Theories on the Psychology of Violence: An Address to the Association of Muslim Social Scientists


Charles K. Bellinger, Brite Divinity School




3rd Regional Conference, August 23, 2003, University of Texas at Arlington




In the Middle Ages, people thought that the earth was the center of the universe. They were in the dark about the true workings of the solar system. What is it that we today are in the dark about? I suggest that we are in the dark about the roots of violent human behavior. Among those scholars who reflect on violence, there is no consensus as to how it should be understood, and among the general population, the desire to ask questions about the roots of violence is almost nonexistent. Instead of serious questioning along these lines, most people are content to address the phenomenon of violence in a very moralistic and simplistic way. People typically think that their society or in-group is good, in distinction from some other group that is evil. But as long as the thinking of the human race remains at this level of cartoon mythologies, we will remain in the dark about violence.

            In the Muslim world, in the wake of the events of September 11, 2001, there were many moderate Muslim leaders and clerics who issued statements denouncing the terrorist acts that had taken place. The question and the challenge that I wish to pose today is this: Is it enough simply to denounce violence in statements, or to give sermons or lectures describing terrorist violence as unethical? It seems to me that there needs to be something more. And that something more is a psychological understanding of why violent people do what they do. This needs to be an understanding of human pathology on a general level, because as we all know, violent acts are committed not just by Muslims, but also by Christians, and Jews, and Buddhists, and atheists, and so on. Violence is a universal human problem, and those of us who are concerned about reducing the amount of violence in the world need to get a handle on this situation by developing our powers of comprehension. We need to see that the task of understanding violent behavior is urgently important; we need to see it as an intellectual challenge that is even more important than finding a cure for cancer, because the greatest threat to human health and happiness is not what nature throws at us in the form of tornadoes or diseases, but what we do to our fellow human beings.

            How does one go about understanding why violent people do the things they do? One approach would be to ask violent people why they are doing what they are doing; we would listen to what they say and take it at face value. Most likely, what we will hear is a torrent of rhetoric that impresses us with its overwhelming self-righteousness and moral idiocy. So after we have listened to this rhetoric, have we found our answer to why violent people are violent? Certainly not; to think so would be like taking the babbling of a patient in a mental hospital as a perfect diagnosis of his condition. In order to understand a sick person, you have to be healthy. In other words, you have to be able to see through the twisted thought processes of the violent person in order to see what is really motivating him.

I will now very briefly summarize a small selection of theories regarding the roots of violent behavior. These are attempts that various authors have made to comprehend human motivations at a deep level, deeper than the superficial and diseased self-understanding of those who are violent.

Carl Jung’s theory focuses on the conscious and unconscious parts of the psyche. The conscious parts are the ego and the persona, which represent a person’s self-awareness and patterns of relating to other people. The unconscious parts of the psyche have a personal aspect and a collective aspect. The collective unconscious is the individual’s deep point of connection with his or her society and the human race more broadly. Jung spoke, for example, about Naziism as an irruption of the god Wotan arising out of the collective unconscious of the German people.[1] The personal unconscious is the area of the psyche within which individuals seek to repress and keep hidden those aspects of themselves they don’t want to acknowledge, such as their fears, their feelings of guilt and fallibility, and their sense of inferiority. This is the realm of the “shadow,” which, if it remains hidden and unintegrated, can cause terrible psychic and social damage. A shadow that is not integrated into the conscious ego is commonly projected outward onto some other group of people, such as ethnic minorities or foreigners, who are then attacked viciously. Jung identifies the source of most social and political violence as this process of shadow projection and scapegoating that occurs when people have failed to integrate all of the various components of their psyche.[2]

Ernest Becker is a psychologically oriented anthropologist who focuses on fear of physical death as the mainspring of human behavior. He sees himself as continuing to develop Jung’s idea of the projection of the shadow, but he very emphatically argues that this shadow that is projected is a rejected awareness of one’s mortality. Because human beings are animals, we are mortal. But we also have highly developed brains that give us an ability to be self-conscious and to anticipate the future. We can see that death is our eventual fate, but because we are animals who are basically narcissistic, we want to be immortal. This clash between what we want and what we know is coming overwhelms us. It disturbs us so much that we invent all sorts of personal and social lies in our efforts to somehow pretend that we are immortal. One of the lies we tell ourselves is that if we can triumph over our enemies, we can rise above the limitations of our condition. We can project the shadow, that awareness of our mortality that we have repressed into our unconscious, onto the enemies or the scapegoats we attack in an attempt to prove that they will die and we will not. At root, violence against others is an effort to avoid facing one’s own mortality with existential honesty and courage.[3]

