Category Archives: Intergroup Conflict

Will the New Atheism Save us from Jihad?

In March 2009, Richard Dawkins gave a talk at the University of Minnesota on “The Purpose of Purpose.” I was eager to see him talk, as I greatly admire Dawkins’ writings on biology, and assign his work as readings for my classes. Most of his talk, though, turned out to be an attack on religion, with many references to 9/11. The main message seemed to be: religion is a menace to humanity, it motivates people to do horrible things to one another, and we would all be better off without it.

It was only when I saw this talk that I really understood how much the flurry of so-called New Atheist books – The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason by Sam Harris (2005), Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon by Daniel Dennett (2007); god is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens (2007), and Dawkins’s own book, The God Delusion (2008) – owed their inspiration to 9/11. Okay, so maybe I’m a little slow to catch on – but not being a religious person myself, reading these books seemed a bit like, er, preaching to the choir, so I haven’t done so yet. But the main point that Dawkins made, and what I suppose motivates these other books, is this: we were attacked by crazy religious fanatics, and the best way to fight back is to attack the root of the problem: belief in God. As Victor Stegnor (author of The New Atheism: Taking a Stand for Science and Reason (2009)) quips: “Science flies you to the moon. Religion flies you into buildings.”

So, with the 10th anniversary of 9/11 approaching, maybe this is a good time to ask the question: will the New Atheism save us from jihad? My guess is: it probably won’t. And why not?

Well, for one, the audience for these books – educated people in rich countries, especially the United States and Europe – doesn’t really include the people who want to fly planes into our buildings. The chances seem pretty slim that someone like Osama bin Laden would pick up The God Delusion, give it an open-minded read through, and end up saying, “Oh, well, I guess he’s right. There is no God and no eternal paradise waiting for martyrs, so I should really just give up the jihad.” Even if all the educated people in rich countries stopped believing in God tomorrow, there would still be a world full of people who believed fervently in their own Gods, and in the righteousness of their own struggles.

Second, it seems at best an incomplete explanation to say that religion is what inspired the 9/11 attackers, and the rest of Al Qaeda, and their hosts in Afghanistan, the Taliban. Yes, they are all Muslims – but so are about 1.5 billion other people in the world. Why does this particular small group of people interpret Islam in such a way that it motivates them to attack us? What does Al Qaeda want?

According to Rohan Gunaratna, the author of Inside Al Qaeda (2002): “the ultimate aim is to reestablish the Caliphate—the empire of Islam’s early golden age—and thereby empower a formidable array of truly Islamic states to wage war on the United States and its allies.” 1

But what are they really fighting over? What was so great about the Caliphate? What did bin Laden and his allies think they would gain from its restoration?

There were a number of Caliphates. An especially impressive one, the Umayyad Caliphate, was  huge. By 750 AD, it stretched from Spain to Pakistan, and included much or all of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisa, Libya, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, the Gulf States, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and others. Surely there’s a huge amount of historical pride and longing for this vast empire, and dreams of what could be done if all these lands united and used their oil wealth to achieve some grand unified aim.

And what would that aim be? I don’t pretend to know for sure. But I think we can get some clues from how the Taliban ruled when they were in power, and the laws they enforce where they have regained power. Many of the laws most harshly imposed by the Taliban had to do with restricting the freedom of women. For example, a decree from 1996 states:

“Women you should not step outside your residence. If you go outside the house you should not be like women who used to go with fashionable clothes wearing much cosmetics and appearing in front of every men before the coming of Islam.”

And it goes on and on like that. There are also decrees against kite flying, pigeon keeping, beard cutting, music, gambling and narcotics, but the main thing at stake seems to be the rights of women. Al Qaeda and the Taliban hate the West, not so much because the West is Christian, but because in the West women have rights and independence. Bin Laden had five or six wives, and fathered twenty to twenty-six children with them. The West represents a threat to traditional patriarchy and male power and control of women and their reproduction. Whether or not people in the West believe in God or not, Western values like equal rights for men and women represent a threat to the polygynous tribal patriarchy that greatly benefits high-ranking men like bin Laden.

It seems like a better bet for beating the jihad is to support the momentum of the Arab Spring. I don’t think the average person in the former lands of the Caliphate really wants the Caliphate back. That would just give all the power to the despots with their harems. Instead – if what the newspapers have reported about the protesters on the streets of Egypt and Libya and Syria is any indication – what the average person wants is the chance to get a job, to earn a decent living, to be able to afford to marry, have children, and live a quiet, peaceful life with freedom, dignity, and little risk of getting blown up by crazy people. According to The Atlantic, the rebels fighting in Libya love Western bands, including Pink Floyd. Maybe they share the postwar dream that Roger Waters sings about in the Pink Floyd song, The Gunner’s Dream:

A place to stay
Enough to eat
Somewhere old heroes shuffle safely down the street
Where you can speak out loud
About your doubts and fears
And what’s more no-one ever disappears
You never hear their standard issue kicking in your door.
You can relax on both sides of the tracks
And maniacs don’t blow holes in bandsmen by remote control
And everyone has recourse to the law
And no-one kills the children anymore.

