Sam Harris is a brave man. In a country where 90 percent of adults say they believe in God, he has written a bestseller condemning religion. The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (Norton) has won numerous awards for its meticulous and far-reaching arguments against the irrationality of religious belief. Harris has also drawn criticism from all sides, endearing himself to neither religious moderates nor fundamentalists, and even irritating atheists. His latest book, Letter to a Christian Nation (to be published this month by Knopf), is a bold attack on the heart of Christian belief. Clearly, this is someone who is not afraid to speak his mind.
As a teenager in the eighties, Harris became fascinated with Buddhism and Hinduism, and he made several trips to India and Nepal, where he participated in many silent meditation retreats. He later studied philosophy at Stanford University and came to see the more dogmatic teachings of both faiths as, in his word, “nonsense.” He’s currently completing his doctorate in neuroscience, researching what happens in the brain when we experience belief, disbelief, and uncertainty.
Harris began writing his first book almost immediately after the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. He was dismayed by how quickly public discussion turned from pointing the finger at Islamic fundamentalism to calling for religious tolerance. As he saw it, 9/11 should have exposed the dangerous irrationality of religious belief, but instead it pushed the United States even deeper into its own religiosity. And so he began work on The End of Faith, whose central tenet is that religion — and religious tolerance — perpetuates and protects unjustifiable (not to mention just plain silly) beliefs. In an age of nuclear proliferation and jihad, Harris says, religion paves the way for violent destruction on a terrifying scale.
Harris goes after religious belief with a mixture of humor and deadly seriousness. “Tell a devout Christian that his wife is cheating on him,” he writes, “or that frozen yogurt can make a man invisible, and he is likely to require as much evidence as anyone else, and to be persuaded only to the extent that you give it. Tell him that the book he keeps by his bed was written by an invisible deity who will punish him with fire for eternity if he fails to accept its every incredible claim about the universe, and he seems to require no evidence whatsoever.” Unlike some atheists who cast clever barbs at all spirituality, Harris sees value in what he calls the “contemplative experience” and views his own Buddhist-inspired meditation practice as an evidence-based, rational enterprise.
Since the publication of The End of Faith, Harris has appeared in the documentary The God Who Wasn’t There, as well as on various cable-television programs, including The O’Reilly Factor on FOX News and Comedy Central’s news-lampoon show The Colbert Report. Though busy working on his new book, Harris made time to talk to me twice. He was charming and witty — joking, when I talked to him the second time, that he had converted to Islam since we’d last spoken — but also tough. His arguments are tight and well rehearsed, and, like a politician, he can stay “on point” and turn a question on its head. I sometimes found it frustrating to discuss life’s deepest mysteries in scientific terms. As one respondent wrote on Harris’s website (www.samharris.org): “As far as trying to rationally prove that God exists, I don’t even try. . . . So how do I know God exists? . . . I FEEL him.” This is the kind of faith Harris would like to see the end of.
Saltman: Do you think religious identity is always destructive?
Harris: Yes, insofar as people believe that such identities matter. Sure, we can all point to people who call themselves Christians or Muslims or Jews but who don’t really take their religion seriously. Obviously I’m not lying awake at night worrying about these people. But where people think there is a profound difference between being a Christian, a Muslim, or a Jew, I think those identities are intrinsically divisive. Devout Muslims generally think that the Christians are all going to hell, and devout Christians return the favor. And the difference between going to hell and going to heaven for eternity really raises the stakes in their disagreements with one another.
Saltman: How is religious identity different from ethnic or national or racial identity?
Harris: I think it’s similar in the sense that they are tribal identities of a sort, and it’s across these tribal lines that human conflicts tend to occur. The problem with religion is that it is the only type of us/them thinking in which we posit a transcendental difference between the in-group and the out-group. So the difference between yourself and your neighbor is not just the color of your skin or your political affiliation. It’s that your neighbor believes something that is so metaphysically incorrect, he’s going to spend eternity in hell for it. And if he convinces your children that his beliefs are valid, your children will spend eternity in hell. Muslim parents are genuinely concerned that their children’s faith is going to be eroded, either by the materialism and secularism of the West, or by Christianity. And, obviously, our own fundamentalist communities in the West are similarly concerned. So if you really believe that it matters what name you call God, religion provides far more significant reasons for you to fear and despise your neighbor.
Saltman: What about someone who, say, identifies as Jewish and wants to preserve that tradition, but isn’t really worried about what other religions are doing?
Harris: Well, that’s easier in Judaism than in most religions, because Judaism does not tend to be particularly concerned about what happens after death and focuses more on living well in this life. It also tends to be more of a cultural identity than a faith-based one. That said, the extreme forms of Judaism are quite divisive. There are, I’m sure, Orthodox Jews who are waiting for the Temple to be rebuilt in Jerusalem, and once that happens, they’ll be eager to live out of the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy and kill people for adultery or for working on the Sabbath — because that is what those books say you should do.
