War is morality by other means

Scott Atran was the speaker in the morning of day three of the religion and violence conference – the anthropologist who through his impressive face-to-face research into the values of terrorists has come to recognise that sacred not material concerns are primary in these conflicts. This has all sorts of consequences for the way you might conduct a ‘war on terror’. Politicians must engage sacred values from the top, not treat them as mere colour, as the dominant political paradigms tend to, given their focus on strategic and economic interests. I’ve written about Atran’s book Talking to the Enemy before, so here are some thoughts responding to his presentation.

Atran sets his work in an evolutionary context, arguing that religion is necessary to overcome the ‘selfish gene’ problems associated with forming large groups. Large collectives like societies have to buy into a notion of ‘fictive kinship’ to form, and a moral deity helps like nothing else. Belief in such an entity means that the individual sublimates their own interests to those of the group/god, and internalizes punishment for going against the group that the god represents. To put it another way, universal monotheism is a prerequisite for any kind of universal humanism, the attitude in which the group comes to include everyone.

The downside is that it makes war, or at least the possibility of war, an ever present threat for the reason that it is our moral passions that drive us, and nothing drives moral passions like conflict – who’s in, who’s out, who’s threatening what’s most dear, what’s sacred to us. To put it another way again, war is not politics by other means, it is morality by other means. Hence the US fights for the idea of freedom; the Muslim radical for the values of jihad.

The double downside is that violent actions are irrational: they are not calculating, but the research shows that people engage in violence because they feel they ought to or have to. ‘I cannot stand by whilst [insert sacred value] is offended.’ Moreover, sacred values drive conflict with little regard to the prospect of success, and so as commitment to a cause matters more than access to superior weaponry, conflicts tend to perpetuate over generations, until the cause ceases.

So far, so fascinating and bleak. But listening to Atran also raised questions for me about such analysis.

For example, he notes that people with sacred values always sniff out the attempt to have their values manipulated, perhaps for the utilitarian ends of a more material calculus. It’s a bit like being asked whether you would sell your child for a million, or two million, or three? The more that is offered the more offended you become, your child being sacred to you. But is not the whole project of evolutionary psychology, with its invisible hand of survival advantage, a story about the manipulation of values? How come, then, the invisible hand works?

A related point is that whilst Atran is at the forefront of those social scientists challenging the rational choice theory that dominates economics with mechanisms of irrationality, the aim of the challenge is still to develop economic models that would steer irrational people in rational directions. Again, is that not ultimately self-contradictory and so self-defeating?

I asked Atran about such high level critiques, and he acknowledged they pose open questions.

I suspect it is possible to challenge the evolutionary story about the value of a moral deity, too. Rather than seeing belief in a moral deity as what is referred to as a ‘privileging of the absurd’ – absurd beliefs generate evolutionary advantage and so stick – isn’t it possible to interpret the emergence of sophisticated religions as the vehicle by which homo sapiens emerged from the black and white world of ‘kill or be killed’ into the morally complex world that characterises a rich humanity. Further, subtle religious systems that are resistant to being turned back into black and white beliefs should be nurtured, and importantly, for the sake of a rich religious life. This was a point picked up by our second speaker, Sara Savage, whose fascinating work I will be returning to for sure.

But whatever big evolutionary story you care to tell, there is a clear message: equipping those vulnerable to being so radicalised with the confidence and skills to embrace more sophisticated views of the world should be an imperative.

(Image: Choppers by John D. Kurtz IV)