Minimizing Nationalism and Sacred Customs as Causes of War




Christopher Ebbe, Ph.D.   4-14

ABSTRACT:  Psychological reasons why nationalism and our view of our customs as sacred contribute to causing war are explained, and means of reducing that influence are explored.

KEY WORDS:  nationalism, war, psychology of war, customs, security, self-esteem

Human beings have evolved to instinctively defend and protect their families and governing groups (whether that is the family, the village, or the nation), and this strong instinct promotes self-defense, of course, but it also creates violence and war between groups.  It was no doubt adaptive in early days, when group survival was tenuous and depended totally on holding onto land that could be hunted or farmed, but it has become a source of unnecessary violence and death in modern times.  At the level of developed nations, it is relatively unnecessary, since commercial interdependencies and our also instinctual empathy capacity now make it unlikely that whole groups will be wiped out or forced in slavery.  There is still some danger, though, of nations being taken over by other nations, particularly along the borders of Russia and China, so some measures to prevent this are still needed.

As an example or our self-defending instinct, note the warlike reactions of all sides to the current Ukraine crisis.  Russia took advantage of regional instabilities to annex Crimea (which it all along has viewed as a traditional part of Russia), and all sides rallied to protect their interests and allies, including talking of war.  The excitement and energy that this generated in all involved nations is palpable.  We are all familiar with the rush of national pride and desire to defend our country when our country is threatened and calls on us to become soldiers or to support the war effort.


The motives for groups defending themselves are to avoid losing territory needed for survival and to avoid losing their customs and way of life.  The motive for one country or group to take over another is to make life better for its leaders and citizens, by (1) gaining territory and resources, (2) taxing or enslaving the people of the absorbed territory, and/or (3) asserting the truth or value of its own beliefs and customs over those of the defeated group.

It is of interest that we do not react morally against the growth of empires (Alexander the Great, the Roman Empire, Charlemagne in France, the English in establishing Great Britain), when those actions actually deprived some groups of their identities and customs.  We would, of course, react negatively if it happened to our own group, but we seem to have no built-in distaste for it happening to others.  In fact, we tend to praise and look up to leaders who established or expanded empires in the past, overlooking the pain and suffering that they caused.

There have been some benefits of acquisitional war that results in the taking over or absorption of some groups by others, all having to do with homogenization of culture and customs, so that all of the larger number of members of the new group can work together for the safety and economic benefit of the new, larger group.  More workers and more intricate organization of their time and efforts yield efficiencies that result in greater wealth.  Having a single language and a single currency are examples of this homogenization.  Again, we don’t seem to notice when others are forced to give up their language and use only the language of the empire, but we would hate it if forced to do so ourselves. 

Contributory causes of war, then, are (1) attempts to steal territory or resources, (2) the degree of threat felt by citizens to their welfare, self-esteem, or security, and (3) viewing other groups as inferior, undeserving, or evil (which is augmented the more we view those others as different from ourselves). 


Fear and Insecurity

Fear and insecurity are the main psychological underpinnings of our strong reactions to other groups.  We fear that they will harm our own group (e.g., by taking some of our land), and we feel insecure as long as we perceive another group to be a threat to our self-esteem simply because they have different worldviews or beliefs.  This underscores just how insubstantial, irrational, and unsupported by facts our views and beliefs typically are.  If they were more self-evident or had factual support, we would not feel as threatened.  There would be no need for patriotism if we did not feel threatened or uncertain about our value.  Two other sources of our insecurity, then, besides fearing direct aggression and harm, are our innate fear of difference and our lack of innate self-esteem.


A very important part of our human adaptation is predicting the future (or anticipating what will happen next), so that we can avoid harm and prepare for things that may happen.  Since it is in fact a dangerous environment, it is appropriate to anticipate potentially harmful circumstances, yet our predictions are not perfect, since we do not understand all of the factors that will determine whether a possible harm or event will take place.  This uncertainty is unpleasant for most people, and they will do or pay quite a bit to reduce or eliminate this uncertainty.  Thus we spend considerable amounts of money and attention on predictions of who will win the game, who will be elected, what stocks will go up, and where a hurricane will go, and we exert considerable effort in spying on other groups.  These prediction efforts and the reassurances of others (who also want to be reassured, too) are sufficient to enable most people to tolerate the uncertainties of life (although they are not sufficient for the individuals who develop “anxiety disorders” such as panic disorder and agoraphobia that seriously disrupt their lives).  We are often willing to engage in war simply to eliminate our sense of uncertain threat from another group, if there is no other way to do it.


