Scott Atran on Sacred Values
Scott Atran is a director of research in anthropology at the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris, France. He is also a research associate and visiting professor in psychology and public policy at the University of Michigan, a Presidential Scholar in Sociology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and cofounder of ARTIS Research and Risk Modeling.

For a complete list of Atran’s articles on political violence and conflict—with links—please click here.

The following papers are particularly relevant:

For Cause and Comrade: Devoted Actors and Willingness to Fight

Reframing Sacred Values

War as a Moral Imperative (Not Just Practical Politics by Other Means) (Paper)

Book by Scott Atran
Talking to the Enemy: Faith, Brotherhood, and the (Un)Making of Terrorists

For information on ordering through Amazon, PLEASE CLICK HERE.
Based on the author’s unprecedented access to and in-depth interviews with terrorists and jihadis—including Al Qaeda, Hamas, and Taliban extremists. Talking to the Enemy provides fresh insight and unexpected answers to why there are people in this world willing to kill and die for a cause.
Scott Atran is an anthropologist, psychologist, author and public intellectual—who has done important research on the dynamics and causes of terrorism. He has developed several concepts that are highly relevant to the work of the Library of Social Science.

Once an evolutionary psychologist, Atran—confronted with the phenomenon of suicide bombing—has moved in a different direction. How are we to account for the fact that some human beings are willing to blow themselves to bits—a form of behavior that hardly is “adaptive” from a biological perspective?

Atran has developed the concept of “sacred values:” moral imperatives that drive behavior “independently of concrete material goals.” “Devoted actors” committed to a sacred cause willingly “make costly sacrifices, including fighting and dying.”

Decisions based on sacred values, such as whether to become a suicide bomber, follow a “rule-bound logic of moral appropriateness & absolutist thinking.” This form of thinking “defies the cost-benefit calculations and means-end logic of realpolitik and the marketplace.”

Sacred values differ from material or instrumental values in that they drive action in ways that seem “dissociated from prospects for success.” Suicide bombers—as well as other political actors who perform violent political acts—are willing to make extreme sacrifices that are “all out of proportion to likely prospects of success.”

People define the groups to which they belong in “abstract terms.” They make the greatest exertions in killing and dying—not to preserve their own lives or to defend their families and friends—but for the sake of an idea. Political forms of violence are generated based on a group’s “transcendent moral conception”—which defines “who we are.”

Atran frames the question of devoted actors that sacrifice for a cause quite simply and clearly: “What inspires the willingness of human beings to make their greatest exertions, to fight unto death with and for genetic strangers,” a propensity to which “no creatures but humans seem subject.”

The fact that violent extremism is generated by an imagined community of “genetic strangers”—means that explanations rooted in evolutionary psychology are inadequate. Rather, human being die and kill in the name of transcendent ideas or ideals—with which they imagine themselves to be fused.

Across human history and cultures, Atran points out, violence against other groups is universally claimed by its perpetrators to be a “sublime matter of moral virtue.” After all, without a claim to virtue, it is “very difficult to endeavor to kill large number of people innocent of direct harm to others.”

— Richard A. Koenigsberg, PhD. (718) 393-1081
— Orion Anderson (718) 393-1104