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Here He Goes Again: Sam Harris’s Falsehoods
AUTHOR
IN THIS ARTICLE
Religion
Scott Atran
Scott Atran
is Adjunct Research Scientist, Research Center for Group Dynamics; Adjunct Professor, Psychology Department; Visiting Professor, Ford School of Public Policy; Presidential Scholar, John Jay College of Criminal Justice Senior; Research Fellow, Harris Manchester College, Oxford University; Directeur de Recherche, Anthropologie, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Paris

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).

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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.

http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/islam-and-the-misuses-of-ecstasy

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.

32 Comments

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32 Comments

  1. Matt says:

    Harris makes his money by issuing moral pronouncements on topics he doesn’t understand in the name of Science. No amount of actual research or actual exchange of information will sway his opinion on these matters; as you see, if you try, he will simply mistake you. “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it” ” indeed.

  2. Dr. Michael Blume says:

    As a scholar in religious studies, I have to side clearly with Scott Atran in this issue! To attribute suicide bombers only to deluded beliefs in paradise is very bad science. For example, anyone could just check ou the history of suicide attacks in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There, he or she would find that the first suicide bombers were avowed seculars among the then-“leftist” PLO. At first, religious authorities denounced these suicide attacks as “un-islamic”, until religious splinter groups started to join in.

    Sam Harris should rethink his anger. Prejudices are in the way of serious scientific understanding.

  3. Joseph Bulbulia says:

    Beliefs update. However religious commitments generally take the form of convictions. They don’t update.

    How this works, and for whose benefit, remains poorly understood.

    Orwell had a deep insight about unshakeable conviction in his concept of “doublethink,” a nice example because Orwell didn’t link it to religion, revealing its generality.

    Doublethink “means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them… The process has to be conscious, or it would not be carried out with sufficient precision, but it also has to be unconscious, or it would bring with it a feeling of falsity and hence of guilt…the essential act of the Party is to use conscious deception while retaining the firmness of purpose that goes with complete honesty’ (Orwell, 1948). 

    Scott Atran is right. Religious beliefs are a different kettle of fish to ordinary beliefs.  And furthermore, doublethink extends to all of us.  When Harris pretends a controlled experiment on 14 adults or reading a few newspapers has turned up all the answers, and then writes himself a licence to commit horrible bigotry, he is in the grip of a conscious deception.

  4. Eric Falkenstein says:

    It seems you are saying people choose to do extreme things involving life and death, mainly because of rather parochial social feedback, but also necessitate a transcendent cause.  Thus, right brain wants to kill an enemy to gain status with his peers, but the left brain needs something to have this make sense, and so some convoluted theology that connects to the infinite, as vouchsafed by some esteemed religious apologist, works.  So, Harris is ‘kinda’ correct in that belief in something outside of methodological naturalism is a necessary condition for these radical extremists; he just ignores the fact that 1) it’s a rationalization, a sop for the left brain and 2) the 72 virgin scenario is a tendentious caricature of how Islam views heaven.

  5. utopia says:

    It is important to make some distinctions here.

    Harris does not deny any other factors involved in suicide bombing, does not claim Islam is the only religion doing it and does not advocate hatred against Muslims. He merely is claiming that belief in martyrdom and paradise are the most important factors that cause people to partake in suicide bombing, without which the Islamic bombers would not be justified in their actions.

    Atran makes important points when detailing the other factors involved in suicide bombing, however his claims that the beliefs in martyrdom and paradise are not the causes of the behavior do not make sense. The order of his logic is messy, though it could easily be fixed so that the conflict between these two thinkers could be resolved.

    Current logic: social & historical context (e.g. soccer clubs and imperialism, respectively) -> suicide bombing.

    Improved logic: social & historical context (e.g. soccer clubs and imperialism, respectively) -> vastly increased susceptibility to beliefs in martyrdom and paradise -> suicide bombing.

    It may be fair to say that Harris is not representing Atran’s actual beliefs, however Atran has not clarified his position at all to show that these are not his views. In fact, it seems that Atran is saying that these are his views and they are just correct and Harris is wrong to disagree.

    • Mathieu says:

      “Improved logic: social & historical context (e.g. soccer clubs and imperialism, respectively) -> vastly increased susceptibility to beliefs in martyrdom and paradise -> suicide bombing.”

