I Believe I Should but I Don’t, and Vice Versa (Do Muslims Have the Same Psychology as the Rest of Us?)

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by Neil Godfrey

Connections between beliefs and behaviour are not routine and when they happen they require explanation. Personal experience and a passing acquaintance with a thing we call the subconscious both tell us that.

I am sometimes a little taken aback by the forcefulness of some people’s claims that “of course beliefs determine what people do”. The context in which this is dogmatically asserted is discussion relating to Islam. I really can’t imagine the same dogmatism surfacing if almost any other mainstream religion or non-religious belief system were being addressed.

If a terrorist shouts “God is Great” before opening fire or blowing himself up in a crowded place then bizarrely that one phrase is taken to represent the entire motivation of that act. To point to videotapes and other remnants of far more wide-ranging conversations and arguments in the lead up to that murder will not change some minds.

So I quote here a piece that has long been in waiting to be included in my next post on Clark McCauley and Sophia Moskalenko’s book on the causes of radicalization and terrorist acts, Friction: How Radicalization Happens to Them and Us. It won’t hurt to use it now and repeat it later:

Opinions and attitudes are not always good predictors of action. Of all those who might say they want to help starving children, how many would actually donate to UNICEF or work in a local soup kitchen? But for the Russian students of the 1870s, radicalization in opinion was often associated with radicalization in action. How are we to understand this unusually high consistency between opinion and behavior?

One possibility is the degree to which the era was swept up in a culture of change. Tectonic plates of Russian society were shifting, and the young generation who grew up amidst this change, themselves beneficiaries and victims of new hopes and new norms, felt that it was their job to rewrite history. 

Social psychologist Robert Abelson advanced a similar perspective in relation to student activism in the United States. Abelson reviewed evidence that beliefs are not automatically translated into feelings, and feelings are not automatically translated into behavior. He then identified three kinds of encouragement for acting on beliefs: seeing a model perform the behavior; seeing oneself as a “doer,” the kind of person who translates feelings into action; and unusual emotional investment that overcomes uncertainties about what to do and fear of looking foolish. Abelson brought these ideas to focus on 1970s student activism in the United States: 

3. Abelson, R. (1972). Are attitudes necessary. In B.T. King and E. McGinnies (Eds), Attitudes, conflict, and social change, pp. 19-32. New York: Academic Press.

   . . . it is interesting to note that certain forms of activism, for example, campus activism, combine all three of the above types of encouragement cues. Typically. the campus activist has at least a vague ideology that pictures the student as aggrieved, and provides both social support and self-images as doers to the participants in the group. A great deal of the zest and excitement accompanying the activities of student radicals, whether or not such activities are misplaced, thus may be due to the satisfaction provided the participants in uniting a set of attitudes with a set of behaviors.3

As U.S. students of the 1970s discussed, dared, and modeled their way to the excitement linking new ideas with new behaviors . . . , so too did Russian students of the 1870s. [Friction, Kindle version, bolded emphasis mine]

It happens in reverse, too, as we well know (except when some of us have Islam on our minds). Most of us have heard of the Milgram experiment where an unexpectedly high number of people behaved contrary to their beliefs about how they should treat others and suffered emotional stress for a time as a consequence.


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31 thoughts on “I Believe I Should but I Don’t, and Vice Versa (Do Muslims Have the Same Psychology as the Rest of Us?)”

  1. I’m with you Neil. A belief is a mental model of reality the mind creates from information it receives. It provides support for and facilitates decision making, which is the precursor to action. But belief is hardly determinative. Fear, sex, greed, ambition, envy, peer pressure and other emotions can often lead people to act against their beliefs. Politicians who espouse “family values” and yet have extramarital affairs, aren’t necessarily hypocritical; it’s just that their emotions override their beliefs. When it comes to violent acts, I expect that peer pressure among young men eager to establish their manhood, is and always has been a major factor. It leads young people in the west to join the military and volunteer for combat. It leads young Muslim men to join ISIS or another military organization and volunteer to conduct “terrorist” attacks on the enemy. The motivations are similar.

