October 16, 2014
Scott Atran —
Hopes and Dreams in a World of Fear

For over a decade, the French-American anthropologist Scott Atran has been listening to the hopes and dreams of young people from Indonesia to Egypt. He explores the human dynamics of what we analyze as “breeding grounds for terrorism” — why some young people become susceptible to them and others, in the same circumstances, do not. His work sheds helpful light on the question on so many of our minds as we watch horrific news of the day: How could this happen — and how could we possibly help transform it?

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is director of research at the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris, visiting professor at the University of Michigan, senior fellow at Harris Manchester College of Oxford University and research professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York. He’s the author of Talking to the Enemy: Faith, Brotherhood and the (Un)Making of Terrorists.

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School's out at Abdelkrim Khattabi Primary in the Jamaa Mezuak neighborhood of Tetuán, Morocco. Five of the seven plotters in the Madrid train bombing who blew themselves up attended the school, as did several volunteers for martyrdom in Iraq.

Photo by Scott Atran

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Thank you for this show with someone that seems to me to really get it. Scott Atran put into words so many of the feelings I have had all along but didn't quite have the words to express. As I have watched events unfold in Egypt I have been so excited about the possibilities, and so afraid it might somehow get shut down with yet more violence and repression. Perhaps I am too idealistic, but I can imagine how Egypt might well now not return to 'normal' but rather build on the way they all worked together in such a peaceful way and keep the momentum going towards quantum leaps beyond anything most people in this country seem to be able to imagine. I think the Egyptians might just show us that our current problems are not so impossible to solve if we can learn how to work together, rather than letting selfish impulses keep people behaving so poorly and antagonistically. Again, thank-you so much.

Excellent metric analysis so far--putting real arithmetic dimensions on this issue/problem, instead of a sweeping anathema of a religion or culture. He is "sizing the suit" properly. Well done.

This was such a refreshing conversation. I think he really understands what is driving these 'terrorists in the making.' However, we can't ignore the forces that don't want peace to break out. Too much money is being made by a few powerful entities by propagating fear and war.

For me, his studies drive home the need for a vibrant community of faith that will nurture relationships and provide places for competition and conflict to mature and flower.

Mr. Scott Atran is the most honest educator-commentator I have heard recently, and posted this program on my Facebook. As one whose life has been directly effected by US political-judicial insensitivity to Muslims, I feel like I have a friend. I wish that I would have had the transcendental ability/emotional maturity to speak truth to power.

Thank-you Krista for "being" here for us, with the kernels of wisdom from your guests that provide your audience of listeners with the tools/arguments/knowledge to accept our fates and live in dignity. After all is said and done, the world is ONE, everything is intertwined.

Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell spent their entire lives writing and speaking about this issue. What myth do I follow? In a secular world economy, science, technology, and the individual have made the Occidental and Eastern traditional myths irrelevant. They no longer serve as a guide on our personal mystical journey. Nor do current political structures separated from their originating mythical essence. (the hero turned autocrat) As Eckhart Tolle said, “All of these structures are crumbling, and it’s beautiful.” I cannot say it better than the Epilogue of The Hero of A Thousand Faces. This is a book that we should all read again in the context of what we see happening in the Middle East.

The search for a hero begins early in life and continues until you realize that you are the hero. Sometime after medical school I began reading biographies as a continued search for a hero figure. As my reading shifted to the metaphysical, I came to the realization that I am the hero of my own personal mythology. More importantly I am finding that my creativity is the ultimate recognition of this mystery, and expressing it brings the mystery to life.

We are witnessing a mythology unfolding in front of us and we are creating it. I had a discussion last night with some friends about anthropology and the functional unit of the hunter-gatherer tribe. Data suggests an optimal working group size of about 150. Tools like twitter and facebook Facebook have turned entire countries and diverse groups around the world into functional units that were geo-politically separate until now. These new functional units are now effecting change mysteriously out of thin air. The printing press, radio, and television all had similar impact. The Middle East was simply ripe for change.

We are effecting and witnessing the evolution of human mythology. I am the particle and we are the wave form and, we are individually and collectively observing the phenomenon we create. And, our observations further change our behavior. (Werner Heisenberg) This then feeds back on itself indefinitely. Quantum reality is the particle. Quantum myth is the wave form. Constant adaptation (evolution) is the natural law. There is no direction to this, nor end point. It is infinity.

Hear hear. Well said. Lots of intelligent discussion here but I find your post particularly resonant.

