Sam Harris – The End of Faith

April 07, 2006

Sam Harris is the author of the New York Times bestseller The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason. Mr. Harris is a graduate in philosophy from Stanford University and has studied both Eastern and Western religious traditions, along with a variety of contemplative disciplines, for twenty years. His work has been discussed in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Chicago Tribune, The Economist, The Guardian, The Independent, The Globe and Mail, The Toronto Star, New Scientist, SEED Magazine, Stanford Magazine, and many other journals.

He is a columnist for Free Inquiry magazine and makes regular appearances on television and radio to discuss the danger that religion now poses to modern societies. The End of Faith won the 2005 PEN Award for Nonfiction.

In this discussion with DJ Grothe, Harris explores what he calls the dangers of religion, and argues that because of their destructive consequences, religious beliefs should not be given special sanction in our society.

Also in this episode, Free Inquiry editor Tom Flynn defends the magazine’s republishing of the cartoons critical of Islam originally published in a Danish newspaper, and that some say incited riots around the world. He also talks about the recent widespread media stir caused by the Borders Books and Music’s ban of the issue.

This is point of inquiry for Friday, April 7th, 2006. 

Welcome to Point of Inquiry, I’m DJ Grothe growthy point of inquiry is the radio show and podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank collaborating with the State University of New York at Buffalo on the new science and the public master’s degree. CFI also has branches in Manhattan, Tampa and Hollywood and 11 cities around the world. Each week on point of inquiry, we look at some of the big questions facing our society and we’re really interested in the impact and implications of the scientific outlook for our culture. On point of inquiry, we focus on three research areas, first, pseudoscience and the paranormal. Second, alternative medicine and third, secularism and religion. We do this by drawing on CFI as relationship with the leading minds of the day, including Nobel Prize winning scientists, public intellectuals, social critics and thinkers and renowned entertainers. On today’s episode of Point of Inquiry, I talk with Sam Harris, author of the worldwide bestseller The End of Faith, about the dangers he says religion poses to society. But first, free inquiry editor Tom Flynn asks, Did you know about the recent controversy caused by that magazine? 

Did you know that over this last week free inquiry, the Journal of Secular Humanist Opinion and Commentary published by the Council for Secular Humanism at the Center for Inquiry received widespread media attention. The buzz resulted from our publishing four of the 12 controversial cartoons alleged to show the Prophet Muhammad, which had been published last year by a Danish newspaper. For our trouble, we were barred from the shelves at Borders, Books and Music and Waldenbooks, which focused still more media attention. Articles and up ads on the issue appeared in The New York Times, The New York Post, The Washington Times, The Times of India, the Associated Press and a number of other media outlets, as well as generating considerable attention on scores of online blogs. Paul Kurtz appeared on CNBC to discuss the issue, and I did several guest shots on conservative talk radio shows where they brought me on as an honored guest, where normally they’d have me on as a pinata. So why did we publish the cartoons? Well, first, as a defensive journalist’s right of free expression, the best way to defend that right. Is to exercise it with vigor. Second, and more important, part of Free Inquiry’s mission is to focus commentary and criticism on every aspect of society, especially its sacred cows. We feel especially strongly that religion should not be held immune from criticism. On the contrary, it’s because faith is such a potent force in human affairs that it urgently needs to be subject to discussion, debate, criticism and even satire in the marketplace of ideas. 

I’m David Capsule, executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism and associate editor of Free Inquiry magazine. Free Inquiry is the council’s flagship publication and recently celebrated its 25th anniversary as the leading journal of secular humanist thought and opinion. The April May issue is now on shelves at better bookstores and can be ordered online at W-W w dot secular humanism dawg or by calling our toll free number at one 800 four five eight one three six six. This issue features articles by Richard Dawkins, Lawrence Krauss and others regarding the state of the Intelligent Design Creationism movement. In addition to a feature called Islam in the cartoons, which prompted Borders and Waldenbooks not to carry the issue, a move that garnered international press attention, please pick up a copy or call us for a complimentary issue and support freedom of inquiry in all areas of human endeavor. Even controversial subjects such as Islam. We’d really like you to see what we’re all about. So call one 800 four five eight one three six six mentioned the point of inquiry podcast and ask for your free copy today. 

