Sam Harris: The Truthdig interview
by Blair Golson
www.truthdig.com, Apr 3, 2006
With the publication of his 2004 New York
Times bestseller, "The End of Faith," a full-throttle
attack on religion, Sam Harris became the most prominent atheist
For many, that would be a profoundly dubious
honor. A recent national study by University of Minnesota researchers
found that atheists are America's least trusted minority group-trusted
less than Muslims, recent immigrants and homosexuals. Americans
are also least willing to approve of their children marrying atheists,
according to the study.
But Harris, a Stanford graduate in philosophy
who is now completing his doctorate in neuroscience, wasn't trying
to win a popularity contest. Far from it. In his book, Harris
sets out to shame, embarrass, stun and reason the religious-minded
people of the world into abandoning faith-based belief systems,
which he argues could soon lead us to apocalypse. He writes:
We can no longer ignore the fact that
billions of our neighbors believe in the metaphysics of martyrdom,
or in the literal truth of the Book of Revelation, or any of the
other fantastical notions that have lurked in the minds of the
faithful for millennia-because our neighbors are now armed with
chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons.
Distilling 20 years of study of both Eastern
and Western religious disciplines, along with the blood-soaked
lessons of thousands of years of religious violence, Harris aims
to incite a reason-based revolution in the minds of the faithful
everywhere. And indeed, his criticism extends far beyond fundamentalists.
Harris also makes life very uncomfortable for religious moderates,
who, he argues, pave the way for fundamentalism by their insistence
on tolerance and respect for all religious beliefs-no matter their
implications. To wit:
To speak plainly and truthfully about
the state of our world--to say, for instance, that the Bible and
the Koran both contain mountains of life-destroying gibberish--is
antithetical to tolerance as moderates currently conceive it.
But we can no longer afford the luxury of such political correctness.
We must finally recognize the price we are paying to maintain
the iconography of our ignorance.
For someone who's lodging an indictment
against roughly 97% of America-the other 3% being atheists-Harris
might be expected to come off like a crank. But his writing style
draws rhetorical power from its colloquial style-which is heavy
on caustic sarcasm and irony. From his first chapter:
120 million of us place the big bang 2,500
years after the Babylonians and Sumerians learned to brew beer.
If our polls are to be trusted, nearly 230 million Americans believe
that a book showing neither unity of style nor internal consistency
was authored by an omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent deity.
The winner of the 2005 PEN / Martha Albrand
Award for Nonfiction, Harris' book has garnered passionate reviews
from figures as varied as Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz
and Joseph Hough Jr., president of Union Theological Seminary,
who wrote that Harris' "wake-up call to religious liberals
is right on the mark."
Late last year, Harris adapted and extended
some of the arguments of his book in an essay for Truthdig, entitled
"An Atheist Manifesto"--which continues to inspire spirited
commentary nearly four months after its publication. In light
of some of those comments, Truthdig Managing Editor Blair Golson
recently sat down with Harris to ask him to defend his arguments,
and to apply them to the religious-inspired conflicts now raging
in Iraq and beyond.
In the discussion, Harris spoke publicly
for the first time about a foundation he is creating to promote
secular values worldwide; about his new book, "Letter to
a Christian Nation," to be published by Knopf around Thanksgiving;
about how he navigates dinner parties without coming off as the
Antichrist; and about the "Salman Rushdie effect" that
accompanies his newfound celebrity as an atheist.
What kind of fears did you have before
writing such a book, and putting your name and picture on it?
There are security concerns, obviously.
The Salaman Rushdie effect was not totally distant from my imagination
as I was writing the book, but at a certain point you just have
to speak honestly about these things, and I've taken reasonable
steps to ensure my security.
Can you elaborate?
I don't make my whereabouts particularly
well known and I have security whenever I do an event-bodyguards
and other precautions that are probably best not publicized.
Have any of those fears been realized?
I've had some reasonably scary e-mails,
but nothing that has risen to the level of a death threat.
