Search Results for: radicalization


2016-08-22

Sam Harris: Wrong (again) about Religion and Radicalization

by Neil Godfrey
Screen Shot 2016-08-22 at 6.49.04 pm
Waking Up Sam Harris? I wish! 😉 But “waking up with Sam Harris” is more like a drifting off into pre-scientific fantasies about the nature of religion.

At about the 40th minute in Waking Up with Sam Harris:#43 — What Do Jihadists Really Want? Sam Harris explains his understanding of the nature and origin of religion. The same fundamental error is made by New Atheists more generally according to my understanding of the writings of the likes of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. Harris explains what lies at the root of the evil of Islam and terrorism and any other religion that has wreaked terror and stupidity on the world:

Whenever human obsession gets channelled in these ways we see the same ancient framework upon which many religions were built. In our ignorance and fear and craving for order we created the gods and ignorance and fear and craving keep them with us.

I am surprised that one with strong interests in religion and neurology should fail to indicate awareness of serious research into the nature and origins of religious thought and instead continue to recycle the old myth that belief in gods came about because of fear and a desire to explain the world in an age without the scientific method.

Ignorance: did a desire for explanations to replace ignorance lead us to create gods? Is it ignorant explanations that keep gods with us?

Anthropological studies have demonstrated that this notion is false. Only certain types of explanations for certain types of questions are sought, and the explanations that are derived this way are on the one hand increasingly baroque (many myths on top of one another to explain related points) and on the other hand they inspire no desire for an explanation at all. To believe, for example, that thunder is explained as the voices of ancestors requires a host of many other beliefs to make sense (e.g. how do their voices sound so loud if they are so far away, etc) but there is no desire to explain these “problems”.

A classic illustration was provided by E. E. Evans-Pritchard with the Zande people of the Sudan. They knew very well that white-ants caused the collapse of a hut but that did not answer the question as to why the hut fell at the particular time it did with a certain person inside. Only witchcraft could explain that. And how to explain witchcraft? No curiosity arises there. That question never arises. So it’s certain types of concepts that we are talking about, and scientific explanations are not so much rejected as they are irrelevant.

There is much, much more to this topic that needs several posts of its own. I would expect a scientist interested in religious belief to be devouring all he can by his peers researching this very question.

Fear: did a desire for dispelling fear through comfort and reassurance lead us to create gods? Is it the same need for comfort and reassurance that keeps them with us?

This is another myth. Many religions certainly do not dispel fear of death or other misfortunes. Anthropologists even raise the possibility that it is religious rituals that create the fears they are meant to allay. So in a society that performs many, many rituals to guard against witchcraft, the fear of witchcraft is strong, while in other societies there is no such fear — and no rituals either. This brings us to questions of psychology to explain ritualistic behaviour.

Again, to simply say that religion gives us fantasies to take away our fears is in reality extremely problematic. If that were really true then it is hard to imagine the human species surviving long enough at all to evolve towards our current state of progress.

Again, I am not pretending to answer this myth fully at all. Several posts would be required.

Craving for order: did a desire for social order lead us to create gods? Is it the same craving for order that keep gods with us?

Here we enter the realm of what is best described as a series of ad hoc rationalizations rather than real cause and effect. It can be shown that morality is not per se a product of religion, and that there are many moral values attributed to religion that people in fact hold regardless of religion.

And so forth. I’ve mentioned the books before and they are certainly not the last word but they are great introductions:

  • Barrett, Justin L. 2004. Why Would Anyone Believe in God? Altamira Press.
  • Boyer, Pascal. 2001. Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought, Basic Books.

If you know of others just as good or better as introductions do leave a comment

I take that remark by Sam Harris at around the 40th minute of his talk as the premise from which he builds the rest of his case. It is a false premise and his edifice cannot stand. read more »


2016-03-01

How Radicalization Happens to Them and Us

by Neil Godfrey

frictionI have now posted on the first part of Friction: How Radicalization Happens to Them and Us by Clark McCauley and Sophia Moskalenko. This section has covered the how individuals are radicalised. Future posts will look at how groups move towards extremism, and then how entire nations can likewise go in that ugly direction.

Type of mechanism Mechanism Case studies Vridar post
Individual Personal Grievance Andrei Zhelyabov
Fadela Amara

How Terrorists Are Made: 1 – Personal Grievance

Individual Group Grievance Vera Zazulich
Theodore Kaczynski (Unabomber)
John Allen Muhammad (Washington sniper)
Clayton Waagner (abortion providers)
Ayman Al-Zawahiri
Bin Laden

How Terrorists Are Made: 2 — Group Grievance

Individual Slippery Slope Adrian Michailov
Omar Hammami (Abu Mansoor Al-Amriki)
Bin Laden

Slippery Slope to Terrorism

Individual Love Sophia (Sonia) Perovskaya & Andrei Zhelyabov
Amrozi bin Nurhasyim (smiling terrorist)
Bin Laden

Love, Relationships and Terrorism

Individual Risk and Status Alexander Barannikov
Leon Mirsky
Ahmad Fadeel al-Nazal (Abu-Musab al-Zarqawi)
Bin Laden

Terrorists on Status Seeking Adventures

A contemporary example of a status driven extremist?

Individual Unfreezing Sophia Andreevna Ivanova (Vanechka)
Muhammad Bouyeri

Unfreezing. Gateway to Radicalisation (Comparing Cults and Terrorist Groups Once More)

Group Group Polarization

Group Group Competition
Group Group Isolation
Mass Jutitsu Politics
Mass Hatred
Mass Martyrdom

 


2019-03-20

Trump, Trump Supporters, and Cults

by Neil Godfrey
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Donald_Trump_supporters_(30018900853).jpg

As many readers know I was a member of a religious cult for too many years in a former life and have since delved into some of the specialist literature by psychologists, sociologists and historians to help me reflect on and understand that experience.

I have mentioned before how fascinated I was when once watching a TV interview with several former members of the Hitler Youth and how some of their accounts of their experiences in that movement echoed so very clearly my own experiences in a religious cult. More recently I have posted on certain strong similarities in the radicalization processes that draw people into radical extremist groups, in particular Islamists, and the gradual “conversion processes” of cult members.

Others have made similar comparisons between the Trump phenomenon and cults. I think there may be something to these comparisons.

The Leader

One of the more striking points in common is the devotion to a charismatic leader. Behaviour that in other persons would normally mean their condemnation and ostracism from society is forgiven and excused in the cult’s leader. Followers will even draw attention to those flaws to “prove” they do not “idolize” the man but “see him warts and all” and are therefore clear and rational in deciding to give him their loyalty. But that is an illusion. We know it is an illusion when we compare the process with the way religious cults will justify the most corrupt and hypocritical behaviour of their leaders by pointing to how God so loved great sinners like King David. Crimes, cruelty, hypocrisy, outright dishonesty are excused. Sometimes flatly denied even despite the clear evidence before everyone’s eyes.

