"The Moral Landscape": Why science should shape morality

Sam Harris, the notorious atheist, explains his controversial stance on religion -- and his provocative new book

Published October 17, 2010 6:01PM (EDT)

To call Sam Harris a divisive figure is to put it mildly. Harris — along with Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens — is considered one of the most influential members of the so-called New Atheism movement, a term that generally refers to nonbelievers who seek a true separation of church and state, civil rights for atheists, and the freedom to openly criticize religious belief.

In his previous book, "Letter to a Christian Nation," Harris aimed to "demolish the intellectual and moral pretensions of Christianity in its most committed forms." In the wake of the book, theologist Madeleine Bunting wrote an article in the Guardian comparing Harris' arguments about Islam to "the kind of argument put forward by those who ran the Inquisition." In a debate about religion on Beliefnet, an exasperated Andrew Sullivan called one of Harris' arguments "a form of intolerance that reminds me of some of the worst aspects of fundamentalism."

His long-awaited new book, "The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values," deals head-on with issues that many atheistic thinkers have been skirting for years. If religion is so bad, where should humans look for a moral authority? The answer, for Harris, is science. Harris defines morality as anything related to the "well-being of conscious creatures." Since many scientific findings have implications for how to maximize well-being, Harris believes scientists should be authorities on moral issues. As Harris sees it, scientists not only have every right to make moral arguments, but should be authorities of the moral realm.

Salon spoke to Harris over the phone about suicide bombers, our hard-wired need for religious faith, and which religions are more objectionable than others.

In this book and others, you are particularly critical of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. But what about Eastern religions, such as Buddhism or Hinduism?

I do criticize all religion, but I point out that "religion" is just a word, like "sports." There are many different types of sports, and they don’t necessarily have anything in common. And this same spectrum can be seen among religions. There are religions that are intrinsically peaceful. The greatest example is Jainism, which really is a religion of peace. Nonviolence is its central precept. Then there’s Islam, which is not even remotely a religion of peace, though many people insist that it is. There’s a reason why none of us are lying awake at night worrying about the Jains.

Our discussion of religion often glosses over the very real differences between these systems of belief and the consequences of specific doctrines. I’m really worried about the behavioral consequences of specific ideas. It just so happens that religion traffics in ideas that are intrinsically divisive, intrinsically insensitive to the actual details of human and animal suffering, and in many cases purposed toward an afterlife that doesn’t exist. That combination of traits leads to a kind of callous disregard for the sane purposes that we would otherwise form for collaboration in this world.

You argue that science is better equipped to illuminate questions of morality than religion. Why?

Religion fails because it separates questions of right and wrong and good and evil from the actual reality of human and animal suffering. The Catholic Church is more concerned about preventing contraception than preventing child rape; it’s more concerned about preventing gay marriage than genocide. This is a real inversion of priorities that completely falsifies any discussion of morality in the church. The moment you’ve linked morality to the well-being of conscious creatures, you see that the practices of the church don’t maximize human well-being. The church is as confused in talking about morality as it would be in the physics of the transubstantiation. They could use the word "physics" over and over again, the same way they use the words "morality" and "values," but no physicist would be obligated to take them seriously, and I’m arguing that no serious conversation about morality can include the priorities of the church.

Why do you think moral relativism is so dangerous?

Many people seem to believe that something in the last 200 years of intellectual progress has made it impossible to speak about moral truth, and that morality is just something that’s drummed into us by culture, or a combination of culture and apish urges that were drummed into us by evolution. Whatever mix of these two variables you fancy, you come out thinking that one way of life can’t be better in an objective sense. Well-educated, liberal, secular people in the West think you should withhold judgment on certain practices. You look at female genital mutilation in a country like Somalia, and you have to say things like “Well, of course this has to be understood in context. Who are we to say that this is evil in any deep sense?” But my argument is that withholding judgment is tantamount to saying that we know absolutely nothing about human well-being. Maybe cutting off a girl’s genitalia with a septic blade at age 8 is just as good as any other practice in terms of raising them to be happy and well-adjusted people. We know that’s not true. And that’s a scientific claim. Without getting into the details of psychology, we know female genital mutilation is a bad practice, and we should act like we know it.

Many evolutionary scientists, like Scott Atran or Pascal Boyer, believe that humans are naturally wired to be religious. Even in the absence of organized religion, they will be spiritual . How can you seek to break down something that is natural to human existence?

It’s very easy to overestimate just how incorrigible religion is, based on its history or possible evolutionary roots. You could say the same thing about witchcraft, which has been completely eradicated in the developed world. Witchcraft had been a cultural universal. Belief in the power of magic, spells, the work of invisible spirits…

But isn’t witchcraft just one example of the infinite practices that relate to the human tendency to be religious or believe in things that aren’t there? And don’t forms of witchcraft still exist in the developed world?

Well, you might think so, but in any case, it’s rampant in Africa, and it looks absolutely bizarre from our point of view to believe that hunting albinos and weaving their hair into your nets is likely to catch you more fish, as some African fishermen apparently believe. This is just the most macabre misuse of human life and energy. And yet it was something that was more or less universal. The way to get rid of it is to understand medicine and to understand the way the world works in greater detail.

