My God is better

An Edge Discussion of BEYOND BELIEF:
Science, Religion, Reason and Survival
Salk Institue, La Jolla November 5-7, 2006

Scott Atran
Anthropologist, University of Michigan; Author, In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion

In response to suggestions  about continuing the conversation I had on the podium with Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris at the Salk Institute conference on "Beyond Belief," here I would like to elaborate a bit on what I said at the time. I am always very, very leery when scientists use science to justify political or moral missions. Science can sometimes deeply inform politics or ethics; however, I do not think that science can justify either. Consider:

(1) The Basic Irrationality of Human Life and Society. The task of containing and trying to roll back political fundamentalist movements in the United States and across the world is important and praiseworthy. Fundamentalist-inspired attempts to dictate what science must or must not consider, such as the de facto criminalization of evolutionary teaching in certain Muslim countries or force feeding the inanities of Intelligent Design in American high schools, are damaging to science and society. However, efforts to fight religious belief itself — to "de-program" the religious — make about as much sense as attempts to banish the irrationalities of romantic love, vengeance, or any sentiment of hope beyond reason.

(1a) The main underlying current of thought at the Salk Institute's recent conference on "Beyond Belief" was that until now science and reason have too passively surrendered or compromised to religion and unreason, which are wily and ruthless street-fighters. Think of Tomás de Torquemada, the Holy Inquisitor who burned books, imperfect Christians, Muslims and Jews; or Abu Musab Zarqawi, chief of Al Qaeda in Iraq, who blew up and beheaded imperfect Muslims, Christians and Jews; or Ann Coulter, the raucous media idol of a virulent brand of American Christian conservatism, who would bury Darwin and every godless liberal in history's garbage heap, right in there with Hitler and Stalin. Then think of Socrates meekly swallowing his poison for telling the truth, Galileo abjectly renouncing his own seminal discoveries, or Pakistan's greatest scientist, physics Nobel laureate Abdus Salam, professed over and over again his undying love for the Holy Qur'an to a government that condemned him as a heretic, and which today even more than before treats Darwin's teachings as if they were criminal.

(1b) Now, according to Salam's colleague and co-Nobel Prize winner Steven Weinberg, scientists must rise up to the challenge of liberating humanity from "the long nightmare of religion. " Biologist Richard Dawkins tells us that we need to "come out of the closet" and form a political lobby of committed atheists and scientists to do public battle with religion and other forms of "rubbish" that tyrannize the mind. For neuropsychology student Sam Harris, technological advances in the ability to terrorize and wage war require an uncompromising and unrelenting intellectual struggle to destroy religion — especially, but not exclusively, Islam — and banish unreason beyond the pale of civilization.

(1c) I find it fascinating that among the brilliant scientists and philosophers at the conference, there was no convincing evidence presented that they know how to deal with the basic irrationality of human life and society other than to insist against all reason and evidence that things ought to be rational and evidence based. It makes me embarrassed to be a scientist and atheist. There is no historical evidence whatsoever that scientists have a keener or deeper appreciation than religious people of how to deal with personal or moral problems. Some scientists have some good and helpful insights into human beings' existential problems some of the time, but some good scientists have done more to harm others than most people are remotely capable of.

(2) Where Is the Data. The belief that science can or should replace religion as a major factor in motivating and shaping — rather than just informing — politics or ethics, and by so doing steadily improve the human condition, is itself a delusion. The speculations I heard in the conference, about what religion can or cannot do and what the motives or consequences of religious belief are, have been almost entirely supported by the smallest of data sets, usually a N of 1 — the speculator himself or herself — and only on the basis of that person's selectively uninformed opinion. Imagine if you tried to do science this way, you'd be met with embarrassment and bewilderment, not lauded or applauded.

(2a) Of course, if it can be proven that religious beliefs are particularly dangerous to life and limb — at least any more dangerous than a belief in the cleansing power of "democracy" — attempts at (say) de-Islamicization might be as important as de-Nazification. Yet there is no such proof, and in the absence of any proof, or even compelling data of any sort. In fact, those of us doing actual empirical research in this area have uncovered evidence to the contrary of what was claimed. Jeremy Ginges, a psychologist at the New School, finds that belief in God does not promote violence, combative martyrdom or almost anything else the "God delusion" was blamed for at the conference. University of British Columbia psychologists Ara Norenzayan and Ian Hansen have recently shown, for some 10,000 subjects surveyed in several countries and continents, that although believing "my God is the only God"  increases the odds of scapegoating by 32%, simply believing "there is a God" decreases the tendency to blame others for one's troubles by 45%. These researchers also show that atheists with exclusivist beliefs are just as likely to scapegoat others as Christians, Jews or Muslims.

