Boko Haram, Lucretius, and Existential Risk Studies

In recent years, Nigerian terrorist organization Boko Haram has been in the news for carrying out frequent massacres of thousands of innocent victims, mostly in Northern Nigeria. They have been notoriously recruiting women for their suicide bomb missions. The most recent attack as of this writing was perpetrated by girls younger than 20.

The first item that must be addressed has to be an indictment of the liberal opinion according to which terrorism is the result of Western intervention in certain territories. Nigeria has not been intervened in many decades by the US, Britain, or any other European power, and the evil Islamic extremism that exists there derives its legitimacy from infantile superstition and hatred of science and of education. Boko Haram claims to be an organization attempting to protect children from the so-called dangers of Western education.

Boko Haram reasons that genocide is the solution to the threat of education. In the poorest continent on Earth. Ponder that.

The second item that must be addressed is on the psychology of a terrorist, which has been evaluated in various ways by many philosophers and thinkers. Michel Onfray said:

Religion then becomes the practice of alienation par excellence: it supposes the rupture of man with himself and the creation of an imaginary world in which truth is invested upon the imaginary.  Theology, affirms Feuerbach, is a psychological pathology.

boko-haram-dead-564x357A terrorist goes further: he does not just wish to desperately alienate himself from the Earth that is his reality: he wants to secure in the imagined other-world the glory and joy that he denies himself and everyone else on this world. In the case of Boko Haram’s death cult, not only does it clearly lead people to hate this world and engage in massive human sacrifice for the sake of the imagined next world: it also poisons everyone’s happiness and creates literally hell on earth. As a result numerous beings suffering under this peculiarly heinous form of spiritual tyranny, this prison of the soul, end up hating life to such an extent that many of them choose self-immolation, and take with them thousands of innocent souls.

And so, the first thing that we can glean from the sad and monstruous phenomenon of Boko Haram is that we must find meaning in this world, learn to love it, embellish it, and turn it into heaven on Earth, and also we must abhor and refuse to be lured by other-worldly promises that produce in this world a hellish existence. They present themselves as innocent false consolations, but they are more like viruses. Just as some viruses take years to carry out their murderous fiat, similarly some religions also do not poison life overnight, but slowly. In this we must echo Nietzsche’s call for a philosophy that gives meaning to this world, and a firm rejection of other-worldly religions that are obsessed with an afterlife.

Lucretius interestingly wrote about religion and its relation to terror in De Rerum Natura in more than one occassion. When discussing the cult of the Goddess Cybele, he mentioned that the priests (hierophants) intimidated and terrorized people with knives, and extorted monetary donations from frightened faithful in this manner. Later, when he discussed the ill effects of fear of death in human behavior, he attributed many moral evils to it, saying that greed, treachery, violence, and many other vices spring from untreated fear of death in mortals, explaining that when mortals are vulnerable or face adversities, their true character is shown, and that their degrading fear of death makes them as infants scared of an imaginary monster. He also explained that fear of death causes mortals to hate life.

Abased with every wretchedness, they yet
Live, and where’er the wretches come, they yet
Make the ancestral sacrifices there,
Butcher the black sheep, and to gods below
Offer the honours, and in bitter case
Turn much more keenly to religion.
Wherefore, it’s surer testing of a man
In doubtful perils- mark him as he is
Amid adversities

And whilst, from these, men wish to scape afar,
Driven by false terror, and afar remove,
With civic blood a fortune they amass,
They double their riches, greedy, heapers-up
Of corpse on corpse they have a cruel laugh
For the sad burial of a brother-born,
And hatred and fear of tables of their kin.
Likewise, through this same terror, envy oft
Makes them to peak because before their eyes
That man is lordly, that man gazed upon
Who walks begirt with honour glorious,
Whilst they in filth and darkness roll around;
Some perish away for statues and a name,
And oft to that degree, from fright of death,
Will hate of living and beholding light
Take hold on humankind that they inflict
Their own destruction with a gloomy heart-
Forgetful that this fear is font of cares,
This fear the plague upon their sense of shame,
And this that breaks the ties of comradry
And oversets all reverence and faith,
Mid direst slaughter…
For just as children tremble and fear all
In the viewless dark, so even we at times
Dread in the light so many things that be
No whit more fearsome than what children feign,
Shuddering, will be upon them in the dark.
This terror, then, this darkness of the mind,
Not sunrise with its flaring spokes of light,
Nor glittering arrows of morning sun disperse,
But only nature’s aspect and her law.