The leader is admired for his “strength”. Such “strength” is contrasted with all who have gone before and all other “would-be leaders” he opposes today. Followers have lost their ability to discern the difference between “strength” per se and bigotry, intolerance and wilful ignorance. Indeed, those who speak up for compassion, for understanding, for tolerance and genuine democratic values are smeared as weak, fifth-columnists, subversives, wreckers of society and all that is good and pure.

Victimhood

And that leads us to the notion of a siege mentality. A persecution or victim syndrome. “Whites and Christians are the most disadvantaged groups in society”, we hear. The leader is speaking up to defend and promote what has been in real danger of being lost to “political correctness”, to “immigrants” — especially those from countries where people have a different religion and skin colour. Both the nature of these immigrants and the reasons for leaving their homelands are lied about to feed into popular (and the leader’s) prejudices. Political correctness is also misrepresented as a tyranny against free thought. There is a failure to distinguish between genuine wrongs and wrong ideas and those that are validly critical of society’s shortcomings. The leader represents a righteous push-back against all that is seen as corrosive of decent society.

“Truth”

And the leader is the primary source of truth. All criticism from the outside is “fake news”. The leader can flat-out lie and followers will remain wilfully unaware, refusing to seriously countenance exposure of his lies and reflexively justifying all his lies, distortions, anti-social bigotry and the rest. It is the critics who are considered extreme, fanatical, wild-eyed terrified of what their leader represents.

The Emotional Factor

And that brings us back to the emotional component. Emotion is unavoidable. It is part of being human. But a clear headed rational debate about political and social problems and solutions is not in the Trump cult agenda. Emotional commitment leads and buttresses the views and loyalties and ignorance and prejudices of the cult followers. Emotional commitment means defensiveness, and defensiveness too often calls for attack. The racism, the ignorant bigotry against those who have long stood for democratic values and a humane society, that attacks are directed against the weak and vulnerable, — all of these and what their true character are hidden from view by the righteous emotion of the cult loyalists. Civil debate, seriously honest and open discussion of the issues, becomes impossible with the loyal followers of someone like Trump.

What has led us to this type of society is also worth exploring. We know what “radicalizes” individuals to join extremist groups and cults. Are there valid wider social parallels? Another post for that one.


2019-03-09

On Being a Librarian

by Neil Godfrey

How it happened

I never planned to be a librarian. An academic career was stymied as a consequence of joining up with the Worldwide Church of God. That episode brought chaos into my life that led to my early departure from advanced studies. Some years later after more advanced studies I was offered the opportunity to enter a master’s course but by then I was married with young kids and financial commitments and still involved with certain demands of the church so simply could not see that as a realistic option.

I only became an academic or university librarian after another tumultuous turnaround in my life that eventually took me out of the church. Librarianship promised a nice easy nine to five type job that I could leave behind at the end of each day (unlike secondary school teaching) in order to focus on other higher priority personal issues.

Those other issues eventually became past history and there I was, needing stimulation from my nine-to-five cataloguing job. Political and community activism and organizing became one happy outlet.

But when an opportunity came for me to advance up the ladder the job changed and once again I often found myself working extra hours to master all I wanted to master and make the best contribution I could. From there the job opened up international travel and eventually an international posting in a very senior position at the Singapore National Library Board.

What I have enjoyed the most

  1. Understanding how information and resources are organized to the extent that one can most effectively assist students and academics,
  2. The appreciation of students and academics for the assistance provided,
  3. Participating in the change from hard copy to online and internet systems, keeping up to date with the technological changes, watching the way they expand a library’s service potential and learning of the many technical and legal and policy and ethical issues related to these changes.

A metadata librarian

Those are the background pluses one experiences over the years as both a cataloguer and reference librarian. More recent years have seen a complete change in my own responsibilities so that it became hard to even describe myself as a librarian in any meaningful sense to others. I worked in a library building but I no longer touched books or journals. It was all about metadata. I became a metadata librarian.

This shift was all about making publicly funded research in Australian regional universities publicly available through open access and research reporting repositories of digitized research publications and datasets. That over time was expanded to doing the same for special cultural collections.

All of that requires changes in academic culture and university workflows. The public standing and reputation of the researchers is to be advanced and that means close involvement with the researchers themselves on the one hand and the technology teams tasked with building and maintaining the systems that make it all possible on the other.

I was very lucky. I was involved in the very early days of a project to move libraries in this new direction so before long found myself for a while being possibly the only person in Australia who had a handle on what was required metadata-wise across different university sizes and specialties and the different technologies they all used. (Metadata, basically, is about the different languages required for organizing and accessing the different types of data — data for the content, data for the carriers of that content, data for the authors of the content, and so on — one of the many facets required to make the operation workable.) So being a pioneer in a new niche area I was very employable. It has been a stimulating and challenging and most enjoyable time. Helping create major changes for the benefit of researchers and publicly funded research programs, of the public, of cultural groups (in particular Australian indigenous communities) has been the most satisfying time professionally in my life.

The ongoing relevance

I have regularly turned back to some of the professional training I was given to become a librarian even when blogging on Vridar. One of the most valuable areas of that education was in information and knowledge management. Coming to have a clear understanding of the distinction between “public knowledge” and “specialist or research knowledge”; the distinction between data, information and knowledge; the distinction between a creative work per se, the expression of that work, the manifestation of that work, and the digital or hard copy of the work itself — being clear about the differences and functions of each particle that contributes to our ability to share and acquire information — all of this has helped me in analysing different aspects of what I read and what I endeavour to understand and write about.

Before all of that, when doing postgraduate educational studies, I specialized in the essences of propaganda and genuine education, and how to guard against one and promote the other. And all of that further involved understanding the relationship between values and knowledge production and evaluation.

Before that, as a teacher, I found much of my time devoted to working on how to make new concepts clear and as easily understood as possible.

So though I missed out on an academic career I did find a very rewarding way to make a living nonetheless. And that demon that set me on the wrong course at the outset, the religious cult, in the end directed me into seeking to understand as completely and truly as I could the nature of religious belief, cults, radicalization, and even the origins of the Bible and Christianity themselves. One other carry over from that life-destroying demon: the experience has left me with an indelible awareness of just how easy it is for any of us to be wrong, and the importance of doing one’s homework as thoroughly as possible at all times.


2019-01-30

Waco (the background story)

by Neil Godfrey

James Haught of Daylight Atheism has posted the historical pathway that led to the Branch Davidians and the Waco disaster beginning from the Millerite movement of 1843 and 1844.

The Story Behind Waco’s Tragedy

David who had a thing for feet sees Bathsheba washing her . . . .

It’s a story of dashed idealism, sordid and cruel moments, the power of belief, and too much that I can personally relate to. I watched the TV mini-series on the Waco story late last year and, as I expected, found myself too easily able to identify with some of the followers. My experience was with the Worldwide Church of God. Not that that was my only experience with religion, but it was the one that echoed aspects of the Branch Davidians history.

