Sam Harris – Letter to a Christian Nation

October 06, 2006

Sam Harris is the author of the New York Times best-seller The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason. He 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. He’s now completing a doctorate in neuroscience. His work has been featured widely in the media, in such newspapers as the New York Times, LA Times, The Economist, The Guardian, The Toronto Star, and many others. He contributes regularly to Free Inquiry, the magazine of the Council for Secular Humanism.

In this extensive discussion with D.J. Grothe, Sam Harris discusses his new best-selling book, Letter to a Christian Nation, explaining his motivations for his vigorous attacks against the Christian religion, and also explores the possible war between science and religion, the possible negative effects of religion in society, and strategies for secularists and moderates to meet the challenges that may be posed by religious fundamentalism.

Also in this episode, Tom Flynn asks Did You Know? about Christianity in America, Pat Robertson and Christian-political activism, and what group of Americans have the highest divorce rate.

This is point of inquiry for Friday, October 6th, 2006. 

Welcome to Point of inquiry. I’m DJ Grothe a point of 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, Hollywood and Washington, D.C., in addition to 11 other cities around the world. I want to quickly tell you a little about Center for Inquiry, because sometimes it’s hard for people to wrap their heads around exactly what we’re all about. Center for Inquiry is the headquarters to a number of advocacy and educational organizations, all devoted in their own ways to advancing CFI. His mission to defend science, reason and freedom of inquiry in every area of human interest. These organizations headquartered here, the Council for Secular Humanism, PSI Cop and the Commission for Scientific Medicine, among others, through education, research, publishing, social services and Campus and Community Outreach CFI really works hard to present affirmative alternatives to the reigning mythologies of the day affirmative alternatives based upon the scientific outlook. Now, every week on this podcast, we try to look at the big questions facing our culture through the lens of the scientific outlook. We focused mostly on three research areas. First, we look at pseudoscience in the paranormal. Second, alternative medicine. Third, secularism and religion. The intersection of science and religious belief in our society. We look at these three research areas by drawing on S.F. I’s relationship with the leading minds of the day, including Nobel Prize winning scientists, public intellectuals, social critics and thinkers and renowned entertainers. Before we get to this week’s guest, I want to welcome some new CFI campus groups that have begun forming, working with us on campuses since last Friday show. These are campus groups that work with us to advance science and reason at their schools. These are new groups forming at Niagara University, University of Calgary Obafemi, a Warlow University in Nigeria and University of Wisconsin in Platteville. And now before we get to today’s guest, Sam Harris, to talk about his bestselling book, Letter to a Christian Nation, Tom Flynn asks us, did you know? 

Did you know who said with the apathy that exists today? A small, well-organized minority can influence the selection of candidates to an astonishing degree. That was Pat Robertson in his 1990 book The Millennium. Did you know that in 2004, forty eight out of 51 United States Republican senators voted with Pat Robertson’s political action organization, the Christian Coalition, 100 percent of the time. That’s according to the Christian Coalition’s own scorecards of elected officials. Only one Democrat did the same. Zell Miller, who has since retired. Did you know that according to a 2004 survey of 20 500 voters by the Pew Research Center for the People in the Press, 80 percent of respondents stated that they mostly or completely agree with the statement that we will all be called before God on Judgment Day to answer for our sins. Did you know that evangelical pollster George Barna has found that Baptists have the highest divorce rate? Also, the National Religious Identification Survey confirms that Baptists have the highest divorce rate there, followed by Pentecostals and Seventh Day Adventists. 

The world is under assault today by religious extremists to invoke their particular notion of God to try and control what others think can do. One magazine is dedicated to keeping you up to date with analysis that cuts through the noise and the surprising courage to appear politically incorrect. That magazine is Free Inquiry, the world’s leading journal of secular humanist opinion and commentary. Regular contributors include Richard Dawkins, Wendy Kaminer, Christopher Hitchens, Peter Singer and Sam Harris. Their views are reasoned, thought provoking and to some, unpardonable, infuriating. Subscribe to free inquiry today. One year, six controversial issues for 1995. Call one 800 four five eight one three six six or visit us on the Web at Secular Humanism, Dawg. 

It’s a real pleasure for me to have back on point of inquiry this week. Sam Harris, he’s the author of The New York Times best selling book, The End of Faith, Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason. It’s back on the New York Times bestseller list this weekend at number 12. He’s a graduate in philosophy from Stanford University and has studied both Eastern and Western religious traditions, along with a variety of contemplative disciplines for 20 years. He’s now completing a doctorate in neuroscience. His work’s been featured very widely in the media. The New York Times, L.A. Times, San Francisco Chronicle, The Chicago Tribune, The Economist, The Guardian, The Independent, The Globe and Mail, The Toronto Star and on and on. And he contributes regularly to free inquiry. The magazine of the Council for Secular Humanism. He joins us on point of inquiry today to talk about his new book. Also a bestseller. Number seven on The New York Times best sellers list this weekend. It’s called Letter to a Christian Nation. Sam, welcome back to Point of Inquiry. 

