Sam Harris on the Dangers of Religion

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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