Saturday, April 14, 2007

Scott Atran: Is Religion to Blame?

The next part of the Beyond Belief 2006 conference was not a presentation from an invited speaker, but the continuation of a point that Scott Atran (Research Director at the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris, France) made in comments given to other speakers.

It is my habit to begin by listening to what somebody else is saying, and to find an interpretation that makes it seem as credible as possible. It has served me well. There have been a number of instances when I began to write an essay critical of what somebody has stated. However, on review, I came across an interpretation that avoided my criticism.

There have also been instances where I have started an essay endorsing what somebody has said. However, as I try to fit my essay to the speech I come to the conclusion, “The speaker did not really say that.” Both of the essays on Richard Dawkins’ presentations underwent substantial revision when, after writing the essay, I went back to the speech, and discovered that I could not support the interpretation I used in the essay.

I say this as a prelude to the fact that I am going to start by giving Scott Atran’s views as much weight as I can.

I will be handicapped by the fact that Atran did not have a prepared presentation. He presented his ideas in discussion, which means that they were not organized into a smooth flow from premises to conclusion.

Atran is currently involved in a research group for NATO studying suicide terrorism. What does it take to turn a person into a suicide terrorist? His claim is that it is not religion. Making religion the ‘fall guy’ for suicide terrorism is a problem. It distracts our attention to the real dynamics of suicide terrorism, and because we do not properly understand it, we cannot properly combat it.

Religion vs. Group Dynamics

Atran’s first comments came a few days ago when he complained that those who were blaming religion for the world’s problems did not present any scientifically valid empirical evidence in support of their conclusions. Instead of empirical research, they made broad intuitive statements that took the form, “Look around you at all of the problems of the world. We can see that all of our troubles are caused by religion. By eliminating religion, we can eliminate all of our problems – or, at least, a significant portion of them”

The actual empirical evidence, according to Atran, does not support this conclusion.

In his own studies, he reports that the greatest predictors of suicide bombings is not religion but group dynamics. A group of people get together, they eat the same foods, they dress they same, and they become ‘fictitious kin’ – blood brothers, as it were. They are willing to die for each other.

I have heard the same story used to describe how the U.S. military (or any modern military) creates a military squad or team. A group of people from diverse backgrounds are brought together. They train alike. They dress alike. They eat the same foods. They endure the same hardships. The squad becomes ‘fictitious kin’. Eventually, its members are ready to die for each other. They are then given a mission, and they carry out that mission.

Soldiers do not actually live and die for a cause. They live and die for the other guy who is in the fox hole with him. This is why trained soldiers can live or die for any cause whatsoever. This is why it is possible to create an army willing to fight for the likes of Hitler, and why Bush – if he were to order a holocaust anywhere in the world – would likely discover that the military will execute its orders.

Religion really does not matter – the same model works for any ideology.

The Atheist Suicide Bomber

Would it be possible to create a group of atheist suicide bombers or what would actually be ‘militant’ atheists – militant in the sense that they take up arms and go out to kill people?

I do not know of any reason to believe that this is impossible, or even any harder to do with a group of atheists than for any other group. It is true that the atheists will not kill in the name of God. However, they may be caused to kill for some equally irrational reason.

Take such a group of atheists, and give them a message that religion is the cause of all of the world’s problems.

If only we could rid the world of religion, we would be rid of all of this irrationality and the problems that it causes. What we can then have would be, if not ‘utopia’, at least far better than we have today. It’s those religious people who are ruining everything for all of us and there is no activity more noble and worthwhile than to bring about ‘the end of faith’.

All of these ‘patient’ solutions of dialogue, tolerance, argument, and proof – they do not work. These people have abandoned reason. How can we possibly hope to use reason to argue them out of something where abandoning reason is what got them into this position to start with? No, there is only one way to deal with people like this – and it is not through reason and dialog.

In fact, we should think of irrationality – faith – as a disease. Like any disease, it must be removed, so that the healthy tissue will not become infected.

Readers may look at this and say, “I would never fall for anything like this.”

Are you sure?

Are you not human? Do you not think that you are immune to the forces of group dynamics? What gives you reason to think that? Is it, perhaps, just wishful thinking?

