Once again, Scott Atran exculpates religion as a cause of terrorism

November 17, 2015 • 10:00 am

Let me first be clear: contrary to some of my critics, I don’t think that religion is the sole cause of Islamic terrorism. Obviously there are 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. But I will maintain that as far as Islamic jihadism goes, religion is a critical part of the mix, perhaps to the extent that without it we wouldn’t have terrorism of the sort that strikes down not only Parisians, but many other Muslims, Yazidis, and gays.  I argue this on several grounds, including the behavior and writings of the terrorists themselves, the fact that terrorism is wedded to particular faiths with particular doctrines, and the fact that terrorist groups like ISIS behave in many ways as if they truly believe religious doctrines, and then act accordingly.

The question to ask is this: if you could rerun history so the entire world were free from religion, would everything in the Middle East still be the same? Would the Paris attacks, the 9/11 bombings, the slaughter of Yazidis, and so on, still have occurred? Of course I have no answer to this: all we can do is infer motivations from what terrorists say and how they behave.

Scott Atran has spent much of his career interviewing terrorists, and, like Robert Pape, has come to the opposite conclusion: that religion and its doctrines, in particular Islam, play at best a minimal role in terrorism. Some of Pape’s analyses, conclusions, and statistics have been called into question (see here, here and here, for instance). Atran has argued that religious beliefs aren’t really like “normal beliefs,” in that they aren’t seen by many as “true” or “false”, and therefore can’t motivate terrorist behavior (see here, for instance). That’s an argument that Maarten Boudry and I see as false (see here). The widespread Muslim beliefs in martyrdom and the attainment of paradise are apparently important factors in motivating terrorism and suicide bombing, as evidenced by the terrorists’ own statements and actions. I’d also recommend, as I do often, that those who believe religion is unimportant read Lawrence Wright’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning book The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11which imputes much of modern terrorism not to Western missteps, but to a hatred of the modernity and licentiousness that Muslims see as pervasive in the West.

In a new Guardian article,”Mindless terrorists? The truth about ISIS is much worse.“which does make some good points, Atran continues to imply that religion plays no role in Islamist terrorism, although his words sometimes appear to contradict that. He first notes that ISIS is using, and using effectively, tactics from an old Al-Qaeda manual that recommends striking “soft” targets. But he then goes on to argue that religion isn’t part of the mix. Here is Atran going after (without naming it) what must surely be Graeme Wood’s famous article in The Atlantic: “What ISIS really wants“, which has now garnered nearly 15,500 comments. As you may recall, Wood, having interviewed many terrorists and their sympathizers, emphasizes the importance of religious doctrine—particularly the reinstatement of a Caliphate—as a prime motivator for ISIS. Atran:

Simply treating Isis as a form of “terrorism” or “violent extremism” masks the menace. Merely dismissing it as “nihilistic” reflects a wilful and dangerous avoidance of trying to comprehend, and deal with, its profoundly alluring moral mission to change and save the world. And the constant refrain that Isis seeks to turn back history to the Middle Ages is no more compelling than a claim that the Tea Party movement wants everything the way it was in 1776. The truth is more complicated. As Abu Mousa, Isis’s press officer in Raqqa, put it: “We are not sending people back to the time of the carrier pigeon. On the contrary, we will benefit from development. But in a way that doesn’t contradict the religion.”

A way that doesn’t contradict the religion! Doesn’t that mean anything? Well, here Atran offers one statement by an ISIS press officer as evidence against what Wood says. And perhaps the truth is more complicated than just the desire for a Caliphate, but where does the “profoundly alluring moral mission” of ISIS come from? Whence ISIS’s desire to “change and save the world?” Both come from Islam and the brand of ascetic and outsider-hating morals that infuse the faith—the same morality emphasized by Lawrence Wright.

Near the end, Atran’s exculpation becomes clearer:

As I testified to the US Senate armed service committee and before the United Nations security council: what inspires the most uncompromisingly lethal actors in the world today is not so much the Qur’an or religious teachings. It’s a thrilling cause that promises glory and esteem. Jihad is an egalitarian, equal-opportunity employer: fraternal, fast-breaking, glorious, cool – and persuasive.

In other words, ISIS is, as Atran notes, a big “band of brothers (and sisters)”.  Atran may be right in part about the attractions of excitement, of battle, of joining with others who are like minded. And surely many ISIS fighters aren’t theologically astute! But that doesn’t matter if the overlords who recruit and direct them are motivated by religion. And surely many of the deeds of ISIS (see below) are not only motivated by Islamic doctrine, but also show that that doctrine, and the notion of Paradise, are real beliefs, not quasi-fictional imaginings.

Further, think about this: young men (and women, too) all over the world are into things “cool, glorious, and persuasive”. The classic motto is, of course, “sex, drugs, and rock and roll,” though that trio is off limits to Muslims. But why is it only Muslims who channel this natural adventurousness and rebelliousness into murder and barbarity? Why don’t they just play football? Now you could argue that the 60’s leftists (I was one) channeled their rebelliousness into politics, but what we did was demonstrate, speak, and write—we did not kill others or go on suicide missions. Why the difference between us and the young men and women who flock to ISIS? Could it be—religion? (Most radicals of the Sixties weren’t exactly religious.)

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?”

 For truly, I can’t see how these actions could implicate religion any more clearly. Yes, of course other factors are involved, but take religion out of the multifactorial mix—rerun Middle Eastern history when there is no religion and no Allah—and I seriously doubt this would be happening. There is no way that Atran can demonstrate otherwise.
For people like Atran the default answer is always politics and Western culpability, no matter how infused with religion the situation appears. But why not another default answer: “religion”?

139 thoughts on “Once again, Scott Atran exculpates religion as a cause of terrorism

  1. I always wonder if these apologists make or would make the same excuses for Christian or Jewish terrorists. For example, if a Christian blows up an abortion clinic, would an apologist claim that his act had nothing to do with religion? It seems to me that extremists of other religions are always taken at their word, but not Islamists. Very odd.

  2. Even the ‘targets’ that were chosen shed light on the primacy of religion in ISIS actions in Paris last week surely? Their statement said that they hit the French at places where their ‘perversity’ was on show. A concert hall, a football game and restaurants were people were drinking alcohol.

    Survivors from the Bataclan also said there were comments from the attackers that suggested this was retribution for Hollande’s actions in Syria, so world events and foreign policy are playing a role. But the ‘moral’ mission of ISIS, its inspiration, appears religious to me given their very specific hatred of western lifestyle and targeting of behaviour they consider aberrant.

    1. Don’t forget too that there were un-related men and women mingling freely without the women strapped up in bondage gear and hoods. That too is an unconscionable sin to these turds.
      (Apologies to turds who feel offended by the comparison.)

      1. Yes,the misogyny is so specifically Muslim

        I always wonder how the apologists decided that Muslim men and boys throwing acid into the eyes of schoolgirls because they are LEARNING TO READ is the fault of Western aggression/colonialism. L

        1. I hope you’re talking about the burqua and misogynistic practices like that being specifically Muslim, and not claiming that misogyny in general is a specifically Muslim phenomenon. The latter clearly isn’t true; its cropped up independently in all sorts of cultures…including the west.

    2. “Even the ‘targets’ that were chosen shed light on the primacy of religion in ISIS actions in Paris last week surely?”

      Absolutely. Isis’ statement said they were “targeting the capital of prostitution and vice”, and the concert where “where hundreds of pagans gathered for a concert of prostitution and vice.” Allah was mentioned 14 times in their 500 word statement, and not a single mention was made about US imperialism, or any other reason the apologists come up with.

  3. A difficulty with speculating about how mankind might behave without religion is that one would logically need to imagine some sort of hypothetical difference in humanity that would preclude religion, because it presently appears to be inevitable. And if that difference was, for example, greater rationality, then it would be trivial to conclude that mankind would then behave more rationally.

    In other words, both terrorism and religion are products of the irrationality of man.

    1. It would be difficult if religious commitment was equally distributed across the globe or if faith was randomly spread among human populations. But that isn’t the case. There are lots of people who were formerly religious and no longer are. There are plenty of countries in the world where religion used to have a much stronger role in public and private affairs than it now holds.

