'Religious extremism: the good, the bad, and the deadly' by Laurence R. Iannaccone and Eli Berman, appeared in a special issue of Public Choice.
This paper begins by acknowledging the link between religious extremism and terrorism. Religious extremists are willing to murder because they embrace theologies that sanction violence in the service of God. They have no sympathy for their victims, because they view those victims as enemies of God. And they readily sacrifice their own lives because they expect huge and immediate afterlife rewards in return form “martyrdom.” But upon closer examination, theological explanations raise more questions than they answer.
Where We see religious behavior as an instance of rational choice, rather than an exception to it, economists have analyzed religious behavior as an 'effective response', where, supernaturalism emerges as an alternative technology – a natural, understandable, and perhaps even fully rational attempt to enhance individual and collective welfare, in spite of the limitations imposed by scarcity. "Demand for the supernatural can be viewed as a reasonable response to
inescapable scarcity, insatiable wants, and irrepressible hope", the book says.
About the role played by our governments in fostering extremism, the book says, "Had each European government not enlisted the aid of a single sect (and returned the favor by suppressing all other competing sects), there would have been “a great multitude of religious sects.” Competition would then have induced moderation, rather than the furious, fanatical violence, we are saddled with.
An open religious market is what the paper suggest, which shall encourage religious moderation by facilitating the entry of numerous competing religious groups, virtually none of whom can hope to benefit from government control of religion.
Religious radicals, then are less likely to flourish and less likely to embrace violence when there is strong competition from other fields, like education, health care, poverty programs, and political representation. This paper poses many fundamental questions. If theology is so important, why are most terrorist organizations not religious? And if afterlife rewards are key, why has a nonreligious group – the LTTE “Tamil Tigers” – been responsible for more suicide attacks than another other organization? Why is suicide bombing associated with all sorts of theologies but just one style of religious organization (best described as “sectarian”)? And why do most militant sects devote much of their energy to benign and noble activities, such as running schools, health clinics, and social services agencies?
If religious militancy is most effectively controlled through a combination of policies that raise the direct costs of violence, foster religious competition, improve social services, and encourage private enterprise, why the country which has an exemplary society of that sorts is a top target?
I think this paper is right, there is more to extremism than religious fundamentalism. I find it difficult to agree, when the book puts religious extremism and religious militancy as totally different. Also, the book merits religion of promoting group activities, intense commitment, long-term relationships, loyalty, exclusivity, contribution-based financing, and collective goods. I think all human institutions do this, whether of arts, sports, or culture. Though the mechanism of conflict in religion is well analyzed, the question, why religion leads to violence, remains unanswered.