Saltman: Isn’t religion a natural outgrowth of human nature?
Harris: It almost certainly is. But everything we do is a natural outgrowth of human nature. Genocide is. Rape is. No one would ever think of arguing that this makes genocide or rape a necessary feature of a civilized society. Even if you had a detailed story about the essential purpose religion has served for the past fifty thousand years, even if you could prove that humanity would not have survived without believing in a creator God, that would not mean that it’s a good idea to believe in a creator God now, in a twenty-first-century world that has been shattered into separate moral communities on the basis of religious ideas.
Traditionally, religion has been the receptacle of some good and ennobling features of our psychology. It’s the arena in which people talk about contemplative experience and ethics. And I do think contemplative experience and ethics are absolutely essential to human happiness. I just think we now have to speak about them without endorsing any divisive mythology.
Saltman: Your analogy between organized religion and rape is pretty inflammatory. Is that intentional?
Harris: I can be even more inflammatory than that. If I could wave a magic wand and get rid of either rape or religion, I would not hesitate to get rid of religion. I think more people are dying as a result of our religious myths than as a result of any other ideology. I would not say that all human conflict is born of religion or religious differences, but for the human community to be fractured on the basis of religious doctrines that are fundamentally incompatible, in an age when nuclear weapons are proliferating, is a terrifying scenario. I think we do the world a disservice when we suggest that religions are generally benign and not fundamentally divisive.
Saltman: I’ve interviewed a lot of born-again Christians. Many of them said they were praying for me because they were convinced I’m going to hell, since I’m not a “believer.” Sometimes this irritated me, but I never felt that I was in real danger.
Harris: Even Christian fundamentalists have learned, by and large, to ignore the most barbaric passages in the Bible. They’re not, presumably, eager to see people burned alive for heresy. A few centuries of science, modernity, and secular politics have moderated even the religious extremists among us. But there are a few exceptions to this. There are the Dominionist Christians, for example, who actually do think homosexuals and adulterers should be put to death. But the people going to a megachurch in Orange County, California, are not calling for this.
They are, however, quite sanguine about human suffering. Their opposition to stem-cell research, for instance, is prolonging the misery of tens of millions of people at this moment. Michael Specter wrote an article in the New Yorker titled “Political Science” about how the Christian Right is distorting the government’s relationship to science. One example is that we now have a vaccine for the sexually transmitted human papillomavirus, which causes cervical cancer, of which five thousand women die every year in the United States. The vaccine, which can be given to girls at age eleven or twelve, is safe and effective. Yet evangelical Christians at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — political appointees — have argued that we should not use this vaccine, because it will remove one of the natural deterrents to premarital sex. Reginald Finger, who’s on the immunization advisory committee of the CDC, has said that even if we had a vaccine against HIV, he would have to think long and hard about whether to use it, because it might encourage premarital sex.
Now, these people are not evil. They’re just concerned about the wrong things, because they have imbibed these unjustifiable religious taboos. There is no question, however, that these false concerns add to the world’s misery.
Saltman: If we were to eliminate religious identity, wouldn’t something else take its place?
Harris: Not necessarily. Look at what’s going on in Western Europe: some societies there are successfully undoing their commitment to religious identity, and I don’t think it is being replaced by anything. Sweden, Denmark, Canada, Australia, and Japan are all developed societies with a high level of atheism, and the religion they do have is not the populist, fundamentalist, shrill version we have in the U.S. So secularism is achievable.
I think the human urge to identify with a subset of the population is something that we should be skeptical of in all its forms. Nationalism and tribal affiliations are divisive, too, and therefore dangerous. Even being a Red Sox fan or a Yankees fan has its liabilities, if pushed too far.
Saltman: You mentioned Canada. I have good friends in Canada who are practicing Buddhists and have lived for several years in a monastery. They have a difficult time, because Canadians are extremely suspicious of any religious activity. Everybody thinks they’re fundamentalists.
Harris: To some degree your friends are casualties of the fact that we have not learned to talk about the contemplative life in terms that do not endorse a particular religious ideology. If you go into a cave for a year to meditate, you are, by definition, a religious extremist. You have to be able to explain how you are different from Osama bin Laden in his cave.
Saltman: Are you a Buddhist practitioner?
Harris: I’m a practitioner, but I don’t really think of myself as a Buddhist. Buddhism can be distinguished from other religions because it’s nontheistic. But I think Buddhists have to get out of the religion business altogether and talk about what the human mind is like, what the potential for human happiness is, and what are some reasonable approaches to seeking happiness in this world.
