9/11 sparked Harris’s interest in religion, and his journey to atheism.
Question: Who are you?
Sam Harris: Sam Harris, I’m from Southern California, and I was raised in a totally secular home. So I’m not reacting . . . In my criticism of religion, I’m not reacting against any kind of fundamentalist upbringing; but nor was I told that there was no God. It really was not a subject of conversation. So my rather strident criticism of religion is really a product of very recent events. In my case, it’s September 11, 2001. So my upbringing isn’t so informative of my views at the moment.
Question: Why did 9/11 spark your interest in religion?
Sam Harris: Well it was two things. One, just the rather obvious liability of religious certainty was made extraordinarily clear on that day. We were having people flying planes into our buildings for explicitly religious reasons. Nut what was also made clear was that we were going to deny the religious rationale because of our own attachment to our own religious myths. The only language we could find as a culture to comfort ourselves was to endorse our own God-talk. So I suddenly found faith playing both sides of the board in a very dangerous game where we as a nation, in prosecuting our war on terror, which was obviously the necessary thing to do, though calling it “The War on Terror” I think is rather silly . . . But we were consoling ourselves with our own religious certainties, you know, very much in the language of Christian fundamentalism. The president comes before Congress and talks about God not being indifferent to freedom and fear. As an atheist, I hear that exactly the way I would hear someone saying, “Zeus is not indifferent to freedom and fear.” It is an uncannily strange and empty utterance. And yet, our culture is now programmed not to notice how strange and empty it is. And it does really significant work. And so we see things like stem cell research and other causes that . . . upon which the lives and happiness of millions of people really turn get subverted by religious thinking . . . explicitly religious thinking.
Question: Was faith ever an option?
Sam Harris: Well I spent a lot of time thinking about and exploring spiritual experience and our contemplative traditions, mostly in an Eastern context of Buddhism and Hinduism; but I’ve also read much of the contemplative literature of Christianity, and Judaism, and Islam. So I’ve been interested in religion for at least 20 years, and interested in spiritual experience, and have spent a lot of time practicing meditations, and studying with various meditation masters in India and Nepal, and spending months and weeks on retreat just practicing meditation very much the way a Monastic would in the Buddhist tradition. So I’m . . . The concerns of religious people . . . the ethical, and the spiritual concerns of religious people are something that I think I understand and I take very seriously. I take very seriously the possibility of experiencing the world the way Buddha, and Jesus, and other famous patriarchs or matriarchs seemed to have experienced the world. And I think we wanna actualize that kind of experience. I mean if it’s possible to love your neighbor as yourself, I’m interested in learning how to do that. I just don’t think we have to believe we have to learn anything on insufficient evidence in order to do that.
Recorded on: July 4 2007