Sacrificing one’s life for a religious cause — martyrdom — can include elements at odds with altruistic aims. “Heavenly promises” such as the idea that virgins and paradise await Islamic martyrs “detract from Durkheim’s view,” Riemer said.
But so long as group mentality motivates the suicide, it is still altruistic, Pedahzur and his colleagues claim. They claim individuals who kill themselves in search of “a lofty and glorious place for themselves” fall into a different but closely related category — “acute altruistic suicide.”
Acute altruistic suicide “stems from a strong religious conviction in the glorious destiny which awaits the perpetrator in the afterlife,” Pedahzur said. “With a serene conviction derived from the feeling of duty accomplished, this person is carried to his death in a burst of faith and enthusiasm.”
Faith alone, however, does not a terrorist make, Ginges cautioned. “I found personal devotion to and belief in Islam unrelated to support for terrorism,” he said.
Religious organizations find it easier to generate support for terrorism not because of their beliefs but rather “because of the link between collective rituals and altruism,” Ginges said.
Likewise, “the atmosphere in the Gaza Strip and on the West Bank is such that a would-be martyr’s decision to embark on his journey of destruction is in fact reinforced by the approval of community,” Pedahzur said. “In a society where ‘honor’ is among the highest virtues, there are indeed powerful social pressures lying behind the suicide bomber’s decision. Hence, the suicide act appears a glaring example of altruistic behavior.”
Let's evaluate this theory from a psychological perspective. In psychology and psychiatry, Altruism is considered one of the healthiest types of psychological defense mechanisms: and is defined as "constructive service to others that brings pleasure and personal satisfaction." (Note: not destructive)
One can think of altruism as a constructive way to turn one's inner demons--demons that might otherwise exhort you into bad, destructive behavior-- into behavior that is positive and pleasurable to one's self and others.
An example might be choosing medicine as a profession, and taking care of others when what you really desire is for others to take care of you (I know all about this one). This motivation could also be a "reaction formation" (a more neurotic manifestation of the same psychological motivation), but when the behavior is accompanied by a feeling of pleasure at doing something good for others (instead of accompanied by feelings of repentance, resentment, duty or obligation), then it is mature, and not neurotic.
Altruism then, involves getting pleasure out of giving to others what you yourself would like to receive.
There is a significant difference between psychologically atoning for what a person believes are his "sins", and psychologically paying back society for one's "blessings". That is the difference between the neurotic defense of reaction formation and that of altruism.
Let me offer a different explanation for the suicide bomber, whose behavior is characterized by the simultaneous expression of rage at the "other" and unadulterated religious "ecstasy".
As I mentioned in my essay Narcissism and Society (all parts are linked to here)
Much of the evil that humans do to each other comes as a result of Narcissistic Rage and Narcissistic Idealism. In the former case, we hear about or know individuals who manipulate, control, subjugate, hurt or kill others and they are able to do this because they do not consider other people as human or separate from their own Self; or because they are so enraged they are not capable of empathy.
We see stories of this happening all the time on the news, frequently exclaiming, "How could someone do that?" The ex-boyfriend who cannot accept that the woman has dared to withdraw her love and so must kill her (and often himself); the serial killer who does not experience others as really human. The pedophile who abuses then murders his child victim. Every petty criminal who believes implicitly that his feelings and desires are paramount and justify his behavior.
The second type of evil is more subtle, and it comes from the the opposite side of the Self. This side also does not see other people as individuals either; and instead sees them only as fodder for the expression of an IDEAL or as pawns for an Omnipotent Object (e.g., a dictator). People with this Idealizing Narcissistic defect (and by the way, such people are also capable of Narcissistic Rage when thwarted) completely reject the needs of the individual and enslave him or her to their IDEAL. Eventually, the enslavement--whether religious or secular--snuffs out human ambition, confidence, energy and self-esteem. These "do-gooders" cause considerable human misery and their ideologies can lead to genocidal practices and unbelievable atrocities on a grand scale, all in the name of the IDEAL or GOD.
I further explore this point in the post, "Union With An Evil God", which looks specifically at the motivation of the suicide bomber:
The essence of religious ecstasy occurs when one's Self is perfectly united to the elusive omnipotent object of one's infancy; and this fusion has little room in the crowded psyche for the consideration of of those outside the fusion. It is just one's own pathetic little Self and God.
Usually, this is not so bad as experiences go; and many who are caught up in this incredible ecstasy are led to new understanding and appreciation of their own humanity; their Self is strengthened and renewed; and they may feel a benevolence and peace toward all other human beings. Fusion with a benign and caring god can even provoke monumental spiritual changes for the good in some individuals.
But this is not the case when one unites with a brutal, bloodthirsty, compassionless god like Allah the Merciful (what a misnomer!). The Allah of the gentleman quoted in the article above is hardly benign and demands not only your death, but that you commit murder in his name. The perfect union is still perceived ecstatically, even if the Self undergoes medieval torture; for it is still the desired Oneness that the developing Self lost early on in life. Allah the omnipotent object remains omnipotent--just evil-- and the result is a profound loss of humanity and a rejection of the good.
In fact, the significance of the suicide -murderer in history is that the act of committing suicide and murder at the same time is the absolute ultimate expression of both Narcissistic Awe/Idealism and Narcissistic Rage. What other act so perfectly encompasses both an impotence and hopelessness of the individual self compared to the omnipotent other; and at the same time expresses the incoherent rage and fury inherent in this state of being.
This is not necessarily a cultural thing or even an Islamic thing (though Islam has taken it to new heights). Our own culture has its share of "suicide-murderers" (stringing a bunch of explosives around your waist is simply a creative flourish on the fundamental concept).
Culture and/or religion may play a role in the form or purposes of the suicide-murder; or, more importantly, may condemn or encourage such behavior. In other words, social and group pressure may be a factor in this kind of behavior (as it is in all sorts of behavior), but groups do not and cannot have an overriding influence unless there is fertile psychological soil in the self of the individual who commits such a horrific act.
The "fertile soil" in which socially sanctioned suicide/homicide can flourish is an individual whose self has not matured (i.e. is very young), or someone whose self has been traumatically ruptured in the course of normal adult development. Such a rupture can result in a deformed and fractured self that expresses a full range of narcissistic rage and awe; or--as in the case of the suicide murderer--sometimes both at the same time.
True altruism requires a healthy--and whole--self. You may ask about those instances of altrusim where someone gives up his or her life to save another. Such an act can certainly be an expression of healthy altruism simply because the individual has identified values, ideals, or other individuals that he or she is willing to die for. But, consider the "values" and "ideals" of the terrorist who blows himself up on the bus filled with schoolchildren. What delusion could cause him believe that his behavior would make others feel joy? And what is the emotional maturity or health of someone who would feel joy at such a despicable act? It is truly a warped culture, or religion, or whatever-- that distorts and perverts the best part of the human spirit in this way.
If you want to make a mockery of the word "altrusism" then you can call the suicide bomber's action "acute altruistic idealism".
But I call it the expression of an individual whose self-hatred is equaled and possibly even exceeded by his hatred of others outside his own group.