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Scott Atran

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Subject: Evolutionary psychology of religion, Cognitive science of religion, Suicide attack, Ethnoscience, Institut Jean Nicod
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Scott Atran

Scott Atran
Born 1952 (age 62–63)
New York City
Residence France, United States
Nationality American, French
Fields Anthropology, psychology, cognitive science
Institutions École pratique des hautes études, Cambridge University, Oxford University, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, University of Michigan, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, École Normale Supérieure
Doctoral advisor Margaret Mead

Scott Atran (born 1952) is an American and French anthropologist who is a Director of Research in Anthropology at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris, Senior Research Fellow at Oxford University in England, Presidential Scholar at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, and also holds offices at the University of Michigan. He has studied and written about terrorism,[1] violence[2] and religion,[3] and has done fieldwork with terrorists and Islamic fundamentalists,[4] as well as political leaders.[5]

Education and early career

Atran was born in New York City in 1952 and he received his PhD in anthropology from Columbia University. While a student he became assistant to anthropologist Margaret Mead at the American Museum of Natural History. In 1974 he originated a debate at the Abbaye de Royaumont in France on the nature of universals in human thought and society,[6] with the participation of linguist Noam Chomsky, psychologist Jean Piaget, anthropologists Gregory Bateson and Claude Lévi-Strauss,[7] and biologists François Jacob and Jacques Monod, which Harvard's Harold Gardner and others consider a milestone in the development of cognitive science.[8]

Later research and career

Atran has experimented on the ways scientists and ordinary people categorize and reason about nature,[9][10][11] on the cognitive and evolutionary psychology of religion,[12][13][14][15] His work has been widely published internationally in the popular press, and in scientific journals in a variety of disciplines. He has briefed members of the U.S. Congress and the National Security Council staff at the White House on the The Devoted Actor versus the Rational Actor in Managing World Conflict,[16] on the Comparative Anatomy and Evolution of Global Network Terrorism,[17] and on Pathways to and from Violent Extremism.[18] He was an early critic of U.S. intervention in Iraq[19] and of deepening involvement in Afghanistan.[20]

Atran has also been a staunch opponent of political attempts to eliminate government funding for social science, arguing that it is critical to the national interest, including innovation and security in business, technology, medicine and defense.[21]

Research on conflict negotiation

Atran has published research on the limits of rational choice in political and cultural conflict.[22][23][24][25]

He has collaborated on research on how political negotiations could be made more likely to produce agreement. Atran and the psychologists Jeremy Ginges and Douglas Medin and political scientist Khalil Shikaki conducted an experiment [26] that surveyed "600 Jewish settlers in the West Bank, more than 500 Palestinian refugees, and more than 700 Palestinian students, half of whom identified with Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad."[27] The researchers divided the subjects into three groups, each of which was presented with a different "hypothetical peace deal." In the basic situation, those surveyed were presented with "a two-state solution in which the Israelis would withdraw from 99 percent of the West Bank and Gaza but would not have to absorb Palestinian refugees"; the proposal "did not go over well."[27] For the second group, the hypothetical deal "was sweetened with cash compensation from the United States and the European Union, such as a billion dollars a year for a hundred years, or a guarantee that the people would live in peace and prosperity. With these sweeteners on the table, the nonabsolutists, as expected, softened their opposition a bit. But the absolutists, forced to contemplate a taboo tradeoff, were even more disgusted, angry, and prepared to resort to violence."[28] But for the third group, the proposed two-state solution was "augmented with a purely symbolic declaration by the enemy in which it compromised on one of its sacred values."

