Science and Religion: Four Fundamental Differences

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by Neil Godfrey

Religion has not gone away since the end of the Europe’s religious wars and the ensuing Age of Enlightenment. Indeed, scientific advances and the rise of secularism may even be largely responsible for religious revivals. Anthropologist Scott Atran writes about current research on religion, including his own. One of his online 2012 articles, God and the Ivory Tower: What we don’t understand about religion just might kill us. Now I used to love Richard Dawkins’ colourful critique of religion. Who could possibly argue with:

The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully. (God Delusion, p. 51)


Scott Atran

But Scott Atran is one scholar who is forcing me into a rethink lately. He argues that it is misguided to think that religion will go away if we can rationally disprove all of its beliefs and premises. Fighting religion with reason and facts just doesn’t work because that sort of tactic completely misunderstands what religion is. Religious people know their beliefs are counter-intuitive and do not conform to the commonsense systems of thought that govern our everyday functioning in the physical world. Indeed, Atran argues, that’s the point of religion, and there is a clear benefit to groups and individuals within groups because of this. I will explain the arguments and evidence in future posts.

Till then, there is a clue to Atran’s conclusions in the following observation:

Thus, a century ago, while visiting the United States, Max Weber (1946:46) observed that even the most hard-headed capitalist would make it his business to advertise his faith in order to display his trustworthiness to others. . . . [P]eople apparently infer that explicit professions of faith carry the implicit message that trustworthiness matters — in the unblinking and forever watchful eyes of God — and commitments will be met even at great cost and even when there is no hope of reward. Science and secular ideology are poor competitors in this regard. (In Gods We Trust, p. 276. )

I expect to post more articles referencing Scott Atran’s works (In Gods We Trust is only one of his titles that I have beside me to read) on the nature of religion in the coming year and more) but till I start in earnest I leave here his concluding distinctions between Science and Religion.

1. Metaphors and Analogies

Atran uses “metarepresentational ideas” but I choose to use “metaphors and analogies” in this post. (I can’t deny Atran’s language is at a very high conceptual level and if you are needing to relieve a headache you do not want to read Atran’s In Gods We Trust.)

Science uses metaphors to help us understand some new theory. In the olden days (when I was at school) we learned that the atom was a bit like a miniature solar system: a heavy sun-like core of protons and neutrons with planet-like electrons hurtling around it.

Scott Atran points out that Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (yes, the one of Beatles fame, the inspiration of Sexy Sadie) widely publicized his spiritual concept of the microcosm and macrocosm, of the atom and the solar system, gravity and electromagnetism, into some sort of unified religious-scientific field theory. But there is a significant difference:

The Maharishi’s disciples, unlike those of Einstein and Bohr, seek an eternal “truth” that harmonizes smaller bodies (especially human bodies) with larger nature (especially the surrounding ecology). This truth is sustained by the faith in the authority of those charged with continually reinterpreting it and fitting it to new circumstances. (p. 277)

Here’s the difference.

Science aims to reduce the analogy to a factual description, where the terms of the analogy are finally specified, with no loose ends . . . . Science seeks to kill the metaphor, religion strives to keep it poetic.

Religion strives to keep the metaphor alive, and to keep it poetic and endlessly open to further elaboration and extrapolation. The metaphors of religion are never fully assimilated with factual and commonsensical beliefs.

The are displayed, discussed, interpreted, and reinterpreted as doctrines, dogmas, sacred texts, or “norms” that further illustrate beliefs and behaviors rather than describe beliefs and behaviors. The fact that religious beliefs do not lend themselves to any kind of clear and final comprehension allows their learning, teaching, exegesis, and circumstantial application to go on forever.

2. The Place of Humanity (and Agency)

Humans are only incidental presences in the scientific universe but they are central to religion. Scientific understanding of how the universe works would remain the same if humans never were mentioned at all. But religion without a key role for humanity would make no sense.

Related to this difference is the importance of “agency”. Science has banished the idea that some agent is the cause of the way the universe works. Natural laws are the key to understanding what happens in the scientific world; a conscious mind or agent is responsible for “the life, universe and everything” in the religious world.

The result is that religion fares poorly against science in knowledge of impersonal affairs, whereas science cannot compete well morally with religion in human affairs.

Militant creationist attempts to place Genesis on a theoretical par with Darwin appear more ludicrous than lucid, whereas attempts by scientists and philosophers of science to replace religion with science generally prove more embarrassing than effective.

3. Moral Absolutes versus Ever Changing Truths

A third difference that seems crucial to social life is that religions arc morally absolute, however conceptually flexible and open-textured, whereas science endlessly pursues ever changing truth by strict and rigid means. Religion establishes truth to provide moral and social stability. Science sacrifices surety to discover truth’s illusions. Religion abhors the competition for truth. Science can’t live without it.

The solar system, continental forces, microbes, giraffes and chain saws don’t care about and are not affected by changing moral systems. There are “more or less independent commonsense grounds for discovery and validation of knowledge” we acquire about the everyday physical world.

But this is not the case when it comes to what we strive to understand about “socially constructed relationships” among us: “reciprocity and responsibility, honor and humility, good and evil, or who should be pauper and who should be prince.” There are no scientific grounds for independent discovery and evaluation of the truth about these sorts of things in the same way that there are for understanding the forces of nature.

This next statement will require some unpacking of its psychological and evolutionary basis in future posts, but let it pass here in summary form anyway.

Supernatural agents contribute to maintaining the cooperative trust of actors and the trustworthiness of communication by sanctifying the actual order of mutual understandings and social relations as the only morally and cosmically possible one.

Recall, here, Max Weber’s observation of American business conversation:

Max Weber . . . observed that even the most hard-headed capitalist would make it his business to advertise his faith in order to display his trustworthiness to others. . . . [P]eople apparently infer that explicit professions of faith carry the implicit message that trustworthiness matters . . . .

Moreover, supernatural agency is also responsible for the physical and social elements of our world in its effort to ensure its moral order is sustained. Explanations of the physical universe will always provide inductive evidence for the certainty of explanations for the social and cosmic order as governed by supernatural agents.

4. Factual Knowledge has only a Support Role in Religion

Factual knowledge is not a principal aim of religion. It only plays a supporting role.

Only in the past decade has the Catholic Church reluctantly come to acknowledge the factual plausibility of the ideas of Copernicus, Galileo, and Darwin (Geitner, 1999). The earlier rejection of their theories stemmed from the challenges posed to a cosmic order unifying the moral and material worlds. . . . A lag time was necessary to refurbish and remake the moral and material connections in such a way that would permit faith in a unified cosmology to survive. (p. 278)

Why Religion Survives

Will have to delay this half of the post for a future time. We’ll also cover why scientists may even be some of the least effective people when it comes to attempting to overthrow religion by attacking its belief systems.


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57 thoughts on “Science and Religion: Four Fundamental Differences”

  1. I used to love Richard Dawkins’ colourful critique of religion. … But Scott Atran is one scholar who is forcing me into a rethink lately. He argues that it is misguided to think that religion will go away if we can rationally disprove all of its beliefs and premises.

    Why the need to bash Dawkins? Dawkins is one of those who does NOT think that “religion will go away if we can rationally disprove all of its beliefs and premises”. Indeed he is notable for arguing that religion is NOT about “rational … beliefs and premises” but is all about cultural memes that spread because people like to believe them. This is why very little of Dawkins’s commentary on religion is about “rationally disproving beliefs and premises” and most of it is about popular-level counter-memes.

    Indeed the more usual criticism of Dawkins is that he is too populist and should instead be more involved with rationally analysing academic theology, and it is Dawkins who clearly recognises that this is a red herring, unrelated to the reasons that people actually believe. So why the Dawkins bashing?

    1. Hoo boy! I am NOT a Richard Dawkins “basher”. I am surprised anyone would see in my remarks any “bashing” of anyone, least of all of Dawkins. I even said I have loved his famous quote! But moving on to having a different view upon learning more is not “bashing” my former view or anyone else who argues it.

      Do try to understand that it is possible to have different perspectives on important questions and still conduct a respectful, civil discussion and exchange of views.

      The reason I am finding Atran’s research of special interest is because it is indeed research — not arm-chair speculation about why people do or think what they do. Dawkins is a fantastic promoter of science and a leading evolutionary biologist and I have read and enjoyed at least half a dozen of his books. But he has not studied religion scientifically as has Atran.

      I do think Atran has something significant to contribute to the discussion and possibly even something that is a bit more substantiated than what I have read by Dawkins on this topic so far. Wouldn’t you think that a good way to learn about religion is to study what serious researchers, like anthropologists, have learned about it?

      1. OK, maybe you didn’t intend to “bash” Dawkins. It just seems that, nowadays, a quick snark at Dawkins is nearly de rigueur in articles about religion, and the wording that I quoted seemed to fit that pattern, particularly in appearing to attribute to Dawkins an attitude roughly the opposite to Dawkins’s actual attitude.

  2. I quite agree that no amount of rationality will make religion disappear – I think because there is a great deal about people that is irrational and can’t be got at by any such approach.

  3. “Thus, a century ago, while visiting the United States, Max Weber (1946:46) observed that even the most hard-headed capitalist would make it his business to advertise his faith in order to display his trustworthiness to others. . . . [P]eople apparently infer that explicit professions of faith carry the implicit message that trustworthiness matters — in the unblinking and forever watchful eyes of God — and commitments will be met even at great cost and even when there is no hope of reward. Science and secular ideology are poor competitors in this regard.”

