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Scott Atran - Violent Extremism and Sacred Values
Posted: 01 September 2011 11:20 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 16 ]
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My use of the word “sacred” emerges from a technical, scientific literature, much as the word “rational” does as in rational choice theory. Above I have enumerated a number of specific properties attached to the concept. For those who don’t think this concept of “sacred” corresponds to their intuitive or dictionary sense, then substitute “X” for “sacred” and absolutely nothing changes in my argument.

As for al Qaeda and seeking virgins in heaven, I have interviewed such people (as well as Hamas, Jemaah Islamiyah, Lashkar-e-Tayibah, etc.). I’ve run experiments with their leaders and foot soldiers, and experimentally designed surveys with supporting populations. If anyone has data showing the contrary of what I found - namely, that almost any would-be martyr who wants to blow himself up to have virgins in heaven would not get a foot inside the door of any serious jihadi group (including all known groups that have targeted the USA) then I am happy to acknowledge my error. But as far as I know, and any intel guys I have talked to know, there is no such contrary evidence. Maybe someone like that sneaks through, but it’s rare (Mohammed Atta was a sexually peculiar case, but quite unique and unlike the other 9/11 pilot bombers whose friends, family and neighbors I interviewed).

As for the Civil War, the letters and diaries of soldiers (see for example, James McPherson’s Book for Cause and Comrades: Why Men fought the Civil War) don’t reveal a preoccupation with the afterlife, but with the moral issues of slavery vs community and states rights, which were indeed taken to reflect God’s preferences. But then, as Durkheim wisely noted long ago, “are not God and Group the same?” A sentiment that Darwin also evoked in the Descent of Man (the greater such sentiment and willingness to sacrifice for it, the likelier tribes will win out over other tribes, he argued).

[ Edited: 01 September 2011 11:29 AM by Scott Atran ]
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Posted: 01 September 2011 12:49 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 17 ]
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Mr. Atran,
First, thanks for responding here to the queries and remarks of strangers.
I’m sure we all appreciate your taking time to do so after your POI interview was posted.

I’m looking forward to listening to that interview again and also to reading some of the dialogue you’ve participated in on edge.org.

At the same time, I have to say that my own deep immersion in religion earlier in life, and subsequent experience with deeply devout friends and family, cause me to think that your surveys, no matter how carefully designed, might not be revealing some very profound religious motivations.  Maybe those sorts of motivations might be immune to being revealed through surveys taken by Western infidels like you or me?

In any event, I don’t believe I ever raised the “virgin” issue and I’m not sure why you keep bringing it up.  To me, it’s something of a distraction.  But are you really suggesting that the promise of becoming a martyr for Allah isn’t a key recruitment aspect for suicide bombers in Israel, Iraq, and Afghanistan? 
Someone shows up at jihadi HQ and says, “I want to be a martyr,” and those in charge reply, “Go away, we don’t want you,” right?
Then who are the people who form the long procession of suicide bombers?
I’ve read that they are folk, especially the young girls (who presumably wouldn’t be thrilled by the prospect of reaching eternity with boy virgins) who are desperate for a variety of pragmatic reasons.  At the same time, they don’t seem to come from the ranks of desperate atheists or impoverished Mormons or Vipassana meditation devotees…

And why do we call the groups we refer to as “jihadis” by that distinctly Islamic term?  They’re not just groups generally interested in morality and group cohesion are they?  Aren’t their agendas rather more specific to a particular sort of god belief and associated scripture interpretation?

Last, my personal experience leads me also to disagree vehemently that “God and Group are the same.”  Both can be employed as motivators through desire for loyalty, granted, but that’s where their similarities end, so how useful is such a statement?

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Posted: 01 September 2011 01:29 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 18 ]
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Almost all who want to become martyrs a self-seekers motivated by any number of reasons. More and more we find petty criminals involved who do it because they want to be more than just petty criminals (this is, in part, an unintended consequence of stopping the flow of money to jihadi organizations so now people who plot have to find money whe they can, and criminal networks are the easiest to tap into). Interestingly, economic theory of petty criminal behavior in terms of opportunity costs fails completely to explain why such people a willing to sacrifice their lives, the totality of their self-interests, for certain death and no material layoffs.

