Sam Harris vs. Scott Atran – Hate vs. Science

As I started to enter the then brand-new field of evolutionary studies of religiosity and religions, I was frequently warned about religious fundamentalists objecting to anyone exploring religious experiences and beliefs from an evolutionary perspective. And, yes, some of them pop up now and then, claiming that "evolution is bad science" and "evolutionists are atheists by necessity" etc.

But what I wasn't warned about and what I feel to be a really sad experience are those antitheists being prejudiced against religion(s) in such a strong way that they lose the very open-mindedness required from any real scientist.

As a nice tweet got it: "The deep biological roots of religion need to be understood; they can't simply be wished away."

Some serious scientists such as Susan Blackmore got it ("Why I no longer believe that religion is a Virus of the Mind"). Others such as Sam Harris don't even try.

Instead, Harris has long embarked on his personal, antitheist crusade against Islam and religious Muslims, denouncing anyone daring to speak against a black-and-white worldview. Now, renowned anthropologist Scott Atran was attacked by Harris with another islamophobic rant grossly misrepresenting Atran's scientifc work and arguments:

"I have long struggled to understand how smart, well-educated liberals can fail to perceive the unique dangers of Islam. In The End of Faith, I argued that such people don’t know what it’s like to really believe in God or Paradise—and hence imagine that no one else actually does. The symptoms of this blindness can be quite shocking. For instance, I once ran into the anthropologist Scott Atran after he had delivered one of his preening and delusional lectures on the origins of jihadist terrorism. According to Atran, people who decapitate journalists, filmmakers, and aid workers to cries of “Alahu akbar!” or blow themselves up in crowds of innocents are led to misbehave this way not because of their deeply held beliefs about jihad and martyrdom but because of their experience of male bonding in soccer clubs and barbershops."

Thankfully, though, Scott Atran answered this aggressive rant with a text I gladly approved for "Evolution: This View of Life". But as with religious creationists, there is a sad price of time and efforts to be paid thwarting those trying to intimidate science towards prejudices and hateful, pre-democratic politics.

ETVOL exclusive: Scott Atran answering Sam Harris on Islam & Suicide Attacks

14 Responses to “Sam Harris vs. Scott Atran – Hate vs. Science”

  1. unkleE Reply | Permalink

    I always enjoy your posts, and I certainly agree with you about Sam Harris. But surely Scott Atran has similarly preferred polemic over science when he says "religious beliefs, in being absurd ".

    How can he possibly say this? He may be able to say that some religious beliefs cannot be confirmed by science, or even that they seem absurd to him as a scientist, but surely not what he says.

    For example, how many scientific experiments or studies has he subjected God to, to be able to say that "a bodiless but physically powerful and sentient being" has semantic content that is contradictory?

    If this is what it takes to counter Sam Harris, then the cure is surely almost as bad as the disease.

    (Disclosure: I am a christian, so I have my own views.)


  2. Lothars Sohn Reply | Permalink

    Sam Harris is a man completely driven by his hatred, he seems completely unable to realize all the religions are not the same with respect to their beneficial and harmful respects.

    Dear Dr. Blume
    I've created a bilingual blog related to Evolution, God, Atheism, Morality, Faith and Psychology, and I've the feeling you could be interested :-)

    Sehr geehrter Herr Dr. Blume,
    ich habe einen zweisprachigen Blog kreiert, der sich auf die Evolution, Gott, den Atheismus, die Moralität, den Glauben und die Psychologie, bezieht. Ich habe das Gefühl, das Sie daran interessiert sein könnten. :-)

    Lovely greetings from Germany
    Liebe Grüße aus Deutschland

    Lothars Sohn - Lothar's son

    • Tom Reply | Permalink

      Actually, Harris clearly takes a gentler view of religions that are not authoritarian-dogmatic in nature. He elevates Tibetan Buddism, for example, above monotheism because it is in essence atheistic and emphasises compassion.

      He is therefore completely "able to realize all the religions are not the same with respect to their beneficial and harmful respects".

      I would add that Atran's response is hardly compelling, as the critcisms to be found in the comments indicate.

  3. Lothars Sohn Reply | Permalink

    P.S: ich bin gebürtiger Lothringer, deswegen ist mein Hochdeutsch nicht perfekt ;-)

  4. Michael Blume Reply | Permalink

    Wow, I would wish my English to be nearly as good as your German! Thanks for the link to your fascinating blog! :-)

    Wow, ich würde mir wünschen, dass mein Englisch so gut wäre wie Ihr Deutsch! Vielen Dank für den Link zu Ihrem faszinierenden Blog! :-)

  5. Tim Reply | Permalink

    Sam Harris does admittedly lean towards cheap points-scoring at times (hence his fixation on the '72 virgins'), but surely he is right in describing Atran's denial of the religious dimension of suicide bombing as 'intellectual dishonesty'.