Our concern with and fear of those who are different is one of the most critical issues in human relations.  This applies to all levels of relationships, from dyads to nations.  Since other human beings affect us or potentially affect us practically all the time, we are always watchful about what they might do toward us, and we depend for our sense of personal security on being able to understand and anticipate the actions of others.  This means that we are most comfortable with those who are just like us.  For example, Americans are more comfortable with Canadians than with Britons, more comfortable with Britons than with French persons, and more comfortable with Europeans than with Middle-Easterners, all because of these increasing degrees of difference.  The more differences there are between us and others, the more willing we are to engage in aggression and violence against them.  It is much easier to make war on a group that we have identified, as a result of their being different from us, as undeserving of rights or nationhood or that we view as subhuman or evil.

Within countries, group identifications frequently result in tensions and conflicts between different cultural groups.  Even though slavery ended over 150 years ago in this country, there are still significant tensions and prejudices between Whites and African-Americans that frequently contribute to individual violence.  In Rwanda, cultural group differences that were tied for years to societal privileges for one group recently resulted in the killing of over one million people!

Since most of our fundamental beliefs about ourselves and our group (where we came from, our identity, our status, etc.) are constructed by ourselves (even if we view them as handed down from on high), those beliefs are somewhat fragile, and when we interact with groups that have other fundamental beliefs, we feel uncertain about the truth of our own beliefs.  This threat to our identity and security make us more willing to engage in war to prove our superiority or to wipe out those who threaten our identify and security with their differences.

Other group identifications, such as with political parties or with one’s religion, also lead to contention and conflict.  National elections in the United States are becoming economic wars in which people contribute money to “fight for” their values and way of life, instead of fighting directly.  Religious differences are often strong factors in our views of others as different, threatening, or evil.

The more another person is different from us, the more frightened and insecure we become, or to put it another way, the more effort we must make to preserve our sense of security and to maintain comfortable relations with the other person (by making special efforts to understand that person and predict his/her behavior or by compensating with other supports to our own security and self-esteem).  Many people would identify their reactions to difference as annoyance, irritation, or anger, but these are not reactions to the differences themselves but to the fear and insecurity that we feel first but cover up with our defensive anger.

Remember how you feel when you are about to enter a room full of people you do not know.  It is even more threatening to join a group the people all of whom are different from you—in the extreme, speaking a language that you do not understand and going by social and behavioral rules that you do not understand.  (You think that a slight wave is a friendly gesture, but perhaps because of their culture they see it as an insult.)  You would experience considerable anxiety about being around them, until you learned more about them and could once again predict what will happen and how your behavior might be seen by them.  The important conclusion we reach from these considerations of prediction and uncertainty is that differences are always threatening, even if we manage not to let them lead to violence.

Vulnerable Self-Esteem

Human beings are not born with positive self-esteem (positive emotional reactions to the perception of self) but must develop these positive feelings and maintain them.  Having positive self-esteem is important for having confidence, taking risks, and feeling good about oneself, and these things play a large part in determining the quality of our lives overall.  Since just like our other fundamental beliefs, self-esteem is constructed (and not built-in), it is vulnerable to events and may become negative (doubting oneself, questioning oneself, feeling bad about oneself), and many people have negative self-esteem much of the time.

Since self-esteem is constructed, we look for things that will confirm or support us in having a positive view of ourselves.  Key supports include how our parents treat us, how others treat us, our accomplishments, and our group identifications.  For many people, being members of their families, their religious beliefs, and being citizens of their nations are crucial for their self-esteem, probably because we view these groups as superior and more powerful than ourselves, and we reason that if those groups are willing to accept and defend us, then we must be worth something.  Nationalism, then, is the emotional attitude that aims to defend one’s nation, both to keep one’s land but also to maintain the nation as a source of self-esteem and value for the self.


Being disrespected is a frightening threat to our place in a group, and we respond strongly to disrespect, particularly from those outside of our own group, with violence if necessary.  In European culture only a few centuries ago, disrespect was cause for having duels.  On the international scene, at least in years past, for a Westerner to proffer, for a handshake, the hand (right or left?) that traditionally in Middle-Eastern culture was used to clean excrement from one’s body was viewed by a Middle-Easterner as a grave insult, whereas the Westerner was probably completely unaware of this assumed association and meaning and did not intend any insult at all.  More recently, some Muslims have perceived critical inquiry and humor regarding Mohammed by non-Muslims as disrespectful or even apostasy and have angrily demanded apologies or even condemned the inquirers and humorists to death.  This critical (or sometimes simply factual) inquiry and humor may have in some instances been extreme or over-stated, but these behaviors may have been intended only as stimulating further thought or as poking fun at hypocrisy (which exists everywhere).  To these Muslims, Mohammed is sacred and not to be disrespected in any way.  To Westerners, Mohammed is not sacred and is subject to the same critical or humorous treatment that Jesus or the Pope would receive.


