The disbeliever

Sam Harris, author of "The End of Faith," on why religious moderates are worse than fundamentalists, 9/11 led us into a deranged holy war, and believers should be treated like alien-abduction kooks.

Published July 7, 2006 1:00PM (EDT)

Three-quarters of all Americans believe the Bible is God's word, according to a recent Pew poll. Numbers like that make an outspoken atheist like Sam Harris seem either foolhardy or uncommonly brave.

Two years ago, when the 39-year-old launched a full-scale attack on religious belief in his provocative book "The End of Faith," he was an unknown. That changed overnight when his book shot up the New York Times bestseller list and later went on to win the 2005 PEN/Martha Albrand Award for First Nonfiction. Since then, "The End of Faith" has earned an avid following among atheists and lapsed churchgoers; it's the kind of book that gets passed around from one friend to another to another. Here, finally, was someone willing to do the unthinkable: to denounce religious faith as irrational -- murderous, even.

The heart of Harris' book is a frontal assault on Islam and Christianity, carrying both pages and pages of quotations from the Quran imploring the faithful to kill infidels, and a chilling history of how Christian leaders have brutally punished heretics. Harris argues that much of the violence in today's world stems directly from people willing to live and die by these sacred texts.

In perhaps his most daring rhetorical gambit, Harris seeks to undermine religion by denouncing not just jihadis and fundamentalists, but moderates. "Religious moderates are, in large part, responsible for the religious conflict in our world," he writes, "because their beliefs provide the context in which scriptural literalism and religious violence can never be adequately opposed." Harris especially chastises moderates for refusing to criticize scripture-quoting extremists; for him, they are basically guilty of legitimizing fundamentalism.

All this would seem to make Harris a hero among atheists. And, to a large degree, it has. Yet some atheists can't stomach the end of Harris' book, where he plays up the virtues of spirituality and mysticism, as well as serious meditation. Harris is a longtime practitioner of Buddhist meditation -- an outgrowth of the many years he spent studying the contemplative traditions of both the East and West. So while he's scathing about monotheism, he's far gentler in his assessment of Eastern religions. And for all his insistence on reason and scientific study, Harris is surprisingly open -- as I discovered in my interview -- to paranormal experiences like telepathy, and even to the possibility of consciousness existing outside the human brain.

Harris is now completing a doctorate in neuroscience, studying the neural basis of belief and disbelief. He keeps most of the details of his personal life vague. When I asked about his doctorate, he said he prefers not to say where he's working on it "to keep the scary people away from the lab." Now, it appears that Harris' academic future will have to compete with his writing career. In September, Knopf will publish his next book, "Letter to a Christian Nation" -- Harris' response to the thousands of angry letters he received from devout Christians about his last book. We spoke by phone about the dangers of religion and his own search for the sacred.

From what I can tell, your book "The End of Faith" has become the touchstone for atheists across America. Because you don't seem to have any qualms about denouncing the Bible or the Quran, you've almost emerged as America's critic-in-chief of religious faith. Is that a role you willingly embrace?

Well, I did not embrace it consciously. In fact, it's ironic that some of the most vituperative criticism I've gotten has come from atheists because, in the last chapter of my book, I talk about meditation and mystical experience. While I'm a very strident critic of religious faith, my argument doesn't totally line up with the biases that atheists tend to have.

But 90 percent of your book is a rather strident attack on religion. One reviewer described it as a "nuclear assault" on religion. I'm wondering why you chose to write this way. Maybe this is just how you feel. Or was it a strategic decision to write such a polemical attack on religion?

No, it was not in any sense strategic. It was really my immediate response to the events of Sept. 11 -- the moment it became apparent to me that we were meandering into a religious war with the Muslim world and were not going to call it as such, and paradoxically, in our efforts to console ourselves, we were becoming increasingly deranged by our own religious certainty. We have a society in which 44 percent of the people claim to be either certain or confident that Jesus is going to come back out of the clouds and judge the living and the dead sometime in the next 50 years. It just seems to me transparently obvious that this is a belief that will do nothing to create a durable civilization. And I think it's time someone spoke about it.

