No one, so far as I know, has yet pointed out a potentially significant parallel between Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the Boston marathon bombers, and Irfan Naseer, Ashik Ali and Irfan Khalid, the three ringleaders of the Birmingham terrorists, who were sentenced last week to a minimum of 51 years in prison, for planning to turn Britain’s second city into a terrorist ‘war zone’, as the judge in the case put it. On the face of it, the link also applies to the six men who pleaded guilty this week to plotting an attack on the English Defence League in Dewsbury, five of whom were from Birmingham, and one of whom was the brother of a ‘war zone’ ring-leader.

The parallel is this: on both sides of the Atlantic, they were all ‘self starters’, ‘Nike terrorists’ in the jargon of the security forces, a phrase used because of that brand’s well-known motto: ‘Just do it.’

None of these individuals, it would appear, was radicalized by an Imam, or attended a madrasseh, either here or in the Swat Valley, though they did visit Pakistan for technical training. They were not – for the most part – longstanding, earnest, pious, Islamic puritans. At least one of the Boston bombers liked the good life, being described by former friends as a ‘hard partying, pot-smoking, aspiring fighter,’ while the FBI told a local Boston mosque that the evidence they have so far gathered ‘doesn’t fit with the pattern of radicalisation.’

The leader of the Birmingham bombers, Irfan Naseer, grew up with the name Chubbs or Chubby and was by all accounts a very popular schoolchild, the centre of attention and the ‘school joker’. Another of the Birmingham bombers, Rahin Ahmed, though he may have professed to despise western culture, had nothing against the capitalist currency markets, wagering money the gang had conned in a charity scam. He lost £9,000.

How significant is this? It may be very significant indeed. Security experts believe that we are witnessing the emergence of a ‘second generation’ of terrorists, precisely these ‘self starters’ who do not seem to need any kind of Islamic infrastructure or coherence to shape their beliefs and actions. One of the Birmingham bombers was overheard to rail that they were acting out of ‘revenge for everything.’ How coherent is that? How has this come about?

Views proliferate but, in the course of researching the book I have just completed, an examination of how we have sought to live since the death of God, one of the most interesting set of ideas I have come across, which is directly relevant to these episodes, is that put forward by the French sociologist, Olivier Roy.

In Holy Ignorance: When Religion and Culture Part Ways, Roy argues that a parallel process has been taking place recently alongside secularization. Thanks to globalization, religions have become divorced, de-coupled, from their cultural groundings, their cultural homelands (‘deterritorialised’). Christianity is no longer rooted in Europe and the Middle East, Hinduism in India, or Islam in the desert heartlands, but are all now more or less worldwide. Even Mecca, he says, has lost much of its specifically Arab character.

As a result, the cultural attributes that once formed an integral part of religious identity and practices have less and less place. Arabs will refer to ‘Muslim culture’, for example, by which they mean family, segregation of the sexes, modesty, food habits etc, whereas, in contrast, in order to circulate and appeal in a global context, a religion must appear universal, disconnected from a specific culture as traditionally understood for the message to be widely grasped.

And here is Roy’s crucial conclusion: ‘Religion therefore circulates outside knowledge. Salvation does not require people to know, but to believe.’ As a result, religions – as they have become ‘de-ethnicized’ – become ‘purer’, more ideological, more abstract, and, therefore, at the same time, more fundamental. They are, in a very real sense, Roy says, based more on ignorance than knowledge. He is especially vitriolic about Pentecostalism, the world’s fastest-growing religion, whose adherents ‘speak in tongues’ in a ‘language’ that is only ‘understood’ by those who have been touched by the Holy Spirit. But his view about ignorance, and the new faiths being ‘lifestyle choices’, like clothes, certainly seems to apply to the Boston and Birmingham bombers, none of whom appears to have been a serious student of Islam.

What we are witnessing, then, says Roy, is an evolution in religion (‘reformatted’ is his word), an evolution for which secularisation is partly responsible, because the culture of secularisation – science and business, including the Internet – has encouraged globalisation which has in turn robbed organised religions of many of their traditions.

There is a bad side and a better side to this particular coin. While fundamentalism is inevitably the result of this process of globalisation, the fact that it is based more on ignorance than knowledge, more a psychological search for purity than a theological search for God, means that the faith of these self-start bombers is a relatively ‘thin’ form of faith – ‘empty’ is a word Roy uses.

While it is undoubtedly true that someone on the receiving end of a terrorist bomb hardly cares whether the terrorist’s faith is thin or not, this analysis does mean that such people are susceptible to alternative views, much more so than earlier terrorists who were radicalised by clerics who gave their charges a body of coherent beliefs – four of the Birmingham bombers, once they got to Pakistan, realised the horror of what they were doing, and contacted their families to get them home. Properly indoctrinated terrorists would not have driven to Dewsbury in a car without insurance as the men did who pled guilty this week.

More to the point, Roy says that this reformatted religion is not one that that can be inherited by future generations, for there is no reliable part of a culture to be passed on. Such a religion ‘cannot have an enduring hold on the souls of human beings’ because it essentially trivialises religion, ignoring all the cultural features that make a faith so appealing in the first place, and which helps create a genuine community.

Over the past few weeks, it has not felt as though we are winning the war on terrorism, but if Roy is right, and the religious profile of the terrorist is changing, the similarities between the Boston and Birmingham bombers offer a smidgeon of hope amid the blood and sadness.

The Times, first published May 2013