God Wrote a Book
interviews Sam Harris
Sam Harris, author of the controversial bestseller The End of Faith, on reason, weapons of mass destruction, and the belief that a very old book is the one and only truth.
Sam Harris is a blunt instrument. His recent bestseller, The End of Faith, has been celebrated—and condemned—as a frontal assault on religion. But to be fair to his argument, he defines “religion” narrowly—as the faith that a certain old text or doctrine is the complete and immutable truth—and by most people’s definition he is a religious man himself, arguing in favor of a contemplative path. I think Sam Harris is saying some things that need to be said and he’s putting some issues on the table that we have to deal with. He may offend your sense of religious tolerance (or make you reconsider it), but I think we have to listen to him: about the dangers of certain very primitive beliefs that are held by hundreds of millions of people in a world laden with destructive weapons, and about the promise of a more mystical and yet reasoned spirituality that must, he says, prevail.
Melvin McLeod: You make a distinction between “religion,” which you basically define as the belief that a certain ancient book is the literal word of an omnipotent God, and something called “spirituality” or “mysticism,” of which you approve. What is the difference?
Sam Harris: There really is a distinction between faith-based religion—believing propositions on insufficient evidence and living by the logic of those propositions—and engaging in any one of a variety of methods of introspection, seeing where that introspection takes you and making empirical claims on that basis.
These methods, in and of themselves, don’t require the adoption of any unjustified belief. For instance, it is perfectly reasonable to cross your legs and sit in meditation and see what comes of it. If something good does come of it, it’s perfectly reasonable to make a habit of that practice. Nothing preposterous has to be accepted in order to do that. It can even be reasonable to spend years, even decades, doing that if it becomes deeply fulfilling and links up with other interests, for instance, ethical interests.
The Buddhist tradition has been very articulate about the link between contemplative insight and ethical intuitions. I have no doubt there’s a subjective landscape there that can be talked about rationally. For instance, what are the consequences of a certain kind of meditation for one’s relationships with other human beings? Well, there very likely are consequences, and those consequences can be rationally discussed, so that we come to a real understanding of the relationship between certain states of mind and certain ethical behaviors. None of that requires that certain books were written by the creator of the universe, or a belief in anything else that can’t be proven.
So you can get mysticism off the ground without believing something on insufficient evidence, but you really can’t get religion off the ground that way. Religion is nothing more than a tissue of such propositions, most especially the proposition that a certain book has unique status because it was dictated or inspired by a supernatural intelligence.
Melvin McLeod: You argue that we can no longer afford to view people’s beliefs, particularly religious beliefs, as purely a private matter. You argue they are now of great social and political importance. Why?
Sam Harris: Belief distinguishes itself from other states of mind, like hope, because it is a representation of the world that we accept as true. This is why beliefs are not merely private, because how we think the world is can’t help but influence our behavior. If you really think it is true, down to your toes, that you can get to paradise by dying under the right circumstances, then you will be predisposed to die under those circumstances. You’ll be predisposed to the extent you believe this metaphysical proposition. This is why we have architects and mechanical engineers flying planes into buildings at four hundred miles an hour. It’s not a mystery that they do so; given the content of their beliefs, it’s a perfectly rational thing to do. And it’s rational to hope for Armageddon if you think Jesus is going to come down out of the clouds and kill all the bad people and save the day. This is rational once you buy into the underlying beliefs.
Melvin McLeod: Are there different types of beliefs, in terms of their relationship to evidence and reason? Most people would say there is a difference between my belief that I am talking to you now and a belief in God—that they would be argued on different grounds.
Sam Harris: Religious beliefs are held to a different standard, which is to say a lesser standard, but they still aspire to be reasonable. One of the things I argue in my book is that the leap of faith, really, is a myth. Religious people really do want reasons, and seize upon whatever reasons they can for their beliefs. When you ask a Christian why he thinks that Jesus was really the son of God, you’ll immediately get answers about how marvelous the Bible is, and how the prophecy from the Old Testament is confirmed in the New Testament, and how Isaiah says that the messiah will be born in Bethlehem, and, lo and behold, Jesus was born in Bethlehem.