      In the United States there is currently a noticeable move away from religious lifestyles. It takes nothing more than following that trend to “speculate” about how mankind might behave without religion.

      1. Continuing that thought, are people in less religious countries are inherently more rational than those in more religious countries? What would lead to that?

        Or are there other factors? A culture that embraces “Enlightenment values”?

        Is there a common factor amongst less religious/more rational/more “Enlightened” societies?

        Better education? (More-secular education, very likely, but that would be begging the question.)


        1. I think a key thing, that has been mentioned often and that underlies most all of the correlations, is the average standard of living in a given society. Of course there are an enormous number of things that contribute to that and that are inextricably intertwined. Wealth, justice system, gender and “race” equality, etc..

          But, I think in general terms it comes down to when almost all members of society are secure and equal that there are less reasons, for people to arrive at strong religious commitments.

          And it sure seems that for a society to be able to reach that state that something very much like enlightenment values are necessary. Wealth alone sure doesn’t do it. Just look at Saudi Arabia.

          1. Agreed. I would just edit your comment where you say average standard of living. It is average as well as a relatively flat distribution of wealth. With too much disparity, as in the U.S., the lower strata are bound to feel left out and favor faith as a status enhancer.

            1. It seems that some of you who replied to me are thinking in terms of how things are changing and what the future might bring, but to quote Dr. Coyne above:

              “The question to ask is this: if you could rerun history so the entire world were free from religion, would everything in the Middle East still be the same?”

              I was speaking in these terms. If we were to “rerun history so the entire world were free from religion”, that would require us to travel back in time and magically alter or influence the human race in some way that would produce an alternate present-day reality with no religion.

              What I’m saying is that the resulting reality would depend upon what we did to accomplish that goal.

          2. Well said, and of course something that PCCE has stated frequently.

            (This is why I fear the widening gulf in the US between the haves & the have-nots is going to make us more irrational & unenlightened, contrary to many secularists’ hopes that the internet, et al, will inexorably march us in the opposite direction.)

  4. Steven Pinker cites Atran’s research in his book ‘the better angels of our nature’ when examining the motivations for Islamic terrorism, and in support of the ‘Band of Brothers’ theory of Jihadi recruitment. I agree with Jerry’s observations on Atran’s work but the fact that someone like Pinker seems to give it credence does give me pause for thought…

    1. Religious and “Band of Brothers” motivations are complementary, not mutually exclusive.

      A band fighting for something has a kind of innate appeal, but it still needs the “something” it is fighting for to hold it together. “Let’s go on suicide missions for the thrill!” is not a recruitment slogan that would work.

      1. “Let’s go on suicide missions for the thrill!”

        Hmmm, suicide paintball? Detonate and cover the opposing team in [your color] paint? (Also with bits of yourself, but let them worry about that). Of course you fail if they self-detonate before the paint hits them.


      2. Indeed. Atran is a neo-isolationist through and through–he sees all jihadists as essentially rational actors, merely responding to Western imperialism. He doesn’t grasp–or doesn’t want to grasp–that these people really do believe in a particular afterlife (and why wouldn’t they? most people do) and that they’re sure how to get there (again, why wouldn’t they be? God revealed how to get there through His prophet Mohammed).

        He’s not wrong to point out the “Band of Brothers” appeal, but he is wrong to persistently de-emphasize theology.

  5. Would the Paris attacks, the 9/11 bombings,

    I had a depressing realization a few hours ago. While it’s not completely clear, there does seem to be a habit for Al Quaeda (and their offspring, ISIS) to choose numerically significant or memorable dates for their atrocities.

    9/11 was more likely timed for the US emergency telephone number system than for the 1973 CIA-prompted Chilean coup;
    7/7 is obviously symmetrical ;
    Friday’s attacks were on Friday 13, notoriously an unlucky date.

    Call me paranoid, but I’d be extremely depressed to see that “Black Friday” (next weekend, or the one after?), an American retail event, would be an attractive date for the next round. (There will be a next round ; ISIS aren’t fools and need to try to keep momentum going.) And I would be careful (somewhat more careful than normal) in Europe on 11th Feb. (11/2 : the European standard emergency services phone number).
    Depressing, but as clear as day to me. dates that will “live forever in the annals of infamy,” will live longer if the dates are memorable.
    Less depressingly is a link I sent PCCE yesterday about attempting to change the behaviour of criminals (particularly religiously inspired ones) by introducing doubt into their minds about the “moral” underpinnings of their certainty in the rightness of their beliefs. If this head-shrinker’s presentation is accurate, it suggests ways to change individual’s behaviour, and to “innoculate” social groups against such dangerous behaviours developing. Of course, injecting doubt into the minds of the faithful is likely to get severely opposed by every church on the planet.

    1. Lawrence Wright (In the Looming Tower) says that September 11 was specifically chosen as it was the date in 1683 when the hordes of the Ottoman Empire were beaten back from the gates of Vienna (Battle of Vienna) by the forces of the Holy Roman Empire. This was the farthest an invading Muslim force reached into Europe.

        1. I lived for 2 years a block from Türkenschantz Park in Vienna, but did not remember the exact dates of the siege.

    2. The momentum thing is interesting. It seems to me that there is a balance to strike between maintaining momentum and pushing just a bit too far. Partly because the West retains the capacity to go where it chooses in a military sense, but the more sane factions of the Islamic neighborhood have the even more important capacity to unplug the grass roots infrastructure and tolerance required for such a movement to flourish.

      If the day came that the men in the neighborhood found it in their own best interest to quietly take out the openly radicalized, a lot less airstrikes would be required, and a lot less collateral damage done. It might be that ISIS needs to goad everyone just enough to ensure that the responses stay measured.

  6. I’d also recommend, as I do often, that those who believe religion is unimportant read Lawrence Wright’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning book The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, which imputes much of modern terrorism not to Western missteps, but to a hatred of modernity and licentiousness that Muslims see as pervasive in the West.

    Yes I agree with this. In general, repressive authoritarian regimes see the mere knowledge of/existence of free countries as a threat. They often try to convince their population that they are benevolent and that the reason for the authoritarian regime is that its simply the best possible way to ensure prosperity. But when citizens can look a the free democracy across the border and see this isn’t so, that’s a huge problem for the dictator. Its an existential threat, undermining the entire (publicly claimed) raison d’etre for the regime.

    That is why regimes like the USSR, North Korea, and Maoist China worked so hard to control access to the outside world; because its hard to claim your way is more prosperous when the guy in the next country over has more stuff and a happier life without the dictatorship.

    The exact same principle applies to theocracies like the Iranian Revolution, the Taliban, ISIS, etc. They want to convince the population that their repressive rules are needed for a successfully functioning society. But its really hard to do that when people can look across the internet and see functioning societies without the repressive rules.

    So I think a hatred of modern liberalism is somewhat impossible to disentangle from authoritarianism of any stripe – theocratic and secular. Muslims dedicated to the imposition of sharia and a caliphate are going to hate the US merely for existing. For showing their citizens that if you let women drive, vote, and wear regular clothes, society doesn’t collapse. That people can live peaceful noncriminal lives even when the state doesn’t require a religious education. And so on.

    1. That people can live peaceful noncriminal lives even when the state doesn’t require a religious education.

      Anyone with kids currently in the UK education system?
      Is “Religious Education” and a daily assembly (which is meant to include prayers) still a legally required part of the curriculum? I know they used to be required, but the implementation had significant loopholes and was frequently badly mangled in execution. But I don’t actually know what the present state of the law is (it’s over 30 years since I had any reason to know about such things).

      1. A daily act of collective worship is still a requirement but is sometimes omitted at the discretion of the governors and, or, headmaster. There is increasing support for rescinding this requirement; see here.

        Religious education (RE) is not required but the GCSE syllabus focuses on faith, which is currently the subject of legal action by a small number of families, arguing that there is a requirement for RE to include humanist and other non-religious worldviews. See here.