Is that what especially worries you -- the apocalyptic thinking that crops up in certain religions, whether we're talking about Islam or Christianity? Or is it much broader than that -- what you see to be the intellectual dishonesty in a lot of religious discussions?

My concern can be parsed out on many levels. The most basic is that our world has really been shattered unnecessarily by competing religious certainties. People who believe their religious propositions strongly are doing so for bad reasons and on insufficient evidence. There's just nothing that a fundamentalist Christian and a fundamentalist Muslim can say to one other to revise their mutual understanding of the world because they do not have a mutual understanding of the world. Their core beliefs have been taken off the table and have become resistant to conversation. So now we have Muslims tending to side with other Muslims in geopolitical conflicts, and Christians tending to side with other Christians. And this breeds conflict that would not otherwise occur. I think it is a profoundly widespread and disempowering myth, particularly among secularists and religious moderates, that these people would be killing each other anyway. They're killing each other over land or scarce resources.

That certainly is the other argument -- what we're seeing in the Middle East is more political than religious. Religion may be used to buttress certain political arguments. But ultimately, if you take, say, Hamas, the anger there is against Israel. It's not an argument about faith.

I think that's misreading the situation. When you ask why these people cannot live happily together on the same piece of land, the answer is a religious one. Muslims and Jews see the world differently because of their incompatible religious claims -- literally, claims upon certain real estate. And they view the disposition of this real estate in biblical or Quranic terms. That's a deal breaker. More specifically, when you look at the style of violence on the Muslim side -- the suicide bombing -- that can really only be made sense of in religious terms. Once you accept some of the core propositions of Islam -- once you accept the metaphysics of martyrdom and the principle of jihad -- then it becomes perfectly reasonable that a mother could celebrate the suicidal atrocities committed by her son because she thinks he's gone to paradise and he's killed infidels in the process. And he's paved the way for the whole family to get to paradise. If you actually believe these things, this behavior becomes quite understandable.

You really go after Islam and Christianity and Judaism. Why are you especially critical of monotheistic religions?

Part of that is just a matter of how much mad work is being done in the name of those faiths at this moment. I would rank them in order of Islam and Christianity and then Judaism coming up a distant third. But there's also something intrinsic to monotheism itself which is problematic. Monotheism tends to be far more rigid than other approaches to faith and far less able to incorporate the incompatible religious certainties of other groups. The Hindus, worshiping a dizzying profusion of gods, can accept an extra god when they come upon it. And so there are Hindus who talk about Jesus being an avatar of Vishnu, for instance.

You're saying with monotheism, the whole notion of the heretic or the infidel is much more of an issue than it would be in other religions where there is not just one god.

Yeah. When you look at the doctrine of Islam, and you consider the state of Muslim discourse in the 21st century, it is hard to imagine a doctrine that is less susceptible to modernity and pluralism. There are many apologists for Islam saying it's a religion of peace and Muslims are tolerant of other religions. I really think we owe it to ourselves and to future generations to be very clear and rigorous about what is actually believed by mainstream Muslims. What we recently saw in Afghanistan -- this man who converted to Christianity and was up for execution, and then got spirited away to Italy as the only accommodation that could be made -- that really is the true face of Islam. It really is punishable by death to wake up one morning and decide you no longer want to be a Muslim. The crime of apostasy, the disavowal of your religion, is a capital offense. We're not waging a war of ideas that's even addressing issues like this.

But doesn't it matter where we're talking about? I mean, Indonesia, the most populous Muslim country in the world, for the most part doesn't have this more extreme version of Islam.

