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What is an appropropriate response?
Political and philosophical considerations after the attack on the Word Trade Center

Religion's misguided missiles

Promise a young man that death is not the end and he will willingly cause

Richard Dawkins
September 15, 2001

A guided missile corrects its trajectory as it flies, homing in, say, on 
the heat of a jet plane's exhaust. A great improvement on a simple 
ballistic shell, it still cannot discriminate particular targets. It could
not zero in on a designated New York skyscraper if launched from as far 
away as Boston.

That is precisely what a modern "smart missile" can do. Computer 
miniaturisation has advanced to the point where one of today's smart 
missiles could be programmed with an image of the Manhattan skyline 
together with instructions to home in on the north tower of the World 
Trade Centre. Smart missiles of this sophistication are possessed by the 
United States, as we learned in the Gulf war, but they are economically 
beyond ordinary terrorists and scientifically beyond theocratic 
governments. Might there be a cheaper and easier alternative?

In the second world war, before electronics became cheap and miniature, 
the psychologist BF Skinner did some research on pigeon-guided missiles. 
The pigeon was to sit in a tiny cockpit, having previously been trained to
peck keys in such a way as to keep a designated target in the centre of a 
screen. In the missile, the target would be for real.

The principle worked, although it was never put into practice by the US 
authorities. Even factoring in the costs of training them, pigeons are 
cheaper and lighter than computers of comparable effectiveness. Their 
feats in Skinner's boxes suggest that a pigeon, after a regimen of 
training with colour slides, really could guide a missile to a distinctive
landmark at the southern end of Manhattan island. The pigeon has no idea 
that it is guiding a missile. It just keeps on pecking at those two tall 
rectangles on the screen, from time to time a food reward drops out of the
dispenser, and this goes on until... oblivion.

Pigeons may be cheap and disposable as on-board guidance systems, but 
there's no escaping the cost of the missile itself. And no such missile 
large enough to do much damage could penetrate US air space without being 
intercepted. What is needed is a missile that is not recognised for what 
it is until too late. Something like a large civilian airliner, carrying 
the innocuous markings of a well-known carrier and a great deal of fuel. 
That's the easy part. But how do you smuggle on board the necessary 
guidance system? You can hardly expect the pilots to surrender the 
left-hand seat to a pigeon or a computer.

How about using humans as on-board guidance systems, instead of pigeons? 
Humans are at least as numerous as pigeons, their brains are not 
significantly costlier than pigeon brains, and for many tasks they are 
actually superior. Humans have a proven track record in taking over planes
by the use of threats, which work because the legitimate pilots value their
own lives and those of their passengers.

The natural assumption that the hijacker ultimately values his own life 
too, and will act rationally to preserve it, leads air crews and ground 
staff to make calculated decisions that would not work with guidance 
modules lacking a sense of self-preservation. If your plane is being 
hijacked by an armed man who, though prepared to take risks, presumably 
wants to go on living, there is room for bargaining. A rational pilot 
complies with the hijacker's wishes, gets the plane down on the ground, 
has hot food sent in for the passengers and leaves the negotiations to 
people trained to negotiate.

The problem with the human guidance system is precisely this. Unlike the 
pigeon version, it knows that a successful mission culminates in its own 
destruction. Could we develop a biological guidance system with the 
compliance and dispensability of a pigeon but with a man's resourcefulness
and ability to infiltrate plausibly? What we need, in a nutshell, is a 
human who doesn't mind being blown up. He'd make the perfect on-board 
guidance system. But suicide enthusiasts are hard to find. Even terminal 
cancer patients might lose their nerve when the crash was actually looming.

Could we get some otherwise normal humans and somehow persuade them that 
they are not going to die as a consequence of flying a plane smack into a 
skyscraper? If only! Nobody is that stupid, but how about this - it's a 
long shot, but it just might work. Given that they are certainly going to 
die, couldn't we sucker them into believing that they are going to come to
life again afterwards? Don't be daft! No, listen, it might work. Offer them
a fast track to a Great Oasis in the Sky, cooled by everlasting fountains. 
Harps and wings wouldn't appeal to the sort of young men we need, so tell 
them there's a special martyr's reward of 72 virgin brides, guaranteed 
eager and exclusive.

Would they fall for it? Yes, testosterone-sodden young men too 
unattractive to get a woman in this world might be desperate enough to go 
for 72 private virgins in the next.

It's a tall story, but worth a try. You'd have to get them young, though. 
Feed them a complete and self-consistent background mythology to make the 
big lie sound plausible when it comes. Give them a holy book and make them
learn it by heart. Do you know, I really think it might work. As luck would
have it, we have just the thing to hand: a ready-made system of 
mind-control which has been honed over centuries, handed down through 
generations. Millions of people have been brought up in it. It is called 
religion and, for reasons which one day we may understand, most people 
fall for it (nowhere more so than America itself, though the irony passes 
unnoticed). Now all we need is to round up a few of these faith-heads and 
give them flying lessons.

Facetious? Trivialising an unspeakable evil? That is the exact opposite of
my intention, which is deadly serious and prompted by deep grief and fierce
anger. I am trying to call attention to the elephant in the room that 
everybody is too polite - or too devout - to notice: religion, and 
specifically the devaluing effect that religion has on human life. I don't
mean devaluing the life of others (though it can do that too), but 
devaluing one's own life. Religion teaches the dangerous nonsense that 
death is not the end.

If death is final, a rational agent can be expected to value his life 
highly and be reluctant to risk it. This makes the world a safer place, 
just as a plane is safer if its hijacker wants to survive. At the other 
extreme, if a significant number of people convince themselves, or are 
convinced by their priests, that a martyr's death is equivalent to 
pressing the hyperspace button and zooming through a wormhole to another 
universe, it can make the world a very dangerous place. Especially if they
also believe that that other universe is a paradisical escape from the 
tribulations of the real world. Top it off with sincerely believed, if 
ludicrous and degrading to women, sexual promises, and is it any wonder 
that naive and frustrated young men are clamouring to be selected for 
suicide missions?

There is no doubt that the afterlife-obsessed suicidal brain really is a 
weapon of immense power and danger. It is comparable to a smart missile, 
and its guidance system is in many respects superior to the most 
sophisticated electronic brain that money can buy. Yet to a cynical 
government, organisation, or priesthood, it is very very cheap.

Our leaders have described the recent atrocity with the customary cliche: 
mindless cowardice. "Mindless" may be a suitable word for the vandalising 
of a telephone box. It is not helpful for understanding what hit New York 
on September 11. Those people were not mindless and they were certainly 
not cowards. On the contrary, they had sufficiently effective minds braced
with an insane courage, and it would pay us mightily to understand where 
that courage came from.

It came from religion. Religion is also, of course, the underlying source 
of the divisiveness in the Middle East which motivated the use of this 
deadly weapon in the first place. But that is another story and not my 
concern here. My concern here is with the weapon itself. To fill a world 
with religion, or religions of the Abrahamic kind, is like littering the 
streets with loaded guns. Do not be surprised if they are used.

Richard Dawkins is professor of the public understanding of science, 
University of Oxford, and author of The Selfish Gene, The Blind Watchmaker,
and Unweaving the Rainbow.