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on transcendental constructions: a critique of Scott Atran

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Some years ago, when watching some of the talks and debates in the first ‘Beyond Belief’ conference at the Salk Institute, I noted some tension between Sam Harris and his critique of religion generally and Islam in particular, and Scott Atran, an anthropologist, who appeared to be quite contemptuous of Harris’s views. Beyond noting the tension, I didn’t pay too much attention to it at the time, but I’ve decided now to look at this issue more closely because I’ve just read Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s powerful book Infidel, which gives an insider’s informed and critical view of Islam, particularly from a woman’s perspective, and I’ve also listened to Chris Mooney’s Point of Inquiry interview with Atran back in April, shortly after the Boston marathon bombing.

The interview, called ‘What makes a terrorist?’ was mainly about the psychology of the more recent batch of terrorists, but in the latter half, Atran responded to a question about the role of Islam specifically in recent terrorist behaviour. It’s this response I want to examine, not so much in the light of Sam Harris’s contrasting views, but in comparison to those of Hirsi Ali.

In bringing up the role of Islam in terrorism, Chris Mooney cites Sam Harris as pointing out that ‘there’s something about Islam today that is more violent’. Atran’s immediate response is that ‘this is such a complex and confused issue’, then he says that ‘religions are fairly neutral vessels’. This idea that religions, especially those that survive over time, have a degree of neutrality to them, has some truth, and in fact it served as the basis for my critique of Melvyn Bragg’s absurd claims that Christianity and the KJV Bible were largely responsible for feminism, democracy and the anti-slavery movement. But there is a limit to this ‘neutrality’. Religions are clearly not so ‘neutral’, morally or culturally, that they’re interchangeable with each other. Fundamentalist, or ultra-orthodox, or ultra-conservative Judaism is not the same as its Islamic or Christian counterparts. In fact, far from it. And yet these three religions ostensibly share the same deity.

The interaction between religion and culture is almost impenetrably complex. I wrote about this years ago in an essay about traditional Australian Aboriginal religion/culture, in which it’s reasonable to say that religion is culture and culture is religion. In such a setting, apostasy would be meaningless or impossible – essentially a denial of one’s own identity. Having said that, if your religion, via one of its principal texts, tells you that apostasy is punishable by death, you’ve already got a yawning separation between religion and cultural identity – the very reason for the excessive threat of punishment is to desperately try to plug that gap. It’s like the desperate cry of a father – ‘you’ll never amount to anything without me!’ – as the son walks out the door for the last time.

These major religions – Judaism, Islam and Christianity – are embedded in texts that are embedded in culture. Different, varied texts interacting complexly – reinforcing, challenging, altering the culture from whence they sprung. Differently. Judaism’s major text, always arguably, is the Torah. Christianity’s is the New Testament, or is it the gospels? Islamic scholars – but also those believers who rarely ever read the sacred texts – will argue about which texts are most important and why. Nevertheless, Judaism, Christianity and Islam all have a different feel to them from each other, even given the enormous variation within each religion. Judaism is profoundly insular, with its chosen people uniquely flayed by their demanding, unforgiving god. Christianity is profoundly other-worldly with its obsession with the saviour, the saved, the end of days, the kingdom to come, the soul struggling for release, not to mention sin sin sin. Islam, a harsh, desert religion, somehow even more than the other two, is about denial, control, submission, and jihad in all its complex and contradictory manifestations and interpretations. The status of women in each religion, in a general sense, is different. Christianity gives women the most ‘wriggle-room’ from the start, but its interaction with the different cultures captured by the religion can sometimes open up that space, or close it down. The New Testament presents a patriarchal culture of course, but in the gospels women aren’t given too bad a rap. Paul of Tarsus notoriously displays some misogyny elsewhere in the NT, but it isn’t particularly specific and no detailed restrictions on women’s freedom are presented. More importantly, the dynamism of western culture has blown away many attempts to maintain the restrictions on women’s freedom dictated by Christian dogma – pace the Catholic Church. In any case, Christianity has no equivalent to Sharia Law, with its deity-given restrictions and overall fearfulness of the freedom and power of women. And neither Christianity nor Islam has the obsession with ritual and with interpretation of the deity’s very peculiar requirements that orthodox Judaism has.

