Scott Atran rips open Sam Harris

Fantastic stuff here, (jump to Scott Atran) pointing towards a scientifically informed study of religion. To get there, of course, it is necessary first to remove the sillinesses of pharyngular atheism and dogmatic assertions about “religion” based on nothing but intuition. So, take it away, Dr. Atran:

Core religious ideas serve as conceptual signposts that help to socially coordinate other beliefs and behaviors in given contexts. Although they have no more fixed or stable propositional content than do poetic metaphors, they are not processed figuratively in the sense of an optional and endless search for meaning. Rather they are thought to be right, whatever they may mean, and to require those who share such beliefs to commune and converge on an appropriate interpretation for the context at hand. To claim that one knows what Judaism or Christianity is truly about because one has read the Bible, or that what Islam is about because one has read the Qur’an and Hadith, is to believe that there is an essence to religion and religious beliefs. But science (and the history of exegesis) demonstrates that this claim is false.

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4 Responses to Scott Atran rips open Sam Harris

  1. Some of us atheists have been (Christians/Muslims/Younameit). If we find those religions problematic, absurd, or dishonest, it might well be that we have real knowledge of what they are and mean.

  2. acb says:

    Fragano, data is not the plural of anecdote. Twenty years ago, I, too, knew exactly what Christianity was, based on my personal experience. Since then, I have slightly widened my exoperience, so that now I find it impossible to define. If you look closely ad carefully at what religious adherents actually believe — ie, what they mean by the common phrases they subscribe to — you will find an great variety of propositions, which range widely and independently in philosophical, scientific, and ethical value. Go and look again at Atran’s experiments with getting a bunch of fundamentalists to tel him what the ten commandments actually mean.

  3. Rupert says:

    L and I have been passing the long hours here in Tel Aviv airport talking about why monotheism works so well, mostly in relation to our scrambling over various locations du smite earlier today. (Highly recommended, btw – to stand in the rubble of the last Judean town to fall to the Babylonians before they trashed Jerusalem is an experience many miles beyond eerie).

    I don’t think there’s a better example than Judaism to look at when wondering why religion works – modern archaeology combined with the Biblical record gives us a pretty shrewd idea of the local politics from which it sprang, the history of the Jews subsequently is thundering proof of its power and pitfalls, and it is ferociously rational.

    So I was dead interested to read that piece by Atran, and to point L at it too. It’s… got some very good bits. Some of it, though, is so indigestible that I don’t think I’ll be able to say more until I’ve logged some duvet time back at base.

  4. Andrew, that was a thoughtful, and sensible response. Absolutely correct, too, with regard to the relationship of anecdote to data. I would plead in mitigation, however, that I live in the American Bible Belt.

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