Sam Harris – The Mortal Dangers of Religion

April 14, 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 talks about the destructive consequences of religious beliefs and also about contemplative practice and possible benefits it may bring even the nonbeliever.

Also in this episode, Free Inquiry editor Tom Flynn asks Did You Know about recent developments regarding church state seperation.

This is point of inquiry for Friday, April 14th, 2006. 

Welcome to Point of inquiry, I’m DJ Grothe a 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 eleven cities around the world every week on point of inquiry. We really try to look at some of the fundamental assumptions of our culture. We’re really interested in the implications of the scientific outlook for the cherished beliefs of our society. We look at three areas, mostly on point of inquiry. First, pseudoscience and the paranormal. Second, alternative medicine. Third, we look at secularism, science and religion and how they intersect. We look at these three areas by drawing on the Center for Inquiries 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, we continue our discussion from last week with Sam Harris, author of the worldwide bestseller The End of Faith, about the dangers he says religion poses to society. We’re also going to talk about contemplative practice and what he says that could mean for the secularist. But before we get to that, Tom Flynn asks, did you know? 

Did you know that an Easter display at the St.. Paul, Minnesota, City Hall was removed out of respect for the feelings of non Christians? Did you know that under the White House’s faith based initiatives, religious groups now receive more than two billion dollars in unconstitutional government funding each year? 

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. 

This is Richard Dawkins and you are listening to Point of inquiry. 

Now, I’m pleased to be joined again by Sam Harris, author of the international bestseller The End of Faith, Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason. The Interfaith was the winner of the prestigious 2005 PEN Award for nonfiction. Sam is a graduate in philosophy from Stanford University, and he studied both Eastern and Western religious traditions, along with a number of spiritual disciplines for 20 years. He’s now completing a doctorate in neuroscience. His work’s been discussed in The New York Times, the L.A. Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Chicago Tribune, The Economist, The Guardian, many other magazines and journals. He’s a regular columnist for Free Inquiry magazine, which is 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 society. Sam Harris, welcome back to a point of inquiry. 

Yes, thank you. It’s great to be back. 

Sam, last time you were on the show, we were talking about the problems that you have with, let’s call them religious literalists, but pickles. And I mean, when I get into your writings and your arguments, which are really persuasive on on the whole, is that on the other hand, you seem to have almost more respect for religious literalists. You you seem to have more respect for them as being intellectually honest than you do for religious liberals who pick and choose their readings of scripture. You kind of argue that fundamentalist biblical literalists are more coherent or let’s say more consistent than liver religions that reinterpret ancient texts, you know, to make them make more sense in the modern world. Am I getting that right? 

Yeah. Yeah, you are. I think there is there is something intellectually dishonest about religious liberalism and religious moderation that people are not copping to. But the first thing to say upfront is that religious moderates and religious liberals are better than fundamentalists. And in almost every other respect in that religious moderates don’t fly planes into buildings. They don’t blow themselves up. They don’t kill abortion as they don’t pass laws impeding the most promising medical research we were ever likely to have. And this is this is this is a difference that is worth keeping in view. But there are problems with related moderation, and very few people talk about them. And their fundamentalism really does have the courage of his convictions. And it is a rational enterprise given certain ludicrous assumptions. If, for instance, you believe that there really is a creator God who can hear your prayers and who cares about what human beings do with their with their bodies while make it say, then it is totally rational to be concerned about the sexual practices of other consenting adults. And if you think that the book you have by your bedside is actually the word of the creator of the universe, it is totally rational, as that book is the Bible, to think that homosexuality is an abomination and to try to legislate against it. And this is it. This is a coherent worldview, given certain assumptions that are genuinely preposterous. So the primary assumption being that that you are correct to believe that this book is actually magically emanated out of some mission, Beenz mind, and you have it in the bedside table of every motel room in the United States. So what I’m arguing is that at least fundamentalists talk in terms of reason for what they believe. They say, see, when you ask a fundamentalist, why do you believe that Jesus is the son of God? He doesn’t say wishy washy things about, well, it gives it gives my life meaning. He brings it brings up a lot of happiness. I love the community. I like that this is the kind of speech you get out of moderates and liberals. What you get from fundamentalists are reasons. They’re just not good reason. And so, for instance, when a tsunami gets whipped up in the Indian Ocean and kills 300000 people on the day after Christmas, the fundamentalists will say God is angry, which is which, if you believe in God. It’s pretty obvious that he is angry and he’s in control of everything. He is making that decision on the day after Christmas to drown one hundred and fifty thousand toddlers in a single morning. He is clearly pissed off at what he sets off about. Well, then we can haggle over the details. But the moderates will not draw any conclusions at all about the nature of their God from his work. They will say that God is a mystery, that God is purely a matter of. Constellation. And that we must look for guys. It’s actually a quote, we must look for God, not in the power that move the wave. But in the in the human response to the wave. 