Thanks so much, D.J.. I just want to tell you that what you guys are doing with this podcast is great. I think you’ve got some fascinating other people on here. So people don’t like me. 

They should listen to people like Dawkins and other luminaries you got on your podcast. 

Well, thank you for saying that, Sam. In your first book, The End of Faith, you offered kind of a rallying cry for atheists and secularists, rationalists all over America. A lot of people read that book and it’s still having an impact. I told you and one of the times we’re chatting off the air that I was at this cocktail party in Chicago. It wasn’t work related. Of all interesting things, it was cocktail party with some famous leading magicians. And not that I’m one of them. It was fun to be there, but everybody spent the whole evening not talking about magic. You’d imagine that, but talking about your book, the claims you make in your book, the dangers of religion, religious extremism. 

Yeah. It’s really been a word of mouth book to a great degree. There’s nothing else to explain the fact that it has been a bestseller for as long as it has. Because there has been very little media. I’m getting more media now, an association with with my second book. But the interface was very much a grassroots success, and that’s a great thing. 

And you wrote in to Faith, not speaking to religious people. Mostly you were writing to the rationalist reader who who would nod their head emphatically. Yes. To what you were saying in a letter to a Christian nation. Rather than attacking religion in general, you attack Christianity specifically and you say that you’re writing to Christians. Are you really writing to Christians or are you also kind of giving a nod to the secular pro science people, people who want want to see a kind of really a sock it to the Christians? 

Well, there’s definitely an element of both. There’s certainly an element of preaching to the choir and trying to rally secularists and humanists and and atheists against what I consider to be the really terrifyingly maladaptive religious certainties of their neighbors. And that we have something like 53 percent of Americans who think the universe is 6000 years old and something like that. No think Jesus is going to going to appear any day now and magically rectify all the problems we create on this planet. So there are a lot of people believe in some very scary things in our own society and to say nothing of the Muslim world. And so I’m trying to make the shortest possible argument against this kind of religiosity. And it’s directed at Christians. It’s a direct response to much of the email I received in response to the interfaith. But, you know, I don’t really have any illusions about what percentage of my readers are likely to be fundamentalists. I think it’s it’s very likely to be a book that is bought and read by people who are already concerned about the problem of religious fundamentalism. 

Most of those people who are already concerned about fundamentalism, they’re pro science, are people who are steeped in what we’d call the scientific outlook. They might not be hardcore atheists, might not be part of the atheist or the secular humanist movements, but they look at science rather than religion to answer the big questions about our place in the universe. Let’s get to something basic. You use science, the scientific outlook to support your attacks on religion. But religion is bigger than science for most people on the planet. Religion is something the majority of people on the planet seem to find to be the most important things in their lives. Let me ask you, why not just live and let live? Why do you have to be so doggedly contrary to the most cherished beliefs of most everybody out there? Can’t a person steeped in the scientific outlook just kind of go his merry way and let the religious people who believe in in God or the people who believe in UFOs or Santa Claus, you know, let them believe what they want to believe? 

Yeah, well, that’s what we have done for quite some time in science. We have been going our merry way and increasingly it is less and less merry. I mean, we’re finding that that medical research is being constrained by the religious dogmatism of the Christian right in this country. STEM cell research specifically. We have people looking at current events through the lens of biblical prophecy and quite literally expecting a nuclear confrontation with Iran. Now in the news as a fulfillment of the Book of Revelation. These are not the fringe of our society. Some of these people are lunatics, but they are lunatics who can get Karl Rove on the phone on a weekly basis. In fact, they get a regular call from Karl Rove. You know, I’m talking about people like John Hagi, who’s organized the Christians United for Israel, and this is a lobbying group which is putting pressure on the current administration to take a very hard line with Iran for biblical reasons. Now, I think we probably should take a very hard line with Iran, but it’s not going to help to have the religious maniacs of our society push us toward nuclear war because they think this is going to usher in the second coming of Christ. So we have this marriage of religious certainty, truly bogus religious certainty and divisive religious certainty and massive political power. And, you know, that’s something that we should not be very sanguine about. And scientists really have a responsibility, I think, to call a spade a spade wherever they can and delegitimize the the prevailing religiosity of our neighbors. We have a parallel culture in this society where there are people who are informed about science, who respect science, who basically have a rational scientific worldview. And then we have people who who have dogmatically rejected the world view of science, all the while availing themselves of products that are only possible by virtue of science, including medical therapies. And these these cultures are not really talking to one another. And it’s it’s a scary situation. 

