Saturday, March 01, 2008

E2.0: Scott Atran: The Causes of Terrorism

This is the 21st in a new series of weekend posts taken from the presentations at the Salk Institute’s “Beyond Belief: Enlightenment 2.0.”. I have placed an index of essays in this series in an introductory post, Enlightenment 2.0: Introduction.

Scott Atran begins with a very provocative comment.

My interest here is to give you a reality check about what terrorism is about. So far I’ve heard mostly ignorance and nonsense. You guys have no idea what terrorism is about.

I would like to begin by saying that my interest here is not to determine what terrorism is about. My interest is in true beliefs and good desires. Yet, it is the case that if religion is the cause of things that tend to thwart desires, and we have reason to promote an aversion to things insofar as the aversion will tend to prevent the thwarting of desires, then we have reason to promote an aversion to religion.

On this matter, Atran says:

I think that religion is basically a neutral vessel. It has done everything you can imagine, and its contrary. And there is nothing intrinsic about religion, for the good or the bad.

This sounds like something I have said. I have argued that the proposition ‘God exists’ is morally neutral. It does not tell you anything about what to do or what not to do. Those implications come from the things that people add to religion. The things that people add to religion are the things that evolved creatures invented and put there for whatever purposes they have for doing so. If religion did not exist to hold the things we put there, nothing prevents these evolved creatures from putting those same elements in something else, a philosophy that does not have a God, such as communism or the type of corporate feudalism that sprang from Objectivism. Post modernism and subjectivism promise to give free reign to our darker nature with philosophies that are as antithetical to science and reason as any religion.

I often read of many atheists celebrating the atheism of Europe. They do not even ask what form this atheism takes, or how wide spread the different sects of atheism may be. One of the dominant atheist philosophies in Europe is post-modernism, a philosophy that denies science and that says that all moral codes (including the most radical and extreme religious codes) are equal.

We condemn the ‘religious moderate’ for giving sanction to fundamentalist religion. We should condemn the atheist post-modernist as well. However, like all good politicians, when fellow atheists make a contribution to evil we ignore their contribution, and focus only on the flaws that we can find in the other party.

The rest of the presentation looks at terrorism itself and explains its causes and its scope. This is one presentation that is well worth listening to. Atran draws his information from a serious scientific study of terrorists, collecting data from literally tens of thousands of would-be terrorists and their supporters. His is not the idle speculating of the arm-chair philosopher or blog writer. His claims are supported by empirical evidence.

According to Atran, that evidence supports the following conclusion:

We have this idea of a terrorist organization that goes out and looks for recruits. It hires people who look like they might be worthy prospects for engaging in a suicide attack. They are hired, trained, sent out as operatives to pull some job. The next thing we know there are trains or busses or buildings blown up and bodies all over the place.

That’s not the model that Atran gives us.

Atran tells us of a group of people from 18 to 30 who have formed a social unit – a group of ‘friends’ who hang out together the way that young adult males everywhere tend to do. He says that the biggest predictor that one is going to become a member of one of these groups is not mosque membership or religious training or the work of Madrassas in Pakistan, but whether one is a ‘soccer buddy’ to another would-be terrorist. So, a group of young adults get together, they become soccer buddies, then one of the soccer buddies decides that they want to do something violent, and he brings the rest of the group along.

This self-made terrorist cell, then, goes looking for Al-Queida (usually on the internet, according to Atran).

What is their motivation?

Atran describes two sources of motivation. One of them is Al-Jazeera news network.

Commenting about the neighborhood where the Madrid bombers came from, Atran said,

There are two cafes here. One . . . that belongs to the Madrid club. One that belongs to the Barsa club. Al-Jazeera is on all the time, and the kids sit there and the brothers sit there and they comment on the News. I don’t know how many of you have watched Al-Jazeera. You get 15 minutes of Iraq with people running through the streets with their kid’s brains falling out. You get 10 minutes of Palestine which isn’t as bad but its pretty gruesome. And you get 1 minute for the rest of the world. . . . [P]eople watch this and, let me tell you, you would want to join the Jihad. They say, ‘How can they do that? How can people let these people kill children like this?’ We’ve got to do something.

Anyway, the motivation behind these terrorist attacks is moral outrage – it is Americans killing Iraqi children and Israeli killing Palestinian children and a desire to strike back. The most significant source of this moral outrage is the American activity in Iraq – reported on Al-Jazeera, as mentioned above.

Atran adds that religious education is a negative indicator of terrorism. The people who form these terrorist cliques are people whose understanding of Islam is fairly basic. Consequently, one of the points that Atran makes is that you do not fight terrorism by studying the Koran and going after religious fundamentalism – the teachings of the Mosque or the Madrassa. You fight terrorism by not killing Muslim children, but instead involving and including those children in social groups that teach positive values independent of whether or not those children continue to visit a Mosque or study the Koran.

Another statistic that Atran said was relevant to fighting terrorism had to do with the fact that in America, the Muslim population has ‘bought into the American dream’ and their economic standing matches that of the general population. Per capita, Muslims are underrepresented in the prison population in this country. In Europe, on the other hand, Muslims make up an impoverished minority. As such, they make up 60% or more of the prison population in European nations. If Europe could learn to incorporate Muslims into the general population, than, according to Atran’s arguments, Europe would have less to worry about with respect to Muslim terrorism.

This is just a small portion of the interesting findings that come from Atran’s presentation. As I said, it is one of the presentations that a reader is well advised to take a look at. His information is extremely useful in understanding current world events and world policy, and contains a set of ideas that are very much worth spreading.


Derek said...

This sounds like something I have said. I have argued that the proposition ‘God exists’ is morally neutral. It does not tell you anything about what to do or what not to do.

I disagree strongly with this idea. One's willingness to assert the existence of entities for which there is little to no evidence or logical justification bears directly on one's values and actions. Such a person will have a tendency to be less skeptical and more gullible in general (look at the overlap of beliefs in god and other pseudoscientific concepts). This bears directly on their views about how best to acquire knowledge and hold justified beliefs. This is not moral neutrality.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


While I agree with much of what you wrote, it has a large hole in it.

None of us has the time or the resources to hold every belief we have up to scrutiny. We must, if we are to live, adopt methods for evaluating our beliefs that are less reliable, but faster, or we would often never act fact enough to survive.

When it comes to evaluating those beliefs for error using the much slower method of reason, morality binds us to looking first at those beliefs which are about things that threaten our lives and well-being. It makes perfectly good sense to put off questions about whether or not a God exists until one has secured food, clothing, and shelter. Even then, there will be a huge number of issues (concerning medicine, engineering, law, morality, who to have sex with, how to raise one's children, education that will be helpful in one's carreer) that we have more reason to be concerned with than whether God exists.

We must necessarily adopt some beliefs using less-than-reliable criteria, and once adopted we may have a lot of more important things to do than to evaluate whether the less-than-reliable criteria in a particular case has given us a false belief.

One of those less-than-reliable criteria, by the way, is whether the vast majority of people in one's culture believe something. It's not a perfect system. Yet, one thing that I know is that the beliefs that are held by the vast majority of people around me at least got them this far. It is not irrational to say, "Let's go with these for now, and then start going through the infinite list to see which ones we should change."

It would take a long time, using this system, to get to the proposition "God exists".