And that sounds an awful lot like humanism. Look for God and other people where at least you can find some kindness in other people, not in God. 

Yeah, well, I would just say look for kindness and other people and look at and look at how much better our world is when we nurture kindness and help other people. And realize that our happiness is linked up with the welfare of other human beings. Clearly, you can find it in your mind and heart to be moved to help other suffering human beings who are suffering the most desolating evil of of bad luck in this world. I mean, to be standing at the wrong place at the wrong time when there is Toonami in the world. That is terrible luck. And we we all should be moved to help people. But we do not need to believe that the creator of the universe is looking over our shoulders in order to be motivated to help people. In fact, in large part. I think that belief is hostile to a genuine, genuinely compassionate response. Because let me just just look at the details here. Either if you think that if you’re if you’re helping people because you think God wants you to do it and you’re gonna be rewarded for it. That seems to me to be far less ethical than to be helping people, because simply you are concerned about their welfare. And also, you know, the the belief in God and his justice causes a lot of very religious people not to be motivated to help people because they think that that all the center is an idolaters and homosexuals are getting their just desserts. And that’s that’s an obscene moral point of view. 

So belief in God can actually stunt moral development, you’d argue? 

Yeah, I think it’s I think it does in many cases. And I’m I’m persuaded by Weinberg, Steven Weinberg, the Nobel laureate in physics, his quip about this. He said that, you know, good people always do good things, bad people always do bad things. But for good people to do bad things, that genuinely requires religion. I think that, you know, we might want to cavil with the details there, but I think that’s basically true. And I think we might even add that forbade people to do good things that often requires religion. That may be true, but that’s just much less of a dividend than than the converse is a liability for us. I’m much more worried about good people being led on mass to do bad things that I am consoled by the fact that occasionally somebody in prison who’s led a terrible life finds Jesus and then is reformed. 

So you’re really not giving anybody a break. Obviously, you’re strongly critical of the fundamentalists, the ignorances, the people who read their holy texts, literally. But you’re not going to give any points to a liberal religion is to says, well, you know, that that’s not really what the Bible means. We don’t know what it means. God’s a mystery sufferings in the world. And we just have, you know, you know, those people who read the texts and and just Katari way, you’re not giving anybody any wiggle room. 

But I think that the the fundamentalists are more dangerous. And one of my greatest gripes with the moderates is that their style of discourse gives cover to fundamentalists, that the respect they accord religious faith prevents us from taking on the people who really believe in the God of their fathers and really believe that the book is the word of God, prevent us from taking these people on to the degree that we now must. But that said, moderates have a more obnoxious intellectual double standard and had because they they really they’re not being honest about where their moderation is coming from. It is not like they have good theological exegetical reasons for their moderation. It’s not like if you look at the books more closely, you find all kinds of reasons to be a moderate. You don’t find reasons to be a moderate. If you read the Bible closely, at no point does it say none of this has to be taken literally. This is obviously much of this book was written in the first century or before, and we didn’t understand a lot of things that we understand now. So relax your your standards of adherence to these barbaric principles we laid down for you in Leviticus and Deuteronomy and Exodus. It never says that it is a place. Either this book is just a book written by human beings who did not understand the universe perfectly or it is a it is God’s word. And what. Outside of that dichotomy you come down on has consequences. And neither neither side of the dichotomy suggests to me that religious moderation is a good idea. Either you you really take the book seriously as as a transcendental source of insight into the moral nature of the universe that no other human being could have come up with. In which case you get a world view. I think as extreme as it can possibly be imagined and something like, you know, the Taliban under Mullah Omar or you get, you know, St. Thomas Aquinas thinking that heretics should be put to death or Saint Augustine thinking that the heretics should be tortured. You do not get the religious liberals of the world. And so that’s my my main grievance with them is that they are not being honest about what is delivered there. Are liberals and want to deliver their liberalism, as is two thousand years of confronting how preposterous it is and how unseemly the consequences are taking these books too seriously. And they have been just they have had their their religiosity hammered out of them by modernity, by science and by secular politics and by the by witnessing the mayhem of competing religious fundamentalisms in this world vying for a greater share of power Jim Underdown. 