            The German psychologist Alice Miller has a very different theory regarding the roots of violent behavior. Instead of focusing on a universal aspect of the human condition, such as mortality, her theory focuses on the personal history of people who commit violent acts. Her theory, in a nutshell, sees violence as the result of child abuse. When adults, who were themselves psychologically scarred by their parents, have children of their own, they repeat the cycle once again. They believe that in order to mold the psyche of a young child they must humiliate, scold, manipulate, and even beat a child severely in order to instill in the child an appropriate respect for authority. The child’s natural selfishness and waywardness must be literally beaten out of him if he is to become an upright individual and a model citizen. Miller coins the phrase “poisonous pedagogy” to describe this philosophy of child rearing, and her historical research shows it to have been very pervasive in German culture up to the time of Hitler. She points out that Hitler was brutally beaten by his father, and she describes Hitler’s hatred of the Jews as a transfigured hatred of his father. The child who is beaten and humiliated seeks to turn his rage on helpless others when he gains the power to do so. Miller argues that the immense popularity of Hitler in Germany is a sign that most Germans had been raised within the same atmosphere of “poisonous pedagogy.”[4]

            James Gilligan is a psychiatrist whose primary work has been in prisons, treating violent criminals. Gilligan focuses on the many ways human beings as teenagers or adults are humiliated by other human beings. For him, the key emotion that unlocks the enigma of violence is shame. When human beings are humiliated, put down, laughed at, or ignored, their innate sense of pride is deeply damaged. When they are physically attacked, if they cannot defend themselves immediately, then the physical wounds they sustain are likely to be signs of an even deeper psychic wounding. They must either accept the way others have pushed them down into this place of humiliation and shame, which would obviously be devastating to their sense of identity and self-worth, or they must fight back against the treatment they have received. The latter choice leads them to develop a very powerful desire for revenge against those who have shamed them. The act of revenge is seen by the one who carries it out as an act of justice; the scales of justice, which were skewed by oppression, are now being leveled once again through a dynamic reassertion of selfhood and pride.[5]

            Rene Girard is a literary critic and social philosopher who has also put forward a theory of violence. His theory begins with the universal tendency that human beings have to compare themselves with others. This comparison typically leads us to a sense of lack. We look around and begin to feel that others possess things that we do not possess, which must mean that they are experiencing a greater fullness of being than we are. If I see that others possess more gold, or beads, or a more livestock, or a better car, or whatever the status symbol is in a given social setting, then I will want to compete with others for the possession of these things so that I can have the same fullness of being that they have. I will imitate the desires of others. But if society as a whole is made up of people who are all imitating the desires of others, then we have a recipe for disaster, because imitation turns other people into obstacles and rivals. Imitation leads to competition, rivalry, conflict, violence, and a potential war of all against all. Human society thus desperately needs an escape valve to let off the pressure generated by the potential for unlimited violence. That escape valve is described by Girard as the “scapegoat mechanism.” A society chooses a scapegoat toward whom the violence and chaos generated by imitation can be channeled. This release of violence onto an individual or a minority group within society has a cathartic and pacifying effect, at least temporarily. The event of scapegoating is the birth of social cohesion, cultural mythologies, and sacrificial religion. For Girard, a lynch mob is the quintessential sign of what human culture in general uses as its basic structuring principle.[6]