Jihadi groups, to the extent they exist as organizations (the exception rather than the rule as most jihadi plots are homegrown
Expressions of “organized anarchy”) select people depending on a variety of criteria. al Qaeda never really recruited anyone, but accepted about 15 to 20 percent of candidate proposals for funding and support. Most Qaeda guys in the days of glory until 9-ll were married, middle class, science educated. Paradise was as much of concern to them as to a run of the mill Christian fundamentalist (although muslim paradise is a bit more colorful).
It is interesting to note that only people I have ever found able to persuade would-be martyrs not to be martyrs are salafi groups because they are close in enough in spirit to touch these guys and turn them.

The Quran and Hadith play no real role. Most of these guy are “born again” in their late teens and early twenties and have little, if any, religious education. Among the poorer, rural groups in Pakistan, Indonesia and Yemen, jihadi preachers “read” from the Quran saying that the Prophet instructed young Muslims to fight Pakistan and America. The kids are ignorant and believe it. When tribal elders point out that there was no America or Pakistan in the Prophet’s time, they disappear that night. Madrassas are also important for the rural poor. But no global or transnational organization worth it’s salt is interested in these guys; they want people conversant in languages, able to blend into alien societies, use GPS, computers, chemicals, and so on. So no one involved in an attack against the west was educated in a madrassas, contrary to what Harris, Hitchens and Dawkins imply (although a few guys spent a few weeks in upscale religious schools that actually discouraged parroting and rote learning of the kind suggested as responsible for “religious brainwashing” - indeed, Jemaah Islamiyah careful chose operatives who were well rounded).

As for women, Darwin first pointed out that the vast majority of killings in a society are done by young men between the ages of 15 and 30 (the figure is 88 percent for killings in the history of the USA). Men tend to kill in groups, and more anonymously than women. Most killings by women are of people who threaten their families or who physically abuse them. The same is true of the jihad. In Chechnya, however, about one third of suicide attacks have been by women (also among the secular Tamil tigers, but that’s another story). Yet every known case of a Chechen women martyr is as a “black widow,” whose immediate family members were killed by Russian forces; and most of the killings by the women specifically target those perceived personally responsible for the killings (although there have been a few attacks oairplanes, subways, the Moscow theater, but under the direction of male handlers)

[ Edited: 02 September 2011 11:02 PM by Scott Atran ]
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Posted: 01 September 2011 09:50 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 19 ]
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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 (@Scott)

Averaging out across a whole religion (or country) is watering down the effect we’re interested in. It’s a diverse group, so the focus ought to stay on the implicated Sect/s. Then we hone in on the actual religious teachings we expect these men internalised about the world and their place in it. Benign or otherwise.

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…?
(@Brad)

I’m unconvinced. Religious motivations and identity are inherantly personal, so a good understanding of my society won’t give you good insight into my religious convictions. You might approach that insight if you narrowly define “society” to mean the group of people with whom I explicitly share my religious ideas (the local mosque, immediate family, etc).

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Posted: 02 September 2011 06:52 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 20 ]
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I haven’t had a chance to read all the comments here, but I’d like to echo the sentiment that it’s nice to see the interviewee come by and take part in the discussion.

Scott, if you wouldn’t like to be called a postmodernist, I would suggest not saying things like “science is good for science.”  Isn’t that what any postmodernist would say, that science is just one arbitrary way of looking at things?  Chris tried bailing you out by conflating this claim with the different claim that “reason/science isn’t good for convincing people,” and perhaps that’s ultimately your position (I haven’t read your books), but that certainly wasn’t what you said then, and it wasn’t the vibe I got throughout the lecture.

I’m doubly confused if you are a logical positivist, as someone called you above.  I don’t know the terminology (philosophy is not my field), but “logical positivist” is something my theist friends call me when they think I’m taking science too seriously.  So, wouldn’t you instead say that “science is good for reality,” or is someone (me, you, whoever called you that) here confused?

Switching gears, you basically compared terrorists to any college kid getting heavily involved in some movement.  Well, I had friends throughout college who got into libertarianism, socialism, Ayn Rand, various new age beliefs, various intense hobbies, and various traditional religions.  I’m sure the same could be said of everyone who went to college, and moreover I’m sure you would include my own involvement in whatever you’d call this “movement” in my previous list.  But, you never see Objectivists, Iron Man athletes, or chiropractors blowing things up.