So the values of the religious moderate come from the secular values of the West, not from the religious values that are found in ancient texts. That’s your argument. Have have you won any converts with that argument? Have any religious moderates contacted you and said, while you’ve persuaded me I want to be a more vocal kind of critic of extremist religion? 

Yeah, I really have. I think and most of these people have gotten in touch with me through email. So it’s not been a dialog that is that I’ve explored to fully. But yeah, I’ve gotten thousands of emails and some some significant portion of them have been from religious moderates who have found my critique of moderation very compelling and and feel like calling a spade a spade now and in a way that they felt they couldn’t. But, you know, it’s every degree of reception on this front. They’re religious moderates who are just incredibly offended by my critique of their version of faith. And they think I completely misunderstand faith. And that’s not at all what that I have set up a straw man, that fundamentalism is a it’s not at all the prototype of what it is to be faithful. And that faith is really about mystery and not drawing any conclusions about the nature of reality and what you find. I think in liberal and moderate discourse is a lot of well-intentioned people whose hearts are in the right places on almost every question that we would pose to them about what they value in the world and the kind of world they want to see politically and socially. But they’re attached to their identities as being Christians and being Muslims and being Jews. And they do not want the fundamental project of raising your children to believe that they’re Muslims, Christians or Jews to be called into question and they’re not willing to look at they’re not really willing to look seriously at the intellectual underpinnings of these religious identity. 

Sam, if you could wave a magic wand, would you make it so that all religious moderates were more consistent or had the courage of the convictions, either the secular kind of moral convictions of the West or their religious convictions? Or would you turn all religious extremists into religious moderates? 

Oh, I think I would do the latter without any question, because we’re the one I think we’re actually outnumbered. If you take the the world in its entirety, I think the people who would fall into the extremists been far outnumber, the people who would fall into the moderate. So that alone would suggest that option number two is that it’s the right option. And that aside, the sheer numbers aside, this is you have to look at what the extremists tend to do with their extremism versus versus what the moderates tend to do with their moderation. The perfect example of this is really the Muslim world. The task for us vs of the Muslim world is to find some way of moderating it. We’re not going to turn the Muslim world anytime soon into a bastion of racism or secular humanism. So how to produce the religious moderates of the Muslim world, how to get the Muslims talking the way people like Bill Moyers speak in our society? That is really the task. I think perhaps the greatest task of civilization at this point. And that’s that’s going to be very hard to do. 

Right. Well, you you say that it has to be reformed from within. It can’t be we can’t reform it. It has to come from within Islam. But you seem to say the only way they can do that is either by becoming secular or atheist, which is unlikely. You just said or by giving up reading the Koran, literally. Which would you said yourself, be giving up being intellectually honest, since liberalism, you say, is more intellectually dishonest. So what do you want fundamentalists to be more intellectually dishonest? 

Yeah. No, I, I think that it may be that it is a a necessary evil to be less coherent in your world view as you transition into secularism and a full commitment to civil society. Because it is true that that if you dignify the claim that these books are the word of God, you can not find a good reason to be happy living in a pluralistic, secular society. Both of these books, the Bible and the Koran, make it perfectly clear that people who do not agree with your view of the world are fit only for the fires of hell, and you are well advised to treat them terribly and on many occasions to kill them outright for their unbelief. So unless we’re well, we have to find some way of getting people not to think that way. And since we can’t magically leap from mountaintop, the mountaintop and get them to disavow all of these beliefs all at once, I think there is going to be a necessary transition through some kind of moderation. That is the kind of transition that we have made in the West. We are not burning people at the stake for heresy anymore. And, you know, we can talk about the reasons why we’re not. But but the end result is there even even our own fundamentalists are moderate by the standards of the 14th century. And the Muslims of the 21st century are a lot like the Christians of the 14th century in their level of scriptural literalism and the level to which they are willing to be motivated by their religious certainty. 

In your book, you really seem to be treating the Western monotheisms. You’re not indicting all religion. You kind of seem to even go easy on Eastern mysticism. What you seem to be against is what Islam, Judaism, Christianity, what some people refer to as religions of the book. So is your beef basically that it’s just the local literalism, which isn’t something that’s done in Eastern traditions? 