    Coming from a country where the opposite of this is a fact i find this rather strange. The common swede [to which the 5% of swedes that is christians obviously does not belong], regards anyone who displays his faith to others as untrustworthy and not quit right in the head. To display a strong religious faith here is quite often seen as a sign of you being afflicted with a form of mental disorder. However, if you should engage in any form of scientific discussion with the common swede and seem to be at home with the facts there, then you might be treated as trustworthy and “normal”. But I guess we´re the odd one out here.

    1. Atran argues that other community commitments and organisations have taken the place of religion in many societies and serve some of the same functions. He also points out that utopian communal experiments based on secular ideologies as opposed to religious ideology have a much poorer record of survival than their religious counterparts. I have still to read more about this side of things.

  4. Religion’s advantage over science is “hope”. Yep, wishful thinking is what it’s all about, not truth, not the cold hard facts. I mean the day-to-day hope that religion gives to people – science offers no such hope or comfort and it can’t. Sure, doctors and medicine can save lives and science facts are fun to learn for most people but the religious culture of a nation demands that its people be a part of it. Otherwise, they cannot be thought of as being part of the same “family” as everyone else. The entire culture (memes and all) would have to change and it’s not willing to do that, and besides, there are people working hard to see that it doesn’t.

    Little by little, people will give up their myths as cold hard facts replace them but they will always want a hope for today and tomorrow, a day-to-day hope, to see them through an otherwise dreary life caused by the knowledge that they are going to grow old and die. What is not understood is that that “dreary life” is not caused by what they think it is. In fact, it is caused by themselves. Their beliefs make them “of all men, most miserable” (1 Cor. 15:19). That very hope and striving for something else beyond death is actually the cause of having a dreary life to start with and they don’t realize it. Too bad, because it’s the only one they’ll ever have.

  5. Another remark from Sott Atran on “hope”:

    Although seemingly contradictory, the emotions of hope and fear are closely allied, cognitively and religiously. As social psychologist Gordon Allport and colleagues [Allport, Gillespie, and Young 1948] found in a study of returning front-line soldiers, fear was remembered along with heightened faith in God’s deliverance, or hope in some other kind of providential outcome. . . . . p. 68 of In Gods We Trust

  6. This confirms a lot of the things I’ve been reading about why people are religious. If I had to put some sort of ratio on reasons for religion, I would put it at about 90-95% sociological and 10-5% intellectual.

    Human beings fundamentally think in groups. A case could be made that people who deconvert from religion for intellectual reasons mainly do so because they want to be part of the group of people who are “intellectual”. Showing allegiance to the group is how you gain trustworthiness, and also how you make yourself feel better.

    One way to make groups bond and get along is to have them sing and dance in synchrony, which is what a lot of religious services do. The metaphor one makes sense because of our brain architecture and how we learn languages; our languages are fundamentally metaphoric. Metaphors help us understand things intuitively; science will always be counter-intuitive because it tries to destroy the metaphor. Which leads into the morality angle, since moral decisions are made intuitively. We don’t have conscious access to the underlying cognitive algorithm that produces the intuitive feeling of certainty, we just have the end product, which leads to intuitively true, but logically irrational behavior.

    Because the causes for religious belief are mainly cognitive/sociological, there are a lot sociological/psychological circumstances that increase religiosity, like high income inequality, loneliness, or feeling out of control (combined with baseline human psychology like hyperactive agency detection, promiscuous teleology and the just world fallacy). Which is probably why minorities and women are more religious than men/people in relative power (indeed, women are more likely than men to say they are lonely). Of course, if you’re part of a group that is stereotypically religious, to fit in with the group, you will also tend to become more religious.

    On that note, most of the benefits of religion are really due to the benefits of being in a group. Religious attendance, but not beliefs, were linked to improved health, a reduction in suicides, and increased marital fidelity. Which suggests that it’s having social support networks, and not religion per se, that makes people happier and society better. This means that there can certainly be secular religion-esque ideologies that contain the four points you’ve outlined above but without recourse to the supernatural.

    Given that human beings fundamentally think in groups, it makes sense that facts are almost useless against religious claims (and sometimes increase religiosity). The most effective tactic against religion would be some sort of social shaming campaign.

    1. One of the interesting themes that comes through Atran’s discussions — especially in his work in which he reports on interviews with terrorists themselves and their families and friends — is the importance of the circle of friends one plays soccer with, the contacts made in the street where one lives, and the way circles of friends at coffee clubs become related families as marriages happen between them — all these are far more reliable predictors of who becomes a terrorist than any psychological or sociological or income profile.

      1. What I find odd about some of the commenters who read your blog regularly and are critical of Islam is that they know how much ink you’ve written about how there was, at least at the time of Christianity, no “one true” version of Judaism. Even a cursory glance at early Christianity would lead one to the conclusion that there was no “one true” version of Christianity. I would think that the same sort of ambiguity would be endemic to religions (like all cultures) and not a peculiarity of Judaism and Christianity.

        So it would be highly unlikely that, out of all religions, there just happens to be a “one true” version of Islam. We should even expect there to not be a one true version of any religion since religions are man made; created at different times andcultures by different people with different assumptions and worldviews, so they would be naturally contradictory. It’s impossible for there to be a “one true” version of any religion if it contains contradictions.

        It’s the twists and turns of sociology and history all the way down.

    2. “Religious attendance, but not beliefs, were linked to improved health,”

      Church-goers are bound to be healthier than the general population because they are healthy enough to go to church. People too sick to go are automatically excluded from the sample.

      1. Meanwhile — here’s a remark by Noam Chomsky that pretty much sums up all the value that we hear from the likes of Sam Harris and Jerry Coyne and Richard Dawkins when it comes to “the facts about Islam and terrorism”:

        On the ordinary problems of human life, science tells us very little, and scientists as people are surely no guide. In fact they are often the worst guide, because they often tend to focus, laser-like, on their professional interests and know very little about the world.

        That’s one reason an anthropologist’s conclusions probably carry a little more valid weight than a neurologist’s. That quote was made in reference to an article by anthropologist Atran, by the way.

        1. Neil, what are you guys talking about?!?! If you watched the Beyond Belief exchanges between Harris and Attran, how can you possibly think Atran has a single leg to stand on? And HOW on earth can you think Harris is a “two-dimensional” thinker? This is a man who needs daily protection from attack, because he’s dared to critique the tenets of Islam, in a way analogous to how atheists critique Christianity every day. If Atran were right, he wouldn’t need such protection for himself and for his family. Listen to that 6-minute response that Al posted, and tell me where you can find any fault in his reasoning. He admittedly agreed with 90% of the data presented by Atran…the part that he disagrees with is the inference, given the political and socioeconomic and other factors (which do certainly matter), that we don’t need to take suicide bombers at their word as to why they’re doing what they’re doing. It’s DANGEROUS for a social scientist to ignore the fact that many of them straightforwardly declare to be murdering, and martyring themselves, for the prospect of paradise and the principle of jihad. Furthermore, I think Sam’s right to say that an overdose of “white guilt” is what fuels an intelligent social scientist (like Atran) to focus on what’s orthogonal and not what’s central in such a case.

          If what you mean by “two-dimensional” is that we ought to realize that there is more contributing to the actions of people than merely what they can/will express in words, then I agree with that point. But that doesn’t make Sam’s thinking two-dimensional in the slightest, seeing as how those additional contributions will be supplementary, not contradictory to their very own words. So we might say that Islam is clearly NOT the ONLY reason that jihadis do what they do, but that does not disqualify their testimony that it is at least ONE BIG reason. So where else is there fault to be found in Harris’ position?

          1. Did you listen to Atran’s presentation, too? Does Atran really say “that we don’t need to take suicide bombers at their word as to why they’re doing what they’re doing”? Is Atran saying the opposite of the truth when he says the research shows that mosque attendance is a negative predictor of who becomes a terrorist?

            Atran’s fuller replies to Sam Harris (two of them), along with Harris’s criticism of Atran, can be read at http://www.edge.org/discourse/bb.html

            Harris, as I heard him in the video, is reducing Atram’s point to a false dichotomy — either soccer-pals or Islamic religion is the cause of terrorism. Harris appears incapable of grasping the real role of Islam in terrorist attacks, and himself ignores the plain statements of terrorists. The one core factor that prompts people to want to become terrorists (not the same things as necessarily finally doing so) is “moral outrage” as Atran points out. They are fed a diet of television news on atrocities of war and suffering in Iraq etc and are outraged at what they see is being done to their “brothers and sisters”. If a leader of a circle of friends amomg young men finds an opportunity to do something that he feels is righteous and noble about his moral outrage then some of his friends will more than likely go along with him.

            One of the murderers of Lee Rigby explained exactly why he killed him to a cub scout leader who asked him. It is the inability of people like Sam Harris to comprehend the realities that do motivate terrorists that is the reason I speak of a “two-dimensional” perspective. Most terrorists are just as normal as anyone else. They could just as easily be directed to non-violent careers in different social circumstances.

            To blame “memes” or the Koran for terrorism is to take a view that is contrary to the evidence and scientific research.

