An Incomplete Truth (Why I Read More)

L. R. Laverde-Hansen By L. R. Laverde-Hansen, 21st Feb 2014 | Follow this author | RSS Feed | Short URL http://nut.bz/3n46ofni/
Posted in Wikinut>Writing>Society & Issues

I have read many pat arguments in my time, and it's always good to keep seeking out more information and points of view. Recently came across a book called "Talking to the Enemy," which deepened the current "science versus religion" debate.

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Since the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001, there has been an intensified criticism on religion by avowed secularist atheists. Richard Dawkins, the British naturalist and anti-religious activist, remarked, "My respect for the Abrahamic religions (ie, Judaism, Christianity and Islam) went up in the smoke and choking dust of September 11th." Strong words from a man who has devoted a great part of his life to science and rational study.

And to emphasize the point, on an earlier version of his foundation's website, Dawkins included a well-known quote attributed to scholar Victor Stegner:

"Science flies you to the moon. Religion flies you into buildings."

On the surface, this appears to say it all. Science has done a great deal for all humankind and has advanced us to previously unattained heights. Religion, on the other hand, appears at times to have held back human progress; and in extreme cases, might even possess a backward and destructive side.

The problem with these quotes is not that they have no truth, but that they are woefully incomplete. Science and technology have improved human life, but they have also created great problems and challenges as well. Our serious concerns about the environment, for example, come from our awareness that modern industrial development--itself a technical marvel--has had very unexpected and unpleasant consequences. Hopefully our massive knowledge, which got us into this, will help us to prevail.

Then there is the matter of religion. Critics bring up every known historical cruelty and idiocy done in the name of religion, particularly the homicidal ones. Everything, from the Spanish Inquisition to the Crusades, from the witch trials at Salem Massachusetts to the trial of Galileo, is trotted out to show that religion is indeed, not merely "the opiate of the masses," but also its poison. It's enough to make this Lutheran boy blush in horror.

The thing is that religion can--and has--done great harm to humanity, but so have non-sectarian institutions. So have political, cultural and ethnic ideologies (Nazism, anyone?) The truth is people will always do great good or great harm based on their specific wishes. Religion can make things better, or it can make them worse.

But I wanted a more rational basis for my contentions. I have been reading, "Talking to the Enemy" by anthropologist Scott Atran, and it's an eye-opener. Part memoir, part collection of anthropological observations (with corresponding data), part cultural commentary, the book's central premise seems to be that we have gotten the Islamic terrorists all wrong.

Among the assertions in the book are that suicide bombings, while associated with Islamic extremism have traditionally been associated with secular/and or ideological movements. As Atran writes, "Modern suicide terrorism became a political force with the atheist anarchist movement that began at the end of the nineteenth century..." Whether it was ideologically committed anarchists or the Tamil Tigers in the late twentieth century, most suicide killers were not religiously motivated until the time of the Palestinian Intifada in the late 1980s.

Another one is not only are the majority of Muslims not terrorists, but that many Muslim groups have discouraged terrorism and violence worldwide. He cites, for example, that it was Muslims who risked their lives during the Rwandan genocide in 1994 to save others. As New York Times columnist Nicolas Kristof pointed out a few years ago, Muslims around the world have actually stuck their necks out, often to save non Muslims.

Dr. Atran also notes that most recent suicide bombers were not poor, were often highly educated, and not religiously manipulated. Most are often disconnected and isolated men who lack a sense of sense of purpose. Often they seek out the inflammatory imams, not the other way around. They go through a period of radicalization, which contrary to the some stereotypes, means rejecting the surrounding Islamic community. Many cut off ties from most friends and families. They bond closer with their "band of brothers," i.e., fellow suicide bombers. As Atran points out, this is very similar to the bonds soldiers develop in wartime, wherein the fight becomes less about the cause, than about standing up for one's comrades.

Dr. Atran's strongly suggests that if our government wants to prevent far more terrorism than we have, tough measures alone will not do. We have to have a respect and a deeper understanding of the type of people who commit these horrors. This will take much time, and involve some very difficult conversations, but this can start to break the cycle.