  2. There is one factor in Islamic terrorism that is rarely present in things like student activism or Russian radicalization that is not being taken into account here: the element of suicide, the willingness to engage in terrorist acts (not just sometimes violent protest) which have a high expectation (if not certainty) of the terrorist’s death. I don’t remember American student activists in the 60s and 70s shouting out religious slogans or appeals to the divine for support or justification, much less wear suicide vests. The four who died at Kent State in 1970 had no expectation of death, much less did they design it.

    I have never claimed (or hopefully ever suggested) that religious belief was the sole motivator of Muslims who engage in terrorism. But I regard it as an essential ingredient. It may not always have been even the root-cause instigator of the radicalization of groups or individuals. Social and political conditions, perceived grievances, and other factors mentioned here in the ongoing debate and its appeals to researchers may well be operating, but what makes acting on those dispositions possible, what provides the seemingly necessary catalyst for the translation into action? I don’t think the role of religion can be denied here, certainly not with the aim of denying any role for it at all, especially to avoid casting any aspersions on the religion itself.

    Is one going to claim that the radical imam who preaches hate and radicalized behavior never appeals to the Koran and other religious traditions for justification? That the individual who is drawn in that direction by what may be non-religious grievances does not find support and inspiration from his religious convictions and background? Are whole armies of suicide bombers, willing to kill not only themselves but countless others, including fellow-Muslims, not rendered able to commit such atrocities by the thought that he or she will thereby enter Paradise and be following certain directives to be found in religious scripture? To deny such things is counterproductive to our understanding of the scourge of Islamic terrorism. In the absence of the religious factor, would we be facing this modern problem to anything like the same degree?

    “Allahu akbar!” does indeed speak volumes.

    1. Are you familiar with Japanese kamikazes during WW2? With the Tamil Tiger suicide bombers? Is one going to claim that the radical preacher who preaches hate and radicalized behavior never appeals to the Bible and other religious traditions for justification? What renders the American or British or Israeli pilot, or the drone operator half way around the world, willing to drop bombs that kill tens or hundreds? How many of them say a prayer to their god as they embark on missions of destruction? Or maybe it’s nationalism, another form of religion, that motivates them. Or maybe they have come to believe that what they are doing is essential to save their families and societies from the enemy. Or maybe they just want to prove their manhood and make themselves a hero among their friends. Is their crime any less heinous because their state of the art equipment, and the poorly armed enemy make it less likely that they themselves will be killed in the execution of their terrorism? The motivation of Muslim fighters is not so different from the motivations of fighters everywhere. The failure to see the parallels between our actions and those of our enemies is nothing but a self-justifying delusion.

    2. Earl, I am reluctant to bother replying because the track record indicates you drop in a one-off comment like this and never bother to return to see if there has been any engagement with your claims. So what’s the point? I simply point you to my history of posts on radicalisation, terrorism, and suicide terrorism (that crosses religious and secular boundaries). If you have not bothered to follow the arguments I suspect you are not interested in any discussion of your views expressed here. A shame — because though you once you said you thought this a good place to air and discuss the different views I have seen no evidence of any interest in discussion. Only a fly-by declamation and run.

  3. If religious texts, by themselves, were the cause of terrible acts, the Jewish people would be a terrible people. Definitely making the list for the Jews are questions related to “slavery” or servitude, God’s seeming harshness in judgments and punishments, and God’s command to sacrifice Isaac. But perhaps the most troubling question from the Old Testament is God’s command to kill and drive out the Canaanites and perhaps even innocent ones—and there are similar commands concerning the Midianites and Amalekites as well. These things are in the Jewish scriptures, but the Jews don’t proof-text their sacred scriptures in this way to endorse acting terribly. Radical Islam has also found a possible endorsement for terrible acts in its sacred scriptures, but differs from the Jews in that they proof-text the scriptures to endorse their horrific behavior.

    1. Hmmm, religious Jews seem to use their sacred texts to justify appropriating Judaea and Samaria, while holding the Palestinians in captivity, and slaughtering them when they dare rebel against their imprisonment.