I am pleased to be joined by Sam Harris, author of the international bestseller The End of Faith, Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason, which was the winner of the prestigious 2005 PEN Award for nonfiction. He’s a graduate in philosophy from Stanford University and has studied both Eastern and Western religious traditions, along with a variety of spiritual disciplines for 20 years. He’s now completing a doctorate in neuroscience, studying the neural basis of belief, disbelief and uncertainty with functional magnetic resonance imaging MRI eyes. His work has been discussed in the New York Times, the L.A. Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, the Chicago Tribune, The Guardian, The Independent, The Globe and Mail and on and on many other journals. And he’s a regular columnist for Free Inquiry magazine, the Journal of the Council for Secular Humanism. He makes regular appearances on television and radio to discuss the risks he says religion now poses to modern societies. Sam Harris, welcome to Point of Inquiry. 

Thank you, A.J.. It’s a pleasure to be here. I just want to say I’m really happy you guys are doing this series of podcasts. It’s great to see a forum where people can have a serious conversation about these issues. 

Well, I appreciate that. Thanks again for being on the show. Sam, in your book, you argue that religion causes in general more harm than good in our society. Yet from a lot of places, we hear arguments for religious tolerance that we should be more understanding of religion, more tolerant of it, show it even more patients than we already do. Do you really think that secular, skeptical people should be more intolerant of religion? 

Yeah, I do. I think we should be clear about what intolerance can mean, because I do not mean that we should be intolerant in the sense that the colonists were intolerant sending people to the gulag. I don’t believe we should pass laws against religious beliefs. I don’t think there’s really any intolerance necessary beyond the intolerance we showed to irrationality in every other area of our lives. We haven’t passed laws against believing that Elvis is still alive or believing that aliens are abducting ranchers and molesting them. 

Well, when someone claims to be sure that Elvis is still alive, for instance, that claim is met with chuckles and derision and the whole armamentarium of conversational pressure that that really excludes a person making that claim from holding positions of responsibility in our society. That’s a good thing. That’s the way it should be. And yet there’s no formal mechanism for this. It’s just what I call conversational and dollar. 

And you think that we should have more conversational intolerance or intellectual intolerance for religious belief? You kind of equate at some points, religious belief with being insane. But isn’t the difference between believing in God or believing, you know, that there’s a 300 pound Easter bunny in your backyard? Isn’t the difference that we have an explanation for religious beliefs that were inculcated culturally and in these beliefs and that it’s not the same as being insane? In the case of insane people, we have no other explanation than that. Their mind, you know, has somehow gone wrong. And we don’t say that just because you believe in God. It’s a function of insanity, right? 

Yeah, that really is a function of how many people subscribe to these beliefs. And they may be taboo in the culture around criticizing his beliefs. What I say in my book at one point is that religion allows people by the millions to believe things that only a crazy person could believe on his own. Is I agree with you that that religious people do not tend to be insane. They tend to actually be a sane. As anyone else. But if anyone woke up tomorrow morning thinking that a cracker turned into the body of Jesus, if he said the right Latin word over it and he was the first person to think that he didn’t have millions of other Catholics supporting him, this idea, that would be a belief that would be synonymous with schizophrenia. Very likely. And and so I think the thing to point out is that we have beliefs that are every bit as crazy and unsupportable as they would be in the minds of lunatics. And they are they are massively wealthy. Well, subscribed in our culture, because we have we have created this system of inheritance and and no cultural pressure to resist this inheritance. And so we have every person on on mommy’s knee getting part of their world view deranged by the myths of our ancestors. 

Do you think that’s one of the reasons why so many people say religion should be off limits just because it’s such a popular belief? People say that it shouldn’t. We looked into that religion. You know, my religious beliefs should be respected no matter what. And you disagree. But isn’t respecting other people’s views of religion. Really the the basis of American religious liberty? 