(2b) It is true that Elizabeth Loftus and Mahzarin Banaji presented compelling data on the formation of false beliefs and implicit biases. But the relevance of this research to the formation or suppression of religious beliefs is distant and doubtful. For one thing, religious beliefs are not false in the usual sense of failing to meet certain truth conditions, like "the earth is flat" or "natural grass is orange. " Rather, core religious beliefs, like poetic metaphors, are literally senseless in that they altogether lack truth conditions; that is, there are no logical or empirical criteria for judging whether such utterances are true or not.

(2c) As Aristotle and Kant noted, there is no more literal sense — no right or wrong to the matter — to deciding if  "a bodiless God is omnipotent" than to deciding if  "a colorless green idea has wings" As Hobbes surmised, such notions are truly incomprehensible. They are used primarily to evoke other ideas in an open-textured manner, depending on the context at hand and on people's interests at a given time. That is why religious ideas can be "adapted" to so many different situations, and in contrary ways. Literal dogmatists who try to pin down the meaning of core religious beliefs are quite the exception, not the rule.

(3) Moral Myopia. In science there is cumulative progress. This is a fact and the progress is real, despite postmodernism's doubts. Most of the speakers we heard from believe, as professor Dawkins clearly does, that there is also cumulative moral progress. I am much less sure of this. Hitler and Stalin were no mere aberrations of history and the Cold War could easily have led to the annihilation of civilization as we know it. "Civilization is intermittent," Menahem Begin ruefully observed.

(3a) History, I believe, is contingent for its development on unforseen and improbable events, and cascades forward in spurts and spirals. (Indeed, it was only the unsung heroism of Vassily Arkhipov, one of three officers on a Soviet submarine who refused to go along with the other two in giving the order to launch a nuclear missile strike on the United States when his boat came under attack during the Cuban Missile Crisis, thereby truly saving civilization and humanity as we know it. ) Liberty, compassion and happiness are recurrently won or lost in history in alternation with periods of tyranny, cruelty and suffering. If it were otherwise, perhaps religion would fade away, as would poetry and art. But given our evolutionary makeup, that counterfactual world may not even be nomologically possible.

(3b) The atheist agenda promulgated at the conference, with its evangelical tone, fits well within the historical trend of universal monotheisms, however atheist in appearance, including all the great secular and revolutionary "isms" that have violently punctuated modern history: colonialism, communism, fascism, anarchism, socialism, democratic liberalism. (Before monotheism, there was no notion of humanity in the sense of all humans being of a kind, and thus no idea of saving humankind for the "good," or of a recalcitrant and residual part of humanity rejecting salvation because they were "bad" and "evil").

(3c) Secular monotheism began in earnest with the Enlightenment and had as its first uncompromising political expression the Reign of Science instituted by the Jacobins during the French revolution (the American revolution was also partly inspired by the Enlightenment, but was much less uncompromising). It brought us, along with the meter, a ridiculous new naming system for the months as well as the modern concept of "terror" and the guillotine as supposedly the most rational and humane way to defend universal values of liberty, equality and fraternity. Rationality and secular humanism, it appears, do not protect us from mass slaughter.

(3d) 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. Although, my historical sample is only a N of 3, and a poor base of evidence for generalizing to the role of science in politics in general, it is still 200% more informed than most other views heard at the conference, and does not bode well for another push in this direction. (And by the way, politically tendentious teleological as well as social Darwinian views of human history and society are still very much with as, as in Francis Fukuyama's The End of History and The Bell Curve by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray. )

(4) A Strange Idea: Science Rituals to Replace Religion. We heard from Carolyn Porco that science education, pure reasoning about existential problems such as death, and collective rituals to replace religious awe with the awe and wonder of science may help free us from religion and religious violence. But there is no evidence that any of these suggestions will work and some evidence they won't. For example:

(4a) The Soviets vigorously denied religious education and promoted science education, but several survey studies indicate that about 50% remained religious nonetheless; and I find no shred of evidence that those who were atheist were more insightful or understanding of the their neighbors or the world around them.