How do most people react when you explain
to them the thesis of your book? You meet someone at a dinner
party, let's say.
It depends where the conversation begins.
If I begin with my criticism of Islam, anyone on the conservative
side of the spectrum will tend to understand it, and liberals
will find it to be a taboo-breaking repudiation of their political
correctness and their multi-culturalism.
Conversely, if I start talking about my
concerns about the intrusions of religion into our own public
policy, liberals will tend to love this, as they share these concerns,
but Christian conservatives will begin to protest. So I can establish
rapport, or not, depending on what I emphasize in my argument.
But perhaps the most central thesis of
your book, the attack on irrational faith itself, doesn't that
offend people on both sides of the political spectrum?
The most controversial aspect of my book
has been this criticism I make of religious moderates. Most people
think that while religious extremism is problematic and polarizing,
religious tolerance is entirely blameless and is the remedy for
all that ails us on this front.
But religious moderates are giving cover
to fundamentalists because of the respect that moderates demand
of faith-based talk. Religious moderation doesn't allow us to
say the really critical things we must say about the abject stupidity
of religious fundamentalism. And as a result, it keeps fundamentalism
in play, and fundamentalists make very cynical and artful use
of the cover they're getting by the political correctness in our
You also say religious moderation closes
the door to more sophisticated approaches to spirituality, ethics
and the building of strong communities. What did you mean by that?
Religious moderation is just a cherry-picking
of scripture, ultimately. It is just diluted Iron Age philosophy.
It isn't a 21st century approach to talking about the contemplative
life, or spiritual experience, or ethical norms, or those features
that keep communities strong and healthy.
Religious moderation is a relaxation of
the standards of adherence to ancient taboos and superstitions.
That's really all it is. Moderate Christians have agreed not to
read the bible literally, and not read certain sections of it
at all, and then they come away with a much more progressive,
tolerant and ecumenical version of Christianity. They just pay
attention to Jesus when he's sermonizing on the Mount, and claim
that is the true Christianity. Well that's not the true Christianity.
It's a selective reading of certain aspects of Christianity. The
other face of Christianity is always waiting in the book to be
resurrected. You can find the Jesus of Second Thessalonians who's
going to come back and hurl sinners into the pit. This is the
Jesus being celebrated in the Left Behind novels. This is the
Jesus that half the American population is expecting to see come
down out of the clouds.
Switching gears: to what extent do you
see religion-as opposed to tribalism or just a plain desire to
avenge past wrongs-responsible for the sectarian violence destabilizing
I don't think you can necessarily draw
a neat line of separation here, because clearly the Shia and the
Sunni, for instance, have defined their moral communities in terms
of their religious affiliation. These communities have a long
history of victimizing one another on that basis, so their conflict
does have the character of a tribal feud. But the only difference
between these two groups, really, is their religious identity-
and it's a marginal difference at best. These are two groups who
really do worship the same god. They just can't agree to worship
him in the same way, and for this they've been killing each other
To what extent will America be responsible
if a theocracy takes over in Iraq?
Many people draw a lesson from the chaos
in Iraq now-a lesson which suggests that we were rapacious, oil-greedy
colonialists who ineptly wandered into a sectarian hell-realm
and have inflamed the place. But I think it's worth stepping back
to ask what would be the best-case scenario-had we gone in purely
for altruistic motives, to liberate 25 million people from Saddam
Hussein and his diabolical sons.
I think it's quite possible that we would
see precisely the same chaos. Now, this is not to deny that we
did many things terribly and ineptly, and Abu Ghraib cost us dearly.
But it's likely that we would still have some significant percentage
of Muslims who would be ready to fight to the death simply to
eject the infidels from Babylon, no matter how altruistic the
Given that fact, I think our culpability
is somewhat mitigated, because I think there was a very good argument
for trying to create a model democracy in the heart of the Muslim
world, and Iraq was a plausible place to do that. But none of
what I just said should be construed as a denial of the fact that
we have done it horribly, or that we're paying a terrible price
for our failures. We are likely to pay for these failures long
into the future.
