Disbelief about belief: why secular academics have trouble believing that jihadis are motivated by religion

My friend and colleague Maarten Boudry, a Belgian philosopher (my only philosophy paper was coauthored with him) has a new, short piece published in the New English Review about why academics like Robert Pape and similar apologists have such trouble understanding that religious terrorists really can be motivated by religion (click on screenshot).  (Our earlier paper was on a related topic: why religious people don’t see their faith statements as mere fictional imaginings—as the author we were criticizing had maintained—but often do think that their reality statements do correspond to reality.)

For some reason,  many academics, as I noted recently when writing about Sam Harris’s reissued podcast, aren’t willing to accept religious ideology or belief as a motivation for bad actions. Not only Pape, but also Karen Armstrong and Reza Aslan come to mind. My own view was simply that religion is uniquely off limits as something to criticize. Even atheists who have what Dan Dennett calls “belief in belief” (the idea that religion, while not credible for the writer, is still useful for society), try to exculpate religion from doing bad stuff.  I realized this when I faced pushback for having written Faith Versus Fact, which I saw as trenchant but not over-the-top criticism of religion. Some of the criticism dealt not with my claims, but could be seen only as stemming from anger that I had taken a few steaks from the sacred cow of faith.

But Maarten goes beyond that in his piece (quotes below).

I’m not going to reprise all the ideas and people Maarten cites for promoting the idea that terrorism has no religious roots, nor his arguments against their claims. Suffice it to say that I think he makes an intriguing case. What I want to highlight is why Maarten thinks that this has to go beyond mere “political correctness” about Islam, or the special treatment of Muslims as a form of “soft bigotry.”  Here’s his view:

Why do some academics have so much trouble taking religious motivations seriously? Many people, Jason Walters included, would point to political correctness about Islam. Most academics, especially in the humanities, have a progressive, leftist orientation. For them, Islam is the religion of an oppressed non-white minority, and criticism of the latter is suspect. Blaming Islam for violence and hatred is something to be avoided at all costs. Many academics in the humanities regard it as their duty to counterbalance the shift to the right in politics and public opinion. If minorities are being stigmatized, academics must push back. If certain politicians start talking about “Islamic terrorism”, academics should act as a counterweight. Moreover, academic specialization has led to the formation of ideological enclaves, in which researchers have laid down their own rules and end up talking mostly to like-minded colleagues.

However, I do not think that this explanation is sufficient, as many political leaders themselves—such as Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton—have had a hard time taking the religious motivations of terrorists seriously (indeed, this may even have contributed to Donald Trump’s unlikely victory). I would therefore like to propose another hypothesis. Most academics have grown up in a thoroughly secularized environment, in which religion played either no role at all, or only a very insignificant one. If they were acquainted with God at all, it was a touchy-feely version that had gone through the “washing machine of the Enlightenment”—as the Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn called it—in which God was nothing more than an impersonal abstraction, or a metaphor for the goodness of human beings. Religious faith was primarily an intimate and personal affair, completely divorced from politics. Because of their indifference to religious faith, these godless Westerners have great difficulty imagining what it means to believe in a concrete personal God, the kind of deity who revealed himself in an infallible Holy Book, and who demands concrete actions and commitment from its believers, on pain of eternal hellfire. Not only do they themselves not believe in such a God, but they cannot imagine that others really believe in one either, let alone that their lives could revolve around that faith. This phenomenon, which I have previously called “disbelief about belief,” is especially strong in relation to Islamic fundamentalism, with its bizarre delusions about the impending End Times and the pleasure garden with 72 virgins. For these ‘disbelievers about belief’, it is tempting to look for other motives behind religious violence that make more sense from a secular perspective, such as frustrations about exclusion and discrimination, or the struggle to dislodge a foreign occupier. I admit that I felt a certain trepidation myself when I sat down to write a critical commentary for Behavioral and Brain Sciences about Harvey Whitehouse’s theory. It feels strange to be writing about the “blood of martyrs” and the “gates of paradise” in a serious academic journal. It all sounds so ludicrous and bizarre that you wonder: Does anyone really believe this stuff? In fact, Harvey Whitehouse has made his disbelief about belief quite explicit inrecent interview. For him, the thesis about extreme self-sacrifice is part and parcel of his broader take on religion. Religion is not about a “set of propositions” or a “rational understanding of nature” at all, but about “building cohesion” in a social group. For all these reasons, Whitehouse dislikes “new atheists” such as Richard Dawkins who “offend people by attacking their identities.”

