1. University of Virginia
  2. Arts & Sciences

Religious and Sacred Imperative in Human Conflict


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This presentation discusses the human propensity to define the groups to which they belong in abstract terms. Often they strive for lasting intellectual and emotional bonding with anonymous others, and make their greatest exertions in killing and dying not only to preserve their own lives or to defend their families and friends, but for the sake of an idea − the transcendent moral conception they form of themselves, of “who we are.”  This is the “the privilege of absurdity; to which no living creature is subject, but man only'” of which Hobbes wrote in Leviathan. In The Descent of Man, Darwin cast it as the virtue of “morality… the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage, and sympathy” with which winning groups are better endowed in history’s spiraling competition for survival and dominance. Drawing partly on evolutionary theory and research amongst contemporary terroirsts, I discuss how religion, in promoting outlandish beliefs and costly rituals, increases ingroup trust but also may increase mistrust and conflict with outgroups. Moralizing gods emerged over the last few millennia, enabling large-scale cooperation, and sociopolitical conquest even without war. Whether for cooperation or conflict, sacred values, like devotion to God or a collective cause, signal group identity and operate as moral imperatives that inspire nonrational exertions independent of likely outcomes. In conflict situations, otherwise mundane sociopolitical preferences may become sacred values, acquiring immunity to material incentives. Sacred values sustain intractable conflicts that defy “business-like” negotiation, but also provide surprising opportunities for resolution.

Scott Atran’s broadly interdisciplinary scientific studies have appeared in scientific journals in dozens of countries and his work on religion and terrorism has been featured around the world by Science and Nature magazines, Scientific American, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Reuters, the Associated Press, Agence France-Presse, The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, The Sunday Times and The Guardian (UK), El Pais and El Mundo (Spain), La Recherche and Le Nouvel Observateur (France), Der Spiegel (Germany), Il Sole 24 Ore (Italy), the BBC National and World Service, CTV (Canada), National Public Radio, ABC, MSNBC, Discovery Channel, Fox and CNN radio and television. His books include Cognitive Foundations of Natural History: Towards an Anthropology of Science (Cambridge), In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion (Oxford), and he has co-authored The Native Mind: Cognition and Culture in Human Knowledge of Nature (MIT).

  • Brooks Hall 2nd Floor Conference Room
    Reception follows in Brooks Commons, 1st Floor
    Sponsored by Department of Anthropology and the Virginia Festival of the Book 
Event Date: 
Friday, 22 March 2013 - 2:00pm to 4:00pm
Speaker: 
Scott Atran
Speaker Title: 
Presidential Scholar in Sociology at John Jay College, Director of Research in Anthropology at the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris, and Visiting Professor of Psychology and Public Policy at the University of Michigan