Sunday, January 29, 2006

Atran, religion and saving the world

I have been moving house, but there is time to note that my review of Scott Atran's In Gods We Trust was published three days ago here on openDemocracy.

The review was written very quickly on a hot day last summer (hence the recommendation to the read the book in the cool of the shade). I have still not finished the book since then but did make some progress. The point of this blog entry is to note what looks like a key point from the book that is well summarised in an interview with Atran for which I included a link in my review. The relevant passage:

Q. What have you learned about conservation from studying the Maya people of the Petén?

A. We took three groups that live in the same place--native lowland Maya, the Itza'; highland Maya, the Q'eqchi' that are forced down into the lowlands; and ladino immigrants that come up from all over Guatemala. We found that the group that actually preserves the forest, the Itza', is the one that has no institutions to speak of. The people don't monitor anything. They fight with one another constantly. They're extremely individualistic. And yet they protect the forest. The people with the strongest communal institutions, the Q'eqchi', who monitor one another in the forest and punish violators, they're destroying it at five times the rate of the others. They see the forest as a commodity, and they think it's open-ended. They don't think it needs protection. They don't see it as a threatened system. For them, it's relatively open jungle.

Q. What do the Itza' do differently?

A. They don't treat the forest as a commodity. They treat it as a relational item, like a friend or an enemy. There is no objective utility metric, like money value, that can be attached to it. We also found that the men who go out into the forest have this notion of what the spirits are doing, and they are scared to death of violating the spirit preference. They're real believers. Then we found that what the spirits prefer--not what the people think is important but what they think the spirits think is important--actually predicts species distributions.

I guess one of the reasons this comes to mind now is someone I know at a university in the US who works with major corporations has come to the view that it is only through change in values based on a religious revival that the most serious global challenges such as climate change can be faced successfully.

Atran's anecdote points to some complexities. From his evidence, any old religion is not enough. I'd guess the Q'eqchi, for example, are predominantly Catholic
(or at least nominally so).

Proselytising, globalised faiths such as Christianity and Islam share at least one feature with the religion of the Itza': they are no strangers to conflict. But they have been dominant in many societies that also severely damage and destroy their ecological base. Can they or other mass faiths be deliberately made anew?

Could some bouillabaisse of Rumi and St Francis -- with Hindu, Buddhist and other spices to taste -- do the job for hundreds of millions or billions of people? Or is there a crucial element in the case of groups such as the Itza' -- connected, maybe, to their limited geographical range, their individualism or both (factors that characterise many "early" religions) -- that cannot be reproduced at scale, deliberately or unconsciously?

Or does Atran's Maya study point to something darker: that all cultures are or can be violent whether or not they protect the natural environment? If that's the case, can mass technological societies ever be benign towards the environment, given that their violence will always impact the environment because of the scale of their activities and the tools available to them with which to compete in violent acts?

If the tendency to violence can never be channeled completely into less destructive activities can future conflicts between industrialised entities take a somewhat "cleaner" form than the wars of the 20th and early 21st century that damage ecosystems either direcly or as a byproduct of attacks on humans (burning oil wells, putting plutonium in the water supply and so on) such as precise targeting of specific human populations with pathogens that do not inflict damage on the wider environment (assuming such a thing is possible)?


Caspar Henderson said...

On 28 Jan, New Scientist published a 12 page section on studies of religious belief as a part of human nature.

Robin Dunbar, a professor of evolutionary psychology at the University of Liverpool, asks how religion might be of benefit in terms of evolutionary fitness. His favoured hypothesis is that religion acts as a kind of glue that holds society together (a view also favoured by Emil Durkheim).

Caspar Henderson said...

Scott Atran kindly writes to refer this paper:

The Cultural Mind: Environmental Decision Making and Cultural Modeling Within and Across Populations

by Scott Atran, Douglas Medin and Norbert Ross

This paper describes a cross-cultural research project on the relation between how people conceptualize nature (their mental models) and how they act in it. Mental models of nature differ dramatically among and within populations living in the same area and engaged in more or less the
same activities. This has novel implications for environmental decision making and management, including dealing with commons problems. Our research also offers a distinct perspective on models of culture, and a unified approach to the study of culture and cognition. We argue that cultural transmission and formation does not consist primarily in shared rules or norms, but in complex distributions of causally-connected representations across minds in interaction with the environment. The cultural stability and diversity of these representations often derives
from rich, biologically-prepared mental mechanisms that limit variation to readily transmissible psychological forms. This framework addresses a series of methodological issues, such as the limitations of conceiving culture to be a well-defined system or bounded entity, an independent
variable, or an internalized component of minds.

Published in Psychological Review, 112, October 2005

A pre-publication draft of the article can be viewed at: