[ by Charles Cameron — pros and cons of an important piece by Scott Atran — who among us can comprehend religion? ]
Scott Atran, the anthropologist who gave us the book Talking to the Enemy, has got it right (as to importance) but wrong (as to procedure) in his latest, significant piece on Foreign Policy, God and the Ivory Tower: What we don’t understand about religion just might kill us.
First, the importance of the issue he’s discussing – understanding religions (emphatically plural, IMO):
Religion molds a nation in which it thrives, sometimes producing solidarity and sacred causes so powerful that citizens are willing to kill or die for a common good (as when Judea’s Jews around the time of Christ persisted in rebellion unto political annihilation in the face of the Roman Empire’s overwhelmingly military might). But religion can also hinder a society’s ability to work out differences with others, especially if those others don’t understand what religion is all about. That’s the mess we find ourselves in today, not only among different groups of Americans in the so-called culture wars, but between secular and Judeo-Christian America and many Muslim countries.
Time and again, countries go to war without understanding the transcendent drives and dreams of adversaries who see a very different world. Yet we needn’t fly blindly into the storm.
Atran is exactly right: we needn’t fly blindly into the storm — but to avoid flying blindly we need to understand those “drives and dreams of adversaries who see a very different world” — and to avoid flying into the storm at all we may (all of us, friends and foes alike) need to understand our own “transcendent drives and dreams” better than we do at present.
The question is, who can help us do that?
That’s what I mean by the procedure — the path that should be taken to achieve that kind of understanding. And note: there are different kinds of understanding — theoretical, imaginative, visceral… dispassionate, empathetic, impassioned…
Atran’s answer is science:
Science can help us understand religion and the sacred just as it can help us understand the genome or the structure of the universe. This, in turn, can make policy better informed.
There’s only one problem there. I can believe that scientists of extraordinary breadth and insight – Einstein, Bohr, Oppenheimer, Gell-Mann, Feynman probably – and social scientists — Bateson certainly, Victor Turner, Atran perhaps – my lists are not exhaustive – could make useful suggestions for scientific approaches to the field of religion.
But scientists in general? As Atran notes:
If you look at the prestigious U.S. National Academy of Sciences or Britain’s Royal Society, well over 90 percent of members are non-religious. That may help explain why some of the bestselling books by scientists about religion aren’t about the science of religion as much as the reasons that it’s no longer necessary to believe.
Non-believers may “get” what’s dangerous about religions, but they almost certainly won’t “get” what’s marvelous and inspiring about them.
And believers are no better – they may get what’s great about their own tradition, but still see nothing but perdition in the traditions of others…
So to get a decent set of insights worth experimenting with — or modeling, for that matter — requires a blend of subtle thinkers to include some social anthropologists, some scholars of comparative religion, some sociologists with fine-tuned statistical skills, some depth psychologists… believers, skeptics, atheists and agnostics… with a whole wild variety of plumages, specialties and interests.
Yes, and some poets, historians, some hard scientists. Yes.
How easy is it to get things wrong?
In his paper Reframing Sacred Values [link is to .pdf] written with Robert Axelrod — the political scientist whose contest for winning strategies for the iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma game put “tit for tat” and agent based modeling on the map in his books The Evolution of Cooperation and The Complexity of Cooperation — Atran speaks of “Rational versus Devoted Actors“.
The distinction is a significant one. And the paper itself is important because, as Atran and Axelrod suggest:
Counterintuitively, understanding an opponent’s sacred values, we believe, offers surprising opportunities for breakthroughs to peace. Because of the emotional unwillingness of those in conflict situations to negotiate sacred values, conventional wisdom suggests that negotiators should either leave sacred values for last in political negotiations or should try to bypass them with sufficient material incentives. Our empirical findings and historical analysis suggest that conventional wisdom is wrong. In fact, offering to provide material benefits in exchange for giving up a sacred value actually makes settlement more difficult because people see the offering as an insult rather than a compromise. But we also found that making symbolic concessions of no apparent material benefit might open the way to resolving seemingly irresolvable conflicts.
