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God and the Ivory Tower. What we don’t understand about religion just might kill us

(Illustration: Medieval miniature painting of the Siege of Antioch (1490). The Crusades were a series of a military campaigns fought mainly between Christian Europe and Muslims. Shown here is a battle scene from the First Crusade.)

"The era of world struggle between the great secular ideological -isms that began with the French Revolution and lasted through the Cold War (republicanism, anarchism, socialism, fascism, communism, liberalism) is passing on to a religious stage. Across the Middle East and North Africa, religious movements are gaining social and political ground, with election victories by avowedly Islamic parties in Turkey, Palestine, Egypt, Tunisia, and Morocco. As Israel’s National Security Council chief, Gen. Yaakov Amidror (a religious man himself), told me on the eve of Tunisia’s elections last October, “We expect Islamist parties to soon dominate all governments in the region, from Afghanistan to Morocco, except for Israel.”

On a global scale, Protestant evangelical churches (together with Pentacostalists) continue to proliferate, especially in Latin America, but also keep pace with the expansion of fundamentalist Islam in southern Africa and eastern and southern Asia. In Russia, a clear majority of the population remains religious despite decades of forcibly imposed atheism. Even in China, where the government’s commission on atheism has the Sisyphean job of making that country religion-free, religious agitation is on the rise. And in the United States, a majority says it wants less religion in politics, but an equal majority still will not vote for an atheist as president.

But if reams of social scientific analysis have been produced on religion’s less celestial cousins — from the nature of perception and speech to how we rationalize and shop — faith is not a matter that rigorous science has taken seriously. To be sure, social scientists have long studied how religious practices correlate with a wide range of economic, social, and political issues. Yet, for nearly a century after Harvard University psychologist William James’s 1902 masterwork, The Varieties of Religious Experience, there was little serious investigation of the psychological structure or neurological and biological underpinnings of religious belief that determine how religion actually causes behavior. And that’s a problem if science aims to produce knowledge that improves the human condition, including a lessening of cultural conflict and war.

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.

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.

Fortunately, the last few years show progress in scientific studies of religion and the sacred, though headwinds remain strong. Across history and cultures, religion has often knit communities together under the rule of sentient, but immaterial deities — that is, spiritual beings whose description is logically contradictory and empirically unfalsifiable. Cross-cultural studies pioneered by anthropologist Pascal Boyer show that these miraculous features — talking bushes, horses that leap into the sky — make lasting impressions on people and thereby increase the likelihood that they will be passed down to the next generation. Implausibility also facilitates cultural transmission in a more subtle manner — fostering adaptability of religious beliefs by opening the door to multiple interpretations (as with metaphors or weekly sermons).

And the greater the investment in outlandishness, the better. This is because adherence to apparently absurd beliefs means incurring costs — surviving without electricity, for example, if you are Amish — which help identify members who are committed to the survival of a group and cannot be lured away. The ease of identifying true believers, in turn, builds trust and galvanizes group solidarity for common defense.

To test this hypothesis, anthropologist Richard Sosis and his colleagues studied 200 communes founded in the United States in the 19th century. If shared religious beliefs really did foster loyalty, they reasoned, then communes formed out of religious conviction should survive longer than those motivated by secular ideologies such as socialism. Their findings were striking: Just 6 percent of the secular communes were still functioning 20 years after their founding, compared with 39 percent of the religious communes.

It is not difficult to see why groups formed for purely rational reasons can be more vulnerable to collapse: Background conditions change, and it might make sense to abandon one group in favor of another. Interestingly, recent research echoes the findings of 14th-century historian Ibn Khaldun, who argued that long-term differences among North African Muslim dynasties with comparable military might “have their origin in religion … [and] group feeling [wherein] mutual cooperation and support flourish.” The more religious societies, he argued, endured the longest.

