A leading atheist says people must embrace rationalism, not faith -- or they will never overcome their differences.
By Laura Sheahen, Beliefnet. Posted May 16, 2006.
Sam Harris is not your grandfather's atheist. The award-winning writer practices Zen meditation and believes in the value of mystical experiences. But he's adamant in his belief that religion does more harm than good in the world, and has sparked controversy by suggesting that when it comes to faith-based violence, religious moderates are part of the problem, not the solution.
Laura Sheahen: You've said that nonbelievers must try to convince religious people "of the illegitimacy of their core beliefs." Why are these beliefs dangerous?
Sam Harris: On the subject of religious belief, we relax standards of reasonableness and evidence that we rely on in every other area of our lives. We relax so totally that people believe the most ludicrous propositions, and are willing to organize their lives around them. Propositions like "Jesus is going to come back in the next fifty years and rectify every problem that human beings create"--or, in the Muslim world, "death in the right circumstances leads directly to Paradise." These beliefs are not very contaminated with good evidence.
LS: There are beliefs--like kids believing in the tooth fairy--that I wouldn't say are dangerous.
SH: Right. Those are not as consequential. But this whole style of believing and talking about beliefs leaves us powerless to overcome our differences from one another. We have Christians against Muslims against Jews, and no matter how liberal your theology, merely identifying yourself as a Christian or a Jew lends tacit validity to this status quo. People have morally identified with a subset of humanity rather than with humanity as a whole.
LS: You're saying we should be part of the human race, not part of any particular religious or national group?
SH: Yeah. It is still fashionable to believe that how you organize yourself religiously in this life may matter for eternity. Unless we can erode the prestige of that kind of thinking, we're not going to be able to undermine these divisions in our world.
To speak specifically of our problem with the Muslim world, we are meandering into a genuine clash of civilizations, and we're deluding ourselves with euphemisms. We're talking about Islam being a religion of peace that's been hijacked by extremists. If ever there were a religion that's not a religion of peace, it is Islam.
LS: If 9/11 hadn't happened, what would be the example atheists would point to--another egregious, contemporary misuse of religion?
SH:There are so many. Let's take the extreme case, honor killing in the Muslim world. Imagine the psychology of a man who, upon hearing that his daughter was raped, is inspired not to console her, not to seek immediate medical and psychological treatment for her, but to kill her. This is an honor-based, shame-based psychology. You cannot name a Muslim country to my knowledge where it doesn't happen. It even happens in the suburbs of Paris. It falls right out of the theology of Islam.
LS: What are some problems with Judaism and Christianity?
SH: There is no text more barbaric than the Old Testament of the Bible--books like Deuteronomy and Leviticus and Exodus. The Qur'an pales in comparison.
LS: Richard Dawkins, a vocal atheist, has said the Old Testament God is a "psychotic monster."
SH: Not only is the character of God diabolical in those books, but there are explicit prescriptions for how to live that are not metaphors; they are not open to theological judo. God just comes right out and says "stone people" for a list of offenses so preposterous and all-encompassing that the killing never stops. You have to kill people for working on the Sabbath. You kill people for fornication.
LS: Doesn't the evidence show that people take their sacred texts with a grain of salt?
SH: That's the point: in the West, we have delivered the salt. Obviously, people are no longer burning heretics alive in our public squares and that's a good thing. We in the West have suffered a sufficient confrontation with modernity, secular politics, and scientific culture so that even fundamentalist Christians and Orthodox Jews can't really live by the letter of their religious texts.
We now cherry-pick the good parts. That's easier to do with the Bible because the Bible is such a big book and it's so self-contradictory; you can use parts of it to repudiate other parts of it. Unfortunately, the Qur'an is a much shorter and more unified message.
But you ask me what the scariest things are in Christianity: this infatuation with biblical prophecy and this notion that Jesus is going to come back as an avenging savior to kill all the bad people.