In the deal presented to Israeli settlers, the Palestinians "would give up any claims to their right of return" or "would be required to recognize the historic and legitimate right of the Jewish people to Eretz Israel";[29] in that presented to the Palestinians, Israel "would recognize the historic and legitimate right of the Palestinians to their own state and would apologize for all wrongs done to the Palestinian people," or would "give up what they believe is their sacred right to the West Bank" or would "symbolically recognize the historic legitimacy of the right of return [without in fact granting it]".[26] In summarizing the result, cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker says, "Unlike the bribes of money or peace, the symbolic concession of a sacred value by the enemy, especially when it acknowledges a sacred value on one's own side, reduced the absolutists' anger, disgust, and willingness to endorse violence."[29]

Atran has been engaged in conflict negotiations in the Middle East[30][31][32]

Field research on terrorism

His work on the ideology and social evolution of transnational terrorism, which has included fieldwork with mujahedin and supporters in Europe, the Middle East, Central and Southeast Asia, and North Africa, has challenged common assumptions. Steven Pinker summarizes some of Atran's findings thus: "Far from being ignorant, impoverished, nihilistic, or mentally ill, suicide terrorists tend to be educated, middle class, morally engaged, and free of obvious psychopathology. Atran concluded that many of the motives may be found in nepotistic altruism... [Atran shows that] Hamas and other Palestinian terrorist groups [hold] out a carrot rather than a stick to the terrorist's family in the form of generous monthly stipends, lump-sum payments, and massive prestige in the community.... Atran has [also] found that suicide terrorists can be recruited without these direct incentives. Probably the most effective call to martyrdom is the opportunity to join a happy band of brothers. Terrorist cells often begin as gangs of underemployed single young men who come together in cafes, dorms, soccer clubs, barbershops, or Internet chat rooms and suddenly find meaning in their lives by a commitment to the new platoon.... Commitment to the group is intensified by religion, not just the literal promise of paradise but the feeling of spiritual awe that comes from submerging oneself in a crusade, a calling, a vision quest, or a jihad. [Atran writes that religion] may also turn a commitment to a cause into a sacred value - a good that may not be traded off against something else, including life itself. The commitment can be further stoked by the thirst for revenge, which in the case of militant Islamism takes the form of vengeance for the harm and humiliation suffered by any Muslin anywhere on the planet at any time in history, or for symbolic affronts such as the presence of infidel soldiers on sacred Muslim soil."[33]

Atran is quoted as summarizing his work thus: "When you look at young people like the ones who grew up to blow up trains in Madrid in 2004, carried out the slaughter on the London underground in 2005, hoped to blast airliners out of the sky en route to the United States in 2006 and 2009, and journeyed far to die killing infidels in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen or Somalia; when you look at whom they idolize, how they organize, what bonds them and what drives them; then you see that what inspires the most lethal terrorists in the world today is not so much the Koran or religious teachings as a thrilling cause and call to action that promises glory and esteem in the eyes of friends, and through friends, eternal respect and remembrance in the wider world that they will never live to enjoy.... Jihad is an egalitarian, equal-opportunity employer: ...fraternal, fast-breaking, thrilling, glorious, and cool."[34]

Other work

Atran conducts ongoing research in Guatemala, Mexico, and the U.S. on universal and culture-specific aspects of biological categorization and environmental reasoning and decision making among Maya and other Native Americans.[35]

Atran's debates with Sam Harris, Dan Dennett, Richard Dawkins and others during the 2006 Beyond Belief symposium on the limits of reason and the role of religion in modern society highlight the differences between these authors, who see religion as fundamentally false and politically and socially repressive, and Atran who sees unfalsifiable but semantically absurd religious beliefs as historically critical to the formation of large-scale societies and current motivators for both conflict and cooperation.[36][37][38][39]

Atran's publications include Cognitive Foundations of Natural History: Towards an Anthropology of Science, In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion, Plants of the Peten Itza' Maya (co-authored with Ximena Lois and Edilberto Ucan Ek), The Native Mind and the Cultural Construction of Nature (co-authored with Douglas Medin), and Talking to the Enemy: Faith, Brotherhood, and the (Un)Making of Terrorists.

Atran has taught at Cambridge University, Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and the École des Hautes Études in Paris. He is currently a research director in anthropology at the French National Centre for Scientific Research and member of the Jean Nicod Institute at the École Normale Supérieure. He is also visiting professor of psychology and public policy at the University of Michigan, presidential scholar in sociology at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, senior research fellow at Harris Manchester College, Oxford University, and cofounder of ARTIS Research and Risk Modeling.


