Scott Atran’s response to Sam Harris & Jerry Coyne on religion and terrorism

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by Neil Godfrey

Good to see Scott Atran respond specifically to the nonsense of Sam Harris and Jerry Coyne on the question of wheher religion is or isn’t a cause of current and past political violence. . . On his Facebook page:

https://www.facebook.com/scott.atran?fref=nf&pnref=story [link no longer active – Neil Godfrey, 24th July 2019]

How in fact can we destroy ISIS and its ilk. . . . It certainly will not be with the mindless diatribe against “religion” that produces exactly the kind of knee-jerk reaction that the Islamic State so conscientiously seeks

I have posted before on Sam Harris’s and Jerry Coyne’s ideologically driven dishonest and ignorant attacks on the researchers who do the hard work of understanding the causes of terrorism. Here’s part of Scott Atran’s response to the most recent falsehoods and distortions by Jerry Coyne: Once again Scott Atran exculpates religion as a cause of terrorism. Dismaying how some leading public intellectuals abuse their status and presume to be experts outside their specialist area and exploit the murderous acts of others as an opportunity to propagate their pet anti-theistic hobby horse.

Extract from Atran’s response (only and extract, do read the full post):

I have discussed the matter at length in the historical record (about 7 percent of recorded wars since the punic wars have been explicitly religious wars, and when non-religious conflicts take on a religious cast they also tend to endure and resist exit strategies).

I have also written empirical papers showing the role of religious claims . . .  in faith in the strict sharia of the Caliphate as one of 2 key motivators for volunteers for the Islamic State.

Yet, it remains a fact that the principal factors that predict actual involvement in violence concerns social network factors.

Coyne and Harris have never done a single empirical study involving violent political and religious actors, have never met one in the field (only ostensibly “reformed” ones in a safe environment), and not only do not know what they are talking about, but willfully distort and cherry pick statements -without the slightest awareness or scrutiny of the science – in repetitive declamations to support their ideological position and hackneyed harangue against “liberal apolegetics.”

I invite then to accompany me to the frontlines in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere, or even to the banlieues of Paris, to see for themselves what is driving people to fight and die. And to discuss, as I regularly do, with military and political leaders how in fact we can destroy ISIS and its ilk.

It certainly will not be with the mindless diatribe against “religion” that produces exactly the kind of knee-jerk reaction that the Islamic State so conscientiously seeks, as outlined in tis manifesto Idarat at-Tawahoush (The Management of Savagery-Chaos,) and in the article in its online magazine Dabiq, titled “The Gray Zone,” whose goal is to eliminate any shady area between believer and non-believer, so as to polarize sentiment towards war.

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Neil Godfrey

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31 thoughts on “Scott Atran’s response to Sam Harris & Jerry Coyne on religion and terrorism”

  1. Worth pointing out one of the additional comments made by Atran, quoting a colleague, underneath the post:

    “The issue with Jerry coynes piece is towards the end where he asks why is it only Muslims who channel their adventurousness and rebellion into murder and barbarity.

    Regardless of everything else he writes, it is that absurd statement which reveals what I guess must be referred to as the deep prejudice underlying his thinking. ThAt type of prejudice makes free critical thought impossible and invites polemic in its stead.”


  2. Perhaps the question we in the west should be asking ourselves is not how we can destroy ISIS, but how have our interventions to destroy other threats in the middle east led to the present situation. Since at least the breakup of the Ottoman Empire at the end of WWI, the west has conspired to control the governments and the oil in the region. In the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 Britain and France agreed to divide up the middle eastern spoils, which they did through the League of Nations mandates after the war. The Balfour agreement of 1917 committed Britain to support the appropriation of part of that Ottoman territory as a Jewish State. US President Truman’s recognition of the Israeli declaration of independence essentially turned the territory whose majority population was Muslim, over to a western client state. Massive infusions of western arms, including the development of nuclear weapons has helped this outpost of western imperialism maintain a military dominance over it neighbors. In 1953 the US and UK ousted the elected leader of the most democratic state in the region, Iran, and imposed the brutal shah and his secret police on the country, in order to maintain control over its oil. The first gulf war established a permanent western military presence in the region. The Iraq invasion of Bush and Blair destabilized the entire region and led to the present chaos. The Israelis continue to pour salt on Muslim wounds with the 50 year occupation, including periodic slaughter of their helpless victims. I would say the main problem to be solved is not ISIS but the never ending western imperialism in the middle east.

