Q&A: Sam Harris
The Christian right, radical Islamists, and secular leftists agree: this atheist is America’s most dangerous man
It’s an interesting pathology in our public discourse. It’s the result of few specific memes doing their mad work, one being that all religion is equivalent. We have one word, religion, which I argue is a word like sports. We have sports like thai kick-boxing and there are sports like badminton, and they basically have nothing in common. Islam is a religion and Jainism is a religion and they have a few things in common, but what they don’t have in common is a commitment to nonviolence, which Jainism has in spades and Islam doesn’t have in principle. That’s a difference worth noticing. There’s that meme that as an atheist, as a secularist, as a scientist, you can only really just talk about religion and to be more fine-grained than that is to be unfairly biased against one community. That’s untrue, and we have to get over it.
The other meme is that the terrorism that we see at this moment has nothing in principle to do with the religion of Islam: It’s coming out of other things, economic inequality, political hopelessness, people have been victimized by the Israelis or somebody else or by the legacy of colonialism; there’s nothing about the actual doctrine of Islam that accounts for it. That is untrue.
There are a lot of people who have a tremendous amount of white guilt, and understandably so. They are attentive to every misstep that western governments make in their foreign policies. So, you get this crazy moral parity claim, which obviously the Israelis suffer from the most. The Israelis are confronting people who will blow themselves up to kill the maximum number of noncombatants and will even use their own children as human shields. They’ll launch their missiles from the edge of a hospital or school so that any retaliation will produce the maximum number of innocent casualties. And they do all this secure in the knowledge that their opponents are genuinely worried about killing innocent people. It’s the most cynical thing imaginable. And yet within the moral discourse of the liberal West, the Israeli side looks like it’s the most egregiously insensitive to the cost of the conflict.
Many otherwise rational-seeming, anti-dogmatic, nonreligious people in the West believe that the Israelis are transparently the bad guys, rationally and emotionally.
I view that as a pathology of liberalism in which people assume that everyone everywhere more or less wants the same thing and ignores the endless supply of people with no obvious political or economic grievance who are willing to devote their lives to jihad. What you don’t hear are jihadis saying, “I was just so desperate, I just saw no way out or me or my family, and it just seemed like the only thing I could do to express my rage at an unfair system.” No, you get the explicit expectation of arriving in paradise.
Liberals imagine they’re taking religion seriously by being endlessly respectful and politically correct in the face of this insanity. Ironically, it’s the most condescending and disrespectful view of religious people—to refuse to accept their account of what they believe. Liberals don’t think anyone actually believes in Paradise. Meanwhile, embassies are burned in a dozen countries and our only response is to get up and say, “Of course we would never do anything to insult the perfectly noble religion of Islam.”
There are people who will use human shields on one side, and there are people who will be deterred by other people’s use of human shields: They’re still worried about killing the children of their enemies. Those are two very different groups of people.
There is something in me that fears the severing of our link to religion. I guess I fear that, John Rawls to the contrary, propositions about all humans being created equal and other propositions that I value have no strictly rational basis at all. They’re religious ideas.
All I’m arguing for really is that we should have a conversation where the best ideas really thrive, where there’s no taboo against criticizing bad ideas, and where everyone who shows up, in order to get their ideas entertained, has to meet some obvious burdens of intellectual rigor and self-criticism and honesty—and when people fail to do that, we are free to stop listening to them. What religion has had up until this moment is a different set of rules that apply only to it, which is you have to respect my religious certainty even though I’m telling you I arrived at it irrationally.
So, if there is an argument for why the Quran is so good, please bring it forward. I’ve read the Quran several times and it’s not that good. In fact, it’s conspicuously bad as a moral map, and a spiritual map. You can wander blindfolded into a Barnes & Noble, and the first book you pick off the shelf will have more wisdom than the Quran. The Quran is uniquely barren of wisdom relevant to the 21st century. It’s got a few good lines about patience and generosity, and the rest is just vilification of the infidel.
These habits of discourse explain your penchant for security, which freaks some people out. Is there stuff you don’t say?
I take security seriously and, as you know, I get occasional death threats. Not long ago, the cartoon controversies came back around as a news item, and I thought, I should have a cartoon contest online. I can kick this off. But I think about it for a few minutes, I might have bounced it off my wife, and then I realize, “No, this is the thing that will make my life a living hell.” You have to pick your battles. This something that would send me into the witness-protection program, and so I decided not to do it. Then, like two weeks later, someone I never heard of did it on Facebook, and I believe she had to go into the witness-protection program. She received an avalanche of credible death threats for which the FBI got involved. She took down the page, she apologized, but none of that was sufficient. So then she just disappeared.
Of course my friend Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a little more offensive to the Muslim community, having once been a Muslim. Consequently, she has an order of magnitude greater security concerns. And it’s just excruciating.
I watch people look for reasons to condemn or discredit her—you know, she lied in her immigration application, and all the rest of that crap. Why go after the black woman from Somalia who endures a clitoridectomy and then becomes a feminist champion and member of Parliament in Europe and an acclaimed writer only to have her close friend murdered on the street? Isn’t there a better target?
Nicholas Kristof’s take on Ayaan Hirsi Ali is the perfect X-ray of the problem of political correctness and liberal masochism for me. I mean, if anyone in the world should exemplify a successful graduation from the problem of medieval religious stupidity it’s Ayaan Hirsi Ali. She was barefoot in a Somali village, and as a teenager she was someone who thought she herself would put Salman Rushdie to death if she could only find him. And then she became this unbelievable enlightenment success story based purely on her own wits.
Just imagine if just you had to go to Holland and learn Dutch, and that’s the only thing you had to do. I’m not even sure I would successfully do that, right? Now she’s had her life completely disrupted by people who want to kill her, and yet she still thrives as a writer and a speaker. And then you have someone like Kristof, whose main MO is to protect women, and he still can’t see how she’s on the right side of this argument with the past, and Islam is on the wrong side of that argument. It’s unbelievable.
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In Religion for Atheists, Alain de Botton urges nonbelievers to pick and choose religions’ best offerings