            1. Neil…Yes I have seen all of Atran’s responses to Harris, both years ago, and again recently, plus I’ve read/watched every response that Harris has ever uttered in response to Atran or any other critics of his books. In addition, I studied interpretive approaches to the Qur’an in college, so I’d say I have a fairly good background in this topic. I’ll take your questions in order. No of course Atran is not literally just contradicting Harris’ claims with a “nuh uh” statement, but he’s evading the action of taking terrorists at their word when he analyzes virtually every other factor besides religious belief/teaching. No – of course citing the stat about mosque attendance is not the opposite of the truth, it’s just tangentially relevant at best. Mosques’ teachings may diverge wildly from straightforward interpretation of the Qur’an. A terrorist might not get the idea of paradise and 72 virgins from their Imam, or their Mosque upbringing, because they didn’t NEED to hear it preached from those sources – it was ALREADY in the Qur’an and Hadith all along, for them to imbibe anytime they wanted. The moderate mosques of the world see it as their job to remove the hostility from the text, and to the extent they’re able to do so, Atran finds what he finds in his study about mosque attendance. It’s much like evangelical vs. fundamentalist churches. The former typically avoids the topic of the OT genocides when it comes to their Sunday sermons. The latter might boldly proclaim the wrath of God as if it were a virtue to emulate, and thus produce (comparatively) militant Christians. This is what you miss about Harris…he is not singling out Islam because of a personal bias. He is against all claims to know things that one can’t possibly know…but he scales his concern with the degree of danger that’s implied by a certain tenet of faith. If Muslims discarded their faith in the Qur’an, and say….accepted the doctrines of Jainism instead, Harris would have relatively little to be concerned about, because there would then be exactly zero Muslim terrorists in the world. Since that will never happen, the concern remains…and we can give a nod to Atran and say it’s all exacerbated by all the social/political factors as well. But “exacerbated by” and “created by” are two very different things.

              Not trying to sound silly here — but show me a few Amish terrorists, throughout the course of history, and I’ll abandon my aligning with Harris. Despite the fact that Amish were persecuted for generations by other sects, I dare say you’ll discover that retributive justice is a concept they give no credence to – because their faith delegitimizes it from the get-go. I mean, come on Neil…don’t you think every single subjugated group throughout all history has felt “moral outrage”? And of course many of them did fight back, and some in brutal ways. But most of them did not target innocents (labeling them equally infidels as the normal combatants). And amongst the groups that didn’t fight back – pacifistic groups – and the main difference between peaceful Buddhists and ones that wage war, or peaceful Hindus and ones that waged war, or peaceful Christians and ones that waged war….the main difference was NOT the degree to which they were oppressed or the degree to which they experienced “moral outrage” – rather it was the distinctive differences in the theologies they held as true.

              This is ultimately not about “blaming” the Qur’an, as if it were an entity that could stand trial or be held accountable, but in many cases, that text is the main reason that a terrorist thinks they should give their life for jihad. Conversely, and maybe more importantly, we can/should say that the concept of jihad would not and could not exist if the Qur’an had never been written. Of course I fully understand that most Muslims interpret jihad in a much more moderate fashion – but interpretive ambiguity is a curse disguised as a blessing here….it only takes a few people who have extremely fanatical interpretations of it to cause national disasters like 9/11, with thousands dying. It doesn’t matter, at that point, what percentage of Muslims are more reasonable in their interpretation of jihad. The fact that the text is OPEN to interpretation, but remains (to the Muslim) the infallible command of Allah after the interpretation has been made, means that more than enough evil can be visited upon the world due to this text. So I’m not out to “blame” the text – I’m out to solve the problem that the text creates.

              1. I don’t think very much of what you say is based on hard evidence. The reason I am studying books like those by Atran, Esposito, Riaz Hassan, Pape and Rahim is because these are serious research studies by specialists in human behaviour — anthropologists and sociologists for example. They do research that is tested and relevant. I don’t think such specialists ought to be dismissed in preference for sweeping and anecdotal assertions by people who rely upon mass media for their information.

                Yes, more than “moral outrage” is involved, but the difference is not the Koran. The religious zealotry, from what I am learning, actually comes after the person is on his way to becoming radicalized. If it were not Islam it would be another ideology or religion they would be using for justification and that we would be blaming. As you know from the video, bin Laden said he would have done the same even if he were not a Muslim; even pagans would have done the same against the United States, he said.

                And as for (non Muslim) liberation movements not targeting innocents, I suggest this is based on a somewhat Pollyannish and selective view of such movements.

              2. “I don’t think very much of what you say is based on hard evidence” – Preposterous, Neil. Please don’t insult my integrity. Either trust me when I say that every point I made is empirical or demonstrable, or if cannot trust it, please attempt to show it up with direct counter-evidence. My points were not generalizations – they were just points framed in general terms. Not the same thing…and there’s neither time nor space to delineate all the relevant specifics. If you need all those specifics in order to accept my conclusions, I’d start you with this recent world survey on Muslim belief:


                This is NOT “relying on mass media”…this is nothing but raw, aggregated data, directly from the sources in question – actual Muslims. Surely what THEY say matters to them is more important than what sociologists say. They’re not often in direct conflict, but where they, better to take someone at their word as to what they think/feel, than to take professional analysis of what they believe as if it’s wiser. Maybe you question my motives and attitude here, Neil. I assure you, I have a great many Muslim friends, meeting a number of them in my religious studies classes on Islam. Believe it or not, they are less offended by my assessment of Islam than they are by you (and others) spelling Qur’an “K-O-R-A-N”. And I’m just baffled by the other arguments you’re making. Who cares what nonsense bin Laden spewed out about doing what he did whether he was not a Muslim? He’s full of shit. He might have still hated America, but that is irrelevant to the question of the content of al-Qaeda’s beliefs. And where are all these pagan terrorizers of America that we should be expecting? The fact that pagans manifestly DO NOT commit suicide bombings against the Great Devil of the West, or at their embassies, shows just how ridiculous it is for you be quoting bin Laden in the first place.

                So I urge you, please do not impugn my honesty when I say I’ve researched this extensively, or when I say I don’t hate Muslims, I merely (as a fairly ardent atheist) want to hold all belief systems accountable to some semblance of rationality. If you will not take my word for it, then read the study I linked above, or any of the accounts of Hirsi-Ali, or the countless others who barely escaped extremist Muslim communities with their lives. Beyond that, what happened to all the awesome posts about biblical studies and historical method, and everything else that made this blog great??? Seems like lately you’ve wanted to have one post that sticks up for Islam for each quality post on subjects you’ve really researched. It’s as if you think Islam is the thing most in need of defense in our current world. Even if Harris/Dawkins/etc. overstate the case, why do you feel the need to defend a belief system that you yourself don’t adhere to? (and by “defend” I only mean defend from critique, because no one on the other side is suggesting that Muslims should be attacked, persecuted, or stripped of rights – in fact, many are fighting for the marginalized of the faith – e.g. women – to get the rights that they have long deserved, but have been denied…and guess what text justified the denial of those rights?)

              3. I don’t understand your comment at all, NateP. FIrstly, I don’t know why you say I was impugning your honesty — or what has prompted you to cast all other sorts of aspersions against what I’m supposed to be thinking of you.

                As for my pointing out what bin Laden himself said about his motives, I thought you had said it is important to listen to what the terrorists themselves say (maybe I confused you with someone else?) and surely that’s basic. If we want to understand why people do the things they do then surely it is not wrong to listen to their reasons. It does not follow we necessarily must accept their claims at face value. We have a right to test them. But you can’t just dismiss a murderer’s own statements about his motives because you hate him.

                I know the Pew research and have posted on some of it. But when scholarly researchers have studied either every or most terrorist event that has happened since the 1980s and would-be terrorists themselves and surviving terrorists and friends and family of them, then I think we should take note of their research findings.

                What specific data in that Pew survey do you believe establishes your/Harris’s argument and/or disproves Atran’s research?

                I don’t know of any research that establishes that the Koran is responsible for the current wave of terrorist attacks, or that it is the Muslim religion that is responsible.

                I am disappointed you see my posts as some sort of abstract defence of the Islamic religion per se. Of course there is much very wrong with it. What I am trying to address, though, is what I believe is a dangerous trend in attitudes towards the Moslem communities.

                I am sorry if my spelling of Quran/Qur’an/Koran is offensive to anyone. I really didn’t know it was an issue. I see it spelled all these ways in the literature.

              4. I won’t waste time constructing actual lines of thought anymore, since you don’t seem to be actually reading them. So I’ll just copy and paste quotes from your post and rifle through them:

                “I don’t know why you say I was impugning your honesty ” – I think it’s obviously impugning when you cast doubt on someone’s multiple claims as not being based in hard evidence. You know that I know I’m improper to simply conjecture and generalize things to make an argument…so you could give me the benefit of the doubt that when I say I have a strong background in this area, that my claims are actually backed up…I’m not writing a thesis here with full annotations, I’m writing a blog post, where it’s unrealistic to cite sources sometimes.

                “I thought you had said it is important to listen to what the terrorists themselves say” – I did say that, though it’s clearly more important (and germane) to listen to what they (including bin Laden) say they BELIEVE. In correspondences that we’ve intercepted from al-Qaeda, we understand there to be much more reference to the Qur’an and Hadith in the rhetoric than there is moral philosophy that indicts the West. That’s just a brute fact, sorry to say…so your one-off quote from Osama is, in comparison, an aberration to his normal rhetoric, and besides I already disproved its practicality by reminding us that the West doesn’t get it’s fair share of pagan terrorists, like Osama said.