I question whether faith-based religion per se has any strong evolutionary roots. There are many other variables that are not in principle religious that are often included with religion, like wanting to build strong communities, the usefulness of ritual, and the imperative of forming beliefs about the way the world works. We notice causal patterns in the word, and we tell ourselves stories about these patterns. We do this in science and in religion. Religion just amounts to bad science, in the end. It’s our most primitive effort to describe our origins and the reasons for why things happen. When you don’t understand the weather, when you don’t understand why crops fail, when you don’t understand the origins of disease, you make up explanations. And this is religion. When you develop a methodology by which these things can be understood, you rely on honest observation and clear reasoning, and this is science.

You suggest that science may enable us to transcend our current biology. You mention that psychotropic drugs are already doing this and that we "are now poised to consciously engineer our further evolution." Do you think our biology needs to be altered in order for us to behave in a morally acceptable manner?

There’s a lot there. Obviously we should be cautious in changing anything about ourselves at the level of the genome. That’s a policy that anyone thinking about genetic engineering seriously is liable to agree on. And yet we are changing. We have changed over the course of hundreds of thousands of years, so there’s nothing actually stable about the human condition. If we ever understood our biology fully enough to introduce changes, the basis on which to decide if we should implement these changes would be whether they were conducive to human well-being. If we could meddle with our genomes and introduce resistance to certain diseases, that would be clearly good. We would need to be confident that what we’re doing isn’t going to be harmful in the end. That’s the guiding principle of medicine, and it would be the guiding principle of the science of human well-being.

What's a concrete example of how science can answer a moral dilemma?

Many of the basic facts we understand about human well-being don’t even require scientific data at this point. Given that we know that there must be better and worse ways for humans to flourish, we also know that all cultural strategies and personal opinions aren’t on the same plain. We don’t need to run any scientific experiments to know that life in Congo right now is not perfectly tuned to maximize human well-being. You’ve got people being raped by the tens of thousands and hunted with machetes.

Let's say scientists do end up discovering moral truths. How are they supposed to enforce their findings? Would they become something like policemen or priests?

They wouldn’t necessarily enforce them any more than they enforce their knowledge about human health. What are scientists doing with the knowledge that smoking causes cancer or obesity is bad for your health, or that the common cold is spread by not washing your hands? We’re not living in some Orwellian world where we have scientists in lab coats at every door. Imagine we discovered that there is a best way to teach your children to be compassionate, or to defer short-term gratification in the service of a long-term goal. What if it turns out to be true that calcium intake in the first two years of life has a significant effect on a child’s emotional life? If we learn that, what parent wouldn’t want that knowledge? The fear of a "Brave New World" component to this argument is unfounded.

In the book, you write about advances in lie-detecting technology and argue that "the development of mind-reading technology is just beginning." Do you think such technologies might be dangerous for individual liberties and privacy?

Yes, but no more so than DNA screening. The fact that we can now get people off death row because we can test samples of blood and saliva and crime-scene data is a huge boon to the justice system. Lie-detection technology would be an even greater boon. We suffer an immense social cost by not being able to tell when somebody is lying. People are locked away forever or killed because we couldn’t tell they were telling the truth. If we could find a technology that would allow us to differentiate truth telling from lying, it would be hugely beneficial.

But what if people outside the criminal justice system have access to this technology? Wouldn’t that profoundly alter human relations?

When it counts, I don’t think people have a right to lie. Does a CEO of a major corporation have a right to lie about what his corporation is actually doing? We should be biased toward the truth, and if we could create a technology that made it difficult to lie, I think the feeling of relief that would come over us would be enormous.

In your book, you mention a "global civilization" several times. You also wrote, "Human beings should eventually converge in their moral judgments." What do you mean by a global civilization?

I think we must form a global civilization. We have no choice. We have a global economy, we have a single environment, we have infectious disease that spreads with every airplane flight. The question is, How do we create a civilization in which the greatest proportion of people can thrive, and in which the causes for war become distant memories? Within a nation-state, wars can be a distant memory. The likelihood of a war between Vermont and Florida seems incredibly remote. Why is that? We understand the stability of a single state. We need to engineer a similar degree of stability at the international level. There has to be a way to enforce international law. The question is how to do that, and how helpful is it that 1.5 billion Muslims and 2 billion Christians both think they have the perfect revelation of the creator of the universe, and that the world will end, ushering in the fulfillment of their eschatology. This isn’t helpful at all, and should be terrifying to every rational person.

But what about wars that don’t seem to have been caused by religion, such as the Soviet wars under Stalin, or Hitler’s nationalist aggression in World War II?

Religion isn’t the only problem. It’s all the forms of tribalism: nationalism, racism, et cetera. But religious tribalism is the most difficult, because it’s the only one that comes with an ideology that is transcendental. It’s the only one that gets people, for the most part, to celebrate the deaths of their children, because the belief in paradise actually removes the last barrier that sane people have to doing horrendous things and making huge sacrifices for idiotic reasons.

I mean, if you really believe in paradise, you believe that nothing can possibly go wrong, in the end. A suicide bomber who blows himself up in a crowd of people believes that he’s going to paradise. He also believes that all the good people he’s blowing up are also going to go to paradise and that they’ll thank him, and all the bad people are going to hell, where they belong. So it’s actually impossible to blow up the wrong people. It’s the most amazing and yet — if you believe the premises of the religion — totally logical worldview. It’s clearly believed by some significant number of people, because we apparently have an endless supply of suicide bombers in the Muslim world. When you have an ideology that makes you believe that no matter how bad things are, they’re actually good, that’s scary.

By Katherine Don

Katherine Don is a freelance writer in New York.

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