I've heard Atran several times now. I'm impressed that he actually talks to people who know those who do things we find so threatening. What an original approach, something you might expect an anthropologist to do. I find his reasoning sound, his stories compelling, and am frustrated that he doesn't seem to be making a huge impact in policy.

Understanding that comes from seeking and examining facts seems so obvious; I do not understand why Atran seems unique.

Several factors. First of all I am a student of anthropology (taking a break between BA and MA), and I have enjoyed Atram's work in the academic setting. Second, I am also profoundly interested in religion in society and in evolutionary psychology. I knew this would be "good stuff." I was not let down. Thank you!

I appreciated Scott's matter of fact realism about the choices that lie before us to listen and respect those whose ideologies differ but whose humanity connects with ours. As a religious person I was sobered by his assertion that ideology and belief follows relationships, and yet I think he is mostly accurate. It does leave me wondering what role religious belief can play in bringing reconciliation and understanding between peoples of vastly different cultures. In other words, how do we embrace our faith, while not allowing it to shut us off from those whose faith or ideology is so different than our own?

this is about the anthropologist thinking about new paradigms. maybe it is better to teach people that people are a mix of good and bad. always. therefore, alliance with a person is always going to mean risk of disappointment or anger. enemy or nonenemy - he said something about "abstract concept" like poverty. No - make less abstract. Like: no stealing. No stealing is good. No lying. These are the values. Choose the concrete "sin" that you stand against. stay focused on that. the real underpinnings of religion (IMHO) with none of the trappings.

Good morning. I just heard the interview with Scott Atran, and I want to say Thank You! As someone who works in the field of conflict transformation and prevention, it was amazingly refreshing and encouraging to hear Scott's analysis of what creates and drives conflicting world views -- and what can be done to prevent and address the too-often violent 'crash' of such views. I've thought for a long time that anthropologists need a key seat at any table where human relations are the topic of discussion -- whether political, religious, or other relations. This interview convinces me even more that this is true. Thanks again, and I am eager to hear future interviews with this depth of insight. Eran Fraenkel Consultant: Media and Civil Society Bogor, Indonesia

Re: program of 2/13 w Mr. Atran (sp?)-his book Talking to the Enemy Thot provoking- but only to yr usual tepid degree; Re the paths available- “yes we can” vrs martyrdom? false choice. Martyrdom might b fine on the right path which you failed to mention: Militant
Civilly disobedient
Leftist, etc.
Kindly dig deeper. Please seek out the peace movements in Palestine and Israel before you go? Discuss Rachel Corrie? Dave E Cc Atran, various eberhardt baltimore

by the way- yr form insanely difficult

Loved this week's show (Demonstrations, Hopes and Dreams). Please do read Francis Fukuyama's "The End of History" tho as I feel this week's guest was demonstrating Mr Fukuyama's thesis; which, by the way, predates 9/11. Thanks.

I found this discussion so fascinating and relevant, because, since 911, I have been so curious and confused about what would lead a person to become a "terrorist". I just always assumed that it had to do with poverty and the lack of opportunity for personal and community growth. This was the first discussion that I had listened to on the subject that involved someone doing research, and actually talking with these individuals, (other than Barbara Walters in her program about God a few years back).

Mr. Atran's discussion of the who the children admired really intrigued me. It reminded me of some of my observations of my daughter's attitude, especially during her teen years, (she is now 25 years old). It seemed to me, that she and her contemporaries had a sense of entitlement that I didn't remember in myself or my peers at that age. They seemed to have this feeling that they were horribly deprived if they didn't have a TV and computer in their own room and a cell phone in their pocket. And if it was suggested that they would have to wait until they could earn the money to purchase and support their own, that we, (parents) were the most terrible of torturous jailers. And even worse if we didn't supply them with a car when they became of age to drive. It was all about instant gratification, without doing the work required to earn that gratification. I wondered where this attitude came from, since my daughter had only ever seen me and our family working to earn a living, and living, what I thought to be an ethical lifestyle. (To her credit, in her adulthood, my daughter has since thanked me for my discipline in this and other matters, and felt a great sense of pride when she purchased her own car and supported it on her own!)

I wondered if this attitude was a product of exposure to the media, and pop icons, like Paris Hilton, whose claim to fame has nothing to do with her own accomplishments, but with the circimstances of her birth, (I don't mean any personal disrespect or judgment against Ms. Hilton), and depictions of these lifestyles in the media, TV and movies.