                “What specific data in that Pew survey do you believe establishes your/Harris’s argument and/or disproves Atran’s research?” – maybe the obvious correlation between Muslim communities that advocate Sharia law implementation and those that justify not only acts of terrorism, but also honor killings, and executions of apostates. We’re not taking guesses as to what people believe….they’re TELLING us, from around the world. With the exception of American Muslims (leaving 35 or so more countries studied), there is not correlation between education and justification of terrorism, or wealth and justification of terrorism, or political pressure upon the community and justification of terrorism. These are the correlations we’d expect if Atran were right. But NO, the one incredibly clear correlation is this: any condoning of the many acts that you and I would call heinous and reprehensible scales in proportion to how ISLAMIC the country is or wants to be. That is the indicator Neil. If you can read that report (which trumps most reports that you might refer to because it gets real testimony straight from the horse’s mouth) and derive a different conclusion, I’ll be a monkey’s uncle! Seriously, I challenge you.

                If you instead ask me to connect that dots between this conclusion and what that says about the Qur’an (since the study is not specifically about interpretations of the text), I’ll be very disappointed because I’ll know I’ve completely wasted my time here. And for the record…I myself am not offended by how you spell Koran. Spell it how you like. My point is that some Muslims will take umbrage at the removal of the arabic tone from sacred terms, not entirely unlike how some Muslims are offended by the work of political cartoonists. Not that I think you’ll be murdered for your spelling choices, but the same intolerant principle is in effect for more Muslims than you might want to believe.

                “What I am trying to address, though, is what I believe is a dangerous trend in attitudes towards the Moslem communities.” – so just out of curiosity, what disastrous outcome do you foresee as a result of these “dangerous trends in attitudes”?

              5. I am quite taken aback by your tone. Let’s try to remain friends. I am not suggesting you are dishonest or lacking integrity. As you yourself concede you expressed yourself in a generalized way, and I responded saying I did not think much in those statements could be supported by hard evidence. So let’s look at the evidence you have offered.

                Correlation vs Causation

                As we both know, probably first thing any scientist learns about interpreting data is that correlation is not necessarily causation. Merely counting words that can be thematically classified in intercepted exchanges does not of itself necessarily tell us the motivations for their acts.

                How does one test for motivation as opposed to rationalization? (I am not suggesting it can’t be done. It can.)

                Listening to what the Terrorists themselves say

                How does one decide that the words of bin Laden explaining that he would still have done what he did even if not a Muslim are not what he “believes” or that he is lying? Was he not “telling us” what he believes as surely as anyone questioned in a poll tells the pollster. (He also has spoken other words very specifically explaining his goals and they are consistent with those words, as well as with his claim to be doing Allah’s will. So how does one test for motivation versus rationalization? How do we justify accepting one set of statements by bin Laden and rejecting others? (I wonder what the responses would be if the pollsters asked the question “Would you support suicide attacks on Americans in Afghanistan even if they were not carried out by Muslims of if you were not a Muslim?”)

                Do you not concede the value of researchers investigating all terrorist incidents, groups and individuals, what they say and do and their biographies, along beside bin Laden and Al Qaeda, and seeing if we can uncover scientifically valid and predictable understandings? And is not this likely to yield a more valid understanding than reliance upon anecdotal and mass media filtered information? (I am relieved, by the way, to see Atran address the populist pseudo-scientific notion of “memes” being responsible. Dawkins’ “meme” was originally a speculative metaphor, if I recall correctly. It is not a scientific construct.)

                The difference between the Pew Poll and Atran’s data is that Atran has interviewed the terrorists themselves. Atran talks to many people who say they support certain kinds of terrorist attacks but who also admit they themselves are not going to commit them. Of the three or four serious scholarly research studies I have read so far the same message is clear: a certain amount of community support is a necessary condition. Suicide terrorists are willing to die for the same reasons soldiers are willing to die. They die for their buddies, their friends, to do something of which they feel proud, for glory and honour in the eyes of others. They are not very different from the nineteenth century anarchists or the non-Islamic suicide bombers in other national liberation movements.

                Socio-economic factors ARE relevant

                It is misguided to say that Islam is one constant correlation and the terrorists all say “God is Greatest” and, in essence, conclude therefore that Islam is the cause of terrorism. If that were so we would expect a far bigger problem than we have right now. Europe, including London, has a much more serious problem than the United States and we should note that European Muslims are not socially or economically integrated as they are in the U.S. There does appear to be a socio-economic factor involved in the prevalence of terrorist acts.

                The Pew data also has the Muslims telling us that by far most of them do not support terrorist targeting of civilians. Most do not even support suicide bombing. But the geo-political regions where this is supported more significantly surely indicate something of significance that goes beyond “Islam” per se. (What is “Islam” per se anyway? That question is like speaking of Christianity as if there is no difference between Catholics, Protestant and various cults and sects.)

                You say political pressure is irrelevant. I do not see that in the Pew data, but I am unsure what you mean by that.

                What a “Country” wants to be?

                You speak of “how Islamic the country wants to be” as a vital indicator of terrorism. That is a very broad, sweeping statement that I do not understand against the data. JI wants Indonesia to become an “ideal Islamic nation” according to strict “Salafi” principles only: that is, to even speak of democratic elections is “blasphemy”. They believe violence is the only way, and their “utopian state” is comparable to the ideal states once envisioned by nazism and communism — yet it is clear that most Indonesians prefer democracy. So what do you mean by “the nation” wanting to be Islamic? There are also debates among Muslims over how to interpret Sharia law. The barbarism we see from our Western backed Saudi Arabian government is rejected by most Muslim believers in Sharia law. Look at American Muslims for starters.

                You asked what I see as the danger

                The danger I see ensuing from the “Islamophobic” (I use the word as it was originally construed) attitudes in the West is a continuation of public pressure upon Western powers to continue down the path of policies and actions that are making us even less safe from terrorism. (I don’t think it is hard to see that the American-led “war on terror” since 9/11 has led to incredible scales of death and suffering of Muslims and Westerners, and has witnessed only an explosion in terrorist activity instead of the hoped for decline.) This, despite peaceful responses in places such as Indonesia that are making significant inroads into combating the terrorist mindset, and despite a wealth of research data that demonstrates such violent methods are only fuelling the problem, not solving it. Of course the violent method has effectively rendered Al Qaeda irrelevant now, but since the root causes have not been addressed there have been successive waves of terrorist activity despite Al Qaeda’s demise. All Western methods have managed to achieve is to enforce terrorists to find less sophisticated ways to carry out their attacks, until now we appear to be witnessing in London and Paris a willingness to rely upon the most primitive weapons of all in place of any explosives.

                War only brings peace when one has finally forced a total surrender upon all of one’s enemies or wiped them out of existence. Peace really does so often mean having to talk to one’s enemies — and that includes listening to them. Researchers are talking with them but their findings are being flatly rejected by Western governments, it seems. They are not politically expedient. Expect more bad before it gets any better. Including hate crimes against Muslims, erosions of civil liberties and discriminations, and a continuing spiral of terrorist and community violence from both sides.

                Government’s have been slow to respond to where the scientific research is pointing with respect to climate change. Very few (no Western one that I know of) have responded to what the scientific research is pointing with respect to terrorism.

                It is painful to see history repeating itself — to see the West reacting today just as they did to the anarchist terror in the earlier generation — with the same horrendous bloody results of war and conquest and suffering of innocents.

                Define the question

                (But let’s keep the subject under discussion clearly defined. Sure there is a lot to loathe about Islam as there is, I think, there is much to loathe in most Christian and Jewish religions. But there is also a lot in religion that is clearly conditioned by regional cultural traditions. And it is at least to Islam’s credit that there is heated debate now among its adherants on some of the beliefs and customs that many of their brothers and sisters have practiced in the past and still do in some places. If there is a link between honour killings or treatments of women and suicide terrorism then let’s establish that by evidence if we are going to bring those into the discussion, too.)

      2. Harris and Atran had a discussion at the 2006 Beyond Belief conference. The summary of Atran’s critique of Harris is here.


        Harris did respond to Atran’s first critique but did not respond to this one, playing his usual card of claiming that he had been misrepresented.

        At the 2007 conference, Atran was one of the few people who actually produced data and evidence on suicide bombers.


        A real confrontation emerged here


  7. “Who could possibly argue with:

    The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction…”

    I could; though I agree with the sentiment. Absolute villains are a staple of pretty much every genre. The OT God’s unpleasantness is more than matched by many Christian depictions of Satan. The difference is that YHWH is presented as the definer of righteousness.

    So: “…the most unpleasant character meant to represent goodness…” might be right – but I haven’t read “all fiction.”

  8. Who was it again who thought that religion would just go away? No serious thinker that I’ve heard. But we long for religious belief and practice numbers like some in northern Europe. Even if belief in other woo climbs, we’d be better off if god-belief dropped to about 10% of what we have now. Atran says our societies need god, but we know that you can build a better society with a much lower level of god-bothering. Atran’s best evidence comes from primitive societies, which are, by modern standards, the failed ones. We can do better with less god.

