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Scott Atran - Violent Extremism and Sacred Values
Posted: 29 August 2011 08:52 PM   [ Ignore ]
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Host: Chris Mooney

In less than two weeks, the ten year anniversary of the deadliest terror attack on U.S. soil—9/11—will be upon us.

In the past decade, there has been much debate and discussion about the root causes of terrorism and violent extremism. There has also been considerable scientific study of the matter.

Fortunately, Point of Inquiry recently caught up with the anthropologist Scott Atran, a world leader in this research. Atran has met with terrorists face to face. He has interviewed mujahedin, met with Hamas, talked to the plotters of the Bali bombing-and sometimes found his life at risk by doing so.

There’s probably nobody better if you want to talk about terrorism, what motivates it, and how these extremes fit within the broad tapestry of human nature.

Scott Atran is a research director in anthropology at the French National Center for Scientific Research, and holds a variety of appointments at other academic institutions. He’s also the author of several books including In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion and Talking to the Enemy: Faith, Brotherhood, and the (Un)Making of Terrorists. He has published frequent op-eds in the New York Times and his research has been published in Science, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and other leading publications.

http://www.pointofinquiry.org/scott_atran_violent_extremism_and_sacred_values/

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Posted: 30 August 2011 05:14 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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Listening right now… interesting how close Atran’s account comes to the way Islamist terrorists are depicted in the movie “Four Lions”

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Posted: 30 August 2011 06:11 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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Finally, someone from a skeptical/humanist podcast interviews Scott Atran, someone who might be considered an expert on the topic of terrorism and the role religion does (or doesn’t play) with it.  Why did this take so long?  Atran knows more about religious beliefs and what motivates them than Hitchens, Dawkins and Sam Harris put together, but has been ignored by skeptics/humanists for the past 10 years, all while doing high profile work on the subject!  Well, better late than never, I guess…

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Posted: 30 August 2011 07:44 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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Oh well. I though postmodernism well and dead, but Atran is clearly a dyed-in-the-wool postmodernist. The interview was chock full of fallacies, including constantly changing the definition of “sacred”, “religion” and “transcendental” to allow the postmodernist self-congratulation to pass through unnoticed.

Just one example: is the definition of religion is expanded to include all group identities, as Mr Atran defines it, then ALL wars are religious, including all wars of the 20th century, contrary to his fallacious assertion to the contrary. But if the definition of religion is restricted to those modes which only include some belief in a supernatural power, then Mr Atran’s other arguments fail.

This word play, redefining words as we go to fit our prejudice, is why postmodernism lost credibility. And this interview was just one more nail in that coffin. That Chris Mooney, yet again, fell into that trap doesn’t surprise me.

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Posted: 30 August 2011 08:15 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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Denis Robert - 30 August 2011 07:44 AM

Oh well. I though postmodernism well and dead, but Atran is clearly a dyed-in-the-wool postmodernist. The interview was chock full of fallacies, including constantly changing the definition of “sacred”, “religion” and “transcendental” to allow the postmodernist self-congratulation to pass through unnoticed.

Just one example: is the definition of religion is expanded to include all group identities, as Mr Atran defines it, then ALL wars are religious, including all wars of the 20th century, contrary to his fallacious assertion to the contrary. But if the definition of religion is restricted to those modes which only include some belief in a supernatural power, then Mr Atran’s other arguments fail.

This word play, redefining words as we go to fit our prejudice, is why postmodernism lost credibility. And this interview was just one more nail in that coffin. That Chris Mooney, yet again, fell into that trap doesn’t surprise me.

Indeed, there was quite a vibe of “reason is just another of approaching reality that is no better than any other” throughout the whole interview. Also, his views about Dawkins, Dennet and Harris are simply strawmen.

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Posted: 30 August 2011 08:19 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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Denis Robert - 30 August 2011 07:44 AM

Oh well. I though postmodernism well and dead, but Atran is clearly a dyed-in-the-wool postmodernist. The interview was chock full of fallacies, including constantly changing the definition of “sacred”, “religion” and “transcendental” to allow the postmodernist self-congratulation to pass through unnoticed.

Just one example: is the definition of religion is expanded to include all group identities, as Mr Atran defines it, then ALL wars are religious, including all wars of the 20th century, contrary to his fallacious assertion to the contrary. But if the definition of religion is restricted to those modes which only include some belief in a supernatural power, then Mr Atran’s other arguments fail.

This word play, redefining words as we go to fit our prejudice, is why postmodernism lost credibility. And this interview was just one more nail in that coffin. That Chris Mooney, yet again, fell into that trap doesn’t surprise me.