Many people fear that Iraq will adopt
Sharia [the Islamic fundamentalist legal code]. Is that preferable
to a secular totalitarian regime?
No, I don't think it is at all. They're
two evils. But if you get a truly ethical despot in charge-a benevolent
despot-that may be the necessary transitional mechanism to democracy.
It should be pretty clear that much of
the Muslim world is not ready for democracy, and we have to confront
that reality. Many Muslims are prepared to tear out their freedoms
by the root the moment they are given a chance to decide their
How we transition to a democracy in the
Middle East-a true democracy-is a very difficult problem. We should
consider the examples of Muslim communities living in Western
Europe, and their failure to assimilate democratic values. If
ever there were a test case for how immune a community can be
to the charms of democracy, just look at the Muslim communities
in Holland or France or Denmark. Look at the crowds of people
who want newspaper editors and cartoonists decapitated. These
are people who are living in Western Europe. Many of them have
lived their whole lives there.
So you really think Islam is fundamentally
incompatible with democracy?
For the most part, yes. Just look at the
case of the apostate in Afghanistan who converted to Christianity
and who was up for a death sentence. Then, after all the nations
of the earth applied pressure on Hamid Karzai, he got spirited
away. This is the reality under Islam: you take your life in your
hands for criticizing the faith. A Muslim is simply not free
to wake up in the morning and decide he no longer wants to be
a Muslim. Such a change of mind is really punishable by death.
So unless Muslims reform this feature of their religion, at a
minimum, there is not much hope for Muslim democracy.
We're not tending to talk about all of
the deal-breakers that lurk in the mainstream theology of Islam.
We're pretending as though they're not there, and we're invading
countries and creating constitutional democracies, apparently
in ignorance of the fact that a majority of the people still want
their neighbors killed for thought crimes. Until you change peoples'
minds on this subject-until you get them to run a different moral
calculus, where cartoons cease to be the thing that most animates
them, and a genuine compassion for other peoples' suffering is
the real gold standard of their morality-I don't see how putting
the structures of democracy in place will help anyone. You need
a civil society before you have a democracy.
In your book, you write that when a suicide
bomber blows himself up, the role that faith played in his actions
is invariably discounted. His motives must have been "political,
economical, or entirely personal." Why does faith get a free
This is one of the interesting things
about our discourse right now. Our own religious demagogues, the
fundamentalists like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, will call
a spade a spade and observe that there is a link between Islam
and the kind of violence we see in the Muslim world. While I don't
agree with these people on anything else, they are actually offering
a much more candid and accurate diagnosis of the problem, vis
a vis Islam, than anything that's coming from the Left.
Leftists, secularists, religious moderates,
and religious liberals tend to be very poorly placed to recognize
that when somebody looks into a video camera and says, "I
love death more than the infidel loves life," and then blows
himself up, he's actually being honest about his state of mind.
This is not propaganda, this is not politics
and economic desperation masquerading as religion. People are
really being motivated by the content of religious beliefs, and
there are people who are really willing and eager to blow themselves
up because they think they're going to get to paradise.
Religious moderates and secularists don't
understand that because they don't really know what it's like
to believe in God. They don't know what it's like to be sure God
is there to hear their prayers , that He has dictated a book,
and that the book is perfect in every syllable, and it's a roadmap
to paradise. And fundamentalists understand what it's like to
believe these preposterous things.
You assert that Islamic suicide bombers
aren't using religion as a pretext for political or economic grievances.
But how do you know?
First of all, the 9/11 hijackers showed
no evidence whatsoever of being people who were concerned with
poverty or the plight of the Palestinians-that's just not where
their heads were at. They were talking about the evils of infidel
culture, and the pleasures that await martyrs in paradise.
When you read about what they were doing
with their lives, these people did not seem to have a political
bone in their bodies. And they were not people who personally
suffered oppression under the U.S. , the British, or the Israelis.
