Original Sin: the Sexual Motivation of Religious Extremists

Original Sin: the Sexual Motivation of Religious Extremists

Janet L Factor
Janet L Factor
13 min read


In late October of 2014, Iraqi News reported, as ISIS forces rampaged through Diyala province, one of their soldiers found a thirty-year-old woman resting at her home and attempted to rape her. She fought back, wresting away his gun and killing him. This incredibly brave woman was brought before ISIS’s Sharia Court, which promptly condemned her to death and had her publicly beheaded for this defense of her honor, thus laying bare the utter hypocrisy of all claims that draconian laws regarding sex are intended for the protection of women.

The gory spectacle of radical Islamism at work that began in the Middle East and has spread its crimson tendrils abroad from there is terrifying to behold. To the eyes of those lucky enough to enjoy a secure place in one of the prosperous modern democracies, the violence unfolding on our television and computer screens has an almost hallucinatory quality. Surely, our brains say, this cannot be real. This sort of thing cannot be happening in this day and age!

Recently have I felt as if I can begin to taste the desperate fear of the Byzantines as Attila the Hun pressed against the walls of Constantinople. Who are these barbarians? What will they do next? How, how can they be so evil as they nakedly are?

While the sporadic attacks on Western soil are frightening, they are not what induce this existential terror in me. Rather it is the merciless force that ISIS, Boko Haram, and their imitators unleash on the very populations from which they arose. They systematically behead long lines of “unbelievers;” they mow down prisoners of war; they toss gay men from high buildings; they rape and enslave every girl and woman unfortunate enough to fall into their hands; and they obliterate their own history by dynamiting and destroying archeological sites. And while all the offenses in this list make me weep and gnash my teeth in helpless rage, it was the sight of the last one that finally sent a deep chill all the way into my bones.

For when I saw the pillagers attacking the giant winged bulls of Nineveh, when I saw them tear down the ancient gates and walls of the city those figures guarded, it made their real mission visible. These men are not trying to build up a glorious empire; they are not concerned with bringing the world’s souls to Allah; no, they are in a mad fury against civilization itself. In an ecstasy of rage fueled by their thwarted desires, they would burn the world.

Make no mistake: it is indeed desire that lies at the heart of this storm. It’s astonishing the degree to which both ISIS and Boko Haram are openly obsessed with sex, and yet how little this is commented on in the media. Both groups routinely abduct, rape, and forcibly “wed” girls. ISIS issued a pamphlet delineating the proper way to handle one’s personal sex slaves, and has strict rules even for women that are voluntarily part of the movement; each is awarded to a man, and if widowed they are quickly married off to another fighter. Boko Haram gained notoriety for its mass abduction of schoolgirls, yet it was barely implied in articles about the incident, not openly stated as the foregone conclusion it surely was, that those girls were certain to be brutally and repeatedly raped by many fighters for as long as they managed to survive the abuse.

This misguided reticence is a product of archaic cultural mores that make sex a thing of shame for women, but one of pride for men. No one wants to call these groups what they actually are, roving bands of armed rapists, because that would inevitably damage the standing of the women who fall prey to them. But unless we accept that this is a large part, perhaps the largest part, of their motivation (remember even suicide bombers are dying for the promise of eternal, unlimited sex) we will never understand them and thus, never learn how to defeat them.

This is not to say that the leaders and followers of these movements don’t desire power; they do. But in their hierarchical worldview, power is about status. That’s why massive destruction is an actual policy: since status is relative, degrading you exalts me. Like Lucifer, they would rather reign in hell than serve in heaven. The caliph of ruins is still a caliph.

And that prize of status is so appealing because in primate troops, status determines access to females. What these groups are doing is no different from the Gombe Chimpanzee War, where four years of sporadic but horrific violence resulted in a total gain for the victors of three captured adult females and a small strip of territory that was quickly lost to another, bigger troop. Consider the fact that of 234 women and girls recently liberated from Boko Haram, no less than 214 were pregnant. The bloodshed in Iraq and Syria and Libya and Nigeria and everywhere else this contagion has spread is a savage primal conflict, where the whole point of conquering your neighbors is to steal their women.