But who is to say which actors are “devoted”?
The most devoted may be the one who stands in most need of redemption, the one who has sinned the most, not the one who has been the most pious. Let me put that another way: the most devoted may be the drunken reveler rather than the regular church- or mosque-goer.
Inigo was a courtier, a conquistador, a musketeer. The commandments were of course unquestionable in theory, but practice was entirely another matter. Church was for times of danger or for celebration of victory, and he never prayed so hard to our Lady as before a duel. In his last years when he had no need to be boastful, he was quoted by his secretary- biographer: “Though he was attached to the faith, he lived no way in conformity with it and did not avoid sin. Rather, he was much addicted to gambling and dissolute in his dealings with women, contentious and keen about using his sword.”
Inigo found plenty of trouble…
A scientist might not think such a person a reliable example of religious fervor. An antagonist of religion might think it illustrates the flaws of religion perfectly.
The passage in question comes from a life of St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits.
Religion is a subtle matter. We may think it a matter of belief, but it may be a matter of behavior – orthopraxy vs orthodoxy is the distinction the folks in religious studies make — or of visionary experience.
It may “take one to know one” – as Thomas Merton, the Catholic contemplative understood the Buddhist contemplatives he met. But then he was open to the possibility that others might have intuitions not dissimilar to those he himself had had. “I’m deeply impregnated with Sufism,” he once wrote — Sufism being the mystical strand in Islam. Indeed, I received a letter from him myself while still a student at Oxford, in which he wrote of his life in the Abbey of Gethsemani, “here you get beaten for being a dervish. I am bruised for this all day long.”
But again, one can be blinded by one’s own faith to the merits of the faiths of others. And this is also a subtle business.
Retired US Gen. Jerry Boykin, for instance, said in April last year (link is to YouTube video):
Sharia law is a very serious threat in America. We are being invaded by a group of people who see it as their absolute imperative to establish a legal system in America which will in fact destroy our Constitution to be replaced by this thing called Sharia law.
One wonders what Boykin might make of the late California Presbyterian teacher, RJ Rushdoony — a figure, I’m guessing, far to the General’s right?
As is widely known, the New Testament contains a “Great Commission” which Christ gave to his apostles after his Resurrection:
Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” — Matthew 28:18-20.
Rushdoony, in his master work The Institutes of Biblical Law, makes it clear that in his views, this constitutes a divine mandate to bring Biblical law into effect in all nations: “The fulfillment of that covenant is their great commission: to subdue all things and all nations to Christ and His law-word” (Institutes, p. 14) and this is to be achieved in terms of a single world order, “The goal is the developed Kingdom of God, the New Jerusalem, a world order under God’s law” (Institutes, p. 357).
Sadly, the church no longer recognizes the full implications of the Great Commission, and has fallen into a heresy that is political in nature: “The church today has fallen prey to the heresy of democracy” (Institutes, p. 747). In truth, the laws of a democratic society will need to be replaced by the laws of God as set forth in the Old Testament: “While all Scripture is God’s law word, the heart of that law is the law of Moses” (Institutes, p. 675).
Here’s where it gets trickier, though:
Slavery, too, will need to be reinstituted: “The (Biblical) Law here is humane and also unsentimental. It recognizes that some people are by nature slaves and will always be so. It both requires that they be dealt with in a godly manner and also that the slave recognizes his position and accepts it with grace” (Institutes, p. 251).
This thing called “religion” is difficult to pin down. It has extremes that appear unconscionable even to many who claim devotion to the same scriptures as do the extremists. It features violence, peace, apocalypse as destruction and apocalypse as fresh creation.
Atran is an anthropologist – he surely knows this.
The study of religion involves walking through a minefield — in the gardens of Paradise…