Reframing Sacred Values and Making Political Compromises

Steve Clarke 

Scott Atran’s Talking to The Enemy (HarperCollins: New York, 2010) has recently been published. This is a big, sprawling and very readable book which has much that is important to say about religious behaviour and the role of religion in inspiring, and also in preventing, terrorism and conflict in general. I recommend it to anyone who wants to know more about religious conflict ‘on the ground’. One of the many intriguing issues that is discussed in the book is the issue of compromising over sacred values. When a religious group asserts that a particular city, or geographical feature which they control is sacred or holy, they are typically also asserting that they are not prepared to give up control of that site, regardless of the costs to them. And if they do not control it then they are prepared to do whatever is necessary to regain control of it, regardless of costs. The same can be said for possession of sacred artifacts and the right to practice sacred rituals.


Some commentators, especially many those who take a decision-theoretic approach to negotiation treat these claims with some skepticism and treat sacred values as ‘pseudo-sacred’. On this view everything is negotiable and people who claim that particular items are not negotiable are actually adopting a subtle bargaining strategy which involves pretending that particular items are not negotiable in order to drive prices up. In a series of studies, however, Atran and his colleagues show how implausible this view is by demonstrating that offers of financial compensation for the giving up of sacred values invariably backfire as these provoke moral outrage, or at least they provoke moral outrage in those who genuinely regard particular values as sacred.


So can people make compromises about sacred values? Atran suggests that they can when they are able to reframe sacred values. For example, many Israelis consider that they have a sacred right to control of Jerusalem and many Palestinians consider that they have a sacred right to control of Al-Quds. This is highly problematic because ‘Jerusalem’ and ‘Al-Quds’ are different names for the same city. But we should not give up home of a compromise being reached, according to Atran, as the meaning of ‘Jerusalem’ and of ‘Al-Quds’ can each be reframed to refer to different parts of the city. If Jerusalem is reframed to include those parts of the city most sacred to Israelis and Al-Quds is reframed to include those parts of the city most sacred to Palestinians, and these are mutually exclusive, then Israelis will end up controlling sacred Jerusalem and Palestinians controlling sacred Al-Quds.


Atran is surely right that when sacred values are vague there is scope to make them more precise in various different ways and when we do so we may be able to achieve political compromises. However, I think it is important that we acknowledge – and Atran does not appear to do this –

that there are important limitations to this strategy. There will be times when sacred values are very precise and are not amenable to reframing. If a dispute arises about, say, a sacred statue then it is very unlikely that those who treat it as sacred will be willing to give parts of it away. It is more likely that they will consider the entire statue to be sacred and will consider it just as much a violation of their sacred duty to give away part of the statue as it is to give away the entire thing. Similarly, some geographical features are not going to be amenable to reframing. Whereas it may be easy enough to reframe a city, given that we are often unclear about where the boundaries of cities lie, it would be much harder to reframe an island as islands typically have precise natural boundaries. If my religious group considers a particular island to be sacred then we consider a precisely defined geographic location to be sacred and it seems that there is no room for reframing. Ceding part of the island would be violating part of that which is sacred and this will surely be unacceptable. Atran’s strategy for reframing sacred values depends crucially on those values being attached to worldly objects in a vague way in the first place and unfortunately not all sacred values are attached to worldly objects in a suitably vague way.

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3 Responses to Reframing Sacred Values and Making Political Compromises

  • Anthony Drinkwater says:

    You are quite right, Steve : a place or an object that is considered sacred will always give rise to dispute regardless of cost. I would go further by suggesting that these disputes achieve nothing in furthering real human values (yes, I know this begs a big question …), but typically pit the poor and powerless against other poor and powerless people, without advancing the wealth, happiness or autonomy of either party.
    (This is not to deny that certain vested interests themselves can benefit from this situation.)
    The question for me thus becomes that of reflecting on why a religion should value an object or a place. In Old Testament terms, isn’t this idolatry rather than religion ? Religions would perhaps hold more respect if they sanctified ideas, behaviours and values.
    Two other questions come to mind – could we measure the backwardness of a religion by whether it sanctifies objects and places ? And is it a coincidence that many of the world’s current conflicts appear in regions in which primitive religions are predominant ?
    If I am right, the way forward is not reframing, if I understand correctly what Scott Atran means by it. We should rather seek to draw a line between what is really worth being sanctified (liberty, tolerance, justice, human rights, the arts ….) and what are relics of worldly power and privilege : “sacred” places and other icons, which are the mark of oppression.

  • Peter Wicks says:

    Surely if we want to solve religious conflict we need to consider *why* people hold certain things sacred. It’s a psychological rather than a philosophical issue, and in this context I think the “reframing” idea has more merit than either Steve or Anthony want to accept. But perhaps what needs to be reframed is not so much *what* is being held sacred as *how* it is being held sacred. There is no reason why one city cannot hold a special place for different sets of people.

  • Scott Atran says:

    I do not believe that conflicts over sacred values are always amenable to reframing. To be sure, sacred values are often associated with religious or transcendental notions that have no fixed truth values and so can be contexturalized and reframed. Where there are more prepcise propositions involved, other strategies are possible, such as amplifying somethingof relatively trivial value on one side through the values of the other side (as in the example of ping-pong diplomacy leading to a stragtegic breakthrough in the Cold War)


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