(4b) On death: A couple of thousand years ago Epicurus and Lucretius tried the sort of reasoning about death that Dr. Porco mentioned: since we did not care about not being alive for the indefinitely many generations that preceded our birth, why should we care about not being alive for indefinitely many generations after our death? Nobody bought the argument, of course. Developmental psychologists such as the late Giyoo Hatano and Harvard's Susan Carey show that "being alive" is cognitively learned and processed quite differently from "being dead" while decision theorists, such as Danny Kahneman and the late Amos Tversky, have repeatedly shown that loss (e.g. , dying) is processed very differently from gain (e.g. , becoming alive). In any event, in our own experiments we find that the visceral prospect of death does promote religious sentiments among all segments of the general population (whether institutionalized or not; for instance, crossing your fingers or simply hoping beyond reason when you experience severe turbulence on a plane flight).

(4c) On rituals: 19th century French positivists proposed very much what Dr. Porco proposes in terms — albeit somewhat tongue in cheek — of awe-inspiring ceremonies and even temples to science. Apart from the few who founded these practices and artifacts, the attempt failed utterly to woo any significant portion of the general population, or even make further inroads among the scientific community. Most scientists rightly thought these efforts were artificial and absurd. Most religious people thought the same.

(4d) No society in recorded history has ever survived more than about three generations without a religious foundation. Western Europe, many confidently say, is about to buck the trend. Now, I'm not one for predicting the future (such predictions almost always range between zero and chance) but I do think that there was something prescient in a statement that André Malraux — the great French writer, resistance fighter, government minister and avowed atheist — said towards the end of his life, in the 1970s, when religion appeared to be waning across the world, falling into the divide between the clashing secular ideologies that mostly covered the world: "The next century will either be religious or it won't be. "

(5) Misrepresentations of Islam in General. We first heard from Steven Weinberg, and then from every other second speaker, about the history of Islam, about why Muslim science went into decline after the 13th or 14th centuries, and about why suicide bombers, the most fanatically religious of all would-be mass murderers, are an outgrowth of Islam. Missing at "Beyond Belief" was erudition and deep  understanding of Islamic history other than the usual summaries of names and achievements.

(5a) Why would Islam first cause science to flourish and then decline unto suicide bombing? (One might note that Chinese science, too, went into decline relative to the West after the 14th century, but is now rapidly catching up; and that until recently the most prolific group of suicide bombers was the nominally Hindu but mostly secularist Tamil Tigers. )  No mention was made of the fact that Islamic science, indeed, Classical Arab civilization, collapsed primarily because of massive invasions of Mongols and other Asiatic hordes; we've heard only the wholly unsupported claim that religion has had something to do with it.

(5b) Perhaps it did, but some causal argument and evidence would have to given other than a mere chronology of selectively juxtaposed events (for a start, one might look at a book by Pakistani physicist Pervez Hoodbhoy, titled Islam and Science — Religious  Orthodoxy and the Battle for Rationality, which was recently translated into Arabic).

(5c) We heard from Sam Harris that Muslims represent less than 10% of the population in Western European countries such as France, but over 50% of the prison population. The obvious inference expected from the audience is that Islam encourages criminal behavior. But what is not reported is that Muslims in the U.S. are as underrepresented in prison populations, as are U.S. Jews, and that the predictive factors for Muslims entering European prisons are almost exactly the same for African Americans entering U.S. prisons, namely lack of: employment, schooling, political representation, and so forth. Moreover, religious education is a negative predictor of Muslims entering European prisons.

(5d) In our global jihadi database, which we are developing under a defense department contract, and which is perhaps the most comprehensive open source database on the subject, we find that most jihadis are "born again" and come to religion late in life, and only very seldom through mosques or madrassahs. And among jihadis outside Europe, and in particular suicide bombers, science education is a strong positive predictor (the most representative educational categories of suicide bomber — a finding independently confirmed by Oxford sociologist Diego Gambetta — are engineer and physician, be it for Al Qaeda or Hamas).

(5e) 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 there 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.

(5f) Richard Dawkins tells us that Islam oppresses women. While also condemning the terrible asymmetries between men and women in many Islamic societies, I would only note that the subordination of women has relatively little to do with religion per se and much more to do with the kinship structure of Arab society. Arab social structure and cultural identity are built around a patrilineal system that passes rights, obligations and duties exclusively through the father's blood line.

