebud says:

      I wonder if Dr. George Tiller would agree with your statement about acts of terror. We’ll never know because he was gunned down, in his church, by a radical christian extremist.

      You wonder how effective christian evangelism would be if working in parallel with skeptics to “roll back Islamic fanaticism”? How about we just work on rolling back fanaticism (it comes in many flavors), and leave it at that? People trying to change education standards to teach their creation myth in public schools don’t seem to be a great ally of the critical and/or skeptical thinker…

      • Trimegistus says:

        Was Dr. George Tiller three thousand people? Three hundred? No? Then, as I said above, don’t play those stupid games. For any cause you can probably find at least one nut willing to commit murder. It’s the ongoing pattern of continuous large-scale violence that’s the problem.

      • Beelzebud says:

        So the pattern of abortion clinic bombers throughout the past couple of decades, and doctor murderers doesn’t count, because it wasn’t large-scale violence. I see.

        It doesn’t count if you set a bomb off at the Olympic games, or put a nail bomb outside of a clinic, where it injures people passing by. Those aren’t large scale, so they don’t count.

    • MadScientist says:

      I agree; christianity is out there to murder people – look at what the jesus cultists are doing in Uganda. That islam branch of the jesus cult is pretty bad too.

    • Nathan says:

      You’re not my old buddy Hermes are you? I certainly wouldn’t claim that all religions are the same, and Shermer made a point that they could all be compared in this regard. However, there are many non-Muslim victims of Muslim violence, and we aren’t seeing this with many other religions. The truth is that most victims of religious violence are members of the persecuting religion. Whether mutilating their bodies, torturing themselves physically or mentally, avoiding modern medicine or blaming natural disasters on pacts with the devil, religion is a force of great harm.

    • Whitfield Martin says:

      Trimegistu indeed raised a good point. It does appear that in the modern time Muslim is the religion contributed to majority of the violence. But the questions is why not Christianity? In my opinion it is simple. The Western rationalism took a foothold in the society, either due to luck or some other historical factors. The past few hundred years irrational religious grip was loosen by the force of human intellect, thanks to some of the courageous thinkers. This is especially true when the advance of science and technology also brought tangible prosperity to the Western world, that helped to push religion to a much smaller niche. In another word, secularism prevailed, and religious fanaticism has been kept in check in the Christian world. What you are seeing now is the Muslim world is still in the Dark Age.

      It is not which religion is better. It is the antibody is developed for one virus, but not yet for the other.

  14. Larry says:

    Trimegistus, I couldn’t agree more. Whenever the subject of “bad religion” comes up, Christians who attend church on Sunday are almost always made to appear worse than Islamic extremists. I’m not religious, but I do have common sense – something the “it’s vogue to bash Christianity” crowd seems to be lacking.

  15. George Cunningham M.D. says:

    BEELZEBUD How about the wars between the Catholics and Prosestants that killed thousands. How about Franciso Franco who imprisoned and killed non Catolics. Are the Crusades large scale enough to qualify? What about the blastphemy laws in non Islamic countries. All religions have the potential to saction or engage in immoral act including genocide as required by ther unique absolut moral code dictated by God himself.

  16. Max says:

    It doesn’t take much effort to receive death threats these days. Webster Cook received death threats for smuggling a Eucharist cracker out of mass. PZ Myers responded by asking people to send him Eucharist crackers to desecrate, and he received death threats.

    • Max says:

      One of the Danish cartoonists was attacked with an axe on January 2, and took refuge in a secure room that he had for such an occasion.

  17. RealityGuy says:

    Islamist suicide martyrs are duped into believing that dying in the act of killing “infidels” is their quick ticket to Paradise. The best way to “win their hearts and minds” is to establish reasonable doubt that Heaven is waiting. Once they get a clue that it’s suicide suckerdom, not suicide martyrdom, and that death is permanent erasure from existence, watch the volunteer lines of eager wannabes disappear. But don’t expect US leaders, who are hogtied by mainly Christian constituents, to use this tack. After all, how can those who themselves believe in an afterlife Paradise denounce the use it as motivation for suicide martyrs? That’s the dilemma.