I think there is something to this, although I don’t see why political leaders, especially those on the Left like Clinton and Obama, are immune from “political correctness” towards Islam. Yes, blaming terrorism on Islam has been done more often by Right-wing politicians like Trump, but excusing of religion for terrorism by politicians on “pc” grounds is indeed common.

In other words, I think Maarten’s explanation is correct to some extent, for without personal experience of really believing deeply in the invidious truth claims of religion, it’s hard to fathom that other people might really believe them. (This is what my paper with Maarten was about). But I think the “political correctness” view also plays a huge role in denying religion a place among causes of terrorism. You be the judge.

Even if you don’t agree fully with Maarten’s new hypothesis, the piece is still very useful in reviewing how pervasive is the denial of any malfeasance promoted by religion.

48 Comments

  1. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted May 3, 2019 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

    the washing machine of the Enlightment metaphor – it’s embarrassing to say, but it’s a very effective metaphor – credit to Pim Fortuyn.

    • Posted May 3, 2019 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

      Why do you find it embarassing?

      • ThyroidPlanet
        Posted May 3, 2019 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

        Well, I don’t know, but The Enlightenment is important. Washing machines… i guess it depends. I wouldn’t want to kill a conversation with someone by using it.

        I emphasize I think it is very effective.

        • Nicolaas Stempels
          Posted May 4, 2019 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

          And not devoid of brilliance. You may not have agreed with Pim Fortuyn’s ideas, but he was most certainly an interesting politician.
          Great pity he got shot before we could have seen some more of him.
          What I also find curious is that he was murdered by an ‘environmentalist’, and not an extremist Muslim. I think his stances on the environment would have been much more amenable to compromise and even change, than his stances on religion and Islamic fundamentalism.

  2. Ken Kukec
    Posted May 3, 2019 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

    … that I had taken a few steaks from the sacred cow of faith.

    Nicely done.

  3. Randall Schenck
    Posted May 3, 2019 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

    I have a hard time buying his theory on this and the reason they don’t get it is because they never really believed themselves. I think the Obama and Clinton reason is purely political correctness and not wanting to offend Muslims by pointing at the real reason as explained by terrorist themselves and Sam Harris. Both Clinton and Obama come from religious backgrounds. I, on the other hand am atheist and always have been, yet I have no problem making the connection to the religion at all.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted May 3, 2019 at 6:27 pm | Permalink

      Yeah but you’re not President so you don’t have to exercise care not to slander large numbers of your citizens (that is, the majority of Muslims who don’t do terrorist shit).

      (tRump doesn’t count, of course).

      cr

      • Davide Spinello
        Posted May 4, 2019 at 8:04 am | Permalink

        I think this is a valid concern. However we
        still have to be able to talk about ideologies behind actions. For example, talking about the racist white supremacist motivations behind the Christchurch massacre is not slender of the overwhelming majority of whites that are not white supremacist terrorists.

  4. eheffa
    Posted May 3, 2019 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

    As a former very committed Fundamentalist Evangelical, I totally understand how one’s faith can induce you to do what appears to be simply crazy to a non-believer.

    When those who commit atrocities in the name of their god explain their motives and excuse their horrors as simple commitment to their Holy Texts, it does not help for more ‘enlightened’ Left-leaning folks to disbelieve them.

    IMO, the statement above: “For them, Islam is the religion of an oppressed non-white minority, and criticism of the latter is suspect.” is bang on.

    This political correctness might explain the striking absence of the term “Terrorists” (even with out the Islamist appendage) when the press reports on the perpetrators of the recent terrorist attacks in Sri Lanka.

  5. Roo
    Posted May 3, 2019 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

    I think some things fall under “Yeah, I know you really believe this, but that’s actually beside the point.” I would put blaming violence on religion in that category, albeit tentatively and conditionally, as I am open to being proven wrong on that. For example, when a child tells you he hit his sister because she is the biggest stupidhead in the world; an alcoholic says he doesn’t have a problem; or a teen says you’re the worst parent in the entire universe. Getting into a ton of handwringing over whether or not “they really believe that” seems beside the point. There’s little reason to think they’re lying, but, at the same time, little reason to think addressing this belief by itself is a productive way to proceed. The “belief”, in those cases, is secondary to so many other factors that we intuitively address those factors first.

