Sam Harris On Interpreting Scripture

Neuroscientist, Philosopher, and Author
Maybe God spoke in metaphor.
  • Transcript


Question: Do atheists take a literalist approach to scripture?

Sam Harris:  Well this is a common criticism – the idea that the atheist if guilty of a literalist reading of Scripture no better than the reading of fundamentalist.  And that it’s a very naïve way of approaching religion, and that there’s a lot more sophisticated and nuanced view of religion ______ and the atheist as disregarding that.  A few problems with this.  Anyone making that argument is failing to acknowledge just how many people really do approach these texts literally or functionally – whether they’re selective literalists, or literal all the way down the line.  There is a . . .  there are certain passages in Scripture that just cannot be read figuratively.  And people really do live by the lights of what is literally laid out in these books.  So you know, the Koran says “hate the infidel.”  And Muslims hate the infidel because the Koran spells it out ad nauseum.  Now it’s true that you can cherry pick Scripture, and you can look for all the good parts.  You can ignore where it says in Leviticus where it says that if a woman is not a virgin on her wedding night, you’re supposed to stone her to death on her father’s doorstep.  You can ignore that.  And to my knowledge, all Jews and Christians do ignore that.  In fact that’s not true.  There are some Christians who actually do – you know, constructionist Christians, diminuinist Christians in the U.S. – who will say, you know, I think the penalty for adultery should be death.  So there are people who have the courage of their convictions.  But most of us . . . most religious people ignore those passages which really can only be read literally, and say that, “Oh, they were only appropriate for the time.”  And, “They don’t apply now.”  And likewise, Muslims try to have the same reading of passages that advocate holy war.  Well they say, “Well these were appropriate to those battles that Mohammed was fighting; but now we don’t have to fight those battles.”  This is all a good thing, but we should recognize what is . . . what’s at . . . what’s happening here.  People are feeling pressure from a host of all too human concerns that having nothing, in principle, to do with God.  I mean secularism, and human rights, and democracy, and scientific progress – these have made certain passages in Scripture untenable, okay?  So this is coming from outside religion, and religion is now making a great show of its sophistication in kind of grappling with these pressures.  Once again, this is . . . this is an example of religion losing the argument with modernity.  It’s an example of . . .  You know, the recent shooting at Virginia Tech.  The mother of the shooter recognized that there was something wrong with her son.  You know, he was suffering from some kind of mental problem.  In the context of her rather doctrinary Christianity, she did not take him to a psychiatrist.  She took him from church to church in search of exorcism.  She actually found a church that performed an exorcism.  Just picture this.  There’s some . . .  We have an atrocity in the making.  We have a dangerously mental ill college student.  We have a concerned mother whose world view about mental health is trimmed down through the keyhole of a kind of medieval Christianity.  And we have a church willing to put forward its expertise in the performance of an exorcism.  It would be a lot better if everyone involved had a 21st century mental health.  No one has . . .  Moderate people, moderate Christians, and Jews, and Muslims have to look at this situation and say, “Well there’s something wrong here.  It would be better to go to a psychiatrist.”  But the problem is you can’t show what’s wrong in terms of Scripture.  You can’t show what’s wrong in terms of religion; because in terms of religion, the mother was right.  I mean there are demons.  Jesus cast them out, you know?  I mean demonic possession is actually a problem.  The only reason why we don’t take it seriously because we have a wider view of the universe.  The universe . . .  The idea of the universe did not come to us from religion.  It came from science.

Question: Is it possible that God was speaking in metaphors?

Sam Harris: Let’s just grant the possibility that there is a creator God who’s omniscient, who occasionally authors books.                  And he’s gonna give us a book – the most useful book.  He’s a loving God.  He’s a compassionate God, and he’s gonna give us a guide to live.  He’s got a scribe.  The scribe’s gonna write it down.  What’s gonna be in that book?  I mean just think of how good a book would be if it were authored by an omniscient deity.  I mean there is not a single line in the bible or the Koran that could not have been authored by a 1st century person.  I mean there’s not one reference to anything.  There are pages and pages about how to sacrifice animals, and keep slaves, and who to kill and why.  There’s nothing about electricity.  There’s nothing about DNA.  There’s nothing about infectious disease or the principles of infectious disease.  There’s . . .  there’s nothing particularly useful, and there’s a lot of Iron Age barbarism in there and superstition.  This does not. . .  This is not a candidate book  . . .  I mean I can go to any Barnes and Noble blindfolded and pull a book off a shelf which is gonna have more relevance, more wisdom for the 21st century than the Bible or the Koran.  I mean it’s really not an exaggeration.  Every one of our specific sciences has superceded and surpassed the wisdom of Scripture.  From cosmology, to psychology, to economics, we know more about ourselves than anyone writing the Bible or the Koran did.  And that is a distinctly inconvenient fact for the . . . for anyone wanting to believe that this book was dictated by the creator of the universe.

Recorded on: Jul 4 2007