        1. Most Jews like most Muslims are good people. some are not, and some use their religion to justify bad things. It’s a good question why the US provides Israel $ billions a year in weapons, which they use periodically to slaughter Palestinians, as in Gaza in 2014. But the 2000 killed (over half civilians) in Gaza is small potatoes compared with the carnage the US inflicted on the Iraqis. We’re both guilty of the same thing we accuse Islamists of…terrorism. Only our crime is worse, because it’s committed by our democratically elected governments, rather than by deranged individuals. We can’t hold all Muslims responsible for the acts of these individuals, but we can and should hold ourselves responsible for the actions of our governments.

          1. “It’s a good question why the US provides Israel $ billions a year in weapons, which they use periodically to slaughter Palestinians, as in Gaza in 2014”

            is not the christian evangelical desire to gather all jews in israel so holocaust number to can begin upon their man gods return?

        2. There are a couple of reasons.

          Firstly, like it or not, Israel is a historical ally in military operations in a very hostile part of the world. It’s also the most progressive country in that region, not that it’s a big achievement.

          Secondly, and most worryingly, there is a section of the religious right that believe Israel is where Jesus will return to earth to begin the rapture. This is part of a prophesy that can only be filled by a Jewish state. Their support isn’t out of some kind of sympathy for the Jewish people, who will almost certainly be killed if such a fantastical event were to happen.

  4. In the Milgram experiment you are merely describing a change of beliefs. In the clear light of day presented with the possibility of acting as they were about to they may indeed state their beliefs are counter to the actions they were about to take. But the effects of the experiment overrode those beliefs in the moment and they came to believe that they should act as they did. Later they could reflect on the experiment suffer the confusion of wondering why they acted as they did. Their more long term considered beliefs come to the fore again.

    It happens all the time. I believe I should lose wait and that I ought to resist eating too much food. But that meal tasted so good impulses forces make me want more. I rationalise reasons, new transient beliefs, to excuse consuming that extra portion. Later, I regret my action because it has contradicted my intent to enact my longer term belief that I ought to lose weight.

    The thing about ideologies, if the subject is persuaded by them, is that they cause the formation such strong beliefs in the cause of the ideology, and its methods, if those methods are sanctioned by the ideology, that those beliefs cause behaviours that the subject cannot resist. Even in the face of what others see as sound reasons form not engaging in the actions prescribed by the ideology, the objections are ignored or rationalise away.

    “I am sometimes a little taken aback by the forcefulness of some people’s claims that “of course beliefs determine what people do”.”

    Yes. Anyone would think they hold such strong commitment, such strong belief, that they are caused to irrationally unable to see how right you are that beliefs don’t cause actions. It’s as if their beliefs are causing them to ignore the truth you know to be true. But that would be a contradiction.

    So is it the other way round? Are they right that beliefs do cause actions, and is it the case that your belief that beliefs do not cause actions is causing you to make the case that they don’t, when in fact they do? At least that seems more consistent.

    1. The thing about ideologies, if the subject is persuaded by them, is that they cause the formation such strong beliefs in the cause of the ideology, and its methods, if those methods are sanctioned by the ideology, that those beliefs cause behaviours that the subject cannot resist. Even in the face of what others see as sound reasons form not engaging in the actions prescribed by the ideology, the objections are ignored or rationalise away.

      This is the assumption or conventional wisdom. What does the research tell us about human behaviour, though?

        1. The post gave one refutation. So an “ideology” has a different power from any other belief system such that it (the ideology) has the power to make people do things by virtue of their believing it. What, then, is an ideology that gives it this extraordinary power to reduce people to puppets, to possess their minds and motor functions like a demon?

          1. “… in the USA you have much much more to fear from christians. You’d have to be ignorant, an outrageous liar, or a bigot to say otherwise.”

            Well, that’s not quite as honest an assessment itself. The “No worries from Islam in the USA” meme is a sly trick intended to divert attention from Islamic terrorism.


            This is a regularly used meme: http://ronmurp.net/2016/03/30/excusing-islam-from-islamic-terrorism/#notintheusa

            Islam isn’t **implemented** the same everywhere, but Islam defines itself in the Quran.

            1. Nevertheless, the probability of an American being killed by a terrorist is lower than the chance of dying from appendicitis. Spreading fear of Islamic terrorism has no support from death statistics. But it does have a motive: support more of the terroristic military action against Muslims that provokes their terrorism against us.