It follows, then, that minimizing violence, including that due to nationalism, would involve minimizing fear of losing one’s land, minimizing the insecurity of perceiving threats to one’s group or to one’s way of life, and supporting everyone’s self-esteem.  Since human beings act more from emotion than from thought, it should be clear that rules, procedures, and rationales will not be adequate by themselves to prevent war and to prevent nuclear incidents that could kill millions or even billions of people.  Sooner or later some leader with access to nuclear weapons will act in anger or revenge, and such actions could very well lead to a wider nuclear war.  Better safety will only be possible through helping people with their fear and insecurity.

Political Alliances

Minimizing fear of losing one’s land and feeling insecure due to perceived direct threats to one’s group have historically been dealt with through alliances among nations.  The logic of alliances can be extended to the idea of one worldwide alliance to guarantee the continued existence of every nation.  All signatories could pledge to defend any nation threatened with invasion or take-over by another nation.  Sub-alliances would have to be discouraged, though, since they could raise fears of a sub-group of strong nations secretly planning to take over the world.  Opportunity for internal change within any nation would have to be maintained, even if that change was through revolution.

Changed Morality/Ethics Training

Every nation could make it part of its ethics training for children to teach that taking another person’s land by force is wrong and sinful and deserves resistance and/or punishment.

As noted above, it is curious that nations conquering other nations has never been clearly and overtly condemned as immoral by human beings, by any nation or religion, even though it may be criticized or decried.  This may be due to the latent aggression in each of us that enables us to take things from others without inner conflict if we need to do so in order to survive.  Since we know that we have that capability within us, we cannot ultimately trust others or other groups, with makes alliances necessary.

In like manner, in order to minimize violence, all nations could teach as part of morality and ethics that all coercion and attempts to take advantage of others among adults is immoral.  Since some individuals seem to grow up with more desire for aggression and more desire to dominate others (and hence tend to gravitate toward top political positions), all nations could develop awareness that those individuals have anti-social tendencies (tendencies that if left unchecked, may harm many members of the group), need to be identified, and should be channeled toward activities other than top political positions where they could start wars.

Greater Insight and Comfort Regarding Cultural Beliefs and Behaviors

People may feel threatened by differences partly because they believe that their culture’s beliefs (religious, political) and ways of doing things (rituals, what to eat, when to plant the corn) are essential to their survival and welfare.  In reality, there are many, many ways to view the world and act on the world that all result in satisfactory survival and welfare.  The evidence of this is that all cultures do a reasonable job of ensuring survival and welfare in their particular environments, No culture or its particular customs is “right” and no culture is “wrong.”  Cultures are only useful or not useful, and they differ somewhat in their degrees of success in ensuring survival and welfare.

To remove the threat that we feel from other cultures being different from our own, we must become more comfortable with the fact that differences exist, and we must recognize and acknowledge that our ways of thinking and doing things are not sacred and that our own culture could have been quite different if certain leaders in the past had had different personalities or ideas or if the environment had been different.  Children could be taught in school how to approach becoming comfortable with cultural differences and how to learn the things about another culture that will allow them to be more comfortable.

In order to let go of fear and competition between cultures, we must recognize that our culture is not necessarily “better than” other cultures.  In fact, cultural differences allow us to gain greater insights about our own culture by observing how other cultures have solved the same basic problems of living (individual survival, survival of the group, raising children well, contributing to our communities).

Parents, religious leaders, and political leaders could all take a hand in helping people to understand and accept this view of culture.  Seeing that individuals in other groups have the same emotions and needs as ours and struggle to solve the same problems of living that we are takes away significantly from our willingness to fight them simply because they are different and therefore threatening.

Cultural practices that people in some cultures think are cruel and pointless (such as female circumcision) may arise from a false understanding of the world, from economic necessities, or from the need to support other beliefs of the culture.  There are and will continue to be efforts by some to change aspects of the cultures of others, particularly those aspects of culture or customs (e.g., a caste system) that take away from the “rights” of others as perceived by those outside the culture.  This would best proceed by changing the minds of those engaging in those practices about their reality or their importance, rather than changing them through aggression and war.

