Sunday, December 10, 2006

A Reconsideration of Atran

In a recent post, I seized upon some criticism of Scott Atran at the Beyond Belief conference. I've been reading more writing by Scott Atran, and he really brings a lot of excellent empirical information to the table. This excerpt from a recent reply on Edge was fascinating:
Religious worlds with supernaturals who manage our existential anxieties — such as sudden catastrophe, loneliness, injustice and misery – are minimally counterintuitive worlds. An experimental setup for this idea is to consider a 3 x 4 matrix of core domains (folkphysics, folkbiology, folkpsychology) by ontological categories (person, animal, plant, substance). By changing one and only one intuitive relationship among the 12 cells you then generate what Pascal Boyer calls a "minimal counterintuition." For example, switching the cell ( − folkpsychology, substance) to ( + folkpsychology, substance) yields a thinking talisman, whereas switching ( + folkpsychology, person) to (− folkpsychology, person) yields an unthinking zombie. But changing two or more cells simultaneously usually leads only to confusion. Our experiments show that minimally counterintuitive beliefs are optimal for retaining stories in human memory (mains results have been replicated by teams of independent researchers, see for example articles in the most recent issue of the Journal of Cognition and Culture).
Atran goes on to show, for example, that interpretations of the Ten Commandments are pretty resilient to translation. Serial paraphrasing of "Thou shalt not kill" ends up with a message that faithfully expresses the original principle. Not all passages have this property. This means that the meaning and interpretation of a passage by religionists is not generally literal, but is some sort of invariant inspiration that follows from that passage. Well worth the read.

Atran seems to rub everyone the wrong way because he doesn't seem to get from his deep understanding of sociology to any strategy for secularization. Instead, he just talks about how tough a problem it is to deal with an irrational world. Atran has a point, but I think he underestimates the value of public criticism of religion. I think it has a powerful liberal effect when people lose their fear of atheism through familiarity with its concepts and adherents.

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