Why Religion Must End: Interview with Sam Harris

A leading atheist says people must embrace rationalism, not faith--or they will never overcome their differences.

BY: Interview by Laura Sheahen


Continued from page 1

Doesn't the evidence show that people take their sacred texts with a grain of salt?

That's the point: in the West, we have delivered the salt. Obviously, people are no longer burning heretics alive in our public squares and that's a good thing. We in the West have suffered a sufficient confrontation with modernity, secular politics, and scientific culture so that even fundamentalist Christians and Orthodox Jews can't really live by the letter of their religious texts.


We now cherry-pick the good parts. That's easier to do with the Bible because the Bible is such a big book and it's so self-contradictory; you can use parts of it to repudiate other parts of it. Unfortunately, the Qur'an is a much shorter and more unified message.

But you ask me what the scariest things are in Christianity: this infatuation with biblical prophecy and this notion that Jesus is going to come back as an avenging savior to kill all the bad people.

Wouldn't it be more accurate to say that Christians believe that Jesus is going to come back, period? They don't necessarily believe that he's going to come back as an avenging person to kill people.

One of the things that is overlooked by many Christians is that there is a wrathful Jesus in the New Testament. Jesus comes out and condemns whole towns to fates worse than Sodom and Gomorrah for not liking his preaching. You can find Jesus in some very foul moods.

Look at the theology of the "Left Behind" series of novels and all the religious extremists in our culture who describe a Jesus coming back with a sword and punishing those who haven't lived in his name.

Cherry-picking is a good thing and it's to be hoped that Muslims will eventually cherry-pick as well. But the Qur'an, virtually on every page, is a manifesto for religious intolerance. I invite readers of your website who haven't read the Qur'an to simply read the book. Take out a highlighter and highlight those lines that counsel the believer to despise infidels, and you will find a book that is just covered with highlighter.

Let's return to your idea that people must be convinced of the "danger and illegitimacy" of their core beliefs. How can they be convinced?

It's a difficult problem because people are highly indisposed to having their core beliefs challenged. But we need to lift the taboos that currently prevent us from criticizing religious irrationality.

How do you bring it up, and in what context? At a party?

I'm not advocating that people challenge everyone's religious beliefs wherever they appear. In a crowded elevator, if someone mentions Jesus and you start barking at them, that's not really the front line of discourse.

Whenever you're standing at a podium or publishing a book or article or an op-ed, that's when it's time to be really rigorous about the standards of evidence.

Interpersonally, we don't challenge everyone's crazy beliefs about medical therapies or alien abduction or astrology or anything else. Yet if the president of the U.S. started talking about how Saturn was coming into the wrong quadrant and is therefore not a good time to launch a war, one would hope that the whole White House press corps would descend on him with a straitjacket. This would be terrifying--to hear somebody with so much power basing any part of his decision-making process on something as disreputable as astrology. Yet we don't have the same response when he's clearly basing some part of his deliberation on faith.

Many people consider America to have been founded as a Christian nation. They think many of the Founding Fathers were specifically Christian and very religious, whereas many secularists argue they weren't. You've said the issue is a dead end.

I just think that it's the wrong battle to fight. Even if the [Founding Fathers] were as religious or deranged by their religiosity as the Taliban, their beliefs now are illegitimate. Secularists are on the right side of the debate and fundamentalists in our culture are distorting history. The Founding Fathers--many believed that slavery was a justifiable practice; we now agree that it's an abomination. Anyone trying to resurrect slavery because Thomas Jefferson, that brilliant man, didn't free the slaves--that's an argument that would be so appalling to us now, in terms of 20th-century morality.

You've said the First Amendment is insufficient to protect against encroachments of religion. What would you do  to supplement what the First Amendment does?

I'm not eager to monkey with the Constitution. It has to happen at the level of popular, grassroots expectations of what it means to be a rational, well-educated human being.

You've said that people perceive the word "atheist" as along the lines of "child molester." How should atheists present themselves?

I'm very distrustful of finding the right label because labels are ultimately sloganeering. You had the label the "brights," which is stillborn. I think atheism and secularism are also names that ultimately we don't need. We don't need a name for disbelief in astrology. I don't think we need anything other that rationality and reason and intellectual honesty.

In our society, people are rewarded for pretending to be certain about things they're clearly not certain about. You cannot have presidential aspirations without being willing to pretend to be certain that God exists. You have to pander to the similar convictions of 90% of the American population. 70% of Americans claim to feel that it is important that their president be strongly religious. No aspiring politician can fly in the face of those numbers now, so we are rewarding people for false certainty, false conviction.

Clearly, anyone who claims to be certain that Jesus was literally born of a virgin is lying. He's either lying to himself or he's lying to others. There's no experience you have praying in church that can deliver certainty on that specific point.

You're saying it's not verifiable.

It's just not the kind of thing that spiritual experience validates. You can pray in a room to Jesus and even have an experience of Jesus being bodily present. Jesus shows up with a whole halo and the beard and the robes and it's the best experience of your life. What does that prove? You wouldn't even be in the position to know whether the historical Jesus actually had a beard on the basis of that experience.

Yet one thing I argue in my book is that experiences like that are very interesting and worth exploring. There's no doubt that people have visionary experiences. There's no doubt that praying to Jesus for 18 hours a day will transform your psychology--and in many ways, transform it for the better.

I just think that we don't have to believe anything preposterous in order to understand that. [We can] value the example of Jesus, at least in half his moods, and we should want to discover if there's a way to love your neighbor as yourself and generate the kind of moral psychology that Jesus was talking about.

Continued on page 3: What if people prefer self-deception to despair and chaos? »

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