Scott Atran

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Scott Atran (born 1952) is an American and French anthropologist who is a Director of Research in Anthropology at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris, Senior Research Fellow at Oxford University in England, Presidential Scholar at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, and also holds offices at the University of Michigan. He has studied and written about terrorism, violence and religion, and has done fieldwork with terrorists and Islamic fundamentalists, as well as political leaders.

Quotes[edit]

In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion (2002)[edit]

  • Human cognition (re)creates the gods who sustain hope beyond sufficient reason and commitment beyond self interest. Humans ideally represent themselves to one another in gods they trust. Through their gods, people see what is good in others and what is evil.
    • Preface, p. ix
  • Roughly, religion is a community's costly and hard-to-fake commitment to a counterfactual and counterintuitive world of supernatural agents who master people's existential anxieties, such as death and deception.
    • Introduction: an evolutionary riddle, p. 4
  • Religious practice is costly in terms of material sacrifice (at least one's prayer time), emotional expenditure (inciting fears and hopes), and cognitive effort (maintaining both factual and counterintuitive networks of beliefs).
    • Introduction: an evolutionary riddle, p. 4
  • Religious beliefs are counterfactual insofar as they are anomalous (e.g., God is gendered but sexless; Saturn devours his own children; lambs lie with lions), implausible (e.g., Athena bursts forth from Zeus's head; the Zai:rean Nkundo hero Lianja springs fully armed from the leg of his mother; Lao-Tse either emerges with his white beard from the left side of his mother, who bore him for eighty years, or is born immaculately of a shooting star), and, most significantly, counterintuitive (e.g., the Judea-Christian God is a sentient and emotional being with no body; Greek, Hindu, Maya, and Egyptian deities are half-human half-beast; the Chinese monkey god can travel thousands of kilometers at one somersault).
    • Introduction: an evolutionary riddle, p. 4
  • The more one accepts what is materially false to be really true, and the more one spends material resources in displays of such acceptance, the more others consider one's faith deep and one's commitment sincere.
    • Introduction: an evolutionary riddle, p. 5
  • Cultures and religions do not exist apart from the individual minds that constitute them and the environments that constrain them, any more than biological species and varieties exist independently of the individual organisms that compose them and the environments that conform them. They are not well-bounded systems or definite clusters of beliefs, practices, and artifacts, but more or less regular distributions of causally connected thoughts, behaviors, material products, and environmental objects. To naturalistically understand what "cultures" are is to describe and explain the material causes responsible for reliable differences in these distributions.
    • Introduction: an evolutionary riddle, p. 10
  • Each mountain ridge in this landscape has a distinct contour, with various peaks whose heights reflect evolutionary time. That is, within humankind's evolutionary landscape there are several naturally selected systems that contribute to channeling human experience toward religious paths. In the processing of human experience, these systems, and their components, interact and develop interrelated functions - as do geological, hydrological, and organic systems in the drainage process.
    • Introduction: an evolutionary riddle, p. 11
  • One such evolutionary system, or ridge, encompasses panhuman emotional faculties, or affective "programs." These include the basic, or primary, emotions that Darwin first identified: surprise, fear, anger, joy, sadness, disgust, and perhaps contempt. Certain reactions characteristic of the neurophysiology of surprise and fear are already evident in reptiles, and the other primary emotions are at least apparent in monkeys and apes. Then there are the secondary, mostly "social" emotions, such as anxiety, grief, guilt, pride, vengeance, and love. These may be unique to humans-hence, at the lower level in our evolutionary mountain landscape and somewhat more liable to cultural manipulation and variation than the primary, "Darwinian" emotions. Thus, only humans seek revenge or redemption across lifetimes and generations, whatever the cost, although the nature of the deeds that trigger insult or remorse may vary considerably across societies, and the means to counter them may range even wider.
    • Introduction: an evolutionary riddle, p. 11
  • Another ridge includes social interaction schema. Some of these schema may have aspects that go far back in evolutionary time, such as those involved in detecting predators and seeking protectors, or that govern direct "tit-for-tat" reciprocity (you scratch my back, and I'll scratch yours; if you bite me, then I'll bite you). Other social interaction schema may have elements common to some species of social mammals (e.g., bats, wolves, monkeys, and apes). Examples include certain systematically recurrent forms of delayed reciprocity (you help me now and I'll help you later), indirect reciprocity (I'll help those who help those who help me; the enemies of my enemies are my friends), and greeting displays of submission-domination. Still other social interaction schema appear to be unique to humans, such as making decisions to cooperate on the basis of social signs of reputation rather than on the basis of individual observation and experience, or in offering and obtaining future commitments of an indeterminate nature (when the chips are down, I'll help you, whatever the situation). Only humans, it appears, willingly commit their lives to groups of nonkin.
    • Introduction: an evolutionary riddle, p. 11
  • In the course of life, all such systems (i.e., the different evolutionary ridges) are somewhat functionally interdependent, as are components within each system (i.e., the different programs, schema, modules) . Nevertheless, each system and system component has a somewhat distinct evolutionary history and time line. There is no single origin of religion, nor any necessary and sufficient set of functions that religion serves. Rather, there is a family of evolutionary-compatible functions that all societies more or less realize but that no one society need realize in full.