Or, do you ... is our “movement” just counting the hits and ignoring the misses?  If not, aren’t you ignoring an extraordinarily serious difference between religion (or at least some religions) and other worldviews that aimless young men gravitate towards?  I can’t possibly be the first person to ask you this question, and I’m sure your reply is recorded somewhere, but I wonder if you’d mind answering here for us.

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Posted: 02 September 2011 10:10 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 21 ]
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Science is the only effective means I’m aware of for seeing beneath phenomenal reality and beyond it, to “hidden springs and causes” of things. But that has nothing to do with persuading people to give up cherished beliefs.

Anarchists were mostly young people in transitional stages in their lives, often well educated and from middle class families, but also rich and poor families. nearly all were secular atheists. Their historical trajectory and impact is the closest thing there is, by far, to the jihadi movement. It’s just as Malraux foresaw, counterculture ideologies would take on a religious color in the 21st century as secular ideologies played themselves out in the 20th century. the pendulum could well swing back in some decades, maybe the Earth Liberation Movement or some such.

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Posted: 02 September 2011 05:49 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 22 ]
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Thanks for the reply!

Scott Atran - 02 September 2011 10:10 AM

Science is the only effective means I’m aware of for seeing beneath phenomenal reality and beyond it, to “hidden springs and causes” of things. But that has nothing to do with persuading people to give up cherished beliefs.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad to hear you say this, but it doesn’t entirely jibe with a few things I took away from your interview.  Perhaps the problem is on my end, and I need to give it another listen.

Scott Atran - 02 September 2011 10:10 AM

Anarchists were mostly young people in transitional stages in their lives, often well educated and from middle class families, but also rich and poor families. nearly all were secular atheists. Their historical trajectory and impact is the closest thing there is, by far, to the jihadi movement. It’s just as Malraux foresaw, counterculture ideologies would take on a religious color in the 21st century as secular ideologies played themselves out in the 20th century. the pendulum could well swing back in some decades, maybe the Earth Liberation Movement or some such.

Your anarchist example is interesting.  But, I don’t think it helps either of our points.  If I’m saying (simplistically) that terrorism has something to do with religion, then yes anarchists are a counter-example.  But, you still haven’t supported your (simplified) point that jihad is just something that young people happen to get into.  There’s something about jihad and (apparently) anarchy that makes people violent, while adrift college kids who stumble into Mormonism or veganism don’t get violent.

Are you perhaps saying that people with violent tendencies are going to latch onto whatever ideology is currently extreme enough to justify violence?  Or am I going too far and putting words in your mouth?

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Posted: 03 September 2011 07:00 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 23 ]
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Atran makes a lot of sense. I remember back in the 60’s the prediction that “people will not believe nothing. Deprive them of their current organized religion and they will believe anything.” Coast to Coast has replaced The Revival Hour. Teams of ghost hunters have replaced Youth for Christ. Folk religion lives on and certainly none the better for the transformation.
  For the left, politics has been forced to fill the roles of religion. Both can motive in a few people and justify in others, exceptional acts of charity or exceptional acts of malice, vandalism, callousness, and cruelty. Politics seems conspicuously more effective in the latter than the former, in contrast to the Christian religion anyhow. Islam seems to stand in unfavorable contrast to Christianity and numerous other religions that way too.
  Atheism is usually prostituted for liberalism even more than religions are prostituted for political, evil or self serving ends. That is just one of those roles I mentioned.
  I find arguing with liberals is strikingly parallel to arguing with Creationists. First come the talking points, clichés, and hackneyed factoids . When I’m not snowed or willing to let it drop there or when they hear something they aren’t prepared for, the attack immediately turns personal. It is their identity, their foundation for feeling virtuous and superior that is at stake. The role of snobbery in liberalism and politically compromised atheism is overwhelming.
  I would remind Nocolas that “minorities” are politically defined and it is a moral or quasi-religious decision that it is good to make them as opposed to majorities happy as it is to favor women over men or homosexuals over normal or other sexually deviant people.

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Posted: 04 September 2011 11:21 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 24 ]
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If I am wrong about Atran’s affinity for logical positivism, then I regret saying so.  I got the idea from several footnotes in his “In Gods We Trust,” where he presented several arguments against religious beliefs grounded in logical positivism (i.e category mistake).