Uhm, Atran is sympathetic to logical positivism.  Were we listening to the same interview?

Having said that, you would be hard to find a consistent definition of what religion is, even from scholars who had spent their careers studying it.  Atran and another scholar offer one here.

I am skeptical of Atran’s insistence that all “ism"s are comparable to religion, but his ideas intrigue me.  Guess we’ll have to see if his research into this area bears fruit.

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Posted: 30 August 2011 02:02 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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Not a bad interview. I read Talking to the Enemy, and I thought it made some valid points;  Prof. Atran states that most terrorists are psychologically normal, and they get swept up in the scene mainly through “identity politics”, and also-just plain friendship.  I think that these data are accurate and often overlooked by many commentators.  However it does seem that there is a strong dose of Post Modernism in this thesis.

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Posted: 31 August 2011 01:28 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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Wow, never knew I was a post-modernist. Maybe that’s what they now call doing empirical science to refute empirically unfounded claims to truth.

Sacred values are values that drive actions to goals that are independent, or all out of proportion, to likely or evident prospects of success. They are generally insensitive to quantity and to framing effects, and immune to tradeoffs. The violation of sacred values, as well as attempts to trade them off for material incentives or disincentives (carrots / rewards or sticks / sanctions), usually lead to a “backfire effect” that generates anger, moral outrage, and increased support for violence. By contrast, their mere recognition by an opposing group tends to lessen the violence between the groups. Data supporting these aspects and other aspects of sacred values, and their application to conflicts and negotiations in Israel/Palestine, Iran/USA, Pakistan/Kashmir/India, Indonesia, Nigeria, ProLife vs Prochoice, etc. can be found in my research teams’s publications in Science, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, Proceedings of the Royal Society B, and elsewhere. Neuroimaging signatures for sacred values are described in a forthcoming issue of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Soc B., and other publications on my website

sitemaker.umich.edu/satran/home

Discussions of the empirical evidence for what drives suicide bombers can also be found there, in my book Talking to the Enemy, and my testimony to the US House of Representatives, Senate Armed Services Committee, and US Navy and Air Force.

My definitions and empirical studies of religion can be found in the In Gods We Trust, In Behavioral and Brain Sciences, Cognition, Biological Theory, and elsewhere.

[ Edited: 01 September 2011 01:03 AM by Scott Atran ]
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Posted: 31 August 2011 07:31 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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First, again I have to thank Chris M for presenting a very fine and thought-provoking interview with an excellent guest.  I was very critical of CFI’s choice of Chris Mooney as a POI host, but I’m now quite happy to withdraw that criticism.  Though I still differ with you, Chris (and apparently with Scott Atran), on some points regarding religion and its consequences, you are an excellent host/interviewer and I now really look forward to each of your podcasts!

It seems to me that the key insight Scott Atran offered in the interview is that we human beings - all of us -  are driven far more by our social and emotional needs and environments than those of us who cherish reason and critical thinking will often acknowledge.  To the degree that we in the atheist community continue to make this error, I think it will take us far longer to effectively reduce the harms promulgated through religious superstitions, particularly in the U.S.

Nevertheless, I would really like to discuss the breadth of consequences created by god-beliefs/unreasoned faith vs. enlightenment type beliefs with Mr. Atran.  It’s really difficult for me to imagine that someone of his depth of knowledge and intellect can’t appreciate, if not better quantify, the differences between those two worldviews and their net consequences.  I think the claim that Mr. Atran is a “postmodernist” arises because in the interview he seemed to equate blatant religious superstition with more rational evidence-based thinking, asserting that both are simply alternative worldviews or sets of “sacred values” and that that claim is all there is to it, so to speak.

And speaking of 9/11, while some of the hijackers had secular education and science backgrounds to various degrees (no pun intended), wasn’t the desire to go to Allah’s heaven a very key motivation for committing the 9/11 atrocities, and didn’t their understanding of religious martyrdom blind them to normal and healthy human compassion?


Be that as it may, Mr. Atran, if you read this, would you mind explicitly defining your use of the term, “transcendental?”
That would be helpful to me before I listen to your POI interview a second time.