Saltman: How did you come to Buddhist practice?
Harris: I came to it initially through a few drug experiences. I had a brief psychedelic phase around twenty years ago that convinced me, if nothing else, that it was possible to have a very different experience of the world. I began reading about mysticism and contemplative experience, and it led me to Buddhist practice — Dzogchen practice, in particular.
If I could wave a magic wand and get rid of either rape or religion, I would not hesitate to get rid of religion. I think more people are dying as a result of our religious myths than as a result of any other ideology.
Saltman: So you see Buddhist meditation not as a religious practice, but as something that can yield results.
Harris: Clearly, there are results to any religious practice. A Christian might say, “If you pray to Jesus, you’ll notice a change in your life.” And I don’t dispute that. The crucial distinction between the teachings of Buddhism and the teachings of Western religions is that with Buddhism, you don’t have to believe anything on faith to get the process started. If you want to learn Buddhist meditation, I could tell you how to do it, and at no point would you have to believe in God or an afterlife. Whereas if you’re going to be a Christian and worship Jesus to the exclusion of every other historical prophet, you have to accept that he was the Son of God, born of a virgin, and so on. And I would argue that those beliefs are unjustifiable, no matter what the results of Christian practice are. The fact that you prayed to Jesus and your life was completely transformed is not evidence of the divinity of Jesus, nor of the fact that he was born of a virgin, because there are Hindus and Buddhists having precisely the same experience, and they never think about Jesus.
Saltman: Do Buddhists have a better chance of transforming their lives?
Harris: I wouldn’t say that, but they have a better chance of talking reasonably about the capacity of the human mind to experience transcendent states, and about the relationship between introspection and such states of mind. The Buddhist discourse on the value of introspection is much more reasonable and evidence-based and unconstrained by dogma. If you become a Catholic and spend eighteen hours a day praying, you’re going to experience a radical transformation in consciousness and maybe become an extraordinarily compassionate person. But when it comes time to talk about why that’s happening, you’re likely going to speak in terms of mythology.
Saltman: But even Buddhists believe some tenets on faith.
Harris: Right. They believe in rebirth, for example. Some believe that this Dalai Lama was the Dalai Lama in a previous life. The distinction is that you can be a practicing Buddhist, who recognizes all the core truths that the Buddha spoke of, without ever believing in the lineage of the Dalai Lama, whereas you cannot be a Christian if you’re not convinced of the core dogmas of Christianity.
Saltman: Would you identify yourself as an atheist?
Harris: Well, I’m not eager to do that. For one thing, atheists have a massive public-relations problem in the United States. Second, atheists as a group are generally not interested in the contemplative life and disavow anything profound that might be realized by meditation or some other deliberate act of introspection. Third, I just think it’s an unnecessary term. We don’t have names for someone who doesn’t believe in astrology or alchemy. I don’t think not believing in God should brand someone with a new identity. I think we need to speak only about reason and common sense and compassion.
Saltman: Atheism doesn’t always go hand in hand with reason and compassion. Look at the destruction and violence caused by atheist ideology in China and the old Soviet Union.
Harris: What I’m really arguing against is dogma, and those communist systems of belief were every bit as dogmatic as religious systems. In fact, I’d call them “political religions.” But no culture in human history ever suffered because its people became too reasonable or too desirous of having evidence in defense of their core beliefs. Whenever people start committing genocide or hurling women and children into mass graves, I think it’s worth asking what they believe about the universe. My reading of history suggests that they always believe something that’s obviously indefensible and dogmatic.
Saltman: Do you think that there is such a thing as a peaceful religion?
Harris: Oh, sure. Jainism is the best example that I know of. It emerged in India at more or less the same time as Buddhism. Nonviolence is its core doctrine. Jain “extremists” wear masks in order to avoid breathing in any living thing. To be a practicing Jain, you have to be a vegetarian and a pacifist. So the more “deranged” and dogmatic a Jain becomes, the less likely he or she is to harm living beings.
Jains probably believe certain things on insufficient evidence, and that’s not a good idea, in my opinion. I can even imagine a scenario in which Jain dogma could get people killed: I don’t actually know what Jains say on this subject, but let’s say they became unwilling to kill even bacteria and forbade the use of antibiotics.
Saltman: They’d probably want to overturn Roe v. Wade.
Harris: Probably. But the point is, we’re not likely to be in a situation where Jains start to endanger people’s lives and rights, because they’re so peaceful.
If you become a Catholic and spend eighteen hours a day praying, you’re going to experience a radical transformation in consciousness. . . . But when it comes time to talk about why that’s happening, you’re likely going to speak in terms of mythology.
