God and the Ivory Tower


What we don’t understand about religion just might kill us. 

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.

Written By: Scott Atran
continue to source article at foreignpolicy.com


  1. I find this whole approach very unhelpful indeed.

    It maintains the fiction that “religion” is somehow a special and privileged category of thought, when it really isn’t. “Religion” isn’t a thing at all, it’s just a collection of cultural phenomena like all other cultural phenomena, and behaves in exactly the same ways. Religious people WANT us to treat “religion” as a special category, because it suits their purposes that we do, but by treating it as a special category we do inordinate violence to a true understanding of what is really going on.

    In-group solidarity, costly shows of belonging, a focus on the tribal and the emotive rather than the rational – all these things happen in other cultural contexts, ones we would not describe with the artificial brand-label “religious”. Observe US gun-nuttery, or the Japanese obsession with social order and harmony, or the fawning, simpering nonsense of the olympic hype in Britain at the moment – none of these are “religious”, but they operate and persist and behave in the same way.

    It is only by ABANDONING the patently false idea that religion is special, behaves differently, and must be studied separately, that we will make progress in understanding how human society works. The way to understand anything is not to buy in to its assumptions and work from there, but to reject its assumptions and study how it actually behaves. And, historically, religion has behaved no differently from any other kind of culture. The label is a hindrance. It holds us back.

  2. So, if science ignores religion and just reasons it away, what is this website about?
    Religion has the advantage over secularism in the threats it imposes on anyone who doesn’t comply. Eternal damnation, fire, hell, just to name a few. Secularism doesn’t have that. (Or did I miss something?) Religion is about ignoring dull (sorry for all you scientists who love their field of work, I also think it’s amazingly interesting) science that has clear cut explanations, and installing more thrilling camp fire stories which sound more interesting and make you feel special in a divine way. It’s hard to top that.
    I do think we secularists should invest more in promoting secularism. In the Netherlands we have only one humanist TV company that broadcasts for about one hour per week, compared to the multitude of religious companies that fill the rest of the broadcasting time. No wonder the religious seem to regain the upper hand. (I don’t know if that is empirically correct but it’s the impression I get when I switch on the TV)
    Still a lot of work to do.

  3. “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.”

    It is somewhat illusory to suggest that ‘religion’ ever actually left the scene. At the height of the reign of terror in the French Revolution, Robespierre introduced the bizarre ‘Cult of the Supreme Being’. Even the declaration that founded America as an independent nation holds that men are ‘endowed by their creator’ with certain rights. And communism ended up morphing into Personality Cults R Us…….with Stalin, Polpot, Mao and Kim Il Sung all making David Koresh look like a two bit amateur.

  4. I don’t agree with that assessment. The point about rescinding religion’s privileges is political; for instance, stopping religious organisations getting automatic tax breaks, and discouraging use of the “offence” card. The phenomenon still requires explanation scientifically, and a denial of religious privilege is not the same as a denial that religion exists.

    Religion is a subset of culture that deals specifically with practices that are justified by unverifiable or patently false beliefs, beliefs which also (mis)inform people’s ethics and behaviours and often pander to wishful thinking. If religion was not a real, distinguishable phenomenon, then it would be nonsensical to distinguish a cultural Christian (who simply goes through the motions for social purposes) from a genuine Christian (who believes the original justifications for such motions).

    Asking how religion influences behaviour seems no more sinister to me than asking how culture influences behaviour. It is also interesting to look at the psychology behind the religious mindset, possible evolutionary explanations, and any correlations between religiosity and other features of a person such as their character. It would hardly be irrelevant if we discovered that conservative people are more likely to be full-bloodedly religious.

    Yes, religions don’t have features exclusive to them. Religion is a subset of superstition, or more specifically of our ability to believe specific things that aren’t true. I certainly do not agree that the distinctions between superstition, cult, and religion are as large as many make them out to be. It also helps to investigate the psychological and neuroscientific underpinnings of so-called “religious” experiences, which can be very compelling to those who experience them but which are not exclusive to religious people. Scientific treatment of the issue would make this clearer, but there’s no shame in admitting that religion – the topic of study – exists.