    1. And more recently “our” failure to go for the real drivers and financial backers of the al-Qaeda type groups like ISIS — Saudi Arabia and Pakistan’s ISI.

      Unfortunately I think terrorist groups have moved on since I first began writing about them, meaning Pape’s “Dying to Win” needs serious updating. ISIS is as much a religious cult as any that have appeared — comparing the Taipings of the nineteenth century China that I have some knowledge of. Its goals have gone beyond expelling the occupiers and backers of the dictatorships.

      1. Exposing and stopping the “fueling” from Saudi Arabia and other sources of ISIS are indeed paramount necessities, but not the only requirements, if it is to be choked. In an ideal world (the Middle East is the last candidate, contrary to “scripture”) the Kurds should be rewarded for their contribution by the combination of their broken nation into one unit (off Turkey’s hands and off its back).

  3. You might want to bear in mind that you have to be a member of Facebook to read Scott Atran’s response, and as hard as it might be to believe in this day and age, but not all of us are on Facebook!

  4. “It certainly will not be with the mindless diatribe against “religion” that produces exactly the kind of knee-jerk reaction that the Islamic State so conscientiously seeks”

    -There ought to be a variant of Godwin’s law for this sort of thing. I’m tired of it.

  5. “and in the article in its online magazine Dabiq, titled “The Gray Zone,” whose goal is to eliminate any shady area between believer and non-believer, so as to polarize sentiment towards war.”

    -This is not what Coyne is trying to do. Has he ever proposed that all Muslims are IS-supporters? No.

    1. Something amiss with the reading comprehension here. Atran is not saying Coyne says all Muslims are IS supporters. How on earth did you get that out of what you read?

      But it is pretty clear that Coyne distorts and misrepresents Atran’s views and would substitute informed research with his own anti-religion bigotry.

  6. to be clear—I am not defending ISIS—my point is about language

    Language can obfuscate and veil or it can edify—-What might be the particular toxic ideas within ISIS? 1) Exclusivity, and Us. vs Them, 2) Supremacist–Only one right belief/way and its theirs 3) Nationalist —to control territory that is “theirs” 4) Whatever means they take to achieve their goals is right. (might makes right)
    These particular toxic strains also appear in the “West”(neocons). …and….in the HindutvaRSS (India), Buddhist 969 group (Burma), Christian Lords resistance Army (Uganda), Jewish settler terrorism (Israel)…..etc…..

    Of all these groups—the “neocons” have slaughtered and damaged the most—why? because they have the best a) funding and b) arms.

    If “we” the globalized community of humanity are to stop terrorism (legitimized) state terrorism or non-state terrorism—do we not have a moral obligation to do so justly and fairly and CONSISTENTLY? By focusing and complaining only about ISIS—are we saying “Muslim” terrorism is bad—but other kinds are ok because its not ISIS, or, its not “Muslim”? If we are to eradicate toxic ideas in order to make a better world—we have to do so wherever they are found—and not cherry pick some “other” to scapegoat so “we” can feel better about ourselves.

    Consider—If the “West” says collateral damage is acceptable because it is inevitable in war—then the citizens of Paris (and everywhere in the West) are equally “collateral damage” just as those in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria etc are “collateral damage”. If you find it shocking and dehumanizing to label the victims of New York, London or Paris as collateral damage—then good–apply the same ethical standard to all humanity consistently.

    If the toxic ideas of ISIS contributes to war—then all similar ideas must be “reformed/removed—regardless of the label attached to the “group”.

    Recently there were 4 (as in FOUR—a number that is counted on one hand!) U.S. drone operators that came out in protest….

    Courageous as they are—we need better, higher standards for humanity….

    1. If you are saying the whole world is a mess and full of hypocrites and murderous people on all sides then it can be replied that that is nothing new to the human condition. The answer is certainly not for one group to try to take over all the sectors of humanity to impose Islamic laws.

      There’s also many good things about humanity and what is happening in the world. There is much to admire, too. Have a look! 🙂 There really are millions who deplore the evils you speak about and who are prepared to act in any way they can to do something.

      1. I think most people are decent human beings—but I also think that we are (necessarily) selective in what we see around us. This can make us inconsistent in applying ethico-moral standards/principles —which in turn creates imbalance.