    Atran states "Indeed, religious beliefs, in being absurd (whether or not they are recognized as such), cannot even be processed as comprehensible". You can't get around the argument that easily. To speak of 'belief verification' as a rigorous empirical process is to misunderstand 99% of the world's population.

  6. jefscott Reply | Permalink

    Sam has said in public debates, to relatively large audiences and on several occasions, that the main context by which he criticizes islam is that muslim minorities, homosexuals, and women suffer the most under its doctrines, or at least under fundamental interpretations of its doctrines.

    Yes - clearly this is a man driven by hatred. Michael, you're a genius. Where did you get so smart?

  7. Oisin Reply | Permalink

    It's important to read Harris's comments in the context of his life. Having spent over a decade travelling throughout the Middle-East and sampling many of the religious traditions there (including Sufism, a sect of Islam), he is speaking from a strong position of personal experience in describing the beliefs of subsets of major religions like Islam.

    Islam is uniquely dangerous, on his view, because the Qu'ran is so easily used to promote violence under a charismatic leader. Christianity has worse holy books on his view, but is already almost neutered in public discourse (thanks in no small way to Harris's own writings).

    Scott Atran relies on simply calling religious people liars, claiming that they don't believe what they say they believe, which is ridiculous. The factors he points out are very real, but they are secondary to the actual beliefs that they profess, which are primary motivators.

    • N.N Reply | Permalink

      It's more important to take Atrans studies in context.
      He has been a participant in hostage negotiations and conflict resolutions. He has been studying muslim fundamentalists and terror groups.
      We are talking about someone who's knowledge is far superior to Harris's.

  8. Peter Reply | Permalink

    To brand Harris position as one of "hate", is to miss Harris' points and premises to a degree that is profound. I sincerly doubt, that Blume has read Harris. I also wonder what qualifies for the term 'islamophobic'. The harshest I can find in the link Blume provides, is this:"Islam marries religious ecstasy, sectarian hatred, and a triumphalist expectation of world conquest in a way that other religions do not." Well, it is true. No other religion has the same expectation of triumphing in a wolrd conquest. Sectarian hatred.. well arguably christianity has had its shares, so lets call it equal in sectarism between those two, religious ecstasy,lets call them all equal. The bottom line is then, That the statement is true, because Harris says "marries" meaning the togethernes of the parts. It simply cannot be denied. Even if christiuanity was rated higher on sectarian hatred, then christianity still lacks the vision of a jihadi wolrd conquest. The formulation may be populistic, but the content is true. (yes I include hinduism, zororatsianism, asatro, The greeks, the romans and the animists that I know of. So, I am rather curious about the islamophobic part. There seem to be no accusations against muslims as humans, No indication of any essential quality in muslims, that would derange them. Not a clue of racism. I am simply puzzled by the claim of islamophobia. The hatred: Anyone, who has read Harris will know, that his arguments are allways, and every time based on the problem misery og suffering. How do we minimize this, how do religions contribute to suffering. Specially the suffering of the usual subjects, the usual victims: Women, homosexuals, children, sceptical thinkers, followers of prosecuted faiths. On that accord Harris calls out against all religions, but claims that some are worse, due to their core beliefs, their core values, than others. What he claims is, that theese beliefs actually matters. He argues that the islamic core beliefs are worse (as in causing more suffering) than others, and claims to see that mirrored in islamic societies and the actions of islamic extremists.
    Unless the simple claim than one religion (islam) is worse than others, is sufficient to slander others (Harris) as islamophobes, I see no justification for this term. Why is Harris not a christianophobe? He considers christianity to be marginally less bad than islam? And both (along with judaism) to be much much worse than buddhism.
    It seem to me, that the differnece between Atran and Harris mainly is, that Atran doesnt really believe that the beliefs and values have any practical significance, but that religion is just a complex social institution, that serves a practical purpose, and that all religions serve the same purpose, and that the believers could exchange one for the other without any change in behaviour and attitude. This last is an aside. May I ask that you, Mr Blume try and read one of Sam Harris books? I am sure this would provide you with a different view on Harris "hatred" and "islamophobia". The Moral Landscape is probably the one that I would recommend.

  9. Bilgewater Reply | Permalink

    Did Harris say something "Islamophobic" elsewhere? Because there's nothing "Islamophobic" in the paragraph you cited.

    • David Reply | Permalink

      Of course there isnt. The word "islamophobic" is used here in order to discredit another person. Sad but true.

  10. Chris Field Reply | Permalink

    "Sam Harris is a man completely driven by his hatred, he seems completely unable to realize all the religions are not the same with respect to their beneficial and harmful respects."

    Have you read anything Sam Harris has ever said? Maybe you're thinking of some other Sam Harris.

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