I hesitate to summarize this book further, as I cannot fully and faithfully outline it. Nonetheless, I have rarely found a recent academic book (written by a self-described "atheist"), which takes into account the powerful emotions and forces which animate people of different religions. I may not agree with every contention Dr. Atran makes here, but I appreciate his clear-headed analysis and appreciation of the religious state of much of humankind (including that of most terrorists). This is something I rarely read: a book bringing more light than heat; seeking genuine truth rather than cheap points in yet another debate.

Originally Revised in New York
February 21, 2014
Latest revision
March 7, 2014

Primary Source

Talking to the Enemy: Religion, Brotherhood, and the (Un)Making of Terrorists by Scott Atran
New York, ecco (Harper Collins) 2010

Tags

Anthropology, Atheism, Religion, Richard Dawkins, Science, Scott Atran, Thinking

Meet the author

author avatar L. R. Laverde-Hansen
Poet, playwright, commentator. I write wherever I can. Currently I reside in the City of New York.

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Comments

author avatar MarilynDavisatTIERS
8th Mar 2014 (#)

Good morning, L.R., nicely done. Point, counter-point and your own point, well presented. Enjoyable read and the book does sound interesting and thought provoking. We must do something besides what we have been doing - the old, “if nothing changes, nothing changes” seems in full force on both the science vs. religion or religion vs. religion. You summarized the greater issue with this statement from your article, "The truth is people will always do great good or great harm based on their specific wishes." Many of the fundamental changes must begin with the individual. Enough individuals and we then may have enough rational voices to make a difference. My 2 cents ~Marilyn

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author avatar L. R. Laverde-Hansen
8th Mar 2014 (#)

Wonderfully said, Marilyn. I'm glad I took a little more time on this one. Highly recommend his book, or at least look up Dr. Atran's talks on YouTube.

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author avatar MarilynDavisatTIERS
8th Mar 2014 (#)

Good evening, L. R. I keep several types of "to-do" and the title and now the online alert are on mine. Will comment after digesting a little more. Again, thanks for the notice about this. ~Marilyn

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author avatar cnwriter..carolina
8th Mar 2014 (#)

Very very well done L.R. I do agree with Marilyn that it MUST start within ourselves...each one of us...The old adage...to thine ownself be true...should be printed in front of everyone's eyes all the time...and that inner reflection will (I HOPE) help change the world....

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author avatar L. R. Laverde-Hansen
9th Mar 2014 (#)

Wonderful as always, cnwriter.

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author avatar Retired
9th Mar 2014 (#)

Very informative. Thanks for this article.

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author avatar Retired
9th Mar 2014 (#)

Great article with much food for thought. I don't believe that it is necessarily religion or science which causes us to act irrationally. We all have the power within ourselves to make a choice either right or wrong. There are fanaticals everywhere who act without regard for anyone else.

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author avatar Stella Mitchell
9th Mar 2014 (#)

I do not wish to be the proverbial spanner in the works here L.R. but may I be so bold as to add a little insight into the mix , as I see it..... concerning Religion versus Science ....
Firstly may I agree by saying that there are many religions all vying for attention and converts ...I think we all are aware of that .
Then, there is Christianity , in which the Believers in God believe in the God of the Bible , hence Jesus Christ , as being the Sovereign Lord for all eternity ...and God the Father ...for which only Christians will call God , and it it this God who endows us with wisdom and understanding to search out the marvels of His amazing universe ...including every form of science under the sun .
I believe that God wants us to explore the depths and heights of this glorious world He has so generously given us . The two can be interwoven ....The only stipulation God gives us is to Love Him , and our fellow man as ourselves ...
but religion can bind people and keep us separate , divided and disjointed ....
God Bless you for this very interesting post .
Stella ><

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author avatar Fern Mc Costigan
10th Mar 2014 (#)

NIce post!

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author avatar L. R. Laverde-Hansen
12th Mar 2014 (#)

Thank you, all for your thoughtful comments. It shows that it's worth it to explore more deeply certain subjects.

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author avatar Ptrikha
16th May 2014 (#)

Quite an enlightening stuff. These are complex issues that need a deep, unbiased thinking and courage to break from stereotypes we have developed in our minds.

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author avatar L. R. Laverde-Hansen
17th May 2014 (#)

Thank you, Ptrikha.

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