        For example—if “they” attack us in revenge and this is wrong—then “us” attacking in revenge is equally wrong.
        On the other hand—if an injustice is done—to not redress it is also wrong. How to solve this dilemma?—by the rule of law.

        The way to peace is not through violence—but through Justice—and this is done through law.

        1. Which is what we have now. And we also have the freedoms and institutions to enable us to amend laws when we find them inadequate.

          Does the following sum up where you are coming from? When I read it I was reminded very much of your comments. It sounded very familiar. . . .

          Islam does not force people to accept its belief, but it wants to provide a free environment in which they will have the choice of beliefs. What it wants is to abolish those oppressive political systems under which people are prevented from expressing their freedom to choose whatever beliefs they want, and after that it gives them complete freedom to decide whether they will accept Islam or not. . . .

          It is not the intention of Islam to force its beliefs on people, but Islam is not merely ‘belief’. As we have pointed out, Islam is a declaration of the freedom of man from servitude to other men. Thus it strives from the beginning to abolish all those systems and governments which are based on the rule of man over men and the servitude of one human being to another. When Islam releases people from this political pressure and presents to them its spiritual message, appealing to their reason, it gives them complete freedom to accept or not to accept its beliefs.

          However, this freedom does not mean that they can make their desires their lords, or that they can choose to remain in the servitude of other human beings, making some men lords over others. Whatever system is to be established in the world ought to be on the authority of Allah, deriving its laws from Him alone. Then every individual is free, under the protection of this universal system, to adopt any belief he wishes to adopt. This is the only way in which ‘the religion’ can be purified for Allah alone. The word ‘religion’ includes more than belief; ‘religion’ actually means a way of life, and in Islam this is based on belief. But in an Islamic system there is room for all kinds of people to follow their own beliefs, while obeying the laws of the country which are themselves based on the Divine authority.

          1. I can accept the first paragraph

            The 2nd, the idea of “rule of man over men”—does not seem either historically or philosophically accurate—-but it may depend on the context.
            Islam has “Sharia” which is rule of law—and rule of law is essentially man-made in its interpretations and implementations….even if its ethico-moral principles might be derived from revelation. Rather, “freedom” is more accurately understood as submission to what Enlightenment thinkers referred to as Natural law (—because nature is a “revelation” from God just as the Quran is and therefore is “Divine law”.) This is why the idea of the Universality of some ethico-moral principles is acceptable in Islam. Thus—laws that go against human nature are oppressive and those that allow human nature to flourish are “good” (This idea is predicated on the Islamic assumption that human nature/soul is inherently good (God created his creation in goodness—therefore evil is a rebellion against human nature/soul))
            But…there is also a paradox—Laws that allow humanity to flourish are restrictive in their nature. This is because unrestrained excess can lead to evil. (…that is why “submission” is used—if we submit to restrictions—we can be “free”—-to achieve our potential for goodness)
            Also—If we look at human nature—we are social creatures and as such we need to organize our societies. This means some form/type of leadership is necessary. To disallow this would be to go against the very nature (natural laws) that God determined….
            But—Leadership—and its consequent power and privilege does not denote any kind of superiority—rather it is understood as a responsibility (Trusteeship/Khalifa)…therefore Islam (in principle) does not endorse any system in which one man or group is in “servitude” to another man or group….But, this also means that the citizenry does not abdicate its responsibilities—because all humanity is inherently equal. All (individual) humanity are khalifa (Trustee) on earth.

            3rd paragraph—yes—if understood in the context that though there may be universal principles—their interpretation and implementation is varied and changing but no less valid because of it….The Quran says that God sent many wisdom teachers throughout time and to all locations on earth—-not just confined to the biblical prophets/teachers.

            1. Those paragraphs were direct quotes from Milestones by Qutb.

              All of these issues of natural law and freedom have been worked out in the Western intellectual traditions – you seem to be trying to reinvent the wheel without any awareness of what those Enlightenment and Western traditions really are. Once you bring a god or gods into the picture you are stepping right back into the dark ages and all the talk of “reason” and “freedom” etc is all smokescreen and deception. We have had the same experience with our Christian groups of various sorts here — with the same talk of “reason” and “freedom” etc etc etc — but we know all of that is sugar-coating propaganda to justify another medieval theocracy.

              1. If Islam provides individuals with the freedom to reject its beliefs, then its clerics and communities should (1) rewrite the Qur’an and (2) abolish punishment for apostasy. I don’t think I have made these points before, but if so, please delete them again, as I shouldn’t like to seem boring or offensive or worse.

