Scott Atran: Sam Harris’s Falsehoods

Wow. This was an interesting article. What are your thoughts @PAtrick? I know you like Harris, but this guy has some points.

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.

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.

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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.

I agree with this in large part but don’t think it’s quite so simple. Here’s one example. Today in 2019 there are Moslem countries where professing publicly to be an atheist stands you a good chance of being hacked to death, and even in relatively moderate Malaysia a government minister recently stated that atheists should be “hunted down”. That’s not true elsewhere as far as I know (again, today in 2019). Polling shows a number of other extreme views are prevalent in Moslem nations. I have to think that there’s more going on than Atran seems to suggest.

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…

This is an interesting example. It’s stated a bit strangely. My understanding is that Japanese militarists used the national religion (certainly Shinto, and although Buddhism is also practiced in Japan I’m not sure why he mentions it in particular, though maybe he knows something I don’t) cynically as a tool to achieve their ends. Clearly the militarists produced the barbarism, and if the religion somehow didn’t exist, they would have used whatever other tools were available. Maybe I’m nitpicking about wording, but it’s better to be clear. Some interpretations of religion could (and do) lead directly to violence, after all. So which is happening in Islam? I would note that (right are wrong) there are clear sources of political dissatisfaction with the West within Islam. Then again, by far most Islamic terrorism is carried out against other Moslems, with the us-and-them dynamic always part of it, different Moslem sub-groups in conflict.

And how people interpret religious injunctions (e.g., the Ten Commandments), as well as transcendental aspects of political ideologies, almost invariably changes over time.

I’m thinking here, does this matter? What I care about is how it’s being interpreted now.

Having said all that, Harris goes a lot farther in the blog article in question and makes a compelling case IMO. I get it when Atran says that certain social activities are a key predictor, but I wonder how much ideology is a factor (even Atran admits it is one). I also wonder what Harris would like us to do. Heck, I can’t even convince you guys that Christianity is wrong :slight_smile: But I do agree that an awareness of the realities of the situation is advisable (and a certain wide-eyed relativist viewpoint inadvisable) and I’m not aware that Harris is suggesting that anything more is appropriate.

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