    I dislike religion’s privileged status as much as the next poster, but that doesn’t mean any attempt to describe it as a distinct phenomenon is giving it a privileged position. If anything, it makes the religionist’s case awkward because it calls into question the basis behind their privileges.

  5. But the very act of grouping together a massively diverse, massively varied, psychologically multifarious gamut of phenomena and calling them one thing DOES inevitably skew our perspective on those phenomena. It credits them all with a shared identity and mode that in reality they do not have.

    It seems to me that the differences between things we call “religious” are far greater than their similarities. The term is far too broad, too vague, too generic and lacking in technical clarity to be of any real taxonomic use. Even “a subset of superstition” or “a subset of culture that deals with patently false or unverifiable beliefs” are too specific to encompass all that the label “religion” does and exclude certain things it does not. People can be religious without holding patently false or unverifiable beliefs. One can treat true beliefs religiously, or hold false and unverifiable beliefs in a non-religious manner. The US gun nut would not be called “religious” save in a metaphorical sense, but he believes the demonstrably false notion that widespread gun ownership makes societies safer with all the zeal of the flagellant or the fakir. Likewise, many Buddhists hold no supernatural or theistic beliefs but still behave in ways that people have no trouble calling religious.

    And the existence of the label, the far-too-extensive, far-too-vague, far-too-unsatisfactory label, is owed not to scientific taxonomy but to uncritical folk memory and branding in the service of the ideals of religious groups. “Religious” has far too many unfortunate connotations, and sparks far too many people to a knee-jerk response. In the minds of most, I would hesitate to guess, it just means “stuff that’s special and we are supposed to treat with respect in a very particular way”. If it had any particular taxonomic value or validity despite this, we might be able to work with the term. But it does not. Even defining it as “things human beings impose an artificial expectation of exaggerated respect on” doesn’t quite get to the core of what it is. Because it is so diverse and protean that it doesn’t actually have a core.

    Which is not to say that there isn’t mileage in studying things we do, in everyday parlance, call “religious”. We can study devotion, ideas of the supernatural, in-group tribalism and every other part of the psychology of the irrational. I just think that lumping them together and calling them “religion” imports too many unscientific and unsupportable assumptions and in addition helps to perpetuate the idea that “religion” is a category apart. Because how can we shed the notion that it IS a category apart if we continue treating it as one?

    I can remember, when I was growing up, that the term “coelenterates” was the accepted taxonomic term for jellyfish of all kinds. It is now considered obsolete, because scientific study has shown that the two sub-groups within the putative phylum – cnidaria and and ctenophora – don’t share enough similarities to justify it, and lumping them all together under the same banner is misleading. The transition there was fairly easy to effect, given that hardly anyone outside the scientific community had heard the word and it didn’t have a mass of popular connotations to bog it down (much less vested interests hiding behind it to shore up their power). It might be harder to effect in the case of “religion”, perhaps impossible, but I still think the effort must be made.

  6. “It maintains the fiction that “religion” is somehow a special and privileged category of thought, when it really isn’t. “Religion” isn’t a thing at all, it’s just a collection of cultural phenomena like all other cultural phenomena, and behaves in exactly the same ways.”

    That was essentially my point too. If one asserts that all religions come from the minds of men anyway, then one tyrranical system from the mind of man is really no different to another just because someone smoked some magic mushroom or invoked his own personal Harvey the rabbit under the guise of ‘god’.

    We should be seeing religion this way….the way it really is….rather that as the ‘special case’ its proponents try to advocate.

