Tag Archives: Scott Atran

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

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https://www.facebook.com/scott.atran?fref=nf&pnref=story [link no longer active – Neil Godfrey, 24th July 2019]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

Dawkins’s Delusion: The Slavish Mind

godDelusionWell I really blew it in the eyes of some readers when I posted on Scott Atran’s response to Sam Harris’s public statements about Islam and its relationship to terrorism. Let’s see if I can learn anything and do better with my presentation of Atran’s response to similar claims by Richard Dawkins.

Maybe if I begin by quoting the following words of Scott Atran I will be off to a better start:

I certainly don’t criticize [Harris and Dawkins] and other scientifically minded new atheists for wanting to rid the world of dogmatically held beliefs that are vapid, barbarous, anachronistic, and wrong. I object to their manner of combat, which is often shrill, scientifically baseless, psychologically uninformed, politically naïve, and counterproductive for goals we share. (Talking to the Enemy, p. 427, my bolded emphasis as throughout)

Now I really have liked and gained so much from Richard Dawkins’ writings. Some of his ideas I have had reservations about, and a few I cannot agree with at all given my other studies and experiences on the topics. But I like his efforts to promote rationality in public discourse. And I especially like his educational works on evolution. For all of that, though it is a hard to accept, the cruel fact is that not many of us are perfect in every way.

Sometimes a prominent public figure speaks about a field that is outside his or her area of expertise. Those who pull this off the most successfully are comedians. The light-heartedness of their grasp of issues pays off. No-one studies their jokes in order to educate themselves about the fundamental realities of how the world really works. (I know, many jokes are “funny because they’re true” but we don’t learn what’s true from them.)

But when a public figure whom I admire in many ways says something publicly, as if it were fact, that I know is contradicted by the publicly available research data itself, and that is even dangerous because it can fan a wider ignorance and lend support to mischief and harmful actions, then it hurts. What’s more, because there are a few areas where I do have more knowledge, being more widely read in the relevant areas, I do feel some sense of responsibility to try to speak up in some way when I hear a prominent person influencing others with misinformation. What I would like to achieve if at all possible is that a few others might for themselves explore the works, the information, the research, that belies many of the claims of Dawkins and Harris about the link between Islam and terrorism.

The first of the “new atheist” publications about religion that I read was Dan Dennett’s Breaking the Spell. It was quite different in approach from Harris’s, Hitchens’ and Dawkins’s contributions, so I was interested to see that Atran likewise does not have the same criticism of Dan Dennett as he has of Harris’s and Dawkins’s books:

Dan Dennett treats the science of religion in a serious way. Dan believes that universal education should include instruction in the history of religion and a survey of contemporary religious beliefs. Once out in the open for everyone to examine, science can better beat religion in open competition. My own guess is that it won’t work out that way, any more than logic winning out over passion or perfume in the competition for a mate. (p. 525)

So I hope no-one thinks I’m “Dawkins bashing”. It is possible to have a high regard for someone yet disagree with them profoundly on particular viewpoints and endeavour to appeal to verifiable facts to make one’s point rather than accusing others of dishonesty.

Here is a passage from Dawkins’ The God Delusion that Atran finds problematic — he actually describes it as “fantasy”. So let’s read Dawkins’ words and then calmly and rationally consider Atran’s disagreement with them:

Suicide bombers do what they do because they really believe what they were taught in their religious schools; that duty to God exceeds all other priorities, and that martyrdom in his service will be rewarded in the gardens of Paradise. And they were taught that lesson not necessarily by extremist fanatics but by decent, gentle, mainstream religious instructors, who lined them up in their madrasahs, sitting in rows, rhythmically nodding their innocent little heads up and down while they learned every word of the holy book like demented parrots. read more »

End of Faith and Other Pulp Fiction

Sam Harris in The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation has written a lot of uninformed nonsense about religion in general and Islam in particular. Don’t misunderstand. His logical arguments against religious belief systems are entirely valid. For a time when I was in the process of recovering from my own religious experiences I would have endorsed almost everything he wrote. Even mainstream Anglican pabulum was a threat to humanity because it lent social respectability to religious faith and the Bible, and that made it possible for extremist cults — who also claimed faith and the Bible as the foundations of their seriously harmful systems — to germinate. (I was focusing on the intellectual constructs as the easy and obvious target, failing to realize that there was something far more significant at the root of religion.)

At the same time I was going through that phase I could not help but notice a niggling doubt in the back of my mind. Yes, my argument was entirely rational, and borne of experience. But was it the whole story? If there had been no notion of faith or the Bible in any religion, would that really mean we would be living in a Utopia? Was it really only social respectability for faith and the Bible that cults fanned into something monstrous? Was there not also a shared dream of a better world? Should such idealism also be condemned? Was there not also a shared belief in the rightness of doing good? Even the dreams and the morality of the cult could be turned into destructive weapons. But they could also be used for much good, too.

Cults may sprout out from mainstream religions but it does not follow that they are the cause or to blame for them. A host to a parasite is hardly to be blamed for the parasite.

Religion is not going to disappear, or if we believe otherwise, it certainly won’t be demolished by rational answers to its teachings of faith and belief systems. I guess that thought was beginning to dawn on me when I started this blog and that’s why I’ve never been interested in any sort of “anti-Christian” or “anti-religion” crusade of any sort. People will respond to precision arguments and new questions when they are ready. Crusading against irrational beliefs — or against even rational ones based on false data — will rarely accomplish much more among the believers than to send them scrambling for better reasons for holding fast to those beliefs.

That is, polemics like those of Sam Harris are based on a misunderstanding of the very nature of religion and may in fact be backfiring and strengthening religion’s power in the world. It’s only in recent times that I’ve begun to truly grasp this.