Saltman: In evangelical circles I hear a lot of tirades against “moral relativism” — the idea that right and wrong can vary depending on the culture or time period or situation. Liberals and secular humanists all get accused of moral relativism. You are opposed to moral relativism. Do you feel as if that places you, on some level, in the same camp as the born-agains?
Harris: No, I don’t think I’m in the same camp with them at all. They have a great fear that unless we believe the Bible was written by the creator of the universe, we have no real reason to treat one another well, and I think there’s no evidence for that whatsoever. It’s just fundamentally untrue that people who do not believe in God are more prone to violent crime, for instance. The evidence, if anything, runs the other way. If you look at where we have the most violent crime and the most theft in the United States, it’s not in the secular-leaning blue states. It’s in the red states, with all their religiosity. In fact, three of the five most dangerous cities in the United States are in Texas.
Now, I’m not saying that we can look at this data and say, “Religion causes violence.” But you can look at this data and say that high levels of religious affiliation don’t guarantee that people are going to behave well. Likewise if you look at UN rankings of societies in terms of development — which includes levels of violent crime, infant mortality, and literacy — the most atheistic societies on the planet rank the highest: Sweden, the Netherlands, Denmark. So there is no evidence that a strong commitment to the literal truth of one’s religious doctrine is a good indicator of societal health or morality.
I think it’s easy to come up with other bases for morality that are objective and not relativistic. Buddhism certainly has one. The proposition in Buddhism is that it matters how you behave and what kinds of intentions you form in your relationships to other human beings, because these things affect your mind, and your mind is the true locus of your happiness or suffering. If you’re interested in being as happy as possible, you will be interested in overcoming your fear and hatred of other human beings and maximizing your love and compassion. This is not a relativistic picture.
Saltman: You talk quite a bit in your book about how tolerance is part of the problem: that we feel we’re supposed to be tolerant of other people’s religions; we’re supposed to step back and allow them to have their own beliefs. But if we’re not tolerant, I’m not sure how we should express our intolerance.
Harris: How do we express it with respect to people who believe Elvis Presley is alive?
Saltman: We laugh it off.
Harris: No, we’re worse than that. I mean, if someone applies for a job that involves significant responsibility, and in the process he or she expresses absolute certainty that Elvis is still alive, I would hope that person wouldn’t be hired. The belief that Elvis is alive is clearly incompatible with a reasonable evaluation of the evidence.
Saltman: So we should express our intolerance of religious believers by not allowing them into positions of power?
Harris: Well, yes. The belief that Jesus is going to come down out of the clouds like a superhero sometime in the next fifty years and save us — which 44 percent of the American population apparently believes — is every bit as specious as the belief that Elvis is still alive. A radical change in our discourse is called for. The problem is, there are so many people who subscribe to the Christian belief that it’s difficult to act reasonably in response to it. Ultimately, being a Christian should be like believing in Zeus. But right now there is a relevant difference between believing in the divinity of Jesus and believing in Zeus, because the first belief has so many adherents, and because there is such cultural support for the idea. The real liability of religion is that it allows perfectly sane people to believe en masse what only a lunatic would believe on his or her own.
We have to recognize that there are behavioral consequences to certain beliefs — that certain beliefs are indefensible intellectually and have moral consequences that we should find intolerable. Religion allows otherwise intelligent, moral people to endorse positions that are unintelligent and immoral.
Saltman: You use words like unintelligent very freely.
Harris: I’m not saying Christians are unintelligent. It’s possible to be very intelligent and believe that Jesus is going to come back. I just got an e-mail from a biomedical physicist who, at a conference, was the only atheist in a room of five physicists, all talking about the literal truth of Scripture. This happens because religion appears to be the only game in town when it comes time to talk about spiritual experience, ecstasy, devotion, the reality of death, or the meaning of life. We need other ways of talking about these subjects.
Saltman: I’m just surprised that you can so freely make the observation “This is unintelligent.” It feels more mysterious to me.
Harris: Well, I know what it’s like to experience religious ecstasy, and I know how tempting it is to interpret that feeling in light of a given metaphysical doctrine. If you go to a church and sing the hymns and start to feel blissful and ecstatic, you might take this, in a very naive way, as confirmation that Jesus is the Son of God. In my own life, I have interpreted it in more of an Eastern context. But any Christian feeling the way I have felt at meditation retreats will be certain that God’s grace is hitting him full in the face. It will seem to confirm his religious beliefs. That Christian needs to realize that whatever he’s experiencing in that moment has also been experienced by Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, and so on.
Saltman: So you’re saying all religious experiences are the same?
