The Systemics of Violent Religious Nationalism

A Case Study of the Yugoslav Wars


  • Jordan Kiper Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles
  • Richard Sosis Department of Anthropology at the University of Connecticut



centralized executive self, complex adaptive systems, identity, religious nationalism, religious specialists, ritual, violence, Yugoslav Wars


What universal features of the mind interact with specific ecologies to produce expressions of violent religious nationalism? To shed light on this question, we focus on a case study of the Yugoslav Wars, asking: How did different religious groups in the Balkans move from cooperative relationships to violent ones? We argue that the most prevalent theories invoked to answer this question fail to adequately explain the change, namely, both the rise and fall of violent religious nationalism in the Balkans. To that end, we employ a systemic framework of religious change to examine historical data and ethnographic interview excerpts from ex-fighters and survivors of the Yugoslav Wars. This framework takes religion as it is practiced by communities to be a complex adaptive system, and models how religions adapt to local socioecologies. In employing this framework, three questions are addressed: (1) What features of cognition contributed to religiously motivated mass violence; (2) Which constituents of the religious system triggered those features; and (3) What socioecological factors were those constituents responding to? We argue that popular support for religious violence—and eventually its rejection—involved a set of higher-order functions, which McNamara calls the centralized executive self. This decision-making system was decentered by religious specialists who raised social pressures; group rituals that sustained community engagement; and identity-markers that signaled group commitments. While support for violence was a response to community threats during state-level succession, the eventual rejection of violence by religious leaders and communities was due to socioecological factors, such as rising health threats and declining birth rates brought about by the wars.

Author Biographies

Jordan Kiper, Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles

Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles 

Richard Sosis, Department of Anthropology at the University of Connecticut

James Barnett Professor in Human istic Anthropology 


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How to Cite

Kiper, J., & Sosis, R. (2020). The Systemics of Violent Religious Nationalism: A Case Study of the Yugoslav Wars. Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture, 14(1), 45–70.



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