I stil do not know how people think Atran is a post-modernist.  As far as I can tell, it is some kind of bogey man for skeptics.  What am I missing here?

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Posted: 05 September 2011 01:23 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 25 ]
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I am a regular listener to the podcast but haven’t commented on an any episode yet. This episode led to especially interesting insights so I wanted to thank Scott for sharing these ideas and Chris for a great interview.
The surprising facts presented during the interview convinced me in the important role sacred values play in our societies, but I disagree with the specific example about Netanyahu’s demand of the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state. As an Israeli citizen I am very familiar with this demand and I’d like to propose an alternative perspective - it’s far from being transcendental - it means a de facto waiver of the Palestinians’ right of return. Both sides acknowledge this so the term “recognize Israel as a Jewish state” remains a politically correct term for convention.

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Posted: 08 September 2011 05:58 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 26 ]
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I’d encourage anyone who might want to get a slightly better sense of where Mr. Atran is coming from to read this discussion on edge.org.

For my part, I hope to get back here soon to ask a few other questions and add a couple of points.

For now, just a couple of quick thoughts.

Would it be any surprise that many suicide bombers come from the ranks of “petty criminals?”  How valuable is that bit of data?  There are petty criminals all over the world.  What distinguishes the young people who blow themselves up in the middle east from petty criminals in, say, Bangkok or Sao Paulo?  Might the more salient point have something to do with the fact that the former view themselves as “martyrs” for a deity?

And yes, the anarchists of the early twentieth century, like many communists later, perpetrated terrible acts of violence.  As several of the “new atheists” who seem to be Mr. Atran’s chosen foes have pointed out, the problem in both of those cases were more their similarities to religions and the religiously devout rather than their differences.  Could it not be said that the communists under Stalin, if not the anarchists (and today’s American Tea Party) had “sacred values?”  Isn’t the problem with each a lack of underlying evidence supporting those values?
If so, why then should respect be accorded to similar “sacred values?”

If I recall correctly, anarchists (probably) tried to blow up part of lower Manhattan in the early twentieth century.  Does that fact in any way excuse or explain away the motivations of the people who gave us the sad anniversary coming up this Sunday, 9/11/11?

When the Taliban blew up the Buddhas of Bamiyan, they didn’t do so for the interests of petty crime or for anarchist ideology, did they?  Their motivations were rather more specific to a particular set of unjustifiable and harmful beliefs, were they not?

[ Edited: 08 September 2011 06:11 AM by Trail Rider ]
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Posted: 08 September 2011 07:35 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 27 ]
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Trail Rider - 08 September 2011 05:58 AM

I’d encourage anyone who might want to get a slightly better sense of where Mr. Atran is coming from to read this discussion on edge.org.

Anyone who is truly interested in this topic should read Scott Atran’s book, Talking to the Enemy. It is quite evident Scott Atran is not playing some kind of armchair sociology as he has the data to back up his arguments. Until you read the book, you are just wasting your and Scott Atran’s time.

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Posted: 08 September 2011 08:08 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 28 ]
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Yes, of course. 
Mustn’t ask critical questions until we’ve all read the book.
Nothing short of that will do.
Otherwise, and even perhaps then, comments and queries (other than George’s), including from the edge.org writers, are but piffle from armchair sociologists.

[ Edited: 08 September 2011 08:32 AM by Trail Rider ]
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Posted: 08 September 2011 08:42 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 29 ]
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Well, Brad, take you comment about Islam and jihad, for example. If you read Atran’s book, you would learn that a mere one percent of madrasas support jihad, IIRC. (I see you have now edited your previous comment and taken out the part where you were playing armchair sociology regarding jihad.  wink )

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Posted: 09 September 2011 03:27 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 30 ]
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Well, George, I edited a couple of my posts here prior to your posts or those of anyone else in efforts to make them better.  If you still have a record through alert emails of anything I had edited out that contained “armchair sociology” or was false, please paste it in here and I’ll respond forthrightly and own up to any mistake, whether previously deleted or not.

Your point is taken that by reading one or more of Mr. Atran’s books, anyone’s understanding of his work and of his point of view would be increased and discussion with him and/or about his conclusions could take place on a more sophisticated level.  Of course that would be the case. And I would like to find time to read more of Mr. Atran’s work.