One moment in the movie that left me shaking my head in all too believable “disbelief” was when one of the most loyal followers of Dave Koresh was challenged by an outsider pointing to some of Koresh’s blatant moral failings. With unshakable faith the loyal follower replied that he wished with all his being that God had chosen anyone else except Vernon Howell (who took the name Dave Koresh) to be his prophet because he could scarcely imagine a less likeable person, . . .  BUT, he was the one God had chosen, and he had to accept that, and submit to God’s will.

How often did the ministry in the Worldwide Church of God, especially the upper leadership, find opportunities to preach the message of King David, a “man after God’s own heart”, chosen by God, and David’s moral failings, his adultery, his murders, made no difference. Those who rebelled against this David when he was getting older and losing his grip on the kingdom were the ones led by Satan against “God’s anointed”.

The hypocrisy, the self-serving message, it’s all sickening in hindsight. But that’s how many of us were. If it hadn’t been the Armstrongs I suppose in another time and place it could have been Vernon Howell and it could have been me there. The one “saving grace” for the Worldwide Church of God was that it’s top leader was old and had no desire to give up his comforts or put himself in any serious physical risks. Those things come so much more easily to one in his early 30s. (For a number of years we were seriously expecting our leader to be given a vision or sign that would be the signal for us to “flee” to a “place in the wilderness”.)

James Haught rounds off his post

it’s unsettling to realize that some people among us are capable of believing far-out fantasies, enough even to die for them

I think there’s a slight misunderstanding in there. The processes that lead some of us to join extremist political groups responsible for terrorist attacks, I believe, are very similar to those that lead some into extremist religious cults. The radicalization processes are the same. It’s not that some people are somehow predisposed to believe or act out bizarre things (maybe some are, but they aren’t usually the ones who are accepted into extremist groups) but that so much depends on a person’s background experiences, close integration with a supportive social group, and circumstances at the time. Thankfully many people find that hard to believe because they cannot imagine themselves in the sort of condition and circumstances that begin to subtly lead them into a gradual acceptance of “the bizarre”.

 


2018-11-17

Guns, Violence and Durkheim

by Neil Godfrey

Interesting to read an article by PhD candidate Galen Watts, Pioneering sociologist foresaw our current chaos 100 years ago in The Conversation.  Reminded me of what I once posted about Durkheim here: Understanding the Nature of Religion and the Religious. And that reminded me of something I read years back by Ghassan Hage in his book, Against Paranoid Nationalism: Searching for Hope in a Shrinking Society — in my own words…

As for the suicide terrorism bit, it enabled me to see how personal despair, humiliation, hopelessness, — and end of real life on an individual level — is so unbearable that some prefer to swap their physical existence for a symbolic existence.

The key theme in the Galen Watts’ article is surely related:

A famous example of a social fact is found in Durkheim’s study, Suicide. In this book, Durkheim argues that the suicide rate of a country is not random, but rather reflects the degree of social cohesion within that society. He famously compares the suicide rate in Protestant and Catholic countries, concluding that the suicide rate in Protestant countries is higher because Protestantism encourages rugged individualism, while Catholicism fosters a form of collectivism.

What was so innovative about this theory is that it challenged long-standing assumptions about individual pathologies, which viewed these as mere byproducts of individual psychology. Adapting this theory to the contemporary era, we can say, according to Durkheim, the rate of suicide or mental illness in modern societies cannot be explained by merely appealing to individual psychology, but must also take into account macro conditions such as a society’s culture and institutions.

In other words, if more and more people feel disconnected and alienated from each other, this reveals something crucial about the nature of society.

That “rugged individualism” idea surely has a down side.

Then there was Clark McCauley and Sophia Moskalenko bringing together many studies on terrorists and the process of radicalization in Friction, and I collated various posts on that book at How Radicalization Happens to Them and Us. One factor they point to is the need for belonging but also for status, recognition. Return again to the “symbolic life” preference to the real one spoken of by Hage.

If there is anything to Durkheim’s analysis, I suppose we have to see the prevalence of mass shootings in the U.S. as all part and parcel of whatever is also driving people to extremist groups such as the white nationalists, sovereign citizens, and so forth. And the erosion of civility? Intolerance for and even pushback against “political correctness”? Presumably facets of the same.

Australia is not so badly off as what we read is happening in the United States, thankfully.

But we’re not in a good place right now. But you knew that already.

 


2018-01-05

Why Blaming Islam for Terrorism is Misguided

by Neil Godfrey

Yes, we know that suicide terrorists regularly announce that they are killing in the name of Allah and they quote the Koran to justify what they are doing. And, of course we should, must, listen to what they say and take it seriously.

Far from denying any of that, I think it is all necessary information that needs to be registered and understood if we want to understand why some people proclaim that they “love death as we love life”.

One Vridar reader recently invited me to read an article that presented a point of view contradicting the one in my two recent posts on Jihad and Death. The article is Islamic Terrorism is Motivated by Religion, Not Retribution.

Let me explain as simply and clearly as possible why I believe the article is misguided.

The article’s fundamental argument is that

  • if we can show that the terrorists cannot be motivated by a desire to seek vengeance against Western powers for their policies in the Middle East,
  • and if we can show that the terrorists themselves repeatedly claim to be motivated by religion and quote the Koran to justify their killing,
  • then obviously we are forced to conclude that Islam is responsible for terrorism.

The article makes the comparison with neo-Nazis. It is obviously the ideology of the neo-Nazis that motivates their hate and racism; it ought to be just as obvious that it is Islam that motivates the Islamist terrorists.

The first point of the argument (to demonstrate that it makes no sense to blame Western powers foreign policies as the motivating grievance of the extremists) can be accepted. Terrorist movements have changed over the decades. (Western powers have certainly exacerbated and even created conditions that have fanned radicalization, but it is evident that many of the terrorist attacks are not directly related to seeking retribution for Western policies.)

It is the second point that is ill-informed. Islam has been around for a long time but the Islamist terrorism that we are witnessing day is a very recent development. It is a very “new thing” claiming to be inspired by something very old. It is like a modern day Jonestown type cult claiming to have rediscovered long-lost “truths” in the Bible of which the mainstream churches have for centuries forgotten or even heretically left behind. Look into the cult’s origins and you won’t find the Bible despite the insistence of cult members that the Bible is their sole authority. No, they have learned to interpret and apply Bible verses the way a cult leader has taught them in other writings and sermons. The question to ask is, What factors cause a person to join such a cult in the first place?

