Jerry Coyne recently posted a piece called 'Once again, Scott Atran exculpates religion as a cause of terrorism', complaining about Scott Atran's apparent apology for religion in a recent article in the Guardian. A typical taste of Coyne's complaints:
When I read Atran’s brand of Islamic apologetics, and when I think of the terrorists’ cries of “Allahu Akbar” that accompanied their Kalashnikov fire, and when I ponder why young men out for just “a good time, a cause, and brotherhood” would do these deeds knowing they were surely going to die (and probably believing that, as martyrs, they’d attain Paradise), and when I think of the other deeds they do—the slaughter of Christians, Yazidis, apostates, atheists, and gays, and of the way they treat women like chattel, raping their sex slaves and stoning adulterers—when I think of all this, and the explicitly Islamic motivations the terrorists avow, I have to ask people like Atran: “WHAT WOULD IT TAKE TO MAKE YOU ASCRIBE ANY OF THEIR ACTIONS TO ISLAM?”Perhaps fair enough, although I'm not sure I fully understand Atran's position; this article suggests he does acknowledge that motivations aren't entirely political:
Some officials speaking for Western governments at the East Asia summit in Singapore last April argued that the Caliphate is traditional power politics masquerading as mythology. Research on those drawn to the cause show that this is a dangerous misconception. The Caliphate has re-emerged as a seductive mobilizing cause in the minds of many Muslims, from the Levant to Western Europe.Atran appears to have commented on Jerry's piece, saying:
I recommend some of the commentators, as well as the principal author, read some of our scientific papers inScience, PNAS, BBS, and reports of others in Nature, You might also glance at articles and editorials in the NY Times, Foreign Policy, Wall Street Journal etc. I never made an argument that “religion” is not a cause of terrorism. “Religion,” in fact, is as empty a notion (scientifically speaking) as “culture.” What I said is that the propositional content of some religious canon is not a principal predictor for may joining Al Qaeda (and now ISIS), and that, the principal predictors have to do with social network factors. Intel and military have used these finding to help break up those networks. Counter canon narratives have done absolutely nothing at all to stop violence or dissuade ISIS volunteers. In other findings, most recently reported in PNAS and NATURE, we detail how commitment to strict sharia of a form practiced by the Islamic State Caliphate, and Identity fusion (a particular type of social formation), although independent (largely uncorrelated) interact to predict costly commitment to costly sacrifices, including fighting and dying.
Mr. Coyne, like Mr. Harris, are not interested in the science, at least on this issue, but in continuing their declamations against “liberal apologetics.” Neither has ever had any dealings with volunteers or fighters from ISIS and Nusra (accepted perhaps reformed ones in safe settings), they have never been to the frontlines of combat zones to see for themselves what motivates fighters. They have never systematically interviewed or psychologically tested volunteers for such movements. And they have never tried, or been asked by those actually fighting ISIS or Al Qaeda to help in the fight because their proposals are, quite frankly, ridiculous. They are like angry children who believe that yelling at the top of their lungs will change the world. Like many politicians and pundits, willful ignorance of the science that bears on this issue is understandable (good argument is, by and large, used for persuasion and victory in social discourse, not discovery of the reason). The sad thing is that their followers believe they have scientific credentials that must give them knowledge ot support their arguments. But even Nobel prize winners have no special insight into social and political affairs, and their views should be scrutinized without passion by their peers (wishful thinking, I know).It's again difficult to tell what his position is, because he denies that he argues that '“religion” is not a cause of terrorism" (apologies for the double negative) but goes on to describe it as an empty notion (scientifically speaking), and to cite 'social network factors' as the principal predictor of joining 'Al Qaeda (and now ISIS)', which together appear to suggest that he is arguing that religion is not a cause of terrorism. I've posted this comment:
Thanks for making this comment. I assume it’s genuinely Scott Atran! It would be helpful if you could recommend one or two links that you think particularly address the issues raised here. You say that you ‘detail how commitment to strict sharia of a form practiced by the Islamic State Caliphate, and Identity fusion (a particular type of social formation), although independent (largely uncorrelated) interact to predict costly commitment to costly sacrifices, including fighting and dying’. Apologies, but I don’t understand what that means! So bear with an interested bystander for a mo, if you can.
