Originally a comment by Eric MacDonald on Guest post on Sam Harris and the duties of public intellectuals. (So yes, a meta-guest post.)
I think there are two sides to this story, and Atran’s claims cannot be taken as scientifically confirmed. For example, in the article Ophelia links entitled: “Here He Goes Again: Sam Harris’s Falsehoods,” Atran makes claims which, while true in terms of his own research, do not necessarily subvert some (at least) of Harris’s conclusions.
For example, Atran says: “Harris’s generalizations of his own fMRIs on belief change among a few dozen college students as supportive of his views of religion as simply false beliefs are underwhelming.” This is unquestionably true, as I have said before in connexion with Boghossian’s claims in his book “How to make atheists.” Specific beliefs, as such, are very often either very poorly understood or provide simply the background of religious action. But it does not follow that explicit beliefs do not underlie the actions of many religious people.
For example, jihadists may not consciously be following the classical interpretations of Islamic texts regarding jihad, but the motivation of whole groups may be based on such interpretations. Atran seems to think that questionnaires provide accurate answers to the question Atran puts to religious people: “Why are you acting this way?” But religious people generally act from within a social context the theological meaning of which many of them do not understand and accept on trust. Asked to give reasons for “the hope that is in you,” (to quote First Peter) people may not give standard theological answers, but those may nevertheless be the reasons underlying their actions. Asked whether they support abortion, most orthodox Roman Catholics would say no, but very few of them could give detailed answers as to why it is believed by the Roman Catholic Church’s moral theology that abortion is wrong. I find Atran’s analyses of the reasons why religious people do things very inadequate and shallow. Most religious people, when push comes to shove, do things because their religion demands it, even though they do not know why. Asked to give their own reasons, they will give the first answer that occurs to them, without adverting to the theological framework within which they are acting, so they will give the kinds of answers that Atran’s studies attract. But this does not mean that underlying the actions of (to take but one example) jihadists are not very complex arguments concerning the Qur’an and the Sunna. It just means that they have accepted these argumentations on authority. Their personal reasons may even be orthogonal to the arguments from authority, but do not in the slightest change the fact that theological authority at some point underlies their actions.