Taking a closer look at religion’s role in war

While watching the “Beyond Belief” videos that prompted the previous posting, I was struck by how often anthropologist Scott Atran, a rational thinker like everyone else in the room, was isolated by his insistence that (1) things aren’t as simple as we’d like them to be and (2) we should really test our pet theories before we leap to defend them.

Why should Atran’s insistence on direct  examination of theoretical claims have made him an outsider in a room filled with fellow scientists?

Isn’t his stance one of the “sacred values” of scientific investigation about which I wrote last time? Well, it should be, but for the New Atheist dogmatists any suggestion that the world is complex seems to ramp up their aggression.

And Scott Atran seems often to be in their sights, as he will be again, now that he has published another article that suggests that things are more complicated than “religion bad, reason good.”

Now, everyone who reads this blog knows that, like the New Atheists, I am a naturalist, which means that I believe by definition that the supernatural doesn’t exist. Yet, while I share the Horsemen’s disbelief, I don’t share their simplistic view that religion is nothing more than a blunt instrument applied to the heads of defenseless children. Get rid of religion, they write, and you get rid of most of the world’s evils. These days, after 9/11, the most prominent of these evils is the perceived threat of religious war.

Scott Atran doesn’t agree with any of this. The most recent evidence for his different point of view can be found in “Religious and Sacred Imperatives in Human Conflict,” an article published May 18th by Science. Written with Jeremy Ginges, the article paints a more complex picture of the role of religion in war.

Atran and Ginges (A&G) begin with the uncontroversial observation that “religion, in promoting outlandish beliefs and costly rituals, increases ingroup trust but also may increase mistrust and conflict with outgroups.”

But while “sacred values sustain intractable conflicts that defy ‘business-like’ negotiation,”  they can also “provide surprising opportunities for resolution.” In other words, religion’s functioning in times of war is neither simple nor necessarily destructive.

A&G argue that people will fight and die not only in defense of their own lives and the lives of those close to them, but also for “an idea—the moral conception they form of themselves, of ‘who we are’.”

Pointing out that “small-scale hunter-gatherer societies, which best approximate ancestral conditions, lack omniscient and omnipotent supernaturals,” A&G contend that it is useful to see religions (the tendency to create religions is almost certainly instinctual) as culturally evolved by-products of large group formation. It is the threat to “primary group loyalties” posed by “modern multiculturalism and global exposure to multifarious values” that leads fundamentalist movements to “push back” in defense of primary group loyalty. That is, the “ritual commitments to ideological purity” that the New Atheists see as the cause of conflict — religion is evil — is more the means than the motive. In this view, religion seldom causes war, but it frequently supports war.

Writing that “explicit religious issues have motivated only a small minority of recorded wars,” A&G summarize the last few points by repeating their initial observation: “Religious beliefs involving sacred values facilitate both large-scale cooperation and enduring group conflict.”

These motivation and support roles of religion can be very effective:

Ample historical and cross-cultural evidence shows that when conflict is framed by competing religious and sacred values, intergroup violence may persist for decades, even centuries. Disputes over otherwise mundane phenomena (people, places, objects, events) then become existential struggles, as when land becomes “holy land.” Secular issues become sacralized and nonnegotiable.

A&G cite studies that show that “offering people material incentives (large amounts of money, guarantees for a life free of political violence) to compromise sacred values can backfire, increasing violence toward compromise.” Yet, “strong symbolic gestures (sincere apologies, demonstrating respect for the other’s values) generate surprising flexibility, even among militants and political leaders, and may enable subsequent material negotiations.”

In their view, then, A&G argue that while religion often plays an important part in wars begun for other reasons, it is seldom the root cause of conflict itself. That is, the role of religion in war is both complex and incompletely understood. They advocate an expansion of the study of the forms and mechanisms of religion’s role in external conflict, suggesting several routes of inquiry which, they believe, would enhance our knowledge of the role of religion in war. Specifically, they offer a series of hypotheses that would benefit from expanded investigation. “We need to know more about cognitive and social mechanisms underlying sacralization of values that cement personal devotion to group norms.”

Religion addresses problems of cooperation in large complex societies through supernatural agents that punish noncooperators, use of ritual to forge strong group bonds, and sacralization of mundane issues threatened in intergroup disputes. …

While there is no necessary link between religious belief, sacred values, and war, during intergroup conflict protagonists may transform material interests into sacred values and further consolidate them into religious beliefs. …

Sacred values are not exclusive to religion; mundane values may be sacralized through rituals linking them to nonreligious sacred values, like the nation. …

These and other suppositions can be studied in a variety of ways. A&G’s suggestions include in-depth ethnography, cognitive and behavioural experiments, neuroimaging, developmental studies of children, formal modeling of cultural evolutionary processes, and archaeological and historical investigation of both the events of the past and the prospects for the future reduction of warfare.

This is an ambitious agenda. Were religion’s role in conflict as simply and directly causal as the New Atheists often claim, to pursue such an agenda would be both costly and ultimately fruitless.

If Atran and Ginges are right, however, not to pursue a research program something like the one they propose could well be very much costlier.

3 thoughts on “Taking a closer look at religion’s role in war

  1. I enjoy your blog quite a bit, but I’m wondering if you could please get an RSS feed link for it. That would make it easier to keep track of your postings.

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