Ed Husain wrote of his own experience with extremism in The Islamist: why I joined radical Islam in Britain, what I saw inside and why I left, and recalls the horror with which the Islamist ideology was met by most “ordinary Muslims” when they first heard of it. His recollections as a child spending time with his devout grandfather:

As they compared notes on abstract subjects in impenetrable languages, I buried myself in Inspector Morse or a Judy Blume. I heard names such as ‘Mawdudi’ being severely criticized, an organization named Jamat-e-Islami being refuted and invalidated on theological grounds. All of it was
beyond me. . . . (p. 10)

Then later when Ed was 16 years old:

. . . I recalled Grandpa and his students, many of them clerics trained in madrassas in India and Bangladesh, talking about the Jamat-e-Islam in disparaging terms. I had heard many of these conversations taking place between imams in various towns, and they complained about the increasing influence of jamat-e-Islami activists in their mosques. They had sought clarity from Grandpa about the nature of the Jamat-e-Islami, and Grandpa had spoken repeatedly about a man named Abul Ala Mawdudi.

Born in 1903, Mawdudi was a Pakistani journalist who translated the Koran according to his own whims, without reference to or within the paradigm of classical Muslim scholarship. He developed and promoted a new brand of Islam, highly politicized and deeply anti-Western. Mawdudi . . . was the first Muslim to reject Islam as a religion and rebrand it as an ‘ideology’. (pp. 22f, my bolding)

Likewise with Islamist violent extremism. Modern day “prophets” have written their own politico-religious ideologies that they claim to be based on the “long-forgotten truths” of the Koran and hadiths. The first was Qutb with Milestones. (The links are to Vridar posts on the topics. See the side box for the initial reception among religious Muslims on another early jihadist ideologue, Mawdudi.) Others have followed. One of the most influential is The Management of Savagery by “Naji”. My recent post mentioned Al-Awlaki, a major influence among English speaking recruits.

Those writings, not the Koran, are the Mein Kampfs of jihadism. Those writings lead persuaded readers to reject the preachings and Koranic studies of the imams and to quote-mine the Koran for proof-texts to justify their political and ideological agendas.

Understanding why

If we want to understand radicalism we need to go beyond what the extremists themselves say about their motives. Yes, we must listen to them, of course, and understand their world-view. But to take an extreme analogy, if someone says he believes God told him to kill someone, we don’t necessarily take his word as the whole story. We ask, Why did he believe God told him to do that? Is he mentally ill? Schizoid?

Some extreme Christian cults do horrible things, but it is hard to say that Christianity is to blame when most Christians deplore what they do. Instead, scholars study  psychological and sociological factors that are associated with persons joining extreme or bizarre cults. Same with Nazism. It would be ignorantly simplistic to blame Nietsche or even Socialism for the National-Socialist (Nazi) movement.

If we want to understand poverty we can blame the laziness and self-indulgence of the victims or we can take a more comprehensive view that includes a study of the institutional factors that have created a class of down-and-outs.

Many communities are enlightened enough to know that policing alone is inadequate to confront the problem of youth crime. Most parents know that youth behaviour is complex. So positive youth programs, clubs, recreational venues, and so forth are also very important.

Any attempt to blame Islam for terrorism runs into a few facts that belie that charge: jihadism is a very recent phenomenon — that is, it has only very recently emerged to become associated with the Muslim world; it has attracted only a very few, many of whom are largely ignorant of the details of the Koran and Islam and who often do not practice a religious life; and most Muslims deplore terrorist violence and are even overwhelmingly the victims of it.

If the religion of Islam is responsible for modern jihadism then we have to somehow explain why Islamist suicide bombers and other murderous jihadis were not part of our landscape for most of the twentieth century and earlier. We need to explain why most Muslims condemn their violence and why, given the larger picture, terrorists target mostly Muslims.

We need to build up a big picture. That will include listening to what the jihadis say about their motives but it will not naively assume that that is the entire story. After all, most followers of the Koran deplore terrorism so saying Islam causes terrorism makes no sense. It does not explain why a handful of people, contrary to the overwhelming majority of believers, say they are so motivated.

This post is only addressing the reason I am convinced that we cannot accuse the religion of Islam itself of being responsible for terrorist violence. I am not addressing here the studies that do explore, through data-based research, a more comprehensive understanding of what lies at the root of this modern horror.

Some of the past posts that do address those studies:

The most recent ones, of course, on Olivier Roy’s Jihad and Death: The Global Appeal of Islamic State

A series on Riaz Hassan’s Inside Muslim Minds

A series on Clark McCauley and Sophia Moskalenko’s Friction: How Radicalization Happens to Them and to Us

Series on Jason Burke’s of The New Threat: The Past, Present, and Future of Islamic Militancy

On an article by Scott Atran and a series on his book, Talking with the Enemy

Several on Thomas Hegghammer’s publications:

A key quotation in Raffaello Pantucci’s “We Love Death as You Love Life”: Britain’s Suburban Terrorists

On Nate Rosenblatt’s All Jihad Is Local

On William McCants’ article How Terrorists Convince Themselves to Kill and other writings

And several on ISIS, including….

A post on by Mohammed Hafez’s Manufacturing Human Bombs: The Making of Palestinian Suicide Bombers

On Robert Pape’s Dying to Win

Then there are a number of posts on Islam more generally:

On Lily Zubaidah Rahim’s Muslim Secular Democracy: Voices from within

John Esposito’s Who Speaks for Islam?

A post containing an extensive bibliography:

There are many more posts accessible by searching for terms like “terrorism”, “islamism”, “islam”, “islamic state”.

 

 


2017-12-31

Jihad and Death, the global appeal of Islamic State

by Neil Godfrey

Now that Islamic State has been defeated in the most prominent of its several bases it may not be a bad idea to extend our understanding of what we have just witnessed and its likely ongoing ramifications.

Olivier Roy

There is something terribly modern about the jihadi terrorist violence that has unfolded in the past twenty years or so.

Of course, neither terrorism nor jihad is a new phenomenon. Forms of “globalized” terrorism . . . developed as early as the late nineteenth century with the anarchist movement, culminating in the first manifestation of global terrorism with the alliance formed by the Baader-Meinhof gang, Palestinian extreme left groups, and the Japanese Red Army in the 1970s. As for the reference to jihad, it is found in the Quran and regularly resurfaces in the Muslim world—particularly through the term mujahid, characteristic of the Algerian Front de Liberation Nationale (FLN) and the Afghan resistance.

What is new is the association of terrorism and jihadism with the deliberate pursuit of death.

Those are the opening lines of Jihad and Death: The Global Appeal of Islamic State by Olivier Roy, translated from French by Cynthia Schoch. The book has been noticed with reviews easy to find on the web — in Church Times, The Economist, Foreign Affairs, The Guardian, Haaretz, Jihad Watch, Middle East Media and Book Reviews Online, The National, New York Journal of Books, Our Daily Read, The Times. . . .