            The final author I present is the 19th century Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard. The previous theories are all “secular” in the sense that they can be expressed without reference to religious postulates regarding God as the Creator of the world.[7] This is not the case with Kierkegaard, however, whose thought is deeply theological. Kierkegaard begins with the idea that human beings are creatures of God who are significantly different from the lower animals, because we can experience an emotion that they cannot: angst. Angst, or anxiety, is an emotion that arises from the ambiguous situation that we both have been created and also are being created. In other words, creation is an ongoing process that is occurring within our souls. We are different from the lower animals in that we can be aware of this ongoing process, and we can also rebel against it. A horse is simply a horse, and a cat is a cat. But human beings are unique in that we can resist God’s work in bringing us into being. This is how Kierkegaard understands sin. Sin is most basically the effort by human beings to escape from the process of creation, to not become the spiritually and ethically mature human beings that God wants us to become. Kierkegaard describes this as the self not wanting to become itself before God.[8] We always have the potential to die to the current immature shape of souls and be reborn as more mature persons; and God is always putting a subtle pressure on us to do precisely this. But we detest this pressure to grow and try to fend it off. We would like to kill God to end this pressure, but that is impossible, so we turn to attack God’s image as it is embodied in other human beings. In my book on this topic, The Genealogy of Violence, I argue that from Kierkegaard’s thought we can learn that the most basic root of ill will toward others is ill will toward the self that one is in the process of becoming.[9]

            I have referred to a small number of theories, but there are many others that I do not have time to cover. An exhaustive survey of the theories that have been proposed would only reinforce more strongly the observation that there is no consensus in scholarly circles regarding the problem of understanding violent behavior.[10] There is no one theory that dominates the scene and sets the agenda. This lack of consensus should not dismay us; rather, it should spur us to work toward a consensus, or at the very least, a robust conversation and dialogue, as a goal for the future.

*          *          *

I will close my presentation with some reflections on the September 11 terrorists. Jung’s theory is helpful in putting the spotlight on the many forms of human self-righteous that drive the engine of violence. As long as we project our shadow outward and see evil only in others and never in ourselves, we will be locked into a condition of psychological immaturity. We will assume that we must battle against a Satan that is outside us, and remain blind to the ways in which we ourselves are contributing to the destruction of human life. Becker’s theory is a bit muddled when it comes to understanding suicidal behavior, because a person who commits suicide is obviously not motivated by a fear of physical death. Nevertheless, Becker does speak of efforts to symbolically escape from annihilation by leaping into death with a particular vision of a glorious afterlife in mind. His thought can sensitize us to the gnosticism that is implied in such a mindset; he encourages us to face our mortality honestly and live ethically with our fellow human beings. Miller’s writings lead us to consider the possibility that when parents treat their children harshly and violently, they may be sowing the seeds of destructive behavior later in life. If we want to make the world less violent, we need to think not only in terms of struggling against terrorist organizations, but also in terms of nurturing the next generation in such a way that our children grow up to be psychologically strong and healthy, instead of growing up as damaged goods. Gilligan’s theory seems to work well in explaining the behavior of the Palestinians, who have suffered humiliation at the hands of the Israeli government, and it may help to interpret Osama bin Laden, who seeks to answer that humiliation with a highly dramatic attempt to balance the scales of justice. Bin Laden sees himself as a freedom fighter who is struggling against an American tyranny that is oppressing and undermining the Muslim world. Gilligan does an excellent job of sensitizing his reader to the cycle of humiliation, rage, and violence that can turn into an endless downward spiral. This cautionary note can be drawn from him: sometimes the pursuit of “justice” can be part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

Girard has commented directly on September 11, arguing that his theory explains terrorist violence as arising out of an imaginary rivalry between Osama bin Laden and America. This quotation gives an impression of his take on things:

What is experienced now is a form of mimetic rivalry on a planetary scale. When I read the first documents of Bin Laden and verified his allusions to the American bombing of Japan, I felt at first that I was in a dimension that transcends Islam, a dimension of the entire planet. Under the label of Islam we find a will to rally and mobilize an entire third world of those frustrated and of victims in their relations of mimetic rivalry with the West... By their effectiveness, by the sophistication of the means employed, by the knowledge that they had of the United States, by their training, were not the authors of the attack at least somewhat American? Here we are in the middle of mimetic contagion.[11]

Girard does not make this point exactly, but he could have: Is not the ideology of Al Qaeda a distant mimetic reflection of the ideas of the American Revolution? At the time of the Revolution, the American colonists saw themselves as struggling to overthrow the tyranny of the King of England. Al Qaeda sees itself as struggling to overthrow the tyranny of the American Empire, which it sees as oppressing Muslim people all over the globe through its military and economic might. Thus the choice of highly symbolic targets: the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. So we have a mimetic rivalry between dueling visions of tyranny and righteousness.[12] The thought-provoking idea that we can draw from this is that the fervent desire to struggle against tyranny may itself be part of the problem rather than part of the solution, because it is a desire fed by a powerful self-righteousness that short-circuits careful moral deliberation. Girard’s writings paint a very perceptive picture of human behavior, and they point the way toward an escape from this system of rivalry that leads inevitably to human sacrifice.