(5g) Genealogies, however fictive, are traced back centuries to justify power and prestige. Any suspicion cast on any woman's honor anywhere in the genealogy can undermine the whole line. That is the principal consideration behind what is to most of us an intolerable subjugation of women, including the grotesque practice of "honor killing. " Granted, Arab kinship is incorporated into Islamic canon, but belief in God really has nothing much at all to do with it.

(6) Misrepresentations About Suicide Bombers in Particular. Let me say something more here about suicide killers, because they were brought up at the conference again and again as those religious foils who best justify the establishment of a new lobby of reason. Unlike others at the conference, I actually study and know first hand something about such people because I have interviewed a number of would-be suicide bombers, failed suicide bombers, families of successful suicide bombers and leaders of organizations that sponsor suicide attacks, from the cities of Western Europe to the jungles of Southeast Asia.

(6a) First some contrary facts: it is wrong that suicide bombers are invariably Islamic. In fact, the single most prolific group of suicide attackers has been the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka, an avowedly secular movement of national liberation whose major constituency is nominally Hindu. True, since 2001 the overwhelming majority of suicide attacks have been sponsored by militant Muslim groups, but there is little if any precedent in Islamic tradition for suicide terrorism. As for the "tremendous pride" that invariably trumps parental love, which Sam Harris posits as a trivial truth about the families of Palestinian suicide bombers, I have yet to meet a parent who would have done anything in his or her power to stop their child from such an act, but none I talked to ever knew and few ever imagined their child doing such a thing.

(6b) Here's a diary entry from my interview in Gaza's Jabaliyah refugee camp, in September 2004, with the parents of Nabeel Masood, a 16-year-old who exploded himself in the Israeli port of Ashdod the previous April. Nabeel's mother was reading a letter from her son's high school head master when I walked in the door; she was crying although her son had already been dead for months. She handed me the letter. It read:

(6c) "Mr. and Mrs. Masood, it gives me great pleasure to inform you that your son Martyr Babeel [sic], has passed his tests successfully in the 11th grade. He was first in his class. He was distinguished not only in his hard studying, sharing, and caring, but also in his good morals and manhood. I would really like to congratulate you for his unique success in both life and the hereafter. You should be proud of your son's martyrdom. "

(6d) Shortly before the attack, Nabeel had received word that he had received a scholarship to study in England, but the two cousins he most loved were then killed in an Israeli raid, so he went to the Mosque and prepared himself to die. I asked his father, "Do you think your son's sacrifice will make things better?" "No," he said, "this hasn't brought us even one step forward. " I asked him if he was proud of what his son had done. He showed me a pamphlet, specially printed by Al Aqsa' Martyrs Brigades and endorsed by Hamas, praising the actions of his son and the two other young men who accompanied him. "Here, you take it," he pushed the pamphlet into my hands, "burn it if you want. Is this worth a son?" The reaction of Nabeel's parents was typical. Although the plural of anecdote is not data, the preceding is illustrative of a wider pattern.

(6e) Earlier that month, Sheikh Hamed Al-Betawi, spiritual leader of Hamas, told me in Nablus: "Our people do not own airplanes and tanks, only human bombs. Those who undertake martyrdom actions are not hopeless or poor, but are the best of our people, educated, successful. They are intelligent, advanced combat techniques for fighting enemy occupation. " The statistics that I and others have gathered confirm much of what he says — most Hamas suicide bombers, for example, are college educated and come from families that are economically better off than their surrounding populations. Neil de Grasse Tyson was quite right in asking whether suicide terrorism would disappear as a weapon of choice if other arms were available.

(6f) Despite atavistic cultural elements, global jihadism is a thoroughly modern movement filling the popular political void in Islamic communities left in the wake of discredited western ideologies co-opted by corrupt local governments. Jihadism's apocalyptic yearnings and born-again vision of personal salvation through radical action are absent from traditional Islamic exegesis. Nor does Islam per se or "Muslim civilization" really have anything to do with terrorism — no more than some impossibly timeless or context-free notion of Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism or Buddhism can be held responsible for the dead millions these religious traditions have been blamed for.

