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Scott Atran - Violent Extremism and Sacred Values
Posted: 09 September 2011 12:36 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 31 ]
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My claim that religious statements are not truth valuable in the sense that logical or empirical propositions are is, in fact a claim that logical positivists like Freddie Ayer, Ernst Nagel, Rudolph Carnap and other have long held. But now a number of researchers (myself, Ara Norenzayan, Pascal Boyer, Dan Sperber, Justin Barrett, Harvey Whitehouse, Robert McCauley, E. Thomas Lawson, and dozens of authors) have shown this to be experimentally the case again, and again, and again (in journals such as Behavioral and Brain Sciences, Nature, Cognition, Cognitive Science, Journal of Cognition and Culture, Evolutionary Psychology, etc.). It matters little what someone’s intuition about this is. If science had to rely on intuition we’d be back, if not in the caves, at least in the time of witches and demons. As Hobbes noted (and Galileo and Aristotle before him) how can one possibly even make sense of “He is one in three” or of a non-sentient being that sees, hears, and smells all, or of even life after death? The way you do it is give it a particular propositional interpretation in a particular context (which is why there are weekly sermons, and also why religious quasi-propositions - which have the syntactic form of a proposition but which are semantically senseless, like colorless green ideas that sleep furiously -  survive over centuries when contexts change).

As for people killing out of religious motivation, it happens all the time, just as doing good out of religious motivation happens all the time. Sometimes people do very bad or very good things in a religious cause. But I know of no empirical study or set of evidence that has a scientific control (say of non-religious ideologies) that shows religion is a greater cause of violence than non-religious ideologies.

[ Edited: 09 September 2011 12:50 PM by Scott Atran ]
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Posted: 10 September 2011 04:24 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 32 ]
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Mr. Atran,
It’s unfortunate that the very limited context of this internet discussion makes any of us appear to be at loggerheads in a general way, because I’d bet that in broader terms we’re all very much on the same page of wanting to obtain the greatest breadth and depth of factual data possible regarding terrorism (and other matters, too) and “armed” accordingly, to help bring about responses that will produce the greatest peace and harmony for humankind going forward.  Toward that end, let me say again that your work sounds not just fascinating, but really important.

It’s for those very reasons, though, that I think it’s important for us to question your arguments where they don’t appear to make complete sense or where we can’t comprehend them, so that we might all discover where any discrepancy may lie.  After all, if your rationale isn’t clear in friendly confines like CFI or a gathering of intellectuals, you might have even more difficulty getting your points across the next time you testify before our esteemed Congress, no?

Regarding the truth claims of religion, no doubt you and all the other philosophers and researchers you cite are entirely correct in the sense that you’ve described.
Certainly nobody here (barring a surprise entry!) is going to argue with you that a great many religious propositions can’t make sense to any thinking person without the sorts of distorting manipulations you mention.  No need even getting started on that…

But it seems to me the relevant question is not what we, or philosophers ancient or modern, think about the truth claims of religion, but what devoutly religious people think, and how their thinking drives their behavior for good or ill.

What percentage of devout god believers around the world would you say share the view you espouse?  If we can’t say that at least a majority of devout believers share your viewpoint on religious truth claims, I’m afraid I haven’t been able to discern your point, either here or in the context of the edge conference.
Pardon me if it’s obvious and I’m just too dense to get it.

Even more specifically with respect to the subject matter underlying the POI interview, that of terrorism, its causes and probablility of recurrence, how many of the people we think of as terrorists might agree with your views on religious truth claims?

Can you name any known terrorists who view the truth claims/statements of religion as you suggest?

Scott Atran - 09 September 2011 12:36 PM

As for people killing out of religious motivation, it happens all the time, just as doing good out of religious motivation happens all the time. Sometimes people do very bad or very good things in a religious cause. But I know of no empirical study or set of evidence that has a scientific control (say of non-religious ideologies) that shows religion is a greater cause of violence than non-religious ideologies.

How would such a study be completed beyond a study of history, comparison of available weaponry, etc.?
In any event, I’ve heard this assertion many, many, times, although you’re the first secular person I’ve ever heard make the point in exactly this way. 
And what is the point?  Let’s say that secular ideologies are an equivalent cause or an even greater cause of violence than religious ideologies.  Would that fact excuse or justify in any way the harms done by the religious ideologies?
And today, in the 21st century, in the immediate future would you say that the greater threat arises from religious motivations and ideologies or from any widespread secular ideology that you can name?