    1. I’d also much prefer to live in a secular society where religion is kept very much in the background and has little to no place in public life. I don’t know that Atran is actually “defending” religion, though, so much as trying to explain how it functions. There are positives for those in the in-group, but the tighter such a group is the more problems it produces in its rejection of other groups.  

  9. For some reason I can’t click “reply” above to continue our earlier conversation, Neil. So I’ll have to continue it here, and I’ll try to be brief, since I think an exchange of posts is furthering the misunderstanding of each others’ positions and generally wasting our time. It would be good to talk in person some time, if we could find the means and the availability. Rest assured, I mean no hostility toward you. I see now that I misunderstood some of your statements as attacks on my integrity, but trust now that you intended no such insults. Likewise, I’ve had no bad intentions with my tone toward you, and I value us remaining friends more than achieving unanimity on this issue. As I say, I think we are generally talking past each other on this one…

    But to be as brief as possible:

    1. Granted that correlation does not equate to direct causation, but it certainly counts for more than just happy coincidence, and often CAN be a strong evidence for a real causal relationship.

    2. I’m not “rejecting” any words that we have from bin Laden. Just saying it’s not clear what the exact import of a statement like “I’d be attacking America even if I weren’t a Muslim” would really be. It’s like a Christian saying “even if I weren’t a Christian, I still wouldn’t accept evolution!” It might be a true statement, but it’s essentially subjunctive, so there’s no way to put its likelihood to the test, since the utterer of the statement can’t be anyone other than who they are. Therefore, I think we must place subjunctive statements like that into a different category than statements that unequivocally declare what someone believes, and what they’re motivated by, in the here and now. So I’m not rejective your data, I’m suggesting we better classify it.

    3. I see enormous benefit to Atran’s research, I truly do. He’s thorough and scientific. But he unfortunately glossed over the possibility that motivations could (in some, if not most) cases, be much simpler….since he was talking himself with advocates of terrorism, it’s a little befuddling that he didn’t ask “WHY do you believe it’s ok to kill innocent people with bombs?”, or if he did ask, why he didn’t report their specific responses to that question. I appreciate that he dug down with other lines of questioning, to discover political realities, radicalized tendencies, aggression due to moral outrage, etc. But these things, although real, are the terms that a scientist uses as he/she surmises the full scope of the context…they are NOT the words that the terrorist would use himself/herself. I think Atran’s readers deserve to know more of what their actual words were, and not just his classifications of their words into sociological jargon.

    4. I think you should apply some basic math to the construal of the Pew results. I’m not comforted by a word like “most” when it’s used to describe 70 or 80 or even 90% of a polled group condemning suicide bombing or killing civilians for the cause of jihad. Even if 99% of all Muslims condemned such actions, I would still be very concerned, because 1% of the Muslim population is over 10 MILLION people…and if only 10 million people think suicide bombing is ok, then this is a scary reality. Don’t you think that if the earth’s other major religions were asked the same question, we’d see a result of 99.999% condemning it? I know that’s conjecture, but I think it’s a thought experiment that we owe it to ourselves and future generations to consider. But returning to the facts…we have “most” Muslims condemning suicide bombings….but that “most” is far less than 99%, and for every percentage point that dips under 100, that’s what you multiply 10 million by to calculate the actual number of people who can conceive of terrorist acts having a legitimate place in our world. Keep in mind, the #s get even worse when we ask about punishments for apostates, blasphemers, or women who defy Sharia laws. I know this was not our original discussion, but I’d like to see anyone who would defend Islam from critique (not governmental targeting – which neither I nor Harris have ever advocated), first spend some time expressing your opinion about these other atrocities first. Condemn those practices publicly (or online) FIRST, and then parse out the meanings and potential dangers of “Islamophobia” afterward. I don’t think that’s an unreasonable request.

    5. I’m going to skip a few smaller points for expediency sake….and respond to the question of “hard evidence”. My response basically is an appeal to falsifiability. In other words, what data would show, to your satisfaction, that the primary motivation for terrorist act #XYZ was belief in glory or martyrdom, as taught by verses A & B in the Qur’an and verses C & D in the Hadith tradition? It seems to me, with the present forms of investigation, there is no amount of citing verses A-D that the terrorist could do that could force you to halt the search for “deeper” motivations. There’s no social science rulebook to govern this process. I just think that Harris tends to grant more weight to the face-value assessment of the data we have, and folks like Atran tend to doubt that something so simple and straightforward could ever be the best interpretation of the situation. And so I ask…in your estimation, when would it ever be appropriate to simply accept the references to Islamic teachings, in the testimonies of terrorists, as their main motivation? Ever? Or is that never an acceptable answer to this admittedly complex question?

    1. Responses, also trying to be brief (though it will probably be long anyway). (To continue posts within the same nested sub-thread you need to scroll up and click on the last “Reply” button you see, if that makes sense. But here’s fine.)

      1. The fact that correlation may or can be an indicator of a causal relationship does not add any more weight to deciding whether it actually is or not.

      2. Bin Laden’s words (the ones I referred to) are not subjective hypotheticals about belief-statements. They are real-world rationales for action. His rationales for action have been clearly stated in terms of occupation and Western backed oppression of Islamic nations. We may not accept his interpretation of the West’s role as valid, but that would be beside the point. It’s his perceptions — and those of millions of Muslims — that count. His rationale that even non-Muslims would act the same way against foreign powers doing the things the West has done — given historical precedents — makes perfect practical and objective sense.

      (Robert Tulip once protested that Germany and Japan did not protest when they were forced into unconditional surrender and occupation at the end of WW2. He objection fails on 2 grounds: (1) the West poured resources and infrastructure into those countries and ensured controls on the resources — usually be re-recruiting members of the defeated regimes — and built them up quickly — unlike Iraq etc where there was no comparable plan in reality and all member of the previous regime were kicked out — so that people quickly gained material benefits, no matter the motivation of the West; and (2) those countries felt threatened by a greater threat from Communist Russia — the old “enemy of my enemy is my friend” sentiment kicked in.)

      3. I am reading “Talking the Enemy” by Atran and he certainly did/does ask terrorists the sorts of questions you say you wish he would ask. (Though he may not ask terrorists who have made it clear they don’t believe in targeting civilians or Muslims why they believe it’s okay to kill innocents. But I did post a little while ago the exact reasons Muslim terrorists do in fact give to this question.

      You might also recall a post or comments — or other source for the survey that shows most Americans believe killing innocent civilians can be justified.

      Your approach to this question is one I consider black and white. It fails to grasp how Muslims and others in the Middle East do think and experience war and terror (including state terror). We know from scholarly research (Pape and others) that non Muslim terrorists have justified killing civilians in their cause for national liberation in the Lebanon and Algeria (and Sri Lanka) in recent decades. I can imagine myself sympathizing with such actions if I were in their shoes. I think anyone subject to foreign invasion and occupation, or a cruel dictatorship imposed or supported by a foreign power, or whose innocent neighbours, friends, families, are routinely and arbitrarily slaughtered as “collateral damage”, and so forth, would be faced with some terrible decisions. Such perspectives are not left-wing anti-american lunacy. They are the very real perceptions of millions of Muslims — as all the scientific research that I have ever read shows. And non-Muslims were among the first to respond to these situations with suicide terror in the Lebanon.

      Atran certainly does tell us what the actual words of the terrorists and would-be terrorists are.

      4. I probably covered that with my comment on 3 anyway. I find many people seem to have read naive and “two-dimensional”(?) perspectives into some of these figures, by the way. Many terrorists themselves will agree with suicide missions but they will flatly oppose any mission that fails to target exclusively military targets. And again it is important to look at the geographic division of the figures — American Muslims are, as Atran points out, quite unlike the Pakistani Muslims in many of their views. Those are the sorts of issues that need to be addressed — they have a lot to do with environmental heritage and contexts.

      As for your point about making an obligatory political correct statement condemning certain practices that I do not believe are generic to all Muslims — no, I cannot. I will not add to the fog of Islamophobic hysteria by beginning a post that insinuates the Islamic religion encourages honour killing. The fact that such issues are brought in to the discussion on terrorism is unhelpful. I will, however, be doing post on the mind of Muslims over time from what I read in the scholarly research about Islam and honour killings, attitudes towards Sharia law, etc.

      5. The evidence that would convince me that verses in the Koran do not in themselves inspire devout Muslims to kill would be to demonstrate Scott Atran’s research is fraudulent, along with the research of Pape, Hassan, Esposito, Rahim.

      Of course many, probably most, Muslim suicide bombers quote the Koran and speak in religious language a lot. They do so especially in their farewell video messages to their families. But they also say a lot about politics. They see themselves in a war over their spiritual or natural homelands. Kamikaze pilots, I believe, also went through religious rituals before they committed their war-time terror. But if there were no existing war with American, Dutch and Commonwealth powers and threat to their homeland their religious beliefs would not have propelled them to bomb Allied ships.

      It is easy for us in the West to say there is no such war to justify Muslim terrorists. Muslims see it quite differently because of very real chaos and suffering on the ground. To point out this perspective to Western powers is to invite the accusation that one is an ant-American lunatic.

      (Indonesia’s relative success in both finding terrorists before they act and in “deprogramming” those who are captured is also worth knowing more about. Too much to post about, too little time.)