(6g) Appeals to Muslim history and calls for a revival of the Caliphate are heartfelt, though to some extent jihadism is also a counter-movement to the ideological and corresponding military thrust ensconced, for instance, in the National Security Strategy of the United States, which enshrines liberal democracy as the "single sustainable model of national development right and true for every person, in every society. " In "defense of civilization" (the concept used in the NSS document) the United States allots more money to military endeavors than do all of the other nations of the world combined, and has a military presence in over one hundred other countries (a majority of the earth's nations). Although the U.S. claims never to target innocent civilians, and characterizes their deaths as "collateral damage," across cultures people generally pay attention to consequences rather than motives (e.g. , most Americans have little sympathy for or desire to know what motivated the 9/11 attackers). For this vantage, it is legitimate to ask whether the greatest danger to world peace comes from religiously-inspired terrorism or from the overreaction to it.

(6h) As matters now stand, threats from terrorism in general, and religious terrorism in particular, are greatly exaggerated. A generation ago, at the height of the Cold War, the Soviet Union and the U.S. had about 125,000 nuclear weapons that could annihilate most of the adversary's population in ninety minutes or so. Today's terrorists do not remotely pose such an existential threat. Even our darkest present fear, and the Department of Homeland Security's "worse case scenario" — the explosion of one or two 1-10 kiloton nuclear bombs by terrorists — pales by comparison. And the old Al Qaeda, which actually had an infrastructure that might have accomplished such a feat, is practically dead. Most of those close to Osama bin Laden are gone, in custody or in solitary hiding. Al Qaeda itself has not had a successful operation in nearly four years (since Tunisia) and its remainder does not know who most of the new terrorists are (mostly self-starting groups of amateurs) and cannot reliably communicate with those they do know. Only we can do grievous harm to ourselves by taking the terrorists' bait and reacting in ill-conceived and uncontrolled ways that inflate and so empower our enemies, alienate our friends, and frighten our own citizens into believing that they must give up basic liberties or root out religion in order to survive.

(7) Face Your Own Responsibilities First. Scientists are emotionally and intellectually no better able than most ordinary folk to manage or dominate the unending cycle in which changing knowledge — including space age wonders — interacts with human needs that have not changed appreciably since the Pleistocene Stone Age. But given the power that scientists have, they are much better able than most ordinary folk to cause great harm and suffering by direct attempts to manage and guide the future. At the very least, scientists should first pay attention to the consequences of their discoveries not only for the betterment but also for potential worsening of the human condition, however unintended.

(8) Facing the Wrong Issue. If scientists do believe that they are ethically bound to improve the lot of ordinary people, or at least to decrease violence and increase possibilities for the pursuit of happiness, as I do, then perhaps the greatest challenge — and one that has been wholly overlooked here — is "how do we as scientists advance reason in an inherently unreasonable world?" This is a very difficult issue and one that cannot be seriously addressed by simply trying to muscle science and reason into everyday or momentous human affairs. I am privy to hostage negotiations, and be assured that simply telling hostage takers their beliefs are bullshit will get you the opposite of what you want, like the hostage's head delivered on a platter. Of course, that's an extreme case; but reason by backward induction towards the less extreme cases in the actual political and social conditions of our present world and you will find that the tactics proposed at the conference for an unlikely strategic shift in humankind's thinking will most probably blowback and backfire. And I almost thank God that even the best of our scientists are not prominent political negotiators or policymakers.

(8a) It is my conviction, informed by some years of anthropological fieldwork, psychological experimentation and political negotiations, that reason in the sense of consistent argumentation from evidence and logic is only one of several cognitive tools that humans are endowed with in order to navigate the physical and social world they live in — very good for finding the hidden springs and causes of the world around us but pretty bad for morally deciding what to do about what we find. More often than not, reason — as David Hume so cogently put it — "is and ought to be a slave of the passions. " In any event, the conference thoroughly instantiated that sentiment.

(8b) Some in the audience spontaneously applauded when I posed the question, "how do we as scientists advance reason in an inherently unreasonable world?" including many of the scientists present. That is anecdotal evidence that professor Dawkins's and Mr. Harris's positions are not entirely representative of science or scientists in regard to religion and to the respective roles of religion and science in politics and ethics. Dr. Tyson and Lawrence Krauss seemed to me very skeptical about the wisdom or prospect of implementing Steven Weinberg's call for science to save humanity from "the long nightmare of religion. " The nightmares but also the dreams will very likely remain a substantial part of what it means to be human, despite any hope or attempt to wish them away.