LS: Wouldn't it be more accurate to say that Christians believe that Jesus is going to come back, period? They don't necessarily believe that he's going to come back as an avenging person to kill people.
SH: One of the things that is overlooked by many Christians is that there is a wrathful Jesus in the New Testament. Jesus comes out and condemns whole towns to fates worse than Sodom and Gomorrah for not liking his preaching. You can find Jesus in some very foul moods.
Look at the theology of the "Left Behind" series of novels and all the religious extremists in our culture who describe a Jesus coming back with a sword and punishing those who haven't lived in his name.
Cherry-picking is a good thing and it's to be hoped that Muslims will eventually cherry-pick as well. But the Qur'an, virtually on every page, is a manifesto for religious intolerance. I invite readers of your website who haven't read the Qur'an to simply read the book. Take out a highlighter and highlight those lines that counsel the believer to despise infidels, and you will find a book that is just covered with highlighter.
LS: Let's return to your idea that people must be convinced of the "danger and illegitimacy" of their core beliefs. How can they be convinced?
SH: It's a difficult problem because people are highly indisposed to having their core beliefs challenged. But we need to lift the taboos that currently prevent us from criticizing religious irrationality.
LS: How do you bring it up, and in what context? At a party?
SH: I'm not advocating that people challenge everyone's religious beliefs wherever they appear. In a crowded elevator, if someone mentions Jesus and you start barking at them, that's not really the front line of discourse.
Whenever you're standing at a podium or publishing a book or article or an op-ed, that's when it's time to be really rigorous about the standards of evidence.
Interpersonally, we don't challenge everyone's crazy beliefs about medical therapies or alien abduction or astrology or anything else. Yet if the president of the U.S. started talking about how Saturn was coming into the wrong quadrant and is therefore not a good time to launch a war, one would hope that the whole White House press corps would descend on him with a straitjacket. This would be terrifying--to hear somebody with so much power basing any part of his decision-making process on something as disreputable as astrology. Yet we don't have the same response when he's clearly basing some part of his deliberation on faith.
LS: Many people consider America to have been founded as a Christian nation. They think many of the Founding Fathers were specifically Christian and very religious, whereas many secularists argue they weren't. You've said the issue is a dead end.
SH: I just think that it's the wrong battle to fight. Even if the [Founding Fathers] were as religious or deranged by their religiosity as the Taliban, their beliefs now are illegitimate. Secularists are on the right side of the debate and fundamentalists in our culture are distorting history. The Founding Fathers--many believed that slavery was a justifiable practice; we now agree that it's an abomination. Anyone trying to resurrect slavery because Thomas Jefferson, that brilliant man, didn't free the slaves--that's an argument that would be so appalling to us now, in terms of 20th century morality.
LS: You've said the First Amendment is insufficient to protect against encroachments of religion. What would you do to supplement what the First Amendment does?
SH: I'm not eager to monkey with the Constitution. It has to happen at the level of popular, grassroots expectations of what it means to be a rational, well-educated human being.
LS: You've said that people perceive the word "atheist" as along the lines of "child molester." How should atheists present themselves?
SH: I'm very distrustful of finding the right label because labels are ultimately sloganeering. You had the label the "brights," which is stillborn. I think atheism and secularism are also names that ultimately we don't need. We don't need a name for disbelief in astrology. I don't think we need anything other that rationality and reason and intellectual honesty.
In our society, people are rewarded for pretending to be certain about things they're clearly not certain about. You cannot have presidential aspirations without being willing to pretend to be certain that God exists. You have to pander to the similar convictions of 90% of the American population. 70% of Americans claim to feel that it is important that their president be strongly religious. No aspiring politician can fly in the face of those numbers now, so we are rewarding people for false certainty, false conviction.
Clearly, anyone who claims to be certain that Jesus was literally born of a virgin is lying. He's either lying to himself or he's lying to others. There's no experience you have praying in church that can deliver certainty on that specific point.