      Since writing the above I realize my answer to point 5, ‘What evidence would convince me. . . .?’ was simplistic to the point of being wrong. I have not been able to accept the argument that it is the Koran or Islam per se that inspires and prompts terrorists to action well before I even heard of Atran or most (or any) of the other scholars I mentioned. The simple fact that only a very tiny fraction of Muslims have taken up terrorism, and that the overwhelming majority of Muslims abhor such behaviour, and that those who have taken up terrorism can be identified as doing so within very specific historical contexts, and that those sorts of contexts have also historically been related to other types (non-Islamic) of terrorism, is what has always convinced me that terrorism today is not inspired by the Koran or Islam at all. The Koran and Islam are the language through which many terrorists express themselves and often rationalize their actions, but if they were the cause then terrorism would be today (and historically) a far, far greater threat than it is.

      1. 1. Right, but the fact that the correlations are so strong does act as such an indicator. It’s analogous to lung cancer….before modern medicine was advanced enough to empirically prove that smoking causes lung cancer, we still assumed the causation when we saw correlations in the numbers of lung cancer patients to the population of smokers. It’s really just utilizing mathematical probabilities as far as one can, when the empirical proof isn’t there yet.

        2. I wasn’t claiming what he said was subjective…I claimed it was subjunctive. But I see your point, distinguishing it as rationale for action. And maybe it’s true bin Laden hated the West enough to attack it even if he were a Christian or a Jew. But you can’t deny that new recruits to al-Qaeda would have been harder to inculcate with the New Testament as a guidebook rather than the Qur’an. From this vantage point, it may be right to say that the tone of the Qur’an was not the cause of the violence, but rather a tailor-made enabler to it. Even it that’s the more accurate way to put it, that’s bad enough. I don’t want to see people following the heinous instructions/examples of the Torah, the Gospels, or the Qur’an…they’re all pretty messed up when it comes to ethical underpinnings, but nothing suggests that all religious texts are equally supporting of violence. The Qur’an does happen to be the holy book that’s most amenable to militant radicalization. You wouldn’t really dispute that, would you?

        3. Those don’t sound like words that real humans would answer interview questions with? Those eloquent summary statements sound like Atran’s scholarly edit of real words….actually no, it sounds like generalizations of whole sets of testimony. Where are the actual quotes, unedited, from the Muslim radicals? Please direct me to those if you know where they are.

        *** An interesting coincidence to report – today I met an ex-Muslim from Saudi Arabia in a recovering-from-religion group that I’m part of. He shared his story of being a 16 year old school boy when 9/11 occurred, and seeing celebration after celebration in the streets, that thousands of innocent Americans had died. That was the day that he abandoned Islam, though of course he could not share that fact with anyone around him, due to the death penalty for apostasy. that was NOT the day of some epiphany about politics, morality, or justice, for him. The celebrations were explicitly Muslim according to him, and he was sickened that the word of Allah was driving everyone he knew into euphoria over such a tragedy. I then told him of our conversation here. Without hesitation (and keep in mind I just met him today for the first time), he responded with the exact same assessment to this situation that I’ve been reiterating over and over: Yes political and socioeconomic factors do play a role, and often a large role in terrorism, but none of this current situation is conceivable without the explicit doctrines of jihad and the examples of violence set forward by the prophet within the Hadith. He told many other stories about the everyday practice of Islam in Saudi Arabia, several that would really make your blood boil…but they’re not really relevant to our present discussion, so I’ll leave ’em out. Suffice it to say, he and and his brother (who he 10 years later also discovered was a closeted apostate), understand support of terrorism better than you, I, Atran, or Harris ever could. I’m going to prefer his primary evidence, re: what sorts of actions the Qur’an engenders, over anyone’s secondary analysis.

        4. I’m just disappointed that you consider it bigotry to attack evils where you see them, if it might run the risk of overgeneralizing. All critiques will inevitably run that risk, Neil. But if you can’t make declarative statements about bombings and honor killings, fine….at least make some declarative statements about the sexism of Sharia, or the evil of persecuting apostates, or the violations of free speech that occur when fatwas are sent out (and supported by large Muslim communities) when cartoons are drawn or a Qur’an is burned. There is so much that you could speak out against without ANY fear that you’re overgeneralizing, and by doing so you could find against real pain and suffering that’s visited upon Muslim people. But you won’t do it, will you? Is it more important to achieve academic exactitude on the causes of terrorism? I urge to see that this posture will stall compassion rather than catalyze it.

        5. I realize that I’ve shifted further and further away from the original topic of the causes of terrorism. Apologies for that. I just don’t see practical value in parsing out such a complex topic to the Nth degree…I’d rather focus on the things we can easily agree on, and fight evil where it’s clearly identified. I place a high value on meticulous scholarship, and well-reasoned logical thinking, just like you Neil…but at some point the search for the optimum analysis distracts us from some obviously critical actions that we (who oppose abuse and injustice) need to be taking.

        1. one key typo I’ve noticed (there’s probably more):

          — in the middle of 4 above, it should read “There IS so much…”

          Cheers, mate.

          P.S. I keep forgetting to ask you…are you a footy fan?

          1. I was bemused by your references to honour killings and Muslim attitudes towards Sharia law. I pulled out my copy of “Inside Muslim Minds” by Riaz Hassan to see what I had missed. It turned out my initial understanding that honour killings have more to do with long-held historical cultures, in particular those that pre-date Islam. Honour killings today really are a legacy of specific ancient (pre-Islamic) cultures. As I was preparing my post (it’s still something to write about given that honour killings exist at all anywhere on the planet, including among Australian indigenous peoples,

            After tracking that reference down — and no, it certainly does not let Muslim’s off the hook for tolerating the practice in those societies — I was again reminded of your reference to Sharia law. Anyone who has read anything about Islamic societies knows surely that there is no such thing as a single entity labelled as “Sharia Law”. It was at that point that I decided to drop the reply on honour killings for now — and on “Muslim attitudes” to Sharia law.

            Let’s clarify where we stand. Do you argue that honour killings are an Islamic practice — that is, a custom that is derived from the Islamic religion? Secondly, what do you mean by Sharia law and what do you believe is “the Muslim” hope or ultimate destiny for Sharia Law in modern Western societies?

            1. I would say that honor killings are not a direct injunction from the Qur’an, but rather a conclusion drawn by certain Muslims when they read the full tradition’s statements on honor and family. I think there are pre-Islamic sources as well, but the “Religion of Peace” certainly did nothing to curtail those pre-Islamic customs/impulses when it spread the written word of Allah. I’ve studied the Qur’an in depth, though quite a few years ago, and I can plainly say that motivations for honor killings can easily be found in the text if you’re reading with violent eyes. Some times cooler heads prevail in interpretation, but enough times they do not, and people can and will find license in those words (whether they were intended to be read that way or not by the author) to commit heinous acts… enough that we should start placing at least some culpability on the text.

              You ask a good question about Sharia, it’s certainly not a monolithic concept….there are tons and tons of different expressions of Sharia. But there are no non-muslims that practice Sharia, obviously, because it’s a Muslim-made concept. So to clarify – I don’t presume that all support for Sharia is support for something that’s heinous. Neither is Sharia just a code word for “radical laws”, to where those that advocate the more extreme versions of Sharia are misconstruing Islamic tradition to get there. Their interpretation of the tradition is just as viable as that of the moderate Muslim majority (given what the texts actually say). Hope that clears up how I’m using the term.

              1. My companion post to this one was Fantasy and Religion. It expresses a point I have attempted to communicate in other ways without much success. How we read another faith’s holy book is irrelevant to our understanding of what adherents themselves see when they read the book. I can read the Bible and see how it could so easily be used to rationalize racism, slavery, oppression of women, child abuse, breaking up families, murder of minorities, including heretics, and genocide. And it has been used for all of those things at some time by some people — including today. If anyone is predisposed to see Christianity or Judaism as inherently evil they will see how the Bible makes it so easy for them to be so.

                But believers do not read their holy books the way unbelievers do. That’s why it is beside the point to judge a religion by our own reading of their sacred texts and why it is necessary to listen to the believers themselves. My post on Fantasy and Religion could just as well have been titled:

                Fantasy and Islam (Why Allah’s Word Will Never Fail)

              2. Then we know where we disagree. If non-believers are disqualified from assessing a text/tradition because they’re not adherents, then there is never any ground to stand on to critique religion. With very few exceptions, religions don’t undermine themselves. If a religion’s claims can’t stand up to some semi-objective scrutiny, then it needs to be ridiculed, shamed, and ultimately diminished within the society, at least any society that cares about the harms caused by religion to its people.

                I think the bigger questions that we’re hovering around here is: what should an atheist’s posture be toward the religions that surround him/her? I know my answer – I wonder if you’ve given much consideration to yours.

              3. My point is that we can’t begin with the presumption that the Koran is a cause of terrorism. That needs to be established. I am interested in what the professional research is telling us.

                Criticizing and making fun of religion is quite another question.

                If we follow the logic of your argument then I think we should conclude that the evidence tells us more people are influenced to abhor the killing of civilians by the Koran than are influenced that way by the Bible.

        2. 1. The correlation between cigarette smoking and lung cancer was overwhelming because it left other possible variables as miniscule in the equation. That is not the case with Islam and terrorism. By far the majority of Muslims are opposed to terror tactics and even more to targeting of civilians. So there is abundant room for other variables, in fact other variables are demanded, if we are to explain why so few Muslims resort to terrorism. So the correlation argument is not so simple as the case of lung cancer and cigarette smoking.

