Atran vs. Harris

By Razib Khan | December 1, 2006 3:01 am

Over at The Edge Scott Atran and Sam Harris continue to spar over the question of religion. This is a continuation of the discussions that occurred at Beyond Belief 2006. The Q & A’s at the end of the presentations were actually far more interesting to me than the talks themselves. Having so many super-intelligent people in the room was incredible. In regards to Atran and Harris, those of you who have read my opinions about religion know that I lean strongly toward Atran in regards to the science of religion as a natural phenomenon. On the other hand, I think Sam Harris plays an essential role in declaring that the emperor has no clothes. Nevertheless, Sam is most powerful and persuasive when confronting believers with the incoherency of their own beliefs. The problem is that Atran of course takes that incoherency as a background assumption and shows how it is insensitive to disconfirmation, so Harris’ jeremiad seemed a bit out of place amongst the den of unbelievers who congregated at Beyond Belief 2006. If I may condense, it seems that Harris takes the perception of ideas very seriously, while Atran is cautious about the nature of both perception and ideas.


Comments (4)

  1. bob koepp

    “Harris takes the perception of ideas very seriously.”
    Jeez, is that a polite way to say Harris is superficial, or maybe shallow?

  2. Rikurzhen

    Atran comes off much better in print than in the videos.

  3. It’s a fascinating discussion. Kudos the for hosting it. It seems to me that edge and seed have often neglected good social science and scientists or really interesting work in the humanities.
    Harris seems a bit myopic to me. I am not entirely of Atran’s camp, but it seems to me that Harris just isn’t getting the idea that religion, like the other problems he points out, is a symptom of an underlying cognitive tendency in people. It isn’t the primum mobile.
    Consequently, scientists and other self-proclaimed champions of reason can themsleves be acting out unreason, prejudice, self-hatred, hatred of the other, whatever it is that gets us rolling toward really bad behavior.
    Science as a nice little institution off to the side in public life (the actual workings of science conferences and paper jury-ing, etc.) is just not properly compared to the really big ideological guiding systems of human societies. If scientists were to run a large country, say India, through the application of the scientific method, and if scientists were forced to justify their mate choices in peer reviewed papers, well then we could start talking about comparing religion and the scientific method. Until then there are rather serious problems with Harris’s championing of scientific method as an alternative to religion.
    Dennett is more subtle, but I wonder when he writes “Atran describes himself as a scientist and an atheist. So when does he think it is appropriate to declare his own atheistic convictions candidly, if not at the Salk meeting?” whether we now require aetheistic witnessing.
    And Dennett, too, seems to miss what I take to be Atran’s basic point: irrationality is not a problem that we should think of as we think about a burst pipe (well shut off the water and go in there an fix the pipe). We should think of it more like living in a house near an Air Force base that we can’t possibly move away from.
    In other words, irrationality is built in. Certain manifestations of it are less desirable than others, but we can’t expect it to go away entirely. Anywhere.
    Knowing this, we have to recognize that religion is both a) institutionalized irrationality; and, at its better moments, b) a not ineffective means of domesticating and even positively harnessing irrationality.
    Perhaps Atran could work a bit harder to present his points more vividly (or maybe I’m reading too much into him), but his position seems to be a good place to start the discussion.

  4. Jeez, is that a polite way to say Harris is superficial, or maybe shallow?
    that’s a superficial reading of what i’m trying to say 🙂


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Gene Expression

This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


See More


RSS Razib’s Pinboard

Edifying books

Collapse bottom bar