Harris: No, I’m saying that there’s a deeper truth to human experience, and people are interpreting that truth in light of the beliefs to which they subscribe and drawing a false conclusion. Here’s an analogy: If you give LSD to five people from five different religions, they will each interpret the experience in light of their cultural and religious tradition. And yet the real truth is they all just dropped acid together, and acid has a certain effect upon the brain.
Saltman: You seem very confident of your own experience, of what you see.
Harris: But I’m also certain that my experience is a tissue of cognitive errors and partial viewings of the universe. It’s not as if I were saying that our subjective experience is somehow delivering us an open channel to the truth of the universe.
Whenever people start committing genocide or hurling women and children into mass graves, I think it’s worth asking what they believe about the universe. My reading of history suggests that they always believe something that’s obviously indefensible and dogmatic.
Saltman: In your book, you write, “I believe there is an oak in my yard, because I can see it.” Does belief always come down to a matter of evidence? When people say that they have seen God, I look for the evidence in their behavior. When they say that they’re in love, I look for the evidence in the way they treat the people they say they love.
Harris: In many areas of our lives, scientific rigor would be hard to achieve. We don’t feel as if we’re talking nonsense when we say a man loves his wife, but if you want to sit down and scientifically prove that he loves his wife, then you have set yourself a real challenge. Love has different components. It has a behavioral component. It has a subjective emotional component. And those components can be independent of one another. It’s quite possible to feel love for someone but not be able to show it. And it’s possible to act loving and yet not really feel much love for the person you’re treating well. Then there’s the Buddhist concept of “lovingkindness,” which is not the same as what most people in the West mean by “love.” From the Buddhist point of view, romantic love has a lot of craving and attachment in it, and may not have much lovingkindness.
Nevertheless, we know what we mean by “love,” and to some degree we can come to an agreement about what it is. If we try to talk about it rigorously, there are some interesting and even controversial discoveries to be made. For instance, if we could isolate the brain locus of the emotion of love, and we could affect it by mechanical or pharmacological means, then we might have some interesting philosophical questions to answer. For example, if a love drug can just dial up the feeling of love, does that mean that you can be made to love someone?
People like to say that love is fundamentally not a matter of reason, but I think that’s just a false way of partitioning the discourse. There’s nothing irrational about valuing the experience of love. You don’t have to believe anything on insufficient evidence in order to fall in love with other human beings and to value that experience.
Saltman: Getting back to religion: what about liturgy? You could rationally say that liturgy helps people. Shouldn’t we value it?
Harris: I think there’s a power to ritual that is not understood in scientific terms, and we should want to understand it. If ritual is doing something for us psychologically and culturally that cannot be done by anything else, then we shouldn’t lose it. I think we would be much poorer for the absence of ritual. We need rituals for all those moments in our lives that we want to mark as having special significance, such as births, deaths, weddings. The problem is that, at the moment, we have only religious language for these occasions. What we need are secular rituals.
This is an idea that has been bouncing around among scientists: that we need a kind of scientific liturgy. It’s not as if, looking out into this universe billions of light-years across, you can’t find anything amazing to say about reality. It’s actually far more amazing than the God of the Bible stalking the deserts of the Middle East, demanding burnt offerings. So we need a language that expresses a reasonable awe at the nature of the cosmos and our existence in it. And we need to make this language emotionally moving for people. I think it would be thrilling if we had a temple of reason that presented through ritual our growing scientific understanding of ourselves in the cosmos. Surely we could think of profound, uplifting, scientific things to say at the occasion of somebody’s death. It’s not as if, once you divest yourself of your religious myths, you’re left with an excruciatingly boring, trimmed-down sense of confinement. In fact, it’s the religions that are excruciatingly boring and confining. The scientific truth, so far as we understand it, is magical and open-ended and thrilling. It just takes a little more work to understand it.
Saltman: It seems to me that people do have secular rituals, or “spiritual but not religious” ones. And I always find them kind of sad, to tell the truth. Divorced from long-standing traditions, ritual feels a little empty.
Harris: I agree that we haven’t brought it off. I absolutely hate it when someone trots out a Hindu chant in English rather than Sanskrit. It has a kind of incantational value in the original language, but when you sing it in English, it just sounds goofy. This was probably a problem in Catholicism when the Latin Mass gave way to the vernacular. It loses something.
It really is a question of art, ultimately. We’re talking about what kind of art is going to be most pleasing and uplifting. It’s not merely an exercise of rationality to create such art, but there’s nothing inherently irrational about it.
Saltman: Do you believe there are aspects of life that will never be explained by science?