In fact that primal character is what makes it contagious. And that’s exactly what frightens me. The glittering edifice that is contemporary civilization is built on the ground of evolved human nature, which is riddled with ancient faults, and sometimes, one of them moves. Moves, perhaps, with enough power to rip the modern world apart.

The last such earthquake to strike us was World War II. Nazism was a perverted apotheosis of kin selection; that is why it appealed. At the cost of millions of lives, humanity rendered a final decision: tribalism must go. This time, the slipping fault is the conflict between the evolutionary interests of men and women, and this explosion of violence will ultimately answer the question of whether male supremacy will continue to be tolerated, or be cast out at last. How many women will be slaughtered or reduced to breeding stock before enough men find the inner grit to make that choice rightly?


Sexual selection is a “special case” of natural selection. Sexual selection acts on an organism’s ability to obtain (often by any means necessary!) or successfully copulate with a mate… Sexual selection is often powerful enough to produce features that are harmful to the individual’s survival. —UC Berkeley website, “Understanding Evolution.”

Fitness (often denoted in population genetics models) is a central idea in evolutionary theory… it describes individual reproductive success and is equal to the average contribution to the gene pool of the next generation that is made by an average individual of the specified genotype or phenotype. —Wikipedia, “Fitness (Biology).”

Evolution is a numbers game. Personal intentions or happiness are beside the point. Natural selection is an algorithm that grinds out results based purely on physical inputs. Open a book on population genetics and you will quickly encounter pages of intimidating mathematics. Difficult as it is to accept that human destiny has been and will be decided by such an abstract, indifferent mechanism, it is the truth.

The predictive power of evolutionary theory is both vast and robust. In ordinary conversation people reduce this complex and powerful science to a few well-worn (and frequently inaccurately understood) concepts. But in the hands of the experts, it is a tool of surpassing excellence. Make no mistake: this is not hand-waving. It is hard science.

One of the great truths of evolution and one of the hardest to accept is that the natural evolutionary interests of males and females are not the same. Because the reproductive capacity of males is theoretically near-infinite, whereas that of females is strictly limited, they can only achieve maximum fitness by pursuing differing strategies. A male tends to be best off with many mates, a female with a high-quality and devoted one. When resource inequality among males is great these two strategies, combined, produce the mating system known as resource polygyny, or, in social animals, harem polygyny, where strong high-status males monopolize both resources and large numbers of females.

It seems likely, though we cannot know for certain, that this is the ancestral mating system for Homo sapiens. It is common in primates. Historically it was the rule until the Greek introduction of legal monogamy between two and three thousand years ago, and worldwide before the modern era it was by far the most common system (whereas polyandry, one woman with multiple husbands, is vanishingly rare). It persistently reappears, sometimes in ugly fashion, in isolated communities.

Physically, men are larger than women, a trait associated with polygyny. And genetic studies show a remarkable dominance of only a few Y-chromosome types, but no corresponding restriction of the mitochondrial ones which are passed on by mothers. Recent research shows that the global ratio of successful reproduction for the sexes after the advent of agriculture was as much as 17:1 (women:men), and even in more recent times it hovered between four and five to one. It is clear that throughout most of our history only a subset of men managed to reproduce, but almost all women did.

The West can thank the Romans for decisively rejecting this ancestral preference, and codifying a surprisingly modern form of monogamy in their marriage laws. Christianity, which grew up under the Romans, adopted the idea from them; it is not at all Biblical. In fact, a quick perusal of the Old Testament will make it clear why I say the Romans should be thanked. Polygyny may maximize reproductive potential, but it leads to all sorts of social ills. Women are not the only ones who suffer. So do children, and so do many men. So does society at large. And it is all because of those relentless numbers.

Just as a quick and (I must emphasize!) immensely oversimplified demonstration of principle, consider these examples. Because the human population sex ratio is normally 50/50, when one man takes on an extra wife, another man is deprived of the opportunity to have one at all. So if just one man in ten takes a single extra wife, a very modest degree of polygyny, that means fully 10% of men are shut out of the marriage market entirely. This sets off a mad scramble among young men not to end up in that unfortunate bottom 10%. There, the options for obtaining sex (at least with a woman) are reduced to two: subterfuge or rape.