              1. And, of course “But it does have a motive: support more of the terroristic military action against Muslims that provokes their terrorism against us.” is no better than claiming all Muslims are terrorist.

                You do realise there are many people, Muslis, ex-Muslims, never-been-Muslims, that have a critical view of Islam in whole or in part and want to support the reformers and liberals and persuade our governments to stop listening to the “Nothing to do with Islam” nonsense.

                ISIS have control of large parts of Syria. As well as the ‘don’t-get-involved’ voices there were others in Syria and Iraq wanting assistance in the fight of ISIS. So, some nations agree to bomb ISIS. Some of the regressive rhetoric on this: “Oppose the carpet boming of Syria!” – targeting ISIS becomes carpet bombing Syria.

                And critics of Islam are accused of hyperbole?

              2. Nothing I have said implies all Muslims are terrorists. I too am critical of Islam, and think they, like all religionists should give up the god delusion. But I’m not stupid enough to think that my opinion will have any influence, as Sam Harris seems to think his will. And of course I think we should be vigilant to prevent terrorist attack and catch and prosecute those who commit them. But what’s this obsession with blaming the attacks on Islam? This conflates Sunnis (ISIS, SA) with Shia (Iran), Kurds, Houthi, and many other groups that all have their own agendas, many bitterly opposed to others. And there are plenty of terrorists who are not Muslim at all.

                If we want to look for reasons for the rise of ISIS and Muslim terrorism, the first place to look is what we have done to them. It’s delusional to think that has no connection to their attacks on us. Sure they fall back in their religion as all people do in time of war. But to excuse the west’s imperialism and blame revenge attacks on Islam is confirmation bias of the first degree. If we did it to them it must be ok. If they strike at us it must be due to their evil religion. Bullshit.

            2. Islam doesn’t define itself anywhere. Islam is not a sentient being. It does not have a mind. It is a label we give to a very wide range of ideas. People define what they are. Some of them point to texts and their interpretation of them to explain what they believe (but not what they are). To understand human behaviour we need to study human behaviour. To understand human beliefs we need to understand the beliefs that people say they have (not what we say they have). To understand the connection between behaviour and beliefs we need to study those people and that is the task of the political scientist, the anthropologist, the psychologist, the sociologist, the neighbour.

              Forget about fighting your wars with those you believe are trying to excuse terrorism or justify a religion (I’m not interested in doing either — I am an atheist who has no time for the Quran or the Bible) and focus on the point being discussed here.

              1. Using anthropomorphic language is quite common. You even find it in text bokks on Evolution where the author knows full well they are actually describing something without agency. Let me restate that simple bit of text that should have been very easy to parse without resorting to “Islam is not a sentient being”.

                The definition of Islam is contained within the Quran, as supposedly put their, through the mechnaism of dictation to non-specific parties over some non-too-specific period. Personally I think “Islam defines itself” is shorter.

                “Some of them point to texts and their interpretation of them to explain what they believe (but not what they are)” – When they say “I am a Muslim” they are saying what they are to an extent that the notion has any meaning in that context.

                “To understand human beliefs we need to understand the beliefs that people say they have (not what we say they have).” – If you quate what they say they believe then you are saying what they say they believe. It actually seems to be a theme here that it’s OK to listen to what they say they believe and then say, well, that’s not what they believe.

                “To understand the connection between behaviour and beliefs we need to study those people and that is the task of the political scientist, the anthropologist, the psychologist, the sociologist, the neighbour.” – And when you do that and the scientists tell you what those people believe, are you endorsing someone telling you what those people ‘really’ believe, rather than listening to those people to let them tell you what they believe?

                “Forget about fighting your wars with those you believe are trying to excuse terrorism or justify a religion” – I’m not fighting any wars. I’m listening to what various Muslims say and voicing an opinion on that. When they tell me to go read the Quran, I do that.

                If you’d rather put your trusts in scientists, try this, on ideology. Islam fits the bill:

                “I am an atheist who has no time for the Quran or the Bible” – Your many posts on religion seem to refute that – since the religions you cover are sourced primarily from the Bile and Quran.

