Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Evangelical Atheists and the Sciences of Religion   posted by Matoko Kusanagi @ 12/26/2006 07:04:00 PM

I spent some time with the Edge Reality Club today. I hadn't had time to read it yet. It is no surprise to me that Scott Atran is closest to me ideology and analysis. I liked his book far better than any of Harris', Dawkins', and Dennett's books I've read.
The topic of the discussion was Beyond Belief: Science, Religion, Reason and Survival.

The other participants accused Atran of ignoring the fact that religions, and in particular, Islam, actively encourage destructive behavior like suicide bombing, apostate killing, pograms, etc. I dont think he ignores that at all. But he says instead, what can we do with what we know? Im so grateful to find someone who thinks about this the way I do. This is exactly what I mean, when I talk about leveraging Islam to stop the slaughter and help instantiate democracy in Iraq.
Atran on evangelical atheism:
At the conference, Harris and partners ignored the increasingly rich body of scientific research on religion. They ignored the vast body of empirical data and analysis of terrorism — a phenomenon they presented as a natural outgrowth of religion. The avowedly certain but uncritical arguments they made about the moral power of science and the moral bankruptcy of religion involved no science at all. Some good scientists stepped out of their field of expertise, leaving science behind for the unreflective sort of faith-based thinking they railed against. Sadly, in this regard, even good scientists join other people in unreason.

Harris despairs that my approach to dogmatism is to throw up my hands and "make declarations about ‘the basic irrationality of human life and society'." No, I argue that one way to deal with this important problem is to use science and rational processes to study irrational ones and then to leverage that scientific knowledge in ways that can affect public policy, although this second step may have to be more art than science. Harris suggests that if, indeed, irrationality is some vestige of our evolutionary legacy, then we should still be able to master it and perhaps eventually eliminate it from society through reason and vigilance as we are increasingly able to do with rape. I think a better, deeper, more pervasive analogy would be sex: repress it one way and it will pop out other ways.
My critique of Harris and company was that:

(1) An increasing body of scientific research on religion suggests that, contrary to Harris's personal and scientifically uninformed intuitions about what religion consists of, the apparent invalidity of religious thought is insensitive to the kind of simple-minded disconfirmation through demonstrations of incoherence that Harris and others propose.

(2) No data by Harris or others was offered to suggest that the naturalistic worldview they mean to replace religion with would be, or could be, successful; or that such a worldview would generate more happiness, compassion or peace (which most us at the conference hope for).

(3) Evidence supporting empirical claims about negative behavior caused by religious beliefs in general, or Islam in particular, was based on a decidedly selective sample or idiosyncratic interpretation (e.g., Harris tells us that he has read the Qur'an and on his reading, which he may share with some minority of Muslims, the Qur'an literally prescribes, or at least sanctions, suicide terrorism).

(4) Experiments on "sacred values" (which Harris refers to in his reply but misunderstands, and which were presented in more rigorous form before the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Security Council at the White House) suggest that arguments by Harris and others about how to best lessen the noxious effects of dogmatism are liable to do more harm than good for his own cause (which is also my own cause and that of most others at the conference).

Now, according to Salam's colleague and co-Nobel Prize winner Steven Weinberg, scientists must rise up to the challenge of liberating humanity from "the long nightmare of religion. " Biologist Richard Dawkins tells us that we need to "come out of the closet" and form a political lobby of committed atheists and scientists to do public battle with religion and other forms of "rubbish" that tyrannize the mind. For neuropsychology student Sam Harris, technological advances in the ability to terrorize and wage war require an uncompromising and unrelenting intellectual struggle to destroy religion — especially, but not exclusively, Islam — and banish unreason beyond the pale of civilization.
I find it fascinating that among the brilliant scientists and philosophers at the conference, there was no convincing evidence presented that they know how to deal with the basic irrationality of human life and society other than to insist against all reason and evidence that things ought to be rational and evidence based. It makes me embarrassed to be a scientist and atheist. There is no historical evidence whatsoever that scientists have a keener or deeper appreciation than religious people of how to deal with personal or moral problems. Some scientists have some good and helpful insights into human beings' existential problems some of the time, but some good scientists have done more to harm others than most people are remotely capable of.

Scott and I are in complete agreement--sho, supernatural and religious beliefs cause dreadful problems. BUT it is biologically, culturally, and psychologically impossible to destroy religion.
What to do? Since we cannot eradicate religion, let's leverage it instead, for benevolent goals.

Here I quote Atran's section on sacred values, and how those values can leverage arbitration and conflict resolution in the face of anti-rational behavior. The classic example of anti-rational behavior is the Palestine/Israel conflict.
Sacred Values And Bounds On Rational Resolution Of Conflict. Dan Dennett seems to argue that because most people are rational most of time, as in properly navigating when crossing the street, then people should be perfectly capable of following and accepting rational arguments against religion if only the repressive social and political support for religion could be jettisoned. Now, unlike in the field of economic judgment and decision making, where basic assumptions of rationality have been scientifically sundered (most prominently by recent Nobel laureates Danny Kahneman and Thomas Schelling), there has been little serious of study of the scope and limits of standard notions of rationality in moral judgment and decision making. There is, however, some evidence that rationality is not standard for religion and morality.

