scott_atran's picture
Anthropologist; Emeritus Research Director, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Institut Jean Nicod, Paris; Co-Founder, Centre for the Resolution of Intractable Conflict, University of Oxford; Author, Talking to the Enemy

The Power of Absurdity

The notion of a transcendent force that moves the universe or history or determines what is right and good—and whose existence is fundamentally beyond reason and immune to logical or empirical disproof—is the simplest, most elegant, and most scientifically baffling phenomenon I know of. Its power and absurdity perturbs mightily, and merits careful scientific scrutiny. In an age where many of the most volatile and seemingly intractable conflicts stem from sacred causes, scientific understanding of how to best deal with the subject has also never been more critical.

Call it love of Group or God, or devotion to an Idea or Cause, it matters little in the end. This is the "the privilege of absurdity; to which no living creature is subject, but man only" of which Hobbes wrote in Leviathan. In The Descent of Man, Darwin cast it as the virtue of "morality," with which winning tribes are better endowed in history's spiraling competition for survival and dominance. Unlike other creatures, humans define the groups to which they belong in abstract terms. Often they strive to achieve a lasting intellectual and emotional bonding with anonymous others, and seek to heroically kill and die, not in order to preserve their own lives or those of people they know, but for the sake of an idea—the conception they have formed of themselves, of "who we are."

Sacred and religious ideas are culturally universal, yet content varies markedly across cultures. [Religious conceptions and sacred, or transcendental, values often go together but aren't quite the same: sacred values—like dignity or honor, love of country or racial purity, devotion to jihad or humanity, or even sometimes to science—share with core religious values immunity to cost-benefit considerations and appear to drive actions independently, or all out of proportion, to likely prospects of success]. Sacred values mark the moral boundaries of societies and determine which material transactions are permissible. Material transgressions of the sacred are taboo: we consider people who sell their children or sell out our country to be sociopaths; other societies consider adultery or disregard of the poor equally immoral, but not necessarily selling children or women or denying freedom of expression.

Sacred values usually become terribly relevant only when challenged, much as food takes on overwhelming value in people's lives only when denied. People in one cultural milieu are often unaware of what's sacred for another; or, in becoming aware through conflict, find immoral and absurd the other side's values (pro-life vs pro-choice).Such conflicts cannot be wholly reduced to secular calculations of interest but must be dealt with on their own terms, a logic different from the marketplace or realpolitik. For example, cross-cultural evidence indicates that prospects of crippling economic burdens and huge numbers of deaths don't necessarily sway people from choosing whether or not to go to war, or to opt for revolution or resistance. As Darwin noted, the virtuous and brave do what is right, regardless of consequences, as a moral imperative. Indeed, we have suggestive neuroimaging evidence that people process sacred values in parts of the brain that are devoted to rule-bound behavior rather than utilitarian calculations (think: "Ten Commandments" or "Bill of Rights").

There is an apparent paradox that underlies the formation of large-scale human societies. The religious and ideological rise of civilizations—of larger and larger agglomerations of genetic strangers, including today's nations, transnational movements, and other "imagined communities" of fictive kin — seem to depend upon what Kierkegaard deemed this "power of the preposterous" (as in Abraham's willingness to slit the throat of his most beloved son to show commitment to an invisible, no-name deity, thus making him the world's greatest culture hero, rather than a child abuser, would-be murderer or psychotic). Humankind's strongest social bonds and actions, including the capacity for cooperation and forgiveness, and for killing and allowing oneself to be killed, are born of commitment to causes and courses of action that are "ineffable," that is, fundamentally immune to logical assessment for consistency and to empirical evaluation for costs and consequences. The more materially inexplicable one's devotion and commitment to a sacred cause — that is, the more absurd—the greater the trust others place in it and the more that trust generates commitment on their part.

To be sure, thinkers of all persuasions have tried to give explanations of the paradox, most being ideologically motivated and simple-minded: often to show that religion is good or, more usual, that religion is unreasonably bad. If anything, evolution teaches that humans are creatures of passion, and that reason itself is primarily aimed at social victory and political persuasion rather than philosophical or scientific truth. To insist that persistent rationality is the best means and hope for victory over enduring irrationality—that logical harnessing of facts could someday to do away with the sacred and so end conflict—defies all that science teaches about our passion-driven nature. Throughout the history of our species, as for the most intractable conflicts and greatest collective expressions of joy today, utilitarian logic is a pale prospect to replace the sacred.

For Alfred Russel Wallace, moral behavior (along with mathematics, music and art) was evidence that humans had not evolved through natural selection alone:

"The special faculties we have been discussing clearly point to the existence in man of something which has not derived from his animal progenitors — something which we may best refer to as being of a spiritual essence… beyond all explanation by matter, its laws and forces."

Of course, this didn't sit well with Darwin: "I hope you have not murdered too completely your own and my child," he lamented in a letter to Wallace. But Darwin himself produced no causal account of how humans became moral animals, other than to say that because our ancestors were so physically weak, only group strength could get them through. Religion and the sacred, banned so long from reasoned inquiry by ideological bias of all persuasions—perhaps because the subject is so close to who we want or don't want to be—is still a vast, tangled and largely unexplored domain for science, however simple and elegant for most people everywhere in everyday life.