                “and focus on the point being discussed here” – Wasn’t it about what Muslims believe? Is the Quran nothing to do with that?

              2. Most people don’t know precisely what they believe, and can’t really explain why they do what they do. Only a fool takes what people say at face value. Osama bin Laden explained his reasons for the 9/11 attacks. Mainly had to do with what we had done to them (support for dictators, troops in holy land etc). Why don’t you believe him?

              3. No text speaks for itself. It has to be interpreted. Some Muslims say passages in the Quran should be interpreted literally, others insist allegorically. Some say X passage should be interpreted in the light of Y passages; others deny this.

                You are mouthing the views of many ill-informed people. I suggest you read works like:

                Inside Muslim minds by Riaz Hassan

                Who speaks for Islam? : what a billion Muslims really think by John L. Esposito and Dalia Mogahed

                Islam – An Introduction by Ruqaiyyah Waris Maqsood

                Radical Islam Rising Muslim Extremism in the West by Quintan Wiktorowicz

                ‘We love death as you love life’ : Britain’s suburban terrorists by Raffaello Pantucci

                Friction : how radicalization happens to them and us by Clark R. McCauley and Sophia Moskalenko

                The Islamist : why I joined radical Islam in Britain, what I saw inside and why I left by Ed. Husain

                The new threat from Islamic militancy by Jason Burke

                and a couple of dozen others I could mention . . .

              4. A good example of Neil’s point about people drawing conclusions about the religious motivation of terrorists, is Jerry Coyne, who frequently blames Islam, though he admits he has never known a Muslim, and seems to think a religion is exactly what it says in its scriptures, and nothing more.

  5. An interesting blog post at Islam is the Same Everywhere. Or Not.

    The thoughts synch with my own experiences. (I have become somewhat familiar through personal experiences over the years by visits to Indonesia (east, central and west Indonesia), Malaysia, Singapore, Turkey, the Muslim areas in the south of Thailand, as well as other countries with significant Muslim minorities . . . .

    An African muslim once told me that islam* is the same everywhere. Not sure how our relatively genial conversation ended up there, but I was suggesting that there are probably different practices and interpretations of the faith from Madagascar to Indonesia. Not so much, he said. Islam is the same everywhere.

    That work site had dozens, maybe hundreds of muslims on it. Someone suggested the human resources lady was posting about jobs at her mosque. In my time working there, I met muslims from America, Fiji, Serbia, Turkey, Iraq, Somalia, Ethiopia, and probably a few other African countries I didn’t gather the names of. Plus an agnostic Yazidi and another agnostic from Iraq, who were friends with the Iraqi muslims.

    Some of them were very serious about praying at certain times, some only used the issue to try and get more cigarettes in, some never bothered with prayer during a work day at all. Of the women few wore hijab every day, most only did so occasionally. Some drank beer, some abstained, some were semi-functional alcoholics, some were crazy on drugs, clubbing, and hooking up. Some were in favor of gay and trans rights, at least one crappy fucker one expressed disdain for gay people ranging from mockery to extremely violent talk.

    One young lady believed antisemitic conspiracy theories, another said she was being ridiculous. Some said any religion is good (meaning only abrahamic), as long as you were into god. The guy I mentioned at the top told me christianity and islam are our different culture’s versions of the same thing, something like practicing the religion of your birth was about respecting your culture. As an atheist, I was a space alien to any except the Iraqis – because their nation’s government used to be officially secular – and the Americans.

    I heard one young lady saying, “Islam means doing what god tells you to do,” advocating the kind of grody dogmatism we tend to imagine is true of all muslims. I’ve heard it said the word means “submission” and maybe that’s true? Certainly consistent with the first paragraph of the wikipedia page. But unless all these wild tatted and pierced muslim youths were expecting to be able to atone before the booze did them in, I imagine their interpretation of “doing what your told” / islam was slightly different from hers. And I’ve heard the exact same sentiment from a banal moderate christian in my life, that anyone who she disagrees with isn’t doing what the bible says. The “No True Scotsman” fallacy is a common refrain from her, combined with an insistence that her ugly pentecostal church is all about doing what the bible says.