I want to talk about science versus religion. Just a minute. But you mentioned John Hagee, a pastor, John Hagee, out of Houston. The American political system is based on the right for people to organize and mobilize their supporters to advance certain aims that they all want advance in America. Are you really saying that John Hagee should not be able to support Israel because his Christian biblical world view seems to demand it? 

Well, no, I don’t think we should take away anyone’s political freedom to organize and to represent whatever convictions they have, no matter how bizarre. We don’t pass laws against stupidity. So, you know, stupid people can can stand up on soapboxes anywhere they like and start talking. But that doesn’t mean anyone has to pay attention to them. And we criticize stupidity, especially when it’s when it’s public and and consequential. And we criticize it mercilessly. And we do not respect stupidity, except we respect religious stupidity. Then the problem is that double standard. And so I think John Hagee should be free to believe whatever he wants to believe. But there are certain beliefs that have to become so embarrassing to hold in public. You know, analogous to believing that Elvis is still alive or that that astrology is an exact science. And if you are or someone who thinks that astrology is is the most potent of human sciences and you’re interviewing for a job out of a Fortune 500 corporation, or, you know, you are running a political campaign and you speak freely about your beliefs, you’re not going to get the job and you’re not going to get elected. Mean this is something that will essentially prevent you from being given too much responsibility in our society. And yet religious certainty, every bit as vacuous as the claims of astrologers, has immense prestige in this society. And that’s that’s really what I’m talking about. 

So to get back to science, you seem to be saying that if you take science seriously, you will necessarily be as anti religion as you yourself are. 

We yeah, in a specific sense that you will be A.I. self-deception and you’ll be A.I. intellectual dishonesty and you will be a. false certainty and you will you’ll be anti dogma. And that really is the spirit of science. That dogma, wherever it can be discovered, is jettisoned. And we make claims about the world that really do scale with our evidence and we obey this common sense notion of reasonableness really in every other area of our lives, except when the conversation turns to talk of God and what happens after death and and the divine origin of certain books. So, yeah, it’s obvious to me and it should be obvious to all of your listeners that there is not a person in this world who is certain that Jesus was born of a virgin or will be coming back to Earth, who has good reasons for that certainty. And it’s just not the kind of thing human beings are in a position to know. And the contents of the Bible are not sufficient to give anyone good enough reasons to be certain about that. And there’s no experience people have while praying or in dreams that delivers that certainty. If Jesus shows up in your room while you’re Prain and looks exactly like the Jesus of Leonardo with a beard and flowing robes, that is not even enough to tell you that the historical Jesus actually had a beard and flowing robes. I mean, that is a vision we can talk about. The status of that visionary experience. But you can’t make conclusions about history on the basis of an experience like that. And this is obvious. 

It’s just it’s not obvious because nobody in religious culture is willing to to talk honestly about these things. But the thing that I’m not criticizing or not saying is in zero sum conflict with science is spiritual experience. There’s no question that people have spiritual experiences. The problem is they’re not supposed to talk about them rationally or to draw rational conclusions from them because they’re they’re generally having these experiences within the context of a religious worldview that is just brimming with superstition and taboo and Iron Age philosophy. And so we just have to we have to talk about spiritual experience and people I think should should seek them out. It’s just we need we need to do it very much in the spirit of science. 

And when you say spiritual experience, are you speaking metaphorically, really talking about spirits? 

No, I’m not making any metaphysical claim. And I’m saying that we shouldn’t be eager to make metaphysical claims on matters of experience. I’m just saying that it’s quite possible that people really can transform the character of their moment to moment experience of the world through various disciplines of attention, through different ways of thinking about their lives and even through what I would consider irrational religious ideas and practices. There’s no question that people are having an experience in church and an experience devoting their lives to Jesus, say and this is this accounts for their attachment to these ideas. I mean, they’re having an emotional experience. They’re having. They’re feeling bliss while praying, for instance. So we should understand what bliss is at the level of the brain. We should understand why certain uses of attention generate it and others don’t. These are all things about ourselves that we should come to understand. And many of these are experiences we will still value once we understand them. But the thing is, they just don’t support divisive religious dogmas. They certainly don’t support the idea held by many people in this country that our morality must come out of Judeo-Christian dogmatism. And, you know, as Christians believe in this country, you know, anyone who dies outside of Christ will be confined in conscious torment for eternity is what many Christians believe is going to happen after death. This is not something that is reasonable to believe on the basis of feeling, you know, tears of joy while praying Monday. 