No, I think there are Eastern worshipers who take their scripture literally. And this is dogmatic and and potentially problematic. It’s just that Eastern religion does not tend to produce the same kind of commitment to world conquest and rooting out heresy that that the Western monotheism has. And there are reasons for this. One thing is just that monotheism in and of itself is in principle hostile to incorporating the gods of other people. Whereas you say you have a religion like Hinduism or the or the paganism of ancient Rome, polytheism allows for for me to believe in a thousand gods. What’s one more? The Hindus who are talking about Jesus being an avatar of Vishnu. It’s basically there’s always room at the inn over there in the land of polytheism for another God. And so that’s that is less of a danger, just as a matter of discourse. And that is a matter of of assimilating the diversity in this world. So, yeah, there’s something uniquely problematic, I think, about monotheism. But Eastern religion has its liabilities and and there are beliefs within Eastern culture that many of which have religious components that are deeply obnoxious and produce a tremendous amount of human suffering. The caste system in India, which is kind of cashed out by a belief in karma and rebirth, which consigns millions and millions of people to the status of untouchability, are merely by accident of birth. This is eroding to some degree and in modern democratic India. But it. A terrible belief system, and many people are suffering because of it. 

One facet of Eastern traditions that you kind of seem to celebrate in your book are the meditative practices of some of the eastern traditions. You argue that atheists, secularists can even learn something from Eastern traditions, even that Eastern meditative practices can be what co-opted by secular, non-religious people, atheists and agnostics as a. What kind of a form of atheist spirituality? 

Yeah, I wouldn’t I don’t limit it. The Eastern tradition is just that. I think the Eastern tradition, and especially Buddhism, has been far more articulate on this subject and has produced a wealth of testimony and a literature describing the phenomenology of meditation and spiritual experience and the contemplative life generally that is just this far surpasses anything we have in the West. And I think we have in a Christian or Jewish or Muslim tradition. But the basic fact is this is that every culture in that we know about has produced people who have engaged certain practices of introspection generally. This is often called meditation or prayer. It’s often supported by by ancillary practices like fasting and yoga, like exercise and isolation, and in caves and in forests and other places. Vows of silence are sometimes part of this picture. You have people who are fundamentally separated themselves from the human community and paid attention to their direct experience in a way that has transformed their mind. And I think there is no question that it is possible to do this and that this is a this can be engaged as a rational experiment, that that nothing has to be believed on insufficient evidence to to look into this and to see whether or not paying attention to your experience, noticing with as much precision as you can muster, what it is like to be you in every present moment that that can actually change what it is like to be you. And there is just it’s just massive testimony on this. And there are many reasonable people in the West and increasingly since the 1960s, many very well educated, affluent people in the West who have spent a fair amount of time looking into this. And now scientists are studying the brains of these people. And this this does come out of our paradox here are the apparent paradox is that a commitment to introspection, a commitment to seeking these kinds of experiences comes out of our religious tradition. It’s only been through religion that people have been hearing about this possibility and therefore that the testimony on the subject tends to be cluttered with all of the dogmatism of religion. So, you know, you look into the Buddhist literature on this subject and you see that it’s riddled with Buddhist superstition and that the problem we have to find some way of extracting what is useful in this dialog. And it’s not not every tradition is equally contaminated by by medieval thinking. And I said, you know, I think the Buddhist tradition is almost uniquely clean and reasonable and empirical and spirit. But that’s not to deny the fact that Buddhists believe many preposterous things and then said many Buddhist themselves practiced Buddhism as a religion and not as a a a branch of empirical science. 

So you’re you’re arguing for being more introspective, being more self-aware. But you use phrases, terms like spirituality and being more spiritual. Have you changed your mind on using those kinds of terms as you’ve made this splash in the secular and the skeptic communities? In other words, are you concerned that using the word spiritual spiritual vocabulary, well, won’t that mislead people and make people think that your kind of leaving a back door open for mysticism or some sort of new age transcendental mumbo jumbo thinking, right? 

Yeah. Well, as you know, I’ve received a lot of grief on this subject from the atheist and secular community. You know, in my book, I, I took some pains to to use those terms and scare quotes and to define them, to restrict their definition to the definition that I found intellectually justifiable. The problem really is that we don’t have other words for this. I tend to use the word contemplative now more than than spiritual or mystical. But the basic fact is that most. Most secularists are not people who have had these experiences. They’re certainly not people who have who have who tend to have these experiences more than other people. 

