Q&A: Sam Harris
The Christian right, radical Islamists, and secular leftists agree: this atheist is America’s most dangerous man
Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith, The Moral Landscape, and other best-selling works of moral philosophy and anti-religious polemic, first began to wonder about life after death at the age of 13, after his best friend was killed in a bicycle accident. He looked for answers in books about the occult and eastern religion, and then re-invented the 1960s for himself, experimenting with psychedelics and traveling to India and Nepal to study with Buddhist meditation masters. In college at Stanford, Harris studied religion, philosophy, and neuroscience and concluded that nothing spooky or mystical happens after people die. The idea of an Omniscient Being who demands obedience from his followers in exchange for the promise of life after to death was crap—the kind of crap that starts wars, condemns hundreds of millions of people to ignorance, poverty, and disease and has a pervasive and dangerous effect on public policy.
An expert polemicist—funny, logical, fearless, and sometimes impulsive—Harris also possesses the rarer qualities of psychological suppleness and a willingness to admit when he’s wrong. The son of a Jewish mother and Quaker father, he engages with the experiential components of belief in a deeply personal way. At the same time, he shows little patience for religious Christian leaders like Rick Warren, who Harris eviscerated in a public debate, or for Islamists, whose religion Harris regularly maligns in a way that has led both to outraged accusations of bigotry and actual death threats. Harris is equally unpopular with secular leftists, whose dogmas and pieties he also finds loathsome—starting with their sympathy for fundamentalist political movements like Hamas and Hezbollah.
I first met Harris eight years ago in a Venice Beach restaurant, where we were introduced by a writer for The Simpsons. While I recall being dubious about whether the 21st century needed a new Voltaire, Harris’ first book, The End of Faith, marked him as one of the most important public intellectuals of our generation, an 18th-century Enlightenment thinker in a 21st-century world riven by 14th-century conflicts. His fearless style of argument has had a cleansing influence in a public sphere whose normal room-tones—smarmy politeness and snarky careerism—suggest a lack of interest in or understanding of the worldly effects of bad ideas.
We met again last month by the pool at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles and talked for a while about our mutual interests, including meditation, the Gracie family, and the art of jiu jitsu and various figures in the martial arts, before moving on to Jehovah, Allah, and Poseidon, and the metaphysical uses of MRI technology. We also talked about what has always bothered me about his work—namely, my feeling that his demand for the strict application of reason to the psycho-dynamics of collective human experience might be its own form of dogmatism, which is deaf to the lived experience of the vast majority of humankind.
As a modern-day neuroscientist, is it weird that you spend so much time thinking about God and faith and free will and other questions that seem more appropriate for an Enlightenment philosophe living in Paris?
Beliefs really do matter. If you have a bus driver who really believes in the power of prayer, so much so that it affects his behavior—he’s willing to let prayer drive the bus from time to time and he’ll take his hands off the wheel because Jesus is really driving—all of a sudden beliefs matter, and this person is dangerous. And so the frontier between the privacy of your own representation of the world and its impact on the lives of other people is easily traversed and very difficult to specify clearly. And I think we need to talk about it.
Free will for instance seems like a completely abstruse 19th-century concern, except for the fact that a belief in free will does affect people’s moral intuitions. The retributive part of our criminal justice system is predicated on it. And so, the idea that people really deserve to spend decades in prison because they’re really evil and they are the true authors of their own evil, I think is impossible to cash out once you understand the human mind as an expression of neurophysiology, and neurophysiology as an expression of genes and environment, etc. It makes no sense scientifically.
Does any halfway literate modern person still imagine that there is a large person with a beard who lives in the sky and is watching us?
Ask Francis Collins. And if he believes that, what does Rick Warren believe?
Do you think that there’s something that’s basic in our DNA that causes us to have this God-emotion, and is it something that humans will—or should—outgrow?
I think there’s a range of human experience that is attested to by religion that is very positive and interesting and worth exploring. It’s possible to feel overwhelming love for all sentient beings and an overwhelming gratitude for being here in this moment, and to no longer feel separate from the universe. You’re riding around in your head looking at the world that is other than what you are, and that disappears. It’s around that phenomenology that you get ejaculations of the sort that created our religious literature. So, you have a Jesus who speaks like Jesus, and a Buddha who speaks like Buddha, and then you have their followers. And not all of the religious traditions are equipped to conceptually deal with that experience or to guide people toward it. And some are more or less cluttered with obviously crazy superstition and mythology. Religious dogmatism is the only dogmatism that gives someone a rationale not only to kill themselves and kill others but to celebrate the deaths of their children. I mean, this is the only thing that’s going to let you send your child out to clear a minefield happily.
I have to stop you there. My father, in one part of his life, was a political theorist who was very interested in political ideology, and so our house was stocked with books about Communism, Nazism, and Fascism. These ideologies were all explicitly anti-religious and quite murderous.
But there are also speeches where Hitler referred to Jesus and gave his own rendition of what a good Christian was, and he was a Nazi. I mean, I see where you’re going with this.
In Religion for Atheists, Alain de Botton urges nonbelievers to pick and choose religions’ best offerings