Harris: I think there’s a confusion about what it means to explain anything, and what is lost when things are explained. For instance, I have no doubt that one day we will understand love as a function of the brain — which is to say, we will have “explained” love. But there’s no reason to think that this will diminish the experience of love, any more than understanding the chemical composition of chocolate makes me want to eat less of it. There’s no conflict between a full understanding of the world and our seeking those experiences that we find most pleasurable or most life-affirming. It may be possible that a scientific understanding of love will allow us to find more love or feel more loving. But even if it doesn’t give us any new options, it seems to me that there’s never any argument against understanding phenomena at the scientific level, too.
Saltman: But there are mysteries that it seems we will never unravel through research and experiment. We can have all the evidence and all the understanding in the world and still be suffering.
Harris: Well, from a first-person, subjective point of view, it’s all mystery. Look at your hand. Look at the sky. Look at any object and ask yourself, “What is it, actually?” I can tell you about the neurology of how you move your hand. But the fact that you can move your hand is irreducibly mysterious. And that’s something that you can be in contact with from moment to moment, when you cease to think so much and just pay attention. But that wonder you feel is not in conflict with an understanding of the cause-and-effect relationships in the universe.
What you seem to be getting at is that maybe there are circumstances in which not understanding what’s going on helps more than understanding. The person who thinks Jesus was really the Son of God may be happier in certain circumstances than the person who understands that Jesus was probably just an ordinary man. It may be that in such cases, being absolutely certain of a dogma delivers more happiness than being rational. But I think the liabilities of having a world that is shattered by competing religious beliefs are much graver than any of the possible benefits of religious certainties.
Saltman: Will science replace religion?
Harris: I think so. I view religion as a failed science, insofar as it makes false claims about the world. Obviously there’s also the ritual aspect of religion, and the architecture, and the community, and the music, and the art. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But when religion makes claims about the way the world is, it is on a collision course with science. These claims often conflict with the mountains of evidence to the contrary that science is continually producing. So at that level, whenever you claim something to be true on the basis of religious dogma, you are trespassing on the terrain of science and actually impeding its progress. And whenever science comes up with a good reason to believe or disbelieve something, it has eroded some of the ground on which religion seeks to stand. Science suggests that life has been evolving for billions of years, and we are descended from species that were not themselves human. This completely closes the book, or should, on the biblical story of Genesis. So if people are attached to their religious ideas, they have to resist science.
Saltman: You obviously approve of Buddhist teachings. As a Buddhist, I don’t know how one would pass on those teachings without the religion. When the religion is taken out of it, people kind of borrow a little of this and a little of that, and before you know it, nobody is practicing Buddhism anymore.
Harris: Well, that is a liability. But nobody is really practicing Buddhism in Buddhism, either.
Saltman: What do you mean?
Harris: I mean the same people who fail to become enlightened picking and choosing their practices would probably fail to become enlightened living in a monastery. If the goal is to transcend your identification with discursive thought and live in an immediate and undeluded awareness of the present moment, few people do that in any sort of ongoing way. And there are many people going to heroic extremes to try to achieve that awareness. It’s just damn hard to do, even in the most dogmatic circumstances.
It seems to me we can talk rationally about what the process of enlightenment is, and why it occurs in one context and not in another, without believing anything preposterous — and certainly without endorsing the dogmatic side of Buddhism. You could have retreat centers teach meditation methods that are completely in harmony with our twenty-first-century understanding of the universe, and leave out the story that Guru Rinpoche was born from a lotus.
Saltman: You mean, you could drop the sutras, drop the Buddhist teachings.
Harris: Well, you can drop the part that doesn’t make any sense. And I admit that few of us are in a perfect position to talk about what ultimately makes sense. I have a fair amount of experience in meditation and have read a lot of books on Buddhism, so I fancy myself a pretty well-educated consumer of spiritual ideas, but I would be the first to say that I am not in a position to authenticate the reasonableness of every spiritual doctrine.
Saltman: Isn’t that why we have tradition: to authenticate the doctrines that work best?
Harris: The traditions are not particularly good, either, because they are perpetuated by people who are not really in a better position than we are to talk about the veracity of certain spiritual ideas. In fact, many of them are in a worse position, because they’ve been sheltered from any real conversation with other spiritual traditions and with science. There are great lamas who don’t know a thing about physics, or biology, or anything else that you should know in order to talk about the cosmos. They may be great meditators, but their understanding of the world is extremely narrow, by our standards, and we shouldn’t make a fetish of that kind of narrowness.
Now, maybe without believing the whole metaphysical package of Buddhism, you’re never really going to become enlightened. Maybe it’s a cosmic placebo effect. You have to be deceived somehow by the dogma. There may be something about believing in an afterlife that motivates people to make extreme commitments to the contemplative life. People who go into caves for decades at a stretch are no doubt motivated by a desire to avoid the torments of an infinity of future lives.