Jim Underdown by experiences. You’re talking about introspective experiences, not mystical or transcendental experiences. 

I’m talking about quite the whole range of experiences that that mystics tend to have and interpret in the light of their religious metaphysics. Well, metaphysics that we want to disavow is being irrational and unjustifiable. But what when you look at historically, who are the people who have made heroic efforts at introspection? Who were the people who stopped talking to their friends for years at a stretch and simply paid attention to the nature of their own consciousness in a cave? You know, these don’t tend to be politicians. They don’t tend to be artists. They don’t tend to be well integrated members of society or of the scientific community at any point in human history. They tend to be religious, monastic. They tend to be contemplative, who are who are have been motivated by, to some significant degree, the religious propositions that they encountered in whatever culture they came from. So you have someone like Meister Eckhart to me in the Christian tradition considered by the religious authorities of his day to be a heretic and an end atheist. Yeah, no, he died just in time of it. Otherwise, they were going to burn him at the stake. So it’s you have people you know, he was somebody who was motivated by the discourse of Christianity to introspect and pray in ways that that, you know, I have no doubt led to a range of experience that was fantastically transformative for him. And it’s worth looking at. And it is worth looking at scientifically. And it’s worth understanding that it’s worth everyone experiencing personally. It’s just that what I’m arguing in my book is that we don’t have to believe anything on insufficient evidence in order to do that. And having had experiences of this sort, whether through meditation or drugs or anything else, any other intrusion into our nervous system, having had these experiences, we can talk about them rationally. We do. We do. We do not have to plunge into metaphysics and then into unjustifiable proclamations about the nature of the universe, because we have had unusually positive changes occur in our own consciousness by whatever means. I think we just we need to admit these first person phenomenological facts into the realm of our data. When we talk about what it is, certainly what it is to be a human subject, what what the human mind is and what the human capacity for experiencing happiness and well-being is. 

Well, that answer, Sam gave me a lot of food for thought would be interesting to talk about transpersonal psychology, integrational psychology, they call it. But we don’t have time. I’m interested in just finishing up with a question about the subtitle of your book. It talks about the future of reason. You’ve made this case. You’ve gotten worldwide attention for your argument. Do you have some idea about what the future of reason is? 

Well, I. I don’t I think I have a very clear idea of what I think it should be, whether we’re at all likely to actualize this future. I can’t say I can’t really say things look promising. But I it’s a very simple change ultimately that I’m advocating. I’m advocating simply that the same standard of reasonableness and intellectual honesty that we really reflexively apply in every area of our lives, be applied on matters of religion and matters of claims about what happens after death, about the moral structure of the universe. And when people don’t know something to be true, they should not win any points or pretending to know that it’s true. And that did, didn’t we? We recognized this from elementary school on in every area of our lives. And yet on religion, we have applied a fundamental double standard in which people win accolades. There really is thought to be a a world transforming event. If you get a sufficient number of people to pretend to know things that clearly no human being could ever know. And so that is that dysfunction I’m pointing to. And that’s really that’s the only change required. And. The irony is every religious person, every fundamentalist knows exactly what it’s like to require that honesty of others. And to even be an atheist with respect to the beliefs about it, every fundamentalist Christian knows what it’s like to be an atheist. With respect to the beliefs of Muslims, maybe that the Muslims have a book. They think it’s the perfect word of the creator of the universe. It says a lot of things in this book. Anyone reading the book critically realizes this is not the best book written on any subject. Christians look at the discourse of Muslims and they see a discourse of self-deception and wayward thinking and a total unwillingness to look critically at at their own dogmatism. And yet they don’t turn that same criticism on themselves. And that’s that’s all. In the end, I think we atheists need to point out. 

Thank you very much for being on the show, Sam. Yeah. Thank you, T.J.. It’s been a pleasure. 

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Thanks for listening to this episode of Point of Inquiry. Join us next week for a discussion with Bill Nye, the host of the new show The Eyes of Nye. You might remember him from years ago. He was called Bill Nye, the Science Guy. He’s a scientist and a science popularizer. Be sure to listen in to get involved with an online conversation about today’s show. And Sam Harris’s comments about contemplative practice and the dangers of religion. Go to our forums online. 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. 

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Contributors today include Tom Flynn and Sarah 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.