[ Edited: 31 August 2011 07:36 AM by Trail Rider ]
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Posted: 31 August 2011 02:14 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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It’s not a question of the logical and empirical well-groundedness of science as opposed to other forms of thought. it’s whether reason, evidence and science suffice to overturn other forms of thought. In very restricted areas, it is possible and has been done. But there is little evidence science can or does challenge deeply held religious beliefs in ways to cause their abandonment. First, reason is used for victory and persuasion by most people most of the time, not for enlightenment or truth, and so if commitment to religion endures on other grounds then it is immune to reason (evidence for this is overwhelming, in line of Leon Festinger’s “when prophecy fails”). Second, scientists tend to focus laser-like on areas of their expertise and have no evident advantage in persuasion or insight when it comes to matters of personal, political or social importance - at least not enough to persuade people (other than a few marginal converts from time to time) to give up ghosts that suit their way of life.Third, science and reason are used in the wrong way,as a hammer that fails to hit home, when it should try to leverage irrationality to advantage(that’s the point of our work in political negotiations).

But as far as many new atheist assertions about religion and terrorism are concerned, they are just blatantly false. I remember confronting Foucault once with evidence that his interpretation of Cesalpino’s way of classifying nature was just palindrome wrong. His response: “perhaps, but the general story is still right.” That is precisely how Hitchens, Harris and Dawkins respond (Dan Dennett actually does consider inconvenient facts for more than two seconds).

[ Edited: 01 September 2011 01:01 AM by Scott Atran ]
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Posted: 31 August 2011 04:38 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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I see no harm in Scott Atran reminding us how subjective is most people’s reasoning; how little we use it to challenge ourselves as to the strength and accuracy our our most cherished points of view.  Those apostates among us will know that best!

BTW prof what’s with palindrome?  I really enjoyed your interview with Chris Mooney.  The quoted numbers of religious wars was surprising.

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Posted: 01 September 2011 12:52 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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Transcendental = immune to refutation from logic and empirical evidence

Martyrs for Allah may dream of paradise, although: 1. Anyone seeking virigns in heaven would have the door slammed in their face by any serious terror-sponsoring group (that’s more a sexual fantasy of our society, merged with attempts to give a “rational choice” explanation in terms of perverted preferences); 2. The pathways to violence of jihadis is quite similar (including political methods, suicide bombings, education, SES, levels of commitment, etc.) to those of the anarchists a century or so ago. STATE, military, police, and popular reaction to the anarchist threat (secular and atheist) almost exactly parallel reactions to the jihadi threat (though the anarchists actually did succeed in killing the Russian Czar, Queen of Austria, King of Italy, President of France, President of the USA, and the Austrian Archduke to spark WWI).

“palindrome” is something my iPad put in when I wrongly typed “plain”

[ Edited: 01 September 2011 12:57 AM by Scott Atran ]
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Posted: 01 September 2011 02:17 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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The point of friction seems to be whether or not Religious identity and motivation are a special type of Cultural identity and motivation.

New Atheism suggests it is, but we don’t need an overall answer. We need the question investigated within the context of specific phenomona, let’s say kamikaze pilots.

A reasonable guess would be that those WWII combatants were profoundly Culturally motivated, and informed only trivially by their (let’s say) Shinto identity.

There’s a point at which it would become disingenuous to downplay their Religion being a signifant factor. Say if it’s found likely that those individuals felt their action was supported by their sect’s teachings of the afterlife, gods, impurity, dogma, piety, etc. We can discover if that sect’s teachings leant weight to that questionable act. Whether we think that act was morally permissable seems besides the point.

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Posted: 01 September 2011 04:54 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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If you read the letters and diaries of the kamikaze, few believed that they were about to die for the emperor, none really for religion. They were fairly well-educated in science and other subjects, all volunteered for their missions (many saying they couldn’t let their friends down, often other pilots who were volunteering), many wrote poems and often quoted German idealists and romantics. They were willing die, said some, to save the spiritual soul of their country (in terms similar to De Gaulle’s call to the French to join the resistance against Fascism and the Nazis to save “l’idee de la France”).

Religion is a conceptual and emotional vehicle that fits just about anything people can imagine for war or peace, creativity or suppression of creativity, liberty to dream and fight oppression or subservience to tyranny, and so forth. The Civil Rights movement, for example, was profoundly based in religious thinking, in religious institutions, and in religious sentiments that opposed the “original sin” of slavery. Only towards the end, from about 1955 on, did liberal intellectuals get seriously involved. Ben Franklin wanted the motto of the American Republic to be “Rebellion to Tyranny is Obedience to God,” but Marx was also right that religion often serves to opiate the masses.