As sole author

  • Fondements de l'histoire naturelle Bruxelles: Editions Complexe, 1986. Pp. 244. ISBN 2-87027-180-8 [40]
  • Cognitive Foundations of Natural History: Towards an Anthropology of Science Cambridge University Press, 1993 ISBN 978-0-521-43871-1[41]
  • In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion Oxford University Press, 2002; ISBN 978-0-19-803405-6 [42]
  • Talking to the Enemy: Faith, Brotherhood, and the (Un)Making of Terrorists HarperCollins, 2010; ISBN 978-0-06-202074-1 [43]

As editor or co-author

  • Histoire du concept d'espece dans les sciences de la vie, ed. (1987)
  • Folkbiology, ed. with Douglas Medin (1999)
  • Plants of the Peten Itza' Maya, with Ximena Lois and Edilberto Ucan Ek (2004)
  • The Native Mind and the Cultural Construction of Nature, with Douglas Medin (2008)
  • Values, Empathy, and Fairness Across Social Barriers. ed., Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, with Oscar Vilarroya, Arcadi Navarro, Kevin Ochsner and Adolf Tobena (2009)


  1. ^ Michael, Bond (October 25, 2010). "How to catch the ‘jihadi bug’". New Scientist. Retrieved March 18, 2013. 
  2. ^ Sharon, Begley (August 25, 2006). "Science Journal: Key to peace in Mideast may be ‘sacred beliefs’". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved March 18, 2013. 
  3. ^ Henig, Robin Marantz (March 4, 2007). "Darwin’s God". The New York Times. Retrieved March 18, 2013. 
  4. ^ "U.S. Government Efforts to Counter Violent Extremism, Committee on Armed Services United States Senate, Government Printing Office" (PDF). Retrieved March 18, 2013. 
  5. ^ Bohannon, John (March 11, 2010). "Should Social Scientists Help the U.S. Fight Terror?". Retrieved March 18, 2013. 
  6. ^ Lawrence Kritzman, Ed., The Columbia History of Twentieth-Century French Thought, New York, Columbia University Press, 2006, pp. 179-180, ISBN 978-0231-100791-4
  7. ^ Kwong, Emily (November 17, 2009). "Columbia antro dept. remembers Claude Lévi-Strauss". Columbia Spectator. Retrieved July 5, 2013. 
  8. ^ Harold Gardner, Encounter at Royaumont, in Art, Mind, and Brain: A Cognitive Approach to Creativity, New York, Basic Books, 1982, pp. 16-26, ISBN 978-0-465-00444-7
  9. ^ Benson, Etienne (April 2003). "Thinking Green". American Psychological Association. Retrieved March 18, 2013. 
  10. ^ Scott Atran (1998). "Folkbiology and the anthropology of science: Cognitive universals and cultural particulars". Behavioral and Brain Sciences 21: 547–609.  
  11. ^ Scott Atran, Douglas Medin, Norbert Ross, Elizabeth Lynch, John Coley, Edilberto Ucan Ek’‖, Valentina Vapnarsky (June 22, 1999). "Folkecology and commons management in the Maya Lowlands". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 96 (13): 7598–7603.  
  12. ^ Bulbulia, Joseph (2009). "Religion as Evolutionary Cascade: On Scott Atran, In M. Stausberg (Ed.), Contemporary Theories of Religion: A Critical Companion". Routledge. Retrieved March 18, 2013. 
  13. ^ Scott Atran and Ari Norenzayan, "Religion's Evolutionary Landscape: Counterintuition, commitment, compassion, communion" BEHAVIORAL AND BRAIN SCIENCES, (2004) v. 27, pp. 713 – 770 url=
  14. ^ "The Evolution of Religion". Retrieved March 18, 2013. 
  15. ^ "Religious and Sacred Imperatives in Human Conflict". Retrieved May 28, 2012. 
  16. ^ "Devoted Actor Versus Rational Actor for Understanding World Conflict". November 23, 2009. Retrieved December 9, 2011. 
  17. ^ "Terrorism and Radicalization: What Not to DO, What to DO". Retrieved December 9, 2011. 
  18. ^ "Microsoft Word – Atran Statement 3-10-10 ETC Hearing" (PDF). Retrieved December 9, 2011. 
