Religions Are Failed Sciences

Neuroscientist, Philosopher, and Author
We are misled by the very term “religion," argues Sam Harris. Religion was simply the discourse humans used when all causes in the universe were opaque.
  • Transcript


Question: What is religion?

Sam Harris:  Well I think we are misled by this very term “religion”.  We use that word “religion” as though it meant a distinct thing . . . as though it meant one phenomenon in human discourse.  And there’s really a range of infatuations and practices that go by the name of religion.  And therefore many points on this continuum don’t have much in common with others.  So if you take a religion like “Jainism” – a religion in India – its core principle is non-violence.  Now there is where Gandhi got his conception of non-violence.  And the Jains are vegetarian.  They have no doctrine of holy war.  In fact, they don’t even have a doctrine – a proper doctrine of self-defense.  I mean they’re pacifists.  They don’t want to hurt a fly.  And then on the other end of the continuum, you have something like Islam where it has explicitly a doctrine of holy war, and a notion of . . .  Combat and death, in certain contexts, is actually the highest obligation a religious person can fulfill.  So these are both religions.  And so religion is a word like “sport”.  You have a sport like badminton, and you have a sport like, you know, boxing.  They’re not . . .  they’re both sports that, you know, one is much more dangerous.  So I’m concerned . . .  I’m obviously more concerned about religions like Islam that . . . wherein you have this marriage of a variety of spiritual and ethical concerns; but also certain kinds of metaphysical certainties that inspire people to not only die, but to kill others in the process.  And you don’t have that in other religions.  So I think that we have to be clear about how this term religion can mislead us. 

 Question: Why do we need religion?

I view religions as essentially failed sciences.  I mean religion was the discourse that we had when all causes in the universe were opaque.  We didn’t know . . .  We didn’t know the basis of anything.  We didn’t know why we were here.  We didn’t know how diseases spread, or what disease was.  We didn’t know how people . . . why people died early, and why others flourished.  We don’t know what’s causing thunderstorms, or what’s causing crops to fail.  And we very naturally . . .  As a cognitive and behavioral imperative, we formed descriptions of the world, and we tried to figure out what’s going on.  We tell ourselves stories about our origins, and about where we’re going, and about causes in the world.  And those stories, given our just pervasive ignorance and our disposition to see agency in the world . . . to see, you know . . . to feel ourselves in relationship to the world, these stories entail being in relation to invisible friends and enemies.  And so we have this parent figure in the sky who’s gonna take care of things if you live rightly.  And we have other demonic presences that we should be really worried about.  And gradually, what you see happening is that religion . . .  As rationality and dozens of specific sciences were birthed in the human conversation, you see religion on a hundred fronts losing the argument with science.  And then we see it on the front of human health and disease.  Religion . . .  You know, it used to be that you could get a diagnosis of demonic possession.  That was a, you know, a reasonable thing to believe you had if you were having seizures.  You know, but now we have a science of neurology, and we have a science of epilepsy.  And so when your kid has seizures, you know, you don’t go to the church to get him diagnosed and treated by exorcism.  And so that’s a good thing.  I’m saying that religion is losing the argument on every other front.  It’s losing the argument ethically.  It will lose the argument spiritually.  I mean we will understand spiritual experience so well at some point at the level of the brain; at the level of the way in which using attention in certain ways can change human experience.  We’ll understand it in a way that makes a mockery of this kind of denominational, religion talk about Jesus and grace; or about Buddha and magic powers.  And that will break down in the same way that it has broken down in medicine . . . in medicine.  That’s a process I think we just have to be honest about and let unfold.

Recorded on: July 4 2007