A virulent from of politically-motivated religious extremism is, of course, critical to the jihadi movement. But historically, religious motivation is not necessary for violent extremism (consider the anarchists, fascist black and brown shirts, left wing terrorists of the 1960s and 1970s, etc.); and today religious motivation is by no means sufficient to motivate violent extremism even among would-be jihadis. According to Gallup and Pew polls, about 7 percent of the world’s 1.3 billion Muslim have expressed strong sympathy for Bin Laden and his cause, near double that show some sympathy, but only a very, very small percentage of even those who express sympathy the cause commit to violence (some few thousands: for example, about 3000 arrested for Jihadi activities in Europe, with traditional religious education NEGATIVELY correlated with support for Jihad even among Muslims in European prisons; in the USA, there have been about 500 arrests, fewer than 100 serious cases, and most of these caught through law enforcement entrapment - since the best predictor of joining and carrying out jihad is who your friends are, and since people almost randomly pick up and fall put of the pathway to violence, there is a better than even chance that those caught through entrapment would have never carried out a plot to fruition if left to their own).

[ Edited: 01 September 2011 06:04 AM by Scott Atran ]
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Posted: 01 September 2011 07:31 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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What bothered me in the interview is the rather cavalier use of the word sacred.  The Cambridge dictionaries online defines the word Sacred as

- considered to be holy and deserving respect, especially because of a connection with a god
- connected with religion
- considered too important to be changed

I think Mr Atran is tacitly using the third meaning as a way to lump everybody together, from jihadist to Norwegians, scientists and secular humanists.  Being a scientist and secular humanist, I find it quite offensive.  It is not because of dogma that I hold my beliefs.  When I look at the world, I simply see that more technologically advanced planes crash less often, and that people living under democracy and human rights seem happier, especially women, gays and minorities.  Nevertheless, I wouldn’t call these values “sacred” because they are always opened to being questioned (remember Churchill: “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others”).  This is why I would certainly think twice before killing anybody, especially innocent civilians, to protect them.

So when Mr. Atran says that most recent wars had nothing to do with religion, it might be true in the strict sense.  But those calling for war certainly had moral certitudes and dogmas and disrespect of human life on par with religious demagogues.  The idea of the “Sacred” might have been a good evolutionary tool for social cohesion in the past, but in today’s multicultural world filled with destructive technologies, it has become a bug, not a feature.

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Posted: 01 September 2011 07:56 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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Is consideration of the thoughts of individual kamikaze pilots really the level of behavior that is relevant?
Isn’t the justification on a societal basis the level on which this discussion should take place if we’re going to speak productively about Japanese actions in WWII or of any other war?

Of course religion wasn’t and isn’t the only justification for almost any war, ever.  Who has ever asserted that?  Certainly not the “new atheists,” as far as I’ve ever heard or read.
It’s obviously true that all wars have a multiplicity of underlying causes, many of which are not proximate to religion, per se.
But it’s also true that god beliefs have been, at absolute minimum, a great motivator for troops in the vast majority of armed conflicts throughout history.

As Ryszard Kapuscinski wrote (p. 137 in my paperback) in his wonderful Travels with Herodotus, “In the realm of human affairs, admittedly, one also needs a pretext (for war). It is important to give it the rank of a universal imperative or of a divine commandment.  The range of choices is not great: either it is that we must defend ourselves, or that we have an obligation to help others, or that we are fulfilling heaven’s will. The optimal pretext would link all three of these motives. The attackers should appear in the glory of the anointed, in the role of those who have found favor in his chosen god’s eye.”

Consider for a simple example the American civil war.  I’d bet anything that conflict is counted among “non-religious” wars in the statistics Mr. Atran cites.  But do you think it would have been as brutal and long-lasting had the military officers and the clergy on both sides not constantly informed the troops that God was on their respective side demanding victory?  Otherwise, might the opposing troops who marched in lines into hailstorms of lead balls have insisted a bit more on the use of brains before bullets as a means of conflict resolution? Can anyone reasonably say the fact that almost all of those soldiers had been taught that glory awaited them in an afterlife was a peripheral factor?

Regarding the 9/11 hijackers, they didn’t seem to have “the door slammed in their face” by Al Queda, which at the time at least was a pretty serious terrorist organization, was it not? And had the hijackers not held their views of an afterlife with Allah, wouldn’t the actualization of their plan to immolate themselves and thousands of others at least have been considerably less likely?

Yet as above, it seems to me that it’s not the thought processes of individual mass murderers who are immediately relevant because we can’t address the thoughts of dead men - whether kamikaze or Islamic.
We can only constructively address the cultural circumstances giving rise to such actions and the dogmas such people were taught to believe and to then examine the effects of those on humanity as a whole, no?

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