Religious behavior often seems to be motivated by sacred values, that is, values which a moral community treats as possessing transcendental significance that underlies cultural identity and precludes comparisons or tradeoffs with material or instrumental values of realpolitik or the marketplace. As Immanuel Kant framed it, virtuous religious behavior is its own reward and attempts to base it on utility nullifies its moral worth. Instrumental decision-making (or "rational choice") involves strict cost-benefit calculations regarding goals, and entails abandoning or adjusting goals if costs for realizing them are too high. A sacred value is a value that incorporates moral and ethical beliefs independently of, or all out of proportion to, its prospect of success."

Current approaches to resolving resource conflicts or countering political violence assume that adversaries make instrumentally rational choices. However adversaries in violent political conflicts often conceptualize the issues under dispute as sacred values, such as when groups of people transform land from a simple resource into a "holy site" to which they may have non-instrumental moral commitments. Nowhere is this issue more pressing than in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, which the majority of people in almost every country surveyed (e.g., in the June 2006 Pew Global Attitudes Survey) consistently view as the greatest danger to world peace. Our research team − including psychologists Jeremy Ginges and Douglas Medin, and political scientist Khalil Shikaki − conducted studies indicating that instrumental approaches to resolving political disputes are suboptimal when protagonists transform the issues or resources under dispute into sacred values. We found that emotional outrage and support for violent opposition to compromise over sacred values is (a) is not mitigated by offering material incentives to compromise but (b) is decreased when the adversary makes materially irrelevant compromises over their own sacred values.

In a survey of Jewish Israelis living in the West Bank and Gaza (settlers, N = 601) conducted in August 2005, days before Israel's withdrawal from Gaza, we randomly presented participants with one of several hypothetical peace deals. All involved Israeli withdrawal from 99% of the West Bank and Gaza in exchange for peace. We identified a subset of participants (46%) who had transformed land into an essential value; they believed that it was never permissible for the Jewish people to "give up" part of the "Land of Israel" no matter how extreme the circumstance. For these participants, all deals thus involved a "taboo" trade-off. Some deals involved an added instrumental incentive, such as money or the promise of a life free of violence ("taboo+"), while in other deals Palestinians also made a "taboo" trade-off over one of their own sacred values in a manner that neither added instrumental value to Israel nor detracted from the taboo nature of the deal being considered ("tragic"). From a rational perspective, the taboo+ deal is improved relative to the taboo deal and thus violent opposition to the tragic deal should be weaker. However, we observed the following order of support for violence: taboo+ > taboo > tragic; where those evaluating the tragic deal showed less support for violent opposition than the other two conditions. An analysis of intensity of emotional outrage again found that taboo+ > taboo > tragic; those evaluating the tragic deal were least likely to report anger or disgust at the prospect of the deal being signed.

These results were replicated in a survey of Palestinian refugees (N=535) in Gaza and the West Bank conducted in late December 2005, one month before Hamas was elected to power. In this experiment, hypothetical peace deals (see supporting online materials) all violated the Palestinian "right of return", a key issue in the conflict. For the 80% of participants who believed this was an essential value, we once more observed that for violent opposition the order between conditions was taboo+ > taboo > tragic, where those evaluating a "tragic" deal showed lowest support for violent opposition. The same order was found for two measures ostensibly unrelated to the experiment: (a) the belief that Islam condones suicide attacks; and (b) reports of joy at hearing of a suicide attack (there is neuroimaging evidence for joy as a correlate of revenge). Compared to refugees who had earlier evaluated a taboo or taboo+ deal, those who had evaluated a tragic deal believed less that Islam condoned suicide attacks; and were less likely to report feeling of joy at hearing of a suicide attack. In neither the settler nor the refugee studies did participants responding to the "tragic" deals regard these deals as more materially likely or implementable than participants evaluating taboo or taboo+ deals.

These experiments reveal that in political disputes where sources of conflict are cultural, such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or emerging clashes between the Muslim and Judeo-Christian world, attempts to lessen violent opposition to compromise solutions can backfire by insisting on instrumentally-driven tradeoffs and rational choices, while non-instrumental symbolic compromises may reduce support for violence. Further studies with 750 Hamas members and non Hamas controls this past June, show similar results, as do on-going pilot studies among Christian fundamentalists who consider abortion and gay marriage to violate sacred values.

Given these facts, I and others have been assisting in political negotiations that target recognition of sacred values over instrumentally rational tradeoffs. The goal is to break longstanding deadlocks that have proven immune to traditional business-like frameworks for political negotiation that focus on rational choices and tradeoffs. By targeting "sacred values" and "moral obligations" I don't seek to "ignore the role of religion" in people's actions and decisions, though Harris complains this is the reason I introduce sacred values into the discussion. My aim is quite the opposite: to politically engage those deepest held religious beliefs that are matters of life and death for peoples and nations.

This is what I mean when I talk about using the science of religion to solve resistant geo-political conflicts. Like Palestine. Like Iraq. If we understand the mechanism, can't we exploit it?

note: The "sciences of religion" is a tribute to one of my favorite books of Islamic theo-philosophy, the incomparable al-Ghazali's The Resusitator of the Sciences of Religion.