  7. Plenty of lengthy analyses of this piece have been supplied before, so apologies if what I say here covers old ground or doesn’t adequately address what the current posts leave open, but I felt it best to express my confusion at Atran’s piece in this imaginary conversation:

    Me: What’s your proposal?
    Scott Atran: We should do more science research into the causes of religion.  Do you agree?
    Me: Kinda.
    SA: Kinda?
    Me: We should be doing more science research on *everything* – religion, quantum gravity, evolution, climate change… So why religion in particular, BTW?
    SA: Because of the import of its consequences.
    Me: Why does that make its causes important to ascertain?
    SA: To prevent its detrimental effects.
    Me: Oh, I think I get it – like conflict, for example.
    SA: Well actually, only 7 % of conflict is religious in cause.
    Me: Still, 7…
    SA: And BTW, when scientists limit their discussion of religion to its claims’ veracity rather than their causal origin, they overlook the fact studies show religion can’t be argued away much, so…
    Me: I’m confused. Is your primary recommended policy that we reduce our ignorance of religion’s causes or reduce the critical extent of our verdict on it?
    SA: Why does a priority there matter?
    There’s a conflict: the more you defend religion by downplaying its role in causing conflict, the less of a case you can make for using a study of it to reduce conflict.
    SA: Right, but my point was it’s wrong to say it’s the main cause of conflict.
    Me: Not that the main cause would necessarily get over 7 %; I mean, I’m guessing there are more than 14 of them. But in any case, does anyone make that case?
    SA: Stand-up comics do!
    Me: True, like Doug Stanhope. No authors though?
    SA: Well, no.
    Isn’t 7 % enough reason to beat it up? And if not, why is it enough reason to study it more?
    SA: I’ll get back to you.

  8. I don’t see why studying religion scientifically “maintains the fiction that “religion” is somehow a special and privileged category of thought” If anything it seems to me that using the same tools from the social sciences to study religion as we use to study other types of social behaviors reinforces just the opposite, that religion is a natural phenomenon like any other and can be studied as such with no recourse to supernatural explanations. 
    As for saying that religion is “just a collection of cultural phenomena like all other cultural phenomena, and behaves in exactly the same ways” I suppose that is true but to say that as if there is no value in studying religious phenomena as a group seems to me like a physicist saying “we don’t need to worry about all these atomic and subatomic particles, all of them are just examples of matter or energy and obey the same fundamental laws” While both statements are true just as it can be useful to study particular particles and understand how they behave differently so it seems sensible to study how religious behavior is similar and different from other kinds of social behavior. 

  9. I tend to go through the same experience when I read Scott Atran: I appreciate his intelligence and his diligent work and attempts to go dig for sources one does not usually see; I tend to agree with many of his conclusions; then he makes statements that I don’t see as backed by what he presents, and he loses me.

    I try to overlook his tendency to push my buttons with things like:

    “New Atheists” have aggressively sought to discredit religion as the chief cause of much human misery, militating for its demise. 

    He writes this below paragraphs where he has referenced actual military force used to impose Atheism in China. Atheists in the West do not advocate military means to impose Atheism; we present arguments as to why the dogmas of religion are either unsupportable by evidence, or out and out contradicted by facts. Yes, we aggressively seek to discredit religion; someone has to. We stand up to people who teach things to children that are objectively wrong; someone has to. We point out that religion is the cause of documented human misery; someone has to.

    Science absolutely needs to study religion, and especially the acquisition of religion by children. If there is a part of some people’s brains that locks on and allows emotion to override reason, we need to know how that works. How much better would it be for students if we could use that knowledge to structure teaching of fact based subjects in  general education?

    No amount of “look at how much religion helped this society” has any argumentative value when presented against an assumed (but unstated) background of speculation of what contrafactual  would otherwise have happened. True, we have no way to judge against a non-religions system that does not yet exist. Instead, we (secularists) fall back on the idea (unproven) that truth works out better on the long haul.

    Finally, I am going to point out that studies showing that you can’t always (or even mostly) talk people out of religion don’t argue for not bothering to talk to those who can be. I would also question the time periods involved. We often read in deconversion stories that people needed many years of mental struggle with the contradiction presented, perhaps in childhood, in order to sort it out and dump the rubbish. Many of those people do not feel that they were in any way “talked out” of religion, but rather, talked themselves out.