Most of history’s terrorists are on record as carefully planning their escape. Olivier Roy sees the current wave Islamic State inspired terrorists as fundamentally a nihilistic youth movement. The perpetrators are not as a rule long and deeply immersed in Islam; on the contrary, their sentiments of fervent religiosity are expressed by a smattering of decontextualized “proof texts” and surface only in a matter of weeks or months before those perpetrators embark on their ultimate goal of a suicide mission. Before that time, and even during that same period, their lives are stained by unreligious practices — petty crime, alcohol, sex, drugs — but suicide, they believe will atone for all of their sins and even grant apostate family members a path to paradise.

It is a generational movement, Roy argues, comparable to the terror once wreaked by China’s Red Guards in the Cultural Revolution and by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. The old Islam of their parents is to be wiped out to make way for the original faith and practice. But they are not even making room for a new society; they seek death.

The caliphate is a fantasy. It is the myth of an ideological entity constantly expanding its territory. Its strategic impossibility explains why those who identify with it, instead of devoting themselves to the interests of local Muslims, have entered a death pact. There is no political perspective, no bright future, not even a place to pray in peace.

Roy speaks of the Islamization of radicalism. He rejects the notion that it is Islam that is being radicalized. No, it is the other way around today. Fundamentalism, he argues, does not produce violence. Other factors contribute to violence. Islam, moreover, condemns suicide missions of the type longed for by modern day Islamist terrorists, because it anticipates God’s will. The suicide bomber does not allow God to decide the time of his or her death and is for that reason condemned by even Salafi Muslims.

But while the concept of the caliphate is indeed part of the Muslim religious imaginary, the same is not true for the pursuit of death. Salafism, accused of all kinds of evils, condemns suicide because it anticipates Gods will. Salafism is primarily concerned with codifying individual behavior: it regulates everything, including the use of violence. Salafis are not out to die. Instead, obsessed by salvation, they need life in order to prepare to meet their Lord at the end of an earthly existence led according to its rites and rituals. (Roy, p. 4)

There is no military or strategic advantage to be won by ongoing suicide operations. Yes, we know about asymmetrical warfare and the power and even success achieved by small bands against organized national armies. But suicide attacks lose trained and hardened warriors every time. The goal as set out in radical manifestos is to fan further radicalization, especially among Muslim communities. Hence most targets are Muslims in the Middle East, not Westerners.

I believe that the systematic association with death is one of the keys to today’s radicalization: the nihilist dimension is central. What fascinates is pure revolt, not the construction of a utopia. Violence is not a means. It is an end in itself. It is violence devoid of a future. If this were not the case, it would be merely an option instead of a norm and a conscious choice.

But what about the lone wolf nutter?

The genius of ISIS is to offer young volunteers the narrative framework within which they can achieve their aspirations. So much the better for ISIS if other volunteers to die—psychopaths, people with suicidal tendencies, or rebels without a cause—have little to do with the movement, but are prepared to play out a scenario that lends their personal despair a global dimension. (p. 5)

It’s not easy reading interpretations like Roy’s. I look forward to what other specialists in the field have to say about his book, but so far he does not seem very far removed from what several of them have written.

If so, it will surely pass, just as other nihilistic and suicidal “fashions” among youth in the past have passed. That doesn’t make the present any easier, of course, and it leaves us apprehensive of what might follow.

This association of course does not cover the entire issue. It is perfectly conceivable that other, more “rational,” forms of terrorism might soon emerge on the scene. It is also possible that this form of terrorism is merely temporary and that the protest will take on other forms, perhaps more political ones. (p. 5)

 

 


2017-09-03

Flawed Counter-Terrorists

by Neil Godfrey
Maajid Nawaz

A autobiography I found of special interest in understanding how a British Muslim became radicalized and eventually de-radicalized was Radical by Maajid Nawaz. I discussed one aspect of it in the post The Conflict between Islamism and Islam. From his biography and in his online writings and talks I have read and heard since there is absolutely no way I could ever think of Maajid Nawaz as an “anti-Muslim extremist” as the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) has branded him. (My reading of the SPLC’s justification is that key persons in that organization fail to understand the difference between Islam and Islamism, and it is such persons whom Nawaz and others warn against. Incidentally, I have had to ask at least one Islamist to stop using the comments on this blog as a platform for spreading that ideology.)

Maajid Nawaz comes across to me as a flawed leader in the constellation of counter-extremist efforts. There is no one cause for radicalization and different motivations propel different persons in that direction. I once posted that I saw Maajid Nawaz as an example of a “status seeking” radical, following the descriptions of a wide range of historical extremists by Clark McCauley and Sophia Moskalenko in Friction. Such a motivation would explain what I think has been Maajid Nawaz’s biggest mistake — collaborating with a genuine “anti-Muslim extremist”, Sam Harris, with the publication and promotion of  their jointly authored book, Islam and the Future of Tolerance. The association has certainly lifted Maajid’s public profile at a time when reports that he had not fully honest about his past began to surface, but it would have been, well, possibly more appropriate for him to admit and apologize for past errors and move on by building on his experiences instead of offering opportunities for the Sam Harris’s and Jerry Coynes to falsely use him to promote prejudices he himself opposes. But, then again, there is money involved, and the need to sustain a cash flow for his organization, Quilliam. He has put himself in a difficult position.

Wheh! After all of that introduction, now to the point of this post. Salon.com has posted an interview with Maajid Nawaz where he is given a chance to explain himself and what he stands for, along with a commentary on the term he coined, “regressive left”, that has taken on entirely new connotations among Islamophobes like Sam Harris and Jerry Coyne.

Former Islamist radical Maajid Nawaz on “regressive leftism” — and why the SPLC has labeled him an “anti-Muslim extremist”

 


2017-02-13

Radicalisation — whether extreme sports, cults or terrorism

by Neil Godfrey

Yes, time for me to finish blogging on what the research has shown about how radicalisation works, how people are recruited into terrorist organisations, religious cults, . . . even extreme sports . . .  As Jason Burke (whose works I have blogged about here, most recently on “the new threat“) points out: it’s all the same mechanics.

https://twitter.com/burke_jason/status/830797108059971585

 

https://twitter.com/PeterRNeumann/status/830462741987131393

 

Now to complete those posts on Friction, How Radicalization Happens to Them and to Us


2016-10-07

Something Rotten in the Lands of Islam

by Neil Godfrey

The survey of Muslim religiosity was carried out in

  • Indonesia,
  • Pakistan,
  • Malaysia,
  • Iran,
  • Kazakhstan,
  • Egypt
  • and Turkey.

It included statements on the respondents’ image of Islam. The survey listed forty-four items that examined religious beliefs, ideas and convic­tions. These statements were generated by consulting some key sociological texts on Muslim societies by authors such as Fazlur Rahman, Ernest Gellner, William Montgomery Watt, Mohammad Arkoun and Fatima Mernissi. Respondents were asked to give one of the following six responses to each of the statements presented: strongly agree, agree, not sure, disagree, strongly disagree, or no answer. More than 6300 respondents were interviewed. (Hassan, Inside Muslim Minds, p. 48)

This is post #5 on Inside Muslim Minds by Riaz Hassan. We are seeking an understanding of the world. If you have nothing to learn about the Islamic world please don’t bother reading these posts since they will likely stir your hostility and tempt you into making unproductive comments.