For the most part. There are cells in Indonesia that are considered al Qaida affiliates. And you'd be hard-pressed to find a Muslim country, even Turkey, that does not have elements that should be troublesome to us. But it's true, the character of Islam is different in different societies. And that's a good thing. I think we can attribute that to the fact that most people do not take their religion as seriously as they might. But when you look at the theology, the truth is, the Quran really does nothing more eloquently than vilify the infidel. It's absolutely plain in the pages of the Quran that the responsibility of Muslims is to convert, subjugate or kill the infidel. This is not a document that's well designed for a pluralistic world or a global civil society. Unless the Muslim world can find some way of reforming this theology, or find some rationale by which to ignore the better part of it -- as Christians have tended to do, albeit imperfectly -- we have a recipe for disaster on our hands.

What about the Bible? Do you see this as a recipe for religious intolerance?

Oh, I do. There's no document that I know of that is more despicable in its morality than the first few books of the Hebrew Bible. Books like Exodus and Deuteronomy and Leviticus, these are diabolical books. The killing never stops. The reasons to kill your neighbor for theological crimes are explicit and preposterous. You have to kill people for worshiping foreign gods, for working on the Sabbath, for wizardry, for adultery. You kill your children for talking back to you. It's there and it's not a matter of metaphors. It is exactly what God expects us to do to rein in the free thought of our neighbors.

Now, it just so happens, however, that most Christians think there's something in the New Testament that fully and finally repudiates all of that. And therefore, we do not have to kill homosexuals. We don't have to kill adulterers. And that's a very good thing that most Christians think it. Now, most Christians actually are not on very firm ground theologically to think that. It's not an accident that St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine thought we should kill or torture heretics. Aquinas thought we should kill them, Augustine thought we should torture them. And Augustine's argument for the use of torture actually laid the foundations for the Inquisition. So it's not an accident that we were burning heretics and witches and other people in Europe for five centuries under the aegis of Christianity. But Christianity is at a different moment in its history.

But isn't this a problem mainly when you read the Bible or the Quran literally? Doesn't the conversation change once you stop reading sacred scriptures literally? If you understand, for instance, the historical context -- when Judaism or Christianity were first emerging, they were religions competing with other religions. Doesn't that free you up to appreciate their spiritual teachings?

I'd be the first to agree that it's better not to read these books literally. The problem is, the books never tell you that you're free not to read them literally. In fact, they tell you otherwise, explicitly so. Therefore, the fundamentalist is always on firmer ground theologically and -- I would argue -- intellectually than the moderate or the progressive. When you consult the books, you do not find more reasons to be a moderate or a liberal. You find more reasons to be a fundamentalist. I agree, it is a good thing to be cherry-picking these books and ignoring the bad parts. But we should have a 21st century conversation about morality and spiritual experience and public policy that is not constrained by superstition and taboo. In order to see how preposterous our situation really is, you need only imagine what our world would be like if we had people believing in the literal existence of Zeus. I defy anyone to come forward with the evidence that puts the Biblical God or the Quranic God on fundamentally different footing than the gods of Mt. Olympus. There are historical reasons why Zeus is no longer worshiped and the God of Abraham is. But there are not sound epistemological or philosophical or empirical reasons.

There's no doubt many awful things have been done in the name of religion over the centuries. But, of course, there have also been many wonderful religious people. I would argue, for instance, that Martin Luther King has been the most important moral leader in America over the last century. And I think it would be impossible to make sense of what he did without talking about his faith. It seems to me his Christian faith compelled him to be an activist and it's what gave him strength in very difficult times. What do you make of those kinds of people who've been inspired because of their faith?

I agree, King was an incredible person who did heroic and necessary work. A couple of answers here. There's no evidence that those things can only be done in the name of faith, whereas there is considerable evidence that really terrible acts of violence are being done only because of what people believe about God. For instance, while there are Christian missionaries working in sub-Saharan Africa doing heroic work to relieve famine, there are also secular people, like Doctors Without Borders, who work alongside them, doing the same kind of work and not doing it because they think Jesus was born of a virgin. They're not preaching the sinfulness of condom use the way Catholics and Christian ministers tend to do. So while Christian missionaries are helping people, they're also helping to spread AIDS with their sexual taboos and their prudery. So that's one issue.