    Given that all tribal life everywhere appears to have or have had a pretty brutal element to it, telling people in that cultural stage to simply look at the world like a fourth generation member of a highly industrialized society seems futile. Based on anecdotal observation, that process generally unfolds by itself as conditions change.

    • Posted May 4, 2019 at 8:15 am | Permalink

      The belief can shape the person’s actions to some extent, but I agree that it’s secondary. For that matter, the believer’s emotions and actions can shape their belief, too. One has only to watch fundamentalists pick and choose which Bible verses to pay attention to, to see this in action.

      • Roo
        Posted May 4, 2019 at 9:12 am | Permalink

        Yeah, I think it’s complicated. The fact that young people convert to radical forms of ideology in order to go off to join ISIS, for example – to my mind that speaks to them wanting to do something first, and filling in a ‘belief’ second. It’s not as if they were conflicted about what to do but felt they had no choice but to adhere to a lifelong belief, in that case. I think there’s likely feedback in both directions but it’s probably very complex.

        That said, again, I do think it’s fair to say that from a strictly “public relations” standpoint, religious people (of which I am one, sort of, in a way,) do have to accept the natural consequences of espousing various beliefs. While we don’t know if religion actually causes violence, I think it is fair to say that if you go around saying that sometimes God wants you to kill people, then yes, that is going to freak people out, some more than others (I think it freaks out atheists more because in Christianity, one gets used to hearing about smotings and such and yet living peacefully in the world, so it seems less odd to think that people can believe those things while at the same time being perfectly nice people.) Even if it’s just in the ‘fine print’ of one’s ideology, yes, I think from a strictly social (not scientific) standpoint, one should expect that such statements might impact others perception of you. (And I think that’s true of any religion, I’m not singling out Islam.)

  6. Posted May 3, 2019 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

    I can understand the notion that people raised in and/or living in an environment without strong religious belief have a hard time understanding it. Also, in our sound-bite driven US environment, any criticism of Islam gets quickly translated by too many listeners into “All Muslims are evil terrorists!” which is of course not at all true.

    But, though I believe religion is in part the driving force behind jihadis of any religion (see recent US events of destruction perpetrated by Christians), I also think there are individuals drawn to jihadism. If we waved a magic wand and made all religion go away, they’d find other justifications…maybe even reinventing religion.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted May 3, 2019 at 6:31 pm | Permalink

      I certainly agree with your second paragraph. Some people need a crusade and, I suspect, it’s often pure accident of circumstances whether their crusade takes the form of freeing slaves or persecuting witches.

      cr

  7. Roger
    Posted May 3, 2019 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

    The ham salad of religion! Don’t ever buy it. You don’t want to know what’s in it.

  8. Draden
    Posted May 3, 2019 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

    I think there are other reasons for caution in making religion the causal link to terrorism. Islam (religion) is neither sufficient (not all muslims are terrorists) nor required (not all these horrible attacks are religious). Using Islam as a marker for terrorists is going to give a lot of false positives. That is not saying it is not involved, but it may not be the best way to look at the problem. For example, aging is correlated with breast cancer but using age as the primary marker for screening for breast cancer, according to current recommendations, is worse than breast cancer.

    • max blancke
      Posted May 3, 2019 at 7:54 pm | Permalink

      I key human survival instinct is pattern recognition. The downside is that it leads to stereotyping. When the gentleman threw a firework into the Easter church service in Munich and screamed “Allahu Akbar!”, the people in that church reacted instinctively. They did not consider whether they were making offensive assumptions about Islam. They just reacted.
      I am not aware of anyone seriously proposing that all Muslims are terrorists. For one thing, it is provably false. But like with your breast cancer analogy, it is a risk factor.
      Today, I watched a video of some little girls doing some sort of school presentation and vowing to chop off the heads of those who interfere with their efforts to liberate Jerusalem. If the kids had been in a school in Nablus, that would be distressing but normal. The kids I watched were in Philadelphia.
      Teaching that sort of crap to your kids is going to have effects both on them and on society.

  9. Posted May 3, 2019 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

    A very good piece, but also a bit in the “counterbalance” direction, just the opposite one. Many Islam critics tend to ignore factors that contribute to radicalism, and argue that pointing them out would distract from the “elephant in the room” that is religion.