At the same time, do you really think any commenter here needs your appeal to authority or ad hominem dismissals about “armchair sociology” just because you admire Mr. Atran and apparently agree with his conclusions?

For the record, as I posted also above, it seems to me that Mr. Atran’s work is vital and at least some of his views and conclusions are correct and very important.  I agree entirely with him that argumentation and appeals to the wonders of science alone will never make a dent in the irrationality that drives beliefs in gods and in divine scripture. I agree with him also that much of the response, especially by the U.S., after 9/11 was wrongheaded.

However, I’m not sure I share Mr. Atran’s value judgement contained in the term “hysterical” that he used repeatedly in the podcast.  I was in Manhattan on 9/11 and thereafter, lost friends and colleagues, and had my work life permanently altered for the worse that day.  And that’s just me, not to mention millions of other people who were very literally attacked that day and had their lives and their families permanently diminished, nor to mention the existential and unpredictable nature of the threats to Western nations made real by both WTC bombings as well as those in London and Madrid.  It’s only been recently that I’ve stopped being able to recreate in my mind the burning smell that I knew contained the incinerated remains of people, including friends and colleagues.  So, “hysterical?”  Perhaps Mr. Atran’s perspective might not take all the relevant factors into account?

In any event, while Mr. Atran’s research and data and some of his conclusions may be faultless, some of his other viewpoints and conclusions seem to me to be mistaken, and egregiously so.  It is these I’m trying to understand, knowing all the while that it may be my understanding that is in error.  That is why I’ve asked the probing questions.

For example, consider the case of Richard Reid, whose bombing attempt Mr. Atran did not mention in his dismissive account of “failed” post 9/11 terrorist activities.  (I used the quotation marks in the previous sentence because,
1) it was only a certain amount of luck and the severe intervention of passengers and crew that prevented the aircraft from being destroyed in flight, and
2) ever since his attempt, every day millions of airline passengers have to remove and replace their shoes in order to pass through airline security in honor of Mr. Reid and his methodology.)

Reid was certainly a petty criminal and an utter nitwit.  But so what?
Given what is known about Reid, and what he himself said in his trial and sentencing, how can anyone conclude that his religious indoctrination and beliefs were not the proximate cause of his actions?
If Mr. Atran’s book explains that, then I’ll really look forward to reading it.
But neither Mr. Atran’s POI interview nor anything else I’ve read of him so far refutes a conclusion that Reid acts were primarily religiously motivated.

In the edge.org piece I linked for the use of any other readers here, Mr. Atran wrote of one of his colleagues, “Jeremy Ginges, a psychologist at the New School, finds that belief in God does not promote violence, combative martyrdom or almost anything else the “God delusion” was blamed for at the conference.”  Well, it seems to me that Mr. Reid – and Mr. Atta and colleagues on 9/11 – might not entirely agree with the conclusions of either Mr. Ginges or Mr. Atran.

And now that I think of it, I’d bet that the little girl who was beaten to death as described in this report, were she alive today, might not agree either.
How many other of countless examples, though not contained in the data of Mr. Atran, do you think should be required before one has the standing to question his conclusions prior to reading his books, George?  wink

Also in the edge piece, Mr. Atran allows the following:
…religious beliefs are not false in the usual sense of failing to meet certain truth conditions, like “the earth is flat” or “natural grass is orange. ” Rather, core religious beliefs, like poetic metaphors, are literally senseless in that they altogether lack truth conditions; that is, there are no logical or empirical criteria for judging whether such utterances are true or not.

Now, I’m no sociologist, but apparently unlike Mr. Atran I’ve lived my entire life among devoutly religious people, and I don’t know a single one who would agree with those statements.
AT ALL.  NOT ONE.
I do, however, know lots of devout believers who would feel absolutely no responsibility to report their true views to a foreign infidel doing a “social science” survey.  It may well be that Mr. Atran’s research is so clever and well-done as to get around that.  Maybe his books explain how…
Still, the statements I’ve quoted here and several other things Mr. Atran wrote in the edge piece make me particularly skeptical of Mr. Atran’s conclusions and make me also less motivated to take the time to read his books.

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