    • Introduction: an evolutionary riddle, p. 12
  • Religions are not adaptations and they have no evolutionary functions as such.
    • Introduction: an evolutionary riddle, p. 12
  • For commitment theorists, political and economic ideologies that obey transcendent behavioral laws do for people pretty much what religious belief in the supernatural is supposed to do. One frequently cited example of religious-like ideology is Lenin's doctrine of dialectical materialism. An equally plausible candidate is what financier George Soros calls "market fundamentalism." Like more familiar religious doctrines, these promissory ideologies seem to maintain the faith no matter how many contrary facts or reasons they face. But if such secular ideologies perform the same functions as religious ideologies, then why did at least 50 percent of Marx-fearing Russians feel the need to preserve their belief in the supernatural (survey by Subbotsky 2000)? And why is the overwhelming majority of market believers also God-fearing (Novak 1999; Podhoretz 1999). What is it about belief in the supernatural that thwarts social defection and deception, underpinning moral orders as no secular ideology seems able to do for long?
    • Introduction: an evolutionary riddle, p. 14
  • Supernatural agents are critical components of all religions but not of all ideologies. They are, in part, by-products of a naturally selected cognitive mechanism for detecting agents-such as predators, protectors, and prey-and for dealing rapidly and economically with stimulus situations involving people and animals. This innate releasing mechanism is trip-wired to attribute agency to virtually any action that mimics the stimulus conditions of natural agents: faces on clouds, voices in the wind, shadow figures, the intentions of cars or computers, and so on. Among natural agents, predators such as snakes are as likely to be candidates for deification as are protectors, such as parent-figures.
    • Introduction: an evolutionary riddle, p. 15
  • Mature cognitions of folkpsychology and agency include metarepresentation. This involves the ability to track and build a notion of self over time, to model other minds and worlds, and to represent beliefs about the actual world as being true or false. It also makes lying and deception possible. This threatens any social order. But this same metarepresentational capacity provides the hope and promise of open-ended solutions to problems of moral relativity. It does so by enabling people to conjure up counterintuitive supernatural worlds that cannot be verified or falsified, either logically or empirically. Religious beliefs minimally violate ordinary intuitions about the world, with its inescapable problems, such as death. This frees people to imagine minimally impossible worlds that seem to solve existential dilemmas, including death and deception.
    • Introduction: an evolutionary riddle, p. 15
  • Religious ritual invariably offers a sacrificial display of commitment to supernatural agents that is materially costly and emotionally convincing. Such ritual conveys willingness to cooperate with a community of believers by signaling an open-ended promise to help others whenever there is true need. These expensive and sincere displays underscore belief that the gods are always vigilant and will never allow society to suffer those who cheat on their promises. Such a deep devotion to the in-group habitually generates intolerance toward out-groups. This, in turn, leads to constant rivalry and unending development of new and syncretic religious forms.
    • Introduction: an evolutionary riddle, p. 16
  • Religious ritual survives cultural transmission by embedding episodes of intense, life-defining personal experiences in public performances. These performances involve sequential, socially interactive movement and gesture (chant, dance, murmur, sway) and formulaic utterances that rhythmically synchronize affective states among group members in displays of cooperative commitment. This is often accompanied by sensory pageantry, which further helps to emotionally validate and sustain the moral consensus.
    • Introduction: an evolutionary riddle, p. 16
  • As with emotionally drawn-out religious initiations, neurobiological studies of stress disorders indicate that subjects become intensely absorbed by sensory displays. The mystical experiences of schizophrenics and temporal lobe epileptics, which may be at the extreme end of the "normal" distribution of religious experience, also exhibit intense sensory activity. These may help to inspire new religions. There is no evidence, however, that more "routine" religious experiences that commit the bulk of humanity to the supernatural have any characteristic pattern of brain activity.
    • Introduction: an evolutionary riddle, p. 16
  • Religion survives science and secular ideology not because it is prior to or more primitive than science or secular reasoning, but because of what it affectively and collectively secures for people.
    • Introduction: an evolutionary riddle, p. 17
  • Ignorance or disregard of our evolutionary heritage, and of the fundamental biological, emotional, cognitive, and social similarities on which much in everyday human life and thought depend, can lead to speculative philosophies and empirical programs that misconstrue the natural scope and limits of our species-specific abilities and competencies. The intellectual and moral consequences of this misconstrual have varying significance, both for ourselves and for others, for example, in the ways relativism informs currently popular notions of "separate but equal" cultural worlds whose peoples are in some sense incommensurably different from ourselves and from one another. Relativism aspires directly to mutual tolerance of irreducible differences. Naturalism-the evolutionary-based biological and cognitive understanding of our common nature and humanity-aims first to render cultural diversity comprehensible. If anything, evolution teaches us that from one or a few forms wondrously many kinds will arise.
    • Introduction: an evolutionary riddle, p. 17

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