Are Suicide Bombings Really Driven by Ideology?

Harvey Whitehouse doesn’t like how New Atheists like Richard Dawkins make religion out to be a mere “set of propositions” amounting to a “failed science.” In a 2013 YouTube video, Whitehouse—the director of the Institute of Cognitive & Evolutionary Anthropology at the University of Oxford—strolls through a park and says, “Clearly religion is not just that.”1

The point of religion is not to produce a rational understanding of nature, according to Whitehouse. It is “more about building cohesion and cooperation in groups, among other things,” he recently told Nautilus. He does realize that, taken literally, religious tales are implausible or just plain wrong, “and that can be irritating to people like Dawkins.” But the reason people “dig their heels in” against Dawkinsian criticism of their beliefs isn’t necessarily because they’re irrational—it’s because those beliefs help bond them with other religious people. “When you challenge those beliefs,” he said, “you’re not really getting into a debate about what’s true but are just offending people by attacking their identities.”

Dawkins and other New Atheists want to challenge religious beliefs, especially extremist ones, with a mix of rational critique and ridicule. But Whitehouse is skeptical. He suggests another strategy for undermining extremism, based on an understanding of the social cohesion that it can produce.

Nautilus caught up with Whitehouse earlier this month.

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