      You must’ve missed the fact that suicide bombings have happened without belief in martyrdom and paradise. So your “improved” logic is not a very good improvement.
      People can be ready to give their lives for what they think is right, period. Whether it’s religious, political, scientific, ideological, etc. Here what palestinian bombers believe is right is to fight for their country and people against an invader, to avenge dead relatives, to hurt people from a group they’ve come to see a fundamentally evil, etc.

      Just as Laplace had no need for a divine hypothesis for his description of the world, here we need no specifically religion-based hypothesis to understand the behavior of radicalized young men enraged by their understanding of a seemingly perpetual and unequal war.

      But mostly I think an important take form this text is that Harris straight up lied about Atran’s position and deliberately strawmanned it.

  6. Red Dog says:

    This was an excellent article. Have you tried getting this posted at the Richard Dawkins site:  http://www.richarddawkins.net/  I would love to see a debate some time between Atran and Dawkins or Harris.

  7. Matthew J. Sahagian says:

    “core religious beliefs do not have fixed propositional content”

    “religious beliefs, in being absurd, cannot even be processed as comprehensible”

    “immune to the logical and empirical scrutiny that ordinarily accompanies belief verification”

    Are you saying that no Muslim suicide bomber has ever blown himself up with the expectation of getting into Paradise?

  8. Tim Tyler says:

    Do you claim actual misquotation?

  9. Gordon Ingram says:

    utopia, you could do with some slightly less “messy” logic yourself!

    You write: “It may be fair to say that Harris is not representing Atran’s actual beliefs, however Atran has not clarified his position at all to show that these are not his views.”

    But Atran writes in the very first paragraph of the original post: “He [i.e., Harris] 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.”

    This seems to be a pretty explicit claim by Atran that Harris has misrepresented what Atran said (whether intentionally or accidentally). Or do you have some other way of reading this?

    Furthermore, Atran continues: “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.”

    This is not really compatible with your suggested reconciliation of the two writers’ approaches into:
    “social & historical context (e.g. soccer clubs and imperialism, respectively) -> vastly increased susceptibility to beliefs in martyrdom and paradise -> suicide bombing.”
    because if “action-oriented social networks” were only causing sucicide bombing through encouraging young men to adopt a certain ideology, why would they be a better predictor of suicide bombing than the ideology itself?

  10. Ram Kumar says:

    Atran writes:

    “the Tamil Tiger interpretation of Hinduism as necessitating suicide attacks against Buddhist enemies”

    Except that they haven’t.  The group supremo, Prabhakaran, was a Christian, as were many top LTTE leaders:

    link to thesundayleader.lk

    “His brand of Thamilean politics carried a very special flavour. A convert to Christianity, his politics had the stamp of Chola supremacy with Saivism, different to Hinduism in Jaffna. This new brand of Thamil culture embraced a sacrificial element in life in an obligatory sense. “Cholaism” with a sacrificial obligation, different to Sri Lankan Hinduism that has no trait of life sacrifice. Even “Sathi Pooja” as sacrifice is not a ritual in Sri Lankan Hindu belief.”

    Given your ignorance of this issue, I suppose one must take your other assertions with a grain of salt.

    • Josh says:

      I disagree with Atran, but your assertion that Prabhakaran was a Christian is a weird conspiracy theory that is not subscribed to at all in academia.

  11. Adam says:

    Suicide bombing not Islamic
    Prof. Robert Pape on “Dying to Win” (Part 1 of 4)

    link to youtube.com

  12. Scott Atran says:

    In answer to Ram Kumar: Yes several of the top cadre of Tamil Tigers were Christian and converts. But many were Hindu and the Tamil Tiger ideology was a peculiar blend of Tamil nationalism with Dravidian with Marxist-Leninist and Maoist elements. If anything, these additional aspects only reinforce the point I was making.

  13. William McMaster says:

    “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”

    Misleading and false.

    The Tamil Tigers never proclaimed themselves as a Hindu organization, cited no religious reasons for suicide bombings (in fact I had read an interview with an atheist/irreligious suicide bomber of theirs who said it was simply a battle strategy as they were outnumbered), and never said they waged a religious war, they also had a considerable number of Christians in their organization.

    It was a struggle primarily dealing with language and ethnicity.

    Your second point about Zen Buddhism has a bit more validity but again the point you miss is that none of the foundational Zen texts call for violence against non Zen practitioners (in fact Zen came to Japan from China) and Japan’s imperialism was motivated by a variety of factors including a feeling of racial superiority, Western aggression in Asia (the feeling was “why not rule Asia ourselves instead of allowing the whites to colonize it”?)