          And even more damaging to the correlation argument is that none of the questions ask, “Are you a terrorist?” or such. As I have attempted to point out, “support” for something comes in many shades and conditionals.

          2. Bin Laden’s point was that religion is generally irrelevant when it comes to the natural desire of people to resist occupiers and oppressive regimes imposed by foreign powers. I agree.

          3. I’m not sure which words you are referring to. But the words we all heard from one of the Nigerians who murdered Lee Rigby were clear enough. One sees the same words, the same themes, over and over in the statements of terrorists and suicide bombers and sympathizers with terrorists.

          I am fed up with people killing Muslims in Afghanistan

          I apologise that women had to witness that, but in our lands our women have to see the same thing.

          4. Why do you think I consider it bigotry to attack evils where I see them? Does anyone think that? I have made my views on Islam clear. But I do not wax eloquent on topics I know little about. I know many Muslims who do not fit the “evil” profile and quite frequently hear interviews with Muslims from all walks of life on Radio National. I have discussed some of these issues with Muslim friends. The Muslims I know abhor honour killings and oppression of women. So how can I make blanket condemnations of Islam? I will write what I know about and what I learn from scholarly research I feel has a certain credibility.

          I fixed the typo. Footy fan? Australia has four popular codes of football but I presume you mean soccer, the relative newcomer to the national scene. I’m an inconsistent “fan” — love watching the skills in play but my enthusiasm waxes and wanes.

          1. 1. couple points here….I didn’t say the case with terrorism is AS strong a correlation as the case with lung cancer. I just used the analogy to show that one cannot dismiss claims of causation just because correlation is not empiric proof. Of course we agree that the “correlation argument” is not “simple” at all, but I think the data at least shows that belief does drive behavior (at least to an alarming degree).

            *** As an important aside…I think our conversation really suffers from the inability to properly scale our analysis to the level of atrocity that we’re currently talking about. Obviously acts of terrorism like suicide bombings are the height of our atrocity spectrum. And then we have to scale down, to fatwas upon apostates/blasphemers, or if we still want to talk about views on terrorism, we have to scale down when talking about support of it. Clearly it’s less atrocious to advocate certain approaches if one doesn’t take that approach themselves. So I don’t want to be understood to say that all people that advocate for an Islamic system of law are just as bad as terrorists. That’s definitely not the case – the issue has to be scaled. But it still matters – there can still be some pretty horrible things lobbied for as law, even if it outright condemns killing civilians. So when you say “The Muslims I know abhor honour killings and oppression of women”…I’m baffled. I mean it’s the same for me…all my Muslim friends abhor those things as well. But what does that matter, as if our social circle should count as an adequate sample of the global Muslim population? The overall numbers are not so encouraging… the Muslim world (all branches, conservative-moderate-liberal all included) is so far behind on the issue of gender equality it is staggering! Our little anecdotal offerings on how our Muslim friends fight sexism – they amount to very little against the global picture. You wouldn’t let Christians divorce themselves from the same tradition that launched the Inquisition, claiming that those people weren’t real Christians, would you? You can deny that tactic and still not blame the peace-loving Christians of this world for the deeds of their violent forebears…bottom line: you don’t deny that the Inquisition is a blemish on the record of Christianity. In the same fashion, I don’t blame moderate Muslims for the deeds of their violent counterparts, but the teachings of Islam cannot be exonerated if heinous acts (scaled accordingly) derive their justification (even in part) from those teachings. It matters not that there are many many more Muslims that don’t act violently. Those Muslims should be understood as innocent in all of this, but they weren’t on trial in the first place. I’m someone judges all Muslims by the acts of the most radical ones, then that’s rightly called Islamophobia, and it’s wrong. But if someone judges the teachings that are acting as a catalyst for those Muslims that do act violently, then this is no different than counting a strike against Christianity because of the clear theological grounds for the Inquisition.

            2. You agree with Osama about resisting foreign powers, or you agree with me about the Qur’an being the most amenable of the holy books to militant radicalization? I really hope the latter, Neil, because if we can’t agree on this, then I don’t know what Qur’an you’re reading. And furthermore about bin Laden, doesn’t it matter that he’s making up a political reality that’s NOT reality? Maybe it is natural to resist occupiers and foreign oppressors…but last time I checked, the West was not occupying/oppressing Afghanistan prior to 9/11. I still am today a dissenter of the war(s) on terror, because of the amount of innocent civilian lives lost in retaliation. But let’s be clear – the West didn’t start that fight. Osama’s point is moot therefore, because he insanely conceived of himself as a retaliator rather than an instigator of violence. This is the general problem with the ambiguous concept of jihad. If you are cunning enough with your interpretive skills, you can label any political action (whether it was military or not, violent or not) as a declaration of war against Islam, thus making your actions a retaliation, which is what the call to jihad is really supposed to be (reactive instead of proactive).

            3. I’m going to try remain calm here, friend…but you either did NO homework on the words of Rigby’s killer before you quoted him, or you deliberately mined out the parts that help your argument and conveniently left out the bigger part that happens to stop your argument dead in its tracks. I sincerely hope it’s not the latter in this instance. Watch his whole speech once again (or for the first time if you never really saw it all in the first place):


            –the killer does indeed make the statements that you quote, but how can you ignore that his rhetoric comes straight from Islamic teaching and I quote “many many ayah (verses) throughout the Qur’an”??? Of course he’s angered by political events, but what is he using as his justification for his specific retaliation??? He quoted the Qur’an for you several times in his speech, and explained clearly that he is called to “fight them as they fight you”….THAT is the teaching of jihad, plain and simple. The only way to skirt around this is to flatly deny that he said what he said. Please don’t do that – it looks dishonest on your part, and I don’t think you’re a dishonest man.

            But let’s recap…we can say that the sources of his fury are the sociopolitical factors that Atran would cite….but the source of the “logic” that justified his murderous retaliation is EXPLICITLY the doctrine of jihad within the Qur’an. There is no ground from which to debate this point any further, at least not in this example, one that you yourself chose to bring up. If there are other examples to examine, then let’s move on to those.

            4. Touched on 4 earlier in this post. But no, by “footy” I was referring to aussie rules fooball (AFL), as in “Friday Night Footy”.

            1. 1. Correlation is not causation, period. Causation needs to be demonstrated and that is not done by simply adding more correlations as if there are are only two factors to be considered in the first place. My point has not been addressed as far as I can see in any of your comments.

              As for your aside, this is begging the question in my view. Causation needs to be demonstrated. We many times rationalize and express our acts through our philosophical or religious beliefs — but we need to follow where the research, the evidence actually leads — not just our assumptions and correlations. I am too tired to repeat my arguments about the data again because it seems to me you fail to notice or address them.

              And yes, we know Islam has been very bad for many women. But at the same time we cannot deny that many women have believed they have done very well within Islam. What needs to be addressed is sexism and human rights — just as we have done within Christian countries. (Anecdotally I am struck by the number of times I hear western women murmer assent when a Muslim woman argues that it is western men who dictate high-heels for western women, by the way.)

              Religion spawns good and evil. I have even posted a series on the good things that can come out of having been a member of an otherwise very undesirable Christian cult.

              2. Bin Laden did not use Afghanistan to justify anything before 9/11 so I don’t understand your point — but surely you must be aware that bin Laden stated his motivations many times in explicit political terms, no? Robert Pape explains what occupation is in the eyes of the occupied — the occupier’s perception, or the target’s perception, is irrelevant. What matters is the perspective of those who see themselves as subject to foreign domination. There is no doubt or debate about the historical and current reality of Western involvement and influence over the peoples and governments of the Middle East.

              3. You are completely missing my argument. You can only see the Koran-Terror correlation and it seems nothing else I say seems to mean anything to you. What does the black and white evidence in polling, research, studies, profiling, the vast overwhelming numbers of Muslims (and note the geography of each set of figures) tell us? None of this seems to be relevant.

              4. Sorry, AFL footy just leave me cold. The only time I tried to play it was in primary school and I could never figure out which way I was supposed to run or kick the ball coz I couldn’t get the hang of people from both sides all over the place. I only sort of followed Rugby (Union) since our high school coach ended up coaching the national team and I always felt a touch of sympathy for them knowing what they were enduring 🙂

              1. P.S. — it just occurred to me that I might be interpreted as saying that these murderers do not see themselves as doing jihad since I am stressing the nonreligious factors that studies have as far as I can see (and peer reviewed ones in the scholarly literature, too) establish clear reasons for these attacks: psychological, sociological, political. The point these studies are making (and that I may be taking for granted in some of my posts) is that they explain why these people choose to act out a murderous jihad. I am not denying for a minute that they see themselves as jihadis fighting in defence of Islam. But I am persuaded by the studies that to my mind demonstrate that it is not the Koran or religion that motivates them for most part — that jihadist language alongside the killing is the effect, not the cause.

              2. This has become utterly fruitless, sorry to say. You think I’m not really entertaining your arguments, and I’m convinced that you’re not entertaining mine. In my estimation, you’ve skirted around every poignant example I’ve put forth. I don’t know, maybe you’re embarrassed that you so badly misquoted (or quote-mined, take your pick) the killer (who was born in England and converted to Islam…so what oppressed people-group is he a part of? are you going to suggest he converted to Islam because he was watching the news and felt bad for political difficulties that Muslims face?). I think the causation makes sense the other way around: he identified with the plight of the Muslim world AFTER converting to Islam and learning the narrative of Allah’s people versus the world at large. Without the instilling of that theological narrative in his mind, he would never and could never have been operating with the conceptual framework that produces enmity between him and his fellow Brit.

