Sam Harris wants believers to stop believing.
By Lewis I. Rice
When 19 Muslim men hijacked airplanes to kill as many Americans as they could on September 11, 2001, they were doing what their religion told them to do—or so Sam Harris concluded. The next day he began writing a book aimed at discrediting religious dogma of all types.
“What became immediately motivating to me, and bewildering,” says Harris, ’89, “was that this event, caused by the religious convictions of its perpetrators, simply redoubled our commitment to faith-based talk and thinking and drove us into the arms of the very thing that was motivating our enemies.”
In The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (Norton, 2004), Harris calls religious beliefs “antithetical to our survival.” Cataloging passages in the Bible and Koran that support martyrdom and the killing of nonbelievers, he warns that those who consider such texts literal truth now have access to weapons of mass destruction.
“Our world is fast succumbing to the activities of men and women who would stake the future of our species on beliefs that should not survive an elementary school education,” he writes. “That so many of us are still dying on account of ancient myths is as bewildering as it is horrible, and our own attachment to these myths, whether moderate or extreme, has kept us silent in the face of developments that could ultimately destroy us.”
Harris, who graduated in 2000 after stopping out to study Eastern philosophies and is pursuing a PhD in neuroscience, urges society to stop tacitly tolerating beliefs that cannot be backed by evidence. The idea that a cracker turns into the body of Jesus, he says by way of example, is no more supportable than a claim that frozen yogurt renders a person invisible. People should consider the Bible and the Koran akin to Greek mythology, and think of God no differently than they would Zeus. “In almost every other area of our lives, when people hold strong convictions without evidence, they get pretty swiftly marginalized in our culture,” Harris says. “It’s really only on matters of faith where a radical exception is being made. That double standard is something I’m criticizing.”
One critic noted that The End of Faith—which won the 2005 PEN award for first nonfiction—“offers something to offend everyone.” But Harris levels his sharpest volleys at Islam, which he says “makes sacraments of illiberalism, ignorance, and suicidal violence.” Western democracies are morally superior to Islamic governments, he argues, because their morality stems from secular values. The author contends that the West is at war “with precisely the vision of life that is prescribed to all Muslims in the Koran.” In his view, mutual annihilation will be averted only when “most Muslims have learned to ignore most of their canon, just as most Christians have learned to do.”
Harris is as blunt over the phone as he is in print and national media appearances. Anyone who lives based on Old Testament tenets is a sociopath, he asserts, though he recognizes that some believers act compassionately. Predictably, people have written to assure him of his everlasting place in hell, but he’s surprised at how many correspondents to his website, samharris.org, applaud his viewpoint. New York Times science reporter Natalie Angier praised Harris in a review for voicing “what a sizable number of us think, but few are willing to say in contemporary America.”
Even against the most withering attacks—on Laura Ingraham’s nationally syndicated radio talk show, for example—Harris exhibits an almost preternatural calm, perhaps a result of his own spiritual exploration. He was raised in a secular West Coast environment; the Bible was literature to be read like the Iliad or Odyssey. Still, the possibilities of spiritual experience and the mysteries of the world interested his family, he says. He studied English at Stanford for two years before stopping out and majored in philosophy after returning at age 30. His doctoral research investigates the biology of belief, a subject he plans to tackle in his next book.
Harris is not confident that human beings will embrace an absence of faith: that would require a seismic cultural shift. “People are very imperturbable about their conviction about the origins of their [sacred] books and what happens after death, despite any evidence to the contrary,” he says. “The holes in their world view are so gaping that you’d think it should be easy enough to argue them out of their beliefs. The larger issue in our own culture is that no one even tries.”
LEWIS I. RICE is a freelance writer based in the Boston area.
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