Studying The Sacred

Andrew Sullivan —  Aug 12 2012 @ 9:16am

by Matthew Sitman

In an age of resurgent religion, Scott Atran urges academics – especially scientists – to turn their attention to the sacred. He believes that science can help us "understand religion and the sacred just as it can help us understand the genome or the structure of the universe," and that such knowledge will be vital for grasping the dynamics of world affairs in the coming decades. Atran especially focuses on how the scientific study of religion can aid in explaining the causes and duration of war and violence. For example, he argues that, contrary to conventional wisdom, religion has been behind only a very small fraction of history's bloody conflicts:

[T]he chief complaint against religion — that it is history's prime instigator of intergroup conflict — does not withstand scrutiny. Religious issues motivate only a small minority of recorded wars. The Encyclopedia of Wars surveyed 1,763 violent conflicts across history; only 123 (7 percent) were religious. A BBC-sponsored "God and War" audit, which evaluated major conflicts over 3,500 years and rated them on a 0-to-5 scale for religious motivation (Punic Wars = 0, Crusades = 5), found that more than 60 percent had no religious motivation. Less than 7 percent earned a rating greater than 3. There was little religious motivation for the internecine Russian and Chinese conflicts or the world wars responsible for history's most lethal century of international bloodshed.

However, when religion is involved it can make wars particularly intractable:

Although surprisingly few wars are started by religions, once they start, religion — and the values it imposes — can play a critical role. When competing interests are framed in terms of religious and sacred values, conflict may persist for decades, even centuries. Disputes over otherwise mundane phenomena then become existential struggles, as when land becomes "Holy Land." Secular issues become sacralized and nonnegotiable, regardless of material rewards or punishments. In a multiyear study, our research group found that Palestinian adolescents who perceived strong threats to their communities and were highly involved in religious ritual were most likely to see political issues, like the right of refugees to return to homes in Israel, as absolute moral imperatives. These individuals were thus opposed to compromise, regardless of the costs.