    I agree that science should study religion in our brains and as a strange attractor in the chaos of social systems. I agree that such has important Foreign Policy implications. I do not agree, nor have I ever, with the way Scott Atran characterizes us, or Atheism in general.

  10. “the very act of grouping together a … multifarious gamut of phenomena and calling them one thing DOES inevitably skew our perspective on those phenomena. It credits them all with a shared identity and mode that in reality they do not have.”

    That’s an empirical claim about religion. What evidence do you have to back it up? Because what I’ve read shows just the opposite, that religion is ubiquitous across virtually all human cultures and there definitely seem to be things common across virtually all religions. For examples, look at Robert Wright’s book The Evolution of God and Atran’s book In Gods We Trust. Of course all the work here is very preliminary, you may be correct and it may turn out that what we call “religion” is really too nebulous to be meaningful.

     Either way asking those kinds of questions is just the kind of thing Atran wants to do. He just wants to examine religion from a scientific point of view. I’m amazed anyone that believes in the mission of this site would think that wasn’t a sensible thing to do. 

  11. The main characteristic of all living things, including humans, is survival. Humans are aware that they can die at any moment so their minds have created a being that is immortal, who has infinite wisdom and that when they die they will live on forever and will be able to know all the mysteries of life that they did not decipher when they were alive. I think the gods are just the strong sense of human survival; a psychological support developed by the brain that reinforces the means of survival that natural evolution has created over time. Every time humans are in trouble and think their survival is threatened, the first thing they do is to ask for help from this invisible friend and later try to solve the problems by other means. It will be very difficult to get rid of religion in a reasonably near future. The world would have to reach a socio-political system that could give a very advanced education and material security to the masses.

  12. Whether we anti-theists like it or not, religion does seem to be a meme in a class of it’s own.The more I read of the ridiculous myths that have given rise to the desert religions,the less I understand how anyone can believe in them.However, I also agree that simply stating scientific rebuttals does not work with the truly credulous.We watch with growing anxiety the situation in the middle east where islamism is on the increase and those formerly secular countries that have ejected their old dictators now embrace islamism.Israel,in itself a fundamentalist regime, now finds itself surrounded by islamic enemy states.The powderkeg will be duly lit should the idiot Romney be elected and join Israel in attacking nuclear facilities in Iran.We here in the U.K. join our Scandinavian and European friends in welcoming the most destructive religion into our midst and provide all necessary nourishment through misguided respect,to encourage it to flourish.This misplaced respect encourages this religion to see itself as somehow privileged and deserving.We have many instances of expensive and misplaced appeasement in our recent history,to prevent another example we simply must see religion for the dangerous meme it is.Until we say to the fervently religious, of all shades, that we find their beliefs an unacceptable danger to our liberal society, we will continue to be trampled underfoot.

  13. sunbeamforjeebus, Israel does not “find itself” surrounded by hostile Islamic states. Its (not “it’s”!) very own territory was carved out of Arab land, which is the reason for the turmoil in that part of the world over the last 100 yeras or so. That carving was done (by the British) at least partly in the pursuit of evangelical Christian aims.
    As for your Daily Mailish diatribe against multicultural Britain, would you like to tell us in what way you personally are being “trampled underfoot”. I’m British, and a longtime resident of London, but I don’t feel particularly trampled. The current economic woes of the UK are the result, not of any Islamic threat but of copying the American approach to running the economy, which, come to think of it, was itself almost religious in its worship of the Free Market.

  14. CEVA 34 I am just about to go out for the evening so will reply more fully tomorrow and certainly not in the breathtakingly pompous vein as yourself.I agree with the historical context of your first paragraph but your second paragraph is obviously self serving bollocks.Whilst i am out, please highlight the section of my original post that in any way refers to the economic woes of the U.K. I am also a born and bred resident of London (59 years), I subscribe to New Humanist,New Statesman and Private Eye.I am a former Union official and I frankly would not wipe my backside on a copy of the Daily Mail.Strawman now disposed of , further tomorrow.Try to be more objective if you can.