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Posted: 11 September 2011 07:33 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 33 ]
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Yesterday as I was grooming my ancient cat, the History Channel had a program on “HELL” and a preacher “Baptist, I think” was mesmerizing his congregation on the truth that hell is just below the ground they were standing on.  Sitting in front of him were children and elder people who should have known better.  He ranted on that even the good people sitting in front of him would not escape hell until they took Jesus Christ as their savior.  The children looked strange…...

My only hope for these kids is that they will be introduced to science before they are swallowed up by the most dangerous lie ever told in any building.  The Preacher who I whispered to my cat, was a dangerous fat ignorant bastard.  My cat understood.  Hell, she’s 21 years old and has been on my lap through many experiences including 911 and is used to my comments of disgust.  I can’t even discuss President Bush 43 without raising my voice in horror!  I am a tad more in control when watching a football game….but not much!

The History channel did show the moving parts of earth and how the movements trigger earthquakes and some volcanic action.  The preacher never mentioned this at all.  The preacher told his group that God could swallow them up in a second and they had better do something before they left the church.  Many sat there nodding in agreement.  This is the same crap that I sat through when I attended a Revival meeting in Lake Havasu City just after 9/11.  Hearing the hatred from the Christians made me understand the Islamic Terrorists coming after the USA. 

I wanted my kids to learn the story of Jesus Christ but never the horror that God would strike them dead at any minute.  6 years was enough of that crap and they ended up in a secular college prep that was heavy on math and science.  From there, I went to the USA - Utah football game and calmed down.  Oh Hell it was a game between the Baptist USC and the Mormon Utah.  USA won and being the school of my parents, I cheered.  The cat slept all the way through it.

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Posted: 26 September 2011 08:36 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 34 ]
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Chris, your very last comment in the interview was brilliant:  “So a science that will persuade - without using science - is what we need to achieve”. I can only think Atran will be losing sleep over this.

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Posted: 05 October 2011 11:05 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 35 ]
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A central value to those of us who identify with the skeptical and atheist movement is continued examination of our core principles. No interview in recent memory has been more effective at getting me to do some of this than Chris Mooney’s with Scott Atran.  Thank you to you both and especial kudos to Atran for continuing the conversation here in this forum! (Sorry to be a little late the party, but I’m way backed up on my podcasts.)

What I found provocative was Atran’s assertion that ALL of us, himself included, “buy into” (his words) some transcendental ideology that is immune from argument and evidence.  Human rights and the principles of liberal Western democracies are just another instance of this. What some picked up on as “post-modern” was his unwillingness to let Mooney rope him into a defense of these values and the impression he gave that his preference for them is just an accident of circumstance.

So here is the challenge to all of us: do human rights and liberal democratic values really have no better foundation than the central myths of religions? (How about addressing this issue in future PoI podcasts with other guests?)

Mooney pressed him on whether there were “good” and “bad” religions and Atran said “yes,” but was clearly uncomfortable here and retreated to “shifting sands” and a denial that any ideology will be found have a transcendental grounding.  (A big “duh!” to this last point…this was the only place where the polished Atran seemed to stumble a bit over his words, the one question that required him to briefly step out of his “anthropologist persona”).

Atran accuses the Gnu Atheists of arrogance. However, to me it seems the height of arrogance to assume that though a naturalistic worldview works just fine to protect you, Dr. Atran, and your academic colleagues from the “existential chasm” (or whatever you called it), it will never work for the great majority of people.  Ayan Hirsi Ali and Julia Sweeney happen to be famous for their best selling media about their personal journeys from religion, but there are thousands more living in obscurity who have made similar ones.  Is this not a trend that will make the world safer and more humane? 

I didn’t understand the point Atran wanted to make by mentioning Norway’s response to the Breivik massacre. To me it’s just an unsurprising example of an advanced Western secular society characterized by more compassion than most religious ones.

I also agree with some comments made above that Atran uses multiple definitions of religion. If all ideologies and “isms” are basically religions, then nearly all wars are religiously inspired. If, on the other hand, religion is categorically different from other kinds of ideologies, then its critics may be right to single it out, even if they overestimate the proportion of wars inspired by religions.

The caveats and concerns above notwithstanding, I learned a lot from this interview with Scott Atran and it still has me thinking.  Please keep the guests coming that will challenge the received wisdom of us skeptico-atheists!