For this reason, even ostensibly secular countries and transnational movements usually contain important quasi-religious rituals and beliefs. Think of sacred songs and ceremonies, or postulations that “providence” or “nature” bestows equality and inalienable rights (though, for about 99.9 percent of our species’ existence, slavery, and oppression of minorities were more standard fare). These sacred values act as moral imperatives that inspire nonrational sacrifices in cooperative endeavors such as war.

Insurgents, revolutionaries, and terrorists all make use of this logic, generating outsized commitment that allows them to resist and often prevail against materially stronger foes. Consider the American revolutionaries who defied the greatest empire of their age by pledging “our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor” for the cause of “liberty or death.” Surely they were aware of how unlikely they were to succeed, given the vast disparities in material resources, manpower, and training. As Osama Hamdan, the ranking Hamas politburo member for external affairs, put it to me in Damascus, Syria, “George Washington was fighting the strongest military in the world, beyond all reason. That’s what we’re doing. Exactly.”

But the same logic that makes religious and sacred beliefs more likely to endure can make them impervious to compromise. Based on interviews, experiments, and surveys with Palestinians, Israelis, Indonesians, Indians, Afghans, and Iranians, my research with psychologists Jeremy Ginges, Douglas Medin, and others demonstrates that offering people material incentives (large amounts of money, guarantees for a life free of political violence) to compromise sacred values can backfire, increasing stated willingness to use violence. Such backfire effects occur both for convictions with clear religious investment (Jerusalem, sharia law) and for those that are at least initially nonreligious (Iran’s right to a nuclear capability, Palestinian refugees’ right of return).

According to a 2010 study, for example, most Iranians think there is nothing sacred about their government’s nuclear program. But for a sizable minority — 13 percent of the population — the quest for a nuclear capability (more focused on energy than weapons) had, through religious rhetoric, become a sacred subject. This group, which tends to be close to the regime, now believes a nuclear program is bound up with national identity and with Islam itself. As a result, offering material rewards or punishments to abandon the program only increases anger and support for it.

Although this sacralization of initially secular issues confounds standard “business-like” negotiation tactics, my work with political scientist Robert Axelrod interviewing political leaders in the Middle East and elsewhere indicates that strong symbolic gestures (sincere apologies, demonstrating respect for the other’s values) generate surprising flexibility, even among militants, and may enable subsequent material negotiations. Thus, we find that Palestinian leaders and their supporting populations are generally willing to accept Israeli offers of economic improvement only after issues of recognition are addressed. Even purely symbolic statements accompanied by no material action, such as “we recognize your suffering” or “we respect your rights in Jerusalem,” diminish support for violence, including suicide terrorism. This is particularly promising because symbolic gestures tied to religious notions that are open to interpretation might potentially be reframed without compromising their absolute “truth.” For example, Jerusalem might be reconceived less as a place than portal to heaven, where earthly access to the portal suffices.

If these things are worth knowing, why do scientists still shun religion?

Part of the reason is that most scientists are staunchly nonreligious. 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. “New Atheists” have aggressively sought to discredit religion as the chief cause of much human misery, militating for its demise. They contend that science has now answered questions about humans’ origins and place in the world that only religion sought to answer in the days before evolutionary science, and that humankind no longer needs the broken crutch of faith.

But the idea that we can simply argue away religion has little factual support. Although a recent study by psychologists Will Gervais and Ara Norenzayan indicates that people are less prone to think religiously when they think analytically, other studies suggest that seemingly contrary evidence rarely undermines religious belief, especially among groups welded by ritualized sacrifice in the face of outside threats. Norenzayan and others also find that belief in gods and miracles intensifies when people are primed with awareness of death or when facing danger, as in wartime.