So religious people are engaged in an evidentiary game. It’s just that by normal standards, by the standards they would demand in any other area of their lives, the evidence is not good enough. I see it as a sociological problem: we have not obliged people to use the same standards of evidence in the religious domain as we do—and they—in every other area of their lives.
Most people want to make a distinction between belief and knowledge, but I don’t think that’s a distinction worth making. They’re really just gradations of certainty. You are reasonably certain right now that you’re sitting at a desk talking to me. So you would say that you know that you are sitting at a desk. But this is still a belief.
Once you admit that we’re just talking about gradations of certainty, then propositions that people are certain of will inevitably influence the way they act. Someone who is certain that Jesus can hear their prayers, say, will take Jesus’ existence very seriously. They will want public policy shaped by their belief that Jesus is the son of God and that the Bible is uniquely inspired as a guiding document for humanity. Belief is very foundational and insidious; it has to find its way into our behavior, insofar as we are certain or reasonably certain of what we believe.
Melvin McLeod: But isn’t the basis of much religion at a more basic level than reason, or lack of reason? Isn’t it founded in our deep-seated desire for a savior or an answer to death?
Sam Harris: We have a deep desire to escape death; there’s no doubt about that. Death is a problem that only religion offers a solution to. It’s not a solution we should accept, given the evidence, but there’s no real mystery as to why these different stories are attractive, because they really do take the sting out of death.
That is the message of all our religions—that death is not a problem. Though you seem to lose everyone and everything you love when you die, you’re going to be reunited with them, or placed in some even better circumstance, as a result of calling God by the right name in the meantime. That is deeply consoling if believed, but you really shouldn’t believe it simply because it’s consoling. For example, say I believe that a diamond the size of a refrigerator is buried in my backyard. If you ask me why I believe that, I would reply, well, it makes me feel good, it gives my life meaning. That’s clearly a crazy answer. For a belief to be epistemic, it can’t be held just because it feels good to hold it. But this is never pointed out to people on matters of faith.
I see this as a social problem, largely born of the fact that on spiritual and ethical matters, religion seems to be the only game in town. Clearly we need more than just reason. We want to find some way of transforming ourselves, of being as happy as is psychologically possible, and only religion, traditionally, has addressed that. So people feel there’s no other game to play.
Melvin McLeod: Looking at the historical record—and present-day world politics—you argue that literalist religion is pretty much the fount of all evil.
Sam Harris: Religion is definitely not the fount of all evil, but it’s the fount of much evil. I would broaden the formulation and say that dogmatism is the fount of most evil, and religion just happens to have more than its fair share of dogmatism. Literalist religion is the one area in which dogmatism is not criticized as problematic. Dogma is the great currency of that realm, while anywhere else in discourse, dogma is something to be disavowed. But in religion you have the admonishment against being a doubting Thomas, or Martin Luther saying that the Holy Spirit is not bound by reason. These kinds of notions close the door to criticism.
The result is that you have in religion a situation where good people—really, actually, good people—can be inspired to do truly terrible things on the basis of propositions that are totally uncontaminated by evidence. I mean, how else to explain the fact that tens of thousands of mothers in this world celebrate the suicide/homicides of their own children? I’m speaking specifically about the Muslim mothers of martyrs. These are not women who are sociopaths, who have been just waiting for their children to die. These are women who are led by a certain logic, specifically the doctrine of martyrdom, to think that it’s actually a good thing to witness the deaths of their children in the right circumstances. This is a situation of religious dogma inspiring presumably very good, normal people to do the unthinkable.
Melvin McLeod: You argue that what makes religious belief a public matter, more than in the past, is the tremendously destructive weaponry to which it now can be harnessed.