              2. Islam is neither good nor bad and does not do any of those things. Islam is a religion. How it is practised, understood, interpreted, is up to the various people themselves — just like in any other religion. Islam no more does any of those things you infer than Christianity itself separates and divides families and enforces pacifism.

                Anon is not arguing for Islam, and Qutb’s words are a political agenda, not a religious treatise — as I explain in the post.

                In fact when you read Anon’s words and the passage I quoted you are seeing an example of the very thing Ed Husain’s grandfather and parents — as mainstream Muslims — rejected and deplored as something that was not spiritual or religious at all, but pure politics.

    1. I tend to concur to some extent with John Horgan on this one. Coyne even says in the new book that the reason he wrote it was that he was incensed that his first book, Why Evolution Is True, did not make any appreciable change to the ratio of creationists still extant in the USA! (Has the concept of narcissism arisen before in discussing Coyne’s behaviour?) Coyne has no comprehension at all of the nature or science behind religious belief. His thinking is simplistic and one-sided, ignorant and intolerant. (He certainly betrays no sign of having read any psychological or anthropological studies of the nature and origins of religion.)

      I can find much to criticize in religion. I’m an atheist, after all, who has suffered a lot as a result of religion — too much. But I’d like to think I can distinguish between puerile bias and genuinely informed argument.

  7. Islam is just a “religion” like “any other”(!). What then are its “essential” distinguishing characteristics? A belief in a God and someone called Muhammad who was his “prophet” but left no precepts for believers? Oh, and perhaps some prayer. Is that it?

    1. No, David. Islam is no more a religion of war or peace than is Christianity or Judaism. All these religions have their many sects and divisions and each one is what their particular adherents make it.

      You cannot define a religion as an outsider just by reading a holy text. Holy texts are notorious for containing inconsistencies, contradictions, mysteries, etc etc etc.

      This is not just my idea. It is the message being put out by Muslims themselves — but too often their voices are being shouted out by political Islamists.

      This was set out at the beginning of that online discussion between Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz. Even Sam Harris was forced to concede for a minute on this one — though he seems to have reverted to his old ideas since.

      In the Koran there are contradictory passages on the nature of jihad. Some Muslims say the earlier ones take precedence, others the latter ones. But Muslims who focus on the teachings of their spiritual guides do see their religion as very spiritual and personal — and nothing to do with violence or politics.

      This is why most Muslims abhor the violence of the terrorists and reject the program of the Islamists.

  8. On the specifics of “lesser” jihad I agree, and most Muslims rightly want a “quiet, pleasant life” – like you, me and millions of our fellow-humans the world over. It is in their interest and ours to encourage both “pietism” and “enlightenment”, and we probably agree that “crusades” on behalf of Halliburton or Tel Aviv has not helped this process. That said, the predominant practices of the main sects of Islam, and the implications of the Qur’an and Hadith as understood, not by outsiders but by most clerics and believers themselves, generally take the definition of “commitment to Allah” socially and political further than you seem to allow, and must therefore taken into account as an objective community phenomenon, present, past and future. More on this perhaps in private documentation, after the “Winterval of Lights” aka Xmas.

    1. I think Nawaz made an important point in his discussion with Sam Harris:

      Quoted from Sam Harris modifies his views on Islam:

      Responding to the question of whether Islam is a religion of peace or war. Harris explains that the aim of the conversation with Nawaz was to see a way forward. Maajid says it’s neither a religion of war or peace. If we only listened to Nawaz at this point we would think he is indistinguishable from apologists like Reza Aslan — but Maajid doesn’t stop there and admits there is a link between specific ideas and what follows.
      12 mins —
      Maajid Nawaz [MN] speaking: For some it’s a religion of war, for others it’s a religion of peace. It’s like the US constitution. Today, by majority view of adherents, it’s a religion of peace. But the concern is about a very vocal and organised minority…..

    1. Omg! That old Chomsky defends Pol Pot rubbish. I read as far as that line in the first paragraph and dropped it. Coyne cares not one whit for the tedious task of establishing the facts behind anything he reads if it titillates from the get-go his repulsive bigotries.

      Chomsky has set a pretty good example, I think, on how to respond to those who blatantly lie about what one writes. It’s a high standard to emulate, however.

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