    This is radically different from Islamic terrorism because the foundational text of Islam i.e. the Koran explicitly sanctions and indeed obligates Muslims to inflict violence on non-Muslims. Muhammad himself demonstrated this during his own life. There are numerous verses in the Koran attesting to this.

    The same is true for Christianity & the Bible (especially the Old Testament) except that in the last few centuries the Christians have moved away from taking everything the Bible says literally.

  14. John Jacob Lyons says:

    Scott Atran says ”—-  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.—- “

    In the UK, the year on year number of guards that faint while guarding Buckingham Palace is a good predictor of the year on year apple crop from the orchards of Kent. Correlation doesn’t imply causation. In this case the common causal factor is, of course, the annual weather experienced in Southern England.

    A highly motivated religious group may well be a special case of an action-oriented social network. Therefore I suggest that the causality could still derive specifically from religious belief/ involvement while still being highly correlated with the more general variable.

  15. John V. Patrick says:

    I hope you guys have not forgotten the origin of thought and the effect it has had on our evolution, both mental and physical and the multiple factor interactions it presents on our individual thought patterns. On practical basics, it is little wonder how the likes of Hitler and many others were created. As a second thought, you should listen more to the people our mental evolution has greated. You may learn more interesting stuff for your studies.
    I also call your attention to my book Dogma : Deconstruction of our Mental Evolution and Psyche, for mere food for your thoughts

  16. paarsurrey says:

    @ William McMaster:Post: July 8 2013 3:14 pm

    “This is radically different from Islamic terrorism because the foundational text of Islam i.e. the Koran explicitly sanctions and indeed obligates Muslims to inflict violence on non-Muslims. Muhammad himself demonstrated this during his own life. There are numerous verses in the Koran attesting to this.”Unquote

    I just want to correct you on the teachings of Quran.
    Did you study Quran yourself? O is your observation based on hearsay?

    I don’t think that you have studied the Quran yourself to form a correct opinion. This might have not come to you naturally while studying Quran.

    If you have studied Quran yourself; then please quote just One verse of Quran, not a list taken from a website that opposes Islam; and then establish your viewpoint from the verses in the context, a rational thing to do.

    There is no verse in Quran which is violent and against the normal human behavior in the world.

    Thanks

    • ex_muslim says:

      “There is no verse in Quran which is violent and against the normal human behavior in the world”
      We need to be a little more objective. Yes, there are so many places in Quran talking about killing infidels. You have three verses in Al-Tawbah: 5, 29 and 73.

  17. Oisin says:

    “Yes,” he [Atran] said, “that’s what I’m saying. No one believes in Paradise.”

    are you for real

  18. […] essas pretensões de que a violência ou o terrorismo seriam intrínsecos ao Islã, traduzi o texto abaixo, de autoria do próprio Atran, onde este responde à provocação feita por Sam Harris em […]

    • Mark says:

      Having worked in counter terrorism for several years, having met terrorists and interviewed radicalised people, I see absolutely not a shred of evidence to corroborate Harris and everything pointing firmly at the view Atran holds. Res uipsa loquitur.

      • Joe says:

        You have the benefit of experience, but I have to say that I question your assertion based on the discussions stimulated by the likes of Maajid Nawaz, where he makes the point that Islam(ism) has at least something to do with religious extremism in Islam.

        • Quinn Williams says:

          Maajid Nawaz is a poster boy for conservative think tanks. According to his own family he is sparing with the truth and has always sought the lime light. Not to say that nothing he says is accurate or of value, but I think it’s fair to say he’s a questionable source of illumination on the subject.

  19. jcmmanuel says:

    Nothing will change a ‘new atheist’. Their claims are such that they are too wrong to admit them without being truly ashamed. Narcissists can’t do this. I’m atheist but ‘new atheism’ is not atheism. It is a neocon ideology based on a pretext of western supremacism.

  20. Ibn Omer says:

    @ Ex-Muslim on this page, referred to some violent text in the Quran–Lesley Hazleton eloquently expains it (see below).

    Sam and his ilk, and the extremists among Muslims read the Quran selectively. Note tha the overwhelming Muslim scholars, and lay alike, rejected the extremists among Muslims.

    Here is an example of Sam’s selective reading of the Quran miss:

    “Allah does not forbid you to deal justly and kindly with those who fought not against you on account of religion and did not drive you out of your homes. Verily, Allah loves those who deal with equity.”