    Some of the muslims studied religious literature during slow times at the job, some were more interested in watching cheesy internet videos or kung fu movies on their phones. . . . .

    The point is, islam wasn’t even the same everywhere in the neighborhood of that job, which suggests to me it might not be the same everywhere in the world as a whole. Muslims there ranged from devout, peaceful conservatives (who were no doubt shitty on many issues) to easy-going citizens of the world. The hulking violent asswipe was an outlier, and no worse culturally than the whitebread ex-marines in the same work place. They were probably more homophobic and conservative on average than the rest of us, but the worst people of any extraction were equally horrible. The only time I recall hearing something explicitly transphobic at the place was from a southern baptist.

    I was working in Seattle. The muslims here – immigrant and otherwise – may be more liberal than in Europe and elsewhere. I can’t speak to that. But given my experience with them, the rampant violence against them in my country, and the way our mainstream media overrepresents islamophobic viewpoints in the interest of “balance,” and given the tone of our atheist community which led to one of ours proudly murdering innocent muslim people in their home, I think it would be really fucked up to not treat muslims with at least the same humanity I accord christians. Given the words of the most visible people in white Western atheism, I’d be morally delinquent to not rise to the defense of muslims in this very islamophobic nation.

    They’re wrong, but they’re not all the same, they’re not all believing the same things in the same way, and in the USA you have much much more to fear from christians. You’d have to be ignorant, an outrageous liar, or a bigot to say otherwise. . . . .

  6. I agree that “beliefs determine what people do” is rather meaningless. For several reasons:

    – an individual’s beliefs are often conflicting. Examples have been given above, e.g. ‘chocolate makes me feel good’ and ‘I should lose weight’. Which belief, out of the maelstrom of beliefs going round our heads, is expressed in behaviour depends on many factors, internal and external. So there cannot be a unique path from ‘belief’ to ‘behaviour’.

    – only mentioned in passing in the post above, but – in my view- of utmost importance in relation to terrorism (as a behaviour) is mass psychology: people behave very differently as individuals versus as member of a group. Extreme violent behaviour is often legitimised when exercised as a member of a group, while an individual would be morally impeded. Think of firing squads, football hooligans, or even regular armies. And terrorist organisations.

    As a sidebar, I feel a tendency in the modern discussion to see ‘terrorism’ as a phenomenon that is predominantly linked to Islam. That view is understandable, since the current terrorists that attack the West tend to be Muslims. But this is relatively recent development, and terrorism may have existed as long as religion. For instance, how is Pilate crucifying Jewish convicts different from ISIS beheading their prisoners? In both cases, the aim is to install fear (terror) in the populations, so as to achieve political and social objectives.

    You may have red this probably, but I found below paer enlightening to put the current terrorism phenomena in perspective:
    The 4 ‘waves’ of terrosim concept (anarchist, nationalist, left-wing, Islamic): http://international.ucla.edu/media/files/Rapoport-Four-Waves-of-Modern-Terrorism.pdf

    Above is going out of date, in the post Al Qaeda era, and is updated with a fifth wave:

    1. My next series of posts based on McCauley’s Friction does examine the psychology and dynamics of group behaviour and the group’s role in radicalisation/extremism. Pape demonstrated soon after 9/11 that most suicide terrorism had been perpetrated by non-Muslims. The modern wave began in Lebanon and was carried out by Christians and Socialists as well as Muslims. At that time most such attacks had been carried out by the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka. It is only since the Iraq invasion and Zarqawi’s successful program of terror to ignite civil war that Islamic terrorism has taken centre stage.

      Thanks for the links.

      1. Uhm, there was a whole spate of terrorist bombings, though maybe not suicide. Leading up to 9/11. Khobar towers. World trade center, U.S destroyer, etc. it seems like there were at least 7 or 8.

        1. No need for the Uhm. Yes, there was, but my point was that the evidence clearly shows Muslim suicide bombings were committed mostly by non Muslims until after the Iraq War. One commenter recently made a special point of singling out suicide terror as distinctively suggestive of something particularly evil about Islamic terrorism.

          Islamic terrorism overall ought to be seen in the broader context of terrorism generally if we are to avoid perspectives skewed by unhelpful biases.

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