Tuesday, December 14, 2010

the new atheism

Check this out:

It's a book review about suicide bombers called "Talking to the Enemy: Violent Extremism, Sacred Values, and What It Means to Be Human"

It discusses Richard Dawkins's analysis of suicide bombing. As usual, Dawkins is wrong. From the review:

Something like Hobbes's analysis (though without his refreshing pessimism or his wonderfully terse prose style) has resurfaced today in regard to suicide bombing. If you read evangelical atheists like Richard Dawkins, you will be told that suicide bombers are driven by their irrational religious beliefs. 'Suicide bombers do what they do', writes Dawkins in a passage cited by Scott Atran, 'because they really believe what they were taught in their religious schools; that duty to God exceeds all other priorities, and that martyrdom in his service will be rewarded in the gardens of Paradise.' What is striking about claims of this kind is that they are rarely accompanied by evidence. They are asserted as self-evident truths - in other words, articles of faith. In fact, as Atran writes, religion is not particularly prominent in the formation of jihadi groups:

Though there are few similarities in personality profiles, some general demographic and social tendencies exist: in age (usually early twenties), where they grew up (neighbourhood is often key), in schooling (mostly non-religious and often science-oriented), in socio-economic status (middle-class and married, though increasingly marginalized), in family relationships (friends tend to marry one another's sisters and cousins). If you want to track a group, look to where one of its members eats or hangs out, in the neighbourhood or on the Internet, and you'll likely find the other members.

Unlike Dawkins's assertions, Atran's account of violent jihadism is based on extensive empirical research. An anthropologist who has spent many years studying and talking to terrorists in Indonesia, Afghanistan, Gaza and Europe, Atran believes that what motivates them to go willingly to their deaths is not so much the cause they espouse - rationally or otherwise - but the relationships they form with each other. Terrorists kill and die 'for their group, whose cause makes their imagined family of genetic strangers - their brotherhood, fatherland, motherland, homeland, totem or tribe'. In this terrorists are no different from other human beings. They may justify their actions by reference to religion, but many do not. The techniques of suicide bombing were first developed by the Tamil Tigers, a Marxist-Leninist group hostile to all religions, while suicide bombers in Lebanon in the 1980s included many secular leftists. The Japanese Aum cult, which recruited biologists and geneticists and experimented with anthrax as a weapon of mass destruction, cobbled together its grotesque system of beliefs from many sources, including science fiction. Terrorists have held to many views of the world, including some - like Marxism-Leninism - that claim to be grounded in 'scientific atheism'. If religion is a factor in terrorism, it is only one among many.

There will be some who question Atran's analysis of suicide bombing. Clearly the practice has a rational-strategic aspect along with the emotional and social dimensions on which he focuses. Suicide bombing is highly cost-effective compared with other types of terrorist assault; when volunteers are plentiful life is cheap, and a successful suicide bomber cannot be captured and interrogated. But Talking to the Enemy is about far more than violent extremism. One of the most penetrating works of social investigation to appear in many years, it offers a fresh and compelling perspective on human conflict. No one who reads and digests what Atran has to say will be able to take seriously the faith-based claims of the 'new atheists'. As he notes, some of his fellow scientists may 'believe that science is better able than religion to constitute or justify a moral system that regulates selfishness and makes social life possible ... [But] there doesn't seem to be the slightest bit of historical or experimental evidence to support such faith in science'. The picture of human beings that emerges from genuine inquiry is far richer than anything that can be gleaned from these myopic rationalists.