  15. If something is empirically unfalsifiable how can it be studied scientifically? That really is a Sisyphean task; a bit like trying to estimate the temperature of hell, as was attempted at Tehran University. A matter predicated on the existance of hell, for which there’s not a scintilla of evidence of course, and without evidence…

    A scientific study of blind faith would be dependent upon proof of the existence of God; and even if it were possible to go one step beyond that, you end up in the land of infinite regression.

    Why bother? It’s known beyond peradventure that religions are human constructs, which all differ to some degree from each other, so where the hell would you start? Is there a common denominator? Well, OK, wingnuttedness perhaps, but that’s about all, isn’t it?

    Ah shucks, it’s a beautiful evening, and I’m just going to watch the Olympics over a few Gin and Tonics, and leave you brain boxes to argue among yourselves.

  16. They do? I live and study in the south where the religious always got away with a little bit more, and the religion I see on television has no problems with staying out of politics.

    Then again, I’m in Rio de Janeiro now so the Netherlands might only seem so secular in comparison to that..

  17. “If something is empirically unfalsifiable how can it be studied scientifically?”

    You can study a meme or whatever you want to call religion without believing the meme to be true. You can use science to study things like Nazism and UFOs without being a Nazi or a UFO believer. 

    So you can also study religion without believing in one. And from the standpoint of a sociobiologist its a very interesting phenomenon. Something that virtually all humans in any known time had in one way or another even though from an evolutionary standpoint it was expensive (required sacrifices of time, livestock, and people) and yielded nothing  immediately obvious in return. Its the pointlessness of religion that make it such an interesting potential area to study by people who want to apply the scientific method to the social sciences.

  18. Excellent article, thank you for posting it. The author’s criticisms of secular scientists/New Atheists are in line with my own: that their dismissal of the phenomenon of religion without making a deeper study of its psychological and social power is a form of ignorance which greatly weakens their own ideology. It’s not enough to simply wave religion away as an obsolete relic of the pre-scientific age; you have to try to understand why it is so successful, why religions have so much staying power while secular ideologies come and go.

    I would go so far as to claim that the only way something like New Atheism is going to be really successful is by incorporating many of the time-tested methods of religion. I don’t believe you can escape religiosity, but you can change its form into something more benign and consistent with scientific knowledge. Carl Sagan comes to mind as someone who attempted this, as did the Russian “Cosmists,” Soviet “God-Builders” and the modern “Singularitarians.” So perhaps a better approach is not simply to dismiss and negate all religion, but to offer a positive alternative “religion” which inspires people more powerfully than the legacy ones. Good luck!

  19. It seems we do not currently have effective techniques for turning away people from religion. While some people can through education lose religion, a much larger percentage of the religious grasp their irrational beliefs even harder in the face of evidence that contradicts their beliefs.

    If studying religion leads to better methods of leading people a life more grounded in reality, it is a worthwhile effort. The same insights we gain from this study could help all sorts of people suffering from harmful beliefs.

    Increasing our knowledge of any subject is a good thing.

  20. Ah, but those other things you mention *are* religions. Anything can be a religion; for example, I am partial to Sithism, though I would also be attracted to a religion based on the Marvel comic book universe (may Galactus almighty spare our tiny planet!). Pastafarianism pushes all the same buttons that other religions do, and I think that’s fine. You may think I’m joking or crazy, but I’m actually not. I would posit that religion, viewed in this way as creative myth-construction, *is* a special category of thought, which seems to come as naturally to humans as language or tool-making. The trick to breaking the grip of fundamentalism is to “flood the market” by letting a thousand new religions bloom, not to try to stamp them all out!


    Increasing our knowledge of any subject is a good thing.

    Understanding the underlying psychology and any religions which impinge on your life, is useful up to a point, but there are far too many valuable subjects worthy of study, to spend a great proportion of your time on it.

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