Osama Bin Laden is another example of
this. He is not somebody who himself had been victimized, and
he's not somebody who, if you read his diatribes, spends a lot
of time thinking about the poor. In fact, he only added the Palestinians
to his list of woes as an afterthought. Originally, he was really
concerned about theological offenses, about the fact that there
were infidel boots on the ground near the holy sites of Mecca
So we have people who are unambiguously
well off, unambiguously well educated, willing to hit the wall
at 400 miles-per-hour. And they spend a lot of time talking about
paradise and virgins.
So it seems like a case of really tortured
reasoning that somehow religion is not the motive for their actions-that
their motives are economic or political-even though they are saying
it is, and doing things that are only rational in light of these
religious beliefs, and when they themselves have no economic or
You spend a long chapter writing about
beliefs as "principles of action"-that, given the right
set of beliefs, a person will almost inexorably act in a certain
way. Applying this to Islam, you say that given the tenets of
a religion that guarantees a place in heaven for martyrs, it's
no wonder we see so many Islamic suicide bombers. However, if
the connection between belief and action were this absolute, then
how do you explain that all Moslems aren't suicide bombers?
There's always the question of whether
you really believe what you say you believe. We have gradations
of belief and certainty. Clearly if you were certain that paradise
existed, and if you were certain that death in defense of the
faith got you and everyone you loved into heaven for eternity,
it would only be rational to die in those circumstances.
What we are finding is that there are
people who really are certain, or at least are functionally certain
of these propositions, and are eager to blow themselves up in
the process of killing infidels, because they're quite sure that
the creator of the universe wants infidels to burn in fire for
eternity. Of course, any Muslims they happen to kill in the process
will go to paradise as well, and will be quite grateful to have
been sent there.
Once you imagine what it would actually
be like to believe these things, this behavior becomes totally
reasonable. You find mothers of suicide bombers literally celebrating
the deaths of their children, who have blown themselves up in
crowds of other children at discotheques. This is the most obscene
and inexplicable human behavior-and yet, it is totally reasonable,
given what many Muslims say they believe about martyrdom.
What do you mean when you say that intolerance
is intrinsic to every creed? And what are the implications of
The core claim of every creed is that
it, alone, is true. The truth is, if you're a Christian, Jesus
really was the son of God, and was really resurrected, and he's
really coming back to judge the living and the dead. This is a
fact. It is metaphysically true, it is physically true, it is
historically true; if you're standing on the right spot at the
right time, you're going to see Jesus come back with a host of
This description of the world is either
right or wrong. If it's right, only the Christians are right,
and only the Christians are going to heaven. So this doctrine,
by definition, excludes the truth-claims of every other religion
. Muslims claim that Jesus, while he was a prophet, was not divine,
and that anyone who thinks he is divine is going to go to hell.
This is explicitly spelled out in the Koran. These are mutually
incompatible claims about the way the world works. They're worse
than that. They're incompatible claims that are extremely motivating,
because their adherents think that the difference between believing
the right thing and the wrong thing is the difference between
spending eternity in hell, or eternity in paradise. And that's
a very big difference.
What is it about the tenets of Islam that
present a greater danger to the survival of our species, than,
say, the tenets of Christianty?
The doctrine of martyrdom and Jihad is
more explicit and central to the Islamic faith. There have obviously
been martyrs and a lot of killing that has been reconciled with
the doctrine of Christianity over the years, and it's certainly
possible to read the Bible in a way that will justify the Inquisition
and all of the other things we've seen in the history of Christianity
that seem every bit as bad as what we're seeing in the Muslim
world now, but there are a few unique features of Islam that are
One is that it is a much more coherent
doctrine, which is to say that the Koran is a much shorter, more
coherent book, and there is no sermon on the Mount in there that
you can fixate on and use as a bulwark against the rest of the
dangerous gibberish in the book in the way that you can with the
The basic message of the Koran really
is hatred of the infidels. The infidel is fit only for the fires
of hell; the creator of the universe is in the process of mocking
and cursing and shaming and destroying and not forgiving and not
reprieving the infidel.