    But it is perfectly legetimate to consider how that elephant got into the room, and why it’s rampaging. Radicalism would not take place as much without the oil money we pour into our good ally Saudi Arabia, and their financing of more radical versions of Islam. Even without theological motive, they have geostrategical reasons for “Muslim identity politics” that ties fates of other people closer to their own house. Every major player in the world promotes an idealized version of a particular culture in which they are themselves a leader.

    Of course, on the ground level, an individual doesn’t care about that. They have been indoctrinated and radicalised into a particular version of reality. One, where certain acts are greatly rewarded. This then influences their internal “risk vs reward” sense on what to do. I suppose for a happy family man to become a suicide bomber, he must believe extremely strongly. He risks a happy life, must also overcome other intuitions to blow himself up in a crowd. That requires, first, absolute certainty in an even greater reward, which, second, requires a specific version of belief. A young man who realizes a few years into his adult life that the trajectory looks poor, doesn’t risk too much for the great eternal reward. In this case, the second factor is probably more important than the first (a specific version of belief that is highly rewarding). Someone who’s suicidal and psychopathic risks effectively nothing at all, where all it takes is a belief that a certain action will lead to a postmortal reward.

    With that we already have three factors, which already strikes me as a highly simplified model. First, a certain version of faith must be promoted and appear plausible, which happens through funding, and which can lead over into entirely worldly concerns (when a faith is used cynically). Then there are at minimum two more factors embedded in a risk-vs-reward structure, strenght of belief or radicalism, and a particular version of faith which rewards violence and terror highly, especially after death.

    In summary, I believe we should ditch monocausal explanations, and consider all of these (and more) factors. I maintain that religion is proto-culture-science-art glued tightly together, invented long before humanity specialized itself. It remains to be a residue that tends to stick in the cracks between those domains. As such, it cannot be easily reduced to a separate thing that is divorced from politics, identity, culture, art, and epistemology (knowledge/science). Radicalism doesn‘t distill religion into a new thing, but the opposite, it is the “reverse” function, that dissolves inventions and developments into a previous, amorphous, gloopy state.

    • Roo
      Posted May 3, 2019 at 6:07 pm | Permalink

      I think remembering nuance is incredibly important in any kind of scientific endeavor (there was a great parody on John Oliver about how much we as a society tend to hate that kind of thing these days, called “Todd Talks”). What makes me nervous about blanket assertions (“It’s obvious that X causes Y, you’re a fool if you don’t see it”) is that so often our common sense intuitions about the world are dead wrong. I have heard several parents tell me that anyone who doesn’t understand that vaccines gave their child autism is blind, and I understand that to them, the causal sequence was obvious – what they saw was a shot, a fever, a regression – it would be almost impossible to convince a parent who has experienced that personally otherwise. It is only through really looking at these things on a large scale (how often do babies get fevers, how often do they get vaccinations, what are the odds that at least some cases of regressive autism would begin around the time of a recent vaccination, etc.) that we overcome our knee-jerk intuitions about how the world works. I think it would be surprising if one’s cultural milieu didn’t have at least some impact on one’s personality and actions, but we have seen in cases like Blank-Slate-ism how that can easily be distorted and oversimplified, as well as cover over underlying factors that are very real. (Apologies if you are more towards the Blank Slate side, as obviously you won’t agree with that analogy.)

      Science can be boring and full of hedges and inconclusive statements, but if one is committed to the idea that this is the best way of problem solving, I think that has to apply all around. (I should note, I think that science is very different from social pressure. If someone wants to strongly condemn any violence in the name of religion just because they think it’s wrong, then attempting to apply social pressure and widespread condemnation as a bulwark against that behavior is another dynamic entirely. It doesn’t speak to the root cause of the problem, it simply acknowledges that people in all sorts of situations respond to the reactions and judgements of others. If a person kills in the name of God, then yes, I think it’s right to point out that this is an absolutely depraved thing to do, regardless of the reasons. People have many reasons for committing crimes but they are still judged, socially, on their behavior.)

  10. GBJames
    Posted May 3, 2019 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

    I haven’t read Boudry’s piece yet but it resonates with me based on the above.