(9) Nicholas Humphrey
Psychologist, London School of Economics; Author, Seeing Red: A Study in Consciousness

Scott Atran's warning against scientific triumphalism is interesting and
persuasive — and a wonderful piece to have on Edge. He's telling us we may win the battle and still lose the war. And he's right. No one should be
claiming "mission accomplished. " In fact we scientists who study human
nature ought to be the first to recognise how big a task we face in winning
hearts and minds. Every newborn human infant — every little "natural
dualist" — is going to present post-religious civilzation with a new

(10) Sam Harris
Neuroscience researcher; Author, Letter to a Christian Nation

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.

(10a) 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.

(10b) 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.

(10c) 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:

(10d) 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 there 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.

(10e) 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 an Age of Terrorism") in which he summarized his interviews with jihadists:

(10f) Rather than obey a utilitarian 'logic of rational consequence' these actors perhaps more closely follow a 'ogic 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.

(10g) 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.

(10h) 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?

(10i) 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.

(10j) 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?

(10k) 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…

(10L) 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.

(10m) 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.

(10n) Atran has not attempted (1), has made a few noises suggesting that he probably agrees with (2), and hasn't owned up to (3).

(10o) 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.

(11) Daniel C. Dennett
Philosopher; University Professor, Co-Director, Center for Cognitive Studies, Tufts University; Author, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon

(11a) Scott Atran presents an important problem, but his treatment of it is puzzling to me: I find it fascinating that among the brilliant scientists and philosophers at the conference, there was no convincing evidence presented that they know how to deal with the basic irrationality of human life and society other than to insist against all reason and evidence that things ought to be rational and evidence based. It makes me embarrassed to be a scientist and atheist.

(11b) What can Atran be saying here? Not that things ought not to be rational and evidence based. He appeals frequently to the scientific method and warns us all not to mistake anecdotes for data; he bows to no one in his allegiance to reason and evidence. Perhaps he is saying that it is folly to expect people other than scientists to act on the basis of reason and evidence. What is his evidence for that? I have seen no evidence that shows they are unable to guide their myriad daily decisions (when to plant, what to buy, where to live, . . . . ) by evidence and reason. Probably it is only on certain sensitive topics that people abandon reason and evidence. But then what is he recommending we do about this? Concede game, set and match to their irrationality on these topics? He doesn't say, aside from urging that we must strive to avoid overreacting, a message that I have stressed as well, and that I daresay everybody who participated in  the Salk meeting appreciates. That's the easy part. The hard part is figuring out how to deal, diplomatically and effectively, with the variety of religious convictions that runs from truly dangerous lunacy at one end of the spectrum to the bland view that "core religious beliefs, like poetic metaphors, are literally senseless in that they altogether lack truth conditions." On the one hand, who would condone death sentences for apostates, and on the other hand, who would want to criticize an innocent taste for traditional metaphor?

(11c) Atran describes himself as a scientist and an atheist. So when does he think it is appropriate to declare his own atheistic convictions candidly, if not at the Salk meeting? He is surely right that "simply telling hostage takers their beliefs are bullshit will get you the opposite of what you want" but then is he recommending that we should always just lie? (Or doesn't he agree that their views are, in the cold light of day, evil bullshit?)  Scientists who are atheists — surely a much larger proportion than the general public realizes — have a difficult unsolved problem of how to balance their allegiance to the truth against their appreciation of the social impact of some truths and hence the need for diplomacy and reticence. Not surprisingly, most scientists "solve" this problem with silence, but silence can be just as culpable as lying. The problem is that the dangerous fanatics get an entirely undeserved mantle of respectability from the sane behavior of the moderates. If we button our lips to avoid offending the moderates, declining to draw attention to the utter irresponsibility of the fanatics, we become complicit in perpetuating the myth that there's really nothing to criticize in religious convictions. ("We know it's nuts, but of course we must never admit it in public!")

(11d) Atran vividly draws our attention to the problem. He tells us that Weinberg, Dawkins, and Harris exhibit no knowledge about "how to deal with the basic irrationality of human life and society," but he then declines to share any knowledge of his own about how to manage this trick. Weinberg, Dawkins and Harris are saying that whatever the second, third, and fourth step should be, the first step must be to acknowledge the very fact of this basic irrationality of human life and society: religious convictions are rationally indefensible. (You don't have to be an expert plumber to know that the first step, when burst pipes are flooding your house, is to turn off the water!) I think they are right. The public needs to be told this. Does Atran disagree? It seems that perhaps he thinks the first step is to pile up lots of unrelated facts about all the complexities, so  that, with any luck, people will be distracted and forget that you're an atheist. I doubt that it will work.