Sam Harris: The stakes are enormously high now, given the spread of destructive technology. It’s getting easier and easier for a few people to destroy the lives of millions, or to render cities uninhabitable for thousands of years, quite literally. We have to ask ourselves, what is the endgame here? We are living in a world where destructive technology is spreading everywhere and there’s really no hope of containing the spread. We have a world that is divided into separate moral communities. How are we going to heal this Balkanization of our world? What is the endgame? Is there really a possible future in which aspiring martyrs are going to make good neighbors? What are the inevitable geopolitical effects of having tens of millions of people in our own country believe that Jesus is going to come down out of the clouds and save the day if things get really bad in the Middle East? It seems to me that these beliefs are maladaptive, given the power we now have to destroy ourselves.
The idea that a book cobbled together over centuries—and the cobbling stopped more than a millennium ago—is sufficient guidance for how to live in the twenty-first century should be preposterous on its face. And the fact that we’re unable even to criticize it is really paralyzing, given the challenges we face.
Melvin McLeod: One of the problems you point to is that these texts are perceived as perfect and complete statements of truth, that they are frozen in time, or outside of time, and cannot evolve with human knowledge or progress.
Sam Harris: That is inherent to the logic of faith—that these beliefs can’t be revised because the only tool you would use to revise them is your own sinful or deluded thinking. Your own fallen state would be the editor. The books themselves are perfect; they point to your unillumined condition and they are the answer to your dilemma.
The problem is that all of these books are chock-full of barbarism. In the West in particular, we have been led to ignore much of the barbarism, because secular society and scientific culture have led us to no longer believe that the creator of the universe wants us to kill people for working on the Sabbath, or to kill our children for talking back to us. When you look at the kinds of moral insights these books contain, they are really ragged. There are some great lines, obviously, in the Bible, but the Bible taken as a whole is a totalitarian, theocratic, really sadistic document.
When you look for instruction on specific moral questions, like slavery for instance, you don’t find a reason to abolish slavery in the Bible. Slavery is endorsed in both the Old and New Testaments. If you ask how we got rid of slavery, the answer is that we had a conversation with ourselves in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that cured us of the perception of other human beings as fit to be owned. But we didn’t get this from the Bible, despite the fact that certain people paid lip service to parts of the Bible when we were abolishing slavery.
Melvin McLeod: But many abolitionist leaders were serious and devout Christians, who opposed slavery precisely as an expression of their faith.
Sam Harris: But the abolitionist movement was also opposed by devout Christians—who were on firmer ground scripturally.
Melvin McLeod: So you would argue that the good done by religious people is less because of their faith than because of their inherent nature as human beings and the progress of human civilization?
Sam Harris: The real ethical insights, for instance the insight that cruelty is a bad thing and love is a good thing, these very primal social, psychological insights...
Melvin McLeod: Treat your neighbor as you would be treated yourself...
Sam Harris: That may be an even more abstract and enlightened version of it. These insights come from our core sense that we want to be treated well and that we want to treat well those we love. Love really consists of that impulse, and love is a source of our happiness. We are clearly hard-wired to feel this. We know even monkeys feel this. There are scientific experiments, for instance, that have shown that monkeys will not gratuitously impose suffering on other monkeys if they can help it, whereas they will abuse a rabbit all day long. So our core ethical intuitions predate our humanity even, and they certainly don’t come to us out of these books.
What happens is that we come to these books and we decide what in them is ethical or not. It’s our own ethics that serve to edit these books, to pick out the gems and get us to agree, for instance, that the Golden Rule really is a wise distillation of our higher impulses. We decide that. That explains why secularists and moderates can use the very slender basis for morality in these books to resist all the barbarism in them. Because if you take these books as a whole, you get a world that looks much more like the theocracy of medieval Christendom than the civil rights marches of the 1960’s.
Melvin McLeod: You are also critical of liberals and religious moderates, whose creed of tolerance you say allows irrational and dangerous beliefs to go unchallenged.