    As for “political correctness”, I’m not sure it is a very useful concept. In fact, I’m not sure it is much more than shorthand for the very thing Boudry’s talking about, declining to offend people on the basis of things that don’t matter since they aren’t the “real” cause.

  11. Caldwell
    Posted May 3, 2019 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

    If people don’t get from religion the type of “morality” that we like, e.g. Kate Cohen’s article on Buttiege, mentioned on WET, why shouldn’t people also NOT get the type of morality that we don’t like, e.g. violence and terrorism, from religion?

    “People bring their morality to their religious texts; they don’t get their morality from them.”

    There’s a feedback loop: people (societies) adopt or create the religion which fits their psychological propensities, then, as time goes on, change the religion to fit their propensities even more.

  12. John Coelho
    Posted May 3, 2019 at 4:15 pm | Permalink

    On Fri, May 3, 2019 at 11:02 AM Why Evolution Is True wrote:

    > whyevolutionistrue posted: “My friend and colleague Maarten Boudry, a > Belgian philosopher (my only philosophy paper was coauthored with him) has > a new, short piece published in the New English Review about why academics > like Robert Pape and similar apologists have such trouble under” >

  13. A C Harper
    Posted May 3, 2019 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

    I’d suggest it is as simple as most highly motivated religious people are motivated by emotion and most highly motivated secular academics are motivated by reason.

    I’d also add that neither motivation is necessarily justified, but the difference in motivational styles results in a different way of viewing the world and an almost insurmountable barrier between them.

    • Steve Pollard
      Posted May 3, 2019 at 5:29 pm | Permalink

      I am reminded of an exercise that Julian Baggini carried out a few years ago. He was trying to find common ground with some of his fellow London-based intellectuals who also happened to be church members. In good faith (ha!), he suggested that one area they might be able to agree on was that the Resurrection was a symbolic, metaphorical event. He was taken aback when, to a person, they all said ‘absolutely not, it really happened and it’s central to my faith’. He concluded, IIRC, that the gap he was trying to bridge was wider and deeper than he had thought possible.

  14. Posted May 3, 2019 at 5:23 pm | Permalink

    When it is realised we can be our own biggest fool and no one is exempt it brings to mind one, the fundamentalist is reduced to a basic set of rules that has no nuanced attributes. Leftie academics can see this and provide excuses or simply excuse, becoming their own fundamentalist fool

  15. Scott
    Posted May 3, 2019 at 5:37 pm | Permalink

    Do you think it would be possible to test Boudry’s idea with a survey? One would ask participants about their religious and political beliefs to assess their religiosity and their political orientation. Then one could describe the actions/beliefs of a Jihadi terrorist and ask the participants to describe what they feel motivated the terrorist. Boudry’s hypothesis would predict non-religious participants would be more likely to ascribe the terrorist’s actions to non-religious motivations and participants with the highest religiosity would be most willing to ascribe the action to religious belief. A “political correctness” hypothesis would predict participants who are politically liberal are more likely to ascribe the terrorist’s actions to non-religious motivations, since criticism of Islam is avoided by many liberals.

    To further explore the role of “political correctness” and religiosity on how people view the motives of terrorists, the Islamic terrorist could be changed to a Christian terrorist. In this case, Boudry’s hypothesis would predict the same as before. However a “political correctness” hypothesis might predict politically conservative participants would be more likely to ascribe the terrorist’s actions to non-religious motivations, since criticism of Christianity is avoided by many conservatives.

    • Nicolaas Stempels
      Posted May 4, 2019 at 5:17 pm | Permalink

      That appears feasible. However, by substituting Islam with Christianity in the test you run into the problem that there is so much more ‘secular Christianity’ than ‘secular Islam’ aeound. I wonder if that could and would not skew the results against ‘Maarten’s hypothesis’.

    • Posted May 6, 2019 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

      It has, sort of, been done. See my comments on the article.

  16. rickflick
    Posted May 3, 2019 at 6:00 pm | Permalink

    The question of religiously motivated terrorism seems to revolve around whether the tenets are actually believed or not. It seems to me, children raised in a firm orthodoxy will likely all be full-on believers, so they would likely be strongly influenced by religion. As these children grow up within the confines of their culture, some may think critically about their beliefs, and some of those might become weakly tied to the full truthiness of the culture. So, by early adulthood, there should be a split between those who fully believe and those who don’t. Those who don’t would likely feel strong pressure to conform, regardless. With this mix, it is likely many terrorists are full-on believers, while some, perhaps a minority in Islam, would be skeptical of some beliefs, yet still beholden to the tribe.

