Religion is like a Placebo
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: Can religion be a force for good?
Sam Harris: I’m not saying that religion can’t ever be useful or inspire good things. It certainly can, and has, and will. And that’s better than the alternative.
But there’s a distinction.
We have to recognize there’s a distinction between something being true and something being useful. Every benign religion, every religion that’s actually helping somebody sometimes could be functioning like a placebo. It could be totally barren of content and still useful in certain circumstances.
I could invent a religion right now which we know is not true, and would be extremely useful if I could spread it to billions. I could invent it right now. This religion is, the principles are, “Do your best to love your neighbor, and your family, and every person you meet. Encourage your children to study science and mathematics to the best of their abilities. And if you don’t do this, you will be punished for eternity by 17 demons after death.”
Now I have no doubt that if I could spread this to billions, this would be a better religion than the religions we’ve got. It would be better than Christianity, and Judaism, and Islam. You’d have no suicide bombers. What you would have is a generation of children bearing down on science and mathematics to the best of their abilities, encouraged by their otherwise ethical parents, all under the compulsion of “do this or else these 17 demons will torture you for eternity.”
We would live in a much better world, no question. Would the useful of this suggest for a moment that the 17 demons actually exist? Would it provide a reason to believe in these 17 demons? Not even slightly. So that’s the divide here.
There’s a big difference between the utility of an idea, or the consoling nature of an idea, or the idea that God has a plan for me, or everything happens for a reason, and the idea that these there are consoling, are quite distinct from whether there are good reasons to believe them.
Recorded on: Jul 4 2007.
Every benign religion, every religion that’s actually helping somebody sometimes could be functioning like a placebo. It could be totally barren of content and still useful in certain circumstances.
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