So it was with some relief that I read a fact by fact rebuttal of Sam Harris’s diatribes against all religions and Islam in particular. The following (as well as the title of this blog post) is based on a section of Talking to the Enemy: Violent Extremism, Sacred Values, and What it Means to be Human by Scott Atran.

Fact One: read more »

Someone get Scott Atran to tell us which soccer club these guys belonged to. — Tweet from Sam Harris

Nigeria’s Street Football: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-15257141

The title was a tweet by Sam Harris: https://twitter.com/samharrisorg/status/337313832814919680 in response to the horrific terrorist murder of Lee Rigby in London. I told someone in a recent comment that I would do a post explaining my perspective on what lies behind Harris’s response. (In that same comment thread one can see a video in which Sott Atran goes some way to explaining what a soccer club has to do with terrorism.)

Firstly, who is Scott Atran? From Wikipedia:

Scott Atran (born 1952) is an American and French anthropologist who is a

  • Director of Research in Anthropology at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris,
  • Senior Research Fellow at Oxford University in England,
  • Presidential Scholar at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York,
  • and also holds offices at the University of Michigan.

He has studied and written about terrorism, violence and religion, and has done fieldwork with terrorists and Islamic fundamentalists, as well as political leaders. . . .

. . . he received his PhD in anthropology from Columbia University. . . .

Atran has experimented on the ways scientists and ordinary people categorize and reason about nature, on the cognitive and evolutionary psychology of religion, and on the limits of rational choice in political and cultural conflict. His work has been widely published internationally in the popular press, and in scientific journals in a variety of disciplines. He has briefed members of the U.S. Congress and the National Security Council staff at the White House on the The Devoted Actor versus the Rational Actor in Managing World Conflict, on the Comparative Anatomy and Evolution of Global Network Terrorism, and on Pathways to and from Violent Extremism. He was an early critic of U.S. intervention in Iraq and of deepening involvement in Afghanistan, and he has been engaged in conflict negotiations in the Middle East. . . .

Atran’s debates with “new atheists” Sam Harris, Dan Dennett, Richard Dawkins and others during the Beyond Belief symposium on the limits of reason and the role of religion in modern society highlight the differences between “new atheists” who see religion as fundamentally false and politically and socially repressive, or worse, and those like Atran who see unfalsifiable but semantically absurd religious beliefs as historically critical to the formation of large-scale societies and current motivators for both conflict and cooperation.

Atran has taught at

  • Cambridge University,
  • Hebrew University in Jerusalem,
  • and the École des Hautes Études in Paris.

He is currently

  • a research director in anthropology at the French National Centre for Scientific Research
  • and member of the Jean Nicod Institute at the École Normale Supérieure.
  • He is also visiting professor of psychology and public policy at the University of Michigan,
  • presidential scholar in sociology at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City,
  • senior research fellow at Harris Manchester College, Oxford University,
  • and cofounder of ARTIS Research and Risk Modeling.

I am belatedly catching up with two of his books, In Gods We Trust and Talking to the Enemy, after having read a few of his scholarly journal and online writings.

I mentioned Atran’s video presentation — there is also follow up to that and Atran’s exchanges with Sam Harris at The Reality Club, Beyond Belief webpage (note on that page there are several in depth comments by Atran). Of his exchange with Sam Harris he writes: read more »

Fantasy and Religion: One Fundamental Difference (Or, Why God’s Word Will Never Fail)

Fantasy&ScienceFiction_cover_Oct1978Some theologians like to study what they call the intersects between science fiction (which is a sub-genre of fantasy) and religion. That might be a cute way to spark interest in the gospel message, but in reality there is no intersection between the two at all, at least not cognitively. Scot Atran explains:

One clear and important distinction between fantasy and religion is the knowledge of its source. People generally attribute their personal fantasies and dreams to themselves and to events they’ve experienced. They also know or assume that public fictions (novels, movies, cartoons, etc.) were created by specific people who had particular intentions for doing so.

A religious text is another story. Followers believe it to be the work and word of deities themselves. Believers assume that sacred doctrine was first heard or transcribed in some long-forgotten time by chosen prophets or sages who were faithfully repeating or imagining what the deities had directly said or shown to them. (In Gods We Trust, p. 91)

As I have been showing in my posts on Dennis Nineham’s lectures collated in The Use and Abuse of the Bible, theologians of the modern-day have salvaged the Bible from the ravages of standard literary and historical criticism by declaring that its authors were imbued with remarkable spiritual insights into the meaning of the events they witnessed and modern readers who have faith will recognize this gift of theirs in the Scriptures. This is, in effect, a more sophisticated version of the “divine inspiration” of the Bible. It’s a neat device for justifying the Bible as the fundamental source of their faith, filled with divine insights (a more intellectually respectable way of expressing the concept of “divine inspiration”), even though there are human errors evident in the text and even though some texts reveal a humanly flawed author.

The need by some Christians to affirm the apostolic authority of the Gospels is worth commenting on in this context. It appears that affirming the traditional authorship — two apostles (Matthew and John) and two associates of apostles (Mark and Luke) — is necessary in order to further elaborate the faith narrative that holds these works are indeed products of divinely chosen eyewitnesses. Normal evidentiary means of confirming authorship are dismissed as “overly sceptical” in the need to affirm the faith that a religion grounded in historical events is indeed “historically true”.

But what does it mean to accept a text on faith as authoritative?

Why God’s Word Cannot Be Disconfirmed

Accepting a text on authority and faith implies that the listener or reader suspend the universal constraints on ordinary communication . . .

In ordinary communication, the listener or reader “automatically” attempts to fill the gap in understanding between what is merely said or written and what the communicator intends the listener or reader to think or do as a result.

Atran illustrates. Normal communication works like this: read more »

Science and Religion: Four Fundamental Differences

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. read more »