  7. Yes…

    There are elements of “moderate” religion that morph incredibly easily into deadly/dangerous political power structures.

    * The idea of a spiritual hierarchy, with a priest at the bottom and a God at the top. It might be harmless enough if the priest is nice and the God at the top isn’t taken at his word too much, ISIS uses this idea as a weapon of domination over hearts and minds.

    * The idea of a holy book, which trumps any other book and props up the status of those who claim their interpretation is the right one.

    * The idea of heaven or paradise with its virgins or whatever, awaiting the martyrs.

    * The idea of God’s judgment which trumps everyone else’s, but which of course the priest etc has inside knowledge about.

    * The idea of divine punishment — although priests have traditionally left the rewards up to God to hand out, they never seem to trust God to carry out the punishments Himself. They always seem to be rather too willing to get started on it themselves.

    * Oppression of women — by some odd coincidence, divine wisdom about how women should be treated seems remarkably consistent with the kinds of psychotic fantasies brutalized teenagers with no understanding of their own sexual feelings and functioning, nor those of anyone else, might have.

    In order to deal with these problems in the long term, we need to be raising awareness about the inherent problems with these ideas and try to alter the climate so that they are not simply allowed to circulate in social discourse without being allowed to be challenged. Luckily, New Atheists especially, started on this a decade or more ago.

    Young people should seriously encounter the idea that there is no God and no heaven during the course of their education.

  8. Bravo. The bit in all caps reminds me of a similar question I would like to see answered by the apologists: Since you claim to recognize when an atrocity is not motivated by religion, then pray tell me, hypothetically, what would a religiously inspired atrocity look like?

    1. hypothetically, what would a religiously inspired atrocity look like?

      [SELF] Passes mirror. Or Saturday’s newspapers.

  9. I think Jerry’s key point hits the nail on the head: the motivation of those in ISIS who carry out terrible deeds is a mix of many factors. Religion is a key component. Most social movements, whether peaceful or violent, require an idealistic element, which will whip its adherents, mostly young, to a fever pitch. By idealism I mean a belief that actions are carried out for reasons beyond crass personal gain. Thus, one person’s idealism is another person’s terror. For example, the Nazis’ justification for the Holocaust was that they were eliminating from the world an undesirable population. Young people, in particular, are susceptible to perverted and sick ideas, as well as positive ones. Likewise, some young Muslims fall for the notion that violent and irrational acts is carrying out the will of Allah and what can be more idealistic than that even taking into consideration the supposed paradise that awaits them after death? This is why military retaliation against ISIS may have only limited success. What is certainly necessary is that the idealism of Muslim youth must be channeled into ways of thinking that emphasizes peaceful actions, not violent ones. This will be difficult to do in the short term, if successful at all, and, unfortunately, the world will face severe terrorist actions in the near future.

    1. This will be difficult to do in the short term, if successful at all, and, unfortunately, the world will face severe terrorist actions in the near future.

      For years, if not generations. But as a historian, you’d be condemned to know that.

  10. I find this all quite puzzling. In this other piece by Atran and Nafees Hamid, they say:

    “Yet the desire these young people [in the vast and soulless housing projects of the Paris banlieues] in France express is not to be a “devout Muslim” but to become a mujahid (“holy warrior”): to take the radical step, immediately satisfying and life-changing, to obtain meaning through self-sacrifice.”

    What is a ‘holy warrior’ if it’s not something bound up in their religious (Islamic) beliefs?


    Reading Atran’s articles, I suppose he thinks the Muslim element is much more cultural than it is doctrinal (“the Islamic State…spend hundreds of hours trying to enlist single individuals and groups of friends, empathizing instead of lecturing, to learn how to turn their personal frustrations and grievances into a universal theme of persecution against all Muslims”), but the treatment of women and gays and non-believers in line with Islamic doctrine surely shows a good deal of doctrinal influence? How does one separate the cultural from the doctrinal when Caliphates are being fought for?

    Indeed, towards the end of this piece:

    “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.”

    …which sounds more like the writers accept the religious element in the ISIS phenomenon.

    Incidentally, Graeme Wood tweeted the above Atran/Nafees piece and described it as ‘very good’.


    1. Thanks for the link.

      Here is another quote from the article:

      “Indeed, ISIS’s theatrical brutality—whether in the Middle East or now in Europe—is part of a conscious plan designed to instill among believers a sense of meaning that is sacred and sublime, while scaring the hell out of fence-sitters and enemies.”

      This quote supports my contention expressed in an earlier comment that the appeal of ISIS is strongly idealistic. And how can the appeal to the sacred not be taken as having a religious base? It is disturbing that so many “experts” on ISIS feel the need to hedge on its religious component.

    2. “What is a ‘holy warrior’ if it’s not something bound up in their religious (Islamic) beliefs?”

      The label is religious, but that doesn’t mean that the ideal expressed is. There are certainly secular equivalents, e.g., “patriot”.

    3. See, I find this sort of rhetoric doubtful. The Shining Path was wiped out and now there are few or no young people romanticizing their cause. How about the symbionese liberation army? Red Army Faction? Red Brigades? Jewish Defense League? Weather Underground? Aum Shinrikyo? Do we have any problem with young people flocking to these groups “messages” as a result of their suppression? No, we do not.

      Now, there *are* some groups whose causes do seem to outlast their formal organizations. But they tend to have nation-building or a ‘free homeland’ concept in common: the IRA is a good example. The main organization became a political movement, but offshoots resulted. As the PLO gets normalized, violent versions of the same basic concept rise. If the Spanish successfully wipe out the ETA, I bet some offshoot version of them would proabbly rise in place of the original organizations too.

      So I think Wood is mostly wrong. If we succeed in wiping out ISIS I doubt that will cause future generations to flock to their ideological banner. The caliphate concept may outlast ISIS because it has that nation-building vibe to it, especially if muslims in the mideast countries continue to think they are being repressed or politically disenfranchised (i.e., by autocratic dictatorial regimes). But IMO no future generations are going to weep tears over ISIS or think “look at that repression! They must’ve really been onto some deep universal truth in order to attract that amount of nation-state animosity.”

  11. In chemistry class, we were taught the difference between a catalyst and an inhibitor, a catalyst accelerating a chemical reaction without being part of it.

    At the very least, Islam is a catalyst in the tinderbox that is the Middle East, though I’ll allow that no religion works in a vacuum.

    As Bill Maher recently put it, you can be fairly sure it wasn’t the Amish (though they have difficulties of their own.)

    1. That jives with this article by Valerie Tarico (a psychologist and writer in Seattle, WA) in RAWSTORY:

      I would argue that, like alcohol, religion disinhibits violence rather than causing it, and that it does so when other factors have created conditions favorable toward aggression. I might also argue that under better circumstances religion disinhibits generosity and compassion, increasing giving and helping behaviors. Religion often is centered around authority and text worship (aka “bibliolatry”). Because of this, it has the power to lower the threshold on any behavior sanctioned by either a sacred text or a trusted religious leader and is at its most powerful when one is echoed by the other.

      Despite the fact that violence is endorsed repeatedly in their sacred texts, most Christians, Muslims and Jews never commit acts of violence in the service of their religion. Similarly, millions of people consume alcohol without insulting, hitting, kicking, stabbing or shooting anyone. Most of us are peaceful drinkers and peaceful believers. Yet, statistically we know that without alcohol assaults would be less common. So too, we all know that when suicide bombings happen, or blasphemers and apostates are condemned to die, or a rape victim is stoned to death, Islam is likely to be involved. And when we hear that an obstetrics doctor has been shot or a gay teen beaten and left for dead, or a U.S. president has announced a “crusade”, we know that Christianity was likely a part of the mix.


        1. She has also posted here at least once. She’s written a book about her leaving evangelicalism, Trusting Doubt, and has an interesting bl*g at valerietarico.com.

      1. That’s a pretty good article. The alcohol analogy is a good one because lots of people can understand it (more than the idea of a catalyst, which most people don’t grok).

      2. Valerie Tarico is one of my major freethought heroes. Her website exchristian.net is a favorite of mine (though I don’t post comments there often) as is her autobiography (published under two different titles).

