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What Do You Believe?

Question: What do you believe?

Sam Harris:  Well I believe in the power of conversation to get human beings to converge on a common project in which people can collaborate in an open-ended way, and in a non-divisive way, and in a way that never requires an appeal to violence.  And we have that in science.  We have that in much of intellectual discourse.  We very much don’t have that in religion.  I mean it’s just . . .  There’s nothing that a fundamentalist Christian and a fundamentalist Muslim can say to one another to put their beliefs on the table for revision.  I mean this is what dogmatism is.  It is a willingness to believe things for bad reasons, and an unwillingness to have your rather tenuous reasons challenged.  I mean it’s . . .  You’re saying, “I believe this no matter what you or anyone else says.”  So that’s the antithesis of conversation.  It really is a conversation stopper.  So that’s . . . that’s why I paint a very stark difference between faith and reason.  I mean reason . . . if you’re reasonable, if you’re interested in how the world works and what is true altogether, you are open.  You are, by definition, open to further conversation; to more argument; to more evidence.  And you’re in fact interested to find out if you’re mistaken about anything.  If you are not predisposed to that open-ended conversation, you really have . . . you have rendered yourself immune to influence from the world.  Influence apart from having someone, you know, pull out the guns on you.  So there are certain people, because of their dogmatism, who have made themselves impossible to talk to.  I mean there’s nothing that you’re gonna say to get Osama Bin Laden to reconsider his view of the world.  And it’s a unique feature of religion that we defend this mode of being in a religious context in a way that we would never tolerate it in another context.  I mean if you’re . . .  If somebody has medical beliefs . . .  If your doctor says, “I know that this cures cancer, but I’m not gonna tell you how, or why.  Or I’m not gonna have my data challenged . . .”  I mean that’s a mode of talk, within a medical context, that . . .  You would never get through medical school appealing to those kinds of intuitions.  That really is the core of faith-based religion . . . this idea that there are certain things – like that the Bible is the perfect word of God, or that the Koran is the perfect word of God – that just have to be accepted, cannot be challenged.  And in certain context – certainly within the Muslim world – you can die for calling those certainties into question.  I mean it literally is a capital offense to wonder whether the Koran may not be the perfect word of the creator of the universe.  I mean there’s just . . .  And it used to be a killing offense in Christianity.  It’s just . . . we have moderated the western religion – Judaism and Christianity – to a remarkable degree because of the last 200 years of scientific and political progress.

Recrorded on: July 4 2007

Converging on a common project in a non-divisive, something religion does infrequently.

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