Issue 371 | Correspondence | The Sun Magazine


Due to the unprecedented volume of mail we received about Bethany Saltman’s interview with Sam Harris [“The Temple of Reason,” September 2006], we have expanded this issue’s Correspondence section.

Bravo for Sam Harris! Finally a ray of sanity in an increasingly spiritually besotted magazine. Now if only Harris and the interviewer could wean themselves from wanting some kind of transformation or enlightenment, we could all just get on with living our lives rationally.

Richard Thieltges Helena, Montana

Thank you for Bethany Saltman’s uncompromising and exhilarating interview with Sam Harris. Religion exploits our fear of uncertainty and our visceral yearning to return to the original intimacy of the womb. It claims ownership of our finer human qualities, which then become available to us only through religion. I appreciate Harris’s efforts to point out the lunacy of religious faith.

Kathy Glaser Berkeley, California

I have become an avid reader of The Sun and cherish its focus on what is truly human. That said, I read the many stories and essays by authors with deep religious beliefs as if from afar: how quaint, how strange, and how all too human. The interview with Sam Harris was a rare point of view for The Sun — and a wonderful one.

I have never understood how the vast majority of people can outgrow belief in the tooth fairy and Santa Claus, but cannot get past their immature belief in God, life after death, and other religious impossibilities.

Though the positive aspects of religious teachings are many, history makes it readily apparent that they are far outweighed by the negatives. Without religion, people would certainly continue to commit horrible crimes toward one another, but at least they would no longer have the excuse of “God’s will” to rationalize it. That’s a start.

The universe is full of inexplicable wonders and marvels, and I envision a world where we can forgo the need to spin tall tales and dedicate our minds and energies to understanding the great mysteries that surround us.

Stan Grill Haworth, New Jersey

The interview with Sam Harris moved me. He manages to present the absurdities and dangers of religion without denying the wonders and mysteries of the world. I’ve been saying the same thing for years, but I’ve been careful not to say it to certain people. As Harris points out, religious faith is a conversation stopper. Expressing your refusal to participate in the dominant dogma can cost you friends, endanger your livelihood, and even put your personal safety at risk.

I hope that Harris’s example will help me be brave enough to speak my mind more often. Religion has created an atmosphere in which I feel afraid to tell people that I find the world around me sufficiently wonderful without it.

Terry Wyszynski Asheville, North Carolina

Like Sam Harris, I have an extreme distaste for organized religion. Religious people are fine as individuals, but when they come together as a group, almost inevitably something bad happens.

But I have a big problem with Harris’s statement that religious people should not be allowed to hold positions of power. It’s no different from saying people shouldn’t be allowed to hold powerful positions if they’re gay, or Jewish, or female, or black, or left-handed.

The problem isn’t that people are religious. The problem is that religion encourages group identity — with all the good and bad that entails.

Daniel Reid Dallas, Texas

I like Sam Harris already. He reminds me of Jesus, who also asserted that religion is part of the problem, not the solution. But unlike Jesus, Harris is so committed to safety that he is willing to forfeit the human spirit. He calls “dangerous” anything divisive: tribal identity, nationalism, even being a Red Sox fan — but especially religious identity. Who can blame him? Look at the caliber of religious thinkers who make the news today.

Though Harris is right to be wary of dogmatists and fundamentalists, he should be careful how much faith he places in science. Overconfident trust in empiricism is a religious view itself, sometimes called “scientism.”

As a hospital chaplain, I work at a busy intersection of science and religion. My patients want the comfort of both scientific knowledge and spiritual practices. I wonder: Can scientism carry the weary, suffering spirit through grief, loss, and depression? Can it encourage the fearful heart? Can it replace prayer and satisfy the soul?

Harris talks of ecstasy, euphoria, and bliss as functions of religious practice. They are not functions of mine. My tradition values religion as an inner discipline and communal support network that carries a tired soul through the hard times in between the times of euphoria — periods sometimes decades long. Can scientism do that?

“What I’m really arguing against is dogma,” Harris says. Good. So should we all. But scientism can be just as dogmatic, even fundamentalist. Harris calls for rationality, twenty-first-century science, and the demythologizing of spiritual practices. Amen. May his tribe increase! Perhaps a new school of secular Buddhism will arise in response to his clarion call. But eventually that school will have to authenticate itself through dialogue with other schools of religion, comparing notes and results. Who can say how well those new teachings will stack up?

