10 Minutes With … Sam Harris

c. 2006 Religion News Service (UNDATED) In a country where a recent study showed that nine out of 10 Americans are affiliated with some sort of religious group, a book that takes an uncompromising stance against religion _ all of them _ has a good chance of getting relegated to the remainder pile. Sam Harris’ […]

c. 2006 Religion News Service

(UNDATED) In a country where a recent study showed that nine out of 10 Americans are affiliated with some sort of religious group, a book that takes an uncompromising stance against religion _ all of them _ has a good chance of getting relegated to the remainder pile.

Sam Harris’ first book, “The End of Faith,” was written in the aftermath of Sept. 11, when he concluded that religious moderates’ tolerance had allowed religious extremism to flourish. It became a best-seller.

His new book, “Letter to a Christian Nation,” serves as a response to the Christians who wrote to him to defend their beliefs. In it, Harris _ a 39-year-old doctoral student in neuroscience who also studied Eastern religions _ practices what he calls “conversational intolerance.”

Secularists should go further than the usual fight over church-state separation, he argues; they should challenge the very foundations of religious belief. The conversation is not always polite, but that’s exactly his point.

Q: How is Christianity jeopardizing the United States?

A: We have this idea that religion can be kept out of politics and out of social policy because of things like the First Amendment, but I argue that religion really can’t be kept out of the public sphere. People who think that the soul really does enter the zygote at the moment of conception must resist stem cell research even though it’s the most promising area of research in biology to develop cures for dozens of medical conditions. This is actually rational behavior, given certain irrational beliefs. But it’s behavior I argue that we should expect, and argue against, because it’s quite damaging to our society.

Q: Doesn’t everyone, religious or not, bring his or her own set of beliefs into a certain argument, whether it’s stem cell research or welfare or tax cuts?

A: Absolutely. We all bring our beliefs to the table and we can’t do otherwise. And yet we have this double standard in our culture where irrational beliefs are criticized rather mercilessly on every front except when they happen to be beliefs about God.

Q: If you’re arguing that we can’t separate religious beliefs from public policy, what’s your ideal? That religion die away altogether?

A: My ideal is that we use the same standards of evidence and intellectual honesty on questions of religion and morality that we apply to every other area in our lives. Nobody believing in Zeus is going to get a fair hearing in this society, and yet there’s no difference … in believing in Zeus and believing in the God of Abraham.

What troubles me about religion is that it allows perfectly sane and intelligent people to believe en masse, by the millions, what only a lunatic or an idiot could believe on his own.

Q: But a lot of those beliefs have been developed over thousands of years. Isn’t there a lot of rationality behind theology?

A: I call theology “ignorance with wings” in my first book. I think there’s a lot of discomfort with the irrationality of religious dogma, and therefore people are desperate to make it seem rational. Christian fundamentalists, paradoxically, are actually more committed to reconciling faith with reason than moderates and liberals are.

In their emphasis on biblical prophecy, for instance, they’re engaged in a rational exercise. Moderates are much more comfortable with a very elastic faith that is compatible with anything being true of the Bible and anything being true of the world. So in that sense fundamentalism is actually more respectable intellectually than religious moderation.

Q: There are a lot of Christians and members of other faiths who would say that reason and science are not incompatible with faith.

A: A lot of people say that, but people are not being honest about what is reasonable to conclude on the basis of their experience. The fact that Christians feel bliss while praying to Jesus, or they turn their lives around, or they love people more than they ever did _ Muslims are having those experiences, and Hindus are having those experiences. So at the very least it should point them to the fact that this is a more general feature of the human condition … not that Jesus was the Son of God. That’s merely the first step into the light of honesty.

Q: You talk about mysticism and the contemplative life. What does spirituality become when it’s divorced from any kind of religious worldview or belief in the supernatural?

A: It really becomes a first-person science. It becomes an honest investigation of how … it is possible to live more in the present moment, how it is possible to transcend fear and selfishness and other forces that lead directly to human suffering.

Q: And if one does transcend that fear and selfishness through a religious viewpoint, what’s wrong with that?

A: There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s just that it’s not a reason to believe in God. To argue that religion has been useful for some people does not offer the slightest confirmation of the doctrine of Christianity or Islam or Judaism.

What I argue is that religion gives good people bad reasons for being good where good reasons are available.

Q: You are clearly not a moral relativist. Yet religious people also condemn moral relativism. How can we all agree on absolute moral truth?

A: Religious people are under the illusion that the only way to ground morality in some universal theme is to think that the creator of the universe wrote one of your books.

It is a genuine irony that in our culture, it’s the religious fundamentalists who speak with the greatest clarity because they’re not burdened by this multiculturalist delusion that somehow you can’t make any strong claims about morality. But they’re freighted with their own religious lunacy, and that’s a real liability.

Q: Are you hoping that this book will actually persuade religious people to abandon their faith? Or is this more to gird people like you to raise this alarm about extremists?

A: It’s a bit of both. I think I am preaching to the choir and trying to arm secularists against their opponents on the Christian right.

I get thousands of e-mails from people on all points of the spectrum of belief and non-belief, and I really do get e-mails from people who used to be fundamentalists and who now no longer are, and who are now atheists even. Almost invariably it’s a matter of them having seen the intellectual illegitimacy and the negative consequences of their religiosity.

(People see) the negative consequences of the Balkanization of our world where we have these competing religious certainties that are incompatible and lead to conflict.

Q: Touching on Islam and what you call conversational intolerance, what do you think of the reaction to Pope Benedict’s recent comments about Islam? Is this an example of what you feel is a taboo against critiquing religion?

A: It’s especially taboo in the Muslim world. We have to acknowledge that Muslims have not had the benefit of 200 years of secular politics and a real thrashing from science. We’re dealing with people who want to see newspaper editors beheaded for printing cartoons. We’re dealing with people who think that conversion away from the faith, the crime of apostasy, should be punishable by death.

I don’t agree with the pope about anything except the fact that it’s right to be alarmed by Islam.


Editors: To obtain a photo of Sam Harris and book jacket for “Letter to a Christian Nation,” go to the RNS Web site at https://religionnews.com. On the lower right, click on “photos,” then search by subject or slug.

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