Shambhala Sun | May 2005
Melvin McLeod interviews Sam Harris
Melvin McLeod: Looking at the historical recordóand present-day world politicsóyou argue
that literalist religion is pretty much the fount of all evil.
Sam Harris: Religion is definitely not the fount of all evil, but itís 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
peopleóreally, actually, good peopleócan 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?
Iím 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 itís 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.
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.
The stakes are enormously high now, given the spread of destructive
technology. Itís 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 thereís 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 centuriesóand the cobbling stopped more than a millennium agoóis sufficient guidance for how to live in the twenty-first century should be preposterous on its face. And the fact that weíre unable even to criticize it is really paralyzing, given the challenges we face.
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.
That is inherent to the logic of faithóthat these beliefs canít 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 donít 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 didnít get this from the Bible, despite the fact that certain people paid lip service to parts of the Bible
when we were abolishing slavery.
But many abolitionist leaders were serious and devout Christians, who opposed slavery precisely as an expression of their faith.
But the abolitionist movement was also opposed by devout Christiansówho were on firmer ground scripturally.
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?
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...
Treat your neighbor as you would be treated yourself...
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 donít 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. Itís 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 1960ís.
You are also critical of liberals and religious moderates, whose creed of tolerance you say allows irrational and dangerous beliefs to go unchallenged.
There are a few facts weíre 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. Weíre 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, weíre 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 thatís 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.
Iím talking here about Muslims who really do believe the letter of their religious doctrine. Iím not sure what percentage of the Muslim world that is, but we have every reason to believe that thatís far more Muslims than any of us would be comfortable with.
Arenít 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?
Oh, there are. People who believe those things just have a slightly
different emphasis. One is that they donít 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. Thereís just enough in Christianity to confound that project. Itís not that we canít have thatówe certainly can have itóbut Christianity is not as seamless a story about the necessity of defending the faith by force of arms.
Itís 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.
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 percentóover a hundred million people in the United Statesógleefully 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.
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.
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 thereís 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 werenít communicating about it equally well. Itís 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 donít require that degree of credulity and dogmatism. What Iím 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 theyíre making about the nature of the human mind and the possibilities of human happiness.
Thereís 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 donít often hear the diagnosis of evil eye or demonic possession. Basically, science now has a monopoly on medicine, and ultimately I think scienceóand this would have to include a first-person approach to science as opposed to just third-personówill have a monopoly on positive human psychology.
-- Without proving him right by re-asserting unproveable beliefs, how can InI honestly respond to such ideas as these?