        It is the Buddhist position that it is best not to drink alcohol at all, but if one DOES drink then do so maintaining mindfulness of the harm it so often causes.

        Now that Tarico article puts that maxim in a whole new light. 🙂

  12. The ability of some to do everything they can to separate religion from the terrorist is comical at first but a serious mistake. That Obama continues with this gymnastics is worst of all because right now he is the fellow leading the fight or lack thereof. One of the primary keys to any military action is to know your enemy. If you do not, it’s a good chance you cannot win.

    I see no chance of winning this struggle though reformation of the religion or at least the follower’s view of the belief. Maybe the more optimistic folks will hang on to this as a solution. We do know it takes religion to make normally good people do very bad things.

    So is the future bleak or full of cheer. It was thought that Hitler made the big tactical error with Operation Barbarossa and that was the beginning of the end for him. It could be that ISIS has made a similar mistake by hitting the Soviet Union along with the other cowardly deeds of late.

    1. Maajid Nawaz (quoted in full):

      When President Obama gave his speech, he said, ‘We will not allow these people to claim they are religious leaders. They have nothing to do with Islam.’

      No. They are not Islam — of course they’re not. Nor am I, nor is anyone, really, because Islam is what Muslims make it. But they have something to do with Islam. If you’re going to argue with one of them — and I do all the time — you’re not discussing Mein Kampf. You’re discussing Islamic texts…

      And just to clarify — one sentence:

      What is Islamism? Islam is a religion; Islamism is the desire to impose any version of that religion on society.

      It’s the politicization of my own religion. What is Jihadism? The use of force to spread Islamism.

      The danger of not naming this ideology is twofold. Firstly, within the Muslim context, those liberal Muslims, reformist Muslims, feminist Muslims, gay Muslims, dissenting voices, minority sects, the Ismailis, the Shia — all these different minorities within the minority of the Muslim community — are immediately betrayed.

      How are they betrayed? Because you deprive them of the lexicon, the language to employ against those who are attempting to silence their progressive efforts within their own communities. You surrender the debate to the extremists…

      The second danger is in the non-Muslim context. What happens if you don’t name the Islamist ideology and distinguish it from Islam?

      President Obama in his speech said there’s an ideology we must challenge, and he didn’t name it.

      So, think about it, you’re sending out the message to the vast majority of Americans: there’s an ideology you must challenge, but you don’t tell them what it’s called. What are they going to assume? The average American is going to think, ‘Yeah, I’ve got to challenge an ideology — it’s called Islam.’

      You’re only going to increase anti-Muslim hatred, increase the hysteria, like ‘he who must not be named’ — the Voldemort effect, I call it — by not naming the ideology. Because the average guy out there is going to assume the President is talking about the religion itself.

      But if you distingiush Islamist extremism and say, ‘Look, Islam’s a religion. We’re not going to tell you whether Islam is good or bad, peaceful or not. We’re not going to define that for you. What we can say is you mustn’t try to impose that on anyone else. If you do, that’s called Islamism, and that’s what we have a problem with.’


      1. I had seen this and pretty much agree. The only problem I have with Nawaz and his plan to reform Isam and get the “crazy” out, I just don’t think we have time for this. It will take years. He could be very useful in creating/assisting in new govt. after ISIS is defeated.

        1. I think we’ve got time. ISIS is pesky, but not a direct threat to our existence or way of life (though they do inspire our governments to pass repressive legislation). But sooner is better, so hopefully we’ll actually do something effective, unlike the current plan of just dropping bombs here and there because we want to “something” but don’t have the will to do anything more than annoy them.

    2. Obama is a politician. He can’t risk alienating any bloc of the population by demonizing it. The US has been proud of the fact that in general its significant Muslim population (a quick look at Google yields estimates of 5 – 8 million) is pretty much successfully integrated into the larger society. It would be foolish to use rhetoric that might tend to upset that balance.

      This doesn’t mean that strategically the government isn’t taking full heed of the dangers of radical Islam. It would also help if the Congress were at all functional these days.

  13. I don’t understand how Atran can dismiss the idea of religion being a big part of the terrorists’ motivations as saying they’re “nihilistic.” Surely the opposite is true? It’s an acknowledgement of the importance of their religious beliefs in informing their actions.

    They are not killing themselves for nothing. They’re doing it because of how strongly they believe in both their cause and the promise of Paradise.

    1. Atran has interviewed large numbers of terrorists and said that the motivation of paradise has never been mentioned.

      1. Sorry I wasn’t clear. I’m referring to Atran’s reference to the theories of others about the motivations of terrorists in Jerry’s quote. If I’m assuming a partially religious motive, by definition I’m NOT considering the terrorist is a nihilist.

    2. I’d argue that Atran is closer to ascribing nihilism to ISIS than anyone pointing at religious motives, if he primarily thinks they’re willing to kill just for something “fraternal, fast-breaking, glorious, cool – and persuasive”. To me, that would indicate people with no core values, who don’t value human life, and have no vision of what they want for the world.

    3. If you ask me, Scott Atran doesn’t think ISIS has anything to do with nihilism, he’s arguing for exactly the opposite:

      “Merely dismissing it as “nihilistic” reflects a willful and dangerous avoidance of trying to comprehend, and deal with, its profoundly alluring moral mission to change and save the world.”

      Further he argues that ISIS has a scientology-like approach:

      “Eager to recruit, the group may spend hundreds of hours trying to enlist a single individual, to learn how their personal problems and grievances fit into a universal theme of persecution against all Muslims.”

      1. I kind of understand the point of view that DAESH is not about nihilism. They hold strongly to a religious vision that, to them, give meaning to life and death. That’s not nihilism.

  14. I’ve read Atran’s “Talking to the Enemy” and he doesn’t totally excuse religious doctrine, as far as I can tell.

    He doesn’t say so explicitly, but I think that he believes that Muslims engage in motivated reasoning. They don’t engage in terrorism because they believe in Islamic doctrine, but they believe in Islamic doctrine because they want to engage in terrorism.

    In this view, doctrine is certainly an enabling intellectual component, but fighting against it is terribly difficult when they wish to believe it so greatly.

  15. The way I see it is that there is:

    (a) a power vacuum created by smash-the-state policies on the part of great powers (e.g., US in Iraq, former SU in Afghanistan.)
    (b) grievances about holy sites (which would be true even for moderate Muslims) – bin Laden’s “Americans in SA”
    (c) failure to integrate or get along in some countries, for economic and cultural reasons (often in a vicious circle, alas)
    (d) hence from (c) a “gotta do something”
    (e) the pull of “enemy of my enemy is my friend”.
    (f) grievances about political arrangements (Palestine, most notably, but also Lebanon and a few other places might be significant as well.)

    All of these contribute to making a small group of radicals get support and then it can feed on itself. This is why I say that the idea that “it is religion” explains the *outcomes*, but misses that one has to *join* a religion in the first place, at least in so far as one has to join this radical version rather than another.

    I think of Atran as answering that question. By analogy: think of the question – “why the Viet Cong?” In that case (a), (e) and (f) apply again. But note that we are asking why people joined; not why they happened to be authoritarian, etc.

    This is *not* to say the questions are not intimately related, just that one should keep them apart for analytical purposes, even if there’s a feedback loop or two involved.

  16. There’s been vicious colonialism all over the world (take south America for example; or India and Pakistan: same society, different religion) and ONLY Islam has generated terror in foreign countries. Isn’t it obvious that Islam is to blame?

    1. I wouldn’t be so sure: India has Hindu-focused religious nationalists, which have engaged in attacks on Muslims, for example.
      As for South America, well, again, proximate/ultimate – see my remarks from yesterday.

  17. “It’s a thrilling cause that promises glory and esteem. Jihad is an egalitarian, equal-opportunity employer: fraternal, fast-breaking, glorious, cool – and persuasive.”

