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Sam Harris: The Truthdig Interview
Posted on Apr 3, 2006
By Blair Golson
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 in America.
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:
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:
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:
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.
Blair Golson: What prompted you to write “The End of Faith” ?
Sam Harris: It was my immediate reaction to Sept. 11—the moment it became clear that we were meandering into a global, theologically-inspired conflict with the Muslim world, and were going to tell ourselves otherwise, based on the respect we pay to faith.
The last thing we were going to admit was that people were flying planes into our buildings because of what they believed about God. We came up with euphemisms about this being a war on terror, and Islam being a religion of peace, and we were pushed even further into our own religiosity as a nation. At the moment that this dynamic became clear—and it became clear within about 24 hours—I started writing the book.
Within 24 hours?
In the first few days there were some people who were willing to call a spade a spade and speak critically about Islam, but very quickly we began to talk about Osama Bin Laden and the extremists of the Muslim world as being the exceptions—people who had hijacked a peaceful religion and utterly distorted it. Many people compared Osama Bin Laden to the Reverend Jim Jones, David Koresh, or some other marginal figure, and all of that is completely untrue. Osama Bin Laden’s version of Islam is a much more central, plausible version of Islam than people tend to acknowledge. My discussion of Islam in the book is a response to this sort of denial.
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