Your job is to ignore the infidel, by
all means do not befriend the infidel. When you get the power:
subjugate, convert, or kill the infidel. And those are really
the only three choices.
Devout Muslims take the Koran and the
Haddith seriously because there is no other brand of Islam. There
is no moderate school of Islam that suggests the Koran was really
just written by men and may not be the word of god, or has to
be interpreted very, very loosely. Most Muslims are what we would
call "fundamentalists" in the Christian world.
But what about the tradition in Islamic
societies of consulting with Mullahs or Imams before acting on
a directive in the Koran? Don't those people tend to moderate
the harshest edicts of Islamic law?
It's not that there's not a wealth of
discourse about what the Koran actually says. There is a lot of
Muslim scholarship out there. The problem is that there really
is no basis for what we would call a moderate and genuinely pluralistic
worldview to be pulled out of Islam. You really need to do some
seriously acrobatic theology to get an Islam that is compatible
with 21st century civil society. This is witnessed virtually every
day we open the newspaper now, the latest case being the apostate
in Afghanistan who converted to Christianity. The basic message
of this episode should be clear: this is a government that we
came in and reformulated and propped up, and the fact that it
had to have a constitution that was in conformity to Islam, opened
the door to the true face of Islam, which is: apostasy is punishable
by death. That is a fact that no liberal exegesis of Islam is
going to change. We have to find some way to change it, of course.
Islam needs a reformation. But at present, it's true to say that
the real word of God in Islam is that if you change your religion,
you should die for it.
Isn't that also the case in the Bible?
Don't we see similar edicts and punishments for apostasy?
Yes. There's nothing worse than the first
books of the Hebrew bible: Leviticus and Deuteronomy and Exodus,
these are the most barbaric, most totalitarian, most Taliban-like
documents we can find. But there are a few loopholes, and these
loopholes don't exist in Islam, to my knowledge. One loophole
for Christians is that most Christians think that Jesus brought
us the doctrine of grace, and therefore you don't have to follow
the law. While it's true that there are other moments in the New
Testament when Jesus can be read as saying that you have to fulfill
every "jot and tittle" of the law (this is in Matthew)-
and therefore you can get a rationale for killing people for adultery
out of the New Testament-most Christians, most of the time, don't
see it that way.
The Bible is a fundamentally self-contradictory
document. You can cherry-pick it in a way that you really can't
the Koran, even though there are a few lines in the Koran that
say, "Allah does not love aggressors"-if you hew to
just those few lines, you can say things like, "Osama Bin
Laden is distorting the true teachings of a peaceful religion."
But the basic fact is that Osama Bin Laden is giving a very plausible
reading of Islam. You have to split hairs to find a basis for
what we would recognize as real moderation in Islam.
Then by that logic, why aren't we worried
that Jews, for instance, who aren't necessarily following Jesus'
doctrine of grace, why aren't we worried that they are also directed
to kill for apostasy? Why are we only so focused on the Muslims
when the edicts are the same in both books?
Again, the details really matter. It really
matters what people specifically believe. And with Jews, you don't
have this idea of martyrdom, you don't have this explicit promise
of paradise, the after-death state is not spelled out with any
kind of specificity in Judaism, and Judaism is very much a religion
of this world. Also, the Jews are massively outnumbered. There
are something like 15 million Jews on the planet, and they have
tended to be the most beleaguered population historically, so
they have not been in a position to demand that people observe
their law and to threaten death to infidels.
But is it really your position that were
they in the majority, they would follow edicts of killing heretics
in the same way that Muslims seem to in higher numbers?
This is an interesting question. If you
had an Orthodox Judaism that was truly ascendant, then it would
be problematic. The Jewish settlers are really deranged by their
theology, and I would argue that they are some of the most dangerous
and irresponsible people on earth right now. If anyone is going
to push us to a third world war, it's going to be Jewish settlers
doing something stupid like tearing down the Dome of the Rock,
or fighting to the death to assert their claims on the West Bank.
