Religion and Sacred Values

 

By Scott Atran (French National Centre for Scientific Research and Atris Director of Research)

 

November 2010

 

On 11 November 2010, Scott Atran gave a 90-minute morning lecture on what motivates participation in violent political action, such as al Qaeda, and then lead an afternoon interactive classroom session.  Scott is an anthropologist specializing in conflict resolution and is the author of the new book Talking to the Enemy, Faith, Brotherhood, and the (un)Making of Terrorists, released by Harper Collins. In March 2010, Scott testified before the U.S. Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities, advocating a field-based social understanding of terrorists’ motivation, as an alternative approach to conflict resolution.

 

Scott gave an overview of sacred values and cultural conflict, based on his research conducted in the West Bank, Iran, Indonesia, and India. When people transform a resource, idea, or activity into a sacred value, normal approaches to dispute resolution may fail. Offering material incentives to encourage people to compromise over a sacred value will often “backfire” leading to heightened opposition to such compromise. In contrast, culturally sensitive attempts to offer powerful symbolic gestures—such as a painful apology or sacrifice over one’s own sacred values—often increase flexibility towards compromise.

 

Many of our most important decisions and most significant conflicts are driven by culturally bound “sacred values.” The act of classifying the world into the “sacred” and the “profane” appears to be a near human universal — it exists in the most economically and scientifically sophisticated societies, and in isolated societies of hunter gatherers. It occurs when people believe that a thing (such as a piece of land), or an idea (such as a national right) is not an ordinary preference that can be valued along a metric common with economic goods.

 

Rather, sacred values are treated as moral imperatives that have their own intrinsic value that makes them non-comparable to, and non-fungible with, ordinary or profane values, as when land becomes “Holy Land.” Sacred values are things that communities set apart from the economic or profane aspects of everyday life.

 

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