Sam Harris: There are a few facts we’re not facing. One is that religious moderation prevents us from even noticing the differences among our religions. We have this idea that, at their core, all religions teach the same thing and they teach it equally well. This is preposterous, and you only have to read all the books to see that this is not so. This prevents us, in the present case, from acknowledging that we really do have a problem with Islam. We’re not at war on terror per se, and Islam is not a peaceful religion that has been hijacked by extremists. Unless we come to terms with this and get moderate Muslims, wherever they are, to come to terms with this, we’re going to meander into a world war with the Muslim world.
What I argue is that Islam poses some unique challenges to moderation. The distinction between fundamentalism and moderation in Islam is much harder to make than in Christianity, and it really has not been widely made in the Muslim world. The Koran is much shorter and more coherent than the Bible, and there are not sections in it you can use to oppose the rest in quite the same way you can, for instance, hold to the Sermon on the Mount and forget about the bloodthirsty anticipations of the book of Revelation.
So Muslims have a unique challenge. Basically, what moderate Muslims have to do is find some way to repudiate the doctrine of martyrdom and jihad. That is the deal-breaker lurking at the heart of Islam, and you never hear it addressed. You never hear it discussed by the apologists for Islam, who say that Islam is a religion of peace and does not counsel aggression. You never hear martyrdom and jihad disavowed, and that’s really a problem, because that is the metaphysics that underlies the violence. In the current state of Islam, you see societies luxuriating in theological notions that have taken the sting out of death. You see a kind of celebration of death, and a seeking of it beyond all bounds of rationality.
I’m talking here about Muslims who really do believe the letter of their religious doctrine. I’m not sure what percentage of the Muslim world that is, but we have every reason to believe that that’s far more Muslims than any of us would be comfortable with.
Melvin McLeod: Aren’t there also Christian beliefs, such as those revolving around the Second Coming and the Rapture, which are also in some sense a celebration of death?
Sam Harris: Oh, there are. People who believe those things just have a slightly different emphasis. One is that they don’t have a militant plan like the Muslim notion of jihad. Christians are not regularly inspired to take up arms and sacrifice themselves in this life. There’s just enough in Christianity to confound that project. It’s not that we can’t have that—we certainly can have it—but Christianity is not as seamless a story about the necessity of defending the faith by force of arms.
Melvin McLeod: It’s important to note that although you have been celebrated in some quarters for your critique of Islam, you are also highly critical of literalism in Christianity and other religions.
Sam Harris: We seem to have made a retrograde step in this last presidential election, when religion really did decide things, given that there was no greater predictor of how you would vote than frequency of church attendance. We are in a situation where we have to win a war of ideas with ourselves. Twenty-two percent of Americans claim to be certain, literally certain, that Jesus will return to Earth sometime in the next fifty years, and another twenty-two percent believe that he probably will return in the next fifty years. This totals forty-four percent of the electorate. And the shocking thing from a moral perspective is that this forty-four percent—over a hundred million people in the United States—gleefully anticipate this end-of-the-world scenario. These are people who will see a silver lining in the mushroom cloud that erases Jerusalem, should a nuclear war ever occur in the Middle East. So we are ill-suited to demand that the Muslim world put its house in order in terms of its rationality.
Melvin McLeod: Turning from the literal back to the essential, what is the relationship between religion, as you define it, and spirituality or mysticism? Mysticism is usually treated as part of the religious discourse, and its insights are seen as being at the core of these religions.
Sam Harris: There is certainly some of that. There were original mystical insights that seeded our various religions and then became diluted and conflated with superstition and prejudice and Iron Age philosophy. Many of the progenitors of our religious traditions had insights that even in the twenty-first century we acknowledge as valid insights into the nature of human subjectivity and into the highest reaches of positive psychology.
