Clay Farris Naff's Blog

Ad Astra: Science, Religion & Our Future

Clay Farris Naff

Clay Farris Naff
Lincoln, Nebraska, 68502
April 03
Clay Farris Naff ( is a science writer with a special interest in the rational reconciliation of religions with science. You can follow him at Twitter @claynaff, or visit his religion blog at An award-winning journalist and author, he has been a science-and-religion columnist for the Metanexus Institute, an editor for Greenhaven Press, and a freelance writer for various publications, including most recently Earth magazine and The Humanist.

DECEMBER 29, 2009 10:25AM

Aboard That NW Flight: A Neuron Bomb

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The Real Explosive Was In Abdulmutallab's Mind 

Suspect Umar Abdulmutallab

     Many words have been wasted on the type of explosive aboard Northwest Flight 253 over Detroit. Today PETN, tomorrow something else. (More on that below!) We'd do better to focus on the really scary stuff aboard that airliner: a highly sophisticated version of the neuron bomb.
    I coined this term in 2002 essay for the Metanexus Institute publication Global Spiral,written on the first anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.  It has since gained some currency, thanks largely to psychologist Michael Shermer, who quoted it in his 2005 book The Science of Good and Evil.
    Allow me to do the same:
    "In the neuron bomb, the immense pressures of modernity cause religious ideology to fuse into murderous belief.  As illustrated below, the critical belief is that "God's enemies" must be defeated or destroyed. 

   "The Neuron Bomb: A schematic

-         Arming Device:  Belief that God's enemies must be defeated or destroyed     

-         Concealment: Can be implanted in any human mind     

-         Cost: Practically nothing     

-         Explosive Materials: Anything at hand     

-         Destructive Potential: Unlimited"

There you have it.

   What is most appalling in this incident is not that explosives got past detectors, but that a young man born to privilege and with a bright future ahead of him was converted -- and I use the word in every sense -- into a living bomb. What's more, the foul conversion took place largely over the Internet. This should make us very worried indeed.
    As you may have read, the suspect, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the son of a prominent Nigerian banker, was educated at a tony private school in West Africa and then sent to university in London. He lacked, in short, for nothing.    
    Yet he was vulnerable to the humanware virus that is radical Islam. It evidently captured his mind so completely that he was willing to set his crotch on fire in an attempt to detonate a planeload of innocent people over an American city that just happens to be home to more Muslims than any other major metro area. How crazy is that?
   If we spend millions on new detectors that can sniff out PETN, a different form of cheap destruction will be developed. My morbid bet is on bioweapons. With DNA amplification technology becoming ever-cheaper and more widespread, the opportunities for bioterrorism grow like salmonella on cracked eggs.
   There is no one, simple answer to the threat of terrorism. Of course, we need to screen passengers and keep watch lists and even undertake military expeditions against al-Qaeda. But none of that will be sufficient in the next decade. The neuron bomb will continually take on new forms in new places until we eradicate the ideology that creates it. That means ridding ourselves, once and for all, of belief in the supernatural.
   Islam, Christianity, and the other major religions of the world can co-exist in the emerging global civilization -- but not in their present form. The widely held beliefs that this religion or that holds the truth about God, and that God wants people to do this or that inevitably lead, under the pressures of modernity, to the development of neuron bombs.
    Islam is by far the most prone to suicidal terrorism at the moment.  But every religion -- even peaceful Buddhism -- is capable of spawning such horrors. Recall that in March 1995 Buddhist cult members in Japan killed a dozen people and injured more than 5,000 others when they released sarin nerve gas on the Tokyo subway.
    That same year, a modern version of Christian apocalyptic writings inspired Timothy McVeigh to set off a truck bomb that killed 168 children and adults at the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City. A year earlier, Baruch Goldman, an orthodox Jew and doctor, opened fire with a machine gun in a suicidal attack on Muslim worshipers, killing as many as 39 and wounding another 150.
    The evidence overwhelmingly indicates that religions are cultural interpretations of ultimate reality -- whatever that may be. There is no good reason to believe that one is "truer" than another. There is certainly no reason to believe that a just God -- if God there be -- wants some people to kill other people. And if there is an unjust God, who favors one group of people over another, endorses slavery, or seeketh vengeance and so forth ... why worship him? Isn't that mere cowardice? Could the true test of faith be the rejection of certain evil beliefs that religion sometimes attempts to justify?
   The good news is that people can change their beliefs in the light of evidence and reason. It is just not clear whether we yet have the global will to do so.

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Nice work, Clay. I think this faulty reasoning is behind many of the most harmful forms of irrational thought that stem from extreme religious beliefs. Faith healing is another prime example. The idea that God would cure your cancer, but let thousands of others (including children) die each year contradicts the very core idea of a benevolent God. It reminds me of an episode of South Park where the end of times occurs and members of all the major religions end up in hell. One of them asks Satan, "Who was right?". He replies, "The Mormons.".
You blog shows more insight than the leaders of this or any other country seem to possess. Perhaps I should say, that even if they had the insight they would not have the guts to acknowledge this fact.
Excellent, Clay. The examples you remind us of point to the danger from a religious mindset. One might also mention the murderers of abortion doctors, the snake handlers (who harm only themselves), those who withhold medical care from themselves and their children, and some of the "cults" which espouse violence.
right. if you're a soldier in the US Intl Military Industrial Complex, you're fighting for democracy. if you're Abdulmutallab, you've been subject to a neuron bomb.