Just now, you you shared many of the lines of attack you present in your book against Christianity. You say that it’s bad for America. You say not only is it inaccurate and looking at prophecy, for instance, but it actually harms our society. And you also attack the basic belief in God. I want to talk about all those. Let’s first talk about belief in God’s existence. Why should a Christian listening to this show or reading your book hesitate at being so certain that there is a loving father in heaven looking out for them? Why should people at least allow for a little doubt about their Christianity? 

Well, there are many ways into this. The first is, I think it’s important to recognize that all Christians know exactly what it’s like to be an atheist. With respect to the beliefs of Muslims, for instance, we are all Christians. Look at the. Cause of Islam and recognize it to be basically a tissue of self-deception. I mean, the Muslims claim to have a book that is the perfect word of the creator of the universe. Why do they think this? The book itself says so, that that’s a bad argument. You know, anyone can write a book which as part of its contents, claims to be the perfect word of the creator of the universe. So this is not persuasive to anyone who’s not already deluded by the dogmatism that is Islam. And likewise, with the story about Mohammed getting perfect dictation from the Archangel Gabriel in his cave, can we prove that Mohammed didn’t talk to Gabriel? We can’t. But the burden is not upon us to disprove that the burden is upon Muslims to put forward some rational evidence suggesting that their book could only have been written by God. They can’t do this. And so Christians are therefore not lying awake at night wondering whether to convert to Islam. So Christians view Islam very much the way I view Islam. And likewise, we all view paganism this way, that we’re all atheists. With respect to Zus, this is something that Richard Dawkins has pointed out probably hundreds of times at this point. And the burden is not upon us to prove zus his absence. So we and this is a move that that religious people continually make against Daisy. 

Isn’t this Athie ism is just a faith. The atheist has a faith that there is no God. The atheists cannot prove there is no God. Therefore, Athie ism is bankrupt. This is just not the way are truth testing. With respect to outrageous religious claims works, everyone has rejected Zus with the exception of the dozen or so people who now write me hate mail for criticizing zoos are actually a few people who apparently still believe in zoos and Poseidon and the other dead gods of Mount Olympus. So Christians use the same standards of evidence to essentially undercut everyone else’s irrational religious beliefs and everyone else’s unjustifiable certainties about miracles and invisible realities. And yet they don’t apply these standards to themselves and of course, that they will have a song and dance about how they do and how the Bible is uniquely likely to be the perfect word of God. How Mohammed didn’t claim to be divine, but Jesus did. All of these claims can be countered by the discourse on the other side of it. Muslims have a retort to all of this. Muslims have a story about, well, why Islam is so much more reasonable than Christianity. While Jesus could not be divine and why why everyone who thinks Jesus was divine is going to spend eternity in hell. So this is one way of seeing that there is room for doubt because you, as a devout Christian, already know what it’s like to find other people’s religious certainties fundamentally uncompelling. 

I’d like to let our listeners know that you can get a copy of Sam Harris’s book Letter to a Christian Nation through our Web site Point of inquiry dot org. Sam, another line of argument you used to attack Christianity is that you say it’s bad for America that Christianity hurts our society. How does Christianity harm America? 

Well, it’s something we touched on a little bit in the beginning. Just this idea that we have people who quite literally grown men and women who are waiting to be raptured into the sky by Jesus so that they can witness a holy genocide. That’s going to inaugurate the end of human history. We have people like this who are not at the fringes of our society, but really in our halls of power. I think people who who get regular meetings with the president, people who essentially decide who is going to be president, what we’re talking about, megachurch pastor is with congregations in the tens of thousands. We’re talking about organizations with working budgets in the tens of millions of dollars a year and in some cases hundreds of millions of dollars a year. Organizations whose really, really sole purpose is to spread the rather ghoulish fantasy that the world is soon going to end and end in glory. These are not organizations purpose toward helping the poor. By and large, as could have been emphasized in the Gospels or in the teaching of Jesus. These are people who really are drawing their greatest inspiration from the Book of Revelation and Thessalonians and the other prophetic literature that that is talking about the end of the world in very gleeful terms. So this is scary. It’s the marriage of this kind of thinking. One thing I argue in my book is that this kind of thinking is really perfectly maladaptive and that it just doesn’t give you any reason to make decisions with a very long time horizon. By definition, you are not planning for the next 10000 years. If you believe these things, so this should worry us. And that’s only one facet of the problem. And there are many other facets in terms of how our national discourse is being constrained by the religious infatuations of our neighbors. 

