Sam Harris on the Dangers of Religion
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: When you read the newspaper or watch the news, what issues stand out for you?
Sam Harris: Well what astonishes me when I read the newspaper or watch the news is how many problems are the direct result of what people believe about God. I mean there are days when I open the New York Times where fully half of the stories – in a way that’s unacknowledged by the paper – relate to people’s religious convictions. It’s a matter . . . I mentioned the Virginia Tech shooting. The role that religion played in providing a context for this shooting was never really discussed in the media. But we just hear that the mother happened to be a devout Christian, and schlepped her child from church to church in search of an exorcism. I just see continually our attention bound up in these competing ideas about God. At best, this is often just a waste of time. But at worst, it is just . . . it is manufacturing violence, and unnecessary conflict, and misuses of our resources. And what’s more, it is very rare that we acknowledge . . . I mean now we’re beginning to acknowledge the role that Islam is playing in Muslim terrorism; but even that has been very slow to come. I mean it has been obvious for many, many years – long before September 11th – that a certain style of Muslim infatuation was leading to this kind of jihad-y behavior. We’re . . . Because of the respect we afford religious faith, we are very slow to acknowledge its cause or role in conflict.
Question: What is the struggle in what you do?
Sam Harris: Well I think the biggest challenge as a matter of discourse and debate – and certainly the most frustrating challenge – is what comes from otherwise secular and even non-believing people who are just reluctant to admit how much mad work is being done because of religion in this world. I mean they either can’t believe that people really believe this stuff . . . So when a suicide bomber blows himself up in a crowd of children, this secular type of person will imagine, “That wasn’t religion. I mean it had nothing to do with a belief in paradise and 72 virgins. Who could believe that? This is a . . . some kind of psychological aberration. Or it’s caused by economic desperation, or policies in the region. I mean it’s not a matter of metaphysical beliefs.” I think the jury is in on this, and we know that people really do believe these things. They are telling us ad nauseum that they believe these things. And I don’t think there’s any more powerful rhetorical device for emphasis than blowing yourself up or flying a plane into a building. And I mean these people are really willing to die for what they believe. And we know it’s not a matter of economics. I’m gonna speak specifically to the Muslim word for a moment. We know it’s not a matter of economics and education, because this recent plot in the U.K., these are all doctors who are . . . who are aspiring suicide bombers. And you know, how much more education did these doctors need? One was a neurosurgeon. You find me a neurosurgeon suicide bomber, and you tell me the problem is education and economics, it clearly isn’t. And . . . but the deeper problem, and I think a far more sinister problem, is that it is possible to be well educated – so well educated that you can be a neurosurgeon – and still believe that you can get 72 virgins in paradise. And this is made possible by the fact that we have allowed a certain mode of thought – religion – to thrive in a cocoon of this sphere of protection from criticism. It is just taboo to criticize people’s religious beliefs.
Recorded on: Jul 4 2007
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