I'm also breaking a taboo. I'm rejecting the idea that all of our religions are equally wise and emphasize compassion to the same degree. This is just clearly not true. Martin Luther King, to some significant degree, was animated by Christianity. But when you look at why he preached nonviolence to the degree that he did, he didn't get that from Christianity. He got it from Gandhi. And Gandhi got it from the Jains. Jainism is a religion of India that preaches this doctrine of nonviolence. To argue that that's the true face of Christianity is really misleading. Christianity also gives you the Jesus of the "Left Behind" novels who's going to come back and just hurl sinners into the pit. And the God who's going to punish homosexuals for eternity.

That's highly debatable, though. If you're a Christian and you look at the figure of Jesus, you can easily read his core message as being about love and compassion and caring, particularly for the outcasts of society.

That is Jesus in half his moods speaking that way. But there's another Jesus in there. There's a Jesus who's just paradoxical and difficult to interpret, a Jesus who tells people to hate their parents. And then there is the Jesus -- while he may not be as plausible given how we want to think about Jesus -- but he's there in scripture, coming back amid a host of angels, destined to deal out justice to the sinners of the world. That is the Jesus that fully half of the American electorate is most enamored of at this moment.

Let me follow up on that because a lot of people say the problem is that religion has been hijacked by the extremists -- people who've distorted the basic religious teachings of peace and love. But this, as far as I can tell, is not your view. You say religious moderates are largely responsible for religious conflict.

Well, I think religious moderation is a politically correct discourse about all religions truly being benign in their essence and just being hijacked by people who are psychologically unstable or political megalomaniacs. This is a false view. And it's giving cover to religious extremists. This respect for faith, this taboo against criticizing faith, prevents us from saying the necessary things that we must say against religious fundamentalism.

But wouldn't it make more sense to support the religious moderates, the people who really do not support those fundamentalists? Otherwise, you are removing the middle ground. In essence, if you take away the moderates, you're pitting fundamentalists against secularists. And a lot of people don't buy that dichotomy. I'm thinking of all the people in the U.S. who've rejected the dogmas of the churches they grew up in, but who still believe there is some transcendent reality out there.

It depends on what you mean by transcendent reality. I believe there's a transcendent reality out there, but that belief doesn't give me the slightest inclination to pay lip service to the God of the Bible or to deny the immoral message that comes through in many books of the Bible. I just think it's a myth we finally have to put to rest that our morality is necessarily linked to these scriptural traditions. The Bible is just not a good lens through which to view our present circumstance, given all that we've learned in the last 2,000 years. So questions of stem cell research, questions of social equity are not best processed through a reading of the Bible, however liberal you want to be.

We've been talking about how intolerant so many religious people can be. But aren't you asking us to be very intolerant of religion?

It may sound paradoxical but it's not. I'm advocating a kind of conversational intolerance. It's really the same intolerance we express everywhere in our society when someone claims that Elvis is still alive, or that aliens are abducting ranchers and molesting them. These are beliefs that many people have. But these beliefs systematically exclude them from holding positions of responsibility. The person who's sure that Elvis is still alive and expresses this belief candidly does not wind up in the Oval Office or in our nation's boardrooms. And that's a very good thing. But when the conversation changes to Jesus being born of a virgin or Mohammed flying to heaven on a winged horse, then these beliefs not only do not exclude you from holding power in society; you could not possibly hold power, in a political sense, without endorsing this kind of thinking.

It should be terrifying to us because many of these beliefs are not just quaint and curious, like beliefs in Elvis. These are beliefs about the end of history, about the utility of trying to create a sustainable civilization for ourselves -- specifically, beliefs in eschatology. These are maladaptive. For instance, if a mushroom cloud replaced the city of New York tomorrow morning, something like half the American people would see a silver lining in that cloud because it would presage to them that the end of days are upon us.

I want to step back for a moment and talk about your own background. Did religion play any part in your childhood?