Moreover, the chief complaint against religion — that it is history’s prime instigator of intergroup conflict — does not withstand scrutiny. Religious issues motivate only a small minority of recorded wars. The Encyclopedia of Wars surveyed 1,763 violent conflicts across history; only 123 (7 percent) were religious. A BBC-sponsored “God and War" audit, which evaluated major conflicts over 3,500 years and rated them on a 0-to-5 scale for religious motivation (Punic Wars = 0, Crusades = 5), found that more than 60 percent had no religious motivation. Less than 7 percent earned a rating greater than 3. There was little religious motivation for the internecine Russian and Chinese conflicts or the world wars responsible for history’s most lethal century of international bloodshed.

Indeed, inclusive concepts such as “humanity” arguably emerged with the rise of universal religions. Sociologist Rodney Stark reveals that early Christianity became the Roman Empire’s majority religion not through conquest, but through a social process grounded in trust. Repeated acts of altruism, such as caring for non-Christians during epidemics, facilitated the expansion of social networks that were invested in the religion. Likewise, studies by behavioral economist Joseph Henrich and colleagues on contemporary foragers, farmers, and herders show that professing a world religion is correlated with greater fairness toward passing strangers. This research helps explain what’s going on in sub-Saharan Africa, where Islam is spreading rapidly. In Rwanda, for example, people began converting to Islam in droves after Muslims systematically risked their lives to protect Christians and animists from genocide when few others cared.

Although surprisingly few wars are started by religions, once they start, religion — and the values it imposes — can play a critical role. When competing interests are framed in terms of religious and sacred values, conflict may persist for decades, even centuries. Disputes over otherwise mundane phenomena then become existential struggles, as when land becomes “Holy Land.” Secular issues become sacralized and nonnegotiable, regardless of material rewards or punishments. In a multiyear study, our research group found that Palestinian adolescents who perceived strong threats to their communities and were highly involved in religious ritual were most likely to see political issues, like the right of refugees to return to homes in Israel, as absolute moral imperatives. These individuals were thus opposed to compromise, regardless of the costs. It turns out there may be a neurological component to such behavior: Our work with Gregory Berns and his neuroeconomics team suggests that such values are processed in the brain as duties rather than utilitarian calculations; neuroimaging reveals that violations of sacred values trigger emotional responses consistent with sentiments of moral outrage.

Historical and experimental studies suggest that the more antagonistic a group’s neighborhood, the more tightly that group will cling to its sacred values and rituals. The result is enhanced solidarity, but also increased potential for conflict toward other groups. Investigation of 60 small-scale societies reveals that groups that experience the highest rates of conflict (warfare) endure the costliest rites (genital mutilation, scarification, etc.). Likewise, research in India, Mexico, Britain, Russia, and Indonesia indicates that greater participation in religious ritual in large-scale societies is associated with greater parochial altruism — that is, willingness to sacrifice for one’s own group, such as Muslims or Christians, but not for outsiders — and, in relevant contexts, support for suicide attacks. This dynamic is behind the paradoxical reality that the world finds itself in today: Modern global multiculturalism is increasingly challenged by fundamentalist movements aimed at reviving group loyalty through greater ritual commitments to ideological purity.

So why does it matter that we have moved past the -isms and into an era of greater religiosity? In an age where religious and sacred causes are resurgent, there is urgent need for scientific effort to understand them. Now that humankind has acquired through science the power to destroy itself with nuclear weapons, we cannot afford to let science ignore religion and the sacred, or let scientists simply try to reason them away. Policymakers should leverage scientific understanding of what makes religion so potent a force for both cooperation and conflict, to help increase the one and lessen the other.

Scott Atran, American and French anthropologist at France’s National Center for Scientific Research, the University of Michigan, John Jay College, and ARTIS Research who has studied violence and interviewed terrorists, God and the Ivory Tower, Foreign Policy, Aug 6, 2012.

See also:

Scott Atran on Why War Is Never Really Rational
‘We’ vs ‘Others’: Russell Jacoby on why we should fear our neighbors more than strangers
The Psychology of Violence (a modern rethink of the psychology of shame and honour in preventing it), Lapidarium notes
Religion tag on Lapidarium notes