Q&A: Sam Harris
The Christian right, radical Islamists, and secular leftists agree: this atheist is America’s most dangerous man
The great mass murderers of the 20th century as opposed to the great mass murderers of the 11th century were all explicitly motivated by some form of anti-religious ideology that claimed to be inspired by science, no?
The great canard against atheism is that atheism is responsible for the crimes of the 20th century. An overwhelming demand for evidence was not responsible for the Nazis. What was wrong with these movements was that they so resembled religion. When I debated Rick Warren, he said that the reductio ad absurdum of atheism—although obviously, he didn’t use the phrase reductio ad absurdum—is North Korea. But North Korea is a political cult. It is a hostage situation where people have been brainwashed with a political and racial ideology that has many of the features of a religion. They think Kim Il Sung was born on a mountaintop attended by the spontaneous arrival of Spring. Flowers bloomed and rainbows were everywhere. They think that our shipments of food aid that stave off starvation there are actually devotional offerings to the genius of their dear leader. It’s an information-poor situation.
My argument is that no group of people, and certainly no society, has ever suffered because everyone became too willing to hear arguments and data and got too interested in other people’s points of view. The zero-sum contest is between believing things for good reasons and believing things for bad reasons, you know? And it just so happens that science, 99 percent of the time, is on the right side of that cut. And religion more or less 99 percent of the time is on the wrong side.
Clearly Stalin was not practicing a scientific approach to historical dynamics when he turned the Russian empire into a giant prison camp. But can’t religion be defended in the exact same way? A truly religious person would look at the life of Jesus, and the life of Buddha, and understand them as integrated human beings who should serve as models for us in learning to approach other humans with generosity and love.
Does the Pope really speak for the Catholic Church? Well, yes, I’m sorry to say, he does. So, what’s the Pope’s position on X, Y, and Z? Well, it’s a position that commits him to all manner of divisive bullshit. So, Andrew Sullivan and I will argue, and he says that the Pope doesn’t speak for me. OK, Andrew, you’re in a parish of one now.
I get into debates with Muslims who articulate a version of Islam that is believed by 50 people on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. And so, great. I don’t have a problem with you—but I do have a problem with tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions of people, who do plausibly speak for your faith.
When you look at American social thought from the mid-1960s on, whether people are looking at the sociology of religion in general or the Jewish community, one thing you’ll find wide agreement on is that religion was a spent force. There was really no sense of either Christianity as a likely continuing force in American politics, let alone the idea that there’d be a global resurgence of fundamentalist Islam that would drive our foreign policy. Why has religion again become such a dominant influence in people’s lives?
There’s been this expectation, and it is a reasonable one, that as we come to understand more and more about the world, the mandates and authority of religion are going to be steadily eroded. You can easily list things for which there once a religious answer for which there is now is a scientific answer and the religious answer is now clearly bogus. What you can’t list are the things for which there was once a scientific answer for which now the best answer is religious. If you care about your kids being healthy, what you want are real medical facts to deal with disease and infirmity and birth defects. You don’t want amulets, you don’t want exorcisms. Almost everywhere in the developed world, if you wake up and your kid is running a high fever or having a seizure, taking him to a religious authority for treatment is synonymous with being a bad parent.
I see the resurgence of religion as a phenomenon of globalization. The geographical boundaries between nation-states and cultures mean less and less and are increasingly fragile. A global jihad would be unthinkable without the Internet. We are vulnerable now to what happens in an isolated culture in a way that we weren’t 50 years ago. But 50 years ago the Muslim world was not this bastion of intellectual rigor. From our point of view, it was asleep, and it’s only when you get certain enabling technology where not only can you build bombs and set them off, you can show a video of your setting them off to a billion people, then you get the full consequences of these ideas.
Your mental rigor and strength are admirable, but they are not qualities that are widely shared by billions of other human beings. I would argue that they are the privilege of relatively small populations of humans with the leisure and freedom and psychological and physical health to think as you do. We are frail beings. We live for a short period of time. We experience only fitfully the ability to carry through our aims and desires and to protect the people we love. And so religious dogma, political dogma, all of these things provide us with necessary psychic armor.
In Religion for Atheists, Alain de Botton urges nonbelievers to pick and choose religions’ best offerings