  17. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted May 3, 2019 at 6:35 pm | Permalink

    *I* find it hard to imagine going and killing people (and/or getting killed myself) in the name of religion. So I guess this is why academics do too. They’re too grounded in rationality.

    Religious fanatics don’t seem to have that inhibition.

    cr

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted May 3, 2019 at 6:45 pm | Permalink

      … which is of course, having finally read the full article rather than just the comments, pretty much what Boudry was saying.

      So it must be correct 😉

      cr

  18. Frank Bath
    Posted May 3, 2019 at 7:22 pm | Permalink

    Five hundred years ago, and less, it would have been no mystery to see believers prepared to be tortured, give up their lives and go to the stake purely for doctrinal reasons. No politics involved. Such was the power of their faith. Christians then muslims now.

    • stephen
      Posted May 7, 2019 at 10:31 am | Permalink

      Seconded.I think there may be a problem regarding the availability of another 500 years,however…

  19. Posted May 3, 2019 at 8:23 pm | Permalink

    I don’t at present agree with his description that “most academics have grown up in a thoroughly secularized environment, in which religion played either no role at all, or only a very insignificant one.” At least here in the U.S., I expect that most of us are the F1 generation of secularists.

  20. Posted May 3, 2019 at 8:31 pm | Permalink

    The jihadis want to establish Islamic theocrazies (spelling intended.) I don’t think they differentiate between politics and religion.

  21. BJ
    Posted May 3, 2019 at 9:36 pm | Permalink

    He makes an excellent point. Most people are terrible at putting themselves in the mindset of another, especially when they don’t want to believe someone can have such a mindset. I think Mr. Boudry makes a very compelling argument and one with which I’m inclined to agree. I also think there is the problem of political correctness. I think both political correctness and what Mr. Boudry describes can (perhaps does) account for the issue of failing to address or even believe that religion — and Islam in particular — plays a role in modern violence/terrorism.

    • Roo
      Posted May 3, 2019 at 11:11 pm | Permalink

      I think that works both ways though – if we are really that bad at putting ourselves in the mindset of another, we are just as likely to create an unrealistic caricature of the minds of “people who believe X” upon attempting to envision them. Either we have some common ground for theory of mind, or, we’re likely just getting it wrong whatever we imagine.

      (An aside – as someone who grew up religious, I actually find it hard to believe that such a mindset is really that hard for secular liberals to even comprehend. I mean really, even if you weren’t religious, if you’re liberal odds are 90%+ that you know people into new age stuff, conspiracy theories, etc. I don’t think it’s so much that we “can’t imagine someone who believes in what isn’t empirically based”, rather, I think we see it all the time but simply tune it out when it doesn’t strike us as strange. Admittedly, I would be freaked out if someone expressed a sincere belief in Scientology but wouldn’t think anything of it if they talked about Christ’s resurrection. I think many liberals would take the same stance towards someone who subscribe to, say, Gwyneth Paltrow’s stranger beliefs.)

  22. peepuk
    Posted May 4, 2019 at 5:11 am | Permalink

    One of the basic ingredients for changing human behavior is a new belief. When we test human intuition we see that on a lot of tests humans do much worse than dart-throwing chimp’s; this is the place where false beliefs flourish.

    I don’t believe that “building cohesion” is good in itself. You cannot start a war without building cohesion.

    It could be true that criticizing a false belief will cause violence; or that by promoting a certain belief makes people feel happier.

    But even if this is true it doesn’t follow that we shouldn’t criticize these false beliefs.

  23. Posted May 4, 2019 at 8:26 am | Permalink

    The link to the Harvey Whitehouse interview is broken. This is my attempt to fix it. For what it’s worth, I think Boudry misinterprets Whitehouse; there’s no disbelief in belief there.

  24. Posted May 4, 2019 at 11:40 am | Permalink

    Y suspect both sides are right on this one. Perhaps it is a hangover from yesterday’s free will discussion, but it seems largely a matter of interacting causes. Terrorists make use of religion but I suspect many bring a lot of non-religion motivation to the table as well. After all, it has been pointed out many times that their religious texts don’t really call out for their behavior. Sure, they can often find an interpretation of those texts that support their actions but that tells us they have other motivations.