    And that’s not religion because…

    Seriously, defining religion in such a way that it doesn’t contradict your premise does not make you right, it simply makes you incoherent or, at best, naive. You take a bunch of horny, disenfranchised young men and give them a cause, then shove a book in their hand with all sorts of nasty ideas about how to treat people and say “this is a holy book and we’re going to use it as an instruction manual for taking over the world, you can’t be part of our group if you don’t believe in it because we use it to define glory and honor.” and you’ve got the Crusades, no wait, the Mountain Meadows Massacre, no wait missing people on cruise ships, no wait Al Qaeda, no wait ISIS, no wait…

    Making a list of human weaknesses does not exculpate the phenomena which feed on those weaknesses. Just because a wound became infected in a dirty environment doesn’t mean we cure it by sitting around and blaming the dirt, all the while pretending that the bacteria in the wound has nothing to do with the pussy exudate or fever because, really, bacteria are helpful organisms and that billions of people have bacteria and they don’t have a fever or swelling.

    So, yeah, screwing around in the middle east probably created an environment where the most vile elements of religion could thrive. Now what? Do we keep whining about western stupidity or do we cure the infection? A religious infection requires an antibiotic of reason, and stopping the spread means bringing to light the archaic and vile parts of a rather large religion, even though most of its practitioners aren’t the problem, they do need to be a large part of the solution and inoculate their communities against festering pockets of insular extremism that pits angry young men against the world.

    This, of course, also requires the outside community not to alienate our Muslim brothers and sisters. Human beings naturally resist letting go of previously held beliefs, and in an utterly irrational and emotional way. Having your central beliefs criticized is generally felt as an attack, whether they are about Muhammad on a winged horse or the true nature of the second amendment. While all beliefs need to be questioned, they can be questioned kindly even if stridently and without reducing those holding those beliefs as an “other” worthy of contempt. Some ideas are so vile that they can only be approached with disgust, but if we are willing to forgive the believer then it is easier to have an earnest conversation rather than a shouting match.

  18. Let me lay it out for Atran:

    It can be the case that any religion can justify death of people they do not like. Any person within a religion can decide just how fundamentalist they want to be.

    Which part of religion says they cannot believe the words of their holy texts literally? Aren’t they supposed to?

  19. I’m old enough to remember the Weather Underground, the Wisconsin bombers and the Symbionese Liberation Army. All fit the definition of terrorists, yet they were hardly religious.

    The enemy is mindless ideology. That it takes religion as its current justification is an historical accident.

    1. “Mindless ideology” however might actually be a legitimate synonym for religion. Secular terrorists approach their views dogmatically, treating social and political theories as if they were a religion.

    2. Religion formally prescribes itself as a mindless ideology. So does being an American football fan. Watching football and going to church might make some people happier, but that doesn’t mean they are not practicing a mindless ideology.

  20. Having trouble with your view for a couple of reasons. First, terrorist and terrorism in the Muslim world did not begin with the American blunder into Iraq. The pathetic job done there certainly fired it up but as I recall we had terrorist doing bad things, high jacking planes and blowing people up in Lebanon long before Iraq. Two – I don’t see the exact same thing with the Viet Cong in Vietnam. The Cong were an arm of the North Vietnamese Communist army. They were supported and maintained by the North and had the same objective, to unify the south under Communism. There were no Vacuums that did this, it was essentially civil war.

  21. From Atran . . .

    ”Simply treating Isis as a form of “terrorism” or “violent extremism” masks the menace. (1)Merely dismissing it as “nihilistic” reflects a willful and dangerous avoidance of trying to comprehend, and deal with, its (2)profoundly alluring moral mission to change and save the world. (3)And the constant refrain that Isis seeks to turn back history to the Middle Ages is no more compelling than a claim that the Tea Party movement wants everything the way it was in 1776. The truth is more complicated. As Abu Mousa, Isis’s press officer in Raqqa, put it: “We are not sending people back to the time of the carrier pigeon. On the contrary, we will benefit from development. But in a way that doesn’t contradict the religion.””

    1) A specious implied claim with no real target. What percentage of the people that Atran is arguing against “merely dismiss” ISIS as “nihilistic?” There is no doubt that it is insignificantly low and likely approaches 0. How does he get from someone claiming that nihilism is “an” attribute of ISIS to them then willfully avoiding to further comprehend them?

    2) What does it say about a person that ISIS’s mission statement is “profoundly alluring” and “moral?” How could a person reasonably conclude that religion and religious beliefs are not significant influences on the people that find ISIS’s stated mission alluring and moral? Atran is patronizingly dismissing these people. I am sure that if he asked them the large majority would confirm that they are strongly motivated by, and committed to, their religious beliefs.

    3) Atran, and Abu Mousa too, misses the obvious meaning of the claim that “Isis seeks to turn back history to the Middle Ages.” No one who makes that claim is talking about “merely” the level of technology and economic development.

    The above from Atran is a collection of straw men. It seems more like an exercise in insulting people he disagrees with more than anything else.

    Full disclosure, I’ve never liked Atran, not even a little. Besides not agreeing with hardly anything he’s ever said, I also don’t like his attitude. I do try to dispassionately read what he has to say, but I have yet to find anything he has to say to be positively interesting. A suspicion I have is that he may be infatuated with the culture he studies. He consistently addresses criticisms of it in a way that is very similar to someone who has taken personal offense. He also consistently speaks of the culture in ways very similar to someone who is expressing admiration.

    1. Yes. I think I will steal one of Atran’s tactics. Whenever I criticize a viewpoint different than my own, I will start out by saying “But the truth is more complicated than that.”

      Is there any conceivable belief which — somehow, someway — couldn’t merit that opening? No, you can always find a reason it’s applicable. And then look at how nicely it positions the speaker. It’s like getting a little boost before you really begin, by stepping on the other guy’s head.

      1. *snort*


        Now, to be clear I am not one who thinks there is never a place for insults at other peoples expense, but I think it should be clear that that is what is going on when people engage in it.

    2. I agree your analysis of Atran is spot on.
      I also view Atran suspiciously. Ever since I watched the Youtube video of the 2007 Beyond Belief conference where he rambled on for quite a while about terrorism and how religion was “an empty vessel” not responsible for much of anything. His was the only talk at the conference, as I recall, that was practically booed.

        1. Oh yes, I remember that one. Those BB conferences are favorites of mine. I wish they had continued.

          Now that I think about it, that first BB conference may have been the first time I came across Atran.

          1. I’ve saw this several years ago, and vividly remember Atran’s last dismissive comment in the last thirty seconds, to the effect that any public debate that he might have with anyone about the antecedents of Islamic jihadist behavior would have to be with someone one who knew something about the matter; that that someone was not at the meeting where the video was made.

            I look forward to a debate between Aayan Hirsi Ali (would that it could have been Hitch) and Atran.

            1. That would be a good match-up. It would be interesting as hell to watch Atran tell Aayan Hirsi Ali how Islam is not much responsible for anything.

              Hitch vs Atran would have been a joy to watch, but I don’t think Atran could have been convinced to attend such an event. No doubt he would have sneered from a safe distance that Hitchens didn’t have relevant academic credentials and therefore he couldn’t be bothered to debate him.

      1. Scott -legend in his own mind- Atran often engages in appeals to authority — rendered in even worse bad taste since that authority is invariably his own.

        Note how he once again resorts to puffing up this authority by name dropping the entities to which he bequeaths his wisdom:

        “As I testified to the US Senate armed service committee and before the United Nations security council:”

        1. Yes, and he likes to initiate a comment by stating the opposition’s statement, though interesting, is dead wrong. I think he has a hand full of rhetorical tricks like these which have stuck with him like bad breath over the years.

  22. The emailed version of the last paragraph of this blog entry appears in a different font from the rest of the blog, and says, “For truly, I can’t see how these actions could implicate religion any more clearly. Yes, of course other factors are involved, but take religion out of the multifactorial mix—rerun Middle Eastern history when there is no religion and no Allah—and I doubt this wouldn’t be happening. There is no way that Atran can demonstrate otherwise.
    For people like Atran the default answer is always politics and Western culpability, no matter how infused with religion the situation appears. But why another default answer “religion”?” –which seems a little garbled–.

    1. Which is probably why that last sentence has since been edited to add the “not” that was originally intended to be there. (See above.)

