Q&A: Sam Harris
The Christian right, radical Islamists, and secular leftists agree: this atheist is America’s most dangerous man
It makes sense in the sense of supporting and maintaining a communal frame that contains the deep culture and history of a group.
Like not wanting to break the Sabbath and wanting, you know, to spit on schoolgirls who are not properly veiled on their way to school.
For people who leave the kind of community that I grew up in and find its strictures irrational and annoying, there is also often a sense of wanting to preserve some network of human and cultural and intellectual connections in a real way that never demanded any kind of belief in ghosts or spooks but had to do with the valuing of a depth of a human cultural creation that can’t be detached from “religion.” The Talmud is a remarkably encyclopedic work of exegesis, parts of which are hilariously weird or stupid but most of which are intensely interesting. So, to be a good Talmudist, do you have to believe in the afterlife? You don’t.
I get that. Hitch and I had a debate with two rabbis where once we actually got on stage and started wrangling, we discovered the rabbis basically believed in nothing—not the efficacy of prayer, not the afterlife. They weren’t Reform rabbis either, you know. So, it’s a problem that’s unique to Judaism. I don’t care how moderate a Christian you are, there’s a very good chance you believe Jesus was really resurrected and may well in fact come back.
You can’t necessarily know in advance how dangerous or destabilizing a dogma is going to be until it collides with reality. Stem-cell research is still my favorite example of this. You can take the most benign life-affirming dogma, in this case the assertion that human life is intrinsically sacred and begins at the moment of conception. That seems on its face to be the most life-affirming idea ever—just honor all human life indiscriminately, everyone is equal and even the tiniest collection of cells in a Petri dish deserves our love and attention. OK, what’s going to go wrong there? Enter embryonic stem-cell research where you have people with Parkinson’s disease and full body burns and diabetes suffering lives of unnecessary misery and when the most promising kind of research comes online to potentially remediate all that suffering, we won’t pursue it—because human life is sacred and starts at the moment of conception.
Specific religious doctrines matter. Do Muslims care about embryonic stem-cell research? No. Islam doesn’t get involved because its view of embryogenesis is that the soul doesn’t enter the fetus until either Day 40 or Day 120, depending on which tradition you follow. So you can be a conservative Muslim and support embryonic stem-cell research. But you can’t if you’re an Orthodox Jew or a Christian of any conviction.
There is a social policy argument to be made that sure, religion and the afterlife, its all dogmatic bullshit. But if you look at societies in which people largely abandoned these primitive and outmoded dogmas, one of the dogmas that they seem to also abandon at the same time is attachment to having children, to maintaining stable family structures in which children can most productively be raised. So, in fact as a society we do have an interest in the diffusion and continuation of religious dogma because otherwise we will wind up with a society of elderly childless atheist overlords who are being kept alive by stem-cell implants and supported by masses of God-fearing brown people who work for pennies on their plantations.
We do have a low-birth-rate problem in the secular world. I think that’s largely a problem by comparison with the high birth rate of the religious world and especially the developing world. I think nobody would advocate that the poorest and least economically integrated and least educated people have the most kids. The effects of religious dogmatism on the lives of women have been transparently negative; they are consigned to a livestock-like breeding cycle. So, secularism does correlate with a lack of fertility to some degree because there’s just more to do in life than have 12 kids.
Why do you think that so many people who would agree with so much of what you have to say about God and science and religion find themselves politically sympathetic to obscurantist and often violent political movements like Hezbollah, which have no interest whatsoever in reason and science or in protecting the rights of gays or women?
In Religion for Atheists, Alain de Botton urges nonbelievers to pick and choose religions’ best offerings