So those are some of the ways that Christianity is bad for America. By extension, therefore, Christianity is bad for the world. You’re arguing in. You go on to argue that non-religious countries are better off than religious countries like Christian America. But don’t religious values, contrary to what you just said, don’t they help people feed the poor? Work for social justice? Keep law and order? Don’t you need religion to have society run? Right. 

Well, you actually don’t. And it turns out that the most atheistic societies, countries like Norway and Iceland and Denmark and Sweden, Canada, these are these are not truly atheistic societies. Not like there’s 100 percent atheist there. But but they’re far more atheistic than our own. And they are far better behaved than our own by almost every measure. In terms of violent crime and even even the sexual ethics that so concerned religious Christian, that the spread of SD and teen pregnancy and abortion rates are lower in in societies with higher levels of indigenous Athie ism. So the idea that the high levels of religiosity are somehow paying dividends in terms of the morality of our culture and our standard of living, that I think is a fantasy. And the other thing is you can you see this very clearly? You take if there were a deep link between morality and religious faith, in some sense, faith made people good, then you would expect atheists to be really terribly ill behaved. You would you would expect a group like the National Academy of Sciences, 93 percent of whom don’t accept this idea of a personal god. It’s basically an atheistic organization. So you’d expect them to be raping and killing and stealing in line with abandon. Now, I don’t think anyone has studied their behavior. But I think we can all be skeptical that they’re distinguished criminals. And, you know, anyone who wants to bet who rapes kids more? What is it, our Nobel laureates in chemistry and physics or is it our Catholic priests? I mean, there’s the I think the priests are going to win that particular contest. And so I you know, I would ask people to consider this notion that that we’re getting a reliable connection between religious conviction and good behavior in the world. There is no evidence for it. And it doesn’t matter that certain people of faith go do very heroic things for the benefit of others on the basis of their faith. I mean, that is that is indisputable. There are Christian missionaries who go to Africa to help people. 

And some people’s lives turn around when they are born again by the spirit, when they believe that with God, all things are possible. They’re more hopeful. They’re better citizens, aren’t they? Better fathers and mothers. Their fundamentalism seems to help them with the travails of life. And you seem to be trying to take that away from them. 

Well, I’m not disputing that religious dogmatism can never help people. I mean, there are people who, let’s say, were alcoholics like our president, who turn their lives around and they attribute it to their faith in Jesus. 

In this case, that that may be true, but that doesn’t mean it’s the the only way or even the best way to turn your life around. And so one thing I argue in my book is that is that religion really provides people with bad reasons to be good, where good reasons are actually available. Do you feel that there are there are other reasons to go to Africa and help people starving to death, reasons that do not require the belief that Jesus was born of a virgin or is coming back to Earth? And I think we should just reflect on the fact that that there are two different kinds of people who go to Africa to help people. I mean, there’s people who go because they think God wants them to do it, will reward them for doing it or save one soul or not do it. 


And then there are people who go simply out of concern for the suffering of other human beings. I think the latter motive is a little bit more noble. And it is certainly possible to achieve it is possible to realize that the suffering of other people concerns you and that in some sense your your happiness is dependent upon activating that concern and reaching out to them. I think that it is possible for us to have ethical insights that do not require any bogus superstition and to be moved by those insights. And it’s clearly possible there are secular people standing side by side with with Christian ministers doing the same work, but they’re not encumbered by religious dogma and the religious dog. Well, I think we should remind ourselves actually has a consequence in that context, I mean, we have Christian ministers preaching about the sinfulness of condom use in an AIDS riddled corners of the earth, where people are being literally decimated by AIDS and they’re being told that condoms are a bad thing. I mean, this is, as I argue in my book, genocidal stupidity. They’re also being told that it’s important to believe in the unique divinity of Christ in areas of the world where civil war between Christians and Muslims. I mean, religious war has killed millions. And this is also genocidal stupidity to be arguing that the belief system of Christianity is important in that context. And so it’s something that if you go over there simply to help victims of famine and disease, you can simply go help them. And you don’t need to spread ignorance and death in this way. 

I want to switch gears a little, Sam, at one point in letter to a Christian nation, you seem to actually argue that the nonbeliever in America, the atheist, the agnostic, the secular humanist, the nullah fiddy in whatever term you want to use. Well, that the atheist is a beleaguered minority, that skeptics are excluded and marginalized just because they don’t share the dominant kind of superstitious worldview. That sounds a little like fundamentalists like Pastor John Hagee and so many others who argue that America is ranford with anti Christian bigotry. So here’s a question. Isn’t it overstating it a bit to think that atheists and secularists are a beleaguered minority? It’s not illegal to be stupid in America. You said that it’s also not illegal to be an atheist, even smart and an atheist in America. 