But, now I am wondering if it is really due a failure in our communities closer to home and the education system. It is understandable that public figures will inspire and motivate the young, this is nothing new, ie, Buzz Aldrin, John Kennedy, Gandhi, Bin Ladin, Obama, etc. But what about role models in the local community? Parents, teachers, clergy and others in a position to influence and offer inspiration to the children? I guess it is not very glamorous to ethically and lovingly provide for our families, (I think back on your episode with Mike Rose on intelligence last year), or to be a teacher that creates excitement in math or literature. And how about a local firefighter who has rescued a family from a fire? Is our disconnectedness of community to blame? Or the fact that we aren't communicating these ethics to our children? It seems to me that providing inspiration closer to home could offer a productive and fulfilling alternative to going out in a puff of smoke in search of brotherhood and fame, or at the very least, provide the sense of belonging that the youth crave, with rational, responsible adults.

I have no idea what the communities of the children in the photo that headlines this show's page are like. But if theirs are not so different from ours, could the disconnectedness from community and the lack of ability of community adults to inspire and support the children be at the root of the problem? Are there similarities to the massacre in Columbine, where it has been suggested that dearth of adult relationship with teens may have contributed to the problems? This has such great implications for all of our children and communities!

Thank you for providing this venue for discussion of such important and relevant topics, and for the intelligent and rational point of view. The ideas and conversation you provide are some of the most stimulating and forward thinking in the media today.

with all due respect, Scott... saying of little children leaving school, "those are the terrorists," is aggressive and violent and horrific. only a narcissist could say something so demeaning and vicious. and who criticizes the “horse and buggy” policy of the political leaders! it’s so disturbing.
and, by the way, i've heard of little boys from rich white american neighborhoods who say, "when i grow up, i want to be a garbage man." i guess those privileged kids, too, grow up entitled to be the terrorists? yeah, the guys signing war contracts and contracts for books on war and and and...
god! what is wrong with this world! so disappointing.

I think Scott Atram's observations give us a true reality check. Scott could
be an excellent director of the United Nations as really understands - every thing he says is tangible and factual - not full of rhetoric meaningless phrases. I am definitely going to buy his books.
Congratulations Krista for having him talk on your excellent show. Great job to both of you. Regards Sab Szabados

I recognized Atran's ideas as similar to my own more rudimentary ones concerning the causes of jihad. I appreciate this program as among the top, yet, of those you are sending. The world needs far more Scott Atrans..and Krista Tippets

It's a burden to me since I have insight into the motivation for rebellion and rampaging and killing. For me, I see "youthful idealism" and less adult wisdom. In myself, I am rebellious when I'm feeling that my ideas (let alone my life) are threatened. Understanding, everyone is "human" and all want what is best for their families and hold preservation of family as paramount, it's understandable to rebel when threatened. This basic need drives us/youthful thinkers to separate into like minded groups.

Within the better standard of living that [many] in USA have attained, the more protective we get of OUR OWN, and fearful of loosing IT. It is the same for those who aren't white, aren't living in a wealthy nation having a middle class life, but what they have is anger, and idealism, plus numbers to use . ....

You, Krista, and Dave Muris are preaching to the choir, seems to me. I had to leave my family, husband, and his family, and Central Pennsylvania for lack of finding people who are like-minded, open minded. I know you have higher thinking, but I don't see the world's majority catching up, or reaching out. My conclusion is that humans are a doomed species. We'll use every resource to our own detriment, and blame the "other" for "our/my not having".

Your programming selections give me hope . . ..

I sure wish an Anthropologist would run for U.S. President. I would love to vote for one ! As always, On Being is the best program on air - radio or tv. I'm ALWAYS enlightened and want to tell everyone I know that they need to hear this program every week. thank you. I really loved hearing Scott Altran and now want to read his book.

Listening to On Being is always a pleasure. This program in particular is extremely important. Professor Atran's analysis is deep and very insightful, based upon solid contextualized cultural understanding. It makes me, a fellow anthropologist, hopeful that others will stop, listen and think. Thank you very much!

Your interview with Dr. Atran helps the listener to understand the motivations [hard wired in many ways] toward what Abraham Maslow had labeled as ‘becoming’ motivations. Or as Claire Graves had posited…the higher on spiral level of motivations that are accentuated by cooperation and collaboration over the exploitive misuse [ deficiency motivations] of what ones thinks of the ‘farther reaches of human nature’. I try not to miss a Sunday morning around listening and learning through your interviews. Remarkable…is an understatement. I hope someday that you might interview Alan Fiske or Don Black as to add to our understanding of what we call…religion, spirituality and perhaps even more elusive this urge toward transcendence.