To return, though, to Atran. He argues that the reason the big religions survive and thrive is precisely due to their lack of fixed propositions – which is why, he says, that we need sermons to continually update and modernise the interpretations of texts, parables, suras and the like. I’m not sure if the Khutbas of Moslem Imams serve the same purpose as priests’ sermons, but I generally agree with Atran here. The point, of course, is that though there is much leeway for interpretation, there are still boundaries, and the boundaries are different for Islam compared to Christianity, etc.

What follows is my analysis of what Atran has to say about what are, in fact, very complex and contentious matters relating to religion and social existence. Whole books could be, and of course are, devoted to this, so I’ll try not to get too bogged down. I’m using my own transcript of Atran’s interview with Mooney, slightly edited. Occasionally I can’t quite make out what Atran is saying, as he sometimes talks softly and rapidly, but I’ll do my best.

So, after his slightly over-simplified claim that these big religions are ‘neutral vessels’, Atran goes on with his definition. These religions are:

… moral frameworks that provide a transcendental moral foundation for large groups coalescing – for how else do you get genetic relatives to form large co-operative groups? They don’t have to be necessarily religious today, but it involves transcendental ideas. Take human rights, for example, that’s a crazy idea. Two hundred and fifty years ago a bunch of intellectuals in Europe decided that providence or nature made all human beings equal, endowed by their creator with rights to liberty and happiness, when the history of 200,000 years of human life had been mostly cannibalism, infanticide, murder, the suppression of minorities and women, and so [through the wars?] and social engineering, they took this crackpot idea and made it real.

I have a few not so minor quibbles to make here. Presumably Atran is using the term ‘transcendental’ in the way that I would use the term “over-arching’ – a much more neutral, and if you like, secular term. The trouble is – and he uses this term often throughout the interview – Atran uses ‘transcendental’ with deliberate rhetorical intent, taking advantage of its massive semantic load to undercut various secular concepts, in this case the ‘crackpot’ concept of human rights.

This isn’t to say that Atran objects to human rights. My guess is that he regards it as a somewhat arbitrary and unlikely concept, invented by a bunch of European intellectuals in the Enlightenment era, that just happened to catch on, and a good thing too. That’s not how I see it. It’s just much much more complex than that. So much so that I hesitate to even begin to explore it here. The germ of the concept goes back at least as far as Aristotle, and it involves the increasingly systematic study of human history, and human psychology. It involves the science of evolution, and it involves pragmatic global developments in commerce and diplomacy. Eighteenth century Enlightenment ideas had a catalytic effect, as did many developments of the scientific enlightenment of the previous century, as did the growth of democratic ideas and the concept of systematic universal education and health-care in the nineteenth century, in the west.

My point is that, though I have no problems with calling human rights a convenient fiction – nobody ‘really’ has rights as such – it’s based on a this-worldly (i.e. non-transcendental) understanding of how both individuals and societies flourish and thrive, in terms of the contract or compromise between them.

Atran goes on:

But, in general, societies that have unfalsifiable and unverifiable transcendental constructions win out over those that don’t –  I mean, Darwin talked about it as moral virtue, and said that this is responsible for the kind of patriotism, sympathy and loyalty that makes certain tribes win out over other tribes in […] competition for dominance and survival, and again, without these transcendental ideas people can’t really be blinded to [exit strategies], I mean, societies that are based on social contracts, no matter how good they are, the idea that there’s always a better deal down the line makes them liable to collapse, while these societies are much less prone to that. And there are all sorts of other things associated with these sorts of unverifiable propositions.