Well, it’s it’s the basis of liberty in the sense that we we don’t jail people or kill people or threaten them with violence for believing things that we disagree with. And that’s that’s a good thing. And we I think we are right to be mindful of our history, not speaking merely in this country because human history of religious violence. And we should not want to duplicate it. But that said, we have to to realize that this idea that we respect people’s beliefs is a myth and we do not respect people’s beliefs on any subject in any other area of human discourse. We evaluate their reasons for what they believe. If I come on your show and say that the Holocaust never happened, you’re under no burden whatsoever to respect my beliefs about European history. You can challenge them. You can you can dismiss me as an idiot. Ultimately, if I’m holding a sufficiently strident and divisive idea without any evidence. And yet on the subject of religion, we have made it taboo to challenge beliefs that are on their face, just patently ridiculous beliefs that even if they are not ridiculous on their face, it is obvious to everyone that the person holding these beliefs cannot possibly be in possession of strong evidence in their favor of anyone who believes, for instance, that Jesus was born of a virgin and is sure about it is that, you know, even if that person had a time machine, he he would be unlikely to be sure about it. 

And so we just we just have eroded the most basic standards of intellectual honesty and our discourse on this subject. And we’re paying a terrible price for it because we are meandering into a global conflict with the Muslim world. We have one point four billion Muslims who are utterly deranged by their religious mythology. We are deluding ourselves on our own side with euphemisms about Islam being a religion of peace. And on our own side, we ourselves are organizing around our own religious myth, impeding medical research like stem cell research based on the ludicrous ideas like souls living in petri dishes. And none of this is getting criticized because it is taboo to criticize faith. 

I would like to talk about your criticisms of militant Islam in a moment. But first, I want to continue exploring this reluctance that people have to look critically at religion. Do you think it stems? Well, I’m interested where you think it stems from. Is it just that people are afraid of religious violence or are they just, you know, it’s unpopular? Where’s it coming from? 

Well, two things. One is that I think we we are right to be afraid of offending people because of how deeply committed people are to these ideas. And so the threat of religious violence and our history of religious violence and the manifest violence in the Muslim world, all of that is sobering. But the other thing is that people are just massively attached to these myths and they think that these myths somehow underwrite our morality. So there is no evidence for that whatsoever, which is to say that many people in our society, many very smart people, think that if you if you jettison religious superstition, you would jettison morality and people would just have no reason not to rape and kill their neighbors, who if they cease to believe that one of their books was dictated by the creator of the universe. There’s no evidence for that. And there’s there’s a lot of evidence to suggest otherwise. There is, for instance, no evidence that atheists are any less moral than religious believers. So there’s a whole morality argument. It is problematic. But people are also just attached to ritual and religious language. And the hope that that death is an illusion and that there is that you really don’t lose anyone you love in this life. You’re all going to be reunited after death and in a perfect circumstance of happiness. And this is a genuinely consoling belief for people. And the question is, I think we have an answer for it. The question is, can people find ways of being deeply happy in this world without deluding themselves about the state of their knowledge or about the nature of reality? 

I’d like to let our listeners know that you can purchase a discounted copy of Sam Harris’s book, The End of Faith, Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason at our Web site. Point of inquiry dot org. Sam, in your book, you really focus on religion and violence. There link more directly, and it’s it’s not just that people are reluctant to speak about religion or criticize religion because they’re afraid of violence. You actually talk about a direct development of violence out of religion. 

Yeah, I think religion leads to violence in at least two senses. One is that it’s in certain circumstances, it leads people to commit acts of violence that they would never have committed otherwise. It is specifically theological acts of violence where someone is killing other people. In many cases, innocent noncombatants simply because they think they can get into paradise for doing it, because they think the creator of the universe wants them to do it, will reward them for doing that, reward their family. And obviously, the paradigmatic case of this at the moment is Islamists, suicidal terrorism. And there’s simply no doubt whatsoever that the people who are blowing themselves up are doing this for religious reasons and really think that they’re going to get into paradise. 