But I have to point out, in the spirit of noticing the differences among our religions, that there’s no reason to think that all of these insights are equivalent, that Mohammed and Jesus and Buddha were experiencing exactly the same thing, or experiencing it equally deeply. And they certainly weren’t communicating about it equally well. It’s important for us to be critical in judging the mystical products of our religious traditions.
It is a fact that human beings have, for millennia, had certain mystical insights, and these insights have really had no other vehicle except religion. But that was true of everything at one point. If you roll back the clock long enough, our religious tradition was the vehicle of our science and our history and our geography. It was the only game in town. The evolution of culture has been a story of the diversification of those various specialties. The knowledge-bearing specialties have been refined to the point where they don’t require that degree of credulity and dogmatism. What I’m arguing is that mysticism, spirituality and ethics need to be ceded to rational culture. They need to be dignified as subjects by being approached in the spirit of science. This would be a kind of a first-person science, where people could be very rigorous about the claims they’re making about the nature of the human mind and the possibilities of human happiness.
There’s no reason that we need to keep this discourse in the womb of our religious traditions. One analogy would be medicine. There was a time when the good doctors of the church were in a position to weigh in on what ailed people physically. People were diagnosed with the evil eye and demonic possession and other theological problems, and the doctors of the church offered cures for these problems. Then, science got around to understanding the mechanisms by which we get sick and now you don’t often hear the diagnosis of evil eye or demonic possession. Basically, science now has a monopoly on medicine, and ultimately I think science—and this would have to include a first-person approach to science as opposed to just third-person—will have a monopoly on positive human psychology.
Melvin McLeod: In your book, it seems to me you propose three criteria by which the mystical or spiritual path meets the needs of humanity: it addresses our desire to progress toward a condition of happiness, it offers an ethical basis that is not dangerous to humanity, and it is demonstrable by reason and requires no unfounded beliefs.
Sam Harris: What I’m calling mysticism or spirituality is limited to a subset of methods and experiences. I’m not emphasizing ecstatic states and the iconography and beliefs that have tried to make sense of those states over the millennia. I’m really going after this core insight—which I believe is best expressed in certain teachings within Buddhism—into the illusory nature of the self, the ego. There really is a link between the transcendence of the feeling we call “I” and positive states of mind, which have real social implications. That’s where ethics and spirituality converge—on this question of the self. What is it? Is it an illusion? Is it necessary?
Melvin McLeod: The difficult part, of course, is that this path does not offer us the savior or escape from death for which we long.
Sam Harris: We certainly have to be willing to live without the false conviction of a savior, because nobody’s really living with a savior. We’re talking about the contents of almost seven billion human minds all deeply disposed to hope that the future will be better than the present. What I’m arguing is that as a culture we need to develop a discourse where these good things we think we’re getting out of our religious fantasies can be gotten without maintaining the moral divisions our religions have set up in the world. This status quo where our separate religions are all pitted against one another has to be overcome, and I don’t see any way of doing it other than by disavowing this preposterous notion that God has given us certain books.
Melvin McLeod: Still, we must address our need for a path to human happiness, which religion promises, in this life or the next.
Sam Harris: Yes. But if we do not kill ourselves, if we can continue the conversation long enough, we will understand human happiness, spiritual states and ethics in great detail. Hopefully, that area of discourse will be so compelling that no one will be tempted to think that belief in a creator God is really the best game in town.
But the question is, can we get there? There are reasons not to be very hopeful about that. It’s really hard work to apply these methods introspectively, such that you are in a position to really see yourself differently. The problem is that scientists, while they are fantastically well-trained in the methods of science, are average men or women when it comes to recognizing the spiritual possibilities of the present moment. They are just as confounded by their thoughts as anyone else, and to some degree even more so, because thought really is the tool of their trade.
So it’s not a trivial problem to create a community of scientifically trained yogis. To some degree, the discourse of science is hostile to that project, and we will need such a community to do its work for fifty or so years before we break the spell that has kept us talking about mysticism in exclusively religious terms.
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