Even suicide bombers do not act purely on religious grounds, Atran contends. He has met with failed bombers in Indonesia, Gaza, Morocco and elsewhere and found them generally a bland group who had been "infected" with the "bug" of radicalism, according to his testimony to Congress. They are infused with "sacred values," including devotion of the state.
The same issue of Science also chronicles the work of Robert Pape, a political scientist at the University of Chicago, who has studied 2,200 suicide attacks between 1980 and 2009. Pape and his colleagues contend their research shows "strong confirmation for the hypothesis that military occupation is the main factor driving suicide terrorism."
They are not sacrificing their own lives for religion. They are doing it for the land. Thus, they conclude, no nation should become an occupier unless it is clearly welcome.
Yet religion plays a role, even in suicide bombing, in that it programs people to be willing to sacrifice all in defense of a "sacred value."
"A study we did on Iranians shows that having a nuclear program has nothing to do with religion," Atran said. "But it has become a religious subject for at least 13 percent of the population, and those 13 percent are closest to the regime. And so they now believe a nuclear program is bound up with the notion of national identity and with Islam itself."