                Sorry, look at me…I’m going on and on after I said how fruitless it is. Obviously I still care very much about the issue at hand. I know you do too. But I think this format of point-counterpoint-etc-etc is going to go nowhere. If you’d like to converse in some other way about this (and later transcribe the conversation for your blog readers, perhaps), I’d be more than willing! I think you have my email address since I have to provide it to leave comments. So contact me that way if you’d like. Otherwise, I’ve got to focus on same other matters, which for the last few weeks, have been getting relatively short shrift 😉


              3. Without the instilling of that theological narrative in his mind, he would never and could never have been operating with the conceptual framework that produces enmity between him and his fellow Brit.

                How many Muslims have this narrative in their minds? How many of them commit terrorist acts? I think the logic of such an argument leads us to conclude that the narrative is a greater force for non-violence than it is for violent acts.

                What evidence is there in the research that establishes that such a narrative is the cause of terrorist acts?

              4. In my estimation, you’ve skirted around every poignant example I’ve put forth. I don’t know, maybe you’re embarrassed that you so badly misquoted (or quote-mined, take your pick) the killer

                To be honest, I did not look at your video before I made my reply. (I have been through so many statements by terrorists I feared an overdose if I took these on so soon.) I had no wish to see it. But now, about a day later, I have looked at it, expecting, on the strength of how you portrayed his words, to hear something slightly different and that amounted to virtually nothing but religious rant. I think maybe the religious rant comprise about at most 2 seconds at the beginning and end combined. Everything I heard was an expansion on the quotes I offered above. Everything. If you take the trouble to write out his words and then do a count of how many refer to the political/revenge/war situation compared with how many proclaim the generic need to kill infidels anywhere on religious principle I will use it to support my case. His words are exactly as I portrayed them.

                I don’t understand how you can think I might be embarrassed. I don’t understand how you can hear the same words I hear and not see that this murder was in retaliation for Muslims killed in the Middle East/Afghanistan region.

                You insist we listen to the words of the terrorists, but this is the second time I have quoted the words of the terrorists and you don’t seem to hear them.

            2. “Obviously acts of terrorism like suicide bombings are the height of our atrocity spectrum.”

              We need to be clear. I don’t believe everyone would call the kamikaze acts “the height of our atrocity spectrum”. So we need to ask what it is, exactly, that enrages us. A person puts plants a bomb in a street that kills a handful. Another shoots several hostages to cower a larger population or a government into submission. Someone else drops a bomb from a height and vaporizes an entire city. Others enforce sieges that slowly kill hundreds of thousands. Another initiates a war of aggression just in case the one attacked might have been planning to attack first. Another sets up a false polio vaccination plant as part of a plot to carry out an extra-judicial killing, so that when it is discovered what it is really for, legitimate vaccination centres are forced to evacuate leaving thousands of children at risk of polio.

              How does one measure where a certain act is on an atrocity spectrum?

  10. @NateP,

    We need to remember that the West has all but declared war on Islam. This is an objective fact and has been since Samuel P. Huntington “predicted” this war in his “Clash of Civilizations,” where he white-washed yesteryear’s racial prejudice and religious animosity in a secular discussion of different “civilizations.” Hint: the West is one civilization; Islam is another. Huntington’s frame stands at the heart of the American neo-conservative worldview, which has driven American foreign policy for over a decade now and has yielded a marked increase of American military action in Islamic countries.

    It should come as no surprise, then, that some Islamists have taken that declaration of war seriously, particularly in light of America’s follow-through on that declaration. That’s what you call a rational response. It also should come as no surprise that some Islamists are so alarmed and concerned by that declaration (and its follow-through) that they are taking matters into their own hands and “fighting back” through terrorist action. This is what history tells us will happen in war, however you want to define it.

    I say this not to condone terrorism but to acknowledge that terrorism as a response to the aggression of a militarily superior (and self-identified) enemy is entirely predictable in view of human history.

    It is ironic, however, that we call the targeted killing of one man for assertedly political purposes terrorism, but we do not apply the same label to the indiscriminate killing of thousands of innocent civilians in spite of the fear and politics such action generates. If the result is the same– terror– shouldn’t the label be the same?

    Anyway, I just don’t believe we can separate Islam from the geopolitical reality and isolate Islam as the cause of these acts of terrorism, particularly because US foreign policy is predicated on a view of geopolitical reality where Islam is what identifies the enemy civilization of the West. The rise in terrorism that we perceive is a result of the West’s geopolitical policy, not Islam. Put another way, this terrorism is a reaction of a tiny subset of Islamists and not the policy of Islam.

    Going off on a tangent here, but it seems fair to say that Islam is to Pax Americana today what Judaism was to the Roman Empire two thousand years ago.

    1. Scot, your reasoning is sound, but you’re starting with some skewed data. Let’s set aside, for a moment, how to understand America’s involvement for the last several decades in the Middle East. I’m not saying set it aside because it’s inadmissible as evidence (I’ll be the first to say that the War on Terror has been consistently deplorable, and tantamount to terrorism itself in many ways). Rather, I say set it aside because it presumes that the lion-share of jihad is perpetrated against American enemies. That is not the case!

      Look up some numbers on jihadist bombings and killings of Shiite Muslims perpetrated by Sunnis, and vice versa. This is one form of Muslim vilifying another as an infidel, sometimes even as much an infidel as the average American would be considered. Muslims are killing each other ruthlessly, much like Catholics and Protestants did so in the past. Unfortunately, there are no occupiers or political meddlers in this equation. They aren’t fights over land, or power, or stolen rights. So your reasoning above is non-applicable to these scenarios, and this is the majority of jihadist terrorism in the world. So you simply must adjust the way you analyze it.

      My .02 has always been: pay attention to the words that people utter, as a real indication of things they believe, and don’t start off with an ethic of suspicion, assuming that they don’t really mean what they say when they’re describing their motivations.

      1. Nate,

        Thanks for the reply.

        Actually, my assumption is not that the lion’s share of jihad is perpetrated against American enemies, but that Americans don’t care about jihad that isn’t aimed at Americans (unless, apparently, it is to validate their judgment of Islam). If Muslims were only killing Muslims in Muslim countries, nobody in the West would even think about it, let alone discuss it.

        And if the West weren’t at war with Islam, Muslims wouldn’t be killing Americans in “jihad”.

        Thus, the only thing that really matters here is the conflict between the West and Islam, a conflict that the West is prosecuting and to which small numbers of Muslims are reacting to defensively with terrorist acts, something that Jews, Christians and non-religious types have done in similar situations in the past. I think the right lens to analyze this situation through is a geopolitical one, not a religious one. From a political perspective, I really can’t bring myself to agree with or endorse Harris’ position because I think it tends to encourage Christians in their efforts to engage in what amounts to a modern day Crusade to prove their god is bigger than Islam’s. The result thus far has been orders of magnitude more murdered Muslims than murdered Westerners.

  11. Re: Science doesn’t do well in morality but religion does.

    I think this is a sop thrown to religion as neither science nor religion does a particularly good job on morality. I ask Christians frequently what their morality is. I ask them whether “Thou shalt not kill” is an example of an absolute moral precept, most respond “yes.” But since the source of this “commandment” is the “ten commandments” it is clear that this “commandment” applies only to Hebrews with regard to other Hebrews. It could have said “Thou shalt not kill other Hebrews” to be perfectly clear. Yahweh orders the Israelites to murder untold thousands of people and, if you set Yahweh aside as something not to be criticized, various Bible characters commit murder and are rewarded for it. Plus there are authorized murders galore in the Bible, of slaves, stonings of those making religious infractions and, well, death seems to be the penalty for even the minutest infractions, such as teenagers being cheeky with their parents. The “ten commandments” are rules to be followed by followers of Judaism, not applicable to other peoples.

    Where is the “absolute” in all of this? Where is the “objective” in all of this? How can anyone say Christianity is doing a good job with morality? Clearly it seems decent people are projecting their decency upon their religion. The fact that so many claim that in the absence of a belief in a punishment in the hereafter that atheists will rampage about killing and raping … with no evidence of this ever having happened … and yet are not reflecting on what this says about their opinion of the base nature of people (which doesn’t apply to them or their friends, of course).

    I do not see that religions have done really anything with regard to morality except muddy the waters (It is immoral to marry outside of your religion. It is immoral to marry someone of the same sex, no matter how devoted you are to them It is an abomination … etc.). If there is this universal morality, why do not the religions form a joint effort to pin it down and make it clear that they all agree, at least upon core subjects? Has any such effort ever been made? Has any religion made a major effort to clarify its moral teachings, that didn’t also involve the reinforcement of the church’s power over its members?

    Sorry for the rant, but it seems we are all too eager to cede primacy to religion in areas it has not earned.

    1. By the way, Scott Atran is not endorsing the moral teachings of religion. Far from it, and there are so many contradictions anyway. His point is that religion is seen as a bulwark, source, whatever, of morality. That is surely unquestionable and needs to be understood in order to appreciate the appeal of religion for many.

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