They’re not this is not politics and it’s not economics. And it is one of the great sin of secularism on our own side that secularists so often allege that it is economics and politics and not religion. But the other way in which religion inspires violence is much more diffuse. And I think ultimately more consequential is just the fact that people have defined their differences from other people in terms of their religious affiliation. So they that they had defined their moral community as being the community of Muslims, say, or Catholics or Protestants. And so then you have Muslims tending to side with other Muslims and Protestants, the Protestants and so forth. And this is this has balkanized our world and it has really shattered our world into separate and irreconcilable moral communities. And then when societies become stressed, as they do, when resources become scarce, when when one group of people victimizes another. The religious lines in this society are really the line across which conflicts arise. And we see this again and again so that it conflicts that appear to be fundamentally terrestrial in nature. There’s very conflicts about land there, conflicts about resources, conflicts that political grievances. They are religious in nature in the sense that people are are defining their differences from other people in religious terms to take the Shia and the Sunni, for instance. They are different communities because they adhere to slightly different religious beliefs. And in the conflict in Northern Ireland, the conflict in the former Yugoslavia, many, many examples where religion is the variable around which people have defined their differences. And it’s a very dangerous variable because it’s the only variable that they in which people posit a difference between themselves and their neighbor, which is not just a matter of this life. It is a different set that becomes a kind of transcendental object that endures for eternity. The difference between you and your neighbor is that you’re going to go to paradise and he’s going to go to hell for eternity. And that’s a very big difference indeed. 

So religion can bring about violence, but isn’t it just a matter of violent religion bringing about violence? Not every religious person thinks his neighbors going to hell. Isn’t the majority of religion on the planet peaceful and nonviolent? 

Well, this is another taboo that I break in my book. It’s a taboo, especially among religious moderates. This idea that that all of our religions somehow are equivalent and equally wise and all teach the same thing and they all teach the same thing equally well, kind of the Joseph Campbell approach to religion. 

So that’s something that I’m I’m very critical of because it is the problem that we have a word religion which which names a very diverse class of belief systems and moral commitments. And it’s just not a homogenous class of human activity either. Religion is a word like sport, I think, or or exercise or drugs. I mean, there are many different kinds of drugs and some of them are dangerous and some of them are very helpful. And this is true of religion, too, so that you take a religion like Jainism, which is the religion of India that just has a few million subscribers. The core principle of Jainism beyond any shadow of a doubt is nonviolence. This is just what James are about. They’re vegetarian. And they won’t kill anything. They’re they’re afraid to kill anything. They’re pacifists. They just you can not get a death cult of suicide bombers out of Jainism no matter how you squint your eyes. No matter how you read the books. And so no matter how ill treated James are in their history, they are not going to be the people who start flying 747 and the building. And they’re not going to do that because of what they believe. So, yes, James may be very dogmatic. They may be deluded about the nature of the universe, but their their belief systems are not intrinsically divisive and dangerous in the way that the beliefs of Muslims and Christians and other groups are. 

And there are gradations of liability here. And I think there there is no belief system that should be of greater concern to us at the moment than Islam. And that is just remarkably obvious and yet remarkably denied in our culture. 

You mentioned Jainism. They sweep the paths in front of them so they don’t even step on answer or little insects. Here’s the hypothetical. Suppose that the whole world suddenly converts to Jainism or let’s say the whole world right now converts to Unitarianism, or are they all. Let’s say everybody reads Bishop John Shelby Spong, the the Episcopalian bishop who doesn’t believe in maybe even the afterlife, doesn’t believe in the virgin birth miracles, heaven, hell, any of that. He’s a kind of a pacifist, a liberal Christian, and everyone now believes in separation of church and state, the moral autonomy of the individual. You know, liberal, even secular values, all of that. Would you still think religion should be eradicated or are you. I mean, isn’t it just that you’re talking about a certain kind of religion, the violent, the nasty kind? 

Well, I’m I’m talking about all of these features of religion that cause it to divide one human community from another and therefore leave the Tom Flynn insofar as you relax the dogma and taboo enough so that all of these belief systems cease to be operative in people’s minds, in their lives and their behavior, then I become less and less worried about it. And then religion could be like astrology, you know, something that people pick up at parties and talk about. But very few people make world shaping decisions on the basis of what their astrologer said. It’s kind of a hobby. It’s kind of it’s basically acknowledged to be goofy. You know, I would not have written a book saying we must eradicate astrology because I just don’t think anything turns on it. But if at the moment it became obvious that people were impeding stem cell research because of what their astrologer said, then we have a public policy problem on our hands. So it’s just it’s whether the beliefs are operative. And in the case of religion, there’s no question that the beliefs are operative. And there’s also no question that the negative consequences of thinking badly about things or not thinking about things clearly are difficult to foresee. 