Yeah, well, it’s not we’re not a beleaguered minority in the sense that anyone is persecuting us or even spending much time thinking about us because we are such a minority that we really do not show up in the national conversation. It’s not like the Democrats are avowed atheist. Contrary to what Ann Colter says about Democrats and atheists, yeah, we might doubt the how genuine the religious convictions are of some Democrats, but it was embarrassing to everyone, I think that John Kerry kept pulling out his Bible and insisting that he he always kept at the ready and viewed it. When Howard Dean tried to do it, it was it was genuinely laughable. But the truth is, is that most Democrats believe in God. And so our political discourse is is not one that is at all driven by Athie ism or even cognizant of the real possibility of ageism. By and large. But the reality is, as attested to by many polls, is that atheists are the most reviled minority in this country. An atheist is someone who, by definition, cannot get elected to high office. Given the poll results, I mean, given the fact that more than 50 percent of Americans say that they would refuse to vote for an atheist even if he were a qualified member of their own political party. This is a result that does not exist for any other variable that has been poll them. They do not say this about homosexuals. They do not say this about Muslim day. But we have Muslims flying planes into our buildings and blowing themselves up on a daily basis in Iraq. And people are more concerned about atheists in this country. And so a method is a shocking result. There’s also another poll that was also cited. My book is that when asked who would they least want their child to marry, an atheist Muslim republic, animated, whatever the variables were, Athie ism was the most stigmatized identity. And so there are many reasons for this. Many people have in their heads this idea that that Athie ism is what brought a Stalin ism and it’s what brought us Nazi ism and fascism generally. And and this is also something I argue against in my book. This is just bad history. This is not atheist and was not the source of any of these movements. And these movements were not rational movements. These were not instances in which people were demanding too much evidence for their worldview. These were essentially political religions. But people believe this stuff. And I can’t tell you how many times I have heard that Athie ism is responsible for the greatest crimes of the 20th century. It is simply not so. But it hasn’t prevented religious people from from spreading this meme far and wide in our society. 

You’re talking about bad history might be a function of bad education, you say near the end of your book. That in one way led her to a Christian nation. Is the product of a failure, a product of the failure of our educational system, of our schools to announce the death of God, your words in a way that each generation can understand. I don’t want to get off track, but I’m interested in education, the role of religion in education. Do you think. Are you arguing that schools should be teaching? Some would say indoctrinating their students in Athie ism in secular humanism. 

Well, I just think we we have to be honest about what we know about the world. And we know that we have many books on the shelves and we teach some as fact and some as literature, as mere literature. And I think any rational appraisal of books like the Bible and the Koran. Apart from some of the historical value that they offer, would consign them to the shelf of literature. I mean, these are book is very much like The Iliad and The Odyssey. You know, it’s SUI. You can read The Iliad, The Odyssey, and talk about the historical understanding of Troy and and and try to draw correlations between the contents of these books and events in history. And that’s all legitimate to do. But basically, you are in the presence of literature when you’re reading Homer. You are in the presence of literature when you’re reading the Bible and the Koran. It’s not to say that Jesus didn’t exist or that Muhammad didn’t exist. But but these books are not perfectly clear prisms through which to to look at the past, the present, and certainly they’re not perfectly clear prism through which to view the future. And yet they’re read as such by many, many millions of Americans into our orientation, toward these books has to change. 

And we do have to get to a day where kids are taught the Bible the way they now are taught the Iliad, The Odyssey as literature, a literature that can be just chock full of brilliant metaphors and useful insights into the human condition. You know, the golden rule can be discussed as the greatest ethical aphorism we have ever come across. That’s all totally legitimate to do. And yet this this notion that some books have to be held aside as uniquely wise and beyond criticism, essentially because they may have come from the creator of the universe. This notion has to be just fully eroded at some point in the near future or it’s you were just going to keep paying a really an intolerable price for it. 

And you think the schools are one place for that notion to be attacked? 

Yeah, I absolutely do. And I think the schools and in the press. I just think that journalists really are on the frontlines of this culture war. And it’s time they started asking impertinent and embarrassing questions of people who are certain that the book that they keep by their bed is the perfect word to the creator of the universe. 

Sam, I know you have an interview in just a couple minutes. I want to ask you a couple quick questions before we finish up. You just mentioned the Bible as literature. It’s the center of the Western literary tradition. Most English professors would hold it up as something everyone should read. A lot of religious liberals also agree with that. They are people who look at the Bible as kind of inspiration. And it’s beautiful words important for everyone to read, but they don’t take it literally. You seem to have a problem even with that. You see religious liberals who don’t take the Bible literally. Well, you don’t see them as allies against fundamentalism, or at least that’s what I get from you. Are you saying that religious liberals are part of the problem? Many of them seem just as offended by your attack against fundamentalists as the fundamentalists do, even though they don’t themselves agree with the fundamentalists. 