An excellent conversation. What a relief to hear intelligent and meaningful discourse.. Thank you!

I am a high school teacher. Many kids can go bad or come to the good side. It sometimes is how they are treated!

This is a breath of fresh air and sanity. A small flame of hope.

Thank you for yet another excellent treatment of a topic that may initially appear to address a particular context; however, which, I believe, touches on something much deeper --- man's (no sexism intended) eternal quest for connection and belonging and community. I was blessed and honored to be the founding superintendent and principal of one of the first 12 open-enrollment charter schools in Texas (1996). 99% of the boys in our high school were gang affiliated. Through much discourse it was agreed, their desire for community, to be connected and belong were core to their gang involvement, and which unfortunately was cause for much social- and self-destruction(echoes of jihad,perhaps?). Such works as, Religion for Atheists (de Botton) speak of religion as a means to nurture community, and most recently the NYTimes article, To Siri With Love,a wonderful story of how one 13-year-old boy with autism became B.F.F.'s with Apple's Siri. It's all about community, connection, belonging -- thank you On Being, for yet another poignant reminder of this essential truth.

Great show on Oct.16 with Scott Atran. I'm sharing it with my History of Photography class at the University of Findlay, after a terrific 2 1/2 hour discussion with a visiting scholar from Vietnam. We weren't talking about terrorism as such, but about ways that we are influenced on various issues.

I am very curious about Scott's reference to the letter that Engels sent to Marx re: California. I sought it here

but so far cannot locate it. Could Scott please provide a link or a footnote, so that I can find it?

finally, a voice of reason in the dialogue around extremism. atran's ideas have applicability across many social issues, gangs, bullying, etc. Big eye opener for me. Great show.

CT is amazing as always when she discovers and puts forward people like Scott Atran. His quest for understanding discontent and seeking roots for conflict are of extrem value to all of us. This is again another episode that I will need to listen to more than once. My favorite quote from the first listening is:
"Madam, do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?" where Scott is quoting President Lincoln.
How can we support Scott and cultivate more academics like him?

Powerful interview. It was such a BFO (Blinding Flash of the Obvious) that the most efficient way to analyze terrorists is find out what they eat and those with whom they hang out. It's not that complicated; we are human beings and our lives are built around relationships. Don't ever stop including the unedited versions of the podcasts; each one is a gem and so human.

I'm a sociologist who studies kids' social networks, hence Mr. Atran's observation that Islamic terrorists are creatures of their social context comes as no great surprise. We all are. Discussions of the "psychology" of terrorism miss this fundamental fact. We would be better served to be talking about the "social ecology" of terrorism instead.

When he speaks of the Declaration of Independence, he omits that women, slaves, and unlanded men did not have the right to vote. He omits the pure contradictions of the time. It's too neat.

When he speaks of the Declaration of Independence, he omits that women, slaves, and unlanded men did not have the right to vote. He omits the pure contradictions of the time. It's too neat.

OF course the American revolutionaries were product os of their times and far from the egalitarian thinkers of today. Nevertheless, there's was a momentous movement in the history of human development, without which open democracy and human rights might never even begun. Civilization is intermittent, and even today there is no guarantee that open democracy will thrive, or even survive. But we cannot deny that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,as universal "sacred rights" (as Jefferson termed them in his original draft of the Declaration of Independence, before the ever too rational Franklin skewed the notion into "self-evident") was a moral revolution of vast effect and importance -- and to my mind, for the good.

Thank you
for this
of boys
in our

Let us

So refreshing to hear in such clear words Scotts view and incredible understanding of our human nature.......and opportunities
May this understanding grow and take hold in our world! Thank you for your work Scott!!!!
Thank you Krista for your continuing efforts to inspire.

I want to thank the staff at On Being. I am a 44 year old father of 2 teens. This show is my nutrition. Your work blows me away week after week. My life is better because of this show and the effects it has on me. I am treading yoga for a year now and I use so many guests, quotes, and ideas from the conversations that occur. I share this show with my 13 and 16 year old. In this world where media grabs on the reptilian tendencies in us, On Being takes a different rose. Thanks so much. I feel like you are my second family