    Islam is not a strange religion as it has shown its tolerance when it ruled people of various ethnic and religious background. For example, the Jewish Golden Age occurred in Muslim ruled Spain.

    Back to Lesley Hazleton’s words,

    “Part of the problem, I think, is that we imagine that the Koran can be read as we usually read a book — as though we can curl up with it on a rainy afternoon with a bowl of popcorn within reach, as though God — and the Koran is entirely in the voice of God speaking to Muhammad — were just another author on the bestseller list. Yet the fact that so few people do actually read the Koran is precisely why it’s so easy to quote — that is, to misquote. Phrases and snippets taken out of context in what I call the “highlighter version,” which is the one favored by both Muslim fundamentalists and anti-Muslim Islamophobes.”

    ….. Or take the infamous verse about killing the unbelievers. Yes, it does say that, but in a very specific context: the anticipated conquest of the sanctuary city of Mecca where fighting was usually forbidden, and the permission comes hedged about with qualifiers. Not “You must kill unbelievers in Mecca,” but you can, you are allowed to, but only after a grace period is over and only if there’s no other pact in place and only if they try to stop you getting to the Kaaba, and only if they attack you first. And even then — God is merciful; forgiveness is supreme — and so, essentially, better if you don’t. (Laughter) This was perhaps the biggest surprise — how flexible the Koran is, at least in minds that are not fundamentally inflexible.”

  21. Chris Field says:

    If religious beliefs aren’t relevant, where are the Christian and Buddhist suicide bombers?

  22. Meribela says:

    Kinda just ran into this old post. I believe Scott has intentionally mis-quoted the context in which Sam had commented of his stance. The whole exchange can be view on Beyond Belief: Science, Religion, Reason and Survival by the Science Network, episode 7 and 8.

    In the conference, you did not consider ideology as one of the reasons to the violence (contrary to what you’ve claimed here) but instead relied solely on your theory that it is because of the social network. Sam, Dawkins and Mahzarin all disagreed with you on the subject matter. All said that religion does play a role, even to form your group dynamics, to the violence that people do.

    All three of them agreed with Dawkins almost calling you an idiot for thinking that there were not other variables besides religion. How little do you think of your colleagues to be embarrass by your accusation.

    Both Dawkins and Sam have cited examples time and time again and you failed to respond to each of them. How can a mother send her 10 kids out into a mine field to be killed all for martyrdom? This isn’t some group dynamics.

    Regarding the “paradise” comment Sam made and you mis-represented here’s what was said from Session 7 from you to Richard and Mahzarin.

    Dawkings: “…I thought there was good evidence that they were obsessed with the afterlife.”

    Scott: “..but in terms of all the people we’ve debrief, and their families, no one has ever done it for the virgins. And if anybody ever express any interest in doing it for the virgins they be refuse.”

    Scott: “..paradise is a concept of family union…and it is one of love and compassion though it may seen crazy. I never seen one a single one of these guys angry, ceding, hateful, spiteful. I seen them quite idealistic and nice guys.”

    Mahzarin: “I’m surprise to hear you say that belief is not involved…”

    Scott: “It’s stunning similar…but the whole religiosity is a cipher.”

    The last is a contradiction quote is a contradiction. So yes, Sam is correct. He is correct in the sense that you have set aside religion and their dogmas for your dynamic group theory including the paradise of virgins and Martyr. For you to claim otherwise is disingenuous and grotesquely mis-representing. You may have had a different stance but you did not make them during this conference; in fact, you were so arrogant you stuck to your theory despite Sam, Dawkings and Mahzarin agreeing but with the inclusion of religion as one of the driving causes for the violence. You did not say those lines to Sam, you said it in response to Dawkings question and thus to the entire conference.

    In short, they accepted your theory but you rejected theirs and everyone else. As Roger said “The reason I ask you out…in which you though the sense that there was no science, no data in what some of the other people were saying…”

    No, the only intellectual fool here is you. You’ve embarrassed yourself during this conference by accusing your fellow scientists that their work was baseless and continue to do so by presenting what Sam have said entirely different than its contextual meaning.

    Lastly, I can see that many of your readers here have not watched the Beyond Belief conference yet for the whole exchange.

  23. Asghar Bukhari says:

    Harris is a propagandist, he needs to create this lie that Islam itself is the problem to further his pro Israel agenda. He needs Islam to be so demonised that war is the only option left on the table for the west.