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Q&A: Sam Harris

The Christian right, radical Islamists, and secular leftists agree: this atheist is America’s most dangerous man

David Samuels
May 29, 2012
Sam Harris takes part in a group discussion on religion and faith on March 21, 2007, at Rick Warren's Saddleback church in Lake Forest, California.(Charles Ommanney/Getty Images)
Sam Harris takes part in a group discussion on religion and faith on March 21, 2007, at Rick Warren's Saddleback church in Lake Forest, California.(Charles Ommanney/Getty Images)

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.

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?

No society has ever suffered because everyone got too interested in other people’s points of view.

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.

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.

You can be a Jew for whom all of the trappings of Judaism are very important and yet there’s absolutely no content to your religious beliefs.

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.

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.

The effects of religious dogmatism on the lives of women have been transparently negative; they are consigned to a livestock-like breeding cycle.

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?

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.

Kristof’s take on Ayaan Hirsi Ali is the perfect X-ray of the problem of political correctness and liberal masochism.

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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David Samuels is most recently the author of Seul l’Amour Peut Te Briser le Coeur, a collection of his writing about America, to be published in September by Seuil.

David Samuels is the editor of County Highway, a new American magazine in the form of a 19th-century newspaper. He is Tablet’s literary editor.

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