Religious Experience

In a piece titled Islam and the Misuses of Ecstasy, Sam Harris takes issue with some atheists about their distance regarding the motivations of religious believers. I, unfortunately, share the perspective that Harris critiques.

I once ran into the anthropologist Scott Atran after he had delivered one of his preening and delusional lectures on the origins of jihadist terrorism. According to Atran, people who decapitate journalists, filmmakers, and aid workers to cries of “Alahu akbar!” or blow themselves up in crowds of innocents are led to misbehave this way not because of their deeply held beliefs about jihad and martyrdom but because of their experience of male bonding in soccer clubs and barbershops. (Really.) So I asked Atran directly:

“Are you saying that no Muslim suicide bomber has ever blown himself up with the expectation of getting into Paradise?”

“Yes,” he said, “that’s what I’m saying. No one believes in Paradise.”
At a moment like this, it is impossible to know whether one is in the presence of mental illness or a terminal case of intellectual dishonesty. Atran’s belief—apparently shared by many people—is so at odds with what can be reasonably understood from the statements and actions of jihadists that it admits of no response. The notion that no one believes in Paradise is far crazier than a belief in Paradise.

In his practiced, careful, methodical, and eloquent monologue he proceeds to cite and reference many examples of religious practice, specifically Islamic practices, that touch deeply the human psyche and elicit emotional response. As a subjectivist seeking internal wisdom, Harris has himself explored this aspect of human psychology, and definitely speaks as a first-hand qualified source.

I don’t know what Harris would think of me. For, when I watch the videos that he describes as beautiful and captivating, I feel annoyed at singing and music in the call to prayer, find the popular Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan just plain silly, and experience a revulsion at the coordinated motion of the crowds. No wonder I’m not religious, I don’t live in the same world of experience.

Instead my emotions are muted, and I like to believe they are firmly tempered by logical understanding. In reality, my ego plain refuses to let go and abandon me to a mob trance. Perhaps this is the case also with academicians like Atran, who overwhelmingly reside in the INTJ category of Myers Briggs. Yes, it’s illogical to assume that everyone subjectively experiences the world in the same way. Yet shortcut reasoning has us use our own personal experience as proxy for others. So we erroneously conclude that “No one believes in Paradise.”

My brain is likely abnormal in some way such that I don’t experience Harris’ evidence as beautiful, but rather the opposite: participation would be a direct threat to my ego-valued independence. I know I’m not the only one. How frightened the mob of normals must feel to encounter such an alien in the midst.

Finally, Harris drives home his point: Islam takes these emotional triggers and couples them with a message of hate for the unbeliever. This strategy (an evolutionary adaptation of the religious meme) is the most frightening thing I have ever seen. Harris is right to counsel the world of Islams inherent dangers. For, it is inevitable that this tool of mass hypnosis will fall into a trajectory that compels violence, destabilizing the World.

As an aside: I also take Harris’ observation to indicate that to the degree that a political/social organization framework needs independence of thought and action to function properly it will experience failures when actually used. For psychological techniques that religion uses show that the vast majority of people are herding creatures.