On a contentious issue, its often useful to listen to loud voices on each side of the spectrum. When it comes to the pros and cons of religion, specifically Islam, Sam Harris is absolutely one of the loud voices. A thoughtful, though often aggressive account discussing the potential shortcomings of religion in today’s world. As a trained philosopher, Harris’s points are always clean and substantiated. A fascinating read no matter what your opinion on the subject.
BELIEF is a lever that, once pulled, moves almost everything else in a person’s life. Are you a scientist? A liberal? A racist? These are merely species of belief in action. Your beliefs define your vision of the world; they dictate your behavior; they determine your emotional responses to other human beings. If you doubt this, consider how your experience would suddenly change if you came to believe one of the following propositions: You have only two weeks to live. You’ve just won a lottery prize of one hundred million dollars. Aliens have implanted a receiver in your skull and are manipulating your thoughts.
While all faiths have been touched, here and there, by the spirit of ecumenicalism, the central tenet of every religious tradition is that all others are mere repositories of error or, at best, dangerously incomplete. Intolerance is thus intrinsic to every creed.
Certainty about the next life is simply incompatible with tolerance in this one.
Tell a devout Christian that his wife is cheating on him, 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.
The point is that most of what we currently hold sacred is not sacred for any reason other than that it was thought sacred yesterday.
We have, in response to this improbable fact, declared a war on “terrorism.” This is rather like declaring war on “murder”; it is a category error that obscures the true cause of our troubles. Terrorism is not a source of human violence, but merely one its inflections. If Osama bin Laden were the leader of a nation, and the World Trade Center had been brought down with missiles, the atrocities of September 11 would have been acts of war. It should go without saying that we would have resisted the temptation to declare a war on “war” in response.
Yes, the Koran seems to say something that can be construed as a prohibition against suicide—“Do not destroy yourselves” (4:29)—but it leaves many loopholes large enough to fly a 767 through: “Let those who would exchange the life of this world for the hereafter, fight for the cause of God; whoever fights for the cause of God, whether he dies or triumphs, We shall richly reward him…The true believers fight for the cause of God, but the infidels fight for the devil. Fight then against the friends of Satan…Say: “Trifling are the pleasures of this life. The hereafter is better for those who would keep from evil…” (Koran 4:74–78)
For every neuron that receives its input from the outside world, there are ten to a hundred others that do not. The brain is therefore talking mostly to itself, and no information from the world (with the exception of olfaction) runs directly from a sensory receptor to the cortex, where the contents of consciousness appear to be sequestered.
We cannot live by reason alone. This is why no quantity of reason, applied as antiseptic, can compete with the balm of faith, once the terrors of this world begin to intrude upon our lives.
Religious moderates are, in large part, responsible for the religious conflict in our world, because their beliefs provide the context in which scriptural literalism and religious violence can never be adequately opposed.
Faith enables many of us to endure life’s difficulties with an equanimity that would be scarcely conceivable in a world lit only by reason. Faith also appears to have direct physical consequences in cases where mere expectations, good or bad, can incline the body toward health or untimely death.
But the fact that religious beliefs have a great influence on human life says nothing at all about their validity. For the paranoid, pursued by persecutory delusions, terror of the CIA may have great influence, but this does not mean that his phones are tapped.
The Spaniards in Mexico and Peru used to baptize Indian infants and then immediately dash their brains out: by this means they secured these infants went to Heaven. No orthodox Christian can find any logical reason for condemning their action, although all nowadays do so. In countless ways the doctrine of personal immortality in its Christian form has had disastrous effects upon morals
The basic lesson to be drawn from all this was summed up nicely by Will Durant: “Intolerance is the natural concomitant of strong faith; tolerance grows only when faith loses certainty; certainty is murderous.”
The irony here is almost a miracle in its own right: the most sexually repressive people found in the world today—people who are stirred to a killing rage by reruns of Baywatch—are lured to martyrdom by a conception of paradise that resembles nothing so much as an al fresco bordello.
For a seventh-century prophet to say that paradise is a garden, complete with rivers of milk and honey, is rather like a twenty-first-century prophet’s saying that it is a gleaming city where every soul drives a new Lexus. A moment’s reflection should reveal that such pronouncements suggest nothing at all about the afterlife and much indeed about the limits of the human imagination.
It should be of particular concern to us that the beliefs of Muslims pose a special problem for nuclear deterrence. There is little possibility of our having a cold war with an Islamist regime armed with long-range nuclear weapons. A cold war requires that the parties be mutually deterred by the threat of death. Notions of martyrdom and jihad run roughshod over the logic that allowed the United States and the Soviet Union to pass half a century perched, more or less stably, on the brink of Armageddon.
In the year 2002 the GDP in all Arab countries combined did not equal that of Spain. Even more troubling, Spain translates as many books into Spanish each year as the entire Arab world has translated into Arabic since the ninth century.
Its largely in the hands of “moderate” Muslims. Unless Muslims can reshape their religion into an ideology that is basically benign—or outgrow it altogether—it is difficult to see how Islam and the West can avoid falling into a continual state of war, and on innumerable fronts. Nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons cannot be uninvented.
To achieve the necessary economic leverage, so that we stand a chance of waging this war of ideas by peaceful means, the development of alternative energy technologies should become the object of a new Manhattan Project. There are, needless to say, sufficient economic and environmental justifications for doing this, but there are political ones as well. If oil were to become worthless, the dysfunction of the most prominent Muslim societies would suddenly grow as conspicuous as the sun. Muslims might then come to see the wisdom of moderating their thinking on a wide variety of subjects. Otherwise, we will be obliged to protect our interests in the world with force—continually. In this case, it seems all but certain that our newspapers will begin to read more and more like the book of Revelation.
IT is no accident that people of faith often want to curtail the private freedoms of others. This impulse has less to do with the history of religion and more to do with its logic, because the very idea of privacy is incompatible with the existence of God. If God sees and knows all things, and remains so provincial a creature as to be scandalized by certain sexual behaviors or states of the brain, then what people do in the privacy of their own homes, though it may not have the slightest implication for their behavior in public, will still be a matter of public concern for people of faith.
The pervasive idea that religion is somehow the source of our deepest ethical intuitions is absurd. We no more get our sense that cruelty is wrong from the pages of the Bible than we get our sense that two plus two equals four from the pages of a textbook on mathematics.
Can we say that Middle Eastern men who are murderously obsessed with female sexual purity actually love their wives, daughters, and sisters less than American or European men do? Of course, we can. And what is truly incredible about the state of our discourse is that such a claim is not only controversial but actually unutterable in most contexts.
While it can seem noble enough when the stakes are low, pacifism is ultimately nothing more than a willingness to die, and to let others die, at the pleasure of the world’s thugs. It should be enough to note that a single sociopath, armed with nothing more than a knife, could exterminate a city full of pacifists.
In the best case, faith leaves otherwise well-intentioned people incapable of thinking rationally about many of their deepest concerns; at worst, it is a continuous source of human violence.
The only angels we need invoke are those of our better nature: reason, honesty, and love. The only demons we must fear are those that lurk inside every human mind: ignorance, hatred, greed, and faith, which is surely the devil’s masterpiece.
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