    2. But in this counterfactual history, suppose that as a result of this the Soviet Union was still around. (e.g., if there was no bankrupting by Afghanistan, etc.) Then there would be resistance to the US and other “western powers” (France is one too) based on both real and perceived alliances with the SU.

  23. I’m also in the many factors camp. I think most religions are complex enough to support strains of violent extremism, but those born in lands of violence tend to have a lot more built-in hooks for it. Islam isn’t unique in that regard, though. For example, there are a lot of Christian-identified militia groups in the US who lobe to talk about, and dream about, overthrowing the government to install their version of a society. I suspect they sincerely believe that their bible provides plenty of justification for what they want to see done. And yet we don’t have a domestic version of Daesh; training in the woods is fine, jail time not so much, and martyrdom not at all.

    So I’m quite happy to accept religion as a necessary component, but I don’t believe it is sufficient. OTOH, once a movement like Daesh gets going, it has such momentum that even if we could wave a magic wand and fix the other issues that plague the Middle East, there would still be people riled up and determined to kill in the name of religion. Once the dragon is awakened, it’s tough to get it back to sleep.

  24. Sorry Jerry, you are wrongheaded on religion being the root cause, or one of them, of ISIS terrorist attacks.

    The root cause is what you describe in this post as ‘mishandling of some situations in the Middle East by the West’.

    Now that should win the prize of understatement of the year!

    The logic is cruelly simple: take the Western armies, planes, bombs, drones, oil companies (yes, oil companies too) out of the Middle East.

    Gone is the Western killing, the theft, the humiliation, the infinite generation of resentment.

    It is ridiculous to imagine something like the Paris Nov/2015 attack with that situation, with the West out of where it never belonged.

    Religion is a channel, a catalyst.

    The source of it all is the humiliation and resentment created by decades of Western criminal meddling in the Middle East.

    1. So… why are they attacking other Muslims, then? Why are the trying to create a caliphate in Syria and the Levant? How are those the actions of an organization motivated by “humiliation and resentment created by decades of Western criminal meddling in the Middle East”?


      1. Without decades of Western criminal meddling in the Middle East (this a historical fact, and is happening today, as we speak; there’s no need to put ” “s around the statement), the motivation to attack outside their land would be non-existent.

        Is this really so hard to understand?

        If the US of A, UK, France, had zero interference in the Middle East, why would someone want to kill hundreds in Paris?

        Because Paris is a symbol of perversity, prostitution and vice?

        The whole planet would be shockingly surprised if that would happen.

        As for ISIS killing Muslims, provided it happens within their homeland, I would say I could not care less. Killing innocents is always terrible, but it is their problem, they have to solve it.

        Sunnis and shiites have been killing each other since year 632 CE. It shows how stupid religion is, but it is their own business, I shall stay respectfully and safely away from it.

        Finally, as for the caliphate, same deal.

        If someone wants to put all the Middle East countries under one grandiose United Kingdom of the Middle East, I will respectfully watch developments from a safe distance.

        Di-West now. I want the West out of the Middle East now, so that THEIR wars stop producing MY dead.

        1. My quotations marks were there because if was a direct quotation from what you wrote! Is that really so hard to understand?

          Leave Daesh’s /Vergeltungswaffen/ aside. My questions were specifically about its local ambitions and actions (to which you’re so callously indifferent) — what has the West’s “meddling” got to do with that?


          1. Quotation marks: in my culture, when someone puts another person’s statement between quotes, it generally means how could you write something so wrong or so stupid.

            You repeat this quote thing in your last paragraph, wih “meddling”, so let’s start there. Do you accept the fact that the West “meddles” (like in interferes, intervenes) in the Middle East, or not?

            If you accept this fact, stop using the quotes and adopt the meddling (or interference, intervention). Without quotes, please.

            I clearly stated that Daesh’s local ambitions and actions generate zero interest and concern for me. What they do or undo inside their homeland is none of my, yours, ours, anyone’s business. We foreigners should stay respectfully and safely away from it.

            Repeat: di-West now. I want the West out the Middle East immediately. More war is not an option.

            1. I will use quotation marks exactly as I like, thank you very much.

              Your level of “interest or concern” is not an excuse for not addressing my questions. If Daesh did not exist at all, if there was no Wahhabi/Salafi jihadist organisation seeking to impose a caliphate, its reasons for attacking Paris would be irrelevant.


            2. What they do or undo inside their homeland is none of my, yours, ours, anyone’s business. We foreigners should stay respectfully and safely away from it.

              Yes, we should respectfully and safely let them get on with killing each other for the “crimes” of apostasy, heresy, and being sexual deviants. Because not caring a fig about other people’s lives and well-being is the moral thing to do.

              I don’t know what I find more preposterous: your Dunning-Kruger understanding of religion and politics, or your Dunning-Kruger understanding of ethics.

              1. You seem to be another of the all-knowing, arrogant, and dangerous gods that I fear and reject so much.

                As for Dunning-Kruger, I refuse to google that. I stand by my Damning-Cruder understanding of religion, politics, and ethics.

                Which drives me to shout out loud to Western landlords and warlords: get the West out of the Middle East. Now. It is YOUR war, but MY dead.

              2. You seem to be another of the all-knowing, arrogant, and dangerous gods that I fear and reject so much.

                Why? Is it just because I disagree that Islamic terrorism would stop in Europe if none of the countries there had been involved in the invasion and impoverishment of countries like Iraq and Afghanistan? It’s not like I’m saying revenge had no part in motivating the terrorist attacks, nor do I condone what’s been waged over the last few decades in said countries.

                On the other hand, I think a toxic and pervasive religious ideology plays a considerable role and would have been enough to cause such attacks – witness for instance the mass killings and riots perpetrated in response to a mere satirical cartoon – and I’m certainly not being convinced otherwise by moralistic and panicky hysterics dealing in absolute statements.

                As for Dunning-Kruger, I refuse to google that. I stand by my Damning-Cruder understanding of religion, politics, and ethics.

                In short, Dunning-Kruger is not merely extreme overconfidence married to simplistic and underwhelming ignorance, but a failure or even a proud disinclination to recognize this fact or to recognize (relative) expertise, merit, skill in others. It is a quality, in short, which your posts are regrettably advertising to the letter. It is certainly nothing to boast about. (That said, I had to smile at the pun you attempted).

                Which drives me to shout out loud to Western landlords and warlords: get the West out of the Middle East. Now. It is YOUR war, but MY dead.

                Stop trying to oversimplify the issues. You really think a religious group dedicated to wiping out unbelievers and the godless West is going to stop if the military withdrew and we all turned pacifist? Even if your answer is still “yes”, you could at least consider the issues more accurately and pragmatically, and with less emotional bantam-cock posturing. At the very least, you could actually answer Ant’s and Filippo’s questions – which challenge your claims – without trying unsuccessfully to wave them aside as unimportant.

                And let’s not stray from the original comment I made, which is that someone so eager to show what shameful human beings we Westerners are shouldn’t flaunt their own moral myopia so blatantly.

            3. “Quotation marks: in my culture, when someone puts another person’s statement between quotes, it generally means how could you write something so wrong or so stupid.”

              Voce fala Portugues?

              Pray tell, in your culture, how do you indicate in writing a direct quote if not with quotation marks (as I have above)?

              (re: “quote,” “quotation,” “quotient,” “quotidian”)

        2. Without decades of Western criminal meddling in the Middle East (this a historical fact, and is happening today, as we speak; there’s no need to put ” “s around the statement), the motivation to attack outside their land would be non-existent.

          This is an example of the sort of overconfident overreaching you’re dealing in. We can agree that resentment of “the West” over war atrocities is a major factor of such attacks, but that doesn’t mean it’s the only reason, such that its removal would render their motivation non-existent. These are the same forces, remember, that kill cartoonists for the “crime” of drawing rude pictures of a religious figure. And terrorist attacks go on in the Middle East and Northern Africa without the West’s interference, such as suicide bombings performed by Muslims against other Muslims.