  18. Pat in Canada says:

    Let’s assume the human race has time to change. Let’s broadly educate the masses instead of letting “believers” run schools (e.g. Saudi Arabia, USA, etc.). Let’s do whatever it takes to spread hope among the youth of the world. Let’s acknowledge the importance of (and teach!) logic and parenting. Oh, and by the way, sounds like most of you would appreciate the Sam Harris book, “The End of Faith”.

  19. de castro says:

    ROMANS were successful colonisers by simply adopting others “GODS”
    accepting that these new “GODS” made it easier to control the “masses” of their new found colonies…..
    I will accept any others GOD as my own unconditionally…
    It follows that you will also adopt my “GOD” … then we can all pray to “our gods” ! Q E D

  20. Mark [10] asks: “What’s the answer?” to religion that “requires an inability for rational thought in order to sustain its ability to control the actions of its followers”.

    Human religiosity has its roots in the human unconscious, particularly for the widespread fear of personal annihilation by death. We cannot just wish this trait away. But there may be something we can do.

    In my recent book ‘Why Call Me God?’ [ISBN 978-0-9562057-0-4], I explore the “hidden” message conveyed within the gospels, something very few people know about.

    It turns out that these “Christian” writings are neither historical, as claimed by many, nor inherently Christian. Instead they are Gnostic fiction. And when you discover what their hidden message is, you quickly see that the Christian church has, all down the centuries, fallen consistently into a psychological trap set by the authors for the hasty or careless amongst their readers (popes being no exception).

    From the outset there are actually TWO gods in this carefully crafted fiction, one of them good and the other an evil impostor. And when the riddles are solved, it turns out that the Christian church has picked the wrong god, mistaking at every turn what has been set forth as attractive but evil for what is set forth as good.

    How much does that explain of the oh-so-troubled history of the Christian church?

    In scripture’s clever narrative, the promise of eternal life is first made by the crafty serpent to the woman Eve. She is the first to be deceived. But Adam is not deceived (as plainly stated at 1 Timothy 2:14).

    In the gospels, it is Jesus who repeats this attractive promise. In this way all hell is let loose!

    Recent history suggests a related problem with the tradition purveyed by Islam.

    What, then, is the answer – insofar as there may be one?

    Perhaps it is LEARNING, and STUDY in all its properly reasoned forms?

    And for us to come to terms, if we can, with the fact of individual death. That way, religion’s vital fuse may be pulled.

    To find out more, see – perhaps even read my book.

  21. Xena says:

    It gets tedious seeing Christian apologists claim that only Islam contains exhortations to kill. Muslims can (and do) make the same claims against Christianity and they are just as correct. Someone who wants to be a fanatic will find plenty of ammunition in both Bible and Quran. And it’s downright idiotic to claim that your particular beloved myth is obviously the superior one because its members are currently responsible for killing fewer people than members of other superstitions. The point of the article above is perfectly valid whether religious zealots kill “only” a hundred people per year instead of a thousand: Nothing will dissuade them because, as the Nazis said, god is with them. Since they invent the gods, they decide what their god wants.

    By the way, it also counts if you kill by proxy, which would certainly put Christians in the same league as Muslims even today. And you don’t get to wipe out the Inquisition simply because it was in the past — the people responsible used the same text that you do.

  22. Xena says:

    Sorry to have left this out: My reply was specifically addressing the post by Trimegistus above.

  23. zoaka says:

    The truth is, as long as there are diverse religions and sects within religions, man will continue to kill. It matters little whether one or one million dead. If God really wanted us to have religion, we all would have been born with one.

  24. I’m glad you added that it’s not just an Islamic problem. The words of the current Pope are sometimes quite frightening….

  25. Jim Sinclair says:

    As a skeptic myself, I like this website:

    Speaking of bombs, it will blow your mind haha.

  26. Phea says:

    I’ve stumbled upon a very interesting article by Paul Berman called, “The Philosopher of Islamic Terror.” It was written in 2003 about a book called, “Milestones”, by Sayyid Qutb. If you are curious as to what a radical Muslim believes, and why, this article explains much of it quite well. It’s a very good, short read. Here’s the link: