Self-immolation: Is religion to blame?

Often the finger is pointed at religion as being an underlying cause of suicide terrorism. Generally, the finger is pointed at Islam. Suicide terrorism is a radical form of suicide, often employing bombs or vehicles carrying incendiary materials. And indeed, there is a correlation between religious belief and suicide terrorism. But self-destructive people who wish to die for a cause–to construct themselves into martyrs–are not limited to terrorism.

You see, suicide terrorism is generally met with scorn from the public audience. Because the goal of terrorism is to maximize civilian casualties, the message the terrorist is attempting to convey to the audience is lost amid the carnage and mayhem that follows the terroristic act. Because of this, other methods are sometimes chosen. One of these methods is self-immolation. Self-immolation is the act of individuals who commit or attempt to commit suicide by setting themselves on fire to make a political statement, usually attempting to compel the state or civilians to take action.

I spent the last year studying self-immolation for my thesis, the results of which are outside the scope of this blog post. In my research I came across hundreds of suicide notes, written by people who have since self-immolated. There appeared to be a recurring theme: religion.

Self-immolation as a tool to voice contention was invented in 1963 when South Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc set himself on fire in a busy Saigon intersection. He did this to protest against the way the Buddhists were treated by the Catholic minority. Since then it has spread to every continent and has been utilized as much as 3,000 times (See Michael Biggs). The majority of which occurred in Asia. Refer to the following diagram.

Self-immolation by region 1963-2012

Most of those who committed suicide by self-immolation have done so in the name of Buddhism or Hinduism. In 1990 a huge spike of self-immolations occurred in India following the reservations for lower castes. In 2011-2012 another huge spike occurred in the Tibetan region of China.

Another interesting cluster occurred in the United States from 1965-1970. As many as 25 people self-immolated to protest against the Vietnam War, most of whom referred to god in their suicide letters. Alice Herz was the first, a widow and Holocaust survivor who referred to her struggle against the arms race as being the battle between David and Goliath. This was followed by Norman Morrison, a Quaker, and Roger Allen LaPorte, a Catholic Worker, both of whom explicitly stated their religion as playing a role in their decision to kill themselves.

What makes the US case so interesting is the incarnation of their god. The US protestors worshipped the god of Abraham, who promises eternal suffering for suicide. The gods of the Indic religions (Buddhism and Hinduism) promise no such threats. Despite the guarantee of eternal hellfire, religious Americans felt that their religious teachings made it their duty to kill themselves in the name of peace.

A final interesting cluster is the Arab Spring. As many as a few hundred people, mostly Muslims, self-immolated in the Arab World to protest against their governments. This is not only interesting because they worship the same god of Abraham; it is also interesting because self-immolation was unheard of in the Arab World until December 2010, when Mohamed Bouazizi brought it into the public knowledge. Those who killed themselves in the Arab World were not doing so for religious reasons; rather, they did so for ethnic and national reasons. Therefore, we cannot always blame it on religion. Furthermore, religious meaning for self-immolation is largely absent in Europe.

Finally, while not always the case, we can say that there is a correlation between religion and self-destructive behavior. Some people choose to blow themselves up and take as many civilians with them as possible. Others choose a more peaceful method. Despite the method, it can be argued that without certain religious beliefs, fewer people would be burning themselves to death. Indeed, self-immolation is built into many Buddhist belief systems as a means to reach enlightenment.

The question is: How much self-immolation would we expect to see in an atheistic world?

About Rayan Zehn

I'm a political scientist.
This entry was posted in Atheism, Self-Immolation and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Self-immolation: Is religion to blame?

  1. Ignostic Atheist says:

    I would imagine then that it depends on the political and economic environment.

    Or were you just going for the general, “less than we see now.”

    • rayanzehn says:

      In the general sense. I would expect that without religion self-immolation would be a lot less frequent than it is today. But yes, you’re right about political/economic factors, as evident by high levels of non-religious self-immolation in Europe during the Cold War.

  2. makagutu says:

    I would do everything excluding the fire if I can. It is possible I may be wrong

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