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Posted: 05 October 2011 12:37 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 36 ]
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Of course we are free from this horrifying illusion of hell and damnation.  I didn’t buy it as a child but I was fortunate in being raised by a Mormon family who never seemed to concentrate on anything other than breeding.  I would snicker at the threats from many neighbors who were involved with Christianity as Pearl Harbor had just dropped into our brains making us wonder what the hell was that?  No mention of God or even a Japanese God or any God but we didn’t have a lot of time to discuss this stuff.  My grandfather headed up Civil Defense in our area of California and we went to work gathering names and addresses of our neighbors and then weekly visits to the Vet’s Hospital in West Los Angeles.  My childhood disappeared under a ton of lists to be done just in Santa Monica.

As an observer at this point in time, I caught a taste of violent extremism from the John Birch Society who became the wandering Evangelicals from city to city.  They talked in some kind of holy code and that only a very small group understood WW2.  I got chased all over the Miramar Hotel by an Evangelical handsome man who wanted me to go with him to his room.  I was about 16 and laughed at him.  He was married with many children and it was the first true hypocrisy I saw.  No!  I did not go with him.  It may have been what horrified me about these two-faced characters of the Fundamentalists. 

I heard all the stories of hell and damnation but had read Orwell, and Wells and all the good juicy writers and took nothing seriously.  I’ve been addicted to books my entire life and have developed calluses when it comes to Violent Extremism and Sacred Values. 

The one thing that terrifies me is the new Republican Conservative movement into Evangelical Extremism.  There are leaders in that group who have no knowledge of the basic books of the bible.  3 of the Candidates believe the 10 Commandments were written by Jesus.  They don’t know the difference between the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.  These people are trying to scare the crap out of me! 

I had a particularly offensive young woman on another forum tell me unless I accept Jesus that moment, I might not get to the end of the day.  I did even after having an extremely painful shot in my spine.  By the time I got out of there I was stoned to the gills and became fascinated by an electric meter in front of a Jewish deli and I wanted watch it for awhile.  My daughter explained it was not art but an electric meter and she took me home.  I called her this morning to thank her for driving me to the doctor’s office and asked her if we could go back to the deli so I could watch it again?  Her answer was NO!  I went to bed early and was annoyed that the Monday night football game was not on.  It was Tuesday! 

I am beyond Violent Extremism and Sacred Values but I am enjoying this thread….

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Posted: 17 August 2012 11:48 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 37 ]
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I was at that 2006 conference as an observer and was appalled at Atran’s dismissive attitude towards anyone who disagreed with him, resulting more than once in the use of embarrassingly inappropriate four-letter words to emphasize his points. He seemed incapable of grasping subtleties such as Carolyn Porco’s comments about a “church of atheism,” to name just one example.

Atran made no friends at this conference; more importantly he made no coherent arguments either. The Templetons (who seemed to be there for comic relief) might have liked him.

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Posted: 17 August 2012 12:21 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 38 ]
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whoknows - 17 August 2012 11:48 AM

I was at that 2006 conference as an observer and was appalled at Atran’s dismissive attitude towards anyone who disagreed with him, resulting more than once in the use of embarrassingly inappropriate four-letter words to emphasize his points. He seemed incapable of grasping subtleties such as Carolyn Porco’s comments about a “church of atheism,” to name just one example.

Atran made no friends at this conference; more importantly he made no coherent arguments either. The Templetons (who seemed to be there for comic relief) might have liked him.

Anyone who is right is allowed to be a little arrogant. And Atran is right.

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Posted: 17 August 2012 12:34 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 39 ]
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George - 17 August 2012 12:21 PM
whoknows - 17 August 2012 11:48 AM

I was at that 2006 conference as an observer and was appalled at Atran’s dismissive attitude towards anyone who disagreed with him, resulting more than once in the use of embarrassingly inappropriate four-letter words to emphasize his points. He seemed incapable of grasping subtleties such as Carolyn Porco’s comments about a “church of atheism,” to name just one example.

Atran made no friends at this conference; more importantly he made no coherent arguments either. The Templetons (who seemed to be there for comic relief) might have liked him.

Anyone who is right is allowed to be a little arrogant. And Atran is right.

He was more than a little arrogant, and you would get more than a few arguments about whether he was right!

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