          If the US of A, UK, France, had zero interference in the Middle East, why would someone want to kill hundreds in Paris?

          Because Paris is a symbol of perversity, prostitution and vice?

          For the same reason that they want to kill apostates and heretics: they regard such figures as monsters, demons, and disgusting nobodies inferior to true believers. The fact that some of them are also dangerous – regardless of the fact that civilians disagree as much with the invasion as some of them do – doesn’t help. It’s not even unprecedented: plenty of mass-killings in history have been organized with no “revenge over military crimes” component whatsoever. It’s hardly unprecedented. Indeed, the criminals in this case go out of their way to cite their religious motives upfront.

    2. Then why do these sweet, admirable souls shout “Allahu Akbar” before firing their precious guns and exploding their precious munitions?

      As regards your use of the word “wrong-headed,” have you read “The Roolz” here?

      Why don’t you enlighten us on specifically how Islam – in what if any allegedly minor way – influences these honorable, rational human primates?

      And for the record, do you disapprove of the way Islamofascists treat women? Or do you say that they treat women the way they do for socioculturalpolitical reasons attributable to the West?

    3. Wiping out the morally decadent and filthy, unbelieving demons of the West is a moral duty for ISIS and for several Islamic factions, as evidenced in their statement which listed blasphemy and sexual immorality as among our greatest sins. If we had never laid a finger on them, they’d still want to send in the suicide bombers to strike a blow against the Western unbelievers who, ah, “disrespect” their religious figures and laws. The fact that we’ve also hit them, repeatedly and nastily, in the past is yet more proof as to the decadence of our immoral nations.

      1. My thoughts on Boko Haram are the following, exactly and precisely:

        I just went through the press interview of the four ex-US Air Force drone operators.

        Thanks guys for courageously coming out and providing precious, behind the scenes, and real operational environment testimony.

        I find it so unreal, so disturbing, so shocking that a minimally functioning brain cannot get it:

        Paris (and Brussels) is all about Western brutal invasions, assassinations, bombings, droning, and what not other atrocities we have been committing for decades in the Middle East.

        It is so obvious, so evidence-based, why the attempt to escape the facts?

        By the way:

        Did everybody here read the article about the white Daesh, Saudi Arabia? Saudis are as religiously Wahabbist nuts as ISIS, the black Daesh. They do the same brutalities to their own population. But don’t engage in street killing abroad, in Paris or Brussels.

        Why not?

        The West (read US of A here) loves the batshit faith-crazy Saudis, been best friends for eons. The white Daesh feels zero urge to go after the foreign infidels.

        Summing up my thoughts on Boko Haram, as requested by somebody: hey you, West and Westerners, get the freakin hell out of the Middle East!

        It is YOUR war but MY dead.

  25. Jerry (excuse me if im being too informal)—I think Atrans exculpatory response is not quite of the same type as the one you criticized in your (excellent) paper with Maarten Boudry. Atran was a graduate student under Dan Sperber who introduced the notion of quasi-propositions to religious thinking. The idea informed some of the basic tenets of the cognitive psychology of religion; primarily the idea of minimally counter intuitive ideas. The thinking goes that some religious concepts, such as god being an embodied person, who is simultaneously without a body, are especially memorable and so more likely be remembered (I know you are already aware of this). Many minimally counterintuitive ideas also are quasi-propositions, because the ideas are literally impossible to imagine, yet have propositional content. An embodied body then is something on the order of a square circle, we can talk about it but we can’t really imagine it. If im not mistaken this is different from the ideas that you and Boudry criticized. Although they are both forms of saying “religion didn’t do it” this differs subtly from Van Leeuwens idea of “fictional imaginings”. I think much of Atran’s confusion on this subject is that he has taken this idea and applied it far beyond its reach. He seems to at times think that religious concepts are ALL quasi-propositional. But this is false, not all religious ideas are impossible to think (heaven for instance is readily imaginable, and so are almost all moral commands). Nor does the impossibility of comprehension render people unable to attempt to believe. They may come to believe in a concept that is as similar to a square circle as possible, even if imagining a square circle itself is impossible. He illustrated this overreach in his essay Here He Goes Again: Sam Harris’s Falsehoods in which he says: “ 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)…. 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”. If you review the piece he is criticizing, Islam and the Misuses of Ecstacy, you will find no “quasi-propositional” beliefs discussed. Harris brings up only Paradise, Hellfire, Hatred, and Revenge. None of which are square circles, the type of thought impossible for a human mind to imagine. This shows that Atran is overextending the notion of quasi-propositions. Atran is interesting in his apologetics, he is clearly very intelligent, his book In Gods We Trust is very good and the work of someone who knows what they are doing. Despite this he seems to be stuck in a simplistic mindset in which he often attributes quasi-propositions to all religious concepts. At times he seems to be aware of the impact of religion on behavior, for instance when he discusses Sacred Values. Yet when asked about it he usually waffles out and still acts like religion is non-causal. Strange…

  26. I’ve heard many analysts talking about these terrorists, and pointing out that many of them are criminals. That they were involved in drugs, theft, and other criminal activities before becoming jihadists. The implication being they have simply moved on to another form of criminal activity, and that religion has nothing to do with it.

    Another analyst I heard on CNN last night made what I found to be a much more compelling argument, that yes they are criminals, but like a Christian who is involved in drugs, or crime will seek redemption by accepting Jesus as their lord, and savior, these Muslims are seeking redemption by becoming jihadists, and the ultimate means of being redeemed is by becoming a martyr defending Islam.
    So yes they’re criminals, but they haven’t turned to “another form of crime”, they have turned to religion.

    1. I’m sure that among these rogues are some of every kind of loathsome jerk on the planet. We do not need an overarching theory to account for all of the jihadist. There probably are many who are not devout and many who are. It seems reasonable to assume that there are enough devout members and especially leaders to give the population its distinctive religious character. I don’t think its especially necessary to itemize all the variations of mental disorder that comprises the organization as a whole. It’s made up of individuals. A bunch of losers and assholes and spiritual wonders.

  27. How many Suicide Bombers or Martyrs would there be if Paradise and 72 Virgins were taken out of the mix ? not many I venture.

  28. Atran replied on his fb account:

    A response to Jerry Coyne’s ridiculous article “once again Scott Atran exculpates religion as a cause of terrorism” at whyevolutionistrue.worldpress.com:
    Core tenets of religious canon are literally absurd and immune to empirical or logical scrutiny. But I never said, nor implied, that all statement related to religion are processed that way. I have discussed what you call moral commands in the context of sacred values, including numerous behavioral experiments and fMRIs, and have argued that these are immune to tradeoffs, temporal and spatial discounting, whether or not the propositional content is truth-valuable. But all of this is irrelevant to the claim that “religion” is or isn’t a cause of current and past political violence. I have discussed the matter at length in the historical record (about 7 percent of recorded wars since the punic wars have been explicitly religious wars, and when non-religious conflicts take on a religious cast they also tend to endure and resist exit strategies). I have also written empirical papers showing the role of religious claims for clashes over abortion, and in faith in the strict sharia of the Caliphate as one of 2 key motivators for volunteers for the Islamic State. Yet, it remains a fact that the principal factors that predict actual involvement in violence concerns social network factors. Coyne and Harris have never done a single empirical study involving violent political and religious actors, have never met one in the field (only ostensibly “reformed” ones in a safe environment), and not only do not know what they are talking about, but willfully distort and cherry pick statements -without the slightest awareness or scrutiny of the science – in repetitive declamations to support their ideological position and hackneyed harangue against “liberal apolegetics.” I invite then to accompany me to the frontlines in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere, or even to the banlieues of Paris, to see for themselves what is driving people to fight and die. And to discuss, as I regularly do, with military and political leaders how in fact we can destroy ISIS and its ilk. It certainly will not be with the mindless diatribe against “religion” that produces exactly the kind of knee-jerk reaction that the Islamic State so conscientiously seeks, as outlined in tis manifesto Idarat at-Tawahoush (The Management of Savagery-Chaos,) and in the artilce in its online magazine Dabiq, titled “The Gray Zone,” whose goal is to eliminate any shady area between believer and non-believer, so as to polarize sentiment towards war.

