Thursday, September 01, 2011

Scott Atran on violent extremism and sacred values

Chris Mooney has a very interesting interview with anthropologist Scott Atran on the Point of Inquiry podcast, in which Atran argues that terrorism is not the product of top-down, radical religious extremist organizations recruiting the poor and ignorant, but of groups of educated (and often educated in secular institutions) individuals who become disaffected, isolated, and radicalized.  Much U.S. counterterrorism and "homeland security" activity assumes the former and thus is attacking the wrong problem.

He also argues that reason and rationalism are the wrong tools for attacking religion, defends a view of religion as a natural by-product of the sorts of minds we've evolved to have (very similar to Pascal Boyer's account, which I think is largely correct), and throws in a few digs at the new atheists for making claims about religion that are contrary to empirical evidence.

Some of the commenters at the Point of Inquiry/Center for Inquiry forums site seem to be under the misapprehension that Atran is a post-modernist.  I don't see it--he's not making the argument that reason doesn't work to find out things about the world, he's making the argument that the tools of science and reason are human constructions that work well at finding things out about the world, but not so much for persuading people of things, or as the basis for long-term institutions for the sort of creatures we are.  Atran shows up in the comments to elaborate on his positions and respond to criticism.

My compliments to Chris Mooney for having consistently high-quality, interesting guests who are not the same voices we always hear at skeptical conferences.

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