We have looked at a historical interpretation of how much of the Muslim world became desensitized to cruel punishments and oppression of women and others. But what does the empirical evidence tell us? Here Hassan turns to a study explained in the side-box. Each question was subject to a score between 1 and 5, with “very strong” being indicated by 1 or 2.

Following are the 20 questions (out of a total of 44) that generated the highest mean scores.

Overall the results tell us that Muslims feel strongly about “the sanctity and inviolability” of their sacred texts. There is a strong belief overall that all that is required for a utopian society is a more sincere commitment to truths in those texts.

In other words, there is a large-scale rejection of modern understandings of the genetic and environmental influences upon human nature.

The evidence indicates very strong support for implementing ‘Islamic law’ in Muslim countries. (On “Islamic Law” see Most Muslims Support Sharia: Should We Panic?) Respondents strongly support strict enforcement of Islamic hudood laws pertaining to apostasy, theft and usury. The purpose of human freedom is seen not as a means of personal fulfilment and growth, but as a way of meeting obligations and duties laid down in the sacred texts. This makes such modern developments as democracy and personal liberty contrary to Islamic teachings. The strong support for strict enforcement of apos­tasy laws makes any rational and critical appraisals of Islamic texts and traditions unacceptable and subject to the hudd punishment of death. The strength of these attitudes could explain why hudood and blasphemy laws are supported, or at least tolerated, by a significant majority of Muslims. Strong support for modelling an ideal Muslim society along the lines of the society founded by the Prophet Muhammad and the first four Caliphs is consistent with the salafi views and teachings discussed earlier. (p. 54)

But notice: read more »


2016-09-23

New Atheists Who Want to be Nicer (and Smarter) with Religion, esp Islam!

by Neil Godfrey
New Atheism . . . must recognize the humanity in religion while maintaining a candid dialogue about deep-rooted conflicts between reason and faith. A matured New Atheism is needed more today than ever before . . .

Those words are from New Atheist writers, Peter Boghossian, James Lindsay & Phil Torres, published in Time: How to Fight Extremism with Atheism.

It sounds like they are saying New Atheists need to show a little more tolerance and understanding in the way they approach the religious, in particular the Muslims:

New Atheism may have inched into the Islamic world, but it has not found deep roots. And its current approach isn’t well-suited to further penetrate Muslim societies. The condescending speech of New Atheists—calling religious people delusional, for example—is not an effective cross-cultural strategy for generating change.

Jerry Coyne and other NA enthusiasts still speak of “the nature of Islam” as if Islam is a palpable force with an animate nature; and to support what is effectively a demonization process they generally take as representative of all Muslims polls in developing countries, especially the “Dark Orient” and the “Dark Continent” where the native populations skin colour happens to be as “dark” as their Islamic beliefs.

No kidding! Of course other New Atheists obsessed with sputtering bile about Islam, speaking of it as some ectoplasmic monster that demoniacally possesses its mostly dark-skinned acolytes, are not impressed by these three maverick NAs. Jerry Coyne, for example, protested that New Atheists don’t go around calling religious people delusional.

Seriously, how many New Atheists call the faithful “delusional”? I don’t often hear that. Boo!

(The childish “boo!” is part of the JC trademark that emerged most noticeably with I’m a philosopher! I haz a paper with Maarten Boudry on religious belief.)

goddelusion
Your God belief is a delusion but I am too sensitive to call you delusional.

How deluded can a New Atheist be? Immediately preceding that shockingly renegade suggestion that insulting people is not good for serious dialogue was a paragraph about the impact of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. The response of Jerry Coyne’s followers was to play the cute self-justifying word-game that insists a belief can be delusional without implying the believers themselves are delusional. So Coyne’s followers echoed his sentiments, disapproving of the Time article where it criticized NA approaches and magnifying beyond recognition of the original article where it made positive comments.

C
Posted September 16, 2016 at 3:02 pm

Of course it is rather weird of the authors to write that bit (“calling religious people delusional 
 is not an effective cross-cultural strategy for generating change”) directly after saying this:

“The Arabic translation of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, for example, has been downloaded ten million times, and pictures of people holding it while overlooking Mecca are remarkably commonplace given the draconian penalties for doing so—ranging from ten years imprisonment to death.”

and

HH
Posted September 16, 2016 at 3:30 pm

I feel like that part of the article should have been left out completely as it makes the whole thing pointless. If NAs are the only ones who have made genuine in-roads because they’ve pointed out the falsity of religious beliefs, who exactly is going to take up the baton if they can’t take it any further?

It seems to be a bit of an apology to the religious for criticizing their (delusional) beliefs after they’ve just acknowledged that N. atheists are the only ones who’ve really got anywhere.

Is it really credible that NAs have had such “genuine in-roads” into the Arab Muslim world or that they have been “the only ones who’ve really got anywhere”? The Time article itself is more modest in its claims:

New Atheism may have inched into the Islamic world, but it has not found deep roots. . . .

The fact is that several publications have appeared since 9/11 about atheism and apostasy in the Islamic world that demonstrate how long-standing such conflicts have existed there, long before September 2001. That Richard Dawkins’ book was downloaded so often in those quarters testifies to the ready-demand existing there prior to its publication. Recall the Arab Spring when Muslims took to the streets often at risk to their lives to call for secular democratic governance. NAs surely evince a little hubris if they believe they are the ones who, as the “best (most rational) of their breed” have taken up Kipling’s “white man’s burden” and been responsible for exposing supposedly Islam-benighted souls to the pure light of reason.

Did you know that the world is round?

The Time article calls for more moderate and understanding strategies to open “candid dialogue about deep-rooted conflicts between reason and faith.” I can’t complain about new strategies but I do question the emphasis on demonstrating religion’s incompatibility with science.

Today I learned through a new Jerry Coyne post that The Baffler has posted a beautifully written article by Sam Kriss, Village Atheists, Village Idiots, making the same point in a much more interesting way. He compares the distinguishing NA strategy with the decision of a lunatic to repeat over and over “The world is round” to prove his sanity. No-one can disagree with that statement, he reasons, but of course he only manages to demonstrate that he fails to appreciate the contexts in which he is attempting to make his point, gets into bigger trouble, then protests that he is being persecuted for proclaiming nothing but the obvious truth!

Jerry Coyne, unfortunately, cannot grasp the point (to do so would require some uncharacteristic self-reflection) and in his typically open-minded style chooses to cut out the entire journal from his life for this one article: Idiot compares atheists to village idiots.