  19. ^ Scott Atran, "US off Target in Terror War," Detroit Free Press, March 7, 2003 |url=http:/
  20. ^ Atran, Scott (December 12, 2009). "To Beat Al Qaeda, Look to the East". The New York Times (Pakistan;Indonesia;Afghanistan). Retrieved December 9, 2011. 
  21. ^ "Social Warfare". Foreign Policy. March 15, 2013. Retrieved March 18, 2013. 
  22. ^ Scott Atran. "Genesis of Suicide Terrorism". Retrieved December 9, 2011. 
  23. ^ "Sacred Bariers to Conflict Resolution" (PDF). Retrieved December 9, 2011. 
  24. ^ "Biology of Cultural Conflict". Retrieved May 28, 2012. 
  25. ^ Bohannon, John (February 15, 2011). "Survey Says: War is the Irrational Choice". Retrieved March 18, 2013. 
  26. ^ a b Jeremy Ginges, Scott Atran, Douglas Medin, and Khalil Shikaki, "Sacred bounds on rational resolution of violent political conflict," Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2007, vol. 104, pp. 7357-60
  27. ^ a b Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, Viking Press, 2011, pp. 638, ISBN 978-0-670-02295-3
  28. ^ Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, Viking Press, 2011, pp. 638-9, ISBN 978-0-670-02295-3
  29. ^ a b Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, Viking Press, 2011, pp. 639, ISBN 978-0-670-02295-3
  30. ^ Atran, Scott (January 24, 2009). "How Words Could End a War". The New York Times (Israel;West Bank;Gaza Strip). Retrieved December 9, 2011. 
  31. ^ Atran, Scott (June 29, 2010). "Why We Talk To Terrorists". The New York Times. Retrieved December 9, 2011. 
  32. ^ Atran, Scott (October 26, 2010). "Turning the Taliban Against Al Qaeda". The New York Times (Afghanistan). Retrieved December 9, 2011. 
  33. ^ Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, New York, Viking Press, 2012, pp. 356-57, ISBN 978-0-670-02295-3
  34. ^ Atran testimony to U.S. Senate, quoted in Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, New York, Viking Press, 2012, pp. 357-58, ISBN 978-0-670-02295-3
  35. ^ Enfield, Nick (September 18, 2009). "Common Tragedy". Times Literary Supplement. Retrieved March 18, 2013. 
  36. ^ "The Reality Club: BEYOND BELIEF". Retrieved December 9, 2011. 
  37. ^ Gray, John (December 2010). "The Privilege of Absurdity". Literary Review. Retrieved March 18, 2013. 
  38. ^ Bartlett, Tom (August 13, 2012). "Dusting Off GOD: A new science of religion says God has gotten a bad rap". The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved March 18, 2013. 
  39. ^ "God and the Ivory Tower". Foreign Policy. August 6, 2012. Retrieved March 18, 2013. 
  40. ^ L.J. Jordanovaa1. "Cambridge Journals Online - The British Journal for the History of Science - Abstract - Scott Atran. Fondements de l'Histoire Naturelle. Pour une Anthropologie de la Science. Bruxelles: Editions Complexe, 1986. Pp. 244. ISBN 2-87027-180-8. FF 145.00". Retrieved 2014-02-01. 
  41. ^ Cognitive Foundations of Natural History: Towards an Anthropology of Science - Scott Atran - Google Boeken. Retrieved 2014-02-01. 
  42. ^ In Gods We Trust : The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion: The Evolutionary ... - Scott Atran Directeur de Rechereche Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) - Google Boeken. Retrieved 2014-02-01. 
  43. ^ Talking to the Enemy: Faith, Brotherhood, and the (Un)Making of Terrorists - Scott Atran - Google Boeken. Retrieved 2014-02-01. 

External links

  • Atran's University of Michigan site
  • Atran's Oxford University site
  • Atran's Huffington Post Contribution Page
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