Here He Goes Again: Sam Harris’s Falsehoods
By Scott Atran (This View of Life)
Sam Harris posted a recent blog about my views on Jihadis that is unbecoming of serious intellectual debate, if not ugly. He claims that I told him following a “preening and delusional lecture” that “no one [connected with suicide bombing] believes in paradise.” What I actually said to him (as I have to many others) was exactly what every leader of a jihadi group I interviewed told me, namely, that anyone seeking to become a martyr in order to obtain virgins in paradise would be rejected outright. I also said (and have written several articles and a book laying out the evidence) that although ideology is important, the best predictor (in the sense of a regression analysis) of willingness to commit an act of jihadi violence is if one belongs to an action-oriented social network, such as a neighborhood help group or even a sports team (see Atran, TALKING TO THE ENEMY, Penguin, 2010).
Harris’s views on religion ignore the considerable progress in cognitive studies on the subject over the last two decades, which show that core religious beliefs do not have fixed propositional content (Atran & Norenzayan, “Religion’s Evolutionary Landscape,” BEHAVIORAL AND BRAIN SCIENCES, 2004). Indeed, religious beliefs, in being absurd (whether or not they are recognized as such), cannot even be processed as comprehensible because their semantic content is contradictory (for example, a bodiless but physically powerful and sentient being, a deity that is one in three, etc). It is precisely the ineffable nature of core religious beliefs that accounts, in part, for their social and political adaptability over time in helping to bond and sustain groups (Atran & Ginges, “Religious and Sacred Imperatives in Human Conflict,” SCIENCE, 2012). In fact, it is the ecstasy-provoking rituals that Harris describes as being associated with such beliefs which renders them immune to the logical and empirical scrutiny that ordinarily accompanies belief verification (see Atran & Henrich, “The Evolution of Religion,” BIOLOGICAL THEORY, 2010).
Harris’s generalizations of his own fMRIs on belief change among a few dozen college students as supportive of his views of religion as simply false beliefs are underwhelming. As Pat Churchland surmised: “There is not one single example in [Harris’s work] of what we have learned from neuroscience that should impact our moral judgments regarding a particular issue. There may EXIST examples, but he does not provide any.” (personal communication 2/24/11; see also the fMRI work by our neuroeconomics team lead by Greg Berns in the theme issue on “The Biology of Conflict,” PHILOSOPHICAL TRANSACTIONS OF THE ROYAL SOCIETY, 2012).
Context-free declarations about whether Islam, or any religion, is inherently compatible or incompatible with extreme political violence – or Democracy or any other contemporary political doctrine for that matter — is senseless. People make religious belief – whether Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, and so forth – compatible with violence or non-violence according to how they interpret their religious beliefs. And how people interpret religious injunctions (e.g., the Ten Commandments), as well as transcendental aspects of political ideologies, almost invariably changes over time. For example, on the eve of the Second World War, political and Church leaders in Fascist Italy and Spain claimed that Catholicism and Democracy were inherently incompatible, and many Calvinist and Lutheran Protestants believed that God blessed the authoritarian regime. As Martin Luther proclaimed, “if the Emperor calls me, God calls me” – a sentiment that Luther, like many early Christians, believed was sanctified by Jesus’s injunction to “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Nevertheless, the principles of modern liberal democracy first took root and grew to full strength in The European Christian and Colonial heartland. As Benjamin Franklin expressed it in his proposal for the motto of the new American Republic: “ Rebellion against Tyranny is Obedience to God.” Or, as the Coordinating Council of Yemeni Revolution for Change put it, an Islam of “basic human rights, equality, justice, freedom of speech, freedom of demonstration, and freedom of dreams!” (National Yemen, “The Facts As They Are,” Youth Revolutionary Council Addresses International Community, April 25, 2011).
That there is a cruel and repugnantly violent contemporary current in Islam, there is no doubt. Factions of the Christian identity movement, the Tamil Tiger interpretation of Hinduism as necessitating suicide attacks against Buddhist enemies, Imperial Japan’s interpretation of Zen Buddhism as a call to a war of extermination against the Chinese, all have produced cruel and barbarous behavior that has adversely affected millions of people. But Harris’s take on such matters is so scientifically uninformed and mendacious as to be a menace to those who seek a practical and reasoned way out of the morass of obscurantism.
As a final note, I should also mention that I am a lead investigator on several multiyear, multidisciplinary field-based science projects sponsored by the Department of Defense, including “Motivation, Ideology, and the Social Process in Radicalization,” aspects of which are taught to military personnel from general officers down. And I am recurrently asked to give briefings on these subjects to the White House, Congress and allied governments. I know of no comparable demands or operational interest among the political, defense or intelligence agencies of the U.S. and its allies for Harris’s musings on religious ecstasy. In Harris’s strange worldview, which is admittedly popular among many who believe that reason’s mission is to end religion to save the species, failure to apply those musings to stop religiously-directed violence across the globe may well be a another sign of the “crazy” ideas that he regularly ascribes to those who refuse his truth.
Here is what Harris wrote:
I have long struggled to understand how smart, well-educated liberals can fail to perceive the unique dangers of Islam. In The End of Faith, I argued that such people don’t know what it’s like to really believe in God or Paradise—and hence imagine that no one else actually does. The symptoms of this blindness can be quite shocking. For instance, I once ran into the anthropologist Scott Atran after he had delivered one of his preening and delusional lectures on the origins of jihadist terrorism. According to Atran, people who decapitate journalists, filmmakers, and aid workers to cries of “Alahu akbar!” or blow themselves up in crowds of innocents are led to misbehave this way not because of their deeply held beliefs about jihad and martyrdom but because of their experience of male bonding in soccer clubs and barbershops. (Really.) So I asked Atran directly:
“Are you saying that no Muslim suicide bomber has ever blown himself up with the expectation of getting into Paradise?”
“Yes,” he said, “that’s what I’m saying. No one believes in Paradise.”
At a moment like this, it is impossible to know whether one is in the presence of mental illness or a terminal case of intellectual dishonesty. Atran’s belief—apparently shared by many people—is so at odds with what can be reasonably understood from the statements and actions of jihadists that it admits of no response. The notion that no one believes in Paradise is far crazier than a belief in Paradise.
Scott Atran is an American and French anthropologist who is a Director of Research in Anthropology at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris, Senior Research Fellow at Oxford University in England, Presidential Scholar at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, and also holds offices at the University of Michigan. He has studied and written about terrorism, violence and religion, and has done fieldwork with terrorists and Islamic fundamentalists, as well as political leaders.