This expression of Judaism is problematical, without a doubt.
But the eschatology of Judaism is rather specific, and they're
waiting for their messiah to come back, for the temple to be re-built,
and for the Sanhedrin to be reconvened. If you asked them what
they will do once all this happens, what law will we need to live
by when the messiah comes back, I think you'll find the Orthodox
Jews will be open-minded about killing people for adultery or
working on the Sabbath. I don't know what argument they could
find against doing these things.
One of the most persistent criticisms
of your theory is that the two largest genocides of the 20th century,
the Holocaust and the Stalinist purges, were explicitly irreligious.
How do you respond to that?
The problem that I am confronting is the
problem of dogma. What you have just done is to point to political
dogmatism, instead of religious dogmatism. The argument against
religious dogma is not an argument for atheist dogma. We should
be fundamentally hostile to claims to certainty that are not backed
up by evidence and argument. And what we find with Nazism is a
kind of political religion. We find this with Stalinism as well-where
claims about racial purity and the march of history and the dangers
of intellectualism, are made in a fanatical and rigid and indefensible
way. The people at the top of these hierarchies-Hitler, Stalin,
and Kim Il Sung in North Korea -these were not the kings of reason.
These were highly peculiar individuals who had all kinds of strange
convictions. The upper echelons of the Third Reich were filled
with people who believed crazy things, like that the Aryans had
been preserved in ice since the beginning of the world. Heinrich
Himmler created a meteorological division of the Reich to test
this ice theory. This is not what people do when they reason too
carefully, or become too unwilling to accept mythology as fact.
It's another kind of mythology, and one that is no less dangerous
than religious mythology.
How do you define the differences between
an atheist and an agnostic?
"Agnosticism" is a word that
was brought into use by T.H. Huxley. I don't think it's a particularly
useful word. It tends to be defined as the belief that one can't
know whether or not there is a god. An agnostic is someone who
thinks we don't know and can't know the truth of a position. So
it's a non-committal attitude.
But it's not an intellectually honest
position, because everyone is walking around presuming to know
that there isn't a Zeus, there isn't a Poseidon, and there isn't
a Thor. Can you prove that Thor with his hammer isn't sending
down lightning bolts? No, you can't prove it. But that's not the
right question. The right question is, "Is there any reason
whatsoever to think there's a god named Thor?" And of course
there isn't. There are many good reasons to think that he was
a fictional character. The Batman of Scandinavia.
The problem for religious people is that
the god of the Bible is on no firmer footing, epistemologically,
than these dead gods. Which is to say that nobody ever discovered
that Thor doesn't exist, but that the biblical god really does.
So we have learned to talk and use the word 'god' in a way so
as not to notice that we're using a very strange word and evoking
a very vacuous concept, like the concept of Thor.
And therefore the definition of an atheist
And atheist is not someone who can prove
that there is no Thor. An atheist is simply someone who says,
"show me the evidence," and who is unconvinced by evidence
"Here's a book that was dictated
by the creator of the universe, and in it, it describes all kinds
of miracles that people claim they witnessed, but these people
have been dead for 2,000 years, and in fact none of the authors
of the book are the people who claim to have witnessed these events,
and they wrote the book a hundred years after the events in question."
This is not a story that anyone would
find plausible except for the fact that it was drummed into them
by previous generations of people who were taught not to think
critically about it.
The thing to reiterate is that every Christian
knows exactly what it's like to be an atheist with respect to
the beliefs of Muslims, for instance. Muslims have the same reasons
for being Muslim as Christians have for being Christian. They
have a book they're sure was written or dictated by the creator
of the universe-because the book says that it was written or dictated
by the creator of the universe. Christians look at Muslim discourse
and find it fundamentally unpersuasive. Christians aren't lying
awake at night worrying about whether they should convert to Islam.
Why not? Because Muslims can't really back up their claims. They
are clearly engaged in a style of discourse that is just not intellectually
honest. It's not purposed to genuine inquiry into the nature of
the world. It is a reiteration of dogma, and they are clearly
committed to a massive program of self-deception. Every Christian
recognizes this about every religion other than Christianity.