I think as a layman I can appreciate that a frankly perverse organisation like ISIS has multifarious causes; obviously billions of religious people don’t behave that way, so ‘religion’ is not explanatory in that sense, and might be, as you say, an ’empty’ notion. But a similar observation could be made about the term ‘politics’ and yet no-one would deny (or would they?) the political motivations of communism as an important factor in Stalin’s actions, for example. Perhaps the vast majority of communists would not have indulged in purges, so it would be correct to say that there is some other predictor of those particular actions. Nonetheless, the communism played a part, is it reasonable to say?
Furthermore, just about every theist I’ve met would not recognise their religion as an empty notion.
This suggests that saying that ‘religion’ is an empty notion in *some* sense is a weak rejoinder to anyone who argues for or against the effects of religious beliefs, and unlikely to persuade either the irreligious or the religious that religious beliefs should not be criticised (or praised).
So someone who thinks that way can accept your (no doubt firmly supported empirically) view that ‘the principal predictors [for joining Al Qaeda (and now ISIS)] have to do with social network factors’, whilst still decrying the deleterious effects of religious beliefs within the complex matrix of factors that have caused these phenomena.
For example, it seems silly to claim that religious beliefs could be used to predict who would commit acts of terrorism in the Northern Ireland troubles (both Protestants and Catholics did, of course). But it would surely be fair to point out the role that religion played in the underlying complex mix of history and culture that brought those two communities to that point.
For another example, it seems to me that one can differentiate between the attack on Charlie Hebdo and the one on Bataclan by reference to a particular religious doctrine – blasphemy. The CH attack is more obviously religiously motivated than Bataclan, prima facie. You seem to be saying that your research suggests that both attacks are predicted more by social network factors than religious ones, and I bow to your superior knowledge on that. But how could Charlie Hebdo be *singled out* for attack (amongst the enormous Western infidel media pack) if it weren’t for their particularly blasphemous (according to Islam) actions? This is surely an attack where the religious belief is ‘critical’ to the motivations of the terrorists. The Bataclan attack, less so, imo, but still an underlying, important, factor.
It is this sort of specificity of action that, again, to a layman like me, would not occur without the religious doctrine. And you perhaps acknowledge this when you say that the content of religious beliefs aren’t a ‘principal predictor’; are they a secondary one?
So the question from a complete ignoramus like me who wants to understand the differences between you and Coyne is this: Coyne suspects you would not even ‘ascribe any of [the terrorists] actions to Islam’. It’s still not clear from your comment how you respond to his question. Even if the religious doctrines aren’t a principal predictor of *who* acts, do you acknowledge that they do effect the behaviour of jihadists in Syria and in attacks on the West? If you do, and I get the impression you might, then I’m not sure what Coyne is saying that you disagree with. Is it just the emphasis he puts on ‘religion’ when these atrocities occur? He clearly cites other factors – ‘disaffection, the need to feel part of something greater than oneself, innate aggression of young males, and, yes, the mishandling of many Middle Eastern situations by the West’, so he’s not denying those other causes. Just because people bemoan one factor does not mean they discount all others.
If, on the other hand, you don’t think such doctrines have an effect on terrorist behaviour, I should like to see the papers that support that conclusion, in the (perhaps forlorn!) hope that I could understand them.
If you’ve got this far, thanks for reading, and apologies if I misconstrued your position!It's interesting that Atran says that 'Counter canon narratives have done absolutely nothing at all to stop violence or dissuade ISIS volunteers'. This doesn't counter Coyne's complaints about religious causes, but it does perhaps point to why Atran is frustrated at 'New Atheists'; their complaints are pointless, because attempts to change religious views have not worked, according to whatever metrics Atran has used in his studies.
That may be true in Atran's studies, but the idea that societal progress cannot be made by addressing deleterious religious beliefs seems to deny the last 200 years, from the Enlightenment onwards, which has seen a secular, rational, scientific push-back against such beliefs that has had a civilising effect. Now, to be fair, many religionists would deny that this civilising effect is particularly secular, rational or scientific, but for me the evidence is pretty overwhelming.
I do wonder what 'counter canon narratives' have been attempted, because, as far as I can see, not so much has been done to counter the blasphemy narrative since CH. Indeed some western countries still outlaw it! So a meaningful counter canon narrative would have to be substantial and accord religion a lot less respect than just about every country, including in the west, does currently. Until we see this happening I suspect many of us will still see plenty in religion to complain about.