I dedicate this post to Peter L. and Mike V. with whom some of the following ideas were hashed out over Sunday breakfast at a Mesa hash house.
According to Atran, people who decapitate journalists, filmmakers, and aid workers to cries of “Alahu akbar!” or blow themselves up in crowds of innocents are led to misbehave this way not because of their deeply held beliefs about jihad and martyrdom but because of their experience of male bonding in soccer clubs and barbershops. (Really.) So I asked Atran directly:
“Are you saying that no Muslim suicide bomber has ever blown himself up with the expectation of getting into Paradise?”
“Yes,” he said, “that’s what I’m saying. No one believes in Paradise.”
This post assumes that Harris has fairly and accurately reported Atran's view. If you think he hasn't then substitute 'Atran*' for 'Atran' below. Atran* holds by definition the view I will be criticizing.
If we are to be as charitable to Atran as possible, we would have to say that he holds his strange view because he himself does not believe in the Muslim paradise and he cannot imagine anyone else really believing in it either. So Muslims who profess to believe in Paradise with its black-eyed virgins, etc. are merely mouthing phrases. What makes this preposterous is that Atran ignores the best evidence one could have as to what a person believes, namely, the person's overt behavior taken in the context of his verbal avowals. Belief is linked to action. If I believe I have a flat tire, I will pull over and investigate. If I say 'We have a flat tire" but keep on driving, then you know that I don't really believe that we have a flat tire.
Same with the Muslim terrorist. If he invokes the greatness of his god while decapitating someone, then that is the best possible evidence that he believes in the existence of his god and what that god guarantees to the faithful, namely, an endless supply of post-mortem carnal delights. This is particularly clear in the case of jihadis such as suicide bombers. The verbal avowals indicate the content of the belief while the action indicates that the content is believed.
Now compare this very strong evidence with the evidence Atran has for the proposition that "No one believes in Paradise." His only evidence is astonishingly flimsy: that he and his ilk cannot imagine anyone believing what Muslims believe. But that involves both a failure of imagination and a projection into the Other of one's own attitudes.
The problem here is a general one.
"I don't believe that, and you don't either!"
"But I do!"
"No you don't, you merely think you believe it or are feigning belief."
"Look at what I do, and how I live. The evidence of my actions, which costs me something, in the context of what I say, is solid evidence that I do believe what I claim to believe."
Example. Years ago I heard Mario Cuomo say at a Democratic National Convention that the life of the politician was the noblest and best life. I was incredulous and thought to myself: Cuomo cannot possibly believe what he just said! But then I realized that he most likely does believe it and that I was making the mistake of assuming that others share my values and assumptions and attitudes.
It is a bad mistake to project one's own values, beliefs, attitudes , assumptions and whatnot into others.
Most of the definitions of psychological projection I have read imply that it is only undesirable attitudes, beliefs and the like that are the contents of acts of projection. But it seems to me that the notion of projection should be widened to include desirable ones as well. The desire for peace and social harmony, for example, is obviously good. But it too can be the content of an act of psychological projection. A pacifist, for example, may assume that others deep down are really like he is: peace-loving to such an extent as to avoid war at all costs. A pacifist might reason as follows: since everyone deep down wants peace, and abhors war, if I throw down my weapon, my adversary will do likewise. By unilaterally disarming, I show my good will, and he will reciprocate. But if you throw down your weapon before Hitler, he will take that precisely as justification for killing you: since might makes right on his neo-Thrasymachian scheme, you have shown by your pacific deed that you are unfit for the struggle for existence and therefore deserve to die, and indeed must die to keep from polluting the gene pool.
Projection in cases like these can be dangerous. One oftens hears the sentiment expressed that we human beings are at bottom all the same and all want the same things. Not so! You and I may want "harmony and understanding, sympathy and trust abounding" but others have belligerence and bellicosity as it were hard-wired into them. They like fighting and dominating and they only come alive when they are bashing your skull in either literally or figuratively. People are not the same and it is a big mistake to think otherwise and project your decency into them.
I said that the psychologists classify projection as a defense mechanism. But how could the projection of good traits count as a defense mechanism? Well, I suppose that by engaging in such projections one defends oneself against the painful realization that the people in the world are much worse than one would have liked to believe. Many of us have a strong psychological need to see good in other people, and that can give rise to illusions. There is good and evil in each person, and one must train oneself to accurately discern how much of each is present in each person one encounters.