Everyone knows that religion and science embody irreconcilable understandings of the world. We don’t say insects are wrong because they are not plants. Or rabbit is stupid because it’s not a tree. Probably every child being reared by a family who believes God created everything (whether thousands of years ago or billions of years ago, whether by suddenly making fully formed species appear or by guiding evolution) and that science is either not the whole story or is the completely wrong story. No one needs to tell Religion that it does not agree with Science.

When anti-theists complain about the unscientific nature of religion they are really advertising their ignorance of what religion is, why it is, how it seems to have come about. New Atheists need to do their homework instead of merely shooting fish in a barrel for fun.

So when Peter Boghossian, James Lindsay and Phil Torres call on NAs to recognize the humanity in religion it sounds to me as though they are on the right track that leads eventually to a genuine understanding of what they are dealing with.

Understanding reality and how humanity works

Stubbornly oblivious to their dishonest claims about their past lives our three authors appeal to NA favourites Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Maajid Nawaz as guides to follow. Their flaws might be many, but NAs can nonetheless cherry-pick their writings to compile several worthy principles to follow. One of these:

Atheism, Ali points out, is a logical step that comes after Enlightenment values like rationalism and tolerance, and the liberties of a free, open and secular society are in place.

But to act on this most logical of precepts would mean actively protesting against our own Western governments who are propping up the regimes that violently crushed the Arab uprisings across North Africa and the Middle East not very long ago. Or in Syria it would mean calling on our leaders to withdraw all support for the Islamist thugs trying to replace the Assad regime and then throwing every effort into supporting the original Arab Spring leadership. Somehow I cannot see such genuine support for the building of “free, open and secular societies” coming from people like Sam Harris and Jerry Coyne. That’s a narrative that does not sit well with their view of Islam itself is the unregenerate evil to be confronted. Real people who actually make their religion (insofar as each of them has a religion) what it is are reduced to a mere shadow of the Beast of Islam itself.

I suspect the influence of “ex-Muslims” or “atheist-Muslims” of questionable character and tactics is at best limited in the Muslim world more generally. Changes are most likely to come from within the Muslim communities themselves. Muslims in countries like the US and Australia have in the main adapted to Western ways. Problems that persist are generally among the new generations, the “in-betweens” of the second generation feeling neither part of their traditional heritage nor at one with their parents’ new home. But that’s how it has always been with migrant families including the Greeks, the Italians, and then more recently the Vietnamese. We know that such conflicted worlds do eventually pass.

In an interview as well as in a book co-authored with Sam Harris Maajid Nawaz said something about Islam that I have seen few NAs notice: Islam is neither a religion of war nor a religion of peace. It is whatever people make it. That statement demolishes Islamophobic claims by many NA supporters that Islam is a force or power that is “by nature” evil. Naturally we all want to see the day when there will be no more human rights violations in the name of religion, but at the same time we need to understand what we are engaging with. Religious practices, however much they stand in opposition to human rights (and Christianity is still trying to move beyond its primitive days, too, let’s not forget) are not the same as terrorist ideologies. It is a mistake — and contrary to all serious research into the nature of radicalization and violent Islamists — to treat the two as if they are all part of the one package that contains a monolithic force for evil. As classic cultural imperialists NAs decide for themselves how to interpret the Qur’an and accordingly believe in the reality of their imaginary dragon spitting out terrorist flames at random. A more productive approach is to “recognize the humanity in religion” and listen to what all those living in the Muslim world (everyone from sceptics and rationalists to conservative, Western, Eastern and reformist imams) and those ideologically committed to the Islamist world are themselves saying.

 

 

 


2016-09-01

The Founder of Islamist Extremism and Terrorism

by Neil Godfrey

nolanNazi ideology was set out by Adolf Hitler in Mein Kampf, Communism was explained for all by Karl Marx in The Communist Manifesto, and radical Islamism was planted with Sayyid Qutb‘s Milestones. Qutb was hanged in 1966 for involvement in a plot to assassinate Egypt’s President Gamal Abdul Nasser. Qutb’s ideas appear to have been more deeply entrenched as consequence of his various experiences during a visit to the United States 1948-1950.

jnolan
James Nolan

James Nolan includes Sayyid Qutb in his book, What They Saw in America: Alexis de Tocqueville, Max Weber, G. K. Chesterton, and Sayyid Qutb and there is an interesting interview with James Nolan his book (with an emphasis on Qutb) at The violent legacy of Sayyid Qutb’s visit to the USA on Late Night Live.

A famous tipping point for Qutb that seems to pop up frequently in any discussion of his experiences in America was a church dance, and not least the lyrics of the pop song being played, Baby It’s Cold Outside.

Racism in America was another stench that outraged him.

milestones-sayyid-qutb-3.gifI want to follow up Nolan’s interview about Qutb with some comments on Milestones.

Milestones is said to have been studied intensively by Osama Bin Laden and other Islamist leaders today. To anyone who has read Milestones its influence is very obvious in the propaganda pronouncements of ISIS today.

I would even say that it is essential reading for anyone who is genuinely interested in understanding the Islamist movement and the ideology behind Islamist terrorism. It is not the only work of significance (I have mentioned others, especially Management of Savagery), but a reasonable case can be made that Milestones is “where it all began”.

I have never had any personal interest in the Muslim religion but reading Milestones evoked a very strong sense of déjà vu for me. I was transported back to the days when I was reading the Armstrong literature that led me into the Worldwide Church of God cult. All the same buttons were there.

Press the one to arouse uncompromising idealism.

Press another to stir up the thrill and heavy responsibility of being part of a vanguard movement destined to change history and save mankind.

What was needed was a long-term program of ideological and organizational work, coupled with the training of a dedicated vanguard of believers who would protect the cause in times of extreme danger (if necessary by recourse to force) and preside over the replacement of Jahiliyyahh by the Islamic state. . . .

It is the right of Islam to release mankind from servitude to human beings so that they may serve Allah alone, to give practical
meaning to its declaration that Allah is the true Lord of all and that all men are free under Him. . . .

Mankind can be dignified, today or tomorrow, by striving toward this noble civilization, by pulling itself out of the abyss of Jahiliyyahh into which it is falling.

And there’s the other one for confronting hypocrisy and setting one on the path to become a self-sacrificing heroic martyr.

We must also free ourselves from the clutches of Jahili society, Jahili concepts, Jahili traditions and Jahili leadership. Our mission is not to compromise with the practices of Jahili society, nor can we be loyal to it. Jahili society, because of its Jahili characteristics, is not worthy to be compromised with. . . .The honour of martyrdom is achieved only when one is fighting in the cause of
Allah . . .

It’s all there. All the buttons that start certain people on the road to radicalization, to extremism.

And it’s all backed up by the special insights of the godly founder-figure who came to understand more deeply than anyone else the ultimate truths in the Holy Book — in Armstrong’s case, the Bible; in Qutb’s, the Qur’an.

. . . I have set down the deep truths which I grasped during my meditations over the way of life presented in the Holy Qur’an. . .