But it seems to me that you can’t believe something simply because the belief motivates you, or gives your life meaning, or makes you feel good, or consoles you. It’s crazy to believe something just because it makes you feel good. You have to believe it because you think it’s true. The utility of a belief is secondary.
There are good people whose hearts are, for the most part, in the right place, and they are making decisions based on religious dogma that are getting lots of people killed.
Saltman: Haven’t Buddhists been discussing what “makes sense” in Buddhism all along? Don’t all faiths do this? And isn’t it our disagreements about what makes sense that have, as you put it, shattered our world into separate moral communities? How is the conversation that you are trying to have different from the conversation that’s come down to us through the ages?
Harris: Well, for most of the last two thousand years, we have been provincial for reasons of language and geography. Now we are interconnected. All of the religious literature of the world has been translated. It’s all in plain view. And it seems to me we don’t have the same right to our religious provincialism that our ancestors had two hundred years ago, when people on different continents didn’t encounter each other much. Now we’re in a very different period in human history, when our beliefs about the universe transcend any local culture. Say you grew up in Connecticut. It would be crazy to think that there’s something about the history of Connecticut that better equips you to understand the universe than a Tibetan, or an Iraqi, or anyone else. We have to talk about the human endeavor in terms that are not encumbered by the particulars of any one location’s history. Science is clearly the prime example of a discourse that transcends culture and locality. There is no such thing as Japanese science, or Buddhist science. There’s just science.
Saltman: You’re saying that in-group/out-group thinking creates a lot of violence in the world. But even in talking about that, haven’t you created an in-group and an out-group? You’re saying, in effect, that people who believe in Christian dogma are crazy, and people who don’t are sane.
Harris: There is a point at which certain religious beliefs become intolerable. If the root problem were intolerance, then the solution would be to be more and more tolerant of everything. And I think that would ultimately be quite dangerous, because there are some views that are just so obnoxious and maladaptive they have to be resisted at all costs. There are people whose beliefs pose an unconscionable liability for all of us: people who aspire to martyrdom and demonize the entire human race apart from the narrow few who accept their religious propositions. With them, we’re past the point at which tolerance is appropriate.
Saltman: But it’s going to be impossible to get those people to drop their religious affiliation. Shouldn’t we be trying to make them more tolerant?
Harris: Yes, we should. I’d be the first to admit that religious moderates are better than fundamentalists in general. In the Muslim world, for example, what we need are more moderate Muslims. Fundamentalists are not going to leap to being reasonable, secular, and atheistic. I think we need to do whatever we can to empower the moderates of the Muslim world, people who, whatever they believe about God, are willing to say that our governments should be organized around secular values.
Saltman: Even if we were all atheists, we would still have to be tolerant. We would find other things to fight over.
Harris: Definitely, but I hope we’d be able to talk out our conflicts. The problem with religion is that it is the one front upon which we inevitably stop talking to one another and are not willing to have our beliefs about the world revised through conversation. You put a fundamentalist Christian and a fundamentalist Muslim in a room together to talk about food or art, they can maybe find common ground or at least agree to disagree. But if the conversation turns to the divinity of Jesus, they will plunge into their incompatible religious certainties. And that is now manifestly dangerous. Discourse breaks down on the subject of God, because this is the nature of dogma: it’s the thing you’re certain about but refuse to talk about, because your certainty is ill-founded.
Saltman: You have mentioned religious hatred and fear as a source of much of the world’s conflict. Do you fear believers?
Harris: I fear that our religious beliefs — even ones that on their face seem benign — can, when the circumstances are right, cause people to do terrible things. There are good people whose hearts are, for the most part, in the right place, and they are making decisions based on religious dogma that are getting lots of people killed.
Saltman: How do you work with your own fear, so that it doesn’t turn into the kind of fear that’s creating all of this division?
Harris: That’s just the moment-to-moment practice of noticing when you’re out of balance, and releasing that feeling, ceasing to recoil from other human beings, or from the circumstances. That’s what, at one level, meditation is: noticing suffering and letting go of it. And to the degree that you can do that, you can cease to be motivated by your anxieties, your fear, your anger, and so on. But obviously I’m a work in progress.
And it’s not as if the enlightened mind were always this pacifistic, smiling, nonconfrontational acceptance of whatever’s going on. Not all fear or all anger is unwarranted, or even counterproductive. It’s clear to me that there are certain practices in this world that we cannot accept. And that if we accept them, we’re accepting them out of idiot compassion, and not actual compassion. You can be informed about what you’re afraid of, or you can be delusionally afraid of something. We are wise to be afraid of jihadists acquiring nuclear weapons. How much we should fear this is open to debate, but there’s no question that this should concern us. It’s just a question of what the actual risk is of any specific threat coming to pass.
Saltman: Well, maybe if jihadists learned to do a little meditation . . .