LS: You're saying it's not verifiable.
SH: It's just not the kind of thing that spiritual experience validates. You can pray in a room to Jesus and even have an experience of Jesus being bodily present. Jesus shows up with a whole halo and the beard and the robes and it's the best experience of your life. What does that prove? You wouldn't even be in the position to know whether the historical Jesus actually had a beard on the basis of that experience.
Yet one thing I argue in my book is that experiences like that are very interesting and worth exploring. There's no doubt that people have visionary experiences.
There's no doubt that praying to Jesus for 18 hours a day will transform your psychology--and in many ways, transform it for the better. I just think that we don't have to believe anything preposterous in order to understand that. [We can] value the example of Jesus, at least in half his moods, and we should want to discover if there's a way to love your neighbor as yourself and generate the kind of moral psychology that Jesus was talking about.
LS: What is your response to people who like science, who agree with it, but who say "It's not enough, it doesn't satisfy me, I need more?"
SH: With religious moderates, you have people talking about just wanting meaning in their lives, which I argue is a total non-sequitur when it comes down to justifying your belief in God.
If I told you that I thought there was a diamond the size of a refrigerator buried in my backyard, and you asked me, why do you think that? I say, this belief gives my life meaning, or my family draws a lot of joy from this belief, and we dig for this diamond every Sunday and we have this gigantic pit in our lawn. I would start to sound like a lunatic to you. You can't believe there really is a diamond in your backyard because it gives your life meaning. If that's possible, that's self-deception that nobody wants.
LS: What if people prefer self-deception to despair and chaos?
SH: I would argue that is really not the alternative.
LS: What is the alternative? If there's no God who orders things, some people would say there's chaos, it's all random, their life is meaningless. There really is despair out there--especially about evolution.
SH: You don't have to believe in God to have the most extraordinary, mystical experience. Personally, I've spent two years on meditation retreats just meditating in silence for 12-18 hours a day.
You can try to be a mystic, like Meister Eckhart in the Christian tradition, without believing Jesus was born of a virgin. You can realize the value of community and compassion and love of your neighbor without ever presupposing anything on insufficient evidence.
There are many ironies here. The [sacred texts] themselves are very poor guides to morality. The only way you find goodness in good books is because you recognize it. They're based on your own ethical intuitions. In the New Testament, Jesus is talking about the Golden Rule--a great, wise, compassionate distillation of ethics. You're doing that based on your intuition.
Hopefully, also, you recognize that stoning someone to death for not being a virgin on her wedding night, or beating your child with a rod, as it recommends in Proverbs, and which millions of Christians do in our country, that's not a good thing. You know that based on your own intuitions and the evolving human conversation about what is ethical and most conducive to human happiness.
LS: You're saying that we can figure out moral, ethical behavior on our own, without benefit of religious concepts.
SH: All we have is human conversation to do this with. Either you can be held hostage by the human conversation that occurred 2,000 years ago and has been enshrined in these books, or you can be open to the human conversation of the 21st century. And if there's something good in those books, then it is admissible in the 21st century conversation on morality.
LS: Some people say the good that religion does outweighs the bad things they get away with because they're religions.
SH: We can do all that good--and we are doing all that good--without any affiliation with religion. It's true there are Christian missionaries doing very fine work in Africa. There are secular groups like Doctors Without Borders doing the same work. They don't need to believe in Jesus coming out of the clouds in order to do that work.
It's not that people don't do good and heroic things on the basis of their dogma, it's just those things aren't best done on the basis of religious dogma. We can agree that famine in Africa is intolerable to us for perfectly compassionate and rational and modern reasons that have nothing to do with beliefs. We just have to believe that it is unethical that people are starving to death while we are throwing out half of our meals.
This article appeared originally on www.beliefnet.com. Used with permission. All rights reserved.
Laura Sheahen is Beliefnet's senior religion editor.