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Scott Atran on
“Sacred Values”
This is an edited version of “How Can a Better Understanding of Sacred Values Help us
Resolve Intergroup Conflicts?" To read Atran’s original essay, please click here.
The idea of “sacred values” or “sacred ideals” or “the sacred object” has emerged as a powerful explanatory concept for disparate forms of political and religious violence. Working from entirely different case studies, Scott Atran and I have theorized that human beings die and kill in the name of ideas or values or entities to which they feel profoundly attached. In a series of Newsletters, Library of Social Science will present this concept—as the foundation for a scientific understanding of collective forms of violence.

Richard Koenigsberg, PhD
Director, Library of Social Science
Scott Atran
Scott Atran is a research scientist at the Research Center for Group Dynamics and a professor of psychology and public policy at the University of Michigan and a research director in anthropology at the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris.
Talking to the Enemy
His book Talking to the Enemy is available from Amazon.

For information on how to order, PLEASE CLICK HERE.
Humans define the groups to which they belong in abstract terms. Often they strive for lasting intellectual and emotional bonding with anonymous others, and make their 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—the transcendent moral conception they form of themselves, of “who we are.”

Across cultures, primary group identity is bounded by sacred values, often in the form of religious beliefs or transcendental ideologies, which lead some groups to triumph over others because of non-rational commitment from at least some of its members—to actions that drive success independent, or all out of proportion, from expected rational outcomes.

Whether for cooperation or conflict, sacred values, like devotion to God or a collective cause, signal group identity and operate as moral imperatives that inspire non-rational exertions independent of likely outcomes. In interviews, experiments, and surveys with Palestinians, Israelis, Indonesians, Indians, Afghans, and Iranians, my research with psychologists Jeremy Ginges and Douglas Medin finds that offering people material incentives (large amounts of money, guarantees for a life free of political violence) to compromise sacred values can backfire, increasing stated willingness to use violence toward compromise.

This research, supported by the U.S. Department of Defense and the National Science Foundation, shows that backfire effects occur both for sacred values with clear religious investment (Jerusalem, Shariah law) and those with initially none (Iran’s right to nuclear capability, Palestinian refugees’ right of return).

During protracted intergroup conflict, secular issues tend to become sacralized and non-negotiable, regardless of material rewards or punishments, as with Iran’s nuclear program among regime supporters. In a multiyear study, we found that Palestinian adolescents who perceived strong threats to their people and were highly involved in religious ritual were most likely to see political issues like the right of refugees to return to homes in Israel as absolute moral imperatives, forbidding Palestinian leaders to compromise whatever the costs.

Our work with Greg Berns and his neuroeconomics team suggests that such values become transcendent, emotionally-charged yet stable over time, and processed in the brain as duties bound by rules rather than utilitarian calculations. Neuroimaging also reveals that violations of sacred values trigger emotional responses consistent with sentiments of moral outrage.

The more antagonistic a group’s neighborhood, the more proprietary the group’s sacred values and rituals, increasing in-group reliance, but also disbelief and potential conflict toward other groups. An overview of research by Ginges and colleagues in India, Mexico, Britain, Russia, and Indonesia indicates that greater participation in religious ritual in large-scale societies is associated with greater parochial altruism and, in relevant contexts, support for suicide attacks.

This dynamic is behind the paradoxical reality that the world finds itself in today: Modern multiculturalism and global exposure to multifarious values is increasingly challenged by fundamentalist movements to revive primary group loyalties through greater ritual commitments to ideological purity.

In an age when religious and sacred causes are resurgent, there is urgent need for scientific effort to understand them. Now that humankind has acquired through science the power of God to destroy itself with nuclear weapons, we cannot afford science ignoring religion and the sacred, or scientists simply trying to reason them away. Policymakers should leverage scientific understanding of what makes religion and sacred values so potent a force for both cooperation and conflict, to help increase the one and lessen the other.