How will the world Harris hopes for be any safer than the one we live in? He applauds some nations in Western Europe for shedding much of their religious identity, then laments that these same nations are powerless in the face of jihadist extremism. Like Harris, I am concerned about nuclear proliferation in a religiously combative age. Yet the bomb was invented by the empiricists, who are still tirelessly inventing new weapons all the time.

Rev. Ed Haynes San Antonio, Texas

I wish I could be as certain as Sam Harris about who is right or wrong, and what beliefs are good or bad. Being able to dispense with all that I find ridiculous and all those I resent sounds satisfying. People like Harris, who are so certain about their dogmas and fundamentalist about their beliefs, would be the first to go.

Chris Eggemeier Chicago, Illinois

It sounds as if Sam Harris believes certain things to be undeniably true, and that if others don’t believe these things, those people must be wrong — and if they are wrong, they must be dangerous. But is it incorrect beliefs that are dangerous, or the refusal to consider the other point of view?

Shawna Weber Chicago, Illinois

I was disappointed and distressed by the gratuitous Islam-bashing in the Sam Harris interview. Over the course of the interview we are led from muddled antireligious murmurings in general — with muted criticism of Christianity for “balance” — to hammer-blows of anti-Islamic rhetoric in particular. Islam did not invent the slaughter of innocents, suicide bombing, rape, or irrationality. Nor would exterminating every last person of the Islamic faith rid the world of those horrors. Furthermore, the most murderous regimes of the last century have been secular, scientific-minded governments.

Harris may be under the impression that science is based in “reason,” but the reality is that it is frequently irrational. In recent years science has “proven” that the white race is superior to darker races, that human activity has nothing to do with global warming, that abortion causes breast cancer, and that endangered species don’t matter.

There is something in the human psyche that requires violence in excess of the need for protection, and greed in excess of the need for food and shelter. At times, religion and science have both served to organize and justify those impulses. At other times both have been forces for moderating them.

Tom Duncan Astoria, Oregon

I disagree with Sam Harris’s statement: “Devout Muslims generally think that the Christians are all going to hell, and devout Christians return the favor.” I am a devout Roman Catholic, and it’s not Catholic belief that all non-Christians are going to hell. In fact, Roman Catholics believe that it’s possible for anyone who seeks God with a sincere heart to enter the kingdom of heaven, whether their God is Allah or Brahma or Vishnu or the Great Spirit. Harris should study Christianity a bit longer before he attacks it so vehemently.

Harris needs to study his history, too, if he thinks that “more people are dying as a result of our religious myths than as a result of any other ideology.” An astute observer of history would realize that many so-called religious conflicts are really conflicts over land, resources, national identity, and culture. This includes the troubles between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, the Arab-Israeli conflict, the violence among Sikhs, Hindus, and Muslims over the partition of India, and the U.S. war with Iraq. Just because opportunistic leaders choose to emphasize religious differences between peoples or nations in order to justify violence against “the enemy” doesn’t mean that those conflicts actually arose as a result of religious ideology.

It’s naive of Harris to believe that doing away with religion will lessen human conflict. There will always be some humans who use ideologies — secular or religious — to achieve their own selfish ends. Ultimately it is the arrogant belief in one’s superiority over others that is the biggest deterrent to lasting peace.

Mary T. Lynn Flushing, New York

I would consider myself to be educated and reasonable, and even somewhat of an expert at evaluating evidence after twenty-five years on the bench. I am also a man of faith, and although at times I am challenged by Scripture, I take my relationship with God seriously.

Sam Harris claims to be a man of reason who is committed to the scientific method, yet his ideas would fail to meet the rigors of a first-year logic class. Using exactly the same logic that he does, I can arrive at the conclusion that the greatest threat in the world today is the scientific method. With few exceptions, almost every violent death in the last two hundred years can be attributed directly to the invention of gunpowder, the motor vehicle, the airplane, or any of a myriad of other devices that provide us with new and exciting ways of killing one another. And of course science has given us massive pollution and all sorts of poisonous substances that we are encouraged to put into our bodies. Therefore, the salvation of humankind requires the elimination of all science. Sounds pretty dumb, doesn’t it?