    1. I was struck by…

      “Yet, it remains a fact that the principal factors that predict actual involvement in violence concerns social network factors.”

      Isn’t religion a social network factor?

    2. I bluntly side with Scott Atran on his reply, very well said. (with exception of that ‘ridiculous’ early on; not necessary and non value-adding)

      (* Jerry AC: nothing personal here, I love you. And Hili too. But why not stick with the lighter side of (dis)belief? Evolution, science, biology, fact vs faith. So much stuff to discuss. War acts are complex matter, maybe keeping a safe distance would be wiser)

      Not following the advice above, I actually think that religion plays ZERO, or close to zero, role in war acts like Paris November 13/2015.

      Religion certainly helps warriors get together, find energy to kill, justify brutal murdering (I’m talking about the US drone assassination program), but is far from being the root cause.

      Hey you, West: GTFO of the Middle-East, now!

      It is YOUR war, but MY dead.

      1. “…the lighter side of (dis)belief? Evolution, science, biology, fact vs faith.”

        Have you read Faith vs. Fact? The agonizing deaths of children denied medical care is hardly “the lighter side.”

        Actually, if it weren’t for Israel, I’d love to see all Western armed forces out of the middle east, too. No incursion has succeeded yet. Letting you all work it out amongst yourselves would seem the best solution, if we could somehow guarantee Israel’s safety. Or if the world didn’t need oil…

        BTW, Paulo, have you mentioned just where you’re from? (I’m sure you have and I just missed it.)

        1. DG: I am still working my way through F vs F, but I can guarantee that children being denied medical care because of faith is infinitely lighter than war. Children in war zones are automatically denied proper medical care, even when hospitals are not bombed down to rubble.
          You got me off guard by first saying that you would favor the West GTFO of the Middle East.
          But then quite naturally stating that the West has to stay in the Middle East, to defend Israel and to make sure the world has oil. As if these were sacred givens for the West, the defense of Israel and ownership of the world’s oil.
          This is the exact reasoning that makes vengeful thousands not only feel and think like ISIS, but fight and kill for ISIS.
          I cannot scream loud enough: hey you, West, GTFO of the Middle East!
          It is YOUR war, but MY dead.

          1. “/infinitely / lighter” — really?

            Your hard-bitten hyperbole aside, there are dead on all sides — and they are all /our/ dead, humanity’s dead. Parochial attitudes are exactly what we don’t need. (/Viz./, the Syrian refugees.) It behooves all freethinkers, especially humanists, to strive for peace for all mankind.


            1. A: sounds like I was not hyperbolic enough, tough to get this message across…
              Children being denied medical care because of faith is infinitely, galactically, lighter than war. Better now?
              If mankind had one magic silver bullet, to go after either faith or war, war is the one to get done with.
              And I like your version: it is THEIR war, but OUR dead.
              Hey you, West: GTFO of the Middle East!

              1. You think you improve your argument by being (well, trying to be) even more brutal?

                There are no magic bullets; practical solutions to at least making wars less likely have to address the causes of war — faith in one such. The West has definitely become embroiled in the Middle East because it has intervened to protect the oil supplies. But where did that threat come from? Many countries in the ME have done very well out of peaceful trade. So what is the root cause here?


              2. A: What the West calls faith-based terror has its root cause in the social resentment and the urge to get revenge from decades-long Western invasive presence and abuse in the Middle East.
                The notion that someone would come out and kill hundreds in streets and theaters, because some weird god made this a heavenly command, is absurd.
                I invite the West to do an experiment. Take the armies, drones, bombs, spies, puppy dictators, and oil companies out of the Middle East, and let’s see what happens.
                If the Middle-East keeps being the same warring and unliveable place, and their guys keep coming to Paris, go back in, and let’s try something else.
                It is THEIR war, and OUR dead.

              3. Paulo, Ant speaks for me.

                I just wanted to note that I’m very cynical about us fighting to protect oil access, and I should have made that clear. The world is full of conflicts one might want to get involved in for moral reasons; somehow the only ones we do just happen to have oil…

      2. Also, Paulo, while I know the numbers differ quite a bit, maybe even by an order of magnitude, way too many Americans (and other westerners) have also been killed. And a much higher number grievously injured.

    3. Atran gives little substantive argument here. Mostly he’s saying he’s and expert and you’re not. He also uses the old, why don’t you come with me to X and I’ll show you why you are wrong. Quit a bit of talk, but he says little relevant to the issue.

  29. 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).

    1. 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!

    2. Perhaps I’m naive, but the phrase “social network factors” seems to me an extremely unhelpful one. When it comes to explaining behavior of social creatures performing acts that are culturally induced (and therefore “social”), the phrase is simple tautology.

      It seems rather like explaining my dining behavior by reference to “culinary factors”.

      What do we know about terrorists blowing themselves and others to pieces that we didn’t know before we applied the phrase “social network factors” to the situation?

      1. One might ask the same about “propositional content,” “Counter canon narratives,” “costly commitment to costly sacrifices,” and other overly adjectivized convolutions.

        (And one might think someone so devoted to semantics would at least proofread: “accepted perhaps reformed ones.”)

  30. it should be noted that scholars of violence, particularly those trained in religious studies, have divergent notions of “religion.”
    One can divide scholars into at least two camps as follows:

    A. Those who say religion and other aspects of culture (e.g., politics,economics) are so intertwined that one cannot attribute violence to religion. This is displayed by William Cavanaugh, The Myth of Religious Violence (2009).

    B. Those who say that “religion” is a complete construct of either academics or “western philosophers” and so it is not a meaningful concept. One example might be Timothy Fitzgerald, The Ideology
    of Religious Studies (2000).

    Both of these approaches have been used to exculpate religion of a role in violence regardless of whether one thinks that their view of “religion” is valid.

    As someone formally trained in both anthropology and religious/biblical studies, I completely disagree that “religion” is an empty concept.

    In Fighting Words: The Origins of Religious Violence (2005), I address the claim that “religion” is an empty notion.

    I also examine therein some of the supposed statistical studies of wars that are often cited. I find that many of the claims for dismissing religion as a factor rely on either incomplete data sets or misreadings of the actual texts on which the statistics are based. One example, cited by Cavanaugh, is the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre (1572). I found that the actual primary sources, few of which were cited by Cavanaugh, give much more credit to religion than he does.

    Many of the data bases used to construct these statistics also lack an in-depth knowledge of the historical sources and contexts (e.g., BBC War study; Correlates of War).

    Any mode of life and thought that presupposes the existence of, and relationship with, supernatural forces and/or beings can be usefully called “religion.”

    Any violent actions that follow from such beliefs can be usefully called “religious violence.” For example, if someone says that they must kill homosexuals because they believe God does not like homosexuality or because they Bible says so, then that would be an example of religious violence.

    One cannot usefully explain animus against homosexuality in the United States except on the basis of religious biblical texts. Otherwise, economic and political threats posed by homosexuality are difficult to identify.

    See further: http://debunkingchristianity.blogspot.com/2015/06/a-response-to-professor-paul-allen.html

  31. For the religious who would be curious enough to read that: don’t forget that all evolutionist are not fundamentalists. Evolutionists are not born equal (as they know), and are limited by “gut feelings”, ingroup-outgroup bias and other funny limitations (as they sometime forget). It’s a shame these fundamentalist evolutionist forgot the manichaisms they suffered from SSSM ideologies, and repeat the same mistake with complex social issues they don’t understand…

    An evolutionist guy, new born atheist, ex-( deeply)religious.

    A ps from Franz de Waal:
    All I get out of such exchanges is the confirmation that believers will say anything to defend their faith and that some atheists have turned evangelical. Nothing new about the first, but atheists’ zeal keeps surprising me. Why “sleep furiously” unless there are inner demons to be kept at bay? In the same way that firefighters are sometimes stealth arsonists and homophobes closet homosexuals, do some atheists secretly long for the certitude of religion?
    As he noticed, the common point with fundamentalist (religious or atheist) is their poor ability to listen and to question their truth.

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