Not really. I had a very secular upbringing. But when I became about 16 or 17, I got very interested in spiritual experience and the possibilities of seeing the world in a fundamentally different sense.

Did you pursue those spiritual interests?

Yeah, I've spent a lot of time studying meditation and sitting on meditation retreats where you're in silence for the entire duration, whether it's one month or three months, just practicing meditation for sometimes 18 hours a day. I've done this mostly in a Buddhist context, but not exclusively. And I've spent a lot of time studying religion and the contemplative traditions within Christianity and Judaism and Islam.

So you don't see Buddhism as being limiting in the same way as the monotheistic religions you've been criticizing?

Well, I certainly see it as limiting insofar as it's a religion. You can make the argument that Buddhism, specifically, is not best thought of as a religion. And certainly many Western Buddhists say that Buddhism is not a religion. But that doesn't change the fact that something like 99 percent of the Buddhists in this world practice Buddhism as a religion in the same superstitious way that most religions are practiced. Now, it doesn't have the same liabilities of Islam or Christianity. You can't get the same kind of death cult brewing in Buddhism, or at least not as readily. And that's why we don't see Tibetan Buddhist suicide bombers.

You know, the Tibetans have suffered a terrible occupation under the Chinese. Many people estimate that 1.1 or 1.2 million Tibetans have died as a result of that occupation. We should see Tibetan Buddhists blowing themselves up on Chinese buses, if all religions are equivalent. But we don't see that. What we do see in Tibetan Buddhism -- which is impossible to even imagine in Islam at the moment -- we see Tibetans who have been tortured for decades in Chinese prisons, coming out and saying things like, "My greatest fear while I was in prison was that I would lose the strength of my compassion and come to hate my torturers." Now, that said, there's nothing in Buddhism that's held dogmatically that I would support. It's just that all dogmas are not equal and don't have equal behavioral consequences.

It sounds like you've been meditating for years and often quite seriously. Have you ever felt bliss or rapture while you've meditated?

Oh yeah. The problem with those states, however, is that they are transitory. They are conditioned by concentration. And when your mind is no longer concentrated on your object of meditation -- whether you're focusing on Jesus or a mantra or the state of rapture itself -- when thoughts again intervene and you're no longer concentrated in the same way, the state goes. And one of the real pitfalls of the contemplative life is to crave those states. You can become a kind of drug addict of your own meditative process where you mistake those states as being the goal of meditation.

One thing I find so fascinating about your book is that you're out there as an atheist. And yet you also say life has a sacred dimension. You talk about the value of spirituality and mystical experiences. It's interesting that you put all that in the same pot.

Yeah, many atheists felt it should not have been in the same pot. But I think it's necessary to just be honest. These are some of the most beautiful and most profound experiences that human beings can have. And therefore we're right to want to understand them and to explore that landscape.

But it does raise the question, what do you mean by spiritual? And what do you mean by mystical?

By spiritual and mystical -- I use them interchangeably -- I mean any effort to understand and explore happiness and well-being itself through deliberate uses of attention. Specifically, to break the spell of discursive thought. We wake up each morning, and we're chased out of bed by our thoughts, and then we think, think, think, think all day long. And very few of us spend any significant amount of time breaking that train of thought. Meditation is one technique by which to do that. The sense that you are an ego, busy thinking, disappears. And its disappearance is quite a relief.

Well, it's interesting to hear this description of mysticism because I don't think that's how most people would see it. I mean, most people would play up the more irrational side. Yes, you're losing yourself, but you're plunged into some larger sea of oneness, of perhaps transcendent presence. Obviously, you're staying away from that whole supernatural way of thinking.

Well, it's very Buddhist of me to do that. The Buddhists tend to talk in terms of what it's not. They talk about it being no self, they talk in terms of emptiness. But the theistic traditions talk in terms of what the experience is like. There, you get descriptions of fullness and rapture and love and oneness. And to some degree, I've had experiences that can be characterized that way. But there are pitfalls in using that language. People tend to reify these states and make metaphysics out of it. It's not like you learn about physics by being a mystic.