Even after recognizing that their culture and customs are not sacred and not the only way to live, people will still wish to defend their way of life to prevent losing it.  This is understandable given the fact that our lives are organized by our particular culture and customs, and we would be lost without them.  For this reason, we can be sympathetic with the desire of all groups not to be deprived of their culture and customs through aggression, and we have reason to band together politically to ensure that no nation absorbs other nations.

Supporting Self-Esteem

Efforts to instill positive self-esteem in children have gotten a bad name recently, since they have been seen as providing false and excessive praise, but genuine self-esteem can be taught and supported.  The principles of self-esteem would unfortunately require that we overtly identify as unacceptable all efforts to take advantage of others by causing them to feel worse about themselves, and this would press for considerable change in the daily behavior of many people!

The basic principles of self-esteem require that people (1) learn to think for themselves, so that they are not so vulnerable to the denigration of others (purposely putting people down in order to take advantage of them, as we see even in young children when they tease others in order to push them down in the social hierarchy); (2) be taught that each person has fundamental value in the eyes of the group; (3) believe that no one is superior to anyone else, even though some people will have more status due to abilities or responsibilities; (4) learn to respect everyone else and not use disrespect as a tool to seek advantage; (5) learn to give basic acceptance to all others, within reason; (6) learn to love themselves (to feel positively toward themselves and feel affection for themselves); (7) be taught to choose humane and reasonable standards and expectations for themselves and for the group; (8) be taught to do what is truly best for themselves (which is not simply what they feel like doing); (9) learn to treat themselves well; and (10) treat others well and with respect.

Clearly there is much behavior in every society that attempts to control others for one’s advantage (parents disrespecting children in order to control their behavior; police enforcing behavior through fear and claimed superiority; societal leaders claiming superiority for themselves; husbands enforcing their will through fear and threats of violence; groups using snubbing and exclusion to establish superiority over other groups; etc.), and teaching the principles of self-esteem would disrupt some of these efforts to take advantage of others.  Perhaps, though, this would be a “good” revolution!

These same principles can be applied to interactions among nations.  Nations should treat other nations with respect, recognize their right to exist, refrain from believing that they are superior to other nations, and have reasonable expectations of other nations.  Human beings around the globe can come to view all aggression of one group against another as “wrong” and unacceptable, although education and public discussion will be necessary in order to accomplish this.

As noted above, many people use their group identifications (nation, church, town, family) as a basis for their self-esteem and sense of security, to counteract their feelings of vulnerability and their conscious or unconscious awareness of their relative powerlessness in the world as individuals.  Of course, our group identifications say nothing in reality about our worth or value as persons when examined rationally.  Being a member of your family may make you special to them but it does not affect the views of you that others have.  Being a member of a nation does increase your security (over the security of an exile), but your group will only protect you as long as you are a member in good standing (as long as others in the group approve of you).

Clearly we grasp at straws to prop up our self-esteem and security, which points up just how fragile our self-esteem is.  The implication for nationalism and war is that if the self-esteem of a nation’s citizens could be stronger and less fragile, they would have less need for nationalism to make them feel better, they would have less need to protect their beliefs and customs as sacred, and they would be less supportive of wars.  This could happen if our valuing of each other could be less superficial.  If we valued people more for how they treat others and how they carry out their role responsibilities, rather than for appearance, wealth, or accomplishments, we would have a saner society, and our self-esteem would be based on what is really important in life.

Self-esteem will always be vulnerable to change, since it is not physiologically embedded, but agreement on the basic principles of individual worth, respect, and acceptance would go a long way toward making injured self-esteem a less frequent basis for violent reactions.


Nationalism and needing to defend one’s beliefs and customs as “sacred” are two significant causes of violence and war.  Underlying these social constructions are our relatively fragile senses of security and self-esteem.  One very important source of insecurity is seeing that others are different in their beliefs and customs, while in fact beliefs and customs are relative to person, place, and time, rather than “the truth” and immutable as we might like to believe.

Minimizing violence and war, including that due to nationalism and fear, would involve minimizing fear of losing one’s land, minimizing the insecurity of perceived threats to one’s group or to one’s way of life, and supporting everyone’s self-esteem.  These ends could be accomplished through (1) a worldwide alliance of nations against acquisitive war, (2) making acquisitive war clearly immoral in every culture, (3) helping people to have more secure self-esteem (by striving to respect and basically accept everyone in the world), and (4) helping people to be comfortable with the fact that although their beliefs and customs are not sacred, they are still worth believing and following.