Do you have any empirical evidence at all to support your claims?

Besides, even if you would not fall for something like this, the real question is whether you think it is impossible to find eight atheists in the world who would fall for it? If it is possible, than atheist suicide bombers – truly ‘militant’ atheism – is possible.

We can only protect ourselves from it if we accept this possibility. There is no reason to stand guard against something that one does not think could exist. This type of complacency is a dangerous thing. Harris’ Response

In opposition to this view, Sam Harris attempted to argue that beliefs are important, and that religious beliefs are an important part of this type of behavior. He asserts that we can explain, at least in part, the behavior of the Muslim compared to the behavior of the Tibetan Buddhist in terms of their beliefs. Tibetan Buddhists, he asserted, are less likely to form groups that can be sent out on missions to kill others than Muslims. This is because Tibetan Buddhists have a religion that stresses an extreme form of compassion that says that it is wrong to kill anybody, while Islam repeatedly calls for the killing of infidels and the glory of martyrdom. It is absurd to deny that these beliefs have an effect on behavior.

On this matter, Harris has a point. Suggesting that a belief or a desire has no effect on actions is as bizarre as suggesting that there is a force that has no effect on the movement of matter through physical space.

I can assert, “The universe contains Force 10. This force cannot be felt in any way, and it has no effects on anything that can be measured. Yet, it still exists.”

I cannot prove that no such force exists. However, I can assert that there is no reason to believe that such a force exists. If it has no effects on the real world, then it has no effects on the material that makes up the brain, and no effects that could possibly justify believing in it. “Force 10 does not exist,” even though it cannot be proved true, is still true for all practical purposes.

The same line of reasoning applies to beliefs and desires that have no effect on action. Even if these beliefs and desires are real, it is still the case that for all practical purposes it is as if they do not exist. If they have no effect on the real world, we have no reason to believe that they exist.

If religious beliefs and religious values exist, then they are affecting action. If they are not affecting action then, for all practical purposes, they do not exist. If they are affecting action, then we have reason to ask if their affects are positive or negative. In the case of beliefs, we also have reason to ask if they are true. In the case of values, we can ask if there is any possible real-world state of affairs in which the thing valued can actually exist.

However these questions get answered, one thing is certain – the existence of religious beliefs and values do have a real-world effect. If they did not, then we would not know of their existence.


Kraft said...

I was wondering when you'd got to Atran's comments and discussion. I found that some of the question sessions after the presentations were more interesting than the presentations themselves.

Session 10-
"Brain is Bayesian..." - Ramachandran

"I just want to comment that the brain not Bayesian, it's associative..." -Audience member 1

"I just want to point out that the brain is neither Bayesian nor associative, but it's something and we don't know what it is yet..." -Audience member 2

Ian Parker said...

There already has been What about Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot? Not exactly suicide bombers, but still nasty and militaristic.

For 200 years 1789-1989 militant atheism was perceived as the main threat to society.

Anonymous said...

I think Alonzo was heading in the right direction at the end of his post. Though it is not necessarily OK or good to be influenced in this way by anyone. I believe that alot of religions give false reasons and lies to get people to do what they want. That is where the societies problem and the religion problem meet. I think we could very well slow down some of the militant forces built upon false beiefs if those beliefs were not aloud to proceed.

Sheldon said...

I have for along time thought it was to simplistic to say that religion and specifically Islam is the cause of suicide bombers terrorism. The ideology of Islamic jihad has developed in a particular historical, cultural and political context. There must be many layers of causation that we must untangle to understand these phenomeona.

Anonymous said...

The idea that atheists are immune to this type of group think is ridiculous because of the many atheists in foxholes, willing to die for the guy next to them.

David said...

The comparison to a military unit fails as any army member can confirm. There is a difference between fighting together in conditions beyond your influence and individually choosing and preparing to go on a suicide mission, maybe even alone without ur comrades.

For throwing away ur life you need a reason. Either a spontaneous sacrifice triggered by instincts. Or a cause fuelled by an ideology, dogmatic secular or religious. The latter is what we see in islamic terrorism which btw does not exclude the mechanism supposed by Atran at all.