Are psychopaths responsible for violent religious cults?

Are psychopaths responsible for violent religious cults?

A Huffington Post article by Joe Navarro, titled, “ISIL Reminds Us Who Joins Terrorist Organizations and Why”, 11 February 2015 ( begins his article outlining recent terrorist activities led by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and their successful global recruitment through social media. The article is written in an extremely opinionated manner, stating that people who join “toxic cults” must be “clinically gullible”. Navarro additionally identifies 3 major attributes that people who join religious terrorist organizations possess: 1) an overwhelming urge to spread the word about their religion by any means, including violence, 2) a “wound collection” (multitude of injustices and abuses that the new recruit has experienced that is used to justify their actions), and 3) psychopath personalities. The majority of this article focuses on point 3, claiming that psychopaths are indifferent, or perhaps even find pleasure, in causing harm to others. In fact, Navarro argues psychopaths actively search out religious groups to use their religious agenda as a means to commit horrific crimes they want to commit; this ensures they are not the sole perpetrator, rather, they are simply carrying out actions of an organization.

Navarro’s psychopath accusation has not been made in isolation, as the United States Home Secretary has made similar claims ( However, even Navarro speculates that not all of the cult members are psychopaths. This caveat exposes a gaping hole in Navarro’s argument: what is the explanation for non-psychopaths joining religious terrorist groups rather than non-violent religious groups? Broadcasting their religion (Hexham 96) and a personal crisis/wound collection (Hexham 95) are not unique to violent cults.

Navarro overlooks the reasons why people join religious cults in the first place, and assumes that those who join violent cults are unique. There are many reasons why people join religious cults. In Third World countries, as in Syria and Iraq where ISIL is manifesting, individuals may feel like they have been deprived from materialistic and cultural experiences due to living in a country with unstable control. These feelings become overwhelming, leading to a state of “emotional chaos”, hysteria, and confusion (Hexham 108-109). In contrast, individuals joining from First World nations (Britain, Canada, and the United States) possess different reasons; these individuals are rational, but experience emotional distraught because they may have primal experiences (visions, hallucinations, or hear voices), and feel stigmatized (Hexham 106-109). The disconnect they experience between emotion and reason compel them to seek rational answers, and often times religion offers such explanations (Hexham 106).

I am absolutely not claiming that the violence and impingement on human rights ISIL has committed is justified, but fundamentally ISIL is a religious cult with their unique interpretation of the Quran—not a collection of psychopaths.



Hexham, I., & Poewe, K. (1986). Understanding Cults and New Religions. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.


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