Q&A: Sam Harris
The Christian right, radical Islamists, and secular leftists agree: this atheist is America’s most dangerous man
I think the God of Abraham could lose his subscribers in precisely the way that Poseidon and thousands of other dead gods did. It’s not that he needed to be replaced by something that exactly fit the same God-shaped hole in people’s lives, but the conversation can just move on. I do see it as an accident of history that the religions that are current are as well-established as they are. The Bible and the Quran are the center of literature-based cults that I view as accidents of history.
What I’m advocating is not that everyone has to become entirely responsible for their worldview, and everyone has to be a philosopher, everyone a scientist, everyone a doctor. We all rely on authority, and we all are lazy or incompetent in certain areas. The difference in science is that our reliance upon authority is cashed out by a conversation that is searching and competitive and demanding at every stage so that people do not get away with believing things merely because they want them to be true.
So, we need to instill in the next generation of human beings a desire not to be flagrantly wrong about the nature of reality and to have a different conversation around the significance of death. If human life weren’t fragile we wouldn’t be having a conversation about religion. No one would care. The crucial moment is not even so much your own death, but what do you say or what can you think that is consoling when someone close to you dies. Your child dies; what could you possibly believe about reality that’s going to make you feel better? The truth is that atheism does not have an answer to that question that connects all the emotional dots in a way that most people think they want.
Most people want to believe something that makes them feel better and most religious people actually want to believe something to make them feel so much better that death isn’t even a problem. It’s a career opportunity, if you’re a Muslim jihadist. It’s a good thing your child blew himself up. I think we just have to admit that there is nothing that’s truly rational to believe that could pay us the same kind of emotional dividends.
When you stand up as an atheist and talk to believers, do they see you as a Jew or do they see you as an atheist, or are those two things reasonably synonymous to them?
I was never a religious Jew. My mother is Jewish, so for some people I count as a Jew. But for me, being Jewish amounts to little more than just getting all the jokes in a Woody Allen movie. So, for the people for whom my Judaism is relevant, those people tend to be either overtly anti-Semitic or concerned about crazy conspiracies. The YouTube comments that reference my Judaism are completely crazy. For the most part, for anyone who is seriously engaging with my ideas, the fact that I was born to a Jewish woman who herself was not religious nor were her parents religious is completely irrelevant. And the people for whom it’s relevant, they see some other weird Star Chamber-like conspiracy at work.
I remember being asked whether I wanted to go to Sunday school like my friends. I guess I was like 9 or 10 or whenever that decision gets made, and I said no, why would I want to do that? And that was the choice point for me not to have a bar mitzvah, and so that was the end of it. And then as a teenager, I became very interested in death and all of the thinking about it, some of which was religious, some of which was new age or kind of paranormal. I was a 13-year-old who was interested in psychic phenomena.
When I was 13, my best friend died in a bicycle accident, and he was the first person really close to me who had died. So, from 13 on, I was reading about the religious understanding of death. I read everything from Elisabeth Kubler-Ross to Colin Wilson’s books on the occult. And then when I got to college, I became interested in religion specifically and whether there was anything to its claims that could coincide with my use of psychedelics and having experiences that seemed to line up with classically religious mystical experiences. So, the phenomenology of religion became interesting, and then through my twenties I spent a lot of time practicing meditation and going to India and Nepal and studying both Western and Eastern religion but really focusing on the Eastern religions.
I was raised an Orthodox Jew, but my father didn’t believe in God. I think he was some kind of Marxist.
Well, that’s the kind of uniquely distorting lens of Judaism, because only a Jew could say I am an Orthodox Jew but I don’t believe in God. That is not an oxymoron in the same way as it would be to say I’m a devout Catholic who doesn’t believe that Jesus was the Son of God, or I’m a devout Muslim who doesn’t believe the Quran is the word of God. Judaism is, in every form, the least committed to a clear otherworldly vision of what happens after death. You can be a Jew for whom all of the trappings of Judaism, the religion, are very important, and yet there’s absolutely no content to your religious beliefs. You like the food. You like the music. You like the clothes. You like the ethical strictures and the weird rituals, and the limitations on your freedom that can only make sense based on some kind of theology that you now no longer endorse.
In Religion for Atheists, Alain de Botton urges nonbelievers to pick and choose religions’ best offerings