Harris makes many sweeping generalizations: for example, all Christians are idiots, whereas there are reasonable Jews — but for the Orthodox ones — and Muslims walking about. He dismisses out of hand the existence of a being more intelligent than us, yet if he were to encounter a superefficient machine that he had never seen before, he would likely conclude it had been invented by a being with more intelligence than the machine. Human beings are clearly more complex and efficient than any machine ever invented, but Harris would conclude that we came about by some strange combination of cosmic events, a wonderful accident. And that is supposed to be reasonable. Apparently Harris has never researched the mathematical possibility of an opposable thumb happening by accident. Truly it takes faith, along with a strong dose of arrogance, to believe that we are here by mere chance.

I do know that many deaths have occurred in the name of Christianity, but it is not a Christianity that I know. People might kill in the name of Islam or Unitarianism or McDonald’s, but that doesn’t mean we can eliminate war or murder by getting rid of any of those.

Harris’s “safe” religion — the kind where you take advantage of the practices and gatherings without committing to any of the tenets — was popular a long time before he came along and will continue to be after he and I are gone.

By the way, I really appreciated Poe Ballantine’s essay “God’s Day” in the same issue. I have adopted his prayer: “Thank you, God. I know I’m a fool.”

Mike Redman Twin Falls, Idaho

To support a destructive and immoral position, one needs either to violate logic by making unwarranted assumptions and deductions, or simply to misrepresent objective reality. Sam Harris does both in his arguments promoting institutionalized intolerance of people based on their religious belief.

Harris argues that, because religious beliefs are “delusions,” they encourage believers to do bad things. But incorrect information does not automatically lead to immoral action. The premise that religious beliefs are delusions itself is unsupportable, because religious beliefs are not subject to easy disproof. Disproving God’s existence, for example, is no easier than proving it. So Harris resorts to mocking religious beliefs to demonstrate their foolish nature.

Harris is supporting divisiveness even as he claims to be opposing it. He says religious beliefs create separation, conflict, and suffering. Certainly, this is sometimes true. But are religious beliefs the primary causes of our social problems? Hardly. How can anyone fail to note the massive economic and political forces behind human suffering and the destruction of the earth? Who has a hand on the throttle of this train as it heads toward collision? Not religion. It’s merely one of many tools employed by those in power to mislead the public.

Raising the specter of “jihadists acquiring nuclear weapons” without any mention of who already possesses nuclear weapons is nothing but militaristic propaganda. Who has a history of using nuclear weapons, both as a threat and in actual attacks? The United States, with its secular, elected government. Harry Truman, who unleashed the rain of death upon thousands of innocents, was no religious fanatic.

Science is more than a process of learning about the way the world is; science changes the world. Physics and engineering created the nuclear age. Geology facilitated the destruction of life on earth, from mountaintops to wide oceans. Biochemistry produced the poisons that gave us epidemics of cancer and species extinction. Perhaps Harris should take a break from lamenting the prospect of Pat Robertson or Osama bin Laden in power and meditate for a while on Edward Teller’s contribution to our world.

Neither science nor religion has a malignant mission. They are hired servants of the forces of greed and oppression. For the rulers, it doesn’t matter who the “us” and the “them” are, so long as we keep fighting and don’t turn our attention to the real economic, political, and military powers.

Mac McKinlay Portland, Oregon

Sam Harris disparages tradition, saying that knowledge from past ages is messy, taken from unreliable records, and produced by minds not as sophisticated as ours. But traditions give us a link to people in the past who faced quandaries similar to ours and who sought just solutions with the same energy and fervor. Why would we not consult history, ritual, and the wisdom of the past — not to follow its example blindly, but to find guidance?

We should strive to broaden people’s outlooks, but never to govern their beliefs or the details of their faith. That idea is repugnant. It is behavior, not belief, that humans can hope to govern. A murderer’s actions, not his or her belief system, are the reason why society wants him or her off the streets.

And why would anyone put a fundamentalist Muslim and a fundamentalist Christian in a room together to argue over the divinity of Jesus? Let’s put them in a room with Harris and have all three discuss the qualities of mercy, charity, and most of all humility. (A little humor wouldn’t hurt either.)