Harris: But this is the irony. This is why spiritual experience alone is not enough. Because I have no doubt that these jihadists are experiencing religious ecstasy. The man who’s on his way to blow himself up at a checkpoint has put himself in a state of ecstasy based on his religious convictions. I’m sure he feels that his entire life has brought him to this moment. He’s about to have his every desire fulfilled.
Saltman: To me that sounds like spiritual greed, not ecstasy.
Harris: Well, I’ll bet when you’re in a state like that, it probably has some of the features that we recognize as spiritual experience: a kind of blissful, orgasmic, concentrated focus.
Saltman: But it certainly isn’t a realization of the unity of all things. It arises from dualism: a separation of the world into good and evil.
Harris: I agree. But you can go very far in contemplative, mystical experience without ever questioning dualism. I would argue that the entire Christian contemplative tradition never questions dualism. All Christian religious ecstasy is experienced in a context that presupposes dualism.
It’s hard to maintain a nondual awareness, and dualism is so available. People may taste nonduality for a few moments when they meditate and perceive that everything is one, but then they get up off the cushion and start thinking in dualistic terms again.
I think we have to seriously consider the possibility that someone can be happy and loving and psychologically well adjusted and be a suicide bomber. I don’t think that Osama bin Laden is mentally ill. He simply believes in the absolute rightness of his cause. You need not be a sadist or deranged to do truly malevolent things on the basis of your religious belief. All you need is delusion. And insofar as we can discern what is delusional in any system of thought, we have to criticize it, particularly when it’s politically ascendant and well armed.
Saltman: Do you think that we’re at war right now with Islam?
Harris: I think we are at war with Islamism, which is the strain of Islam that really sees no difference between religion and politics and wants to convert the entire world to a Muslim theocracy. Now, I don’t know how many Islamists there are, but even if only 5 percent of the world’s 1.4 billion Muslims think this way, it’s worth worrying about. I happen to think it’s more than 5 percent — which is to say there are probably tens of millions of people who really are as sure as they can be that Islam is going to conquer the world through armed conflict. We are at war with those people. But this battle has to be, for the most part, waged as a war of ideas. We have to find some way of inspiring a reformation within the Muslim world, so that moderate Muslims — whether through persuasion, or civil war, or crime-fighting initiatives — can subjugate the religious lunatics in their midst. Because we can’t do it by ourselves. And it’s going to be a disaster for us to keep trying to do it by ourselves, because it plays right into their notion that this is a war between the “crusader armies” and the “true believers.”
Western Europe at the moment has a real problem with Muslim radicals. Because of political correctness and multiculturalism, the Left doesn’t want to admit that the problem is with Islam itself. These countries’ liberalism has left them totally powerless to deal with extremists. They blame themselves.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a former Dutch citizen and a vocal critic of Islam — particularly its treatment of women. Her life has been threatened by Muslim extremists many times. Yet the government of the Netherlands essentially blamed her for her predicament and even called her citizenship into question. She was obliged to leave the country.
At a certain point you have to, with full conviction, put your foot down and say, “Honor killing is nonnegotiable. You crazy bastards who want to kill your daughters when they get raped are beyond the pale. This is wrong. And we’re going to stop you.” It’s just that we’ve been so browbeaten by our own historic failings and conflicts over religion that we’re squeamish about calling a spade a spade.
Liberals have made a fetish of tolerating even the most ludicrous belief systems. They think tolerance is an all-purpose solvent into which even the most obnoxious and arrogant ideas will finally dissolve. But you can tolerate Osama bin Laden all you want; he’s not going to moderate his worldview. The irony is the jihadist has nothing but contempt for the weak-kneed tolerator of all beliefs. A jihadist has much more respect for a Christian fundamentalist who says that Islam is an evil religion than for a liberal who says, “Let’s just look at this from the point of view of anthropology and agree to get along.”
Saltman: I keep thinking about the suicide bomber feeling bliss.
Harris: What I mean to say is that bliss is not enough. Bliss doesn’t prove that you’re not horribly mistaken about what is true or what is moral.
Saltman: Right, but to me that kind of bliss isn’t worth much — it’s not a real penetrating, transformative, ecstatic experience. So I’m hesitant to put it in the same category as a religious experience that can actually heal.
Harris: Maybe it’s just the context in which you feel the ecstasy that makes you do something: like detonate a bomb in a crowd of innocents. Someone in a different situation might be motivated to save a life, and to sacrifice his own life in the process, because the creator of the universe wants him to do it. It’s basically the same belief system, but he’s saving a life. If you could talk to that person in the last seconds of his life, I’ll bet he would say, “I’m completely sure of what I’m doing. I’ve never felt better. This is what life is about.”