Scott Atran: How comes it that humans make their great­est exer­tions, includ­ing killing and dying, not for their own gain, lives, or fam­i­ly, but for an idea? A tran­scen­dent moral con­cep­tion they have of who I am and who we are. That’s the priv­i­lege of absur­di­ty to which no crea­ture but man is sub­ject, which Hobbes wrote in Leviathan.

When I was ten I paint­ed on my bed­room wall, God exists, or if he does­n’t we’re in trou­ble.” It was 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis. My father was grim. Twenty, thir­ty per­cent chance, son,” he said when I’d asked if there would be nuclear war. He’d just briefed the Pentagon. US Sparrow mis­siles could­n’t knock down Soviet mis­siles. No greater absur­di­ty ever seemed possible. 

Later, doing anthro­po­log­i­cal field work with Maya com­mit­ted to for­est spir­its try­ing to pre­serve the rain forests, and with would-be sui­cide bombers seek­ing glo­ry and grace in killing and death, I found in both groups devot­ed actors com­mit­ted to sacred val­ues of their com­mu­ni­ties of imag­ined kin: moth­er­land, brotherhood. 

Now, with our team of pol­i­cy­mak­ers, aca­d­e­mics, for­mer mil­i­tary, play­wrights, we explore why peo­ple refuse polit­i­cal com­pro­mise, go to war, attempt rev­o­lu­tion, or resort to ter­ror­ism, focus­ing on what Darwin called those virtues highly-esteemed and even sacred,” that give immense advan­tage to any group with devot­ed actors inspired to sac­ri­fice for them.

ISIS is a clas­sic rev­o­lu­tion, a moral mis­sion to save the world where­as Robespierre put it for the French Revolution, Terror is an emer­gency mea­sure ema­nat­ing from virtue. For with­out a claim to virtue, it’s incon­ceiv­able to do great good or com­mit mass mur­der.” But ISIS under­mines every­thing dear to me, and so I bring sci­ence to the bat­tle­front to help under­stand and stop it. 

Our work on the front lines in Iraq and else­where sug­gests that uncon­di­tion­al coop­er­a­tion and intractable con­flict are best under­stood with­in a devot­ed actor ver­sus ratio­nal actor frame­work that inte­grates research on sacred val­ues (whether reli­gious or sacred, as when land or law become holy or hal­lowed), and iden­ti­ty fusion, which gives a vis­cer­al sense of one­ness to any group.

Consider a pair of cir­cles (one is me, the larg­er one of the group), with dif­fer­ent degrees of over­lap between them. Those who choose the last pair­ing are fused with an indi­vid­ual per­son­al iden­ti­ty, with­in the col­lec­tive iden­ti­ty where each indi­vid­ual is will­ing to sac­ri­fice for every other. 

Now, much more is known about eco­nom­ic deci­sion­mak­ing than value-driven deci­sion­mak­ing. But here are some fea­tures of sacred val­ues. They’re immune to mate­r­i­al trade-offs. Most peo­ple would­n’t sell their chil­dren or sell out their coun­try or reli­gion for all the mon­ey in China. They’re insen­si­tive to spa­tial and tem­po­ral dis­count­ing, where dis­tant events and places are more val­ued than the here and now. Consider the Second Coming, or the exo­dus from Egypt. And they gen­er­ate actions inde­pen­dent of prospects of suc­cess. Offering peo­ple mate­r­i­al incen­tives, how­ev­er rea­son­able or reward­ing, or pun­ish­ments, or sanc­tions to aban­don sacred val­ues, only gen­er­ates anger, vio­lence, and oppo­si­tion to peace. 

Consider abor­tion or gun rights in America. Israel, Palestinians’ claim to the right of return. Or Russia’s feel­ings about the Crimea. 

Now, our research with fight­ers shows that the US gov­ern­men­t’s judg­ment is fair­ly mis­tak­en about under­es­ti­mat­ing ISIS and over­es­ti­mat­ing the armies against it. Because it denies the spir­i­tu­al dimen­sion of human conflict. 

Three crit­i­cal fac­tors are involved. Sacred val­ues and devo­tion to the groups peo­ple are fused with. Willing to sac­ri­fice fam­i­ly for val­ues. And per­ceived spir­i­tu­al for­mi­da­bil­i­ty. For exam­ple, among fight­ers on both sides in Iraq and Syria, they rate America’s phys­i­cal force max­i­mum, the spir­i­tu­al force min­i­mum. And ISIS’ phys­i­cal force min­i­mum, the spir­i­tu­al force max­i­mum. But, they also think mate­r­i­al inter­ests dri­ve America, but that spir­i­tu­al com­mit­ment dri­ves ISIS. But spir­i­tu­al trumps phys­i­cal force when all things are equal. 

Brain scans of Lashkar-e-Taiba sup­port­ers for will­ing­ness to fight and die show decreased activ­i­ty in those parts of the brain occu­pied with util­i­tar­i­an rea­son­ing, inhibit­ing the delib­er­a­tive rea­son­ing in favor of rapid duty-bound responses. 

Now, civ­i­liza­tions rise and fall on the vital­i­ty of their cul­tur­al ideas, not mate­r­i­al assets alone. Most soci­eties have sacred val­ues for which peo­ple would par­tial­ly fight even unto death. As with many in ISIS and some, espe­cial­ly Kurds, who fight against this. 

We find no com­pat­i­ble will­ing­ness to fight among Western youth. Government, busi­ness, acad­e­mia, com­mu­ni­ties, have to work bet­ter to face vio­lent extremism—especially with youth, who form the bulk of today’s ter­ror­ist recruits and tomor­row’s most vul­ner­a­ble populations. 

But most view youth as a prob­lem to be clob­bered rather than the promise of the solu­tion, and the world’s most cre­ative force. With the defeat of fas­cism and com­mu­nism, have our lives default­ed to the quest for com­fort and safe­ty? Thank you.