This article is reprinted from Campus Progress.org, the youth-oriented magazine of the Center for American Progress.
In 2001 Sam Harris was a graduate student in neuroscience. But like so many people, 9/11 radically altered his life. Seeing affluent young men kill themselves and others in the name of their God led him to conclude there was something fundamentally wrong with many of the world’s religions. The fruit of his effort to expose and confront what he interprets as the violence, sexism, homophobia and inherent irrationality of the world’s largest faiths became a best-seller, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (now out, and also a best-seller, in paperback.) Unsurprisingly, Harris was flooded with angry hate mail, typically from people who identify as deeply religious. He decided to respond en masse with his follow-up effort, Letter to a Christian Nation, another best-seller. Coming out this past fall, concurrent to the release of Oxford biologist and atheist polemicist Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, Harris’s Letter to a Christian Nation triggered a flood of media coverage. Campus Progress spoke with Harris about his thoughts on religious fundamentalism, atheism, and terrorism.
Campus Progress: You started writing The End of Faith right after 9/11, I wondered if you could talk about what inspired you to do that?
Sam Harris: It really was my immediate response to September 11 th and continues to be my response to the fact that every time I open the newspaper, fully half of the news, often unacknowledged, is coming out of the religious divisions in our world. We are continually bearing witness to how maladapted and unnecessary these religious ideas are.
Besides writing, what can one do to push the rationality agenda?
I think it has to come from media of all types. What we need essentially is a Fahrenheit 9/11 scale wide-release documentary on this subject.
Your book proceeds from looking at the polling data on people who think that God created the Earth in seven days, which is staggeringly high; and then the percentage of people who believe that God directed evolution, which is also staggeringly high, as compared to the percentage the people who accept the scientific consensus about evolution, which is very low. But at the same time, science is winning the battle over teaching evolution in schools. It seems to me that this would be unsustainable in a democratic country if 90 percent of people actually found scientific evolution offensive. So how do you explain those numbers?
There’s a margin of error and there are subtle differences in polls. For instance, a recent Gallop poll found that 53 percent of Americans believe the universe is 6,000 years old and we evolved not from prior species but from Adam and Eve…. The percentages are always massive, something like 70 percent believe in hell, 68 percent believe in Satan. There are so many specific questions being asked, it’s not just “Do you believe in God?” that I do trust the poll results, but I find them no less shocking.
It’s important to point out that this is a significant minority. This is not a majority. Something like 45 percent of us go to Church every week or more and believe very literalist things. If 44 percent of people claim to believe that Jesus is coming back in their lifetime, that is an eruption of medievalism in the heart of our democracy that I think should trouble everyone.
But there’s another 45 percent who are moderate in their beliefs, and do accept evolution. But many of them think that evolution has been guided by God. What that means in its particulars is that it’s difficult to spell out and no doubt, there are many millions of people who pay lip service to God guiding evolution, but what they really mean is that the universe is vast and mysterious and there is some kind of energy out there that maybe we don’t understand.
But if you poll people on a Friday and ask them what they are doing over the weekend, the percentage of people who say they are going to Church will be higher than the number who actually go. Isn’t it possible that these numbers skew a little bit toward religion simply because Americans feel some obligation to answer that way, for the same reason majorities say they would vote for an African-American or a Jew, but never do in the voting booth?
But what’s interesting is that they would not vote for an atheist. The same poll run with the subject of atheism produces very different results. An atheist is the only person who could not get a majority of his own party, if you stipulate that he is a qualified candidate. And that’s not true of Muslims, or Jews, or homosexuals. And so I just think there are many reasons to believe that atheism is the most reviled variable around which someone can organize in this culture.
We’ve run a lot of articles on CampusProgress.org about how you can be a good Christian and accept homosexuality, or reproductive freedom, or evolution. What do you think?
It’s a bit of a paradox. On one level I want to support these people and I argue that we do need more interfaith dialogue, more religious moderation. So religious moderation is the goal on one level, and it’s certainly better than religious fundamentalism.
But religious moderates are just reliably deluding themselves about as to where their moderation is coming from. Their moderation is not coming from looking more closely at their holy books. It’s not coming from God. It’s not coming from a plausible reading of their texts. It’s coming from the hammer blows their religious tradition is suffering from modernity. It’s coming from a collision with science and secular politics and a larger world of discourse, which is eroding the basis for their religious certainty. The reason we’re not burning religious heretics on street corners under the name of Christendom, Christianity now, like we were in Europe for five centuries, is because Christianity has been mastered and subjugated by post-enlightenment discourse to a significant degree.
Unlike most atheists who say religion can be interpreted by bad people to support their beliefs, you actually think religion is the source of bad beliefs, such as martyrdom in Islam.
If you want to explain why there seems to be an inexhaustible supply of suicide bombers in the Muslim world, I think you really need look no further than the doctrine of martyrdom and jihad that is professed ad nauseam in these jihadist circles and probably even wider circles within Muslim discourse. It explains it. And it explains why this behavior is actually sometimes independent of education or economic opportunity, or even independent of having a history of being mistreated by Western powers or anything else. It explains why we have some psychologically healthy, well-off, well-educated, and unmolested people blowing themselves up or flying planes into buildings. We really do have that in the Muslim world, and it is behavior that is utterly inexplicable without reference to what these people actually believe.
So you’re saying is that if the world converted en masse to Jainism or Quakerism that there would in fact, be much less terrorism, crime, or war?
There is no question that behavior would be different. There’s no question if your core religious belief, which trumps all others, is that non-violence is the most important thing, don’t kill people under any circumstances, not even in self-defense. If your daughter is getting raped by pirates, you are simply to watch because it is worse for you to lift a finger against the pirates. If this is the way you view the world, and I am not saying this is a good way to view the world, it has very different behavioral consequences. You know what someone who really believes that is going to do in various situations of oppression. They’re not going to blow up little kids in pizza parlors, on buses, or in discotheques just to make their point.
The funny thing about you saying Islam is to be blamed for the terrorism originating in the Middle East is that it puts you in agreement with neo-conservatives and also Christian American zealots.
It’s an interesting paradox of sorts. My argument is really orthogonal to our political discourse. What I say about Islam lines up much more to what neo-conservatives and even Christian lunatics say about Islam. And what I say about Christianity lines up with what liberals and people who think that Islam has been basically misconstrued say about Christianity. It’s a bewildering conversation to have when you try to have it in the midst of our normal political polarities. I find it inconvenient that the people who see the problem of Islam most clearly in our society are our own religious demagogues. … That’s scary because we don’t want that. We don’t want religion playing both sides of board in that game. And it’s starting to. It’s certainly playing the board on the Muslim side. And there are many Christians who are angling for a showdown for biblical reasons. That’s what I’m worried about. Until liberals admit that there are tens of millions of people far scarier than Dick Cheney in the Muslim world, they’re just out of the conversation.