Kierkegaard’s thought raises deep questions about the meaning of religious “faith.” Is it accurate to say that the September 11 terrorists were people of faith, albeit a twisted faith?[13] Kierkegaard’s thought, as I see it, leads us to the conclusion that regardless of the religious ideas that may be in place in a person’s thinking, if their actions are grossly unethical and violent, that is clear evidence that they are in rebellion against God the Creator, who calls all people to loving, ethical existence. Here I can only refer in passing to Kierkegaard’s superb book Works of Love which is an extended meditation on the biblical command to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Terrorism is the quintessential example of what Kierkegaard calls “preferential love” that favors the in-group and hates and seeks to destroy others. The September 11 terrorists no doubt saw themselves as followers of Abraham; they believed that they heard a call from God to commit an act of human sacrifice in obedience to a divine command that has no need to be justified in terms of human philosophies. But did they actually hear such a call from God, or were they in reality not people of faith, but demonic enemies of God, enemies of Allah? It seems very clear to me that if Kierkegaard were here today, he would say that the latter is the case: the hijackers were enemies of God and enemies of morality, including the moral teachings of Islam itself. They are examples of the sort of spiritually diseased personalities that he described in his profound work The Sickness unto Death. In my opinion, The Sickness unto Death was not simply ahead of its own time; it is still ahead of our time in that we have not yet absorbed into our thinking the level of psychological insight that it makes available to us.[14]

I will close by offering two quotations from Kierkegaard: “Love to God and love to neighbor are like two doors that open simultaneously, so that it is impossible to open the one without opening the other, and impossible to shut one without also shutting the other.”[15] “It is blasphemous to want to make God one’s collaborator in hating.”[16] The task that lies before us consists in developing these insights, so that we can explain at a deep level how ill will toward other human beings arises out of rebellion against God and ill will toward the ethically mature self that we are all called to become. If we can develop an advanced understanding of the psychology of violence, we can use that understanding as a weapon in the struggle against violence by developing appropriate educational strategies for spreading this understanding throughout the human race. In this way, we will be engaging in the jihad that is most important at this point in history, a jihad against violence itself. It is my hope that the Muslim scholars in attendance at this conference will take up this task within their own context and tradition.


[1] Carl Jung, Civilization in Transition (New York: Pantheon Books, 1964), 185.

[2] See The Portable Jung, ed. Joseph Campbell (New York: Penguin Books, 1976), 144-148, and Erich Neumann’s book Depth Psychology and a New Ethic (New York: Harper and Row, 1973).

[3] I am summarizing Becker’s The Denial of Death (New York: The Free Press, 1973) and Escape from Evil (New York: The Free Press, 1975).

[4] Alice Miller, For Your Own: Hidden Cruelty in Child-rearing and the Roots of Violence (New York: Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 1984).

[5] James Gilligan, Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic (New York: Vintage Books, 1976).

[6] See James G. Williams, ed., The Girard Reader (New York: Crossroad, 1996) for a basic introduction to his thought.

[7] An important caveat to this comment is that another side of Girard’s thought, not summarized here, is very theological.

[8] See The Sickness unto Death (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983).

[9] The Genealogy of Violence: Reflections on Creation, Freedom, and Evil (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 67.

[10] See Ron Rosenbaum, Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil (New York: Random House, 1998).

[11] Girard’s interview is available on the web site of the Colloquium on Violence and Religion .

[12] The Civil War and the debate over abortion within the U.S. had and have exactly the same form.

[13] See Robin Lovin’s essay in Jon L. Berquist, ed., Strike Terror No More: Theology, Ethics, and the New War (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2002), 154.

[14] The same thing could be said about the novels of Dostoevsky, which were one of the main inspirations in the shaping of Girard’s thought. See Girard’s book Resurrection from the Underground: Feodor Dostoevsky (New York: Crossroad, 1997), and also Andrew McKenna’s article “"Scandal, Resentment, Idolatry: The Underground Psychology of Terrorism"

[15] Soren Kierkegaard’s Journals and Papers (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1967-78), 3: 2434.

[16] Works of Love (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995), 262.