THE STATE WE’RE IN
have held to many views of the world, including some – like Marxism-Leninism – that claim to be grounded in ‘scientific atheism’. If religion is a factor in terrorism, it is only one among many.
There will be some who question Atran’s analysis of suicide bombing. Clearly the practice has a rationalstrategic aspect along with the emotional and social dimensions on which he focuses. Suicide bombing is highly cost-effective compared with other types of terrorist assault; when volunteers are plentiful life is cheap, and a successful suicide bomber cannot be captured and interrogated. But Talking to the Enemy is about far more than violent extremism. One of the most penetrating works of social investigation to appear in many years, it offers a fresh and compelling perspective on human conflict. No one who reads and digests what Atran has to say will be able to take seriously the faith-based claims of the ‘new atheists’. As he notes, some of his fellow scientists may ‘believe that science is better able than religion to constitute or justify a moral system that regulates selfishness and makes social life possible … [But] there doesn’t seem to be the slightest bit of histor ical or experimental evidence to support such faith in science’. The picture of human beings that emerges from genuine inquiry is far richer than anything that can be gleaned from these myopic rationalists. When Atran is less than completely convincing, it is because he doesn’t take his own lessons to heart. He is clear that having enemies is part of what it means to be human. Yet the solution he proposes for what he calls ‘the mother of all problems – Palestine, the world’s symbolic knot’ involves turning enemies into fr iends, a fanciful notion in connexion with such a deep-rooted conflict. Palestine is not the only such conflict – think of Kashmir, whose division stands in the way of anything like stability in Afghanistan. Nor would a settlement in Palestine (supposing such a thing to be possible) bring peace to the Middle East, which would still be tor n by r ivalr ies between Iran and Saudi Arabia and the internecine wars of Islamism.
The true lesson of Atran’s account is that intractable conflicts go with being human. As he puts it himself: ‘Our biology and our history say that permanent peace is about as improbable on earth as unending day.’ The readiness to kill and die for one’s group is not a human frailty that can be remedied. Linking us with our evolutionary kin, it expresses our animal nature, but it also reflects what is peculiar about our species. Unlike other animals humans define the groups to which they belong in abstract terms. Often they kill not in order to preserve their own lives or those of the people they love, but for the sake of an idea – the conception they have formed of themselves. This is the ‘privilege of absurdity’ of which Hobbes wrote, a human trait that will not change. To order this book at £20, see LR bookshop on page 10
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LITERARY REVIEW Dec 2010 / Jan 2011