Now, think about the reproductive numbers. Say a woman can be expected to successfully raise ten children in her lifetime. But a man can have that 10 times the number of wives (or concubines) he obtains. What does this mean for parental investment? Parents can hope for only a small number of grandchildren from daughters, but a large number from sons. Selection will favor parents who favor sons by granting them the means necessary to obtain wives. Daughters will suffer neglect; some desperate man will likely take them anyway.

In fact, the reality is even worse than this, because the relatively low biological value of daughters encourages female infanticide. So the number of women available for marriage actually becomes less than that of men even in theoretical terms, yet the number of children each of them can have does not increase. It’s a vicious circle that escalates sexual conflict—a trap.

In short, the only way to ensure that the evolutionary interests of men and women become identical, which is the only way that natural selection will favor equality, is a monogamous mating system. The reproductive potential of men is then collapsed to that of women, and within families every child of a given man is the child of the same woman, so there is no conflict over resource allocation to be had, save between siblings. Every man can hope to find a wife, which enormously reduces social stress.

While it has never been fully achieved in practice, this ideal has had a powerful influence on our society. It alters behavior in myriad ways. It was never intended to raise the status of women, but thanks to the inexorable logic of evolution, normative monogamy has done so.

This, I submit, is the true source of the rift between the Muslim world and the secular world of the West. Islam never gave up polygyny. Instead it enshrined the practice in Sharia law, allowing men up to four wives, and concubines into the bargain. In doing so it made it impossible for women to rise in social status—a rise that seems so natural and inevitable to us—and condemned itself to suffer the ongoing societal instability created by large numbers of unattached young males.

Here, minus the pages of calculations, are just a few predictions of evolutionary theory about the consequences of polygyny. All have been thoroughly researched in humans and are solidly borne out by multiple converging lines of evidence in studies that are cross-cultural and cross-disciplinary. Further, the higher the degree of polygyny in a society, the stronger are the effects. These include:

  1. Stringent controls on women in all aspects of life.
  2. Decreased age of wives relative to husbands, sometimes to the point of pedophilia.
  3. More children per woman, with less reproductive choice.
  4. Higher infant mortality (but no so high as to offset the higher number of births).
  5. Much greater domestic violence and child abuse.
  6. Increased rates of crime, most especially rape and murder.
  7. More frequent warfare.

Does this list paint a familiar picture? I could go on.

These problems and many others are endemic to societies that practice polygyny and they arise directly from it. It exacerbates conflict between individuals to such a degree that the resultant behavior is often of a kind we would term barbaric. And yet the system persists, because our biology favors it. In the absence of a strong cultural counter-force it will prevail.

Polygyny is the poisoned soil that nurtured the explosive growth of radical Islamism with its sexual obsessions and salacious sacralization of violence. The revolt of ISIS and Boko Haram is not at root a religious one; nor is it truly political or even economic. It is an evolutionary uprising of frustrated young men. They have arisen and seek to claim their place as head of a harem, if not here, in the afterlife.

Modernity requires monogamy. But will followers of Mohammed accept it?


The Vulcan heart was forged out of barbarism and violence. We learned to control it, but it is still part of us. To pretend it does not exist is to create an opportunity for it to escape.

—Lt. Tuvok, Star Trek Voyager episode “Cold Fire.”

Last night was Friday the 13th of November, 2015. At some point as I watched and listened to the havoc unfold in Paris, as I waited, teeth clenched, for the police to respond to the people trapped in the Bataclan who were begging them to storm the building because the terrorists were killing them, the last vestige of patience left me. So let’s just lay it on the line, shall we?

Religion has nothing to do with immortal souls. It’s about bodies. Especially women’s bodies. Religion is concerned with sex and with violence, in that order. Men want sex from women; men fight over women to get it. The resulting children may or may not be allowed to live, depending on whose they are—and how much they grovel. That’s all there is to it. Everything else is just window-dressing. There’s no great supernatural lawgiver running the show. There are only evolutionary imperatives built into our DNA which those memeplexes that are religions ruthlessly exploit to their own benefit. At the dark throbbing heart of faith lies patriarchy.