Cathy Smith Ashland, Oregon

While Sam Harris’s point of view is worth considering, his most passionate assertions are based on a simplistic interpretation of religious traditions. A literal teaching of the Virgin Birth, for example, is by no means universal among Christian denominations, and even strong adherents tend to be lukewarm on its importance. Harris’s comparison of rape to religion — both are part of human nature, he says — is particularly telling. Professionals who treat victims of sexual assault recognize rape as a heinous expression of human aggression, not a natural outgrowth of the human sexual instinct. Likewise, a narrow interpretation of spiritual traditions is an unnatural form of aggression.

I join Harris in resisting the establishment of a theocracy, but the First Amendment was not intended to deny the value of religion. Rather it guarantees the right of religious freedom.

Kathleen McGrath New York, New York

Such statements as “If you’re going to be a Christian and worship Jesus . . . you have to accept that he was the Son of God, born of a virgin, and so on” demonstrate Sam Harris’s profound ignorance of Christianity and the debates that have been going on within it for the past two thousand years. Only the most dogmatic Christian fundamentalists define Christianity in such terms. There are countless born-and-bred, churchgoing Christians who do not find such dogma necessary in their search for peace and enlightenment. I’d appreciate it if Harris would stop encouraging the fundamentalists by promoting their ideas about what constitutes a Christian.

Karla Miller Erie, Colorado

Sam Harris simplistically divides religious people into those “who call themselves Christians or Muslims or Jews but who don’t really take their religion seriously” and “devout” religionists who think everyone outside their faith is going to hell. The reality is there are many of us who take our religion seriously but still recognize that there are other legitimate paths up the mountain. The fundamentalists are getting all the headlines, but we’re not to be dismissed.

Harris says we should be skeptical of any “urge to identify with a subset of the population,” but if he wants all group identity to go away, I say it’s not going to happen. We have a right to our families, our tribes, our languages, and our myths. We can learn to recognize that, although we may feel our group is the best in the world, that’s not an objective reality. I think my son is the most beautiful child in the world, but I also know that other parents feel the same way about their children. I deeply believe in the divinity of my Jewish myths and stories because of the spiritual wisdom I have gleaned from them, but I don’t confuse them with science or follow every word literally. I feel chosen, but I know you are chosen as well. We need mature religion, not no religion.

Natan Margalit Newton, Massachusetts

As a clinical social worker, I remember reading in a psychiatric textbook, “If one person has a delusion, it’s psychosis. If a group shares a delusion, it’s religion.” I agree with Sam Harris about the dangers of dogmatic, tribal, divisive mythology. I disagree, however, that evolutionary science “closes the book on the biblical story of Genesis,” which is a penetrating, mythopoetic study of human experience and psychology. (As Tim O’Brien has written, “Just because it didn’t happen, doesn’t mean it isn’t true.”) Most religious texts, including the Bible, allow for a wide range of readings. Let’s not throw out the archetypal divine child with the unholy bath water.

Jane Warwick Yoder Alexandria, Virginia

I was moved by Carroll Ann Susco’s essay “Cry in the Wilderness” [July 2006] — particularly her beautiful description of God wooing her with the words safe and trust and guiding her out of a metaphorical sandstorm. When I struggle to follow the divine voice in my own life, I will think about what she wrote.

It’s wonderful to read about the many different ways we encounter God. Although I am a Catholic and very involved in my church, my relationship with God goes beyond my religious practice. Religion doesn’t own God. I prefer the vast, intimate, raw kind of faith often written about in The Sun.

Jaminda Springer Ann Arbor, Michigan

I recently returned from a village in Darfur, Sudan, where I was on a six-month assignment with Doctors without Borders, treating malnourished children and victims of violence. The other volunteers and I used primitive latrines, “showered” with a bucket of water, and had generator-powered electricity only five hours each day. Thankfully, we were able to receive packages from home. The most prized contents of my packages were issues of The Sun. They gave me an escape from the harsh surroundings, refreshed my optimism regarding humanity, made me smile, and brought me to tears.

Kellie Lamoreau Livingston Manor, New York

In my wallet I carry a small blue piece of paper bearing the epitaph of novelist Nikos Kazantzakis: “I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.” I have just started my intern year as a new physician, and every day I try to remember these words and recognize my fears and frustrations, as well as my blessings. A moment ago I took a short break in my call room to read Jim Ralston’s essay “You’re in Here, Too” [July 2006]. His story of struggling to develop a quiet mind helped me to remember to be gentle with myself as I struggle, too.

Brooke Vezino Santa Rosa, California
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