Because if you take a a belief like the Catholic belief and their Christian beliefs rather generally, that that contraception is immoral, the condom use is immoral. This belief on its face does not seem to pose civilization shaking danger to us until you realize that you have Catholic ministers preaching the sinfulness of condom use in sub-Saharan Africa, where literally millions of people are dying every year from AIDS and many, many more millions of people are going to die worldwide if we don’t do something about it. 

And so this is this is a a curious belief that on its face does not seem like it’s going to get millions of people killed. And yet the realities of our world are such that it does. I’m saying that that upfront, it’s it’s hard to judge in advance what is an inconsequential dogma. So I think dogma itself should be something where were unwilling to keep on our shelves for very long. 

You just said that belief in astrology isn’t really operative for a lot of people. But, you know, we hear reports that President Reagan may have had an astrologer advising on on certain decisions that he made or or at least Nancy Reagan did. And I even think for liberal religious people, their liberal religion is operative in their lives. They adopt more secular or liberal policies because they’re informed by their liberal interpretation of the Bible. So it seems to me that you’re not just arguing against how operative religion is in someone’s life, but how negatively are the consequences of that operation of religion in a person’s life? 

Yeah. I mean, I. I become concerned to the degree that there are reasons to be concerned, though, once we hear that Reagan is taking his wife, astrologer seriously, all of a sudden that becomes absolutely terrifying. And it should, as is the fact that he took in how Lindsey and Jerry Falwell, two religious lunatics of the highest degree into Briese, the Pentagon, on the implications of biblical prophecy for our Cold War with the Soviet Union. And that that is just a terrifying accommodation of medieval thinking in a world that is armed with 20th century weapon. At that point and that and there’s nothing in our discourse that is preventing that kind of thing from happening. There’s nothing that is keeping us from electing people who believe in the literal truth of biblical prophecy to a much greater degree than Reagan did and a greater degree than Bush does. And the way we are really the kind of society that could elect a Pat Robertson kind of character, whether or not he would he would have worn it on his sleeve the way Pat Robertson does. I don’t know. But is it really possible for us to give more power and responsibility than any human being has held in human history to somebody who thinks history is about to end and that is ending is going to be glorious. And that should keep us awake at night. So it really is it is a matter of how likely these beliefs are to have an effect on human life. But that said, you know, a factor, no effect. I think there are things that it’s reasonable to believe and those things that it’s not. And nobody certainly should be respected for believing the absurd. 

Sam, I’m really enjoying this conversation. I thank you for being on the show. I wonder if we couldn’t continue this conversation next week. There are a number of other things I’d love to talk to you about. 

Yeah, it’s been a pleasure. Sijia haven’t come back. 

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Thanks for listening to this episode of Point of Inquiry. Join us next week for a continuation of this discussion with Sam Harris to get involved in an online conversation about this episode. Go to w w w dot CFI dash forums dot org. Views expressed on point of inquiry don’t necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Inquiry, nor its affiliated organizations. Questions and comments on today’s show can be sent to feedback at point of inquiry dot org or by visiting our Web site. Point of inquiry dot org. 

Point of inquiry is produced by Thomas Donelli and recorded at the Center for Inquiry in Amherst, New York. Executive producer is Paul Kurtz. Point of Inquiry’s music is written and composed for us by Emmy Award winning Michael Wailin. Contributors include Tom Flynn, Lauren Becker, Benjamin Radford, Joe Niccolò, David Capsule and Sara Jordan. I’m your host DJ Grothe. 

DJ Grothe

D.J. Grothe is on the Board of Directors for the Institute for Science and Human Values, and is a speaker on various topics that touch on the intersection of education, science and belief. He was once the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation and was former Director of Outreach Programs for the Center for Inquiry and associate editor of Free Inquiry magazine. He previously hosted the weekly radio show and podcast Point of Inquiry, exploring the implications of the scientific outlook with leading thinkers.