Yeah, yeah. Well, it’s an interesting paradox, really, because on one level, I am I’m conceding to the liberals and the moderates that their approach to religion is better than the approach of fundamentalists. And that and I’m certainly conceding that we need to find some way of moderating the fundamentalist religious discourse of our world. But we want a billion Muslim moderates rather than a billion Muslim fundamentalists, and we have to find some way of getting there. But the problem is, is that moderates, by the way, they talk about religion, by the way, they insist that religious faiths remain above criticism. They essentially give cover to fundamentalists. They tend not, to be very honest, for instance, about where their moderation is coming from. And it’s not like reading the Bible more closely makes you a moderate Christians. Not like that. All these moderates have consulted Scripture and found all the reasons not to take scripture, literally found reasons not to hate homosexuals. And the Bible found reasons not to believe that Jesus is coming back and that biblical prophecy is valid. 

This is not what you get from reading the Bible closely. You get this from relinquishing your religious faith on many points. I mean, you continually as a moderate, have to acknowledge that there are questions science is better at answering and the list of those questions continues to grow. I suppose religion continues to lose ground to science and to and to secular ethical discourse generally. And moderates aren’t very candid about what process is really delivering their moderation. 

And because of that, they they they promulgate this kind of fantasy that, you know, Christianity is really just about helping the poor and building community and turning the other cheek. And Islam is really just about charity and, you know, ennobling people. And it’s just this vast, egalitarian attitude. It’s great that this is what. Christianity and Islam are for some people, but for many, many millions of people on both sides, these religions are something else entirely and moderates tend to to obscure that fact with their apologetics rather than stand in criticism of it as they should. 

You just said that we need to find some way of moderating fundamentalism and you’re not really seeing religious liberals as allies in finding some way of getting there. I want to talk about the way that you’re trying to get there. You’ve called letter to a Christian nation, a broadside, an attack. We’ve been talking about your attack against Christianity. Do you think attacking Christianity is the best way to denude it, to gut it, to make it less offensive? Problematic? Isn’t it possible that all these attacks, it seems like this fall, this winter is the time more than any time before when people are having the courage of their convictions, writing books against religion? Do you think that maybe all these attacks will only increase the shrill and divisive tone of the dialog about religion rather than finding solutions to these problems? 

Well, I think there’s there’s some element of that. And I would be the first to acknowledge that there are different roles to be played here. I mean, there are different voices that are necessary. And I don’t think everyone will or can or should talk about religion the way I talk about religion. You know, I don’t think it would be a good idea, for instance, if we had political leaders who spoke about Islam precisely in the terms that I speak about Islam. I think that would be so inflammatory and would just immediately start getting people killed. And so that’s that would not be a good thing. 

Right. You might have agreed with the pope and what he said about Islam, but you didn’t like that. The pope said. 

Yeah, you know, I think it was a bad idea. It was a bad idea compounded with other bad ideas. I mean, he shouldn’t have said it the way he did. And having said it, he shouldn’t have apologized the way he did. 

I mean, basically the worst possible case. But we just we have to be clear about what is going on in this world. And we have to be clear about the way in which religious ideas are causing conflict, causing people to rationalize the violent deaths of their children, causing people to seek their own deaths, specifically in the Muslim world in martyrdom. 

And these beliefs really are operative and they really have to be undercut. And there’s really nothing good about them and there’s nothing to respect about them. And so we have a war of ideas we have to wage. And failing that, we have wars we have to wage. And so to speak, specifically about Islam, we have to find some way for the moderate Muslims to really fight a war of ideas with their coreligionists. And if not that, a civil war with their coreligionists, because there’s just no question that we are at war with people who think that cartoonists need to be killed for caricaturing the prophet. So any moderate, so-called moderate Muslim who is taking the other side in that debate? Hussein? No, no. You really shouldn’t draw cartoons of the prophet because it is deeply offensive and free speech has to lose this particular tug of war. That person is not as moderate as he should be. So to go back to your question, one way I see this attack bearing fruit is if people like me are attacking religion in a very vocal and strident and uncompromising way, it can motivate people who are not ready to do that. Moderates and religious liberals to at least take a a firm stand on specific issues where they are not presently taking a firm stand. To take the cartoon controversy is one example. I mean, it was appalling that virtually no paper in this country, apart from free inquiry, published those cartoons. I mean, that they were newsworthy in how benign they were. And the fact that that crowds by the hundreds of thousands were massing, calling for the deaths of cartoonists and newspaper editors in response to these drawings, which were fundamentally benign. That was newsworthy. And every paper in the United States should have published those cartoons. To the contrary, we had papers like The New York Times chastising Denmark for their religious insensitivity. That is that is a disastrous capitulation to the religious lunacy of the mob in the Muslim world. And it’s the same kind of capitulation that the pope is now making by apologizing. We have to just draw a very clear line between sane rules of civil discourse and this religious lunacy that prevents discourse. And in some sense, I view people like myself and Richard Dawkins, who has a new book out in taking the very hardline we’re taking. We’re not imagining that all of a sudden everyone is going to speak the way we’re speaking, but we’re imagining that parts of our criticism could become compelling enough so that on specific issues of social policy and specific moments in this war of ideas, vast numbers of people could change their approach. That I think we really should hope for. 

