Killing For Religion

Today's topic sprung to mind from a dinner table conversation last week. Somehow I found myself mentioning William James' notion of "spiritual judgment" — that one should assess religion in terms of how it benefits or harms its adherents, rather than on the basis of its historical or psychological origins (in his terms, by the fruits rather than the roots). In addition to James' criterion, I offered Rappaport's idea of adaptive health, suggesting that religious behavior should be further considered in terms of its effects on the total health of the people who practice and encounter it. This met with the example of fundamentalist Islamic terrorists: is it not (at least hypothetically) their view that killing the people they kill — say exploitative American capitalists — is adaptively healthy?

I didn't have sufficient opportunity to pursue this question at the time, as the conversation soon moved on to other topics. However, I also found myself somewhat uncertain, for while my initial response to the terrorist question is certainly that their killings are not adaptive, nevertheless I can all too easily imagine circumstances in which I would readily grant that taking a life would be adaptively healthy indeed.