Presumably these ‘unfalsifiable and unverifiable transcendental constructions’ are religions, and I’ve no great objection to that characterisation, but I’m not so convinced about the positive value for ‘dominance and survival’ of these constructions. One could argue that my kind of scepticism can only flourish in a secure environment such as we have in the west, where such ‘undermining’ values as anti-nationalism and atheism can’t threaten the social cohesion of our collective prosperity and sense of superiority to non-western notions. There are just no ‘better deals down the line’, except maybe more health, wealth and happiness, commitment to which requires the very opposite of an ‘exit strategy’. In other words, western ‘social contract’ societies, in which religious belief is rapidly diminishing (outside the US), are showing no sign of collapsing, because there is no meaningful exit strategy, unless a delusional one. There is no desire or motivation to exit. We’re largely facing our demons and rejecting overly ‘idealistic’ solutions.

Perhaps my meaning will be clearer when we look at more of Atran’s remarks:

So now, the propositions, these things themselves can be interpreted, however, depending on the political and social climate of the age. Islam has been interpreted in ways that were extremely progressive at one time, and at least parts of it are extremely retrogressive, especially as concerns science for example, the position of women in the world, especially parts of it in many countries it’s extremely retrograde. But, Islam itself, I mean does it have some essence that encourages this kind of crazy violence? No, not at all – that truly is absurd, and just false.

Atran’s becoming a bit incoherent here, and maybe he expresses himself better elsewhere, but his base argument is that there’s no ‘essence’ to Islam which renders it more violent than other religions, or transcendental constructions (eg communism or fascism) for that matter. He overplays his hand, I think, when he claims that this is ‘absurd’ and obviously false. We could call this ‘the argument from petulance’. Islam does have some essential differences, I think, which makes it more able to act against women and against scientific ideas, though I agree that this is a matter of degree, and that it’s very complex. For example, the growth of Catholicism in Africa has combined with certain aspects of tribal culture and patriarchy to make African Catholic spokesmen very outspoken against homosexuality – and a recent local television program had a Moslem leader speaking up in favour of gay marriage. So, yes, there is nothing fixed in stone about Islam or Christianity with respect to human values.

The thing is that, for writers like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and I suspect Sam Harris too, the question of ‘essentialism’ is largely academic, for right here and right now people are being targeted by Moslems (under the pressure of cultural connections or disconnections), because they are apostates, or critics, or women trying to get an education, or women dressing too ‘immodestly’, and this is causing great tension, even to the point of death and destruction here and there. In fact, Hirsi Ali, in calling for an enlightenment in the Moslem world, is backing a non-essentialist view. It’s the culture that has to change, but of course religion, with its transcendentalist, eternalist underpinnings, acts as a strong brake against cultural transformation. To engage in the battle for moderation is to battle for this-wordly, evidence-based thinking on human flourishing, against transcendentalist ideas of all kinds.

Atran, I think, relies too heavily on his notion of ‘transcendental constructions’, which he uses too widely and sweepingly, even with a degree of smugness. Let me provide one more quote from his interview, with some final comments.

But again, I don’t see anything about Islam itself… you need some kind of transcendental ideal to get people to sacrifice for genetic strangers, for these large groups. Religion is the best thing that human history has come up with, but there are other competing transcendental notions of which democratic liberalism, human rights, communism, fascism, are others, and right now the democratic-liberal-human rights thing is predominant in a large part of the world and it’s a salvation [……..] and people don’t want that or feel left in the driftwood of globalisation, they are looking for something else to give them equal power and significance.

Methinks Atran might’ve been spending too much time in the study of religious/transcendental ideas – he’s seeing everything though that perspective. I myself have written about democracy, in its various manifestations, from a sceptical perspective many times, and I’ve been critical of the over-use of the concept of rights, and so forth. It’s true enough that people can take these concepts, along with fascism or communism, to a transcendental level, making of them an unquestionable given for ‘right living’ or ‘a decent society’, but they can also be taken pragmatically and realistically, reasonably, as the most serviceable approaches to a well-functioning social order. Social evolution is moving quickly, and we can make sacrifices for genetic strangers, based on our growing understanding, as humans, of our common genetic inheritance. We’re not so much genetic strangers, perhaps, as we once thought ourselves to be. Indeed, it’s this growing understanding, a product of science, that is expanding our circle of connection beyond even the human. We need to promote this understanding as much as we can, in the teeth of transcendentalist, eternalist, other-worldly ideas about submission to deities, heavenly rewards and spiritual superiority.


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