So every Christian knows exactly what it is like to be atheist.
They just don't turn the same candor and intellectual honesty
on to their own faith.
Liberals started calling themselves progressives
when the term 'liberal' accumulated too much baggage and negative
connotations. Is there an analog for the term atheist?
I'm not a big fan of the term atheist.
In my Atheist Manifesto, the first thing I argue is that we really
don't need the word and probably shouldn't use it. It has the
stigma of a term like "child molester" in the culture,
for reasons that are not good, but nevertheless worth taking into
consideration. The term simply has a massive P.R. problem.
But the word is also conceptually unnecessary.
We don't have words for people who are not astrologers or alchemists;
we don't have words for people who doubt that Elvis is still alive.
It is sufficient to talk about reason and commonsense in these
You write passionately in your book about
the spirituality of Buddhism. How do you describe yourself in
terms of your spirituality?
I don't call myself a Buddhist. I recently
wrote an article in the Shambhala Sun, which is one of the more
widely read Buddhist magazines, entitled "Killing the Buddha."
I essentially argued that that the wisdom of the Buddha is trapped
in the religion of Buddhism. The teachings of the Buddha, taken
as a whole, probably represent the richest source of contemplative
wisdom that we have, but anyone who values these teachings should
get out of the religion business. It's the wrong message. And,
in any case, 99 percent of Buddhists practice Buddhism as a religion,
and therefore are part of the same egregious discourse.
I think there really is something worth
extracting from our contemplative traditions in general, and from
Buddhism in particular. It's a phenomenology of meditative experience-what
people do and realize when they go into a cave for a year or 10
years and practice meditation. There really is a landscape there
that has been brilliantly articulated in Buddhism, and not so
brilliantly articulated in some of our other contemplative traditions.
And so I think all of this is worth talking about and studying.
But I don't call myself a Buddhist. and
yet, if you asked me how you should learn to meditate, what books
you should read, etc., I'd point you in the direction of Buddhist
techniques of meditation, and to the Buddhist literature on the
So you don't need any recourse to the
supernatural in Buddhism?
The core truths of Buddhism, the truth
of selflessness, for instance. It's simply a fact that it is
possible to realize that the ego, as you presently feel it and
conceive of it, is an illusion. You can experience the continuum
of consciousness without the sense of self. This experience can
be had without believing anything on insufficient evidence. You
can simply be taught to look closely enough at your experience,
to de-construct the sense of self, and then discover what the
consequences are of that happening. And the consequences turn
out to be very positive. There's a whole discourse in Buddhism
about the relief of psychological suffering, the transcendence
of self, and the nature of positive human emotions like compassion
and loving kindness. These phenomena have been mapped out with
incredible rigor in Buddhism, and one doesn't need to swallow
any mumbo jumbo to find this discourse useful.
And yet, much that people believe under
the guise of Buddhism is dubious: certainties about re-birth,
the idea that one's teacher in the Tibetan tradition is absolutely
the reincarnation of some previous historical personality-all
of this stuff is held rather dogmatically by most Buddhists, and
I think we should be skeptical of it. If people present evidence
of it, -and there's certainly been some interesting studies on
the subject of rebirth-we should look at the evidence. As someone
once said, "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence."
Are there any historical parallels that
suggest it would be possible for people en masse to abandon irrational
There are societies that are profoundly
irreligious by our standards. Australia, Canada, and Japan, along
with basically all of Western Europe-these are places that have
a very different relationship to religious faith. These are not
societies where you have people running for Congress or the presidency
on the basis of faith, and thanking god at every turn. These are
not societies in which you would destroy any chance you have of
holding political office by claiming to doubt the existence of
god. It's a completely different picture of what it is to be reasonable
and qualified to hold a position of responsibility in these societies.
We have a lot to learn from them.
Why do you think Western Europe in particular
is so much more of a secular place than America?