To say that the Muslim religion or the Qur’an is ultimately responsible for Islamist extremism and terrorism today is just like saying that Christianity and the Bible are ultimately responsible for Armstrongism, Dave Koresh, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jim Jones. Well, yes, in a very general sense they are, but only in such a general sense that the link become meaningless.

Just as cult leaders denounce their mainstream religionists as “false brethren”, so in Milestones we read repeatedly of the falseness of mainstream Muslims.

Lastly, all the existing so-called ‘Muslim’ societies are also Jahili societies.

We classify them among Jahili societies not because they believe in other deities besides Allah or because they worship anyone other than Allah, but because their way of life is not based on submission to Allah alone. . . . 

The people in these countries have reached this wretched state by abandoning Islam, and not because they are Muslims.

Just as cult leaders claim special insights into the Bible, so Qutb claims that his own understanding of the Qur’an is the result of long periods of study and reflection. His interpretations were not obvious at first. In fact, in Milestones he goes to considerable length to counter the arguments of mainstream Muslims condemning his extreme view of jihad and killing the faithless.

So you think the belief in being given forty-two virgins in Paradise is a motive to kill and die? Rubbish. Not a single breath of a hint of any such self-interested motive seeps into Milestones. Very much the contrary, in fact. There is a vast chasm between teachings of heavenly rewards and the actual triggers that initiate the behaviours of cultists.

I began by comparing Milestones with Mein Kampf and The Communist Manifesto. It’s appropriate to conclude with a link back to an earlier post — ISIS is a Revolution, born in terror (like all revolutions) — in which Scott Atran argues that the Islamist extremists we face today are indeed part of a worldwide revolutionary movement that must be stopped.

You can download Milestones here or here.

qutb
Sayyid Qutb

Other Vridar posts on Sayyid Qutb

And other posts justifying the comparison between religious cults and other extremists:


2016-08-28

Where Religious Beliefs Come From

by Neil Godfrey
Tylor and Frazer
Tylor and Frazer

Previous posts in this series:

  1. Sam Harris: Wrong (again) about Religion and Radicalization
  2. Religion: It’s more than we often think
  3. Was Religion Invented to Explain Things — or to Compound Mystery? . . . Or. . . ?

Since we tend to take it for granted that beliefs in spirit beings and associated myths were invented to explain the world around us I was surprised to read in Pascal Boyer‘s Religion Explained that this assumption is problematic and no longer accepted by all anthropologists:

[T]he theme of religion-as-an-explanation was developed by a school of anthropology called intellectualism, which was initiated by 19th-century scholars such as Edward Burnett Tylor and James Frazer and remains quite influential to this day. (p. 15)

It is not true, Boyer argues, that humans naturally try to find some speculative explanations for commonly experienced phenomena that they lack the conceptual means to understand.

The mistake of intellectualism was to assume that a human mind is driven by a general urge to explain. That assumption is no more plausible than the idea that animals, as opposed to plants, feel a general “urge to move around.” Animals never move about for the sake of changing places. They are in search of food or safety or sex; their movements in these different situations are caused by different processes. The same goes for explanations. From a distance, as it were, you may think that the general point of having a mind is to explain and understand. But if you look closer, you see that what happens in a mind is far more complex; this is crucial to understanding religion.

There’s a lot to think about here. Certainly for me there is. Boyer gives an example of one of the most common everyday experiences of every healthy person that is very hard for us to think requires any explanation at all.

Nervous_systemNow, expressed in this blunt and general manner, the statement is plainly false. Many phenomena are both familiar to all of us from the youngest age and difficult to comprehend using our everyday concepts, yet nobody tries to find an explanation for them. For instance, we all know that our bodily movements are not caused by external forces that push or pull us but by our thoughts. That is, if I extend my arm and open my hand to shake hands with you, it’s precisely because I want to do that. Also, we all assume that thoughts have no weight or size or other such material qualities (the idea of an apple is not the size of the apple, the idea of water does not flow, the idea of a rock is no more solid than the idea of butter). If I have the intention to lift my arm, to take a classic example, this intention itself has no weight or solidity. Yet it manages to move parts of my body. . . . How can this occur? How could things without substance have effects in the material world? Or, to put it in less metaphysical terms, how on earth do these mental words and images pull my muscles? This is a difficult problem for philosophers and cognitive scientists . . . but surprisingly enough, it is a problem for nobody else in the entire world. Wherever you go, you will find that people are satisfied with the idea that thoughts and desires have effects on bodies and that’s that. (Having raised such questions in English pubs and Fang villages in Cameroon I have good evidence that in both places people see nothing mysterious in the way their minds control their bodies. Why should they? It requires very long training in a special tradition to find the question interesting or puzzling.)

That illustration got me thinking and wondering. Is it too clever? I can certainly see myself as one of Boyer’s English pub companions thinking there is “nothing mysterious” at all about the process. But of course that’s his point. Then I recalled the (apocryphal) story of Isaac Newton wondering why the apple he had just seen fall from a tree did not instead fall upwards or hang suspended.

If we can throw things up skyward why do they decide at some point to come back down again?

Why does food appease my hunger but then too much food make me feel sick?

Why do babies grow up and not just stay as babies? Why do we get weaker as we age? Why do we age?

Why do we and every other living thing have matching right and left sides?

It takes a little effort at first, but once one starts on that track it does seem there is a point here. And I can only think of some of those questions because I need first to refer to what I have learned from my reading of science. Religious explanations are indeed limited to only certain types of stories and never touch many potential questions for the pre-scientific mind.

The more I think about it the more I think it is true that our minds are not “general explanation machines”.

Boyer’s point is that the mind consists of lots of specialized explanatory engines or “inference systems”. I have hummed and harred whether to set out my own explanations and have finally opted to quote more of Boyer’s own words but with my formatting:

Consider this:

It is almost impossible to see a scene without seeing it in three dimensions, because our brains cannot help explaining the flat images projected onto the retina as the effect of real volumes out there.

If you are brought up among English speakers you just cannot help understanding what people say in that language, that is, explaining complex patterns of sound frequencies as strings of words.

People spontaneously explain the properties of animals in terms of some inner properties that are common to their species; if tigers are aggressive predators and yaks quiet grazers, this must be because of their essential nature.

We spontaneously assume that the shape of particular tools is explained by their designers’ intentions rather than as an accidental combination of parts; the hammer has a sturdy handle and a heavy head because that is the best way to drive nails into hard materials.

We find that it is impossible to see a tennis ball flying about without spontaneously explaining its trajectory as a result of a force originally imposed on it.

If we see someone’s facial expression suddenly change we immediately speculate on what may have upset or surprised them, which would be the explanation of the change we observed.

When we see an animal suddenly freeze and leap up we assume it must have detected a predator, which would explain why it stopped and ran away. 

If our houseplants wither away and die we suspect the neighbors did not water them as promised—that is the explanation.

It seems that our minds constantly produce such spontaneous explanations.

Inference Systems

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