    One factor not mentioned in Boudry’s article is that we in the West don’t want to make it all about Islam as that plays directly into the terrorists’ clearly stated agenda to start a religious world war. It also turns our collective backs against the many peaceful followers of Islam. This gives a very strong practical motivation to downplay the religious dimension in terrorists’ motivations.

  25. Lorna Salzman
    Posted May 4, 2019 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

    All of JC’s comments are valid. I just want to add one more. If the left acknowledged the religious basis for jihad, it would undercut their argument that American intervention and “imperialism” were the reasons behind terrorism. At all costs the left must keep emphasizing the American culpability (even though prior to the Iraq war the U.S. had little actual presence in the Arab world). The “Hate America” crowd on the left in effect exonerates radical Islamists…the usual “chickens coming home to roost”, which many of them articulated after 9/11, disgracefully.

  26. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted May 4, 2019 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

    This is a rough idea here, let me try to write it out :

    The No True Scotsman fallacy is problematic somehow ( I think) when attempting to settle on a firm conclusion after poring over polls, philosophy on belief, religious texts, etc. and I propose it is part of the explanation for downplaying the role of religion in the lives of the religious. For instance, the religion of the 9/11 hijackers can be dismissed by asserting they were suicidal, murderous psychopaths just like any other suicidal murderous psychopath. Nothing to do with religion.

    Oof – gotta go now….

    • Posted May 4, 2019 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

      I think you are right. We usually don’t care about the motivation claimed by criminals except as evidence in support of their being the culprit in a particular crime. We don’t analyze their manifestos except as evidence to aid in a conviction and perhaps to find others with similar thoughts. Religion is just one of many possible motivations. While I am not trying to protect religion, I see alienation, economic distress, and the culture they grow up in as more important factors.

      • ThyroidPlanet
        Posted May 4, 2019 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

        “… except as evidence in support of their being the culprit”

        Good point

        As you suggest, these entities that we tend to examine in a sort of laboratory of the mind – like belief, religion, GDP, etc. of course do not operate individually in the wild, – they don’t work in a vacuum. The connection between the clear ideas we get about, say, belief, and the other ideas out there need to be examined together. Not that I know how to do that, and I’m sure many have done that and I’m just ignorant of it.

  27. Nicolaas Stempels
    Posted May 4, 2019 at 5:25 pm | Permalink

    Many great comments.
    I think that Maarten’s hypothesis certainly plays a role. It should be noted that his hypothesis is not contradictory to the ‘poor suppressed Brown people’ one as a motive for downplaying the role of religion (which itself is undeniable (IMMO)) at all.

  28. Kirbmarc
    Posted May 5, 2019 at 8:29 am | Permalink

    As someone who has received an islamic education, I think that there’s a posdible causal element to fundamentalism that people don’t focus on: appearing pious to your peers.

    In islamic communities the role of peer pressure and the judgment of others is MUCH stronger than in secular ones. Everything you do or say leads to moral jugdment, from the way you wash your hands to how much do you stare at people of the opposite sex. Community leaders enjoy an enormous deal of social power. To fail yo follow religious rules carries heavy social consequences, from ostracism to threats. The sense of dread and guilt that comes from having to hide some of your past or present “flaws” is often overwhelming.

    In many cases many people who have radicalized have been people who have cracked psychologically under the weight of social pressure for their “unislamic” behavior, and who have been approached by religious figures who have recommended to them to show everyone how much they’ve changed by some action that comes with a strong personal cost.

    For many fundamentalists their actions are part of a redemption from past sinful behavior, and the more guilt and dread they’ve made feel, the more extreme they behave, to signal to themselves and others just how much they have changed.

    It’s important to understand that people who are in a personal and psychological crisis are extremely for reactionary/fundamentalist preachers to manipulate.

    The more isolated a religious community is, and the less access people who live in have to mental healthcare, intra-communitarian organizations (sports clubs, community centers, after school programs for adolescents, political parties, etc) the more likely are reactionary community leaders to mold people to their liking and to use guilt and dread to force those who behave in ways threy don’t like to be forced yo show their changes by engaging in extreme behaviour.

    Ghettoization feeds massively into extremism. Initiatives that encourage people of different backgrounds to take part in common groups may sometimes reduce the risk of radicalization.


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