So you’re saying that by being uncompromising in your attacks on religion, you’re giving space for other people who might not be as uncompromising, at least did themselves become more vocal? 

Yeah. Yeah, I think that is definitely part of the dynamic as I see it. 

The last question, Sam. You talk about this clash of cultures, this culture war between the seculars and the religious, the rationalists and the super naturalists as one of the greatest challenges we face in the 21st century. How can our listeners, if they’re religious or not religious, wherever they are on the spectrum, but if they want to meet that challenge, what can they specifically do? 

Well, it really comes down to changing the rules of conversation. I just think that, you know, I’m very short on programmatic recommendations. I’m not talking about laws that we know we need written or specific activities. I think it’s it’s much more amorphous than that. It’s like, you know, how do you get rid of racism? Well, there there was there was some legislation involved. But I think the bigger picture and they really the necessary and sufficient change was just to get people thinking differently, talking differently, creating different art and entertainment, portraying racism and racists and people of different races differently in in movies and literature. I mean, the complexion of the conversation has to change. And so I you know, I think making bogus religious certainty look foolish from a thousand different angles in culture is what is going to transform our culture. And the corresponding contribution also has to be made that we have to we have to offer rational and satisfying alternatives to bogus religious certainty. And we have to talk about ethics in a compelling and rich way that is scientifically justifiable and that that is beginning to happen more and more. But we we have to paint very stark contrast in our in our public conversation between legitimate claims to certainty and legitimate science, real ethics that take that as object, human suffering and all of the mediæval isms that are still ascendant. You know, the fact that that Christians, for instance, can debate gay marriage as though it were the greatest problem facing civilization, I mean, that has to be lampooned and criticized and eroded from 100 sides. I mean, it has to be depicted at the very least as a colossal waste of time. And yet we’re not successful in doing that because we’re not successful in undercutting the religious certainties that are providing the Morin’s for this this dialog. So I just think it’s it’s a it’s a matter of conversation. And as a matter of what is considered politic to say publicly and, you know, I think the rules of discourse have to have to be revised. 

Thank you very much for joining me on point of inquiry, Sam. 

You have been a pleasure, T.J.. 

You’ve seen the headlines, Bill seeks to protect students from liberal bias. The right time for an Islamic reformation. Kansas School Board redefined science. These stories sum up the immense challenge facing those of us who defend rational thinking, science and secular values. One adviser to the Bush administration dismissed as the reality based community who could have imagined that reality would need defenders. The educational and advocacy work of the Center for Inquiry is more essential than ever. And your support is more essential than ever. Show your commitment to science, reason and secular values by becoming a friend of the center today. Whether you are interested in the work of psychology and skeptical Inquirer magazine, the Council for Secular Humanism and Free Inquiry magazine, the Commission for Scientific Medicine, or a Center for Inquiry on campus. By becoming a friend of the center, you’ll help strengthen our impact. If you’re just learning about CFI, take a look at our Web site w w Center for Inquiry Dot Net. We hosted regional and international conferences, college courses and nationwide campus outreach. You’ll also find out about our new representation at the United Nations, an important national media appearances. We cannot pursue these projects without your help. Please become a friend of the center today by calling one 800 eight one eight seven zero seven one or visiting WW w dot center for inquiry dot net. We look forward to working with you to enlarge the reality based community. 

Thanks for listening to this episode of Point of Inquiry. Join us next week for my discussion with Richard Dawkins on his book The God Delusion. We’ll talk about science versus religion. What science has to say about what he calls the delusion of God to get involved with an online conversation about today’s episode with Sam Harris. 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 Donnelly and recorded at the Center for Inquiry in Amherst, New York. Executive producer is Paul Kurtz. 

Point of Inquiry’s music is composed for us by Emmy Award winning Michael Dwalin. Contributors to today’s show included Tom Flynn and Warren Becker. 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.