Landmines in Paradise Garden

[ by Charles Cameron — pros and cons of an important piece by Scott Atran — who among us can comprehend religion? ]

.

At play (Minesweeper) in the Fields of the Lord (Bosch, Garden of Eden)

.

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…

Page 1 of 3 | Next page