It’s not just Islamism; remember Nazism’s “Kinder, küche, kirche!” Any ideology that depends on faith can loose these atavistic drives. But the phenomenon is most clearly visible in the Abrahamic religions. “Abraham” translates to “great father of multitudes.” Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are literally religions of the patriarch. What is more revealingly symbolic, more phallocentric, more perfect a unification of sex and violence, than circumcision, that gory sign of the covenant? In God one can almost see the hairy figure of the old alpha male, now inflated to the size of King Kong, leaning over the cradle of newborn civilization, flint knife in hand to claim his eternal tribute.

Whether his stand-in is mohel, Caliph, or Pope doesn’t matter. Religions survive because they tap into the instinctive psychology of human beings. It is from that deep well that they draw their insidious power. That is why they are so stubbornly conservative: they cannot depart from the way things once were to match the way things are, or they will lose the source of their appeal. Genes are slow to change; ideas race ahead without them, but do so at their peril.

Movements like fundamentalist Christianity and radical Islamism are driven by the existence of large numbers of people who, for whatever reason, simply cannot adjust to modernity. In particular, they cannot adjust to equality for women. Both movements are completely fixated on sex. The obsession takes different forms but its focus is the same: the control of women and their bodies in the service of men. How much difference is there between the life of Michelle Duggar and that of a farmer’s prize cow, relied upon to produce a calf every year? She has certainly been paraded around the ring for profit.

There are still some lingering restraints on the most bestial impulses of faith under the secular governments of the West, but in the war-riven Middle East and Africa, and increasingly in South Asia, where fledgling democracy was already by far the weaker party, religion has now fully unleashed the monster of our primal nature.

Think about it. Memes need hosts. To reproduce maximally they need hosts that do the same. Maximum reproduction is what evolution selects for. It’s that ancient behavioral program encoded in our DNA that was honed to just this purpose. Any set of memes that can fully activate it will have a great advantage. And so religions, which unlike other fields of human endeavor are unconstrained by any consideration of external realities, will find ways to do so.

In other writings I have said that religion is the art of fiction gone feral. Now I say that its most avid followers are humans who have done the same. The fighters for ISIS who ecstatically slaughter infidels and sexually enslave women have fully reverted to wildtype. Red in tooth and claw, they are like lions whose alliances are cemented by relationship—think of all those attacks carried out by brother teams. And who doubts that as the killers in the Bataclan detonated their suicide belts with bloody fingers, they thought eagerly of the virgins awaiting them? In their actions we see the terrible danger of an alliance between genes and memes where the sole priority of both is their own reproduction.

“Kill the unbeliever!” is the battle cry of such alliances; it serves marauding memes and genes together. Maximizing fitness—which consists, remember, not in the absolute number of surviving offspring but in the share of the next generation they compose—necessitates the extermination of rivals. No other slogan should strike more fear into the heart of humanity. However and wherever it arises, it’s a death knell for civilization.

In fact the mass graves left behind by ISIS look remarkably like Neolithic ones that have been excavated in Europe. Heaps of pathetic bones tell the story of brutality: grandfathers, babes in arms, strong men, small children, their mothers. But as in the case of the Yazidis, what are not present, what are never present, are the bodies of girls and young women. They were the prize; they are why the killing was done.

Rape has always been the companion of war, as the survivors of Nanking can attest. These behaviors appear together because they are part of the same innate pattern of male aggression. For too long we have looked away from that fact. It’s time to face it straight on. It’s our own nature that is the ultimate enemy here.

The magical siren song of radical Islam is just the call of the wild. It offers a way to fulfill the fantasies of our DNA, to cast aside the chains of culture and become once more what we evolved to be. But the Eden it offers is not a mythic paradise; it’s the real ancestral jungle of blood and tears and endless unimaginable suffering. That is what patriarchy looks like. That is what the world looked like before we gained the knowledge of good and evil.

How could it ever have been otherwise?

This series of essays was originally published at Secular Humanist Bulletin, where Janet L Factor is a columnist and contributing editor. Read more of her essays here.

Art and CultureHuman RightsHypothesisTop Stories

Janet L Factor

This series of essays was originally published at Secular Humanist Bulletin, where Janet L Factor is a columnist and contributing editor.