It probably comes down to the difference
between having a state religion and having this thriving marketplace
of ignorance we have here in America, where so many sects and
denominations compete for people's attention. In Western Europe,
the state religions seem to have grown more ossified, and they
lost their subscribers.
There's also the fact that the Enlightenment
was taken perhaps a little more seriously in Europe. And it was
taken in light of the fact that so much religious killing had
occured on those very streets for centuries. I think the liability
of religious thinking is a little more keenly felt in Europe.
But this is probably not a full explanation. I don't understand
why we're living in a society where 83 percent of people believe
that Jesus literally rose from the dead, while the Swedes are
living in a society where basically that same percentage of people
What is the most likely way that American
society, if not the rest of the world, will eventually abandon
I think this is a war of ideas that has
to be fought on a hundred fronts at once. There's not one piece
that is going to trump all others.
But I think we should not underestimate
the power of embarrassment. The book Freakonomics briefly discusses
the way the Ku Klux Klan lost its subscribers, and the example
is instructive. A man named Stetson Kennedy, almost single-handedly
it seems, eroded the prestige of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1940s
by joining them and then leaking all of their secret passwords
and goofy lingo to the people who were writing "The Adventures
of Superman" radio show. Week after week, there were episodes
of Superman fighting the Klan, and the real Klan's mumbo jumbo
was put out all over the airwaves for people to laugh at. Kids
were playing Superman vs. the Klan on their front lawns. The Klan
was humiliated by this, and was made to look foolish; and we went
from a world in which the Klan was a legitimate organization with
tens of millions of members-many of whom were senators, and even
one president-to a world in which there are now something like
5,000 Klansmen. It's basically a defunct organization.
So public embarrassment is one principle.
Once you lift the taboo around criticizing faith and demand that
people start talking sense, then the capacity for making religious
certitude look stupid will be exploited, and we'll start laughing
at people who believe the things that the Tom DeLays, the Pat
Robertsons of the world believe. We'll laugh at them in a way
that will be synonymous with excluding them from our halls of
Are you interested in joining or leading
organizations that push for this kind of revolution of belief?
I'm actually in the process of creating
a foundation for this purpose. It is going to produce media events,
documentaries, conferences, and other means of waging this war
of ideas. It's not something I've formally announced yet, but
I'm going to look to bring in the most motivated and articulate
scientists, journalists, entertainers, and business people around
the issue of eroding the prestige of religious dogma in our world.
We will be taking on specific projects: for example, empowering
secularists in the Muslim world, or empowering the women of the
Muslim world. To some degree the organization will take on projects
of its own, but it will also find projects that other people are
doing that are worth supporting. I think the time is right for
What stage are you at with that?
At the moment I'm just drawing up a prospectus,
creating a 501c3, meeting with people, and putting out feelers
for who will be on the advisory board. So it's in the earliest
stages. But I hope that by the end of the year, I will be in a
position to announce the birth of the organization.
What other projects are you working on?
I've got a book coming out around Thanksgiving,
by Knopf, entitled "Letter to a Christian Nation." It's
going to be a short broadside against fundamentalist Christianity.
It's a book that a person could simply hand to a member of the
religious Right and say, "What's your answer to this?"
It will be my best effort to arm progressives and secularists
against the religious certainties of Christian fundamentalists-in
about a hundred pages.
How about your doctoral studies?
My day job as a heretic still takes up
most of my time. But I still have one foot-or one toe-in the lab.
I'm studying belief at the level of the brain with functional
magnetic resonance imaging. There's a point of contact between
my academic research and my heresy, in that through neuroimaging,
I'm trying to understand what it is to believe something to be
true. As an aspect of this question, I'm looking at whether religious
belief is different from ordinary belief.
Do you have any preliminary findings you
can talk about?
I really can't talk much about them because
they haven't been published, and to talk about them before they're
published in a scientific journal is considered ...
Yeah. Some forms of heresy I endorse,
and others I don't, it seems.
Sam Harris page