Beyond Belief: The Debate Continues

December 1, 2006

Scott Atran rebukes Richard Dawkins, Steven Weinberg and me for the various ways we each criticized religion at a recent conference at the Salk Institute. While Atran responded to us in person at this meeting, and has elaborated his views at considerable length here, he has yet to say anything of relevance to the case we built against religious faith. There are also several inaccuracies in Atran’s account of the Salk meeting, and these provide some of the many straw-men with which he grapples in his essay. For instance, he attributes words to me which I never uttered at Salk, but which bear some faint resemblance to words I have written. Whatever their source, the quotations are both inaccurate and out of context, and he uses them to attribute beliefs to me which I do not hold.

As to matters of real substance, Atran makes insupportable claims about religion as though they were self-evident: like “religious beliefs are not false in the usual sense of failing to meet truth conditions”; they are, rather, like “poetic metaphors”which are “literally senseless. “How many devout Christians or Muslims would recognize their own faith in this neutered creed? What is “literally senseless”about the claim that human beings were created in their present forms by God (and that evolution is, therefore, a fiction)? What is “literally senseless”about the proposition that an eternity in a fiery hell awaits nonbelievers after death? Or the expectation that Jesus will one day return to earth and magically lift good Christians into the sky while hurling sinners into a lake of fire? More than half of the U.S. population apparently believes these things. And despite Atran’s protestations on the subject, religious literalism is an utter commonplace in the Muslim world. In fact, openly doubting the perfect veracity and sublimity of the Koran can still get a Muslim killed almost anywhere on earth.

Atran’s comments, both at the Salk conference and in his subsequent essay, miss the point. The point is not that all religious people are bad; it is not that all bad things are done in the name of religion; and it is not that scientists are never bad, or wrong, or self-deceived. The point is this: intellectual honesty is better (more enlightened, more useful, less dangerous, more in touch with reality, etc. ) than dogmatism. The degree to which science is committed to the former, and religion to the latter remains one of the most salient and appalling disparities to be found in human discourse. Scientists spend an extraordinary amount of time worrying about being wrong and take great pains to prove others so. In fact, science is the one area of discourse in which a person can win considerable prestige by proving himself wrong.

Of course, individual scientists may or may not be privately honest or personally deluded. But the scientific method, with its institutionalized process of peer review, double blind trials and repetition of experiments, is beautifully designed to minimize the public effects of personal bias and self-deception. Consequently, science has become the preeminent sphere for the demonstration of intellectual honesty. Pretending to know things you do not know is a great liability in science; and yet, it is the sine qua non of faith-based religion.

Atran would have us believe that specific religious doctrines—like the idea that martyrs go straight to Paradise—are either not believed by anyone, or if believed, are not relevant to people’s behavior. To this end, he brandishes empirical results that fail even to strike a tangent to the issues under discussion (“scapegoating”? When did Dawkins, Weinberg, or I ever talk about scapegoating?). Given his approach to these issues, it’s not clear what could possibly constitute evidence for Atran that people are motivated to act on the basis of their religious beliefs:

Sam Harris and others at the conference tells us that suicide bombers do what they do in part because they are fooled by religion into seeking paradise, which includes the promise of 72 virgins. But neither I nor any intelligence officer I have personally worked with knows of a single such case (though I don’t deny that their may be errant cases out there). Such speculations may reveal more the sexual fantasies of those who speculate rather than the actual motives of suicide bombers. All leaders of jihadi groups that I have interviewed tell me that if anyone ever came to them seeking martyrdom to gain virgins in paradise, then the door would be slammed in their face.

The first thing to point out is that such cases do exist, “errant”or not. Second, by narrowly defining the promise of Paradise in terms of its sexual perquisites Atran makes the influence of theology on the behavior of jihadists seem like an exception to the rule. Whether or not they are solely fixated on the promise of virgins, the reality of Paradise and their “duty to God”is so often mentioned by jihadists that one cannot reasonably deny the role that religious belief plays in underwriting their actions. Atran ignores the role of religion, even when it bursts into view in his own research. Here is a passage from a paper on his website (“What Would Gandhi Do Today? Nonviolence in the an Age of Terrorism”) in which he summarized his interviews with jihadists:

Rather than obey a utilitarian ‘logic of rational consequence’ these actors perhaps more closely follow a ‘logic of moral appropriateness. ’ Consider, for example, our recent interviews with a number of self-identified recruits for martyr attack from the Hamas Block at al-Najah University in Nablus (which provides more suicide bombers than any other demographic group of Palestinians) as well as a number of active fighters in Indonesia from Jemaah Islamiyah, Al-Qeda’s main ally in southeast Asia, trained in Afghanistan, the southern Philippines, Sulawesi and the Mollucas. All were asked questions of the sort, ‘So what if your family were to be killed in retaliation for your action?’ or ‘What if your father were dying and your mother found out your plans for a martyrdom attack and asked you to delay until the family could get back on its feet?’ To a person they answered along lines that there is duty to family but duty to God cannot be postponed. ‘And what if your action resulted in no one’s death but your own?’ The typical response is, ‘God will love you just the same. ’  For example, when these questions were posed to the alleged Emir of Jemaah Islamiyah, Abu Bakr Ba’asyir, in Jakarta’s Cipinang prison in August 2005, he responded that martyrdom for the sake of jihad is the ultimate fardh ‘ain, an inescapable individual obligation that trumps all others, including the four of the five pillars of Islam (only profession of faith equals jihad). What matters for him as for most would-be martyrs and their sponsors I have interviewed is the martyr’s intention and commitment to God, so that blowing up only oneself has the same value and reward as killing however many of the enemy.

