Sam Harris is the author of the New York Times bestsellers, The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation. The End of Faith won the 2005 PEN Award for Nonfiction.
Mr. Harris' writing has been published in over ten languages. He and his work have been discussed in Newsweek, TIME, The New York Times, Scientific American, Rolling Stone, and many other journals. His writing has appeared in Newsweek, The Los Angeles Times, The Times (London), The Boston Globe, The Atlantic, Nature, The Annals of Neurology, and elsewhere.
Mr. Harris is a graduate in philosophy from Stanford University and holds a PhD in neuroscience from UCLA, where he studied the neural basis of belief with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). He is also a Co-Founder and CEO of Project Reason.
Question: Do you have any existential worries?
Sam Harris: Well I do have existential worries. And I, I think like everybody else, am concerned about death. You know it’s . . . Death is, in some ways, unacceptable. It’s just an astonishing fact of our being here that we die; but I think worse than that is if we live long enough, we lose everyone we love in this world. I mean people die and disappear, and we’re left with this stark mystery: just the sheer not knowing of what happened to them. And into this void, religion comes rushing with a very consoling story saying, “Nothing happened to them. They’re in a better place, and you’re gonna meet up with them after you die. You’re gonna get everything you want after you die. Death is an illusion.” There’s no question that that . . . if you could believe it, that would pay emotional dividends. I mean there’s no other story you can tell somebody who has lost her daughter to cancer, say, to make her feel good. You know, it is consoling to believe that the daughter was just taken up with Jesus, and everyone’s gonna be reunited in a few short years. There’s no replacement for that. There doesn’t need to be a replacement for that. I think we have to be . . . We have to just witness the cost of that. There are many obvious costs of that way of thinking. One is we just don’t teach people how to grieve. You know, religion is the epitome, the antithesis of teaching your children how to grieve. You tell your child that, “Grandma is in heaven”, and there’s nothing to be sad about. That’s religion. It would be better to equip your child for the reality of this life, which is, you know, we . . . death is a fact. And we don’t know what happens after death. And I’m not pretending to know that you get a dial tone after death. I don’t know what happens after the physical brain dies. I don’t know what the relationship between consciousness and the physical world is. I don’t think anyone does know. Now I think there are many reasons to be doubtful of naïve conceptions about the soul, and about this idea that you could just migrate to a better place after death. But I simply don’t know about what . . . I don’t know what I believe about death. And I don’t think it’s necessary to know in order to live as sanely and ethically and happily as possible. I don’t think you get . . . You don’t get anything worth getting by pretending to know things you don’t know.
Recorded on: July 4 2007