If basic political and economic reforms succeed in giving people a reasonable chance at such a life, I don’t think it will matter much what their particular religious views are. Nobody will bother with jihad.

Xenophobia and Immigration

A few years back, during a family visit to northern Minnesota, we came across the Hibbing Ethnic Festival. My brother-in-law, who lived in California, thought this was hilarious, as Hibbing is about 97% white.

“What ethic diversity?” he asked. “Swedes AND Norwegians?”

And sure enough, the Swedish, Norwegian, Finnish, Estonian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Russian, Welsh, Cornish, and other people that immigrated into Hibbing and other Iron Range towns were pretty much all pale-skinned Europeans. But they were not yet White. They were members of mutually hostile tribes. They spoke different languages, had different customs, different churches, and maintained deep suspicions towards one another.

Mom’s maternal grandparents were Swedish and Norwegian. At the time, this was a mixed marriage. Now we have a hard time remembering who was the Swede and who was the Norwegian. But at the time it was a big deal. And their daughter, my Grandma, once told me that in high school there was a boy who was allowed to come visit with her on the porch, but he was not allowed inside the house, because he was a Finn.

Nowadays, I think the Swedes and Norwegians and even the Finns get along just fine up on the Iron Range – and many of them are so intermarried through so many generations that ethnicity is just something to remember at the Ethnic Festival, if they still have it, when they need to decide who bakes the pasties, and who brings the lutefisk.

And we have such a universally favorable opinion now of the Norwegians – with their fjords and nice sweaters – that the news of the recent shooting just seemed unbelievable. We’ve grown used to Americans doing that sort of thing, but Norwegians?

The shooter, Anders Breivik, apparently thought that he was providing a wake-up call to save Norwegians and other Europeans from cultural and demographic suicide. According to his manifesto, he believes that Norway is being overrun with foreigners, many of them Muslim.

As part of an effort to understand why people can have such hostility to outsiders, Rhitu Chatterjee from PRI’s The World interviewed me, Frans de Waal, and Samuel Bowles about the evolutionary roots of xenophobia (fear of strangers). In this story, I get quoted mainly talking about the nasty side of chimpanzees, while the others get quoted talking about how nice bonobos and humans can be. Which I suppose is fine, since much of my work focuses on how and why chimpanzees can be so nasty to each other. But now that I have a blog, I can add a few of my own words about how and why people are different from chimpanzees.

Male chimpanzees spend their whole lives in the same community. They never leave their territory, which may cover 5 to 25 or more square kilometers (something like 2 to 10 square miles). They are perfectly capable of walking further than that, but in a world of chimpanzees, you can only go so far before running into another community’s territory.

Chimpanzees live in a zero-sum world. The only way they can get more stuff is by taking it from others. Their food supply depends on their territory. If they want more food, they have to take more territory from their neighbors. And if a male were to immigrate into another community, he would have nothing to offer the resident males. He would just be another competitor in the mating game – and even worse, he would be an unrelated competitor. If you’re a chimpanzee competing for mates against your father or brother or half-brother or cousin, it’s not so bad if you lose, because you share some of your genes with your kin, and those will get passed on. But losing to a stranger? That’s a total loss.

Humans, in contrast, have created a world that’s not zero-sum. When we meet strangers, we don’t have to knock them over the head and take their stuff to benefit from them. Instead, we can trade with them, to our mutual benefit. Even better, if we trade with someone this year instead of knocking him over the head, he might come back next year with more stuff that we want. We can also benefit from immigrants. When my great-great grandfather Anton came over from Sweden, the resident males in northern Minnesota didn’t gang up on him and kill him. Instead, they hired him to work in the iron mine. There were already lots of people living in the United States when Anton immigrated, but there weren’t enough of them willing to live up north and do the difficult, dangerous work of iron mining. So the mine owners, and the steel workers, and the people who used steel for their farm tools and anything else, all benefited from these immigrants. And it was dangerous – Anton died in the mine a month before his thirty-third birthday, when a block of stone fell on his head, leaving behind a young widow with a baby boy.

In the late 1800s, Norway and Sweden were poor countries with rapidly growing populations, and many people left for the US, where they and their descendents lost their tribal identities and became Americans. Now Norway and Sweden are rich, with slowly growing and rapidly aging populations. These countries need immigrants, and the immigrants are coming in from Eastern Europe, the Middle East and North Africa.

The United States has its share of ethnic conflict and resentment towards immigrants.  But it’s even trickier for the European countries. Being American depends on citizenship, not ethnicity. But in Europe, following the fall of empires and the rise of democracy, national boundaries were drawn around ethno-linguistic groups. It’s going to be a challenge for countries based mainly on old tribal boundaries to absorb these new immigrants. But with an aging, low fertility population, an increasing number of new immigrants will be needed to keep the European economies going. And as long as the countries to the south and east of Europe have growing populations and few job prospects at home, there will be lots of people knocking at the door.

But the amazing thing, from the perspective of a chimpanzee, is that people do this at all.