What may appear, to the untutored eye, as patent declarations of religious conviction are, on Atran’s account, nothing more than “sacred values”and “moral obligations”shared among kin and confederates. What Atran ignores in his interpretation is the widespread Muslim belief that martyrs go straight to Paradise and secure a place for their nearest and dearest there. In light of such religious ideas, solidarity within a community takes on another dimension. And phrases like “God will love you just the same”have a meaning that is worth unpacking. What is God’s love good for? It is good for escaping the fires of hell and reaping an eternity of happiness after death. To say that the behavior of Muslim jihadis has little to do with their religious beliefs is like saying that honor killings have little to do with what their perpetrators believe about women, sexuality, and male honor.

Consider the recent cartoon controversy: A Danish newspaper published some caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad; word of the transgression was assiduously spread in the Muslim world; and then we were all given a glimpse of just how reasonable and compatible with civil society conservative Islam can be. How can we interpret these events if we are to take instruction from Atran? Does he believe that religion was orthogonal to this phenomenon? Muslims didn’t take to the streets and start killing people because of their religious beliefs. This behavior was an expression of economic desperation, or politics, or “blowback,“or humiliation — anything and everything but religion conspired to bring us this spectacle of thuggish lunacy. The reality, however, is that if the doctrine of Islam were different, the beliefs of devout Muslims would be different, and this difference would have consequences at the level of their behavior. If the Koran contained a verse which read, “By all means, depict the Prophet in caricature to the best of your abilities, for this pleaseth Allah”, there wouldn’t have been a cartoon controversy. Can I prove this counterfactual? Not quite. Do I really need to?

The terrible truth is that millions (probably hundreds of millions, if not billions) of religious people read scripture as though it were an infallible guide to understanding reality and how to live within it. This is a problem: because on matters that remain absolutely central to our collective well-being, the doctrines of the Bible and the Koran are by turns vapid, anachronistic, barbarous, and wrong.

Is it possible that Atran is claiming that the greatest crimes of the 20th century were the products of reason run amok? How else can we understand this passage?

Two descendant “isms”of secular monotheism — communism and fascism — were explicitly based on what were once seriously thought to be scientific theories and philosophies. These particular variants led to the greatest mass murders in human history…

Were the regimes of Stalin and Hitler actually the products of too much intellectual honesty? Was an overweening demand for good evidence and coherent argument really what built the Soviet gulag and the Nazi crematoria? Are the Swedes — a majority of whom appear to be atheists (poll results range from 45-80%) — gearing up for the next great atrocity? It is amazing to see someone like Atran defend religious dogmatism by pointing out that the consequences of political and racist dogmatism have also been terrible. One of the most conspicuous problems with communism and fascism is that they are so similar to religions. These political ideologies are systems of brittle, divisive, and dehumanizing dogmatism. And they regularly give rise to personality cults which evince all the perverse features of religious hero-worship. I invite Atran to produce a single example of a society that has suffered because its members became too reasonable — that is, too open to evidence and argument, too critical of dogma, etc.

If there is an argument against “evangelical”atheists like Dawkins, Weinberg, and myself it must take one of these forms:

(1) Certain religious beliefs are true (or likely to be true); here’s why…

(2) Religious beliefs, while not likely to be true, are so useful that they are necessary; here’s the evidence…

(3) Many religious people are so irrational that it is simply too dangerous to criticize their beliefs. Please keep your mouth shut.

Atran has not attempted (1), has made a few noises suggesting that he probably agrees with (2), and hasn’t owned up to (3).

At the opening of his essay, Atran states that the effort to “roll back political fundamentalist movements in the United States and across the world is important and praiseworthy.” He then goes on to write as though fundamentalists scarcely exist. He also assumes that there is some natural separation between “political fundamentalism” and “religious belief.” The reality, however, is that in so far as a person really believes that the book he keeps at his bedside is the perfect word of the Creator of the universe, he will be motivated to take the contents of this book very seriously. As a result, Iron Age ideas about everything high and low — about sex, cosmology, gender equality, immortal souls, the validity of prophecy, etc. — will continue to subvert our public discourse. Many of these ideas, by their very nature, will constrain science, exacerbate human conflict, and divert public resources. Atran’s approach to solving this problem is to make declarations about the “basic irrationality of human life and society.” It is true that there is no shortage of people who will applaud this approach. And some of them may even mistake it for science.

November 29, 2006

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