Religion and Violence

1. Religious Violence and Terrorism

Project summary: Recent work on the evolution of religion is critical for understanding current patterns of terrorism. This project examines the relationship between religion and terrorist activity and clarifies religion’s role in causing, motivating, and facilitating terror. Religious and secular terrorist organizations use particular characteristics of the human religious adaptive complex (e.g., communal participation in costly ritual, separation of the sacred and profane, etc.) to inspire group commitment and individual action.


2021 Kiper, Jordan and Richard Sosis The Roots of Intergroup Conflict and the Co-option of the Religious System: An Evolutionary Perspective on Religious Terrorism. In Oxford Handbook of Evolutionary Perspectives on Religion, eds. J. Liddle and T. Shackelford, pp. 265-281. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
2020 Sosis, Richard Why Religious Extremism is Maladaptive. This View of Life.
2020 Kiper, Jordan and Richard Sosis. The Systemics of Violent Religious Nationalism: A Case Study of the Yugoslav Wars. Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature, and Culture 14: 45-70.
2018 Kiper, Jordan and Richard Sosis Toward a more comprehensive theory of self-sacrificial violence. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 41: 26-27.
2018 Sosis, Richard and Jordan Kiper Sacred versus Secular Values: Cognitive and Evolutionary Sciences of Religion and Religious Freedom. In Homo Religiosus?: Exploring the Roots of Religion and Religious Freedom in Human Experience, eds. T.S. Shah and J. Friedman, pp. 89-119. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
2017 Kiper, Jordan and Richard Sosis The Logic and Location of Strong Reciprocity: Anthropological and Philosophical ConsiderationsIn Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Fairness, Equity, and Justice, eds. M. Li and D. Tracer, pp. 107-128. New York: Springer.
2016 Kiper, Jordan and Richard Sosis The Roots of Intergroup Conflict and the Co-option of the Religious System: An Evolutionary Perspective on Religious Terrorism. In Oxford Handbook of Evolutionary Perspectives on Religion, eds. J. Liddle and T. Shackelford. Oxford Handbooks Online. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
2016 Kiper, Jordan and Richard Sosis Shaking the tyrant’s bloody robe: An evolutionary perspective on ethnoreligious violence. Politics and the Life Sciences 35: 27-47.
2016 Kiper, Jordan and Richard Sosis Why terrorism terrifies us. In Evolutionary Psychology and Terrorism: New Perspectives on Political Violence, ed. M. Taylor, pp. 102-123. New York: Routledge.
2014 Shaver, John and Richard Sosis Selective reading and selectionist thinking: why violence has been, and should be, important to the cognitive science of religion. Journal for the Cognitive Science of Religion 2: 36-41.
2013 Alcorta, Candace S. and Richard Sosis Ritual, Religion, and Violence: an Evolutionary PerspectiveHandbook of Religion and Violence, eds. M. Juergensmeyer, M. Kitts, M. Jerryson, pp. 571-596. New York: Oxford University Press. 
2012  Blumstein, DT, S. Atran, S. Field, M.E. Hochberg, D.P.P. Johnson, R. Sagarin, R. Sosis, and B. Thayer The Peacock’s Tail: Lessons from Evolution for Effective Signaling in International Politics. Cliodynamics 3: 191–214.
2012  Sosis, Richard, Erika J. Phillips, Candace S. Alcorta Sacrifice and Sacred Values: Evolutionary Perspectives on Religious Terrorism. In Oxford Handbook of Evolutionary Perspectives on Violence, Homicide, and War, eds. T. Shackelford & V. Weeks-Schackelford, pp. 233-253. New York: Oxford University Press.
2010  Saragin, R., C. Alcorta, S. Atran, D. Blumstein, G. Dietl, M. Hochberg, D. Johnson, S. Levin, E.Medin, J. Medin, E. Prescott, R. Sosis, T. Taylor, J. Tooby, G. Vermeij Decentralize, Adapt and CooperateNature 465: 292-293.
2008 Sosis, Richard and Candace Alcorta Militants and Martyrs: Evolutionary Perspectives on Religion and Terrorism , In Natural Security: A Darwinian Approach to a Dangerous World, eds. R. Sagarin and T. Taylor, pp. 105-24, Berkeley: University of California Press.
2007 Sosis, Richard, Howard Kress, and James Boster Scars for War: Evaluating Alternative Signaling Explanations for Cross-Cultural Variance in Ritual Costs. Evolution and Human Behavior 28:234-247.


2. Sacred Land

Project summary: Evolutionary scholars have paid little attention to why humans impute sacredness to particular lands. Sacred lands are of course at the heart of violent and deadly conflicts throughout the world, but battles over sacred lands are not a novel feature of modern society. If traditional societies provide a reliable benchmark, territorial conflict over areas viewed as sacred has been widespread for quite some time. Sacralizing land is not limited to traditional peoples or contemporary religious and ethnic groups; many environmentalists also consider land to be sacred. I refer to this tendency to attribute sacredness to land as the “sacred land strategy.” In this project I explore the adaptive logic of the sacred land strategy, especially under conditions of conflict. Understanding the consequences and underlying motivations of the sacred land strategy should enhance our ability to offer effective policy recommendations to resolve what are often viewed as intractable conflicts over sacred land.


2011  Sosis, Richard Why Sacred Lands are not Indivisible: The Cognitive Foundations of Sacralizing Land. Journal of Terrorism Research 2: 17-44.


2009  The Dynamics of Sacred Land Conflicts. June 2-4, Human Social, Cultural and Behavior Influences Workshop, Istanbul, Turkey 
2007  The Evolutionary Logic of Sacred Land October 11-13, Religion and Violence Symposium: Evolutionary and Political Perspectives, St. Louis, MO. 


3. Ritual Coping

Project summary: This project examines the use of magico-religious practices as coping mechanisms. Such practices may reduce anxiety and provide perceptions of control under conditions of high stress and uncertainty. Research has been conducted in Tzfat, Israel during the Second Intifada and the 2006 Lebanon War and focuses on how Israeli women use psalm recitation to help them cope with the stress of chronic terror and war.


Sosis, Richard Can Rituals Reduce Stress During War? The Magic of Psalms, In The Cognitive Science of Religion: A Methodological Introduction to Key Empirical Studies, eds. Jason Slone and William McCorkle, pp. 193-202. New York: Bloomsbury Academic Press.
2017 Lang, Martin and Richard Sosis Uncertain Malinowski: The Importance of Pre-Ritual Stress Data. Current Anthropology 58: 276-278.
2011  Sosis, Richard and W. Penn Handwerker Psalms and Coping with Uncertainty: Israeli Women’s Responses to the 2006 Lebanon War. American Anthropologist 113: 40-55.
2008 Sosis, Richard Pigeons, Foxholes, and the Book of Psalms: Evolved Superstitious Responses to Cope with Stress and Uncertainty. In: The Evolution of Religion: Studies, Theories, and Critiques, eds. J. Bulbulia, R. Sosis, E. Harris, C. Genet, R. Genet, K. Wyman, pp. 103-9, Santa Margarita, CA: Collins Foundation Press.
2007 Sosis, Richard Psalms for Safety: Magico-Religious Responses to Threats of TerrorCurrent Anthropology 48:903-911.