Terror in the Mind of God, 4th Ed.

The Global Rise of Religious Violence

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Mark Juergensmeyer
Comparative Studies in Religion and Society
  • Oakland, CA: 
    University of California Press
    , March
     408 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


There have been many news accounts in recent decades of violent acts, such as terrorism or ethnic cleansing, that have some ostensible connection with religious beliefs or motivations.

This is the fourth edition of Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence, a widely read introduction to this phenomenon—earlier editions were published in 2000, 2001, and 2003 but incorporated only minor changes—making this the first substantively revised version to appear. The table of contents of this edition has new sections on Anders Breivik, Meir Ettinger, ISIS, and anti-Muslim violence in Buddhist Burma. I have used this book often as a textbook in a course called “Religion and Violence.” It functions well to provide a journalistic and sociological overview of the topic, with its particular strength being the interviews conducted by the author with those who have committed violent acts, or those who are ideologically supportive of such acts. On the level of theoretical understanding of the roots of violent behavior, however, the book is disappointing.

One aspect of the problematic nature of this book is in the choice of individuals or groups that are discussed. Breivik (who shot-to-death teenage members of a liberal political party in Norway) and Timothy McVeigh, for example, are both placed in the “Christianity” chapter, even though it is clear, from the author’s own admission, that they were not church-going individuals, and that their ideologies were actually political in nature. Author Mark Juergensmeyer has to grasp at straws to connect them with the right-wing groups that are themselves only vaguely connected with historic and institutional Christianity. The overall impression left with the reader is that severely disturbed individuals, acting essentially as lone wolves, are somehow representative of, or motivated by, “Christianity” as a religion. This is not at all convincing, and Juergensmeyer is only on slightly more solid ground when he discusses the anti-abortion violence of Mike Bray and Paul Hill. Their thinking was clearly more theological in nature, but the references to Dietrich Bonhoeffer and liberation theology make Juergensmeyer’s text unclear in its message. If violence against “tyrants” can be justified in some cases, and if that is what Bray and Hill see themselves as doing, then what is the error in their thinking? Juergensmeyer assumes that they are—morally unjustified—fanatics, but does not actually give the reader an argument supporting that assumption. If abortion, as even some of its supporters have admitted, is a form of violence, then why is a reactive form of violence against “baby killers” not appropriate? This question is outside the scope of Juergensmeyer’s plan for the book, because he makes no serious attempt to address issues of moral philosophy or theology.

The section on ISIS raises the same issue noted above regarding Breivik and McVeigh; Juergensmeyer says quite clearly that ISIS is more political than religious, and it is considered as such by most Muslims. The author never clearly defines “religion,” and thus cannot explain how “religious” motives could be distinguished from “political” ones. He does not ask probing questions of any sort about human “motives.” Another structural issue with this book is that the first part is organized according to religions, such as Christianity or Buddhism, even though the behaviors Juergensmeyer describes are clearly regional in nature—Northern Ireland, or Burma, or the Palestinian territories. Atrocities and acts of revenge for atrocities are sometimes within “religions” and sometimes between them, which clearly calls for a different interpretive strategy than the one which Juergensmeyer employs. The distinction between lone wolves, and more clearly social phenomena, also needs more clarification than the author gives it.

The second half of the book shifts from describing behaviors to the author’s own theoretical framework, which focuses on the notion of “cosmic war”—human beings engage in acts of violence if they believe that they are on the side of light and are struggling against the forces of darkness. This allows people to justify violent acts in their own eyes, even terrible atrocities such as the killing of children. But the author does not ask why some people believe that they are involved in this “cosmic war” while others do not; these others may, in fact, be passionately devoted to religiously motivated peacemaking. Juergensmeyer also does not ask his interviewees probing questions about how they understand the nature of God, and how they connect God with the authorization of violence. His ear is not tuned to listen for such theological talk, which renders his title very problematic. He is not actually writing about terror in the mind of God, but only about terror in the mind of particular disturbed human beings. Nazism and Communism are also outside this book’s scope, which indicates that the author is not really serious about understanding violence as a psychological and cultural phenomenon, within which “religion” would be one facet. This book’s deficiencies in both theology and anthropology require supplement from deeper thinkers. Juergensmeyer notes, for example, that people who commit violent acts often seem normal, sane, and morally upright, but he does not draw on what Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas say about “All action intends a good”—but not all action is good because of faulty reasoning about means and ends. Søren Kierkegaard is also helpful in reflecting on sin and violence as resistance to the divine call to grow in maturity of selfhood, which entails love of God and neighbor. René Girard’s profound insights into mimetic desire, rivalry, and the scapegoat mechanism are mentioned in passing, but Juergensmeyer underappreciates the significance of Girard’s theory. Many other thinkers could be mentioned, but space limitations in this brief review preclude that.

In sum, this book works well as a descriptive introduction, but students need to be led into much deeper questions than Juergensmeyer asks to gain a deeper understanding of both the violent and peacemaking aspects of “religion.”

About the Reviewer(s): 

Charles K. Bellinger is associate professor of theology and ethics at Brite Divinity School.

Date of Review: 
July 7, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Mark Juergensmeyer is professor of sociology and global studies and founding director of the Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.


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