I want to ask you about one sentence from your book "The End of Faith." You say, "Whatever is true now should be discoverable now." It sounds like you're putting inordinate faith in science. Are you willing to acknowledge that there might be plenty of things we still don't understand scientifically that could very well be true?

There's no scientist who would hesitate to acknowledge that. This is one of the ironies of religious discourse. Religious people talk in terms of their own humility and talk of the intellectual arrogance of science, whereas the situation is totally reversed. Every scientist worth his Ph.D. will admit that we have no idea how the universe, or why the universe, came into existence. We have no idea why there is everything rather than nothing. And most of what is there to be discovered has not been discovered.

Let me mention one case in point. There is a wealth of anthropological literature about sorcery in Africa and Latin America, and there are plenty of personal testimonies about the power of witchcraft. From the scientific world view, this looks like sheer nonsense. Yet I'm wondering if it might be possible that science some day will be able to explain what now seems supernatural.

Oh yeah, I think the only way to explain it is with a scientific frame of mind. Now, scientists tend to be dogmatically opposed to looking at this kind of phenomenon -- at telepathy, for instance, because there's been so much fraud and wishful thinking. Science generally has been eager to divest itself of the spookiness of this area. But I think that kind of phenomenon is fascinating and worth looking into. And it may be that minds have some effect upon the physical world that we currently can't explain. But the way we will explain it is scientifically.

It sounds like you're open-minded to the possibility of telepathy -- things that we might classify as psychic. You're saying it's entirely possible that they might be true and science at some point will be able to prove them.

Yeah, and there's a lot of data out there that's treated in most circles like intellectual pornography that attests to there being a real phenomenon here. I just don't know. But I've had the kinds of experiences that everyone has had that seem to confirm telepathy or the fact that minds can influence other minds.

Tell me about one of those experiences.

Oh, just knowing who's calling when that person hasn't called you in years. The phone rings and you know who it is and it's not your mother or your wife or someone who calls you every day. I've had many experiences like that. I know many people who've had even more bizarre experiences. But that does not rise to the level of scientific evidence. The only way to determine if it really exists is to look in a disinterested and sustained way at all of the evidence.

You are a neuroscientist. Do you think there's any chance that human consciousness can survive after death?

I just don't know. One thing I can tell you is that we don't know what the actual relationship between consciousness and the physical world is. There are good reasons to be skeptical of the naive conception of a soul. We know that almost everything we take ourselves to be subjectively -- all of our cognitive powers, our ability to understand language, our ability to acknowledge anything in our physical environment through our senses -- this is mediated by the brain. So the idea that a brain can die and a soul that still speaks English and recognizes Granny is going to float away into the afterlife, that seems to be profoundly implausible. And yet we do not know what the relationship between subjectivity and objectivity ultimately is. For instance, we could be living in a universe where consciousness goes all the way down to the bedrock so that there is some interior subjective dimension to an electron. So I'm actually quite skeptical of our ever being able to resolve that question -- what the real relationship between consciousness and matter ultimately is.

That's interesting. Most evolutionary biologists would say consciousness is rooted in the brain. It will not survive death. You are not willing to make that claim.

I just don't know. I'm trying to be honest about my gradations of certainty. I think consciousness poses a unique problem. If we were living in a universe where consciousness survived death, or transcended the brain so that single neurons were conscious -- or subatomic particles had an interior dimension -- we would not expect to see it by our present techniques of neuro-imaging or cellular neuroscience. And we would never expect to see it. And so we have a problem. There are profound philosophical and epistemological problems that anyone must confront who's trying to reduce consciousness to the workings of the brain. This discourse is in its infancy, and who knows where it's going to go?

By Steve Paulson

Steve Paulson is the executive producer of Wisconsin Public Radio's nationally syndicated program "To the Best of Our Knowledge." He has also been a Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellow in Science & Religion.

MORE FROM Steve Paulson

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Atoms And Eden Author Interviews Books Religion