Lucretius, De Rerum Natura, III.52-93


The passage concludes with an invitation to study science, to learn the nature of things in order to free ourselves from degrading fear and superstition. It may seem an overstatement for Lucretius to claim that greed, violence, betrayal of friends and kin for the sake of money or glory, and other evils are the result of untreated fear of death, but contemporary research on the Death Denial Principle confirms these curious insights. DDP research suggests that much of what mortals do, and much of the culture they create, is the result of fear of death and a desire for immortality and transcendence. I blogged on the DDP before, saying:

… social scientists have recently been studying something called the death denial principle: an underlying and mostly unrecognized tendency in humans characterized by attempts to hide or reimagine death. Studies demonstrate that, when faced with the reality of their own mortality, people tend to hang on to that which is familiar and to exhibit hostility towards the unfamiliar, and religious people in specific tend to express hostility towards atheists and people of religions that deny their fantasies about the afterlife (Christians, for instance, exhibited more anti-Jewish and anti-atheist behavior). When judges were reminded of their own mortality and were given cases to judge, they also judged more harshly whereas a group of judges that was not reminded of their own death gave considerably less severe sentences.

These studies suggest that people’s bias against atheists, who according to recent studies are the most distrusted and hated minority in America, invariably have to do with the people that have the bias and their unconscious unresolved issues, not with the atheists.

Boko Haram’s hatred of “western education”, and particularly of the teaching of evolution, can therefore be understood as the desperate reaction of willful ignorance against science as a forever-looming threat to salvific religious fantasies about the afterlife. BH terrorists are deeply aware that “western education” is a god-killer and has the power to pull the praying rug from under them.

It’s not just fear of death that produces specimens like Boko Haram: climate change and other forms of instability also have that power. A piece recently written for The Humanist on existential risk studies explained that “when the world looks like it’s about to end, some religiously-inclined believers will become convinced that it really is”, and that if we study the “central insights of existential risk studies, it becomes clear that religious belief could present unprecedented challenges in the coming decades”. It continues:

… history reveals a small percentage of particularly fervent people at the fringe who prefer an “active cataclysmic” approach to end-times issues (to borrow a term from Richard Landes of the Center for Millennial Studies). Such individuals see themselves as active participants in an apocalyptic narrative that’s unfolding in real time—a narrative that they’re helping to catalyze. These so-called eschatological activists are arguably the most dangerous type of believer, since they hold with the unshakable firmness of faith that the world must be destroyed in order to be saved.

According to the article, climate change will likely precipitate a proliferation of end-of-days death-cults, and the article cites a three-year-long drought that affected Syria before ISIS took over as an example of the kinds of existential risks that increase the chances of religious terror.

It is clear that not all humans are able to cope with existential threats in an intelligent, mature, and resourceful way, and it’s clear that religion, particularly when it’s hostile to “western education”, has built around itself the impossibility of redemption from its own decadence and terror. Boko Haram is a spiritual and existential prison: it poisons the possibility of pleasure and happiness to such an extent that it makes teenage girls pine for a violent escape as suicide bombers, feeling that it’s the highest thing that they can hope for. That this prison is cultural, imaginary and self-created by mortals makes it no less harmful and evil.

As for fear of death, it is entirely natural but we must live pleasantly and resist its hold over us–which, as we’ve seen, has the power to bring out the worst in people–and join the ancients in saying:

I have anticipated you, Fortune, and entrenched myself against all your secret attacks. And we will not give ourselves up as captives to you or to any other circumstance; but when it is time for us to go, spitting contempt on life and on those who here vainly cling to it, we will leave life crying aloud in a glorious triumph-song that we have lived well. – Vatican Saying 47

About hiramcrespo

Hiram Crespo is the author of 'Tending the Epicurean Garden' (Humanist Press, 2014) and 'How to Live a Good Life' (Penguin Random House, 2020), and founder of He's also written for The Humanist, Eidolon, Occupy, The New Humanism, The Secular Web, Europa Laica, AteístasPR, and many other outlets.
This entry was posted in god, islam and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s